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When Were You Happiest?

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--

After Gavin was buried, at the insistence of Ray, Michael closes himself off. He spends hours upon hours training, learning how to fire a gun better and how to swing a knife the right way to result in almost instant death. He fights in hand-to-hand combat with Geoff, who is more than happy to engage him. He becomes hard and tough, like the diamond, and with any provocation becomes explosive, like the creeper.

It’s poetic. And heart wrenching.

It’s been three months and he doesn’t talk anymore. He doesn’t try to joke with Ray. He doesn’t get the Gents a beer. He refuses to let them throw any of Gavin’s things away. He snarls and growls and curses. He’s in pain all the time. Nothing feels right. It feels like a fog hanging around his head. He’s angry – angrier than he has ever been – and it’s justified. He takes solace in the anger, wraps it around himself as armor, comforted by the heavy warmth of his hatred.

But at night, when he holds Gavin’s pillow in his arms, he cries. Silently, of course, but he weeps in a way he has never wept before. The loss he feels every moment is smothering and no amount of anger or warm blood staining his hands could fill the void that’s burning in his chest with every labored breath.

He takes it out on every zombie – every hoard – that’s stupid enough to come their way. Every zombie is the zombie that bit Gav and every zombie is treated the same: with merciless death. Michael stabs blindly, long after he’s sure it’s dead. He’ll unload an entire shotgun into one’s head. He’s even torn a few throats out by hand. He blacks out during the raids now; doesn’t partake in the hugs anymore. (Any physical affection is strictly off limits; if he thinks about it hard enough, he swears he still feels Gavin’s hands on his face, in his curls.)

But his favorite thing to do? Beat a zombie to (re)death, either with his fists or with the butt of his shotgun. There’s something so fucking satisfying hearing the crack and crunch of bones shattering under his knuckles. Of watching them bleed dark blood and listening to them gurgle as they choke on their blood. Of hearing them groan and moan in pain; just like Gavin did.

He kills as many as he can this way and today is no exception.

“Michael.”

The voice is distant and he continues to slam the butt of his shotgun into the zombie’s face, a sick smile twisting this features into something he knows is not recognizable. (He’ll look in the mirror some times and dead brown eyes stare back; he doesn’t look in mirrors much anymore.)

“Michael!”

The voice becomes firmer and it only fuels Michael’s rage. There’s a sickening crack and an equally sick chuckle bubbles up the back of his throat, escaping as blood spatters across his face. (He doesn’t feel much anymore with the exception of warm, tainted blood. The warmth is bitter; it’s a sign he’s still alive.)

“LAD!”

Michael stops his violence and it’s like the haze of fog has been cleared away from his eyes. He blinks, turning at the waist, staring wide eyed at Geoff. The father figure sighs gently before reaching down and gripping Michael’s elbow, picking up the other man from where he was seated on a long (re)dead zombie’s chest.

“You have to stop doing this,” Geoff says but there’s no heat behind his words, no steel, like there usually is when he’s giving an order. “It won’t change anything.”

“I don’t want anything to be changed,” Michael replies, refusing to make eye contact with Ray (who’s nervously chewing on a hangnail) or Jack (who’s awkwardly reloading his shotgun). It’s a lie, they all know it’s a lie, but it’s a lie that Michael has convinced himself was the truth. “Everything’s fine.”

Michael looks down at his red stained hands and the blood spattered medallions and wipes both off with the end of his shirt, revealing an unhealthy thin stomach. He hears Ray gasp but he ignores it; he has no time to eat – that’s time he could be training.

“It’s not fine, lad,” Geoff says softly. He’s changed the most since Gavin died, Michael thinks. Maybe even more than him (Michael has gotten great at lying to himself, if you haven’t noticed). Geoff has almost…came back to himself. Back to the warm, open man he used to be. Michael doesn’t know why – maybe a flip was switched just like his had – but…it makes him angrier. He preferred the cold commander to the warm father standing in front of him. “If you keep this up, you’re going to die.”

Michael barks a sad excuse for a laugh, wiping the sweat from his brow (and from the grimace on Ray’s face, smearing blood all across it as well.) “Isn’t that the fucking point? We’re all going to die, Geoff. Die the exact same way we came into this hellhole; alone, screaming, and covered in blood.”

No one replies and Michael takes it as chance to escape. He swings his blood covered shotgun up, resting it on his shoulder and marches past his unit.

Later that night, he falls asleep holding Gavin’s pillow close to his chest, deeply inhaling the quickly fading scent that was unique to Gavin, and wakes up three hours later, screaming his name.

--

Michael’s cleaning his gun, concentrating on getting all the black blood off of it when Ray approaches. Michael keeps his head down and hopes that Ray won’t say anything about last night. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last but Ray’s the one who sleeps the closest. Ray’s the one who sees and hears the night terrors but he’s usually too nervous to say anything about them. And Michael’s not an idiot; he knows he makes everyone nervous. He knows that he scares them now. He knows he’s viewed as a threat that will eventually have to be put down.

Honestly, he’d have it no other way.

Ray swallows loud enough for Michael to hear before he says, “I want to talk about him.”

Michael doesn’t look up. “About who? Ryan? Miles? Caleb? Burnie, Gus? Who do you want to talk about?”

“Gavin,” Ray says firmly.

Michael pauses. “We didn’t talk about any of the others when they died; why talk about him?” he snarls.

Ray blinks before he scowls back. He squares his shoulders, readying for a fight. “I know you’re hurting, but you’re not the only one, Michael.”

He finally looks up at his oldest friend and there are tears brimming in his eyes. There’s a part of him – a part that he thought died that day so many months ago – that wants to cross the space between them and hold Ray as they both cry into each-other’s shoulders but there’s a bigger, colder, part of him that wants to watch Ray fall apart in front of him. So he does just that. He watches as Ray blinks once, twin trails falling down his tanned cheeks and he wipes furiously at them.

“You know what? Never mind,” Ray says thickly, turning on his heel and walking across the warehouse, picking up his Beretta and plopping down with his back towards Michael.

“Fuck,” Michael mutters to himself. He knows he’s being selfish. He knows he’s turned into nothing more than a dog with a broken rib, snapping and biting anyone who tries to cross that distance to help him. He knows that Gavin wasn’t just his, he was everyone’s. Everyone had a special relationship with Gavin, everyone loved him and, it was wrong of him to think that because his love was something more that Gavin’s death wasn’t affecting everyone just as much.

Gavin’s death clicked something in Geoff; brought back the man Michael had thought died along with his wife. He figures that Geoff doesn’t want any of the rest of them dying thinking that they were nothing more than soldiers to him. Jack has started talking again, long run-on sentences, like he’s trying to fill the silence that was left behind with Gavin’s death. And Ray has become clingier, wanting to talk about anything and everything with nothing less than an inch between him and whomever he was talking to, like he wants to remind himself that they were all still alive.

Michael leaves his shotgun on the ground and walks the distance towards Ray’s taut back. Jack and Geoff are on a supply run with another group of hunters, so it’s just the remaining lads and Michael guesses that he can show a little bit of weakness before the walls have to come back up.

He sits directly behind Ray, crossing his legs and arms and staring angrily at the far wall, lined with long useless video games, guns, and machetes. “You wanted to talk. So talk.” He says it gruffly but soothes the roughness by leaning against Ray’s back, lining them up from shoulder to hip.

There’s a hitch in Ray’s throat that signifies a withheld sob. “It’s just too quiet,” he starts, words forming around broken sobs. “I can still hear his laugh,” he whispers this time and Michael wants to shoot something at the way his eyes are starting to burn. “He said--” Ray breaks off, curling in on himself; Michael feels the lift of weight off his back. “He said we would all be fine. He lied!”

As Ray begins to honestly cry, Michael wonders how long the other man had been keeping all of this inside. He can’t recall – even at Gavin’s burial – ever witnessing the other lad shed a tear. Michael’s been getting it out by shamelessly murdering things, what has Ray been doing?

Michael doesn’t know what to say so he says nothing, leaning further onto Ray’s back, until they’re plastered together again.

