Tom runs, panting, through the forests, barely able to find his footing in squelchy leaves and steadily dimming light.
Despite the exhaustion, despite the burning agony searing through his ribs and lungs with every hacking breath, it’s cold, and the part of him that isn’t flinching from the pain (a small part, really, about one hundredth of a percentage of his mind) can’t help but be slightly impressed that he’s survived as long as he has since the plane went down.
He’d laugh bitterly, but he’s worried that if he does that he might end up coughing blood instead.
It’s been a week, now, since the plane that was meant to take him and whoever could afford it (and that galled him, really, but he’d been holed up in an apartment and unable to offer his place to anyone else when they came to find him, practically ordering him onto the flight as one of the few people left who could pay passage.)
About five hours into the flight, they were shot down.
Zombies aren’t meant to be able to shoot things down, Tom remembers thinking in a dazed haze of confusion, through the screaming and sobbing. In all the movies he’s ever watched about the topic (not, and he’ll be the first to admit this, that movies are exactly authoritative when it comes to the exact nature of the world), zombies are meant to be rabid crazy animals.
(Clearly, either he’d missed the memo, or the entire planet had.)
Even now, running and ducking under tree branches and barely avoiding slipping down the side of the path (that would have seen him dead in an instant – by a broken neck, not by zombie, but he’s not given up on life quite yet) he still can’t believe he survived the aftermath of the crash.
As far as Tom knows, no one else did.
And he’d searched.
Splashing through a shallow fjord (is it zombies that can’t cross running water? Or am I just making things up at this point?) he realises he hasn’t seen a living person in a week.
Tom hasn’t seen anyone he knows, anyone who knows him, in at least a month.
I’d best keep running, then.
He knows he’s probably rather fucked when he breaks through the thick forestation and into a wide, open field. As long as there had been trees, there had been a way to hide, some promise of escape.
Whipping his head desperately from side to side to front to back as he keeps running (don’t stop running, not as long as there’s hope) he finally sees it.
“Christ,” he whispers, almost unable to believe his eyes, and if he hasn’t been religious for a while, well, he’s probably somewhere in Europe. There’s bound to be a zombie-free church somewhere.
And then he hears a guttural snarl from behind him.
At least if he comes out of this alive, he’ll probably never complain about going to the gym again.
Life is clearly a bitch, what with zombies and all, and so it’s perfectly appropriate that, around fifty metres from the gate of the town, an inconveniently placed (or conveniently, depending on whose point of view) root finds itself right in front of his foot.
Which would not be an issue, except that when Tom tries to stand, his body refuses to respond to any neurological signals.
“Fuck,” he hisses, trying in vain to push himself to his feet; but it’s too late, both because a week of barely anything to eat and carefully rationed water, coupled with completely not-healthy ten kilometre-a-day runs has finally hit him, and because the zombies have been faster than he thought they would.
They’re slowing, now, and through the discolouration and decay of their features, he swears he can detect a twitch of satisfied-smile, while yellow-grey eyes gleam with vicious glee.
“Fuck.” It’s all he can do, now; swear and curse. “Jesus fucking Christ, what a way to die.” Fifty metres away from the finish line. “Fuck.”
All the girls on Tumblr that used to post on his tag (because sometimes he couldn’t quite resist) about how much they wanted to kill him (his manager had been more than a little concerned till they finally managed to decipher teenage-girl and get from ‘I want to smash his face in with a hammer’ to ‘he has a nice face. And cheekbones. Dear God, the cheekbones’)…
Sorry to disappoint, he thinks, shutting his eyes and collapsing backwards to the ground. It rained the night before, and the ground is still damp, though not unpleasant.
And he prays, for the first time in years.
The Lord our Father, who art in heaven…get your ass down here and stop me dying, will you?
The sounds of primal, terrified screams rend the air.
His eyes snap open.
Pushing himself onto his elbows, he stares wide-eyed, unbelieving, at the twitching bodies of the three zombies on the ground, arrow quarrels sticking out of them.
“Can you stand?” someone asks him – a woman, possibly, but for some reason the voice is distorted and static-filled.
Still staring, he shakes his head dumbly – and then winces, as an arm grabs at his, fairly wrenching him to his feet with surprising force.
“Well, do it anyway, will you?” the person sighs, but an arm slips around his waist, supporting him. “Now, do you remember if there were any more of them following you?”
He looks over at his saviour. Almost definitely a woman (possibly a man with breasts, Tom’s never been one to judge), and a fairly tall one, at that, face covered by some sort of helmet (no doubt the reason for the distortion). She’s carrying a bow in the hand not occupied with keeping him from collapsing back to the ground, and he can’t help but stare at it dumbly.
“Come on,” she says, leading him towards the town gates – large, imposing wooden slabs with what is possibly a jumbo-sized doorknocker.
