Lance sighed through his nose as he scanned the surrounding area through his binoculars. They were heavy, something that’d surprised him when he’d first obtained them, but it meant they were real. Good. Nowadays, they were a familiar weight around his neck. And it wasn’t rare to find him with a familiar array of bruises on his chest, evidence of him sprinting and being unable to hold his binoculars in place, making them bounce and bang against his chest with every step.
It was worth it, though. Being able to see was critical, these days. Almost as important as it was to hear, and so Lance scanned the area carefully and thoroughly. More so than he might have had he still been with Hunk and Pidge. He was the only one looking out for his own skin out here, after all.
It’d been his idea to split up. His friends hadn’t liked the idea, of course, had argued with him about it for ages, but he knew it made the most sense. The van was out of gas, after all, and his old house was on the complete other side of town. Cars and gas stations had long since been pilfered of remaining fuel and they couldn’t waste what little they had driving that hunk of metal through town. No, his friends would be going around it, stopping to siphon gas wherever they could manage, while Lance made his way across the town in the hopes of finding his family.
If everything went well, they’d be seeing each other again tonight.
Lance shook his head, trying to physically dislodge his negative thoughts. There was no use thinking like that. All it did was dishearten him further, and in times like these, staying positive was almost as important as staying alert. Otherwise you ended up as one of those people who decided they couldn’t take it anymore. Someone with a bullet in their head and a gun in their hand.
“All right,” Lance muttered to himself, still crouched on the broken down bus in the middle of the street. And you couldn’t blame him for talking to himself. It might be a little crazy, sure, but there were much worse things you could be, lately. Namely, the living dead. “Just get across town, and don’t die. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.”
And it should be relatively easy. He’d grown up in this town, after all, and he knew his way around like he knew the back of his hand. Maybe that’s what was making this so much harder. Seeing the devastation that’d wracked the very place he’d grown up. Seeing familiar storefronts with the windows smashed in, familiar landmarks with the undead crowding all around it. Maybe even seeing familiar people, though not so people-like anymore.
Lance shook his head, forcibly removing himself from his thoughts and straightening up, letting his binoculars hang against his chest. The chord dug familiarly into the back of his neck as he crept towards the front of the school bus.
He couldn’t see any of the rotters hanging around now, though of course that didn’t mean there weren't actually any around. That kind of thinking got you killed.
Still, Lance couldn’t see anything that wanted to kill him anywhere nearby, and as long as he stayed away from cars and alleys where a deadhead could surprise him, he should be fine. He had his bow, after all, so it wasn’t like he was defenseless.
Glass crunched under his feet after he slid off the hood of the bus and onto the ground, taking quick steps away from the vehicle in case there was anything underneath it. There wasn’t — or at least, nothing under there came after him — so he continued on his merry way.
He didn’t really know what he was hoping for. Driving down that highway towards home, nearly a year after the Silence, he’d known he couldn’t just pass it by. He hadn’t heard from his family in a year, hadn’t known if they were safe at night for nearly two.
As he saw it, there were only a couple outcomes this trip could have, few good, and many horrible.
He could walk up to that old house of his and see a barricade of fortifications. There could be a massive perimeter of zombie traps and his mother’s singing voice drifting from an open window, maybe accompanied by some soup she’d managed to make out of the vegetables growing in their backyard.
Or he could find the house completely abandoned. Maybe with a note on the counter for him, just in case he ever came by to check, something like, Lance. Heading west. Love you lots and may God be with you.
Yeah, that’d be nice. The house intact, no blood on the windows or walls, no signs of a struggle. Just a happy family prepared for the apocalypse and taking off on an undead road trip. That didn’t sound too bad.
Of course, that’s also where the good ideas tended to peter off. He never thought of those nice scenarios too much. Usually at night, when he wasn’t worrying about whether he’d wake up to a zombie gnawing on his leg or maybe Hunk’s face, he’d be thinking about his family. Wondering if their corpses were still wandering around his family home, if he’d walk in one day and see their blood on the floors, their dead eyes staring at him, their rotten hands reaching for him as groans spilled from their lips, as they tried to eat their son, their brother alive.
