Kara adjusts her baseball cap, tugging it low as she squints against the fast fading light in the distance. It’s getting late. The sun is starting to set. Her rifle rests heavy against one shoulder, her backpack even heavier on her back, and her team is clearly itching to make the long journey home.
But that’s, of course, why Alex put her in charge in the first place.
“All right,” Kara calls out. “One last stop.”
Her resolve is predictably met with a chorus of implicit groans, but when Kara starts jogging deeper into town, rifle clutched loosely but at the ready, everyone promptly follows suit behind her. They always do.
Out of necessity, the bimonthly scavenging missions have become strictly routine at this point: a small group of no more than five to seven people—each equipped with their own firearm, water bottle, and extra-large backpack—venturing out into the broken world as a team, hitting one abandoned town after another for whatever they can find.
Stores are generally the first to be picked clean by survivors, and as such, they hardly ever warrant a second glance. The local corner drugstore, even less so. But as of late, resources have been getting harder and harder to come by—always fewer and farther in between, usually already exhausted or expired. Unfortunately, it’s only been getting worse, and what’s more, it would only get worse from here on out.
These days, a forgotten can of beans tucked away in a backroom somewhere could honestly make all the difference.
The drugstore in question is small and quaint, and was possibly even family-owned at some point. Which makes sense. The surroundings have all the makings of a small town, despite the rubble and distinct lack of life all around them.
At Kara’s nod, Nia is the first to approach the door, the wooden frame still intact and promising. It becomes somewhat even more promising when Nia jiggles at the handle without any success. “Hey, I think it’s… locked?”
“Yeah?” Kara steps in, pleasantly surprised when the doorknob refuses to turn for her as well. She wipes at the glass panel with the sleeve of her shirt and what little she can make out through the dust, past the carelessly drawn curtains, fills her with near glee. “Oh, fuck yeah. It’s practically untouched!”
“Or people live here,” Brainy points out, ever the logical second-in-command, but Kara shakes her head.
“People might have lived here at one point. But if anyone were still alive and around, they probably would have looted all the houses in the area already.”
There’s a brief moment of hemming and hawing between them, lines of reasoning bouncing back and forth until Nia cuts in with a sigh, “We’re already here so might as well, right? At least we know that zombies can’t lock doors.”
“Yeah, exactly! Another plus,” Kara says, grinning broadly. She smashes through the glass panel closest to the doorknob with the butt of her rifle and undoes the lock from the inside. “And y’all wanted to go home…”
As per usual, Brainy stays on lookout duty, posted at the door with his very formidable assault rifle, while everyone else explores the premises. They work quickly and quietly, and it doesn’t take long to determine that the store is empty of anything remotely resembling life. And it’s not long after that, that they start shoving whatever they can into their already overflowing backpacks.
With the rest of her team ransacking the place, Kara pulls out her notebook, flipping to the collection of pages that make up the meticulously hand-drawn map that she and Alex have charted out together, and marks the store for future raids. They’ll take what they can for now; everyone already knows to prioritize the most basic necessities first. But afterwards, they can re-lock the door, reinforce some of the entry points to keep out zombies. Maybe even stash away some of the more coveted items just in case other survivors stumble onto the store after them…
Kara’s just finished detailing the available inventory in broad strokes on another page of her notebook when Nia calls out to her.
“Hey Kara. Little help here?” Nia jerks her head toward another presumably locked door tucked away in a corner. “Pretty sure this is where they keep all the drugs.”
“Oh, yes’m,” Kara says, hurrying right over.
With Nia lingering behind with her gun raised, Kara uses the butt of her own gun to knock the doorknob clean off with relative ease. But just as she’s about to crack a joke about opening doors and typical gentlemanly behavior and such, something catches Kara’s eye.
She whips out her arm, swiftly barring Nia’s entry. “Hold on…”
At first glance, all Kara registers is a well-worn backpack and a shock of dark hair spilled across the faded yellow linoleum. Clearly human, clearly motionless, though unaccompanied by the rotting stench that most clearly human and motionless things give off nowadays. Whoever it was, she had to have died pretty recently.
“Kara,” Nia hisses out in warning, as Kara sets down her rifle on a nearby shelf and approaches the body on her own. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The protocol upon discovering corpses is very simple. Assess the damage from a safe distance, strip the remains of all their belongings, then smash their head in with whatever’s handy lest they go on to awake with a vengeance and a mindless craving for human flesh to boot.
Obviously though, the never put down your weapon of it all is always implied.
