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Whitehorn Californina
Middle of June

They stayed at the Ferguson Mine for close to a week before it was safe to leave the place. Xenia had wanted to leave but understood the need for caution. The Visitors had been whipped into a frenzy at the escape of the few stragglers led by Ryan Mattison and scoured the woods relentlessly in search of them. Xenia could hear the familiar drone of sky fighters outside the mines, flying across the sky several times a day during that first week in search of them. The sound reminded her of the chase across Tuscany, when she and Lukas had been driven into the river by the sky fighter intent of reducing them to cinders.

Still as ominous as those sounds were, the effect on Ethan's spirit convinced Xenia that for his sake, she could spare a bit of time in the company of Ryan and his wounded group. Besides, her love for Lukas and the man he was, compelled her to help these people just as he had been willing to die to save strangers. A few days after they had first come to the mind, Xenia found herself taking in the morning air of the woods surrounding the place, enjoying the July heat as she enjoyed a rare moment where she was an object at rest, instead of motion.

Morning...the one great constant in all this craziness, Ryan knew that when the sun went down, it would come back up. Whether or not he lived to see it. As his granddad used to say, the day will always return; it's what you do with that day that matters. It's our honour to live each day we're given, to live the life God gave us.

With a yawn, Ryan rolled over, searching out Xenia's sleeping spot in a move that had become routine the last several mornings. In the moments when he doubted his grandfather's words, Ryan found hope in Xenia. Maybe it was cliché, but her eyes, the life she carried... Ryan saw them, along with her spirit as reason to hope. Whether she knew it or not, Ryan had. In Ethan, whose days were much calmer than his troubled sleep. In Abe, Carrie and even Lori, who had healed enough to be moved into the mine itself. Jerry was on the Xenia Train, too. So much so that Ryan had to remind him that she was only four months along and they wouldn't need his animal husbandry skills just yet.

This morning, Xenia's bed was empty and Ryan frowned, until he remembered that no, she didn't have watch and was probably just awake. Speaking of... he needed to get up and get moving. There was a plan for today.

A few minutes later, he exited the mine with a coffee cup and Abe's map, to make use of the sun in the clearing beyond the mine entrance. A full moment went by before he realized he wasn't alone and even then, all he could do was stare. Xenia, the sunlight dappled across her, catching glints of gold in her dark hair, sat with her eyes closed in the morning quiet and ... she was beautiful. Achingly so, with crystal blue eyes that stabbed him in the chest. This had to be a punishment for something, to find the one girl that made him speechless and she was carrying someone else's kid, in love that with someone else...

Fuck, sometimes, he hated mornings for this reason.

Clearing his throat as he approached, Ryan didn't want to startle her. "Good morning..." he said.

Xenia opened her eyes slowly, pulled out of her meditation by her approach. She glanced his way and flashed him a smile. "Good morning," Xenia greeted. "Sleep well?" She asked.

Oh yeah. It was official. That smile could make him stupid. Working on not thinking about those things, Ryan shrugged. "Somewhat. Mind if I join you?" He indicated the spot next to her with the map. "I'd offer you the coffee but I think," he made a face at the mug. "Abe made it."

"Its okay," she said gesturing to the spot next to her. "I'm better with water. My stomach is giving all kinds of hell now. The caffeine probably isn't good for me anyway."

"You'd have to ask the doc," Ryan replied, lowering himself to the ground next to her. "Just don't ask Jerry. He thinks you're going to pop any day now." With a laugh, he winked at her. "Might be fun to just spin him up..."

"Now that would be evil," she gave him wicked smirk. "Tell him I need a coach for Lamaze and let's see his head explode." She chuckled. "Now I'm a ways yet. Five months to go," she looked down at her swelling abdomen with affection. "And then the real fun starts."

"Ehh.. could always use my grandmother's recipe for raising kids. Stick them in the dirt," Ryan chuckled. "Water them, feed them... did I mention she was a farmer?"

"I think you did once before," she laughed at that before sobering. "I keep thinking that maybe I'm being silly wanting to raise him in occupied territory, that I should have him safe up north. But really what is safe? The dust doesn't stop the Visitors from reducing our cities to rubble. The only reason they haven't come at us that way is because they need us breeding, to keep up the food supplies."

"I think you have a point. I mean, people are on the move and I hear things. LA is gone, nothing left... " Ryan's eyes narrowed. "I heard they tried to level Seattle but they fought back and that's just here, on the West Coast. God knows what's going on in the rest of the country. Or Europe, like you said." Shaking his head, he unfolded the map, laying it on the ground between him and Xenia. "We're here." His finger tapped a spot in the middle of what the map called a National Forest. "See these X's.. small towns surrounding this area. Including mine."

Ryan hesitated there, before he cleared his throat and continued. The thought of his grandparents being in one of those ships just ate his gut. "Maybe.. ten thousand people between them and there's maybe.. a hundred left... we've searched these towns. What they didn't take, they killed. If you ask me, this is about more than.. food," he said distastefully. "It's about revenge. That's a different animal."

