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I Brought You My Bullets

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arthur

A little shard of sunlight somehow finds its way through the wooden slats haphazardly nailed across his apartment window. It's vaguely triangular, slowly inching across the windowsill, and it makes his eyes strain through the darkness he sits in. The light is golden against the dull walls, and it beckons him across the room like a beacon. His eyes yearn for the sun after two weeks in utter darkness. His mind yearns for him to sit back down.

Arthur's throat is dry. From fear or thirst, he isn't sure, but it's probably both. The piece of sunbeam is the size of his hand, quivering uncontrollably too, and Arthur bites back a sob. The last water bottle is gone, and the only thing left is a single box of dry spaghetti. He's dead, but he still can't die. What a bitter irony, a strange joke, a stinging quip. Bloody fuck, he still can't die.

Wasn't he supposed to die three weeks ago?

The old man only a few paces behind screamed hoarsely as they closed in on him. The supermarket was crammed with desperate people, desperate mothers, fathers, loved ones, friends, all desperate, all terrified. Shrill screams and cries made his eyes water as the horde circled them. He could see nothing but blood and rot. A little boy opened his mouth to cry out. Panic and fear and terror overwhelmed him, pulling him into the rest of the frantic crowd, and the undead claimed their prize.

He could only see blue-black as he ran, everything numbing, footsteps slowing, breathing heavy. Cold hands brushed his unfeeling arms and legs the sudden sting of a bite slammed his senses into overdrive something hurt like hell in his chest Arthur could only feel terror pounding in his head

He takes a breath. One. Two. Three.

He lets it out. One. Two. Three.

The bite on his upper arm is raised and puckered. It slants forward, like the walker had a bad overbite. And he's still alive.

He has to piss, and the beginnings of dehydration grate at his nerves. His tongue is swollen, head pounding, and he somehow finds his way to his old armchair. It's by that damned window. He feels his eyelashes flutter sluggishly. His thoughts are deteriorating, drowning, muddled in nausea and confusion. The room feels warm. He can't think. The sentences in his head are becoming basic and vague. Vague. The view is anything but. Why can't he….?

A despondent cry from outside makes the mindless rambling running through Arthur's head skid to a halt. His arm almost hurls through the window in shock, and he desperately presses his eye to the gap in the slats. The light blinds him and the lure of turning away from the wanton destruction outside surges. He can hear walkers hissing, the screaming progressing as his eyes burn. But he stays, waits patiently, and steels himself for the worst.

The fog in his eyes lifts, and Arthur has already reached for his brother's old rifle. The sun glares through scattered rubble and dust. Three, four, five lurkers are almost shrieking in their slow but steady advance on a desperately sobbing figure. He looks young, with a wild curl flinging out of his hair and flashlight-amber eyes. He doesn't have a left foot.

Arthur can feel his fingers over the butt of the rifle shaking back and forth.

Aim. Shoot him. Put him out of his misery, you bloody fool. Blast out his goddamn brains. Oh, bollocks, there's a sixth one.

The place where his leg ends is trailing blood through the dust. The boy is crawling through the burning-hot dust on his raw palms and knees, tears making his face glossy. He's crying, sobbing, weeping, howling in pain, calling a name over and over as the infected close in.

"Ludwig!" he screams. "Ludwig!"

Arthur slowly cocks the rifle, slowly lines it up with the gap, lets his mind wander.

Shoot him. Shoot it. Him. It. Him. It.

Two shots echo through his ears, but the recoil doesn't hit him at all. Two more shots fire, neatly running through two ghouls, a sickening squelch he can almost feel as they hit the ground. Even through a haze of thirst and fear, it's obvious the bullets aren't his. Arthur can't seem to comprehend what's going on.

A tall blond is almost hysterical, eyes wide as he bends over the injury. He's muscular, probably strong enough to pick up one of the massive chunks of concrete in the road. His hair is weakly slicked back to the nape of his neck. A military-grade rifle and pack are strapped to his back as well, and Arthur finds himself struggling to uncock his sodding gun without accidentally shooting it off.

The blond is almost in tears now, seemingly muttering something over and over, shaking the other boy back and forth. Arthur wants to retch at the horror, even though his stomach is empty and his mind feels dead. He can barely feel his feet as he stumbles out of his chair, snatching his gun and the med kit. Everything is screaming at him to stop, but only one thought is in his head.

Water.

Arthur somehow finds himself at the foot of the stairs, raggedly out of breath, ready to open the door, ready to die. Out through the boarded-up backdoor, around the deserted apartment building, and his eyes almost scream at him. There's so much blood and the boy's hacked-up leg makes his stomach lurch. The view from around the corner is worlds away from the gap in his window. The blond one is desperately trying to staunch the blood and the crying.

"Feliciano, Feli, Feli, Mein Gott, Feli…."

The alleged Feliciano shrieks as he catches a glimpse of his leg through the other one's attempt to keep him occupied. His eyes roll into his forehead, and he stops mid-scream to collapse in the dust. Arthur can't blame him. The kid can't be older than eighteen, and he's already missing a left foot and his ever-loving dignity. Arthur doesn't want to speak to them, doesn't even want to think about them, his head is spinning blindly with revulsion and the sick splatters the ground. The blond's head shoots up at the disgusting noise, at the shabby ex-expat clutching a med kit, at the old English rifle in the other hand. His lips move silently, frantically trying to speak, but he can't say anything. Arthur weakly kicks the box through the seemingly never ending space between them and steers his eyes away from the vomit in the dust. It's watery and colorless.

"-an iron?" The blond's voice is low, and Arthur can barely catch what he's saying. He has a moderate accent; it sounds German.

"...An iron?"

The supposed German continues bandaging. His face is almost stoic as he takes a breath. Almost, not quite, but he's making an effort.

"Yes. An iron."

"You want to…..cauterize it?"

The German just stares at him, as if questioning him to do otherwise, as if Arthur's going to get the bloody piss strangled out of him in seven seconds if he doesn't get that damn iron. But his gaze drops to his friend's leg, the blood rapidly soaking through thick layers of bandages.

After a long silence, the blond clears his throat and stands unsteadily. "You are dehydrated. I have water."

Arthur stares at him for a moment. Before he knows it, he's quickly gesturing to the back door like a madman. He can hear the sodding German's heavy footfalls behind him. His friend and pack weigh on broad shoulders, but he doesn't seem to break a sweat, somehow keeping up with Arthur's erratic pace. He can't help it, but thirst claws at his throat uncomfortably and he needs water so horribly he can barely function.

Arthur practically slams through the door of his cluttered apartment and his head spins. The sight makes him feel sick yet again, and he wonders why he feels the need to continuously vomit, but it doesn't matter because the German has something he needs so desperately, so, so, desperately. As he stumbles into the bathroom, rummaging through his cabinets, it occurs to him how quickly his mental state deteriorates.

This German can kill him and take everything he has left.

But the screaming Italian passed out on the linoleum says something else. Arthur's too much of a damn twat to deny him.

The old iron his mum left when she visited is still there. Just looking at it is like listening to Feliciano's shrieks of horror again, and he almost drops it as he turns to face the German. The man stares him in the eye for a solid thirty seconds, suddenly dropping his pack with a thump and rapidly producing a bottle of water and a generator. It must weigh at least twenty pounds. Arthur swallows nervously, thinking back on how heavy the Italian could be, and knows this man could kill him with the three weaker fingers on his left hand. Still, he almost snatches the bottle from him and lets the clear taste flood his head.

Relief .

The generator starts to hum but doesn't even get close to filling the silence between them. Arthur needs to say something, needs to thank this man for a trait he hasn't seen since the walkers rose and snatched humanity away by the collar, but his thoughts are rambling too much to focus. Thankfully, the man clears his throat first.

"What do I call you?"

Arthur releases the tension from his thoughts like a breath of fresh air. "My name is A-Arthur. And you?"

"I am Ludwig." He pauses, plugging in the iron, and looks back at Arthur. His eyes are icy blue, the color of the glaciers you used to see in documentaries. "And he is Feliciano."

The conversation falls silent once more, no one saying a word. Shivers of insecurity tingle through his spine, and Arthur feels his head begin to spin again. The sweet water almost grounds him, but fear still slips through, making his fingers shake again.

He'll kill you. He'll rob you. Look at him. The tosser looks like he curls a few hundred kilos as a warmup every day. It's all false.

No, he has to help me, he can protect me, he needs to...I can't live here alone. I can't.

You bloody wanker, can't you see? You're just a tool for his friend. You won't live long. Run, while you still can.

A sharp beep from the iron shatters his internal monologue, and Ludwig mutters something under his breath in German. Arthur remembers this iron as a child, remembers the screaming molten pain when his finger brushed against it, and can't say anything.

"He…..he is in a state of shock," sighs Ludwig. "Maybe he will be numb enough." But his voice is uncertain, haltingly stating a quasi-truth.

"Do you know how to do it?"

"I am a medical student. I can only hope."

Arthur watches as he neatly lines up more bandages, a tube of Neosporin, and a pair of gloves. Ludwig hurriedly forces antihistamines down Feliciano's throat as if trying to compensate for what he's about to do, and his eyes shoot from the blood-soaked bandages to the iron to Arthur again.

The metal is hissing, so Ludwig slowly unravels the bandages with a practiced theatrical slowness. Arthur averts his eyes, mumbles something about packing a bag, practically sprints out drowning in horror. He's almost forgotten the hell the world is now; flesh-eating undead roaming the streets, bands of survivors finishing each other off like rabid dogs, plague spreading across the continents in a wildfire of panic, English expats alone in apartments with bodybuilder Germans and screaming Italians….

Arthur pulls his head back out of the clouds just in time to hear a sharp hiss from the hallway and an agonized wail. It lasts for several seconds. He's too panicked to function for a moment, but the feeling quickly fades to be replaced with desperation. Ludwig is finished, which means he'll be leaving, and Arthur will be alone again with a single water bottle in a wasteland. His hands fly, cramming everything he can think of into an old pack of his brother's. Clothes, jacket, switchblade, flashlight, matches, canteen, all of his medication, another first-aid kit….what else? Rummaging around, he can only find the dry pasta and a Mars bar. In they go; maybe he can bait Ludwig with them.

The pack is almost entirely too heavy on his back, but he's fine, he has to be, and Arthur bursts into the hallway where the Italian is awake. He's crying again, whimpering and muttering something under his breath. Ludwig is bandaging the wound again with the utmost care and focus. Arthur has to loudly clear his throat before the two look up.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, grazie!" Feliciano cries, tears forgotten as he solidly beams at Arthur. Even in the harsh sunlight, his grin is so bright Arthur has trouble looking straight at him. Who are these people? Here he is, in the middle of a literal bloody hell, and a boy who was just screaming as someone burned his bloody stump of a foot with an iron is now smiling at him with bright eyes.

"Y-you're….most certainly welcome," Arthur mumbles, hit by a surge of self-consciousness. How exactly is he going to convince them to take him in?

"Why do you have a pack?"

His lilting Italian accent only raises the nervousness to an entirely new level.

"Oh, ah...yes, about that, lad…." Arthur is getting desperate, so he does the only thing he can do without internally combusting. "I really honestly can't stay here and rot away or die in this bloody apartment and I haven't had any human contact in weeks and I need somewhere to go before I shoot myself and I have a weapon and supplies and you must let me go along with you please I can fend for myself-" At this, he takes a deep breath, letting the words spew out of him like a breaking dam. "-so please I helped you you must try to do me a favor I swear I won't be a nuisance just get me out of here, please." His anxiety reaches an all-time high, and his head doesn't seem to work properly at the moment, so he somewhat subconsciously reaches for the spaghetti in his hastily-made pack. Everything fogs over at the edges of his vision.

As his head begins to clear, Arthur is aware of two things. One, he's somehow in an awkward position with his hands shoving a box of spaghetti at two strangers, as if he's stiffly prostrating himself to the Queen of England. Two, Feliciano is grinning so widely his smile from before seems somewhat unhappy in comparison.

"Is that…...pasta?!"

Arthur is suddenly overwhelmed by the Italian's happy squeal as he turns to a straight-faced Ludwig. "Luddy, we can't refuse him, it's pasta! Oh, we haven't had pasta in weeks, no, we have to take him back to the camp, the sun is setting in an hour, oh, please? Can we?"

The German just stares at his companion for a long moment, then turns toward Arthur. "Feli, I th-" But he's quickly silenced by the look Feliciano shoots him, and Arthur lets his legs give out from under him.

He is saved.

Ludwig stiffly stares at him. "I suppose he can stay for a night. But this is not an attitude we normally adapt towards other survivors, so consider that a warning. Gott, if you-"

"Si, si, Luddy, you'll snap his neck if he steals something, we know. It's okay, nice British eyebrow stranger, you have pasta for us, so Luddy won't be too harsh on you. Well, he likes wurst more, but I don't suppose you have some of that, do you? Anyways, I don't like wurst much anyways, but we don't even have it, so that's not-"

"Feliciano."

The Italian giggles, snatching the box from Arthur's hands and tugging on Ludwig's cargo shorts. "Ludwig, carry me! Carry me!"

Before Arthur can keep track of what the bollocks is going on, Feliciano and Ludwig are already halfway down the stairs as he gawks in bewilderment. Ludwig glances back, clearing his throat and shouldering his pack.

"Are you coming, or not?"