It’s a unicorn.
Alright, so his day has gone from average apocalypse survivor tale to a surrealist painting. That’s fine. As long as he’s alive at the end of it, he’s not particularly fussed.
The woman leans her bow against the door, not moving her arm from around Tom. He’d find it slightly creepy if not for the fact that he is unbelievably grateful and still on the verge of catatonia in his legs.
With her free hand, she reaches out to the doorknocker, slamming it four (not three?) times against the wood.
It’s loud, especially for someone who’s spent a week training himself to react immediately to the slightest noise.
“Alright guys, we’re cool!” she shouts, tilting her head upwards. “Just offed three of them, and found an alive one. He’s going to need a doctor, malnutrition and exhaustion as far as I can tell, but there might be broken bones!”
“One moment,” a man replies from somewhere behind the gate, voice heavily accented – Swedish? Danish? He can’t quite tell – and she nods, seemingly satisfied though he can’t see her face.
(A problem that’s solved when she takes her hand away from his waist – he’s left grasping at the doorknocker till he can manoeuvre himself with his back to the gate – and takes off the helmet, leaning her head back against the wood with what sounds like a sound of relief.)
It’s getting darker, now, though it can’t be more than five in the afternoon (not that he’d have any idea, considering that he’s still got no idea what country he’s actually in, and that his watch broke during the crash). Nevertheless, he’s able to make out mid-length black hair, pale skin-
Chinese? he guesses, though he doesn’t want to ask; it’s obvious from her accent that she’s probably either American or, perhaps more likely from the intonation, Australian (possibly New Zealander but he’d still find himself hard-pressed to identify one of them by their accents). In any case, he doesn’t particularly want to offend.
“So, how’d you end up here, of all places?” she asks him suddenly, breaking the silence. When he looks over at her, she’s examining her bow.
He has to remember to ask about that; that and the helmet, two of many things that are keeping this situation in surrealist painting zone.
She asked him a question, he realises belatedly, when she tilts her head towards him slightly, frown visible even in the dim light. “Sorry – my plane crashed. Um, where is here, exactly?”
“Sounds like you’re apologising for the plane crashing. Unless you hijacked it or something, in which case yeah, apologise. Also, tell me so I know not to let you in after all.”
That’s possibly a joke. He hopes.
“Anyway, what were you doing on a pla…”
Slightly concerned, he frowns.
“Wait.” Suddenly, her head pivots towards him, and she leans forwards off the gate, staring at him. “Say something.”
What? “Um. Sorry, is something wr-“
A hand reaches out to grab his face; he recoils till he realises that she’s scrubbing dirt from his face. “What did you say your name was?” she whispers.
He hasn’t told her, but it doesn’t matter, because he can see she already knows. “My name is Tom-“
“Tom Hiddleston,” she finishes. “Yeah.”
A mixture of expressions brushes her face, each one lingering for barely an instant before dissipating – anger, amazement, amusement, bitterness – and he watches with an admiration he doesn’t understand.
Finally, she makes a small sound, almost contemptuous; but it’s mellowed out by bitter twitch of her lips, and what looks strangely like nostalgia in her eyes.
“Well, at least that explains the plane,” is all she says, and that is bitter.
He opens his mouth to say something – he has no idea what, actually, but something – when he feels the gate shift behind his back.
The arm returns to grasp at his shoulder till he finds his footing.
It’s a town.
It’s the most alive town he’s seen in a month, since this whole nightmare started and New York, where he’d been staying at the time, became a ghost city.
“Welcome to the Netherlands,” the woman says, and though she’s smiling, there’s no humour in her eyes.
Enjoy it, because we’re going to be here a while.
She doesn’t need to say it but he knows it’s true.
It’s around that time that he finally, blessedly, slips into unconsciousness.
He wakes to find a stout old man, who should have been in retirement at least five years ago, bandaging his ankle.
Stupid thought, Tom realises – zombie apocalypses probably tend to throw a bit of a hammer in the works of even the most well-thought out of retirement plans.
“You are awake,” he says, with that same thick accent that the man behind the gate had possessed.
He’s noticed. “Um. Yes.”
“You slept for two days. You feel better.”
It’s not a question.
“Um, yes,” he answers, nevertheless.
There’s a silence, as he scrabbles for something to say. “Where’s…” He doesn’t know her name, he realises with a pang of guilt, “…the woman that rescued me from the zombies?”
The doctor stares at him for a long time.
“Yvette!” he finally calls, a young blonde girl, barely fourteen, before peeks around the corner of the door. There’s an exchange of words in a language Tom doesn’t understand, and the girl runs out.
They stay silent for a while, him sitting propped up with his back against a pillow, her in the chair next to the bed.
