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...because a heart that hurts is a heart that works...

 

There’s something wrong with the place, Jim can feel it in his aching bones. They said to keep away from stores and buildings in general, but they also said they’d never leave him and that was a big fucking lie. There are still lights on in this place, chances to find something in a place with the lights still on tend to get smaller and smaller as time goes on. But he’s so damn hungry.

“Hey buddy!” Jim greets the cashier at the checkout, giving him a nod and a wide smile that’s all teeth.  He’s perfectly aware he won’t get a response, he just wants to be nice and show some respect. Judging by the way the mostly skeletal body, still clad in store employee clothes, is slumped over the counter the dude has been dead for quite some time, and not the living dead kind. He's a lucky duck considering his quick and easy death.

Jim sighs and heads towards the canned food aisle, only stopping to grab some wet wipes hoping they haven’t dried out yet. He’s about to leave the town and who knows when he’ll have a chance to take a proper shower. This place was a lucky find, there are still functioning networks in some buildings in the west part of the town, not everything has been ruined like in some other places. He spent a good week here, enjoying all the conveniences of civilian life - air conditioning, coffee machines, showers, flushing toilets even. He could stay here forever, if there wasn’t a big-ass but. Two big-ass buts, actually.

First of all, he’d like to eat something besides air, thank you very much. And secondly - he’d sell all that’s left of his soul for a solid eight hours of sleep. Six hours. Four. On the floor. He doesn’t really care anymore. He’s all alone at this place, as far as he knows, you can never be sure of anything, but he’s combed through the town thoroughly, it seems to have been abandoned for years. They’re all gone. And yet he couldn’t sleep. Life gets too complicated when you don’t have company.

Yesterday he locked himself in a walk-in closet in one of the suburban mansions that still looked pretty undamaged to finally get some sleep. But he didn’t feel sheltered there, more like claustrophobic, so he woke up every thirty minutes covered in cold sweat. Better than nothing, some might say. “Fuck off,” he would reply. He’s tired of nightmares. He has never felt this weak in his life, so annoyed and disgusted with himself as well. Funny enough, he’s fully equipped with really good meds and he could set up a real nice trip to the land of dreams for himself but he’s too scared to do it alone, unattended. Sure, he wants to eat, but he doesn’t want to be eaten.

Nevertheless he’s still alive. It’s good news. Bad news - the grocery store is completely wrecked and desolate. It’s no surprise. Searching for food is a challenging task. These days actual diamonds are more easily found than anything edible. Everything that could be eaten had been taken a long time ago. That’s why the pitiful remnants of the survivors left the cities. There are other reasons as well, of course.

It’s been three years already, if he remembers it right, and about that he’s not particularly sure, some think it happened ten years ago, some say half a year. Time exists only if you keep counting. Nobody really cares anymore.

He tries his best not to make too much noise, just in case - a habit he’s adopted in the past months. If you’re alone be fucking quiet. It’s a quote. From Sulu. He almost hears his friend’s voice lecturing him about rules of conduct in dangerous places.

They had so many rules. Some really made sense, some were ridiculous. Don’t go exploring new places alone. Don’t go hunting alone. Don’t sleep when you’re alone. Don’t do shit when you’re alone. Don’t shit when you’re alone. If you see something - tell Spock. If you thought you saw something - tell Spock. Fuck Spock, really. If you want to fuck Spock - tell Spock.

They had known each other since middle school.

Maybe it’s just the crashing bore and sentimental yearning that comes with the entire ‘living in a small town’ thing. ‘Being young’ thing. ‘Laying in the grass after school, puffing smoke to the bluest of skies, dreaming big’ thing. Maybe they really did have something special. They were like brothers. The group of nerds - Jim, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty and Spock, they all dreamt of working for SpaceX one day. They didn’t know how, they didn’t even care, but they knew for a fact the day would come. They’d leave their town and sail space; beyond the blue, beyond the black, and even further, because who else would. They were smart, and brave, and let’s be honest, bored to death.

It seemed like forever ago now.

When it all started they’d lost each other in that awful, terrible movie mayhem, and those were the most dreadful weeks of Jim’s life. Their town, that never ever had been a nice place, got destroyed. They’d lost each other, they’d lost everyone they loved and everyone they had barely known, in a matter of seconds. Eventually they found each other and left, never looking back.

