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in the confusion and the aftermath, you are my signal fire

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Mira
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The road that unspooled beneath the sunless, starless sky was long and bleak, a pale surgical scar scoring the corpse-gray earth. Ash rain fell relentlessly with all the delicacy of snow, as if pieces of the sky were flaking and crumbling away.

There was no differentiating night from day here. There was no color. There was only gray, the non-color, the bastard child of black and white, and that was all they were left with. And there weren't many of them left.

A small band of travelers trudged through the filth along the road. The ash congealed into mud beneath the soles of their feet; only half of them wore shoes. There were roughly a dozen of the hunched figures, all with hoods or hats drawn down over their gaunt, hungry faces, and they were identical in their gates and postures: all of them appeared to be caving in on themselves, slowly and inevitably, beneath the weight of starvation and fatigue; all of them stumbled, regardless of footwear, although some did so more than others.

Leading the slow procession towards the front was a man in his thirties wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt. There was a rifle strapped to his back. The man halted suddenly, raising a thin arm in an impromptu exercise of his authority, and the procession drew to an obedient, if uncoordinated, stop. Several detached themselves from the group and disappeared over the side of the ditch to relieve themselves, while others still sat down where they stood, unable to or uninterested in standing any longer.

"Where's Roark?" the man in the lead demanded, eyes scanning the crowd as he took a silent headcount of those present. His inquiry was met with several dismissive shrugs.

"I think he wandered off somewhere a half mile back," one of the women mentioned. "He'll catch up. Doesn't he always?"

"Who cares if he does?" a gray-faced former lawyer interrupted. "He can fall off the side of a cliff for all I care. You're not planning on waiting here for him, are you?"

"He has our water," their leader hissed through clenched teeth.

Further back the way they had come a lone man made his way through a sparse forest, having diverged from the main road almost an hour ago. The trees all around him stood dead on their roots, stripped of their leaves and still gripping the ground as if locked in rigor mortis. The world was as still as a graveyard, the only sound to have trespassed there in months the sound of the man's steady footfalls and his labored, unselfconscious breathing. He stopped long enough to draw out a canteen, sipping cautiously from his own rations as he took a moment to gaze disinterestedly about himself. Unlike the others, his hood was drawn back, retired between lean, powerful shoulders, revealing a human face to the unforgiving landscape. He was a man entering the years of middle-age where time begins to stand still, where features and body cease to reveal the exact number of birthdays they have lived through. He had a head of thick copper hair that distinguished him violently from his monochromatic surroundings; he raised a hand to his scalp now to thoughtlessly shuffle his fingers through it and dislodge the ash that had settled there. His eyes were a bright, cunning blue, although their color always dimmed significantly when he was in the company of the others. Now, they scanned the tree line with a raptor's intensity. In the distance, the black, crumbling spires of what had once been a city rose up like the spines of some eldritch creature dredged up from an ancient ocean, from a time when the ocean had still been a thing to support life. Capping the lid on his canteen, the man pushed onward exhaustively towards it.

John Hughes, the self-proclaimed "brains" of their outfit, was the biggest fucking idiot he had ever met—and Roark had had the distinct pleasure of knowing a lot of idiots in his lifetime. But it didn't stop there, because being an unreformable idiot in their decaying corner of the world also meant being an enormous liability. The others who trailed unwaveringly in Hughes' footsteps weren't much better off in the brains department: they followed Hughes because he was still relatively young and charismatic (the latter being relative), with the added bonus of being especially vocal.

And they continued to follow Hughes—even after he had stupidly misplaced their supply of morphine, possibly by emptying it all into his own veins—even after he had led them right into an obvious trap set for them by one of the roaming cannibal tribes, ignoring the protests of those who wanted to detour and refusing to take responsibility after the fact, after three lives had been lost—even after that pregnant woman had wandered off a week back, only to be discovered lying by a ditch days later, dead and already partially decomposing, with no sign of the baby anywhere—

A half hour later the man took his first step out onto blacktop, having left the dead wood far behind him. He had finally breached the city's perimeter. Hatred was a potent fuel, one that burned slowly and fired the forges of his body better than anything Caloric, and it was one that kept him going even now, when he was far beyond the brink of human exhaustion. He was entering the abyss, but as he felt like a void himself, vacant of anything but hatred, he would make a nice home for himself there.

It was better than being afraid.

The man stopped in the empty parking lot of a grocery store and quietly considered the glass door standing ajar. His stare seemed to be directed inward, or elsewhere, or even into forever, which may have explained why he didn't take better stock of his surroundings in the moment. If he had been paying attention, he would have noticed the footprints left in the ash he trode over now were not months or even weeks old, but fresh; he would have noticed that the wreckage and refuse in the lot had been tactfully rearranged and moved aside, as if someone within the building had established a perimeter.

... Hughes was a first-class bastard and there was no doubt about it. The sentiment repeated itself over and often and was fast becoming the man's private mantra, the thing that drove him to increasingly sever himself from the pack and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The man leading them didn't understand that supplies had been dwindling for days without being replenished, and Roark doubted Hughes had any real concept of what it would take to keep the remainder of them going. Maybe the others could subsist on pretty words and promises, surviving solely off the last mangled vestiges of their hopes and dreams and optimism, but Roark needed to choke down something semi-digestible in the next ten minutes or he doubted he would have the energy to find his way back. Not that there'd be any love lost between him and the rest of the—

There was food inside, yes, some of it even nonperishable. But there was also someone else in the store.

The man bared his teeth in anger at being taken by surprise, drawing his pistol from the front pocket of his coat with more swiftness than he had thought himself presently capable. His movements were sluggish, but his nerves were fraying, which more than made up for what he had lost in motor function. Adrenaline surged through his bloodstream, elevating the hand that clutched the firearm and tensing his muscles in preparation, although he doubted now that he would bring himself to fire, not when it was a girl staring down the barrel of his gun.


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Mk.
 Mk.
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How long had it been since the day the world had ended? She couldn’t remember. At first, she had been counting. A day passed, a week, a month, two months, three. She had stopped counting. There was no point in keeping track of what day it was, how many days it had been, because they all just blended in together like what was left of the scenery.

She had been away on a spa retreat with some of the ladies in her father’s firm when it had happened originally. Jaqueline had won her first case while interning for the summer at the law firm her father had created from the ground up many years ago, and he had sent them off to celebrate. He had said that they had earned it with all the hard work that they had put into the case; the late nights she had stayed at the office until two in the morning, drinking coffee and pouring over manila folders full of evidence and statements; the long weekends she had pulled interviewing witnesses; the lengthily hours she had put in during the week typing up motions and reading and rereading through the frivolous litigation against their client. All her hard work, and the hard work of her coworkers on the case, had been paid off; therefore, the first win of her legal career was worth a little weekend get-away.

It had happened the second night that they had all been resting and recouping at the spa. She remembered explicitly that it had been a Saturday, a Saturday night. She had just finished with her hot-rock massage, and had been on the way back to her room in her fluffy white robe, the red polish on her toes from her pedicure earlier gleaming away as she walked.

They had left the spa immediately after, returning back to the city, rushing to find loved ones they had left behind. When Jaq had arrived back at her parent’s mansion, she had found it burning, the contents of the house strewn across the lawn with people fighting over what was left. She had gone inside the home she had grown up in, screaming for her parents as the house slowly burned around her. She had stopped when she had reached the living room, and saw both of her parents dead on the floor, gunshot wounds to their chests and heads.

She had rushed back to her apartment, where she had stayed holed up for months, eating her food sparingly, and watching the riots from twelve stories high. She had read and reread all her books, textbooks, and whatever else she had had lying around the house. She had counted the days, hoping, wishing, praying to a God she didn’t even believe in for things to get better, for the world to go back to how it had been before, back when the world had made sense, when she had known what she was doing with her life. In one night, she had gone from having everything, a budding career, a family, and friends, to having nothing.

Jaqueline had stayed holed up in her apartment, hidden away, until she had lost track of time, until the riots had subsided, and most people had departed what was left of the city in hopes of finding somewhere better off. She had been tempted to join one of the mass exoduses, but had decided against it. There were too many people, and too little supplies. Here, in her little apartment, she could keep track of what she had, and only have to venture out when things got low.

And so months had passed, and Jaqueline Adams had gone from being a woman with a life, to a woman just barely surviving, existing. She had kept taking care of herself, as best she could. She brushed her long brown, wavy hair twice a day, once when she woke up and once before she went to sleep. She painted her own nails until her nail polish had run out, the last scraggly remains of what had been a red similar to what she had worn that fateful day in the spa lingering on her fingers and toes, chipped away until only small pieces were left here and there. She had kept exercising by running up and down the stairs. She had done what she needed to in order to keep surviving, to keep alive through the days, when many others were dying from various causes.

When she hadn’t seen anyone in weeks, and her food supplies were dwindling low, Jaqueline had packed herself a few bags. Sturdy, warm clothes in one. A spare pair of running shoes in another (long gone were the days of hundred dollar, four inch stiletto heels that she would wear to the courtroom with her skirt suit sets in order to make her calves look great), along with a photo of herself with her parents, a few books, a blanket and her favorite pillow. The last contained her non-perishable food that was left, her water jug, along with a can opener, a cup, a plate, and a set of silverware, a few candles, and some matches that she had waterproofed by dipping in hot wax that she had collected for that purpose. Once she was ready, she slung her backpack of food and things over her shoulders, and held the other two duffle bags in her hands.

She left her apartment building for the first time since it had happened, the ash falling down from the sky like snow in the middle of winter, with all the stubborn relentlessness of a blizzard in the arctic circle, never ceasing.

