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Strength in Numbers, Part I

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Logan helps Jess get the last of the canned goods into the back of the Humvee, the jars wrapped in old newspaper and packed tightly into wooden crates he suspects they can use for kindling as needed. "How are we doing for bottled water?" he asks, making sure everything is cushioned and wedged so it won't move at all. "Antony's got that pool shock stuff if we need it but I don't know about you — I'd prefer to put that off as long as possible." So far this morning they've talked about food, water, clothes, getting everyone washed up somewhere, getting more gas... all safe serious topics.

"We've still got enough for a few days, but it'd be good if we could find a well sooner rather than later." She pushes her long bangs out of her face, unknowingly leaving a smudge of dust on her cheek. "Of course, if we want to bring it with us, that means we'll have to find room to pack it somewhere on the boat." And unless Antony wants to go with a full-sized luxury yacht next sail, then they're running out of storage space. "If we find a good place to set up for the night, then I'll borrow Sam's penlight thing and make some more drinkable water."

"You've got—" Logan gestures to her cheek and then his own. "Dirt."

She blinks at him, then rubs her cheek with the back of her hand. "Here? Did I get it?" she asks, meeting his gaze directly for perhaps the first time all morning. In the watery early morning sunshine she can see that his eyes are less like melted chocolate than she thought, and more of a fine blended whiskey with errant streaks of gold. Catching herself staring, she flushes and looks away.

"No. You actually made it worse. May I?" he asks softly.

"Sure," she whispers, tilting her head back to offer up her cheek.

Logan leans in a little closer, brushing his thumb gently over her cheek where she's smeared the dust. "There you go," he says, almost wishing it hadn't been that easily removed.

A sudden rush of spontaneous sensuality takes her by surprise, and Jess shivers at the light touch. "Thanks," she says, a little breathless, staring up at him in something akin to wonder.

"You're welcome," Logan says with a smile, staring back. Wanting to kiss her.

She smiles a little, moving in slow-motion like she's in a dream when she pushes up to her toes and brushes her lips over his.

The kiss is fantastic, as light as it is, and Logan deepens it only enough to let Jess know he wants this, wants more if it's on offer, but he's not rushing, not taking, not forcing anything.

"Are we read—?" Antony asks Clive, coming around the corner. He blinks at the sight, having thought that pretty much nothing could faze him anymore.

"Wha—?" Clive stops and stares, and it's a second before he can shake himself out of it. Then he marches over and grabs Keira, dipping her back over his arm for a dramatic kiss. "Thank you," he murmurs earnestly, "for warning me."

Jess feels like her blood is golden light when she steps back, and that's even before she notices the stares and flushes like a brushfire.

"Warning you?" Keira blurts out when she's upright again. Head spinning from the kiss. Lips still tingling. "About what?"

Clive's eyes cut towards Jess and Logan, where Jess is just stepping back and looking like she's trying to pull herself together.

Keira glances over, eyes going wide. "Did something actually happen?"

"They kissed," he confirms. "And I didn't choke on my tongue, so thank you." Clive's dimple flashes when he grins, and he gently pulls Keira back up to her feet.

Keira laughs. "That's wonderful," she says. "Both things. Them kissing and you not choking."

"I'll see you at the next stop," Logan says softly, smiling, making his exit while he can, well aware of the eyes on them. "How far ahead do you want me?" he asks Antony, grabbing his helmet.

"Visual distance," Antony says. "At least until we get you a radio."

***

It can be hard to stay alert. They spend nearly all their time at high-strung awareness levels, more stress than the human body is actually designed to deal with at a given stretch. And so when they're on the road, the highway spreading out smoothly ahead of them, Jess finds that drowsiness sets in, under the facade of peacefulness. Yeah, the dead are on either side, shambling across the lanes or climbing the banks. Sure, sometimes the Humvee mows a few bodies right the fuck down. But for the most part, Jess can't help but let her guard down. She's just so fucking tired.

Glancing in the rearview mirror, Antony notices Jess struggling to stay awake. "It's okay," he says over his shoulder. "You can sleep. We're good up here." Although that we includes Eva and maybe he shouldn't be speaking for her.

For her part, though, Eva is also struggling to stay awake. She's never before felt such all-consuming exhaustion, a weird fatigue that goes bone deep. Her eyes burn with the effort of holding back tears. "Do you need a lookout?" she asks, glancing at Antony.

"No," Antony shakes his head, glancing over at Eva now. Wondering if anyone actually slept last night. "You can sleep too. We've got Logan."

She nods and rests her head against the cold window. In mere minutes she's out like a light.

"And what about you, Terminator?" Jess asks softly, leaning between the seats. It occurs to her that no one ever inquires as to Antony's wellbeing — he just seems so bulletproof. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine. I got some sleep and I'm used to this," Antony says with a small smile at the nickname. "Not the zombie apocalypse thing but keeping ready..."

Jess snorts softly. "I'd hope you never get used to this," she murmurs, and sighs. "I guess there'll never be a point when they all are just decomposed, will there? Because there are more every day. I've tried to do the math," she explains. "But I think even with the law of diminishing returns, there will always be more of them than us."

"There should be a point where there's nothing more for them to eat," Antony says. "I don't know what happens then."

"All of us will eventually turn," she muses, staring out the window at the remarkably pretty countryside. "If we don't do for each other when one of us dies. Sorry," she adds with a shake of her head. "I'm thinking too much. It's all the time driving."

"You don't believe someone will find a cure?" Antony asks, surprised.

"With what technology?" She looks at him curiously. "You think there might be a cure?"

Antony shrugs. "I'm sure the CDC and WHO have people hunkered down somewhere working on one." At least he assumes so, knowing how the government and military operate. Then again, maybe they've all been bitten too and they're shit out of luck. Even more reason to make things work on Auskerry.

She laughs, though she's careful to not disturb Eva. "You give people a lot more credit than I do. I just figure I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet, because I'm with a group that hasn't gone all Lord of the Flies yet."

"And we won't," Antony says firmly, glancing over his shoulder. "We won't have any reason to."

Jess raises an eyebrow with a soft chuckle, and retreats into the back seat once more. All this time she's thought of Antony as a realist; it's a bit of a surprise to learn that he's an optimist. But she trusts him enough to close her eyes, she realizes, and that's an amazing thing.

***

"I miss music," Sam says, out of the blue. If it weren't for all the dead, the guns and the constant watchfulness, this could be a kick-ass road trip. But they'd need music for that.

Ryan smiles, his posture easing slightly. "Yeah," he agrees, sitting back and looking over at Sam. Sam, who fucked him. Who he let fuck him. "What was your favorite band, before?"

"Metallica," Sam says with a sheepish grin.

"I always liked them. You're falling faster," Ryan sings, "obey your master..." He chuckles. "God, you're right. I kind of forgot what music was."

"I wonder if anyone in our group plays any instruments," Sam says, thinking about all the lost digital music, all the record players that still need electricity to operate, or a never-ending supply of batteries. Damn. "I know it takes up space but I think we should take a guitar or something over with us."

"Alex plays guitar," Luke volunteers from the back, not having really meant to listen in on the conversation. "I play piano but it's not like we can take one of those over."

"How did I not know that he plays guitar?" Ryan wonders aloud, although it's really not much of a question. They've spent a lot of time together, but it's not been social. "We'll get you one," he says, looking over his shoulder at Alex. "And Sam will sing."

"Luke can sing," Alex puts in, watching his lover with a little smile. "He's amazing."

Luke beams at Alex. "Everyone can sing," he says. "It'll help with morale and give us some solid down time."

"Yeah, like sex," Alex says, wondering if he and Luke will ever get to experience the honeymoon phase of their relationship.

Ryan catches his eye in the rearview mirror. "Right. Like that," he agrees, and can't help snickering.

