The zombies really aren't that bad, Jeremy thinks - mostly because he's currently trying to fit himself around haphazardly sharp debris and he really doesn't want to think about the alternative - but they're not terrible. They're slow in the sun and all they really want is brains, and, hey, Jeremy would be the first to say he doesn't have much of those, but the fuckers go after him anyway.
Although he does wish they would stop grumbling and moaning in the basement. At least he hopes it's the basement - he's ventured into a city for the first time in weeks, and taken the chance to raid the buildings for any scrap of material he can use. So far, jack squat. But he's only on the ground floor, and there's five floors to go, and he's armed with a shotgun and bat, so really, he's basically ready for anything.
The jagged metal snags his shirt as he passes and he breathes a sigh of relief when he's in the corridor, wide enough to accommodate him and his backpack, which carries literally everything he owns, but like hell if he's leaving it out there for the zom-dogs.
There's peeling paint on the walls and smashed picture frames littering the floor - not an uncommon sight, nowadays. Jeremy elects to ignore the dried blood splatters on the ceiling, the crunch of dusty bone under his footsteps. It smells like musty zombie, which on the scale of no zombie to fresh zombie, is pretty solidly in the middle.
Just as he pauses to inspect a mouldy set of drawers, a door opens. Immediately, he's snapping up, cocking the shotgun and aiming down the direction of the hallway. The zombies still moan and groan underneath him, but nothing approaches him. Still, he continues down the shadowy corridor, tensed and ready for any sign of movement.
He can't afford to skip another city. He needs the supplies.
The noises are louder here, more desperate, and Jeremy's heart thumps out a rapid rat-tat against his ribs. His palms sweat on the grip.
He stops by a set of double doors. The groaning on the other side is thunderous, accompanied by the dreadful sounds of zombies clawing and thudding at walls and doors and floors and ceilings and each other - trying to get to Jeremy, trying to get to blood.
But this is where the stairs are, and Jeremy's not going to let some basement zombies stop him from his search for equipment.
Jeremy glances around him quickly before pressing on the door - it's stuck fast, and he lowers the shotgun to shoulder it open instead, one-two-THUD and it slams open with a cloud of dust, Jeremy almost tumbling forward with it -
There's a shout and Jeremy whips around and raises his gun to meet -
Jeremy's eyes follow the double barrels to - a face. A humanface. Well, at least, not obviously zombie. Yet. Maybe.
Jeremy cocks the shotgun.
"Who are you?" The guy asks, scowling.
"Are you infected?" Jeremy counters, acutely aware of the growling beneath their feet.
"No," the guy says, but neither of them lower their guns. Anyone could be lying nowadays. "You?"
Jeremy shakes his head.
"A-ha!" And Jeremy almost gets whiplash from how quickly his head snaps to look at the stairs - the other guy startles - there's a woman there, brandishing a rusty hunting knife with - is she smiling? Whoever she is, she's clearly just come from the upstairs.
"Lindsay, what the - oh my god," the guy sighs, relaxing again.
"You're together?" Jeremy asks. The guy's eyes flick to Jeremy's bandaged arm and back up.
"Yeah," He says. "What's the deal with your arm?"
"Cut myself on rocks," Jeremy says. He lowers the shotgun a touch. "I'm Jeremy. What's your name?"
"Michael," Michael says. "You with anyone?"
"No," Jeremy says, glancing between them both.
"He can come with us," Lindsay says - Michael opens his mouth, looks like he's going to argue, but then another door, below them, smashes open, and suddenly the thundering, but slow, footsteps of a zombie horde fill the stairwell.
Jeremy glances fearfully down the stairs, and a hand appears around the corner. A mottled, rotting hand. Blood-stained. There's too many to fight. Michael sighs.
"Fuck it, go!" He shouts, and the two of them take off after him, dashing down the rickety hallway with their belongings thumping heavy against their backs - again, they hurriedly squeeze through the sharp debris, and Jeremy's shirt rips on one of the pipes, but he miraculously doesn't lose anything.
