Paul slammed his fist on the table. “It’s too risky. We can’t stop.”
“But they’re tired,” Aaron said, rubbing a hand over his sandpaper jaw. “They’re not soldiers. None of us are.”
Paul glanced around the table, saw the others nod. “But…a party? We can’t afford a distraction like that?”
“Not a distraction,” Patricia said, one side of her mouth pulling up as always. “Think of it as an opportunity to recharge. They need a break. We all do.”
Paul snorted, couldn’t help it. “A break? You’ve got to be joking! We let down our defences, and those things are going to be on us in a heartbeat.”
“We’ll still have sentries,” Aaron said. “It’s only for a few hours.”
“Read the mood,” Patricia drawled. “Too many want to give up. They need something to look forward to.”
He took a deep breath, let his eyes close. The air was stale, the room stuffy and warm.
Paul shook his head. He pushed himself away from the table. “Fine,” he said. “Let them have their party. But you’re killing them. We stop fighting, we have no future.”
* * *
“They have a point,” Channi said, her breath warm on his cheek, her arm draped across his chest. “Not everyone can be as dedicated as you.”
“But this party’s just an excuse to ignore reality.”
“You can’t blame them for that.”
And, when she put it so simply, he could understand their viewpoint. None of them had asked to be here, a handful of survivors against the mutants who roamed the annihilated city. None of them had asked to be stuck in this old prison, shooting anything that approached and wondering when the food would run out, when the water supply would turn sour.
None of them had asked for any of this.
He ran his hand over her shoulder, tangled a finger in the top she wore. It had some cartoon character on the front that he could no longer name, although he knew he’d watched the show enough times. But that was in the past, in another life. One where life meant more than mere survival.
“Maybe they’re right,” he said. “Maybe we’re doing nothing but delaying the inevitable anyway. Maybe we should all get drunk, get high, and do whatever the hell we want for a couple of hours before we pass out. And then it’ll all be over.”
She sighed deeply. He turned, hair tickling his ear. “What?”
“That’s not the Paul I know,” she said. “Thought you’d be the last man standing, going down in a blaze of glory.”
The words he’d said so often, his personal mantra. And she’d always respond with the same words. “And you’d be by my side, every last step of the way.”
Channi moved her leg, and he felt the rough skin against his own. He glanced down, saw the atrophied limb, the mottled leathery flesh. Childhood accident, she’s told him, and her glare had dared him to make something of it.
He knew the leg hurt constantly, but she didn’t allow it to stop her. Where it slowed her down physically, her determination more than compensated.
“Besides,” she said, rubbing a foot against his shin, “we’ve had our fun. Why stop theirs?”
“But that was…just a moment.”
She pulled away, propping herself up on one elbow. “Just a moment?” Her voice cut through him, made him flinch. “That all it was to you?”
“No. Of course not. That wasn’t what I meant.”
“And, from what I recall, it was a damn site more than one moment.”
“I meant…it wasn’t some drunken party. It was a private thing. And it was in our own time. And…” Paul trailed off, saw her smile, the one she wore when she’d won.
Channi held that expression for a couple of beats, like she was savouring his discomfort, and then she drew her fingers down his sternum, twirling the greying hairs. “And it was fun,” she said.
“It helped, didn’t it? Made sentry duty bearable, knowing what was waiting when the twelve hours were over.”
“It was more than that.”
“I should hope so.” But the scolding was in jest, and it made him wonder how he’d coped in those first few weeks, before they’d become…whatever they were.
His smile fell. “But I still think this party’s a mistake. It’s…too big.”
She shrugged. “Maybe it’s what people need.”
“No. We need to stay focused. We can’t afford to drop out guard. We’re fighting for our survival here.”
She shook her head. “It’s more than that,” she said. Her chest rose and fell, pressure against his side building then releasing as that cartoon character seemed to breathe once more. “It’s about our future.” She reached over, took his free hand in her own, brought it across to her stomach. “We want a future, we’ve got to think about more than just today. All of us, we need to know that what we’re doing will make a difference. We need to feel that there’s the hope of a better tomorrow, something to make survival worthwhile.”
She pulled her top up, then pressed his hand on her warm skin. He felt her under his palm, soft and rounded. Firmer than normal, though. As she guided his hand, pushing down just enough, there was no way to ignore the small bump within.
Her eyes met his. She nodded, and her eyes shone.
For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. His hand trembled, and he tried to blink the moisture from his eyes. Then his chest buckled, and he gasped, or maybe he cried.
“We have a future worth fighting for.
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