Jaqueline walked, and walked, looking through all the shops as she went, searching for anything that might help her through the days, months, and years to come. There was nothing that she found at first, no clothes, no shoes, no food, no water, no matches, no candles, no lighters, nothing. But she kept on keeping on, walking through the whole city, stopping for the night in places where most of the windows and doors hadn’t been broken or kicked out, or burned down too badly. She kept walking and searching, and searching and walking. Finally, she found something. A grocery store close to the outskirts of town.

She stepped inside, and looked around the place, setting up herself a little camp close to the back, a little out of the way and far enough out of the ordinary that hopefully no one would see her unless they were really looking. First, she had arranged what was left of the food inside the store, moving it all closer to her area, but leaving some near the door in case other stragglers came looking. If they found something, hopefully they’d just take it and go. A few times, she hadn’t been so lucky. A few times, she had been beaten, or worse. And left alone in her grocery store, Jaqueline had cursed the fact that she hadn’t gone into a more useful study of practice when the world had been well. Being a lawyer was useless, when there were no laws to uphold. If she had at least gone into medicine, then she would’ve been able to stitch up her cuts with more finesse, leaving smaller, less noticeable scars along her sides, and limbs.

She had moved the wreckage in the parking lot out of the way, towards the outskirts of the lot, leaving a small narrow passageway to enter in and out of the parking lot. She had tried to sweep the ash aside at first, like shoveling snow off of a driveway. She had quickly given up on this venture, deeming it pointless. No one was around often enough to even notice her efforts. But if she was alone, she was safe; even if some company would’ve been nice every once and a while. It was a lonely world now, and she had been a social creature before.

Another day had arrived, and she was in a nightgown that her mother had given her, the last gift she had ever received from the woman, along with a beige cable-knit sweater, padding around her grocery store barefoot, humming quietly to herself under her breath as she swept the floors clean. She liked to keep her living area, and the few places around it clean. Finishing, Jaq returned the broom to its space leaning against the wall beside her bed, and looked through her food stashes. It was dwindling. Time to go restock from up front, leaving less for others, but more for her.

But today, the twenty-four year old was in for a surprise. When she walked around the corner of the aisle she had gone up, there was a man standing at the supplies she had left up front. She gasped quietly, and then two seconds later she was staring down the barrel of a gun.

“Take whatever you want, just don’t hurt me…please.” Jaqueline murmured quietly, frozen to the spot like a deer in headlights, eyes blown wide. Hopefully he would leave her with something at least, and be back on his way to wherever it was he was going.


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Mira
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Suffice to say, Jaq was not what Roark had been expecting—a looter, maybe, or some sort of irradiated mutant (he had only heard rumors of them and had yet to see one for himself, although he doubted their existence). Just about the last thing he had been prepared for was a young woman who looked as if she'd walked straight out of the pages of a lingerie catalog, dressed in a thin shift and an open, loose-fitting sweater. What would have been any other man's waking dream Roark found both disturbing and perplexing, and he lowered his firearm, startled gaze climbing the woman in a way that was far from lascivious. His eyes were such a piercing, hypnotic hue that it was relatively easy to map their path, but there was a hard quality to them; nothing that betrayed any sort of vulgarity or base intention.

She was, admittedly, beautiful: thin and exhausted and hungry, but a beauty so striking that it couldn't be ignored, not even in its afterlife. In this new world, he had thought beauty unsustainable—and Roark was a man who always saw the ugliness in everything, anyway. It may have been the thing that saved her from him, as he was distracted by the certainty that there was no earthly person left who could possible look this way. He thought he was hallucinating; that his mind had snapped, finally and irreversibly, or that he was seeing an angel, although he would revisit the cliché the next instant and curse himself for having shit for brains comparable to John Hughes.

But as his eyes climbed a path to hers, he noticed details that solidified the mirage. He could see the scars, some old, most fresh; the jut of her hipbones beneath the tissue-thin fabric of her nightgown; the animal terror in her eyes. She was not some product of dehydration or his own helpless, wishful thinking. She was a damaged product of their very damaged reality.

She was like him.

Roark scowled, and all thought of any resemblance between them fled in the wake of the expression. He looked on her in disapproval, having already privately saddled her with the blame for letting himself get carried away by his thoughts. He stowed his pistol back into the front pocket of his jacket. He had an especially unpleasant face when he frowned, and the lines cutting vertically around his mouth only seemed to lengthen when the girl pleaded with him not to hurt her. Evidently there was a history with this place, and it was not a nice one. He could read it written in the gashes that crossed and recrossed her arms and legs.

"I'm not going to touch you," Roark responded gruffly. It sickened him that they lived in a world where he had to give the assurance. "I was just looking for something to..."

It was as if the reminder of food—of his mission—caused the man's body to falter, and he suddenly shot a hand out to grip the display closest to him, his arm shaking with the effort required to keep himself upright. He took a single, staggered step to the left as he attempted to reassert his balance—he succeeded, he did not go down, but the girl would have noticed. The knuckles in his hand bleached white as he clenched the lip of the shelf.

"... just looking for something to eat," he finished. He wasn't going to ask permission, but he wasn't going to just up and raid the woman's supplies, either. Whatever monsters she had encountered before him, Roark wasn't one of them. What he was was just very, very hungry.


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Mk.
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Jaqueline had been completely surprised when she had seen Roark inside her grocery store. Everyone who she had heard in her store always had heavy footfalls. They were noisy. And from the noise, she knew to quickly hide. But she hadn’t heard him enter at all. All of the other men had been gruff, complaining about something to themselves or those they were with, they walked heavily, and weren’t like him at all. She watched as his eyes roamed over her, though in a different way than all his predecessors. He wasn’t blatantly staring at her in a way that she had learned to mean that there would be much pain and suffering coming on her end. He looked like he was assessing her, seeing if she would be useful, or able to pose some kind of threat, which she obviously wouldn’t. She was frail; if he decided to attack her, she’d fight back, but it wouldn’t account to much. She had taken a few self defense classes back when the world was livable, and she could recall on them easily, but it was in the strength department she was found wanting. Thankfully, he murmured that he wasn’t going to touch her, and a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding escaped quietly past her lips. For now, if he was telling the truth, she wouldn’t have to worry about anymore scars ending up on her body.

She was painfully aware of just how little she was currently wearing, and shifted to pull her sweater closed over herself, wrapping her arms around her torso. This was more than just a little bit awkward. However, it was just a little bit nice to have someone around that wasn’t planning on causing her bodily harm. She had been a person who had thrived on her connections and relationships with others, and it had been a very hard transition to change into a solitary being. She missed meeting her friends out at little cafes, talking about their days apart, what they were working on, and if there were any new men in their lives. All of her friends were long gone, possibly dead; dead like her parents. At least they had gone before the world had become like this. Her mother wouldn’t have been able to handle this new world; she had had a sweet and kind disposition. Here, in this altered life, you needed to be hard, and being hard wasn’t something her mother was capable of.

But she was drawn from her own silent musings as this stranger stumbled from his own weight, catching himself on one of the displays that were still standing from days long passed. He then spoke that he had just been looking for something to eat, and Jaq then realized she was being a terrible host. How inconsiderate of her! Of course he had been looking for something to eat – that was generally why people came into her little grocery store. The old Jaqueline, who had hosted dinner parties and invited friends over for food and drinks just because, would’ve been appalled that she had waited so long to even ask if he wanted anything, or needed anything.

“Please, sit down. I’ll go get you something; I’ll just be a second.” Jaq murmured, with a small smile, before disappearing back down the aisle that she had walked up to get to the front of the store. Luckily, she had just swept the front area yesterday. She would’ve been a little bit embarrassed if it had been dirty.

Finding her way back to her little living area, she quickly changed into a pair of jeans, and a red plaid flannel shirt that her dad had given her for the last birthday that he had been alive, so she would have something warm to wear when they went out fishing on their boat. Slipping on a pair of socks, and her runners, Jaq tied back her hair with a piece of rope, before grabbing her can opener, and her spoon which were also just recently cleaned.

Making her way back up front, she grabbed a can of Campbell’s chunky soup, beef with country vegetables. She had been saving it for a time when she might really need the protein and vegetables for energy, but it looked like he needed it a lot more than she did at the moment. Sitting down beside Roark, she passed him the spoon.

“Here,” She murmured quietly, opening the can with speedy efficiency, before passing it to him. “Cold will have to do; I can’t exactly warm it up unfortunately. If you need anything else, just tell me… I’ve got a little bit of water, and a couple of juice packs left too, if you need any.”


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He waited until she disappeared back into the store; then, Roark didn't so much sit deliberately as he slid to the floor, catching his elbow on the lowest shelf to ensure he didn't crumple into a filthy, listless heap. He sat there uncomfortably, waiting for his hostess to return. He had no idea how he was supposed react to this strange woman. 'Please?' 'I'll get you something?' She may as well have been speaking in a foreign tongue, made all the worse because he had known it himself once, long ago, before the language had gone extinct. Good manners and social platitudes had ceased to serve a function… but apparently she had missed that memo. Apparently in this corner of the world, notions of 'love thy neighbor' still prospered.

He didn't know how to respond to it. Thankfully, Roark didn't have the energy to respond to much of anything at the moment. He sat as limply as a discarded rag doll, his head hanging and his chin tucked close to his chest. He didn't even appear to be breathing. Any other intruder haplessly wandering in would have mistaken him for just another corpse, and they would have been half-right in their estimation.

He wondered, idly, if she was coming back. He doubted that she would. The woman had obviously run across her fair share of unsavories before him: looters, gangsters… worse. He had seen some horrific things in recent days, but the real horror lay in the knowledge that there was probably far, far worse tucked out of sight around the next corner.

