Title: Michelle: Interlude
Series: Heroes of the Zombie Apocalypse
Rating: PG-13/R for violence
Word Count: 4625
Summary: In the wake of the dead rising, Michelle Clinton took her bike and went from her home in Appalachia to the Northwest Territories. This is what happened in New York.
Notes: First in the Heroes of the Zombie Apocalypse series. Written for my best friend type person's birthday. I appear, as someone who's obsessive paranoia ultimately pays off.



There is a universe in which Michelle Clinton is content. A universe in which she grew up with no more then the usual amount of drama, in which she met and loved someone of at least reasonable intelligence who saw her worth as well. She and this person, this beloved of hers who was special for no reason apart from being hers, had a small and tasteful wedding and several wonderful children and a white picket fence, possibly metaphorical but more likely literal as even in this world Michelle Clinton maintained a sense of irony. This is a world that never shattered, where the dead never rose and life remained unpleasant in the general sense but eternally sustained by hope and Michelle lived out a generally superstandard life to a peaceful old age.

She's not entirely sure she would want such a life, though it's undoubtedly preferable to the hand she's been dealt.

There's another universe in which she died well before her time. She grew up more or less like she grew up, but somewhere along the way she, like entirely too many other people, zigged where she should have zagged and ended up pretty much anywhere else doing pretty much anything else when the world did shatter and the dead did rise and she never got to see humanity attempt to pull itself into any kind of order, again. Because, in that universe, she's zombie food and she's very, very glad she's not there.

Somewhere in between those two extremes there's a world in which her zigging and zagging went well and then awry – in which she did all the right things in a life with minimal suffering and the only difference between it and the first is that when the world got around to shattering her children were zombie bait, too, and if there's anything she's unsure of (and there are many, many things she's unsure of), it isn't her opinion of that particular universe.

Michelle used to think about those things – about the layers of the multiverse and alternate time lines, about probabilities and the bends and tears in the fabric of reality. About the different ways her life could have gone, about the different things she could have done, her parents could have done, the government could have done going back a century or more. She used to think about why things happened. She used to try to make sense of it all. But not so much, anymore.

These days she mostly focuses on the ises rather than the ifs, on the things that are instead of the things that could, should, would be and could've, should've, would've been. It's not cynicism so much as self preservation, and that's something Michelle knows a lot about. She knows that plenty of people have gone crazy thinking like that, have stalled or skidded out, have crashed when they were looking back rather then forward, have missed the bend in the road or, more appropriately, the zombie coming round it. Michelle's been at ground zero of entirely too many such accidents to make the same mistake.

Michelle Clinton has become many things since the day the world shattered: a pragmatist, a realist, a little bit cold.

Michelle Clinton has remained one thing: alive.

This, she thinks, is not a coincidence.

Yvette Moran disagrees. Yvette Moran thinks it is coincidence – no, coincidence has too much dignity. Make it dumb luck.

Yvette Moran thinks Michelle Clinton has a death wish.

“Why the fuck else would you be going to the surface every other day?” she demands, when asked whatever could have given her that idea. When Yvette shouts, her fair hair – hair Michelle has never seen in sunlight, but she rather fancies would shimmer like fool's gold – flutters as if in a breeze. Michelle is more interested in watching the flutter then listening to the shouts.

“Who else is going to go?” Michelle asks, quietly, reasonably, when Yvette has wound down.

She tightens the Velcro on her driving gloves, and hums to herself, avoiding Yvette's eyes and waiting for an answer that will not come, an answer Yvette couldn't possibly give, because the list of those willing to go the surface – that is, to face down the shambling, undead hordes in search of the supplies the survivors need to maintain that title – for anything less then war or disaster is very, very short. So short, in fact, that Michelle is herself half of it and the second name is the one person Yvette wants out on the ghoul-infested streets less than Michelle. His name is Benjamin Moran and he is Yvette's younger brother.

Michelle and Yvette have been having this same fight with some regularity for the past eighteen months – that is, for very nearly the entire duration of their acquaintance.

It was slightly less then two years ago that Michelle was discovered in a ditch some small distance outside the city by Mikaela, her predecessor on the surface run team, bloodied and battered, and a hopeless case at first glance. She had been so pitiful, in fact, that she had stirred even Mikaela's frigid heart, and been taken into the colony. It transpired that her injuries were uglier then they were life-threatening and her only serious problem was a broken leg that healed admirably. Mikaela disappeared on a routine supply run soon after Michelle's arrival, and it seemed to her only logical that she should take her place.