"Except that we're not having orgies on the island," Luke says, amused, shaking his head and giving Alex a firm kiss on the mouth.

"Possessive?" Alex raises an eyebrow and kisses Luke back, but he takes his time, licking between his lips. Breathlessly asks, "You don't want to share me?"

"That depends," Luke says, asking with a grin, "How gay are you?"

"Pretty fuckin' gay," Alex answers with a soft snort. He leans in closer to murmur, "You didn't notice that when I was licking your ass?"

Luke laughs. "I only meant whether you were going to be expected to help repopulate the world."

"Everyone's going to be expected to," Sam throws over his shoulder, amused, having caught pretty much all of that. He grins at Ryan. "Unless they can't. We'll need our gene pool to be as big as possible."

"Yeah, we don't want to lose all our gigantic Viking genes," Ryan adds, looking back over his shoulder at the pair. "We'll throw you at Eva and the two of you can make the next generation of Amazons," he says, watching as Alex pulls a face at the suggestion.

"That lets me out," Luke says, not at all embarrassed and more than happy to take the heat off Alex.

"No, someone has to get your singing voice," Alex denies, grabbing Luke's hand. "God, are we really talking about this? I mean, this is something we're going to wait till the island for, right? We can't be on the run with a baby." The idea terrifies him, not to mention that he'd never pictured himself as a father at all...

"No, we'll wait," Sam says, reaching for Ryan's hand, "but it's good to talk about it. Antony wants to try and even up our numbers just a little more before we go. If we get the chance." He glances in the rearview mirror at Luke. "You're out?"

"Definitely out," Luke says firmly, giving Alex's hand a squeeze. "I can't... with women."

Ryan raises an eyebrow at Sam, curious what happened to the need for the deepest gene pool possible; but then, he himself isn't gay. He has no idea what it would be like for Luke or Alex. "You know, a turkey baster isn't actually out of the realm of possibility," he remarks, looking back again with a smile for Luke. "We might get mini-you's running around yet."

"I'd be fine with that," Luke volunteers easily. "As long as I don't have to have sex with a woman."

Sam smiles to himself. He can't imagine being so repulsed by either sex that he couldn't get it up. Not that he really wants to have sex with anyone but Ryan. "You might have to try that with Antony too," he points out to Ryan. "I don't think I've seen him look at anyone."

"Nah, I am definitely not basting him," Ryan says, starting to laugh. "We'll sort something out."

"Just don't tell him I said anything," Sam says, laughing too.

"So, turkey baster or can you...?" Luke asks Alex quietly, certain the guys are amusing themselves enough up front not to hear.

"Can I...?" Alex sort of shrugs, sort of shakes his head. "I haven't. Not since I was 15. I'd probably screw it up," he says with a small laugh. "This is really scary to think about, though. This whole repopulation scheme. I hate the thought that my family," he swallows hard, "is probably lost for good."

Luke starts to say that maybe there's a chance, they could be holed up somewhere, but he doesn't want to give Alex false hope or send him on a wild goose chase. "I know," he says, squeezing his hand. "And you're right. It is scary, but it's also our best shot at making the island work. At making a new world for ourselves where we're not just eking out an existence."

"Yeah, I know," Alex says with a soft sigh, and squeezes Luke's hand. He knows he's incredibly lucky, just to have survived this long. And now to have found Luke, against all odds... It's a blessing like he's never known.

"And there's five guys who can 'spread their seed' easily so I think we've got a while before they get to us," Luke says with a grin and leans in, kissing Alex on the corner of his mouth. "What they really need is more women."

***

Two vehicles ahead, Eva abruptly orders, "Stop the car." She looks frantically out the windscreen to check they're not coming up on a clutch of walkers. "Antony, stop the car!"

With a quick glance to make sure they're okay to stop, Antony taps on his brakes twice to warn those behind them and pulls over.

Eva damn near falls out of the Humvee in her rush. She drops to her knees and vomits in the road dust, heaving until she's empty.

Staring in alarm, Jess tumbles out after her. She hesitates just an instant, then gathers up the wisps of long dark hair hanging around Eva's face and holds it back. It's nearly a flashback to college, but life was a lot more predictable then.

As concerned as everyone else when the caravan stops so suddenly, Ryan cranes his neck out his window. "Eva's sick," he reports, jumping down. He jogs to the women but approaches cautiously, one hand on the hilt of his knife.

Glancing over his shoulder, Logan sees everyone pulled over to the side of the road and doubles back. "She okay?" he asks, walking up, thankful for the deserted road and fields around them.

"I'm fine," Eva gasps, and spits into the dirt. But she doesn't attempt to rise yet.

Ryan hands her a bottle of water and she swishes then spits again. He's already running a mental assessment, reviewing what everyone ate this morning - the same thing as everyone else - and checking the time. "Is anyone else feeling ill?" he asks, urging her to drink again when she tries to hand the bottle back. "Keep drinking."

"I'm good," Logan volunteers, Luke and Alex both echoing him.

"I don't think it's anything she ate," Antony says, crouching beside her. "Mind if I feel your forehead?" They've got a thermometer somewhere but that would mean digging through everything and figuring out which vehicle it's in.

Eva lifts her head to show willingness, and tolerates him laying his hand across her forehead. "I said I'm fine," she rasps, then leans over to dry-heave.

"You're not hot," Antony points out. "And you ate the same thing we did." And she hasn't shown any sign of getting carsick before. Fuck. He really doesn't want to say it. Really hopes he's wrong. "Could you be pregnant?"

"What? No, I—" Abruptly her pale face flushes hot. "Oh my god."

"Ohh, my god," Ryan whispers, scrubbing his hand over his eyes.

Eva presses her fingers to her lips, tears welling up in her eyes. "Marcus."

Antony blows out a breath. That answers that. And while it's not ideal, it puts them ahead of schedule on the whole repopulating thing. "Okay. Next pharmacy we hit, we'll look for a test, some vitamins, prenatals if we can find them, and we'll try and find you a bowl or bag for when we can't stop in the middle of the road." He touches Eva's shoulder. "I'm sorry about Marcus, I really am, but if you are pregnant, we'll do our best to take care of you and the baby."

Jess is shocked to find herself blinking back sudden tears, and she couldn't say whether they're out of sympathy for Eva or whether they're a response to Antony's moving words. Either way, she sniffles as she crouches down next to Eva in the dirt, hugging her close while the woman grieves.

Clive bites his bottom lip, scanning the fields. They seem safe enough at the moment, but... "C'mon love," he says gently, crouching as well. "Let's get you up." He easily helps Eva to her feet, then sees her back into the Humvee, Jess following close. Stepping back, he reaches for Keira's hand.

Keira clings to Clive's hand, suddenly quiet. "Maybe I don't want to get pregnant," she says, blowing out a breath as they get back in the van. "Not until we're on the island anyway."

He brings her hand to his lips. "It's your choice. We're going to get through this. There's time." He has to believe it.

"I don't know what I'd do if I lost you," she says, seeing Eva crying over her dead lover striking her to the core. She's already lost one man who meant the world to her. "I don't know if I could cope."

"Hey, slow down," Clive urges, pulling her into his embrace. "I'm not going anywhere. Neither are you. We're getting through this, Keira. I promise you." He buries his face in her hair and breathes in.

"You can't know that," she insists, working herself into a frenzy now. "I bet Marcus told Eva the same thing and look at Cal? He was one of the strongest people I've ever known and they still got him."

"They got him," Clive echoes, because it's the truth, bitter as it is, "but they didn't get us. No one's going to fucking get us." He strokes her hair, watching the wildness in her eyes. "Yeah, it's luck and chance and I don't know what, maybe fate, but it's not our time, Keira. We're surviving this."