He began to drift off, then, without noticing. He swam in and out of consciousness in a dreamless purgatory, still vaguely aware of his surroundings. He didn't remember the last time he had truly fallen asleep, and permanent wakefulness was beginning to wear on him. He was started, however, when he realized that the woman had returned, and was now seated beside him. Roark raised his head, frigid blue eyes gazing at her consideringly from beneath the furrowed shelf of his brow. He hadn't heard her come back in… was it possible she had snuck up on him while he wasn't looking? But why the hell would she do that? A better answer was that he was so out of it he could barely keep track of what was two feet in front of him—although this was not the answer he preferred.

He was relieved to see she had changed. She was less surreal now that she wore practical clothing. He kept his eyes locked with hers as she passed him the spoon, but eventually turned them away when she handed him the can.

"Thanks," he grunted. His voice sounded awful to his own ears, but that may have only been because he hadn't heard it in so long. Maybe it always sounded that way. Roark raised the tin to his lips and threw his head back, the spoon still clenched in his other fist, as if he had forgotten it was there—or forgotten what it was for. His Adam's apple bobbed as he guzzled the soup, although he managed to keep from dribbling any down the sides, as if he was conscious of not wasting any. He seemed to finish within seconds and gave a wild gasp when he finally came up for air, slamming the can down on the floor with a hollow ring.

An awkward moment passed, although Roark didn't appear to notice. He was avoiding eye contact now, but that was because his gaze was trained on the woman's legs. It was an uncomfortable look to be on the receiving end of when the man's face gave no indication what he was thinking.

"Your right leg," he said eventually. He had no follow-up, but he held out his hand to her expectantly.


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Mk.
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It had been so long since she had been around anyone who wasn’t dead set on causing her bodily harm. It had been ages since she had been able to sit and enjoy company as she had before this had happened, when she had thrown dinner parties every other week when she wasn’t busy with school or work. It’d be a potluck, and she’d break out a good bottle or two of wine, and they would all sit around her dining room table, eating and drinking, laughing and talking the night away, just enjoying each other’s company. Those days were long gone now, and she missed them. She missed slaving over an oven for a few hours, making something that would be so delicious that it would be the envy of all her guests. Cold Campbell’s soup was hardly warm and succulent beef bourguignon, but it would have to do. It was the new form of gourmet in this world, and that fact was one that depressed her a little. Jaqueline had been quite the connoisseur on fancy dishes and expensive wines. This new day and age did not sit well with her refined palate, but there wasn’t anything she could really do about it. She would’ve given anything for a good shot of espresso in the morning, or a fine pinot noir to sip with her dinner.

And yet, Roark seemed to be so enthralled with her cold soup, drinking it down like a seriously dehydrated man stranded in the Sahara desert. She wished she had been able to enjoy a cold can of soup with such enthusiasm, but she would be lying if she did. She had made her own soups, and after that, cold and canned soup just didn’t cut it. But, it was food, and she could hardly complain when she still had food to eat, when others went through this new life starving, as she assumed Roark had been before stumbling into her little grocery store. In that sense, she was grateful that she still had food to eat at least, even if it wasn’t what she had been used to eating before the world had ended that awful night. Hopefully he would start to feel better soon, now that he had some nourishment in him. She could give him a couple more cans before he departed back on his way out wherever he was going, and then she’d be alone again unfortunately.

“You’re welcome,” Jaqueline murmured in response, the small smile still perched upon her lips. This was awkward at best, but he was still half-decently friendly company, if only for the reason that he didn’t intend to hurt her like all his predecessors had.

At least, that was what she had thought before he had begun staring at her now-clothed legs. It wasn’t the look she had been accustomed to before being attacked simply for the reason that she was a woman, and she was weak, that’d she’d be a good punching bag to release pent-up anger and frustrations, or to use her body in a very different way, making her long for the days of scalding hot showers where she could scour off every last pore of skin until it was red and raw, and hopefully then she would feel clean once more.

He then requested her right leg, and Jaqueline tensed, like a wild animal frozen for half a second, tensing for half a second before beginning to dart away, hoping and running as fast as it could to get to safety and away from whatever predator was assailing it. Her heart rate jumped through the roof once more, her sympathetic nervous system kicking in her fight or flight instinct, and causing her to react in such a manner. She seriously considered running, making her way back to her living area where she had a old baseball bat; but, a baseball bat wouldn’t do her much good against a gun, and she had learned this lesson before. In exchange for her life however, she had had to do things she would rather forget, and keep repressed back down into her subconscious.

But, he had said in more or less words that he wasn’t going to hurt her. He had just been looking for something to eat. And now he wanted her leg, his hand extended, waiting.

Warily, she tucked a lock of hair back behind her ear, and slowly moved her leg out to rest in his hand.

“I’m Jaqueline,” she introduced herself, hoping that a) he was planning on keeping his word from earlier and had no intention of hurting her now, or b) that perhaps if he knew her name, and seen how kind she had been, giving him food while being polite and cordial, that he’d at least consider not harming her. It was a lot to trust with a stranger of the opposite sex, but for some unknown reason, she was giving him a try.


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Roark could see that she was afraid now—of course he saw it. You'd have to be blind or a true fool not to notice the way the woman's entire body tensed at his request, or the way the whites of her eyes began to expand and draw attention away from the pupils. This was the look he had seen her wearing when he first entered the store, the look that had stared down the barrel of his gun and won—it was the look she should have been wearing all along, but its sudden reappearance now made him shift uncomfortably. Still, his eyes bore into hers as if he wasn't giving her the option of looking away, and his hand remained extended.

He watched as a miniature war raged behind the woman's eyes. He said nothing to sway her either way. She had two options, so far as he could see, and he was clearly asking her to take the stupider of the two. A true survivor didn't deliver his life into the hands of another under any circumstance, but it was the precise moment that Roark's most deeply-held principle streaked across his mind that the woman lifted her leg into his hand. His grip tightened around her calf almost immediately. He caught himself wanting to increase the pressure to teach her better, because the fear in her eyes had been replaced by a careful reserve, and reserve wasn't going to save her if she ever found herself in the hands of men worse than him.

But he didn't. He only gripped her hard enough to draw the leg closer to him, not caring if he pulled the woman attached to it across the floor a little in the process. Once she was nearer to him, Roark held her ankle firmly in place as he pushed her pant leg up with his other hand, aware that she was talking but not especially interested in listening. She was nervous, that much he could gather, but right now he was concentrating for the both of them. The leg he had commandeered was badly cut up, but so was the rest of her; this wasn't what concerned him. He could see she had done a fair job of stitching up some of the deeper gashes, but from a distance they had looked inflamed, and upon closer examination the redness surrounding the sutures looked positively angry. They weren't as bad as some of the wounds he'd seen, but they would definitely require fresh dressing.

Roark shot a hand out to rummage through his pack. He was aware that the woman had introduced herself, and he quietly filed away her name as he pulled out a bottle of water and his very last tube of antiseptic. He didn't know why he was wasting valuable synapses remembering the name. It's not as if he ever intended to use it.

The woman's leg jumped a little as he tipped the contents of the water bottle over it, but he dug his fingers in again. His grip was commanding, but never brutally forceful—in fact, he was being fairly gentle, considering there wasn't an ounce of fat left on her to cushion the muscle. Once he had cleaned her cuts, he applied the disinfectant, and rummaged around in his pack once more for bandages, eventually coming upon an extra roll he hadn't known he'd possessed. As he began to wrap the woman's leg, he increasingly sensed some sort of expectation in the air, as if there was something else he was meant to be doing, but for the life of him he couldn't remember what. He was beyond exhausted—all he wanted to do now was shut his eyes and bask in the modicum of peace it would afford him, but he had a job to finish first, and with his dwindling supplies on the line he wasn't about to half-ass it.

Once he had finished, Roark sat back to scrutinize his handiwork. His scowl shrank slightly, which seemed to be a good indication he wasn't entirely displeased. He pulled the woman's pant leg back down, but forgot to release it as he leaned back against the shelf and shut his eyes. The limb he had perceived as being thin and fragile only moments before now appeared so heavy as to be immovable, and besides, it was keeping his hand warm.

He could feel himself beginning to drift off. Had he been fully awake at this point he wouldn't have offered it, but his brain was functioning at only half capacity, and that half happened to be tasked with speech. So he muttered a name,

"Roark,"

before he slipped off into unconsciousness, unaware that his grip on her was as strong in sleep as it was in waking.


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The last time a man had stumbled into her store under the night sky, she had hoped to stay hidden in the dark. She had hoped that if she was quiet enough, if she didn’t breathe, didn’t move a muscle so long as she heard someone scavenging through the supplies she had up front that they might just take those and go. That if she was like a mouse, hiding quietly in its hole from a starving, stalking cat, that she might be able to get away from the chance encounter unharmed. She had laid in the back, underneath her blanket, her hands fisted in the fabric while she tried to hold her breath as much as possible, letting it out and breathing in only when she had to at slow rates. But the man had been greedy. He had wandered the aisles, looking for anything else that he might be able to find in the store, and he had been able to satisfy a different kind of hunger when he had found her.

There had been no point in screaming. No one else would hear. And even if by some miracle someone was around, they wouldn’t help. More likely, they might join in. She had fought back, she had scraped and bit and kicked. He had taken out his knife and sliced her leg open when she had kicked him, quickly moving while she gasped from pain to move the blade to her throat before continuing to have his way with her. She had turned her head away, and tried to ignore the blood dripping down her leg, and the tears dripping down her face.

And now here she was, trusting a man on the sheer stupid hope that he would keep his word. Men these days never kept their word. No one did. But he had put his gun away, and she had graciously fed him one of her best cans of soup.

