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How to Survive on Twinkies and Hope

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This wasn’t so bad.

It could be a lot worse.

Well, the situation was pretty bad. The whole… world in ruins, everybody dead thing. That was pretty bad. But right here, right now…

This was pretty okay.

Pitch was asleep, and Jack was keeping watch. Keeping watch involved using Pitch as a pillow, and that was probably Jack’s favorite thing. It had a built-in, perfectly valid excuse, so Jack didn’t have to justify a thing.

Not that he could have, if he’d wanted to. Justification usually took more than one or two words.

Which made it crazy lucky that Pitch hadn’t shot him, so long ago. Or was it a long time ago? Jack was kind of bad at time. Pitch was a lot better at it. Jack figured it might have something to do with that sleeping thing he couldn’t do.

Why hadn’t Pitch shot him? It wasn’t like Jack had known he was there. He’d been busy. With his things.

Somehow, even after the apocalypse, libraries stayed places of quiet. It was like everyone had been trained too well. Jack found it peaceful. And he found a convenient set of empty shelves where someone might’ve had themselves a ceremonial book burning or something, it didn’t matter, but shelves were shelves and Jack had shit to put on them.

Fine motor skills weren’t really his forte, though, so the shelves were a mess of trinkets and gadgets, some he couldn’t even effectively use, but whatever. He liked to look at them.

This part of the city was pretty safe for zombies. And by pretty safe, Jack meant overrun. Humans had self-preservation instincts, just like the rest of them, and didn’t usually walk into the belly of the beast. So he felt alright leaving the rest of them behind for his hoarded stash of pretty things.

Today he’d found a rubber duck. Which… wasn’t exactly pretty, but it was aesthetically pleasing, so on the shelf it went.

As it turned out, that rubber duck saved his life that night.

Pitch had made the brave, also read monumentally stupid , decision of choosing the abandoned library on the outskirts of an infested town to be home for the night. When he’d seen the arrangement of the miscellaneous objects on one of the bookshelves, he assumed he wasn’t the only one to do so.

He hadn’t pondered too long on the strangeness of it. After all who had the time to go out into the apocalypse and collect a bunch of useless junk to put on display? But the former soldier simply chose a different spot in the labyrinth of knowledge to keep watch in, somewhere not too far from a window and somewhere he could keep an eye on that bookcase in case its owner came back.

It was the duck, bright and unmistakable in the light of the setting sun, that had made Pitch hesitate to pull the trigger.

Nevermind ammo was scarce. Nevermind his own history with zombies. When Pitch saw this young dead man making the conscious, almost normal action of putting an object on a shelf, his heart was pounding harder than it had when he’d been ambushed by an infected mob the night prior.

Pitch watched him, studying each awkward and delayed movement for what felt like hours but probably was only half of one. He made another ‘brave’ decision.

With all the stealth he could afford, Pitch stalked his way over to cock his pistol against the back of the zombie’s head and spoke calm but cold, “If you can understand me...” he trailed off, ready to be lunged at in case the sound of his voice sent the other into a murderous frenzy, “Turn around slowly.”

That was literally the only way Jack could turn around. In fact, it took him a good second just to get his hands up. Funny how his limbs always moved better when he was hunting prey.

His first look at the man who had him at gunpoint made him stupid. Well, more stupid. Except, Jack wasn’t really stupid, he was just physically incapable of expressing himself, vocalizing his thoughts, or moving as quick as he wanted. Which, okay, combined with the way his brain short-circuited a little, did actually make him kind of dumb. Temporarily.

Turning on the spot certainly required a sort of coordination he didn’t have. One of his hands knocked into the gun on his way around, but the man’s hold was so steady it wasn’t the gun that moved but Jack. All of Jack. He almost hit the shelving trying to catch himself from the recoil.

God, that was embarrassing.

There was a pregnant moment of silence that followed. Pitch was… dumbfounded at the discovery. He didn’t lower his gun, but he was lacking the ‘trained killer’ expression. He didn’t know what to do with the information he had, almost seemed scared of it. Or maybe that was just the conditioned fear of being so close to a zombie.

When Pitch got his wits back, he spoke again, “You… Nod if you can understand me.”

It took Jack a hot second. He had no idea why he was being asked to move around so much, or why he hadn’t been shot yet, but doing as he was told seemed like the best option available to him. If only his neck wasn’t so stiff. Jack nodded at least five times before he was sure his head was actually doing the motion. Best to be sure, lest the stranger kill him for his lack of prudence. Which would be a shame because he’d only just found that duck.

Pitch shifted on his feet, like he was fighting the urge to move, to get closer, to study, to find all the answers he’d been looking for in one person. “Can you talk?”

Oh man. Challenge round. If only Jack could just think the words into being, because that would be a whole lot easier than getting his lips and tongue and throat to work in sync. Jack opened his mouth, flexed his throat, tried to push some air through, and…

Groaned unhelpfully.

God damn it. Jack sighed. Okay, well, the effort was definitely worth not getting shot, so he took another breath, leaned forward, and tried it again.

“Some.”

“Holy shit.” Now Pitch looked officially scared. Or… not so much fearing for his life, but more like that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster before the big drop. Exhilarated maybe? It was enough to make his hand waver. “Are there… more like you?”

Fuck. He wanted to have an actual conversation. Of course. Jack shrugged his shoulders. This kind of thing was a million times easier with other zombies, who understood just how difficult words were, and the body language that filled in between.

“Friends.”

Because Jack didn’t exactly talk to just anyone. It was too much of a bitch getting the words out to say hi to any and all zombies he passed on the street.

The reality of the situation hit Pitch like a train. He let out of disbelieving, almost manic, breath of a laugh and muttered into the night, “I’m fucking talking to a zombie. Bloody Hell.

And then he was struck again by what Jack had actually said and took a few steps backward, his gun re-trained between the young man’s eyes. “Friends,” he repeated, a fleeting glance given to the immediate area, “Are they here?”

Shaking his head was easier than nodding. Jack also really didn’t want to get shot. “Sleep. ...some..where…” Fuck, this was exhausting. He better not get shot, anyway. It looked like the man was having a small mental breakdown, so it was possible. It was definitely possible. And would really, really suck.

“Sleep?” Pitch looked more confused by the concept than he did undead communication, but then his eyes flicked back towards the bookcase, the collection, and he tried putting two and two together, “This is where you sleep,” Of course Pitch didn’t see a bed around anywhere, but, “....Why aren’t you trying to eat me?”

Because Jack didn’t want to. That was way too many words to actually say. So he shrugged instead. It was a stupid thing to ask really, because Jack was still at gunpoint and anything with half a brain could figure out they’d get shot before they got a bite in, but Jack… wasn’t thinking about getting a bite in, anyway. And that…

He shrugged again. Something about this man made Jack happier seeing him stand there holding a gun on him than the thought of munching on his brain. He couldn’t explain it.

Literally. Jack would never get that many words past his lips.

A shrug was hardly a definitive anything. A shrug was usually ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’ A shrug was not something to gamble one’s life on.

But with Pitch being on such a roll with decision making, he went three for three and lowered his gun after another brief surveying of the empty library. Zombies weren’t stealthy. Unpredictable and deadly in swarms, but usually not patient enough to bother with sneaking. He didn’t hear any other noises besides the occasional breeze and allowed himself to believe they were the only two in the building.

The soldier in Pitch sized up Jack and concluded he could be easily dealt with in close quarters combat, so the gun wasn’t ... entirely necessary. Distance, yes, but Pitch was hoping he wouldn’t need violence at all.

He took a breath like he’d resigned to his foolish, self-imposed fate, “What’s your name?”

Jack groaned, despite the relief he felt at the gun going away. That was a two syllable word. Lucky he even remembered it, given everything else he didn’t know about himself anymore. Still, Jack mirrored the resignation and took a deep breath in preparation for attempting more than one sound.

“Jack…”

And promptly failed it.

“Jack.” So simple. So normal . Pitch’s expression was almost sad when he spoke it aloud.

Holstering his gun, he reached for the locket he wore around his neck and gently tossed it in Jack’s direction. “I’m looking for my daughter. She’s… like you. Have you seen her?”

Jack tried, really tried, to catch it. The locket bounced off of his chest, then off of his arm on its way to the floor. At least bending over was less difficult than talking. But opening the locket… That required fine motor skills Jack just didn’t have.

He fumbled with it for several long seconds before he stood up and held the locket out to the man. This was a word he was pretty good at.

“Help.”

The hesitation was all over Pitch. So much for distance.

He should have known. Or tossed the locket over already opened. Now if he wanted an answer, he was going to have to do another ‘brave’ thing. Yes, he could have pulled the gun out again, but he was going to need both hands anyway. That and…

Jack appeared to be indulging him this much. The intelligence he was showing was already miles ahead of any other zombie he came across. There was obviously some humanity left in him.

So as he carefully made his way over, he decided to play on that. “I’m Pitch,” he introduced, reaching just short of an arm’s length away for the locket and revealing the picture inside, “And this is Seraphina.”

Hopefully giving a name to a potential meal would make Jack less inclined to eat it.

Jack watched in wonder as the man came closer and actually helped him. He wasn't really sure what he was expecting. Maybe for him to snatch it back and declare Jack a lost cause?

Instead, now Jack knew his name. He mouthed it with his lips, feeling it on his tongue even if he wasn't willing to put forth the effort to make the sound. Pitch.

An odd feeling in his chest drew his attention away. It was like a faint, hollow tap… but from the inside. It didn't repeat, and Jack had no idea what it was, so he looked into Pitch’s hands for the locket and something he did understand instead.

She was pretty. Who knew if she was still just as pretty dead. Jack wouldn't know. She didn't look familiar at all. He didn't know why that was so disappointing.

Jack shook his head as he leaned away.

It may have had something to do with the utter heartbreak etched into Pitch’s face. Obviously he’d gotten his hopes up too high. The fact that he’d gotten his hopes up at all was still something though. Pitch replaced the locket around his neck and tucked it in his shirt with a sigh. He would have to mourn later. He might not have had a direct link to Seraphina yet, but Jack was still here. Jack, who he had so many more questions for, if only talking wasn’t so hard.

Pitch didn’t mind doing most of it. “I… want to believe that she’s like you. That she can still understand. If there are others like you, then there has to be a way to reverse this. Do you know much about your...condition?”

Jack didn't know how to respond to that. She probably was like him. Most of them were, if they still had faces. But all Jack knew was what he knew, and that wasn't much from before he was dead and wasn't much from after, either.

“Dead.”

Pitch didn’t let the answer deter him. He wasn’t expecting Jack to be able to give him a full diagnosis, obviously, but any information was better than no information. “The dead don’t usually walk. Or feed on the living. Or collect rubber ducks,” he added with a vague smirk. “Were you bitten?”

Jack… didn't remember. Nothing seemed to be missing from his person, so maybe not? But how else would he have ended up like this. He shrugged. Because he didn't know what else to do. Especially when someone was commenting on his love for rubber ducks like it meant something.

Pitch returned to looking pensive, clearly not satisfied, and maybe a little worried, with that answer. “You don’t remember?” he guessed, having assumed that if Jack knew his name, he knew his past, but, “Do you remember anything before you changed?”

Finally, an easy question. Jack shook his head readily, eager to have a solid answer to give the guy.

But it was also getting dark out, as the world went from dusk to night, and Jack wasn't the most graceful even when he could see every obstacle in his path. It was time to get in place for the night, and Jack tried to tell Pitch this by gesturing behind him and taking a step in that direction. They needed to move.

