Erik stepped down from the armored bus, the weight of the baby carrier on his back deceptively light for something bearing the weight of half his world.
The baby’s green-haired head lolled against her shoulder. Charles had gently guided her into a restful sleep before Erik took her from the vehicle, and she would stay that way until this brief and dangerous supply run was over with.
It was for Lorna’s own protection; undue noise might have drawn the zombies down on them all.
The soles of Erik’s tough leather boots crunched in the gravel. They were an important safety measures, those boots, and had saved his life more than once; sometimes the infected would lash out from beneath cars or other low hiding places to latch onto a person’s ankle, and when that happened you wanted to be wearing boots that they couldn’t easily bite through.
He was vigilant. Erik had always been a watchful person, but now he was never off, never let his guard down or his concentration flag. He was never not on the lookout, though the danger was much less now than it had been.
It took a few minutes to unfold the wheelchair and for Charles to transfer himself into it. There was a risk associated with the delay, with the exposure of being out in the open of the parking lot, but it was worth it; splitting up wasn’t an option. There weren’t as many infected around as there had been two years earlier, at the peak of the crisis, but it only took one to bite you.
They watched each other’s backs as they crossed the parking lot. Charles’s pistol hung holstered across his chest, in easy reach. He used an athletic wheelchair, light and slim and very speedy - he had outpaced more than one zombie with that chair, Erik knew.
Inside the store, most of the goods were still on the shelves - the plague had apparently spread too quickly here for there to be a run on supplies. They made their way cautiously toward the canned foods.
Erik waited for Charles to draw his pistol before leaning his own rifle against a shelf and getting down to business. Charles covered him while Erik filled the bag strapped to the back of the wheelchair with nappies, powdered formula, cans of soup and half a dozen other necessities. The baby slept quietly in her carrier.
They moved on, and when they turned down the end of the aisle, Charles came to a sudden stop. “Erik,” he said softly.
Erik had been looking for movement, had been so hyper focused on catching movement that it took him a moment longer than Charles to notice the message, written in on the wall in black paint.
The foot-high letters read: SECURE LOCATION: NO ONE HUMAN TURNED AWAY.
Below that, smaller print spelled out a series of directions to take a specific series of roads to a specific location in a specific city.
The distinction being drawn here is between the infected and the rest of us, Charles told Erik, projecting the thought because speaking out loud was a hazard.
Erik knew he was almost certainly correct. The five years following the events in Cuba, there had been rumors in the press as to the existence of Mutants, but most people didn’t give it much credit. The topic was the purview of conspiracy theorists; Mutants were only a serious consideration to the types of people who believed in aliens and cryptids... And, Erik thought ruefully to himself, the potentiality of a zombie apocalypse.
To Charles he thought back, We’ll check it out. And why not? They always did. They’d followed half a dozen such signs over the past few months. What they found was always more or less the same, which was to say more or less what was everywhere else - Death.
In the beginning, in the face of the spreading carnage, Erik had counseled himself that at least Mutants would be able to ride the thing out. He’d told himself that his people - this new race of survivors, with all their power and talent - would make it through, even if the humans in their entirety surcumbed to the plague. Erik had always expected Mutants to inherit the Earth. He would not have wished for it to be on this terms, but he may have come to accept it.
However, aside from himself and Charles, he has yet to see any evidence to support the premise that Mutants had fared better than humans. Too much, in fact, that contradicted it.
When the crisis had begun, nearly two years earlier, Erik and Charles had been on what Raven referred to jokingly (mocking Charles’s accent when she said it) as one of their “little trysts.” They had been hiding from their respective responsibilities in an upscale hotel in downstate New York, trying to make something work even though they knew it probably wouldn’t, and by mutual consent they had tried for the school first when things started to unravel.
It was better not to think about what they found when they finally battled their way through the swarms of frightened evacuees and the military checkpoints and the swarms of shambling corpses and made it to Westchester.
The Beast (one could not think of that fanged and slabbering shell as Hank) had pursued Charles and Erik for three days after they left the desolated school behind.
It followed them specifically. There was nothing like conscious thought driving the creature - none of the infected were capable of thought, they were vacant spaces, howling hollows - but Hank’s wonderful, clever brain had retained a sort of malicious animal cunning, and he had hunted them with drooling deliberation.
When the opportunity to take a shot eventually presented itself, Charles didn’t hesitate.