“And then you changed,” Ray gets out through gritted teeth. “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore. And I fucking hate it because I didn’t lose one friend that night, I lost two. So now I’m scrambling; trying to find something to bring you back – some stupid joke or something that just the two of us would get – and I can’t and I lost you and I lost Gavin and I can’t do this anymore, Michael. I can’t. I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to be strong. I’m tired of putting on a brave face.”

Ray takes off his glasses and wipes at his eyes before running both hands through his shaggy hair.

Michael can’t swallow around the knot in his throat; it’s painful and reminds him that this is all real, this is all really happening. His oldest friend is falling apart at the seams in front of him – has been putting on a ‘brave face’ for him – and it feels like there’s nothing he can do help.

Because how can something broken fix something else that’s broken?

“He had all these silly ideas,” Michael starts, whispering into the silence. His voice is wrecked from the knot and trying to withhold his own tears but he barrels on. “Of Team Lads. X-Ray, Vav, and Mogar. He said one day, when all of this was over, he was going to write a book. Of adventures that we would have. I remember in one of them…”

Michael trails off as Ray starts to move. Maybe this isn’t what Ray wanted to hear? Michael’s mentally kicking himself in the ass as Ray turns himself around, situating himself next to Michael. He watches in curiosity as Ray lifts Michael’s right arm and settles it around his shoulders and leans into his side. He nods once, more to himself, before whispering, “Go on.”

“In one of them, Mogar was a world class villain, intent on pulling off the best heist known to man – stealing the moon. It involved shrink rays and minions who spoke in garbled babbles and it was up to X-Ray and Vav to save the moon and the world… except Vav accidently fell in love with Mogar.”

“Accident, my ass,” Ray mumbles, eyes closed, head resting on Michael’s shoulder.

“You cannot believe how many of these fucking stories end with Mogar and Vav ending up in love, living all domestically and shit. I think in one of them, he made you our maid.”

“Fuck him.”

“Yeah, fuck him,” he answers back but his voice cracks on the second syllable of the curse word. Ray doesn’t say a thing, just kind of snuggles closer. Michael squeezes his shoulder and leans his forehead against Ray’s black hair. “Fuck him.

They sit there and cry, sharing stories in-between their sobs and when Geoff and Jack come back three hours later, they find the two curled up together with dried tear tracks staining their faces.

--

“Eat your dinner,” Jack says, shoving a cup of water into Michael’s empty hand. Michael sneers and rebelliously ignores his dinner. Next to him, Ray elbows him in his ribs and hits a slow healing bruise. He groans and rubs the spot, glaring at Ray who innocently takes a bite of his pasta. Jack sighs before taking a seat at the table next to Geoff.

“No,” Michael growls, fingering the Bowie knife holstered at this thigh.

The three other men eat in silence around him and Michael’s anger starts to bubble. He doesn’t want to be at this fucking table, eating a stupid fucking dinner (that features all of Gavin’s favorite things), and ignoring what fucking day it is.

It’s been one hundred and eighty-nine days since Gavin died and today is his twenty-seventh birthday.

He’s torn about his temper tantrum; he wants to talk about Gavin – fill the silence with his stupid jokes, shouting “Mark Nutt” with his dumb accent and laughing at his memories – yet he also wants to say nothing, go find a wayward hoard, and brutally murder everything in his path.

It’s a weird feeling.

“There are cupcakes,” Jack says softly, moving his salad around on his plate.

“What kind?” Ray asks excitedly. Sweets are a rare occurrence in this wasteland; withheld for special occasions and traded at a steep price.

“Red velvet.”

Michael shoves up from the table, letting the chair behind him fall over with the force. His eyes are blurry as he spits, “Fuck you,” at Jack before turning and storming towards his and Ray’s end of the warehouse.

Silence follows him and he both relish and abhors it. No one acknowledged that it was Gavin’s birthday, even if everything they had for dinner and done that day were Gavin’s favorite things. Ever since Ray’s little moment, almost three months ago, no one has said a thing about Gavin. He’s a taboo subject to talk about and Michael knows that he’s that reason. But today, there should be immunity. There should be laughing, drinking, and fond memories but there’s not. There’s just tension that could be cut with a butter knife and passive-aggressive cupcakes.

He sniffles as he sits in their bed (which is nothing more than a pile of comforters), picking up the pillow that officially smells like salt and blood and nothing like Gavin used to. He hears footsteps and turns away, throwing the pillow back as if it had burned him.

“Go away.”

“He wouldn’t have wanted us to make a big deal of it,” Jack says, ignoring Michael’s snipe and sitting on the ground next to the make-shift bed. “He would have wanted us to have a bev, eat a few cupcakes, and watch stupid movies.”

Michael doesn’t know what to say so he says nothing. Jack sighs in the silence before he reaches across and firmly puts his hand on Michael’s shoulder. He wants to snap and break every fucking finger but he doesn’t because those fingers are trembling slightly as Jack’s grief finally shows through.

“So I wired up the telly,” Jack says with a stupid accent that makes the corners of Michael’s mouth tip up against his will. “We have the cupcakes in the kitchen and there’s a six pack in the fridge.”

Michael’s eyes widen and he finally looks over at Jack. “How much did that cost?”

“Just a box of grenades.”

“Goddamn,” he mutters. Jack just shrugs, squeezes Michael’s shoulder once and stands.

“We’ll be on the couch if you want to come out.”

Feeling like a child, Michael watches Jack leave, his hands still shaking slightly. Michael sits on the blankets for a while, waiting for his emotions to align. He feels like he’s getting better – he feels like it’s getting easier – but feeling better means forgetting and he refuses to forget Gavin.

He doesn’t want the guilt of forgetting him on his shoulders.

He heaves a sigh and stands, grabbing the pillow in a vain hope that a corner might still smell of him, and wonders towards their make-shift living room. He steals Ray’s cupcake from his hand (earning a protesting squawk), takes the beer from Geoff’s outstretched hand (getting a nod of approval) and plops down next to Jack, sitting a little closer than necessary.

“Thanks,” he whispers as some stupid comedy plays on the cracked TV. Jack doesn’t say a thing, just raises his hand and squeezes the back of Michael’s neck once.

The cupcake and beer are perfect together and for the first time in a long time, Michael doesn’t cry himself to sleep.

--

Raids are still common and he still adores them. They get his blood pumping, lets his anger out, and reminds him that his anger is justified and reasonable. He’s loaded up on weapons and ammo but he keeps swinging his machete instead of using the shotgun strapped to his back. It’s more violent and therefore more satisfying.

As he swings his blade across a zombie’s neck, his necklace makes jingling noises that rise above the chaos around him and the soundtrack continues. The soundtrack to his life.

After Gavin, they invested in communication devices, little ear pieces that operate on a secure line hosted back at the warehouse. A few clicks can access the group line and each device is capable of one-on-one communication. It’s helpful but annoying, so it’s used only in the worst of the raids. This is apparently one of them.

“There’s one on your six, Mogar,” Ray says, sounds of shots ringing through his comm. Michael turns and stabs the zombie in the chest, slowing it down before pulling the blade from its concave chest and slicing the head clear off.

“Thanks, X-Ray,” he replies, moving from his position, heading back towards the meeting point. He’s cleared most of his area. He glances around and counts twenty-five bodies. His hands are blood covered and his machete is dripping and a dark smile spreads across his face.

That’s twenty-five more dead for Gavin.

He gets to the checkpoint and finds Ray waiting, just as covered in blood. Michael grins wide but Ray doesn’t smile back, just reaches for Michael’s hand, gripping it tight in a greeting, pulling him towards his shoulder, bumping them together. It’s just another little thing that they started, since Michael had silently banned the pre-raid hugs.

“Where are you guys?” Ray asks, pressing his comm, switching from his single line with Michael. Michael does the same to hear the reply.

“Um, I’m on the way,” Geoff answers, sounding distracted as he fires shots from his 9mm. “Jack?”

“Uhhh, having a few difficulties, guys,” Jack answers. There’s a static on his line and Michael figures that he’s running. “Is there a safe house near-by?”

“Yes…” Ray answers, casting a wary glance at Michael. The other man nods, sheathes his machete, and takes the gun off his back, filling it with rounds and cocking it once, readying it for anything that might come their way. There’s a wailing of moans that sounds maybe two miles out but other than that, Michael doesn’t see a thing.

“Get to it. I have a hoard.”