But this person must have just died. The body isn’t moving, and hasn’t moved since they walked into the storage room, which seems to render a lot of the protocol unnecessary. Maybe even cruel.
Kara whispers a silent apology and a note of gratitude for the woman the body used to house as she kneels down beside it. After one last cursory once-over, Kara reaches for the backpack, still clutched tightly to the woman’s chest.
At the very first tug, a pale hand shoots up and seizes Kara by the wrist.
Instantly, a dry click! rings out as Nia rushes forward with her pistol drawn, but Kara remains calm, somehow killing her own instinct to grab for the Glock holstered at her hip. She can see the woman’s lips moving, struggling to form words. So, in a highly reckless move—one that will absolutely incur the wrath of her sister much, much later upon debriefing—Kara leans over, bringing her ear right to the woman’s lips.
“I’m alive,” the woman croaks out, and Kara’s heart promptly thuds against her ribcage in sympathy. “I’m still alive. Don’t let me die in here…”
With a jolt of purpose, Kara immediately throws her arms out, shielding the woman as much as possible. “Nia, don’t shoot! Okay? Just... don’t shoot. She’s still alive, and we need to help her.”
“Kara,” Nia says, shaking her head. “You know the rules…”
And of course Kara does. The protocol for encountering other survivors is essentially the same as encountering non-survivors, except in reverse order and with fewer hang-ups on the usage of bullets. It’s how they’ve all managed to stay alive this long.
But Kara’s never had to follow that particular protocol before, and now—with this barely conscious woman lying before her, literally begging to be saved—she’s not about to start either.
“Grab her pack,” Kara orders, but Nia doesn’t move; she barely even lowers her weapon. “Nia, come on. Just do it. Please!”
“But Alex said—”
“I’ll deal with Alex! Just grab her bag for now, and I’ll do the rest, okay?” Kara huffs out a frustrated breath when Nia just stares at her, utterly dumbfounded. “Nia, just listen—”
Brainy practically skids into the room. “What is going on in here?” he demands. “Why are you shouting?”
“Hey, who’s watching the door?” Kara demands right back.
“Franklin. Now will you please hurry up, and…” Brainy trails off, gaze dropping to the shallowly breathing woman on the ground. Stuttering out a swear, he quickly shoves Nia behind him, raising his gun with a snap. “Kara. What are you doing?”
Kara glances down at the woman, then back up at Brainy. “… She needs our help,” is all she can say.
“Protocol dictates that—”
“She’s alive, Brainy. We can help her.”
“We don’t have to kill her,” Brainy says. “If that’s too difficult for you, we can just leave.”
“No,” Kara says firmly.
For the next few minutes, the air in the cramped space is disturbed only by the rattling breaths of a dying stranger. Time is running out though; there’s only so many hours in the day, and they need to get home before dark if they want to make it home at all. So, finally, Nia steps forward, fixing Kara with a pointed look before slipping the woman’s backpack on top of her own. She then shoots that same pointed expression at Brainy until he, in turn, offers to take Kara’s backpack. It’s only then—with Nia giving her a grim nod and Brainy slinging her rifle across his back—that Kara feels safe enough to lift the woman onto her own shoulders.
“They won’t open the gates for us if you bring her,” Brainy says quietly, even as he helps Kara back onto her feet.
“That’s a later problem,” Kara says with a grunt. “We’ll see when we get there.”
When the rest of her team sees Kara emerging from the drugstore with a woman draped across her shoulders, they’re initially shocked then collectively argumentative for all the expected reasons. But Kara just redoubles her grip on the not-so-dead deadweight on her shoulders, and trudges right ahead. And when Brainy and Nia follow her without a word of complaint, everyone else has no choice but to fall in line as well.
It’s practically nightfall when they reach the compound, but Mike’s refusing to let them back in.
“Get the fuck away from here!” he roars from the watchtower. “Whatever that is, you either put a bullet through its head, or you’re not getting in!”
“She needs help!” Kara shouts right back, angry and absolutely bone-tired after bearing the weight of a-whole-nother person for miles on end. Of course, she didn’t dare ask anyone else to share the burden and, of course, nobody offered to either. But that said, Kara definitely didn’t come all this way—pouring sweat, stumbling, and at times even regretting—just to give up at the finish line. “She’s still alive, goddammit! And she deserves to live!”
Her swiftly catching outrage is enough to spur everyone else to chime on in, drawing from their own share of anger and frustrations to hurl up at Mike, laden with all sorts of colorful language. But still, he refuses to budge until another person pops up behind him.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Alex demands, shoving Mike aside. “That’s Kara down there.”
