A little bit of a shorter chapter than usual, but not by much. I just felt that I needed some kind of transitional chapter in between what I have written so far and the shit that is about to hit the metaphorical fan. Consider this the peach sorbet served in between courses to cleanse your palate.
This story has become somewhat of my favorite project, so thank each and everyone of you for encouraging me to continue with it and change it from a dalliance to something that I am proud of.
Claire felt as though she had forgotten something. There was a sense of unease, of dread that stemmed not from approaching clotted smudge on the horizon, but of something deeper. She thought back to the moment she and Alice had shared and felt… pained, as if her confession wasn't enough, as if Alice's reassurances weren't enough. Should she have said more, done more to prove to Alice the depth of her feelings? Had there been something she had forgotten to tell her?
The source of her uncertainty was puzzling, like a word on the tip of her tongue that she could not manage to remember. She loved Alice, and Alice loved her. That much she knew was certain, but would that be enough? Was that enough, considering what they faced on a daily basis?
She lifted her binoculars to her eyes again, watching as the smudge began to coagulate into shapes. Shapes of a hundred, perhaps a thousand, Infected shuffled towards them. The only good thing about the Infected is that they tended to move slowly. They had driven ahead of the approaching horde several miles from the motor pool to the supply warehouses without confrontation. Alice and Carlos supervised the loading of the vehicles with as many boxes and pallets of food supplies as could fit into their convoy.
Claire kept watch from atop of the tanker truck, using the height to survey the distance. Another advantage to the Infected was there was no need to seek cover. They didn't use weapons, so hiding had little advantage once they already sensed a human presence.
She lowered the binoculars and sighed, wondering if the unsettling pit in her stomach had to do with the advancing Infected, rather than she and Alice. She startled as she felt a hand on her shoulder, half swinging her fist as she turned.
Alice smiled caught her wrist easily, gently before clenched fist connected with her face. "Sorry. Didn't mean to sneak up on you."
Expelling a relieved breath, Claire lowered her fist. "Christ, Alice…" She exhaled again, this time to slow the hum of adrenalin in her ears. "Are the vehicles loaded?"
"Carlos is supervising the last of the pallets into the deuce."
"Good." Claire pressed her lips together and nodded at the horizon. "We don't have much time."
Alice followed her gaze to the Infected, and nodded. "It's like watching a storm roll in, waiting for it to break upon you and knowing you can't do anything to stop it."
Claire snorted. "That's hopeful."
"Are you alright?" Her voice was much softer, gentler than Claire ever remembered hearing it, and the younger woman felt a blush color her cheeks as she knew intuitively that the tone was reserved for her alone, as intimate as a shared secret.
Unable to resist the pull of Alice, she allowed herself to be encircled into deceptively strong arms, buried her face in Alice's neck. "It's been so long… How do you go back when everything you've known, for six years has been… has been like this. I can't even remember what happiness is… or was. I can't remember what safety even feels like. So this… I'm scared, Alice."
"There is no real going back." Alice squeezed her more tightly and pressed her lips to the top of Claire's head. "It won't be the same because we aren't the same. But we can move forward. Together. If you still want to."
Alice jumped a little as Claire pinched her just below her rib cage. "You're teasing me." Claire pulled away, grinning despite her incredulity.
Arching a delicate brow, the older woman shrugged. "Have you ever known me as anything other than serious?"
"You're teasing me when the horde is just a mile away from swarming us?"
Another shrug and Alice turned back to the horizon, and Claire followed suit. She no longer needed binoculars to make out individual shapes, and the gray had become mottled with other dingy colors of dirty yellows, browns and greens. The dread dissipated, replaced by solid determination. She felt Alice's fingers interlace with her own.
It amazed her that Alice held that sort of power over her, the power to quell all her fears and doubts. The power to inspire such fierce dedication, such unwavering confidence. The Infected horde was no longer a threat, but merely an obstacle. Her feelings, her love for Alice was no longer a weakness but boundless strength. Claire allowed herself to draw on that strength, to feel it in their clasped hands. She felt fortified by, after a moment's consideration, what she determined to be hope.
"We can do this, can't we?"
Alice seemed surprised by the question, but turned to her lover and slowly nodded. "We can. We've had lots of chances of turning back, but we haven't yet." She ducked her head, suddenly timid again. "We need to leave. I'll go round everyone up." She turned to leave and walked half of the length of the tanker.
She had swung around to descend the ladder to the ground when Claire called out to her. "Hey!" Alice looked up sharply, halted at the top of the ladder, tilted her head to the side. "I love you, Alice Abernathy."
Alice was silent for several moments and pulled her hood over her head. "I know." She grinned broadly, and without waiting for a reply, slid down the ladder, feet hitting the dusty earth with barely a sound.
Claire grinned as she watched her lover jog up the ramp and into the warehouse, shaking her head in jubilant frustration.
Well if that ain't just the marshmallow topping on your sundae, I just don't know what is. Enjoy your fluff, ladies and gentlemen.
I think I'm going to save it for the end chapter where I go in depth with it, but each chapter (almost every one) is based on an excerpt from a certain work of literature that is dear to me. PM me if you have an idea what it is.
This chapter was written in response to all the awesome reviews/alerts I have received lately. So thank you. And feel free to leave feedback; it never hurts to stroke my ego. ;-)