Unfortunately, Pitch was stuck digesting what that headshake meant. Of course he suspected as much. Obviously. Why else would so many other families fall victim to their own blood?

The sound of Jack’s feet snapped him out of it and Pitch looked at him skeptically. “What is it?”

Jack stared unhelpfully at Pitch. If he could wax poetic about the coming darkness or recite a dissertation about bending light in the atmosphere, he absolutely would. Instead, Jack flopped one hand toward the window, then flopped the other toward the cushy library armchairs.

The sleeping thing. Right. Pitch caught on eventually.

But didn’t move right away. “You first,” he said with a gesture. He wasn’t about to let his guard down that much.

That was fine. Jack was plenty willing to lead the way. Jack also had the coordination of a Jack in the Box, however, and getting between Pitch and the shelf opposite him took a long minute and many awkward baby steps because whatever else, he was not willing to knock anything on that shelf over.

Fixing it all would take so long.

Jack usually picked the armchair closest to his shit. Tonight he had a guest though, and Jack had the thought of offering the prime real estate to Pitch. At which point he realized the armchair was valuable for a sentimental reason that Pitch wouldn't share and Jack was being stupid.

So he just flopped in his favorite armchair himself, and slid down until his head was resting on the back. It was as comfortable as he could be until morning.

Once settled, Pitch followed suit. He chose the armchair across from Jack, and even dragged it a few feet closer in order to continue their conversation. He wasn’t ready for anything remotely like sleep yet. “Look Jack,” he began, seeking the other’s eyes before the night crept in and stole all visibility, “I want to help you. I’m hardly a doctor or a scientist, but maybe we can find one or figure something out if we work together.”

Jack's eyes drifted around the room and over the shelves before he got them to focus on Pitch again. It was confusing, though. How was a doctor going to help him? He was dead. Doctors didn't do dead people. “Help… How?”

“Help cure you. Help change things back to… the way it was before,” Pitch explained, trying to hold onto his conviction, because he knew he was speaking of the seemingly impossible, “I haven’t given up believing there’s a way to save everyone. You’ve shown me tonight that there’s still something left to save.”

Jack wondered if he should have felt something about that. Insulted, maybe? This was who he was, as far as he knew, and Pitch was talking about fixing him. Except, did Jack want to be fixed?

It sure would be a lot easier if he could move a little faster. Say more than two words at a time. Actually express himself. ...Alright, fine. Jack could use a little fixing. Maybe.

He shrugged a little, “Sure.”

It wasn’t the most… inspiring answer. Pitch slumped back in the seat and chuckled humorlessly, “I don’t even know if you’ll remember this come morning. Or the next time you get hungry.”

The man then stood up, reaching into the satchel strapped around him, and pulling out a glow stick he cracked to provide some illumination. Just before he passed his undead companion, Pitch briefly put a hand on his shoulder, “Sleep well, Jack,” and disappeared into the rest of the library.

Funny thing to say, because Jack didn't sleep at all. Zombies never did, which is why Jack made such a good lookout while Pitch slept. He spent the whole night silently staring at the stars and running circles around the thoughts in his head. Or melodramatically recounting the past, like now.

Thing was, staring into the darkness all night was boring as fuck. As soon as the gray dawn peeked through the windows and gave Jack enough light to not trip over himself getting around, he went searching for Pitch.

There was every chance that the man hadn't stuck around through the night, but Jack figured there was a higher one that he did. He hadn't heard a door open, to start, and the argument pretty violently ended with Jack assuming Pitch wasn't stupid enough to travel alone at night in predator’s territory.

There weren't a whole lot of hiding places in a library comfortable enough to sleep in, though. Jack found Pitch before the sun even had a chance to rise.

It did, however, take until sunrise for the feeling of being intensely watched to hit him.

Pitch’s internal clock was fairly reliable for getting him up at the crack of dawn, so when he blearily blinked his eyes open and was met with a most literal cold and dead stare not even a foot away from him…

Shi-- ” he didn’t even finish the curse before he was scrambling backwards. Only he was in a chair, so that didn’t get him far, just further into the back of it, limbs braced against whatever they could find purchase on.

And then recognition set in. “...Jack?”

He nodded in reply. That had been funny. He should sneak up on sleeping humans more often. Or, no he shouldn't. Good way to get shot.

He was glad to see Pitch was alright, though. And not trigger happy. Jack couldn't talk much, and he definitely couldn't emote like a live person, but… it was nice having someone around who could.

“Didn't… forget.”

Pitch choked out an incredulous laugh, relief laced through it. Slowly he eased back into the cushioning, eyeing Jack warily and trying to readjust to his current reality. This was… certainly a new way to start the morning for both of them.

It took a deep breath and quick check of his surroundings for Pitch to relax. Or at least enough to convince himself he wasn’t about to be eaten. Enough to try this waking thing one more time. “Good...morning, Jack.”

Jack nodded again, because saying it back was too many syllables for him. He backed off though, to give Pitch room to stand if he wanted to. He still looked a good deal out of it, and that left Jack wondering what real sleep was like. Did he dream? What did he dream about?

Pitch just went with the lack of answer, allowing himself to yawn and stretch before he rolled onto his feet. A lot more of the library was visible now that the sun was up. He wanted to look around, but there were other needs to attend to first, and Jack was still staring at him. “I don’t suppose this place still has a working bathroom.”

Jack knew it did, but there was no way he was giving verbal instructions on how to get there. ...Jack also wasn't actually sure where it was anymore, because it wasn't like he used it for anything. He nodded, again, because yes, but when he turned around to attempt guiding Pitch…

Well, shit. He didn't even know if it was on the right or the left. But… well, he probably had a better idea than Pitch. So he got walking.

And Pitch got following. If only to see if it was true. Things like electricity and plumbing only really existed in the shelters anymore, so this was a rare find. As long as Jack wasn’t just leading him into a zombie ambush or something. Pitch felt around for his gun, just in case, but otherwise, “You really have this whole place to yourself?”

Jack had to turn his whole body to look back at Pitch and nod. His neck was, unironically, too stiff to accomplish such a thing. Every zombie had their own corner, but most liked to be closer to zombie central. Jack was weird because he was a hoarder and needed the space. But he wasn't that weird. They all sat somewhere to pretend to sleep at night.

Jack was quiet while he considered what single word might convey all of that to Pitch.

He settled on a small shrug and, “Shelves.”

Pitch tilted his head considering, a half smirk on his lips, “Not everyone’s a collector like you, I take it. You know, you’re the only one I’ve seen on their own that I’ve been able to approach. The others were always too ...insane with hunger. Otherwise, I’ve only seen large meandering groups.”

It was a little unfair that Pitch was trying to hold a conversation while they walked. Jack had to stop and turn again, gesturing with one clunky hand at the gun he held, “Safer.”

Pitch gave Jack a skeptical look. It wasn’t like he was being subtle about his method of defense. “I’m still not convinced you’re not going to try and eat me.”

Jack tried to shake his head, but it was hard. He didn't mean him. He meant, “Groups.”

Pitch didn’t look like he was comprehending completely, but he was trying with the single words he was getting, “Yes. Strength in numbers. Same with.. the living. I suppose you and I are just a couple of misfits.”

Jack nodded, because he was definitely one of those. He got along with his zombie kind of course, but they did think him a little odd even so. What did a zombie need trinkets for? Or a whole library to himself? But they made Jack happy, so… Oh, this hallway looked familiar. Jack was pretty sure the bathroom was near here. ...He wasn't sure how to tell Pitch that.

“So we have that much in common.” If Jack wasn’t going to tell him, Pitch wasn’t going to notice, clearly more interested in the conversation, “It’s a start.”

That wasn't a statement Jack could easily reply to, so he didn't. Truthfully, anything beyond a yes or no question was a challenge for him, so… He continued down the hall, wondering about just how stupid he was going to feel if this wasn't the one with the bathroom, when he finally saw the restroom sign. He turned to Pitch and pointed. He hoped he wouldn't be required to escort him inside or anything…

Definitely not.

Pitch, in fact, took it upon himself to walk past Jack once he saw the sign, press his ear to the door for a few seconds, and then cautiously open it with his gun drawn. Couldn’t be too careful with a luxury like running water on the line.

It was dark, uncared for, broken in some areas, but empty. When he deemed it safe, he turned to Jack with his gratitude, “Thank you. Please don’t wait up.”

Jack nodded. Thank God, truly. He turned and meandered back out into the main library, now wondering just what he should do with himself. Normally he'd admire his trinkets, or go out hunting, maybe hang with some other zombies, but now he had a human to… wait for? Escort? Jack really wasn't sure what he was doing.

The thought hit him that maybe Pitch would take this chance to hop out a window and ditch him. The way his stomach dropped was wholly unfamiliar to Jack. They barely even knew each other, but Jack never had to worry about someone running off before. Zombies didn't move particularly fast, and… zombies don't care. Jack didn't know why he cared now.

He was so confused.

It was a good twenty minutes later that Pitch retraced his steps and found himself back in the main hall. His face was washed, his gun was packed away, and he generally seemed in a bit better mood. You know, compared to the terror of this morning. He approached the zombie with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, easy, almost comfortable with his presence, “So, are you up for answering a few more questions, Jack?”

Insofar as Jack could answer. The zombie nodded. The light feeling of relief was just as unfamiliar, but way more pleasant. Pitch didn't leave.

“Most pressing,” Pitch began with a scrutinizing eye, even as he took another step closer, “Your hunger. Are you… aware of yourself when it happens?”

Jack got a heavy feeling from that question. He suspected there was a lot more to it than simple curiosity, but all Jack could respond to was what he had on the surface. With a light shrug, Jack nodded again. Yeah, he was himself when he was hunting. The whole time.

“And,” Pitch pressed, “It has to be… human? No substitutes?”

Jack nodded uncertainly. He was pretty sure. He had never actually tried anything else, but he got the feeling other zombies had. Everyone… acted like human was it. So it had to be. It's all that made sense.

Pitch’s sigh was resigned. Like he’d been considering the possibility but didn’t want to admit it was the only one. “I don’t...know how we’re going to handle that. If you’re still interested in working together that is.”

Jack shrugged. He wasn't worried about it. Not like he had to eat every day or anything. He was dead, after all. His metabolism was pretty shot to hell. And when he did have to hunt, he just wouldn't take Pitch with.

And if a zombie approached Pitch while Jack was gone, he fully expected the man to shoot them. It would just have to be their way.

Pitch wasn’t entirely swayed by Jack’s repeated nonchalance. There were only so many ways to interpret a shrug and Jack was testing all of them. “I can’t tell if you’re only humoring me, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I did want to look around a bit before heading back out.”

Jack wished he could communicate better, wished he could actually express himself. It was frustrating, having so much to say and no way to say it all. He didn't blame Pitch for being frustrated too. Being dead kind of sucked.

That last bit, though… Jack found himself filled with concern, worry, a totally foreign feeling when most of his friends were already dead and most of his friends weren't really his friends, anyway. And he only just met this guy, but still… He couldn't just let him wander around the zombie homeland like a sheep in the wolf's den.

“At… what?”

“The books?” Pitch offered with a sort of helpless smile, “I doubt the computers work, or that there’s much of anything left, but... “ this time, it was him that shrugged, “I’ve come this far by scavenging what I can. Maybe the cure for the zombie virus is laying around here somewhere.”

Oh. Okay. Yeah. Pitch can hang around the library all he wants. The relief washed over Jack and he found himself nodding again. If only every phrase about opening your home to someone wasn't four or more words. The library was totally safe. “Sure.”

“There’s only so much daylight,” Pitch continued, laying out his plan for Jack to take or leave, “I’ll need to find something to eat myself, and see if I’m right about my daughter being here.”