"I think its not surprising that they did this to the West Coast," Xenia replied. "The red dust originated from Los Angeles, the LA resistance was instrumental in capturing Diana's ship. Also," Xenia added. "Its easier for people to disappear from small towns and go unnoticed, not like the big cities. They're keeping things status quo in the cities to maintain the illusion that all is well, meanwhile they're making the rural communities their personal smorgasbord."

"And then when the small towns run out? We have no way of knowing when that's going to be." Jesus, did he say that? Alright, so it was morbid, chilling.. terri-fucking-fying... but damn if it wasn't the truth. Ryan let out a long sigh and rubbed his face. "Abe and I are going back to our camp today, see what we can salvage. It's been a week, things might have died down enough for us to check it out. Plus," he continued, intent on the map as he smoothed it out again. "We've got vehicles stored in a couple of places."

She was still thinking on what he had said about what would happen when the small towns run out, feeling the need to feel her baby against her as she caressed her belly protectively, wondering if breeding would be enough to keep them at bay. Would they get impatient and start rounding up everybody? "Uh good," she realised he had switched subjects on her. "I'll be happy to help," she offered.

Help? Ryan hadn't expected the offer and with a rather guilty glance, he sat up a little more. "That's.. I mean, Abe and I can handle it. Better off if it's the two of us," he replied in apology. Putting her at risk once was bad enough, he wasn't going to risk the odds by doing it again.

"Oh okay," Xenia nodded, not about to argue with him. After dealing with men like Timms, Xenia knew how to stand back and let the trained professionals do their job without getting underfoot. She was learning quickly a whole range of skills that shored up her confidence in living a world with Visitors but Xenia did not presume to think that she could be on equal footing with them. If Ryan thought he and Abe could handle it, she'd take his word for it. "Just be careful okay?" She said with a little smile.

Yep. Just a smile and Captain Ryan Mattson, big bad Airborne Ranger who'd jumped out of planes was putty in the hands of a figure skater that he'd nicknamed Zen. His eyes ducked for a moment before returning the smile. "You have my word," he offered gallantly, a smirk flitting across his face. "If anything to keep you from kicking my ass if I'm not," he joked in challenge.

"You better believe it Mister," she laughed at the thought of kicking anything on this Army Ranger no less. Compared to him, she was weighed barely a buck and half. Nevertheless, she did like him enough to worry about his safety. "Don't be too long Ryan."

Four hours later...

"Abe? You alright?" The engine of the older model Ford was a little loud, but considering the old diesel was practically an antique, Ryan would take 'running' over a precision tuned transmission. He glanced over at his companion in the blood-spattered passenger seat. Most it, thankfully, wasn't his or Ryan's but that of a DeGen and his pals they'd found sniffing around the truck, trying to hot wire it. Reclaiming the truck had quickly degenerated into a fire fight, which had resulted in the rest of the blood belonging to him and Abe. Mostly Abe.

"I've had worse..." the older man replied, glancing down to where he held a bloody t-shirt against his side. "Bullet clipped me. It was that dumbass with the Mohawk." He grimaced, shifting to find a more comfortable spot. "What about you?"

Ryan licked his lower lip on reflex, feeling the blood drying on it before he glanced at his left bicep. "I've had worse," he replied, tossing a grin at the other man.

Abe chuckled, glancing at him. "Yeah? Where was that, grasshopper? Iraq or Afghanistan?"

"Afghanistan. What about you? Midway Island? Pearl Harbor..?" Ryan shot back, anything to keep Abe alert until he got him back to Ethan.

"What?!?" He shot the kid a disgusted look. "I am not that old, thank you. Da Nang. Long Khanh and Hamburger Hill, smart ass. You don't think we attracted any attention, do you?"

Chuckling, Ryan fought the worm of panic in him, not wanting to push the truck so hard they ended up stranded. The bullet had gone in and come back out the flesh in Abe's side. 'Trimmed the fat' he'd called it but Ryan didn't trust him not to John Wayne things either. "No.. haven't seen a sky fighter in forty-eight hours... The mine's up ahead," he said, turning down the road towards their current hide out. Slowing down, Ryan leaned forward, looking out the windshield towards the sky and then the rear views. Empty... so he took the liberty of slowing down so that Xenia and the rest wouldn't be too startled.

Xenia had been in the van reading when she heard the rumble of a vehicle on approach. Instinctively, she reached for the Visitor laser pistol that was constantly within her grasp since she acquired it. The others were in the mine but Xenia whose pregnancy hormones had her nose so sensitive she was starting to believe she was part canine, was a little too musty for her sensibilities and took in fresh air whenever she could. Moving up to the front seat, specifically behind the wheel, Xenia ducked down low beneath the dashboard to remain hidden while she attempted to see whomever was coming up the road.

If it was Visitors, she'd have a shot of getting to them before they got to the mine or worse yet, making a break for it and getting them to chase her. Neither scenario bode well for her but Xenia was not about to let them round up the humans taking refuge in the mine either.