“But they brought something. They brought some-one.”
Alex glances out the window, her eyes briefly matching with Kara’s before narrowing down at the gravely unapproved tagalong who’s long since passed out in Kara’s arms.
“You can’t let them in,” Mike says. “I know that’s your sister down there, but your protocol—”
“That’s Kara,” Alex just repeats in a snarl, and that’s apparently reason enough for her because she hits the gate switch herself.
Kara’s team rushes into the safety of the compound without her, no doubt in an attempt to put as much distance as possible between them and the potential time-bomb of a stranger. Honestly, Kara can’t even blame them. By now, they’ve all witnessed firsthand the horrifying consequences of not being selfish when it mattered most.
Staggering inside, Kara is about ready to collapse when Alex shows up beside her, offering support before her legs could actually fail on her.
“Kara, what the hell were you thinking?” Alex hisses under her breath.
“She’s alive,” Kara says, as she’s already said at least a hundred times that day. Maybe even more, if you count all those times she’s repeated it in her head as a reminder. “She’s still alive, Alex, and we have to help her.”
“You know why we have the protocol.”
“I couldn’t do it,” Kara says, and her sister just sighs and promptly shoulders half the burden.
Together, they carry the woman all the way to the infirmary, where Kara can finally ease the burden from her trembling shoulders, back, and legs. They’ve just barely gotten the woman settled onto the medical table when Kelly’s bursting through the door.
“Oh my god,” she says in quiet horror. “You really brought someone…”
Right away, Alex is back on her feet. “No, no, you gotta get out. I don’t want you anywhere near here until we know it’s safe.”
“Alex, are you kidding me right now?” Kelly demands, even as she’s being so very politely shoved back out of the room. “Wait, hey!”
“Sorry, I love you very much, bye!” Alex quickly slams the door shut, locking it before her girlfriend can grab for the latch.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Kelly says, her voice insistent even muffled through the door. “And we’re going to have a talk about this!”
“Understood. Love you.”
“Yeah, love you too.”
Kara’s grinning when Alex turns back around. “So. When’d you guys start saying the L word to each other?”
“Don’t even,” Alex grumbles.
“‘Cause I thought you loved me too, you know?” Kara continues, utterly undeterred. “Aren't you worried for my safety?” But her joke immediately falls flat when Alex’s stare takes on a dangerous glint.
Because now they have to check the woman for bites or scratches, anything that would automatically preclude the need for further medical attention. At that point, even Kara wouldn’t be able to object putting a bullet through the woman’s head, whether or not she’s still alive—whatever that even means these days.
Alex tugs on a pair of leather bite-proof gloves, tightening the straps at the elbows, while Kara very gently starts rolling up the sleeves of the woman’s rather worn flannel. That’s all it takes to wake her up.
Green eyes snap open, wide awake, alert, and immediately panicked. “Stop. No, stop. Just stop! Get off, get off, don’t fucking touch me!” the woman shouts, hands shoving and clawing at Kara’s face in equal measure.
“Hey, hey! It’s okay! It’s—stop, you’re okay!” Kara catches the woman’s flailing arms by the wrists and pins them to her sides. “I’m not going to hurt you, okay? You’re okay. You’re safe here.”
“Kara, get back,” Alex calls out.
But Kara doesn’t move a single muscle, fully aware that Alex would have a gun already drawn and leveled. “She’s fine, Alex. Just got a little spooked is all,” she tries to insist, even as the woman keeps thrashing her arms, keeps trying to break Kara’s grip. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. You’re okay…”
“Did she break skin?”
“No!” Kara then tries, in vain, to glance down at her own face. “I don’t think so anyway… Whatever, it’s fine.” She directs her next words, soft yet deliberate, back down at the woman. “You’re doing just fine, okay? You’re safe here. You’re going to be okay.”
Kara maintains the soothing tone as she continues to offer up affirmations, and slowly, haltingly, the woman starts to settle. Her struggling eases up then stops altogether, and she’s sinking back into the table with minimal trembling. The woman’s exhales are ragged, her chest still heaving, but she seems to be timing her panicked breathing with Kara’s own, so Kara takes special care to keep her breaths steady and sure as she smiles.
“What’s your name?” Kara asks.
The woman lets out a shaky breath, swallowing hard before answering in a gravelly voice, “… Lena.”