Now there was Spock and his God Complex. Nothing has changed since high school. He claimed he just wanted them to be safe. He thought they’d made it to the West alive and with all their limbs intact only because of his never-ending list of rules and his amazing self as their leader. If Jim was to be completely honest, it was seventy percent true. They were invincible together.

So how did Jim end up here all alone in the middle of nowhere with no one to cover his ass, let alone follow the rules, no fucking food, with a tiny gun he stole from Scotty as his only weapon? They didn’t trust him with a weapon anymore after what happened a few weeks ago.  

Jim sighs and continues wandering the aisles, looking around carefully. Broken shelves, shattered glass, empty boxes is all he can see. He carefully observes all the fridges to find nothing, not even a pack of fucking frozen peas, and he bangs his head against the glass door of a fridge as gentle and quiet as possible, of course. He stands still when he hears a cracking sound.

Sounds are bad.

Well again, not in general. Usually he loves sounds, loves music, the rustling of trees in the wind and the sound of someone’s laughter. Sounds mean he’s not alone, and not being alone is good. Unless you’re not alone in a place where you’re supposed to be alone. That’s why you have to be quiet. So you can hear them coming. And they can’t hear you. The world is a silent place now.

Jim turns around slowly and sees one of those casually walking through the aisle, pushing a shopping cart.

They don’t know much about the Infected, always on the run they didn’t have much time to examine them. Some call them ‘The Dead’ for lack of a better word because it’s easier to pretend that the people they used to be are gone, and now they’re just walking bodies, a shell of their past selves, and only the rage and hunger keeps them from complete decay. It’s beautiful, poetic even, how the reference dehumanizes them, deprives them of individuality and… life. Well the virus made them dead, not the language.

They’re not objectively dead though. They walk. They definitely eat. They maybe even breathe. Some people think there’s something left inside and that they’re able to remember who they were before they got infected. Well, Jim thinks that those people are delusional.

This particular Dead apparently used to be a nice suburban housewife. Residual instinct it is. Otherwise, how could you explain a half decayed body in torn clothes casually walking through supermarket aisles, pushing an empty shopping cart? There’s even still a strand of pearls around her neck. It looks almost routinely, except that it’s not. How can someone insist they’re living beings? She’s dead, she’s just not aware of it. Then she looks at Jim with those scary pale, dead eyes. Eye. She only has one eye. God, she looks bad.

The Infected moves very slowly and at first Jim assumes she’s weak and starving, but that’s just an optimistic scenario. He’s a glass half full kinda guy. But then she makes a sudden jerk towards him and he realizes he was wrong. The shopping cart crashes into a stall with one hell of a bang and time turns slow motion as if he’s in a movie. Jim needs to think fast. Or maybe he could just run. So he runs to the exit. And as if to prove once more just how wrong Jim was the Infected moves very fast. Or maybe he’s just too weak and slow. Apparently, the housewife has been on a better diet than Jim for the last three months. Suddenly, he doesn’t feel like he’s the main character in this movie anymore, he’s just the funny guy who dies in the first scene to give the actual main character a perfect place to start.

So he runs, and he stumbles, and he falls. Like it’s expected from the guy who dies first.

She closes in on him and time moves even slower as Jim takes his gun and aims, his hands are shaking, he can hear his own breath in his ears. “Yes, come at me, sis!” he shouts dramatically as if the sis could appreciate the joke. The first shot hits her in the shoulder but she’s absolutely undeterred by it, only the force of the bullet makes her stumble back briefly. Jim misses the second shot by a few inches as he hits a shelf crawling backwards. He pulls the trigger once more and then again but now only the useless clicks of an empty round fill the surrounding air. He feels the blood pounding in his ears, so loud, he’s sure the infected can hear it as well. An awfully distorted smile appears on her face and she tilts her head to the side in an unnatural angle. Jim made a dead thing smile - the peak of his career as a comedian.

See? He’s a funny guy. Soon to be a dead guy. Because apparently he suddenly sucks at shooting. A few days ago his hands started to shake whenever he held his gun. That’s what almost a week without food and no proper sleep does to you. Even if your name is Jim Kirk. Well, he thinks it’s been about a week, but time doesn’t exist anymore.