He got a good grip on her leg, before pulling her a little closer to him, causing Jaq to startle for half a second, and the fear to pop up again before she tried to push it away. Maybe it was stupid, maybe it would get her hurt again in the long run, but she was so sick of not being around people who had no ill intent. He had said he wasn’t going to hurt her, and as he pushed up her pant leg, she reminded herself of this fact, watching keenly to see any hint of malice. But there was none there. Simply a fixated concentration as he exposed the wound that the last man had given her. She had done her best to take care of it and keep it clean, but her best hadn’t been good enough. And it seemed that he had noticed.

His other hand reached for his pack, and again she tensed, wary of what could be lurking within the cloth he had carried with him here. When he drew out a bottle of water and a tube of something, she relaxed, at least until the water touched her wound. Flinching, her hands looked for purchase on the linoleum flooring and found none, curling into tiny fists against the sudden pain as he cleaned the gash and then put the contents of the tube on her cut. Disinfectant? That was a rare and precious jewel in these days, and she couldn’t help but feel grateful.

He reached into his bag again, and pulled out bandages, wrapping up the hurt and infected area well before seemingly appraising his work for a moment and then pulling her pant leg back down to cover it once more.

The man leaned back against the shelving and closed his eyes, his hand still gripped tightly around her leg. However, he murmured something before his breathing evened out as he slipped into sleep. Roark. That must be his name. She smiled, as she tried to gently pry her leg out of his hand. But that just was not going to happen apparently, because his grip was just as strong as it had been when he had been awake, and it was much stronger than she was. Not to mention, if he was falling asleep sitting down on the hard floor after just eating, he probably needed the sleep.

Jaq tried to lift her leg out of his grasp a few more times before giving in. She wasn’t going to be able to move anywhere, not without waking him up, and that seemed to be a cruel thing to do after what he had just done for her. So, instead, she shifted, moving much closer to the kind stranger in her makeshift home, leaning her head on his shoulder and wrapping her arms around him. If she was stuck here, instead of sleeping in her want-to-be bed underneath her blanket, then he was sharing some body heat with her. It got cold at night. And she also tried to squash the nice feeling of having someone there beside you when you slept. He just had her leg in a death grip, and she just needed his body heat because she was only wearing the flannel shirt her dad had given her and some jeans. She needed a coat or her blanket at least to stay warm for the night, and as she had neither, invading his personal space to share body heat was simply the logical answer to her dilemma.


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Roark was effectively dead to the world (or what remained of it), and if he dreamed, well—he kept those dreams so far buried that even he would have trouble retrieving them upon waking. If there was a bright side to this reality he was forced to exist in, it was that nightmares were rare—the horrors he was subjected to daily made them seem tame by comparison.

It hadn't been that way in the beginning. Roark had woke screaming so often he had necessarily taken to gagging himself with a strip of cloth so he wouldn't give away his location. That had been in the early days. By the time he was picked up by Hughes' party, he had defeated his night terrors. Good thing, too, or the group would have ejected him immediately; they had already abandoned several survivors along the road, including a young couple and their squalling newborn, because they couldn't keep their mouths shut at night.

His life was one long waking nightmare, anyway, so any horror that persisted after he shut his eyes would have only been redundant at this point. Instead, Roark retreated to the safety of memories, replaying them over and over again in the theater of his mind. Jaq edged closer and he barely moved in response, his body only shifting occasionally to accommodate her small, hesitant touches. His hand freed her leg over the course of the ensuing hours and somehow found its way around her shoulders as she settled into his chest, secured inside a fold of his jacket. He was warmer than he'd been in years, but being unconscious, he took it for granted. It'd been a long time since he'd taken anything at all for granted, and it was almost as luxuriant as the heat shared between them.

He didn't sleep long. Roark woke with a start, almost bucking Jaq off him before he remembered where he was and who he was with. The man managed to restrain himself at the last second and save Jaq from an equally rude awakening. The woman slept on with her head pillowed against his chest, and Roark scowled. He definitely didn't remember falling asleep this way.

The world outside the store windows had lightened somewhat. Gingerly, Roark eased Jaq off him and laid her down; not because he was a gentle man, but because he was making every effort not to wake her. He shed his jacket only as a second thought, stripping it from his shoulders to cushion the woman's head. Then he rose and left the store.

The silence of a dead world was the only thing to greet his emergence. Roark paused in the door's threshold, eyes scanning every nuance of the landscape with keen perception, but nothing stirred. Odd. He could have sworn that something woke him. Maybe he had failed to banish the nightmares as thoroughly as he thought.

Roark made his way around the side of the store and unzipped to relieve himself. He had barely hiked his pants back up before an explosion rocked the entire block, throwing him against the broadside of the building. The man watched, wild-eyed, as a post office in the distance went up in flames, its foundations crumbling beneath the onslaught of an attack. Just what had done the attacking soon became apparent as a military tank emerged from the smoke, driven by a raucous gathering of men in war paint. They were too far away and too drunk to see him, but the tank was rattling ominously down the road towards them.

"Shit!" Roark cursed, before whirling to retreat back inside. The explosion had undoubtedly woken Jaq, but the man ignored her; his immediate concern was retrieving his coat and bag, which he threw on hard enough to fling his hood up around his ears. He fumbled his way down along the shelves in a desperate hunt for anything salvageable, anything at all—but another explosion from outside, closer this time, left no room for doubt in his mind that they had both outstayed their welcome here. It was time to evacuate.

Roark met Jaq at the back of the store. Ignoring any questions she may have had, he extended his hand to her.

"Let's move!" he shouted. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours Roark took hold of Jaq, pulling her with him down the back steps. There was no time to argue or answer her queries, and he could only hope that she had the presence of mind to pack light, and pack well. There would be no returning to the grocery store after this. They'd be lucky if they made it as far as the forest.


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The even paced sound of his breathing helped Jaqueline drift off to sleep, the balanced, repetitive sounds soothing her frayed nerves and helping her to relax a little. In a short amount of time, she had drifted off to sleep as well, her own breathing settling into a steady rhythm. In and out, in and out; oxygen turning into carbon monoxide and being dispelled from their bodies in a way that the human body had been doing since the very first person took their very first breath.

Sleep had never been a comfortable place to run to in this new world order. If you were asleep at the wrong time, you could end up dead. Murdered, killed by a passerby and looted, left as a corpse with nothing. If you weren’t alert, you couldn’t hear them coming and hide. And at first, her unconscious had enjoyed replaying terrifying moments for her over and over again; finding her parents dead; being attacked the first time, the second, third and fourth; all the things that could happen, that could continue to go wrong. Mainly these days, her unconscious reminded her of things she had lost and had no hope of recovering; her parents, her friends, her cat, her career, the dream of finding someone to settle down and marry one day. She found that remembering them was harder than simply reliving the waking nightmare she faced each and every day. Here, in this, she could simply pretend as if it had always been this way. She could force away the memories of Sunday mornings with her girlfriends getting breakfast and coffee at a little ritzy café before going shopping for the afternoon, the memories of grocery shopping Thursday night after work, prepping Friday night, and then cooking all day Saturday in her kitchen before getting ready for the dinner party she was about to throw. She could forget about Christmas with her parents at the cabin, and weekend-getaways to go wine tasting or fishing, and the spa retreats she would go on with her mother just because. All of these things, all of these inconsequential things had made up her entire life, and she felt empty without them, as if there was simply not even a reason to go through the motions of living without being able to wake up to fresh espresso and a loving caress from her cat in the morning.

And it certainly wasn’t the bubbling of her espresso maker that woke her, nor the smell of the strong brew, or even a lick on her cheek from Sephora but an explosion that rocked her from her state of unconsciousness to the waking world once more. Darting upright from the position she had been moved into, her eyes were wide, scrambling to get up and start moving. That was a sound that she had learned to run from, and luckily, she had been mostly prepared in case something like this happened again.

She took no note of where on earth Roark was, because she figured he could take care of himself. He had gotten himself this far after all, and since he had made her a pillow out of his coat, and left his bag behind, she figured he wasn’t too far off and would be back for them in a second.

Jaq stood to her feet and ran to the back, quickly tugging on her coat and doing up the buttons, glad that her hair was tied back already and not getting in the way. She shoved her nightgown into her backpack that had one spare set of clothes and runners and one book, before grabbing her water bottle and stashing in a few of the better-off cans that she had been saving for herself along with the can opener. And that was all the time she had to pack, because Roark was running towards her. She zipped the bag shut and threw it over her shoulders before taking one last glance at the place that had been her home for a few months now. She was sad to leave behind her pillow and blankets, but there simply wasn’t any time.

As he held his hand out for her and yelled that they needed to move, she grasped his hand tightly as if he were her lifeline. And really, he probably was.

She didn’t question it as they ran out the back door together, away from whatever it was that was coming, and towards the woods. She simply followed him blindly and hoped that he wasn’t going to ditch her as soon as they made it away from the approaching danger, because she wouldn’t be able to do this on her own. There would be a time for questions later. Right now it was time to run, so right now she’d run as fast and as hard as she could. She’d run, and she’d run with him.


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Roark hadn't planned for any of this. There was no denying he'd deliberately gone off on his own, but discovering Jaq had thrown a wrench in his plans, and everything had spiraled out of control from there. Not that he presumed to have much control over anything anymore. What he did have control over was his own survival, and now it would seem he had taken the reins for another as well. He had extracted a stranger from her safe haven and yanked her by the hand out into a world only marginally less forgiving than the business end of a turret gun. Not only had he broken his first cardinal rule the night before, he was currently breaking his second. Never entrust your life to a strange, and never take responsibility for a life other than your own.