"We're almost there..." Ryan glanced over at Abe, who only nodded. The road, all gravel and potholes, was only making things worse; he could see the pain etched in his friend's face. "Alright.. there's the van," he said as they broke into clearing at the mine entrance. "Hasn't been moved." That was absolutely no barometer on what could have happened while he and Abe were gone but Ryan supposed not coming back to blast craters and the van in pieces was as good an indicator as any. Pulling up to the entrance, Ryan put the truck in park, not bothering to turn it off as he jumped out and hurried around to the other side. "Alright, Abe, still with me?" Opening the door, he was relieved to see the other man reaching for him.

"Of course I am.. not gonna let a bullet stop me," he grumbled.

Only when Xenia realised that the truck approaching was the same one that Ryan and Abe were using to reach their previous encampment, did she moved out of her spot. By the time the thing was in park, she already pulling herself upright behind the wheel so she could disembark to greet the duo. However it became very clear that things were not alright by the way Ryan was rounding the truck to get to the other side.

Hurrying forward, she announced herself. "Hey you guys, did you run into trouble."

Of course they had, she realised stupidly by the way Abe was grumbling.

"Yeah, we need the Doc," Ryan tossed over his shoulder as he helped Abe out. Still not used to dealing with civilians, he caught himself and glanced back at her. "He's been shot," he explained, pushing the door back.

"So have you," Abe protested, free arm settling around Ryan's shoulders. He glanced over at Xenia and chuckled. "I zigged when I should have zagged and he's bitching like an old nanny."

Her face etched in concern, Xenia didn't ask for any more details, hurrying into the mine shaft to find Ethan as Ryan helped Abe behind her. Moving down the darkened stretch which her eyes had gotten used to by now, Xenia reached the junction and called out. "Ethan! We need help."

The echo carried through the length of the shaft and belatedly Xenia realised she probably scared the hell out of people with her bellowing. Fortunately however, Ethan wasn't far away and his shape appeared just as Xenia saw Ryan and Abe entering the mine.

"What's happened?" Ethan asked not pausing as he saw the two men.

"They got shot by Visitors," she explained.

"Well, no. Not Visitors," Ryan corrected, because being shot with a laser and with a projectile weapon were two different things. Lasers cauterized the wounds, but shocked the shit out of you. Bullets didn't but you could bleed to death. "Degens, trying to take the truck."

"Bastards," Abe put in, groaning slightly as his weight shifted and then settled between the two men. "We got enough problems and they wanna pull that shit..."

Ignoring him, Ryan continued into the mine, all the while watching his footing until they came closer to the main group. A handful of scavenged lanterns were lit, illuminating the darkness. "The bullet passed through," he told Ethan, in hopes to keep the man's mind here and on Abe and not the incident a few weeks ago. He still didn't know exactly what had gone down but something to do with Degens had nearly broken the guy and that was hard to do to a trauma surgeon. Plus, Ryan was a light sleeper and even from across the big room of the mine, he could hear Ethan worrying in his sleep.

Ethan's eyes darkened hearing the words Degens. He supposed he always would until the day he died but as he was learning to do, he shoved the outrage, the horror and more importantly Jilly back into that box inside of him because he was needed. Using the work as his salve, Ethan leaned closer for a look and saw the evidence of the bullet in Abe's body. "It looks that way but let's set him down in the sick area and let me get a better idea of what's going on in there." The sick area was little more than a section of shaft that Ethan had claimed to treat the sick in one place.

Xenia followed close behind Ryan, trying to help but the pregnancy was starting to show and she tried a lot more easily these days. A thing she hated because as an Olympic athlete, energy was something she always had in abundance.

"You got it." Ryan redirected Abe in the direction Ethan wanted, towards the flat area the doc had designated. There was a folding bed there, with half of the lanterns they'd scavenged and retrieved over the last week.

"Dammit, Mattson...you big ninny..."

"Yeah, yeah," Ryan drawled in response as he lowered Abe onto the bed, ignoring the strain on his own injured arm. "Alright.. come on now. Behave for the doc or I'll knock you out," he held up a fist and backed out of Ethan's way.

"Smart aleck brat..."

Rolling his neck, Ryan winced slightly as he glanced at Xenia. "He'll be fine," he told her, although he might have been trying to convince himself as well. "Anyone who bitches like that has to be okay."

Xenia utter a small laugh although she wasn't so sure about that. "I'll take your word for it." Her gaze was mostly fixed on the blood as she watched Ethan go to work.

"Okay," Ethan said as he hovered over Abe and tentatively investigated how much damage had been done and how he was going to repair it. "Let's talk a look at what we got."

The loss of Xenia's usual firmness made Ryan look up from Abe and after a second, he followed her gaze as word problems flashed in his head.

Pregnant woman + blood = Probability of puking rising exponentially. "Hey," Ryan moved away from Abe, motioning to Xenia. "Come on.. I have something for you out in the truck."

"Oh good lord," came Abe's groan.

"What?" Suddenly self-conscious, Ryan waved the older man off. "Come on," he told her, heading back towards the entrance.

Xenia raised a brow at Abe's comment and followed Ryan obediently not wanting to get underfoot if Ethan needed to move. She wondered what Ryan was up to.

"The DeGens," she asked, "they're dead?" Having seen their handiwork close up, she didn't like the idea of those animals following the duo back to camp.

