"...I repeat, you are absolutely forbidden from sharing this information, even with your immediate families."
Neal shouldered the glass door open in time to catch the tail-end of Hughes’s words. He was returning from a coffee run, the tray of cardboard cups taking up both his hands. He had been gone for barely ten minutes, yet had clearly missed something important. Everyone was standing in the bullpen, listening.
He nudged Diana with an elbow. "What’s going on?" he whispered.
She shook her head mutely, not taking her eyes off Hughes, who was looking down at them grimly.
"To make that even less ambiguous, I’ve been ordered to tell you all that disobeying will be seen as an act of treason, and prosecuted as such. To the fullest extent of the law."
Which was… the death penalty. Neal’s mouth went suddenly very dry.
"More specific orders will follow." Hughes looked for a moment like he was going to say something else, but then shook his head very slightly and stepped back. "Burke!" he snapped, and Peter pushed his way through the shell-shocked throng of agents.
Neal dumped the tray of coffees onto his desk. "Diana," he said, urgently, as a babble of noise rose up. "What the hell?"
"There’s some sort of disease outbreak," she said. She looked and sounded angry, which meant that she was frightened. "All the government agencies have been brought in to try and contain the situation."
"The situation?" Neal echoed.
"Us being told means that lower-order containment levels have failed and we’re looking at an almost-guaranteed epidemic. If there’s a general panic and everyone tries to evacuate the city at once — well, for the sake of the general population of America, we really don’t want that to happen."
Neal stared at her, and almost asked whether she was joking. But at the same time he was going cold. The bald stating of facts was far more terrifying than any level of detail they could have come wrapped up in.
"We can’t even tell anyone?" he asked, wondering if he sounded as numb as he felt.
"You heard," Diana said. "Disobeying that is treason now."
"They can do that?"
"They can," Jones confirmed, grimly. "Situation warranting extraordinary means, etcetera."
"Don’t," Diana ordered. "Don’t make me have to argue with you on this. Understand?"
Neal nodded. Around the bullpen, agents had gathered into little groups like theirs, talking urgently. "So what are we expected to do?" he asked, trying for normality in his tone.
Jones shrugged bleakly. "Whatever we’re told to." He took one of the cups of coffee. "I imagine we’re going to need a lot of caffeine."
"Good idea," Diana said, but she also didn’t apparently feel like touching hers. Her desk telephone started ringing at that moment, and she slipped over to answer it as Jones turned in response to some question.
Neal took the opportunity to collapse heavily into his chair. He looked towards the upper level and could see Peter and Hughes in Hughes’s office. Both of them were talking rapidly, and neither of them looked happy.
He slid the plaster bust of Socrates towards him casually, and flipped it on its side. It appeared solid until you knew what to look for, and he made sure he wasn’t being watched before he dug his nails into the underside and pried the small panel open.
There was a burner cell nestled into the small space inside, unused. He slipped it into his pocket and headed for the bathroom, where he sent a text to a similarly unused receiving phone, using phrases set up a long time ago. Take E and J for lunch. As a surprise. Then he took out the SIM card and flushed it.
He was faintly surprised to find that he was trembling slightly as he re-entered the bullpen, adrenaline replacing shock throughout his system. Peter was just coming down the stairs. He was very pale, his eyes shadowed.
Peter would follow orders. It might eat him from the inside out, but he would obey the order not to warn Elizabeth. Sometimes Neal envied Peter’s clear and unshakable belief in the System, in laws and black and white, but not today. Right now it was simpler when you didn’t particularly care about those things; just about keeping those you loved safe.
As telephones kept ringing and the pitch of noise kept increasing, Neal began to seriously suspect that the last few minutes of the world he was familiar with had slipped by while he had been standing in a Starbucks queue.
- - -
The first symptom, as with many illnesses, was fever.
Diana swiped unthinkingly at the tendrils of hair clinging damply to her face, but her hand was stopped once again by the clear plastic face-panel of the biohazard suit. It was permanently uncomfortable, and far too hot, and yet she kept on forgetting about it.
The field hospital was loud and chaotic, already overfull and with more patients being brought in every few minutes. They had started with proper equipment — beds with enough covers, medical-grade restraints — but now people were being secured to gurneys and army camp beds with zip ties over pads made from bandages and scarves.
"Need help!" someone called, voice muffled by a suit like hers, and Diana hastened over to help someone who might have been a fellow agent, or a member of the police, as he kept tight hold on a very young woman with long blond hair that was streaked with blood where it had brushed against her mouth. There was blood on her fingers, too, embedded in the ridges of her knuckles and under her torn nails.
Diana got hold of the woman’s wrists, allowing the man who’d brought her in to get a firmer grip. Together they wrestled her over to a camp bed that Diana knew had been only recently occupied No matter. She had a bunch of zip ties in a pocket of the utility belt she was wearing and she secured the woman’s ankles first, hoping her jeans would provide enough padding to stop the plastic cutting too much into her skin. "Do you have anything for her wrists?" she asked.
"No, I’m out."
Diana had scissors in another pocket. She cut the sleeves of the woman’s jersey at her elbows; no easy task as the woman kept struggling. At least she wasn’t screaming, just making a low angry, sobbing, painful sound that she kept up near-constantly.
If Diana could bear to stop to think about it she knew she would be horrified at how she was screening out the woman’s moans, and how brusquely she was tying her down to likely die.
Someone medical hurried over, easy to register at a glance because of the large red cross taped onto the chest of her suit (there would be another on the back). It was only after she had injected a sedative into the young woman and straightened up again that there was time to recognise her as Christie.
The woman moaned again, and then her eyes rolled back as the sedative started to take effect. The possible-agent nodded tiredly to both of them, and headed off to the doors.
A brief moment of respite. Diana met Christie's eyes, smiling at her a little tiredly. The last time before today they had seen each other they'd both been icy towards each other, but that felt like a lifetime ago. Now they were just holding on to a familiar face.
"Have you taken a break?" Christie asked.
"We had one not long back, didn’t we?"
"That was four hours ago."
"Was it really?" Diana tried, still unsuccessfully, to make those stupid sticking strands of hair come unstuck from her face. All concept of time had vanished. She had no idea whether it was day or night.
"Come on, you shouldn't get dehydrated."
It was probably too late for that, but Diana allowed herself to be steered into the curtained-off non-civilian area and over to the water station. Exhausted suit-wearing figures were leaning or sitting against the wall, resting or asleep.
They filled their containers quickly. They were flat, sitting against one’s thigh in their own insulted compartment of the suit so that they could be accessed for refilling without compromising the suit's protection, and a valved tube ran up inside the suit to the head-piece. "Can we sit down for a minute?" Diana asked. Now that she was out of the chaos outside, the toll it was taking on her body was catching up.
"Definitely," Christie said, sounding even more exhausted. They found an empty patch of wall and sat down together.
Diana sighed with relief as the weight came off her feet. "Wow. I really needed this."
"It’s all luxury over here," Christie said. "Handcrafted seats, delicious beverages..."
Diana siphoned a mouthful of water. "Do you think the suits add the plastic taste, or was it there all along?"
Christie shook her head. "I can’t even taste it anymore." She leaned against Diana’s shoulder and Diana leaned against her in turn, automatically. But she didn’t see any reason not to, not with what was going on all around them.
She didn’t know whether it was coincidence that she’d ended up being assigned to the same field hospital as Christie after not having seen each other in months, but she was glad of it. And she thought Christie was too.
"I’m so tired," Christie murmured, almost too quietly to hear through the layers of protective plastic. "I can barely think straight."
"It’ll be okay," Diana said, even though she hardly believed it. "When did you last sleep?"
"I don’t remember. How long have we been here?"
Diana chuckled softly. "Come on, lie down." She took Christie’s shoulders and moved her head gently into her lap, the way she used to do when she was working on case files on the bed and Christie began to fall asleep against her.
Christie wriggled slightly, and settled. "Missed you, Di," she murmured.
There was a lump in Diana's throat. Missed you too.
- - -
The city was on lock-down. Not unofficially, as it had been before the news of the epidemic (and no one had been doubting its status as an epidemic for some time) had broken, but an official lock-down enforced by the army. And by the poor fools who worked for the government and now had wound up having to enforce this from the wrong side.
Neal wasn’t quite sure what he’d been expecting. Grim-faced men patrolling with machine guns and dogs, maybe, but Peter had assured him (and Neal couldn’t quite tell if he was joking) that those were on the outside. Here, there was an eerie, ominous silence, and thrown-up fences with DO NOT CROSS signs.
"People are eventually going to realise that they’re being kept inside," Neal said, speaking quietly in deference to the mood of the empty streets and the low grey sky.
"I know," Peter said. "But with the phones down, and the internet, it’ll take a while."
"Just your government propaganda playing on TV," Neal said, and gave a little bark of a laugh. "I sound like Mozzie. Guess he was right all along."
Peter shot a sideways glance at him -- not the easiest thing to accomplish in a biohazard suit. "Did you hear from him at all, before the phones cut off?"
"No," Neal said, which was true.
"Well, wherever he’s holed up, I’m sure he’s feeling vindicated."
Neal almost asked, Have you heard from El? but he realised in time just how cruel that would be, even if Peter wouldn’t. But the worry about her, and Mozzie, and June, was playing loudly in the background of his thoughts. Had they left the city, had they got away in time, were they safe? The fear gnawed at him. At least Sara was all the way across the ocean; she had to be far enough from danger there…
He was resisting looking up at the windows. He had seen too many faces staring down at their suited figures in fear, as if their presence might attract the contagion. It was a very human attitude.
As if in response to his thoughts, Peter’s radio buzzed. "Burke," he answered. "Sweep duty."
"Contagion report, one male." The address that followed was less than half a block away.
"We’re on our way," Peter said, and replaced the radio. "You ready?" he asked Neal.
"Ugh, no," Neal said, with distaste. "I’m beginning to wish I’d been thrown back into a cell until this is all over."
Peter looked at him seriously. "Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted that."
Neal laughed dryly, his mouth twisting. "Yeah, I don’t imagine prisoners are a very high priority right now. I’m sure the deaths are being written off as nature’s justice."
"It’s not something I’m happy about," Peter said. "People shouldn't lose their worth just because they’re in prison."
"How very unpatriotic of you. Next you’ll be objecting to your agencies purposely jamming all phone calls except the emergency numbers." He was trying not to sound bitter, he was.
Peter sighed — tired, unhappy. "I don’t think this is really the time to argue. We’ve got a sweep to make."
A sweep. It was a nice euphemism. It sounded so simple, and clean, and tidy. When Peter kicked in the door of apartment 284 (no one having responded to the bell, and the building manager presumably locked inside his own apartment like a good little citizen), Neal had time to appreciate the irony right before a couple of hundred pounds of mindlessly aggressive infected male human slammed him into a wall.
The impact knocked all the breath out of him, and he did nothing but gasp in shock as he took a punch to the ribs, and another to his stomach. Then Peter was hauling the man off of him, forcing him to the ground where he continued to struggle as he was cuffed. Peter dragged him up and out of the room and secured him to one of the metal stairwell railings before running back in.
"Neal? Are you okay?"
Neal groaned, and pushed himself up, wincing. "Fist-fights have never really been my thing."
Peter looked him anxiously up and down.
"I’m fine," Neal reassured him. He was a bit shaken up, but did his best to hide it. "Who called 911? It can’t have been him."
Between them they did a quick survey of the apartment. "Is there anyone there?" Peter called. "We’re the FBI."
A closet door cautiously began to open. "Don’t shoot!"
"We’re not going to," Peter promised, and the door opened the rest of the way.
The woman was maybe in her 40s, and had a blue silk scarf tied around the lower half of her face as a mask. "Robert?" she asked. "Is he..."
"Neal, can you do this?" Peter asked, in a low voice, and Neal approached her as Peter went out to check that Robert was still secured.
"My name’s Neal," he said. "We’re going to take Robert to a hospital, where he can get treatment. What’s your name?"
"Emma," she said, and made a gesture as if to reach for his arm, stopping herself at the last second. "He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?"
"We're going to get him medical attention," Neal said. "How about you, are you alright?"
She nodded. "I... Yes, I'm fine."
She was showing none of the confusion which was one of the symptoms of infection, and nor did her breathing sound constricted. Which meant that they would leave her behind. Neal had several hours ago decided that if it was him calling help for a partner, he would fake infection himself to be allowed to go along too. But then he had the benefit of knowing how unlikely it was that Emma would ever get to see Robert again. Perhaps in a few hours one of her neighbours would call a different sweep team to pick her up.
There were too many things he wasn’t allowed to tell the people they were supposedly helping. He was good at keeping secrets usually, but these were lying in his stomach like acid.
"We need to go," he said. "Robert needs medical help."
"Yes, of course." She was clearly trying very hard not to cry, but wasn’t at all succeeding.
Neal left her like that, hating himself for it. But there wasn’t anything he could do.
Robert was moaning as he twisted to try and get free, the metal of the handcuffs biting into his arms. He thrashed viciously every now and then. "Ready for round two?" Peter asked.
"I suppose so," Neal said, unenthusiastically. "Don’t let him kill us on the stairs."
"I’ll do my best," Peter said. "There should be transport waiting by the time we get him onto the street."
There was, and despite Neal’s fears and the infected man’s best efforts, the two of them got him to it in relative safety. The ambulance had had most of its breakable gear stripped out, and wasn’t bothering to run either lights or sirens.
Neal leaned heavily against the nearest wall once it had gone. "I hate this," he said.
"I know," Peter agreed, equally unhappy. "I hate it too. But we just have to keep trusting the authorities."
What if we don’t, though? Neal didn’t say it, because he doubted Peter would have an answer and they had been having iterations of this tired argument for too long already. Long enough for even Peter to begin to lose faith.
Peter put a hand on his shoulder, and leaned against the wall beside him. Neither of them spoke.
- - -
In the unnatural hush of the empty streets, the distant sound of shouting travelled a long way. Neal was the first one to notice, and he tapped Peter's arm to get his attention. They headed towards the noise without discussion. It was further away than it seemed.
Neal hadn't been sure what he had expected but it wasn't this: a group of young men, bloody and scared, hemming another man who was crouched into a corner. One of the standing ones was holding a crowbar down by his side, momentarily forgotten. There was blood on it.
"What's going on?" Peter demanded, pushing forward.
There was a visible jerk of shock as the group noticed their arrival. They were only in their early 20s.
"It's the government!" one of the others said, looking relieved.
The man on the ground was shuddering and coughing, blood spattering from his lips. It was streaked and speckled down his chin and clothes. He was bleeding also from a deep gash along one temple. He stared at nothing, occasionally gasping hoarsely.
"He's sick," the crowbar-carrying one said, needlessly. He carried on talking, words rushing out of his mouth. "This plague. We were right, weren't we? They're zombies." He stared at Neal and Peter, in their biohaz suits, with an expression that was partly hope, but mostly terror.
"Zombies?" Peter demanded. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"We —" The speaker trailed off, glancing to the others for support.
The sick man made a spasming motion, and everyone jerked back. Crowbar-guy had his crowbar up wardingly in front of him.
"You attacked him?" Neal asked, suddenly realising exactly what they had interrupted. "You were trying to kill him!"
"He attacked us!" It was the youngest-looking one who spoke. He was wearing a superhero hoodie. "We were holed up together with everyone's talking about a plague, and then he went crazy. People on reddit before it went down said they were zombies. You're here to help, aren't you?"
"Why didn't you call 911?" Peter demanded.
"Because we could see what was happening!" Everyone was getting louder, more hysterical.
"You're trying to cover it up! We can't listen to —"
The sick man lunged forward, eyes unfocused, choking for air. His fingers caught at the hem of the closest guy's shirt, clutching desperately, and the guy's screams tore apart the tension which had been building to pressure-cooker levels. Peter tried to intervene, but the sick man had already been knocked back by a panicked flailing of fists and feet and metal, everyone shouting at once. "Hey!" Neal found himself yelling. "Hey!" But no one was listening.
There was the crunch of metal striking bone. Other sounds abruptly stopped.
"Don't move," Peter ordered, in the sudden silence. He had trained his gun on crowbar-guy, who stood frozen. Then he dropped the crowbar. It rang loudly as it bounced against the concrete.
"You just murdered your friend," Peter said. Neal, watching, could see the realisation and horror bleed into the frozen faces. "Wherever you came from, go back there. Now. Don't come outside again."
They left, still in a shocked silence. Peter waited a while to re-holster his gun.
"They'll already be justifying it to themselves," Neal said, quietly. "About how he really was a zombie, and we're part of the cover-up." He forced himself to glance down at the body, and had to look away again almost immediately.
"As long as they're not running around outside," Peter said. "That's what's important right now."
"You don't believe that," Neal said.
Peter looked at him, mouth twisting in distaste. No. Of course he didn't. Those stupid, dumb, terrified kids weren't the only ones trying to justify things to themselves.
When this is all over… But Neal realised that he had stopped being able to picture a swift return to the way everything had been. The city had been locked down using Federal powers without precedent, and now people were killing each other out of terror of infection. He had no idea how they would be able to go back to normal.
- - -
Diana hadn’t meant to fall sleep, but she had been so tired that it had been all but inevitable.
Waking abruptly was disorientating. Her muscles were cramped and her head and throat ached and her eyes were hard to peel open. Her immediate wish was to curl up and go back to sleep, but she was too uncomfortable, and there was something jarring sharply against her.
As she blinked her surroundings blearily into focus, wincing at the harsh overhead lights, she realised that the sound and motion which had shaken her awake was Christie, still lying on her side with her head in Diana’s lap, coughing jaggedly.
"Christie, are you okay?" she asked. "Chris?"
Christie sounded now like she was choking. She inhaled enough air to moan painfully.
"Christie?" Diana said, anxiously. She put her arms around Christie’s torso, lifting her to clear her airway. Christie grabbed onto Diana’s wrist, clinging desperately as she continued to cough and choke.
The inside of her clear mask was spattered with blood. It was mixed with mucus and air bubbles, and Christie was coughing up more of it every second.
Diana jerked back in shock, unable to breathe. The blood was horrifically vivid, and there was so much of it. Not like the other patients, who all began to cough up small amounts after a while. The comparison was like the difference between a pinprick and a knife wound.
"Help!" she shouted, the shocked paralysis breaking. "I need help here!"
There was a frenzy of motion around her almost immediately, but Diana kept her eyes and hands on Christie. Christie was clinging to her, struggling to breathe, her whole body jerking and spasming as she choked on the blood that was from the lining of her lungs breaking down.
"Get her secured!" someone shouted.
Someone dropped to their knees on the floor behind Christie, prying her gloved fingers free from Diana’s arm and pulling her wrists together behind her back. Christie was hardly fighting him, though, not like most of the other victims who attacked anything in sight. She was just spasming helplessly. And she was still staring at Diana, eyes stretched wide and round in panic.