Michael catches Geoff running towards them, thankfully alone. “What do you mean by hoard?” he barks.

“Think wave three, Left 4 Dead.”

“One or two?” Ray asks. Michael rolls his eyes.

“Does it matter?” he snaps. Ray just shrugs.

“There’s one about five hundred yards from here, let’s go,” Geoff says as soon as he’s close enough. They move as one, guns poised and at the ready. The house comes into view – it’s one that they’ve used a few different times – and Jack comes sprinting up a hill. The moans grow louder and louder until the mass behind Jack becomes visible.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Michael whispers as Ray shouts, “Holy shit!”

The hoard is an understatement; the hordes they usually deal with are never over a hundred. There has got to be at least four here. Four hundred mindless, bloodthirsty killing machines. Through his terror, Michael wants to murder every last one of them.

“Get in!” Jack shouts and the other hunters do as they’re told. The door slams shut behind Jack, who leans against it and breathes deeply for a moment. “Get upstairs.”

The lads nod but Geoff stays put. “What are you thinking?”

“That we’re not getting out of this alive.”

Geoff swallows and Michael steps forward, ready to argue that they can do this, no matter how impossible. “Michael, please.” Geoff holds out a hand, stopping the tirade. “Excuse us for a moment.”

Michael doesn’t want to go – he’s the best fighter they have; he should be involved in whatever they have planned. Ray bites his lip and shifts his gun to his left hand, using his right to tightly grip Michael’s elbow and pulls the other man towards the stairwell. Once they’re mostly upstairs, the landing concealed by a wall, Ray pulls Michael down by his arm and puts his finger to his lips. Michael nods and tilts his head, a blind hope that he’ll be able to hear their whispered words better.

“What the fuck are you thinking?” Geoff hisses. Jack’s still leaning against the door, holding back the banging with his eyes closed. He’s made a decision, Michael can tell.

“I’m saving you fuckers,” he replies. Geoff drops his gun, fists his hands in Jack’s shirt, and gets in his face, snarling.

“You’re not going to be a martyr today, asshole. We’re in this together. We fight together, we die together.”

Michael glances over to Ray, who’s chewing on his thumbnail again. It must be a nervous tick. His eyes are already starting to get misty; Michael reaches over and wraps his hand around Ray’s wrist, squeezing until he’s leaving white imprints on his skin.

“Sneak out the back with the Lads,” Jack says softly after a long moment.

“No.”

“Geoff,” Jack’s voice wavers and he finally opens his eyes. “I’ve been useless up until this point. Let me do this one thing for you guys.”

“You’ve never been useless.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

The wood splinters as a hand shoots through the door, reaching and groping for its next meal. Geoff picks up his gun swiftly and shoots once at the hand. The zombie it belonged to recoils in pain as its dark blood drips on to the floor and stains the hardwood.

“Get out,” Jack demands. Geoff swallows again and slowly shakes his head. “Get. Out.”

A dozen more hands fly through the wood and Michael is well aware that the door is about to shatter underneath the weight over a few hundred zombies.

“I’m not going to let you die thinking you were useless!” Geoff shouts over the cries of the undead. Ray’s free hand comes to rest on top of Michael’s and silent tears are running down his cheeks. Michael refuses to believe that the knot in his throat is from anything other than thirst.

Jack heaves a loud sigh. “If you let me do this, than I won’t.”

It was the right thing to say, Michael thinks, because Geoff visibly deflates, his shoulders hunched down and his head lowered. After what feels like a long moment, he finally says, “You were always my best friend.”

“Gents to the end,” Jack jokes and Geoff smiles, nodding his head.

“Gents to the end.”

Geoff hooks the arm not holding his shot gun around Jack’s shoulder, holding tight before letting go and turning towards the stairs. “Lads.”

“Yeah?” Michael answers for the both of them; he’s sure Ray won’t be able to answer through his shuddering breaths.

“We’re sneaking out the back. As soon as your feet hit grass, you run like a motherfucker. If you absolutely need to, abandon the shotguns. We have enough at base.”

Michael tugs Ray down the stairs. Ray angrily wipes at his face and steels his resolve; Michael can tell from the way the other lad sets his shoulders.

“And, whatever you do, don’t look back,” Geoff finishes, cocking his gun once.

“People become lost when they look back,” Jack calls from the doorway, locking eyes with Michael. Michael looks away first, dropping his eyes to the floor. He understands the implications.

Geoff leads them through the kitchen, opening the door, checking around. “Clear,” he murmurs, but Michael hears him loud through the comm. “On my go.”

Michael’s heart hammers in his chest as he shoves Ray in front of him, choosing to take the end. He is the strongest after all. Geoff’s firm “go” makes his stomach lurch and he does exactly what he was told not to: he looks back.

The scene behind him is bloody and gruesome, filled with shouts from Jack as he tries to fight off twenty or more zombies with nothing but a machete. He gets a few good hits in before one bites hard on his leg. Michael feels his lunch coming back up his throat as the zombie bites through the flesh and tears away, munching happily on its latest snack.

“Michael, what the fuck are you doing, RUN!” Geoff shouts in his comm, jarring Michael back into movement. He turns away from Jack – or what is left of him – and pumps his legs, holding his gun close to him, like a safety blanket.

They run and run and run and by the time they reach base, Michael’s muscles are burning, his lungs are on fire, and there’s a stich in his side that hurts more than any of the wounds he sustained throughout the raid. Ray looks just as terrible; pale as a sheet and panting so hard his chest is physically heaving. Geoff looks just as bad except his face is closed off, the blood spatter looking like war paint, acting like a mask.

None of them talk about it; they just split off individually, Michael taking a shower first, silently letting Ray in afterwards while Geoff uses the Gents shower. They hardly look at each other for the rest of the night but when evening fully comes, the world around them shrouded in the matching darkness that surrounds them during the day, Geoff takes out his last bottle of Jack and each of them takes a shot for their fallen friend.

(Ray takes one, although it’s more water than whiskey. Michael drinks a full tumbler straight, enjoying the burning in his throat. Geoff finishes the bottle that night and doesn’t leave his bed for the next week.)

--

Michael wakes up on day two-hundred and realizes that he has another count to keep. Eleven. Masochistically, he wonders when he has to start the next count.

“We’re doing a supply run,” Geoff announces later that morning. “And we’re all going.”

“Why?” Ray asks from his bowl of Cheerios.

Geoff levels him with a look before he turns on his heel and walks towards his gear. Michael elbows his friend in the ribs, laughing when he sees the pained look on Ray’s face: he hit a fractured rib.

“Because there’s only three of us, idiot.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ray whispers, rubbing at his rib. Michael rolls his eyes before standing from the table.

“C’mon, dickwad, lemme change your wrappings,” he mutters. Ray stands and follows towards Michael’s mess of blankets. He changes the wrappings like a pro and Ray falls over gracelessly, face first into Michael’s pillow, purposely avoiding Gavin’s.

“It’s weird,” Ray says from the fabric. “It’s like mom and dad got a divorce.”

The statement forces an unexpected laugh from Michael’s gut and Ray snaps his head towards him, wide-eyed and slack jawed. Michael closes his mouth and twists his features into a scowl but Ray’s hopeful eyes lets him know that it’s too late to retain any façade.

“There he is,” Ray mumbles, closing his eyes and nuzzling into Michael’s lumpy pillow. “That’s my Michael.”

“He’s gone.”

“But that doesn’t mean he can’t come back,” Ray says firmly. Michael looks away, toying with the ends of his hoodie’s sleeves. They’re fraying at the edge; the last patch of fabric is hardly hanging on and once that fabric is torn off, the hoodie will look like it used to. Perfectly normal. Not torn or frayed or falling apart.

It’ll be fixed.

He snarls as he wraps his fist around the wayward patch and pulls it off with no effort. Ray watches curiously with only one eye open. His glasses are skewed and Michael wants to tell him that they’ll bend if he keeps laying like that but remembers that one of the arms is being held together with nothing but duct tape and a prayer so the scolding will be for naught. Michael turns away and drops the piece to the floor.

“Maybe you’re right,” he whispers before he stands. He offers his hand to Ray, who takes it and tugs him up.

“Of course I am,” Ray claims proudly.

“Lads! It’s time!”

“Alright!” They call back in tandem.