"Promise me," she demands. "Promise me and mean it," she says, needing to hear the words, to cling to them like she's clinging to Clive.

"We're getting through this. Whatever this world fucking throws at us, we're gonna survive. This is our world now," Clive promises, "ours."

Keira nods, the panic and grief starting to recede. "Okay," she nods, torn between being ashamed of her breakdown and surprised it's taken this long.

It's nearly painful to watch that steel self-control set in once more, so quickly. Clive caresses her cheek, frowning slightly when it's time to gun the engine and pull back into the country road. "You don't have to be okay, you know," he says quietly, a bit discomfited by her composure.

"Yes, I do," Keira says, staring out the window. "At least until we get to the island."

He's tempted to argue - "at least"? - but thinks better of it. If Keira needs this stony silence to hold herself together, he won't press. Yet. Dust spews from beneath the van's tires and they take up the trail again. "She'll need you and Jess the most in this," he says, switching the subject back to Eva. "And Ryan I suppose, but mostly the two of you."

"Why? Because we're women? Neither of us have had kids," she points out, immediately regretting it. It's not Clive's fault she's feeling so raw.

"Yes, but... When my sister was pregnant, she told me she felt drawn to other women, that men seemed like alien creatures to her," Clive replies, wondering how he stepped wrong. "You are physically capable of having babies, I'm not. It's not sexist."

"I know." Keira blows out a breath. "I'm sorry. I'm just..." she shakes her head, finally adding, "I don't know what I am."

"Human? Grieving, tired? Any of the above?" Clive hazards. "I know I'm all of those. And more." He adds after a reflective moment, "But at least I'm not Ryan."

"Why?" Keira frowns, confused for a second before it sinks in. "Oh! Because he'll have to deliver it." She shakes her head again. "We'll need to make sure we have access to fire and wood and clean water. And even then..."

"And even then, we'll make it work," he says sturdily, silently praying. "At least none of us can be squeamish anymore." There's not much room for that, day to day. "We're going to make it."

Keira nods. "It was such a stupid mistake he made," she says, meaning Marcus. Her brain still lingering on his loss, on Eva's loss.

"Yeah." A mistake easily made, though. "Do you think Sam was right? To do for him the way he did, I mean?" Clive wonders, whether he'd want that. Or whether he'd rather do it for himself.

"Definitely." Keira nods again. "With a bite like that, there's only a few minutes between being human and being one of those," she says, gesturing out the window at a walker stumbling across the field. "I wouldn't want to take the chance."

"Yeah. It's getting faster, the transition," he says. "That's weird." The walkers, though — they seem the same.

"Promise me if I get bit you'll do what Sam did," Keira says, "or at least let someone do it and not try and stop them."

"Shut up, you're not getting bit," he replies, his voice much sharper than even he expected. His tone is apologetic when he adds, "I have to believe that."

"Fine, but I still want you to promise me," Keira says, looking over, staring at Clive.

"I promise," he snaps, harried. What's the point of them talking up their survival if they're only going to plan for the absolute worst? "Now you."

"You want me to do you?" Keira asks, a little surprised after Clive's misgivings about how they'd handled Marcus.

He hesitates, forcing himself to think through the reality in a way his mind usually shies from. "If it comes to that, yes," he says finally. "Don't leave me to them."

Keira nods. "I promise." It's not hard to do, not with what they've both seen. Not with what they've both lost. The idea of Cal, and now Clive, out there wandering, mindless, one of those things... she couldn't live with herself. Not if given the chance.

"Antony is slowing down," Clive says, instantly on full alert again. They weren't even going that fast to begin with.

One car ahead, Ryan frowns at the road in the distance. "There are people. Live ones," he tells Sam, uncertain whether to aim for them or not. "Shit."

Logan's stopped, still straddling his bike, gun at his shoulder, trained on the man waving them down, having already spotted the other person he's hiding. When Antony pulls the humvee over and jumps down, he holds up two fingers, indicating he's scanned the rest of the area, no one else visible. But that doesn't mean they're not there.

"Tell your friend to come out," Antony calls. "We won't hurt you but we also won't talk unless we can see you."

The stranger visibly hesitates, then waves to his companion, who scrambles out from behind a thicket of trees. "I'm Clayton, this is Rebecca. We're alone, and we don't want to make trouble. Just take us with you, wherever you're going."

"Are you armed?" Antony asks, trusting Logan has them covered, the whole caravan stopped at this point, several of his people outside their vehicles, weapons at the ready and scanning the landscape around them.

"Just our blades," Clayton answers, taking Rebecca's hand in his and gripping it tightly. When he hailed the first Humvee he hadn't thought there'd be quite so many people, and he's more than a little nervous now about the crowd. "We're out of food."

"We'll take you with us if you're okay with being separated until we reach our next shelter," Antony says, unwilling to let two unknowns in any of their vehicles until they've had time to assess them. "You can come with me and Rebecca can go with Clive and Keira," nodding their way. "If that's not acceptable, we can leave you some food."

From Ryan's perspective, that doesn't sit well with the two strangers. Rebecca pulls on Clayton's hand, shaking her head, and a low-voiced conference ensues. She's clearly reluctant, even more so than he, but eventually she agrees and steps closer. Ryan points to the van where Clive and Keira are, but she hops in before he can offer her a hand up. With a shrug he climbs back into his seat next to Sam. "That's two more. I don't know how Antony expects to drive and keep an eye on the guy at the same time, but I guess if anyone can do it, it's him."

"He'll have Jess or Eva, probably Jess," since Eva might not been done puking her guts out, "hold a gun on him," Sam says. "Shoot him if he gets out of line."

Ryan blows out a breath. "I hope he doesn't make the mistake of looking at her wrong," he says ruefully. He rolls his eyes when Alex snorts a laugh. "It's not funny."

Alex nods. "It's a little funny," he argues. "Dude has no idea what he's up against."

Up in the other humvee, Antony asks their new companion, "How'd the two of you end up out here?" More than confident in Jess's ability to take care of the guy if things turn weird.

"We ran out of petrol this morning," Clayton explains, looking out the window to try and catch a glimpse of Rebecca as they start moving. "I figured there was no point backtracking, so we've just been trailing the road, searching for another ride." He drags a hand through his short dark hair, uneasy. "Where are you going?"

"North," Antony responds, being deliberately vague as he continues, "There's a couple of islands off the coast. Uninhabited from before. We thought they might be safe." Unwilling to give away their plans until he's absolutely certain these two are on their own.

Clayton nods and glances back over his shoulder to find himself staring down the barrel of Jess's Glock. He forces a fake smile on his lips, and stiffly turns back towards the road again. "We're just going... anywhere. We'll keep moving until we can find a place that's safe for a night or two, and then move on."

"And it's just been the two of you?" Antony asks. "The whole time?"

"No." Clayton takes a mental count, guessing at their numbers. "But everyone else is gone. Haven't you lost people?"

"Everyone has," Eva murmurs from the backseat, looking out the window with desolate eyes. "No one gets out of this."

"We have," Antony nods. Although it strikes him they've done pretty damn well since all coming together. Apart from Marcus - and they'd only just met him. He glances over at Clayton. "We have a good core group here. And we have more concrete plans than what I've mentioned. What I'm trying to figure out is whether you two would make a good addition to our group before I tell you anything more."

"You have plans? Take us with you. That's all we ask," Clayton replies. "I mean, it feels like forever since I met anyone who even planned more than a day ahead. With you, we might have a chance."

Never mind that he echoes Jess's own thoughts. She doesn't like the guy, she's decided. Even if she's not sure - yet - why not.

"We'll have to see. The groups needs to vote on it," Antony bullshits. He's the de facto leader, the man with the plan, but something about Clayton rubs him the wrong way. He's not about to share until he figures out what and why. "But you can stay the night with us and either way, we'll make sure you get some food, find some shelter."