"Christie!" Diana pleaded. "Christie, stay with me I’m here, I’m so sorry I left you. I love you, I love you —"
Another man crouched down beside Diana, and she recognised him as one of Christie’s friends, another doctor. "Chris? Oh god, no."
"This can’t be the same thing," Diana said, half-begging, desperately wanting him to tell him that it wasn’t. "It’s too fast, I haven’t seen anyone else like this..."
"I have," he said. He leaned close to her ear. "There’s nothing we can do."
"That can’t be true," she pleaded. Christie was choking for breath, her eyes unfocused. "Please, Eric, there must be something!"
"Her lungs are hemorrhaging," Eric said. "Even in a proper hospital, with the best surgical team..."
Diana’s vision was blurring. It took a moment for her to recognise that she was crying; she did it so rarely. She tried to swipe the tears away with a hand, forgetting again about the suit-mask blocking her face.
Christie was drowning.
Diana reached out, cradling Christie’s covered head gently in her gloved hands. "I’m here," she said. "I’m not leaving you again, I promise." She couldn’t tell whether Christie recognised her face or voice, or whether she was even registering anything at all apart from agony.
Christie was hardly managing to breathe now, and the breaths she took bubbled horribly with fluid from her flooded lungs. Her eyes were rolling back, lids falling.
"I love you," Diana whispered. "You aren’t alone. I promise you, you aren’t alone. I’m here."
Even in the babble of noise permeating the building, the sudden silence where Christie’s breathing had been was enormous.
"I’m sorry," Eric said, quietly, as the absence lengthened. A void.
There was another area, curtained-off, where they laid the dead in neat rows. Without even the dignity of coverings or body bags now — they had run out. Diana had stopped crying in the time it took for her and Eric to move Christie’s body, and she couldn’t summon anything but a deep, shocked numbness as she stepped back in the temporary morgue.
The blood was still smeared on Christie's face, and on the inside of her suit’s mask. Darkening now as it dried. Protocol prevented breaching the containment around her body, and there just wasn’t the time. Too much work. Too many more patients.
Diana wanted to say goodbye, staring down at her, but her throat was too tight and she was too numb to find any words. She turned around after a moment, and went back out into the main area.
Keep going, she told herself. Keep going. It was all she could do.
- - -
The breakdown happened very fast. But the momentum had been building and building all the while, until the crash had become inevitable. They had known all along that the containment measures were limited by time. By how long it would take until the food in people's apartments ran out, and hunger overcame fear and the placating messages being broadcast over the television from studios in other cities.
Neal had been snatching a couple of hours’ sleep in one of the med centres, and even as Peter shook him awake he became aware the the quality of the background noise had changed. "What’s happened?" he asked.
"People have started panicking," Peter said, grimly. "There’s looting, people shooting looters..."
"Looters shooting back," Neal supplied, and Peter nodded. "Are we still in lock-down?"
"Now more than ever."
"Shit." It was terrifying, the extent to which the world had upheaved in such a short space of time. When Neal listened, he realised that not all the noise he heard was from the main room of the field hospital. It was from outside, too, where before there had been only silence. "So what are the orders now?" he asked. "We carry on suicidally trying to uphold the system?"
He had been half-joking, but the look on Peter’s face was bleak. "There haven't been any orders," he said. "There's nothing."
Neal was exhausted, and his head was still clogged with sleep. "I don’t understand. What does that mean?"
Peter glanced around, and dropped his voice. "It means that the authorities have given up. Whatever this virus is, it’s been judged dangerous enough that it has to be contained at all cost, and that’s a higher priority than trying to help people who’ve been infected."
"But that’s what we’re already doing, isn’t it?" Neal asked. "Containing people..."
Peter looked mildly exasperated at how uncharacteristically slow Neal was catching on.. "Neal, the city is now a containment zone. No one’s going to be getting out, and no help will be coming in."
Neal stared. "That can’t be a thing," he said.
"It already is. And it’s chaos out there, from what I hear." He bit his lip. "Look, the field hospitals are probably pretty safe for now. Everything’s stored securely, for one thing."
"You sound like you’re going somewhere."
"I am. I’m going back to my house. I need to — to see —" His voice caught, and for an instant Neal could see on his face a little of how much it had been killing Peter to have no contact with Elizabeth since this whole thing started. Then he locked his expression down again determinedly.
And Neal had no idea sure what to say. He could confess now about the warning he’d sent, but what if Mozzie hadn’t got to Elizabeth in time? Giving Peter false hope and then tearing it down seemed crueler than continuing to lie by omission.
"I’ll go with you, then," he said.
Peter shook his head. "It’s dangerous."
"Peter, don’t be ridiculous. I know it’s dangerous; that’s why I’m not letting you go alone."
"You can argue all you want, but you’ll just waste more time."
Peter met his eyes for several seconds, and then sighed. "Fine. If you’re sure I can’t talk you out of it."
In truth, Neal was desperately afraid that if he let Peter walk out on his own, he might never see him again. After the last couple few days it was a fear that seemed only too plausible, and he had no intention of taking that chance.
- - -
It began to rain heavily as they drove across the city in one of the government vehicles which Peter had commandeered. As they weren’t using it for official purposes Neal supposed that it was technically being stolen, but he doubted that Peter would look kindly on that interpretation.
The closer they got to Brooklyn, the more anxious Neal was becoming, although he was trying his hardest to hide it. There were people in the streets now, makeshift masks tied over their faces, taking supplies from shops with smashed windows. And there were other people, bent over and coughing up blood, or attacking fellow humans and shop mannequins and brick walls with equal indiscrimination.
The rain was a relief. It hid some of the chaos, and drove people inside — the ones who hadn’t been driven out of their minds by viral infection.
Peter was mostly silent. The opaque suit-material hid his face from Neal while he was looking straight ahead. "She’ll be okay," he said, a couple of times, as if that would make it true.
Neal made little noises of agreement, but couldn’t bring himself to actually speak.
The house was dark. They could see that from the car. It took Peter an eternity to find his house keys in the pocket of the utility belt he’d put them in, and the key skittered wildly over the plate of the lock before he managed to slide it in.
"El?" he called, even before the door was properly open. "El, are you here?"
Silence. And the door had been locked — that boded well for her not having been collected in a sweep.
Neal followed Peter inside, and shut the door behind them. "I don’t think she’s here," he said.
"No," Peter said. "She isn't." His voice was calm, more than Neal would have expected, as he unzipped the top of the biohaz suit to pull his head free and let the hood hang down his back.
Neal copied him. "Peter —" he began.
"She went with Mozzie," Peter said. He turned to look straight at Neal. "That was you, wasn't it? You told him."
Neal opened his mouth to begin an automatic denial, but then Peter's words caught up with him. "You… knew?"
Peter gave a little huff. "She's not the sort of person to just run off into the blue without checking in, you know. She called me. We didn't — we couldn't say much, but…"
Neal was torn between indignation at the counter-deception, and being impressed at Peter's acting skills. "So you know where they went?" he settled for asking.
"To her parents," Peter said. He glanced distractedly around the kitchen, until he spotted a piece of paper that had been on the counter. "She left a note. She said she would…"
Neal watched him unfold it, and then he awkwardly looked away. Whatever it said, Peter didn't read it aloud, and Neal would never dream of asking.
"Neal," Peter said, quietly, and he looked around. "El says they couldn't get hold of June."
He turned away with his whole body this time, needing a moment just for himself before he could re-fix the mask that the situation demanded. He had hoped she had got away too. He had wished it so badly that he had almost taken it for granted…
Peter waited for him.
"We should get out of here," Neal said, his voice determinedly business-like. "This isn't a good place to hole up. You should go find the stuff you can't live without."
That would take a while; much longer than both of them would like, it was guaranteed. Peter had never had to consider leaving in a hurry with no promise of return — whereas Neal couldn't remember when he last had not had a bag of the essentials packed and ready to go.
He was already sinking himself into planning the next few steps ahead of him. So it was a shock when he suddenly found himself crushed by Peter's arms in an almost painfully tight hug, the suit material making crinkling sounds. "Thank you," Peter whispered, fervently, and as his breathing hitched Neal realised with a shock that he was crying. "You got her out. Thank you, thank you…"
- - -
Diana hardly paid attention at first to the new shouts. Too many people were shouting already for them to stand out as unusual.
But it was different.
She looked up finally, when the background noise dropped, allowing individual words to penetrate. There was a bullish man in civilian clothes trying to shove his way through several suited people who were trying to hold him back. He had pushed his way in from outside, leaving the door open behind him. "Where is she?" he was yelling. "I want to see her! You can’t keep me out!"
One of the medical staff was trying to talk to him but the man was shaking his head angrily. "What do you mean, you don’t know? I’m her family, you can’t do this!"
More people shoved their way in from outside, eager to follow the path the first man was carving. "Now we’re in for trouble," someone from behind Diana muttered.
"What are you hiding in there?" a new voice demanded.
"Please, calm down!"
The first man raised his fist and punched the speaker, who fell with a cry of pain.
For just a moment everything seemed to freeze. But the civilians trying to shove their way in reacted before the medical staff did, and the dam broke. Suddenly people were pouring in, loud and desperate.
Diana for a moment saw the interior of the field hospital through their eyes. Individuals with no name-tags or records tied down to any available beds; blood on the concrete floor; corpses not yet moved to the morgue lying uncovered, without dignity. It was like a scene from a nightmare. Would she listen to reason, if she’d broken through to find Christie in such a place — not even being treated, but simply strapped down to die?
No. I wouldn’t.
"Get out of here," she said, urgently, to those around her. "They’re a mob."
Her fellows halted uncertainly, but then those who had led the charge inside started tugging at and cutting through patients’ bonds, and suddenly (predictably, horribly,) the pandemonium became even worse.
She wanted to do something. But in the face of an enraged mob, all she could do was run.
She pushed her way through the curtains. "Get out," she ordered everyone who’d been grabbing a sliver of rest. "There’s a crowd here out for blood." She stripped off her suit as she spoke, flinching instinctively as her skin was bared. But its protection hadn’t saved Christie...
Her clothes underneath were damp and sticky with sweat, and she had nothing that would work as a mask. Other people were following her lead -- several of them she knew by sight from law enforcement. That was good. Hopefully they’d be okay.
She shouldered open the fire door, and escaped into a torrent of rain, stumbling for a second as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was early evening.
With ugly shouts and yells behind her, she broke into a jog. The cold rain was through her clothes in moments and she was already shivering, but it was the cleanest and most awake she’d felt in days.
Once she’d put a few streets between her and the hospital she slowed to a walk, chilly reality settling over her. She’d heard that the city was utterly locked down; it hadn’t seemed all that important then, but now she kicked her earlier self for not paying more attention. She was already cold, wrapping her arms around herself to try to compensate for the lack of warmer, more waterproof clothes. Even a jacket would do.
She was only partially sure of where in the city she was. Worse, she didn’t know where she was going. Her apartment was too far, and she didn’t have supplies laid in to wait out this kind of thing. The Bureau offices were a possibility, but only if other agents were there — which she couldn’t be sure of. It felt like she couldn't be sure of anything.
Shivering, she kept on walking. Anything seemed preferable to the alternative, which was stopping. As long as she kept moving, her grief and fear could follow her like a billowing cloak, but they couldn’t catch up to her. She thought maybe she was in shock. It didn't seem important.
It was with a dull sense of surprise that she came to the realisation that her feet had picked a destination for her without any input from her brain. She thought briefly about turning around and fading back into the darkening city when she saw that the lower windows were boarded up, but there was no sense in that.
She climbed the steps and knocked on the door. There was no answer, and she knocked again, this time pressing her ear to the wood. "It’s Diana Barrigan," she called. "Neal’s friend."
She hadn’t really expected that to work. But a moment later the door opened. "Come in quickly," June said.
- - -
Neal was only just ahead of Peter as they came jogging down the stairs, presumably towards the threat of someone trying to get into the house. They both stopped short.
"Diana?" Peter asked, incredulously.
She gave him a slight smile. "Hi, boss." She felt it slide away again as she turned to June. It was just too much effort to maintain for more than a moment. "I hope you don’t mind me coming here. I just thought —"
"Not one bit," June said. "These two have been worrying about you. I’m glad to see you safe." She glanced quickly at Neal and Peter in a way that might have been a hint to do something. "You look worn out."
"I'm okay," she said automatically, not yet having stopped to categorise her feelings, and not wanting to do it now. "I guess you know everything’s broken down out there."
"Get warmed up and then we’ll talk about it, and what to do," Peter said. He was looking her up and down worriedly. She thought for a moment he was going to try to hug her, but he didn't.
June nodded at him approvingly. "Why don’t you make us some hot drinks? I’ll take Diana and we’ll see if any of Cindy’s clothes fit her. She’s managed to abandon an entire wardrobe here over the years."
Diana had never had much of an opportunity to talk to June before. She had recognised her as being kin to Neal, charm hiding dangerous edges underneath, but now it was June’s warmth and kindness which enveloped her. She felt dazed, in a way she definitely now recognised as shock, and June didn’t push her.
By the time the two of them came back downstairs, Diana in a t-shirt, jersey and jeans from Cindy’s closet, she was beginning to feel more human. June steered her onto a couch in the sitting room where Neal had been piling blankets, and Peter pressed a mug of hot tea into her hands.
"What do you know about the situation?" he asked.
"Peter," Neal said, frowning.
She shook her head. "No, it’s all right. Well, it isn’t, but you know what I mean. Everything’s just collapsed. If anyone’s any closer to a cure then I don’t know about that either." All those people, dead and dying. "What can we do?"
"Here, not much," June said, sitting in an armchair near the fire. "You need to get out of the city."
"We can’t," Peter objected.
"Of course we can," Neal said. "There’s always a way. Come on, Peter, you know how good I am at getting out of tight corners."
Peter, though, didn’t smile. He looked down at his hands instead, away from everyone else. "No, I mean that we shouldn’t. And we’re not going to."
"But we need to find Elizabeth and Mozzie!" Neal's face was confused, and hurt. Like this from Peter was an unexpected betrayal.
Peter looked up at last. "Neal, the lock-down is for a reason. It’s to protect the people outside of it. That’s why we weren’t allowed to warn anyone. We’ve got no right to break the quarantine and possibly bring this virus with us." He spoke like a man who’d already argued this point to death. With himself, presumably, given how incredulous Neal still looked.
"But Peter... Elizabeth. She’s waiting for you."
"Of course I know that!" Peter snapped. "How could I not?" He took a breath, looking ill. "But we’ve got no right to... to do that."
"So you’re saying we should just sit here and wait to die?" Neal demanded. His face had flushed with anger. "For some stupid principle?"
Peter looked away again, his answer clear in the silence.
"You’re assuming it hasn’t already spread," June said, quietly. Diana turned towards her at once, as did Neal and Peter. "How many people do you think left New York before the lock-down, before they knew about the virus at all?"
"It couldn’t have evolved in New York," Diana said. The discussion had been passed around over and over in the field hospital. "It probably came from a forest somewhere and then jumped the species barrier. All you need is one person on a plane to bring it here. And anywhere else."
June nodded, leaning forwards as if that settled it. "You have to go, while you still can. All of you. And I know a way out."
Neal smiled conspiratorially. "Of course you do."
"This house has a tunnel to the river," June said. "For... discreet movement of goods."
"Smuggling," Peter said.
She raised an eyebrow at him. "There’s still a boat down there. It’s old, and small, but it’ll get you far enough along the coast."
"Peter, please," Neal begged.
"It feels wrong," Peter said, stubbornly. "It's selfish."
"You know what’s selfish?" Neal demanded. "Sacrificing yourself for some noble idea of how the world should work. Who do you think you’re helping? And what would El say?"
Peter glared at him, enough that even Neal flinched a little at the strength of it — but he didn't break eye contact. "Fine," Peter ground out, eventually. "You win. We'll go."
Diana felt herself sag a little with relief. She was desperately afraid that Peter was right and Neal was wrong, but... she was human, and as selfish as Peter was afraid of being. She wanted to get out.
June sat up straight. "You’ll leave tomorrow night, then."
"Why not now, if we’re going?" Peter asked. His voice was brusque, and hurt.
"Because by the time you’re ready, half the night will be over. And you all need sleep first. You’re exhausted."
Neal leaned forward towards her, with a worried frown. "June, you’re talking as if you aren’t coming."
She smiled a little, sadly. "I’m not." She raised a hand as he opened his mouth. "Neal,I've already made my decision. I’m too old. And besides, this is my land, here. There’s too much of me in this house to be able to leave it."
"June..." There was real pain in his voice, and in his eyes.
"I’ve no intention of going anywhere," she repeated. She put on a smile, and her eyes twinkled suddenly. "I can take care of myself, you know. Apart from anything else, I’ve got enough supplies laid in to last me for quite a while."
Neal looked painfully torn. It was clear that only the fight he’d just had to persuade Peter to leave was stopping him from now saying that he would stay, too. From Peter's expression, he realised that.
Diana stood up, decisively. "June’s right," she said. "We all need to get some rest."
That broke up the discussion, as June also stood. "Diana, you can sleep in Cindy’s room," she said. "There’s a guest room on the same floor that Peter can use."
Peter and Neal exchanged a look. "I’ll clear up down here," Neal said, and hung back until they had left the room.
June showed them where Peter could sleep, and then left them, the sound of her footsteps dying away as she descended the stairs.
"Have you heard anything from Jones?" Diana asked, once they were alone. She dreaded having to ask the questions, but she couldn’t escape it. "Hughes?"
Peter shook his head, and leaned against the wall. "Nothing. I haven’t heard from anyone I know since this whole nightmare started. The only reason I kept track of Neal is because we were assigned together. Presumably so I could keep an eye on him."
She sighed. She had expected that answer, of course, but still...
"What made you come here?" Peter asked.
She chuckled unexpectedly. "Would you believe, I didn’t even mean to? I guess I thought that if anyone would be still alive, it would be Caffrey."
Peter laughed. It was the first time that evening that he had done so.
After the last few days, it felt strange to be lying in a real bed, wearing borrowed pyjamas. The silence, especially, was bizarre, and seemed to press against her ears. She tried to get to sleep, knowing how much she needed some rest to store up against the days coming, but it was elusive.
She hadn’t told anyone about Christie. All the news was so painful that this extra piece would just be swallowed up in it, and she couldn’t bear that. So she kept it private, holding it close in the dark.
- - -
The wine that June poured was worth hundreds of dollars a glass. It glowed ruby-red in the firelight.
They had packs ready by the door. Clothes, blankets, supplies... June hadn’t been joking when she had claimed to be prepared for anything. Not that Neal would have ever doubted that.
He still couldn’t quite believe that she wouldn’t come with them, after living a life like his where you were always ready, in the end, to leave. Now, with Diana and Peter conferring upstairs, would be his last chance to try. "June —"
She silenced him with a wave of her hand. "Please, Neal, don't. You’re not going to change my mind. I’m not staying out of idealism, I assure you."
