They stayed in the bunker until the Reset had passed.
As it blew closer, Doc had shaken his head as though waking from a dream and herded them all back to the inner reaches like a worried sheepdog. They couldn't figure out how to shut the hangar door so instead Murphy and Doc headed to the cafeteria in the hopes of having a decent last meal, while 10k and Sarge headed somewhere else.
Murphy gorged on a small pallet of canned peaches and Doc made orgasmic noises over some beef jerky. “Get a room,” Murphy muttered, but if Doc's happy face was the last thing he'd see on this earth, he could live with it.
A day later, Murphy feeling full for the first time since he'd left Zona, they poked their heads back into the hangar. Whatever Warren had done when she'd gone back in the drone, the black flakes that floated down like evil snow fizzed and burned but seemed to do relatively minor damage to the building and the plants they could see outside. At least, everything wasn't a flat, burned out wasteland. They waited and watched over the next week as the flakes thinned and the air cleared, occasionally wandering through the halls of their sanctuary when cards and sleep got boring. Murphy and Doc went back to learn more about Bigfoot and JFK and aliens, while 10k and Sarge seemed to be in a “have sex in every room” marathon. And after the air and ground seemed safe – after 10k and Sarge both realized they weren't actually going to die here and had resorted to awkward silence – the foursome finally set out for Newmerica.
“This is the right thing to do,” Doc said as they hefted sacks full of food over their shoulders, but it was mostly a question.
“Warren would want us to go,” 10k said firmly, Sarge nodding behind him. 10k spray-painted 'NEWMERICA' on the wall outside the hangar. “Just in case,” he said. Murphy didn't say anything, but he followed when Doc ushered them back out into the world. Sarge mercied President Zombie before they left. “Shooting presidents is my thing now,” she said with a shrug.
In Warren's absence, Doc took over leadership. 10k didn't trust Murphy, Murphy wouldn't listen to 10k, and while Sarge occasionally stepped up she seemed to have come out the other side of this latest near-death experience with something heavy clouding her mind. So Doc pointed their latest vehicle northwest and Murphy watched the roads go by, knowing each mile they went further towards Newmerica was a mile further away from any hope of finding Warren. Or her body.
Doc made them stop by Lucy's grave on the way, but Murphy refused to get out with the rest of them. When Doc slid back in after they'd paid their respects, he glanced at Murphy questioningly. “You sure you don't want to see her?”
“She's not there, Doc.”
“You know what I mean. There's a whole ring of burned up zombie bodies surrounding her. She's not alone, if that makes you feel any better?”
“Why would that make me feel better?” Murphy asked, looking out at the reddening sky. He made it a point to watch sunsets these days.
Without an answer, Doc started up the van and kept them rolling through the night, while Murphy watched the red sky turn purple and then black.
“Welcome to Newmerica,” he said, not sounding that welcoming at all to Murphy's ears.
“Howdy,” Doc said, stepping forward. “We, uh, we're here seeking sanctuary.”
“Sanctuary?” Murphy mouthed. Doc shrugged.
“You've come to the right place. You got weapons?”
10k and Doc stiffened, and Murphy remembered the town where Charlie had died.
“Wouldn't have lived this long if we hadn't,” Doc said. “And ain't given them up now.”
“Not asking you to,” the man said, “just want to see them.”
“Whatcha got, Rick?” a familiar voice called from somewhere behind the wall.
“Some new folks seeking shelter. What're your names, friends?”
“I'm Doc. This is Sarge, 10k, and Murphy. Say, who else is there with you?”
“Doc?” Addy poked her head above the wall and shouted in excitement. “DOC! 10K! Open up, Rick, let them in.” She disappeared and they heard her shouting “Get Sun Mei and Red!”
As the gate opened Addy, followed shortly after by Sun Mei and Red, shoved through and rushed up to them. Red knocked 10k over with her enthusiastic kisses, Doc and Addy cried and hugged each other, and Sun Mei and Murphy exchanged nods.
“You're red,” she said.
Sun Mei shook her head and then Sarge's hand in greeting.
Addy came over and hugged Murphy. He blinked in surprise and returned it.
“What happened to your eye?” he asked, pulling back.
“Popped out. Your skin?”
They shrugged at each other. “Where's Lucy? I can't feel her,” Addy said, and everyone looked at Murphy.
He couldn't meet her gaze. “She didn't make it,” he whispered, and the stifled sob that escaped Addy's lips nearly knocked him over.
“No, no,” she cried, slumping to the ground.
“And Warren?” Red asked quietly, helping 10k stand up.
“We were hoping she'd be here,” Doc said, kneeling at Addy's side. “Damn.”
“You were hoping,” Murphy muttered. “She's dead, too.”
“You don't know that, man.” Doc frowned up at him. “Unless I see a body, Warren's still alive.”
“I'm with Doc,” 10k said.
“Then you're both idiots.” Murphy pushed his way through the group and into the settlement, leaving their reproaches and Addy's crying behind him.
“What happened to you?” Sun Mei asked. Addy had escaped into the nearby woods to be alone, and 10k and Red had run off to be together.
“We could ask you the same,” Doc said. “It's so good to see you, Dr. Mei Mei. I thought you were a goner!”
Sun Mei gripped Doc's hand. “Addy saved us. None of us remember much about where we were. Flashes, sometimes, but dark and distant.” Her gaze was hollow. “Addy found us, me and Red and a few others who had survived the initial attack, surrounded by mad Zs in the middle of a forest.” Sun Mei shut her eyes and when she opened them again, whatever darkness had lingered there was gone, replaced with concern and curiosity. “How did you survive the Ash?”
“The what? Oh the Reset!” Doc said. “We were in D.C., in a government bunker. The government sucks at cheese but they're great at concrete. How'd you survive it?”
“We saw it coming; it looked bad. We covered the crops with tarps and hid in our tents. A few people were burned when they tried to go out in it too early but it only seemed to affect organic matter. A few of our wood buildings burned but the tents were all okay. The tarps protected the food and we had enough backup water to last. The ground was dangerous for a couple of weeks but it's all gone now.”
“Have you heard from Citizen Z?” Doc asked, shoving lettuce in his mouth like it was fresh-cooked bacon.
“Addy's been in contact,” Sun Mei said. “He says the Reset did some damage to the zombies, and some humans, but it went better than he feared. We haven't seen a zombie in a week. The quiet is strange.”
“Same on the road,” Doc agreed. “It's like an apocalypse out there.”
Murphy rolled his eyes. “It's been an apocalypse for eight years, Doc.”
“You know what I mean.”
“What happened to Warren?” Sun Mei asked quietly.
Doc sighed. “Warren was trying to stop the Reset when she got trapped in the drone. We don't know where she went or what happened to her, but she didn't come back to the bunker so we thought she might have headed here.” Murphy snorted derisively.
“She, uh,” Doc glanced at Murphy.
“She died saving me,” he said flatly. He pushed his food away. “Is there somewhere we can sleep? I'm tired of sleeping on the ground or in cars.”
“Of course,” she said. Doc scooped up the rest of Murphy's food and tucked it in his pockets.
Sun Mei smiled. “You don't have to hoard food anymore, we've got plenty.”
“Old habits die hard,” he said, munching on a carrot. “I never thought I'd miss fresh vegetables this much.”
“Wait until you try the showers.”
Doc gaped at her. “You said the magic word, lady.”
Sun Mei took them on a tour of Newmerica, pointed out the camp hospital, the showers, the toilets, a community center, utility tents, and finally the tent city where most people slept while more solid buildings were constructed further out.
“Thought this was a military base?” Sarge said, speaking up for the first time since they'd arrived.
“Yeah,” Doc said. “Looks surprisingly carefree for US government work.”
“It was,” Sun Mei said. “And then it wasn't.”
The trio exchanged looks, but Sun Mei pressed on, ignoring them. “We're expanding the fence all the time,” she said, “to make room for the permanent structures. Everybody has a task here, we'll figure out yours tomorrow. Today, you'll be staying in these tents.” She pointed at a large one, “you and Murphy will be in here,” she said to Doc. “Sarge can stay with me and Addy since I think Red and 10k will want to grab this one on their own,” she pointed to an empty tent next to theirs. Murphy glanced at Sarge, who was staring intently at the ground.
Sun Mei hugged Doc again. “Welcome home,” she said. “Get some rest, and I'll find you at breakfast tomorrow. Sarge, come with me and I'll show you where our tent is.” She gently took the other woman's elbow and they wandered off, Sun Mei giving a last wave.
“It's not the Ritz,” Murphy muttered.
“You're one ungrateful bastard sometimes, you know that?”
“I get that a lot.”
“I'm gonna take a shower.”
“You don't want to come?”
“And get stared at by a bunch of strangers? Did you see the people watching us on our tour? They weren't admiring your beard.”
Doc tugged his chin. “You don't know that.”
Murphy rolled his eyes. “Take your shower, Doc. I'm gonna stay here and enjoy the time to myself.”
“You should keep better company,” he retorted, but he patted Murphy on the back and left. Murphy picked the cot closest to the back, settling down and sighing. Not even a little like Zona. But he'd never been greeted with such genuine warmth at Zona, either, even after he'd saved all of their rich asses. He laid down on the cot and closed his eyes, surrounded by the distant chatter and movement of the small community, and tried not to listen for voices that would never come.
“What do you think?” she asked after they'd all sat down. Doc, Murphy, and 10k all had heaping plates of food, while the rest had what Murphy would have considered a normal pre-zompacalypse meal.
“Pretty sure this is heaven,” Doc sighed around his scrambled eggs.
10k nodded enthusiastically, gulped down a whole glass of orange juice in seconds while Red looked on with a smile.
“And you?” Addy asked Murphy. She'd walked into breakfast this morning like nothing had happened, with no sign of tears.
“It's better than dog food.”
“Murphy,” Doc sighed.
“It's good,” he allowed grudgingly.
Sarge had mostly kept to herself since they arrived, and was sitting as far away from Red and 10k as possible now. Murphy picked at his eggs and watched Red whisper in 10k's ear, before the two held each other's hands and left the table without another word.