"Great. That's great." Giving up on trying to keep track of the other vehicles, Clayton rests his head back against the seat and closes his eyes, consumed by fatigue.

Jess relaxes her posture only slightly.

In the van, Clive takes a moment to study Rebecca in the rearview mirror. "Do you need food? Water?"

"No," she answers with a shake of her head. "I'm just tired. We're so happy you picked us up."

"Have you been together the whole time?" Keira asks.

"Since almost the beginning. Months." Rebecca frowns, agitated. "It's been months, right? I stopped tracking the time." She shakes her head. "Clayton is good. He's loyal, and he takes good care of me."

"Do either of you fight?" Clive asks, glancing back at her.

"When we have to. Doesn't everybody?"

"You'd certainly think so," Keira says dryly. "I think Clive was asking whether you guys have any skills we can use."

"Oh. Yes, we fight. Clayton is really good with a knife," Rebecca adds. "He's fast. How many of you are there?"

"Fifteen," Clive lies. "Half our crew is waiting for us up ahead. How many of you were there?"

She shrugs sadly. "Not enough, I guess."

"You've made it this far," Keira points out. "And you had the guts," or the stupidity, "to flag us down."

"Yes." Rebecca brightens a touch. They're safe now, after everything.

***

They make two stops along the way, one to refuel the vehicles and another to check out a Tesco warehouse in the middle of nowhere. The building looks closed up tight and the gate's intact but there are a good dozen cars in the parking lot and a couple of eighteen-wheelers pulled around to closed loading docks. Shit. Antony stares at the place, wondering whether they should risk it. There's only so much they'll be able to take across with them but this could be a fucking jackpot of actually useful items. If there's not a dozen walkers or more waiting inside for them. And if the place hasn't already been looted. "What do you think?" he asks Ryan who's standing beside him.

"I think it looks like a minefield," Ryan says softly, not wanting to alarm any of their companions. Although, truly, it's a false hope. He points at a break in the chain-link fence surrounding the property. "Someone's been through here already. But I don't see any bodies on the ground."

"The cars are probably empty," Alex murmurs, limping to Antony's other side. "Everyone will have wanted to get inside the warehouse. They're neatly parked, you know? No one was running."

"Which means they're probably still here. Somewhere." Ryan pulls his pistol and checks that it's fully loaded. "What do you say, start with the trucks?"

Antony nods. "What do we want to do with our tagalongs?" he asks, nodding towards Clayton and Rebecca.

"Leave them out here - not all of us need to go in," Logan suggests. "We don't know how they react in bad situations and this isn't the place to test them."

"Take the keys, though," Alex suggests, hating that he feels the need to say it. But he does. "I'll stay out here with Clive and Jess, Clayton and Rebecca."

Ryan catches Alex's eyes and nods. Finally they're starting to play to their strengths, rather than struggling against their weaknesses.

"I'm going in," Luke says, giving Alex a kiss. "We should all pair up too. Nobody should be going off on their own."

"I'll go with Luke," Keira volunteers, making sure she has a full clip and a couple of knives.

"Okay," Antony agrees. "Logan, you're with me, and Sam and Ryan are together."

Outside the van, Rebecca is already holding tightly to Clayton's hand once more. Alex scrutinizes the pair, realizing abruptly that Luke's kiss could be a problem -- but if they object, they're not showing it. He nods to Jess who still has her gun out. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Just, you know," she shrugs, taking up a defensive position by one of the Humvees. "Ready for anything."

Alex chuckles. "That's us. Badass and prepared for monsters." He scans the horizon opposite to make sure he doesn't miss any approaching details while his lover heads off into the unknown.

The group checks the two trucks, one empty and the other stacked to the brim with paper products. "Fuck," Luke mutters under his breath. "I was hoping we might luck out and not have to go inside."

"On the bright side, we could have all the t.p. we'll ever need," Logan says with a laugh and a wink.

Keira just sighs and shakes her head. At least there could have been tampons. Or pads even. At this point she'd take anything. "Loading dock or door?" she asks Sam.

"Door. If there's anything behind the loading dock, we're going to get rushed."

There's always a moment of breathlessness, when they knock on a door and wait to see if it knocks back... Ryan exhales in relief when there's no such response. He glances aside at Sam, catching his eye for a moment before he follows Keira single-file inside. The warehouse is dank and dim, the only light streaming in from dusty windows high above. Ryan feels his skin crawling, and tries to focus on his sector when his panicked instinct is to look everywhere at once.

"They have to be in here somewhere," Sam whispers, keeping his weapon at the ready, every nerve on edge, ears perked for the slightest sound that isn't them.

Antony motions for Keira and Luke to take one of the side of the warehouse while Sam and Ryan take the other. He and Logan'll check out the back.

Ryan slips down a shadowy aisle with Sam at his back, and sure enough his eyes soon widen, his ears pricking. He signals to Sam and raises his blade, sinking it into an approaching walker, two more shambling behind. All of them in warehouse coveralls.

Sam deals with the one after Ryan's and Ryan gets the third, the path now clear again. "How many cars were outside?" he whispers, wondering if there's any way of easily knowing when they've got them all.

Thinking back, Ryan answers, "Ten? A dozen, maybe. I wonder if any of the workers brought their families here." If they'd thought they could withstand a siege, or wait out the disease... "Spill," he warns, taking care to circle around a large dark puddle of something that oozes.

"Everything looks intact," Sam says, thinking there'd be more of a mess if they'd brought families and stayed for another length of time. Unless someone was already infected and it had raged through before anyone had a chance for actual shelter. Fuck. There'd better not be kids. He won't hesitate to put them down but... yeah. It's the only time he really feels what they're doing.

"How much are we really thinking to carry out of here?" Ryan whispers, peeking around the corner of an aisle, his weapon ready. The silence, drawn taut around them, is beginning to get to him.

"I don't think it's a question of quantity as much as quality," Sam whispers back. "Stuff we haven't been able to find, that we might really need on the island. If nothing's been touched here..." He shrugs, following Ryan past the next few aisles, all of them empty. Thank god.

Ryan nods agreement and keeps his eyes peeled, reaching up to trail a finger through the dust on a shelf.

The rest of their side is empty and they meet Keira and Luke in the middle. "Anything?" Sam asks, gaze going to the knife in Luke's hand, the blood still dripping from it.

"Two," Luke whispers back. "Which probably means Logan and Antony are dealing with the rest. Should we check on them?"

"Not yet," Ryan mutters, his ears perked. He takes a few careful more steps forward, peeking around a wall of towering shelves filled with boxes. He jumps back when the first walker swipes at him, can't help the reflex. But then he steps up and twists around to stab the thing in the neck, and ducks to avoid the one behind it. Fuck, there are more than enough to take his crew down.

Sam takes care of the one behind Ryan, and the one behind that, trusting Luke and Keira have their side. These walkers seem in better shape than some of the ones they've encountered and he wonders how long some of them were in here before they turned. Whether they could have turned more recently. Fuck. He shouts at a flash of pain, one of the things sinking its teeth into his arm. He stabs his blade into its skull, fear rioting through him. Fuck fuck fuck. How could he be so fucking stupid?

"Sam!" Ryan wrenches around in horror, shoving a body to the floor and stumbling past. "Get— fuck—" he shouts inarticulately, wildly stabbing at the walker even as Sam manages to fling it off. Ryan grabs Sam by his shoulder and yanks him back. "Luke! Keira!" He runs backward, only checking to make sure their path is still clear. "Antony!"

"Holy fuck..." Logan breathes at the sight of the mess in the main warehouse. He follows Antony, who weaves his way around, taking the side aisles while they head after the rest of the team.