Jack shook his head. That sounded like Pitch wandering alone in zombieland. Nope. If Pitch needed to eat, Jack was a lot better equipped to go looking than him.

...But that would take way too many words to explain.

So Jack pointed at himself, pointed at the world outside, struggled to make his hands look like grabbing food in conjunction with his teeth biting down, then pointed at Pitch. And while he was out, he could look for a zombie who looks like him.

If the apocalypse wasn’t actually a real thing, the idea of zombie charades would have been quite humorous. Pitch didn’t laugh, but he did seem charmed, if not stunned by the very human gestures, delayed as they were.

Too bad his charade game wasn’t exactly on point. “Yes I know there are zombies like you out there who want to eat me. I’ve done well to avoid them so far. It’s not going to stop me from looking for her.”

Jack's shoulders slumped as he sighed. God, he sucked at this. Pulling himself together, Jack shook his head and tried again. He pointed at Pitch, pointed at the floor. Pointed at himself, pointed at the door. Mimed the eating, then mimed giving whatever the fuck he was pretending to eat to Pitch. That had to do it. Right?

Pitch tilted his head disbelievingly, “You… You’re saying you can go find food while I stay here?”

Oh, thank God. Jack nodded in relief.

Pitch’s head tilted to the other side, “And… you’re willing to do that?”

...Why, was that weird? Jack supposed that might be weird. They had only just met. But, well… Jack wasn't ready to lose his guest to death or…

The point was.

Jack nodded.

The next question was on the tip of Pitch’s tongue. He clearly wanted to ask, but thought better on it, and chose a different one, “Ah… That wouldn’t… put you in danger, would it?”

Jack's brows furrowed as much as they could, and he waved vaguely at the shelves and shelves of useless shit he collects. No one would think twice about Jack carrying stuff he can't use home.

Pitch seemed to get the point. “I mean, that would be great if you’re willing to do it. Then perhaps we can both look for Sera.”

...Jack would deal with that bridge when it came time to cross it. In the meantime, he'd take the win for what it was.

He usually did that, nowadays. Explaining was just too hard. Jack longed for the ability to speak like Pitch could. Wondered what it would be like if he could say whatever came into his head. Wondered if Pitch would ditch his chatty ass if he did. Wondered if it was better this way, with his speech impeded by death.

Wondered way too much for the middle of a quiet night while Pitch was resting unaware under his head. It was pretty bad the first time Pitch left, and Jack was way more attached now. He had no idea what would be left of him if Pitch kicked him to the curb for talking.

For the past few days, Jack had gone out hunting in a much less violent manner while Pitch occupied his time looking up and down bookshelves. Jack made sure to come back before sunset, tonight with an offering of canned soup, a couple granola bars, and pudding. Pitch had smiled at the thought of having dessert.

Despite their largely one-sided conversations, despite the many, many books that had yet to be browsed through, it was inevitable that it would come up again. Pitch was a man on a mission, no matter how hospitable Jack was making the apocalypse seem.

“Jack,” he spoke up after his last spoonful of pudding, a book in his lap, sitting in the same chair the zombie had offered to him the night they met, “You didn’t see her out there, did you?”

Jack shook his head, trying to look as sad about that as he could. Truthfully, half the time he forgot he was supposed to be looking for something other than food. Food that was still good was pretty hard to find, but even so, he really thought a girl who looked like Pitch would probably stand out. Even if she didn’t though, his answer was the same. If she was around here, Jack had not found her yet.

It certainly put a damper on dessert. Pitch closed the book he was holding with a sigh, his gaze distant, “She must have moved on. Or I made a mistake.” There was a final pause as he came to a decision that he must have been thinking about for the past three days, “Tomorrow morning. Or maybe tonight. You said you all go somewhere to sleep, right?”

Jack nodded this time, but he wasn’t sure how to… specify. Everyone went somewhere, yes. They all had their nighttime rituals and most of them stayed in one place, because they couldn’t see in the dark any better than regular humans. But, “Not… Sleep.”

Pitch had noticed Jack’s insomnia by now, and really how much sense did it make for the dead to sleep? “....Settle, then. You don’t hunt at night. Right? Only the ...decaying ones.”

“Boneys,” Jack helpfully supplied.

“Boneys? Is that what you call them?” Pitch sounded at least a little amused, “Sunrise. Maybe sunrise would be best. I think the next closest town is only a few miles north of here.”

Jack found himself increasingly concerned by the words coming out of Pitch’s mouth. Randomly naming times of day was fine, mostly, but what did anything have to do with the next closest town? What did it matter if it was a few miles away? Jack pushed his throat to perform, “...What?”

“I have to find her, Jack,” Pitch insisted, sounding more and more serious, “Will you… come with me?”

Pitch couldn’t be serious. Didn’t he know what was out there? What the world was like outside the walls of the library? “Too,” he shook his head in denial, “dangerous.”

Everywhere is dangerous,” Pitch brushed off the warning, “As much as I would love to have access to a working bathroom and read more stories to you, I can’t lose her. And I can’t help you from here either. You still want to work together, right Jack?”

Jack wanted to nod. That seemed like the right answer. But the way Pitch phrased it, agreeing to this meant agreeing to leave, and Jack didn’t like the idea of letting Pitch walk to his doom. There had to be another way. What about the original idea? Jack let his head bob once and said, “Books.”

Pitch considered the single word enough to glance at the shelves slowly being swallowed up by the dark. It made him hesitate. “...Certainly, I could spend months here researching something I barely understand. And even if I did find something, there isn’t much we can do from here. We have to keep moving forward. Or… I do.”

Just how was Pitch planning to help Jack if he couldn’t understand the subject he was researching? How was wandering out in a world where everything wanted to eat him going to get him any closer to understanding those books, either? None of what he was saying made sense, and Jack wanted him to just… stop. And go back to the chair that was now his chair and read another book that Jack couldn’t and… “Stay.”

Rising to his feet, Pitch let the book fall to the floor and approached him, placing large hands on slim shoulders so he could try again, “Come with me.”

“Danger,” Jack pressed, his throat barely letting him form the words, “out there.”

“I know,” Pitch admitted, lowering his hands in defeat, “But so is my daughter. I can’t stay here, but I understand if you want to.”

Pitch could stay here. If he really wanted to. Besides, if he didn’t understand the books, and he didn’t know how to help, how was finding his daughter going to do anything? Why did he have to leave, if he had no plan to fix it? Why did he want to go out and be a walking lure for zombies? Even if he found his daughter, she might just try to eat him, too.

Jack had never felt like this before. A drum beat once in his chest and Jack had never wanted to grab onto something and keep it so badly.

“Stay. Please.”

A look of surprise passed over Pitch’s face. He’d seen curiosity in the zombie, maybe some amusement if he squinted, and even though Jack’s face was blank, he could tell there was ... some kind of emotion in those two words.

Fear most likely. Only the most prevalent of emotions in these ending times. Pitch seemed regretful that he was the cause. “Why not come with me? We can protect each other,” though not regretful enough to stop trying, “And after we find her, we can come back here and figure out our next step. Figure out how to cure the both of you. I promise we won’t leave your rubber duck behind.”

Jack was shocked to realize that right now, he didn’t give a shit about the rubber duck. He gave a shit about Pitch, and how the man was planning to feed himself to random zombies somewhere that wasn’t here. How was Jack, who could barely hold a locket in his hands successfully, going to protect Pitch? He would just get them both killed. The next group of humans Pitch tried to ask for directions would put a bullet right between Jack’s eyes, and then Pitch would wander without guidance right into a zombie stronghold.

Jack really wished he could talk. Like a normal person.

“We can’t.”

The rejection looked like it hurt. Clearly Pitch hadn’t expected the other to be so adamant. Clearly Pitch had misunderstood their arrangement. He couldn’t even get a fellow outcast to help him. “Then…” Pitch started with a hand against his own forehead, “Then I’ll come back for you. If you wait here. I’ll come find you.”

Jack would be here. He had nowhere else to go. He couldn’t… survive out there, on his own. Pitch couldn’t, either. He couldn’t come find Jack because he wouldn’t be alive to do it. Not that his brain was firing quite as fast as it used to, but still, Jack’s hand didn’t consult it before reaching out to grip Pitch’s sleeve.

“Stay.”

He had to try one more time.

Such a little gesture was enough to make Pitch momentarily forget he was dealing with someone who wasn’t alive. The dad in him wanted to reassure and comfort. The lonely traveler in him wanted to cling to the companionship. He wasn’t sure where the rational thinker part of him went.

He did know that if he did stay, another day, another week, that leaving wasn’t going to get any easier. Not that it was ever an option to begin with.

“Until sunrise,” Pitch decided, lowering his other hand to take hold of that pale, worryingly cold wrist and remove it from his sleeve, but not let go right away, “I’ll come back.”

No, he wouldn't. Jack didn't understand why, but he was sure that if he took Pitch at his word, things would only get worse for him later. Because Pitch wouldn't come back, and that…

Sunset would probably be better. At least then, most of his kind would be going to… settle. The area would have less zombies wandering. Sunrise is the first light after being bored all night. If everyone was like him, and in this respect they were, they would get up and go as soon as they were able.

The flip side was, if Pitch left at sunset, he might get past this area unscathed, but then he would be out there trying to find shelter at night. Which…

If he had to go, which he obviously believed he did, then sunrise gave him his highest chance. If he wouldn't stay, then Jack could at least give him his best odds on his way out. “I'll take… you.”

Finally the spark returned to Pitch’s eyes, and a genuine smile spread across his lips. That was... He turned Jack’s hand and grasped it in a firm shake, not knowing how else he could possibly express his gratitude to someone he’d known for so little time. “That would mean a lot to me. Thank you.”

It meant a lot to Jack, too. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing with his hand. It didn’t squeeze like Pitch’s did, at least not without a lot of concentration. So he just left it there in Pitch’s grip, for as long as Pitch wanted it.

Only a couple seconds longer and the hand was dropped, though the smile remained. “We have a few hours then,” some of which would need to be for actual sleeping, but Pitch didn’t seem bothered. He had other ideas, “How about another story?”

Jack tried to pull his lips into a smile. It was nice when Pitch smiled, and it was nice when Pitch read to him, and if Pitch was leaving… there was no reason not to try and enjoy the night.

It only lasted so long. Jack could have listened all night, and technically speaking, he did. It just wasn’t to Pitch’s voice. As the hour grew late and the man grew tired, the words fell away and Jack spent the time listening to his breath, to his heartbeat, wondering what it would be like not to hear those things anymore. He had to get his fill now, because his memory was bad and if he didn’t try very hard, he would forget it before nightfall the same day.

Jack could tell when the sky began to brighten. The deep blue had only become just the haziest shade lighter when he stood to wake Pitch again. Now was the time. Jack didn’t like it, but it wouldn’t do anybody any good to wait longer if Pitch was going to leave, anyway. It would only get more dangerous from here.

Pitch jerked awake when the cold hand was on him. He was still in the same chair, still holding the worn copy of Grimm Fairytales on his chest, memories of the night slowly returning to him while he blinked his eyes. He must have passed out at some point during their stories. Sitting up straighter, he could just discern Jack as more than a dark, human-shaped outline, and that reminded him of the coming light of day. Right. Time to move.

Setting the book aside, the man stood up to stretch, offering a smile that looked bittersweet to the zombie. Jack didn’t have to wake him. The chance seemed higher that he would have let Pitch oversleep, if his reluctance about their prior discussion was any indication. And yet here they were.

