lady_flamewing: (subjuggalator)
[personal profile] lady_flamewing
I balked a little at posting this one - it draws really heavily on people I know IRL, and it...may not portray them in the most flattering light. And they'll know who they are, too. So...I'm just hoping no one who provided the inspiration for these characters will take offense at the way they are portrayed - because that was the point of all this, really. To show humans being human, in the best and the worst ways.

Title: Choices
Fandom: Original Fiction
Pairing: M/F, although nothing really explicit. Just an established relationship.
Rating: I'm going to go with R, for some dark themes.
Warnings: There is some triggering material in this - mentions of suicide.
A/N: The second in the series of shorts I wrote as my attempt at NaNoWriMo last year. I thought I'd attempt a short story collection that centered around the theme of "unconventional horror" - stories that eschew the standard tropes of horror. So in these stories, there are no heroes, people make the wrong choices sometimes, and nothing is ever really what it seems. Rather than idealize horror, I thought I'd try to write it as I imagined people would actually live it - doing the best they could. /copy-pasta from last post.

Again, I'm posting these in what is essentially reverse comfort order - so I like this a little better than the last one (I think the writing flows better and the storyline is stronger), but I'm still not entirely comfortable with it. It's clunky at points and the ending could use some sprucing up, but here it is, nonetheless.


She sits, nursing an ache behind her eyes that will no doubt turn into a pounding migraine by sundown unless she manages to find some aspirin, and tries not to think about the decision she has to make. The attempt is made rather more difficult when she feels him sit down next to her - and she's never understood, even before all of this happened, how someone so solid manages to move so quietly - and even more so when he asks, "So, what are you going to do?"

Anna looks up - not at him, but out over the camp sprawled below them - and heaves a sigh. "I don't know," she answers, shrugging. "What can I do? Someone has to stay behind, it's the only way the rest of us even stand a chance of getting away - I know that. But how can I walk down there and tell someone to their face that they're being sacrificed so everyone else can survive?"

"You don't have to. I'm staying."

"…What?" Now she looks at him, but Robb doesn't meet her gaze - just keeps looking out over the camp. But his eyes are oddly unfocused, and she doesn't think he's actually seeing it. As she watches, he shrugs one broad shoulder.

"If that's the decision you're making, then I'm the one staying," he elaborates, and she frowns.

"No, you're not."

"That wasn't a suggestion, or me volunteering for the job," he says, rolling his eyes. "That was me telling you - if someone's staying behind, it's going to be me."

"No, it's not," she reiterates, a little more forcefully this time. "And what do you mean, 'if'? It's - "

But Robb doesn't appear to be listening. "Look," he continues, as if she hasn't spoken at all, "the whole point of leaving someone behind is to keep the horde occupied, to give the rest of you a chance to escape. And I don't trust anyone else to do that. I don't trust anyone else to fight as hard as I will to give you a better chance to survive, so I'm staying behind, if you decide someone has to."

"What are you talking about, 'if'?" she demands. "Why do you keep saying that? Someone has to stay behind, there's no other choice."

"There is always a choice," he says fiercely, finally turning to look at her, and Anna suddenly realizes that he's angry. She hasn't been able to see it before, he hides his emotions so well - but they've always shown through his eyes, and his gaze on her is like chips of ice. "It's just that sometimes the choice is between something that's easy and something that's hard."

She shakes her head helplessly. "I don't understand. Wh - what are you saying?"

Robb sighs, running a hand through his mop of dark hair. "Just - I don't understand what makes you think you're responsible for these people."

Anna stares at him like he's gone crazy. "Because someone has to be. We have to look out for each other, it's our best chance to stay alive."

"Looking out for someone and being responsible for them are two very different things," he points out. "It's not fair, what these people are doing to you."

Her brow furrows. "What they're doing to me?" she asks, uncomprehendingly. He runs a hand through his hair again and makes a frustrated sound.

"By making you responsible for them," he explains, "they're ensuring that they never have to make any hard decisions. When something goes wrong, it never has to be their fault. And I will bet that every single one of them down there is thinking, or has already thought, or will think at some point - 'Boy, I'm glad I don't have to be responsible for this decision'. Because there isn't a right choice. And someone is going to hate you for it."