In comparison, finding an empty house wouldn’t be so bad. He’d forever be plagued with the desire to know, forever haunted by the fact that he didn’t quite know what had happened or was happening to his family, but that was also some of the good part. You didn’t have to mourn people you didn’t know were dead, didn’t have to cry over people that could very well still be alive.
Lance flinched, his bow in his hand and an arrow strung in it in an instant, even as he silently cursed himself for getting distracted. It was almost like he had a death wish.
He spun around, arrow still drawn, looking desperately for the source of the noise. It’d sounded almost like a car door slamming shut. Or maybe a dumpster lid? Something heavy, something audible.
Lance’s entire body was tense, the muscles of his back tight as he spun and spun, looking for whatever had made the noise. There was nothing, though. He could see a few of the undead shuffling around at the end of a nearby alley and further down the street, but nothing close enough to have made that noise. Had he hallucinated it? Was he going crazy?
It didn’t seem too far fetched. He’d watched people lose their minds, these last few years. Knowing that people were coming back from the dead, that the vaccines weren’t successful, that the quarantines weren’t working — it was enough to drive a lot of people mad. And if that didn’t do it, then living each day walking on eggshells or watching someone be torn apart, well. That could do it too.
But Lance hadn’t gone crazy. He’d… gotten used to it, almost. Yeah, the dead were living. And he would happily trade one of his precious few arrows for a cheeseburger, at this point. What else was new?
Jaw clenched, Lance tried to force himself to ignore the sound he’d heard and continue on his way. The dead weren’t paying him any attention, far enough away to not notice him unless he made a lot of noise. Or spilled some blood.
Lance turned down another familiar street, shoving down any uncomfortable emotions that tried to arise. So what if his hometown looked just like any other? It wasn’t like it was special, like it was going to remain free of the plague haunting the rest of the world.
Getting across town was slow going. He took a much longer route than he would have had he still been in high school, his home untouched by the undead. As it was, he was a college dropout (not by choice, but because it was kind of hard to graduate when your professors were dead) and his home was very much affected, but at least he still knew his way around. Knew which streets had always been quieter, less populated. He barely had to kill any of the deadheads on his way across town, doing so swiftly and quietly whenever he was forced to.
There were a few more occasions where he thought he heard something, stopping dead in his tracks to look around desperately, but each time he failed to find anything.
“It’s whatever,” he mumbled to himself later. “You’re just going crazy without Pidge and Hunk around. Totally fine.”
Still, his unease had him hurrying his pace. The sooner he got to his house the sooner he could know whether his entire family was dead and the sooner he could mourn and get the fuck outta there, assuming he wasn’t overwhelmed by grief and consumed by zombies in the process. If all went well, he’d find his house relatively untouched and be headed towards the rendezvous in an hour’s time, where he’d then wait to be joined by his friends, who would hopefully have a good few tanks of gas.
The closer Lance got to his old house, the more tense he became. He grew sloppy with his attention to detail, taking stupid risks in an attempt to get there faster, like forgetting to check under cars and forgoing scanning the area from atop a vantage point first. If he’d been concentrating a little bit more, he might have caught the noises trailing behind him, the rhythmic clack of something constantly tapping against the pavement behind him, but he didn’t.
And so he led whatever it was straight to his house.
Actually stepping out onto his old street felt like a dream: the same and alien all at once. There wasn’t a zombie in sight, thank God, but it was clear devastation had met this area all the same. Windows smashed open, probably by scavengers. Cars parked haphazardly. The street empty and silent whereas before it’d always been filled with life and joy. Kids screaming as they’d chased each other; adults watering their lawns, talking on the sidewalks to their neighbors. And now, nothing.
No noise emitted from Lance’s home. None of his mother’s singing or the smell of her cooking drifting out the window like he’d wanted to imagine. Just more of that silence.
His limbs felt stiff and heavy as he made his way up the driveway. The door was locked, and it was with a weird sort of reverence that he pulled out his key, hanging on his necklace in place of the cross that used to hang there.
“Why do you keep that thing?” people had asked him in the past. Mostly his fellow classmates, bitter and angry at the world. So was he, obviously, but he’d tried not to show it.
It wasn’t the school’s fault everything had gone to shit. And it sounded like a good idea to lock them in, in theory. Keep the kids here, keep the dead out. They’ll be safe. Everyone thought their ideas would work until they didn’t.