At the time, Yvette had considered her a lunatic for this line of thinking but thanked a god she no longer believed in for sending someone else to sacrifice in place of her brother. Not long after Michelle began regular supply runs, Yvette made the mistake of getting to know her. She thereby confirmed her suspicion that Michelle was a raging Bedlamite but also developed an unfortunate affection for her that made seeing her throwing herself into harm's way nearly as painful as watching Benjamin do the same.

“You know I can't answer that,” Yvette says. “And you know you're just saying it to be cruel.”

Michelle takes her sunglasses from her pocket and stares at them as though they could tell her something she doesn't already know. Her own eyes look back at her, and their gaze tells her that, yes, perhaps, she is just being cruel. She tells them that she doesn't really care, today, and of this they are both painfully aware.

Yvette snaps her fingers.

“The relevant portion,” she says. “Let's focus on that.” (She turns on her heel and paces as she speaks.) “The relevant portion being: the part where you go out every other day. Genius. No one needs supplies that often.”

“Not every other day,” Michelle replies, mildly. “Just a couple of times a week.” She doesn't really care that 'every other day' and 'a couple of times a week' mean pretty much the same thing. “How often does Benjamin go?”

Yvette's pale cheeks flush an angry red.

“How often Benjamin goes out is not my primary concern, here,” she snaps. “My primary concern here is that you're going out today. You didn't yesterday, but you did the day before. You didn't on Monday, but did Sunday. Did Friday. Did last Wednesday. No I don't know what you would call that, but in my neck of the woods that's every other day. Justify, Shelly, and I'll be happy to let you go.”

Michelle looks at her with a smile and speaks so sweet butter wouldn't melt. “I'm just bein' neighborly,” she says.

Yvette snorts.

“Neighborly,” she says. It's not a question but an insult.

“Yeah,” Michelle confirms. “Neighborly. Tuesday Abby needed food for Mr. Marple.” Abby was twelve years old, and confused memories of her mother's detective novels had led her to so name her cat. “Hitch broke down Saturday night, and I went to find her some wine on Sunday.” Hitch was their newest addition, a nun who had been excommunicated shortly before the Rise. They had been waiting for her to break down since her arrival and once it finally happened (it always happened, the sooner the better, because when it didn't was when you really had to worry) she'd wanted wine for some Catholic thing no one had inquired too closely into. “Friday somebody said we needed water, and Wednesday, as if I need to remind you, was Run Day. Which, by the way, I did not participate in, yesterday.”

“Abby,” Yvette begins, through teeth gritted so hard some small, detached portion of Michelle thinks they're going to shatter right then and there, and, lord, won't the blood fly, “was told from the beginning she would have to provide for Mr. Marple on her own, Hitch told me herself she'd have made do, if we didn't have wine on hand, and whoever told you we needed water was lying. And that is, of course, assuming, that such a person exists, which I should tell you now that I seriously doubt. I don't think for a minute that you actually thought we needed a damned thing – I think you just wanted to go out and latched onto whatever excuse you could come up with with no regard to how flimsy it is on your way back.”

“Now, really, Yvette,” Michelle says. Hers are angels eyes, as she speaks. “Why would I want to go out into enemy territory without backup?”

“Well, I really don't know, Michelle,” Yvette replies. “Why don't you explain that to me?”

There's a moment of stillness – a moment filled with nothing – before Michelle slides on her sunglasses and hefts her backpack up onto her shoulders.

Acutely conscious of the weight of her friend's eyes upon her, she casts her own gaze far into the distance as she says, “I'm not looking to get killed, Yvette. I'm just trying to keep people happy.” As she turns to go, a stab of pettiness goes through her heart and she adds, much more bitterly then she intends, “That's our Great Leader's big thing, isn't it? Keep the bad feelings down and morale up?” She makes a sound like a snort or a sigh. “Just doing my part for the greater good,” she says, starting for the garage.

Yvette makes her own sound, part growl part scream, before falling into step beside her.

“That's such bullshit, Michelle,” she grumbles. “And, if I might just add something here – pardon me, please, since I'm very much aware of your aversion to logic – if I might just add that it's not going to help anybody's morale is you get ghouled on an unwarranted cat food run.”

