The music faded from his earbuds abruptly as his iPhone died. He had to commend it for lasting as long as it did from his tiny solar charger. Sighing, he took out his buds and stuffed the cords into his bomber jacket pocket. Without the low thump of the same downloaded playlist over and over as his companion, he was utterly alone.
Only months ago, it had been completely different. His world, the world, had changed with one bloodborne virus and suddenly he cared nothing about how his music major didn’t match the aeronautical classes he took or that his dorm’s RA Ashley didn’t get the hint that he wasn’t interested. New York was a city, and if his obscene obsession with splatter films in the summer of eighth grade taught him anything, it was cities were to be avoided in the zombie apocalypse.
Except the government didn’t call them zombies. A virus affecting people vulnerable to pre-and-post-mortem infections of the blood stream. If you got bit, you were hit. And there was a lot of biting going around.
So Lance shoved his valuables in the biggest pack he owned - his phone, chargers, skincare routine and whatever clothes could last him and slung his guitar case over his shoulder before getting the heck out of dodge. He was smart enough not to hit the mainland, not to even attempt the highways, and set straight for the coast. It was easy enough finding a ferry - a grouch of an old man named Grits who took him as far down the coast as he could on his tiny fishing boat. Unlike the hysteria of the cities, maybe Grits and him had found some solace in one another - as seemingly the only sane people through the whole ordeal.
Not that he hadn’t freaked out. Because he did.
When the news hit, he had called Hunk immediately. His best friend, all the way on the West Coast, said he was heading for Canada with his family. The government was issuing asylum to all citizens who could make it up north while they proceeded with evacuations across the country. Hunk sounded nervous, even though the West hadn’t been hit as hard yet. That was a month ago, an endless amount of days to not hear from your bestest buddy but it wasn’t exactly the time to blow up Hunk’s phone. The government hadn’t cut the cellular yet, and Hunk would call to let him know if he made it. He had nothing to worry about, because Hunk was easily the most reliable person he knew.
Lance promised to meet him in Canada.
He would make it eventually - either if he was evacuated or found a ride up to the northern territories, but he would make it. He’d never lie to Hunk.
Unfortunately, despite his determination, shit was going just a tiny bit haywire.
Disaster made humans go crazy. It was around the third time a group had tried to loot him for his pack that he realized it was less than likely he’d be hitching a ride up to the North with whoever passed by. It was around the fourth time running into a group that he solidified that notion, watching as some right Southern ‘gentlemen’ circled him on their four-wheelers and called him ‘pretty boy’ with malicious antagonizing grins. Luckily he had found a tiny thing of a handgun in the outskirts of the last town, and thanks to growing up with his rancher father, he was one hell of a straight shot. They rolled out of there faster than they had come, their measly leader with a bleeding hole in his foot. It put him down a bullet, sure, but fuck it had felt good.
He scuffed the toe of his Converse against the road. The six lanes of traffic were deserted, littered with scattered dead cars and debris. He approached the mid barrier, hoisting himself up and over the median onto the opposite lanes of Route 1. The crumpled road map in his pocket let him know he had just passed into Virginia maybe a few hours ago, leaving him well clear of most major cities. That had been his plan, but fuck if he hadn’t thought of another one to follow it.
Now he was without a vehicle, utterly alone on the East Coast, too exhausted and scared to try any of the junked cars nearby for fear of triggering a car alarm. The last thing he needed after walking so long was a horde of undead to come lumbering out of the woods on each side of the highway. He squinted ahead in the lingering evening, spying the bridge ahead along the river. Here the cars were heavier, collapsed on both sides in various positions like steeples. One stood out to him; a large semi truck without its truckload sitting taller than all of the cars around it. He broke into a light jog, crossing the bridge edges and weaving toward the semi.
It was tall enough to buffer out crawlers, with steps too high for immobile walkers and with all windows intact. Perfect.
He slowly clasped onto the door handle and heaved it open. No car alarm, and the seats were cushioned. Perfect.