Dead? Ryan laughed dryly and none too pleasantly. "Oh yeah. They're dead." He'd made sure of it. Glancing back at Xenia, he hoped she wouldn't ask.. there were some things that didn't need to be sullied with his military training. He led the way out to the truck and moved to the tool compartment in the back. After rummaging for a second, Ryan pulled out a grocery store plastic bag and shut the lid to the tool case. "Here...it's.. you know, it's for the baby." Hesitating, he shrugged. Obviously, this was new to him. "If you want them."

Xenia took the plastic bag and peered inside. The sight of the little bear in its uniform made her laugh. "Oh that's precious," her blue eyes lifted to brush his before her gaze returned to the contents of the bag again. "I didn't know army ranger uniforms came in that size." She smiled as she reached and pulled out the plush toy. It was a sweet gesture, very much like the man but as she stared at it, she realised the intent that might be behind it.

"Thank you Ryan," she said reaching for his am and squeezed it, a gesture of friendship and her regard. She hoped it wasn't much more than that because she was not equipped to deal with such feelings yet. She saw Ryan as a friend and a man she admired for his care of the people he had adopted, she hadn't considered him beyond that. "The baby will love it."

Ryan only nodded, feeling just.. mesmerized by those blue, blue eyes before the downward cast of them brought reality back. She was still in love with Lukas. No words were needed; he saw it now, he saw it every time her hand brushed her belly, every time Xenia thought no one was looking. Even now, did she realize how he read her? Probably not.. and the realization made him hurt.

Well fuck, who was he kidding anyway? Only yourself, you big idiot, you've only known her a week. Yet in these times, hadn't a week had become a life time and did it matter when every moment had become so valuable? Though Ryan didn't know him, he felt for her Lukas, who must have been as stunned by Xenia as he was... at least, Ryan hoped so. Xenia didn't deserve any less. Pulling his gaze away from hers, he nodded again, just once, a lot unspoken in that response. "Good..." he said, abruptly turning back to the bed of the truck to grab a large duffel bag. Ryan opened it there, using the moment to regain control of himself. "I brought some other things, a change of clothes for anyone who wants them although I guessed on the sizes. Grabbed some more blankets, the rest of our guns and ammo from the camp and.. what every pregnant woman needs...." Ryan glanced over his shoulder, holding up a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook.

"Jesus," Xenia exclaimed as she took the book with its black covers and flipped through the pages before breaking into a little smile, taking note of the 'recipes' which had mostly to do with how to build smoke bombs and explosive devices. It was sobering to know that something she would have thought to be a Columbine wannabe's bible would be subject matter she might be giving close attention to. "And here I thought I'd have to wait until the baby shower." She laughed. Meeting his gaze, she added, "I might pick your brain about this."

"Pick away... my secondary speciality was incendiary technology," Ryan grinned, hefting the duffel over the side of the truck bed. "And how to recognize it.. in order to do that, you have to know how to build them. Come on," he said, shouldering the bag. "If Doc's done with Abe, I need him to look at my arm." He presented the one she hadn't touched earlier, showing the now dried blood around a wound that looked like some kind of odd burn. "Bullet grazed me."

"Oh," her face showed her concern, eyes darting quickly over his arm, searching for the wound. "We should do something about that straight away. Let me help you with that," she said moving in to take the bag from him. "You shouldn't be over exerting that arm."

"Oh please.. like I'm gonna let the pregnant chic carry the bag..." Turning away from her, moving the bag out of reach, Ryan gave her a look that was somewhere between insulted and doubting her sanity. "Don't worry.. if it was that bad, I'd be in there being the bad patient and not Abe. I got it..." he finished with a wink. "Good lord... I'm glad my unit's not here..." he said, teasing her still with his grumbling as he headed towards the mine entrance.

Xenia rolled her eyes and followed him, "alright, alright, I didn't know what I was thinking. I forgot if the big macho man was any tougher, he'd rust." She teased, shaking her head.

Ryan threw her a look over his shoulder, blue eyes dancing. "Don't you know? Army Ranger, baby. Stainless steel..." he grinned, turning back into the mine before he could lose himself in the Eden he found in Xenia's beautiful, blue eyes. Like an oasis.. he thought to himself tiredly.

Even though she had resolved to resume her journey to San Francisco, Xenia found herself remaining with Ryan and his people for a further two weeks. It made sense with the sky fighters crisscrossing the sky with more frequency than normal in their relentless search for the hideaways. The patrols had increased as well and concerned that she might be stopped without any ability to account for herself and worse yet, being alone and by now obviously pregnant, Xenia worried that she might seem a ripe candidate for the tanks.

In any case, remaining behind was doing a world of good for Ethan who seemed to be reconstructing his wounded psyche now that he had something on his mind other than the horror of his wife's passing. Treating Ryan's people, taking part in the little victories of living out in the middle of nowhere was making the man feel useful and Xenia didn't want to take him from that. She had even started to suspect that he might not want to leave with her when it was safe to go and she couldn't find it in herself to compel him to go. Besides, she had no claim on him. She had saved him because it was the right thing to do what came after that, was Ethan's own destiny to write.