“Morning,” Pitch murmured groggily, “Sorry if I fell asleep on you.”

Jack shrugged. He didn’t mind. Pitch needed the sleep and Jack… wanted him to have the best chance of survival out there, so that he might keep his word and come back some day. Doubt didn’t mean Jack had to sabotage, so he enabled, instead. “Ready?”

He was, but not before one last bathroom visit. Pitch made quick work of it, though he did have to sacrifice one more glow stick to navigate, and make one last sweep for supplies. He made sure his gun was loaded, made sure he still had that half a bottle of water Jack got for him, and followed Jack towards the library’s entrance. “Ready.”

Jack waited patiently, wishing the whole time that Pitch would declare it too light outside to go now, and that they would have to wait for tomorrow. He wasn’t too crushed when that didn’t happen, just… sad, and concerned.

He would do his part to make sure Pitch survived.

Jack pressed his hand to one of his many wounds, probably the one that killed him, and reached up to smear the dark blood down the side of Pitch’s face. He took more, and spread it thick on Pitch’s throat, trying to make his old, caked blood look like a dark, smothered wound. It didn’t need to be very convincing. Zombies were not the sharpest tools in the shed.

Well. So much for feeling… clean.

Pitch could only stare as Jack… painted on him. No, it was hardly his first time getting covered in human gore, but his first time doing it intentionally. And as silly as it was considering the younger man’s state, he couldn’t help the slight wince when he caught sight of Jack’s injuries. A bandage wasn’t going to do much for a dead body though, no matter how much he wanted to fix it. All the more reason to continue looking for some kind of cure.

Back to his wet and sticky reality, “Are you… does this really throw them off?”

Jack nodded. It helped that Pitch’s clothes had obviously been through more than one zombie massacre. As long as he didn’t move with too much coordination, it would be fine. Jack leaned in to sniff experimentally at Pitch. Yeah, he stunk like Jack now. That was good.

“Ready,” Jack affirmed, turning clumsily to the door, “Walk… bad.”

Pitch was looking like he had a lot of questions again.

It was his own fault they wouldn’t be answered though. He was on a deadline, no pun intended, and it was on his own insistence that he get out of here before morning broke. But damn, did he wish he’d asked when he had the chance.

Swallowing past the discomfort of blood all over his face, Pitch studied Jack briefly and attempted to mimic his steps. Was it really that easy to outsmart the undead? “...Like this?” he asked, slumping his arms and dragging his foot forward.

Jack turned his whole body to observe Pitch walk. What… Why was he holding his arms like that? Did Jack hold his arms like that? It looked uncomfortable. And Jack knew he was slow, but shit, he thought he at least got his feet up off the floor. Was Pitch acting, or, “Are… okay?”

Pitch immediately stopped everything and blinked at Jack, “What? Walk bad, right? Walk like…” he hesitated, then corrected, “I’m dead?”

“Dead,” Jack agreed, “Not…” He gestured with his whole body at Pitch, “That.”

Pitch was almost offended. Almost, because he couldn’t exactly question the expert. Apparently his memories of Michael Jackson’s Thriller were doing him no favors here.

So he took a breath, stood straighter and channelled… his lethargic morning self. Pitch shuffled forward like each step was a chore with the single goal of coffee on his mind. What he would have given for a cup right then. “ …Better?”

Jack nodded. The change was actually kind of impressive. “Good,” Jack turned around again, satisfied that Pitch was sufficiently in character to not get himself killed, “And don’t… ...talk.”

Pitch nodded, he understood that much, and followed him towards the door. One day he was going to look back on this ridiculous situation and laugh. If he made it out alive, that is.

Jack felt like he should be holding his breath, except he didn’t have any if he wasn’t talking in the first place, so that didn’t really make sense. The thought crossed his mind that it was a human feeling, and he shouldn’t be having it. But until they came across the first wandering mob of undead who didn’t immediately run up and try to eat Pitch, Jack couldn’t relax.

It was slow but steady progress. Some zombies Jack had acquaintances with hobbled along with them for a while. Jack feared they thought he was going to hunt, but after a couple grunted words like ‘rubber,’ and ‘duck,’ they left him to his pointless collecting on his own.

Jack didn’t stop at the territory line. There was no one as far as the eye could see, and still he took Pitch just a little further. The closer Jack could get him to other people, the better.

The sun was high and warm in the sky when Jack finally stopped. He couldn’t justify bringing himself any closer to humans who might shoot him than this, but he also couldn’t bring himself to face Pitch just yet. It was his choice, but… Jack really wished he wasn’t making this one.

Pitch had noticed the lack of bodies, but he still kept the charade. He only had a very vague idea where he was going after all. When he did finally speak up, it was quiet and simple and an obvious attempt at mimicking Jack’s ‘zombie’ tone, “...Safe?”

Jack nodded. They were safe here. Even if his fellow zombies did show, none of them could catch up with Pitch if he ran from here. ...It was time to say goodbye. “Safe.”

Pitch heaved a deep sigh and assumed a more ‘normal’ posture. He followed that shortly with one quiet laugh and a shake of his head, disbelief on his gored up face, “Bloody hell, I thought for sure they’d hear my pounding heart.” He scanned the area, just to double check they were alone, and stepped closer to Jack, reaching to place a hand on his shoulder, “You sure you won’t come with me?”

Jack didn’t want to say no again. It was hard enough the first time. But if Jack went any further, someone with hotter blood than his was going to shoot him in the head. And even if they didn’t, it was only a matter of time before another zombie noticed Pitch didn’t decay. He shook his head.

Pitch couldn’t hide the disappointment, but tried to keep his smile anyway as he dropped his hand. “Just checking. I’ll be back soon then, alright? I promise.”

...Jack nodded. He wouldn’t crush Pitch’s dreams just because. Instead, Jack reached into his hoodie pocket, and caught Pitch’s hand to press something into it.

The cold touch was startling, but not as much as the gesture itself. Pitch looked between his hand and Jack without even bothering to use his own two eyes to answer his question. “What’s this?”

Jack wouldn’t waste the breath. It would take too long. “Bring… it back.”

It being a worn, stained, nearly illegible library card.

Pitch studied it and turned the card over once, reading every useless bit like it held the answers he was looking for. Though it could have been blank and the meaning wouldn’t have changed. Pitch figured out what this was supposed to be. He almost seemed touched that Jack could even conceive of such a thing.

“I promise,” Pitch repeated himself with a firm nod, slipping the card into one of his inner jacket pockets, “I’ll keep it safe.”

Jack shrugged. He could bring it back in two pieces, and Jack wouldn’t care. The point was bringing it back, bringing himself back. “Keep… you… safe.”

“Right,” Pitch smirked with all the confidence he knew how to fake, “I’ve made it this far. I’m a tough bastard to get rid of. Make sure you stay safe too.”

Jack waivered on his feet, and gave an aborted wave as he turned around. “Already… dead.”

“Right. See you soon,” was the last thing Pitch said before he was walking in the opposite direction.

Jack wished. Jack hoped.

Returning to normal was the oddest thing. Normal didn’t feel normal anymore.

Jack spent the first day alone in his library, organizing and reorganizing his collection, which really just involved knocking things over and trying to reset them up for hours. He thought it would be a good distraction. He hadn’t realized he would need to be distracted.

He spent that night staring at the chair Pitch would sit in to read to him.

Jack chose to hunt the next day. Get outside. Meet some zombies. Maybe the companionship would be good for him.

He spent the entire trip anxiously praying that they didn’t run into Pitch. He didn’t know what he would do if they did. Fight off his entire hoard of friends to protect him? And then where would Jack go? And what if he failed? And what if…

He spent so long wondering, he almost got himself shot when they finally did find some humans. He was utterly useless when it came to fighting them. And then Jack almost couldn’t bring himself to eat anything.

He had it bad. Something was different, now. Jack decided not to hunt again for a while.

Jack spent a whole three nights staring at the chair where Pitch would read to him, before he went and grabbed the book Pitch had been reading. That was stupid. Jack couldn’t read it. He stared at the pages he could barely turn, trying to make sense of the print on the paper.

He finally put the book with his trinkets, and tried not to stare at Pitch’s chair that night. It wasn’t really the reading he missed.

He wandered the halls of his library, hoping for something interesting to do that wasn’t get himself shot on a hunting trip, but that was also useless. He already knew every corner of this place, and all he found were memories.

Jack went outside again. He didn’t have to hunt. He could just hang out with other zombies. Look for stupid shit to bring home. He had options.

Two hours into a trinket excursion, Jack found himself staring at hands full of Hostess cakes. Cakes he had no use for, now that Pitch wasn’t around.

He took them home, anyway. What had happened to him?

Turns out hanging around other zombies had lost its charm. Now that Jack knew what a real conversation could be like, the grunting and single words of his kind just weren’t enough. In a flight of fancy, Jack found himself retracing his steps to the edge of zombietown, where he had last seen Pitch.

He stared into the distance until the sun hung threateningly low.

It was no use. This was stupid too. Pitch wouldn’t be waiting for Jack to find him in the last place Jack left him.

He would either come back to Jack in his own time, or he wouldn’t come back at all.

And all Jack could do was wait.

He wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed since he’d last seen Pitch. It felt like ten years. The nights dragged on with his usual activities rendered useless and uninteresting to him. He wondered if Pitch had broken something when he’d gone.

And then he heard a distant sound.

It was definitely inside the building. It echoed between the cases, and outside sounds didn’t do that.

He wondered how they’d gotten in, how long they had been there. Wouldn’t Jack have heard the door? Was it another zombie? Or another human? Jack stepped to the side, hoping his shelves full of stuff might hide him from view, if the intruder were still alive.

Then he saw it: the approaching neon green of a glow stick, sweeping left and right in the darkening halls.

And then heard it: a hushed, accented, and devastatingly familiar whisper, “ Jack?

Jack tripped on his shelf in his rush back out into the open, “P-pi- Pitch!”

Suddenly that glow was all on him, “Jack!” and a body from the shadows followed only seconds later. Pitch set the stick on the ground as he got to a knee in the vain hope of steadying the stumbling zombie, worry all over his face, “Are you alright?”

Jack immediately accepted the help, leaning heavily into Pitch’s grip to stop his stumble. He trusted Pitch to hold him. After all, he’d come back!

If Pitch could do that, he could do anything.

Jack nodded, getting his feet back underneath him. What an embarrassing way to reintroduce himself. Good job, Jack. He needed to stop focusing on himself, though. Pitch was here! Pitch was here and he looked okay, but, “You?”

Pitch stood himself up now that he was sure injury wasn’t in Jack’s near future and smiled in the ambient green light, “I’m fine. A bit hungry, but you know,” he waved his hand to brush away such mild inconveniences so he could admit freely, “I’m so glad I found you. I’m so glad you’re still here.

Jack nearly tripped again in his rush back to the shelves. He managed not to make a fool of himself again, but his eyes might have been a little crazed when he grabbed the box of snack cakes and held them out to Pitch.

Even Pitch could make out that familiar logo on the box. He blinked once, then looked back up at Jack to ask a very serious question, “Would it be too much for me to hug you?”

Jack stared, wondering if he heard that right. Hug? As in, like… that thing he saw on book covers sometimes? That thing in ads on bus stop walls? Pitch wanted to hug him?

Jack lost what little breath he had when he felt a drum beat in his chest. He wanted Pitch to eat if he was hungry, but if he was willing to put it off for a second to hug Jack, then… Jack shook his head. No, that definitely wouldn’t be too much.