He closes his eyes tightly in a desperate attempt to stop the world for a second. He’s aware it won’t work, it never did before. But there was always someone with him before, someone for him. Because he’s not a bad guy, not a good guy either, but he’s funny, he’s attractive, he’s a good friend and definitely a good fuck. He doesn’t deserve to die. Not like this, not this early. Why was he so foolish to believe he could make it all alone? He’s never been good at being alone.

The loudest bang Jim has ever heard in his life followed by the ghoulish sound of a definitely dead body hitting the floor echoes through the halls. He opens his eyes and sees a guy with a shotgun towering over him.

So here comes the main character who takes his place in the story.

Jim looks at his savior with wide, disbelieving eyes. Time has come to a stop and he’s still in a movie. The guy just nods at him without saying a word, his lips pressed together in a thin line, reloads his weapon and then shoots again, and again, in another direction. The sound of two more bodies hitting the floor follow. Aaaaaand cut!

“Didya really think you could kill those with this tiny little thing?” the guy asks in a gruff voice gesturing at Jim’s gun and there’s no hint of humor in his tone.

Jim scowls and gets to his feet, dusting himself off, which is absolutely useless. He simply needs new clothes. The gaping holes in the knees of his jeans are so wide they’re gonna turn his pants into shorts very soon.

When he opens his mouth to make a joke about powerful little things the guy shouts “Go go go! Move! There are more!” grabs him roughly by the arm and pulls him towards the exit.

Jim doesn’t even have time to think as he’s being dragged to the parking lot and then forcibly shoved into a white van, like a classic case of kidnapping. He just feels the weird excitement of still being alive and in one piece. Then his savior jumps into the driver’s seat, slams the door shut and hits the gas.

 

In the side mirror Jim watches a dozen of Dead following them surprisingly fast, they’re endurant, those damn things, but they stay behind as soon as the car picks up speed. He sighs in relief and lets out a small victory whoop.

“Wow, that was close. I owe you big time, man.” He looks at his savior with a wide smile but the guy simply stares straight ahead, hands gripping the wheel tightly.

“For real, you just saved my ass,” Jim bumps the guy’s shoulder with his fist, lightly, but he flinches as if Jim just hit him.

“I am aware. Don’t touch me,” the guy says quietly, his eyes glued to the road.

“Okay,” Jim drawls, confused. Mean people are not rare, in fact, in this chaotic world a stranger doesn’t usually stop and lend a helping hand to a dying man. Best case they’d just look the other way, but usually they just flee certain death to profit from a situation. So if the dude isn’t friendly at all, why would he go out of his way and save some random guy’s ass?

Jim gets that sinking feeling in his stomach, telling him to open the door and jump out of the car immediately. “Don’t trust anyone,” they said, actually it was more like “How fucking stupid do you have to be to give away the beans in exchange for this?” or “Of course he wanted to kill us!” or “It’s clearly not pork, Jim!”. Somehow Jim always does what he’s been specifically told not to, despite logic, common sense, and sometimes his own gut feeling. The memories make him shiver, but he can’t let the stranger know he’s anxious, it’s never a good idea, so he breathes out and sits back. He decides to put his escape plan to rest for a while, it’s never too late to cut and run, unless you got cut and can’t run, but those are details.

Jim throws quick glances at his new fellow every now and then. The guy doesn’t look too dangerous, but they never do until they put a gun to your head. They all look the same - just tired, hungry, lonely people on the road, wandering without destination.

The guy is pretty much skin and bones, as is everyone these days, which is obviously a good thing, only man eaters are well-fed now. But Jim can still see what’s left of what once must have been rather well defined muscles. During their short run Jim noticed that the guy is about as tall as him but bulkier and that they look to be about the same age. Which would be twenty something, you can never tell, people look much older than they really are these days. He doesn’t smell bad either, that’s always a plus. Jim thinks he could use a friend now that his old buddies turned out to be shitty ones and ditched him. So he starts talking.

“I’m Jim, by the way…” He’s good at it. Communication. It’s important in a world where you can’t trust anybody anymore. “Yeah so, I’m from Riverside, small town in Iowa, there’s nothing there but corn and then some more corn. Well, not even that’s there anymore now...” Making acquaintances. Talking. Being nice. Other things if needed. “Hey, look, do you need gas? There’s a station over there, doesn’t look exploded and I know how to siphon fuel!” But there’s no reaction from the other. Jim sighs quietly and rolls his eyes at the window. The world has changed but it’s still working. You have to be careful to make the right impression. He’s probably only still alive because he can talk himself out of almost any situation, involving living people, of course. With dead things it’s obviously a useless skill. He can also run really fast. “... anyway, so I told them to fuck off and.. You’re not listening, huh?”