As for Ryan, she found his friendship valuable but feared how much she was sensing he was drawn to her. She caught him looking at her and though it filled her with a sense of flattery, it also made her sad because the inevitable outcome of all this was him being hurt.

The mine had proved to be the perfect shelter and if he didn't have people he was responsible for, Ryan could see holing up here. Maybe even start looking at fighting back.

But only if he was alone. The group he'd taken de facto leadership of were by no means soldiers and needed to be up north, where word had come that Seattle was still under human control. Up where the red dust still worked. The little group was as ragtag as they came and they needed the safety the red dust and organized forces could provide. Especially this group; a five year old, who had probably seen more than more war veterans, a teenage girl, a manager of McDonald's (from Jerry's stories, working there was just as dangerous as Afghanistan). Then there was Abe, the bus driver and Vietnam vet and Lori, a dental tech. And now.. a trauma surgeon and a pregnant figure skater.

Somewhere, there was a joke in all this. The surgeon, the Army Ranger and the figure skater walk into a bar...

"Done." In front of him, across from the makeshift table they'd set up, Carrie triumphantly placed the now-together .45 on the towel spread on the surface.

Before the rout, Ryan had started teaching those that wanted to shoot, how to handle guns and the like. Carrie had been one of them. In the first two days after coming here, she hadn't wanted to touch guns, having retreated back to the same shell she'd come to the camp in. That was fine, Ryan had let her be and she'd come to him, ready. Very ready, because as soon as she started back on her lessons, the stutter had disappeared and she seemed to blossom again. "Yeah? You sure?" he prompted, picking up the weapon.

"Yeah," she nodded, waving at someone behind him, a smile coming out for the pretty athlete. "Hi, Xenia."

Ahh.. the figure skater; blue, blue eyes. A great body, even pregnant and the ability to just make him speechless. When she looked at him with those electric blue eyes, he found himself siding with Paris and plotting to steal away Helen of Troy. Ryan wished he could do the same, steal Xenia away to the North because like Helen and Paris, she could make him forget his own name.

Which was crazy.. he'd known her three weeks and she had a plan, just like he did and they didn't include going in the same direction. Xenia was going south and Ryan couldn’t deny her, no matter how much he protested. Had he a brother, nothing would stop Ryan from seeking him out. Christ, knowing that didn't stop him from going dumb every time she said his name.

Checking over the assembled gun, a routine long faded to instinct, Ryan sensed someone behind him and looked up. "Hey..." he offered Xenia a light smile as he began to break down the weapon.

"Hey!" Carrie protested, mouth dropping open. "I just put that together!"

"And you're going to keep putting it together until you can do it in under a minute," Ryan returned, carefully laying out the pieces on the towel.

"Well, did I at least do a good job?" the teen huffed.

"It didn't fall apart when I picked it up," Ryan offered. When he was a teenager, girls had made absolutely no sense... and now, a decade later, they still didn't.

"Oh don't be too hard on her," Xenia joked, giving Carrie a smile. "Do you mind?" She stepped in front of the young girl at the table after Ryan had finished breaking it down.

Looking at the pieces and studying them a moment, a veil suddenly descended that playful gleam in her eyes as she proceeded to put the weapon back together like an expert. Guns were a very serious business and Xenia had learned never to make light of them when handling any piece. Her movements were almost mechanical because like Ryan, Timm had made her do this over and over again until she could break down a weapon and put it back together with her eyes closed.

In less than a minute, Xenia had the weapon completely reassembled, ending the display by slapping a magazine into place and pulling back the slide to load a round into the chamber.

"Easy as pie after practice," she winked at Carrie.

With no small case of idol worship, the teen nodded as Ryan broke the weapon down again and laid the pieces out for her. "Carrie, I think the pregnant lady just showed you up." he said dryly, winking at the girl. Having watched Xenia do the gun thing before, Ryan thought that if she came with a twin who could do the same thing with a gun, he'd be in Total Guy Heaven.

"Did you have to practice a lot?" Carrie asked, smiling now despite her chagrin.

"Absolutely," Xenia answered without hesitation. "I had to learn how to break it down, shoot it and a few other little tricks from a coach who was almost as mean as this one," she tossed Ryan a teasing smile. "The thing is, I didn't know anything about...well anything when I first started but I learned and you will too. Probably a lot faster than I did."

That was a nice thing to say, Ryan thought. Carrie didn't have years of Olympic level dedication behind her and he was quite sure Xenia had picked up the gun thing easily. He smiled at Carrie. "You are a fast learner so I think she's right," he told her, which seemed to brighten the girl's smile. "I tell you what.. could you take that over to Abe? I need to talk to the Ice Princess." He tossed a smirk at Xenia.

Talk? Right. Flirt was more like it. "Whatever." Letting out a sigh that said she knew better, Carrie gathered up the weapon and the towel. She rolled her eyes at Xenia before leaving the 'grownups' alone. Although Ryan was just.. dreamy. WAY too old for her.. but still, dreamy.