Yet here he was, dragging some colt-legged girl half his age up the steep incline of a hill as a tank rattled down the road behind them. Already they had stirred up enough ash to cake their shoes and pant legs up to the shins; if Roark had been a praying man, he would have prayed wildly then, hoping that the drunken looters were too preoccupied with their sport to notice the disturbance. They had just breached the tree line when an explosion staggered them both to their knees. There was maybe twenty yards between them and the grocery store, which had just had a gaping hole blown through it; the looters plowed through it with the tank, laughing as they repeatedly reversed to knock over more walls and shelves.

Roark didn't stay to watch. He hauled Jaq to her feet and the two of them took off at a dead run. The woodland trees were stripped of leaves and didn't provide much cover, but the smoke from the wreckage behind them would obscure their flight—and by the time those thugs had sobered up enough to consider scouting for footprints, enough ash would have fallen to bury them indefinitely.

It wasn't easy going for either of them—although admittedly more so for Jaq. Fifteen minutes into their run and already he could sense her beginning to tire. She began to trip more frequently, doubtless because she wasn't as familiar with the terrain, and several times Roark had to yank her roughly when she threatened to lag. He wanted to widen the distance between them and their assailants as fast as possible, but the woman simply didn't have his endurance. And while he couldn't stop to think about it now, Roark supposed it made sense: he'd lived his whole hellish afterlife on the run, while she had lived hers in hiding. There was no possible way she could keep up the pace.

And that was a problem.

When at last she could run no more, Roark was forced to pull them up short. They still didn't have much in the way of cover, so he lead Jaq down into the dried-up crater of a large pond. At least from a distance they wouldn't appear to anyone at eyelevel. This was the best he could hope for.

"We can't stay here long," he said gruffly as he released her hand. He had been clenching it so tightly in his that hers was probably sore, but now he had no reason to hold it. Roark stepped away to unfasten his canteen, throwing his head back to guzzle his water as he allowed Jaq a moment's respite. When he had finished, he tossed it to her without looking.

He needed to think.

He had brought her this far. He needed to justify his actions, if only to himself. Obviously he couldn't have left the girl there, to get trampled or worse, but it was becoming more obvious to the man that they couldn't continue on together—not if he didn't want to severely minimize his own chances of survival. She had helped him in his hour of need, and he had repaid the favor by getting her the hell out of there. His unspoken contract of obligation was now terminated. The quicker they parted ways, the better... and it would be easier for both of them in the long run if he just did it now. Wait any longer and he risked promoting an attachment.

But as Roark turned back to the woman, his expression set, he thought he could see one already forming behind her eyes. She was still the skittish, half-starved creature he'd met the day previous, but she stared at him now resiliently, a pale face beneath a tangle of brown hair, awaiting instruction.

"This is where we part ways."


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It was run, or die, or worse for her. Running like this, away from the oncoming danger, she was reminded of all the other times she had tried to run away from intruders. She had never been successful before, and she could only hope that this would be the time she would finally get away. That this time, unspeakable things wouldn’t follow her desperate attempt for freedom. That her clothes wouldn’t be pulled off of her body by one, while others held her down. That she wouldn’t feel their dirty skin on hers. That a knife wouldn’t be held up to her throat, or a gun to her head, while they had their way with her, before leaving new scars on her body to remind her of the horrors she had been through and somehow managed to survive. She saw it all happening again as they ran, the ugly men, the ugly acts, the ugly scars. There had once been a point in her life when she had been beautiful, her skin completely free of any kind of blemish or scar. Now, now she was covered in souvenirs of experiences she would rather forget than be daily reminded of whenever she caught a glimpse of her skin. Now she was hardly beautiful at all. She was too thin, too tired, too torn, battered and bruised. So she ran. She ran because she didn’t want any more marks to join the others. There were enough already; she didn’t need more.

Trudging through the ash as fast she her little legs could carry her, Jaq held Roark’s hand. Even as the blast knocked them down to the ground, she kept a good grip n his hand. He pulled her up, and there was hardly a moment to spare and glance back at the place that had almost become a home of sorts to her, or as much as one place can be considered a home in this day and age. It was hardly the apartment that she had lived in before (and missed dearly), but it had kept the ash and rain off of her head. It had provided shelter from any wind or storm. And there had been food, and a bit of juice and water left. It had been as much of a home she would ever have again, and now it was gone. Roark pulled at her arm, tugging her onwards, as tears stung her eyes.

She didn’t look back again. She didn’t have time to look back again with the pace that he had set out for them, and for that, she was grateful. She didn’t want to watch the grocery store being destroyed. She didn’t want to watch those reckless men ruin the place she had resided for the past few months. It was like watching her parents’ home burn again. And that she couldn’t bear to suffer through twice.

So she ran. She ran away from the drunken men with their tank, she ran away from the city and towards the unknown. But she ran with Roark, the oddly kind stranger who had stumbled upon her yesterday. She really had no idea who he was at all, other than the fact that his name was Roark, and he had been starving when he had happened to walk into her grocery store. He apparently knew a bit about caring for wounds though, at least better than she did. And she knew that he had taken her with him, when he hadn’t needed to. He could’ve just grabbed his coat and pack and headed out on his own, saving his own skin and leaving her behind. But he hadn’t. He had taken her with him, when anyone else would’ve left her for dead. She was scared out of her wits, but for some reason, it seemed like she didn’t have to be scared of him.

The muscles of her legs were burning, with more intensity than she had ever felt in a very long time. She was tripping every other step as they ran, her face scrunched up in concentration, trying to keep pushing herself, trying to keep up with him and not slow him down. She was failing at this endeavor horribly.

They stopped, and Jaq couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief as they came to a standstill. She put her pack down on the ground, and stretched out the angry muscles in her legs, wincing as they continued to groan and complain at her sudden activity.

She watched as he stepped away, pulling out his canteen and taking a drink. She shook out one leg, then the next as she massaged her hand, trying to bring feeling back into the tips of her fingers. She assumed he was thinking, calculating, planning; only, she hoped that whatever it was he was planning, that it included her.

She caught the canteen when he tossed it at her, only taking a small sip to wet her throat, closing her eyes to savor the feeling of the water sliding down her parched throat. She missed the days before, when all she had to do was reach into a cupboard, grab a glass and turn on the tap to get water. She missed a lot of things from the days before, but clean water coming from the tap she missed nearly more than she missed her family and friends.

Movement caught the corner of her eye, and she looked back up to see that he had turned to face her. And then he spoke the words she had been dreading since he had yelled that they needed to move, back in her grocery store. This is where we part ways.

“Oh,” was all she could manage to say, her heart dropping down into her stomach at his sentence. Of course, she couldn’t say that she hadn’t seen it coming, but there had always been that hope, that small, tiny flicker of hope that for some reason he would keep her around, even if only for her food and water. She would’ve shared it with him had he but asked. “Okay,” She said quietly, biting down on her lip. Who was she to say no, you need to take me with you? Why should he risk bringing her along, when he could go back to being on his own? He had obviously been doing alright before he had starved to the point of exhaustion. And after she had fed him, and he had saved her, they had no need for the other… Damn.

Jaqueline crossed the space between them, and handed Roark back his canteen, their fingers touching as he grasped it, their eyes locked, brown and blue. And then it was over, he looked away, tucking the canteen back in his pack before turning and walking away without so much as a goodbye, good luck, or nice meeting you.

She just stood there, watching him walk away for a few minutes. Then she returned to her pack, and sat down in the ash, letting her head fall down to her chest as the tears silently came. What was she going to do now? She had a small supply of food and water. But she had nowhere to sleep tonight. She was out in the open, unprotected, without even a weapon to defend herself with. She was alone again, and she had no idea what she was going to try and do to survive now. Was there even a point in trying?

Jaq sat there for a while, not caring that Roark had advised that they should only linger for a short time. She had nowhere to go, and no one to care if she lived or died. Maybe it was just time that she joined all of those she had loved and lost since the end of days. Maybe it was finally her time.

And then she shook her head clear of those thoughts and got up. She dusted herself off, and slung her pack on over her shoulders. If she had made it this far, she could keep going, at least until her food and water ran out. And when it did, well, she’d cross that bridge when she got there.

Jaq stood, and closed her eyes, turning in a circle a few times. Opening her eyes, she set off in the direction she was looking in. It was away from the city, and as good a direction as any she figured.

She wandered a ways, before she happened upon something she hadn’t been expecting to see or rather, someone. There was Roark, strung up in a tree, upside down.

“Well, hello again.”

Maybe it was a good thing that she had carried on then. She’d at least be able to set him free, and then, well, then she’d go in the other direction seeing as he wanted nothing more to do with her.

Jaqueline set her pack down on the ground, and approached the tree Roark was dangling from. Lucky for him, her jewelry had always gotten tangled, and she was quite good at untying knots. She pursed her lips, and set about freeing him. In a few minutes, the knot was undone, and she lowered him to the ground, before picking up her pack again.

“I honestly didn’t mean to follow you. I closed my eyes, spun in a circle, and set off in the direction I was facing… I’ll just… I’ll go. Sorry,” Jaq murmured sheepishly, explaining how she had found him. “Good luck,” she murmured, with a tight lipped smile, before turning in the opposite direction, and beginning to carry on this uncharted journey he had set her on. She wasn’t going to beg for him to help her – he had made his position clear, and she was going to just go on her own. She’d made it this far, right? She could do this…she hoped.


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He hated it when they did that.