Michael doesn’t look back at the piece of fabric because why should he? His hoodie is fixed. (Or at least as close as it’s going to be in this fucked up world.)

--

Has he ever mentioned how much he hates this fucked up world? They just finished the supply run, trading some of their better things when they’re jumped by a few dozen zombies. It’s not as bad as two weeks ago but they’re instantly separated.

The only thing he knows is that he’s killed fifteen zombies in less than ten minutes and the rest are turning tail and running. He stands for a moment - blood dripping into his glasses, falling on his necklace – and takes in the scene. The corpses are just that and there’s no sign of anything else.

Michael takes a moment to breathe but, for the first time in 200 days, the scent of mayhem isn’t comforting. It’s only sickening. He swallows bile when he look directly at a blown out head and shakes his own, trying to physically remove the image. He reloads his shot gun and straps it to his back, taking his machete from its spot on his hip. (He hasn’t touched a handgun in 200 days and he’s never going to again.)

“Update,” Geoff demands. Michael presses his finger to the comm in his ear and says, “Alive.”

“Um, alive but having difficulties,” Ray answers.

“Care to elaborate, dude?” Michael asks, jogging towards where he saw Ray running.

“Um, running low on ammo but I should be okay,” Ray answers back but his voice is strained, like he’s trying to keep a secret. Michael runs a few blocks before he skids to a stop. He stares down at the reason he stopped in the first place and his breath catches in his chest as he glances around before crouching down.

“Alright, get to the safe point. I’ll see both of you soon,” Geoff answers as Michael picks up what is left of Ray’s glasses. The lenses are absolutely trashed and the arm that was hanging on with duct tape is gone. He swallows his horror as he switches to the private line between Ray and himself.

“Are you lying?”

“What? About being low on ammo? No.”

“I meant about being okay.”

Ray doesn’t reply and Michael juts into a sprint, tucking the ruined glasses in his pocket. “Ray.”

“What?”

“What’s happening.” He doesn’t ask it, he demands it.

“I have only a couple of rounds left, but there’s only about six on my six. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“No,” Ray replies firmly.

Michael slows when he sees a gang of five zombies wondering around. He ducks behind a useless car and pauses. He sheathes his blade, pulls his gun from his back and cocks it. He peers over the car, shooting one clear in the head. It goes down but the others become aware of his presence, turning and rushing towards him.

“Shit.”

He rolls from the opposite direction of the incoming zombies, scrambling to his feet. There’s growling and moaning and his blood’s pumping so loud in his ears he can hardly hear the monsters. He rushes away, willing himself to run faster.

“Sounds like you’re not all that fine either,” Ray remarks casually. Too casually. Michael curses and fires three more rounds, popping two in the head and one in its knee. It falls to the ground and continues to crawl towards him. He cocks his shotgun once more and blows its ugly fucking face off.

“I’m okay,” Michael lies as he cocks his empty barrel. He throws the gun away and whips out his machete. The last zombie closes in and he swipes his blade at the monster. It evades his blade and Michael’s momentarily terrified. Zombies are stupid; they shouldn’t be able to expect his movements.

The zombie reaches forward and Michael rears back, swinging the blade yet again. The zombie grabs Michael’s arm and squeezes. Pain flies up his arm and he feels his grip slipping. He makes the decision and drops the machete, kicking at the bastard’s legs. The zombie goes down and Michael pulls his bowie knife from his hip, bending his knees, readying for the return attack.

And it comes.

They tumble to the ground and Michael dominates the zombie, its crumbling and rotten flesh not even fazing him. He tries to drive the knife into the zombie’s forehead but it raises its legs and flips Michael right off of him. Michael’s struck stupid for a moment; zombies shouldn’t be able to do that. The monster stands and snarls and it brings Michael right back to himself. He returns the snarl and accompanies it with a growl.

“I think the virus is mutating,” Michael says into the communication device, ducking a swing from the zombie. “The one I’m fighting is…impossible.”

“Same,” Ray chimes back, and Michael hears the sounds of shotguns firing before the clatter of it being tossed away and replaced with Ray’s Beretta booming into his head.

“I hear you lads,” Geoff’s voice sounds very distant and it makes Michael’s insides quake; the devices only have a radius of five miles. “As soon as you get a chance, head back to base. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” the lads chime in unison. There’s a responding crackle of static that indicates that Geoff just crossed that five mile radius. Michael comforts himself by reminding himself that Geoff was once a real soldier, not one that was born in battle like he and Ray. So Michael returns to being a soldier.

The fight continues on for a few more excruciating moments when his comm crackles in his ear. Michael finds an opening and stabs the last zombie in the face, ripping through the falling skin, tearing off the jaw with his movements. He tosses the knife, catches it with ease and runs it through the monster’s chest before raising a foot and kicking the corpse off his blade. He leans over the zombie and violently shoves the dagger through its forehead, twisting it before ripping it out again, taking a chunk of rotted brain with it. He grimaces at the sight and shakes the matter from his blade, leaving it blood-stained but clear.

“I lied,” Ray’s voice is weak but firm. Michael’s heart falls through his stomach before it bounces back and starts to pound a mile a minute. “X-Ray’s going down.”

The world whites out for a moment until he comes back to himself, denial bitter in the back of his throat. No, he’s just started to fix shit; he’s just started to heal. He’s not losing someone else – he refuses to lose someone else. “No, you’re not.” He continues his original trek and begins to run again, twice as hard; he doesn’t know where Ray went but he’s going to fucking find him.

“Mogar, I have one bullet and twelve sons of bitches outside my door.”

“He made it to a safe house, thank Christ.” He thinks. “I’ll be right there,” he states, his lungs burning but he pushes himself past that pain.

“Don’t,” Ray says, pleading. “I’m almost a mile and a half out. I’ll still be dead by the time you get to me.”

Michael slows down, the burning in his chest and eyes becoming too much. He glances around and the area is clear so he loosens the grip on his dagger as the reality slowly begins to set in on him. His anger is boiling but dark misery wins out and he lets a few tears fall. They run into his gasping mouth and they taste a sickly mix of salt and tainted blood. “Ray…” he whispers through the knot in his throat.

Ray takes a gentle breath and shakily exhales. Over the connection, Michael can hear the noise of zombies trying to break down the door. Ray mutters a curse and Michael knows that that means one just broke through. “When I see him, I’ll tell him you love him. I’ll tell him you never stopped.”

Michael chokes on a sob and he raises his hand to his mouth, cupping his lips as he cries into his palm, trying to muffle the sounds, wary of another gang. Suddenly, there’s an angry crackling over the comm and Michael hears as Ray climbs some stairs, if the muttering about them are any indication. “Ray!” Michael’s voice is wrecked and his friend gives a weak chuckle.

“You know, I’m glad I could see you one last time.”

“Ray, don’t, I’m com—”

“I’ll see you when I see you.”

NO! Ray, please!”

But there’s no response other than the sound of a single shot before the comm goes down. The world slows and he’s dizzy with his grief. In his ears, he still hears the echo of the shot that signified the end of his best friend’s life. Tears start to come in earnest, pouring down his cheeks, and Michael’s knees give out. He crumples to the ground, crouched low behind a wayward sedan, pulling the glasses from his pocket. He keeps a tight grip on the glasses as he pulls his useless legs to his chest and silently weeps. The realization that there won’t even have a body to bury causes him to openly sob, the motion wracking his entire body. He stares out onto the empty streets, with the dead cars and abandoned houses and pools of dried blood, and he wonders.

How much does he have to lose? How many people he loves will have to die before this world is satisfied?

Loud groans and snarls fill the cold air and terror bubbles up inside of him. Before he’s even aware of it, he reaches up, switches lines, and sobs into his comm, “Ray’s down! Retreat!” It’s like a punch in the gut when he realizes it’s officially just him and Geoff now. He wipes away the wetness on his face, clears his throat and shouts, “Geoff! Geoff, we gotta get out of here!”

“I hear you, lad. I’m a little over half a mile out. I still have some ammo left. Can you make it back to base?”

Michael looks at his low ammo, sees his machete laying a few yards from him and lies, “Yes.”

“Then run, boy.”

Michael does just that, the angry pinch of plastic biting into his skin, keeping him grounded, in the same way that Ray did.