“Don't worry about.” Michelle swings herself up onto her motorcycle. It isn't a motorcycle, really, so much as an electric bike, small and light, durable and easy on gas. But Benjamin always wanted a motorcycle, Before, and he's the one who started it. “If I get ghouled, I promise it'll be on a legitimate run.”

And then, with a sound more like a kitten's purr then a lion's roar, she's off. Yvette stares after her, arms folded over her chest, and watches as the gate keepers slide two layers of doors open and closed behind her. She wonders if that was actually meant to make her feel better.

~

After the Rise, time moved slowly, but when she stopped to breathe Michelle wondered where it could have gotten to. Every day was a struggle, every hour a fight and they were all so preoccupied with the usual business of staying alive through the thousand eternities that every moment had become that all else seemed insignificant in hindsight.

Eighteen months. Could it really be? She had been a part of colony forever. The subway had always been her home. But, surely, yesterday she was out on her own in the mountains and just last week the phones in her house were working and she was there to answer because Sonia called to say that she and some friends had a place up north, way, way up north where the snow was always falling.

A century ago, Michelle laughed and said, “I think you're overreacting, a little.”

Sonia's dry little laugh still echoed in her ears, because only a moment ago Michelle hung up after hearing her say, “Lord, Shelly, do I ever hope you're right.” She can still feel the phone in her hand, hear the click as she she replaced it, the silence spilled in around her.

It's been a while since she thought of Sonia. It's not that she wants to forget, but there's a fine line between remembrance and obsession that she doesn't want to get anywhere close to. So, Michelle just spares an instant's heartfelt hope that she made it out to her empire of snow and another's prayer that it still stands. One day, maybe, Michelle will go find it, and on that day, maybe, Sonia will make her a cup of tea and then scowl through the steam at her as she asks why Michelle hasn't called.

Today, Michelle is in the city and she focuses. She generally tries not to shoot too much – ammo isn't infinite and it's not like there's anyone manufacturing it, anymore – and just dodges any ghouls she happens to see. It's easy – they're slow and stupid and not as plentiful as they once were, and she's had a good deal of practice in rougher terrain then this. It's dangerous – she's fast and reckless, and they don't need practice when they've got instinct.

When she's getting close to where she needs to go – when she's within sight of the big sign that says 'Library' – she hears something new. She pulls up in front of the building, listening hard to something that's not a groan or a footstep, not a shuffle or a drag. It's something that purrs and growls and keeps going steady even as her own bike winds down.

Benjamin is out, today, too. Odd.

Benjamin is getting closer.

Curiouser and curiouser.

He pulls up beside Michelle, barely sparing her a glance from beneath beach-colored fringe. He parks and says, “I really wish you wouldn't upset my sister.”

Michelle replies, “Wouldn't want to move in on your turf.”

Benjamin readjusts the shoulder strap of his backpack and then touches the strap of his sword sheath almost lovingly. He could have been a champion fencer, or so their father had said, if only his swordsman's arm hadn't been paired with a drunkard's soul. He won his first vodka tasting competition before the dead rose but after his father died of disappointment.

These days, he fences because he has to and smokes so much he can't taste his liquor.

He says nothing. Michelle already knows everything.

They go into the library together. It's quiet and dusty and it's their favorite place in the whole city because it's all made of glass and plaster and plywood, utterly impractical and totally indefensible. Only an idiot would have taken shelter, here, and even the ghouls seem to realize it's an unlikely hiding place. It's rare to encounter adversity, there, but they draw their weapons and do a sweep, anyway.

Secure in their solitude, they go for the books – Benjamin's got a thing for the Russian classics, real monsters of a thousand pages or more, steeped in tragedy and tinged with cynicism, and with no resolutions aside from the unfortunate. He laughs, sometimes, as he pores over these depressing tomes, and Michelle has never asked to be let in on the joke. She goes in for the softer stuff – she's already got Shakespeare, and nostalgia has filled her bedside with Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman and a faded copy of Candide. Today the voice from her earlier reminisces is whispering to her again, and it's saying, “Wodehouse.” Some time shorty after the Rise she found one on the road near where an old friend had lived. She wonders why it's taken her so long to search out another. She wonders, too, whether she should ever go near the name, again.

The library is uneventful and they each fill half their bag. Benjamin needs cigarettes so Michelle waits he raids a convenience store. Michelle is fulfilling the needs of the feminine half of the colony, so he waits outside a pharmacy as she stocks up on tampons and pain killers. They both grab condoms but don't tell each other about it.