"Get out," Antony growls at Logan, turning to shove him through the door, his gun raised, putting several bullets in the heads of the walkers closest to them before he drags the door shut, using the butt of the gun to smash fingers free of the opening.

"Shit!" As soon as their mates start tumbling back outside, Alex dashes for the loading dock as fast as he can. He has to get to Luke, has to make sure he's okay.

"No, really, that's fine. Leave us," Jess mutters sarcastically, but her lips feel numb and her face drains of all color when she glances back.

Ryan doesn't waste a second, just starts tugging at Sam's jacket, tearing at the layers beneath. "Let me see," he snaps, his hands starting to shake. "Let me see."

Sam stands there, numb, shocked to his core, letting Ryan move him. His mind flailing, terrified of what Ryan's going to find.

"What happened?" Antony asks, moving in close, watching both of them, his gaze falling on the torn fabric on Sam's arm. "Was he bitten?"

"It grabbed him. With its teeth, it..." Ryan trails off, unwilling to make any further pronouncement. He shoves Sam's jumper sleeve up and can't help but gasp at the livid marks. Teeth, clearly outlined in angry red gouges, and a rapidly darkening bruise huge in size. But-- "It didn't break the skin," Ryan mutters, running his hand over the site and then pulling Sam's arm up to his eye level so he can inspect it better. "Sam, you're not bleeding. Not even a little." He probes more closely, terrified to believe.

"Are you sure?" both Sam and Antony demand at the same time, everyone else crowding around, Sam unable to look, the whole world frozen as he waits.

"I'm... I'm sure," Ryan breathes, his eyes wide with disbelief. But he wouldn't shit Sam — or anyone, about a thing like this. He skims his fingers over the marks again, then holds his hand up for his lover to see for himself.

Watching, Alex sags back against the wall, grasping Luke's hand tight.

It's only now that Sam looks at Ryan's fingers, risks a glance at his own arm. Fuck. Sheer relief courses through him, tears stinging his eyes. He bends over, hands braced against his thighs, his breath coming hard and fast. Fuck fuck fuck.

Ryan blinks back panic from his own eyes, and puts his arm around Sam, supporting him if he needs it. Embracing him because he needs it.

A loud thud slams against the warehouse door from the other side, and Alex jumps. "How many are in there?" he whispers, staring again at Sam's arm. "Will this hold?"

"It'll hold," Antony nods, unfazed by the thuds, his mind still on how close they came to losing Sam. "Let's check the cars out here before we go. See if there's anything worth taking."

Alex nods and squeezes Luke's hand before reluctantly releasing him. Ryan ignores the suggestion, figuring it damn well doesn't apply to Sam and him right now. Anyway, everyone else starts to fan out. "Hey," he whispers to his lover, his lips at Sam's ear. "Talk to me."

"I thought I was dead," Sam says, crouching down completely now, not even caring about the noise at his back. "The moment it bit me, I was just thinking about who was going to have to shoot me."

"No one's fucking shooting you," Ryan growls, tightening his embrace. He kisses Sam's cheek, his chin, blindly seeking his lips.

And Sam kisses back. Pours everything he's feeling into that kiss, clutching at Ryan in a way he never has before. Grounding himself.

"You're okay," Ryan whispers, desperately fisting his hands in Sam's shirt. "We're okay." Another loud thump makes him turn his head and yell at the warehouse, "And fuck you!"

Alex works his way slowly down an aisle of the carpark lot. He's shaken - although obviously not as much as Sam - his insides feeling like they're twisted in knots. That could have been Luke. It could've broken the skin. Their whole world could have been upended, again. Gasping for breath, he leans back against an empty car and tries to collect himself.

Spying Alex on his own, Logan starts to ask whether he's checked one of the nearby cars before realizing his state. "You okay?"

"Yeah." But Alex whips his head around before focusing on Logan, realizing he's become dangerously out of touch with his environment. "Yeah, I... I just..." He swallows hard and shrugs, figuring he doesn't really need to explain. They've all grown to depend on each other. "You? You were okay in there?"

Logan nods. "I was with Antony. We cleared out the back and figured we'd got lucky until we heard the commotion at the front and came out to find a whole fucking horde of them." He rubs a hand over the back of his neck, shaking his head. "That was a close call."

"Too fucking close," Alex agrees in a whisper. "Did we get anything at all for that?" he asks, turning to peer into the tinted window of a van.

"Not much," Logan admits with a sigh, pulling open the doors on another car after checking both back and front seats. "Some meds, some lighters, a few cans of food and I grabbed a box of those space blankets. Thought they might come in handy."

"They will. It's going to be motherfuckin' cold where we're going." Alex comes up with a handful of cash from the van's glove compartment, then tosses it back in frustration. "Are you going to keep Jess warm?"

Logan raises an eyebrow at that. "Maybe. If she'll let me," he says after a moment. It's not really any of Alex's business but there's no room for privacy in this group.

Alex nods; he wasn't looking for tawdry details anyway. "That's good. Most days I get the feeling she'd still rather shoot some of us, so if you can get her to trust you then that's good." He reaches beneath the passenger seat of the car he's checking and pulls out a .50 cal shotgun. "Goddamn."

"Bet someone wishes they'd taken that in there with them," Logan says, pulling more meds, a small first aid kit and a pair of sunglasses from a glove compartment and adding them to his pack.

With a shake of his head, Alex packs up the mostly-empty box of shells. "Hey, did you get a read on that new guy?"

Logan glances around, making sure they're completely alone before he admits, "Yeah and I don't like him. I get this feeling they're hiding something but I don't know what. Maybe they're just naturally shifty."

Alex purses his lips in doubt. "For a minute there, when Antony told them to split up... I thought Clayton was going to take a swing at him. The air just got so tense..." He blows out a breath, realizing he doesn't have to try to explain his instincts to Logan — the guy's obviously got his own. Alex looks back towards their vehicles, checking that Jess and Clive still appear calm and ready.

Logan nods. "I think that's it," he says, closing up the car and looking at the warehouse. He shakes his head. "This could have been a gold mine. They'd barely touched anything in there."

"They must've turned fast, then." For his part, Alex is all too happy to get the fuck out of here. Just grab Luke and go, before they push their luck any further.

The vehicles checked, the group piles back into their own, keeping the same split for now. Antony still doesn't trust Clayton or Rebecca, something about them both pinging wrong. They make one more stop, an old nursery, Antony - in consultation with Jess - grabbing packets of seeds and some soluble fertilizer. It's not much in the scheme of things but it makes him feel better about the failed warehouse run. "We'll have to spend a few more days in port if we still need supplies." Which will mean look-outs and barricades and maybe missing the right weather. Fuck.

"We need to get out of this fucking country as soon as fucking possible," Clayton mutters, rubbing at the furrows on his brow.

Jess frowns and brings her pistol to aim at him again, snapping, "Antony knows what he's doing. If he says that we'll wait, then we wait."

Antony appreciates the loyalty but he doesn't mind explaining, "We have to wait for the right weather anyway and once we're over there, we have to wait for the right weather to make any trips back, which could means months. If we don't do it right the first time, we might not get a second chance."

"Wait, back?" Jess asks, surprised. "You're thinking to come back, once we've gotten there?" She realizes she and Antony have been looking at this from completely different perspectives. "I was picturing us kind of sealed off from the rest of the world once we got there. You know, like our own biodome or something." Worry creeps into her voice.

"We will be, pretty much," Antony says. "The island doesn't appear on a lot of maps, few people know it exists, you need a certain set of skills and the right weather to get there..." He shrugs, "But it's unlikely we'll be able to be completely self-sufficient right away which might mean a trip or two back but that's all we'll be able to manage each year anyway." He glances in the rearview mirror. "Only a couple people will go at a time and we'll make sure no one returns infected."