Kara’s smile widens. “Hi, Lena. I’m Kara, and it’s very nice to meet you.” She nods over at Alex, who’s only now reluctantly lowering her weapon. “And that’s my sister, Alex. And we just want to help you, Lena. Isn’t that right, Alex?” But typical Alex, just gives a non-committal grunt, so Kara rolls her eyes. “Well, fine, I guess I’ll take all the credit then…”
“Where am I?” Lena asks in a croak. Her eyes are darting all over the room. “Where’s my bag?”
“You’re somewhere safe. And your bag? I… think Nia might still have it on her. I can get it for you,” Kara says, and Lena’s nodding emphatically, her body relaxing even further. “Hey, Lena? I’m going to let go of your arms now. You good?”
Lena drags her eyes back to Kara, gaze unwavering. “Yes.”
Despite Alex’s immediate half-hearted protests, Kara takes Lena at her word and releases her right away, even taking a giant step back from the table for good measure.
Lena rubs at her wrists as she slowly sits up. She graces Kara with something akin to a grateful smile, and Kara returns it tenfold, her own grin broadening generously. The peace unfortunately doesn’t last too long though.
“We need to check you for bites. I’m sure you understand,” Alex says, and Lena’s entire body tenses up all over again.
“I’m not infected.”
“That’s great. But we’ll just have to check for ourselves. Again, you understand, right?”
Lena draws back, tugging down the sleeves of her flannel taut. “You are not touching me,” she spits, with a fire incongruous with someone who’d just been crawling up to Death’s door a few short hours ago. “Just give me my bag and let me go.”
“All right,” Alex says all too easily for Kara’s liking.
“Wait, no, no, no…” Kara’s shaking her head furiously. “You can’t go back out there. You’ll die.”
“Kara. If she wants to go, just let her go.”
“Please just let Alex give you a check-up,” Kara practically begs, over a sigh of exasperation her sister lets out behind her. “She’s basically a doctor, it’s fine. I can even leave the room if you want.”
“Absolutely not. You’re not going to touch me—either of you.” Lena’s glare is unforgiving as it bounces between Kara and Alex, as if they were equally complicit in her distress. “I just want to leave.”
“Yeah, sounds good to me,” Alex says.
“No,” Kara snaps, her frustration flaring up, unyielding and righteous.
She wanted to save Lena. And she’d carried her for miles—on teeter-tottering legs, the summer heat weighing down on her mercilessly, against the wishes of people she’d trusted her life with for years now—in order to fucking do so. So, this… just wouldn’t do. This isn’t an outcome that Kara could possibly learn to live with, and when she turns to look back at Alex, something in her eyes must have communicated that sentiment all too well because her sister just groans.
“Fucking fine,” Alex says, rolling her eyes. “She can stay, if she agrees to sit in the iso-chamber for the next 24 hours.”
“That’s completely unnecessary! I was with her for hours already, and she hasn’t turned yet. There’s no reason to make her wait out the full day.”
“Pro-to-col,” Alex enunciates very clearly. “Twenty-four hours or she leaves.” And when Kara refuses to back down, Alex’s shoulders sag, and she just rubs at her forehead with a weary sigh. “Kara. Just how many rules are you going to make me break today?”
After a suspended beat of silence, Kara jerks out a nod. “All right. Fair enough…” She turns back to Lena with a ready-made hopeful smile, only to be met with the most indignant glare in return.
“I don’t know how many more ways I can say this to you, but I don’t want to fucking stay here.”
“You can’t be serious,” Kara nearly sputters. “You were literally unconscious! Do you understand? If we hadn’t found you, you could have—” She trails off, huffing, shaking her head. “You told me to save you.”
“And you did. Congratulations. I’ll be leaving now.” Lena slides off the table, grabbing hold of it when her wobbly legs refuse to support the momentum on top of her weight. Eventually, with a pained hiss escaping through gritted teeth, she manages to push herself back to standing. “Just give me my bag already.”
“You’re going to die out there,” Kara says flatly.
“Well, that’s my decision to make, isn’t it?”
And that’s when Kara’s sense of purpose sets her off, spurring her forward to reach for Lena’s arm to maybe shake some sense into her. But Lena flinches back. She curls in on herself, eyes widening in a way that can only be read as pure panic. So, quickly and with great effort, Kara adjusts and presses her hand onto the table instead, inches away from where Lena’s elbow is hovering.
“Please,” Kara says, her quiet tone at odds with the desperate way her grip tightens on the stainless steel platform. “Just let us help you. Let me help you… Just until you’re well enough to be on your own again.”