Not that Roark had been on the receiving end of many wounded looks in his lifetime, but hindsight told him he should have known better than to let his eyes fall to the woman's face in the exact moment that the farewell fell from his lips. Maybe he had been mistaken about some things — maybe Jaq was perfectly tailored to survive. Every wide-eyed glance, every hesitant smile, every crestfallen look, was completely and unintentionally fine-tuned to ensnare a man. Protecting her was more than instinct, it was compulsion. He could only imagine what the girl's life must have been like before the world was turned on its head. Doubtless it had been one of privilege.

Anyway, it didn't make a bit of difference now. There was enough evidence scoring her body to prove that others didn't share his sentiment — that the face and figure and trusting nature that may have brought her blessings in a previous life now only attracted grief and suffering. To other, more opportunistic men, she was just another lucky find. Maybe he was the only one who saw something different when he looked at her.

All the more reason to get out while he still could.

Maybe he hadn't used her like they had, but he could discard her just as easily. The two of them stood a better chance of surviving this way... or at least, that's what Roark was trying to convince himself of as he stepped forward to take back his water. Their hands brushed in the exchange, and Roark felt a strange jolt, a connection, that kept his hand there momentarily. In the world they lived in, human beings rarely touched one another anymore outside of violence or sheer desperation. With his hand hovering over hers, Roark was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of his own loneliness, something that had gone unacknowledged for so long it had grown without him realizing into something almost irrepressible.

He knew better. Jaq would be lucky if she survived the night on her own. But was she really any better off, with or without him? Were any of them? If he stood any chance of leaving, now was the time. He couldn't stick around mulling it over and risk a different conclusion.

Roark took his canteen back, averting his eyes as he stashed it away again and started up the slope. He didn't risk a look back until about an hour later, after entering a particularly eerie quadrant of woodland and stopping to tear into a strip of jerky. The ash was up to his ankles in some places and trudging through it was exhausting. He'd be lucky if he'd managed five miles, but at least he had put some distance between himself and the girl...

... because he didn't like the feeling he was getting. Maybe he had done her one last favor in refusing to go any further with her. Had they traveled together, she would be here now, and there was something wrong about this place...

What made one place more wrong than another anymore was something he didn't care to explore, but he never questioned it, either. His instincts screamed much louder these days, perhaps to make up for the almost perpetual silence of the world, and he listened. He could feel the fine hairs on the back of his neck rising in unison as he continued forward, every measured step muted by these goddamn piles of ash...

And then suddenly the world was pulled out from under him. Roark was yanked off his feet, but before he even had a chance to hit the ground he was hurtling upward. Ash showered down on him from the rattling trees as their branches bowed to support his weight, and once the flurry had dissipated the man found that he was dangling upside down by one leg almost ten feet off the forest floor. A desperate curse escaped him as he scrabbled for his pack, but too late; the satchel slid from his shoulders and hit the ground below, spilling the majority of its contents.

He had made a grave error in judgment, and this was probably going to be the end of him, he may as well face it now. Individuals who set traps like these didn't tend to discriminate when it came to what they caught. Regardless of this, Roark continued to struggle wildly on and off for the next five minutes, the blood rushing to his face as he flung himself back and forth in a doomed attempt to reach something, anything, that would save him from this fate —

And then all at once, he stopped. He hung there, defeated, his body penduluming in the wind as he redirected his focus to staying conscious for as long as possible. It could be hours, or even days, before he is discovered there, and he thinks... when they come for him, whoever they are, there will be an instant when they cut him loose that he can make a grab for his gun, and if he succeeds it won't take more than a second to raise it to his temple and pull —

A twig snapped, and Roark's eyes flew open. His vision was blurry, and the figure that faced him was firmly grounded in the sky, but he recognized the voice.

"What are you doing?" he hissed, struggling to turn himself and follow Jaq's movements. He seemed genuinely furious at finding her there. "Run, you idiot! They could be here any — "

The rope slithered off the branch and Roark was abruptly dumped into the pile of ash his struggles had procured for him. The man surfaced, his face streaked with blue-gray powder, and staggered to his feet, which wasn't easy considering his circulation was only just beginning to recirculate. He gathered up his things wordlessly as the girl apologized, offering up an absurd story as to how she discovered him there. She had spun in a circle? What if her plan had carried her back down the hill and into the clutches of the rowdies they had run from? Did she really have no sense of self-preservation?

Roark rounded on her as she turned to go, feeling irrational and very close to losing his temper, when a length of cord caught his eye and suddenly he found himself diving after her.

"Wait — !"

He dropped his pack a second time as he seized her, yanking her back hard against him and preventing her from taking that fatal step. It was over in an instant and she was safe again in his arms, but they both needed a moment to catch their breath before an explanation could be offered. Anyone happening upon the clearing then might have mistaken them for being locked in a lovers' embrace, rather than seeing them for what they really were: two strangers who, for whatever reason, were just trying to keep the other alive.


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The knot that had held him up in the air wasn't one that was difficult to untie, but even if it had been, she would've stayed until she had gotten him free, despite his insistence that she run and save her own life. What was the point of running? She had nowhere to run to, no one to run with. As sad as it was, he was the closest person she could consider a friend since the end began, and Jaqueline had never been one to leave her friends behind in a time of crisis. So as he told her to run and leave him, to save her own skin, in a very angry manner, she had just ignored him and carried on with the task at hand. He may want nothing to do with her, but she wasn't going to leave him here to die. He had saved her earlier that day from the men who had been coming in their direction, and now it was her turn to save him from whomever it was that would come look at what they had caught in their traps. She wouldn't leave him there, hanging, unable to defend himself; and she hadn't.

He fell to the earth with all the grace of a newborn colt, scrambling once he hit the ground to right himself.

She had said her goodbye, her well-wishes, and she had no more reason to linger; he had expressed his feelings about carrying on with her when they had stopped in the crater of what had once been a pond. He had no desire to continue on his journey with her by his side. If he didn't want her around then she wasn't going to beg him to change his mind, even now after she had saved him. She may have lost everything else, but she still had her dignity, her pride. She wouldn't beg. She had been alone and afraid before; it would be easy to go back to. It was what she had known since that night, and it was what she would know again. She would just make herself forget how lovely it was to hear the sound of someone breathing, someone's heartbeat. She would just have to forget how warm she had been sleeping in the arms of another person, how safe she had felt there. She would go back to being alone, because she wouldn't beg. This new world had taken everything from her, everything but her pride, and she wasn't about to sacrifice it now.

Just after she had stolen one last glance in hopes of trying to memorize his features in her mind when she needed to remember someone who had been kind to her, just after she had turned and taken two steps away from him, he had called out for her to wait. She hadn't even been able to respond, because in the next second, he had grabbed her arm and pulled her back to him, crushing her against his chest, the breath momentarily knocked out of her.

For a moment they simply stood there, with his arms securely wrapped around her as they tried to breathe once more. After a moment, when the panic had passed, they separated from one another. Jaqueline turned her head to look where she had been walking before, trying to see if there was anything she had missed. But she wasn't given more than half a second before he roughly grabbed her hand again and began walking, pulling her in the opposite direction. Stumbling for a moment in her surprise, Jaq quickly caught up and walked side by side with the mysterious man beside her, her hand holding onto his as well.

Roark was a curious enigma completely foreign to her, and as they walked together to an unknown destination she was having a hard time trying to figure him out. He was unlike anyone she had ever met, before the disaster, or after. Contrary to all the other men she had run into after the ash began to fall from the sky, he hadn't hurt her upon their initial meeting. He had been kind to her even, saved her from the men who had been on their way, men who certainly would've hurt her had they found her. But then he had abandoned her, left her alone in the woods once she was a safe distance away from those men. And now he was dragging her with him again, through the forest. If there was a destination, it was only one he was privy to.

They walked in silence; the only sounds were the soft shuffling of their feet through the ash, and the sounds of their breath. The dead forest was otherwise silent. She missed the days when leaves had hung off of the trees, when birds had lived in the forest's branches, softly singing throughout the day to one another.

After they had walked for a few more hours, trudging diligently through the ash in a specific direction, they arrived at what had once been a highway. It was the first time she had been here since the end began, and she was hit with the memory of taking this highway back to the city that night, stopping in her tracks as the memories took over.

Ash was falling from the sky as she sped by all the other cars leaving the city as she was trying to get in. There were buildings on fire, people in the streets, chaos reigned; anarchy was the new world order. She remembered calling her parents on her cell, but just getting a busy signal. She remembered feeling helpless. She remembered realizing that her whole life as she had known it was over, that nothing would be the same.

And nothing was.


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Roark never thought the world could be so loud again. Not even when the gang had been blowing down the doors of their sanctuary had the silence been as disturbed as it was now, with Jaq in his arms and their blood roaring like thunder. The clearing around them was deathly still, but he couldn't surface long enough to recognize the fact; all he knew was his heart was slamming against his ribcage loud enough to alert the trap-setters, if another mechanism hadn't alerted them already, and Jaq's was tripling his pace. Roark shoved her from him roughly without letting go, although his hand quickly dropped to grab hold of hers.

Back to square one.

He pushed the thought from his mind furiously as he towed her along behind him, stooping to sweep his pack back up without so much as a hitch in his stride. He'd been able to work out the grid pattern of the traps while he was... incapacitated... and they were out of the clearing within seconds. He didn't run, but if she found it impossible to keep stride with him, he didn't notice; when she lagged, he yanked her back to him to make up for the distance, like a parent dragging a protesting child, though Jaq never uttered a sound.

After several miles, he reduced their pace to walking. And then suddenly, they were out of the woods — a road stretched on before them, untrespassed, the ash undisturbed. It wasn't the road he had strayed from originally, but odds were the two would merge at some point. Odds were it would lead him back to the survivors he had abandoned out of necessity, if he didn't die first...