"But you'll make sure everyone returns," Jess says firmly, water leaking from her lashes.

"Of course," Antony nods, sincerely regretting he's upset her. "We won't take any unnecessary risks and maybe we'll get extra lucky and things'll be even better out there than we thought."

Jess nods back at him, recognizing that he's giving her the best assertions he can, without the power to make any promises.

Antony looks over at Clayton. "You're welcome to come with us as long as you understand it's going to mean a lot of hard work and probably a rougher time over there than here, other than being free of the dead." It's not an offer he makes lightly and not one he makes with full confidence in either of the newcomers, but he figures they'll have shown their true colours by time they're ready to actually leave.

"Being free of the dead would be enough," Clayton replies with a mirthless chuckle, and Jess can't help but sympathize.

Checking his rearview mirror in the Land Rover, Clive watches Rebecca for a moment. "Do you need anything now?" he asks. "Food, water? I'm sure Keira could even find you clean clothes if you want."

"Sleep," comes the simple answer, Rebecca craning her neck trying to spy the Humvee Clayton is in. "I just want to sleep."

"Then sleep," Keira tells her. "That's the good part about being with a group like this. We all take turns."

Frowning, Rebecca sits back. "Okay," she says softly, "but please don't leave me by myself. If we stop somewhere, make sure you wake me up."

"Of course," Clive answers, and wonders if that's at the heart of her twitchiness. Did she and Clayton get abandoned? "Like Keira's saying, we're a team. We take care of each other."

Sam's still shaken up, staring out at the passing landscape without really seeing. He's had close calls before. Had walkers on top of him, in his face, coming at him with seemingly no way out, but this, being actually bitten, that's completely different. It was the first time he'd truly thought he was dead.

Gnawing on his bottom lip, Ryan watches his lover in concern. His breathing still isn't quite even, something about his heartbeat not quite steady, and he knows it's nothing to what Sam must be feeling. Wordlessly, he reaches out and links their hands.

"I'm okay," Sam reassures Ryan with a confidence he doesn't really feel. But he holds on tight to Ryan's hand, anchoring himself.

"Yeah you are," Ryan whispers, and presses Sam's knuckles to his lips. He's going to check his lover over but good, again. Later. Just for his own peace of mind. "You guys okay?" he asks, pitching his voice a little louder to be heard in the front seat.

Alex turns to watch Luke, his lover's eyes steady on the road. "Yeah." We're here.

"I'm hoping we'll stop soon," Luke says, glancing at Alex and then at Sam and Ryan in the rearview mirror. "I think everyone's nerves are shot. We'd do better to bunk down for the night and start out again tomorrow."

Once they stop, however, things don't look much better. "I don't like it," Alex whispers to Luke, peering up at the rotted ceiling beams of the house they've found. It's not that the house is in disrepair and the rain is coming down in torrents, not that. It's something... else. Something Alex can't put his finger on. A feeling, that something bad is coming.

"I know," Luke nods, "but most of the house is dry and it's empty and at least the walls are solid." And there's tons of blankets and they found another cache of canned food.

Alex shuts his eyes for a moment, then leans in and kisses his lover. "I would lose my mind without you," he whispers.

"I'm not about to argue that," Luke whispers back. "I want you to think I'm indispensable," he teases, hoping to lighten up the mood.

"You are absolutely indispensable," Alex assures him, grinning.

"How much stuff are we bringing in?" Jess asks Antony, then steps back out of Ryan and Sam's way. "Just enough for tonight? Seems a shame to get everything wet, if you think it might be safe inside the Humvees."

"We should be good," Antony nods. "I can't picture anyone else being up here and out in this weather."

"I think we're still out in it, too," Clayton mutters, and embraces Rebecca a little tighter.

Ducking his head out of the rain, Clive hands the couple a musty quilt from a bedraggled stack in his arms. "Upstairs is clear," he says, pushing another blanket on Jess.

"I'll stay down here," Antony volunteers, offering everyone protein bars from the stash Logan's brought in, "if everyone else wants to divvy up the rooms upstairs."

"We can stay here with you," Alex tells him, shooting a glance at Luke. "So you're not alone." After hours cramped up on the road, his leg is killing him, but he's not ready to admit it out loud. He doesn't want to attempt the stairs.

Ryan, however, has no such qualms — his primary concern is getting Sam somewhere flat and secure where he can use his flashlight. "In here," he murmurs to his lover after checking out one of the upstairs rooms. "Come sit down while I fix the windows."

Sam settles on the end of the bed, bone deep exhausted, the adrenaline of earlier having fled completely.

In moments Ryan is back at his side, kneeling down to meet Sam's eyes. "Let me see," he orders, switching on the flashlight.

Sam sheds his jacket and pulls his sweater, his shirt and his long-sleeve t-shirt off. All the layers that saved him. They think.

Ryan takes his time, inspecting the skin first, then carefully palpating Sam's arm. He doesn't even realize he's been holding his breath until he lets it out on a sigh of relief. "No broken skin," he says quietly, feeling his bones turn to liquid. "But you've got some wicked bruising."

Sam nods. "It's like I can still feel its teeth clamped on my arm," he confesses, shaking his head. "It was so fucking close..."

"Yeah." Ryan shucks his jacket and switches off the torch. Lies down next to Sam and takes his lover into his arms to hold him tight.

"I shouldn't be so freaked out by this," Sam whispers, pressing close. "The other week, in the store, that one was right in my face. And I've had some other close calls..."

"Fuck 'should', Sam. The old rules don't apply," Ryan mutters. He breathes a kiss onto Sam's hair and soaks up the fact of his lover's vitality, so nearly preserved.

"I just want us to get to the island," Sam says, clinging hard. "I want to be able to fucking let our guards down. Have a whole fucking day where we're not constantly looking over our shoulders, always on edge."

"We'll get there." Or we'll die trying, Ryan thinks, but doesn't speak the macabre thought aloud. "And you'll be so bored. Sunshine, and sweat, and dinner on the table — we might even go to bed early."

"I want a whole day in bed. Fuck church on Sundays, I want us to make love all day long," Sam says, not caring how he sounds.

"Yeah? You think you could handle me all day long?" Ryan asks with a smile, softly threading his fingers through Sam's hair. It certainly bears thinking on. A warm vision to get them through the cold days ahead.

Sam nods, the smile coming to his face the first since he'd been bitten. "Give me a try."

"I will." Ryan kisses him, infusing them both with heat. "You're not going anywhere without me. I promise."

Sam kisses back, licking into Ryan's mouth, his hand sliding down Ryan's back, stroking over his ass.

And it's probably not a great time - when is it ever? - but Ryan is all too aware in this moment of how lucky they are, like Sam said, how close they came... How much he needs to reconnect with his lover physically. He pulls back just enough to drag off his shirt, kicking off his boots so he can shuck his jeans as well. "Need you naked."

Sam's not about to argue — or dwell on his close call any longer. He sheds his shoes, socks and jeans, shoving everything from the bed.

Nude, Ryan pulls him close again, their bodies aligning. He clasps their cocks and strokes, his tongue diving into Sam's mouth.

Instantly on fire, Sam groans into the kiss, hand going back to Ryan's ass, kneading it roughly, fingers trailing into his cleft.

Ryan moans, hesitating just a moment before he draws his knee up. "Do you have the lube?" he whispers, kissing the stubble on Sam's throat.

Sam stills, stunned, before finally nodding. "Yeah. Give me a sec." Off the bed and rifling through his pack before returning with the bottle.

Maybe he's gone crazy. But Ryan figures they need to grab for every last scrap of passion, of experience. And after the first time, he trusts Sam. Enough to try again, and see if it's just as good.