“Because,” Lance had always answered them, usually with a nostalgic laugh. “My mom said she’d killed me if I lost another house key.”
So Lance used it and felt something in his chest squeeze tight as the door groaned open, the sound so familiar it made his insides ache. That stupid fucking door. He couldn't count the amount of times he’d been caught sneaking back into the house because of the damn thing.
“Hello?” he called softly, because even though he’d felt it walking down the street, even though he’d felt it climbing his porch steps, he didn’t want to acknowledge it. The hopelessness. The knowledge that they weren’t here, of course they weren’t here, why would they ever have stayed here?
No one answered his call. He stepped further into the house, into the home he’d been half-sure he’d never see again, half-sure he’d die before reaching. “Mami?”
And then he froze, his foot hovering half an inch above a trip wire. Just like that, hope flooded back in. Someone was here.
It was then that he finally noticed the signs of life. A window by the back door was smashed, sure, but it was boarded back up. There were other kinds of booby traps around the back door too, though whether intended for the living or the dead, Lance wasn’t quite sure.
Still, he couldn’t find it in himself to care right then. His head felt light with excitement as he drew in a breath, barely paying attention to any possible booby traps as he made his way further into the house. “Veronica?” he called, louder than he’d spoken previously. “Marco?”
No one answered. Lance fumbled with his feelings, tried to crush his hopes back down before they could get too high. These could be old traps, set up long before they left. They could be miles and miles away by now. But regardless of his attempts, his hopes bubbled right back up, through the gaps of his fingers still trying to push them down. They could be out for the day, he thought desperately. He hadn’t seen their old car out there, after all.
But then he walked into to the kitchen and could see the living room. The house was so bare. All the cabinets were thrown open and empty. Furniture in the living room was in the wrong place, cushions from the couches nowhere to be found. Lance swallowed thickly. People must’ve come in, must’ve taken stuff.
He looked around, a bit desperate at this point, but he couldn’t find anything. Didn’t see a note anywhere.
And he knew he should look upstairs, should go to his room and see if there was anything left, try to gather some clean clothes or soap if there was any around, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t make himself climb those steps, couldn’t make himself see his and everyone else’s old rooms, empty. Barren.
Lance drew his shoulders back, knowing he needed to leave now. Pull yourself together, McClain.
A sigh had just barely shuddered out of him when he heard it. A creak behind him: the loose floorboard. He’d maneuvered around it automatically, years-worth of repetitively avoiding that stupid squeaky flooring making him do it without thinking, but…
He whipped around, arrow already drawn and a second from flying before he realized it was in front of a person’s face. Like, a person person’s face. Not a dead person.
“Holy shit, man!” Lance gasped immediately, weapon lowering a bit. “I almost shot your brains out!” And then he realized there was a person in his house, likely having followed him for some reason, and his brows were furrowed and his arrow was in the guy’s face again. “Wait, why are you here? Did you follow me?”
The guy looked surprised that he’d been caught. He must’ve been a pretty quiet dude, if that was the case, but not even the tippiest of toes could avoid the age-old flooring of this ancient house. Plus, Lance was pretty observant. He saw things others didn’t, heard things that were barely there.
“Start talking or I’ll shoot this through your eye,” Lance growled, pulling the string back just a little bit more. There was no way the arrow would go straight through his head, this close, but it’d definitely do a lot of damage. Probably get all the way into his brain, too.
“Wait!” the guy said, when Lance glared just a little bit harder. His arm was outstretched, a katana in his hand, not that Lance was entirely surprised. It was easy to get weapons these days. Everyone had stocked up in the beginning, and by now most everyone was dead, so their weapons were for the taking. That’s why Lance had such a good bow. Then again, not many people were actually looking for bows, when guns and crossbows were available. Not Lance, though. He’d been going to archery camp every summer since he was seven. He was totally Zombie Apocalypse Ready. “I didn’t follow you here!”
Lance scoffed. “Stop lying to the guy with an arrow in your face, dude.”
This just earned him an even harsher glare. “I’m not lying,” the guy bit out. “If anyone should be doing the threatening here, it’s me. Those traps were set up for a reason, you know.”