Neal couldn’t help it — his eyes flicked up towards the rooms above. June caught it, and laughed. "I’d never accuse you of that," he said, quickly. "But you’re staying for ghosts."
"I’m staying for common sense," she said, and took a slow, measured sip of her wine. "I don’t like the realities of being old, but I’d be a fool to ignore them. And I’m too old for midnight boat journeys in a storm, and for making my way cross-country in the sort of state I think you’ll find the country’s in. Think hard, and then tell me who’s being idealistic here."
That stung, as had no doubt been intended. "I don’t want to leave you, though," Neal protested, his voice sounding lost and lonely to his own ears. "You’re family."
"That will never change," June promised. "You know what I’m going to say, though."
Neal sighed. "That so are Peter, and Moz, and El, and Diana. I know."
"There you are, then," June said, simply.
"It’s not fair."
"Life isn’t fair."
"I’m not a child."
June smothered a smile — that had come out too petulant. "No, but you’re my son; as good as. And you’ll do what’s right."
Peter didn’t see what they were doing in that way. Peter saw it as a betrayal. But Neal knew that that was just another thing he would have to live with.
Peter and Diana entered then. "Are we ready?" Peter asked.
"Nearly," June said. "Sit and have a drink first. For luck."
They didn’t speak much; all the plans had already been made. But it was good to... sit, and create a memory of the four of them together in the firelit room. I’ll be all right, June had promised earlier, and right now it felt like she was right, like these walls were strong enough to keep out any storm.
But it couldn’t last. They drained their glasses, and Diana said, "Should we go?"
"One thing," Peter said. "I was forgetting." He pulled something small out of his pocket — Neal's anklet key. "I don't think you'll exactly be needing it for now," he said. "Here."
Neal unlocked the anklet. It felt strange in his hand. "I didn't know there was an end-of-the-world clause in my release terms," he said.
"There isn't," Peter said, with the glimmer of a smile. "I thought June could look after it for you. When things return to normal you can have it back."
"Now there's something to look forward to," Neal said. He laid it and the key down on the table, and raised an eyebrow at June. "Well, it's certainly a fitting thing to remember me by."
"I’ll show you out," June said, like any graceful host, and led them down to the wine cellar. She pressed against an empty rack until it slid apart on hidden hinges.
"I never knew this was here," Neal said, delighted in spite of everything. "Mozzie would love this."
"I never give away all my secrets," June said. She reached out her arms and Neal stepped into them, hugging her tight. "Be safe," she murmured, and he felt safe, with her enveloping him, but he couldn't stay like that.
"I’ll miss you," he whispered back, but was too choked to say more. Thank you. Thank you for everything. He knew she understood.
June hugged Diana too, and finally a slightly surprised Peter. "I hope you find them," she said. "Send them my love."
And then there was nothing to do but turn their flashlights on and head into the tunnel. Peter led the way.
Neal only looked back once, as he turned the first corner. June was still standing at the tunnel’s mouth watching them walk away; only a silhouette against the light.
- - -
The boat was old and, to Neal’s eyes, obviously unsafe. It had a motor, which June had warned them not to use unless they were at least a mile from shore because of the amount of noise it made, and a pair of oars which Peter lifted down from their hooks on the wall.
"Do you know how to row?" Neal asked.
"Of course," Peter said, like it was a perfectly ordinary skill that everyone picked up. "Why, don’t you?"
"Well, no," Neal admitted.
Diana raised an eyebrow. "I’d have assumed seducing women on romantic boating trips would be part of your skill set."
"There isn’t time for much seducing if you’re trying to make the boat go along at the same time," Neal pointed out. "That's why you hire someone else to do that part."
"You’ve never gone fishing?" Peter asked.
Neal sighed. "No, I’ve never had the slightest wish to go fishing. From everything I’ve heard, it sounds worse than death."
There was a short silence, the playful mood abruptly sinking like a stone. "Bad choice of words."
"Let’s just get going," Diana said. She pulled up the hood of her coat. They were all dressed in waterproofs, head to toe. "Neal, get into the front where you’re not in the way. You can take the compass and be the lookout."
Neal scrambled in, with a considerable lack of grace, and Peter and Diana stowed their packs next to him. Peter passed him the compass. "We’ll be going north up the coast, with the current," he said. "Since our main objective is just to get as far in that direction as possible, your job shouldn’t be too difficult."
"Tell us if you start freezing," Diana said. "Even if you’re a lousy rower, it’ll be better than you getting hypothermia."
Well, that was encouraging.
Peter made sure that the drum of gas was safely aboard next to the motor, and then untied the boat, giving it a shove to get it moving before leaping in at the last moment. Neal leaned out to unbolt the gate which was disguised to look like a storm-grille, and Diana slammed it shut behind them.
They were out into the river almost immediately, but much higher up Neal's list of immediate concerns was the downpour — the rain had slackened off during the day, but was now back in ferocious force. Which was good, Neal had to remind himself as cold fingers of it immediately began to slide down his neck. It meant that they were less likely to be spotted.
"Are we going the right way?" he called. The rain was drumming into the water loudly enough to drown him out.
"You’ve got the compass!" Peter shouted back. "We should be going east!"
Neal checked the faintly glowing dial. The boat did seem to be pointing in the right direction, and he gave a thumbs-up. Then he crouched down against the packs and tried to, as Diana had put it, stay out of the way.
He very quickly decided that no one could possibly see them from the shore. Even the lights of the city were barely visible in the lashing rain.
With a jolt, he realised that that was partly because a large part of the city lay in darkness. He’d never seen that before. It was immensely, viscerally wrong. Without the lights, it all looked different, and he couldn’t pick out any of the landmarks he was used to, however hard he stared.
It was also almost impossible to judge the passing of time. The darkness and the rain and the unfamiliar pattern of lights went on and on.
Eventually, Peter tapped him on the shoulder. Neal looked round. "We’re about to reach the sea!" he called.
"How can you tell?" Neal wanted to know, but Peter just laughed at him, and indicated that he wanted to see the compass. Neal showed it to him happily, and then hunkered back down into the bottom of the boat. A sizable puddle of water had developed there, but apparently it drained out on its own and was nothing to worry about. (That the boat had a hole in it had seemed to Neal to be something of a concern when June had mentioned it, but everyone else apparently considered it normal.)
His waterproofs weren’t working. The rain was getting in everywhere despite their protection, seeping in at his neck and wrists and ankles and soaking through his clothes. Leaving June’s had been a terrible idea.
A low growl joined the endless drumming of the rain, and it took Neal a while to realise that it was the sound of the ancient engine, working surprisingly well. A few moments later Diana shook him. "Your turn," she said.
"Steering the boat. Your turn."
With difficulty, Neal managed to get himself to the stern as Diana wriggled forwards to take his place between the packs and Peter stayed on the rowing bench. "It’s easy," he said, and showed Neal what to do. It mostly amounted to keeping his hand on the tiller and watching the compass.
"How far north do we want to go?" Neal asked.
"Doesn’t really matter, as long as we’re clear of the quarantine zone. We’ll keep going until an hour or so before dawn, then make for the coast. Assuming we can find it again."
"Well, don’t blame me if we can’t," Neal said, and got the semblance of a smile in response.
Steering was mildly less monotonous than huddling up and staring at the rain, but only just. His fingers were very quickly frozen and painful and he switched from hand to hand on the tiller, taking turns to bunch the other into a fist inside his sleeve.
He had expected all the thoughts he had been keeping at bay to come rushing in once he settled to it, but the surface of his mind was managing to remain blissfully blank, as if the rain was washing away any attempt at encroachment. He kept glancing at the faint glow of the compass dial, making sure they were still heading up the coast.
The rain didn’t let up, striking the waves with a forceful hissing, so that it sounded oddly as if the sea was boiling. Neal began to doubt that they were actually moving forward at all. They seemed to be stuck in one tiny bubble, pitching up and down on the same wave in the dark.
But eventually Peter roused himself and kicked Neal back to the front of the boat again, relieving him of the compass. Neal curled into a tight ball, his face turned downwards to find shelter, and dozed, shivering.
He woke sharply as a jarring shudder ran through the hull, and jerked up expecting to find a new danger, but it seemed that they had intentionally run aground. The promise of dawn was grey in the sky, and they were on the silty bank of an inlet. "We’re here?" he asked, blearily.
"Well noticed, Caffrey," Diana said. She looked exhausted. She and Peter must have rowed them in while Neal had slept. "We’re somewhere, at any rate."
"Doesn’t really matter right now," Peter said, his voice gravelly with tiredness. "Let’s just see if we can find some sort of shelter."
They took the packs out, but all of them lingered for several moments, unwilling to leave the boat. "There’s nothing we can really do with it," Diana said, which was what Neal had also been thinking.
"Okay, let’s get moving," Peter ordered, and they did.
They had landed on the edge of what might have been farmland, once. Now it had run wild, choked with weeds and copses which had sprung up from hedgerows. There weren’t any paths, but eventually they came across the remains of some old storage shed, or livestock shelter. The beams of its walls and roof were rotting and half-fallen down, but it seemed as good as they were likely going to get. Neal, at any rate, had slept in worse.
They hung their waterproofs up to dry. Peter looked doubtfully at his sodden sleeves. "Do you think our clothes would dry on us while we sleep?"
"That’s the way to wake up with hypothermia," Neal said, and Peter looked at him with surprise. Neal shrugged. City boy he might be, but this was still something he knew about. He undid the top of his pack, and unrolled the blanket that was packed there to spread out on the floor, before turning his back to change briskly.
"You’re taking this better than I expected," Peter commented.
"Don’t judge all my outdoor skills by my dislike of boats," Neal returned. Although he was having to mentally work against associating sleeping outdoors with feelings of being chased. More than once already he had been wincing at how obvious their hung-up wet things would be to anyone who got close. Not to mention that this shed would be anyone’s first guess at where to find them.
He wondered what would actually happen if someone came across them. Would it count as treason, to have intentionally broken out of New York? "Do you think one of us should be on watch?" he asked, diffidently.
Diana frowned, considering it.
"I don’t think there’s any dangerous wildlife around this area," Peter said, doubtfully.
Neal shrugged, a little uneasily. "Just a thought." He expected he would sleep lightly anyway.
Now that they were all redressed and warm in dry clothes, Diana and Peter added their blankets to the pile. "We should try and find sleeping bags if we’re going to be doing this often," Diana said.
"I’ll put that on the shopping list," Neal muttered as they wrapped themselves up in their blankets, lying against each other for warmth.
- - -
The centre of the town was eerily empty. All of the shops were closed.
"I guess it spread beyond New York after all," Diana said. She knew she ought to be having some sort of reaction, some feeling of horror, but this was just too big to properly comprehend. A statistic.
"Everyone who lives here can’t be dead," Peter said. "We know that a lot of people didn’t get infected in New York, and it shouldn’t be different out here."
Neal stooped to uncrumple a couple of fliers which were lying in the gutter. "Mandatory Evacuation Notice," he read aloud. There were others, now that they looked, lying like fallen leaves.
"Makes sense," Diana said. "I guess the idea was to create something like a fire brake. No hosts stops the virus spreading."
"Think it worked?" Neal asked. He looked uneasy.
She shrugged. "I guess we’ll find out."
"At least we’ve lucked out on supplies," Neal said. He pointed. "Look, there’s an outdoors store down there. We can get sleeping bags and whatever else we need."
"It’s closed," Peter said, with the air of stating something obvious.
"I know," Neal said, in exactly the same way.
Peter and Diana exchanged a look. "We can’t just jump straight to stealing things, Caffrey," Diana said.
"But there’s no one here, and we need them." Neal looked faintly irritated. "They can claim it off their insurance if they don’t die first. It’s not like I’m suggesting we go on a bank robbing spree."
That was the problem. Neal really didn’t see why they couldn’t just break in since they were in need. To him, this probably seemed like a victimless crime, since the victims weren’t around.
"And are you planning on walking to Illinois?" Neal asked. "Because if not, we’re going to need a car too."
Peter frowned. "We take only what we need, then. We’ve got some money; we can leave that behind."
Neal snorted. "That’s ridiculous. We don’t know what we’ll need later, and we’ll probably need the money too."
Peter’s lips were tight. "I’m not about to start robbing the people I swore to protect."
"Peter, those people are probably dead!" Neal snapped. "I doubt very much that this epidemic isn’t world-wide by now. What’s important is that we’re still alive, and we need to stay that way. We don’t have time for you to be all moral and high-minded right now."
"So your answer is that we abandon morals entirely? Start shooting everyone we meet and taking the clothes off their backs?"
"As if that’s what I’m talking about." Neal made a derisive noise. "What were you planning on doing?"
They were both glaring at each other, tensed and taut.
"I think Neal’s right, Boss," Diana said unhappily. She didn’t at all like the idea of stealing, but she could also see no other real option. And she could see that Peter couldn’t either — it was what was making him so angry.
He turned his glare on her, and she returned it steadily. "Neal, you find us some transport," he said, eventually. "Diana and I will look for other things."
Neal raised an eyebrow. "Want me to see if I can find a Taurus?" he asked.
"Caffrey, don’t," Diana said, and Neal had enough sense to shut up.
He didn’t find a Taurus, but the dirty 4x4 had plenty of room for the gear and supplies which she and Peter collected. Peter didn’t actually raise any more protest at the looting, but they were careful and he made sure that they locked all of the doors behind them when they were done.
Most helpfully, they now finally knew where they were ("somewhere in Connecticut" had been their assumption, but it was good to have it confirmed), and had a map. The small town was a long way off the main roads, and farm equipment was abandoned in the middle of fields. It was a silent relief to Diana whenever there was a whirling flock of birds to break the stillness. Even so, it was beginning to feel uncannily as if they were the only people left. Anyone who might be still alive and who had disobeyed the evacuation order clearly had the good sense to stay out of sight.
She had half-expected another argument about driving, and Neal clearly had too, but Peter gave up the wheel to him after about three hours without even a comment about his lack of valid driving license. Somehow, that was... not reassuring.
She studied Peter closer in the mirror. His face was fixed in a faint frown, eyes staring towards and past the horizon. Wanting to fly faster towards Elizabeth, she guessed.
"Stop," he abruptly called, but Neal was already braking sharply into a side-road turnoff. Diana looked ahead to see a low pall of smoke, a darker grey hanging against the grey clouds.
She could guess what it meant. So could Peter, from the unhappy twist of his face.
But they had to get closer, to be sure. They could smell the smoke inside the car when they pulled up by the gate to the field, past the warning signs, and when Neal opened his door there was suddenly the strong scent of barbecues and grilled meat. Diana instinctively pressed her hands over her nose and mouth but she couldn’t block it out.
It took Neal another couple of seconds before realisation hit, and his face drained of colour. He stumbled out of the car and bent over with his hand against the frame to throw up onto the grass at the verge.
Peter went over to him, and put a hand on his back. "Hey," he said, gently.
Neal tried to speak, but just shook his head miserably.
Diana moved towards the gate as if drawn there, feeling strongly that she had to look. And there were the burnt remains of the piled-together corpses, with hay bales as kindling. Sixty, seventy people... Nausea swept through her and she turned away quickly, fighting the urge to retch herself.
"How bad?" Peter asked, quietly. He had found a bottle of water, and still had his hand on Neal’s back as Neal took slow sips.
She shook her head, wordlessly.
"We didn’t escape, then," Neal said.
"Guess not," she said. As Peter made a movement towards the gate she flung up a hand automatically. "No, you don’t need to —"
"I do," Peter said. "Neal, stay here."
For once, Neal looked more relieved than annoyed at being ordered to stay put. He was trying not to breathe too deeply.
Peter came back moments later, also pale. And yet, also... relieved. Diana understood. They hadn’t brought the virus out with them; it had escaped long before and gone roaring ahead. People were dead, and that eased their consciences. She shuddered.
"Can we get out of here?" Neal asked.
Peter gave him a critical look. "Are you going to start puking again if you get in a car now?"
"I’m more likely to if we stay," Neal said. "Besides, I don’t think there’s anything left in my stomach." He grimaced.
"I’ll drive," Diana said. She was also eager to be away, out of the smell.
It took a long time for it to fade away behind them. And even when finally out from underneath the smoke, the clouds seemed darker than they had before. She thought now that she could see many other patches of smoke in the sky, but she didn't want to look too closely.
- - -
"I think we should start looking for somewhere to spend the night," Neal said.
It was only just nearing twilight; Peter looked around in surprise. "We can keep going for at least another couple of hours, surely."
"Lights," Neal said, at the same time as Diana realised what he was getting at. "We’ll be visible for miles."
Peter nodded. "Good point." He peered out through the windscreen. "I think I see something up there."
They found a farm house, deserted like everywhere else. Peter didn’t protest at the lockpicking this time. "We should find something to cover the windows if we want light inside," he said. "Blankets or something."
The electricity wasn’t working, but Diana managed to find candles and matches while Neal and Peter worked together to black out the windows of the main room. She checked out the kitchen, and found that the fridge contained vegetables and cheese that looked okay, so she put it on plates along with some slightly dry bread.
"It would have gone off," she said, a little defensively, as she carried the meal into the other room.
"No, I know," Peter said. He looked tired, as he had since the field. Drained, even; of tension and of something else. She didn’t care to follow the thought, and turned instead to watch Neal light more candles, setting them carefully about the room to maximise the light.
In the middle of the night she woke. They had elected to sleep together, without needing to discuss it. It had been a quiet meal.
A tall candle was still burning, and when she raised herself onto her elbows it was to see Neal sitting against the wall, watching the flame.
Carefully, Diana shuffled over towards him. Peter was on the other side of the room, snuffling occasionally as he slept.
"Want some company?" she asked.
He half-shrugged, which she took as an invitation, and she settled against the wall next to him. "Can’t sleep?"
He shook his head. "You know about these things. Honestly, how far do you think the virus has spread?"
She shivered, immediately clamping down on her body’s reaction. She was trying very hard not to think about such things. "Neal, I’m from the FBI, not the CDC."
"Yes, but..." He half-shrugged again.
"You’re worried about Elizabeth and Mozzie?"
"Yes," he said, quietly. "I’m so afraid for them. And for June, god, and Sara. Do you think she’s safe in England?"
Diana wanted to offer him some comfort, but somehow the half-dark made it harder, not easier, to lie. "I don’t know."
Neal touched her arm, very lightly. "Di, what happened?"
"What do you mean?"
He met her eyes. His expression was concerned. "You’re... I don’t know. It’s like you’re on autopilot. Peter’s worried about you." He added, "I am, too," as if that wasn’t obvious.
Was she? She felt... numb, still. Keep going. Just keep going. Don't think about what's behind, or ahead.
But Neal was dragging it up out of her anyway. "Christie’s dead," she whispered.
"We don’t know that," Neal said, and he was trying to be kind, she knew that, but the gently-spoken words felt like knives twisting in her chest. "We survived, didn’t we? Maybe --"
She shook her head, cutting him off. "No. No. Neal, I watched her die."