Lance hoisted himself in without a second thought, tossing his bag into the passenger seat and shrugging out of his bomber jacket. He locked both doors swiftly, setting up his solar charger on the dash and fishing for his last sliced meats and cheese from his thermal pouch. To think he used to dream about eating lobster on the Eiffel Tower in something by Coco Chanel. He almost mourned that dead dream as he ate slowly, tilting forward to turn his eyes to the sky.
It was almost sad how beautiful the stars were. Still blinking brightly for far fewer to see. His mother used to point out the constellations on their ranch, and he thought of his family in Cuba. They had been so proud of him for being accepted into NYU, no matter his misdirection in terms of majors. His father had driven him to the airport at the crack of dawn, just the two of them on the pickup truck bench as the sun rose golden pink against the darkened sky. The government radio said the islands in the Atlantic were swarmed, swamped with undead and utterly inaccessible. There were rumors of the last strongholds of the islands being Havana and Matanzas, but that was weeks upon weeks ago, when there were still few enough names of the fallen to list.
Lance counted the stars of Orion, of Ursa Major and Minor, until tears wet his bottom eyelashes and he fell asleep.
He shot up in the front seat, railing his forehead against the low hanging sunshade and groaning immediately as he hunched over. It was morning, probably not even 9 o’clock with how light the sky seemed. Even during his days on the ranch before college, he had never been a morning person. The new age had changed that.
The soft rhythmic chop-chopping sound he had woke up to was slowly getting louder. He had long attuned his body to the miniscule sounds of unrest - because being able to click into action the second you heard something meant you were able to survive.
Lance shoved his phone and charger into his pack, hauling his guitar over a shoulder. He leaned forward, slowly and steadily, to check the driver side mirror. Nothing but the bridge stretched behind, with the trees lining the highway on the other side, and yet the beats were nearing his position. He stretched over to the passenger seat, hauling himself over his pack and creeping low under the window to check the passenger side mirror. A low profile would help him dodge out of any shit bandits way, but instead of any clinky four-wheeler or reassembled military-issue Jeep, there was just a sole figure.
The lone rider sat atop a huge horse. Slowly they approached, closer and closer in the mirror until the horse was passing by the semi truck’s passenger side. The large steed was black, huge and powerful with muscles working tirelessly under a sleek gorgeous coat. From the angle, Lance could see the supplies tied to the saddle, a bedroll, medium saddlebag and a jet Stetson hat matching the horse’s coat tied to the back saddle. The rider wore steel-toed boots and tight black pants, but the sun cast in the eyes too much to see the face of the rider.
The horse carried on, black tail flicking as it went past the semi truck, looking to weave around the abandoned cars onward.
Lance’s heart was in his throat. The first person he’d seen in a day or so - the first person who didn’t look insane. He was scrambling forward before he knew it, guitar over his shoulder and hands grabbing onto his pack as he kicked open the passenger side door and fell down to the step. It creaked lamely and loud, almost in annoyance as he leaned all of his body onto the step to close the door around him.
“Wait!” Lance called, bounding to the ground, his pack hitting his back hard. He was stiff from walking, stiff from sleeping upright and he almost lost his footing as he stepped down onto the highway. He steadied himself, arms raised and gaze snapping from his feet upward.
The rider had turned, horse prancing in pace and chuffing loudly. A diamond of white sat on the horse’s face, the only other color on the black steed’s body. He was fine with admiring the pretty pony until he looked to the rider.
The man was gorgeous, long wispy hair tied back to his nape and hanging in his handsome face. The pale expansion of his skin was dusted with patches of tan, forearms strong and sturdy under the plaid shirt rolled to his elbows. He had a split eyebrow, pierced ears and dark slit eyes that bore into Lance. If they had been at a gay bar downtown in the Upper East side, Lance would be all over the attractive cowboy.
It was then did he realize the sword strapped to the man’s back, the knife strapped to his thigh and semi-automatic with scope loosely tied around his chest. Lance wanted to weep, fall to his knees and give up because at least he’d die at the hands of some sexy stranger. But instead, the man did nothing - said nothing, just stare unreadable at Lance.