Lance blinked. His arm twitched, his bow nearly lowering in his surprise, but it remained steady. It would take more than alarming news to dislodge his aim at this point. He’d remained calm and steady and level-headed while hearing people scream as they were torn apart. Hearing this guy talk wasn’t about to mess him up.
“What, you live here?” Lance said incredulously. And then he kind of took the other guy in. He looked as dirty as Lance felt, his hair greasy but probably long enough to be pulled up and out of his face, which was streaked with dirt. Lance couldn't relate. He kept having Pidge cut the ends for his own hair, though it was starting to hang in his eyes again.
But as for his clothes… Red, red, red. He was dressed in it from head to toe: his jacket, his boots, even the hair tie on his wrist was red.
“Is that my shirt?” Lance said, his voice definitely having climbed a few octaves by now. The guy looked down at his chest, blinking at the spiderman shirt he happened to be wearing under his red jacket. It was too tight for him, Lance’s frame much leaner than his buffed up one.
“Uh, no?” he finally answered, looking up at Lance like he was insane.
“It is!” Lance said. “You’re wearing my shirt!
“You’re in my house!”
“I — wait, this is your house?”
Lance looked around desperately, then. Nothing on the walls. No picture frames on the tables. His family must’ve taken them all. But maybe…
Lance strode over to the fridge, letting his bow fall to his side, though he kept his arrow notched, his heart pounding first with anxiety and then relief when he saw it. A tiny picture was still stuck to the fridge with a magnet, his whole family crowded in close and smiling. His mom used to force them to take these pictures when she had everyone come over for dinner. It’d always been a pretty rare occasion to get everyone in the same place at the same time, what with everyone’s busy schedules and many of his siblings having kids of their own, at this point.
“Here,” Lance said, after sparing a moment to take in the picture he already knew so well. He nodded towards it, and Red followed him, looking at it with wide eyes.
“Damn,” he said. “I guess this really is your house.”
“Yeah,” Lance said resentfully, retaining that last bit of his anger. And then it slipped away. “So… you haven’t seen them?”
The guy, this total stranger, looked at Lance with pity poorly hidden in his eyes. “No,” he answered. “I’ve only been here for about a week, but… This house has been totally empty.”
“Right,” Lance said stiffly. He noticed Red had put away his own weapon the moment Lance had walked away. It probably hadn’t been a good idea to turn his back on someone holding a sword, but Lance wasn’t exactly in the right mindset right then, standing in his family home with none of his family around. Still, this guy clearly wasn’t trying to kill him, and it was with a sigh that Lance reached over his shoulder and slipped his arrow back with his other measly amount, slinging his bow over his back as well.
“I’ll just be going, then,” Lance said weakly. He wasn’t about to demand that this guy leave, after all. It wasn’t like Lance had been intending on staying here in the first place. All he’d wanted was a sign, and maybe this stranger was as good of a sign as he was going to get.
Lance couldn’t quite decipher the expression that came over Red’s face as he turned to leave, picking his way back through the entry way laden with booby traps. He’d only just reached the front door, his hand on the handle, when he heard, “Lance!”
He froze, his body stiff with shock as he turned slowly, squinting cautiously back the way he’d come. That hadn’t been anyone from his family’s voice, he knew that. It’d been Red’s.
But how did he know his name?
The guy came sliding out of the kitchen — holy shit, he was wearing socks! Why was that weirdly adorable? — with something in his hand held aloft. The picture. Shit, yeah, Lance had meant to take that with him.
“There’s something on the back!” the guy said desperately, and easily, almost carelessly, stepped through the traps he’d set up. He held the paper out to Lance, his cheeks looking oddly flushed.
Lance took the picture, glancing down at his family for a moment, Mami, Marco, Luis, Veronica. Nadia, Sylvio, Matias, and flipped it over.
Lance, it read, his name written in his mother’s familiar handwriting, something that Lance hadn’t realized before now would be something that’d make him tear up. We plan to stay in the state. Unsure of where we’ll go, but God will lead us back together again, someday. We prefer evens. Love you so much, mijo. Stay safe.
“What does ‘we prefer evens’ mean?” Red asked. He must’ve scanned the note before calling out Lance’s name.
“I… I think she means stations,” Lance mumbled. “Like, on a walkie talkie.”