“I’m sorry,” Pitch immediately apologized, stepping up close and wrapping an arm around Jack’s back for one awkward little squeeze, “You’re a lifesaver and I don’t know how else to thank you for having a damn feast on hand. A Twinkie has never looked so appetizing.”

Jack didn’t know what hug etiquette was, or what he was expected to do here. So he threw his arms around Pitch’s back and tightened them, hoping that was what he was supposed to do, because it felt like the right thing to do, but Jack was dead so feelings were unreliable.

He felt the pressure beat in his chest again, and wondered what that was about. Was Pitch breaking him some more? Fixing him? Jack let go. Pitch needed to eat.

Pitch knew it too. He reached in the box for one of the cakes before his stomach could complain any louder and tore open the plastic packaging with his teeth. The poor Twinkie only lasted a few seconds in the open air as Pitch all but inhaled the thing. Not the best source of sustenance, but he would take the sugar rush.

Now that was out of the way, Pitch’s attention returned to Jack. In exchange for the snack, he reached for a too pale hand and pressed a card into it much in the same way it had been originally given to him. “I believe this belongs to you,” he explained, then added after a pause, “Jackson Overland.”

Jack ignored the card in his hand in favor of tilting his head as far to the side as it would go. What had Pitch called him?

Pitch was giving him a look with such fragile hope, “Does that name sound familiar to you? Or how about the town of Burgess? Anything?”

Jack didn’t want to destroy it. He wanted so desperately to make Pitch happy in this moment. Overland… Burgess… He focused on those words, those names. Did they feel familiar?

...They just felt like words. Jack opened his mouth to speak, but what would he say? He couldn’t lie to Pitch, even if it would make him feel better. Jack shut his mouth and shook his head, regretting every second.

Those warm, honey colored eyes instantly dimmed, the glimmer shattered, and Pitch had to swallow past it. He continued on anyway. “Burgess is the town you led me to. I ended up staying a couple nights at the high school there and would you believe it? I saw your picture on the wall. Senior hockey championship. A number five jersey on the Burgess Blizzards. It had to be you. That white hair is unmistakable.”

Jack reached up to his head, but that was dumb. What was he planning to do? Pet himself? Jack let his hand fall again. But Pitch had found him. Pitch knew who he was, even if Jack didn’t remember. That was… It felt reassuring. It felt like having some of his humanity back. It felt like he had something to talk about, if only he could form the words. It was… exciting.

Jack pulled his lips into a smile, the only way he knew how to show Pitch his thanks.

Pitch seemed torn about that smile, like he had to hold back on the hope that wanted to rush right back. But it had to count for something, didn’t it? Zombies didn’t emote, not so humanly, and yet here he was getting smiles and hugs and could he even rightly call Jack a zombie anymore?  “I took some time looking through the year books that were there,” he went on, “You graduated eight years ago. Honestly I was shocked. Even...um,” Pitch trailed off sheepishly, “dead, I thought you were only a year or two older than my daughter. Of course I don’t know how that all works with your condition and all, but…”

With a sudden look of determination, Pitch switched gears, “Jack, come with me. Maybe…. Maybe together we can find something you do remember.”

After days, probably weeks, maybe even months of staring at Pitch’s chair all night, there was only one answer Jack could give. This life didn’t belong to him, anymore. He couldn’t go back to the way things were. He had to move forward.

With Pitch.

“Take… me.”

There was a short moment of stunned silence, just enough to process the change of heart, and the gleam in Pitch’s eyes was back full force. Complete with smile. A true, sincere, relieved smile, like just for a minute he was able to shed some of the weight on his shoulders.

Pitch held out his hand for the journey that awaited them.

“Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The sun was rising, now. Pitch hadn’t gotten enough food yesterday, so they needed to start early for the best chance at getting him some today.

Jack squirmed where he lay, rolling up onto his side to more firmly rock Pitch with his hand. It wouldn’t take long. Pitch was a light sleeper.

The man groaned not unlike the walking dead, a hand coming up as if to swat Jack away, but it stopped upon making contact. Pitch opened his eyes to the hazy light of dawn, to Jack’s face inches from his own, to a brand new day of the end of the world.

He didn’t know if he’d ever get used to that.

A few slow blinks and a yawn later, Pitch tried for a smile, “Good morning, Jack.”

Jack nodded, as he’d done every morning since they’d begun traveling together. But this morning, Jack wanted to try for something a little more human.

“Morn…ing.”

Pitch found it charming and his smile widened. If Jack could find the energy to put a word together, he could will himself to sit up. Not like his makeshift bed was anything to waste extra minutes on.

Reaching up into the air, Pitch stretched his arms a bit, testing the soreness in his limbs after another night on the ground, “Uneventful evening I take it?”

Oh come on, Jack had no ability to list off a whole report. Especially not when that report would be ongoing existential contemplation and anyway, Pitch probability didn’t care about what Jack pondered in the wee hours of the morning.

...So Jack nodded.

Pitch expected as much. Sleeping outside was never the greatest, but the park had looked the most abandoned when they reached town yesterday. Too convenient to pass up, they’d settled under one of the gazebos where Pitch promptly passed out. He was more than ready to leave it behind regardless of what happened during the night.

Whenever Jack was ready to crawl out of his lap, of course. “Should we get moving? Maybe we’ll be lucky and find some coffee.”

Not that the coffee would help Jack or anything, but Pitch seemed so happy at the idea of coffee all the time that it was enough motivation to roll up onto his knees, and stand. Jack didn’t care if it was coffee or not, Pitch needed to get something in him today. Jack, being dead already, could go a lot longer without eating. But Pitch…

“Let’s… go.”

Pitch followed suit, doing his best to ignore the complaints of his neglected body. Sleep was the only thing he could give it reliably lately which, actually, was an improvement over his traveling days before Jack. While their sleeping system worked, it couldn’t always provide protection from the elements or nourishment.

But Pitch soldiered on. It wasn’t only Seraphina that needed him now.

Checking for his weapons and making sure he wasn’t about to leave anything behind, Pitch started with the next part of his routine: checking over Jack. There were no incidents yesterday but one could never be too careful with an unknown affliction that, left unchecked, could lead to decay to the bones and madness. “Are you feeling alright? How’s your hunger?”

Jack shrugged. It was cute that Pitch asked. It made him feel… warm? But he still felt cold, so Jack wasn’t sure that was the right way to think about it. He was going to need to eat sooner or later, but it wasn’t a crisis situation, yet.

“Couple… days?” Or whenever they came across another group of zombies already munching. Jack preferred to just take from what was already offered, nowadays.

“Good to know,” Pitch nodded, giving Jack one last lookover and then patting him on the shoulder. He trusted the young man to let him know if that changed. “Now how about me?” he pointed at himself, “Can I still pass for dead?”

Before coffee? Always. Jack’s lips pulled into a little bit of a smirk, amused at his own joke. But all he answered Pitch with was a quick little nod.

Pitch could tell. Maybe not the exact thought on Jack’s mind, but he returned that smirk even as he called it out, “Don’t give me that look. I’ll have you know I clean up quite well when I have access to showers and fresh clothes. Now come on, I think we came in from that way.” Pitch indicated with a nod of his head and stepped down the two shallow steps from the gazebo. Only to immediately turn back around and offer his hand to help Jack down them too.

Jack was going to give this a try without help. He could handle stairs on most days, or at least escalators. He was finding that over time, it got easier to do these kind of things, too. So he might as well practice, right?

And he almost made it. The last step took him out, and he ended up falling right into Pitch instead of gracefully stepping down onto the cement. Which, honestly, Pitch was there to catch him so this was probably the best case scenario.

Too bad. Maybe tomorrow he’d be able to do it. “Thanks.”

Jack’s weight was so insignificant, Pitch had no problem righting him back up. Were he in better condition, he might have offered to just piggyback him everywhere, but he’d save that for emergencies. Pitch admired Jack’s determination anyway, like he was defying the disease that they were going to get rid of one of these days.

“If it’s any consolation, I think you’re getting the hang of it,” Pitch half teased, starting down the paved path to the park’s entrance, “Stay close. I’m hoping we can do a thorough supply sweep today. Keep your eye out for batteries. Ammo, batteries, and coffee.”

And food, Jack silently added. Anything viable for Pitch’s stomach. Jack had started trying to keep track of the plants and fruits Pitch would eat here and there. He was still pretty shit at it, but hey, he’d never get better if he never tried.

Jack never really paid attention to where they were going. He paid attention to where they were, tried to remember places he saw more than once. Tried to remember if they found something useful there, like clean water or a garden with food plants. But mostly… Pitch remembered those things. Jack was most useful for zombie interactions.

Jack dreamed of being useful for more. He felt very ineffective as a traveling companion who could barely keep his shit together long enough to make it down a couple steps. One day he’d be able to load a gun with his zombie fingers. One day.

In the meantime, they had Pitch’s expertly trained fingers to rely on.

Fortunately, though he had his gun drawn and ready, the town they found themselves in was eerily quiet. It was impossible to tell if it was evacuated, or if any survivors were just hiding that well. There weren’t any loitering zombie groups that Pitch could see in any direction as they left the park.

So not knowing whether they should pretend to be alive or dead, they had to settle for stealthy. Pitch communicated via hand gesture until they walked into the nearest convenience store. The glass doors were shattered, and the power was off so it was probably well ransacked, but ever the optimist, Pitch hoped they’d be able to find something. Maybe a single k-cup in a breakroom, if nothing else.

After a preliminary scan, Pitch turned back to his partner and offered him one of the few glowsticks he had left. Only the front of the building had enough windows for the sunlight to help in their search. “You take the lead,” Pitch said, not quite soft enough to be a whisper, “I’ll be behind you. Look around, but we stay in the same aisle, alright?”  

Jack nodded. It was the typical formation in zombie territory. He just wished they didn’t need to use a glowstick. They were helpless at night without lights, and every supply was running low. Still, it was worth it if they found something useful, so Jack held off until the very last, but ended up cracking the stick anyway. He’d gotten better at that. He used to have to ask Pitch to do it for him. He still sucked at shaking them out, but it wasn’t really necessary anyway.

The shelves weren’t that empty, which was a good sign. The food was pretty much gone, but there was hope of finding something caught behind something else. They could grab that on the way out, though. Jack was looking for the coffee and the batteries, first.

Pitch on the other hand, was going a mile a minute in his head looking at each thing on the shelf, running through scenarios where it might come in handy, weighing it against the burden of carrying it, then back to keeping watch. He wasn’t sure what used to be in this aisle, between the tin foil here, the stationary there and was that a Goddamn jump rope? But none of it looked particularly… tasty.

Pitch hoped that Jack was far enough down the aisle to not hear the way his stomach groaned in devastation.

Unfortunately, zombies were predators. The slowest predators on two legs, maybe, but predators nonetheless. Jack needed to find Pitch some food. He mentally rearranged his priorities and set batteries aside. They could get batteries on the way out. Right now, Pitch needed some… jerky. Or twinkies. Or… gum?

Jack stopped in front of a display box that used to be full, but now only contained a few sad packs. Did that… count? Jack turned back to Pitch helplessly.

Recognizing that look, Pitch made his way over to see what had Jack tripped up this time. Oh. Gum. Hm. Not exactly a meal, or even calories, but he reached out and…

Moved the display case aside to see the rack behind. There used to be snacks here. He could tell by the scattered wrappers. Pitch tried not to feel hopeful but he had Jack hold the light while he reached towards the back of each shelf to see if there was anything forgotten.

When he saw the two miraculously sealed bags on the bottom shelf, he gasped and had to resist the urge to hug Jack again. For not needing it, the zombie was damn useful when it came to finding human food.