--

The next week is silent.

Michael never went to the safe house, even when he was sure he could make it. He couldn’t bear to see Ray in any way that wasn’t him smiling. He keeps those trashed glasses with him just as often as he does his necklace. This loss isn’t as devastating as Gavin’s was but he reverts back to the wounded dog. Geoff doesn’t try to talk to him, but Michael’s still licking his wounds. There’s been too many deaths and he’s slowly losing himself to his grief. He realizes this when he catches Geoff packing up Jack and Ray’s things, taping them up with duct tape and hiding them in parts of the warehouse they don’t go around often.

He’s become numb.

He can’t bring himself to try and talk to Geoff, once the man starts to talk at him. So he doesn’t. He becomes just like Jack had in the early days of the apocalypse; silent, replying with well-placed nods and grunts.

He spends most of his days and nights on his stomach with Gavin’s pillow under his head and Ray’s blanket across his shoulders, staring at the diamond and the creeper and the shattered glasses until his vision starts to blur. He doesn’t train anymore. He doesn’t clean his guns anymore. He doesn’t do much of anything anymore. It’s like the fight’s been drained right from him and he doesn’t care. More importantly, he doesn’t care that he doesn’t care.

It’s a nice feeling; utter detachment from everything.

It’s the end of day 228, 28, and 17 (and Michael really fucking needs to stop counting) when Geoff finally forces him in a chair and gives him the reaming that he thought was coming almost four months ago.

“I know you’re hurting,” Geoff starts, almost as unsure how to begin as Michael is about this whole conversation. “And I know you don’t even know how to begin to deal with it but closing yourself off isn’t going to help anyone.”

Michael finally starts to feel something after seventeen long days of nothingness: rage. His upper lip starts to curl and there’s a growl starting to form in the back of his throat. “You mean, I’m not going to be a help to you anymore.”

Geoff doesn’t say a thing and that starts Michael going. He jumps to his feet. “How dare you! We lost two friends in less than a month and you’re sitting here telling me that I need to get back to training, right? That’s what this whole fucking thing is about, me not being an asset to you anymore. You’re losing your best soldier.”

“I have never saw any of you as soldiers,” Geoff spits the word like it’s lava, hot and burning, melting a hole in the foundation of their father-son relationship. “You have always been like a son to me; one of the lads to me.”

“And then you put a gun in our hands.”

“What did you want me to fucking do, Michael?” Geoff shouts back, the accusing tone finally getting to him, Michael’s sure of it. “Did you want me to let you all die? Griff died, Burnie, Gus, Ryan. They all died and I was not going to stand by while our government did nothing! I was going to train you and make all of you the fucking best! We were going to survive this! I was going to make sure of it!”

“And look where that fucking got you!” Michael screams, his face turning red. “Bodies upon bodies upon bodies.

Geoff stumbles back, almost as if Michael had physically attacked him. His mouth is slightly agape, eyes widen in surprise. “Don’t put that on me. I didn’t cause the virus.”

“But you’re the one who convinced us to fight.” Michael says, his voice dropping to a dangerous softness. “You’re the one who gave us false hope.”

“Don’t make me a fucking messiah,” Geoff snaps back. “I talked. You’re the ones who listened; you’re the ones who stayed.”

“And that’s the biggest regret of my entire fucking life,” Michael says, curling his hands into fists, willing his body not to beat the fuck out of Geoff. No matter how much he deserves it. “He’d still probably be alive right now, if we left.”

“Since all of this shit started, my life has been one huge regret, so don’t you act like a fucking pariah. You’re not the only one who lost people. You’re not the only one who loved and lost. So stop thinking you’re so goddamned special.”

Michael grits his teeth as his mind goes blank. He doesn’t have a reply but it doesn’t seem to matter because Geoff has one, “And don’t start with the whole “I lost the love of my life” bullshit; you never loved him until he was bleeding on the ground.”

Michael sees red.

He lets out the most unhuman sound he has ever made as he lunges for Geoff, tackling the man to the ground with a shoulder to the gut. He snarls as Geoff fights him back, fists and legs flying until Michael isn’t sure who is who anymore. He eventually pins Geoff to the ground, settling his hips on Geoff’s, locking the other man’s arms to his sides using his knees. Michael throws punch after punch, striking without fail every time. He begins to babble through the tears he’s unaware that he’s crying.

“You don’t know a fucking thing about how I felt! You didn’t see him in that moment! You didn’t see him crying through the pain or trying to make jokes! You didn’t see the way he kissed me like it was only thing he ever fucking wanted!

Geoff continues to struggle underneath Michael, flailing his legs, trying to gain some leverage. He begins to expect the blows so he rolls with each one but Michael just continues to attack after every sentence.

“You didn’t know how broken I was when I saw that bite mark or how hard I fucking cried! You don’t know a fucking thing about what happened between us! So don’t you ever make the mistake of thinking you know how I felt about him. Because you don’t.”

Michael stops when he can’t feel his knuckles anymore. Geoff’s heaving for breath, his right eye already swelling shut. There’s blood on his face and Michael’s knuckles and he doesn’t know whose blood is whose. His rage settles as his sobs begins to slow. Taking in the limp figure of Geoff, who he loves like a father, is shocking and his system does just that: goes into shock. Michael throws himself off of Geoff, crab walking a good foot away from the man.

Geoff groans and pushes himself to his elbows, wiping his split and bloodied lip on the sleeve of his shirt. “You’re wrong. I do know how you felt about him. He was your second choice.”

Michael sits in silence, the only sound that of his thundering heartbeat pounding in his head. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. His mouth falls open but no sound comes out. His eyes start to well with tears because no matter how much Michael loved Gavin, there was always that fear floating around in the back of his mind. Geoff had given words to everything Michael had felt over those last 228 days. Took every ‘what if’ and ‘maybe’ and pushed them in the limelight; ‘what if Gavin never died, would I have thought I loved him? What if Lindsay hadn’t died in the early days, would have Gavin’s death affected me as badly as it did? If none of this ever happened, where would Gavin and I be standing right now? Friends… lovers… nothing?’

He feel like he can’t breathe. It’s like there’s a set of hands closing in around his lungs and squeezing. His blood begins to burn and he feel all of him turning red, this time with shame. Michael stares at his limp, bloodied hands and thinks, “No. I loved – I love him. It wasn’t love brought upon by tragedy and I didn’t love him any less when Linds was alive. I loved them both, the same way. I was just too stupid to see that. He’s wrong; Geoff is wrong. He was wrong about staying in this goddamned hellhole and he’s wrong about this. I love him. I love Gavin Free.”

Geoff tries to stand and it pulls Michael from his musing; he realizes he has the creeper pendant gripped tight in his fist, the edging starting to bite through the tender flesh in his palm. Michael locks eyes with Geoff and wants to apologize, wants to beg for forgiveness, but Geoff’s not done with his misplaced anger.

“And he’ll always be your second choice.”

All of the shock, sorrow and shame gets washed away in a tide of blistering anger. He schools his features into that of utter blankness and drops the pendant back against his clavicle. It thuds hard against his pounding heart and he slowly gets to his feet. Geoff is still weak from the beating and Michael uses that to his advantage.

He’s blind with his rage; he feels like he walking with a hot fog surrounding his head. It feels like the inside of an active volcano and it’s about to erupt. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience – no, not ‘like’, he is. He is having an out-of-body experience.

Michael watches himself cross the room in three long strides and pick up Geoff’s favorite 9mm. He watches as he turns around with it and returns to Geoff, whose face as turned ashen white, eyes wide with terror. He watches as he raises on foot and presses his boot against Geoff’s wounded shoulder, pressing down until the man is lying on his back again. Michael watches as he raises the gun and aims it directly at Geoff’s head.

But he snaps back like a rubber band when he cocks the chamber. Geoff stares up at him, terror driving his pupils to become blown, the irises nothing more than a thin lining of blue. He opens his mouth, most likely to beg for his life, before he closes it with an audible snap. Geoff blinks once, eyes opening to reveal acceptance. They hold one another’s gazes for a long ten seconds before the pressure behind Michael’s eyes become too much and the rage wins out.

“You don’t know us.”

Geoff closes his eyes.

“You haven’t known us in a long time.”

