The guilt consumed her, felt like it left a permanent taint on her soul. It felt like she had given him a death sentence, and in a way, she had. She might as well have been the one to hold a gun and shoot him with it. She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe, because even though this was all her fault, Ryan needed her right now.
“Ryan.” She whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
The man was silent, eyes unfocused and staring straight through her in a way that made her feel like she didn’t even exist anymore. “Ryan?”
“I’m okay.” He choked out finally, eyes finally focusing and finding hers. “It’s not your fault. I knew that this was a possibility.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not my fault. I infected you.”
“I know.” He said, giving her a tight smile. “And I knew the risk. I’m not sorry. There’s still a chance that we can make it to the city.” The before ‘we become monsters’ went unsaid, but they both heard it, as if he had screamed it and the forest had echoed it back.
“How are you so calm about this? I was terrified. I’m still terrified.”
Ryan sighed and shrugged, his eyes sad. “It’s okay.” He said, voice soft. “It’s beautiful.”
She closed her eyes, and rubbed her eyes angrily. She felt the urge to just give up, right then and there. She didn’t know when Ryan had come to be someone who meant to much to her, but she would give up the whole world and then some to save him from the disease. It was one thing for her to be infected, but this was different.
She had infected him.
She wanted to cry, and she hated herself for it. If anything, Ryan should have been the one that was falling apart, not her, but she couldn’t stop herself, a choked sob breaking past her lips.
The guilt was doubled with grief that crashed into her like a derailed train, grief at what this world had become, at what had happened to them because of the world’s cruel tricks. She slowly fell down to her knees, curling her arms around herself. “I’m so sorry.” She whispered, and neither of them were entirely sure if it was for the tears or for the infection.
“It’s okay.” Ryan said, coming to kneel in front of her. Despite everything, she let out a laugh though it was watery. Ryan should have been the one to cry over this, not her. He was the one that was infected because of her, the one with the weight of either meeting death or becoming a murderer on his shoulders now too.
She wiped away the tears, trying to steel herself. “I’m sorry.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper and it carried the all the weight of the broken world with it.
“It’ll be okay.” He told her soothingly. “We’ll work through this. We’ll get to the city and we’ll find a cure, and after that we’ll find the camp, and we’ll go back to them. We can stop running if we make it through this.”
And she held onto his words like they were a buoy in a stormy sea.
Almost a week later found them seemingly no closer to the city than they had been before they left.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?”
“Should be. I sure as hell hope so.”
“What if we’re going the wrong way?”
Ryan glanced over to her, raising his eyebrows. “Do you doubt my navigational skills?”
“A little bit.”
“I’ll have you know that I once got lost in the woods for two months and made it all the way home without anyone’s help.”
“It might be a little closer to two hours.” Ryan admitted, gaining a laugh from her. “And to be totally honest, Zeke was the one that found me and then helped me get home, but that’s beside the point.”
“Perhaps I should have taken Zeke on this ‘mission’ with me rather than you then. At least he would know if we were going the right way.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re going the right way. The city should only be a few more days if we’re lucky, two weeks at most if we’re not.”
“Two weeks is a really long time if you’re driving, let alone on foot.”
Gwen hummed in agreement, though the worry didn’t diminish; because these days, she could hear her days slowly ticking away like there was an obnoxiously loud clock living inside of her, her veins were slowly thickening and darkening, the signs of the disease becoming more prominent. It fuelled her actions instead of making her desolate. She was going to make it to that city before she had to be put down, even if breath struggled to leave her body. She would get there.
“Do you think the camp is wondering about us?” Gwen asked. “I mean, I know that James and Ryan would be wondering about me, and Zeke would be wondering about you, but do you think that they think we might still be alive and searching for us?”
Ryan hesitated. “No.” He said finally. “Victor would have told them that we got infected and then we had to be put down.” It wasn’t far from the truth. “He wouldn’t want any of them to separate from the group in a valiant attempt to find us in case he loses any more people.”
“It’s for the best. If anyone came after us, they could get lost and then end up dying, or they might have found us, and then would have been exposed to the disease. Either way, they won’t get to go back to camp and be somewhat safe.”
Gwen sighed. “I just wish I could’ve told them goodbye.”
Her stomach twisted slightly at the thought of James and Chris suddenly left alone because of her, and that they were grieving her death. She wondered if they were still healthy and unaffected by the disease, and if they still fought to keep their positive attitudes, but the thoughts unsettled the meal that they had caught for breakfast, and she focused her thoughts elsewhere.
“You know, you haven’t told me the colour of my eyes.” She said, trying to sound light hearted. He stopped and turned towards her, staring into her eyes before looking around the place, his gaze settling on the trees. “The colour of leaves.” He said simply.
And there they were. The girl with the hair the colour of the sunset and the eyes the colour of leaves, and the boy with the eyes like rainclouds and hair coloured like wet sand.
“You’re beautiful.” He told her, a smile pulling at the corner of his lips.
“You told me before.” She reminded him.
“But I thought I’d remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Then should I tell you how beautiful I think you are every day so you don’t forget?” He pulled a face at her, shaking his head.
“I’m not lying when I say you’re beautiful though.”
“Do you really think I’d lie to you?” She countered.
They were silent for a second, the only sound between them was their breathing and the sounds from the forest, and for an endless moment, they stared at each other.
Ryan moved his head forward, pressing it against hers. They were so close that his eyes had blurred and had almost become one, but she didn’t care, because he was still beautiful. She gently pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth, smiling softly.
“Beautiful.” He whispered.
And it was perfect in every way.
“We’re close to the city.” Ryan told her. “The trees are thinning off and there isn’t as much wildlife here.”
“That means we’ll get a real bed soon, right? That’s amazing, I’m pumped for it.”
“It’s brilliant. It means we’re close to getting a cure.”
But the closeness of the city now brought up more questions in her mind. What if they wouldn’t let them into the city because they had been infected, or if the city was empty, or just full of people who had been struck with the disease but hadn’t been put down? What if they had gone through all this trouble, just to get to the city and find that it had all been for nothing?
“Hey.” Ryan said, grabbing her hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze before letting go. “Think positive, even if there’s nothing there, we might be able to find something, I mean, I wasn’t bad at science, and you seem pretty smart. We can figure something out.”
“How are you so sure about this?” She asked. “I mean, if anyone else were here, they would’ve given up by now, but, somehow, you stay so optimistic.”
He flashed her a bright grin. “I’m a champion bear fighter, I have to stay optimistic.”
And with that, he kept on walking.