Lena stares at Kara for a long moment, chest moving in heavy heaves until her breath slowly matches up with Kara’s once more. “Fine,” she says.
Lena’s locked away in isolation with naught but a bottle of water, a lumpy pillow that Kara’s managed to scrounge up somewhere, and her backpack. Naturally and maybe even understandably, Alex is absolutely livid about that last one.
“How could you let her take that in with her?” she hisses at Kara. “You didn’t even check it, did you?”
“Of course I gave it to her. It’s hers!” Kara says. “What if she has food in there?”
“What if she has weapons in there?”
Kara just shakes her head. “She’s not going to hurt us. She’s just scared.”
“… Those are the most dangerous people, Kara,” Alex says, her sigh utterly resigned, but she leaves Kara to it. With one last shove to her sister’s shoulder, Alex shuffles off, no doubt to scrub away all the undue stressors the day’s brought her.
Kara drops by the iso-chamber every hour or so, even leaving her bed in the middle of the night just to stare through the window. It’s a mandatory test. Most of the people residing in the compound have gone through it at one point or another. But still, it’s been so long since they’ve taken in a new survivor, so long since they’d decided that resources were now too scarce to divide up any further, that Kara can’t help worrying herself sick about the whole thing.
So, Kara keeps watch. She presses her nose up against the glass and tries to make out a gathering of shadows through the fog of her own breath. And even like that—somewhat blurry, curled up in the far corner—Lena still looks so human, which is promising.
There isn’t much change throughout the waiting period. Sometimes Lena will pace or take a sip of water. But mostly, she just sleeps. Hardly worth keeping track of, but Kara does it anyway. It’s partially to make sure that Lena hasn’t yet proven everyone else right by spontaneously devolving into some mindless beast. It’s also partially to make sure that the other residents, unhappy with Kara’s sudden bout of inconvenient altruism, don’t try to take matters into their own hands.
The very millisecond the 24 hour period is over, Alex goes to retrieve Lena from the iso-chamber at Kara’s prompt urging. Once again, they work together to half-drag, half-carry the woman back to the medical table for one final examination.
Lena is still groggy and clearly dehydrated, but seems to be responding well otherwise. She blinks blearily at Alex’s flashlight, her pupils both even and reactive. Her pulse is not only present, but steady. And when Alex hands her a couple of crackers, insisting that she eats them in front of her, Lena can hold them down without a problem, albeit through some coughing from dry mouth.
Ultimately, Alex has no choice but to click off her flashlight with a grunt. “She can stay,” she says, and finally and all of a sudden, Kara is granted a sweet sense of relief that she hasn’t felt in years.
They set Lena up in Kara and Alex’s shared sleeping quarters. The room’s small and thus inevitably cluttered, but it has two separate beds, which for now will have to do.
“You can take this bunk.” Kara sweeps all her sister’s spare clothes and junk off the bed, hastily kicking everything out of sight. “It’s Alex’s. But she practically lives in Kelly’s room now, so she won’t mind.”
“Alex. Your sister who hates me,” Lena says shortly. She’s hovering right outside the door, backpack still clutched tight, her bright greens darting from corner to corner.
“She doesn’t hate you. She just—” Kara trails off with a weak chuckle when Lena just stares at her, unamused. “She’s just… under a lot of pressure right now.”
“Just take the bed. I promise it’ll be fine.”
“I said okay, didn’t I?” But Lena doesn’t budge from the doorway. She looks absolutely uncomfortable—in her own skin, in her own clothes, let alone in this incredibly cramped room that she never asked to live in.
Kara chews on her lower lip, thoughts flitting through her mind one by one until something viable perks her right up again. “Hey, do you want to take a shower?”
Lena’s eyes promptly widen. “A shower?”
“Yeah. When’s the last time you got to have one of those?”
Lena lets out a laugh, a startled sound of delight and disbelief that wraps around Kara’s heart in a steadily warming embrace. “I can’t even remember the last time, honestly…”
“Okay, well, I guess that’s our first stop then,” Kara says, and Lena follows her lead completely willingly for the first time.
Showers are usually limited to eight minutes per person, but considering the circumstances, Kara figures they could bend that rule just this one time. If anything, she can give up her shower privileges for a couple of days to make up for it.