He's never been a man of many words, so the fact that he's just given her his equivalent of a speech floors her. It's all she can do to just stare at him for a moment, trying to wrap her head around what he's trying to tell her.

"So…what do you want me to do?" she asks. "What other option do I have? Even if it isn't fair, I'm responsible for them. I can't just…leave them to fend for themselves."

"Why not?"

The question is quiet, almost to the point where she can't hear it, but that doesn't lessen the impact - it almost feels like he's physically struck her.

"What?" The thought has, quite literally, never crossed her mind. It would feel like the worst act of betrayal - not even of these other people, but of herself.

To his credit, Robb does look apologetic as he tries to explain himself. "I know that you have this…nurturing thing. I know that you want to mother everyone, that you want to take care of them. But it's not fair. Not to you. You're running yourself ragged, physically and emotionally, trying to look after all these people, and why? You don't owe them anything. And they're not related to you. They're just…people. People taking the easy way out."

"But - " Anna groans a little, scrubbing at her face with her hands. "I don't know. I can't just…" She stops, helplessly, at a loss for words.

"Why not?" he asks again, but…gentler this time, almost. Less accusatory, and more genuinely curious. "All you're doing is hurting your own chances of survival, traveling with a group this size, trying to take care of all of them. Do you - do you remember what it was like, with just the three of us?"

"Of course I do," she says, with more than a little scorn creeping into her voice. It's not fair, she supposes, because she knows Robb's only trying to help, but she can't stop it. "We were always tired, because three isn't enough to split the watch."

"Only because we were trying to stay moving for so long every day. But think about how much faster we were moving - with all this," he gestures out towards the camp, "it doesn't matter how early you wake them up, it always takes at least three hours to start making any kind of progress, and it takes just as long to settle down for the night. And the trail we leave behind is huge. That's how we got into this mess in the first place - we're no longer traveling any faster than those monsters. Everyone here is putting themselves in more danger by being in a group this size. If we split off into smaller groups, we've all got a better chance - there has to be a balancing point between how much faster a small group can move and how much time that same smaller group needs to rest."

"But why does that mean abandoning them?" she asks. "Why can't I protect them from this, and then split them off later?"

"Because that's not your responsibility," he insists. "And because it won't work. They're too scared, too used to having someone to take care of them. They won't let you leave."

"But I can't abandon them!" Anna cries, frustrated. "Think about how many people will die if I leave them here."

Robb shakes his head. "The ones who die would have died anyway, if they hadn't latched onto you. And if they'd managed to survive tonight, by some stroke of luck, they'll die out there. The ones who are meant to survive will survive. That's the way it's always been. And if it's not them, it'll be me."

She drops her head into her hands. "That isn't fair. That's…not a choice. You're forcing my hand."

"I know," he says. "And I'm sorry. But knowing that you're alive, giving you another chance - that means everything to me. If that means that I have to die so that you can live, then that's acceptable to me."

"And what about me?" she demands. "What about me having to live with the knowledge that I let you die? When I'd be just as willing to sacrifice myself to give you a fighting chance?"

"All I'm asking you to do is decide what my life means to you," he says softly. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm okay with sacrificing any number of people - including myself - to save you. And all I want you to decide is whether or not you're willing to do the same." He gets up before she can formulate a response, leaves her there with her thoughts.

Anna watches him go, the young man who's stood by her through everything, who she's always known she's supposed to be with forever - as much as that means now that the world seems to have gone insane - and she wonders. She loves Robb more than she's ever loved anyone, she knows that, too; and she knows she would do anything for him.

Or…so she's always thought. Because she doesn't know if she can do this. She looks down at the camp again, at the dozens of people who have come to depend on her, and who will undoubtedly all die if she does what she thinks she needs to do. Her mind balks at what her heart wants to do, and she's never been good at reconciling the two.

----------

It's a long time before Anna returns to camp, and when she does, she moves around the edges, keeping to the shadows, avoiding the scouts. It's easier than it should be, and the thought is disheartening. How can she abandon these people, when she obviously hasn't managed to teach them anything? If those set to watch tonight can't even spot her, how can they hope to protect themselves?