 

Chapter Text

alfred

He lets the sun's rays refract through his glasses sharply as his feet pick their way through the street. The side of an apartment building is neatly crumbled into little pieces behind him, and he walks past with an indifference in his head and a sadness in his heart. Alfred has been roaming for a few days now, searching through the empty bomb-ridden streets of New York City, and there's still no sign of Matthew.

But his twin brother has to be alive; Alfred can still feel his silent presence in the back of his head, can still feel a lack of fear and anxiety, and so he convinces himself that Matt had fled the city. That doesn't stop him from searching.

But God, Alfred hasn't had a burger or a Twinkie or a Coke in a week, an entire seven-point-four days without any real sugar in his system, and it's really starting to catch up to him. All of New York's McDonalds are boarded up or looted, and he's been subsisting on a large stash of peanut butter granola bars and Gatorade for too long. The uneasy heat in the air sticks to the inside of his bomber jacket like a filmy tranquilizer. Still, Al lets his feet lead him onward, methodically scoping out each avenue of the vast bombed-out city. It's radically different from DC, with everything sharply juxtaposed, and he sees why Matt liked it so much here.

Then again, there isn't much here now. The former glory of Times Square is nothing but rubble, and Wall Street is peppered with bullet holes. It still upsets Alfred to no end when he thinks back on it; the most powerful nation in the world, the United States of America, dropping bombs on her largest city like dimes in some half-assed attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

After all, he supposed, New York City had been Ground Zero of the outbreak, with the bombs stopping several large hordes and killing most of the 25% of citizens who still remained in the city. But the disease had no boundaries whatsoever, still spreading, so now Al was lost in a mountain of rubble and corpses and trying to search for a maybe-dead twin brother.

Damn Mattie and his German boyfriend.

He lets himself drift out to sea again, the sun unpleasantly flashing in his glasses as it approaches high noon. He hasn't encountered any living survivors yet, only their deserted food stores, and Al really doesn't know whether to be glad or lonely.

Looking forward, he feels like he should have some sort of companion. All thoughts of Matthew are quickly shoved aside for a bout of lashing anxiety. He's been able to run from the handful of walkers he's seen, but what if there's a horde? God knows he can't shoot the pistol his cousin got him as a joke, and the thought of killing something is absolutely unbearable.

It didn't matter if they were technically dead; Alfred can't hurt a fly, and will probably never do so in his rapidly-shrinking lifespan. A rational and serious part of his brain tells him to turn back now, while he still can, but he's never been good at paying attention to it. So he continues to wander through a deserted city, weapon-illiterate and too lonely to function decently.

He's close to Central Park now, thank god- maybe there'll be a hot dog cart stashed away somewhere with a few cans of Coke. Alfred can't wait to rid the ever-loving crap out of the constant taste of Lemon-Lime and Cool Blue in his mouth. Even though he's already exhausted from the weight of his annoyingly heavy bag (and Alfred F. Jones never gets tired), he breaks into a quick sprint up the avenue, rushing forward like he's possessed, just to see-

Around a hundred walkers are there, tops, dazedly stumbling in circles. They're relatively unrotted, looking like they're freshly turned, and their vigor for human meat is probably still pretty strong. The anxiety from before hits Al like a semi.

Leave. NOW.

He's there a second too long, a single moment, because one notices him.

He-it, it, lets out a gurgled moan, and the undead turn their heads, so slow and theatrical Alfred almost wants to laugh. His feet are stumbling back and his backpack suddenly feels like a two-ton weight. Did he just land on his ass? Panic swims over the edges of his vision, and his hands desperately scramble at the dusty concrete.

No, not here, not now, Matthew, God, help!

The horde is completely focused on him now, and him alone. Alfred somehow finds the resolve to get up and run. Everything feels hazy and slow and he doesn't know where he's going, didn't he just turn down that street earlier?

He can't really see where he's going. Al can barely focus over the sound of his heart in his ears, as loud as a jackhammer. The mumbles and moans have now transitioned into wailing screeches, almost as if they're pleading, crying; the idea just bothers him, and the nausea at an idea like that makes his vision blank out for a moment. God damn his queasiness. The world has officially ended, and here he is, about to get horrifically mutilated by a swarm of monsters because he doesn't know how to work a pistol.

When his heart rate finally slows to a point where he can reasonably function again, Al lets his feet rest and his breath catch up. His pack leans against a mostly intact building at some intersection. The crush of walkers is about two blocks behind, still staggering towards him, so he can afford a break. Adrenaline still makes his breath erratic, but Alfred Jones can handle it. He's had to do much worse before, he can still function just fine, a couple of semi-rotted peop- monsters, monsters, can't stop him, he just needs to find a-

The sound of loud, spluttering croaks behind him hits him. Five walkers, looking a little worse for their wear; one has an eye missing, and another one's face…..

The familiar surge of panic overwhelms him again. They're just as far away as the horde, his rational side instructs him. Al just runs. Every bit of a steel resolve he's built up is gone now.

They're only coming from two directions, not four, his rational side desperately cries. And that's it; the levelheaded part of his head is gone, replaced with absolute hysteria. It's too much, everything is too much, and he can once again feel his vision muddle with a frenzied rush.

Of course, he manages to find himself dead-ended, pressed up against crumbling concrete, eyes finally clearing to find so many, so many undead staggering towards him. Alfred F. Jones is dead meat. Some of them have bloody mouths, some of them are missing limbs, peppered with gunshots, and all of them are hungry. For the first time, he doesn't think his charisma can help him out here.

They're so close, almost close enough to reach out and grab him, and Al closes his eyes one last time, lets his feet stumble backwards. In, out, in, out… And before he knows it, the ground is knocked out from underneath him, and his head slams into concrete with a thud. A grating scrape rings in his ears, and everything goes dark once more.


When Al wakes up again, he's propped up against a damp wall in near darkness and silence. A stab of bright light hits him in the eyes. It's a flashlight roughly shoved in his face, nearly blinding him, and the person behind it is nothing more than a blurry shadow.

"Dude, what are you doing?" Alfred mumbles, sudden fatigue slurring his words. "Who...are you?"

An irritated voice shoots a response back at him. "No, who are you, bastard? I saved your damn ass by pulling you down here and away from that horde. I think I can take a few liberties here, damn it." He sounds….Spanish? European? Not from here? Alfred can't really tell. He's never been too good at anything remotely foreign.

"Okay, jeez, no need to be so hostile…." Al mutters. The back of his head is throbbing something awful. Maybe some sugar in his system will clear it up. "I'm Alfred F. Jones. Do you have any Coke?"

"W-w-what?!" stutters the mystery man, nearly dropping the flashlight. "How do you- what- dammit, what?"

Al is a little confused at his outburst, a bead of worry swelling in his stomach. "Coca-Cola. Or sugar. Or something like that. Seriously, dude, I've been living off of granola bars for two weeks. You've gotta have something."

The man sighs in relief (?), angling the flashlight so it shines on Al's clothes. "Look, American bast-"

His voice freezes, a cold hand suddenly pressing over Alfred's mouth, and he quickly swivels the flashlight around them. They're clearly underground, probably in the sewers. It occurs to Al that this man didn't knock him out- the drop from the manhole did, thank God, so he doesn't have to worry too much about any ulterior motives.

"Climb, you bastard, climb," his voice hisses suddenly. "They're close. Go!" He shoves Al over to rusted rungs set in the concrete, frantically muttering something in another language. French? Italian? Swedish? The flashlight beam becomes even more distressed. Alfred snatches his pack and scrambles up the rungs, feeling the metal flake at his hands, pausing a moment before pushing the damp manhole cover aside.

The sun smiles in his eyes, the horde is gone along with his panic, he has an ally….dammit, knock on wood. As he hoists himself out, ready to see the face of his mystery rescuer, hope is already leaching into his thoughts. Mattie and their parents always chided him as a kid for having hectic role reversals and mood swings, Al thinks back. He's still like that sometimes, sort of an ingrained state of mind, but he really doesn't care. As long as he's alive and well, he'll be fine.

A few seconds later, a short brunette crawls out of the manhole, looking exasperated and irritated. His eyes are green-hazel, his skin olive and hair dark. A wild curl flings out of his unkempt hair. He just glares at Al for a moment before scowling again, straightening out his ratty t-shirt and jeans with a trace of elegance.

"So, uh…..what's your name? And where are you from? Why'd you help me out? Also, you never told me if you had a Coke or not. I mean, I'm okay with Sprite or Fanta or anything, as long as it's not decaf raspberry tea. Man, I hate that stuff. Seriously though, thanks for everything, dude. Are we gonna travel together, or are you just gonna ditch me here? I'm pretty strong, at least I think so, but that sounds kinda braggy so I'll just say I'm a 'valuable asset to your cause'. Wait, are you from Spain? Yeah, you're a Sp-"

The man reddens before scowling even further. "I am not from Spain, bastard! I'm an Italian! What kind of illiterate clown are you?!" Angrily, he reaches inside the small backpack on his shoulder and pulls out a bottle of Coca-Cola. "And yes, I do have a Coca-Cola, but I'm not going to give it to you!" He quickly shoves it back in. "So there!"

Alfred stares for a moment, dumbfounded, and blinks at the strange Italian.

"So, for the third time, who exactly are you?"

The man flippantly waves a hand. "It's Lovino. Be glad I was there to save your sorry ass from getting devoured. Why don't you have a weapon?"

"Uh, I…." Al doesn't exactly want to tell a stranger he isn't the most trigger-happy person there is, and the look on his face must say something, because Lovino flicks his wrist again.

"Whatever, bastard. I'm going. Good luck on whatever you're doing." He shoulders his bag again, quickly turning away on his dark brown boots.

The familiar anxiety from before creeps over Al again, and as unappealing as traveling with the Italian is, traveling on his own (with no one to net him out of situations) is so much worse. So he dumps out what little pride he has left and runs, struggling to catch up with Lovino.

"Please, Lovino, you've gotta let me come with you!"

"Why, so I can save your ass from all the trouble you get into, bastard? Damn you."

Alfred fumbles with his words for a moment, and Lovino glares at him.

"I'm looking for my twin brother." His expression immediately changes, quickly and poorly masked but still bluntly obvious.

"I….I used to be a mafioso, bastard, so you better...you better….." Lovino's voice fades a little. Alfred notices a little gold band on his finger, but decides not to ask; the man would most definitely kill him or leave him incapacitated in a ditch somewhere.

So Al trails behind Lovino, silent in the vicinity of another person for quite possibly the longest time ever. The midday sun gleams down at them, Lovino with a baseball cap that clearly isn't his pulled over his hair, Alfred with his wire-rimmed glasses. Dammit, he knew he should have gotten those aviators when they were on sale.

Lovino is lazier than Alfred expected, simply kicking through rubble where he would have spent hours searching. Even so, it's clear that Al isn't the only one who's looking for someone. His Italian companion is getting more agitated by the minute, scanning through deserted streets in a furious rage, and is already on his hands and knees after only three hours. Lovino is so angry Al can't help but feel a little upset as well, and the heavy angst grates on him irritatingly.

Lovino takes a shallow breath. "Merda, Antonio, Feli, if you hadn't fucking left early, damn it!" Al watches quietly as he fumbles with his pack, struggling to support its weight, and he slams himself into the dust with wet eyes. Al hates this, hates this world where everyone's lives have fallen apart. It makes him want to slam his fist through a wall. Matthew would have told him it isn't worth falling to pieces over, that their lives are always salvageable, but Matthew isn't here. As much as it pains him, he could be dead or undead, and Al knows he needs to move on and away.

But not today. No, not today.

A scuffling noise makes both of them glance up. Lovino quickly scrubs at his tears with a vigour Al didn't know was possible, and he scrambles to his feet. A figure is stumbling down the street, clearly human. Al squints a little, and something drops in his stomach. There's someone on his back. As he rushes out, lets his legs guide him, the two come into detail. One is thin, with dark hair swaying in his face and a neutral facial expression. The one on his back is in a t-shirt and jacket, complexion olive and hair hanging in his eyes in the most relaxed manner, precariously perched on the first one's back, eyes closed and face flushed. The one carrying him looks ready to collapse, sliding into the dust as he reaches Alfred. He's panting heavily, so heavily.

"What's your name?" Al cries. "Lovino, get over here!"

The man shakes his head exhaustedly. "I….I am Kiku. Please, you must help us….you need to help us…" His voice is accented slightly, Asian, maybe?

"What the hell is going on?" Lovino drags his feet over. "Oh, cazzo, what happened here?"

"He has a horrible fever," mumbles the Asian. "I do not know what to do about it- one minute he was healthy, the next he is almost dead." Lovino suddenly pales, and he glances away from him with guilt all over his face.

Al swallows, knowing, hating how he knows, the urge to burst into tears swelling in his throat.

"I see." Kiku's voice is void of emotion. "I am sorry I burdened you with such news. My sincerest apologies."

Alfred really does burst into tears this time, a horrible feeling of sorrow sweeping through his emotions, clutching at his face and trying to breathe.

"Bastard, shut up and quit your whining!" cries Lovino, slamming a halfhearted fist into his side. "Look, Kiku, there isn't much you can do for him now. It'll be another day until he turns, judging by his temperature right now. He'll come into consciousness at certain times, so don't worry too much. You will be fine. Everything will be fine. Cazzo, everything will be fine." The last statement seems like an attempt to reassure himself, but Al doesn't push.