Michael pulls the trigger.

--

He leaves the moment he drops the gun. He takes Gavin’s pillow, Ray’s glasses, a bottle of cheap whiskey Geoff had hidden away and what used to be his favorite handgun. He tucks the glasses securely in his pocket, makes sure his necklace is still attached, hides the gun in the back of his jeans and pops the cap on this whiskey and downs a shot.

It burns but not in the way the guilt in his gut is.

He walks the distance between the warehouse and Gavin’s grave, marked with a shitty cross Ray made out of sticks and a piece of plywood Jack ripped from a wall and hastily wrote Gav on. Michael takes three more shots before he gets there but he doesn’t feel any of it. He drops the pillow in front of the grave marker and hangs his head.

“I’m sorry, Gavin,” he whispers, his cheeks beginning to itch with the dried tears. “I’m so fucking sorry.”

He takes another shot of the worst whiskey he’s ever tasted. It lingers on his taste buds but it’s overpowered by the taste of sorrow and guilt.

Behind him, there a low moaning. He chooses to ignore it before the words he spoke mere weeks after Gavin’s death comes back to him, “We’re all going to die. Alone, screaming and covered in blood.”

“I’m not strong enough, Gav,” He whispers to the grave. “I’m not brave enough. …I can’t fucking do this without you anymore.”

He takes another shot before he sets the bottle on the ground, pulling his gun from its spot in his waistband. “I’m so goddamned scared. …But I won’t be for long.”

He turns towards the lone zombie and they make eye contact. Michael stands his ground as the zombie bares its ruined teeth at him.

“I don’t know what the fuck is happing to you bastards,” he starts. “But I figure that the virus is mutating. You’re getting stronger than the little that is left of us. And I don’t have a reason to fight anymore.”

The zombie replies by moaning low in its throat.

“So I’m giving up. I’m here!” He shouts and the zombie flinches. “I’m the best fucking thing you’ll have ever tasted!” He raises his arm to his nose and dramatically sniffs. “I smell like anger, regret, shame and whiskey.”

He levels the bastard in front of him with a glare.

“Now imagine what I taste like.”

The zombie charges Michael but he’s not going to go down without a little bit of a fight. He swings around the zombie in one smooth motion, swinging the gun up with the momentum and firing a shot that clips its shoulder. Michael rolls out from another charge and fires one more round, clipping the bastard in gut. Black blood begins to bubble and ooze from the wound and Michael reveres in the pained sounds the monster makes.

The zombie rushes once again and Michael thinks to himself, I’ve had enough fun. So he fires one shot in the zombie’s leg, causing it to crumble to the ground.

“Now if you get me,” Michael crows. “I’ll die knowing you earned your fucking meal.”

Michael turns from the crippled zombie, who’s doing its best to crawl towards him. He glances at the gun in his hand – the same one he used on Gavin, so many months ago – and says, “Two left.”

He shrugs and turns towards the grave. Underneath six feet of ruined soil and placed in a homemade casket lies his reason. Lies his reason to get up in the morning and to make it to through the next night; in all honestly, he has no idea how long he’s made it without him.

“Christ, I fucking miss you,” Michael mutters, letting his hands hang at his side. “I miss your stupid fucking laugh and your dumb face and your stupid made up words. ‘Let me chuck it into your gob, Mi-cool. Where are all your gubbins, Mi-cool? You’re my boy, Mi-cool.’” Michael says each phrase with his mocking British accent, even mispronouncing his name, turning into that annoying nickname Gavin gave him. Tears are pouring down his face and he hangs his head.

“I don’t fucking care what Geoff said. I loved you, Gavin.” Michael shakes his head quickly. “No, I love you. Present tense. I never stopped.”

Teeth break through his jeans, digging painfully into his flesh. He screams in agony. He feels the infected saliva soaking in through the wound and Michael sharply looks down. The zombie extracts its teeth and leans back, twisting its blood covered mouth into a mockery of a smile.

“You did that on purpose,” Michael spits out, his hands shaking through the pain. “You have fucking conscious thought.”

The zombie’s bastardization of a smile grows wider.

“Fuck you.”

Michael rises his gun and blows the monsters head clean off.

His leg collapses under him and he crumbles to Gavin’s grave, bracing himself on his hands and knees. His gun is cool under the suddenly heated flesh of his hand and he tightens his grip.

He’s not going to become one of them. He’s not going to. He refuses to become a monster, ruining families and people and lives. He will not be the monster that eats a little girl’s heart out of her chest before ripping apart her wailing mother, limb by limb. He will not be a part of a hoard that drags a screaming girl to her death, leaving nothing behind but a diamond ring. He will not be the wedge driven between lovers as one begs for a fate kinder than the one given to him. He will not force someone to become a martyr. He will not be a reason someone holds a gun to their head and pulls the trigger. And he will not be the reason someone shoots their own father.

“One left,” He whispers through gritted teeth. He pushes himself to his knees and forces himself to stay upright. With a violently shaky hand, he raises the handgun and presses the cool tip to his over-heating temple. He glances down at the marker, traces the name Gav with his eyes, before he closes them. He takes a deep breath and says, “I will always love you.”

The pain he feels as he pulls the trigger is nothing compared to the inside-out burning of his flesh from the bite. He’s down instantly and there’s nothing but darkness. Sweet, liberating darkness.

--

Epilogue

--

“When in your life were you the happiest?” The voice is ethereal and filling, surrounding Michael with light. He can’t open his eyes, no matter how hard he tries so he stops and just lets the warmth fill him. “Michael Jones.” The voice demands. “When were you happiest?”

His tongue feels like lead as he answers, “In Texas. With him. With them, before any of this happened.”

The voice is just that – a voice – but Michael knows it’s smiling proudly as light glows bright, hot, and he’s losing consciousness yet again.

--

“You stupid, brave, beautiful idiot,” the familiar voice is near tears and sounds so proud… so fond.

Michael wants to puke at the relief that’s filling his blood stream. He opens his eyes slowly and above him, Gavin – his Gavin, with his stupid fluffy hair, and those damn eyes that can’t figure out if they’re blue or green, and that stupid big nose on his face; Gavin in his perfect glory – is carding his fingers through Michael’s hair. His head is cradled on Gavin’s lap and the man smiles – that stupid fucking perfect smile – down at him.

“Hi Michael.”

It takes a long moment of stunning disbelief before Michael can respond with a simple, breathless, “Hey Gavin.”

“You fought so hard,” Gavin continues, sounding awed. “You never gave up.” Michael bites back the rebuttal that all he did was give up but Gavin’s stupid eyes are shimmering with liquid pride and he refuses to make Gavin cry again.

“You were watching?” he asks instead. Gavin nods. “All of it?” Gavin looks a little sheepish, looking away before nodding once again. “I’m sorry you saw it.”

“I’m not.” And Michael has no choice but to believe him when he says it like that. “I missed you, you bloody bastard.”

“You’re not alone,” Michael replies, trying to lean up but Gavin keeps a firm hand on his shoulder.

Gavin slowly leans down and hesitantly presses his lips to Michael’s, and, fucking Christ, it feels exactly the same as it did when they were alive. Warm and soft and all-consuming. Gavin’s fingers gently brush against Michael’s collarbone, curling around the chains hanging around his neck. Michael wants to grab Gavin’s hand and shove him away but he knows what Gavin’s going for and he has a right to it, it’s his after all. Gavin’s nimble fingers slide up the length of the chain until the tips of his fingers are tickling the back of Michael’s neck. Those same fingers feel around until the man is gently unclasping one of the chains.

“I’ll be taking this back now,” he murmurs against Michael’s lips and Michael doesn’t say a thing, merely reaches a hand up and cups the back of Gavin’s neck, holding them close together. Their lips slide together again and Michael could lie here forever.

Gavin moans at the nip Michael does at his lip when they’re interrupted by a familiarly annoying voice, “Am I going to have to turn the hose on you two?”

“Ray!?” Michael cries, gently pushing himself off Gavin’s lap and onto his feet. Gavin follows, quickly reattaching the creeper pendant around his neck.

“The one and only, bro!” Ray replies, spreading his arms out wide on either side of him. “Oh!” Ray drops his arms and does a stupid little shuffle over to Michael. “You have my glasses. Awesome.” Michael watches as Ray reaches forward and plucks the…formerly ruined glasses from his hoodie pocket. Ray shoves the perfect glasses on his face and sighs in relief.