The horde roars behind them. Jeremy knows they won't care for debris or tight spaces or pain - will rip themselves apart trying to get at them, bones breaking and muscles snapping, no care for their own viscera or where it lands.
"This way!" Lindsay calls over her shoulder, grabbing Jeremy's arm to suddenly yank him down another hallway, definitely not the one he used to get in -
A few seconds later, they burst out of a rusty fire exit, almost falling over each other to catch their breath for a moment. Michael quickly barricades the fire exit with a heavy branch.
"That's not gonna hold," Jeremy says.
"I know," Michael pants, wiping hair from his face. A window shatters behind them.
"Guess you're with us then, Jeremy," Lindsay says, far too cheerfully. Jeremy can't help his smile - and neither can Michael, trying to hide it by wiping his mouth and failing miserably.
"All right, all right, let's get moving," Michael says, gently grabbing Lindsay's elbow to urge her to move. "Before we're ripped to shreds."
"Good plan," Jeremy agrees, and off they run.
"So like, what happened to your group?" Michael asks at dinner, ripping open hot tin of beans with a Bowie knife. "They leave you or you leave them?"
"I never had a group," Jeremy says. "At least, none that survived after the STS bust. You?"
"Not after the radios went flat," Michael agrees, a little sadly.
"You lost them?"
Jeremy stays silent for a moment. He knows the pain.
"Anyway," Michael says, handing the tin to Jeremy. "Guess we're stuck together now, huh?"
"Guess so," Jeremy laughs, clinking his beans to Michael's. Michael leans back to call for Lindsay, who was planting spikes outside while they cooked dinner.
"What's for dinner?" She asks, grinning as if she already knows the answer.
"Steak," Michael answers dryly, opening two more tins and giving one to her.
"Great," she says, digging in eagerly. Michael fondly shakes his head and Jeremy stifles a laugh against his shirt.
Despite the bleak landscape around them, Michael and Lindsay seems almost...vibrant. Full of laughter and full of love, like two gleaming beacons in the last dregs of humanity. It's heartwarming, and heartwrenching, and Jeremy goes to sleep later feeling safe for the first time in months.
There were a lot of rumours going around, when the zombies first started, that it wasn't the whole world. That the outbreak was only in America, that it'd been contained. There were boats off the continent, but Jeremy never got a chance to get to one.
Someone up in Maine started a radio system. STS. Safety, Teamwork, Survival. Supposed to be a code to live by, but when the radio went under, the code did, too. Jeremy was always solo, sometimes tagging along in nomad groups, or camping in little tarp tents, but nothing ever lasted long. Without the connection, the communication with any other living form, those groups all eventually turned on each other. Tore each other apart.
Jeremy remembers it too well.
But that was years ago. Long before the dust had settled, and a new normal had taken over. Now it's just the survivors, the stragglers, all clinging on in the hopes that someday they can reach one side of the continent or the other.
There's no boats anymore, but Jeremy doesn't think about that. He'll build one if he has to. When he has to.
"So where are you guys headed?" Jeremy asks on the trail one day, walking in step with Michael and Lindsay. "West or east?"
"Uh, we're actually going south," Michael says, glancing at him. Jeremy frowns.
"Aren't you guys trying to escape?"
"Well, yeah," Lindsay says. Pauses.
"We're trying to find our group first," Michael explains.
"They were in Texas when the STS busted," Lindsay continues. "So we're going back down there."
"You really think they'll still be there?" Jeremy asks. "That they'll still be a group?"
"Oh, they're uh, they're definitely some sort of group," Michael laughs. "I'd put my money on them still being right where we left them."
"They're an interesting group," Lindsay adds.
"You don't have to stay with us," Michael says, a moment later.
Jeremy rolls it around in his head for a minute, glances east and then back at Michael and Lindsay. They seem so certain their group is still there. And Jeremy hasn't heard laughter - real, human laughter - in months. Years, maybe, he's lost count.
The promise of the sea, the escape, calls to him like a lifelong yearning.
But the promise of humanity, of Michael and Lindsay and maybe more people like them, calls to him more.