Then it's been nearly five hours since they left and it's time to head back. Neither mentions it but they haven't seen a ghoul since they left the library. It's disquieting and they stay very much on their guard. Michelle's spine twinges but she doesn't relax. She listens to Benjamin's cursing and the purr of their engines and wonders about the things she doesn't know.

~

The groans come again as they start getting close to the gates, so they don't. They stop, shut of the engines and sit in silence for a long moment. There are no shots fired, no screams ringing out, no sobs echoing in the underground. Just the grunts and the moans, the zombie sounds that are so familiar and so alien, so ordinary and so utterly otherworldly. Inhuman – no living person could make such a noise, but it's simplicity for the dead.

They don't look at each other. They draw no nearer the gates. Instead, they keep to their bikes and pedal until the sounds are long lost behind them. They keep going until they're good and lost, because being lost doesn't matter so much when you've got nothing to go back to.

~

Hours later, without much hope, Michelle and Benjamin make their way to the other subway stations. What they find is what they expect – most are still solidly barricaded. Those that aren't, abandoned. A few stray ghouls – the legless or otherwise broken ones who were late to the party – cross their paths but they're exterminated quickly and efficiently. Michelle hasn't felt quite this cold since she lost sight of her brother in the forest behind their house. Rage is burning behind Benjamin's eyes, but it's tightly controlled and she feels a bit better knowing he's controlling it, using it, harnessing it. He's scoring better hits then she's ever known him to.

They find the point of entry without too much difficulty. They know they must be onto something when the ghouls start appearing in larger numbers and better condition. Michelle is suddenly hyperaware of the Magnum digging into her side and she hopes she won't have to use it. A sharp hiss of breath from Benjamin and she knows she will.

For a moment that feels like an eternity, the Michelle is still. The universe is spinning around her, slow and distorted, and she is a fixed point in a world gone to shambles. She can feel Benjamin breaking at her side, is aware of the scorched remnants of what was once her reality consuming her peripheral vision. She stares without seeing at the handles of her bike and then slowly, slowly, in an instant that's full of eternities, her hand moves to her holster. And then the moment is broken and she's following Benjamin's gaze to the soulless, staring eyes of the woman who loved them both.

“Damnit.”

And Michelle puts a bullet between those pretty blue eyes.

After that, time goes funny, again. Seconds go on for centuries, and later she can remember the precise length of this zombie's dread locks, can pick out what shade of sky blue this ghoul was wearing when she shot it through the temple or (later, when ammunition ran out and fuck if she was going to stop and reload) smashed it's head in with a crowbar. She recalls ducking down when two converged on her and firing up through their snapping jaws like it was some kind of movie, and seeing, just for an instant, the gore exploding upwards like a volcano. She remembers stomping on a still-snapping head Benjamin and his sword left behind and feeling the skull give beneath the weight and steel of her boots.

She remembers running and cussing and taking down more ghouls in half an hour then she has in her whole life (not counting the day she went looking for Sonia, never counting the day she arrived at the house by the lake only to find it flooded but not with water, no, never with water, and how she fought and fought and they kept coming and kept coming, because that wasn't her life – that was her first death and she's damned if she'll let them have another) and she remembers how she never lost track of Benjamin, not once, through the entire battle. She can't remember ditching her bike – though she must have, since she recalls fighting on foot – or recovering it – though she did, because she rode it out of there – but she can remember every moment where Benjamin was, because all the time Benjamin was screaming.

Oh, yes, Benjamin screamed. There was a hiss of breath, just the barest hint of disquiet in the silence beneath the creaking of the dead, and there was Michelle's own curse. The first crack of gunfire and the screaming. Screaming that didn't waver, didn't drop off, impossible screaming without pause for breath that went on and on and on. In her head, Benjamin is sometimes still screaming. In his head, she suspects he always is.

She stabbed a zombie through the eye with a red and brown hair stick that wasn't hers. She's kept it and it's mate for ages, ever since that day in the lake house, meaning to give them back to Sonia even when she's pretty sure she'll never see her again. Now the set is incomplete. She'll never recover that one. Sonia will understand. It went to a good cause. What Michelle can never figure out is how she came to be holding it to begin with.