“Do you know how fucking annoying it is wondering around for almost a month without being able to see a fucking thing?” Michael shakes his head. “Annoying as dicks, dude.”

Michael huffs a laugh and reaches forward, pulling his friend into a bone-crushing hug. When the back pats stop, Ray has a small smile on his face and it causes Michael’s heart to pound so fast that he’s surprised that they can’t hear it; Ray’s alive and breathing. He has no idea how this is even possible but it’s happening.

Timid fingers reach for Michael’s hand, pressing coolness into his hot palm. Michael looks down at the tanned hand that’s slowly curling around his, their fingers interlocking. He slowly looks up towards Gavin and his shyness is apparent on his face – his perfect intact face – and Michael realizes that Gavin isn’t sure if this is allowed. He’s not sure if he can hold Michael’s hand. So Michael stomps down that idea by raising their joined hands and kissing each and every one of Gavin’s knuckles.

In front of them, Ray starts to gag. Michael drops their joined hands to their sides, pulling Gavin close until their shoulders are pressed tight together, and gives Ray the finger. Gavin giggles, high and hidden in the back of his throat and it has been so long since he’s heard that sound that he can’t help himself; he pulls Gavin closer and presses a kiss to his lips.

When they part, Michael notices that Ray’s not mocking them, just smiling softly at both of them. Michael’s cheek bloom with heat so he looks around. “Where the hell are we?”

“Heaven,” Gavin replies softly, bringing his free hand up to lightly grip at Michael’s wrist, almost as if he’s trying to convince himself that Michael’s really there.

“Huh.” Michael looks up at the bright blue sky and watches a wayward cloud drift by the in atmosphere. “Looks like Texas. Before. I always thought heaven was all white clouds and dudes with wings.”

Ray out right laughs and it was a laugh that Michael had thought died years ago. “Naw, man. Heaven really is what you make it. When I got here, someone asked me ‘when in your life were you the happiest?’” Ray shrugs as Michael stares at him, his eyes growing wide at the familiar feeling sinking into his gut. Someone asked him that too. “And I said working with you fuckers.”

Next to him, Gavin leans over until his face is buried in Michael’s arm, forehead pressed hard against his shoulder. Michael wiggles his hand away from Gavin’s vice grip – earning a sad little whine – before he curls it around Gavin’s waist, locking the man securely in his embrace. Gavin’s sadness falls away like rose petals in summer and nuzzles into Michael’s arm. He reaches across Michael’s front and locks his nimble hands around Michael’s free hand and holds it close to him.

Ray’s face says that they’re disgusting but he doesn’t actually voice his opinion as he continues on with his story. “Next thing I know, Gavin’s blabbering in my ear and wiping snot all over my favorite shirt.”

Gavin snaps his head up from Michael’s shoulder and the battle-born soldier is not disappointed in any way, shape, or form, and he most certainly didn’t whine low in his throat. “I did not!”

Ray ignores him, locking eyes with Michael. “Your boy cried. Like a bitch.”

“Hypocrite,” Gavin snaps, letting all pretense fall away. Michael’s struck with the knowledge that Gavin’s exactly the same because if he’s going down in humiliation, everyone’s coming with him. He smiles at his boy and presses a quick peck to his temple. Ray groans.

“Eternity is going to be a bitch with you two.” Ray shrugs. “But, yeah. I’m man enough to admit it. I cried like a newborn. I just blew my fucking head off and woke up with one of my best friends in my arms. Who wouldn’t cry?”

Michael gasps because knowing what Ray did and hearing it from the horse’s mouth are two completely different things. Michael feels his face start to twist in agony but Gavin’s suddenly there in front of him, cupping Michael’s cheeks in his hands.

“Stop,” Gavin demands. “We’re all here. We’re all fine; we’re together. You can stop fighting so hard.”

Michael closes his eyes and tries to absorb the coolness of Gavin’s palms. He nods, once his blood pressure returns to normal levels, and he doesn’t feel like he needs a weapon in his hands to feel safe. Michael wraps his arms around Gavin’s waist and brings him in, tucking the taller man against his shoulder, forcing Gavin to hunker down those few scant inches.

“Is it just us?” he asks, looking around as Gavin does his best octopus impersonation. Ray starts to laugh as Gavin brings one leg up, trying to hook it on Michael’s slim hips. The redhead allows it for a few moments before they nearly topple over once Gavin tries to add his other leg to the mix. “Get the fuck off me!” he cries through his laughter, pushing at Gavin’s ribs. The Brit takes a few steps back and his smile is fucking blinding.

Michael stares at the sun for a moment, willing his vision to come back. He turns away from the hot Texas sun and turns at the waist to look behind him. The Office sits in perfect perfection behind them, no sign of the apocalypse whatsoever. RoosterTeeth still sits proudly above the entrance, every window still in its frame, ever door still on its hinges. The fortified warehouse shows no signs of battle, standing silently for its original, intended purposes. He looks to the left and there’s his apartment building, sitting happily just a few blocks over. Michael looks as far as his eyes will allow him and it seems that Heaven spans as far as Texas itself.

“So is it just us?” he asks again.

“Do you morons really think you were the only ones happiest while working here?”

Michael freezes at the sound of her voice. His heart skips a few beats before it goes into maximum overdrive. Gavin glances over Michael’s shoulder before dropping his head to his chest, taking a few steps back until he’s standing directly next to Ray. In his daze, he watches as Ray raises his arm and drops a comforting hand onto Gavin’s shoulder.

Michael blinks once before he turns and there she is in all her glory: Lindsay. The once love-of-his-life.

“Lindsay,” he whispers brokenly and she smirks and says, “What’s up, asshole?”

He rushes across the distance, scooping her up into his arms. Her arms come up around his neck and squeeze tight. She still feels the same, he thinks. She still smells the same and smiles the same and…she’s the same.

(But he’s not.)

The hold each other for long moments, each one being counted by the chirping of birds and the wails of cicadas. “There are things that need to be said,” she whispers in his ear and he rubs his cheek against hers, the same way a wolf would when welcoming back a long-lost member of its pack. She pulls away – he lets her – and she puts her hands on his shoulders. In a mock whisper, loud enough to carry back towards the rest of Team Lads, she says, “But you should really go back to your boyfriend before he starts to cry. Again.

“I don’t cry as often as everyone is convinced,” Gavin tries to sound light but his voice sounds like it’s caught in the back of his throat. Michael takes a step back from Lindsay, just in time to catch her tugging at her engagement ring.

“But I’m keeping this,” she snaps, holding out her left hand like she’s brandishing a weapon. Michael puts his hands up and lets out a soft chuckle. “Okay?”

“I guess,” Michael scoffs before letting his face fall into something softer. He reaches for her hand, curling his fingers around hers. “I want you to,” he admits.

Lindsay smiles, the apples of her cheeks catching sunrays and giving her a golden glow. She leans up and presses a light kiss to his cheek, before stepping back, tucking a lock of red hair behind her ear. “I’ll go let Geoff know you’re here.”

Michael’s eyes widen and he begins to quickly shake his head. “No, don’t do that!” Lindsay cocks an eyebrow before turning away and heading back inside the office. “Lindsay! Lindsay! Stop!”

The door slowly shuts behind her and Michael slumps his shoulders. He turns back towards his two best friends, one with hopeful eyes and the other with a magically appearing RedBull and asks, “If you’re murdered in Heaven, where do you go?”

“You can’t die in Heaven, you knob,” Gavin says, trying his hardest to appear like he was unperturbed by the reunion of the fiancées.

Ray shrugs, downing at least half the RedBull in one gulp. “But if it makes you feel any better, Geoff was totally in the wrong.”

“…You saw that?” Michael asks, shame causing the tips of his ears to go red. Ray and Gavin nod in tandem. “Fucking…great.”

“Everyone saw it,” Ray announces, crushing the empty can in his hand before it vanishes. A nickel falls into his open palm. “Griff tore him a fucking new one when he got here.”