Well. If one could consider the tear-shaped salt licks pretending to be pumpkin seeds food. It was something. The other pack was slightly less salty sunflower seeds. Knowing he lacked any water, Pitch started with those, tearing the bag open with his teeth and swallowing down a small mouthful.

Only mildly stale. That was… a bonus?

Pitch couldn’t afford to be picky, so he still sighed with relief and smiled to let Jack know he’d done well. “Thanks. Gonna hold off on these,” he indicated the pumpkin seeds with a shake of the package, “until we can find something to drink, but this is a good start.”

Jack stared. He still wasn’t sure if he had helped or not. At least the edge had been taken off of Pitch’s hunger, but he was definitely going to need more if he was going to… survive. And Jack really wanted him to survive.

Jack turned on his heel and got back to looking. There had to be more edible things here. Jack was going to find them.

Pitch appreciated his diligence. He wasn’t sure what he did to deserve it, but he was so relieved that Jack seemed to be taking the team part of their efforts seriously.

So he got back to his part of the deal, tucking away the seeds, and did another cautionary scan. Still quiet. Still eerie. And still quite a lot of aisle to go. “Don’t worry too much about snacks, alright? Worse case I can do some hunting myself.”

With what energy? Pitch was more likely to become a boney than Jack at this rate.

It made him worry. Jack had gotten used to a companion that still had the ability to die by now, but he hadn't gotten used to worrying about it. Pitch still called them snacks, but these bits of food from wherever they found them were his meals . One person could feed five zombies for days with ease, but one person couldn't live on one package of food the same way.

Jack had known this walking into the store, and it wasn't like thirty minutes had changed the situation from stable to dire, but observing Pitch made Jack feel like it had. Which was stupid. But zombies were stupid, so Jack forgave himself and searched the shelves with dead eyes and diligence until he discovered an untouched can tipped on its side with no label left to say what it might be.

It didn't matter. Pitch's opinions about what made good food had been eroded so far down that they were now just a matter of unspoiled and not actually dangerous. Jack was sure whatever was in the can would be eaten with a spoon, as long as it was still fit for human consumption.

He turned and offered the can to Pitch after a full inspection. At least in glowstick light, it looked whole.

Well damn. Call them lucky. Pitch took the can and looked it over himself. He couldn’t think of many, if any , non-edibles that were sold in cans like this. No punctures. A dent or two from being tossed around. No pull back lid, which might have been why it’d been left behind. He was guessing vegetables, but really it could have been anything. Anything was exactly what they needed.

“Mystery flavor, how exciting,” he joked, stashing the can in his satchel for later. He opened his mouth, about to make another dumb joke about what the chances were it was coffee when a sudden loud thud caught his attention and shut him right up. His head whipped around towards the front of the store where the sound came from, and immediately heard one, then several groans.

Zombies then. Shit.

They might be able to get away with Pitch playing dead, but Pitch preferred no confrontation at all. One stomach growl was probably all it would take to give him away. Going out the front was no longer an option, so they’d have to go deeper into the store and look for a back way.

Pitch snatched the glow stick, then took Jack’s hand in his own to quickly start them towards the other end of the aisle.

Jack went without complaint. If Pitch had a plan, Jack was going to follow. Maybe it was training, maybe it was luck, but Pitch's plans usually worked out for them.

It sucked that zombies were hunting here, though. Jack was sure there was more food on those shelves. They weren't that picked over. Maybe they could sneak back in later. If these zombies were anything like the ones Jack used to live with, they weren’t going to care about the human food at all.

Jack’s foot falls were clumsy and heavy as he struggled to keep up with Pitch, and there was nothing he could do about the noise he made. All he could do was keep his own zombie moaning and groaning internal and pray the ones at the front assumed his footsteps were their own.

Pitch was less worried about Jack’s audible footsteps and more worried about the green glow that gave away their location. He kept the light low, tried to cover as much as possible with his hand, but he still needed it to see where he was going otherwise he was going crash into something, or trip and injure one or both of them.

They needed to find… some kind of employees only door. Or an emergency exit. And then they needed to pray there weren’t more outside of the store.

It was unconscious the way Pitch tugged Jack closer to him. He was probably holding too tight, pulling too hard, and it wasn’t even on his mind that even if something happened, the zombies wouldn’t actually do anything to Jack, but separating was not an option. If he lost Jack after all of this…

No. Not the time to think about that.

They just needed to keep going.

And Pitch did. Straight into a display. With no warning, no grace, and an awful racket of chaos as whatever he toppled over spilled all over the floor.

F--- ” but Pitch bit his lip. He heard the groans get louder, and footsteps pick up their pace. Oh God, they needed to get up. Jack needed to get up and Pitch reached out to him before he thought to cover up the glow stick.

Jack hated zombie coordination. How the fuck was he so quick to pounce on humans, but getting up off of the floor? It took ages. Jack flopped a bit like a fish until he could roll to his stomach, but getting up wasn’t even his biggest concern.

Pitch was giving himself away left and right. The idiot who could die was more concerned about the idiot who couldn’t than himself. Jack tried to wave him away, get him to cover up that light and find a door to hide behind or something, but with Jack already flopping about, he was pretty sure his entire nonverbal message was lost. Oh well.

The groans from the front of the store were getting closer. The shuffling steps were getting heavier. They were running out of time to hide, and even if they did now, the zombies would look for them. They already knew they were there. Jack was running out of ideas.

Until he had one more. Zombies didn’t hunt for humans who were already dead.

Jack threw himself across the floor at Pitch and grabbed for his hands to pin them down. Pitch couldn’t be flailing when the zombies found them or this wouldn’t work.

“Stay… still,” Jack whispered insistently into his ear, and then Jack moved his hands to much more aggressive places. One gripped Pitch’s hair, the other pinned his chest, and Jack pressed his face to Pitch’s throat. Hopefully there was enough goopy blood around Jack’s mouth to make Pitch’s neck looked gnawed on in the dim light, because he didn’t have enough time to touch up Pitch’s deadlook before the others were upon them.

To have Jack suddenly all up on him and over him was honestly terrifying. And Pitch practically cuddled the other man nightly. This was the first time his instincts recognized Jack as a predator.

For all of a few seconds until the messaged clicked. Oh. They were pretending again. Stay still. Play dead.  

Well. Actual dead. Not walking dead. They hadn’t tried this before.

Pitch let his limbs go lax, closed his eyes and took as deep and as quiet of a breath as he could. God, this was a risk. He trusted Jack’s intuition when it came to zombies and what it took to fool them, but if he twitched or sneezed or anything , the vulnerability of his position could go from fake to fatal in seconds.

He wondered, would Jack eat him if he became a lost cause?...

The thought dissolved before he could ponder it when he heard how close the footsteps were. They were picking up speed now. They must have been seen. It went against his everything to just stay still when he knew exactly where his gun and his knife were, but he needed Jack to protect him instead of the other way around.

This close, Jack had to hear the way his heart was racing.

And it was a bad thing. Dead fingers smoothed in what Jack hoped was a reassuring way over Pitch's chest. He needed to seem unconscious, and that heart was so loud.

“Shhh,” Jack soothed in a stilted whisper against Pitch's skin, “Hear… heart.”

Bloody hell they didn’t have time for this. Pitch needed to not panic, but now that he thought about it didn’t zombies all gang up and munch on one body together? Like how Jack tended to lately?...

The hand on his chest though. Jack was trying to calm him down. Jack needed him to cooperate. Jack needed him.

And if Pitch trusted Jack enough to sleep in front of him, he could trust him for this. That was what he focused on. That was what he used to even his pulse and ignore the sounds of approaching danger.

Jack pressed his tongue to Pitch’s throat, hoping it would smear more blood and make it look more convincing that he was gnawing on Pitch’s flesh. He would pretend to bite, but the thought of putting his teeth to Pitch’s skin scared the life out of him. Not literally. One wrong move and that would be the end of that.

It might have been hard to convince a human of it, but zombies were actually very polite. Without histories and feelings, there was no reason not to react civilly to almost any stimuli. Jack relied on that when the others approached and he began to growl. It was rare, but not uncommon for a zombie to claim a kill as their own, especially when eating a brain could be so… energizing.

So maybe Jack found Pitch’s brain particularly enlightening, and he didn’t want to share it. Maybe he would fight to keep it all his own and probably, the others wouldn’t want a meal so bad they would be willing to start a brawl over it.

If Jack went to share in a meal and the zombie who made the kill gave the impression he didn’t want Jack around, Jack would keep moving. And so did this hoard.

Their footsteps stuttered to a confused halt, their groans quieted to silence. Jack sat up a little straighter, but tried to block Pitch’s head from view in case they noticed it was still whole, and growled louder. He eventually got a questioning grunt from one, probably the acting leader of this hunt, and Jack turned to face them so he could shake his head, growl again, and crouch possessively over his ‘kill.’

When the footsteps began again, they were going in the other direction. Jack pressed his face back to Pitch’s throat and allowed himself a sigh of relief. He couldn’t relax until they were gone, but that came soon enough and Jack slumped over Pitch entirely when it did. They were safe. Pitch was safe. Crisis averted.

Pitch heard the sigh, felt the extra weight on him, but still didn’t dare move until Jack gave him some kind of cue. The footsteps were faint now, barely audible, and that was a fucking fantastic sign. Good God, he’d never felt so tense though. An animal could have probably called him out on his terrible acting.

Thank goodness for the dark, he supposed. Thank goodness for Jack.

They stayed that way for another couple minutes just to be extra sure. When Jack picked his head up, Pitch very hesitantly followed suit. A look passed between them, then Pitch was snatching up the glow stick and Jack’s hand to continue their hasty trek to the back of the store.

Only when they were behind a closed door, some kind of office or meeting room, did Pitch take the opportunity to breathe and try to process what just happened. That had probably been his most intense brush with death yet, and the slickness on his neck was the proof.

“That was…” he started, voice quiet, still paranoid with his back against the door, “Good thinking, Jack.”

Pitch looked as stressed as Jack felt. Jack wished he could look as stressed as he felt, but that was part of the expression and communication inherently lost to him by death. At the same time, stress didn’t look particularly sexy, and Jack was spared having to worry about that. He would never look any worse than he did right now. Probably.

Jack nodded, but he didn’t understand why they were holing themselves up in a room with no exit. Were they going to sleep here? The zombies were already moving on, they could leave if they wanted to. Or search the rest of the place for supplies. There wasn’t any food to find in here.

Or was there? Jack left Pitch to clutch at the door and went to search the drawers.

Seeing Jack get back to their ‘mission’ instantly had Pitch wanting to do the same. Focusing on small, but critical tasks was a great way to suppress emotions. It just felt like there was ...something more to the incident?

Pitch watched Jack search as he slid to the floor, trying to figure himself out. Up until this point, he’d been in many life or death situations. Even before the apocalypse. He’d been trained for those. But each time he’d been able to save himself. Against an unknown enemy, a neighbor turned feral, or his own daughter, it had just been him and fight or flight for the past six months.

And then he’d teamed up with Jack.

Sure they ran into trouble. It was impossible not to. Jack helped him sneak by hordes, and Pitch picked off who he needed to. Somehow, someway, they worked together and survived to the next town.

This was just... the first time he’d felt so helpless. Hopeless . Well, in a life or death situation at any rate. Any other time, and that downward spiral was open and waiting for him with widespread arms to fall into. He did his best to ignore it and focus on what, or who, he had in front of him.

The thought that he might not have been able to protect both Jack and himself was terrifying. That spiral could have swallowed him up in seconds.