Watching her walk away, Ryan smiled softly to himself. Out of everyone, he'd worried about Carrie most so this return to her mouthiness and lack of stutter did a lot to sway that. Still, he was reminded that she was only a teenager, that Deanna was only four or five years old and Lori and Abe both were still recuperating from their injuries. As much as he wanted to get in the Fight, the honourable thing was to see these people to safe haven. The Army and his grandfather had taught him that honour is what made the difference between soldiers and grunts. "That was nice of you to say that," he said quietly, indicating Carrie's retreating back. "To her."

"Well its not a lie," Xenia admitted. "I really didn't know anything when I came out of Italy." Her expression saddened. "All I was capable of doing was burying Lukas and trying to find his family, to tell him that he was gone. I had no idea what I was going to do with a world at war. I mean who could think of ice skating when the free world was at fighting for its life? I only got it together, to learn how to fight once I knew I had a baby coming."

"But you did, regardless." Ryan leaned his elbows on the table, giving her a sideways smile. He actually felt a kinship with this Lukas, through Xenia. Had he been dumbstruck too, every time she looked at him? Maybe it was crazy, but Ryan felt the least he owed this Lukas was to make sure Xenia was safe. "Most people, they wouldn't have.. they haven't done even that. They would have sat right there and let themselves get taken. You're a survivor." Yep. One he was going to have to let go and hope Lukas would forgive him in the next life. "Zen...about San Francisco..." he began, not even sure what he was saying until it came out. He wasn't a selfish person, he couldn't deny her the chance at finding her brother but damn.... Ryan wasn't sure he could let her go.

She could see it in her eyes what he was going to say and she had to stop him right there because finding Daniel had kept her driven, given her focus. "I have to go Ryan," she touched his eyes with her gaze. "He's my brother and I always felt that it was my responsibility to keep him safe. Because of his God, he was always so vulnerable. I have to find him."

How could he say no and yet.. how could he let her go...? Ryan rubbed his face with a sigh before looking at her, blue eyes sad with a kind of heartbreak he'd never felt. To make Xenia stay, would ruin this friendship they were forming. To let her go, where she stood a very high chance of getting killed, would create an even more raw and gaping void. "I know," he offered quietly, with a nod. "Zen, I... " Falling silent, Ryan only nodded again, glancing over at Xenia where, before he could stop himself, he'd touched her cheek lightly. Leaning in, Ryan chastely kissed her forehead. "Be safe, okay?" he whispered, hand sliding to her shoulder to squeeze before he let her go.

Physically... and mentally.

Xenia felt her heart clench in her chest, finding her distress not at her inability to feel anything for him. She liked him a great deal...but as a friend. She knew that without hesitation and there was no doubt that it could become more. He saw her as this delicate frail thing, an angel who had saved him and his own at an opportune mind. She suspected that she would always be that for him. It was too vaunted a position for any woman to occupy in a man's mind. That did not however change the anguish she felt at causing him pain.

"I will," she nodded and stepped away from him, sensing her time with this group had run its course. It was time for her to go. Before she hurt him any more than she already had.

Ethan Kelly was a work in progress.

Since joining up with Ryan and his people, the completeness of his soul's destruction seemed a little less and day by day he healed. Helping this small group of people, being doctor to them, being friend to Ryan as he watched the man's feelings for Xenia go unrewarded, cemented their bond. Like Ryan, Ethan had taken ownership of the group, feeling a sense of responsibility to them that had been so cruelly ripped away from him with Jilly's death. He knew when they were ready to leave for the north, he would most likely go with them. He owed it to Jilly to get them to safety, to help them gain the life that was stolen from her.

However, doing this would mean walking away from Xenia and it wasn't easy to do that when he remembered he owed her his life. Yet he also know she wouldn't begrudge him his decision. She was a force of nature that woman. The desire to survive and fight burned so fiercely in her, it was hard to ignore. It was so strong that it drew people to her like moths to flame. Of course, if you were like Ryan who had flown too closely to her light, you'd get burned.

Ethan felt for the man but he understood why Xenia could not return his feelings.

Xenia could no more return Ryan's feelings for her than he could believe he could love someone else the way he'd loved Jilly. The thought seemed unimaginable. Ethan and Jilly had loved each other from the moment he stared across the basketball court when he was fifteen to see this then bookish young girl, staring back at him. He'd been on the team and she was the kind of girl who spent most of her time in the library. How he'd seen her through the cheerleaders, he'd never know but once he had seen her, he'd wanted no one else. When he thought of his last image of her, Ethan felt that kick in the stomach again and again until only the work drove it away. And when he was able to get past that image, he was left instead with this gnawing void because he missed her so damn much.

If Xenia even felt a little of what he did for her Lukas, Ryan had no hope of winning her heart.

When she sought him out in the little space he claimed for his infirmary, Ethan knew just by the diminished light in her blue eyes what she wanted of him. There was an intimacy that had formed between them almost unconsciously, an understanding borne of similar pain which they had used to salve each other's sorrows these past weeks. Now it seemed that umbilical between them was stretching, poised on the verge of severing for good.

"Ethan," Xenia said as she leaned against the cavern wall, watching him for a moment as he tore up a crisp white sheet that Ryan had found on his foraging runs, turning it into bandages for future use.

