It wasn’t like he’d ever been fastidious, but the cracked, brittle layers of ash and grime and dried blood coating his body were breaking him. He couldn’t think - he could feel the outline of his skin and it was too small a casing for his thoughts. His heart was ice.
Cassius slouched against the wall of a house - a dingy pile of bricks but it had steel bars on every window and the woman inside had unlocked at least four deadbolts before opening the door. Those were the things that mattered in the end days. The double-barrel shotgun in his hands felt comfortable now and he automatically scanned the street, guarding their backs as Portia negotiated with the woman inside.
“You owe Brutus a debt, and since he isn’t here to collect I’m claiming a favour instead,” his lover’s wife was saying.
“I owed that scumbag a debt because his interest was 47%.”
“You knew the terms when you signed.”
He rolled himself onto his right shoulder so he could stare at the woman in the doorway - large, corpulent, and stinking of fear-sweat. “What about doing a favour for Brutus’ murderer?”
Portia flinched and he was glad.
Donnatella smirked. “That’s a different matter. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Tell me, was it painful?”
“I have no doubt it was unbearably painful,” he said
Portia didn’t turn to face him. The tendons in her neck stood out against her umber skin.
“Well, my home’s your home; my deadbolts your deadbolts until further notice.” The woman threw back her arm expansively, opening the doorway. “But you got to tell me all about it - let me get you a beer. I want to know details, stranger. The eye-witness account. Did you do it by hand to his face or creep up from behind like he did Caesar?”
“I had nothing to do with it,” said Cassius, letting his shoulder knock Portia out of the way, just enough so she would feel it, as he entered the house. “It was her.”
She stood with a gun levelled at his forehead. Only disintegrating the frontal lobe or severing the brain stem meant anything to the virus.
“Remember the time we went to the seaside?” Brutus said. “You wore a yellow sunhat, Cassius wouldn’t keep his shirt on.”
“And he won you a stuffed seahorse.” She found the rejoinder through sheer strength of will, her voice quiet (half-strangled by the pressure in her chest) but firm. “When you tried to slip it to me, he pouted for two hours straight.”
There was a wounded sound from the corner of the room - a huge warehouse, easily defensible with space to move. Good soundproofing.
Her husband held her eyes and kept smiling gently. "He wasn't pouting later when we-"
"Brutus, there's only so much of the reminiscing I can take. Don't push it." Her hand didn't tremble though. She made sure of it.
"Then don't reminisce, just know that I love you. Both of you."
Cassius wouldn't stop making those helpless, useless noises.
"I know," she said.
“I always have, and I always will.”
“Yes, I know. I love you too.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever loved you, both of you, as much as the night Caesar fell.”
“Don’t. Please, don’t.” She couldn’t tell if it was her or Cassius who spoke.
“Others will see it as the beginning of the end, but to me it was the highest height we ever reached. I flew, you two at my side.”
“Stop.” This time it was definitely Cassius as he crashed into her, pulling her arm and the gun down.
They struggled, aching muscles tearing, grimy, sweaty flesh to flesh. She got the gun up a few inches and he forced it back down, wrapping his arms around her pinioning them.
“Cassius, please, stop,” he husband pleaded with his lover. He reached out a hand, stroking Cassius’ wild, tangled hair. “It has to be this way.”
“No, Brutus, we’ll find a cure.” He lifted one hand to cling to Brutus’. His distraction was brief but long enough.
Portia jerked her arm up and fired six rounds into her husband’s skull.
“You need to stop telling people that,” she said.
They had been graciously offered separate bedrooms since Donnatella’s house boasted three bedrooms by dint of a dividing wall with the solidity of tissue paper. He had been able to hear Portia through the wall, the thud of her duffel bag hitting the ground, her restless steps as she tested the locks on the door and window casements. He should have left, while he knew where she was and wouldn’t have to see her. Gone and got a shower, scrubbed himself clean, tried to thaw.