“What, again?” Doc laughed, whistling after them, which caused Red to flip him off over her head as they exited.
Murphy watched Sarge stare intently at her plate, push around her breakfast and then push the plate away. With sudden clarity he realized the cloud that was hanging over her wasn't zompacalypse-related at all. She was just a kid with a broken heart. He wondered what he would've said to Lucy in this situation.
“Hey,” he said, poking Sarge's shoulder. “10k is not worth crying over.” Sarge glared, and he decided that wasn't the best tactic. “I mean there are other options now.” He gestured at the full cafeteria. “This isn't even half of Newmerica. What about that guy?” he asked, pointing at a well-muscled young man with a soldier's buzzcut.
“Not really my type,” she said, but at least she was looking around the room now.
“Okay.” Murphy scanned further, pointed at someone else. He looked like he was in his early 20s, shaggy brown hair and on the 10k emo scale. “That one more for you?”
She shook her head again but this time she smiled. “I appreciate what you're doing,” she said. “I'll get over it. I just need some time.”
“Don't take too much,” he said. “Those boys would be lucky to meet you.”
Sarge's face lit up with a bright smile, and she pulled her plate closer to finish eating. Addy nudged him from his other side, and he turned to find her smiling a little.
“That was surprisingly adept,” she said, and then more quietly: “I'm sorry about Lucy.”
“Me too,” he said.
“Someday - not now or even a month from now, but someday - I'd like to hear more about everything that happened.” Her one eye burned fiercely. “After we split up, I tried to find her before I headed here like we'd promised. Do you think she knew that? Was she coming for me, too?”
He exhaled, weary even after all of his sleep. “She'd wanted to come for you,” he said. “She would have if...if Warren hadn't pushed us to D.C. We turned around a couple times, but Warren just kept going east anyway. And we kept following her.”
“You did the right thing,” Addy said. “She was trying to stop something terrible.”
“Everything was pretty terrible already.”
Addy rolled her eye. “You stopped things from getting worse. It was the right choice.”
“The right choice to follow her when she didn't even seem to know what she was doing at the end?”
“You weren't the only one that chose to follow her,” Doc interrupted. '“Lucy's death-”
“I do not want to talk about that,” Murphy hissed, gripping the edge of the table hard enough his red knuckles went pink.
Addy and Doc exchanged a look. “So tell me about these tasks,” Doc said, turning to Sun Mei.
Murphy only half-listened, focusing on his meal and swallowing the eggs that were tasteless in his mouth.
Sun Mei reviewed the many activities that needed to be done to keep their community thriving, from farm work to building to cleaning the latrines. The latter the whole community had to take a shift at on a constant rotation, but for the rest, people found the thing they were best at or most interested in and gave it a try. Sun Mei was part of the small group of actual doctors, and Doc figured he'd try that first, too; 10k and Red, who'd rejoined them, decided to join the tower watch rotation, while Sarge jumped on Addy's offer to join the foraging group that went out every few days to search for food and people and supplies.
“What about you, Murph?” Doc asked. “What floats your boat?”
The table collectively groaned.
“The leadership council is chosen by the community, and you have to have been here for at least a month,” Sun Mei said.
“What about, I don't know, cooking. Do you like cooking?” Doc asked.
“Building?” Doc asked desperately.
“Not a shred of interest.”
“Well what do you like, man?”
“I could start a casino.”
Doc made a disgusted sound and stood up. “You're not the only person who's lost someone in the apocalypse, you know. You're just the only one who's a self-centered jackass because of it.” He stormed out, 10k following with a glare for Murphy.
“What did I do?” Murphy asked when the women all turned and glared at him, too.
“I see you haven't changed,” Addy said, shaking her head. “Come on, Sarge, I'll introduce you to the others.” Sarge nodded and walked out with her, while Red, shaking her head, went presumably after 10k and Doc.
“You're free to go too,” he muttered to Sun Mei.
She pursed her lips. “You should try sewing.”
“We have a group that fixes people's clothes, makes new ones when the foragers bring materials back. You like clothes, and you must have quick enough hands if you're a card shark.”
He had to admit she was on to something. “Sure, fine,” he said. “I'll try it.”
Sun Mei nodded, pointed behind him. “The stitcher's tent is that way, it's pretty big, you can't miss it. And Murphy?” He glanced back at her, was surprised to see sympathy on her face. “I'm sorry you lost your daughter.” Murphy could only nod around the hard knot in his throat as she got up and walked away.
Murphy discovered he had a knack for, and interest in, sewing. Still, people kept a wary eye on him and his red skin. He was grateful for Red for the first time in his life, knowing they would have called him that instead if she hadn't established it as her name already.
Two weeks into it, sitting outside of his assigned tent one late evening, Murphy was bent over a particularly tricky stitch he was learning when he was suddenly overcome with a wave of feeling he couldn't place. There was a presence here, or nearby. Murphy looked around the area, but no one else noticed anything. He felt it, though. Wait, not it. Her.
Murphy stood so abruptly his chair crashed to the ground and the others nearby went still, staring at him.
“Murphy?” their neighbor Rita asked. “You ok?”
It was like she was leaning against his brain. He touched his forehead, closed his eyes, felt the pressure from near where the gates were, and he bolted towards it with Rita calling after him.
Murphy ran to the gates and yelled “open up!” to the guards on watch. They stared down with wide, suspicious eyes lit by the solar-charged lighting.
“Open the damn gates,” he ordered again. “There's someone out there.”
They still hadn't moved when Sun-Mei came running up next to him. “Do it,” she said, and they jumped to open them. Murphy didn't even spare her a thanks, instead squeezing out of the gates as soon as he could fit. He hurried thirty feet out into the cleared area around Newmerica and waited. He heard people running up behind him.
“What is it?” Addy asked, but he ignored her – ignored all of them – while he looked and waited. It was quiet except for the murmurs of the others behind him, wondering what crazy thing he was up to now.
“There.” He pointed ahead and a little to the right, where the bushes shivered in the gathering dark. They went still again, and then parted to reveal Warren.
“Chief!” Doc shouted, and he rushed past Murphy to grab her and swing her around in a bearhug. The others ran past Murphy, too, stuck as he was in this spot. They surrounded her, chattering, hugging, while she silently accepted it and stared back at Murphy. Finally, they parted to let her walk, and as she limped closer to him, the feel of her in his head overwhelmed him.
“Murphy,” she said.
Whatever had happened after the drone had flown off with her had been bad. Her hair was brown again, but short, ragged, and dull; she had cuts and bruises all over, and her clothes were hanging ripped and loose on her too-thin body. But her eyes looked the same. Harder, maybe, but full of the driving fire that kept her going every single day. It was those familiar eyes that eased the twist in his stomach.
“What took you so long?” he asked.
“Jesus, Murphy,” Doc said.
“First time you all stopped long enough for me to catch you,” she said, unoffended.
“You've been following us? But I didn't...” he touched his forehead, where her presence pulsed in his head still. He hadn't felt her until minutes before.
She touched her head, too, mirroring him. “I've been following you,” she said quietly.
“Come on,” Doc said, putting his arm around Warren and nearly carrying her. “Let's get you inside and get some food and clean clothes. 10k and Red are going to be thrilled once they come down from their shift,” he said.
Warren let herself be led inside, and Murphy watched her and the others go, twisting around until he finally had to move his wooden feet to keep an eye on them. Warren's presence in his head receded as she moved into the camp, but he could still feel her there, like the heat of a fire at his back.
By the time he'd motivated his body enough to head to the cafeteria, 10k and Red had rejoined the group and the cafeteria was empty except for Warren and the others. Murphy felt a strange calm settle over his heart, seeing all of them sitting together as they hadn't for so long. He could feel the ghosts of everyone they'd lost hovering around – Hammond and Mack and Javier. Cassandra and Charlie. Lucy.
They had all died for or because of him.
He felt Warren watching him and studiously avoided looking at her.
“Come on, Murph, there's a spot here,” Doc said, patting the empty seat next to him. Murphy smiled and sat down next to his friend, felt Warren's heat flare brighter in his head and managed to tamp it down with some concentration. “Hey how did you know Warren was here anyway?”
“I just...felt her, I guess.”
“Like the blends?” That from 10k, who eyed him suspiciously.
“No. More like, more like when I could feel Lucy. It doesn't matter,” he said, waving off their attention and questions. “What matters is she's here now.”
“We missed you,” Doc told her, his voice deep with feeling.
Warren squeezed his hand. “I missed you, too. All of you,” she said, smiling warmly at each of them, ending with Murphy.
“What happened to you, Chief?”
“Did you see our sign?” 10K asked anxiously.
“No, I couldn't make it back to D.C.” She fell silent and Doc swooped in to ease the tension.
“You made it here!” he said. “That's good enough.”
They talked long into the evening – Doc, mostly – about Newmerica and anything except what had happened to them since they'd all last been together. There seemed to be silent agreement that whatever any of them had gone through since then, none of them wanted to spend tonight thinking about it.
Eventually they started floating off one-by-one for bed. Sarge first, then Sun-Mei, 10k and Red, and Addy. Finally Doc glanced at Warren, then Murphy, and stood up. “I better be off, too. See you in the morning, kids.”
Warren smiled a little at that. When Doc left, a long, full silence hovered between them. She sat across from Murphy, her hands folded neatly on top of each other, a half-full plate at her side. Even as thin as she was, she had hardly eaten.
“You're red,” she finally said, Staring vaguely at his neck.
“I keep getting that. It's not all bad. Most of the people here assume I had my skin burned off by the Reset and I was just lucky to survive. At least no one wants to kill me this time because they think I'm a weird zombie.”
“Warren.” She lifted her gaze to his, her face calm. Now that she was here, now that she was looking at him with those eyes of hers, now that she was pulsing in his head like a second heartbeat, he was lost. “I can feel you in my head,” he finally said.
She nodded. “I can feel you, too. Your...aura, I guess. It's how I found my way here.”
“Where were you? What happened?”
“I rediscovered myself,” she said, and offered no more. Instead she unfolded her hands and slid them across the table to cover one of his. Her bony fingers were strong and hot. “I followed you here,” she said again. “You were like a lighthouse when I was lost in the storm. Thank you.”