And yet, it was Jack who came through. Jack saved him. Jack had shown him a dangerous side of himself and demonstrated he could do so much more than paint him in blood or dig up food. Pitch felt guilty for dragging him into this fucked up mess.

He felt more guilty that he didn’t want to let him out of it.

“We’ll um,” Pitch started again, attempting to reclaim his facade of leadership, “do...do a quick sweep back here, and one more up front. We shouldn’t stay here long. More might be coming.”

Jack didn’t think so. Zombies didn’t really hunt in multiple groups like that. It was usually just one jaunt per day out into the world to find some humans to munch and then back to zombieland for the night. Or the week. Depended on how boring zombieland was.

But Pitch sounded like he needed to get back out there as soon as possible, so Jack wouldn’t argue. That had been really close, and Jack was super glad it worked out, but he could understand that Pitch needed a minute. Even Jack had taken a second, sprawled on Pitch’s chest, and he was damn near emotionless, dead as he was.

If Pitch’s method of brushing it off and getting back to work was to vacate the space, then Jack would follow him anywhere. But first, Jack wandered back to the door and, despite how much it was going to suck to get back up, knelt in front of Pitch on the floor.

Then he held out the lone, dented plastic cup he’d found.

Pitch took a moment to stare at it disbelievingly. There it was. That single K-cup. Sealed. Hazelnut flavored. It even had caffeine.

Such good news after such a bad start to the day. Pitch’s laugh was a little manic.

“There you go saving my life again. Where would I be without you, Jack?”

The zombie shrugged. He’d be, “Somewhere.” Pitch was a survivor, as much as Jack worried. If he didn’t have Jack around, he would probably just mow right over every group of zombies he ran into, or join up with whatever humans he found along his way. Jack no longer thought he’d be dead as soon as he turned his head away, but whatever the outcome, one thing was sure. He wouldn’t have ended up like this. “Not… here.”

So blunt. So matter of fact. It was unclear if that was just zombie sense of humor or just Jack.  Pitch smirked and took the K-cup to stash in his bag. He was feeling… more like himself, whatever that meant anymore. Like he could face the world again. Like it was worth it to go find water and boil it so he could enjoy his coffee.

Pitch adjusted to get up, but he reached out to take Jack with him. He hooked his arms below dead ones and lifted, gentle and easy, so they were both on their feet.

“Well. You make ‘here’ look like a good place to be at the end of the world.”

Jack… felt hot. He hadn’t been expecting that. He wasn’t expecting to feel something about it, either. Something about Pitch made Jack feel… less dead. And Jack had no idea what to do with it.

He definitely didn’t have any words, so he fell back on old reliable, and nodded a lot.

Satisfied, Pitch left Jack with the glow stick and a smile as he turned towards the door. Time to get back to work.

“Shall we?”

They left.

They didn’t get far.

It became evident very quickly why so many of the stores weren’t that picked over. There were boneys everywhere. They managed to last one more night before declaring that town a bust. Even the zombies were on edge, and they weren’t finding enough food moving as slowly as they were.

The situation had gotten desperate. Pitch was running on fumes, and Jack was feeling like a failure for being unable to feed him. After Pitch’s stomach had growled so much that it just stopped, he finally admitted he knew a place they were guaranteed to find food.

Odd thing was, he didn’t seem happy about it at all.

The journey took a while, but they were back in territory Jack was familiar with by nightfall, so sleep came a little easier to Pitch. The next day took them away from anywhere Jack had ever been, but Pitch’s steps were sure, even if his expression was not. Night was closing in again, and Jack had no idea how much farther they had to go.

Which was still a seven word, eight syllable question that Jack couldn’t ask. The best he could do was, “Sleep… where?”

“I know a place,” Pitch answered shortly. Between hunger, dread, and anxiety, it was difficult to act positive, let alone civil. Jack deserved better than that, and he vowed to apologize to him later, but right now he just had to make sure nothing had changed.

The gates they found themselves in front of were as oppressive and obnoxious as ever, even bent and broken. Most of the homes beyond them were already picked clean and, he knew for a fact, abandoned. At least by humans. That didn’t mean a few zombies couldn’t have wandered in, so Pitch kept his eyes, and gun, out for that.

He helped Jack duck through the twisted metal bars of the community gate then started down the streets. Yes, Pitch knew exactly where they were and hated they were there. It wasn’t the first time he found himself back here, and it still had the same effect of making all his traveling, all his pursuits and surviving seem meaningless. How could he claim he was making any progress at all when he kept ending up back at the start?

And now with the sun setting, Pitch found himself with an awful decision to make.

They were stopped in front of a large, imposing house. A house that would have looked immaculate and almost royal were it daytime, and a little over half a year ago. Now it looked as haunted as Pitch felt, with its broken windows, a door barely on its hinges, trash and debris and unmentionable rot scattered all over the yard.

He stared at the front door with a lump in his throat. Somehow this was harder with Jack by his side. Pitch wasn’t prepared for his present to collide with his past.

When it started to feel like it was getting harder to breathe, Pitch grabbed Jack’s hand, “Come on,” and took them straight up the walkway, only to go past the house, through the fence to the backyard.

It looked as untouched as he remembered it. Sometimes Pitch thought it might sting less if someone, living or dead, trampled over the place, ransacked whatever was left, and erased the teasing glimpse of a life he could never have again. But everything was still there. The tree house. The bird feeders. The enclosed patio with little tabletop fire pit. The little plots of dirt lining the back of the house, separated by carefully placed stones.

The garden had been her idea. She’d passed her green thumb onto Seraphina, who would have worn the same innocent excitement on her face if she had a puppy or a pumpkin in her arms. Every time he saw those green stalks reaching up from the earth, he remembered her words about how he’d thank her when the world ended and they were the only ones on the block who knew how to grow their own food. It was supposed to be a joke.

Pitch let go of Jack’s hand and went to take stock of what he had to work with. He estimated he had about an hour of light left, and with no one else apparently around, he shed his jacket and rolled up his tattered sleeves. The last time he’d been here, he’d rigged up a trash can and the gutter into a makeshift rainwater reservoir. He could boil it and make some kind of soup with whatever he dug up. After so many failed attempts to catch one Goddamn rabbit, a vegetable soup sounded as good as a cheeseburger did right then. He even had those horrendous  pumpkin seeds in his bag to use for salt. Somehow, some way, Pitch was getting a meal out of this.

“There should be potatoes here,” Pitch broke the silence as he kneeled down into the dirt, grateful for the gloves he usually wore, “Potatoes and carrots I think. Hopefully they’ve had enough time. Can you…” he paused, looking at Jack, then the back door. The zombie was probably more than a little confused about all this but, well… Maybe he could figure out some of the how’s and what’s on his own. “See if you can find a decent sized pot? Anything that won’t melt over a fire.”

That assumed Jack knew which materials were fireproof. Zombies didn’t really… use fire for anything. But, well, Jack was pretty sure metal was fine because most pots he’s seen were made of that, so here goes nothing.

This had to be where Pitch came from. The way he was acting was strange, but there was no reason for him to be so afraid of a place he knew was safe if he didn’t have… feelings about it. Feelings Jack could never understand. Feelings Jack would never have.

He made his way slowly to the back door. There were steps and stepping stones and wild vegetation all making the path difficult for dead reflexes. The door opened easily though, which… Jack guessed security didn’t matter much when half the world was dead and the other half was more concerned with survival than your tv.

Dust covered everything, and there was broken stuff everywhere. It didn’t look like it had been ransacked and picked over, just… like a fight had happened there, and whoever was fighting hadn’t cared much about the stuff. Still, it was much easier to move inside than it had been out there.

Jack figured the kitchen was probably the best place to find a pot. All he had to do was find the kitchen. It wasn’t too far away. Despite the size of the home, the kitchen and dining room setup was still as open a floor plan as ever. Walking through the dining room gave him a look into nearly every other room on the first floor. Everything was very open and airy, with soft drapes and light walls. It was pretty, even with the age signs on every wall and the shattered glass on the floor. Maybe even because of the glass, glinting like sparkles in the dying daylight-

Jack stopped short.

There was something on the ground.

It was just inside a half-open door. Covered in white. Jack moved closer without really thinking about it. The curiosity moved him more than any conscious thought. It looked familiar. It looked like it could be a body. But…

Why would a body be in Pitch’s home?

Jack pressed the door open and stared down at the vaguely hidden corpse. Because that’s definitely what it was: a hastily hidden, slowly rotting corpse. The brain must’ve been snacked on, then.

Jack decided to check.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about this. It was definitely weird. A niggling at the back of his head made him think something was wrong-like he shouldn’t be coming in here and he shouldn’t be doing this. Like he should have… respect for the dead? Except Jack was dead, and generally nobody had respect for him. Besides…

Something inside Jack really wanted to know.

He knelt to remove the sheet. The room was wrecked, more so than the rest of the house. Everything was turned over, there was a lot of blood spray on the walls, and… there was a cage in the corner.

...Jack would check that out later.

Her face was familiar. He could see her hair spilled out over the carpet with the sheet gone, black as the deadly night. Her picture was on the walls he had passed to get here. Right beside all the pictures of Pitch. She must have been his wife.

Jack really wasn’t sure how to feel about that. She wasn’t in pristine condition at all, not even close. She had definitely been eaten. There were lots of signs of decay. It was something of a miracle that her face was untouched enough for Jack to recognize her. Or maybe he was meant to see this. Jack didn’t really understand fatalism, but it had been in a lot of the stories Pitch read to him.

If this was waiting for him inside, Jack understood why Pitch didn’t want to be in here. It didn’t take a genius, just a dead bum like him, to figure out who put the sheet over her. Whatever happened here, it was a story Pitch didn’t want to tell. It was a story Pitch didn’t want to relive by being here.

For the first time, Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

He must have really loved her, and something about that made Jack… ache. Was Jack sad for her? For Pitch? Or for himself? He was feeling a lot of things since he found Pitch. Since Pitch found him. Concern all the time. Fear every day. Happiness, though. And he wanted to laugh a lot, too.

But he couldn’t really laugh. His zombie lungs and throat couldn’t handle it. He watched Pitch laugh, though. And he had felt laughter through the memories of other humans before. Everything was more vibrant in the memories of humans, but it felt more and more odd to eat the brains and live through them when he spent every night guarding Pitch from the very same thing.

She probably laughed a lot, when she was alive. If they were in love. They probably ate dinner together, at the table one room over. He wondered who would cook, Pitch or her? Who kept the house? Who cleaned their clothes? Jack looked down at her body with all the curiosity that had drawn him into this room in the first place.

She was dead. Deader than him. And nobody had respect for the dead anymore. Most of her body was gone, eaten or eroded by time, but Jack decided to check, anyway.

It was gross. It was mushy and dirty. And that was probably mold. But it was brain matter, or what brain matter turned into when kept from the elements the way this one had been. Very little was left.

It was worth a shot.

Jack scooped up a small dollop on two fingers and stuck it in his mouth.

Another late night.

Another long, late night of lab reports and test results and last minute meetings and patient calls. This was what she’d signed up for though. A hospital never sleeps.

At least, as she came through the front door, there was someone to come home to that made it all worth it.

Two someones now. Koz was finally on leave. Finally able to spend some time with her and Sera. It was so nice to not have to call a sitter or her mother to look after her while she was at work. Their family felt whole again.

And there was nothing sweeter to come home to than a wrapped plate of food on the dining table, Sera and Koz on the couch passed out against each other with a book in their laps. Grimm Fairytales again. Not her first choice, but Sera had inherited her father’s taste in fiction.