Neal stared at her, appalled. "What?"
"In the hospital. It — she was coughing, and her lungs —" She was abruptly almost choking herself, and for a moment of panic was certain that she, too, couldn’t breathe, but then the painful tightness in her throat eased into the sting of unfamiliar tears. She tried to blink them back, but they were already spilling down her cheeks.
Neal put her arm around her, tentatively at first, and she leaned against his shoulder, not looking at him while she cried as quietly as she could so as to not wake Peter. And because she didn’t want to be crying. There wasn’t time, she had to be strong and keep going...
He didn’t ask why she hadn’t told them before, and she was absurdly grateful for that. The candle flame wavered and flickered through her watery sight, and eventually the tears dried up. "Sorry," she mumbled.
He squeezed his arm around her, and she hoped suddenly that someone had done this for him after Kate’s death, giving him space and safety to cry. June must have, she thought, and the tears threatened to well up again at the memory of June giving them a way out, and remaining behind herself.
"We’re going to be okay," he said, at last. She wriggled so that she could look at him, because he sounded uncharacteristically fierce. "We’ll get to Elizabeth and Mozzie and then... and then we’ll be okay."
Home for him was a small group of people, the ones you held tight to and defended against whatever storm arose. It was a definition which had no concern for the concept of society-wide nets and structures, except occasionally as something to be avoided. And those things... here, at least, they had been lost, and for Neal it might not really matter, but for her it was one of the things contributing to the unsteady, vertiginous feeling of the ground being stolen from under her feet.
"What will we do then?" she asked.
Neal shrugged. "We find a place, and set up in it. I don’t know. Maybe Peter would let me raid an art gallery for decoration."
She surprised herself with a soft laugh. "Yeah, right."
He nudged her with a shoulder. "Why, what were you thinking of doing?"
She shrugged. "We could try to join up with other people who've survived, see if we can help. You know Peter will want to."
"I don’t see what help we’d be."
Diana shrugged again, because she didn’t know how to say that in his concept of the future it was the structure she knew that she would miss; the sense of purpose. Right now they were all adrift.
- - -
They left at first light. It was becoming difficult now to avoid the main roads, even though it clearly made Peter uncomfortable to drive on them. Soon there was another reason for being glad they had kept off them the day before — every now and then they passed vehicles which the driver had managed to park on the hard shoulder before succumbing to the effects of the virus. Others hadn’t been as lucky, and had crashed. Not that it would have made much of a difference to the driver, but it would have for the passengers.
One of the things they had found in the small town was a supply of medical face-masks in a pharmacy. Diana rummaged in the back and handed them out.
They stopped for gas a few times, at stations which were abandoned and empty even though the electricity still worked. Diana stood watch while Neal filled the tank, and Peter remained in the driver’s seat so that they could leave as soon as possible. The lack of any people had become incredibly unsettling, and Neal felt the hairs on the back of his neck constantly prickling as he glanced around.
The trouble finally came as they cut around an outer suburb of Chicago. Neal had been dozing while Peter was again driving (Diana had taken a turn, but Peter was full of enough nervous energy as they got closer to Elizabeth to make him a terrible passenger). He heard a rattling sound, and a second later slammed into his seatbelt as Peter jammed on the breaks, swearing sharply.
Neal swore as well, looking round wildly to see what had happened. "Gunshots," Peter said, before he could ask. "Someone wants us to stop."
The someones emerged from the nearest house — the shots had been fired through the open window. Two people, both with automatic rifles and incongruous-looking surgical masks. They were also wearing flak jackets.
"Guess they found a military supply store," Diana said, quietly.
In obedience to sharp a hand-gesture, Peter rolled his window down. He didn't reach for his weapon, but Neal knew he could draw it in seconds if he needed to. "We don’t want any trouble," he said. "We’re just passing through."
"Road’s closed," the taller of the two masked figures said. A woman.
Peter raised his hands from the steering wheel. "Okay. We’ll turn around if you want us to."
Neal was very much in agreement with that strategy.
"Where are you from?" The second armed person was male.
"New York state," Peter said. "I’m looking for my wife."
"If she got sick and took off, she’ll have dropped dead by now," the woman said. Not maliciously, but flatly.
The man snorted. "He means she was here already."
The woman shrugged.
"She was visiting her parents in Lemont," Peter elaborated. "We’ve hardly seen anyone. How many people are alive?"
"Seriously?" the man demanded. "It’s war out here. How stupid do you think we are, asking for that sort of information?"
"We’re not trying to rob you," Diana said, trying to sound placating. "Look, never mind. We’ll just keep moving."
"Lemont doesn’t exist anymore," the woman said, bluntly. "Last I heard it was all on fire. No one to fight it."
"It’s true," the man said. "I talked to someone who used to live there. The chemical factory went up and everyone who wasn’t already dead got the hell out. You could see the smoke yesterday, when the sky was clear. Smell it, too."
"The virus has reached here?" Peter asked. His face had paled. Neal, who was skilled in the art of self-deception, sympathised with how desperately he had been hoping that not to be the case, and how much it hurt when you could no longer escape the knowledge that had been there all along.
The woman laughed hollowly. "It’s reached everywhere," she said. "My husband thought —" She cut herself off abruptly. "And where the hell are the authorities? Probably sheltering in an underground bunker somewhere, nice and safe."
Neal was sure that Peter disagreed, but he didn’t actually argue.
"Look, we could let them take a look at the list," the man said, quietly.
The visible portion of the woman’s face creased into a deep frown.
"Can we trade you anything for a look at it?" Neal asked. He had no idea what the list might be, but clearly something they considered to be valuable. And possibly helpful.
"Elsa, we let other people in."
Neal relaxed fractionally. If they had started using names, it meant they were on the verge of being convinced. "You’ll be able to watch us," he said. "However many people are in your group, I bet they’re well-armed, and outnumber the three of us."
Elsa made an annoyed sound. "Fine," she said, and opened the back door of the car. "Matt, you stay here. I’ll send someone back." She slid into the seat next to Diana, and nodded at Peter in the mirror. "Start driving, then."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Peter murmured to Neal.
Neal shrugged. "Got to be better than driving aimlessly around all of Illinois."
Elsa gave brusque directions, and Peter obeyed them, driving through more empty streets. Neal felt that the sight of them should be starting to become familiar, but it was still wrong and filled him with formless unease.
Before too long they were pulling up in front of a community centre. It had plenty of skylight windows, which was probably a good thing for the people inside since the ground-floor windows had all been boarded shut with heavy planks of wood.
"Out, then," Elsa said, once Peter had pulled up. "All of you."
"We’re supposed to just leave our car out here, unguarded?" Neal asked.
"I’m supposed to let you inside and gather information on us?" Elsa shot back.
Peter looked faintly amused. "Neal, I think we have to trust them."
Trust was over-rated, in Neal’s opinion, particularly when they had so few cards in their hand. But he got out of the car, and so did Diana and Peter.
"So what’s this list?" Diana asked.
"It’s a record," Elsa said, as she pulled open the door. "For people we know are alive, or dead. Everyone adds to it."
The list was across two walls. One wall for the living, and one for the dead. Names in a multitude of hands had been inked starkly onto the white paint, with details added sporadically next to them — last seen, intended headings, date of death. Even though it could only be days old, there were already far too many names on the wall for the living that had since been crossed out.
"What’s her name?" Elsa asked. She nodded to the hall’s occupants, some of whom had got to their feet as soon as the doors opened. There were maybe twenty people in that main room, with neat rows of bedding laid out on the floor for more than twice that number.
Peter had no eyes for them, already scouring the wall. "Elizabeth Burke," he said. "And —" He glanced at Neal.
Neal shook his head, unable to keep a smile from flitting across his face. "Mozzie actually signing his name to anything? Not a chance." Although he was already searching for an alias. The trouble was, there were so many possibilities...
Elsa pressed her hand fleetingly over a name, in what looked like an instinctive gesture. Elsa Chang, Neal read, above her fingers, and when she took her hand away, Liam Chang was below, crossed through. Feeling like an intruder, he looked away without reading the details.
"Peter!" Diana called, and Peter half-ran over, Neal following. It was the wrong wall, the wrong one...
But neither of the names were Elizabeth. They were both Mitchells, in her handwriting.
"Damn," Peter said, quietly, but he was already hurrying back, searching at a fevered pace. "She’s alive," he said. "Look!"
Elizabeth Burke, in well-known cursive, and below that, Dante Haversham. It was some of the most welcome artwork Neal had ever seen. "She wrote this two days ago," he said, looking at the date.
"Do you know if she’s still here?" Peter asked Elsa. There was a tinge of desperation in his voice — he was preparing for the answer even before she shook her head regretfully.
"There's just too many people coming through to keep track of," she said. "Not so many these last couple of days, now the gangs have got their teeth into everything, but..." She shook her head again.
"The gangs," Peter said, frowning. "What are they after?"
Elsa sighed wearily. "What do you think? Food, guns, medicine. This area used to be outside of the turf wars, but now they want everything we have. Hence the need for all the security." She didn't apologise for her suspicion of them, Neal noted.
Peter nodded. "Who’s in charge here?"
"No one, really." Elsa said.
"Elsa’s been organising things," a man piped up. He had been resting on top of one of the sleeping bags.
"Everyone’s been organising things," Elsa said, tiredly, like this was an argument she had had too many times.
"Yeah, but you wrote things down and made everyone stick to them."
Peter eyed her appraisingly. "Are you in law enforcement?"
"Right now, that’s as good a job title as any, I guess." She laughed, a little self-deprecatingly. "I was a journalist, if you can believe that. Not too relevant now."
"You’re doing good work here," Diana said, approvingly. She had probably picked up on more details than Neal had — his skills didn’t lie in how to fortify places, but he wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that it was another area in which Diana was an expert. "We’re FBI agents," she said, including Peter with a gesture. "Would you like to walk us around your setup?"
Elsa blinked, and then sagged slightly in relief. "That would be great. I really have no idea what I’m doing."
"I suspect much better than you think," Peter said, with a kind smile.
"I’ll ask around," Neal offered. "Find out if anyone remembers El and, uh, Haversham."
Peter nodded appreciation.
As Neal had suspected, it was a description of Mozzie which finally got a result. "Oh, him," said a woman sorting food stores, whom Neal was temporarily lending a hand to. "I couldn't possibly forget him. He had some interesting theories about... you know. All of this."
"Did they involve secret government agencies?" Neal had to ask, albeit with a slight feeling of dread.
"Oh, definitely. They were awfully entertaining stories." She chuckled to herself, and Neal grinned wryly.
But she didn’t know where they might have gone, which left him no better off than before, no matter long they talked for. Elizabeth would want to find Peter, and Mozzie would make it a priority for them both to stay alive. Had they tried to find somewhere safe out here, or headed back towards New York in the same desperate hope that had driven the three of them out?
In any case, with no better clues being turned up by Peter or Diana, Elsa was fairly easily able to persuade them to spend the night.
- - -
"Neal, wake up!" Peter was shouting, but Neal had already woken with a jolt. There were people running, shouting — He lay very still for a second, trying to get a bearing.
Then someone screamed, very near, and he was on his feet immediately, still disorientated in the darkness, still trying to work out what was happening.
"Find flashlights!" Peter called, but he only added to the din.
Someone grabbed Neal’s arm, and he flinched instinctively. "It’s me," Diana's voice said, close to his ear. "What’s going on?"
"I don’t know."
Maybe there was another outbreak. Elsa had tried to set up protocols for that, but people were prone to panic —
Then there was the loud report of gunfire, unmistakable, coming from somewhere outside.
"I think we’re under attack," Diana said.
Neal turned to ask her what they should do, but then there was the smash of breaking glass and he glanced up to see one of the skylights shattering, the jagged fragments of the pane momentarily visible and then turning invisible and deadly as they fell. There were cries of pain and terror.
"Get down!" Diana yelled, and pulled him to the floor as there were more gunshots -- wild, unaimed, but that hardly mattered when they were being fired into such a crowded space by whoever was standing on the roof. More people were screaming now; almost everyone was.
He didn’t know what started the fire. But flames shot up against one wall with a loud woomph and suddenly there was the light everyone had been shouting for, illuminating terrified faces in flickering orange.
"Everyone out!" Elsa was shouting from somewhere, loudly enough to cut through the din.
"Out!" Peter echoed. "Neal, Diana, get them out!"
Stumbling, tripping over bedding and bags, Neal tried to shepherd panicking people toward the doors without knowing if they were paying any attention to him at all. The smoke was stinging at his eyes, and the heat of the flames was a too-close horror. The gunman couldn’t still be shooting, at least — the smoke’s only escape upwards was through the broken skylight, and it would choke anyone standing there.
It was choking him. He had paused to wipe tears from his eyes and now he couldn’t remember which direction the door was in. Struggling to breathe he stumbled along blindly. He nearly tripped over someone bent double, coughing, and he grabbed their arm to pull them roughly along.
No air. Searing heat. Suddenly something slapped his face and he blinked, Diana's face hazy through his watering eyes. She was half-dragging him along, and he kept a tight hold on the person he was supporting.
The three of them burst out into the night air wheezing for breath. Then new hands were pulling him to safety as his legs began to fold, as people shouted back and forth above his head. There was more screaming in the distance, and it was the last thing he registered before he passed out.
- - -
Diana fought to remain conscious even with a lungful of smoke. She had lost track of Neal; she had no idea where Peter was. More gunfire signalled that they were still under attack. She wanted to help defend the small group, but it was enough of a struggle to keep breathing and she couldn’t do more than that. People were dragging her along, and she was suddenly being hauled up some steps and bundled onto a narrow sort of bench. Voices around her were shouting, and coughing. The smell of smoke was still sharp; overwhelming.
She tried to get up, but a woman was pressing down on her shoulders. "No, no, don’t fight me."
Was she a prisoner? A sudden rumble starting from all around told her that she was in a vehicle. Not their car.
"Diana, calm down"
It was Elsa, abruptly appearing above her. Diana finally stopped struggling as that fact slowly penetrated her fogged brain. Less panicked, she found that she could at last begin to take proper breaths, which in turn started to clear the black spots dancing in her eyes.
"You’re safe," Elsa said. "Or as safe as any of us are right now. We’re running."
Diana struggled again to sit up. "Help me," she demanded, and Elsa moved in quickly. "Where’s — Peter?" She was having to pause after every couple of syllables to breathe. "Neal?"
They were in some kind of coach. A school bus, she realised, belatedly.
"Peter’s driving your car — we loaded the trunk with all we could grab. Lucky we never made you unpack and share, I guess." She smiled briefly; bitterly. "Neal’s being looked after, he’s a few rows down."
"You were... attacked?"
Another humorless smile crossed Elsa’s face. "We were attacked, you mean. Guess I was right to be paranoid about the gangs." Her mouth twisted. "You’d think, in a time like this, people would work together."
Diana shook her head slightly, but didn’t say anything. She couldn’t, really, be surprised at how quickly people classed other people into us and them. Hell, even she and Neal had started down that road almost immediately.
"Where are we going?" she asked, after the silence had dragged for too long already.
Elsa shrugged. It was a non-expressive gesture, one which could mean anything from I have no idea to I don’t trust you enough to tell you.
But apparently they were all going along with her. Diana was relieved, really — she had no idea what they would have done next, with no further clues to guide them. They’d been lucky to get this far.
"How many people got away with us?" she asked.
"Maybe thirty," Elsa said. "We’ve got a small truck, too. There's a load of people travelling inside that."
"Elsa." The woman who had been looking after her before was standing in the aisle, looking anxious. She beckoned.
Elsa exchanged a quick, worried glance with Diana, and then she went along with the woman — Diana thought she really needed to learn everyone’s names, and fast. She followed.
In one of the front rows, a young man was slumped between the back of the seat and the window, his eyes glassy. He was coughing.
"How long’s he been sick, Julie?" Elsa asked, speaking quietly.
"He was fine before the fire," Julie murmured back.
The first symptom is fever. Diana had heard about it but hadn’t observed the early stages of the virus at all, only the end result. She glanced nervously between the two women.
"If he’s got.. that... then he can’t stay on the bus," Diana whispered, hoping no one else could hear her. Least of all that poor young man. "It’s spread through fluid contact, isn’t it?"
Julie nodded. "We worked that out pretty fast in my clinic."
"You’re a doctor?"
She shook her head. "Just a nurse. But Josh looks the same as the others did. The virus probably got a hold once his lungs had been damaged by smoke."
"Who would he have caught it off, though?" Diana asked. She was aware that although they were all whispering, most of the passengers who weren’t asleep had worked out that something was going on and were craning anxiously to look.
Julie shook her head. "I’ve seen some people get infected but not realise it. Then a couple of days later the virus sort of rips through their body all at once. Maybe that would have happened to him if not for the fire."
Diana swallowed, her throat suddenly tight. "I’ve — I’ve seen that too."
"Joshua," Elsa said, firmly. "Can you hear me?"
He jerked slightly, as if he’d thought he was alone, and sluggishly moved his eyes to focus on her. But instead of saying anything he just kept coughing, and now there were flecks of blood around his lips.
Elsa touched Diana’s arm. "Get the bus to stop," she said.
She slipped down the aisle. The driver was the guy who had been on guard with Elsa when they’d first met her. "Matt, can you pull over?" she asked.
He didn’t do it dramatically, which she was glad about, and he waited until they’d stopped to ask, "What’s going on?"
"A guy — called Joshua — he’s sick." She didn’t need to add with what.
"Josh," Julie was coaxing, behind her. "Come on, up you get. You can do it."
Joshua nodded vaguely as he swayed between the seats, but he followed Julie. Diana backed down the steps to give them room.
"Julie, wha’.." he mumbled.
"It’s okay, don’t worry."
He was beginning to shake by the time he made it onto the verge. Julie was almost crying. Diana glanced up at the bus. They had an audience, of course. Neal’s face was among those at the windows, and Diana felt a sharp pang of relief to see him up.
Joshua was coughing more blood now, his movements erratic.
"We can’t really leave him here," Julie whispered, not sounding like she believed it.
"We have to," Elsa said, her face miserable.
"Julie, he’s sick," Diana said, trying to be calming. "You know it’s too late. There’s nothing we can do."
"People get better!" Julie protested.
Diana flinched violently. "What?"
Elsa took hold of Julie’s arm. "Very few. After violent delirium and infecting who knows how many others. We have to leave him here, and you know it."
Julie didn't nod but she bit her lip, not protesting either.
Diana let herself be hustled back into the bus, ahead of the other two. People got better... No one in the field hospital had gotten better, but they hadn't had the chance. She and the others had tied them all down to die choking for breath. Some of them might have lived...
Joshua must have belatedly realised that they were abandoning him. He stumbled forward as Matt started the engine, slamming an unsteady hand against the closed door.