The weight of all the decisions that now had to be made descended upon him, collecting around his whip-thin shoulders and threatening to topple him to his knees. He disengaged from Jaq and staggered a few feet off, letting in an onslaught of thoughts he had not allowed himself to think. What would they do to him, when he found them once more? Had he ever intended to return in the first place? He had collected food, yes... but not enough to warrant his departure with the water. He had been away too long already, and now that he was bringing with him another mouth to feed —

But thoughts of any potential reunion were eclipsed by an even bigger problem: Jaq. All of Roark's pent-up frustration had reached its boiling point, and now the man rounded on his companion, the grocery store wraith he just couldn't seem to shake. She stood beneath the shattered sky and looked like she was lost in a dream — maybe even a memory — and Roark was more than willing in that moment to serve as her rude awakening.

With an angry outtake of air, Roark reclaimed the space between them. His face was a striking series of lines, none of them at all pleasant, and with the color of his eyes alone in that instant he had disintegrated lesser men. He lifted a finger at her, less like he wanted to drive a point home and more like he intended to strike her with it, before aborting the move and wheeling away again with a growl of frustration. His hood slipped back down between his shoulders and the man ruffled his hair furiously, dislodging more ash. She would have been around him enough now to identify it as a nervous habit, even if the man himself didn't realize he did it. He was in her space again seconds later.

"Are you insane?" he bellowed. His voice reverberated through the desolate landscape, but for the moment he was too forgone to worry about its volume. A few hours ago, he had been resigned to death — now, he was alive and free, and the emotional shift that accompanied his change in circumstances was almost too much for him to deal with. "They had that clearing rigged up like a goddamn spider web, and your first instinct was to walk right into it? When I tell you to run, you run!"

The fact that the man's hair was now sticking up in boyish tufts only added to his apparent loss of composure. He wasn't used to feeling in control on principle — that was the world they lived in — but he had always been the loose cannon, answerable only to himself, and having Jaq around to subvert his role was proving hard to deal with.


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Jaq was startled out of the past with Roark’s sudden arrival in front of her, flinching back a little as she recognized the stance as one that had brought pain before. This was a position she was familiar with, and she held her breath while she waited for the strike to fall, waiting for his hand to connect with her face, for the explosion of pain in her cheek. But it never came. He turned on his heel and walked away again, before raking a hand through his hair, ash falling down around him as it fell from his head. Then he was in her face again, hardly any space between them as he yelled at her.

His voice echoed through the scenery, or lack thereof, his reprimand ringing in her ears like the explosion that had knocked them to their knees. She lowered her eyes to the ground, her eyebrows knitting together in her distress, her shoulders hunching forward and up around her ears. What had she done? She didn’t understand why he was so upset with her. Then he continued on his tirade, and she sort of came to understand. He was upset that she had gone into the clearing. He was upset that she had taken time to save him, instead of running off and listening to him. But why would he rather her run and leave him there to die?

“I wasn’t just going to leave you there!” Jaq responded, putting her hands on her hips. “And why are you yelling at me, when obviously you hadn’t had any sense with going in there in the first place? Huh?” She countered, turning his own argument on himself.

It felt good to yell at someone, it felt good to let out all of the hurt and frustration she had pent up over the months alone, over the months of solitude save from the times of abuse. It felt so good to finally let herself be angry with what had happened to her, with the situation the world was in, with what was currently going on. It felt good, so she kept yelling at him.

“I wasn’t going to run off and just leave you there to die. I was just trying to help you, goddamnit, so don’t yell at me!” She cried out, throwing her hands up in the air with a huff. What was his bloody problem?

“You were stuck up in that tree, and if I had run off like you told me to, you probably would’ve died – whether today, tomorrow, or sometime soon, you would’ve been dead. Dead! I didn’t want to leave the one person who had been kind to me strung up in a tree! That isn’t the kind of person I am, and if you have a problem with that, then so be it, but I won’t apologize for saving you!” Jaq rebutted, crossing her arms over her chest.

She could feel the blood rushing through her veins, each beat of her heart continuing to pump the anger and adrenaline throughout her body. All she had wanted to do was save him, and now he was angry at her because of that?

“What the hell is your problem? I was just trying to help! All I’ve ever done was just try and help!” The words were true; it really was all she had ever tried to do with her life. With being a lawyer, she had tried to help her clients beat whatever was thrown at them, tried to keep their names and reputations form being dragged through the mud. And now, after the end, with being in her grocery store she had set up the other cans for survivors to pick through. But even that had only brought her grief, as those who found the food always tried to find a little something more. That had always ended with her getting more cuts and marks over her body, more grief in her heart, more determination to survive against all the odds.

“I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know how to do this… all I know how to do is hide, and I apparently can’t even do that very well,” Jaq laughed cynically, brushing away a frustrated tear that had escaped from her eyes.

“You were nice to me, and I didn’t want to leave you there, when if I did nothing, you’d die…” Jaqueline finished, much more calmly than she had begun. The release of pent-up emotion was exhausting, and Jaq let out a heavy sigh, tucking some of her hair behind her ear, and fiddling with the hems of her coat sleeves. Hopefully he wouldn’t start yelling at her again…


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He had expected silence in the aftermath of his outburst. He had expected tears. He had expected anything — but this. A rebuttal was not in line with anything he knew about this woman, and admittedly, he didn't know much. All he really knew was she looked as hungry and as beaten-down as he felt, but Roark's caustic words had been like pouring gasoline on a hidden flame, and she ignited accordingly.

You were stuck up in that tree, and if I had run off like you told me to, you probably would've died — whether today, tomorrow, or sometime soon, you would've been dead. Dead!

"We already are!" he roared. He lashed a hand towards the forest, as if introductions were suddenly necessary; as if he thought the girl completely divorced from reality. "I don't know if you'd looked out at your front lawn recently before I found you, lady, but this is the world we live in now. Today, tomorrow, sometime soon — I'm a dead man walking, and you're even worse off if you think saving a complete stranger is going to win you any points. Did you think you were being noble?"

There was no room for this sort of stupidity in the New World Order, so far as he was concerned. There was no room for any of what Jaq was espousing; and God, the girl looked as if she believed every word of it. She believed it hard enough to make him want to believe again, which was why he had to snuff it now, for both their sakes.

"I don't care what sort of person you are. I don't care about you, I don't care about your name, I don't care if your family dog is pushing up daisies somewhere — but obviously these things still matter to you, so let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a nice person. You seem at least somewhat educated, so you must have realized by now that I was using you!"

He could see from the look on her face that he had just delivered the equivalent of a punch to the stomach. He didn't know the girl's history — didn't want to know it, he reminded himself — but she looked as if she'd had her fair share of visitors before him. If he was her standard for what a nice person was, he didn't want to imagine what other unsavory people she must have encountered. But the things he said now were a necessary evil, something he had to get through to her: he had never pretended to be anything he wasn't. If she saw him as a hero, as a nice guy, he had to drag himself down off that pedestal now. Time to land the finishing blow.

"And if you think I would have done the same for you back in that clearing, you're deluding yourself. I would have left you there in a heartbeat."

In the aftermath of the statement, everything — the girl, the ash, the world — seemed to stand still, as if his words had frozen them all in the moment. Maybe he had just won a terrible victory, but the truth was Roark didn't feel like he'd won anything. He didn't feel relieved, as he thought he would; he didn't feel like he'd done them both a favor, as he knew he had. He felt like a jerk.

But that's who he was, he had to remind himself. He was the loner, the outcast, the man who burned bridges with his words as easily as governments burned worlds with their bombs and never felt a moment's remorse about it. There was a reason he walked a half mile behind the group. There was a reason he had no friends.

Jaq would hate him now. She would have to. He had to wake them both from this dream and plunge them back into the nightmare, because in the nightmare he knew how to survive. It was there that he could bring them both out safely on the other side. He stared at her in silence, his chest heaving, and felt as if he had finally put her back where she belonged: out of harm's way, and out of his reach.


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In a way he was right, the world was dead, and they basically were just waiting to die as well. But she was also pretty sure that there was a heart still beating in her chest, that there was blood pumping through her veins, that she still needed air to breathe. Biologically, they were alive, and that had to count for something. Maybe to some people it meant nothing, maybe some people would prefer death’s cold embrace to the dismal reality that they faced each day, but Jaq wasn’t one of those people. As long as the heart in her chest was beating, then she’d do whatever she could to stay alive. This new world was a hard and cruel mistress, but she wasn’t about to give in and give up.

She had thought that Roark wouldn’t have wanted to die. He had found her half-dead from hunger, and had eaten down the food she had offered him real quick. That proved he wasn’t all that interested in leaving the land of the living, otherwise he would’ve just collapsed somewhere and have been done with it. He had eaten her food, and he had ran far away when their lives had been threatened. He was doing everything he could do to stay alive. He didn’t want to die; and maybe this was just his weird way of being grateful. Maybe this exchange of hurtful words was what he was trying to do to help her come to terms with the world the way it was.

She knew how the world was; she knew that people weren’t supposed to help each other anymore, that it was everyone for him or herself. But she also knew that it wasn’t a nice way to live, all on your own in this world, not helping anyone, not being kind to anyone, not trusting anyone. So she was living her life the way she thought it best; his ideals and hers obviously clashed. Maybe something had happened to get him to give up, when everything that had happened to her only made her want to persevere and cling onto what little shred of hope she had left.

However, she was startled as Roark looked her straight in the eye and told her that he had been using her, and that was all there had been to it. He might not have broken her body the way the others had, but he had used her all the same. And then he claimed that he would’ve left her tied up to that tree if their roles had been reversed, and that he would’ve carried on with his way in a heartbeat.

The whole world was quiet for a moment after that, everything stilled in the wake of his horrible remark.