When Kara hands over a bottle of soap and a spare washcloth, Lena just fixes her with a slightly slack-jawed expression of pure wonder, as if Kara were saving her life or something. Never mind the fact that that’d already happened in a more literal sense not even two days ago… But honestly, Kara gets it. There were many points in the last few years where she’d been without running water for months at a time, and now, it’s a privilege for which she’d readily give up a whole lot of things if needed.
“You have some spare clothes in there, right?” Kara nods at the backpack in Lena’s arms, promptly held all the more tightly at the sudden attention.
“… No?” Kara gives a polite laugh. “What do you keep in there then?” But her attempt to lighten the mood plummets hard when Lena just stares back at her, lips pursing. “Okay, sorry… Um. Well, that should be fine. I’m sure I can find something that fits you.”
But Lena just pulls back even further. “I’m good on clothes actually.”
Kara glances over Lena as respectfully as possible, taking in the various stains on her jeans, the sweat and grime discoloring her flannel. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Now Lena looks surly, closer to how she usually looks at Kara, and the short-lived amicability was nice while it lasted. “I might need a towel though.”
“Right! A towel,” Kara says, nodding eagerly. “I can totally do that. Here, why don’t you go and get started, and I’ll bring you a fresh towel while you’re washing up. I promise not to look when I drop it off.”
Lena’s gaze promptly darts over to the showers, or more specifically, the door leading to said showers. “It doesn’t lock?”
“No…” Kara admits, but she flashes a smile that’s hopefully comforting. “But I think you can, you know, trust me…? And I’ll make sure no one else comes in either.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
Kara blinks, rubs at the back of her neck sheepishly. “I guess not. If you want to wait until I get back, then maybe—”
“It’s fine,” Lena cuts in. “Just wanted to make sure we were on the same page.” Then she slips inside the building without another word.
It takes Kara only a minute to run back to her room, and a few more to ferret out a towel that doesn’t make her grimace when she puts her nose to it. Then, as an afterthought, Kara spends another handful of precious minutes collecting a set of clean clothes. Just in case.
The shower is still running when Kara gets back, so she cracks open the door—eyes directed elsewhere, despite the individual stalls and curtains because she’s made a promise to a lady—and drops everything just inside.
When the flow of water finally shuts off with a distinct squeak, there’s an extended bout of silence—one so long that Kara starts to fear that she might have accidentally overstepped some boundaries. But just as she considers directing some apologies through the door, it creaks open and out steps a freshly showered Lena, very diligently toweling off her long dark hair. And just like that, any hopes of Kara stringing together even a single coherent apology are promptly dashed, because her brain’s apparently chosen right then to lose the ability to form words altogether.
Lena evidently changed her mind at some point during or following her shower, because she’s traded in most of her clothes for Kara’s sweatpants, t-shirt, and mis-matched socks, though she kept her own boots and threw her ragged flannel over the entire ensemble.
“Feeling better?” Kara asks, her voice suddenly and embarrassingly dry, which thankfully seems to go unnoticed. Lena just gives her a grateful nod and half a smile, and that’s all Kara could have asked for, really.
Back at their bunk, Kara makes some attempt at small talk, dipping into parts of her brain that haven’t been engaged in quite some time now. But Lena remains just as reticent as ever, silent even when offered some food from Kara’s secret stash, clearly unaware of what a rare occurrence that is.
Lena gradually passes out in Alex’s bed, still wrapped in her flannel, her backpack still tucked securely in her arms, and it’s hardly a far cry from the woman that Kara had risked so much to save.
But there are, of course, some differences as well. Significant ones. Lena’s face being scrubbed clean. Her breath sounding steady and deep. The way her body’s so relaxed that the half-eaten pretzel in hand eventually bounces onto the floor.
And lastly but not least, the most important difference of all, Lena is safe now—truly a version of events that won’t keep Kara up at night, and as such, it isn’t long before Kara finds herself falling soundly asleep after her.
Kara ends up being Lena’s unofficial on-site guide. Not that anyone else would have taken on the duty. In fact, most seem content to just mutter under their breath and glare at Lena from afar.
“Are you sure that I can stay here?” Lena asks on more than one occasion, and Kara rushes to reassure her every time. “Because I’m pretty sure that you’re the only one who wants me here.”
“Pfft, no… That’s not… entirely accurate,” Kara says, after a brief hesitation that she immediately regrets. To try and make up for it, she redoubles her efforts to make Lena feel more at home. It almost seems to work.
Out of the very few places that Kara is allowed to show her, their conference room turned modest library seems to be where Lena feels most at ease.