"Go," Elsa said, harshly. She was trying to keep looking at Joshua, but she couldn’t.
Matt gave her an agonised look, and she glared back. He pulled the bus out onto the road, picking up speed until they were rumbling along like they had never stopped.
"No one go near where Josh was sitting," Elsa said. She didn’t have to raise her voice. Everyone was watching her in silence, even the couple of children. She walked all the way down the aisle to the back, and squeezed herself down into a row mostly filled with bags of supplies, where she could be hidden.
Diana wanted to do the same. But she had already met Neal's eyes, so she went to join him.
"Are you okay?" he asked, quietly. When she didn’t answer, he continued, "From the smoke."
She nodded. The effects were down to just a sore rasping in her throat when she swallowed. "How about you?"
"I still feel a bit dizzy, but I’ve stopped coughing, at least." He broke into a small coughing fit as soon as the words had left his mouth, and smiled wryly when he was done. "Well, mostly."
"That’s good," she said. "I’d have to explain it to Peter otherwise."
"I’m glad my fate is such a high priority to you."
Diana found herself smiling more fondly than she’d meant to, and didn’t doubt that Neal had noticed. But he didn’t say anything about it.
Neither of them knew where they were going, and they didn't feel like talking. Neal dozed off with his head tipped to one side, still coughing occasionally, and Diana stared past him out of the window watching endless fields and low hills roll by.
She woke abruptly when the background drone of the engine cut out. It was another deeply overcast day, and when she checked her watch she was surprised to find it was already early afternoon. Then she looked out of the window.
They were nowhere she recognised. Farmland, surrounded by trees. There was a collection of buildings that looked like they’d been thrown together randomly with no plan or pattern.
At the front, Elsa stood up. "This is the place?" she asked a man beside her. He was the one Neal had pulled out of the hall.
"Yeah," he said. George, she remembered his name was. "Belongs to my uncle. If he’s still here..."
Everyone seemed to be waiting. After a second George led the way off the bus.
The truck (Elsa had qualified it as small, but it was really more of a van) and three cars were pulling up. Peter got out of one, head turning quickly as he flicked his eyes along everyone. His face lit up as he caught sight of Neal and Diana, and they pushed forwards to reach him.
"You’re okay?" he said, quickly. "You’re both okay?"
"We’re fine," Neal assured him, and was enveloped in a relieved hug. "Peter, we’re fine," he protested, but didn’t really struggle.
Diana hugged him back tightly when it was her turn. "So, we’re staying with these people?" she asked.
Peter half-shrugged, like he was embarrassed. "They’re trying to build up, keep themselves safe. We can help."
But he couldn't hold the smile, and his eyes were beginning to fill.
"We won't give up on them," Neal said, very quietly. "Peter —"
But he trailed off.
"I don't know how to find her," Peter said. He looked like he was shocked at his own words. "If we could have stayed in Chicago, but..."
"But we couldn't," Diana said, softly. She was aware that she was an interloper on this shared grief. She had lost, but lost with a brutal finality. More agonising than a dwindling uncertainty, but cleaner.
The doors at the rear of the truck were still shut. Matt slapped a hand against them. "Does this actually open from inside?" he asked, and pulled the handle.
"Wait!" Elsa said, sharply, but they were already swinging wide.
Everyone inside was dead. There were maybe ten people. Blood-flecked, bloody.
Elsa slammed the doors shut again, and leaned against them. "Fuck," she said. "Oh fuck, fuck."
The mood of holiday had been punctured. "Damn," Diana muttered, and wiped at her eyes. "Of course we're not safe here."
"We're as safe as anywhere," Peter said, soberly. "Here's better than a lot of places are bound to be. I think safety is going to be in remoteness for the next while, until things settle down." He looked around, but his eyes were distant. Diana knew that if there was anything, anything to go on then he would be off immediately to chase down Elizabeth's location.
But the country was too big, and too broken. And it seemed to physically contract around Diana at the realisation that this was it. This was where they were staying.
- - -
Neal had heard before that hard work was the best remedy for a broken heart, but that fall he watched Peter take it to a new extreme.
There was an awful lot to be done. George’s uncle, Franz, had lived for years on the land with his wife and several farmhands, and hadn’t allowed it to fall into disrepair since her death eight months previously. But even though the buildings were all in good condition there was nowhere near enough room to comfortably house everyone who had descended on the place.
Also pressing was the issue of food. The main farmhouse boasted an impressively large cellar which at first glance seemed like it contained enough supplies to feed an army — but in reality it wouldn’t have lasted them more than a couple of weeks. Elsa organised everyone into teams, dividing up the vital chores among them.
Neal found himself involved in construction work. Truth to tell, he enjoyed it. He’d worked with wood before and although the aim now was function rather than beauty there was beauty all the same in the firm lines of a split-log house as it took shape under his hands. His skin tanned, and his palms roughened.
Peter joined him near the end of most days, even after spending the preceding hours out scavenging with Diana and some of the others who knew how to handle themselves. Ethical scruples about stealing were a thing of the past, faced with the pressing needs of their adopted small community. They were hitting towns in a slowly widening circle, emptying food stores of non-perishable items and also scavenging fuel, light sources, winter clothing, medical supplies.
No one ever talked very much about those trips. They were well beyond the zone where the government had been futilely trying to stem the spread of the virus by evacuating civilians. Here they had given up, and people had died in their homes instead, the virus appearing to have increased in virulence as it swept across the country. Even so, there must be other small communities around, but they avoided each other.
There was speculation, some evenings, about whether whatever remained of the government was still hanging on, clinging against the West Coast and rebuilding slowly from there. There were strong feelings on either side, but Neal couldn’t really find it important.
It was the information loss which he found strangest to deal with. Neal’s radius had chafed him often enough, but although he had been physically locked in place the rest of the world was still there, only a telephone call or a computer screen away. Now they might as well be on a tiny island, or a raft, for all the connection he felt to the surrounding continent.
And he missed everyone who wasn’t with them — missed them with a gnawing, soul-deep intensity. Elizabeth, Sara, June, Mozzie. Mozzie in particular he had never been able to imagine not being around. Even when not physically present, the idea that he might not return had been unthinkable. Now... it continued to be unthinkable, but that was because whenever his thoughts started edging in that direction his insides twisted and he shied away.
It was much safer to worry about things closer to home. Like Peter. Who didn’t talk much, these days, and who rarely laughed. Diana had confided to Neal that at first Peter had spent their scavenging trips in constant, desperate hope that against all the odds they were going to come across El and Mozzie, or find some sign that they had passed that way. He had left messages, with oblique directions to their farm. (Neal, who had been trying to think of a way to persuade Peter to do just that, had approved.)
But now, a couple of months on, he had given them up for dead. His loss of hope was there in the way he grimly threw himself into working seemingly endless shifts, wearing himself out to the point of exhaustion on construction work, or on the farmland, and doggedly refusing to acknowledge concern. He was far from alone in his way of dealing with grief, but that didn’t make it any less worrying to watch.
Dozens of times, Neal almost went to him to suggest that they take off, just them and Diana, and not give up until they had managed to hunt down El and Mozzie’s trail. He pictured their reunion a thousand times, the incredulous question of, How on earth did you find us? always answered by, We never stopped looking, of course.
After the houses were finished, they would go. After all of the harvest was in. Once there was nothing urgent pressing down on the small community, and they could leave without feeling like they were abandoning their friends.
But winter swept down with a speed that was shocking — even though all their preparations had been against it, it had still seemed like a far-off threat. Suddenly the wind was biting and the air was full of snow and everyone confined themselves indoors for most of the day. The books that Neal and several others had pleaded and begged with the scavengers to collect over the past months suddenly became vital commodities.
And the wolves moved in.
- - -
The beat-up 4x4 struggled against the steepness of the snow-piled road, and Neal could almost feel it being pushed back by the driving wind that was flinging yet more snow against the windshield. The wipers were struggling valiantly, but they were no match for the storm.
Once, Neal would have made some sort of quip about their situation, but that would have been to a Peter who was less grim, and who would have bickered back happily. The person who had been occupying Peter’s body over the past few months felt almost like a stranger. They still sought each others’ company, but they just never seemed to talk much. Something that would be unthinkable before all of this.
Staring out of the car windows with white flakes whirling past, their old life seemed impossibly far away.
The engine stuttered, and Neal winced, glancing sideways at Peter. It did it again a moment later, and then sputtered out. Neal held his breath as Peter wrestled with the ignition, trying over and over, but it didn’t restart.
In the sudden absence of sound from the engine, the wind’s howls were very loud.
"Do you know what’s the matter?" Neal asked.
Peter tried the ignition again, not hopefully. "No. We’ve got plenty of gas, and there’s no warning light anywhere."
That was about as far as Neal’s knowledge of car problems went. If one broke down you either enlisted a mechanic or acquired another one, depending on available funds and how urgently you needed to be somewhere else. "How close are we to the farm, do you think?"
"Three, maybe four miles," Peter said. He looked out of his side window — too much snow had already built up on the windscreen for him to have any hope of seeing anything at all out of it. "Survival recommendations are to stay in your vehicle."
"This blizzard could last for days," Neal pointed out.
"Yeah, I know," Peter said. "And there’s not going to be anyone helpfully driving along the same road to rescue us."
They sat in silence for a moment. Neal thought he was mostly in favour of remaining in the car purely because, even though it was rapidly cooling now that the heating had stopped working, it seemed significantly less uncomfortable than stepping out into the middle of a blizzard. But on the other hand, they hadn’t been scavenging for edibles, and so they had minimal supplies of food and water with them. "You think we should go on foot," he said.
Peter nodded. "I think it’s less of a risk than gambling on waiting this out. It should only take us a couple of hours to get back."
"I’ve been out in worse," Neal said, with a quick grin that was entirely on purpose.
But Peter didn’t take the obvious bait to ask him when, and whether the purpose behind it had been illegal. It stung every time, that Peter didn’t react to things like that anymore. And yet Neal couldn’t stop himself from throwing them out — it was like continually prodding at a bruise. Like if he just managed to find the right thing to say he would succeed in knocking Peter out of his sleepwalk.
Peter reached around into the back seat, pulling out both of their sets of cold-weather gear, and passing Neal his. It was extremely awkward wrestling them on over their normal clothes in the cramped surroundings of the car seats, but Neal was putting less stock in dignity nowadays. And Peter didn’t mock him for his lack of it.
He even missed that.
"Ready?" Peter asked, and Neal nodded and took a deep breath before pulling his hood up and his snow-goggles down, and opening the door.
The wind slammed against him immediately, rocking him backwards on his feet until he found his balance. It was bitingly cold against the exposed skin of his face, and sliced straight through his coat and waterproof trousers. He was already shivering as he shoved the door shut and trudged through the snow to meet up with Peter.
"You good?" Peter called. He was holding a compass, its string wrapped around his wrist, even though they would just be following the line of the road.
"Yeah," Neal called back. "Nice day for a walk."
Trudging through the blizzard was both tiring and disorientating, although at least Neal felt sufficiently warm within only a few minutes. He and Peter kept pace beside each other, even though it would probably have been more sensible for them to take turns leading, and trampling down a path for the other. But Neal didn’t like the idea of walking ahead into the whiteness without the reassurance that Peter was still with him, and he thought that Peter might be feeling the same.
When the first howls came whirling through the air, Neal stopped dead in his tracks, heart instantly pounding. "Peter," he said. "You hear that?"
"I heard," Peter said. He reached under his coat to extract his pistol. Neal did the same, considering whether it would be worth taking off a glove for increased accuracy. But his fingers would freeze quickly, leaving him worse off.
(He had grown used to carrying a gun remarkably quickly. Necessity did that to you.)
The howling came again, from the east. The pack was some distance away, but they were hunting. The wolves had thrived through the fall with the lack of hunters and the easy prey of untended livestock, and expanded their numbers and range. With food supplies falling again now that winter had come, competition was fierce, and deadly.
The snow was falling so heavily that it was opaque, a thick whiteness that was impossible to see through for more than a few yards, no matter how much Neal strained his eyes. But it was silent now.
Then they passed through into the lee of a clump of trees and Neal remembered, wolves are ambush predators, aren’t they. The lithe grey bodies had been shadows in the snow, but all at once they were startlingly clear.
"Don’t run," Peter said, in a low voice. He aimed, but with a snarl the hungry pack leapt to attack, and his first shot went wild.
Neal hadn’t expected them to attack Peter. He was smaller; surely he should have been their target. Or maybe they had sensed Peter’s depression and lack of regard for his own safety, and judged him to be weaker right then. But the jaws of the lead wolf snapped around Peter’s leg and he went down in a spray of snow and blood.
Neal shouted, or screamed, and started firing. Some of his shots obviously missed, but some hit fur, and sinew, and bone. A crack of gunfire came from Peter’s position, and the wolf tearing at him slumped back and went limp.
Another went for Neal, and he could have sworn it took two bullets at point-blank range before it went down as it leapt for his arm, but he was half-blinded by terror. More shots from Peter, to yelping howling shrieks from the wolves, and finally the pack broke up, no longer grouped as one but fleeing raggedly.
"Peter," Neal gasped, and dropped to his knees in the snow, shoving the wolf carcass frantically away. He felt sick.
"Neal!" Peter was struggling to get up, grabbing for the hem of Neal’s coat. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, no, I’m fine, Peter —"
Neal glanced down, and found to his confusion that his left glove and part of his sleeve had been ripped away, and his arm was bleeding profusely. But although there was a lot of blood it didn’t look deep and anyway — "Peter, your leg!"
Peter looked down, finally, and his mouth moved silently for a second. He swallowed. "Oh, damn," he said, faintly.
There was too much blood. There was a terrifying amount of blood. Peter’s pulse-beat was visible in it, and it was soaking into the snow all around.
Neal unzipped his coat to get his scarf off faster, and wound it around and around Peter’s calf. Peter’s blood was warm and slick against his bare hand. Peter was trying to get his own scarf off but he was being too slow so Neal all but ripped it off him, tying it as tightly as he could. He had a flash of inspiration and pulled off his snow goggles, fishing a knife from his pocket and opening it to slice off the elastic, which made a more secure knot on top of the bulky bandaging. The elastic from Peter’s goggles added to it further. It was only then that Neal could take a breath, feeling like it was the first one in hours.
"Are you okay?" he asked, desperately, knowing only too well that the answer was no, not at all. "Peter, we need to get to the farm."
Peter was staring straight ahead, his face the same colour as the falling snow around them. Shock. "Peter, come on," Neal demanded, and took matters into his own hands by dragging Peter upwards, slinging an arm over his shoulders.
Peter limped forwards when prompted, and the wind stole most of his pain-filled noises. Neal’s arm had been beginning to ache fiercely, but soon it was aching with cold instead and shortly after that he could barely feel it. He hoped they were still going the right way.
The first glimpse of a distant light through the blizzard brought a gasp of hope to catch in Neal’s throat, and the relief of it stopped his feet for a moment. That was enough time for Peter’s weight to start to slump heavily against him, and suddenly Neal was struggling to stop him from sliding down into the snow. He held out for a few seconds, but then his cold-stiffened knees buckled under the pull and he hit the ground, trying to break Peter’s fall as much as he could.
Peter’s eyes were closed, and his skin was grey and blue-tinged with cold. Neal tapped his face, and then outright slapped his cheek. "Peter!" he shouted.
The combination worked; Peter opened his eyes slowly.
"You need to get up," Neal ordered. "We’re almost there."
Peter looked at first as if he hadn’t heard. He raised his head a couple of inches from the packed snow, and let it fall back. "I’ll stay here," he mumbled. Neal had to lean in to hear him.
Peter sighed slightly. He looked -- his face didn’t hold much of an expression, except for resignation. He had been waiting for this. Ever since he had lost hope of Elizabeth’s survival, he had been waiting passively for something to take him too.
"Don’t you dare die here," Neal said. His voice was low, and it was only a flicker in Peter’s eyes that let him know he was being heard. "Don’t you dare, or I will never forgive you." He didn’t know how much he meant the words until they were out of his mouth, but they were far more true than he had intended them to be.
"Neal —" Peter half-whispered.
"No!" Neal's face was frozen; it took effort to form words. "You wanted to stay here and help people, and then you just gave up, because you’ve decided Elizabeth must be dead and therefore you don’t need to care about anything anymore. You can’t just go and die now!"
Peter stared at him, a little blankly. "You don’t believe she’s dead?"
"No," Neal said, fiercely. "I don’t. Not her, and not Mozzie." He knew that Peter had never agreed with him in letting one’s wishes dictate one’s belief, but right now he needed to share that hot spark of hope. And then he could feel the other words he wanted to say forcing their way out of him, even though they were raw and painful and ran counter to that determined optimism. "Please, Peter," he said, and they came out sounding broken, "You can’t leave me too. You can’t."
Peter’s eyes widened. "Dammit, Neal," he whispered, and was suddenly attempting to struggle up. Neal grabbed his arm, and pushed himself up painfully.
He could hear the wolves again as they struggled towards the farm buildings, the swirling wind obscuring how far they still had to go. He had his gun in his free hand, and kept glancing back over his shoulder into the sheets of snow. Each shadow could be a wolf, each flicker of movement in the corner of his eye could be the pack circling, ready to strike.
From being only far-off lights, the farmhouse sprang into visibility only metres away with startling abruptness. Neal gasped in mixed shock and relief, and grabbed for the door, slamming his shoulder against the heavy wood to get it to move.
They stumbled past the thick curtain inside and into the main room, snow bursting in around them. Faces looked up, eyes widening in shock, but Neal barely had time to register that because Peter sighed softly and collapsed against him.
There were several people there — it was late afternoon, a sociable time. The noise right then seemed to being made by at least a hundred babbling mouths. Suddenly overwhelmed, Neal let George and Ravi pry Peter away from him and obeyed a hand on his shoulder that pushed him down into a dragged-up chair. He watched numbly as Elsa yelled at someone to find Julie, sweeping everything off the large table with an arm.
Diana had her hand on Neal’s shoulder, fingers digging tight as she practically vibrated in place. "I’m fine," Neal said, through teeth that were beginning to chatter. "Go help Peter."
She squeezed his arm in gratitude and flew over to Peter. There were too many people around him now; he was blocked from view. Neal tried to take a deep breath and found that he couldn’t, not really.
He shut his eyes, trying to get his chest to relax, but he opened them when someone started trying to take his coat off. Diana was staring at him worriedly.
"How’s Peter?" he asked.
"I don’t know, Elsa told me to go away." She bit her lip in concentration as she worked the sleeve carefully down over his injured arm. "That must hurt."
Neal shook his head. "Not really. I’m cold."
"You’re in shock," she said. "It’ll hurt soon enough." Neal found her bluntness strangely reassuring. "Sorry, you don’t get anyone with more than first-aid training right now, but Matt’s getting you blankets."