Everything will be fine. Somehow, he needs to believe it too.

Kiku is obviously distraught, the neutral mask barely hiding anything from view, and Lovino awkwardly pats his back.

"Everything will be fine. Everything will be alright."

And as Al wordlessly hands him a bottle of Lemon-Lime, he can only hope for the best. Somehow, he knows that Lovino and Kiku are too.

Chapter Text

gilbert

The shimmer of heat over the rocks undulates like a wave. Sun even sinks under the tarp canopy Roderich spent so much time fussing on, annoying him slightly, but it doesn't matter much. Elizabeta had conveniently swiped a box of high-class sunscreen for his high-class skin when she and Yao were raiding the Costco anyways. Not like Gilbert needs it, but it was a nice gesture. (Especially coming from Lizzy, who's been his rival since seven.)

Still, the harsh light makes his eyes squint, and he hopes night will come soon. Then, maybe Yao can cook them something again, he can mess with Lizzy and Roderich, and his skin won't burn like the flames of hell. It's a little strange, now that he thinks about it, but he's had better food in the walker apocalypse than in any of his life before. Yao really is a miracle worker. Gil has to admire the man's resolve and hardiness through all of the shit that's gone down in his life, including his missing half-brother and having to band together with the four of them.

Okay, so maybe that part isn't that bad. He's pretty awesome, if he does say so himself. And Antonio's pretty cool too.

But Yao is kind of strange anyways, and Gilbert supposes their group is an okay fit. The Chinese dude does thirty minutes of tai chi in the morning and religiously wears two Hello Kitty snap-on wristbands, the dork, so he wasn't completely weirded out when Elizabeta knocked out a dozen walkers with a frying pan. Hell, Roderich was more surprised, and Roderich's known Lizzy longer than he has. What a wimp; Lizzy's been saving his ass since Gil was still in diapers, a fact that remains a strong point twenty years later.

Then again, Lizzy is probably the manliest out of all of them combined. It doesn't crush his pride, (why would it? He's awesome) but denying it is nearly impossible. In the wake of the mass bombings, she had somehow corralled them off Long Island and onto the mainland, where their camp was currently set up. Even Ludwig, his slightly anal-retentive little brother, couldn't match her. And he was the one who lifted weights to the point where saying "do you even lift" was inaccurate.

So Gil lounges in his deck chair they stole, under the tarp and watching the sun. Somewhere in the background, he can hear Lizzy and Roderich fighting again and Yao trying to drown it out by snapping his Hello Kitty wristbands back and forth, but it clearly isn't doing anything. The erratic clicking lets his mind wander as he waits, with nothing to do or see. He wonders when West and Feli will get back. He wonders where the hell Antonio's gotten to.

To his side, Gilbert can see Roderich in a very awkward semi-kiss while Lizzy mumbles obscenities at him. Really, in the presence of the Awesome Gilbert Beilschmidt? Then again, before Matthew disappeared, they were pretty hangry too (horny and angry. Shut up, it was totally a word. If Gil said it was so, it was so, and that was the end of it.) Yao colors before quickly speed-walking over to him, glancing at the watch on his wrist.

"Gilbert, it's almost three-thirty, and Ludwig and Feliciano said they would return around two, aru."

"Maybe they found a stash of beer," shrugs Gilbert. "Anyways, don't stress yourself out too much. We only need to worry if they don't show up by sundown."

Yao frowns. "I….suppose, aru. Though we do need to look out for them, aru. And Antonio as well. I'm not sure where he went, aru."

"Honestly, let it be. West can fend for himself and Feli. And loosen up on the 'aru'. Everything's fine." Gil knows the verbal tic is an ingrained habit that usually comes up when Yao is irritated or stressed. He kind of has a good reason to be, but Gilbert doesn't mention it. He and Ludwig are capable Germans. Ninety minutes doesn't mean a thing. Really, it doesn't and won't.

"Guess so, ar- Anyways, I think Elizabeta and Roderich are done now; can you keep watch while I cook something?"

Gilbert barks out a laugh. "Sure they're done, old man?"

Yao just rolls his eyes and turns around, only to quickly spin back around and whip himself in the face with his ponytail as he catches a glimpse of Lizzy's uncompromising position. "Call me old, Gilbert, but they really should be done."

"Done with what?" Antonio's voice chirps, a brown head of hair abruptly perching on Gil's shoulder. His eyes shine with unfiltered cheer. A part of Gil's head wonders why he isn't drunk off his rocker. After all, he's been separated from his "lovely Lovino-Lovi" for two weeks now, and there's still some of his coveted Spanish wine in the cooler. But Antonio's blind to reading the atmosphere, Feli's asswipe of a brother is really just a damn wimp who isn't capable of surviving very long in this new world, and Antonio's favorite hobby seems to be eating canned tomatoes with gusto, weird irony be damned. So, following that strange string of logic, that part of his head passes it off reluctantly.

"Done with your mother," Gil snickers, vaguely gesturing to the hangry pair (most definitely a word). "Where the hell were you, Antonio?"

"Ahahaha, Gil~ don't make vulgar jokes like that," Antonio grins, ruffling his hair. "I was taking a walk through the woods. The weather is very nice today, conejito, if I do say so myself."

Gilbert rolls his eyes. "Yes, yes, what with the life-giving rays of the sun and all. Maybe they'll encourage West and Feli to haul ass back here from wherever they're trying to scout."

"Still calling him West?"

Gil just shrugs and cracks his knuckles. "Why would I call him anything else?"

The sun lowers itself over the hills, the faint shadow of Long Island and the ocean behind him as his eyes are hit with slow heat. Night will fall soon. West isn't back, and Yao is visibly fidgeting with his Hello Kitty bracelets.

Antonio rests a hand on his shoulder, and together they let the sun ever-so-slowly sink in the sky, watching and waiting.


lovino

The light is rapidly dimming from the sky; everything is dusky blue, washed in the eerie hue, and the heat has started to plummet. Already, his skin smarts with each gust of wind. The way Alfred's bomber jacket flaps around idiotically bothers him, and Lovino wonders if he's cursed to be so damn cold for all eternity. Kiku's wearing a thin rain jacket yet seemingly unaffected by the temperature.

Why is the Japanese bastard so not-wimpy? Not like Lovino isn't not-wimpy. He's just….from Sicily, and the climate was warmer, so he isn't used to- oh, who is he kidding, he's lived in New York for a dozen years now, and Lovino fucking Vargas still can't physically survive in temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Dammit.

Kiku drapes his pale green jacket over his dazed companion, currently on Alfred's back as they all hike up the stairs of an apartment building, flat eyes looking almost disoriented. His arms sway loosely as he struggles to keep up with Alfred's breakneck pace, and Lovino doesn't have the heart to speak as they rush up the stairs. For once, he can't think of a single sharp thing to say.

Alfred had suggested they camp out on the roof of an apartment building for the night, just to get a good view of the city and work on planning the next few days. It's probably one of the first semi-rational things the American has thought of so far, though Lovino will never admit it. So the three of them (and a semiconscious person) are hurtling up nine flights of stairs now, subconsciously racing against the sunset, letting their shoes slap across the linoleum. The dim corridors of the building make him sweat nervously. The bitter reek of the undead in the air doesn't help at all, and for a moment he wishes he were back in the sewers of the city.

What, bastard, you'd rather scrounge through the shit pipes like a rat? Be glad you're still alive. You have a muscular American on your side, dammit. Quit being a whiny bitch. Jackassery will get you nowhere.

Lovino resists the urge to weakly punch himself in the face. No, that won't get him anywhere either.

A breath of fresh air washes over his lungs as Alfred bursts through the door to the roof. It's relatively spotless compared to the rest of the building, rising above the buckled streets to give him a vista that makes his chest wrench. A horrible realization hits him, as they settle on the edge of the roof, just staring and waiting for something. All of the skyscrapers, the lights, the sounds, everything that New York once held for him, everything is gone. The ocean glints in the fading light, and one thought is in his head.

He needs to leave.

The shattered ghost of a city is no more. Lovino doesn't doubt that when he leaves, and he will, he'll never come back to Long Island. No, too much nostalgia is embedded in these streets, memories of friends and loved ones he'll never see again. Over there is where he and Feli first ran into the German bastard, that street is where Emma used to have a waffle shop, the intersection a few blocks away is where he used to go with Anto-

Lovino bites back tears. The tang of blood on his tongue grounds his spinning head.

They all stand, stare, watch the sunset, the most beautiful thing he has ever seen in his life. Clouds and mist halo over the setting sun, some strange and ironic and beautiful little detail he can't seem to process, and finally Kiku's companion lets out a deep sigh.

"In all things of nature, there is something amongst the most marvelous."

His voice is slow, almost tired, and it is the first time Lovino has ever heard a sound escape his lips. But alert green eyes still peer out from messy hair. Before Lovino knows it, his mouth is open, and the name is on the tip of his tongue.

"Aristotle."

The man smiles at him, kindly, welcoming, almost thankfully. "Yes, my Italian friend, the wise words of Aristotle." The silence isn't so cold anymore. Kiku takes a shaky breath in, tightly gripping his hand.

"I-I...I never got your name."

The man and Kiku exchange a glance. His eyes are serene, peaceful, almost sleepy; Kiku's are dripping wet, messy tears. A seed of dread blossoms in Lovino's stomach. The strange man turns back to him now, a small smile on his face.

"Ah, I know, and for that I am sorry."

Kiku's tears rack his thin frame. Alfred looks so torn, Lovino can't function with the anticipation flowering up his throat, blocking his air. He just can't explain it. The man's demeanor is so calm. Kiku clings to his hand so tightly, too tightly, Lovino wants to weep into his shoulder with so much sorrow resting in his chest, so much he can barely think. Unexplainable grief floods his every cell, and he doesn't even know why. The moment is heavy on his heart.

The unnamed man presses his lips to Kiku's. Their hands are tight, their eyes stare towards the sunset, the city, the world that is no longer theirs.

"Happiness depends upon ourselves," he smiles.

And then they jump.

Alfred screams, reaching forward, grasping at thin air. Lovino can only let his weak, weak, weak tears wet his face. He can hear the American's desperate sobs of don't look, don't look, don't look, don't, don't, don't, and the flower in his chest withers suddenly and collapses on itself.

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

The words stick in his throat. Lovino wants to run, to jump, to fling himself over the roof of the building, let the misery die along with his cold body. The urge burns so bad, so bad, and his feet itch to walk to the edge and drop.

Alfred openly sobs, and Lovino lets his boots click across the cement. Alfred's hands are clamped around his ankles, an iron grip tugging Lovino back, but it's a moment too late, because he sees, he sees, Dios mio, and the splatter etches itself into the grooves of his brain. Two broken bodies at the foot of a broken building in a broken world; and Lovino just lets the storm lash him until he can't see a thing.

When the daze passes him by, he slowly pulls himself up off the cold concrete. Night has fallen. The moon is eye-wateringly beautiful, as majestic as that sunset. Too many tears make his mouth salty and dry. Alfred is leaning against the doorway with blank eyes and a handgun in his lap. Stars twinkle against his eyes, glowing, sparkling with life, so bright against the dull lump in his throat, and Lovino unsteadily stands. Alfred still leans there, unmoving.

Everything is too vivid, even in the dark.

Finally, the American takes a step. His mouth opens, as if he's about to speak, and his voice struggles so much, too much. Lovino can hear the sob rising in his throat.

"Lov-vino."

Silence greets his words.

"Teach me h-h-how….teach me how to shoot."

And so Lovino wordlessly takes Alfred's pistol and handles it like a porcelain dish, cleaning it and taking the little pieces apart, loading it and cocking it ever-so-slowly against the shining crescent moon and the navy sky.

Just two people with too much hope and too little time.

Chapter Text

arthur

The dim flicker of the lights in the store irritates him to no end. He can barely see where his feet are going, and he's almost tripped on the boxes strewn all over the place twice now. The store is littered with them, spilled over with rotting food, bringing back unpleasant memories of the last grocery store Arthur has been in. Bollocks, he just wants to find the rum. Is it really so hard?

Apparently, because the store is so large even the hyper Feliciano (piggybacking on Ludwig's back) can't find any pasta. A solid five minutes of running has only lead Arthur through plastic and paper utensils and coffee grounds. Damn those Americans and their superstores.

His feet click over slippery concrete floors, and little things slowly pile up in his pack. A box of Earl Grey, a set of lighters, antibiotic wipes, socks...the list goes on, and eventually Arthur is at the back of the store with a heavy pack on his back and a completely blank head. Rotting trays of meat on styrofoam are crammed on top of each other in the former freezer, and the stench makes him retch.

It's all silent except for the silent cacophony of flies around him, buzzing and scratching everywhere, making him uneasy and fidgety. The emptiness of the store spooks him; he would have expected walkers or rotting bodies, but he hasn't seen a single corpse. So he lets his legs lead him out and away from the disturbing sound. His mind has been so dazed in the last couple of hours, and Arthur isn't completely sure if the effects of dehydration have worn off completely, but that's not too surprising. The fact that he has real allies, or as close as real can get, is putting his head into overdrive, even though their status is unknown.

Their status is unknown….