“I didn't do anything.”
“You kept your light burning,” she said with a small smile. “It was enough.”
“You're welcome, I guess.” He covered her hands with his free one. Her skin was chapped. “Roberta,” he murmured. “I was sure you were dead this time.”
“Guess it's that Murphy blood at work again.”
He smiled. “Happy to help.”
“I thought you were dead, too, at first” she said, pulling her hands back. “In D.C., I saw you after whatever was in the canister got you. I didn't think you'd survive that.”
He gestured at himself. “Murphy blood here, too, you know.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It hurt like hell when it happened, but not since then.”
“What were you doing there? I told you to stay.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I'm not a dog, Warren. You needed help.”
“You came to help me.” Her mouth twisted, rueful. “I never imagined you would.”
Murphy pressed his hands flat on the table, felt a splinter poke into his palm. “Of course I would,” he said, indignant. “I-” and he bit off the words that wanted to come out, shoved them away and found something else, “I was worried about you.”
“Then thank you a third time.” She stood, looked around the cafeteria like she'd just woken from a dream. “I should get some sleep. The nights haven't been restful.”
Murphy thought of her out there in the wilderness on her own, having to protect and fight for herself with no one to give her rest or comfort. She had to have been injured in the drone crash. He couldn't imagine what drove her to walk away from that, to try to find any of them when as far as she knew the whole world could have been destroyed. He wouldn't have done it. None of them would have. There was no one in the world like her.
“I'll show you where the tents are. You can take mine and I'll bunk with Doc tonight.” He stood up, held out his arm, which she took tentatively. Murphy led her, limping tiredly, between dark tents to the two they'd claimed as their own once they'd been allowed to stretch out to separate spaces. “This one's mine for now,” he said. He could already hear Doc snoring from the tent next door. “They re-arrange the spaces when new people come in, but they haven't had new people but us in awhile so there are a lot of extras. We'll find one for you tomorrow.”
Warren patted his arm and then opened the flap, disappearing silently inside. He watched the dark canvas, waited for a minute to be sure she didn't come back out to sneak away again, and then headed to Doc's floor to fall asleep with the constant, steady feel of her in his head.
He sat up and quietly crept out of Doc's tent, the other man not even stirring. When he stepped outside, there was Warren, waiting for him.
“Morning,” he said. “How'd you sleep?”
She shrugged. “I don't sleep much these days.”
Murphy frowned, but inclined his head towards the cafeteria. “Breakfast?”
“Sure,” she said, and Murphy led her on a slightly circuitous route through Newmerica to point out the toilets and showers and other amenities, ignoring the realtor desperation in his voice as he tried to sell her on all of Newmerica's good qualities.
Warren just walked quietly beside him, still limping, not saying a word. By the time they made it to breakfast, Sun Mei, Addy, and Sarge were already there, and they waved Warren and Murphy over.
“Ladies,” Murphy said. He waited for Warren to sit and then went to get food for them both. When he returned, he found her listening intently to a gesturing Addy.
“I could hear her a long way away, but I could feel her for miles and miles. When I stopped feeling her I just thought, maybe...” she looked over at Murphy as he sat down, put the full plate in front of Warren. “So it's like that for you and Murphy, too?”
“For me,” Warren said quietly.
“I didn't feel anything,” Murphy said. “I would've waited for you, if I'd thought you were alive. I would've come for you.”
Addy lifted a disbelieving brow, but Warren looked soothed. “I know,” she whispered. And with that, she started devouring her food and talking with the other women about Newmerica, as though the silent trauma she'd been carrying had been put aside.
Murphy watched over her all that day, hovering at her side as she picked a tent just a few down from his own and explored the small town they were building. They all agreed Warren would just focus on recovering before she had to help with any tasks, but she spent a long time that afternoon at the training area, watching a few of the folks awkwardly wielding close-range weapons until she seemed unable to stay quiet and started offering advice. They didn't know her, but her innate aura of confident command compelled them to listen, and within an hour they'd already improved. Warren left the area smiling.
Murphy gave it less than a month before she was on the council of leaders.
By the time he walked her back to the tent that night, Warren had had a shower, and new clothes, and Addy had helped her trim her hair so it looked like she'd meant for it to be short and stylish. If she hadn't been limping, if her cheeks hadn't been still so hollow, he would have thought nothing had happened until she halted at the entrance to her tent and stared hard at the ground, her shoulders drooping.
“Warren?” She seemed to cave in even further on herself. He moved to her side, peered down at her. “Roberta? Are you all right?”
He hated that question himself, but didn't know what else to say.
“No,” she said. Warren's chin lifted, though, and she looked at him.
“I meant to thank you,” he said.
Curiosity lit her eyes. “For what?”
“For saving everybody from the Reset.”
“Oh sure, they still had a half-Reset, but Citizen Z said it would have been much worse. Newmerica is still here – we're still here – because you went back. So thank you.”
“Please don't,” she said softly. Her eyes were dark and sad, a mystery he could easily lose himself in if he were brave enough.
“Don't forget I'm just down there,” he said instead of delving any further. “You can come in any time if you need anything.”
“Ok.” She smiled then, a warm curve of the lips that made him feel like he'd accomplished something important. “Good night, Murphy.”
She slipped into the tent, and he hovered for a second, wanting to follow her inside, make sure she was safe. Make sure that dark pain hadn't come back to haunt her. Her warm presence pulsed in his head, but he turned and went back to sleep, not quite alone.
Murphy appreciated having other humans around, especially ones who seemed to like him and not be evil rich people intent on ruling the post-apocalypse world. Even his red skin became just another thing about him and not weird and off-putting. His card games turned into almost nightly events, well-attended by the community at large. And of course there was Warren now, too. She was quieter and more withdrawn than ever – had turned down the invitation to join the leaders' council, and refused any and all hints of a reward for her role halting the Reset – but it was still Warren. It felt like a missing piece of him had been recovered every time he saw her or focused on the buzz of her in his mind. He made new friends in camp, but he ate many of his meals with her, saved her a seat at community events, and would watch her practicing with and teaching the others in the training center every few days when his work was light. She was everywhere, and it never felt like enough.
But as each day passed and there was never time alone, especially with the feel of her in his head all the time on top of it, he needed some air to breathe. And to do other things the tents were not great at muffling.
He'd learned a lot of things in prison, including how to quietly jerk off while your cellmate slept above you, but he didn't want a quiet, hurried masturbation session. He wanted, well, the impossible; he knew it was. But he was pretty sure the feel of Warren in his head could make his fantasies seem almost real and he wanted to spend some time with that without worrying about waking up Doc or, god forbid, her.
Murphy headed for the gates one evening while everyone was having dinner and a post-meal walkabout wouldn't arouse the suspicion that a middle-of-the-night one would.
“Hey, Murphy!” Jason was manning the front gate tonight, which Murphy had planned for. Jason was young and impressionable and they'd hit it off at the card games. “How's dinner tonight?”
“Delicious as usual. I think I ate too much squash, though. Any chance I could get out to take a walk around, work off some of this?”
“Without a buddy? You know the rules.”
“I've got a buddy.” He patted the cane-sword strapped to his side. “And a gun. Sun's still up for awhile yet and we haven't seen any z's in over a week. I'll give you my pudding cup tomorrow.”
Jason's eyes lit up. “Four nights.”
“Four? I'm just going for a walk, not smuggling anything. Two.”
“Two and tomorrow I'll stitch up that shirt you know Doug likes.” Jason and Doug had been flirting since Murphy got here. Doug was at least fifty percent of any conversation he had with Jason. “Final offer.”
“Deal!” Jason winched open the gates. “Be safe. We'll keep an eye out for you.”
Murphy waved and hurried into the open world before anything changed his plans. He headed a little ways out, still in the cleared area so Jason could keep an eye on him, and then when he knew he'd gotten just beyond the other man's sight and only barely into the next watcher's, he darted for the trees. It was a risk, but no shouts of alarm followed, so he figured he'd made it safe.
Alone in the dim light of the woods, Murphy exhaled loudly and slumped against a tree. Peace at last. He felt Warren's presence still coming from the general direction of the settlement, and holding onto that he slid down the trunk and unzipped his pants. He imagined her, the feel of her filling out the edges of what would normally have been an indistinct fantasy into something almost real.
But he couldn't bring himself to do anything else. It felt wrong somehow, like he was being a lecherous creep doing this without her consent. Damn it. The image of her in his head burned bright and he heard movement at the edge of the trees.
“Damn it,” he said out loud this time, and scrambled to his feet just as Warren pushed into the dusk, real as himself.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“Talking a walk,” he said hastily. “What are you doing out here?”
“I felt you leave, I wanted to be sure everything was okay.” She glanced down at his unzipped pants and his whole body went hot with embarrassment and maybe a little lust. “Oh,” she said, amused.
“I have needs,” he said, moving hurriedly to zip up.
“It's okay,” she said, turning to go. “I shouldn't have intruded.”
“Wait!” Now that she was here, he didn't want her to leave. Warren paused, looked back at him. “The moment's passed,” he said with a wry smile. “Do you wanna take a walk?”
She smiled. “I'd like that.”
They moved at a leisurely pace through the trees, until it got too dark to see and they had to move back to the cleared area. They walked the entire circumference of Newmerica, examined the fence that had been built and then rebuilt to encompass the growth plan for new homes, and talked.
“I think I'm next up on the new house list,” Murphy said at one point. One group's job in Newmerica was just to build small, one- and two-room structures so people could have privacy and they could start living in a semblance of a real town. The little homes went up quickly, a new one almost every day. “Doc loves his, as does his new lady friend Janine.”
Warren lifted her brows. “Janine? Really?”
“I've caught them making out at least five times.”
She laughed, delighted. “Good for him. For them both.”
“It's strange, right? Gossiping about people's love lives. I didn't think we'd ever get back to this.”
“You never did this in Zona?”
Murphy shrugged. “Mostly everybody just had sex with everybody else. Not a lot of love involved there.”