But instead he had sat on his bed, back against the partition, limp and cotton-brained, even when he felt her weight bow the wall next to him.
“It’s the truth,” he reminded her, taking weary pleasure from it.
“You make it sound like I had a choice.”
There was silence from the other side of the wall.
“You did, Portia.”
From the living room, he could hear a radio. "... the Avenue through to the Coliseum are gone ... safe houses near the port ... don't know who's out on the Harbour but they're not letting any by ships through ... quarantined on whose authority? There is no Senate ... and Brutus says he's an honorable man..."
How did they not know he was dead? The world had stopped turning the moment Portia's gun fired, the sky fallen in a trash of comets and fire. He'd felt it.
"Cassius, you're making this all much harder than it needs to be."
“How dare you,” he hissed.
“I lost him too.”
“Neither of us lost him. You murdered him and I had him stolen from me.”
“There was no other way, you infantile bastard. Brutus was bitten.”
“But he wasn’t sick yet!”
And that was the crux of it: could they have held onto Brutus for another day, days, a month, more? She had burnt the bridge between them while he had still believed it sound, and now the chasm only grew deeper and wider and more dangerous.
They could have found a cure in the time left - he believed that. And he could have made Brutus believe it with him if she had just given him the damn time to do it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him.
Brutus looked up from the map of the city he had been studying. It was littered with crosses marking razed buildings and known nests of the undead. Then, tellingly, he checked to see if Cassius was in the room. “Nothing.”
“So the walks are just for your health? Stealing from bed, daring the rheumy, unpurged air - nothing we should worry about.”
Portia looked down into his eyes, weighing his sincerity. Finally she shrugged and pulled a chair over, metal legs scraping harshly over the concrete floor. She straddled it and pulled her knife from the sheath at the small of her back. “Alright, let’s do it like this.”
Leaning on the back of the chair, she presented the knife for his inspection. The edge was wicked sharp but the metal was dull and crusted with stains. “There is something seriously wrong and to show how serious I am, I will seriously stab this knife into my thigh. I haven’t cleaned it since our last run in with the zombies, and all those contagions will end up swimming in my bloodstream so you better seriously consider what your next couple of words are going to be.”
He considered. “That’d make two of us.”
The knife fell from her numb fingers. First there might have been great stab of pain to her heart, but it was lost in the rolling white waves of numbness that followed, spilling out from that desperately pumping organ to her extremities.
“Portia. Love.” She barely felt his hand cupping her cheek.
The other reached for his trouser leg, pulling it up. Just above the protection of his boot teeth marks scored his flesh. They looked almost clean - of course he would have tried to fix himself, not wanting to worry them.
“We’ll find a way to stop it,” she said. “He was making a cure along with the virus wasn’t he, that guy, with the weird name, whoever the fuck he was? We can figure out how to break into his lab, we can do that, Brutus.”
“Love.” His thumb stroked her cheek with terrible tenderness. “There’s only one way this ends, you know that. You need to do it. Cassius can’t.”
“Brutus, he’ll hate me. He’ll despise me and blame me and he’ll be right to.”
“No, my darling - the blame’s not yours. You need to be the strongest of us all. You fought for me once, fight again.”
“This feels like giving up.”
“Funny. To me it feels like saving the people I love best in the world.”
“Keep your voice down,” was Portia’s cool reply. “Do you want that woman to know all our business?”
“Do I want her to know the truth about you? I want the world to know.”
“That’s not fair.”
“We’re way past fair. Nothing in the past month has been fair.”
“Then can’t we carve a small space between us that is?” The wall at Cassius’ back pulled back as her weight was removed, and her voice when it came again felt closer. “We’re hurting each other needlessly. We only have ourselves-”
“Who’s fault is that,” he spat.