“I was wondering,” he says finally, “aren’t arrows a bit…”
“Old-school?” She doesn’t look up at him, staring at her fingers. “Yeah, but the town’s got an archery range and funnily enough, it turns out that the best thing for zombies is wood.”
“Wood,” Tom repeats.
She laughs – only slightly, but some sort of tension seems to dissipate. “Yeah, I know, right? Totally a let-down. So much for silver, and beheading, or whatever you were meant to use on zombies.”
“How did anyone figure it out?”
“Apparently it was a bit of an accident; but hey, what works, works, right?”
He’s not going to argue with that.’
“Oh!” he exclaims, feeling rather foolish for forgetting, “thank you for, you know, saving my life…the night before the night before?”
She shrugs. “No big deal.”
Tom isn’t entirely sure what to say after that.
“You’re a good shot,” he offers, and the girl – because, now that he’s looking at her properly, it’s obvious that she can’t be more than about twenty two – scoffs.
“I could have hit them anywhere and it still would have worked,” she explains, rolling her eyes. “The dark weakens them; the dark and the cold. It’s the only reason we’re doing so well.”
Well is an understatement; Tom remembers New York, and he remembers seeing footage of London – his home, that he’s probably never going to see again.
Something in his face must show what he’s thinking, because though she opens her mouth to say something, she closes it without speaking a word.
Home. That reminds him: “You’re not Dutch, are you?” he doesn’t-really ask.
“Can’t you tell from the accent?” she grins, before her expression sobers suddenly. “Australian. I was here to visit my aunt – did the whole Europe tour thing with a couple of high school friends. We were here when the whole thing started-“
“In Australia,” he finishes. The last time Tom went to Australia, he remembers hours of customs and baggage checks and rechecks. It’s some sort of dreadful irony that Australia saw the first contraction of the virus, the first outbreak. “Are your friends here with you?”
“Mmm. One’s busy helping design wooden bullets, one’s…off.”
She hesitates. “Zombie hunting.”
“You don’t approve?” Tom wouldn’t have guessed that.
“It’s just…” She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. Anyway, they’re going to find it hilarious, hearing that you’re here.”
Since it’s obvious the girl’s looking for a change of subject, he goes with it. “Why?”
“I used to be a pretty big fan,” she explains simply, without shame. “As in, why are you so perfect, I hate you and your cheekbones, my goal in life is to punch Tom Hiddleston in the face fan.”
There is something refreshingly awkward about hearing that actually said aloud. “Well,” he mumbles, “good to know you don’t feel that way anymore…?”
“The apocalypse tends to change things,” she says, finally looking up to meet his eyes. A smile quirks her lips. “Not cheekbones, though.”
It’s the first time he’s blushed in years. There is something refreshing about this. He’s not entirely positive he likes it, but oh well. “I concur,” Tom agrees ruefully. “I personally would much prefer a girl with good aim right now than a girl with good cheekbones.”
This time, his saviour outright laughs, dark eyes lighting up in amusement and slight embarrassment (revenge!) as she bites her lip. “You flatter me, good sir,” she grins. “But cheekbones are still good,” and she winks at him.
He bites the inside of his mouth to keep from smiling. He’s dimly aware that he’s flirting with someone more than ten years younger than him.
The apocalypse changes things.
It does, doesn’t it?
“Yes,” he concedes finally, uncomfortably aware that he’s conceding to more than cheekbones. He can’t bring himself to care enough to stop. “Cheekbones are good.”
A half-hour later or so, the girl suddenly pushes herself to her feet; Tom startles at the movement. “Where are you going?” and he really wishes he didn’t sound quite so plaintive.
“To the archery range,” she replies, smiling. “Want to come? I’m sure most girls right now would prefer a guy with good aim than one with good cheekbones.”
“How about both?” Tom asks before he can think about it, pushing aside the blanket and swinging his legs around to touch the floor (wincing at the pain.)
Stretching a hand out to him, she tilts her head, considering.
“Both are good.”
Two days of rest or whatever, he’s still forced to lean on her shoulder for support (not that she seems to mind).
As they near the doorway, Tom realises something.
“I don’t know your name,” he admits, more than a little ashamed.
She halts. “No, you don’t.”
Feeling her look at him, Tom looks down. Her eyes seem to search his for something, though he’s not entirely sure what.
Whatever it is, she seems to find it; because her gaze softens.
“Lia,” she says softly. “You can call me Lia.”
It’s not perfect.
It’s not good.
The zombie-hunting friend is crazy and broken and the bullet-maker completely disapproves of him.
Yesterday, Lia saved his life (again).
Today, he saved hers.
There shouldn’t be this much saving, or near-dying, because that’s not what life should be about.
It’s not perfect.
It’s not good.
But it’s something.