“And yet you never felt anything was off.”
“It was a better option than this. Well, actually this is...good. Somehow.”
“It is,” she said, her voice quiet. “And I almost ruined all of it.” He looked at her questioningly, and she inhaled deeply. “I was the Reset.”
The words were simple, but Murphy stopped, speechless. Warren stopped, too, but wouldn't look at him as she spoke in low, dull tones.
“The Founder and Teller programmed me to start the Reset. I think Mr. Sunshine was trying to release a cure. He was the good guy and I was the villain the whole time. Driven by the visions. Leading you all to destruction. Leading Lucy-”
“Don't,” he grit out and she stammered to a halt. Murphy squeezed his eyes shut, heard her breathing hard. “Is that why you went back in the drone?” he asked softly. “To start the Reset?”
“No. I went back to stop it. I don't know if it helped, but I was able to exchange the red canisters. The doors closed and I got stuck. It-it crashed...” she went silent and he opened his eyes to find she had turned to face him, staring helplessly.
It was fully dark now, and the only light came from lanterns scattered at even intervals along Newmerica's perimeter. They were just at the edge of the light's reach, but he didn't need much light to feel the guilt radiating from her. There was so much in both of their histories, enough to drown either one of them for a lifetime. You didn't survive eight years in the zompocalypse by being a saint, and they'd been through more than most. He had, somewhere in the weeks before D.C., forgiven her for Lucy. But that had been when they were fighting to save the world. Knowing Lucy had died so Warren could destroy it instead...
If they had just gone to Newmerica like Lucy had wanted – like everyone had wanted – it would all be different now.
Warren grabbed his hand, her grip like a vise. “I had to tell you,” she whispered in a tight voice. “I needed you to know.”
“Why?” he asked, his voice strangled. “I didn't want to know that!”
“You kept looking at me like I was a hero, like I deserved your admiration. I needed you to know before-” she stopped. “You had to know the truth. But also to know I had no idea it was happening, I swear. You felt my visions.” Her voice was hopeless, desperate.
He remembered ash and fire, the certainty that everything would be destroyed. His body had burned with it for only a moment and he'd dreamed of it for days. Warren had lived with it every second, had been betrayed as deeply as any of them by her own mind. Murphy took a deep breath, tried to swallow around the knot in his throat, tried to be better than the angry vengeance that was leaping in his heart. What would Warren do? he thought, as he often tried to after they'd left D.C.
But there was Lucy in his arms, Lucy covered in a sheet and burning as zombies stumbled towards her. Lucy as a baby he never had enough time with. The child he never knew. The teenager he'd barely met.
He yanked his hand free. “I need to go,” he growled, hurrying back to the gate. He ignored Warren's choked sob from behind him.
Murphy waited for the gate to open, hoping she wouldn't follow, and escaped into Newmerica as soon as there was room.
“Did Warren find you?” Jason asked as he went by, but Murphy ignored him and headed for the quiet of his tent.
He didn't light his lantern once he got there, instead sitting on his cot in the dark and staring blindly at his hands clenched in tight fists on his knees. He sat that way long enough to hear and feel Warren walk up and halt at his door. Murphy willed her to leave, and it seemed to work because she turned and headed for her own tent.
And in the dark and quiet, Murphy covered his face and cried.
Late in the afternoon, Doc stopped by. “Hey Murph. You seen Warren? She didn't make it to training today.”
Doc frowned. “Well can you feel her or whatever? I want to be sure she's okay.”
Murphy focused in his head, felt her presence off towards the edge of Newmerica. He pointed towards it. “That way.”
“Thanks.” Doc hesitated. “Hey, uh, everything okay?”
Doc's lips thinned but he shrugged and left the tent. Murphy stayed until he nearly missed dinner, and then he hurried back to his tent in the dark, colliding with Jason when he got close. He was wearing the blue shirt Murphy had fixed.
“Murphy!” Jason held out a hand to steady him. “There you are! Everybody was wondering what had happened to you. It's game night.”
“Yeah I'm not feeling great. Headache.”
“Oh that's too bad.”
“Go on without me, you don't need me there.”
Murphy edged towards his tent. He could feel all the things he'd been trying to ignore swelling inside and pretty soon his headache wouldn't be a convenient lie. “You've got this, Jason. Go forth and gamble.”
“Well,” Jason shuffled his feet, but he was clearly eager to go. “All right. I'll win a round for you, Murphy!” He dashed off and Murphy escaped into the dark once more. He felt Warren's presence, but it never came close enough for her to be back at her tent and he figured she must be with Sun Mei and Addy for now. He wondered if she'd tell them, too; if they'd feel as betrayed.
He was too much of a coward to go near enough to ask, though, and as the week wore on and he used the weight of Warren's presence in his head to help him avoid her, no one seemed bothered enough to come see him, either.
Until just over a week later, when Addy stormed into his tent so early one morning the sun wasn't even fully up yet.
“What did you do to her?” she demanded, while he shouted and fell to the floor.
“What the fuck, Addy?!”
“What did you do to Warren? Why has she been hiding in my house for the past week?”
Murphy scrubbed his face and tried to remember there were no zombies here before his heart exploded. “She's what?”
“Hiding, Murphy. I bring her food and make excuses for why she hasn't been at training and have to threaten to tie her down so she doesn't leave Newmerica entirely. I've been so busy with her and a couple of forage runs I didn't realize until yesterday that I hadn't seen you around either. So what did you do to her?”
“Maybe she did something to me,” he said, petulant.
Addy glared at him, her fingers clenching. “I knew I should've brought my z-whacker with me.”
“You know torture doesn't work,” he snapped, pressing his hand to his stomach and exhaling slowly.
“Murphy,” she warned.
“I didn't do anything to her. We had a...disagreement.” He glanced up and Addy was still nearly growling at him. He wondered if Addy knew about the Reset, or if she just didn't care.
“What kind of disagreement ends up with both of you hiding from each other?”
“The kind you can't take back,” he murmured.
The fierceness of Addy's frown smoothed, though she still looked upset. “You have to fix this, Murphy. She needs you.”
He couldn't imagine a world where that was true. It had always been the other way around. “She'll be fine without me.” He picked himself up from the floor finally, brushed his legs off. “She always has been.”
“Not this time.”
“I can't,” he said.
“You can, you're just afraid to.”
“You don't even know what's going on,” he hissed. “Stay out of it.”
“I know you said something to her that makes her think it would be better for her alone out there than safe here with us.”
Murphy rubbed his forehead. He thought of Warren alone. He thought of Lucy. “Stay out of it,” he repeated. “Please.”
Addy's chin clenched, but she turned on her heel and strode out as fast as she'd burst in, leaving a faint scent of flowers and her muttered “selfish bastard” behind.
“Of course!” Doug beamed. He and Jason had finally kissed at the card night Jason had run, and they'd been inseparable since. Every time Murphy even got near either one of them, they looked at him with so much gratitude Murphy had to look away.
“Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?” Doug asked.
“Ok, you can go in the truck with Sarge, then. You caught us just in time, we're leaving in a minute.”
Murphy headed for the big black truck, and as he walked up Sarge started it, the rumbling like a crowd of jackhammers. Murphy grimaced and climbed into the cab. He waited for her to berate him, but instead she smiled happily.
“I didn't know you were on forage duty now,” Sarge said.
“Just needed a change of scenery.”
“Glad to have the company. Me and Roxanne,” she patted the dashboard, “we love fresh meat.” And with that she threw it into gear and Murphy thought his bones would shake out of his body when she gunned it and the beast roared into the woods.
“Where are we headed?” Murphy shouted over the noise.
“Last group saw what looked like a mini-mart with unbroken windows about four hundred klicks north. We're going there.”
“Four hundred! Wait, what's a klick?”
Sarge grinned at him. “A kilometer, soldier. About 250 miles. We'll be gone two, maybe three days to do some extra recon. Hope you brought a sleeping bag.”
Murphy groaned. He'd wanted a getaway, sure, but this was too much. He hadn't even told the other stitchers where he was going, he'd just needed the distance from his pain and he'd let that need drive him. He was a selfish bastard. Addy was right about that.
The truck's muffler-less engine made talking impossible for more than a few brief sentences, and Murphy spent the trip staring out the window, watching the wild beauty of the wilderness rolling by. The trees here got thinner and more burned with each passing mile, victims of the Reset. The road they were on was full of potholes and downed branches, but Sarge never hesitated, just pushed them relentlessly onward, bouncing and hopping.
After a few hours, she slowed and then stopped, and when she cut the engine he blinked against the muffled silence. The trees stood like tall, blackened poles as far as he could see on either side.
“What are we doing?” he asked her, peering down the empty road ahead of them.
“Our first z check.” On his confused look, she continued: “Roxanne's loud for a reason – attracts the z's attention. We sit here thirty, forty-five minutes to see if they catch up, honking every few minutes, and then we take them out.”
“There haven't been any z's by us in a couple of weeks, how could there be any up here?”
“Lotta big animals in these woods who were a lot tougher to take out with some snowflakes.”
Murphy gaped at her. “We're hunting zombie bears?”
He pointed at her revolver sitting on the seat between them. “With that?”
“Nah, with that.” She pointed to the bed of the truck. Murphy turned around and finally noticed the biggest machine gun he'd ever actually seen in the back of the truck.
“Where did you get a gun like that?”
“Belonged to the military team that was here.”
“What happened to them?”
She shrugged. “Some of them are still around. The ones with buzzcuts.”
“And the other ones? No one seems interested in talking about where the government went.”
“Addy told me about it, after I bugged her during enough forages.” Sarge glanced at him. “After she rescued Sun Mei and the others, they headed here. It wasn't a government so much as a military dictatorship. Was bad when they got here, got worse after. So they led a revolt.”
“That sounds like something they'd do.”
Sarge chuckled. “Yeah, from what I've learned of Addy, it's not a surprise. Some people died, and then they had a zombie problem they had to take care of. Finally got everything sorted out and Addy's revolt had the dictator and his team at gunpoint. The ones who agreed to play nice stayed. The rest they took care of.”