“Whenever we come across a store or an abandoned house, we always try to bring back a couple of books,” Kara is quick to offer up, when Lena lingers in the room a beat longer than in all the others. “It’s not really stealing because… well, you know.”
Lena nods at the explanation with nary a word, but the library promptly becomes one of the only places that she freely visits at the compound. It’s nice and quiet, provides her with something to do when the days are far too generous with the length of their hours, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s less frequented by the other habitants—save for Kelly who’s always courteous despite everything and, much more recently, Kara.
“You don’t have to keep doing that, you know,” Lena says one morning, when Kara waltzes into the library with a tray of oatmeal and recently un-canned vegetables. “I’m perfectly capable of retrieving my own meals.”
“Sure. But I like watching you eat,” Kara says, presenting the tray with a slight flourish and grin.
“I’m not afraid to go into the dining area. I know no one likes me here, but that doesn’t bother me.”
“I didn’t say it did.”
“But you must be thinking it,” Lena says, eyes narrowed. “Why else would you keep bringing me my food? You never even eat with me.”
“So, it’s weird…” Lena pauses then, slowly lowering her spoon back onto the tray. “Where is your food?”
Kara scrunches her face up in some semblance of confusion. “What do you mean?”
With a heavy sigh, Lena pushes away the tray. “I don’t want to eat your food, Kara.”
“But it’s not my food. It’s yours now,” Kara says with a shrug. She’s not really worried; Alex would never let her starve.
Kara very gently slides the tray back, only to be met with literal pushback from Lena who immediately tries to return said tray—just as gently, just as stubbornly.
“I’ve already had my share, okay? I’ll be fine,” Kara insists, but Lena doesn’t let up until she switches tracks, “You’re supposed to be getting better, remember? How are you supposed to get your strength back if you’re not eating?”
Lena stills her efforts, letting Kara win their little game of push-of-war. She tugs at the sleeve of her flannel with a deep frown. “It’s only until I’m well enough to leave,” she finally says.
It rings more like an apology than a thank you, but either way, Kara smiles when Lena grabs for the spoon again.
“I mean, it’s a bonfire,” Kara is explaining, has been explaining, even though Lena seem more interested in whatever’s happening in her book than whatever Kara has to say. “There’s going to be food and drinks, but mostly, it’s about the fire.”
Lena doesn’t look up from A Kingdom of Untamed Passion. “Is it mandatory?”
“No…?” Kara frowns. “Did you hear me? It’s a bonfire.”
“Why are you telling me then?”
“Because I think you should come! You can meet everyone else, get to know them, cut loose… Alex’s team just unloaded all their fish traps, so there’s protein to be had.”
“Nothing you just said makes me want to go,” Lena says, and Kara fails miserably as she tries not to pout about it. But Lena keeps to her reading, completely unaffected as she turns page after page at an unbelievable rate.
“Well, it’s an open invitation. If you do decide to come by, I’ll make sure you have a good time,” Kara says in the end. “And protein! It’s good for you! Think about it.”
A near inaudible hum is all Kara gets in response, but she remains hopeful.
The modest merrymaking is in full swing when Lena eventually comes by, and Kara leaps to her feet, tearing herself away from a very thrilling discussion on the logistics of making squirrel jerky to receive her.
“Hey, you!” Kara’s entire body is already buzzing from Mike’s latest attempt at fermented fruit juice, and it somehow translates into a sudden desire to wrap Lena up in a big hug. But she doesn’t. Instead, she just cracks a crooked grin. “You made it! Awesome.”
Lena shrugs, pulling at the strap of her backpack, gaze wandering slightly. “It’s literally a stone’s throw from our room, of course I made it.”
“Still quite the journey, Miss Lena, if I do say so myself.”
“Sure…” Lena says, eyes narrowing. “Are you slurring your words…?”
Kara draws herself up all serious, eyes purposely unblinkingly wide. “What? No way. No. Mm-mm…” But then a dopey smile inevitably breaks its way through all her efforts. “Okay, so Mike does this thing with all the stuff that we can’t salvage from our farm. It doesn’t taste the best, but he swears that it’s better than prison toilet wine. But like, how would he even know, am I right? Anyway, he calls it fruit-shine.”
“Clever,” Lena says.
“You want some?”
Lena gives a small scoff. “Are you sure they’d be all right with you doling out their precious resources for my sake?”
Kara shoves her overflowing cup into Lena’s hands so readily that some of the contents splash out, hitting her flannel, dripping onto her fingers. “We’re roommates now!” she exclaims. “What’s mine is yours and whatnot. Or whatever it is that they all say. Isn’t that how it works?”