"Nah, I'll stay," he says, easy as anything, and Michael's grin alone is worth setting aside his escape plan.
Weeks pass. Months. Their little group gets closer. They get better. Jeremy fights in sync with Michael and turns right around to help defend their back with Lindsay, and the three of them tear through infested buildings like a bullet, watching each other's backs and catching each other's directions.
It's smooth. Seamless. Michael shoots while Jeremy reloads, Jeremy does the same. Lindsay finds a pistol in what used to be Illinois and Michael straps a knife to his shotgun in case the zombies get too close.
(And they do, sometimes. Take a swipe at Michael or Lindsay or Jeremy, catch their clothes on overgrown nails, the stench of rotting flesh waving right under Jeremy's nose, making his head swim -
and then, like clockwork, someone else shoots, or stabs, and they're right back to normal, shouting to combat the growling, joking to cover the worry.
Still, there's nights where Jeremy catches Michael and Lindsay in a private moment, a soft moment, and he would be lying if he said his heart didn't yearn for the same thing. But he takes what he can get, and neither of them ever push him away when he goes in for a hug, or when they end up sleeping on top of each other for warmth in the freezing night, and Jeremy can almost let himself believe it's close enough to what he wants.)
"Dude. What the fuck."
"What?" Michael asks, turning around from his target practice.
"You're terrible at that," Jeremy says, looking at the arrows littered on the ground, none of them on the tree Michael's trying to hit.
"Hey, fuck you," Michael grins, drawing the bow tight again. He misses. "I've never done it before."
"Here, let me - let me show you," Jeremy sighs, shaking his head. Michael shrugs and obediently waits for Jeremy to direct him.
"Lift up. Yeah, okay, now pull back, no, straighten your arm, like this - no, like - Michael, c'mon, just - oh my god - "
Jeremy steps in to adjust Michael himself, pushing his arm up and steadying the bow and - and pauses, for a second, his hands firmly on Michael's sides, his eyes suddenly locked on Lindsay, sharpening knives at the camp a few metres away. She's watching them, a smile playing on her lips. Michael huffs out a quiet laugh under his breath.
"Ya gonna start salsa dancing?" He jokes, and Jeremy startles, automatically backing away to give Michael room.
"What? No, uh, no, sorry," Jeremy says, panicked, looking between Michael and Lindsay. She just waves cheerfully at him. He returns it, weakly.
"Hey, man, never said it was a problem," Michael says, almost in a breath, glancing over his shoulder at Jeremy. Jeremy doesn't know how to respond, he stutters on his breath and Michael shoots. He hits the target.
"Oh hell yeah, like that?" He asks, just like before, and Jeremy swallows his words to just nod, smiling calmly at him as Michael notches another arrow to practice.
The stars are gorgeous - bright and glittering and winking at Jeremy in their navy blue blanket, pretty enough to distract him from the distant groans of hordes. They've found an empty house - rotting and creaky, but good enough for a couple or few nights, surrounded by barbed wire and leftover spikes from the previous tenants. And the roof is blessedly high enough to be safe from zombies, so here is where Jeremy snuck off to while Michael and Lindsay enjoyed a quiet, tender moment by the barren fireplace. As much as he likes them, he doesn't want to intrude on their space, however they can manage to get it. It feels far too private for him to even witness, a softer side to them both that Jeremy rarely sees outside of times of crisis.
"Yo, where'd you go?" Michael asks, two pairs of footsteps rattling up the stairs. "You okay?"
"What? Yeah, I'm - I'm fine," Jeremy says, startled out of his reverie. He scoots across automatically so Michael and Lindsay can sit next to him - but Michael comes around to sit on his left side while Lindsay plops down on his right.
"Thought you'd gotten zommed," Lindsay jokes, swinging her legs off the edge. Jeremy laughs.
"You knew I was up here."
"They still might get your legs," Michael jokes, pointing at Jeremy's dangling feet.
"They'll get yours first," Jeremy replies. Michael pulls a face - Lindsay laughs, and it's only then that Jeremy realises how close they are to him, their shoulders pressed up to his.