“He was whimpering the corner,” Gavin adds helpfully. Michael smiles at him and the smile’s returned with a shy one. Silence falls between The Lads and Michael closes his eyes, tilting his head towards the welcoming warmth that used to be Texas. Gavin’s hand – and he knows it’s Gavin’s hand by the hairline tremors in the tips of his fingers – comes to rest on his chest, toying with the diamond around his neck. The pointer finger dips in the hollow of his throat and Michael’s hand flies up, catching the offending appendage with a tight grip. Raising them, he kissed the tips.

“I’m still mad at you,” a blank voice announces and Michael slowly lowers his head and opens his eyes. He can do this. He can be strong, turn around, and face his mistakes head on. He’s a man after all. He gently lower Gavin’s hand and pivots on the ball of his feet. Geoff and Jack stand a few feet away from them. Geoff has his arms crossed and Jack just looks like he wants to slap Michael on the back, hand him a beer, and go back inside because it’s hot out here.

Michael tries to keep his face cold and impassive but the moment his eyes lock with Geoff’s, Michael’s babbling like a child trying to explain a broken lamp.

“I’m so fucking sorry, Geoff. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing; I was just so mad. The things you said… they made me fucking crazy. Once it was done, I regretted it, I really did. I am so…sorry.”

Geoff’s face is blank; he was always so good at poker (at least until he giggled). He slowly drops his arms and crosses the distance and Michael pushes Gavin to the left, into Ray, fully expecting a punch. He doesn’t want Gavin to be collateral damage again. “But you have no idea how glad I am to see you here, lad.”

Michael’s frozen in confusion, eyes darting around Geoff’s face, searching for any sign of something other than the relief that’s honestly painting his features. Geoff reaches forward and grips Michael’s shoulder, bringing the younger man in until Michael’s face is pressed into Geoff’s shoulder. The tight arm around his shoulder and the soothing rubs up and down his spine trigger something inside of him; releases a flood gate that he hadn’t been aware that was inside of him. He begins to silently cry, muttering “I’m sorry” and “Please” over and over again until he no longer knows the meaning of the word.

“I’m not saying it’s okay – you shot me point blank range because you were throwing a temper tantrum, that will never be okay – but I am saying that I understand. What I said at the end... It wasn’t me. And it wasn’t right. I guess I was mad too and I wanted you to realize that you weren’t the only one hurting.” Geoff chuckles once and when he begins again, his voice is lighter, “And you know, I almost killed Jack when I found out Griffon was gone.”

“Yeah,” Jack scoffs. “And I haven’t forgotten it either, you prick.”

Michael huffs a wet laugh and pulls back, wiping his face with the heel of his hand. He feels lighter almost, like the world is finally off his back. Geoff raises a hand and ruffles Michael’s curly hair. Once the locks settle, he shakes his head to get a few stragglers out of his face.

Gavin returns to Michael’s side and he watches at Geoff raises an eyebrow at the two of them. Defiantly, Michael takes Gavin’s hand in his, lacing their fingers together and squeezing so tight his knuckles begin to turn white. He stares into Geoff’s eyes over the line of his glasses and he snarls, “He’s not my second choice.”

“I can see that,” Geoff replies, bringing his hands up before placing them on either side of both Gavin and Michael’s heads. Quickly, he bashes their heads together before dropping his arms, howling in laughter. Ray and Jack join in as the boys let go of each other to cradle their pounding heads. Geoff stops laughing first and he locks eyes with Michael who has recovered first.

“Don’t fuck this up,” he warns and Michael doesn’t reply, just nods his head once. “It’s hot as dicks out here, I’m going back in.”

Geoff turns and walks back up the concrete that leads to their little piece of Heaven. Jack smiles at Michael, slapping him on the back once before following after his closest friend.

Gavin’s still rubbing his head when Ray comes between them, hooking one arm over each of their shoulders. “You know, it’s about time you got here,” he says to Michael. “It wasn’t the same without all of Team Lads.”

“Did you lose to the Gents?”

“Pfft,” Gavin answers, waving a hand up and down. “With X-Ray and Vav, please.”

“Only a few hundred times,” Ray deadpans, ripping a laughing from Michael’s stomach and an indignant squawk from Gavin. “Even in Heaven, this guy sucks.”

“You’re a bloody liar!” Gavin shouts, raising his fists but Ray expects the retaliation and prances away, skipping backwards long enough to make a face at the two still standing side-by-side. Ray turns, reaching to open the door when he trips over an uneven piece of concrete and falls face first into the ground.

Michael and Gavin begin to laugh so hard that Ray’s muttered, “I’m okay! I’m good!” nearly goes unheard. He pushes himself up from the ground and runs his hand through his hair, scratching at the back of his scalp.

“Don’t say anything about this to anyone,” Ray mutters darkly before he opens the door and carefully walks inside.

Once their laughter falls away, Michael catches Gavin continually peeking at him from the corner of his eye. There’s something Gavin wants to say and he doesn’t know where to begin, so Michael barks, “What, Gavin?”

The other man jumps before giving an awkward chuckle, “Did you mean it?”

“Mean what?”

“That I’m not your second choice.”

Michael doesn’t know how to respond; how to begin to respond to he lets his actions speak for him. He reaches for Gavin, cupping a hand around the back of his neck and hauling him forward, smirking when he trips over his own fucking feet. He rubs their noses together for a moment before he takes Gavin’s lips with his own. The kiss is soft and delicate, like the beginning of the beautiful blooms of spring, and Michael brings his other hand up to run the back of his fingers against Gavin’s cheek bones. Gavin breaks the kiss to follow the fingers when he begins to pull them back, and Michael can’t help the smile that breaks out on his face.

“You’ll never be my second choice,” Michael whispers. “And you better get your fill now because when we walk in there, all this lovey-dovey shit ends.”

“You don’t mean that, Mi-cool,” Gavin replies in kind and Michael’s knees go weak because he thought he would never hear that stupid nickname again, not in a million years.

“You’re right; I don’t.” Michael answers, the delicateness falling away into something more primal. The primal need to touch and be touched, to feel and be felt. He cups Gavin’s face and brings them together so roughly their teeth clack. Michael moves subtly, correcting the angle so it’s just as passionate but not as violent. They move surely, as if they’ve been doing this for their entire lives.

But Gavin gives as good as he gets: his hands are everywhere on Michael, running teasingly up and down his spine, dropping down to cup his ass, squeezing one cheek in retaliation when Michael nips a little too hard on Gavin’s bottom lip. Eventually, as the heat from their kisses fade back to trading tender presses, Gavin’s hands find themselves places on Michael’s chest, one covering his thumping heart and the other lightly tracing designs. Michael’s hands are low on Gavin’s hips, keeping them pressed together as tight as they can get.

“Oh,” Gavin announces, pulling back far enough to breathe a little fresh air. Michael’s still in a daze though and just grumbles incoherently back, nosing at Gavin’s neck. “I’ll always love you too.”

Michael pauses before he continues to nose at Gavin’s jaw, placing open mouthed kisses wherever he feels like a good spot would be. “Huh?”

“My response. To what you said on my grave. Which looked tippy-top, given the circumstances!”

Michael feels himself darken and he locks eyes with Gavin. “Don’t ever talk about what happened after you died, Gavin. From this moment on, none of that ever fucking happened.”

Gavin looks unimpressed though and opens his mouth, most likely to say something stupid and optimistic but Michael puts a cork on it by shoving his tongue ungracefully into Gavin’s mouth. Gavin laughs around the purposefully bad kiss and shoves Michael away, even if it’s just a few scant inches. “Fine, fine! I give! But we’re going to talk about it. Eventually.”

“Eventually’s not now though,” Michael answers back, returning to Gavin’s neck. Gavin tips his head, allowing more access when Michael’s still well-trained ears hear the sound of a window opening.

“I will get the garden hose!” Ray shouts. A round of laughter follows the threat and Michael finally feels like this is all real; feels like this is home now.

“Bugger off!” Gavin replies as Michael smiles into his marked neck. Michael leans back, separating the two of them, choosing to ignore Gavin’s insistent grabby hands.

“So…What now?” Gavin’s eyes light up at Michael’s question and he crosses the distance, pressing a quick peck to Michael’s responsive lips.

Gavin laces their fingers together and tugs Michael towards the one place they always felt the happiest, and says, “Let’s play some video games.”

--

End.