Of course, she thinks, that may be slightly unfair. Nothing that comes after them is going to be making a particular effort to conceal itself the way she is - and that thought sends another pang of guilt through her. Because if she feels like she has to hide away from everyone else, how can she possibly be making the right decision?

Gritting her teeth, she slips into the part of camp that is most familiar to her, where she shares a tent with the two people she started this whole journey with - and the two with whom she now means to end it. When she enters, though, only one of them is there.

"Where is he?" she asks, frowning, and Will shrugs. He doesn't have to ask who she means, because he knows - he always knows what she means, because he's her oldest friend. And it turns out she doesn't really need an answer, because the tent rustles behind her and the third member of their rather ragtag trio enters.

She meets Robb's eyes, sees the question there, and nods - and that's that. He nods back, moves to his corner of the tent, and begins gathering his belongings. She turns back to find Will's gaze darting between the two of them, his expression confused.

"What's going on?"

She almost doesn't want to say anything, finds herself wishing that things had been explained before she arrived, because talking about it seems to make it more real. But there's no helpful information coming from the corner, so she takes a deep breath and moves to pack her own things, saying simply, "We're leaving."

But, of course, it's not that simple. It never is. Will - who might as well be her brother, he's been around so long (although that thought causes a pang of guilt somewhere deep inside her, because she had family, once, but none of them have survived) - moves to start packing, but as he does, asks, "Do you think you can get everyone out in time? It usually takes a while for everyone to get their things together. And we've never traveled at night before, it's - "

"They're not coming."

Anna looks up, surprised. She didn't expect help from Robb, and from the way he's frozen for a moment in what he's doing, she suspects he didn't really expect to say anything. She takes a breath, opens her mouth to say something, but she's beaten to the punch.

"What do you mean, 'they're not coming'?"

"Exactly what I just said." Robb's moving again, thrusting things brusquely into his pack, his voice low and rough. "And keep quiet. You'll wake the whole camp, and that's sort of contrary to the point."

"Anna, what is he talking about?" She doesn't need to look up to know that he's looking at her with that expression - the one that's equal part hurt and disbelief - and she hates herself a little for putting it there, the way she always does.

"We're leaving," she says again, but this time she continues. "The three of us. The way it used to be."

For a long moment, the only sounds in the tent are rustling fabric and softly clanking metal, and then she hears Will ask angrily, "What did you do to her?"

She whirls, a question on her lips - probably something along the lines of 'What the hell are you talking about?' - but Robb beats her to it.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"This isn't like her, she doesn't just abandon people," Will seethes. "This must have been your idea, you must have done something to convince her."

"And what if it was?" Robb asks, rolling his eyes and shoving something else into his pack. "You know she wouldn't have made this decision if she didn't think it was the right one, no matter what I said."

"Well, then - you must have tricked her," Will insists, "or forced her, something. She wouldn't do this."

Robb turns to retort, his fist clenched around something, but Anna breaks in. "Stop it, both of you!" she hisses. "You're acting like children, and we don't have time for this. You'll bring the whole camp down on us if you don't shut up, and we need to put some serious distance between us and the horde before morning."

"Now finish packing and stop talking about me like I'm not here, for god's sake," she tells them. "And leave the tent. We can't strike it without someone noticing and getting suspicious, so we'll just have to leave it behind."

"What are we supposed to sleep under?" Will asks, though he does start to move once she glares at him, which is at least mollifying. She glares Robb down, too, when he starts to mutter under his breath, but she knows that won't last long. They've always been a little volatile, rubbing up against each other, which she thinks is part of why they work. It's odd, but it's certainly never boring.

"Nothing, for now," Anna replies finally, returning to her own packing. "We'll find a camping or hunting shop eventually and get another. Until then, we'll just have to hope it doesn't rain."

It's tense silence in the tent after that, and she finds herself wondering how long this will last. They've never gotten along well, Robb and Will, and she hopes this isn't the final wedge between them. Because the only choice left for her to make would be between the two of them, and she doesn't think she could ever do that. No matter what decision she makes in that situation, she'll regret it.