His emotions flip like a switch, and worry makes him cringe in fear. Arthur has to convince himself to slow down and stop fussing. Ludwig still scares the bloody bollocks out of him, but Feliciano definitely isn't a thief, and he knows the two have good intentions. At the very least, he truly believes so. And if he's being honest with himself, he has no other choice, horrible as it is. Eventually, Arthur pulls himself out of his musings to hear something that makes him raise a thick eyebrow.

"Ouch! Why'd you drop me? ...Ve, Luddy, what's with that face?"

"...Don't call me that, Feliciano. A-A-" The German's voice cracks and stutters. "P-Put that down, verdammt!"

"But you just said we needed them, ve?"

Arthur hears a loud coughing splutter. Is it coming from the pharmacy section? He knows he caught a glimpse of the sign when he was searching for blankets in Aisle Five. Ludwig's voice is uneven and shaky.

"Enough! Scheiße, Feli, Arthur can probably hear you!"

"So?"
"S-s-s-so…. We're supposed to be gathering supplies! Bitte, put them down. Now."

Arthur rounds the corner to see Ludwig and Feliciano at the end of the aisle, with Ludwig flustered pink and Feli looking immensely confused, sprawled on the floor oh-so-innocently. The box in his hands...Blast, are those condoms? Arthur can't stop himself from snickering just a little, just thinking about this awkward German and this hyperactive Italian shagging, and before he knows it he's on his knees bursting with laughter. He really can't help it, his voice ringing over the building, and Arthur's fairly sure he's attracting walkers from miles away, but he doesn't even care anymore.

The relief melts every bit of stress that's been pooling in his system for the last year: his mother's untimely death, the rushed move from London in some half-arsed attempt to escape the pain, a miserably lonely existence in a city he didn't know, immunity to the impending virus that had spread across the globe. So much anxiety and fear used to lurk in his system, and it's all gone now. Arthur lets his palms hit the ground and laughter swells through the air. He's so relieved, the crushing pressure off his head, and he can certainly begin to think clearly now. Everything has been released from his thoughts. Finally, he can breathe.

All thanks to the German and his less-than-innocent Italian "friend". Just the thought makes Arthur chortle again. He feels like such a git at laughing at someone's sexual escapades, looking at his own (heavily questionable) moments with Francis, but the thought of Ludwig and Feli, Feliciano the giggly five year old pasta-twit….

Lord, how much stranger can these two get? The lad had literally let a drifter leech off of his party because Arthur happened to have a box of spaghetti in his house. Quite honestly, Arthur isn't sure how they've even come this far without getting horrendously swindled into giving up all of their clothes and food.

Arthur lets his chuckles die down, suppressing another bout of laughter after seeing the mortified expression on Ludwig's face. Feliciano just looks a little out of his element, but Ludwig is in complete shock, and Arthur can't help grinning again as he dashes off.

"See you at the doors in five minutes then, lads. Make-" At this point, Arthur's too busy trying to keep himself from smirking his smug arse off and stumbles over a case of aspirin, which he tosses over to Feli. "Oh, blast it, just make it quick. I mean it!"

Like a damned gentleman, he mumbles to himself. It's like a light switch; the gloominess and death that seemed to pervade his world before is now polished sparkling-bright and ready for anything. If someone had told him a week ago that his mood would drastically flip like a coin after laughing at a box of condoms…. But it doesn't matter, nothing matters anymore, and everything has to get better from here. It really needs to. Arthur doesn't even care if that isn't the way it works.

That's just the way he has to think.

So, letting the prospect of possibly-false hope drench his thoughts with a strange form of joy, Arthur pulls his heart out of the murk, a temporary fix to a very permanent problem. Will there ever be something that lasts in this world?

No need to get so philosophical so fast, his head chides. Stay in the here and now. The voice is high and reedy. Arthur wonders if he's going insane, and if so, if it really matters anymore.

Of course it matters. The voice makes him shiver a little, little tosser that it is. He can see the sunlight streaming through the entry as it majestically sets against a backdrop of blank nothing. For some odd reason, unease settles into his skin, ultra-absorbent, and the moment of relief from before is already gone, blown away. Wonderful; he's hearing voices, he's cornered in a strange situation, and his hope is dead.

No, his hope is alive and very much so, Arthur has to remind himself. So long as Ludwig and Feliciano are alive, he is as safe as he can be. As safe as he can be. Bollocks, where the hell did his good mood go? Was it ever there in the first place?

Everything is alright. Calm down, you git. Everything is alright. Everything is alright.

Arthur runs a hand through his hair, watching and waiting for the duo, pondering the lack of bodies in the streets. His old neighborhood in Queens was mostly evacuated, but he knows that wasn't the case for all of New York. After all, they had just crossed one of many buckled bridges into Brooklyn, and Arthur knew Long Island had been packed when the bombs hit. So what exactly went on afterwards?

He spots Feliciano and Ludwig emerging from Gardening Supplies; Feli is bouncing up and down excitedly on the German's back, a hoe in his hands and a light pack on his shoulder, while Ludwig is still flushed and awkward, clearly carting most of the things they've scavenged along with Feliciano himself. He mutters something under his breath and beckons outside, and the two of them follow. It feels darker now, much more sinister, a chill in the air. Trees rustle back and forth in the background like voices.

"Ludwig, Ludwig," Feliciano says worryingly, "What's that smell?" Arthur cocks his head in confusion for a moment before it hits him, a wave of gasoline and ash and something strangely food-like, and the realization arrives like the tsunami after the quake. Ludwig seems to realize this too. Arthur knows that smell, is far too familiar with it. Distinct memories surface from his addled time in his old apartment in the days after the spread of the virus.

The men in ghostly-white hazmat suits swarmed over the streets like ants. Just two days ago, Arthur was curled into the corner down in the basement as the bombs ransacked New York City, listening to his shaky pulse and the shrieks of others as hell dropped from the skies. Just two hours ago, the cleanup crews arrived by the busload. Arthur could only peer through the gap in his window slats and watch in terror and disgust.

One man dragged out two bodies, bloated and completely mauled, piling them up; the rest of his group added to the sickening pile of rot and death. A mere child, not much older than sixteen, it seemed, lugged a red gas can up to the pile. Slowly, deliberately, the others stared as he dribbled gasoline over the glazed eyes and numb bodies.

And then he fled, leaping out of there as if he had been permanently tainted, pressing himself against Arthur's apartment building, watching as one of the workers dropped a match into the pile. Even through the little gap in his window, the reek of burning flesh and soot charred his nose. He couldn't turn his eyes away as the bodies smoldered into skeletal bits. It smelled like sadness and cooked venison, much to his disgust, and Arthur flicked salty tears from his cheeks.

"Let's turn around, Feli." A repulsed grimace crosses his eyes. Arthur sees an echo of his own previous urges to vomit.

"What is it? Can we go s-"

"Feli, let's head the opposite way. Towards the ocean…. Our camp is on the mainland, remember? The sooner we get off Long Island," he intones, desperation edging into his voice, "the sooner we can get to Bruder and the others."

Feli pouts. "Can't we peek?"

"No!"

Arthur sighs. Ludwig is horrendously overprotective, something that grates on him irritatingly, and it clearly isn't the best thing. Judging by Feli's mystery injury, Arthur doesn't exactly think he's totally innocent; but he holds his tongue anyways, because staying on Ludwig's good side is essential and he doesn't exactly have another option.

Feliciano looks a little hurt by the tone Ludwig used and turns his head away, cheeks pink with embarrassment as the two of them pick their way out of the parking lot, gently bobbing up and down to the rhythm of Ludwig's steps. The reek of death is fading quickly from the air. Arthur can only thank the powers that be and lets Ludwig guide him away from the empty supermarket.

The walk passes in a blur. Arthur can't really register anything around him, only a vaguely active presence in the back of his head as they trudge onwards. Out of Brooklyn, across another stilted bridge, passing miles of empty death and burnt flesh, everything thickly padded by silence.

Soon, the sun is setting across the horizon; the ash in the air from all the bombs makes the sunset unnaturally bright. Funny how such horror and innocent bloodshed brings unspeakable beauty in reds, pinks, purples, oranges, smeared across the sky like a child's fingerpaints. It's lovely lovely lovely, so lovely Feliciano is softly crying into Ludwig's shoulder as they slog onwards.

The golden light on Arthur's face is warm like the glow in his chest. Bloody hell, he's really on an emotional rollercoaster today, isn't he? Arthur doesn't know how to feel anymore. He'll probably hit a few more mood swings before the sun comes back up, he smirks to himself. It's strange; he's unable to control the aggressive emotional takeover, and he really can't care less. Arthur has had enough of being a reliable arsehole for his entire life and then some.

When the moon hangs picture-perfect in the sky and the stars shine through sparse clouds, Ludwig finally halts in his relentless march.

"We are close." His voice is clipped, but there's a clear emotional undertone, traces of both worry and relief in his speech.

Feliciano sleepily giggles. "Ve, I hope Tonio and Gil will like what we found. Yao and Lizzy and Roddy too…. They're at the top of this hill, did you know that, Arthur? They're great. Ve, I'm sure you'll like them a lot!" Arthur smiles at the boy, something catching in his throat. The old hiking trail they're on is winding and confusing, even more so in the dark, and he has to focus on where his feet are stepping. Tension is heavy in the air. He breathes it in and tries to keep a level head. They make their way up the trail, slowly but surely. In the distance, Arthur can spot the glow of a fire, and Feliciano lets out a cheer.

"We're finally back! Luddy, run, run, run, run!" The German smiles a little, hiking Feli up onto his shoulders and breaking into a dash towards the light. Any trace of reservedness is gone from his demeanor. The Italian is ecstatic, and Arthur lets himself get lost in their glee, running along with them. His pack feels light enough to be nonexistent. Feet skid across dust and dirt and gravel, scrambling desperately, reaching towards warmth and hope and safety. The beginning of a mood swing settles into the pit of Arthur's stomach once more. The embers shine so brightly against the stars.

"Ve, everyone, we're back!" Feliciano hoots into the night. "We have a surprise or two for you guys!" Ludwig laughs a little too, words soaked in joy. It's a wonderful sound.

And suddenly Feliciano screams so loud Arthur doesn't even register it at first, doesn't even notice for a split second, and in that single moment something has gone horribly wrong. So, so, so horribly wrong.

Because in the firelight, Arthur can see a body in a pool of blood, eyes wide and a gash across his forehead. He looks like an albino; his eyes are a purple-reddish wine and his hair is so pale, matted with blood, the color still wet. Even more is in his mouth, staining sharp teeth crimson. Arthur doesn't want to look. God, no, he doesn't want to see, and he can see Ludwig frantically shoving Feli away.

"Don't look! Don't look!" His voice is anguished, on the verge of tears, straining against the tang of blood in the air. The German's hands are on the albino's shoulders now, checking for a pulse or a heartbeat or a breath. His desperation makes Arthur want to scream.

"Gilbert, Gilbert, Gilbert, Gilbert, du können nicht! Bruder, please…."

But it's clear the man is already dead, and terror pools in Arthur's stomach. The camp is empty; it's clear someone else has been here. Are they still here? Where are the other members of Feli and Ludwig's group?

A shuddering gasp makes chills run across his skin. "L-Ludwig…..that you?" Her voice is weak and slow, so incredibly sickly and afraid. Feliciano desperately scrambles out of the dust towards the voice, and Ludwig's eyes widen.

"Elizabeta?"

"Lizzy!"

Arthur grabs the Italian and runs towards a second crumpled figure. Her face is lovely, large green eyes and pale brown bangs sweeping across her forehead, and her green blouse is stained with gaping stab wounds. The crackling of the fire makes Arthur's ears burn.

"Feli, Ludwig, it's re-" Her heavy European accent is interrupted by a hacking cough. Tears stream down Feliciano's pale cheeks. "It's really you… And you brought a new person too, huh, Feli?"

Elizabeta weakly smiles as Feliciano starts to sob. Ludwig's face is heavy with agony. "Elizabeta, what h-happened? Where are the others? What's going on?" Arthur can hear the suppressed urge in his voice to scream at her.

She just sighs a rattling sigh, eyes glazing a little. "The man…. The man and his friends took Yao and Antonio. Gil- Gil, he- oh, fuck, he tried to stop them, they beat the everloving shit out of him…. God, I told Roderich to go to the stream and get water when I saw them, so he's bound to come out any moment." Elizabeta cracks a small smile. Her lower lip is split and scabbing. "You just missed them, you know? You really were right, Feli; your luck is truly phenomenal. Both you and Roddy, you and your lucky streaks….."

"Lizzy, Lizzy, Lizzy…."

Arthur tries to swallow but can't get past the tears.

"His name…. She called him Ivan." Elizabeta smiles up at them. "Say goodbye to Roderich for me. She called him Ivan. I saw his tears as he beat Gilbert to death, you know?" She's far gone, so far gone, and Arthur thinks back to what was this morning but seems like three years ago; the urge to kill the woman and put her out of her pain makes his head spin again.

"I saw his tears. They were going to go to Las Vegas. Lovely city, huh? Wish we could go there. Oh, you mustn't cry, Feli, that's what I always told you when we were little, huh? You mustn't cry. You will be fine." Feliciano is wailing now.

"Oh, Feli, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, I know," she mumbles as he buries his face in her blouse. "It will all end soon."

Click.

Ludwig is holding a pistol, sleek and graphite-colored and heavy, and Feliciano shrieks. His eyes are so wide, too wide. But Elizabeta just smiles sunnily even as her face is bruised and broken and her eyes fill with tears.