And then she's back on her bike, revving up the engine and waving the crowbar, again, yelling herself hoarse to be heard over the slackening moans of the remaining undead and continuous screaming of the boy who wants to burn the world.

“Benjamin, we gotta go!” she says, and he's still screeching up a storm when she fights her way over and finds him, slicing heads down the middle with swords that can't possibly be that sharp and strength he never had until today.

“Benjamin!”

He falls silent but never still – neither of them are still and she's off her bike, again. They're back to back, transport off to one side, knocking off ghouls as quick as they come, quicker if they can.

“We gotta go,” she says, going in through the temple like always. It's easier, that way – any other way might take a second shot and you can never, ever, ever take a second shot.

“We aren't going anywhere,” Benjamin snaps back, his voice a dark, savage thing, like dead species in the jungle, ravenous after a long wait to be awakened.

“We gotta go somewhere,” Michelle replies. She takes out two, one through the temple the other stabbed through the eye, since his socket is half gone so it's not a problem getting her crowbar out, again.

“We haven't got anywhere to go,” he says. She can hear wet things falling apart behind her, and she looks a little harder at her own dead.

“Doesn't matter,” she replies. “The destination doesn't matter, so long as it's not here.” He's silent, then and the only sounds are of groans of the waning zombie crowd, of crushed skulls and breaking brains as they spill across the sidewalk.

“We're going,” she says.

When she breaks away and regains her bike, he's right behind her.

They go.

By dawn of the next day, New York is truly a dead city.

~

Most of the ghouls are gone from the suburbs, drawn by the cries of their brethren to the inner city. Those that have stayed are dispatched with little thought and less difficulty. They stop, at last, in a grimy little house that's looks to have been abandoned far longer than the others. Michelle takes the first watch. She has her doubts that Benjamin actually sleeps, but he lays still and silent on the moldy white couch for a full six hours so she doesn't say anything between the time he sits up and says, “My watch” and when she falls asleep.

She's not entirely surprised when she wakes up around midmorning and finds him gone. She doubts she'll be seeing him again.

With no pressing appointments, she takes her time exploring the house. It's a modest two story affair, and she can't quite decide if the green of the outside was intended by it's owners or if it's some kind of mold. What's left of the décor reeks of the seventies. She finds books, yellowed and brittle with age, broken coffee cups, a tarnished menorah.

When she makes her way into the basement she finds an abundance of fabrics and yarns, and spools of thread hanging from nails hammered mostly neatly into a wall near the stairs. There's a drafting table further back, covered with rusted razor blades the remnants of papers and lead pencils and powdered ink.

There's an old photo album peaking out from a lower shelf. Michelle picks it up and flips through it with a housebreaker's voyeurism. The smell of mildew is heavy in the air, down here, and she doesn't really expect to find the pictures in tact. She's pleasantly surprised to find faces looking back at her, dark eyes beneath dark hair, for the most part, and with ugly seventies clothes that fade into respectable middle age as time progresses. She turns a page and it's with a start of inevitability she realizes whose privacy she's invaded.

Sonia hated having her picture taken. She avoided it, and when she couldn't do that she gave it only her middle finger, and when that would have been ill-advised she took the product and hid it away from those who would hold her image. But, eventually, she must fail, and, eventually, a picture must find it's way into the hands of adoring relatives. Or, Michelle thinks, in a rush of understanding, tired, cranky relatives. Relatives who cuss at restaurateurs, relatives who write letters of complaint to soap companies to get coupons and samples in return, relatives whose funerals sounded like more fun than most birthday parties.

Michelle carefully peels Sonia's photo – only slightly defaced by time and improper storage – out of the album and slides it into one of the large pockets on her jeans, then walks out of the basement and out the front door. She takes one last look back and thinks of Sonia as she last saw her, tired and drawn and muttering about a plague Michelle didn't believe in. She thinks of Sonia now, still tired, probably, and most likely absolutely freezing, but safe and staying safe in the great white north. She thinks of the grandmother who was dead and buried before Michelle and her granddaughter ever met. And then she gets on her bike and gets going.

North.

Alone.

Again.

Just like before Mikaela found her.

Just like before she and Yvette met.

Just like before she'd stomped on a ghouls head with Benjamin's scream echoing in her ears.

Just like none of it ever happened.

Just Michelle and her bike.

Heading North.

She'll be pretty pissed off if Sonia and her grand settlement weren't waiting.
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