Finally getting the coat off, Diana worked on Neal’s sweater and then his shirt. If they had been in an ER both of them would have been cut away, but clothing was valuable and Neal didn’t protest as she helped him carefully wriggle out of them instead. Matt had turned up by then with an armful of blankets, which he and Diana began wrapping Neal in, leaving his arm out.
Cleaning it did hurt; the gashes were deep and ragged. Neal clenched his teeth and stared over at where Peter was hidden. Elsa and George were working to Julie’s direction, and Peter’s blood was vivid on all three of them.
"I don’t really want to practice my sewing on your arm," Diana said. "I’m just going to cover and bandage it up for now. Julie can check it later."
"Sure," Neal said, more fixated on the movement across the room. He was good at reading people, and the frantic anxiety was starkly clear. He barely noticed what Diana was doing — in any case, it was getting lost in a blur of general pain from his arm as he thawed out.
"Diana!" Julie called, urgently, half-turning towards them. "What’s Peter's blood type? He’s lost too much. I need to try a transfusion."
"Same as me," Neal said, and pushed himself quickly to his feet. "I can —" The room spun, and kept spinning. He swayed dizzily, vision greying, and hands dragged him with more urgency than gentleness over onto the couch, where he was forced limply down. It was a fight to keep his eyes open.
"Neal, don’t be stupid!" Diana shouted at him. "You’ve lost enough blood already, my god..."
He groaned, unable to form more coherence. He felt woozy and sick, and her face was tight with fury but also terrified, and brittle.
"Neal, open your mouth." Elsa loomed above him, and slipped two pills onto the roof of his tongue, before pressing the rim of a glass against his lips. "Swallow."
No choice. He swallowed, and only then could ask, "What?"
"Vicodin," she said, and he tensed instinctively, because sedating drugs like that had always been things to avoid, and he knew that he still had time to bring them up again before they had dissolved...
"Neal, I’m sorry," Diana said, and squeezed his unhurt arm. "You need this, okay?"
And they needed to focus on Peter, yes, he could understand. He could feel the drugs working already, dragging on his consciousness, and he was still trying to formulate a proper, complete response as they pulled him under altogether.
He woke to bright sunshine through the window-panes and a muffled feeling of dread. His arm throbbed with a deep ache, and he had hazy memories of half-waking as Julie unwrapped Diana’s bandaging and did further painful things to it.
When he turned his neck stiffly, the first thing he laid eyes on was the long beech table, now littered around with medical debris. Even from where he was, he could see dark stains on the pale wood.
Peter was nowhere to be seen.
Cold fear gripped tight inside Neal’s chest. He had to find out what had happened.
He was halfway through the slow process of sitting up when Elsa came through from the kitchen, pausing for a second when she saw him and then coming over. She looked exhausted, her eyes shadowed. "Hey," she said. "How’re you feeling?"
"Where’s Peter?" Neal demanded.
"He’s alive," she said, quickly, which was the answer to the main question Neal had been asking. The tight band of fear around his chest eased somewhat, although he knew he wouldn’t truly be able to believe it until he saw Peter for himself. "He’s in George’s room. Diana’s with him; he’s sleeping."
Neal let go a deep breath. "And he’s going to — I mean, he’s not —"
"Julie thinks he’s out of immediate danger," Elsa said. "She’s finally getting some sleep herself, on the floor in there. Which is another reason you can’t go in just yet."
"This was all last night?" Neal asked. "What time is it?"
"A bit before noon, I think," she said. "The storm cleared sometime after dawn. Snow’s lying pretty thick out there — no tracks of you two at all."
They could have waited the blizzard out, Neal thought. They could have waited it out easily.
It wasn’t until several hours later that he was allowed in to see Peter — until Peter was awake himself. Diana had enforced it, telling Neal firmly that he still needed to be resting, not waiting in a chair for Peter to wake up and being a disturbance in the process. She hadn’t slept herself yet. Neal didn’t think she was in a mood where he wanted to risk an argument.
Peter was propped up against a mound of pillows, blankets over him and over an odd blocky shape where his leg should be. Peter saw him looking and smiled wryly. "There’s a tunnel of cardboard boxes keeping my leg separate from the blankets," he said.
"That’s cutting edge medicine for you," Neal agreed, gesturing at his own bulky sling to illustrate the point before looking more closely at Peter. Peter’s face clearly showed that he was in pain, but there was also some... some animation there which at first seemed strangely incongruous.
It had been missing for so long.
"You saved my life," Peter said, seriously.
Neal shrugged, suddenly mildly embarrassed. "No small talk?"
Peter shook his head. "I’m probably going to fall asleep again soon. Thought I’d get it out there." He gave Neal a critical look. "You look like you could use more rest, too."
It was so familiar, the Peter whom Neal had been trying to locate for months. "You seem... better," he said, not knowing quite how to express it.
Peter’s mouth twisted slightly; he didn’t pretend not to know what Neal meant. "I started wanting to be alive after all," he said, quietly. "Thank you."
Neal impulsively reached for Peter’s hand, and Peter gripped back tightly. He was reliving, for a moment, shouting at Peter in the snow. He suspected that Peter was, too, and probably neither of them would talk about that again, but that was okay. They would be okay.
Peter looked down at where his leg was hidden. "Julie told me your arm’s going to be fine," he said.
"Yeah," Neal agreed. "I’ll have some great scars. Not as good as yours, of course."
Peter smiled, but then his expression went sad, and a little distant. "She said my leg probably isn't going to heal up properly. Too much muscle and tendon damage that would have needed surgery to repair."
"What does that mean?" Neal asked, feeling his stomach drop.
Peter sighed. "I’ll be walking again, but with crutches. Maybe a stick, eventually." He rubbed at his eyes tiredly. "I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I can’t really believe it."
Neal couldn’t really believe it, either, but he swallowed back his instinctive urge to argue with the reality that was presented. "Are you... all right?" he asked, uncertainly.
"Ask me again when I’m not on opiates," Peter said. He looked unhappy, and determined, but the depression Neal had feared him sinking back into was not in evidence.
Neal, watching him closely, thought that maybe he understood Peter's reaction. This was a challenge; something he could fight against, something with a clearly-defined goal. "I bet your leg will heal more than Julie told you," he said. "She was probably worrying about getting your hopes up or something."
"Whereas you’re happily free of that worry," Peter suggested, with another familiar and so-welcome half-smile.
"I believe you won’t let an injury beat you," Neal said. "You came back from one before, didn’t you?"
Peter gave him a full smile this time, before his face abruptly went serious. "Neal, what you said before, about — about Mozzie and El —"
"They’re alive," Neal said, simply, but with all the honest conviction he knew how to put into his voice. "I believe that, too."
"Thank you," Peter said, again, and didn’t let go his grip on Neal’s hand.
- - -
Diana yearned for spring with an intensity that caught her unawares. She had learnt indifference to seasons at a young age, when her home might uproot at any instant (or so it had seemed back then) and move from fall to summer, or from one winter to another with little pattern. Then she had spent much of her adult life in cities, with air conditioning keeping the insides of buildings at a constant temperature. The seasons were something she passed through, sometimes picking up a coat or a summer hat, but never something that intricately factored into her day-to-day life.
Winter this time (and for the rest of her life, maybe) was about hunkering down and surviving; about making repairs to clothing and equipment and tools that everyone had been too busy to get to in the preceding months. She finally learnt how to sew properly — she had expected some teasing for that, but then it turned out Neal had decided to start learning too, and had been expecting the same thing from her.
Meanwhile, she taught Elsa and some of the others how to shoot. She went out hunting several times with a couple of the farmhands who knew the area. Privately, she hoped to find wolves and kill as many of them as she could, but the expeditions only brought back deer. Which were useful, and a more-than-welcome addition to their food stores, but she was disappointed nonetheless.
The scars on Neal’s arm were dark and ugly. Peter’s were worse. It was already clear that Julie had been correct, and he would never have proper use of his leg again.
Diana and Neal were both there when he tried walking again for the first time. He sat on the edge of George’s bed for several minutes, looking down at his socked feet.
Neal nudged him gently with a shoulder. "Hey. You ready?"
"Yeah," Peter said, and made no further movement for a couple of seconds. Then he took a deep breath. "Yeah, ready." He lifted his arms so that Neal and Diana could slip into place, one on each side. They pulled him up, so that he could stand with all his weight on his good leg.
His breath caught as he put weight on his injured side, and his fingers dug into Diana’s shoulder. "Do you want to sit back down?" Neal asked, anxiously.
"No," Peter said, his voice tight. He moved his leg stiffly, sliding it forward, and took a step onto it with gritted teeth. He only allowed himself to rest for a second once his good leg had come forward too before he was moving again, forcing his body through another step. Then another, trying to let his bad leg take an equal share of weight each time. He kept his mouth clenched shut, but his breathing was ragged and harsh, and he was beginning to shake. Diana traded an alarmed look with Neal over Peter’s head. His face was already pale and clammy.
"Peter —" Neal began.
"No," Peter ground out. "No, not yet."
"We’re going to stop," Diana ordered.
"I’ve only just —"
"I don’t care! Lift your foot off the ground."
Between them, they got Peter back onto the bed. He slumped back against the pillows, his face grey and sweaty, eyes closed. "I’ll be okay — in a second —" he rasped.
Diana wanted to yell at him. He had been told that trying to push himself too fast could jeopardise the healing process... She breathed in, out. Calmed down. "I think you’ve done enough for now," she said, neutrally. "Julie told you to take it slow, remember?"
"I am!" Peter said, frustration spilling out of him. He finally opened his eyes, pleading her to understand.
She did. "Careful," she told him. "You’re sounding like Caffrey."
That got a laugh, from both of them. And the next day Peter went much more slowly, more patiently.
Day by day he got stronger, gradually adapting to a new way of walking. Neal made him a stout hazel cane for his birthday, which Peter looked at first like he wanted to reject, before he noticed the FBI badge carved on it. Then he laughed enough to chase away the shadows in his eyes.
Meanwhile, the shifting politics of living arrangements as friendships and relationships formed or were broken off meant that Diana ended up rooming with Elsa. She wasn’t entirely sure how good an idea that was, considering that she could recognise she was on the edge of developing an all-out crush on the other woman, but she was too pleased to be asked to feel that she could turn the offer down.
She came in one day, stamping snow from her boots, to find Elsa sitting on her bed with her arms wrapped around her knees. "It’s his birthday today," she said, quietly.
Diana left her outdoor gear in a pile in the middle of the floor (she could pick it up later) and went to sit beside her on the bed. "Liam?" she asked, gently.
Elsa nodded. She had hardly spoken about her husband in all the time since. "I didn't remember all morning. How awful is that?"
"It isn't awful," Diana said. She had never been all that good at softness and comfort, but she put her arm around the other woman, and Elsa leaned her head against it. "He'd understand. Anyone would."
"Tell me about Christie?" Elsa asked.
"You know about her already," Diana said.
Elsa twisted her head so that she could see Diana's face. "I know about how she died. But you never talk about who she was before that. If you tell me about her, I'll tell you about Liam."
Diana scooted back to lean against the wall, freeing her hair from the tight knot she usually wore it in these days. It gave her time to consider. Elsa uncurled and moved to join her. "Deal," she said, at last.
They held hands while they shared their memories.
- - -
The snows melted, but it was a little longer before bright green shoots and leaves began to appear. Diana felt her heart lift the first time she noticed them. They had survived the winter, and they were on the other side now. Not unscathed, but they had come through. And spring brought hope for more building, for planting crops, for their community to go on.
It also brought contact with the outside world.
The first time they heard the approaching drone of an engine that wasn’t theirs, almost everyone had gathered in a defensive group at the top of the farm road by the time the dirty pickup truck pulled up.
Diana had a gun shoved into her waistband. She was pretty sure several others did, too. She raised a hand to shade her eyes from the sun, watching the new arrivals closely.
The two men in the truck got out slowly, moving with exaggerated slowness, letting their empty hands swing at the side. "Heya, folks," the one who was white said, with a friendly smile. He didn’t look at all perturbed to be the subject of so many stares, ranging from curious to just-off hostile. It occurred to Diana that he had probably done this before. "We heard there was a group up here."
"Heard from who?" Elsa asked. She was one of the more hostile ones — Diana supposed that she herself was one of the others. Sometimes what had happened in Illinois felt so distant as to be from another time altogether, like the nebulous before, but she knew it still weighed on Elsa. Her failure to protect people she’d taken responsibility for.
The man focused on her as the leader. "There’s a couple families about ten miles west, said they reckoned you lot was out here somewhere from the way some of the towns’ve been emptied out. My name’s Larry, by the way. This is my partner, Kev."
"I thought this whole area was empty," Elsa said.
"Lots of people hiding from each other," Larry said. "Me, though, I just go talking to everyone. I’m not here to see what supplies you’ve got hidden, don’t worry."
"How do we know we can trust you?" Elsa asked.
Larry shrugged, looking untroubled. "I reckon trust’s gotta start somewhere if you want it to end up spreading. But we’ll go away again if you want."
Elsa hesitated, and glanced at Diana, who shrugged slightly. She didn’t get any sense of danger from either of them. And — there was something almost dizzying about the thought of other people, other communities after the fall and winter of isolation. Suddenly she was wildly eager to hear news from the outside world.
"Come into the farmhouse," Elsa said, and the atmosphere lightened instantly.
"Wait a moment," Larry said. "We’ve got something for you, if you’ll share in kind."
"Name lists," Kev said. His voice was much softer and shyer than his partner's. "If you’ll let us share the names of everyone here, we’ll show you who else is hereabouts."
There was something like a collective intake of breath from all around, a sudden up-surge of hope. Everyone had people they desperately wanted to be alive.
They wrote the names on one wall of the main room in the farmhouse the next day, opposite the map Neal began carefully painting of the surrounding area. He had assistance from a road atlas and a few old terrain maps Franz had turned up from some cupboard, as well as notes taken from Larry. The locations of other communities were painted bright.
Diana didn’t think it was just her who now felt several times less alone — like part of the world which had been missing was beginning to slot into place.
- - -
It rained a lot during the next couple of months, interspersed with days of bright blue sky. Julie announced her pregnancy, and George couldn’t keep from beaming every time he looked at her.
("But who’s going to be your midwife?" Neal asked her.
"Ravi can do it," Julie replied, grinning. "He says he's good at birthing sheep."
Neal had assumed she was joking. Diana didn't.)
There were more visitors. They were firmly on the map now, and after a while it became a semi-regular occurrence for some vehicle or other to pull up with updated population lists and things that they wanted to trade, from gossip to engine parts. The lists were the subject of continuous scrutiny, so much so that sometimes it seemed like it had been less painful when they could imagine that they were the only survivors, and hope for others hadn’t seemed like something real.
Diana found herself out walking in comfortable silence with Peter one evening. They were doing a circle of the fields, checking that the fences had no holes that deer could squeeze through. She walked slowly to match Peter’s asymmetric steps as he leaned heavily on his FBI cane.
"Neal wants to go off searching," he said. He was looking at the line of trees on the other side of their land that formed the horizon. The sky was growing dusky above them.
She didn’t have to ask what he would be searching for. "Alone?" she asked, instead.
"I don’t know," Peter said, quietly. "We’ve got responsibilities here — although I’m not so useful now." He didn’t indicate the cane, but she knew that he was thinking about it. "But I’d give anything to find Elizabeth. Anything."
Diana touched his arm gently. "I understand," she said. "So would everyone else."
He glanced at her. "Would you go, if we di?"
She hesitated. "I... don’t know," she admitted. "If there was a lead, something solid..."
But she wasn’t sure even then. It seemed terrible to say as much to Peter, who had commanded her loyalties for years. A voice in her head prompted her, If it was Christie...
It wasn’t, though. Christie was dead, and lying unburied in a city full of corpses.
"It’s alright," Peter said, kindly. "You can be complete here. I'm glad."
She shook her head slightly, but didn’t disagree. "I’m sorry."
"You don't need to apologise for anything. That was the point of escaping New York, wasn’t it? To find somewhere we could make a new start?"
Had it been? At the time it had been pure survival, or so it had seemed to her. Survival, and a fragile, dream-like hope that they would find Elizabeth and Mozzie safe and well, and that that would somehow make up for all they had lost. She had tried to believe that for the sake of Neal and Peter, but she wasn’t sure now that she had ever really managed to at all.
"We should start getting back," she said, aware that she hadn’t answered Peter’s question. She was also aware that he was walking more slowly, his leg clearly aching in a way that he wouldn’t admit to.
"Yeah," Peter said. He craned his neck behind him, checking the stretch of fence he had been walking past without seeing.
Diana grinned. "The fence is fine, relax."
Peter laughed. "Well, I’m glad one of us was keeping an eye out."
They lapsed into a companionable silence, surrounded by bird calls and the sound of the breeze in the budding trees. The sound of an engine rumbled down the track, fading into the distance.
"Someone going out tonight?" Peter asked.
Diana shrugged. "I didn't think so. Maybe one of our neighbours dropped by."
She opened the gate for Peter to pass through, and then latched it firmly behind them. Oddly, there was a lot of noise coming from the main yard, and they turned between the buildings towards it.
They stepped into a group of people, but barely had a chance to look around before a white-faced Neal flung himself towards them, grabbing Peter’s arm.
"Peter!" he said, urgently, and then started pulling him towards an unsettled-looking George. "Tell him," Neal demanded.
George shrugged uneasily. "I had to turn away a car just now," he said. "The woman was sick. Beginning to cough blood already."
"Describe them," Neal insisted.
George looked even more unhappy. "She was short, with brown hair. The guy driving was really small, with a bald head and glasses."
"It was Mozzie!" Neal said. His voice was on the edge of frantic. "Mozzie and Elizabeth. I’m sure of it. Peter..."
Peter was digging into the pocket of his pants to find his wallet. Diana had a moment of surprise that he still even carried one — she hadn't bothered for months, and she was pretty sure most others didn’t, either. But she stopped being surprised when the first thing in its fold was a photograph of him and El.
Peter showed it to George, his hands noticeably shaking. He had let his cane fall; Diana bent automatically to pick it up. "Is this her?" he asked. His voice was shaking too.
George stared at it, and closed his eyes for a moment in what looked like a desperate wish not to have to answer. "Yeah," he said. "Oh, hell. That's definitely her."
"And she was sick?"
George nodded. "I’m sorry..."
"Do you know where they went?" Peter demanded. "Where they were heading?"
He shook his head. "I didn’t ask."
"Mozzie probably wouldn’t have told you anyway," Neal said. He touched Peter’s arm. "We’re going after them, right?"
"Of course we are," Peter said. He glanced around distractedly. "Elsa, I need to borrow the Ford." It was the oldest and the most battered of their vehicle collection. The one the farm needed the least.
"Are you going to be able to return it?" Elsa asked, seriously. "Peter, if she’s sick already..."
"I know," Peter said. His voice was desperate; desolate. "She’s my wife, Elsa."