"It's time for you to go, Feli."

"No! Ludwig, you monster! You c-c-c-can't! You're sick!"

"Feliciano Vargas," the woman smiles. "Turn your head, darling."

Arthur wordlessly steps in and grabs Feli under the arms. He's kicking and screaming now, biting and scratching. But Elizabeta flashes him that glowing grin, the brightest smile he has ever seen, brighter than Feliciano's, an easygoing shine in her eyes directed at him. So he holds the Italian back, turns him away, listens to the sharp crack of a gunshot against pale brown hair.

Ludwig is crying too, so Arthur lets the tears run tracks down his face as Feliciano slams thin fists against his ribs.

Chapter Text

alfred

 

Lovino is a few yards ahead of him, weaving through gray-blue tree trunks, errant strand of hair bobbing up and down as he walks. The crisp night sky has given way to cold fog and weak blue light. They’ve been walking so long, almost in loopy circles through the woods. Alfred wonders when Lovino will stop, maybe declaring a break or a bite to eat. But the Italian hasn’t said a word since the- he hasn’t said a word.

So Alfred trails behind him like a forgotten pet, familiarizing himself with the silver pistol he’s never bothered with before now. It’s a Ruger 1911, which means almost nothing to him, but the silver body is pretty enough that he supposes his cousin spent a good deal on a gag gift. Lovino’s own pistol is black and sleek and even more expensive-looking, which only makes Al wonder about the validity of Lovino’s supposed involvement with the Mafia.

But enough of that; he doesn’t want to think much of guns anymore, two deaths already making him feel a little sick. Alfred really wonders how the hell he’ll survive, how the hell he’s stayed alive so far, how he’ll get that Coke out of Lovino’s pack….simple things, mundane things. He wonders when he’s gotten so melancholy, when he’s started using words like ‘melancholy’. He wonders if Lovino will ever speak to him.

Before last night, Alfred thinks, did he really know what death was? It scares the heck out of him, but even in the fucking apocalypse , he didn’t encounter death for the first three weeks. Even when people were dying in the streets, he distanced himself, locking his doors and only going out when the streets and highways were bombed into oblivion.

He’s seen cherry-crimson blood and wide eyes now. He’s seen too little, too much. Alfred Fucking Jones has not understood fear until now.

But he still follows Lovino, cocking and uncocking the empty gun, footsteps crunching over grown-over hiking trails, and the sun begins to rise. He feels surrounded by death; he feels liberated by fear. It’s new, it shows him something he has never seen before, it gives him something to feel.

Jeez, when the hell did Alfred become such a sap?

Lovino suddenly hisses and spins around, roughly pressing a hand to his mouth. His face twists into a sharp strangled expression and he hurls into Alfred, knocking him to the ground, pinning him against a tree.

Quiet ,” he hisses, his voice raspy. “There’s a truck, cazzo merda fuck shit figa culo bitch coglione , get the fuck down , bastard.”

Sure enough, Al hears the coughing rumble of a truck in his ears. The sound is an echo of something he used to know so well, and he wants to run out in front of the truck and wave wildly, but Lovino’s grip is iron against the dirt and his lashes are wet. Al’s shaken by the sight and shuts his mouth as the sound passes and fades.

Lovino shoves him aside as he gets up, brushing the dirt off his clothes and swiveling his head back and forth before continuing.

“We’re close to a road. We may be close to a…..camp, if that truck meant anything.”

Alfred can hear the unmistakable waver in his voice, as if he’s about to cry. His curiosity is practically begging him to open his mouth and ask what the hell Lovino’s talking about, but the Italian’s paleness is unsettling as hell, and he figures he can always ask later when he’s calmed down a little. Al can still feel dirt on his palms. The thump of his heartbeat is suddenly loud and rowdy in his ears, the first time he’s been so aware of it in his life.

Goddamn, he’s afraid. Alfred is supposed to be everyone’s hero, yet he can’t even shoot a gun or stomach some blood or listen to the sound of an engine running without panicking his ass off, and that only feeds his fear.

Lovino’s slowing down now as the hill they’re on steepens. Alfred can see the road below them; it’s twisted and winding, probably a former scenic route, and it would probably take several hours to get all the way out of the forest by car. The prospect of a camp ahead terrifies him a little, judging by Lovino’s expression. What the hell did that truck mean? What the hell were they going to see?

Lovino looks apprehensive as they approach the crest of the hill, a weird combination of scared-out-of-my-ass and shitting-fuck. Al lets himself get a little closer, trailing mere feet behind now, hearing Lovino’s breathing steadily hitching as he continues upwards. The two go on in silence as milky dissolved light emerges through the clouds, the bluish wash that covered everything slowly dissolving as dawn rises.

Alfred knows he should feel hope; the two of them are out of the death pit known as Long Island and searching for a shelter. But even in the face of dawn, a symbol of something new, he can’t shake the unease that comes with it. He hates this weird limbo and everything he’s felt since the rooftop. Everything is getting number by the second, which only adds to the overall shitty-ness of the situation, and Lovino’s silence isn’t easing his nerves at all. Not that his nerves were ever at unease to begin with, which is so fundamentally disturbing on so many levels. He, Alfred Jones, has just watched two people hurl themselves off a building, and only feels the need to compulsively use big words like ‘compulsively’. Screwed up? Yeah, he’s pretty sure he’s going batshit.

The clamour of voices, human voices , suddenly wakes him up, and Lovino almost shrieks as he sprints towards the sound. The slow lethargy from before melts off, and Al quickly follows him. Voices mean living people, real living uninfected people. Fuck everything with a side of stranger danger; he’s running like there’s no tomorrow.

They burst into a grassy clearing that’s decently sized, with a little fire pit in the center and small tents scattered along the periphery. The four people standing there look like they’re half-dead and ready to roll over from starvation, but Lovino suddenly yells even louder and runs over to one of them. He makes a strangled kind of noise as the boy jumps on him, bawling and sobbing, crying his name over and over. He’s young-looking, with the same hair curl Lovino has but lighter skin and hair. His voice is a little higher too. They must be brothers, judging by the way he rambles on in tearful Italian (see, Alfred isn’t completely language-illiterate), and Lovino seems distinctly overjoyed to see him again. It’s a relieved expression, one Al thought he’d never see again.

The other members of the group are in various states of shock. The prim-looking man with glasses by the tent is on his knees, an errant curl sticking up from his hair. His mouth looks like it’s struggling for words. The tall blond next to him is in a similar state, eyes wide as hell as they go from Lovino to Alfred to Lovino again. And the green-eyed man next to them with the heaviest eyebrows Alfred has ever seen just looks confused as the reunion progresses. Al can only stare back and wonder if he should curse his luck or worship it, and that’s somehow a very familiar feeling.

When the crying and shouting finally dies down, Lovino shrugs his supposed brother off, brushing dirt off his pants, and they all stare at each other awkwardly again. Alfred awkwardly clears his throat. Immediately, the mystery Italian opens his mouth and starts to rant again.

“Oh my gosh, guys, it’s fratello , this is my brother Lovino, Arthur, Roddy, mio Dio , Lovi, is it really you?”

Lovino scowls a little, but it’s completely obvious he doesn’t mean it at all, and he holds out a hand.

“Feliciano. Calm down, you’d think I was the reincarnation of Christ or something. That’s Alfred, who I was traveling with, and I t- potato bastard?!??” He suddenly and very angrily points an accusing finger at the tall blond, who Alfred now notices is well-built as fuck. Well-built as in break your spine . What Lovino’s doing, messing with this guy, is totally out of Alfred’s comprehension.

The man just stares at him for a moment, then clears his throat. “It is…nice…to see you as well, Lovino.” His voice is low and accented, making Al wonder about the sudden spike in Europeans/Asians/whatever they were.

The younger sibling, Feliciano, pouts and presses close to the blond. “Ve, Lovi, no need to be so mean to Ludwig. You know, he and Arthur saved me!” He points to his left foot in utter nonchalance, and both Al and Lovino suddenly jump back.

There’s just a bandaged stump, no ankle to be seen. Pinkish-white strips of cloth cover up something Al doesn’t want to think about. He doesn’t have one .

Lovino leaps up, trying to tackle Ludwig to the ground, screaming obscenities in Italian as he shoves at the man. The “potato bastard” stands there, looking upset and torn as the Italian slams another punch into him. Alfred reluctantly stands to intervene, not knowing whether to be laughing his ass off or scared out of his mind.

Finally, after dragging a screaming and kicking Lovino away, Ludwig smiles uncertainly at him. “Ah….thank you, but I probably deserved that f-”

“You carried him for hours,” Eyebrow-Guy interrupted, “so don’t discredit yourself. Feliciano owes you for his life.” His voice is very distinctly British, posh and fanciful. It’s nice; Alfred likes the way his voice rings.

“Let’s not fight, okay, fratello ? It wasn’t Luddy’s fault. I swear.” Feliciano is wide-eyed and a little fake-tearful. Lovino falls for it anyways, something Al thinks is pretty endearing, and he slumps down exhaustedly onto one of the foldout chairs around the fire pit.

“Okay, bastards, explain. Everything.”

The brown-haired guy who’s been lurking in the background clears his throat. “I think you’d better sit down. There is, ah, much we must discuss.” His voice tapers at the end of the statement, and Al sits down with a cold feeling in the back of his throat.

He doesn’t know whether to be overjoyed or worried. Joining Lovino had been an okay decision so far, he thinks, but he doesn’t know what to make of traveling in a larger group. Ludwig looks like he could easily protect all of them, and the British guy seems to be a newcomer to their group. Still, the look in their eyes mirrors his own, a look that means death and hurt, and Alfred doesn’t want to think about what they’ve seen so far in these three weeks. Lovino seems to sense his thoughts and grimaces.

They pull up chairs, Lovino carting his brother into one, and the guy with glasses sighs.

“Where to begin…… Lovino, nice to finally meet you in person. I hope you won’t mind helping us out, and your friend too. Alfred, there’s Feliciano, Ludwig, and Arthur. I’m Roderich. And we used to h-” Feliciano snaps his head to the side suddenly, and Roderich’s voice catches in his throat. He mutters something in another language under his breath, eyes visibly disturbed. A silence settles over them like thick sand, suffocatingly quiet, and Al holds back an urge to burst into a long-winded invasive question.

“Christ, I’m sorry, I didn-” The long-windedness seeps out again, and he cringes a little and looks down.

Arthur awkwardly stands. “I think that’s enough of discussing things for today. Alfred, lad, tell us where you and Lovino have been, and I’ll get you two something.”

Al watches for a moment as he rummages through an almost-empty cardboard box, pulling out a can of soup, before taking a breath. “Okay, uh, I ran into Lovino here in NYC while I was looking for my twin. Your brother saved me from a horde, and then we, well, after that, we left Long Island and were running through the woods, and, you know, we ran into you guys. Okay, also, can someone explain the deal with the trucks? We heard one on the way up, and it was- well, anyways, what exactly are we doing now, and how are we gonna help you guys out?” It’s only when he stops that he realizes he’s starting to ramble again.

Al rambles and rants like nobody’s business and has been for years. Whenever he’s angry or afraid or tired, the first thing that comes to mind is the first word out of his mouth. It isn’t exactly a quality to be prized right now, especially as the group seems to be struggling for an answer, and Alfred sighs internally. Please, why did he have to make it even more awkward?

“The trucks-” Feliciano turns pale, pale as snow, knuckles clenching stiffly. Al shuts his mouth again. Goddammit, why did he always have to bring sensitive things up?

But Lovino slugs him good-naturedly anyways, the first good-natured thing he’s seen from the Italian as of so far. “Bastard, we’ll figure it out later. I’m hungry as hell.”

Arthur smirks along, handing him the can of chicken noodle. “I don’t know who you are, but I think we’ll get along fine. A brother of Feliciano’s is a friend of mine. And you, lad, share with him and get some sleep. You two look about ready to fall over.” Feliciano giggles a little, even Roderich smiling a little.

Okay, okay, everything’s okay. Everything’s getting better. No need to ramble.

Al gratefully drains the can after Lovino’s sipped a little bit. His legs are a sudden dead weight, making him feel a little more than woozy, but he’s honestly ready to fall over now. Damn, when was the last time he slept? Arthur’s remark only accentuates the fact that sleeping hasn’t been a priority in the last week, and uneasy half-dreams of Matthew aren’t the most comforting thing in the world.

Feliciano seems to sense his sudden fatigue, poking at Ludwig, and the man quickly deposits him into a chair and beckons to Al with a large hand.

“You two can sleep in one of the tents for now. I hope you won’t mind changing your sleep schedule a little, as we need all the people we can get.” He colors a little, turning his head away. “Sorry if it’s a nuisance. Roderich is worried.”

Lovino scowls suddenly, shooting a smouldering glower at Ludwig. “We can sleep without someone tucking us in, potato bastard. Leave.” He roughly spins around and grabs Al’s wrist. As Lovino tugs him away from a pink-faced Ludwig, Al decides to ask why exactly there’s a grudge, but the raging snarl on his face quiets any questions.

“German bastard, little coglione , damn him…..doing things like that with Feli …..”