She's rolling up her sleeping bag when he comes over to her, as silent as always. He kneels to help her stuff it into the little bag, something she's always had trouble with, and it's a while until he says anything. She doesn't mind though - it's a different kind of silence, and she thinks she knows what he's trying to work himself up to saying, anyway.

Still, she lets him say it. Eventually.

"I'm sorry," he murmurs, as he ties off the top of the bag, and she smiles. "I know…how much it means to you, to have him with us. And I guess I should have known he'd take it pretty hard. I can try to - "

Anna cups his cheek with her hand, leans in to kiss him gently. "Don't worry about it," she says softly. "I'll talk to him. After all, it was my decision, in the end."

Robb gives her that smile, the one only she ever sees, and for just a moment, everything seems all right. It's a ridiculous thought, she knows - what with a horde of flesh-eating monsters drawing closer by the minute, and the three of them about to abandon dozens of people to their deaths - but it's enough for now. She stands, throws her pack over her shoulders, and lets Robb draw the straps tight.

"All right," she says. "Let's go."

----------

It's quiet. That's the first thing that strikes her, when they've put some distance between themselves and the camp. Quiet and dark. It's been so long since they've traveled in a small group, she's forgotten. But when there's only two people with you, and neither of them is particularly inclined to talking, the silence tends to settle pretty heavily. Anna's not sure she minds. She's always rather liked silence - although she does find herself humming, at one point, some absent fragment of melody tucked away in the back of her mind.

As they walk, she slips a hand first into Robb's, and then into Will's, linking the three of them together. And that's how it's always been - the two of them connected only through her, but they're also the last two people on the planet that she loves, and that's enough for her. They pick their way through the rubble of a city left ransacked and abandoned, occasionally slipping into a shop through broken storefronts to see if there's anything useful to be had. And once she thinks they've put enough distance behind them, they find a place to stop for what's left of the night.

Together, they boost Will onto an overhanging balcony - he's the smallest of the three of them, and also the least physically able - and then Robb helps her up after him. He climbs up last, finding something to stand on to give him just a few extra inches of reach, his powerful arms straining at the ledge. The height will give them a little extra security, as well as a convenient vantage point for anyone - or anything - coming down the road, and as they lay out their sleeping bags, Robb offers to take first watch.

Will studies him for a moment, then nods and mutters, "Thanks," as he slips into his sleeping bag, and Anna smiles. It's not much, but it's a start. She gives Robb a quick kiss before settling down for the night herself, between Will and Robb's empty bag, as always. She hears Robb check his weapon, then move away to the edge of the balcony, and she extracts an arm from the warmth of her sleeping back to grope around until she finds one of Will's hands.

She squeezes, gently, and waits until she feels him squeeze back. Then, she whispers, "I need him. And I need you."

"I know," she hears him answer, and she squeezes his hand again, gratefully.

"I made a choice. And…maybe it wasn't the right one, but it was the only one that kept you both safe. And that's - that's really all that matters to me."

"I know," he says again, and then raises his voice a bit. "I'll take second watch."

She hears Robb shift, mutter, "All right," and the silence settles over them again - but the tension's gone from it, now. It's not perfect - Will's still disappointed in her, Robb's still frustrated - but it's a start. And that's plenty to let her close her eyes and drift off to sleep.

----------

She wakes with a guilty start, realizing she's drifted off into a doze during her watch. They'll need to change their schedules, figure out a way to keep them moving quickly enough to stay alive while simultaneously ensuring that they all get enough sleep every night to keep going. Today is obviously an exception, since they've had to travel through a good portion of the night, but they really can't have anyone falling asleep on watch.

While her thoughts are thus occupied, she isn't paying much attention to her surroundings, but the moment she turns her thoughts toward wondering what woke her, she hears it - that shuffling step, the wordless moan - and she immediately throws herself down to lie flat on the balcony. Pulse thundering in her ears, breaths coming fast and shallow, she carefully drags herself across the balcony on elbows and knees to where the others are sleeping, waking them one by one with a hand over their mouths so they can't make any noise. They both wake immediately, bodies tense and drawn, and when she jerks a thumb over her shoulder, they follow her back to the edge of the balcony, doing the same low army crawl.