“Cassius,” she continued quietly, steadily. “We only have ourselves and that should count for something. No one survives in this world if they try to go it alone. You need someone to watch your back, and we’ve got a history of being able to do that. Furthermore,” (for an instant the image of Portia before Ceasar’s fall, all lawyered-up and incisive, superimposed the constant in his mind, the mask of her face as she stared down at Brutus’ lifeless body) “it gives us greater options - places we can go, people we can call on, favours made due. And, damn it, Cassius, Brutus never wanted us hurting like this - you know it. Can’t you just accept it?”
“You know what I hate most,” he said, “about you?”
There was a long, long silence.
“Fuck you, Cassius,” she said without heat. “Whatever, tell me. Just do it.”
“Your reaction. You jumped too quickly to the final solution, but it wasn’t that, or the fact that you had made the decision before I even knew, it was how you stood there after like a block, a stone.”
“That’s not how it was.” Her voice if anything turned colder, a furious, arctic cold.
“You stood there having murdered him in cold blood,” Cassius hissed, “and you did nothing, your face was nothing, your soul is nothing. Have you shed one tear?”
“I’ve done what needed to be done,” she said.
After firing six rounds into her husband’s skull, Portia held herself together for the two minutes it took for Cassius to turn his back on her with sickening finality as she laid out Brutus’ body, then to go up the steel staircase that bordered the warehouse floor and enter the supervisor’s office. Her tears started as she locked the door, and became great sobs as she curled up on her side under the dust-filmed desk. She lay there paralysed, crying like a broken animal. Sobs tearing from her throat, her face a painful rictus. They struck her like labour pains, beginning in her stomach, curling her over then bursting out of her mouth in keening cries. Her arm moved restlessly, uselessly, seemingly unattached to the rest of her body as it contracted over and over again. Like throwing up, when she tried to breathe deeply to still herself the air met the knot in her stomach and she could feel the potential paroxysms churning in her gut. A tiny voice in her brain catalogued each symptom and movement but did nothing to help the dying soul.
Eventually, she could roll onto her back, knees crammed awkwardly against the top of the desk, and smear the tears from her cheeks, but she was still hit by contractions of grief, tiny hurting sounds gasping from her mouth. She pressed the heels of both hands into her forehead; her muscles pulled tight and shaking. Even when her eyes stopped leaking and dried tight, the spasms and the sounds kept coming until every part of her was exhausted and raw.
She lay staring at the underside of the desk for the rest of the night thinking of nothing.
Then she got up and went to find Cassius because it was the last thing she could do for Brutus, and he needed her.
‘Necessary evils, Portia?” He turned around on the thin, dingy mattress, kneeling, his mouth a heartbeat away from the wall where her voice had been.
“Shut up, Cassius.”
“Brutus is dead. How can you bear to breathe?”
“I know,” she whispered fiercely. “Don’t you think I know. My heart is broken, and breaking, and will break. It’s sitting in pieces at my feet like I’m walking through glass. There are shards of it in my throat, behind my eyes. But what’s the use? It happened and I am coping.” The sound of a deep, broken breath. “It’s what Brutus wanted.”
Next to his head, her fist plowed through the thin plywood, fractures of filmsy wood pinioned her hand. Her knuckles were red, split and bleeding. She tugged it back through the ruined wall again in short merciless tugs, scoring her skin.
“Cassius, please,” she said in a small, shaking voice.
“Please what?” he said.
“Please would you, couldn’t you, Cassius, please,” the words kept tumbled out of her mouth like she couldn’t stop them, “please, please, Cassius, please.”
The torrent of sound when he eyes had been dry was too much. He shoved off the mattress, and slammed the door into her side of the room open.
“Please what?” he demanded.
She was kneeling on a manky matress same as his, shaking, cheeks grey beneath her dark skin, eyes too large and unable to focus. Her arms were wrapped tight around her middle.
He had his arms around her before he knew that he moved, pulling her up to rest against him, supporting her. He held her tight until the trembling stopped and warmth returned to her bones. He hadn’t thawed, he couldn’t have - he had been a banked fire waiting to flare back to life. She was the one who had been frozen to her heart.
“Portia, please what?” he whispered against her hair.
“See that I need you too.”