Al bites back a bright laugh, a hearty chuckle, even a quiet giggle; so there is a reason why the guy hates Ludwig so much. He wishes he wasn’t the same, but Al isn’t an outright liar. When Mattie introduced him to his weird albino boyfriend, he may or may not have flipped his shit and tackled the guy….but that’s beside the point. Besides, Ludwig seems capable enough. Even if the pairing is a little weird.

Lovino detaches himself from his wrist like a moody cat, wanders into one of the tents, and shoots Al a tired kind of glare before kicking off his ratty sneakers and dragging the zipper shut. And somehow, in a rare moment of pure thought and utter fatigue, Alfred just sort of stands there for a moment and stares and comes to a strange thought.

How the ever-living fuck did he just get here? Alfred F. Jones is standing outside of a rude Italian’s borrowed tent at five in the morning, in the same clearing as said Italian’s brother, said brother’s lover, random British stranger, and another European (?) dude, at the top of a hill in the middle of a national park in the apocalypse .
The fucking apocalypse.

It isn’t remotely funny at all, but Al’s grinning a little as he stumbles into an adjacent tent, grinning as he burrows into massive blankets, grinning to himself as he drifts off. There’s a weird ironic sort of humor in it. His system is about to shut down from drop-dead fatigue, and yet he’s pondering completely random thoughts of completely obvious facts. What the hell.

As Alfred drifts back awake, light hits his eyes and makes him lunge back under the stack of blankets. It’s piercingly bright and cold, and his head is suddenly streaming with white noise. Even the all-encasing blankets can’t nurse him back to sleep, so with a stretched-out sigh, he slowly pulls himself out. The piece of tarp covering the tent’s entrance is rippling in the slight breeze, still open and letting the chill in. It’s with a start that Al realizes how late it is; it looks like it’s around midnight or after, judging by the sky, which means that he’s slept for at least eighteen hours. Christ. How tired was he?

Looking around, it looks like Roderich is sleeping in the same tent, judging by the hair and folded glasses. He’s tucked beneath another haphazard pile of quilts and blankets as well. Even a glance at him makes the unrest in his head even louder. Al really doesn’t want to wake him up now, so he carefully slides on his shoes and slips out, pulling on his old bomber jacket. It’s still a little warm, but his half-open eyes sting from the chill anyway.

The center of the clearing is empty; the firepit is little more than warm ash, and all of the equipment and food is neatly packed away into boxes. Alfred briefly wonders about the group’s plans for tomorrow, plans he wasn’t a part of, but it really is no use worrying anymore, he guesses. Right now, it feels like he’s barely in control of himself anyways. The spike in white noise makes him a little dizzy, so he stumbles toward the crest of the hill, which looks like it’s a short walk from the camp. Maybe the height will clear his head.

He isn’t even sure what he’s thinking about, but it’s making him antsy beyond compare. Even the crispness of the night is only sharpening his thoughts, the sky a shade of brown-blue-gray he can’t really name, and Alfred is just plain confused. Numbness runs up and down his fingers breezily and suddenly. Everything is too dim and god damn he can’t see where he’s going at all-

Al’s feet hit the official peak, thrusting a new view at him again, and the night on the roof drifts back to him again. It’s just like it, an amazing vista over a ruined landscape. Before he knows it, he’s crying, whimpering and shaking as it feels like the sky is forcing him to his knees. The dizzyness is completely overwhelming now. Everything’s coming back so fast, and suddenly he sees it again; two mangled bodies at the foot of a building, the blood splattered perfectly around their intertwined broken fingers, the sun sluggishly sinking through dusty clouds.

He sees it .

It’s like the first time all over again, but this time, it’s not just a few sobs, it’s a nightmarish hurricane of tears. Everything is coming too fast. Al really can’t handle it anymore, his willingness to forget Kiku’s death gone.

Shock. You’re coming out of slight shock. Slight shock.

This feels anything but slight. It’s anything but minimal. Alfred buries his face into his hands and shrieks, because two people have died and he didn’t do a thing .

Matthew is missing.

Alfred is alone.

The once-proud United States of America is scattered into dying pieces.

An out-of-control epidemic has snatched his entire world from him.

It’s hitting him so hard, he can’t even bring himself to breathe anymore. Al can only kneel in helplessness and look over rolling dried-out hills, the distant smoky shadow of New York City, a painfully sharp waning crescent in his eyes. Little pinpricks of stars smatter across his vision, shaking back and forth. The tears are on the verge of blurring them out. Blurry, blurry, blurry tears.

A cool hand settles on his shoulders. Al’s cheeks are wet as hands pull him into a slightly awkward embrace, pressing him against a faded-smelling t-shirt that’s stiff against his tears.

“Quiet, lad,” a voice whispers into his ear. Arthur’s voice, heavily pronounced in the silence, whispers into his ear. One of his thin hands pats his back steadily. It’s an oddly comforting rhythm against his thumping chest. “Quiet, quiet. Don’t want to wake the others, do we?”

Al only sobs like a little kid into his chest, and it’s all over. He sits and lets the numbness fade, waiting for the feeling to end and be done, listening to Arthur mutter odds and ends. The pulsing of his heart drags until it’s even with Arthur’s steady rhythm, never faltering.

It’s not so cold anymore pressed up against Arthur. Alfred almost melts into him in abject sickliness, his head pressed tightly into the slope of his neck. The silence isn’t dizzying anymore, just comforting, and he wants to preserve it forever. Lips against his ear move but don’t utter a word. It’s like coming to in cold water, and Al is finally awake to feel it.

His jacket slides across his shoulders, and at long last, Arthur pulls away to tug it back over him.

“Thank…..you. Thank you.” The words are like a faint rustle against the buzz of the wind, but he still speaks and lets them leak out.

Arthur just smiles a little at him. It’s such a pretty smile, a beautiful smile, even though his clear green eyes are red-rimmed and filling with tears, and he lets Al pull himself closer to his side.

“A very clear night today, isn’t it?”

Al somehow finds the resolve to smile back, smile with everything he’s got. Arthur’s voice is smooth against his frazzled thoughts.

“Lovely weather for stargazing.”

Chapter Text

 

arthur

 

The highway is a blank slate in front of the van, pulling out a long way ahead, shimmering just a touch in the July heat. It’s glaringly bright outside, the shaded windows doing nothing to block the piercing rays from harshly stabbing at his eyes. The inside of the van is sweltering too. It’s times like this when Arthur really does regret his move to New York City, or America, really, in the first place.

For some reason, Lovino and Feliciano seem to thrive in this weather, Lovino actually functioning somewhat like a normal human contrary to Arthur’s first impressions and Feli even bouncier than usual. Ludwig and Roderich, on the other hand, are half-asleep and looking extremely uncomfortable. As for Alfred, Arthur hasn’t even dared himself to glance at him once, but his presence is always sort of there, lingering in his periphery, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore.

Bollocks, Arthur wishes it isn’t the way it is with the irritatingly American American. For God’s sake, the world is over, and what is he doing? Why, Arthur Kirkland is occupying his thoughts with a virtual stranger who broke down sobbing last night for some unseen reason. Obviously. What the fuck else would he be doing?

You’ve a lucky catch, lad , that damn voice in the back of his head giggles again.

Shut the hell up , he mutters sort of to himself, feeling more than a little foolish.

Alfred is humming something at the wheel, deftly steering around unidentifiable bodies in the road with a seemingly practiced ease, and each body they pass only raises Arthur’s unease. For some reason, there are no cars on the road, only scattered rotting bodies . It’s a crushingly eerie scene, with too many flies swarmed around the corpses to stop and search for missing loved ones.

Arthur feels a little jolt in his stomach at the thought. Damn, he’s so fucking sheltered ; holed up in a cheap little apartment for those three weeks of bloody pissing hell, protected by complete strangers for an unknown reason with the range of this apocalypse completely beyond the scope of his comprehension. He still doesn’t really understand, and Arthur doesn’t know when he ever will.

It’s disappointing in a strange way. The thought disturbs him even more, and he doesn’t know how to feel anymore.

As they slowly progress, a sprayed-over sign glares ahead on the road: “Pennsylvania Welcomes You”, spattered with flecks of blood and fluorescent spray paint. A partially- rotted body is slumped at the base of the sign, and a pistol rests in its hands.

The dust is dark with blood and something else.

Feliciano bursts into tears all of a sudden, Lovino and Alfred both simultaneously looking away as he veers the van to the side, an uncomfortable silence settling in. The uneasy feeling is slowly enveloping Arthur’s thoughts. Alfred’s inconsolable weeping the night bẻoe, the stony silence on Lovino’s face as they drove through scores of deserted apartment buildings…..it makes his stomach curdle, makes his thoughts scramble in fear. Arthur doesn’t think he really wants to know what the two have seen. His own experiences, limited as they are, are proof enough for it.

Between it all, Roderich sullenly sighs, the sound a little shallow. His eyes flutter shut and open and shut again, fingers drumming back and forth on his lap, left shoe tapping consistently against the floor. His pupils are barely visible against violet eyes. The wild strand in his hair is limp and almost flat against his forehead, and Ludwig pats his back a little awkwardly.

“I’m sorry, cousin.”

Arthur sighs a little too, feeling lower than ever, and the thought of what happened to the people Feli and Ludwig were camping with only serves to heighten the ordeal. Ludwig had hesitantly informed him of the nature of Roderich’s relationship with Elizabeta after they had found him in the woods, explaining to him in a perfectly steady voice that the dead man was his older brother. Arthur still has to admire the man; even as he shoveled dirt over the limp body of his brother, even as he and Roderich knelt and wept, Ludwig still had an iron grip on himself and reality.

Roderich’s eyes are pressed shut now, fingers clenched into fists. Ludwig hums something, the rest of them completely silent and not daring to disturb them, even Alfred staring dead ahead. The melody is almost nonexistent. Roderich starts to cry, starts to truly sob. Ludwig keeps humming. Arthur isn’t supposed to be here as this plays out; none of them are. But they’re here anyway, so they still hold their breath and listen as Roderich takes little gasping breaths, listen as Ludwig continues to hum. It sounds like some sort of classical music, a faded echo of a sonata or a minuet or a barcarolle. Roderich’s fists only clench tighter.

And eventually, somehow, even through the heavy smothering emotion, their eyes drift shut, Ludwig leaning a little bit against Roderich’s arm, eyes still wet, sleeves still tear-stained, and the van is silent once again. Everything has somehow settled down, and the only noise is the relentless humming of the engine.

Once again, that creeping feeling of intrusion quickly smothers him, and Arthur presses himself against the side of the car. He shouldn’t be here, he shouldn’t be seeing any of this because of how bloody invasive it is. He really shouldn’t even be here . His head is a sudden jumble of confused thoughts again. Feliciano is tight against the seat, almost clutching at his ears but not quite, and he turns towards Lovino with unhinged fear in his countenance.

“Ve, Lovi, Lovi, Lovi, Lovi,” he breathes, whispers, eyes darting towards Ludwig and Roderich again. “Lovi, Lovi, I’m afraid . I’m- Lovi…”

Lovino jerkily turns away, clutching his knees to his chest in the passenger seat with a furious will. “Your German bastard somehow got us a pedophile van, and we’re going on a mad chase across the fucking country with an end destination of Las fucking Vegas after a dying monologue Elizabeta spouted to try and look for survivor shelters, and for some dumbass reason, the gang that took-” His voice drops suddenly, dangerously low. “The gang that took Yao.”

There’s another pause before he continues, the tone supposedly sarcastic but coming out a little more unstable. “So don’t worry, Feliciano, we’re fucking amazing. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. It’s the fucking apocalypse. Now shut up and let them sleep for once, please.”

Feli looks like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry and turns away again, pressing his hand against the bleak landscape outside of the window. “A…..Alfred, where are we going again?”

“We’re heading for a medium-sized kind of city, probably Harrisburg, just to scavenge a little and look around.” Alfred sighs, brightly blue eyes dull and faded, voice more than a little hoarse, glancing back down at the worn travel atlas in his lap with a resolved sort of look. “I think we’ll spend the night somewhere on the highway around the border between Pennsylvania and Virginia.”

Feli weakly nods. “Okay. Thanks.”

And the van falls silent again. It’s not so uncomfortable this time around, even with the heavily implied subject matter in the background. Arthur is ever-so-thankful for it, and he takes the chance to let his eyelids drift lazily shut as the van’s engine hums along with Alfred, yellowing grass and decaying corpses blurring past the window as he somehow falls asleep.

Before he knows it, Arthur awakens alone with an unfamiliar view outside and an aching stomach. Grayish buildings and puddles of dirty water are outside, complexes and skyscrapers deserted and crammed into the streets, a scattering of even more corpses across the pavement. Is that a bloody streak on the window? Fear leaps into his throat and suddenly he can’t see for a split second, a single moment-

“Ve, Arthur, you okay?”

“I-I-I….. You just surprised me, that’s all, lad. I thought…”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Alfred didn’t want to wake you, and Luddy said he didn’t want to drop me on accident, so they told me to sit tight and guard you and the van. They’re scavenging right now, I think. Roderich didn’t look too pleased about it.” Feli peers over the seat, still grinning, the curl in his hair a little crooked. “Anyways, I’m keeping watch, so you can go back to sleep.”

Arthur quickly shakes his head, a little embarrassed at looking so flimsy back there, and clears his throat. “No, no, I assure you, I’m awake now. Anything I should do to help you out? I have my brother’s old rifles somewhere in my pack.”