Pressing close again, Sam slicks his fingers and rubs two over Ryan's hole, gently loosening the muscle before he tries anything more. "I'd do anything to change this fucked-up world," he whispers, softly kissing Ryan. "But I can't imagine not having met you."

Ryan grins at the unexpectedly sweet sentiment. "Are you trying to win me over?" he teases, hissing just a little at the touch. "You don't need to work so hard. I'm already yours."

"I'm not," Sam laughs, dipping the tip of one finger inside Ryan, testing, before pushing it deeper. "I don't ever want you second-guessing how I feel about you though."

His smile melts away and Ryan's expression goes serious. He stares into Sam's eyes for a long moment in silence, then kisses him.

And Sam kisses back, once again pouring everything he feels, everything he might say, into that kiss.

Ryan reaches between their bodies and takes Sam's hand, pressing his fingers deeper. Arching beneath the intensity of that penetration with a gasp.

That gasp, the way Ryan arches against him... Sam groans and crooks his fingers just so, rubbing over Ryan's sweet spot. Chasing after more of those sounds.

Lying back Ryan rocks his hips, moving with his lover. Letting Sam fuck into him while he shuts his eyes and lets sensation overwhelm him.

A third finger and Sam's so hard he can barely breathe, the ache searing through him. "Ready?" he whispers, making sure.

Ryan nods, biting down on his bottom lip. "I just want you," he whispers back, reaching for Sam.

Another layer of lube added to his cock and Sam moves between Ryan's thighs, fitting cock to hole and slowly pushing inside, his eyes locked on his lover's face, searching for any sign of discomfort.

A wince, then a nod, and Ryan grabs Sam's hips with his hands. Pulls his lover down and rises to meet him with a cry.

Sam grits his teeth against crying out as well, his cock throbbing violently inside his lover. When he's buried deep, he rocks his hips, savouring the feel of Ryan's body around him and then drops down for a kiss, the words right there, on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn't say them, not yet, and he's not sure why. "God, you feel so good," is what comes out instead.

Ryan's lips quirk in a smile and he kisses Sam again, wrapping his arms around him. Moving with him, those long deep strokes that seem to penetrate the core of his being.

Sam curses under his breath, kissing Ryan again and again, everything else around them falling away, including the events of the day, as he loses himself in his lover.

It's all Ryan could want in a moment: for Sam to forget, to release the stress that's burdened his frame for months now. He arches against his lover and moans at the change in angle.

The bed starts creaking as Sam moves harder, faster, his climax building. He knows the rest of their group can probably hear them but he doesn't care. He needs this. They need this. He slips a hand between them, grasping Ryan's cock and stroking along with his thrusts. "Want you to come with me," he whispers.

"Yes," Ryan gasps, caught between Sam's hand and his cock. "More—" He bucks into his lover's grip, speeding towards the edge.

Only the fear of something outside hearing them makes Sam bite back his shout as his climax slams into him, his hand working Ryan's cock fast and hard, urging him over as well.

It's too much. Ryan has no compunctions about making noise, and he moans loudly when he comes, spilling hot over Sam's fingers. "Oh god."

Sam nods in agreement, swallowing hard against a throat gone dry. He wipes his hand on the side of the bed and kisses Ryan again. "Thank you," he whispers.

It feels weird to be thanked, so Ryan just silently nods back. He hugs Sam a little tighter before letting him go.

Sam eases out and shifts to the side but he pulls Ryan into his arms, unwilling to let go completely. He starts to say something about not knowing what he would have done without Ryan there today but that just puts them right back where they were. So he shuts his mouth and kisses the top of Ryan's head. "You're amazing," he whispers instead.

Ryan smiles at that. "Same goes," he whispers, content to lie here in Sam's arms. Mostly. "Want me to bring you up some dinner?"

"Are you hungry?" Sam asks, listening to the hum of voices and laughter in the next room and downstairs.

"Not really. But I asked about you," Ryan points out.

Sam grins and tilts his head against Ryan's. "I don't want to make you get up," he says, but sure enough, his stomach rumbles right on cue.

Ryan chuckles. "Stay here," he orders in a whisper, and starts to pull his clothes back on. "I'll bring you something."

"Thanks." Sam watches Ryan dress and leave the room, lying back with his hands under his head, staring at the ceiling, the water stains that promise it's only a matter of time before this part caves in as well. A weird muffled crying noise comes from the next room. He rolls to his side, pushing up on his elbow, listening closely, the words sharp then desperate, followed by one bump and then another into the wall. It could be sex noises, could be a fight. Whatever it is, it's not really any of his business.

Jess pauses on the stair when she hears the noise—what the fuck? If Ryan's already back down in the kitchen... But no, that wasn't Sam, either. She takes another step, her hand tight on the banister, when she asks Logan, "Did you hear that?"

Logan nods. "I think it was Rebecca and Clayton," he says, another bump into the wall followed by urgent muffled words making him duck his head a little. "After we kept them apart all day."

"Oh." Jessica's face flames hot with embarrassment. She reaches the top of the stairs and quickly turns left, down the - she hopes - uninhabited hallway. Even though she knows Clive and Antony already checked all the rooms, she still hesitates before entering a bedroom, trying to peer through the darkness.

"Here," Logan offers, using one of the portable lanterns to light her way. "You can have this one if you want. I'm pretty good at finding my way around."

"Thanks." God she hopes that she guessed right and Sam and Ryan went the opposite way. She can't take walking in on any more fucking couples. Switching off the lantern she sets it gently on the bed, drawn towards the covered window. She twitches open the curtains just a finger's breadth, peering out.

"See anything?" Logan asks, watching her in the small sliver of moonlight peeking through.

"No. Too much rain," she answers softly, searching for wisps of stars in the storm-ridden sky. "But I bet it's really pretty around here, normally. Lots of flowers." Currently drowning.

"I can't remember the last time I actually thought about what was around us, in terms of how beautiful the countryside is," Logan says. "I spend all my time watching for walkers. I don't even see anything else." At least not landscape-wise.

Jess sighs, "Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm trying to hold onto something good." She lets the curtain fall shut again. "I guess I'll see if Eva wants to stay up here with me, because I don't think Keira's going to bunk with me anymore." She huffs a soft laugh, reflecting that she'd probably rather be alone than be with the prickly grieving woman.

"She said she was going to stay downstairs with Antony," Logan says, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. "They've claimed the couches. If you're worried about being alone, I can take the room across from you. We can leave the doors open," he offers, still not really sure what to make of their kiss earlier but knowing damn well he's not going to push things, try for more, not now, not yet. And maybe not ever.

She hesitates only a second. "Yeah, okay." Feels an absurd impulse to protest that she's not afraid of the dark — but, of course she is. It seems a rational response.

"Hey," Ryan says quietly from the doorway, cutting into her thoughts, "soup's on. You okay up here?" he asks, glancing from her to Logan.

"We're good," Logan answers, adding, since he recognizes the protectiveness they all seem to feel towards Jess. "It's really dark up here so I was saying I'd sleep across the hall and we could keep the doors open."

"Good idea," Ryan agrees with a nod, and disappears back down the hallway to bring dinner to Sam.

"Lucky Sam. I guess he gets dinner in bed," Logan kids, only slightly envious. "Want me to bring you some soup or do you want to come down?"

"I'll come down with you," Jess answers, shaking out her hair before tying it neatly back once more. She wants to tell Logan he doesn't have to look out for her... but she doesn't want him to stop. And anyway, they're all looking out for each other, so that's something.

Logan makes his way back down, the sounds they heard earlier from the room beside Sam and Ryan earlier having quieted. He finds Antony and Eva at the kitchen table, another one of the portable lanterns set between them. "Ryan said there's soup," he mentions, hoping they haven't arrived too late.

Antony nods. "Huge pot." He pushes out the other two chairs and gives Jess a nod as she trails in behind Logan.