Nothing much better was waiting for them at the Brotherhood’s HQ. Charles told himself that none of them were suffering - that there was nothing left in the dead that suffer, nor anything that held grudges or that hated. There was nothing at all remaining of the people who the dead had been, and therefore none of what happened there was at all personal; she had not been out to get him.
Usually, his conscious mind could remember this, but dreams were another matter.
Things started slipping. It seemed to Charles that he was being pushed to the brink of madness by the yawning mental silence that underpinned the mindless groaning of the ambulatory dead that at all times surrounded them, all that sound and fury that signified nothing.
Erik had gone into emotional lock-down. Charles could perceive nothing about his thoughts beyond the immediate concerns of minute-to-minute survival. He rarely spoke, and then his words were only variations on the same theme as his thoughts: Food. Water. Shelter. Safety.
They did not talk about Raven, nor any of the others.
They talked about almost nothing, and so Charles’s imagination filled the void, and the things that his imagination came up with were neither kind nor pretty.
Charles decided that Erik had decided that he was dead weight, and that sooner rather than later Erik would leave him behind.
He got angry about it and then he started a fight about it. Erik was mystified by the accusations at first, then he was both annoyed and wounded. And when Charles did not accept his terse and affronted reassurances, he became angry too.
It was quite a while before they were both shouted out, and in the ensuing argument they flung at one another every fear and hurt and feeling of mistrust that had built up between them, not just since the crisis had begun but over the entire course of years that they had known one another.
And things had been much better after that. It was like lancing a boil to let out the infection, and when Erik started crying first Charles no longer felt as though getting some sort of emotional response out of him counted as a victory, as he might have an hour earlier.
Charles started crying too, and after that was mostly out of the way, they talked things out - really talked about what had happened and what they were going to do next, for the first time since the emergency sirens had roused them from sleep in their hotel room weeks earlier.
It was good. They talked things out and gotten the facts in the open and squared away, and they made a plan, and then they fucked, and that was good, too, because it helped them remember that they weren’t dead even if everyone else seemed to be.
And it was good for another reason, too, and that was because Charles was almost positive that that was the night that they started the baby.
So far as secondary mutations went, male pregnancy wasn’t unheard of but it had never occurred to either of them that it might happen to Erik.
They were happy, once they worked out what was going on.
For a while, Erik believed that he was simply experiencing inexplicable weight gain, but once they understood there was no question but that they were happy. Erik, who took the matter in stride as another manifestation of his mutantness and thus an innately wonderful occurrence - practically glowed with happiness.
Charles was happy, too, but he worried terribly about complications.
They had very little idea what to expect, after all, and no one else to fall back on should things go badly. Charles felt that he was in over his head in an entirely new and frightening way, and he was even more desperate than before to find other survivors.
Erik was against it. He was against the risks of further travel and against the idea of entrusting themselves to some theoretical band of survivors who - human or Mutant - might not have understood.
They went to ground instead.
The isolated CIA bunker from which Erik had rescued Emma Frost five years previously was nearby. They decided it was worth a shot.
They found the facility to be empty, aside from a handful of bodies that had the common decency to stay where they had died. The prevalence of suicides among CIA agents in the wake of the plague gave Charles the suspicion that they may have had something to do with it... He wondered if the thing might have had to do with Mutants... some sort of anti-Mutant measure - a virus or a drug - that had somehow gone terribly wrong? He couldn’t say, and he decided against looking for answers.
Erik and Charles cleaned things up and laid in supplies - ammo and nappies figured prominently - and before long they had a fortress home that was quite pleasant as well as secure.
There were zombies on the other side of the perimeter fence, but Charles couldn’t hear them from behind the sturdy concrete walls of the building. Sometimes he almost forgot they were there.
Erik’s due date - calculated as best as they could - drew closer and closer, and after awhile it became apparent to Charles that there was going to be a problem... Put very frankly, he could conceive of no way of the baby getting out when the time came.
Erik had insisted from the beginning that there wouldn’t be any trouble, that there was no reason to worry because nature would take care of things.
He stuck to this story until he was almost eight months along, when he calmly walked into the kitchen and sat a stainless steel case onto the table. Erik opened the case with a flick of his wrist and revealed a gleaming set of surgical instruments.
Charles had never seen the box before. It had by then been several months since they had left the facility, so he knew Erik had gotten the case shortly after learning he was pregnant, or else had found it somewhere on the premises. Either way, he supposed Erik had been thinking about the problem more than he let on.
He took a deep breath, steeling himself, then looked up at Erik. “How do you propose we manage this?” he asked.