"Fuck," Elsa muttered, but she didn’t attempt to dissuade him. Nor Neal — he was practically vibrating in place with the barely-contained urge to be away.
"Diana?" Peter asked, quietly.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, that question, and yet it was. She had to choose. Peter understood that; but she thought by Neal’s face that it hadn’t occurred to him until that moment.
Elsa grabbed her hand, all the protests she wasn’t making to the other two there in the tightness of her grip. "Stay," she said, and abruptly leaned forward to kiss her. Diana, shocked by the suddenness of it, took a second to react — but then her eyes closed and she was kissing Elsa back. Just like she had wished for.
And she pulled away. Because her first loyalty had been to Peter for so long that it was a part of her. Elsa needed her, and the farm needed her, but this was a prior claim. She blinked away a sudden stinging in her eyes. "I’m going as well," she said.
"You don’t have to," Peter told her, his eyes anxiously searching hers. "Elsa’s right. Elizabeth could —" be dead already, along with Mozzie. Be never found. Be beyond knowing them, even if they reached her in time.
But that was exactly why she needed to be there as well. For him and Neal.
"I wouldn’t ask you to," he finished.
She managed to smile, just a little. "I know, boss."
- - -
They took too long to leave. Neal knew that they left as fast as they could, hastily packing what each of them considered essential, but it still took too long.
A heartbeat would have taken too long.
Diana was driving as the car bumped down the track. Neal had tried to object, but she had blocked him with her body from getting into the driver’s seat. "You need to look out for any sign of where they are," she had said. Which was at kinder than I don’t trust you to drive right now, if less true. So he was riding shotgun, and Peter was in the back, leaning forward into the gap between the seats so that he could better see out of the windscreen.
"How far behind them do you think we are?" Diana asked, and Neal checked his watch and fought to pull his scattered thoughts together enough to make sense of it.
"Less than an hour," he said, but found himself unable to be more precise than that. Night was coming down fast; it was well into twilight already. "They’ll go somewhere sheltered. Probably in one of the towns. Not right on the outskirts, because light would show too easily, but not far in."
Diana nodded. They were on the actual road now, and she would be breaking the speed limit if anyone had been enforcing it. "Do you think Mozzie knew to look for you around here?"
"He would have said something to George about me if he'd known that," Neal said. It could be hard to trace Mozzie’s thought processes at the best of times, and he’d gotten out of the habit. Added to that over half a year of what must have been even more sharpened paranoia... but he would have said something, for Elizabeth’s sake.
Likely, he and Elizabeth had been avoiding the settlements. They would never have seen the community lists. Neal blinked, hard, as he was assaulted by the memories he had been almost-successfully keeping at bay, all the people he couldn’t bear to think about too often for fear that dwelling on them too much would sap the hope that they were alive. And now they were too late anyway, and Elizabeth was dying...
Diana turned on the headlights, which made the evening instantly seem darker. Neal wound down his window. The draught was chilly, but he wanted as many senses as possible.
The nearest small town was only a few minutes’ tense drive away. Diana dropped the speed back down and cruised slowly along the roads as Neal and Peter stared out of opposite windows.
"Something's there!" Peter exclaimed, and Diana slammed down the brakes. "Down that street."
She turned down it. Neal drew in a sharp breath. There were thin lines of light along the the edges of the curtained windows of one house. "That’s got to be them," Neal said. He was opening the door almost before the engine stopped. "Mozzie!" he shouted. "Moz!"
"Aren’t we knocking?" Diana asked.
Neal shook his head. "If he doesn’t know who we are, he won’t answer." He turned back to the nearest window. "Mozzie!" he shouted, again.
And the front door opened in response, just a fraction at first, and then it was thrown open the rest of the way. "Neal?" Mozzie exclaimed. "That’s seriously you?"
Mozzie didn’t like to be touched, usually, but Neal started hesitantly towards him and it was Mozzie who grabbed him and pulled him into a hug. Neal squeezed him with what was probably bone-crushing tightness, but Mozzie was reciprocating and, oh god, he was alive.
"Neal, oh my god, I thought you were dead for sure," Mozzie was babbling, and then he finally looked over Neal’s shoulder and let go of him abruptly. "Suit! Oh no, no —"
"Is Elizabeth —" Neal began.
"She’s really sick," Mozzie said, desperately. "You know, though — how do you know?"
"We’ve been living at the farm up the hill," Neal said. "Where you were earlier."
"Elizabeth," Peter interrupted. "I need to see her."
"We brought first-aid supplies," Diana said. "How much do you have in there?"
There was naked relief on Mozzie's face. "Come on, come on!" he ordered, gesturing impatiently.
"Neal, help me," Diana said, and Neal hurried back to the car to grab their bags from the trunk. Peter had gone ahead with Mozzie and Neal didn't blame him one bit — he just wanted to join him as fast as possible.
Elizabeth's hair was cut short, cropped just below her ears. It was the first thing Neal noticed about her, because it was the easiest thing to notice. But then he had to see the soft restraints Mozzie had made from what looked like bathrobe belts, securing her arms to the sides of the bed-frame. She was tossing feverishly, her eyes glazed and unfocused, and there was blood around her mouth, flecks of it on her shirt where she had coughed it up.
"Elizabeth..." Peter was whispering, but she couldn't hear him.
She's going to die. The knowledge rang in Neal's head like a bell, and there was no way he could displace it. Like Ellen, like June, like Kate. She was going to die and they couldn't do anything to prevent it.
Diana pushed forwards. "We need to get her sitting up," she said.
"What?" Mozzie asked.
"She'll be able to breathe more easily. There's blood in her lungs; she can't get enough air."
Peter started towards Elizabeth. Neal stopped him with a touch on his arm. "Let me do it," he said, with a glance at the hand Peter had to keep on his cane.
Peter frowned, and then nodded reluctantly.
There was a box of latex-free gloves on a chair, and Neal pulled on a pair, and a surgical mask which Peter passed him. "Elizabeth?" he said, quietly. "I'm going to help you get more comfortable, okay?"
She was moaning softly. Diana flinched at the sound.
"Moz, I need your help," Neal said. He had expected for a second that Mozzie would need persuading to go near someone so ill, but he’d forgotten, again, the months which Mozzie and El had experienced, about which he knew nothing. Mozzie just nodded grimly, put on a mask and gloves, and went round the other side of the bed. "Can someone get more pillows? To support her?"
"There’s another bedroom next door," Mozzie said, and Diana went to fetch some. The ones she returned with were pink, with a child-like pattern of princesses on. (It was little things like that which still caught you, made your stomach twist even after all this time.)
Neal took a careful but tight hold of El’s forearm, unwinding the belt as Mozzie did the same on her other side. She made a noise of protest, beginning to struggle, but she was too worn out already to do much. He put his arm around her and pulled her up against the pile of pillows Diana was sliding into place as she began coughing violently again, shuddering against him, more blood dappling her shirt. "It’s okay," he could hear Peter murmuring. "It’s okay, El, it’s okay."
He hated re-securing her arms, but he had to. He tried to again make the restraints gentle but secure, and he couldn’t bring himself to look up at Peter until it was done and he could step away.
Elizabeth had her eyes closed now, still moving restlessly. It was hard to tell whether they’d done her any good or not. Her face was starkly pale, the flecks of blood standing out vividly.
"I just need to —" Neal said, gesturing vaguely towards the door and already moving through it.
He leaned against the wall in the hallway, pulling the mask down to take deep breaths, his hands clenched into fists until he could be sure that when he unfolded them they wouldn’t be shaking. Elizabeth's blood was on the gloves, and on noticing that he stripped them off with sickened haste.
After a minute or so he managed to go back inside, and received a small smile of solidarity from Diana, who was also very pale and leaning against the wall closest to the door.
Peter was sitting in a chair pulled up to the side of the bed — Neal thought it had probably been there before their arrival. He was also wearing gloves now, and was using a damp cloth to wipe the blood from El’s face.
"I got her to drink a bit, before," Mozzie said. "I guess we just keep trying..."
"There are some of those rehydration powders in one of the bags," Peter said. "They might help."
"Good idea." Mozzie dug around until he found them, and added one to a plastic tumbler of water. His fear was showing much less now. He’d always been far more capable under pressure than he pretended.
"Diana, do you know anything else we can do?" Peter asked.
Diana shook her head. "I’m sorry, I don’t..."
Neal took her hand, squeezing it. Maybe he had been lucky. People he loved had died, but he hadn’t had to watch it happen slowly before.
Minutes ticked past slowly, turning into hours. Neal passed out food to everyone at one point, but then hadn’t felt like he could eat any himself. It was very late, but going to sleep wasn’t an option either. Mozzie and Peter remained in chairs on either side of El, and he switched with them occasionally, taking a turn to dab a cloth against El’s lips as she coughed, or trying to get her to drink.
She was dying. Neal knew she was dying. The horror, the inevitability of it kept making him feel like there wasn’t enough air in the room, and he found himself pacing restlessly up and down the hall, and then, when the rest of the house too felt too cramped and stifling, up and down the driveway where he could at least breathe.
And then he came back inside, and she was dead.
Peter was leaning over her when Neal came into the room, tenderly stroking her cropped hair, and Neal’s chest locked up with the sudden realisation as he stared at her. Then the room blurred and spun, and he was stumbling back out again, unable to breathe, unable to do anything except obey the deep-rooted instinct shouting at him to run, run. Get out.
The night air outside was barely better, thick and hot and smothering, and he felt dizzy, his head pounding. He lurched to one side, only just catching himself against the car, and then he found himself walking, stumbling down the road. Run. Run.
His head felt worse and worse, like it was splitting open, and the tight, painful pressure in his chest became a coughing jag which he couldn’t stop. He slipped down to his knees, his face close to the ground as he kept coughing. By the time it was finally over his eyes were watering, and his vision was wavering badly. And on the pale paving stones there was blood.
I need help, he realised, but he had no idea where he was.
It was the last coherent thought he had.
- - -
There was an unreal feeling to the night. Diana had been shaken out of an uncomfortable sleep, sitting against the wall with a blanket around her shoulders, by Mozzie agitatedly telling her that Neal was missing.
It didn’t feel like she’d really woken up yet.
She still wasn’t sure they should be leaving Peter alone right now. But Peter had insisted on it; voice hoarse with exhaustion, eyes reddened. They needed to find Neal.
The blood on the sidewalk only confirmed what they had already been sure of.
"Why on earth did he wander off?" Mozzie demanded. "I mean, I know why, obviously, it’s because he’s Neal, but —"
Diana shook her head silently, swinging the beam of her flashlight to light up the fronts of the buildings, and the gaps between them. She had almost forgotten what Mozzie’s nervous babble was like, and at the same time it was so familiar that she might have last heard it yesterday.
"...he could just say something, if we find him and he’s — When we find him, I’m going to be so mad!"
"Neal!" Diana called. "Are you there?"
"We thought you were dead," Mozzie said, abruptly, and it took Diana a second to realise that he was speaking to her, rather than to himself or to an absent Neal. "If we’d tried looking harder for you..."
"You couldn’t have known we were out here," Diana said. "I mean, we didn’t know we’d end up here."
Mozzie shook his head angrily. He was too agitated to be mollified, even slightly. "We need to find him."
"We’re going to," Diana tried to promise, although she couldn’t convince herself of it. It was a night of disasters; this was simply the latest one, and they hadn’t been able to turn the previous ones aside. "How far could he have got, anyway?"
"It’s Neal," Mozzie said, as if that was enough of an answer. It probably was. And there were too many ways he could have branched off, or hidden. Maybe it would have been more sensible to have split up to search, but after everything that had happened she didn’t want to be by herself, and so she hadn’t suggested it.
"Neal!" she shouted, again, and swung her flashlight in a circle around them.
"Neal!" But the tone in Mozzie’s voice was different, and a second later he set off running. She jogged after him.
If she’d been by herself she might not even have spotted him, wedged into a tight space between a low-boughed tree and the wall it was growing towards. He flinched from the flashlight beam when it fell on his face, bleaching any remaining colour from it, but he didn’t otherwise react to their presence even as Mozzie crouched down in front of him.
"Careful," Diana said, quietly. She figured Mozzie must have also seen enough people infected by the virus to know what she was warning him of.
But Neal didn’t blindly attack in apparent panic or rage. His reaction was more muted, like Elizabeth’s. He was shivering, and moving restlessly in an almost constant motion, pressing himself further back between bark and stone.
"Neal?" Mozzie asked.
"He’s not seeing us," Diana said.
"He has to, though," Mozzie said, with muted desperation. "Neal, come on, I only just found you again. Don’t do this to me."
Diana felt overwhelmed with helplessness. What were they supposed to do? Drag him back to the appropriated house, to tie him down like Elizabeth? But equally they couldn’t leave him here, in the cold spring night.
And he was a biological hot zone right now. There was no doubt that he’d been passed the infection from Elizabeth, and he could easily pass it to one of them.
"Do you think he’d let us move him?" she asked Mozzie.
He shrugged, not turning his head.
Right. Time for her to take a turn at coming up with a reckless plan. "Stay here with him," she said, and Mozzie finally glanced round, to raise his eyebrows and give her an are you kidding? look. "I’ll be back in a minute."
She picked the third house down, not wanting to startle Neal with the noise of her smashing a window with a rock. If he noticed. She knocked the jagged shards of glass out of the frame before climbing carefully in. More glass crunched under her shoes.
This house had been occupied when the virus hit. She turned her eyes from the shape on the couch — once a corpse, before that a living person, now just desiccated clothes and bones. Another was slumped against the wall, amid a mess of things knocked from shelves.
Upstairs she quickly found what she was looking for, and climbed out again with the thick blanket.
"Do you have any spare masks with you?" she asked Mozzie, and he pulled one out of his pocket, still in its pack.
He saw what she wanted to do immediately. "Let me," he said, and she couldn’t not.
He shuffled forwards, slowly. "Hey, Neal," he said. "We need to put this on you, okay?"
Neal didn’t resist as Mozzie slipped the mask very slowly onto his face. He didn’t seem to notice it was there.
"You’re burning up," Mozzie said, touching the backs of his gloved fingers against Neal’s cheek for a moment. "Come on, let’s get you out of here."
Neal flinched away as Mozzie tried to pull him up, jerking frantically, but he had already pinned himself into the gap and couldn’t go anywhere.
"He can’t understand you," Diana said. She pushed herself in beside Mozzie. "Look, we have to pull him out of there anyway."
"I don’t want to hurt him."
"We’re not going to." She couldn’t really promise that, but they couldn’t just stay like this. And she was used to being the one pushing the course of action that other people were uncomfortable with. "I need you to help me, though."
He nodded reluctantly, and as she took hold of Neal at his arm and shoulder Mozzie did the same on his other side. Together they pulled Neal up out of the gap, and Diana held him upright as Mozzie wound the blanket tightly around him, pinning his arms and covering the drying blood on his clothes.
Neal was already swaying as Mozzie helped Diana support him. "Neal?" he said. "We’re going to walk just a little way now, okay? Back to Peter. Can you do that?"
He can’t hear you, Diana nearly said again, brusquely, but bit her lip in time. It wasn’t fair of her.
Neal managed to stay on his feet with the two of them on either side to propel him along, his steps small and shuffling. Heat was rolling off him alarmingly.
Diana still didn’t feel like she’d woken up.
- - -
Neal knew that he was underwater; he was drowning. Each breath filled his lungs with thick fluid, and when he coughed there was the warm taste of blood in his mouth.
He was frightened. His surroundings were dark and writhed like weeds.
Voices swelled in waves around him. Sometimes they were voices that he knew, and sometimes not, and sometime they were the sounds made by things out of nightmares. He flinched away from them but he couldn’t get up, he couldn’t run any further.
He was drowning.
There were shapes in front of him that might have been faces, and if he concentrated he thought that he would be able to tell for sure — but he was also afraid of what else they might be, so he didn’t. They could be the wrong faces, ones he’d run from before, greedy hands reaching out to grasp him and then becoming weeds again, white bone-fingers caught in them.
His arms were pinned. They had been for a while, maybe; he hadn’t noticed. He wriggled, and then flailed desperately like a stranded fish, but the air or water around him hot and thick as syrup, and he couldn’t break free. All he could do was drift.
Unfocused images burst like bubbles in front of him as a current dragged him along. Dark and light and then far too much light, stabbing and blinding. He cried out in pain and that made him choke again, tasting blood, and then he realised his hands were bound from wrist to forearm and that tipped him over into blind panic. He struggled desperately, and maybe he was screaming, but then there was pressure on him, hands holding him down and he couldn’t breathe...
- - -
Diana clenched her jaw against the desperate sounds Neal was making as Mozzie tied his arms methodically to the bedframe. There was naked terror on his face — she had never seen that expression on him before.
"There," Mozzie said, finally straightening up. He looked at Neal, and bit his lip.
"Can he get out of them?" Diana asked.
"Not in this state."
Diana nodded, but felt far from happy. It felt barbaric, tying him down. He wasn’t dangerous... except that he was, right now, no matter what his intent would be.
Neal began coughing again, blood from the lining of his lungs speckling his lips. Diana and Mozzie were both wearing masks again, but they still stayed well back. She could see Mozzie flinch at each cough — his germaphobe instincts were hating this. But he still stayed, as he had stayed with Elizabeth.
Once, she wouldn't have believed it of him.
Neal's coughing finished, and he slumped back against the pillows, shivering slightly and huddling into himself. His half-lidded eyes were glassy, and they occasionally flicked around without finding a focus.
Mozzie reached for a damp cloth, carefully wiping the blood from Neal's face. "Hold on, Neal," he murmured. "Keep fighting." But Neal gave no reaction to him.
"I’ll go check on Peter," Diana said. She patted the quilt over Neal’s leg, a gesture of comfort that did more for herself than for him.
Mozzie glanced round indecisively, like he thought he should be doing that too, but he wasn’t going to leave Neal. Not right now, when Neal was struggling weakly against his bonds and making little moaning noises filled with fear. She, too, left the room reluctantly.
But Peter needed her, too, and Elizabeth... Exhausted, Peter was leaning against the intersection of the chair back and the wall, a gloved hand carefully cradling the side of Elizabeth’s head. Diana kept her footsteps quiet as she approached, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Do you need anything?" she asked, softly.
He shook his head. "How’s Neal?"
"Not good," she said, and couldn’t elaborate further than that.
Peter nodded. There were deep-gouged lines of pain on his face. "I can’t leave El on her own," he said. "Would you —"
"Of course. I’ll sit with her." She stepped aside for Peter to stand stiffly, balancing his weight between his good leg and the support of the chair arm until he’d got his cane into place. He was in obvious pain, but she knew he wouldn’t admit to it even if she pressed him. He looked down at Elizabeth uncertainly. "Peter, go," Diana said.
"Thanks," he murmured, and she let herself drop into the seat he’d vacated. It felt like she hadn’t sat down for hours, and she realised that she actually hadn’t. Her legs hurt. Most of her hurt, in fact, but a lot of the pain stemmed from inside her; fear and grief and worry all churning inside her chest.