Silence falls while they all admire the stars, the horizon, the wide expanse of country that can see from here. Jeremy sneaks glances at Michael and Lindsay when he can, his heart skipping beats when Lindsay grins, when Michael nudges his arm. Michael starts pointing out random constellations - That's, uhhhh, Dicklicker, and over there is Fuckface - and Jeremy's caught between laughing and staring, caught on how beautiful Lindsay is when she smiles, how handsome Michael is when his eyes are crinkled in the corners.
For a moment, for two, Jeremy can almost forget where and when he is, and he's just a guy on a rooftop with two people he's crushing on bad, and things aren't so dreadful after all.
And when Michael lowers his arm, his hand lands right on top of Jeremy's where it's curled over the edge of the roof.
And Lindsay's hand, a moment later, settles on his other one.
The laughter fades into comfortable silence, eventually, and Jeremy doesn't know if he should say anything or just enjoy existing there, between them, his skin tingling with it. Because Michael and Lindsay aren't words so much as actions, and aren't callous so much as private, and Jeremy doesn't know -
A hand appears on his cheek, gently turning him to Lindsay, and god, he almost leans in on instinct alone - and he thought he lost that instinct long ago, shed it with his innocence and his safety, but no, no, his heart thunders in his chest, his blood roars in his ears, and being so close makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up on end and for once, for once, it's not in fear.
"Can I?" Lindsay asks, soft, quiet, their noses two inches apart. Jeremy nods, helpless, stunned, tingling all over.
Michael's fingers curl under Jeremy's palm just as he kisses Lindsay, and god help him, he never wants to part.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Michael asks, standing over Jeremy with his arms crossed.
"Uh, I think so?" Jeremy replies, hooking the wire onto the grenade - and backs up, encouraging Michael to follow him. "Here, get back. Lindsay, you ready?"
"This is a terrible idea."
"Nah, don't worry, Michael, it'll be fine."
"Fine? How many trip mines have you made in your life?"
"ONE?!" Michael yells - at the exact same time, Lindsay tosses the rock, and it slams into the wire and the mines go off - not huge explosions, but definitely painful, shrapnel flying out around the trees and just barely missing their legs - Michael dances back a few steps and Jeremy almost falls on his ass in surprise, but Lindsay knocks him back upright, gleeful at her work.
"Hell yeah!" She exclaims.
"Yeah, see!" Jeremy says proudly, gesturing at the two trees - both embedded with shrapnel from shin-high down. "Perfect. Guaranteed to slow down zoms."
"Guaranteed to slow down me," Michael says, but he's laughing, and pats Jeremy on the back. "Although seriously, that's freaking awesome."
"I knew you'd like it," Jeremy teases.
They come across Texas state borders not too long later. Michael and Lindsay whoop so loudly it attracts a horde - "oh, shit" - and Jeremy loses a shirtsleeve in the ensuing fight, but they come out victorious. A bit splattered in blood and viscera, but otherwise fine, and Michael pulls him into an adrenaline-filled kiss right there in the middle of the road, a quick, hilariously dramatic smack that he repeats on Lindsay immediately afterwards - and Jeremy's left tingling for the next twenty minutes, high on affection, on them.
And they're never short on affection with Jeremy. Long nights cooped up have become more intimate, more personal - tangled up in various ways trying to stay warm, kisses broken by laughter, a happy little bubble of affection and sweetness so consuming that Jeremy does forget, now, sometimes, the horrors of the world. And all he knows, for those few blissful hours, is the curve of Michael's smile against his own, the weight of Lindsay's hand in his palm, the carefree, easy affection of knowing that they both love him right back.
Before the whole zombie business, Jeremy wouldn't have gone with the I love yous so immediately. But now. Now, they trade it as freely as air, tasting it in each other's mouths and their own, and Jeremy's heart no longer yearns for them, now that he has them.