Jess ladles out a bowl and hands it to Logan, then asks tentatively, "Were you able to eat, Eva?"

"No." Indeed Eva looks hollow-eyed, although that could easily be attributed to trauma as much as anything else. "The smell is making me sick," she says, and pushes to her feet.

Nurturing instincts war with a desire to not get snapped at again, and the instincts win. "If you want to go find a bed, l'll make you some tea to settle your stomach."

Eva looks at Jess like she's grown another head, but takes the advice and heads upstairs.

Hovering, Jess gives a shake of her head. "Anyone else want tea?" she asks, rooting through her pack for her precious stash of herbs. "I'm buying."

"I'll have some, thanks," Logan says, settling in at the table with a glance at Antony who's busy going over their map again. Wondering if the man ever truly takes a break.

"Me too, please," Antony responds, lifting his head for a second, catching Logan watching him. "What?"

"I was wondering if you ever take a break," Logan says, digging into his soup.

Antony shrugs. "Someone's got to make sure we're on the right track and if we don't get to the coast and get stocked up before the winter weather rolls in, we'll be stuck til spring."

"Maybe they freeze," Jess murmurs, setting two fragrant mugs of tea to steep, then a third. "It's a nice thought, although I guess we'd still freeze first." She purses her lips in a frown and sits down at the table with a bowl of soup. Eyes Antony. "Did she say anything to you?"

"She just asked about the plan for tomorrow," Antony says, finishing his soup, his bowl set aside. "I told her we're going to try and make it as far north as we can while it's light. Find another shelter. When we weren't dealing with walkers, we could have done this whole trip in roughly a day but between marauders, walkers, shit blocking the roads..." he shrugs. "I'm still hoping for only two more days."

"Two more days," Jess breathes in wonder. "That's it?" She smiles, "That's so close, after everything we've been through." Not that circumstances can't change on a dime, as they're all too familiar with. "How long do you think the crossing should take?"

"Roughly six to eight hours depending on the seas," Antony says. "It takes two hours from Kirkwall but we're going from here and we'll have to go around here," he points out their path on the map. "And we may have to wait a day or two for decent weather. And then we may have to dock here and wait to do the final bit." He sighs. "I want to make sure we're well-stocked, well-armed just in case, and that everyone knows how to handle the boat." The 'just in case' unspoken this time.

"We won't be able to come back across for some time, will we?" Logan says, double-checking.

Antony shakes his head. "We're catching the last of the decent weather til spring."

"So long as we're still in time for it," Jess says quietly, spooning up soup. She knows of course that Antony can't guarantee the weather. But they seem to have all put their faith in him over this. "How are you doing?" she asks, watching his eyes curiously. That devastating frozen shade of blue.

"I'm fine," Antony says, sitting back. He exhales softly and rubs a hand over his face. "I keep falling into the same trap everyone does. When we reach the boat, we'll be good. When we make it safely across, we'll be good. When we're on the island..." He shakes his head. "We won't be good until we're completely self-sufficient and everyone's made it through the first winter. We're really going from one hell to another. It's just the new one won't have walkers."

She nods. "But, when we reach the boat, we'll be better. When we cross safely, we'll be better." Sitting back, she adds, "I believe it. As far away as we can get from walkers, from... other people... We're automatically safer. Even though things can still go wrong."

"Jess is right," Logan says. "At this point, we're in almost more danger from other people so the farther we can get from them and have it just be our little group, people we know we can rely on, the better, and I think you're underestimating just what a big difference not having to constantly be on guard, looking over our shoulders, will make."

"I hope so," Antony nods, both of them making him feel better.

"I need to learn how to do the boat," Jess says, circling back. "Will we work on that during the days we're waiting on good weather?"

"Yeah, that and getting it stocked," Antony says, pulling a worn black notebook from his back pocket. "I'm glad you want to learn. Both you and Keira should. Eva too if she's willing."

"Eva might have all she can handle right now," Jess says thoughtfully. "I guess it depends on what kind of pregnant she is." She gets to her feet and takes the bowls to the sink to scrub. Places two hot mugs of tea on the table.

"That reminds me," Antony says with a nod. "We need to grab that stuff from the next pharmacy." He adds the things he'd mentioned earlier to the list in the notebook with a stub of a pencil. He turns the book to show both Jess and Logan. "This is my list of what I figure we need to make it through to spring. If I'm training everyone how to handle the boat, I'll need someone to take care of supplies."

"I'll do it," Logan volunteers. "I can take a couple people with me. How big is the town we're heading to?"

"Population three hundred." Antony grimaces. "The whole thing on our side is that no one will have been headed there or through there. You've got what's on hand, what's in the houses and there's a Tesco we can check on the way, another one roughly 30 km east but I'd rather not send you guys there if we can manage without."

"We probably have to go to Tesco if you want pregnancy tests." Jess quirks a brow. "Why do you want them? It seems pretty certain she's pregnant."

"Because there's a whole bunch of things that can look like pregnancy," Antony says, sitting back, "especially when we're living on diminished rations. And this way we can know for sure, instead of waiting months, and redirect food and vitamins where we need to."

"Okay." She raises a shoulder in surrender. "I'll do the Tesco run, if someone can come with me."

"I'll go with you," Logan volunteers. "We can take the bike if you're willing. Clive can handle the town until we're back."

She can't help it — it's practically a reflex when she jumps back. "Oh." She swallows hard, thinking of being pressed against Logan with his bike rumbling between their thighs. "Or I could stay in the town, and Clive could go with you."

"Or I can just go," Logan says, suddenly feeling pretty uncomfortable himself. Obviously he'd fucked up in thinking they'd made any kind of connection, that Jess felt like she could trust him.

"Or we'll just hit the Tesco on the way there," Antony supplies helpfully, his tone firm. "And no one'll have to make a run to the other unless we can't find anything."

"Sounds good," Logan says quickly, nodding. "Um. I'm going to call it a night. I'll see you guys in the morning." He flashes a small smile at Jess. "I'll leave my door open. Make sure you wake me if you need anything."

"Thanks." She gnaws on her bottom lip, then looks up at Antony to explain, "I'm all by myself now, since Keira and Clive hooked up. Logan said he'd sleep across the hall from me."

"And are you okay with that?" Antony asks.

"Yes. Absolutely. I think it's sweet of him that he even thought of it," realizing she might have given the wrong impression. "And... I don't think I could even sit that close to Clive, on a motorcycle."

Antony nods. "Then ask him to take the van or one of the Humvees. We can spare it. You'd have a much better idea of what we need medication-wise and Clive won't want to leave Keira." He runs a hand over the back of his head. "It shouldn't be an overnight trip. Most of a day maybe, depending on the road. Unless you don't want to be alone with him, in which case, I'll send of the guys. Sam maybe."

"Okay." She slowly nods. "Sam will want to stay with Ryan. Ryan might want to stick close to Eva." She shrugs, but the gesture probably comes off more brittle than casual. "I'll talk to Logan."

Antony leans forward a little. "Don't do anything you don't want to do," he says softly, making sure his words remain between them. "Not here, not on the island. There's always another way, another option, and we've got enough people to get everything done without anyone being forced into anything."

Jess glances away and rubs the back of her hand over her eyes. "Yeah, okay," she says to let him know the message has been received. God — they all know about her. About what happened. How could they not? But still, the kindness might do to break her just as well as the cruelty, she thinks as she heads carefully up the stairs with Eva's tea.

Fuck. Antony's pretty sure he said the wrong thing but it also feels like it had to be said. That Jess had to know she has choices. That she's safe with them. He leans forward, staring at the fucking ugly pattern on the kitchen linoleum before finally getting up, the last of the dishes set in the sink, and heads into the living room, settling in a pile of blankets, his gun under the cushion.