The streets are packed with the undead, moving past at that inexorable shuffle that somehow seems to eat up the ground when you're not looking. There are hundreds of them - men, women, children, all at varying states of decay and decomposition. It's almost certainly the horde that had been gaining on the camp for the past few weeks - packs like this don't go unnoticed - but that seems almost impossible.

"What are they doing here?" Will asks quietly, voicing her doubts. "I thought we'd put enough distance between us and them."

"We should have," Robb answers, his brow furrowed. "But…only under the assumption that the camp would slow them down. I figured that - no matter what happened - they'd lose a significant amount of time getting past the camp. For them to already be here…"

"It means they didn't meet any resistance," Anna finishes, feeling sick at being faced with concrete evidence of what she's done. It's her decision that's brought them here, and the consequences are right in front of her - the horde has swept over the camp with little to no effort, most likely leaving death and destruction in their wake. She can feel the tears burning in the corners of her eyes, the bile rising into the back of her throat - and she can feel Will watching her, as well.

"Well…could they have run, maybe?" he offers, as Anna very deliberately avoids looking at him. Of course, that leaves her with only the horde of monsters to look at, and she's not entirely sure whether that's better or worse. "Gotten away? Maybe that's why there was no delay - because there was no one to…"

To eat. That's the end of the sentence, the one he's not saying - does he really think she can't hear it? And on top of that, does he really believe what he's saying? She thinks he does - he's always believed, deep down, that everything will turn out fine, no matter how hopeless the situation. It's been a consistent point of friction between them, because she's always considered herself more of a realist, maybe even a pessimist - hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and you can only ever be pleasantly surprised.

Robb's the same way, and he's shaking his head at Will's question. "No. You know how long it takes them to move. They'd never have made it out in time."

"But - what if they realized we'd gone, panicked? Couldn't they just have left everything behind, just picked up and left? They might've - "

"You know what they're like," Anna interrupts, frustrated and angry. "They wouldn't have done that. Some of them, maybe - the smarter ones. But for every one that did, there were probably at least five others that would have fought or protested or argued. They would have insisted on taking everything, even if those things were right on top of them."

She knows its harsh, knows that it's stung by the way Will starts a little and turns away from her, looking angrily down at the zombies - but she also knows it's true, and that might hurt even more. Robb's saved them both, by convincing her to leave, she knows that - but she still can't help but hate him a little for forcing her hand like he did, for being responsible for what she's now looking at.

Will sighs - a short, angry sound. "I feel like we ought to do something," he says, his fists clenched tightly around the edge of the balcony. "Take some of them out, or…I don't know."

"No," Robb answers immediately. "We're in a good place here. Better to just let them pass us by and then head in a different direction. If we start taking them out, we'll draw their attention, and they'll come after us. After that, they'll either wait beneath us until we starve to death, or we'll kill so many underneath the balcony that the ones left will be able to just waltz right on up and tear us apart."

Anna nods, and then a thought occurs to her. "Do - do you think they might have done that? Hidden, and just let this group pass them by?"

Every line in Robb's body says 'no', but for a moment he doesn't speak - which is odd. He's never been one to sugarcoat anything. He's quiet, doesn't talk much - but if he has something to say, it comes out, even if it could be construed as harsh or cruel. She stares at him, trying to figure out what he's thinking.

"They might have," he says finally, and it's not a lie - not really. She's always been able to tell when he's lying. But there is something untrue about it, and she wonders if maybe it's a lie of omission - if there's something he knows, or at least thinks, and isn't telling her.

"But you don't think so."

She watches his jaw tighten beneath the dark shadow of his beard, watches him shake his head and mutter, "No."

"So what do you think happened?" she demands. It's not fair, she's taking her anger out on him, her guilt for being responsible for this, but she can't help it. She's still human, after all, and her heart aches. "You think they just…swept over the camp? Massacred everyone without even batting an eye?"