Murphy nodded. “Smart. Why isn't Addy president or whatever now?”
“No one, especially her, wanted another single person in charge. They decided the council was best, and after the dictator bullshit most of the folks wanted to try something completely different, which is where we are now.”
“Seems like it's working.”
Sarge shrugged. “I guess. There's not enough structure, but we're still pretty small so it's okay. Double the size of Newmerica, we're gonna have problems.”
“I'll take those kinds of problems over zombie moose.”
She laughed and then blasted the horn, a loud spear piercing the quiet.
“When do the others catch up?”
“They're going a different route, we'll catch them at the mini-mart.”
“So we're the bait.”
Murphy slumped against the door. “Great.”
It felt stark and lonely out here, even with Sarge right next to him. And then he realized what it was: he couldn't feel Warren in his head at all. He focused, reached out, thought maybe he felt the brush of something, but it was just him in his head alone. He'd gotten what he wanted.
Then why does it feel so bad? he wondered.
“Cards?” Murphy asked, pulling out the deck he always carried stashed in a pocket.
“Oh hell yeah!”
They played while they waited, blasting the horn periodically, both taking a few minutes to stretch their legs and take a piss. And when nothing came out of the woods after almost an hour, Sarge started up Roxanne and drove them further north away from Newmerica and Warren.
“Have any contacts?” he asked when they hopped out.
“Not even a duck,” Sarge said. “How's it look in there?”
Jamie gestured with his chin to a few bulging burlap bags. “See for yourself.”
“Shit, that's awesome. Come on, let's see what else is left.”
When Murphy stepped inside he was hit with an unexpected wave of nostalgia. Except for the lantern-light and the already half-bare shelves, it was like every out-of-the-way gas station store he'd ever been to. “Holy shit they have chocolate,” he breathed, grabbing a package of Kit Kats and ripping them open. The smell overwhelmed him and his eyes fluttered closed.
“You need a moment alone there, Murphy?” Nyesha asked wryly.
“Don't eat too much,” Doug warned from the other side of the mart near the broken freezers. “We need to take most of it back to the camp. But you've discovered the secret of the foragers: we get first dibs.”
Murphy savored the Kit Kat while he pocketed more of the chocolate for later. He took a few packs of Twinkies, too, intending to eat all of them in front of 10k.
Between the four of them, they cleaned out the rest of the minimart in short order, though it was dark by the time Nyesha hefted the last burlap bag with medicines out the door. The aspirin alone would make the doctors dance with glee.
“Now what?” Murphy asked, helping them store the last bag away in the back of the truck. There hadn't been enough room for everything in Nyesha's van. “It'll be late by the time we get back.”
“We're staying here tonight,” Jaime said. He was crouched over a rusted metal garbage can, and when he stepped up and away, flames followed him.
“You started a fire? Isn't that just begging zombies to come find us?”
“It's end of summer in the north part of what used to be Canada, you really want to hope for good night temperatures?” Sarge asked.
Murphy frowned. “I didn't bring a sleeping bag.”
“We've got an extra sack or two,” Nyesha said. “We'll hook you up with those. Come on, have some Cup O'Noodles.”
Murphy's mouth watered. He hadn't had noodles since Zona.
They sat around the fire, slurping noodles and chattering about the mundanities of life. Nyesha ribbed Doug about not going five minutes without mentioning Jason, and Jaime and Sarge flirted relentlessly with each other. They teased Murphy about his red skin, and everyone shared their most absurd zombie kill. Nothing could ever really feel like it was pre-z again, but this felt like they'd somehow found a normal life post-z, and this was just a regular adventure, not some life or death quest.
“You two traveled together for awhile, right?” Jaime asked Sarge, gesturing at her and Murphy.
“Yeah, back before he'd been tomato'd.”
Murphy rolled his eyes.
“I heard you came all the way from Washington, D.C.,” Nyesha said. “I had a sister there before.”
“We did. Went from the northwest of the US to there and back,” Sarge said proudly.
“Damn. I didn't know it was possible to cross the continent twice.”
“Three times,” Murphy said. When they looked confused he added, “Before we met, I'd started in New York.”
“You must be about the most well-traveled person left alive,” Jaime said. “Those others go with you, too?”
“Some of them. Doc, 10k, Addy. Warren,” he said and his voice dropped a little.
“Lieutenant Warren's the best,” Sarge said. “She led us right to the bunker to stop the Reset, risked her life to save humanity without even thinking about it.” She looked so loyal and fierce, Murphy figured Warren must not have shared her confession with Sarge. It wouldn't do any good to say anything here, so when Sarge looked his way for agreement, he just nodded.
“I wouldn't be alive today without her,” he said truthfully. “I would have died ten times over.”
Doug nodded. “I had someone like that, my older brother Darren. He died in the Revolt,” he said quietly.
“I'm sorry,” Murphy said, but Doug shrugged.
“He worked so hard to get us here, and then when it turned out to be so awful, I think he was glad to give his life to change it. He'd felt guilty about what Newmerica was, about what it had taken to make it here. Like it was his fault some mad man had ruined things. I just hope he knew I wasn't mad at him, you know? He couldn't have known.”
“Ain't nobody alive in the apocalypse today without some bad choices under their belts,” Sarge agreed.
Murphy watched the flames dancing along the edge of the metal circle. He tried to feel Warren in his head again, but there was only emptiness.
“At what point does it stop being an apocalypse?” Jaime asked.
“Now you've gone and cursed us,” Nyesha laughed.
“I'm not saying we're post-apocalypse, I'm just asking about how we'll know when it happens.”
They all exchanged quiet glances. None of them seemed to want to put to words what they were thinking: that it felt like they were there now. The air crackled with the sound of the fire, and the faint, bright glimmer of hope.
He nudged the others awake as soon as it could reasonably be called dawn, and although they all cursed him out, they rose and started getting ready.
“How far out do we want to go?” Sarge asked as they ate a breakfast of stale, delicious Cheerios.
“Go? Go where?”
“We push forward past where we forage so the next group knows whether to make the trip or go a different direction. Roxanne's got to get back on the fuel we brought, but we're well-supplied, so we can go another fifty, maybe hundred clicks out before turning back.”
“We have to go back to camp.”
“Not how it works,” Doug said, crumbling up his cereal box and throwing it in the metal garbage can with last night's cold ash.
“You don't understand, I have to get back.”
He hesitated. “I didn't tell anyone I was going with you, they may need me.”
“No offense, Murphy, but it's just sewing. They'll be okay another day, as long as nobody worries about you being gone. Like Warren,” Doug added, nudging him.
“Oh come on,” Nyesha said. “You two are together all the time.”
Murphy was sure his red skin was burning. “We're friends.”
“Is that true, Sarge?” Doug asked.
Sarge shrugged. “I mean I never saw them kiss or anything, but they're weird about each other.”
“Well she's going to have to wait, too,” Doug said. “Sorry. We have to keep to protocol.”
“What about the food? And stuff?” he said. “Shouldn't someone at least take the van back and the rest can go on?”
They glanced at each other, considering. “We've never had a haul like this,” Nyesha said. “Might be better to get part of it safely back to Newmerica.”
Murphy nodded eagerly. “I'll go back with Nyesha and Jamie can go with Sarge.”
“We are just scouting,” Doug said hesitantly.
“If things go wrong, you can ditch the motorcycle and ride in the truck with us,” Sarge said. “Plenty of room in the cab for three.”
“Nyesha, you mind going back early?”
She pursed her lips, scanned Murphy's face, and then shrugged. “He looks like he needs it. Plus I get all the glory of returning with the big haul, so I plan to milk that plenty.”
That seemed to settle Doug's mind, so with hugs and handshakes, Nyesha and Murphy climbed into the van and headed back to Newmerica. The van was a lot quieter than Roxanne, and Nyesha kept up a one-sided conversation most of the way, Murphy nodding and “mm-hm”ing as needed as they made much slower time back to the camp.
It was early evening when they drove out of the woods and into the clearing around Newmerica. The sun was a bright orange ball hanging low on the horizon, and the sky was bleeding orange into red and purple behind them. Nyesha flicked the lights on the van in a pattern of some sort, and Murphy saw one of the lights at the gate blink back at them and the gate swung open to greet them. As Nyesha pulled up she leaned out the window and shouted “we struck gold!” at whoever was on watch.
She drove them around to a side area Murphy knew was a sort of staging place for the foragers, and when they got there a small crowd was already forming. Murphy closed his eyes and focused, but he still hadn't reconnected to Warren yet. He wondered if going too far away had messed it up and he needed to see her again first.
When they got out of the van, Murphy nodded at Nyesha and left her to the handle the excitement and adoration of the crowd. He could tell when she revealed their haul by the cheer that erupted behind him while he went searching for Warren.
He ran into Doc first. “Murphy!” Doc called, jogging over. “Where have you been, man? There's a problem.”
“That's the problem. Come on,” he tugged Murphy after him, and they found Sun Mei in the doctors' tent, already directing the bag of medicine to be unpacked.
“Murphy! Where have you been?”
“Now you miss me. I went on an unscheduled foraging trip.” He waved off her annoyed frown. “Save it for later. What's going on with Warren?”
“She's gone,” Sun Mei said. One of the nurses in the tent looked up in surprise, and Sun Mei ushered them back out of the tent to talk quietly. “She was distant all day yesterday, worse than she's been recently. No one has seen her since dinner last night. We were hoping you could find her, but then we couldn't find you. You can't just leave like that.”
“I'll take my lashes tomorrow,” Murphy said. “We've gotta find Warren tonight.”
“So you know where she is?” Doc asked.
“No. Not yet,” he added hastily, their disappointment only making him feel more guilty. “I'll find her. I'll need to wander outside the camp, though, see if I can pick up her presence.”
“I need to stay and help with the unload, but Addy's out there now looking for her, and so are 10k and Red. You'll probably run into them.”
“I can go with you,” Doc said.
“Good, let's get started.”
Doc had the flashlight, so he led them out of the gate and around to the northern forest. “10k and Red are searching south, Addy's out to the west. You and I can start here and then head east if we need to. Anything?” Murphy paused and closed his eyes, but there was still no feel of her. He shook his head and Doc sighed. “She's been weird this week. Any idea what happened?”