It felt cruel to shatter such a moment, so she just smiled to herself and went to warm up her plate. Koz would probably wake up when he heard the microwave anyway, the light sleeper he was.

It was so good to have him home.

Jack sat on his heels and dropped his hands in his lap. Not that he had really needed confirmation, but she was definitely his wife. The most shocking thing, though… Pitch had never looked so… clean. Or peaceful. He was a light sleeper, Jack knew, but that memory had seen a heavier sleeping Pitch than Jack had ever known.

And the girl that was with him. That was who Pitch was always trying to find.

...Jack could sit here processing for as long as he liked, but her brain was melting with every second, and now that Jack had seen a little, he needed to see more. Dodging the mold as best he could, Jack scooped a second helping into his mouth.

“Mom! Check out all the stamps we found!” Sera came running excitedly into her office, holding open her logbook with pride. Koz came wandering in after her with a sheepish smile on his face. No matter what that man was thinking, she knew she’d been right about sending him along with Sera on another one of her geocaching and letterboxing escapades. It was exactly the bonding experience they’d needed after so much time apart.

“Let me see, sweetie,” she turned her attention away from her husband to the book Sera was all but shoving in her face. There were four new stamps in her book. Her and Sera usually only managed a couple when they went together.

“Wow, that’s impressive. Where did y-” Something caught her eye that immediately took precedence over her question. There was a large bandaid on Sera’s arm that hadn’t been there when the two of them left this morning and it put the professional in her on alert, “What’s this? What happened?”

“Oh. Just some weird guy and his dog in the park,” Sera shrugged, voice growing quiet, “I startled them when I went for the stamp and I think-”

“She got nipped,” Koz interrupted, almost like a confession, and suddenly she understood the expression he came in with, “The dog. There was a small altercation. I disinfected it with the first aid kit in the car.”

What? Sera, let me see,” she set the book aside to pull her daughter close, examining the red area around the bandaid. It wasn’t as if Sera hadn’t gotten cuts and bruises climbing trees and rocks looking for stamps before, but a strange man and a dog?

“It’s not a big deal, Mom. It doesn’t hurt anymore-”

Anymore? Oh God. She went ahead and stood up to start leading Sera to the bathroom for a proper inspection, “Come on and let me patch you up properly.”

Sera sighed and mumbled something, but put up no resistance. On her way out the door she couldn’t stop herself from the look she gave her husband, “How could you let her out of your sight like that? Honestly, Koz.”

She’d said it out of anger, but mostly concern, and the hurt on his face made her regret it.

He didn’t respond.

They were all so alive. Jack swayed in his seat with longing. He could never be that alive. He had seen posters and pictures of families that looked like this, happy and together. Pitch could never have that again, and Jack… felt so inadequate.

The world before the outbreak had been so fearless and innocent. Jack couldn’t imagine going outside, where other people were, without being afraid. He only knew that kind of world through the memories of humans. Each memory was precious.

Jack wouldn’t waste any of hers.

“Well? Anything?”

Koz’s anxious tone did nothing for her nerves. She was tapping away frantically on the keyboard, scrolling through page after page of reports and utterly unhelpful data. There was no science for this. Only theories and experimentation and--

There was a loud thunk in the corner of her home office turned ...patient room. Sera was on the move again, trying to reach through the bars of her cage, a fucking dog cage for the pet they never adopted, with that dead but hungry look in her eyes that made her want to scream until this horrible nightmare went away. It took everything in her to hold back the tears every time.

“They think it’s a virus. An unknown, extremely dangerous virus that’s spreading quickly. Koz, I wouldn’t come in here without gloves and a mask anymore. I have no idea what I’m dealing with.”

“But a virus is curable isn’t it?! There has to be something!”

“I have a couple theories, but you realize I’ll be experimenting on our own daughter!”

“Anything is better than what’s happening to her now, for God’s sake!”

He looked as broken as she felt. So lost and out of his league. No amount of physical force or cunning strategy would help them here, and she definitely didn’t have the training for this either.

But she had to try. She was in the best position to, with access to a lab, a pharmacy, and a few like-minded people.

“Then let me work. You know I’ll tell you if something changes so just… check the news? And the garden?” She was getting nothing done with him hovering.

Koz only sighed, took another look at his sickly pale daughter and left the room.

Maybe if this worked she could find it in her to forgive him and herself for ever letting this happen.

Jack slumped. He didn’t want to see this. It explained a lot, though. Explained how Pitch knew his daughter was wandering around in Jack’s world. Explained his desperation to find her. But those hadn’t been the kind of details Jack needed to know. He was looking for her, anyway. He was helping Pitch, anyway. Now he just… knew what Pitch looked like when he felt helpless.

It did add some credibility to Pitch’s surety that the virus could be cured. Jack had felt it. She knew what she was doing. Her frustration was high and hope was low, but she… she had a plan.

And Jack now knew that plan. He took a minute to focus on it. To try to remember it, even if he didn’t really know what any of the… parts meant. Maybe if he said them to Pitch, he would know enough to use it.

When Jack started to feel like he couldn’t remember it any better than he already did, he went in for more brain. At this point, there was almost nothing left. It was a hollow of bone and mold. Jack could barely cover the pad of his finger with what he could be sure used to be brain.

This was it.

“Koz…” she choked out, barely able to force the breath through her lungs, barely able to make out his blurry figure above her. So much red everywhere. Her head was throbbing, “ Run…

That…

Jack hadn’t wanted that, either. If he had breath in his lungs, he would have lost it. There was a foreign feeling behind his eyes, like burning, and Jack didn’t know what to do.

He stood up, slow and unstable. There was nothing more for him in here. He knew what the cage was, now. There was nothing of her left. Jack tugged the sheet back over her and walked haltingly out of the room.

The kitchen. He needed to go to the kitchen. He needed to find a pot to cook in. He needed to focus on what Pitch needed him to do.

Pitch… Why didn’t he want to be called Koz, anymore?

Jack shook his head, found a metal cooking pot, and made his way back outside.

Pitch was still slouched over his spot, scrubbing the dirt off of a couple palm-sized potatoes. He had a couple carrots next to him too. Really he should have felt some relief that the plants had yielded anything but there were two thoughts niggling at him the most: One, they were going to have to sleep here for the night, and two, he probably wouldn’t be able to return after this. At least not for food. Maybe the plants would survive until next season, but Hell, he didn’t even know if he would either.

Pitch rubbed the back of his glove over his face. One thing at a time here.

Jack was a good distraction. He felt the other’s eyes on him and turned to see what he’d dug up in his former home.

...Yeah. They’d made a lot of spaghetti sauce and chicken soup in that pot. Pitch lingered on it for a second, then went back to his vegetables. “That’s perfect, Jack. Thank you. You can leave it on the table.”

Pitch heard the metal connect with the stone surface and that was their last bit of communication while the sun was out. He said nothing while he peeled and sliced. While he washed what he could and collected twigs for the fire. While he boiled water, then boiled it again with his meager ingredients. Jack just sat next to him while he ate. It was funny. Two days- or was it three by now?- without little more than snacks, and yet Pitch seemed to forget about his hunger while he was here. Of course he consumed every last drop just to have something in him, but his appetite certainly hadn’t made the soup any less bland.

Nevertheless, he was fed now. And hydrated. And with the fire down to embers, it was time to turn in for the night.

At least in the dark, the house didn’t look as familiar.

With a deep breath, Pitch stood and extended a hand to Jack. Again, he reminded himself he’d make it up to him later. He knew he was being terrible company right now.

“We’ll at least get a bed tonight. Ready?”

Jack wasn’t ready. He didn’t think Pitch was, either. With the way the man had been avoiding the house, he wanted to offer that they could just sleep outside. They had been sleeping outside for days, why not one more?

But he didn’t have the vocal range for it. For the death of him, Jack couldn’t figure out what two words would mean that they didn’t have to, if Pitch really didn’t want to. So he took Pitch’s offered hand and followed him into the house.

They passed the kitchen and dining area. Passed the living room. And as they passed one particular room with a cracked door on the side, Pitch’s grip tightened and pace quickened. He all but ran up the stairs by muscle memory and moonlight, but stopped when they reached the second floor. On the left was the master bedroom across the hall from a smaller bedroom. As far as he was concerned, they were off limits even if he didn’t have a companion with him.

So they went right. Pitch could tolerate the guest bedroom. Very little memories in that room. The bed had no claim to it, and therefore it wouldn’t feel… as wrong.

It was dusty. The window had a crack in it, but was still in tact. Pitch finally let go of Jack’s hand to approach the bed, peeling away the comforter on top. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept on a bed. Last time he hadn’t stuck around after dark. It was a shame he was in no state of mind to enjoy the luxury.

But he could at least get comfortable. Pitch sat on the mattress, removing his boots and socks, his gloves and jacket, and unloaded a few hidden weapons on the nightstand. Even if they were ambushed in the middle of the night, would he have the will in him?...

“I…” Pitch started, awkwardly, not actually sure what he wanted to say. His eyes fell on Jack, Jack who only followed him and wasn’t asking him questions or putting pressure on him. Somehow it calmed some of the brewing turmoil in him. “Tomorrow will be a better day, Jack. I promise.”

Tomorrow would be more of the same. The difference was, Jack was used to this world. Pitch was missing the world that came before. Still, if he was trying to be optimistic, Jack wouldn’t do anything to make him feel worse.

The thing was… Jack wasn’t sure what the procedure was, here. Were they sleeping in the usual formation? Or did Pitch want… distance, tonight?

Jack made his way to the other side of the bed and, with some difficulty, sat down. He pondered words for a hot second, but finally settled on waving his hand back and forth to ask Pitch, ‘Should I lay this way, or that way?’

Pitch couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Poor Jack. He was probably still so confused.

To make things a little easier, he reached for the pillows and removed the dusty cases so he could lay back on them properly. It felt nice to be off of his feet on a soft surface. More importantly, he made sure there was enough space for Jack beside him. It wasn’t the biggest bed, but they’d fit as long they still didn’t mind the lack of personal bubble. “Whatever’s comfortable. Just stay close.”

Close, Jack could do.

Even inside a house like this, night didn’t feel safe, so Jack went for a compromise. He left his feet at the foot of the bed, but rested his head on Pitch’s shoulder. It would be easy to wake him like this, but came with the illusion of relaxing for one night. It seemed like Pitch might have needed that.

It was nicer than the chairs in his library. Even dead, Jack could feel the difference in how soft the bed was, and how it supported his neck. Truthfully, after traveling around with Pitch like this, Jack wondered how he had survived sleeping in Jack’s library for as long as he had. This ceiling was going to be a lot more boring, though.

And Jack missed his shelves of things. There were lots of shelves, here. This kind of house would have been a wonderland for him, before. So many things to stuff in his hoodie pockets and bring back home. Now he only carried the things he couldn’t stand to leave behind, and that was barely anything. Priority went to the things that kept Pitch alive, and snowglobes just didn’t help that.

Was it weird to fantasize about grave robbing the former home of the man whose chest was your nightly pillow? Did it count that it had nothing to do with it being his home, and everything to do with it being a nice place to live with lots of homely stuff in it?

Probably not. But who was judging? Especially in this world.

Jack rolled his head to one side and tried to meet Pitch’s gaze. He was getting better at inflection, at least. “Good… night?”

It wouldn’t be. Honestly, Pitch would consider it a small miracle if he managed to get any sleep at all. But bad night, restless night, or mournful night, he could at least be sure of one thing; it wouldn’t be a lonely one.

That was enough to muster a small smile for, and Pitch tilted his head ever so slightly until he felt Jack’s hair barely brush against his cheek, “Goodnight, Jack.”