The stranger hits the brakes suddenly, making Jim’s body lurch forward somewhat, and, without changing his facial expression (which had been a perfect example of a scowl all the way through Jim’s razor sharp, witty monologue) says quietly, “Okay, we lost them, so you’re free to go wherever you’ve been heading to.”

Jim gapes at him. “Wait what? Why?” But the guy just shrugs, steadily looking at the road as if there was something other than the faded yellow double line.

“You can’t just leave me here in the middle of nowhere. Not without a car or something,” Jim mumbles as he slowly takes a look around. “There’s nothing here. Even more nothing than in Iowa and that’s got to say something.”

The guy’s face hasn’t changed a bit. “In my experience the middle of nowhere is the safest place on earth. But if you prefer me to leave you in any other place just tell me where. I’m not gonna drive you to Iowa though.”

“You know we could travel together. It’s more fun and definitely safer...”

“Yeah, no, that’s not really my thing,” the other says wryly, “So either you tell me where I should bring you or you get out.”

The guy is obviously persistent to get rid of Jim, but when has that ever stopped him before. Jim’s just not ready to give up yet. He knows people. It’s something he’s had to learn the hard way. He’s decent at hand-to-hand combat but that’s pretty useless because you don’t want to get too close to the Dead if you can avoid it, and usually he’s a good shot as well. But his most valued skill is that he can read people like a book - an eye twitch, a lip’s twist or a head tilt that’s barely even there. Stupid human body - it gives almost everything away, it just bursts out before they can do something about it. He can almost hear their thoughts and knows what they want before they’re even aware of it themselves, he just knows where to look.

Beyond that, it’s all just basic needs.

The guy might think he doesn’t need anyone, but the truth is that everyone needs a friend, a mate, a fellow… Okay, maybe that’s just Jim. He desperately needs someone to talk to, someone to get his back. To be on watch while he’s sleeping, shitting or doing other things from the list of basic human needs. He doesn’t remember the last time he really slept. Actually he does. But that’s not a very nice story and he doesn’t want to be more upset than he already is.

Of course there are people who prefer to travel alone and obviously this guy is one of them, but Jim isn’t and that’s why he needs to make him change his mind. He ponders about it for a moment. Luckily, the other started driving again.

“We left my car in the parking lot,” Jim states plainly after another minute of silence.

“You can always get a new one. Do you need my help getting out of the car?” Jim could swear he hears a hint of amusement in his tone.

“But all of my things were in there!”

“You’ll find new things. This world is full of abandoned things.”

There’s something strange in how the guy doesn’t look at Jim at all, he just stares out at the empty road, not even blinking. Maybe he is a psycho after all, Jim thinks. The thing is the entire world’s gone insane. If a man acts normal now that looks suspicious.

Truth is, Jim’s just really tired of being alone, this guy is the only person he’s met in weeks and there’s definitely something off about him. But the thing is that he has a deep, somewhat rough voice that soothes Jim in ways he doesn’t want to examine too closely just yet and, well, that’s something Jim wants to think about later. Much later. All alone, walking down a road. Nice picture.

He’s ready to tell the stranger to stop the car again to let him get out when he suddenly speaks up.  “Okay, let’s find you a new car but then you will leave me alone. Understood?” He glances at Jim.

“Yes, absolutely, thank you!” Jim couldn’t be more grateful right now, he leans back again, shoulders a little more relaxed.

“What’s your name?”

It takes a solid minute for the guy to consider giving out his name before he mutters “Leonard.”

“Leo- nard? Really? Who names their kid Leonard in this day and age?”

Leonard slams on the brakes again and quietly but sternly enunciates: “Get out. Of. My car.”

“Sorry, jeez you’re testy. Maybe that’s because you’re lonely.” Jim raises his hands in what he hopes is a placating manner. Maybe he should choose his speech a little more carefully. Clearly the guy doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Jim sighs dramatically. This would be a long trip. “Everyone needs a friend.”

“I need you to leave me alone.”

“Sorry, sorry. I promise not to talk anymore.”

And then they drive, and Jim talks. A lot.