Murphy made a noncommittal noise and pushed further into the woods.
They searched with only the occasional call of her name for awhile, and every few minutes Murphy would pause and focus, hoping to feel her burning warm and bright in his head, and every time there would only be cold silence.
“Addy told me you two had an argument,” Doc said after twenty minutes of fruitless searching. “What did you say to her?”
“Why does everyone assume I'm at fault?” Doc gave him a knowing look and Murphy sighed. “She told me something and I-”
“Acted like an idiot?”
Murphy glared. “I reacted understandably but poorly.”
“What'd she say?”
“It's not really my thing to share.”
“I don't want to pry into anyone's secrets, but maybe it'll give us an idea of where she went?”
“I can't,” Murphy said.
“Was Warren the Reset?”
Murphy's jaw dropped. “How did you-”
“I knew it!” Doc crowed. “I mean it's pretty obvious. Something was going on with her back when we were trying to figure out what Black Rainbow was, and the only secret Warren could have that would make you act like this had to be related to what we just went through. I was a mystery fan back in the day, you know.”
“Congratulations because you solved that one.”
“Damn right congratulations – Addy has to take my next latrine duty now.” Deep into the woods, the dark pressed in all around and they were far enough away from camp that the only light was Doc's. “Warren didn't know she was the Reset, right?”
“No. Teller fucked with her brain.”
“So you can't really blame her then, can you?”
“I mean, I could,” he muttered.
Doc turned the flashlight on Murphy's face. “Murphy.”
“Oh all right. I guess not. She could have been more cautious, but her visions were terrible.”
Doc lowered the flashlight a little. “You know, we've never really talked about Lucy.”
“This isn't the time to start.”
“Yeah it is,” the other man said, moving closer. He put his free hand on Murphy's shoulder, a warm weight tethering Murphy to the feelings he wanted to avoid. “That wasn't Warren's fault. But that doesn't mean it was your fault, either.”
“I begged her to let me die,” Murphy whispered. He looked up into the treetops, struggling to hold on, could make out a few stars between the branches. Fall was just around the corner and the nights were getting colder, but it made the stars shine brighter.
“And she didn't, but that was her choice. Don't shit on her choice by putting your guilt all over it.” Doc squeezed Murphy's shoulder warmly. “Lucy wouldn't want you to regret what she did.”
“I guess you're right.” Murphy wiped his hand across his eyes.
“I have some direct experience in this area,” Doc said, his voice quiet on the evening air. “Outliving your kid is a weight you always carry, but you don't have to carry it alone. You don't have to let it make your whole soul heavy.”
Murphy nodded and patted Doc's hand on his shoulder. “You're pretty good at this.”
“You could say it's my calling.” He glanced around the woods. “Still don't feel anything?”
“Nope.” Murphy followed Doc farther into the woods. “Hey, if your guess was Warren told me she was the Reset, what was Addy's guess?”
“That Warren told you she was in love with you.”
Murphy stumbled to a halt. “What?!”
Doc didn't seem to notice, or care, about his shock. “It was a good guess, but you both seemed more angry and sad than anything so I didn't think it was right.”
“Why the hell would that be a good guess?”
Doc sent the beam of light playing over Murphy's face again. “Huh.”
“'Huh'? What do you mean 'huh'?”
Doc's answer was cut off by a crashing sound through the trees.
“What is that?” Doc said, just as the biggest animal Murphy had ever seen burst out of the forest and careened towards them.
“Oh shit,” Murphy said, leaping out of the way of the zombie moose's wild hooves and antlers. Doc's light bounced around, making their part of the forest look like a one-man rave. Murphy scrambled to stay out of the moose's reach while also tugging his cane-sword free. He felt the sudden bright burst of Warren's presence in head, followed by her flashlight in his eyes and a guttural yell in his ears. The moose bellowed in pain when Warren came flying out of the forest and hacked at one of its legs.
There was no time to be relieved, though, because the moose swung his huge, antlered head around towards Warren and kicked out backwards towards Murphy and Doc with his injured leg. Murphy heard Warren's too-familiar pained grunt as the moose scored a hit, and he sliced at the moose's leg again, nearly severing it.
The zombie moose's rear buckled and it made an unearthly cry of rage as it dragged itself back to face Murphy. Its death-glazed eyes rolled in its head, and it snapped at him with gore-stained teeth.
“Come on Bullwinkle,” Doc shouted, “here's something you'll really like!” He fired his gun, and the flash illuminated the area in a brief instant of fiery stop-motion before one of the antlers exploded off of the moose's head.
“Great, now it's angry,” Murphy said, attacking its side again with his sword. He could see brief glints of Warren's machete in the dancing beams of the flashlights. They hacked at the moose together while Doc fired again, sending more antlers spraying everywhere. One struck Murphy in the shoulder and he cursed.
“Sorry,” Doc said. Entrails dangled from the moose's sliced-open stomach as it dragged itself closer to Doc. He brought his gun up but it jammed. “Crap,” Doc said, the moose gathering its weakened limbs underneath it to leap.
There was another flash of gunfire and this time Warren's bullet hit its mark through the eye and into the brain, and the zombie moose crumpled to the forest floor at Doc's feet.
They waited, breathing heavily, for it to be a mad z, but it lay still and thankfully dead.
“She give mercy,” Doc said in a terrible Russian accent before looking at Warren. “Thank goodness you showed up, Chief.”
Warren smiled a little. “Couldn't let you die by zombie moose.”
“Amen. You okay?”
“Just scratched me,” she said, pressing a hand to her side where her shirt had torn. “You two?”
“We're fine, I think. Murphy?”
“Where were you?” Murphy asked, his voice too harsh even to his own ears.
Warren's smile disappeared and her eyes went dark and wary. “Hunting this guy,” she gestured at the zombie moose.
“You knew about the zomboose?” Doc asked.
“The last foraging team reported it. When I heard Murphy went out there, I-” she stopped and shrugged. “I took care of it.”
“You went out to hunt a zombie moose by yourself? And didn't tell anyone?” Murphy asked, his voice rising angrily with his belated fear.
“I'm not the only one who leaves without telling people,” she said quietly.
“I'll tell the others we found Warren,” Doc said, glancing between them. “Murphy has something to say to you.” He hurried away at Murphy's glare.
Murphy stared hard at the ground and breathed down the roiling storm inside him. She was safe now. Getting mad would just make all of this worse.
“I'm not going to apologize for going out,” Warren started, but he held up his hand to stop her.
“You're a grown, zombie-killing woman, you don't owe me any apologies. Doc, maybe, but not me.” Murphy inhaled deeply. “I actually owe you an apology. I acted like an ass.”
“This time you had a reason to.”
“But I didn't. I felt what you were feeling. We all agreed to go with you to D.C.”
“I should have fought it,” Warren said, her eyes downcast. “I should have been stronger than what they did to me.”
Warren had been out there alone for weeks, thinking she might have broken the world when all she had ever wanted was to save it. She had struggled back and when she could have let her secret lie in their dark pasts, had been driven to confess anyway, knowing what it would mean to him. He thought of Doc's heavy weight of the soul. He couldn't let hers bear it alone another minute. “Warren, even you couldn't fight the entire technological and medical weight of Zona on your own. You woke up after being shot in the stomach, trained by monsters, and given a very specific amnesia; you battled your way across the country while having horrifying visions; and you still managed to fuck up their plans. You did enough.”
She glanced up then, and he saw her lips twitch. “Well when you put it that way.” The gentle amusement quickly died. “But...Lucy.” Her pain seemed to mirror his own and he looked out of his own grief for the first time to realize what Lucy's death had done to Warren, too. She'd had such deep feelings for his daughter, had cared for her with the ferocity Warren saved for those she truly loved.
Murphy swallowed. “I was wrong to blame you for Lucy. You never blamed me for Charlie. Or the others.”
“People made their own choices.”
“They did. Except you. Teller and the Founder – they controlled you. There's nothing to forgive.”
Warren nodded, her lips trembling, eyes wet with unshed tears. “I thought you'd hate me,” she said.
“I've never hated you,” Murphy said. “Roberta, I-” he halted, his tongue thick with words he had spent years denying. He was unable to unload them on her now as she looked at him with vulnerability on her face. “I may not have always liked you, but I could never hate you.”
She nodded and smiled cautiously. “I've never hated you either.”
“I'm not sure I believe that, but I'll take it in the spirit it's offered,” he said, and she laughed a little and his heart broke open completely.
“We should head back inside,” he said quickly before he did something monumentally stupid. He held out his arm and she took it, but even on the first step she moaned and tensed against him. “Let me see,” he said, tugging his arm away to look at her.
Warren shined the flashlight at her side and he saw what he'd thought had been just a torn shirt was torn skin, too, a deep slice just above the waist. Blood dripped steadily from it. “Shit, we should have gotten you bandaged up first. Come here.” He pulled her against his side and, taking most of her weight, half-carried her back to the gates. He thought of the conversation with Doc that the zombie moose had interrupted. “God knows what Doc is saying about us right this minute,” he muttered.
They'd gone further out than Murphy had thought, and Warren's breaths came harder with each step. As the edge of the forest finally loomed, she asked, “that wouldn't be so bad, would it?”
“People gossiping about us.”
Murphy looked down at her, her warm, dark eyes, her firm body melting into his from her pained effort just to shuffle next to him. “Of course not.”
“Good,” she said. “Then I could use some help.” She gave all her weight over to him and without thinking he swooped her up in his arms to carry her in. “This'll get them talking,” she said on a tired laugh.
Murphy's body was hot, and he was sure she could feel his heart pounding hard in his chest. “You're okay with this?”
“I walked across the entire country on my own, I'm not gonna feel bad about being carried fifty feet with a zombie moose wound.”
When they stepped into the cleared area, Doc, Addy, 10k, Red, and Sun Mei were all there, and they turned and hurried over in a herd. Addy looked somehow both smug and concerned at the same time, and Doc's eyes were wide and curious.