A fist reached through Lance’s chest and squeezed his heart, battered his lungs. He didn’t have a walkie talkie. There were two between the three of them — him, Hunk, and Pidge, that is — and Lance had ensured that they keep them. They’d be in range of hearing each other, after all. No point in Lance having it.
“I have to go,” Lance said abruptly.
Lance paused, looking up at the stranger, who seemed almost as surprised at his outburst as Lance was.
“I… It’s just…” he started. “Do you have a ride?”
Lance blinked. It was one thing to let a stranger stay in his home long after his family had abandoned it. One thing to do the guy the favor of not putting an arrow through his head when he’d first laid eyes on him. But inviting him to come along? To let him near his friends, near all of their supplies?
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust this guy, ‘cause he totally did. It was rare enough that you saw actual, living people these days. But it was even rarer that those actual, living people weren’t crazy and desperate. It wasn’t just the dead killing the living, out here. People killed people just as often, usually for something stupid, and Lance really couldn’t risk putting his friends’ lives in jeopardy.
So, “No,” he said, shaking his head.
The guy before him frowned. “Then how did you get here?”
“There’s nothing around here for miles,” Red said logically. “No way you walked here. You’d have been eaten in your sleep.”
“Maybe I don’t sleep,” Lance said, which, yeah, probably wasn’t his best comeback, but he kind of hadn’t eaten yet today. Good comebacks didn’t run on empty stomachs — that’s just a known fact.
“Look,” the guy said. “I’m skilled with my sword, and your weapon’s only good for long-range. The two of us could easily make it to your car without any trouble. I’m only trying to get to the next city.”
Lance ground his teeth. This guy was right, however much Lance didn’t like it. Letting the rotters get too close to him had always been a problem, because it wasn’t exactly easy to string up and aim when one of those things was right on you. On more than one occasion Lance had been forced to just grab an arrow and jam it through a zombie’s head, and it was kind of terrifying having to get that close to them in the first place.
“Okay,” Lance said slowly. “Fine.” Because this guy had given him his mom’s note, right? He’d picked it up off the fridge, seen the writing on the back, and called out for Lance. Sure, it was what any decent person would’ve done, but it was getting harder and harder to find decent people with each passing day.
Plus, the truth was, Lance wanted this dude to be a good guy. It’d only been a few days since Lance had been separated from Pidge and Hunk, but already he could feel the effects of being alone, and he wasn’t liking it. Plus, meeting new people these days wasn’t something that happened all the time. It was usually, ‘Oh, nice to meet you! Aaaand you’re getting eaten by a zombie now. Great’. Either that or, ‘Jesus Christ, you lost all your morals! Stop trying to kill me for my meager food supply, you bastard!’
So the fact that this guy had yet to try to kill Lance for his supplies or get eaten by a rotter in his presence was kind of uplifting. And Lance’s opinion was of course in no way being influenced by how the guy looked. Like, you’d think the dirt and grease and blood (because who wasn’t covered in blood these days?) would just go ahead and make him ugly already, but nope. If what looked like a mullet couldn’t de-beautify him, nothing could.
“Really?” the guy said, looking surprised and hopeful at Lance’s agreement.
“Yeah,” Lance said. “My friends and I are meeting at the highway just out of town. They’re getting gas while I…” Lance trailed off, gesturing around the house kind of pathetically.
And then Lance stood by silently, creeping back out of the booby traps before he accidentally set one off while his new acquaintance went about gathering his supplies. It didn’t take him very long, seeing as his supplies were already packed up and all together as any other good zombie survivalist would’ve had it.
Lance stood with his arms crossed and an eyebrow raised as Red stood up after fastening his boots. Lance didn’t know why, but he was kind of sad to see his socked feet go. Thinking about it now, Lance wondered when the last time he’d been able to walk around without shoes was. He slept in his shoes, most nights, never knowing when he’d have to get up and run right when he opened his eyes. And yet here this guy was, confident enough on his lonesome to walk around Lance’s old house in socked feet.
“Gonna tell me your name or should I just call you ‘Red’?” Lance finally demanded, gesturing up and down at the guy’s outfit.
Red looked down at his outfit, possibly taking in all the red for the first time, before looking back up at Lance. “My name’s Keith,” he said.
“Perfect,” Lance said. “I hope you like hiking, Keith.”