“Ve, it’s okay. I have my Beretta, and….” Feliciano’s eyes drift off a little before he focuses back on Arthur and continues with a grin. “Anyways, I didn’t know you had a brother! Then again, I don’t really know much about you, but that’s mostly because Luddy is so cautious about strangers. And you don’t know much about me either, which...” He sighs a little, and Arthur can’t help smiling through the bittersweet moment.

“I have three brothers, actually, and they’re all absolute bloody wankers. Much worse than your Lovino. Well, and a sister. But I don’t care for her much either. Come to think of it, she was really the worst one of the bunch. Emotionally distant and cold as all hell, that she was.” Arthur feels his eyebrows instinctively pulling into a frown.

Feli blinks twice. “Oh. Ve, I’m sorry. I guess some siblings are closer than others.”

“Yes, I must agree with you there.”

And with a start, Feliciano sighs suddenly, turning toward the overcast skies outside. “Arthur, can I tell you something?”

“Fire away, lad.”

“Somehow… Ve, it’s so strange to say it aloud, but I feel like a stranger in my own body. You know? I used to be different, somehow, and now, I just don’t know. It’s-” He takes a breath, frowning and blinking a few times. “Now, it’s like I constantly feel guilty, constantly feel ashamed. Every time we pass a person, a ‘walker’, a corpse…. It’s like I don’t even care anymore! It’s like I’m used to all the bodies and death, it constantly feels like I’m not the same friendly person I used to- Arthur, Arthur, I don’t even know who I used to be!” His voice is hushed now, frantic and strained, fingers clutching the back of the seat as he leans forward. “I feel like a monster , Arthur. Something is wrong with me .”

Arthur feels an urge to burst into sudden tears. Feliciano, the most joyful and motivated person of the group, ranting to a near-stranger alone in a rotting city about his identity crisis?

What the absolute fuck has the world come to?

Arthur takes a steely breath and tries to calm himself down first; reassuring someone while in tears isn’t exactly reassuring, after all. After several composed moments, he picks out his words and turns back to Feliciano.

“Feliciano, whatever and however you feel about yourself, I can promise you that there’s nothing wrong with you. Five billion people are dead as of now, but in no way is it yours, or anyone’s, fault.” Arthur pauses, trying to sort out his thoughts, trying to figure out what to say in a moment like this.

“There’s nothing wrong with you at all. We-” His voice catches a little, and Arthur is reminded of his own feelings on the matter. “We do what we can and must to survive, and sometimes it involves things we can’t control. But I swear to whatever deity’s up there, I swear , we will always, always, always do what we can and must to prevent any more death and pain and destruction from playing out. I swear on my life, Feliciano, I swear on my life.”

Feli takes a shuddering breath and clutches his hands together. A long moment passes, Arthur leaning forward, Feli’s hands clasped tightly, almost in prayer. Finally, he speaks, voice heavily clogged with emotion, eyelashes wet, and his tone is one of utter relief.

“There aren’t any words to describe how thankful I am, Arthur.”

And somehow they both dissolve in tears and laughter, the moment shattered, but Arthur has a feeling there’s a seed of friendship planted beneath their giggles.

Maybe he’ll live for more than a couple of days. Maybe he won’t. Who the hell knows? Arthur sure as hell doesn’t, and for some odd reason it couldn’t matter less to him. That strangely, suffocatingly, heavy load is off his back at last.

They just sit there in a contented silence, watching and waiting.


 

roderich

The apartment he and Lovino are going through is startlingly dull. The other apartments in the complex are either distastefully garish or trashed beyond comprehension, but this one is plainer than a motel room. Everything is an unsettling shade of off-white gray, from the walls to the linoleum. The cabinets are empty, as is the pantry, and even the drawers of the flimsy nightstand have been meticulously emptied of even a speck of dust.

Then again, in short, nothing too unusual for the urban Pennsylvanian hell that used to be Harrisburg.

Roderich has only managed to find toilet paper and a dishtowel, and judging by Lovino’s constant furious Italian, it seems like he isn’t having much luck either. Sighing, he picks up his irritatingly heavy pack and heads over to where the stream of swear words is coming from.

Lovino is slamming through every closet and drawer, shooting a sharp glare at Roderich before continuing. “Fucking idiots, couldn’t even leave us a can of tomatoes… Honestly, Roderich, how did you even sustain the potato bastard? I mean, r-”

A low gurgle suddenly silences him. Roderich feels the blood completely drain from his face, and his heart seems to stop for a moment. His pulse is jumpy, panicked, another gurgle coming from somewhere . Quickly, Lovino whisks a pistol and silencer seemingly out of nowhere, head whipping back and forth as he flaps a hand at Roderich. Somehow, through his carefully suppressed panic, he manages to stumble backwards, sliding down the hallway as Lovino flings open the walk-in closet.

“Oh, shit, shit, shit . Roderich, we better run.”

And before Roderich knows it, Lovino is barreling through him, cramming the measly supplies they had scavenged into his arms, quickly shoving both of them out the door. It doesn’t do much to relieve the fear in his stomach, not at all; in fact, Roderich can barely breathe as of now with each shaky step rattling in his ears like-

“Roderich? Roderich, buddy, you okay?” Alfred’s in front of him somehow, hands on his shoulders and eyes wide, and Lovino and Ludwig worriedly linger behind him. The corridor they’re in is the one on the first floor, with the lobby a few steps away. A shuddering sense of relief soaks in. His legs are shaking just a little. Roderich coughs a little, trying to save face.

“Ah, Alfred, I’m fine, just…. Shaken up, I guess. I’m not-” He cuts off. I’m not used to this , he wants to say. But he’s too embarrassed to comment further, and Alfred lets the matter go anyways, letting go and stretching a little.

“Okay, cool. You just zoned out for a minute. Don’t stress about it, man. Anyways, Lovino said there was a closet full of ghouls, and we have a decent amount of food, so we might as well head out now.” He grimaces, glancing around. “Let’s just get . Dude, this city gives me the spooks.”

“Agreed,” Lovino cuts in, the familiar quasi-scowl on his face. “Out we go. You first, potato bastard, I don’t want to look at your ugly face any longer.” Ludwig just sighs a little in response and shoulders his pack again, steps light, and the rest of them follow suit outside and onto the deserted pavement.

Roderich absolutely hates this kind of weather, the muggy clouds hovering too low and the air uncomfortably damp. It’s the kind of weather that makes him want to sit at a piano for hours and play through the half-drizzle outside, maybe one of his old classical compositions, or maybe one of those Spanish dances Erszi liked so much. If only he could remember the tango…

But his piano is gone, so he reluctantly trudges along through scummy puddles and rotted bodies, feeling overwhelmingly repulsed. The thick long coat he’s in doesn’t help matters at all, only making him feel uncomfortably warm.

God, Roderich hates this kind of weather.


 

alfred

The moon is the thinnest little sliver in the dark sky, clouded and gray-pink-blue-brown, a weird kind of color, and the van is completely silent. It feels like he’s the only one awake, which is probably true; but even then, just thinking the thought somehow makes everything feel the slightest bit different different.

Lovi and Feli are in the front, barely stirring in their sleep. Feli’s muttering something under his breath, something Alfred can’t really understand, and Lovi is still and stony. Ludwig is pressed against the window, Roderich curled up into a tight knot of a figure on the seat.

And Arthur is so close- two feet, one foot, six inches… Alfred’s head is buzzing with thoughts, too loud to sleep. He wants to reach out and do something, but he doesn’t know what, and damn right will he disturb this pocket of quiet.

As quickly as the moment arrives, it suddenly passes as Arthur violently swings out an arm in his sleep, narrowly missing Al’s own outstretched one. His voice gasps out, hands clawing, eyelids fluttering, and Alfred shrinks back a little as he startles awake with a choked noise.

“Youlittle bitch whatfuckhelp-” The stream of words halts, and Arthur turns to look at him with something unreadable in his expression, dulled green eyes almost glowing and Alfred wants to reach out and pull them closer and just stare, because no, that isn’t abnormal at all.

“Ahem. Apologies, o-”

“It’s nothing,” Alfred interrupts, feeling an uncontrollable smile creep across his face. Arthur is a little flushed, pose almost defensive, eyebrows furrowed just a little. The whites of his eyes are almost bloodshot.

“A-anyway, what are you doing up so late, lad? It’s-” Arthur cuts off and turns to the little wristwatch Ludwig found for him, squinting slightly. “It’s three twenty-six, and we’ve a long day tomorrow.”

Al shrugs lightly. “Can’t sleep.”

“Really.”

There’s an abrupt pause, almost as if to signal the end of the conversation. Dammit, Al’s not going to let this happen again, so he tries to say something, anything.

“When do you think we’ll get to go home?”

“Home? What do you mean, home?”

“Uh, let me rephrase… When do you think we’ll find it? That’s kind of a weird question, but I really just-” I really just want to talk to someone -

“Depends on how you define home.” Arthur sighs, turning his face away and knotting his hands together. His features are sharply shadowed, a silhouette against the gray light outside, the cramped van only feeling even smaller.

“Honestly, lad, I’m not sure there’s a ‘home’ to be found anymore; life as we know it just doesn’t exist , I guess, bleak as it is-”

For some reason, the blood suddenly swells in his head, and Alfred wants to slam a fist into something. All thoughts of Arthur are quickly replaced with a stab of annoyance.

“Artie, I barely know you as is, but enough with the damn self-pity.” Arthur’s countenance twists into a frowning kind of scowl. Alfred somehow presses on, feeling the mounting stress in his head pound through. “All of you are just so- so hopeless, so accepting of whatever the hell is coming next. I fucking hate it, I hate the constant tears and mourning and stress and crying, god, I hate the crying. You don’t need to reflect on how hopeless our future is. Roderich and Ludwig don’t need to cling to their dead loved ones. Feli and Lovino don’t need to feel angry and guilty and conflicted about everything.”

Everything is rushing out too fast, and Al is too abruptly angry to think of anything else. Arthur leans against the window, face blank and eyes bright, wordlessly letting Alfred continue. And so he does, surges of emotion clogging up his throat.

“I just- You know? I’ve been looking for my twin brother, the literal other half of me, for two weeks now. I have completely given up all hope of finding him, I have seen so many things I hope I will never see again, I feel completely inexperienced in this new world; I can barely shoot a gun, for god’s sake, and I’m too afraid to even harm a walker. I can’t even begin to comprehend anything you guys have seen at all . I can’t even imagine seeing that, seeing Matthew beaten to death in a pool of his own blood, or shooting a person because they can’t breathe with their stab wounds, or knowing that a shady gang has abducted the person I love. I can’t even begin to see it, I probably never will, and so here I am, in a van of complete strangers who continue to shelter me from everything. Here I fucking am , hopelessly complaining about how said strangers are complaining to one of the strangers-” And he takes a shuddering, sobbing breath here, confused and angry and just scared , goddamn. Even breathing starts to feel miserable.

“I don’t even know what I’m saying, what I’m t-trying to say, I’m sorry for whatever I just said, I’m sorry for always crying at you. I don’t even know anymore.”

Arthur takes a long breath and somehow musters a smile. “That makes no sense at all.”

“I know it doesn’t.”

“You’re a mess, you know that, lad?”

“So are you, Artie. Don’t deny it.”

“Are you scared, Alfred?”

“Are you?”

“I don’t know anymore.”

“You know, I don’t either.”

Chapter Text

lovino

The weak light drifting through the clouds is completely aimless, scattering and diffusing over the stretch of road. It’s like his thoughts right now, no real purpose or thought as he floors the gas pedal and speeds forward, the hum of the van a comforting kind of background droning. The only sound Lovino can discern is the constant tapping of Roderich’s fingers on the plastic side of the seat.

Alfred has completely mapped their route out of a lack of anything else to do; the atlas says they’re almost out of Pennsylvania and half an hour from Ohio, but the endless stretch of blank highway seems to say something else. He isn’t really sure what, but it’s there, and the rumbling van shakes beneath him as if to unsettle him further.

Feli is telling some insane story to Alfred and Arthur, who seem to be seriously enthralled. Lovino doesn’t think he’s heard this one before. It’s something about the potato bastard’s brother. Even Ludwig is getting into it, recalling events, while Roderich huffs something about Gilbert and the multitude of reasons you don’t speak to him in public. Lovino only dared himself to go drinking with Gilbert once, at one of the few establishments he wasn’t banned from yet, and Gilbert had ended up starting several fights and mistaking his brother for his grandfather. Come to think of it, wasn’t the French bastard there too?

And Antonio was there, wasn’t he?

Lovino can remember that night all too clearly now. Antonio had somehow convinced him to dress in something cheap and watch Gilbert make an absolute fool of himself. Francis had tagged along too (“to complete the trio, non ?”), and Ludwig ended up going to babysit, since Antonio got scary when he was too drunk, and Francis had ended up crying about something, and…

The expected surge of nostalgia is a little late, but it’s still there anyways, and long strings of images run through Lovino’s mind faster than he can keep track of all of them. He hears Feli’s voice somewhere, sees a flicker of Antonio, tastes something sweet on his tongue, but it all disappears before he can remember any of it. In the back, Alfred excitedly rambles on about something suddenly, and Feli oohs and aahs while Ludwig nods along. It’s something along the lines of coincidences, and Lovino pushes a surge of something heavy down in his stomach.