“Are you ok?” 10k asked Warren, ignoring Murphy entirely.
“Just a little injury, but I could use some help from the doctor,” she said and Sun Mei nodded.
Murphy started after her, and he swore he could feel the others' varying curious and triumphant stares boring into his back. As they entered Newmerica, Warren twined her arms around his neck and snuggled into his shoulder. Murphy stumbled over his own feet.
“You ok?” she asked, her breath warm on his neck.
No, he thought. Not even close.
“Fine,” he said out loud. He pulled her tighter against his chest.
“Your heart's beating pretty fast,” she murmured.
He heard Doc saying Warren's in love with you. Murphy's hands went sweaty. “Out of shape I guess.”
Then they were blessedly at the tent and Sun Mei pointed at an empty table, lit by a harsh white light. “Lay her down here,” she said.
Warren's blood dripped onto his fingers, the red of it mixing with his red skin. He didn't want to set her down, but he forced his body to move, gently lie Warren on the cold metal of the table. She gripped his hand when he tried to step away.
Sun Mei was already cutting Warren's shirt away from the wound, frowning deeply. “This is bad,” she said.
“I won't turn,” Warren said. “Trust me.”
Murphy wondered how she'd know that, until he saw the long, ugly scar on Warren's other side after Sun Mei had cut away the shirt. It looked recent, and painful. His stomach knotted, realizing she'd gotten it when she'd been on her own, following them. Following him. He and Sun Mei shared a look over Warren's body.
“I could use your help,” Sun Mei said to him. She started cleaning out the wound, and Warren's breathing went harsh, her grip on his hand like a swiftly closing vise.
“What do you need?” he gasped out.
“I'm not going to be able to close this up by myself. Do you want to hold or suture?”
“Murphy,” Warren hissed.
“Sew, I guess,” he said. “Just like a shirt, right?”
“Not exactly but it will help. Suture kit is over there,” she indicated with her head as her hands were busy holding Warren's wound together. “It's already sterilized but swab it with the hydrogen peroxide just to be sure. And don't touch anything that will touch the wound.”
Murphy did as Sun Mei instructed, listening to Warren's breathing grow more ragged.
“Do you want something to bite down on?” Sun Mei asked quietly.
Warren nodded vigorously.
Sun Mei reached behind her and grabbed a leather wrapped stick, handing it to Warren who promptly shoved it in her mouth lengthwise and ground down. Murphy felt his throat thicken and he swallowed down bile. He was sweating all over. “You can't give her anything?”
“I'm sorry. Anesthetic is worth more than food these days. This will hurt, but it's not unbearable.” She patted Warren's hand and then nodded at Murphy. “Ready?”
“Suturing needles are much smaller,” Sun Mei said, ignoring him. “As you can see. Use the forceps to grip it at the base and insert it into the far edge of the wound.”
“Forceps, forceps,” Murphy muttered, hovering his hand over each tool until Sun Mei nodded. He did as instructed and then brought the needle near Warren's skin and stopped. “Maybe I should hold,” he started, but he saw Sun Mei's hands covered in Warren's blood, her fingers helping bring the seeping edges of skin together while Warren tried not to squirm underneath, and he knew that would somehow be worse. “Never mind.”
Murphy grit his teeth, glanced at Warren apologetically, and then pierced her skin. When she didn't scream in pain, his shoulders eased. He focused just on the edges of the wound that Sun Mei had trimmed and cleaned, and did as instructed. Warren's presence pulsed with life in his head, giving him strength.
Finally he tied the last knot, trimmed the suturing thread, and stood, stretching his back. The stitches were ugly and the first ones were unevenly spaced, but the wound was closed and when Sun Mei patted away the last of the blood, it was clean. Murphy felt pride wash away the pain of his aching back.
“Good work,” Sun Mei said.
Warren spit out the leather bite stick and lifted herself up on her elbows to look. “Thank you,” she said, nodding at them both. He helped her sit up with her legs dangling over the side of the table. “Anything else, doctor?”
“You need to stay here for a few hours so I can keep an eye on you. I think it's time for that standard medical exam you keep putting off,” Sun Mei said sternly, making Warren wince.
“Can we not?”
Sun Mei's stone face was answer enough.
“Fine.” Warren glanced at Murphy and shrugged. “Doctor's orders, I guess. See you at breakfast?” He nodded and she motioned for him to lean in. When he did, she pressed her lips against his cheek in a gentle kiss. “Thanks for the carry and,” she hesitated, “everything.”
Murphy could only blink at her, the ground under his feet unsteady. Her mouth pulled to the side in amusement as she patted his other cheek and then shifted away to face Sun Mei.
He returned silently to his tent, everything else forgotten in the ghost of her lips on his skin.
Doc, who had been engaged in conversation with Janine, swiveled around mid-sentence and gaped at Murphy. “Finally?”
Murphy blushed, his already red skin going darker. “Me and Warren what?”
“She looked pretty comfortable in your arms.”
“She'd lost a lot of blood,” he muttered.
“I heard she kissed you,” Addy said from behind him, and he wanted to crawl under the table in despair.
“She did,” Sun Mei said, taking a bite of veggie mash.
“You're not helping,” he hissed.
“Woo-hoo, good for you!” Doc held out his hand for a fist-bump, which Murphy ignored. “You're awfully grumpy today, Hellboy.”
“You're awfully nosy today, old man.”
“Come on, you and Warren have been eyeing each other for literally years. You should be thrilled.”
“Nothing happened! I carried her back, I helped stitch her up, she kissed me – on the cheek, and just in thanks. I think she was just trying to get you all riled up.” But he felt her even as she entered, and when she met his gaze from the doorway and a smile broke like sunrise across her face, he had to figure out if it meant more than that. It had to him.
“You're right, that looks like nothing,” Doc said sarcastically, glancing between them. Warren headed for their table without stopping to get food, took the other seat next to Murphy. His stomach churned at her nearness, and he pushed his barely touched breakfast towards her.
“You can have this,” he said, “I've got to get going.”
“Already?” she asked, and he wondered if he misread the disappointment. “I was hoping to talk to you.”
“With my recent adventure I'm backed up on work, I need to get started.” He stood up, careful not to touch her. “Lunch?”
She nodded and he saluted the others, escaping. He wasn't totally lying, he did want to get to his pile. But he also couldn't be next to her, smelling her, knowing that if he touched her he might give all of them something to talk about for weeks.
He worked diligently on the stack of repairs that awaited him, pushing through lunch to make a dent, his fingers aching from the sustained effort. Sometime in the late afternoon, down to just a pair of pants and some gloves, he took a walk around the camp. He didn't avoid the training area on purpose, exactly, but his path never seemed to take him near like it usually would.
He passed Jason on watch and waved to him.
“Hey Murphy! Congrats on you and Warren! I don't know how you convinced her.”
Murphy froze. “What?”
“I heard you and Warren were together.”
“What?” he said again, and Jason just shrugged.
“Well, see you at the game tonight.”
When Murphy returned to the stitchers' tent he found a stack of new work being handed out by Lacey.
“Warren was looking for you,” she said, handing him another pair of pants and some socks. “Can't even go half a day without seeing you now, huh?” She grinned at him.
Murphy was certain he was losing his mind. One cheek kiss and everyone was convinced they were an item when he wasn't even sure she was interested in him that way.
But god he wanted it to be true.
Since she'd arrived, except for the two days he'd spent with the foragers, he hadn't gone a minute without her warm, solid presence either at his side or in his head. He felt like something was missing when their paths didn't cross in a day. Whenever he had something to say, he always wanted to tell her first.
The worst part – the part that gnawed at him like a hungry zombie – was that Doc was right. He'd felt this way about her for years. Even when he'd been in Murphytown, he'd spent nights thinking about showing it all to her, about what she'd say, how proud she would eventually be. They had spent years together, been through hell and back together and fought off every possible curveball the zompocalypse could throw at them. Sure it was mostly her protecting him but he'd jumped in front of few bullets for her in return. He'd felt this same leap of hope in Zona, that they could make a new start there, find a new normal. He'd left Zona for her.
And now hope had returned, back to life like any other zombie.
Tired of being cooped up with the other stitchers – afraid he'd have to face more gossip – he grabbed the work and retreated to his tent. It was quiet in this part of Newmerica most of the time these days. Many people had already moved to the houses and those that were left were out enjoying one of the last warm days of the year before the cold fully settled in. Murphy was dreading the Canadian fall and winter, but the leadership council had a solid plan in place to weather it from what he could tell. He tamped down his Warren connection as best he could and focused on hemming the pants as he'd been directed. He'd rather break his own fingers than admit it, but having a skill others relied on him for, a skill he was really good at, settled his angry and aching heart more than just about anything he'd found in his life. It had been two months of quiet, two months of waiting for everything to go to hell like it always did. Murphy was starting to think maybe they'd finally found something he couldn't ruin.
He nearly jumped out of his red skin when the tent flap flew open and Warren strode in. The feel of her in his head exploded like a firecracker as he fumbled his control and his needles.
“Are you hiding from me?” she asked without preamble.
He blinked at her, hand pressed to his pounding heart, the pants at his feet. “What?”
“You said we'd talk at lunch and then you never showed up. Or stopped by the training area.”
“It's been six hours since breakfast. I've been busy,” he said defensively.
The aggression in her stance melted away and left an oddly uncertain, almost defeated Warren in its wake. It made him uncomfortable in a way her dominance never did. “Oh,” she said. “You're right, it can wait.”
His whole body itched with how easily she'd capitulated. “No, it's fine, let's talk now,” he said. He was afraid to let her leave like this, although he couldn't have explained why. He moved his work to the nearby table, gestured for her to sit next to him on his cot. “What is it?”
She sat at the very edge of the cot, looking like a rabbit ready to bolt at the first sign the wolf couldn't be trusted. Her hands were restless as she stared down at them, squeezing her fingers together. “You are...important to me,” she started, and his stomach flipped over uneasily. He'd had this conversation with other people before and it never went anywhere good. “I don't want to mess that up.”
He focused on keeping his breathing steadier than his burning heart. She must have heard the gossip, too. “Okay.”