But Lena’s smiling ever so slightly, so it must be okay. Then she’s licking up her hand, and Kara’s eyes seem to have forgotten how to blink and/or not stare like a complete weirdo. It’s startling when Lena smacks her lips and sighs afterwards. What a strange way for Kara to realize that this is a combination of sounds that she’d apparently been awaiting and wanting to hear all this time.
“It’s good. My compliments to the chef,” Lena says.
Kara clears her throat, laughs. “You can tell him yourself if you want.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Good call. He’s a complete ass,” Kara says with a complacent nod. “But come talk to Nia and Brainy. They’re cool, I promise.” And Lena actually agrees.
Lena keeps rather quiet for the rest of the night, seemingly content to just watch everyone else interact in that way only people who’ve been forced to bond for years can. She nods politely at inside jokes, exhaling quiet laughter when appropriate. And all the while, she’s taking intermittent sips of fruit-shine, accepting the various smoked party favors that Kara keeps “smuggling” over to her. At some point, Lena even loosens the death-grip she has on her backpack, shoulders almost relaxed as it sits safely in her lap.
By the time the bonfire’s extinguished, Kara’s pretty inebriated, but Lena’s somehow ended up even more so, despite drinking much less.
“It’s just been a while,” Lena insists as they’re heading back, the words unfurling from her mouth all lazy and graceless for once. She’s holding onto Kara’s arm like it’s a lifeline and walker rolled into one, and yet, she insists on insisting, “I’m serious. Normally, I can hold my liquor just fine. But I haven’t been drinking, and haven’t eating much lately either, as you well know.”
“I do, I do. No one’s judging you,” Kara says, laughing. “Mike’s probably going to puke before the night’s over, so I think you’re fine.”
Lena hmphs like she doesn’t quite trust the reassurance, and with the way she stumbles over absolutely nothing and has to be caught around the waist by Kara, maybe she’s right not to. But Kara’s got her, gently hauling Lena back onto her feet with hardly an effort.
“You okay?” Kara asks, and Lena just nods, her eyes wide and slowly blinking as she accepts Kara’s outstretched arm again. “Okay, because there’s air, like… all around us, so you might wanna watch out for that.”
“I know. It’s tricky. And so much harder to see in the dark too. I’m surprised I didn’t trip myself.”
Lena squeezes at Kara’s arm hard, tugging slightly. “You did it all on your own, didn’t you?” she says, voice hushed, and Kara barely has time to flash a bewildered stare before she’s clarifying, “You carried me here. All by yourself.”
“Oh.” Kara rubs at her face, her ear, down her neck—everywhere that’s starting heat up for some reason. “Yeah. I guess I did.”
They don’t say much for the rest of the walk, nor anything at all when they’re finally climbing into their beds for the night. And Kara desperately wants to break the silence. A part of her wants to say that it was no big deal—her pretty much singlehandedly rescuing Lena from the harsh elements of their current reality—but that’s not true. Then another part of her considers apologizing, claiming she didn’t mean to intervene in Lena’s life quite like that, but that’s even less true.
In the end though, Lena speaks up first,“… I spent the first few weeks like this. After.” She trails off in a pause that’s both meaningful and needless. There’s only one after that matters anymore—the after that’s nullified all the other afters that were or to come.
“Partying, you mean?”
“Drunk.” Lena says it quietly, like she’s confessing only to the ceiling of an empty room or to herself. “I just… locked myself up in my office, and spent the better part of far too many days working through my collection. Stuff I’d been saving for a special occasion.” She lets out a dry chuckle, shaking her head. “I suppose, in a way, it was a special occasion, huh.”
“Were you alone?” Kara asks.
“No,” Lena sighs. “Then yes.”
Kara doesn’t really know the proper thing to say here. Only the honest thing. “Well… I’m glad that you’re here now, Lena.”
The lack of an immediate response makes it unclear whether it was indeed the right thing to say, and Kara’s already itching to apologize again, though nothing could possibly make her take any of it back. Then, Lena breaks up the lingering pause with a single phrase—short and sweet, despite carrying enough weight to counterbalance that of their steadily deteriorating world.
Kara snaps her head over, but Lena’s curled away from her, facing the wall instead. But the brightest smile, nevertheless, tugs at the corners of her lips. “Always happy to help,” she murmurs, before drifting off to the comforting sound of Lena’s soft breath gradually slowing and deepening as sleep takes them both.