“No, you would’ve saved me, just like I saved you. And you weren’t using me either, so don’t claim that you were.” Jaq began, slipping back into the role of being a lawyer, presenting a case before judge and jury.

“You could’ve shot me in the grocery store and taken everything, but you put away your gun and ate a can of soup I offered you. When you finished eating, you took care of the cut on my leg, even using some anti-bacterial cream. When you woke up in the morning, you laid me down and gave me your coat for a pillow. When the drunks with the tank were closing in on the grocery store, you could’ve just grabbed your things and ran. There was no need for you to come and grab me from the back of the store, to take me with you,” Jaq paused, her posture proper, looking him straight in the face as she would each member of the jury before stating her closing argument.

“Those things that you did for me, Roark, those things prove that you weren’t just using me. And you wouldn’t have left me strung up in a tree if our roles had been reversed, because when I took two steps away from you and was unknowingly walking right into a trap you grabbed my hand and pulled me back to you and back to safety.” She hadn’t embellished anything, she hadn’t said anything but the truth; but whether or not he wanted to face it was the question.

“So, those are the facts, and from the facts it looks like you’re a decent man, from the short time that I’ve known you. Whether you want to keep deluding yourself into thinking that you’re a cold-hearted bastard, or face up to the truth is up to you. But don’t yell at me for doing something you yourself would’ve done.” Drawing her case to a close, she gave him one last stern glance, arms crossed over her chest, attempting to intimidate him the way she had the opposing lawyer on her first court case. And she had to admit, that slipping back into that role, even in ratty clothes and outside in a world that was long gone from the one she had known, it felt good. It felt like coming home, like where she belonged.

She couldn’t help the small smile that turned up the corners of her mouth.


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... none of this made any sense. This woman was nothing like he had pegged her to be. She was frail; hungry; young. She was supposed to be cowed by him, especially when he released the full force of the despicable, withered thing that was his personality. In his self-loathing, she was supposed to commiserate with him heartily.

But she didn't back down, not an inch, and suddenly the distance Roark had imposed between them was shrinking by the second and he had no idea how to reclaim his lost ground. She quickly ran through the entirety of their short history together, highlighting every instance where he had gone out of his way to help her, or unthinkingly placed her life before his own best interest....

And now, she had the gall to smile at him? Maybe she was laughing in triumph at what she saw in his face — or rather, what she didn't see — and that was his lack of an adequate response. Eyes furious, he even opened his mouth, summoning his every faculty for a rebuttal that would send the girl skulking off back down the road and out of what shred of a life he'd managed to create for himself... only nothing came. There was nothing in her case that he could argue against. She had laid out the facts before them as plain as day, and because there was nothing he could do to refute them, there was little he could do to deny the motive she had ascribed to them.

There was nothing more to say. All that escaped Roark's mouth was a defeated growl of frustration, and in the next moment he was wheeling on his heel and stomping off through the ash down the road. It was several yards before he paused and half-turned back to Jaq, yelling at her over his shoulder:

"Get a move on!"

Turns out that was all the girl needed to fall in line. Roark tried not to notice too much if her victory had put her in a good mood. He remained aloft in the roiling black rain clouds of his own bad temper, his looks occasionally descending to her like lightning, his instructions like thunder.

"Keep close. Keep your voice low. Keep pace — if you don't, you can bet I will leave you behind this time."

Jaq turned out to be a quick study. She ate and drank very little of their rations, even though he could tell she wanted more — she watched him with a measured eye to see what a sustainable amount looked like, and ingested even less. After several attempts to follow alongside him that always ended with Roark shoving her back behind, she eventually understood that he wanted her to walk in his footprints; that only one set told even the most seasoned tracker that there was only one traveler, thus increasing her own chances of escape.

Night gained on them quickly, irregardless of how fast they walked. The bleakness of day transitioned into the claustrophobic blackness of night, where dangers seemed evermore immediate, the silence all-encompassing. Roark veered from the main road and took them off about a half mile into the wilderness, where the two of them set up camp — or at least, what passed for a camp. Packs were shrugged off, but no fire was lit, and all they had to see by was the eerie light of the dead sky illuminating the heaps of ash below.

It wasn't long before the world's silence gripped them as well, reaching its ever-present hand to clamp down around both their throats. Roark sat at the edge of the circle of trees and kept watch, now staunchly ignoring Jaq as she bedded down, saying nothing more to her as she (he assumed) drifted off. As the hours passed, the girl became increasingly difficult to ignore, however, when it became apparent that her clothes were not enough to keep the chill out. She was used to living indoors, and the frigidness of evening was not something she was used to battling on a nightly basis.

Roark had finally laid himself down as well. He watched Jaq's shivering silhouette with increasing annoyance and privately wondered if a person could actually shake themselves to death. Finally, with a frustrated sigh, he reached his arm out to her in invitation under the cover of darkness.

"Get over here."


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God, that felt good. There was a reason why she had been in the works to become a lawyer before the world went to hell in a handbasket. Presenting a case like that, opening people’s eyes, fighting steadfast for the truth…there was nothing like it. There was nothing like the rush of exhilaration watching the judge and jury come to the right conclusion, and there was nothing more crushing than seeing them ignore the facts and go with their own predetermined judgements. She watched him, she watched Roark’s reaction to her little speech, and she knew that he realized she was right. He tried to come up with some kind of retort, something to tell her she was wrong, but he couldn’t come up with anything. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, she had a pretty good feeling that he was a decent man from their short time together. And she had been trained to be a pretty good judge of character with the field of work she had been going into. Jaqueline cut through the bullshit, and got straight down to business.

Being that person again, if only for a couple of minutes, it felt like things were normal. They obviously weren’t, the current circumstances of the world had not changed, she didn’t have her apartment back or her nice clothes and fancy high heels, she didn’t have running water, a fridge full of food and a bottle of wine chilling for dinner. But for those few minutes, it felt like she had control of things, that she wasn’t floating adrift in this sea of chaos the world had descended into. For those few minutes, everything was okay, and she knew what she was doing. Even as Roark started off walking again, she lingered in that moment for a second longer, wanting to hold onto that feeling for as long as she could. When she started walking again, she would be plunged back into reality, where she was lost, and helpless; for just a second longer, she wanted to feel like she had everything under control.

That moment came to an end as Roark turned back to glance at her over his shoulder, and yelled at her to get a move on. She quickly leaped back into action, catching up to him quickly. Her moment was done and over with, and now he was the one who knew what he was doing, and she would follow and do whatever he said. All the same, the fleeting intoxicating feeling of passion, of doing something she loved, of being good at something again and being able to hold her own made her feel maybe just a smidgen more confident than she had been before. She had been a cowering, frightened shell of the woman she had been before, and for the briefest instant in time, she had been herself again. This was what it had felt like before; this was what it felt like to be truly alive.

He told her to keep close, to keep her voice low when she spoke, and to keep up or else he would leave her behind this time. She figured that wasn’t true, but she wasn’t going to go out on a limb and point it out when she had just had a small victory earlier. So, Jaq made sure not to fall behind.

She tried to walk side by side with him as they had been doing before, but whenever she did, he always pushed her back behind him. After a few times, he explained to her that she needed to walk in his footsteps. If anyone was tracking them, and only saw one set of prints, then there was a better chance she could get away.

She took all of these instructions quite seriously, just as she would’ve had she been back at school and her professors teaching her something of the utmost importance. As they walked, she repeated them over and over in her mind. Keep close and keep up, stay quiet, and walk in Roark’s footsteps. However, when night fell and the darkness set in on them, slinking into the world and making everything seem much more eerie, dangers lurking around every corner, it was hard to keep walking in his footsteps. She did her best though, squinting at the ground to try and glimpse where he had stepped while still trying not to fall behind.

Following Roark off the road, they stopped a little ways in, far enough off of the road for the night at least. It wouldn’t take them too long to get back to the road in the morning either, so their journey wouldn’t be hindered for long. They set down their backpacks, and as Roark dug into his own rations, Jaqueline watched how much he ate, how much water he drank, guessing about what sized portion would be good for her as she was much smaller than he was. She was still hungry when she had finished what she had set out for herself, but she put the rest away; hunger was something she was used to by now. Her stomach hadn’t been full in what felt like years. She knew she had been full before, but she could hardly remember what it felt like. Instead, she laid down and let the feeling from earlier come back and fill her up to the brim when food couldn’t.

There was only one good thing Jaq had found since the world had ended, and that was you could see the stars. There was no longer any light pollution from the cities dimming their brilliance. And as she laid down on the ground, for a few minutes, she just looked up at the skies, taking in the twinkling stars. They seemed to be the only constant in this world; the stars would always be there, shinning away, whether the clouds of ash were there or not. The skies would clear, and the stars would be there, just as they had always been and always would be.

Though, the clear night meant that it was bitterly cold, and it wasn’t something that she was accustomed to. She had lived in her grocery store, where she had had a few more pairs of clothes to snuggle under, and a blanket. Being out in the night in only her pants, sweater and coat wasn’t exactly keeping her as warm. She didn’t complain though, she didn’t say a word of her discomfort. It was only for the night; in the morning they would be up and moving again, and she would warm up from getting her blood pumping once again.

When she began to shiver, she tried to do so as quietly as possible. The last thing she wanted was to disturb Roark. He needed his rest too. They both did. It would be another long day ahead of them tomorrow, going wherever it was they were going…

When he told her to come over to him, he certainly didn’t have to tell her twice.

Jaq shifted over, resting her head on his shoulder and one of her arms over his chest.

“Thank you,” she murmured quietly. “Sorry if I kept you up,” Jaq apologized, before closing her eyes and finding that sleep came to her much easier with their shared warmth, and the soft sounds of his breath.


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