So he stepped closer, watching how the stranger’s eyes danced up and down his body. If they had been at that gay bar downtown, Lance would take it as an invitation to smile prettily at him and sit in his lap. Now he stood lamely in front of the man on the horse, with his heart in his throat, trying not to pose a threat.
“Uh, hey,” Lance raised a hand, “you might not want to go that way…”
The man said nothing again, but the prick of his eyebrow upward stirred Lance on.
“Three days walk - I mean, maybe a day’s ride, you’ll be going straight into D.C.,” Lance fished out his map from his bomber jacket, unfolding it, “I just passed through Winchester. People are saying D.C. is a dead zone - no copters have passed in days.” He gestured to Winchester on the map, attempting to hold it up against his chest for the man to see.
Slowly the man leaned forward, and Lance shuffled closer so he could point to the map, tracing his finger trip around the D.C.-Baltimore area to where he assumed they stood.
“Are you not from here?” Lance jerked his head behind them, “You came northeast, government is recommending northwest -”
“Fuck the government.” The man snorted, curling his lip,
Lance grinned, “I mean I hear you but I’ve seen it myself.”
He paused. He hadn’t been in D.C., but the piling of burning corpses left in a radius around the District of Columbia was a warning. The grey smoke had been visible for miles from the burning and he hadn’t dared go close.
“….I’d avoid it,” Lance folded up the map and tucked it back into his pocket. He looked up to the horse with a slanted smile, reaching to pat the muscles on the neck with a palm. “Wouldn’t want… Epona to get spooked, right?”
The man’s eyebrows knotted together in amusement, smirking, “Her name’s Artax.”
“Neverending Story?” Lance grinned, “That’s a bit ominous. She’s beautiful though.”
Artax seemed to appreciate it, throwing her mane and stepping lightly back and forth. The stranger snorted, shaking his head, hair curling attractively against that sharp jaw, “She’s arrogant enough already, thinking all this riding is me spoiling her. She might just be pleased to get out of the Chihuahuan.”
Lance’s jaw nearly dropped, voice weak, “Texas? Shit, you really are a cowboy.” The stranger had been making amazing time if he had made it from Texas to Virginia on horseback. Artax picked up her pretty hooves again, ears going stock straight as she turned her head to the end of the bridge.
The stranger seemed to notice, reaching on to place his palm on the horse’s mane, “I’d tip my Stetson but it’s not really mine -”
He cut off, frowning as he followed Artax’s gaze behind Lance’s shoulder. He blinked, watching the dip of the man’s handsome face and his gaze harden.
“You any good with a gun?” The man murmured, clutching and jerking Artax’s reins around toward the way they had been heading, his dark eyes never leaving whatever lay behind Lance.
That was when he turned. From the far reaches of the bridge, the trees had begun to rustle unnaturally along the sides of the highway. Lance watched, stricken and already counting his bullets as a hundred-body swarm of undead lumbered out of the trees onto the highway. They cleared the dip of the off-road easy, stumbling and crawling and groaning onto the concrete in a bloody grimy wave.
“Yeah.” Lance was breathless, choking on air almost as he spotted the sprinters, clawed and darkened by dusted decay breaking the lines of the slow walkers and running fast toward the bridge as their sensitive noses picked up the scent of the living.
“Good, let’s fucking go.”
Lance whipped back around, staring at the man as he reached out his arm to Lance. Without a second thought, Lance clasped onto it, hauling himself up behind the man onto his horse. He’d never ridden a horse, but immediately adjusted as the man handed him the semi-automatic rifle from around his chest. He was wobbly, but easily turned in the seat, cocking the gun and picking off on the sprinters as it neared the bridge. He faintly heard the soft chuckle of the stranger as he kicked the horse into a sprint, due North.
Over the wind in his ears, the footfalls of Artax on the concrete and the screeches of the sprinters as they began to chase, the stranger called out, “Name’s Keith.”
Lance grabbed onto the man’s belt, flipping himself around on the mare to sit backwards and lean his back to Keith’s as he raised the rifle again, “Lance! Nice to meet you.”