"Hey," he lifted his gaze to her, seeing in it something that made his heart sink in contrast to the small smile he'd given her. "Come to help me make medical supplies?"

"Afraid not," she smiled back, glad to see him so engaged, so different from the ruined man she had rescued. "I came to tell you I'm going to be heading out soon."

He nodded, expecting it. "You're going to keep going to San Francisco?" He asked quietly.

"Yeah," she replied approaching him slowly. "I may take a detour at San Jose, to see if an old friend can tell me for certain what happened to my father."

Ethan absorbed her words but noted the shadow behind her eyes. "You could stay a little longer..." he remarked. "I'm sure it won't be long before Ryan takes up the group north." He noted that she spoke of making this trip alone, that he hadn't even factored into the equation.

"I think its best if I leave now," she said softly, her eyes flickering a little at the mention of Ryan's name. "I think you should stay with them. They need you." A small smile stole across her face as she said those words to him.

Ryan reached for her hand, glad that she had expected him to follow her. "Yeah," he agreed, "I think they do and I think need them just as much."

She squeezed back the hand in hers, "I think you're right." She said sadly. "I'm going to miss the company."

"I'm going to miss you," he didn't mince words. "If it wasn't for you..."

"No," she shook her head, stopping him before he could any further, thanking for something that she had never wanted gratitude for. She hadn't saved his wife, she'd picked up the pieces of an ordeal and there was so much horror in that whole situation that to walk away with a life was reward enough, without needing to be beholden to her. "Don't Ethan. You don't have to and you've helped enough people since to make me grateful that I was there to help you when I could."

He swallowed thickly, the emotion welling up inside of his throat. "Its not enough." He dropped his gaze unable to look at her. "It will never be enough."

"Right now it won't," she agreed, not about to lie to him because they both knew the truth. "But someday it will be and I hope I'm there to see it but right now I have to go."

"Because of Ryan?" He ventured a guess, sensing the unspoken urgency in her voice had its roots there.

"Its better I go now," Xenia said quietly. "Before it gets worse. He's a good man and I don't want to hurt him but I just..."

"Its okay," Ethan halted her explanation, finding himself in the position of needing to stop her now. "I understand. Although I think you're a tough act to follow."

She laughed softly, "he deserves someone who feels about him the way we did for Jilly and Lukas."

"Yeah," he nodded, thinking of that mousy blond who had stared at him with her wistful smile and yanked the heart from his chest with just one glance. That moment which would follow him until the day he died had been extraordinary. Life changing. And yet the one word which described it best was the one he echoed back to Xenia.

"Magic."

Two nights later after the sun had set, Xenia regarded the people who for weeks she had come to know as friends, whom she'd pray would reach safety under Ryan's guidance and find some semblance of peace in the Safe Zones. Her van was loaded to go, she still a good deal of gasoline left, so she could make a straight run to San Jose without much difficulty. The Visitor sidearm she had taken from the soldier she had killed had now taken permanent residence in her glove compartment. Her day had been spent on her preparations to go which fortunately kept her thoughts free of the farewells she'd have to make.

However, now that it was here, Xenia found none of it easy to do at all.

"Xenia," Lori said, where she stood with Abe's help. Mostly healing, bits and parts of her weren't back up to speed. She glanced up at Abe, who stood next to her. Jerry was on the other side, with Carrie and Deanna in her arms. "You take care, okay? I'm already worried about you," she urged, leaning out of Abe and Jerry's grasp to give her a hug.

"Thank you," Xenia smiled at her, feeling the emotions of departure welling up inside her. "I'll be good. I made it this far." She tried to assure the woman.

"I don't like that you're going out there alone." Abe's voice was thoughtful as he placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder. "But... " he nodded. "I understand why. Just remember what we talked about, okay? About how to spot an ambush on the road, that kind of thing."

Xenia squeezed the hand on her shoulder. "Gotcha general. Its all in here," she tapped her forehead to indicate all the learning she had absorbed from the man over the past weeks. He had given her a lot of practical information and Xenia had soaked it all in, determined to remember and use it. "I'm travelling at night and I don't stop for anyone, not even people who look like they might be in need of a hand." Her gaze brushed Ethan's briefly.

Jerry nodded. "And when people are getting nervous." Ryan had instructed them all on things like that, with Abe's help. "You have plenty of food, even it is dried jerky," he chuckled, hugging Xenia after Lori was done.

"Oh yeah," she laughed. "Everything a pregnant woman needs for the road." She said giving him an affectionate smile. Yes, she would be sad to leave these people but she hoped that they would make it to their destination safely, she hoped Ryan and Ethan would get them there without incident.

"Well, if the baby has a taste for jerky, you know where it came from," Carrie replied. She'd been relatively quiet, not wanting to see Xenia go. Still, she'd come to terms with it, even if some tears were shed. "Here," she said, presenting Xenia with a bracelet braided out of thread. The colours were still bright, purple with a smaller line of silver wound into the length and had come from her own wrist. "My best friend, Callie gave this to me when she moved to Korea," she said, a thumb stroking the soft string absently. "I want you to have it. For luck," she nodded. "Okay?"