Elizabeth was very still, head tipped slightly to one side against the pillows, hair smoothed away from her pale face. It was all too easy to believe that she was dead, and Diana had to look for the slight motion of El’s ribcage rising and falling to reassure herself. She slipped her fingers into El’s.
They had unbound her. Her fever was falling. She was recovering. It still seemed like something Diana could barely allow herself to believe.
There was a faint twitch of movement through her hand. Diana drew in a sharp breath, and leaned urgently forward. "Elizabeth? Can you hear me?"
A minuscule flicker of her eyelids, and then the motion was gone. But it was enough to send Diana to her feet, and hurry into the other bedroom.
Peter looked up instantly from where he was sitting next to Neal, his eyes widening. "What is it? Is she okay?"
"I think she’s waking up," Diana told him, breathlessly.
Peter was moving without another word, as fast as his uneven steps could take him. Mozzie beamed, and then turned back to Neal. "You hear that?" he said, quietly. "Elizabeth’s beaten this thing, so you can too. You’d better." He glanced at Diana. "He’s tough, you know."
Diana felt an odd, out-of-place stab of jealousy. Of course I know, I’ve been with him these past months. She’d travelled with him, and laboured beside him, and stitched his skin together. She moved around to the other side of the bed, perching on the nightstand for want of a better seat. "He is."
Mozzie looked at her with an expression that she suddenly realised must mirror hers. Jealousy — he would have been missing Neal during those months every bit as fiercely as Neal had been missing him.
"Neal," she said, "You’ve got to get better, okay? Look how far Mozzie and El came to find us."
He still can’t hear you, a part of her brain reminded her, but she mentally told it to shut up. She couldn’t know that.
"He will," Mozzie said, and it was the same tone of voice that Neal had used every time he had talked about him and Elizabeth still being alive. "He has to."
She couldn’t argue with that.
- - -
He floated somewhere in the dark, underwater. Too warm, or maybe cold.
Something cool was pressing against his face. "Neal, can you hear me?"
His eyelids were too heavy to lift. He remembered drowning, but couldn’t stay afloat.
Blurs of faces.
"Are you waking up?"
"Come on, show me that you’re in there."
He was shivering. Something heavy and warm was being tucked over him, by hands that suddenly stilled.
"...hi," he whispered, and then fell asleep again.
Faces. He blinked, and they swam into view.
"Hey. There you are." Peter’s hand was cool against his cheek.
He blinked again, and breathed. His lungs ached, and his head, and all the rest of him.
"How’re you feeling?" Peter asked.
"Tired," Neal whispered.
Peter smiled crookedly at him. He looked exhausted, eyes deeply shadowed. "You’ll feel better soon," he said. "Rest."
He didn’t have much of a choice.
- - -
Dreams of dark water receded but the sensation of drowning didn’t; the wrenching, choking coughing fit was all too real.
"Lean forward," Mozzie ordered, and held Neal’s shoulders as he coughed up mucus streaked with clots of dried blood, half-retching it into a plastic bowl which Mozzie had shoved into his lap. "You’re going to be okay."
Neal nodded weakly, struggling to catch his breath. "Moz?" he croaked.
Mozzie eased him back carefully against the pile of pillows. "Welcome back."
Neal closed his eyes, already tired. "What happened? I don’t remember..."
He trailed off, opening his eyes abruptly as his head spun.
"Neal?" Mozzie gripped his arm anxiously. "Neal, look at me. What is it?"
"Elizabeth," Neal whispered. There had been very little in him to begin with, but he could feel what was left draining away. His breathing was far too fast.
"Neal!" Mozzie’s voice was sharper, cutting through the vertigo. "She’s okay."
Neal gaped, staring at him stupidly. But she was dead...
"Come on, breathe," Mozzie ordered, and coaxed Neal through several deep breaths, and then the round of coughing that they generated. "Geez, Neal, you look awful."
Neal slumped heavily back, dizzy and spent. "She’s alive?" he asked. It was much harder to talk than it should have been.
"Very much so," Mozzie confirmed, as Neal desperately searched his face to see if he was telling the truth. But this wasn’t something Mozzie would be able to lie about, and certainly not well.
"Neal!" Mozzie snapped. "Stop talking. Do you realise how close you were to dying yourself? You need to calm down!"
Neal opened his mouth, and shut it again at Mozzie’s renewed glare.
"Good," Mozzie said, more gently. He pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes with the back of his hand, and Neal suddenly realised how exhausted he looked.
"What day is it?" he asked.
Mozzie glanced over at the curtained window as if the answer would be written there. "One of them," he said. "You should probably try and go back to sleep. Your body’s got a lot of healing to do."
Neal nodded reluctantly, but he didn’t think he’d be able to keep his eyes open much longer in any case. "But everyone’s okay?" he mumbled.
Mozzie pressed his hand briefly. "Everyone’s okay. I promise." His voice had turned very gentle. "We’re all okay."
We’re all okay. We’re all together.
- - -
When Diana finally woke up from her first proper sleep in what felt like forever, it was to find that the last few days had all blended together into a haze of exhaustion and fear. She'd barely slept during them except for haphazardly-timed naps. Now they felt strangely distant, as if it had happened a long time ago.
She couldn't really be sorry for the way her brain was preventing her from dwelling on the details.
She was stiff as she swung her legs down off the couch, pushing away the blanket. Her stomach growled as she stretched, but she ignored it in favour of heading upstairs.
"In here," a low voice called as she reached the landing, and she turned into Neal's room to find Elizabeth sitting cross-legged on the quilt, wearing a sweater over pyjamas which had been looted from a wardrobe. Neal was also sitting upright, alert and animated.
"Hey," Diana said, and took the chair. "Plotting your escape already?"
"Peter's asleep," Elizabeth said, the corner of her mouth tilting up into a fond smile. "Hopefully for at least ten more hours."
"He needs it," Diana agreed. "I hope Mozzie's doing the same."
"I told him to," Neal said. "He was actually tired enough to listen. No idea where he went, though."
El laughed. "God, I can't believe we really found you," she said. "We didn't even know if you'd managed to leave the city." She sighed. "I didn't believe it, when I woke up with Peter there."
Neal reached for her hand. She gripped it tightly and then smiled at Diana, including her in their happiness at being reunited.
"What happened to Peter's leg?" El asked, after a moment.
Neal recounted the story, having to pause often to sip water or to cough. The insides of his lungs, and El's too, had been badly ripped up, and were still healing. Diana found herself thinking about lasting effects on breathing, and the increased potential for infections. They would both have to be so much more careful.
She came back to the present to realise that Neal had stopped talking, and El was pressing a sleeve against her eyes. "I'm not crying," she insisted. "I'm not."
There was a silvery scar running down one side of El's neck, visible beneath her short hair. She was leaner than Diana remembered; harder. They all were. (She had cried bitterly, though, when telling them that Satchmo had died during the winter.)
"We’re running a little low on food," Diana said, addressing Neal, giving El time to recover. "This house has got a pretty well-stocked pantry, but in a day or two we’ll either have to go scavenging or go back to the farm."
Neal looked up sharply. "You don’t think El and I would be dangerous there?"
She shook her head. "If you were still infectious we’d all be sick by now. I think we’re safe to go back. That is, I assume we’re all going back?"
She was looking at El now. She hadn’t asked, yet, if they had found themselves a community of their own to attach themselves to.
"We’ve been moving around, just the two of us," El said, recognising what Diana was asking. "Having somewhere to stay sounds... amazing."
"You’ll like it," Neal assured her. "It’s a great place. Nothing like the city, of course..."
He trailed away into silence, and swallowed.
This time it was El who reached for him in comfort. "I’m looking forward to seeing it," she said.
- - -
It was a day and a half before they headed out, piling into the two vehicles. Neal, Peter and Elizabeth were in one car, and Mozzie and Diana were in the other. This had the advantage of making sure each was driven by someone who knew the local roads, but did mean that Diana ended up hearing far more statistics about disaster response programs and the failure thereof than she had ever really wanted to know, particularly since the data was of such limited use in the current circumstances.
She let Mozzie talk, though. This was the first time while awake that he’d been far from both Elizabeth and Neal, and he clearly was unhappy and anxious about it. The least she could do was let him rattle off this information.
Neither he or El had talked much yet about what had happened during the past months. Diana had tried to imagine having just one other person to rely on, and no real goal to hope and aim for, and wasn’t surprised that it had taken its toll.
Like having the woman you loved die in your arms. Like having your tentatively-established home ripped away again. They were all scarred.
And in any case, news of the wider world was something she could never get enough of. Mozzie had plenty of rumours. More communities were connecting with each other, across greater distances, building a fragile web of communication that would stretch across the country again given time. The infrastructure still existed, in many cases relatively undamaged. They just needed to coordinate, and find enough people with training and skills that could be utilised and passed on.
"What about the virus, though?" Diana asked when Mozzie paused for breath. "People are really wary around here of mixing with strangers, in case they’re carrying it. Isn't it the same in other places?"
"The virus is evolving," Mozzie said, and at her sharp look he shrugged. "What? Why do you think Neal and Elizabeth aren’t both dead right now? The most virulent strain blasted right through its herd population, and now it needs to settle down if it doesn’t want to die along with all its carriers."
She raised an eyebrow at his apparent nonchalance. "You make it sound inevitable."
"Biologically, yes, or else it would just go extinct along with us." He looked sidelong at her. "It’s only statistically less virulent now, though. The people it kills are still dead; it’s just that they're a much lower proportion."
She nodded. "You’ve thought about this a lot."
He shrugged, and looked away from her out of the window. She didn’t press him.
In any case, there wasn’t time, because she was already turning up the well-worn track. An unfamiliar emotion was flooding through her as she recognised each rise and fall of the tree line, and the way the clump of buildings came into view one by one.
Home. I’m home.
"What do you think?" she asked Mozzie, knowing she was beaming.
"It’s very... rural..." he said, his tone doubtful, but his eyes were trying to take in everything at once like an excited child.
Diana laughed as she parked the car. "I’m sure you’ll get used to it."
A face appeared at one of the nearest windows, and the farmhouse door opened as Diana climbed out of the car, motioning Mozzie to stay put. Peter was just pulling into the yard.
"We’re safe," Diana called. They had thrown away everything that had been in contact with Neal and Elizabeth while they had been ill, and they’d all scrubbed down thoroughly before leaving the house.
Elsa moved forward at that. "How certain are you?"
Diana reported their self-imposed quarantine, and the additional measures they’d taken to avoid bringing infectious material back with them, and Elsa nodded warily. "If we put you all in one of the cabins for another two days, would that be okay?"
"Seems fair enough," Diana said. She certainly wasn’t sorry for the opportunity to force both Neal and Elizabeth to stay still and recuperate for a while longer, even if she was chafing at the thought of more isolation. But she could wait.
Elsa nodded, her face relaxing into the smile she'd forced herself to repress. "I guess you can let everyone out of the cars, then."
Mozzie slipped over to help Neal out of the backseat of Peter’s car without pausing for an introduction. Elsa studied Neal anxiously, only partly mollified by the reassuring smile he shot her — it was very tired around the edges.
"You must be Elsa," Elizabeth said. She was leaning on Peter, but still managed to show how delightedly she was drinking in her surroundings.
"And you’re Elizabeth," Elsa said, turning to her. "My god, I can’t believe they actually found you."
"Technically, we did the actual finding," Mozzie interjected.
"You did not! We found you," Neal retorted.
Diana rolled her eyes, and hoped this subject wouldn’t be a recurring theme over the next two days. She caught Elsa watching her, and smiled back. "So, I guess we need to talk," she said, quietly.
"Guess we do," Elsa said back, just as quietly. Diana had a strong urge to reach out and take her hand, but settled for beaming every time their eyes met.
She could wait.
- - -
Two nights later, the wind whispering in the trees outside, Diana lay in the dark with her body close against the warmth of Elsa’s and their breathing rising and falling together.
She didn’t realise that she was about to start crying until there were already too many tears for her to be able to stop.
"What is it?" Elsa asked. "What’s the matter?"
Diana shook her head against Elsa’s shoulder. "I don’t know," she whispered.
Elsa smoothed Diana’s tear-wet cheeks with her fingers, and stroked Diana’s hair gently. She didn’t tell her not to cry. There was too much to cry for. All the people who had died along the way, all the friends whose fate they would never know, all the times their loved ones had been close to death.
Diana thought maybe, too, she was crying for the final loss of her old self, her old life. A catharsis. Her tears were heavy, but with each one that rolled away she seemed to feel a little lighter.
Elsa held her until all of her tears were exhausted, making quiet sounds of sympathy. "It’s okay," she murmured. "It’s okay."
It was dark, and the wind in the trees was like a lullaby, wrapping softly around them.
Diana pressed a kiss to Elsa’s skin. "I know," she whispered. "We’re home now."
- - -
The days grew longer and warmer, sprinkled with the last of the spring rains. They were sowing the late crops between showers, which was the last thing Neal had ever imagined himself doing. He had tried to protest that he wasn’t any good at gardening, but Diana had rolled her eyes and said, You’re just throwing seeds at mud, Neal, how good do you need to be? and Pretend you’re Jackson Pollock, which was such an epic level of wrong that Neal couldn’t even think of a good retort.
("April is the cruellest month," Mozzie had quipped from a corner, where he was fiddling with some mess of electronics.
"Time is an illusion. And besides, it’s only just May.")
Pausing at one end of the field for a breather, Neal recognised the clutching tightness in his chest that meant it was time to stop. (He’d tried to push through it, the first time, and shortly thereafter had blinked his eyes open dizzily to find he was lying in the mud with Peter kneeling over him, paper-white. It wasn’t an experience he cared to repeat.)
"You okay?" Julie called. She had a hand raised to shield her eyes from the sun, the other resting on the growing swell of her stomach.
Neal waved in affirmation. "Heading back," he called in reply.
She gestured him agreeably away.
Mozzie was trying to make a radio work, which seemed to have become his perennial project. There was a rumour that someone over west had set up a transmitter and was broadcasting regional updates; the fact that this was wholly unconfirmed and that therefore there was really no way to know whether Mozzie’s radio was working or not appeared to be an attraction of the project for him, rather than a drawback. It was a break from doing things with immediate, measurable results.
"Strip these for me," he said, as soon as Neal came in, shoving a tangle of wires his way.
Neal flicked open his pocket knife as he dropped into a cross-legged position on the floor, obediently beginning to work on the plastic tubing. "What are these for?"
"Annika found a building with solar panels. We can get ourselves a water-heating system set up here."
Mozzie was enjoying himself these days, and wasn’t even bothering to hide it. Neal nodded at the radio. "Any luck?"
"Not yet," Mozzie said, airily. "It’s just a matter of time, though." Reminded, he pulled it over to idly begin fiddling with it, frowning. "Neal, you’ve heard the rumours, haven’t you?"
Given the small size of their community, it was all but a given. "Which ones do you mean?"
"That there are more people than we thought still alive in the areas which were evacuated or locked-down early on. Some of them are beginning to trickle out."
"Mmm." Neal tried to concentrate on stripping the wires, rather than the flutter in his chest at the thought. "They’re unconfirmed rumours, don’t forget. And about fifth-hand." With spring had come far too many insubstantial whispers already, born of hope and wishful thinking.
Mozzie frowned at him, wanting a different reaction. "Neal —"
The apparatus in his hands suddenly squawked out a burst of static. Mozzie almost dropped it in his excitement. "It’s working!"
Neal was grinning delightedly. "Is there anything good on?"
There didn’t seem to be anyone broadcasting, even though they spent over an hour trying to tune it. Still, it was a start.
- - -
They had visitors every few days now, trading in goods (the jars of preserved fruit for hens was a particularly good deal, despite their uncanny knack for always getting underfoot in the yard) and swapping wild and unconfirmed rumours for payment in kind.
Neal listened to them all. Several large cities burned down over the winter, with no one to stop them... Colonies of zoo-escaped animals were establishing themselves... Some factories were beginning to churn again, slowly, machinery powered manually or by wind or water... What was left of the government had been ousted in hunger-fuelled riots... There were still people living in New York City, which everyone had assumed to be lost...
They had finished planting now. Harvest was months away, and there was an itch in Neal when he looked to the horizon. His lungs were gradually recovering; he and Elizabeth had taken to jogging together each morning, slowly, building back lost stamina.
She and Mozzie had still barely spoken about what they’d been through. But then, no one spoke about the past all that much. There was before, which was so distant and remote that it hardly felt real, and there was everything which had happened since the farm community had been established. But the time between, the transition, was a raw wound. A trauma shared and separate at the same time. Too much had been lost to really comprehend.
Still people living in New York City...
- - -
In the end, the discussion were more straightforward than Neal had expected. They were of one mind. Except for Diana.
And so now everyone they'd come to know was gathered in the yard in front of the farmhouse on a bright, sunny morning, while Peter slung the last bag into the trunk of the car they’d fought about taking from the small town in Connecticut a lifetime ago.
"Are you sure you’re not coming?" Mozzie asked Diana. A pleading note crept into his tone. "It’s not like this is a one-way trip."
Diana shook her head firmly. "I know, but I can’t go back there. I don’t want to go back." She reached for Elsa’s hand, standing next to her.
Mozzie looked like he was ready to keep arguing, but a frown from Peter stopped him. Diana had more than thought about her choice.
Elizabeth hugged Diana tightly. "We’ll miss you," she said. "But we’ll be back before you know it."
"You’d better be," Elsa said. "We’ll need all of you in the fall. And we'll happily take any extra hands you happen to pick up."
Diana laughed, dashing her sleeve across her eyes. "You'd better listen to her," she said. "Come back."
"We wouldn’t dare not to," Peter promised, and wrapped her in a one-armed hug, mindful of his cane.
"You take care, boss."
"I’m not that anymore," Peter protested, but she just laughed, still blinking tears back.
Mozzie’s goodbyes were given too quietly for anyone else to catch, and then Neal was the last person to hug Diana in farewell, trying not to let his eyes water too much himself. For once he couldn't find any words. They’d said everything to each other already, once he’d given up trying to convince her to join him.
"Stay safe," she ordered, her voice only wavering very slightly.
"We will," he promised. "And we'll be back before you know it, like El said."
They'd already said their goodbyes to the others, but well-wishes were still being called out as Neal climbed into the passenger seat, rolling down the window so that he could wave out of it. Elsa, Julie, George, Matt, Ravi...
And New York was somewhere ahead, and even though he should probably have lost hope by now that anyone he knew there was still alive, he hadn’t. June could surely have made it, if anyone could. Hughes. Jones. Maybe someday they’d hear from Sara, too, and Alex.
He was racing ahead of himself, he knew. But after all, they had come through — battered, and scarred, but they had survived. Just then, anything seemed possible.
They drove east, towards the sun.