It's a long, dusty trek through Texas. It's hot, and gruelling, but they can't stop until they reach a building because there's zombies everywhere. Michael keeps downing them with headshots, stops to yank the arrows out of the bodies before moving on. Lindsay brings up the rear with Michael's shotgun, wiping sweat from her eyes and tripping over the occasional crack in the road - Jeremy catches her, and steadies his compass, and watches for zombies.
It's long enough that even Lindsay's stopped making jokes, all of them too hot and too irritable for much right now. Jeremy misses the cold nights up north.
He knows once they settle down for the night it'll be okay, but right now, god, it is tough going. Miles and miles of dry, cracked land, miles and miles of barren trees and dried up plants and -
Lindsay dashes past Jeremy to see where Michael's pointing - Jeremy hurries himself up to come up next to them, and gasps at what he sees.
It's a structure. A bit odd, a bit...unconventional, but that's definitely a structure. A house. With spikes all around it and a crude balcony around the second floor and a bridge to another, pre-zombie house for some reason. There's small trees growing around it. Zombie corpses on the spikes. Unlit torches on the roof.
And there's a man outside, sitting on a chair outside the door, behind the spikes.
"HEY, JACK," Michael calls, breaking into a jog - Lindsay and Jeremy follow him. The man - Jack - looks up at the yell, shading his eyes from the sun - and waves enthusiastically, scrambling around the chair to weave his way through the spikes to meet them.
Michael skids to a stop in front of him, and Lindsay bypasses him to go straight for a hug, smushing her face right against Jack's shoulder - Jack starts, and hugs her back, pulling Michael in a second later. His eyes are wet as he holds them tight, talking about how much he missed them, Ryan thought you were gone for good, oh man, Geoff'll be delighted - and Jeremy can't help but smile as well. This must be their group. They did survive.
"And who's this?" Jack asks, finally releasing Michael and Lindsay to gesture at Jeremy.
"Jeremy," Jeremy says, offering up a hand to shake.
"You found someone with manners out there?" Jack asks Michael as he shakes it - then he pulls Jeremy in for a hug, claps him on the back. "Nice to meet ya, Jeremy. I'm Jack."
Jack invites them in to relax - oh, mind the spikes, Geoff'll hate you if you mess those up - and to catch up - well, Gavin almost got infected, and so did Ryan - oh yeah, Gavin also fractured his leg twice, then he almost let a horde into the house when he broke the door - Ryan's making a minibike, by the way -
And it's so...homey and so unusual, to just chat while sitting in what's almost a living room, a forge and furnace burning away downstairs, flasks of yucca juice in their hands.
(And Jeremy doesn't know how to act, at first - is he with Michael and Lindsay or not? - but both Michael and Lindsay answer that question for him when they hold his hand under the table, whenever they're not using it, and Jack just grins and welcomes Jeremy like an old friend.)
Meeting the rest is chaotic, to say the least. Jeremy loves it. There's Geoff - Michael! Lindsay! My favourite daughter! - I thought that was me! - sorry, Ryan, you've been replaced. And Gavin - MICHAEL BOIIII - and Ryan - hey, you made it! Congratulations - and every single one of them instantly treats Jeremy like family, joking with him and sharing with him, and it's so overwhelming and so good that Jeremy could cry. He's been deprived of companionship, of family, for so long, that it almost feels like too much, but the house is bursting with chaos and laughter, even as the sun sets, even as zombies moan in the distant, and they take turns standing guard, and Jeremy learns so much about them.
About the minibike concept, about Gavin's "bridge of love" between this house and the other, about Geoff's fondness for spikes, Jack's forging and crafting and creating - and they talk about what Jeremy could do, hey, what are you good at? and Michael and Lindsay end up answering before Jeremy can. Within an hour they've determined he'd be best at helping Michael and Ryan adventure - Lindsay volunteers to help Gavin with the tree planting, and Jeremy can see by their shared giggling that they're already a disastrous pair together.
And Jeremy's so wrapped up in it that he doesn't even realise until the next morning that no one ever asked if he would stay.
He heads downstairs without armour, for once, and Ryan hands him a plate of scrambled eggs from the crammed kitchen in a second basement, and Jeremy doesn't even think of the sea.
And he realises that he could never leave.