He's silent again, for longer this time - long enough to make her think she's stepped over an invisible line, gone too far. His anger is awful, she's seen that first hand, and before she realizes it, she's holding her breath and shrinking away from him. But it's not anger in his face when he looks at her - it's grief: heavy and and dark. And suddenly she realizes that as terrible as she feels about what they've done, he feels worse. He doesn't need her to tell him that it's his fault all of this happened - he knows.

"I'm sorry," she starts to say, but he shakes his head again.

"No," he says, answering her previous questions, disregarding her apology. She wonders if it's because he doesn't think he deserves it. "No, I think…I think they probably sent someone to wake us once the horde got close enough. When they found us gone, they probably…panicked. They might have called together everyone they could, all of the adults, and…"

"And?" Will prompts.

"If they'd still been there, any of them, then…" Robb shakes his head. "Then the horde would have lost time. And maybe they hid, maybe they did what we're doing now, but…it just doesn't seem likely. There were too many of them, too many signs of life - someone would have been found. And once someone starts to scream, everyone breaks. They come running out of hiding, and with this many zombies, they would have been caught. And yet…" He tips his head in the direction of the shambling horde. "Here they are, like they've just been walking all night, with no distractions."

"But if they didn't run, and they didn't hide, then what are you saying happened?" Will asks, but Anna almost doesn't hear. Her thoughts are whirling, drawing the conclusion at which Robb has clearly already arrived. "Are you saying the horde just - just walked through the camp without touching anyone? That doesn't make any sense."

"There's only one reason the undead leave humans alone," she says softly, and when Robb looks at her and nods, she knows. He turns his gaze away again, back towards the horde, but it's the same as it was when he came to talk to her above the camp - he's not really looking at them. Whatever he's seeing, it's not what's playing out in front of his eyes.

"They're already dead," he says, and Anna has to close her eyes. She lays her head down on her arms, and when she feels Will's hand come to rest on her shoulders, the tears fall hot and fast. It's been a long time since she's cried, especially like this - there's just no time for tears anymore, and most of the time she's simply too tired to cry - but she supposes if there were ever a time for it, it would be now.

It's not fair, she thinks, as they watch the horde pass them by - as the sun creeps across the sky, and their already-browned skin darkens. She doesn't even know if it's better or worse, this new knowledge of what they're responsible for. Is it better that none of the people they left behind will be a part of the horde creeping by, that none of them would have screamed and sobbed and begged for mercy from the monsters that were tearing them limb from limb? Or is it worse that they left people so hopeless that they felt the only option left to them was mass suicide? That they forced mothers to kill their children, husbands to kill their wives and then turn the weapons on themselves and hope that it was a clean shot?

Eventually, they agree to simply spend another night there, and when Will offers to take the first watch and Robb curls up beside her, gathering her close without a word, she's grateful for it. For both of them.

In the morning, they help each other down and set off again, and she finds herself holding hands with one or both of them as often as she can, just to feel that connection. Because she knows now that she'll do anything for the two of them - even if it means tearing herself apart inside.

----------

Over the next few weeks, Anna spends a lot of time thinking about karma, about moral balance. She thinks she still believes in God, in Heaven, even after all this, and she wonders if there's any chance of forgiveness for the things she's done. For a long time, she curls up at night and shivers under the influence of her nightmares, sometimes even waking up screaming or crying and being muffled by a hand over her mouth.

But life goes on, and every day brings with it something new to worry about - where their next meal is coming from, what direction they ought to be heading, where they can find more ammunition for their weapons or new versions to replace the ones that have broken - and sooner than she could have thought, she forgets. The memory fades away, shunted aside in favor of more day-to-day concerns, for thoughts that will keep her alive.

And they do survive, all three of them. For weeks, months, even years afterwards, suffering no ill effects from what they've done - no more than those few nights of lost sleep, at least. For sending dozens of people to their deaths at the hands of their loved ones, or at their own hands, they suffer no consequences.

Perhaps it isn't fair. But, then again, life has never been particularly fair - even before the world changed and left them all behind.

Please don't hesitate to offer up anything you might have to say about this. I could certainly use the feedback.

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