She shifted so she was facing him more directly. “So I need you to promise me that we can still be friends, no matter what, after what happens next.”
“Okay.” What else could he say? He couldn't imagine not having her in his life.
“I promise. I promise that we will still be friends no matter what happens next.” She still looked nervous so he did the 'cross my heart and hope to die' hand movement.
She nodded once, exhaled, and scooted right next to him. “This is a bad idea,” she said, seemingly to herself, before she craned her head up and kissed him tenderly on the lips.
She was so close to him it felt like she was inside his head.
“Warren,” he whispered, unmoored. “What are you doing?”
She pulled back a little, raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You really don't know?”
He waved that away. “I mean...don't do this because you think you owe me something. Or to egg Doc and the others on.”
Warren went still and the seconds ticked like eons between them. “You're a damn fool,” she eventually said, unsnapping time again. “Good thing I already knew that about you or you might have blown this.”
“There's that sweet talk,” he said, relief burning through him as sure as need. Still, like a dog with a really persistent itch, he couldn't let this go. “Do you really think this is a bad idea?”
“Damn it, Murphy,” she sighed. “I just wanted to see if you felt like I did.”
The room seemed to spin around them. She was always the braver one. “You could have asked.”
“And you would have just been honest about your feelings?” She had him there and they both knew it.
“Let's try again,” he said, cupping her face in his hands. Murphy closed his eyes when his lips touched hers. He found her tentative, questioning, before she opened to him and his world went up in flame. He was barely aware of himself except where he was kissing her and that was like fire pouring into him merging with the heat of her light in his head and the unsteady thudding of his heart. She was so sweet on his tongue he moaned in pleasure, and he felt her smile with his lips.
She broke the kiss, licked her reddened lips and raised her eyebrows. “I guess that's a yes,” she murmured.
They were both breathing harder, and the movement of Warren's chest was distracting. Murphy was suddenly very aware of his growing erection, and he shifted uncomfortably, folding his hands in his lap to try to hide it. He knew it was pointless but he couldn't stop himself. “So what now?” he asked.
“Hell if I know.”
“Your plan stopped at kissing me?”
“Murphy I can barely tell whether you like Doc sometimes, how could I know what's going on in that red head of yours about us?”
Us. He liked that. “You haven't been that easy to read yourself, you know.”
She shrugged. “The apocalypse isn't great for building healthy relationships.”
He wanted to kiss her again, wondered what she would do if he did. Do it, you coward he urged himself. “Are we...an us now?”
She pressed her hand to his rapidly beating heart and he leaned into her palm as though drawn closer. “Haven't we been for awhile?”
“Everyone else seems to think so.”
“What was that old Bonnie Raitt song? 'Give 'em something to talk about,'” she said, grinning.
“I used to love that song.”
“I knew you had good taste.” She slid her hand up to his neck, rubbed her thumb along the line of his bearded chin and tilted her head thoughtfully. “Well?” she asked after a minute during which his body felt like it was vibrating with the need to touch her but he still felt too cautious to do.
“Well what?” he whispered.
“Do I have to do everything around here?”
A dozen snarky replies tensed at his lips, but he drowned them in her instead, surging forward to kiss her back down onto the cot. Her mouth opened on a delighted laugh that he swallowed to hold forever in his heart.
He'd fantasized about her over years and in a hundred different ways but not once had he imagined this: the caress of her hands over his chest, the way she kissed him back matching his need with hers. He couldn't have comprehended how to get to a place where she wanted this because she wanted him.
He tangled his hands in her hair, felt hers grip his shirt tightly. She pulled him against her, and his dick throbbed, trapped in his pants and so close to her but still too far away. His hands skimmed down and between their bodies; he tugged at her buttons until he'd undid them all. She undulated underneath him, helping him slide her pants and panties down and off. His brain shorted out when she lifted up to pull her shirt and bra off as well and there she was, naked and waiting for him, her smile pleased and challenging. He fumbled with his pants, having lost the ability to work his fingers. He laughed a little when Warren had to help him, and then abruptly choked on that laughter when she drew one nail down the length of his erection.
“Oh god,” he gasped.
“Do you have a condom?” she asked.
He stood, kicked his pants and underwear off, and grabbed one from the small pack everyone in the camp had been issued. “Newmerica approved,” he said, ripping it open.
He slid it on while her stare roamed over his body. “Shirt, too,” she commanded, and he yanked it over his head. “You're red all over,” she said, pressing one of her fingers against his thigh. The impression it left went white to pink to red again.
“Pick your fruit, I've been called them all.” Murphy said, kneeling back down on the cot. There wasn't much room for two people, so she lay back down while he straddled her. He rubbed his hands up her stomach, past the wound he'd stitched yesterday that was already half-healed, and cupped her breasts, heavy in his palms. He was sure he'd wake up but when he didn't, he knelt down and licked one of her nipples, then the other, felt them go hard on his tongue and her muscles tighten against his thighs.
“Murphy,” she sighed, and he slid into her wetness on a moan. He couldn't think, didn't want to. All he wanted was this: thrusting long and slow with Warren moving in perfect time, her hands pulling him closer, while everything became too much: the light too bright, her body too hot, the sound of his own breath too loud. His heart too full of need. All the things he had ever wanted focused in this one impossible moment he had never dared even dream about.
Warren kissed his neck, her teeth grazed his shoulder. Murphy pressed his forehead to hers and thrust harder, faster, and their breaths and their moans and their minds merged. She was around and inside of him and he drank every taste of her like he'd die without it. He heard her heartbeat in his ears, in his blood. If he'd had the ability to talk he would have spilled his whole heart to her there and then. Her strong hands went tight on his ass and then her whole body was tight around his as she gasped and shuddered and her fire in his head overwhelmed him before he followed her lead, falling into the light.
It took a minute to remember who he was, and he extricated her presence from his in his head as his body shifted on the cot enough to give her room to breathe.
“Damn,” she said, breathing heavily. “I didn't know the connection business would work out like that.”
“Mm,” he said, still recovering words.
She squirmed a little and then sighed. “These cots were not made for two adults.”
“Mm,” he agreed. Without thinking, he tugged her closer and nuzzled her hair.
“You're a cuddler,” she said, sounding surprised. He went still. “I like it,” she said, “I just didn't expect it.”
He hadn't either. It wasn't a thing he'd really even done pre-z. “You smell good,” he said at least partially truthful. “I'm not used to good-smelling things anymore.”
“I'll take that as a compliment.” She nudged him until he shifted onto his side. Warren's fingers moved softly and sure over the now faint scars of his zombie bites. “Eight,” she said.
“Nine,” he said quietly, and she touched the bite on his arm.
“You think she would be okay with this?”
“With her dad having sex? Probably not.”
Warren huffed a laugh. “I mean you and me.”
“She'd say you were slumming and could do better. She'd be right.” He thought of Lucy and the pain seemed a little less sharp than before. “She adored you.”
“I felt the same about her. But she wouldn't be right. You've changed, Murphy.”
“I now come in cherry flavor.”
“Okay she'd be a little right,” she said, punching him lightly in the shoulder. “You know what I mean.”
He did, and he didn't know what to do with it. The free respect of others still felt like wearing an uncomfortable new suit. “Is this why you told me about the Reset?” he asked.
“Partly. Whether this worked or not, I couldn't keep it from you. It was too big.” She was quiet for a moment and then: “You never apologized.”
“What? Yes I did.”
“No, you said you should apologize. That's different.”
“It's basically apologizing.”
“But it's not actually an apology.”
Murphy sighed. He could see being an 'us' would be pretty much the same as it was before, except with more kissing. The thought comforted him. “Then I'm sorry I was a jerk to you when I found out you were programmed to destroy the world.” Warren frowned at him. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said primly.
“Since my legs are still wobbly, I'll accept your apology.”
He chuckled and kissed her temple. It felt weird, still, to freely do so but she seemed to like it, because she was smiling again. He allowed a frisson of all the things he was feeling to escape. “I'm glad you did this.”
“Seemed like it was worth the chance it might backfire.”
“I crossed my heart and hoped to die,” he reminded her. “The worst that happens is we end up friends.”
“That's not the worst way this ends,” she said softly.
Murphy hated the dark sadness in her eyes, even though she was right. “Trust me, it's a lot more likely I'll do something stupid before it ever comes to worse,” he said lightly. Like tell her the depth of his feelings. The words pressed at his lips, and he twined his fingers with hers. She shouldn't have to be the only brave one. “Roberta.”
She tilted her head up to look at him. Her face was as familiar to him as his own heart and somehow he trusted her even more.
“Hey Murph, you ok?” Doc said from outside a second before he threw open the flap to the tent and came inside. Murphy and Warren both shouted as light speared in and over their naked bodies, and Doc stopped, flailed his hands around and yelled “aw shit! Shit! Sorry!”
Murphy rolled backward off the cot onto the floor as Doc stumbled and fell trying to exit, crashing half in and half out of the tent. From the cot Warren was cursing and laughing.
“Learn to knock!” Murphy shouted from the floor as Doc dragged himself outside.
“SORRY!” Doc yelled back. His feet disappeared and then he thrust just his hand back inside and gave them a thumbs up. “Way to go, you two!”
“Jesus,” Warren said, her laughter spilling over in a joyful waterfall. Murphy wasn't sure he'd ever heard her laugh like that. He lay on his back on the tent floor and let it wash over him.
After a minute she sighed and said, “they're going to be obnoxious about this.”
“Maybe we could just disappear for a week until they get it out of their system,” he said hopefully.
“They'd just save it for when we came back. May as well get it over with.”
“I guess.” He let her help him to his feet, returned her soft and sweet kiss.
She was pulling on her shirt when she asked, “before Doc interrupted us, did you have something you wanted to say?”
I love you, he thought. I've loved you for years. Even the apocalypse sucks less when you're here. “Not right now,” he said out loud, and then, to placate his own demanding heart he added, “but later.” He held out his arm to Warren as he'd done many times before, and when she took it it seemed the dim future of the apocalypse brightened ahead of them. Hope was calling them forward, and he followed her out into the sunlight.