"Thank you," Xenia said trying to keep the tears from her own eyes as she took the offering and wasted no time slipping it on. "I'll never forget you Carrie and I'll never take this off." She said before giving the girl a hug. She didn't want to cry, she wouldn't but this was hard. These people had come to mean so much to her in such a short time and since March the 1st, Xenia's life had become one departure after another. She felt like an object in constant motion and she wished she could stop.

Hugging her tightly, Carrie let her go. Xenia would want her to be strong here, so she would be. "I won't forget you either," she nodded.

Beside Carrie, Deanna worried her grip on Rocket, the stuffed horse Mr. Ryan and Mr. Abe had brought back for her. "Xena," she said simply, raising her arms up in a very universal gesture. While she was talking now, it was never very much and she still whispered. Just in case.

"Hey sweetie," Xenia bend down and picked up the little girl. "You going to be good for me?" She asked the small child, thinking momentarily of the baby inside her, the one who had travelled this journey with her. He'd never know these people unless their paths crossed again and this world seemed too unlikely for that to happen anytime soon.

Nodding quickly, Deanna leaned into Xenia quickly, a thin arm wrapping around her neck. "Watch out for the monsters," she whispered and pecked Xenia's cheek. Rocket apparently wanted to say good bye as well. The stuffed horse kissed Xenia too.

Xenia's eyes darkened a fraction before she kissed Rocket back. "I will." Yeah unfortunately, the monsters didn't always where Visitor red. Sometimes, they wore the faces of something more familiar. Human.

"Kay." Satisfied with that, Deanna wiggled her legs, the signal to be put down.

Xenia lowered the child onto the ground and lifted her gaze to the others, giving them a parting look as she started towards her van. Ethan who had been standing in the sidelines, approached her now, an arm sliding around her shoulders. He reminded her so much of Daniel that it made Xenia ache for her brother, renewing her determination to find him.

"You okay?" He asked her quietly.

"No," she shook her head, wiping a stray tear away from her eyes. "But I will be." She offered him a little smile of assurance.

Watching them all from where he stood beside the van, Ryan had claimed this spot when the time came. Two nights ago, when Xenia had announced that she was going, he'd taken the news with a sad finality. Their paths were never meant to cross and now that they had, he knew why. She wasn't his. Never was, never meant to be.

And Ryan had resigned himself to that. Anything else, would have made Xenia unhappy and after all the point here was, he liked her for who she was. Not who Ryan wanted her to be. The pill was bitter but he swallowed it and let her go.

Now, as she said her goodbyes to Ethan and approached the van, he felt his resolve weakening. "You remember what we talked about, right?" he asked, stepping back as he opened the door for her. "If it looks like an ambush, use that gas pedal. Get out of there..."

"I won't stop unless I have to," she assured him as she paused just before getting into the driver seat. "And I'll shoot first and ask questions later." Xenia replied with a nod. She cared for him. She truly did but not in the way he needed and to give him hope that she would, would only hurt him. Still, it hurt saying goodbye to him as it did the others. Worse in fact because she knew his pain at seeing her go would be of a different order.

"Good." Ryan shut the van door, hands pausing on the open window as he finally dared to look up at her. "Zen.. " He paused, before shaking his head. "Take care of yourself," he said quietly.

"I will," she reached for his cheeks and caressed it lightly. "Be safe Ryan, it matters to me." It was all she could give him, all she was capable. Lukas' spectre stood between them, his grasp still tight around her heart, his baby keeping him alive inside of her.

Ethan stood back, wanting to leave but suspected he would need to be there for Ryan when she was gone.

He'd take it... that his safety mattered. Leaning into her hand, he only spent a second there before taking her smaller one in his, and placing a kiss on the top of it. Resolutely, Ryan put her hand back on the driver's door. "You be safe," he replied, stepping back, unable to help the mask that fell into place as he did so.

"I need you to do something for me," she said not looking at Ethan. "There's an old Chinese proverb that says that when you save a life, you're responsible for it. I'd like to ask that you look after Ethan for me." She cast her gaze at the doctor. "Please."

She'd already asked Ethan to do the same for Ryan.

Glancing over at the doc, who was standing a polite distance away, seemingly interested in the trees, Ryan nodded. "Of course," he said. "You have my word." After taking on an entire camp, one more wasn't going to be a burden.

"Thank you Ryan," she said finally, deciding that it was time to go. She climbed into the driver's seat, prompting Ethan to approach. "You're a good man Ryan, no matter what, I'll never forget that." Her eyes glistened slightly before shifting over his shoulder to Ethan.

Half wanting to tell her to just go, already, Ryan nodded, not saying anything and he was sure he didn't need to. He looked at Xenia one last time, as if memorizing every fine-boned feature. As Ethan came forward, Ryan headed back into the mine, where only the darkness would see the tears making his blue eyes stormy. They weren't meant to be, their paths weren't meant to cross... but when they did, someone always got hurt..

And he cared for Xenia enough to want that someone to be him and not her... never Xenia.

To be continued...

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