Alright, so maybe Lovino’s emotions aren’t as blank as he wishes they should be. The watered-down sunlight suddenly seems like a very ill-fitting metaphor for how he’s feeling right now, somewhere between angry and confused and something else. He suddenly wants to interrupt the stupid fucking story and add the fact that Francis and Antonio were there, but Feli would grin and congratulate him on finally being able to think about Antonio and his emotions and some stupid fucking bullshit like that, so Lovino keeps his mouth shut and his eyes on the road. So what, his mind bitterly mutters, as if Antonio is still alive, as if acknowledging something will just suddenly bring him back-

Sometimes, strangely, it feels like he’s the only one who’s responsible enough to keep going. Soon enough, someone’s going to burst into tears or make a dripping emotional remark or do something similarly loaded. It seems like he’s the only one who doesn’t pull shit like that.

Hell, Lovino’s just glad he can look out the window without sobbing like most of the people in this fucking van, okay? End of story. He doesn’t want to wallow in his confusingly partially developed thoughts anymore, anyway.

In the back, Arthur is chuckling despite himself as Feli innocently rambles about Gilbert’s club etiquette regarding shittily grinding couples. Roderich half-smiles and shakes his head, the ghost of something more in his eyes, and turns toward Lovino again.

“I swear, any more stories about Gilbert Beilschmidt and I will take drastic-”

Roderich’s eyes widen suddenly, big as quarters, and he raspily barks something in rapid German before clearing his throat. “Stop the car, now!

The shock response takes over; and suddenly Lovino slams his foot down on the brake, barely conscious of what’s going on around him as the stupid van, shrieking against the asphalt, grinds to a halt.

“What the actual fuck , you Austrian shitbag-” Lovino’s tangent is abruptly cut off as a figure enters his line of sight, wavy blonde hair and thin clothes against the dull background of the highway.

“...Francis?” Feli and Lovino whip their heads around, eyes wide and synchronized.

“Wait a second, Francis Bonnefoy?” Alfred’s eyebrows practically disappear. Simultaneously, he and Ludwig crane their necks, clear disbelief in their faces as they stare at the brothers, then out the window, then back at the brothers.

That bloody frog?!” Arthur cries, eyes darting back and forth as he stands and nearly slams his head against the window.

Practically hurling each other out of the doors in a weird kind of desperation, Feli hoisted on Ludwig’s shoulders, they wordlessly turn, and there he is. Lovino has to admit, he’s just a little relieved at seeing a familiar face again, even if it belongs to a total ass. And it really is Francis, with a creepy-ass smirk on his face and his fingers wiggling in some sort of wave that’s honestly weird as hell. Lovino doesn’t even bother to question how Arthur and Alfred know the little shit.

Everyone always does somehow. (Judging from Antonio’s old stories, Francis slept with around half of Brooklyn and was fiercely detested by the other half, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he had slept with the other half as well.) And, well, as much as Lovino admires a solid lady-killer, Francis was always just kind of a douche. Plain and simple.

Mes amis! I see some familiar faces I never thought I’d see again! Arthur, cheri , is that you? And...” Francis seems to pale, just a touch. “ Mon dieu , Alfred?”

Of course. How could Lovino ever forget about the disgustingly, horribly, obnoxious inserts in French?

Ludwig quickly steps in front of Arthur, who is rapidly reddening with rage, and turns to Francis. “It’s nice to see you again too, Francis. May I ask you how you know Arthur and Alfred here?” His tone is light and civil, and Feliciano beams at Francis from his back. Lovino resists the urge to get in the van and leave these excessively cordial losers behind.

“Well,” Francis grins, some of the color back in his face again. “Arthur was one of my-”

“Shut up , you damn wanker!” Arthur shoots him a death glare from behind a slightly exasperated Ludwig.

Angleterre , darling, we slept together for s-”

Ludwig awkwardly clears his throat. “Alright, danke , Francis, what about Alfred?”

Alfred quickly interjects cheerily, a frown flickering across his face and fading after a quick glance at Arthur. “Well, Francis used to date my twin! For a few months, anyways, and before Gilbert. It was super awkward, and I mean really , but it’s crazy to see you again, man! Who would have imagined, you know?”

Something flashes across Francis’s face for a split second once more. Lovino feels the mounting suspicion in his head grow as Francis responds with something he isn’t paying attention to at all. Francis has done something. Lovino doesn’t know what, but all those years with Feli and Grandpa have paid off when it comes to his emotional radar, and something is definitely off with the damn French bastard.

Ludwig considerably pales at whatever Francis just said, and Feli’s chirpy voice quickly interrupts. “Wow, Francis, I can’t believe it! What a coincidence! Anyways, what have you been up to nowadays?” It sounds like Feli’s conversing with a new neighbor moving to the city, not an old acquaintance on an empty road.

“Just trying to make a living, non ?” Francis ruefully smiles and gestures towards the stretch of highway ahead of them, clearly sensing a topic that shouldn’t be touched on. “I drove to one of those tiny town maybe a mile from here after, started stockpiling, you know, the average sort of thing. What of you, mon cheri ? Why are you in that… monstrosity ?” He disgustedly flaps his hand at the pedo-van, a sour look on his face. Lovino bites back a satisfied smirk. Francis’s sense of style, which is almost Prada-worthy, is really the only thing he has going for him. He still somehow looks impeccably fashionable, even in his ragtag clothes and faded backpack.

Roderich rolls his eyes. “Oh, believe me, Francis , we didn’t just willingly get in this satanic shit of a vehicle. Ludwig had to goad us with a twenty-minute play-by-play of his ‘endeavors’ to acquire it, and even then, it was horribly vague.”

The potato bastard just rolls his eyes, straightening up and beckoning to Francis. “We’ll drive you back to your stockpile. You were a friend of bruder’s, anyway, and I don’t want to leave you here.”

“Ah, merci , Ludwig, for letting me ride in your ‘satanic shit of a vehicle’. Much appreciated.” He quickly scrambles into the passenger seat, smirking as Arthur just glares, and the rest of them slowly file in. Lovino sighs to himself, sliding into the driver’s seat with no resolve left for anymore unexpectedness.

It’s going to be a long day.

arthur

They’re all crowded on a few armchairs in Francis’s little stolen apartment as the bloody frog himself lounges on a roomy chaise. He wants to punch something, maybe the shaky glass table between them, but Feli had gleefully packed Alfred between himself and Arthur, so he can’t exactly move at all.

Francis is amiably chatting with the others about trivial things, the atmosphere frustratingly light. An unreadable emotion is clearly flitting across his face every few moments. Arthur has known him for long enough to know that Francis is a liar by omission, and a horrible one at that; something is definitely wrong when it comes to Alfred. Just the thought makes Arthur fume in anger, and he resolves to get it out in the open as soon as possible. God damn that frog. Out of every acquaintance they could have run into, it had to be the one he had had a horrid relationship of sorts with last year. If rushed sex and weekly brawls counted as a relationship.

Ludwig clears his throat, interrupting the idle chatter with a stern demeanor. He’s clearly fearful of something, worried and anxious, eyes darting left and right. The others turn to him, Feli especially looking afraid at his nervousness. Judging by his expression, it looks as if Feli already knows what Ludwig will ask, and Arthur feels his heart involuntarily jump in his chest.

“Francis,” Ludwig begins. “You are relatively knowledgeable when it comes to rumors and people. Do you know anything about a man named Ivan?”

“Ivan?” Francis has paled considerably, his face suddenly looking haggard and tired and afraid. There’s an unmistakable stutter in his voice. “R- May you elaborate, Monsieur Beilschmidt?”

The tension is thick as cold pudding around them, and Arthur refrains from shouting something vulgar to break it up.

Ludwig just stares at Francis now, the same stare he shot Arthur when they first met and Arthur asked why he wanted an iron. He really does look as if he’ll strangle the bloody piss out of the frog in seven seconds. Francis is visibly alienated now, eyes paranoid and hands tapping nervously, flitting from Roderich to Lovino to Arthur to Ludwig.

Finally, he speaks, and his voice is coarse and quiet. “What business do you have with him?”

“The bastard , whoever the fuck he is, and his fucking gang,” Lovino angrily interjects before Ludwig can speak, “kidnapped two of our friends for no apparent reason and fucking murdered the other two. Oh, yeah, I forgot, French bastard, one of the dead ones was named Gilbert Beilschmidt , and the other one happened to be Roderich’s goddamn fiancee.”

He’s on his feet now, face furious as Francis shrinks back, and only continues his tirade. “Oh, and I happened to be sleeping with one of the kidnapped people, but he’s probably dead now, so- so- so tell us everything you know about this Ivan before I blow your damn brains out!”

Deliberately and calmly, Alfred taps his arm a few times, muttering something under his breath, and Lovino sinks back down into the couch with a wounded glare. Arthur can hear his breaths, fast and struggling. He looks like he’ll either burst into tears or pull out a pistol in fifteen seconds; Feli clings to him desperately, eyes wide, and everyone is suddenly silent again.

At least several minutes pass in crushing silence before Francis slowly uncurls from his tense position, still slouching a little, hair hanging in his face. Arthur feels a sudden wave of something akin to pity and hopelessness hit him. The last time he saw Francis, he was distastefully dressed in something expensive, with hair trimmed in a way that would make it seem untrimmed. Now, he’s gaunt and hollow-looking, his clothes tinted a strange shade of gray, eyes dulled and hands calloused and dirty, a shell of his former self.

And with a start, Arthur realizes they all look like that.

Before he can drown under the flood of sudden emotion in his head, Francis shakes his head and begins to speak. “Ivan… there are rumors from people who have seen him and his group, people who say vague and conflicting things.”

Arthur takes a deep breath, feeling an internal pressure to pursue his thoughts of dirty clothes and dull eyes and an external pressure to hear more of this so-called Ivan strain at him.

Francis glances around, voice low and paranoid. “I do not know much about the man. I have heard stories of massacres and kidnappings and theft sprees at the hands of his cohort, heard rumors of the strange things he will say and do… Ludwig, you mentioned his destination was Las Vegas, non ?”

“Yes.”

“Then I assume that is where you are going?” Francis’s voice is shaky.

“After a few other stops, ja .”

“Are any of you immune?”

Arthur’s heart jolts in his throat. Something in the back of his head screams, out of paranoia or surprise, he isn’t sure. “I-”

Everyone turns to glance at him strangely, and Arthur slowly pulls up his sleeve to reveal the bite mark on his forearm. Feli aahs and reaches out, and Francis is so pale by now Arthur doesn’t know if the blood is still circulating to his head.

“Ve, Francis, what’s wrong?”

Francis frowns, brows furrowing deeply. “You can’t go to Las Vegas.” As the muttering starts up, he shakes his head rapidly, eyes clenching shut as he continues. The pulse of dread in Arthur’s chest is pounding rapidly. The dizzyness only mounts in his head. “Those kidnappings… There are rumors that Ivan and his gang are working for someone, some group or organization. I know he is taking people off the streets. I have heard any uninfected with suspicious bite scars or scratches is immediately taken, even if they aren’t confirmed as immune to the virus, and never seen again.”

Alfred turns to stare at Arthur, whose head feels like it’s about to burst with nauseating fear, and his bright blue eyes seem to drill into Arthur’s own like nothing else. Arthur tries to ground himself somehow, focusing on Alfred’s shrinking pupils in the dim light. The information Francis listed is floating through his head and echoing around in his skull like a constant wave washing over him again and again.

massacres and kidnappings and killing sprees cohort gang group strange things Ivan bites or scratches suspicious taken never seen again scars confirmed conflicting immune to the virus-

“Antonio and Yao had scratches on their legs, didn’t they,” Lovino suddenly whispers, his eyes moonlike, even larger than Feli’s, and he suddenly rubs at them desperately. The blood rushing in his ears is too loud for Arthur to make out any more than that. Somehow, from what he can discern in his current state, their little group has fallen into a quiet sense of chaos. Alfred’s tearful outburst the night before about being sheltered and unable to imagine a violent string of deaths, especially of loved ones, suddenly hits him as if he’s been winded.

And it really is true; he can’t bear even thinking about the fates of Yao and Antonio, even though he has never met them and probably never will, because Arthur has never even thought about something so horridly, utterly, awful in his life. The reasons possibly immune people are suddenly kidnapped surges through his head, his imagination completely overwhelming him. Flashing thoughts of experimentation and torture and so many other horribly immoral things sweep through Arthur like mad.

Francis shakes his head again, for what must be the sixth or seventh time, and awkwardly clears his throat. “I am deeply sorry for worrying you all, but it must be said. I cannot advise you to walk Arthur into certain death. I do not know how Ivan does it. But he will find you, somehow or other, and going straight to Las Vegas in some honor-motivated pursuit is nothing but a guaranteed death sentence, for-” He looks at the dusty linoleum floor, hands clenched tightly.

“It is nothing but a guaranteed death sentence for all of you.”

And the room is silent, nothing but fear filling their lungs slowly.

roderich

He slowly arranges the melange of cans in the back of the van, methodically stacking them in the most space-efficient way possible and feeling very much like Ludwig. The others are slowly drifting towards the van, having muttered conversations, and Roderich can see Francis and Alfred speaking. It looks like Alfred is about to weep.

Roderich takes a deep breath and shuts the trunk, the last of the supplies and food Francis had given them neatly packed in. Their visit has deeply unsettled him, the lingering words about the mysterious Ivan making his stomach turn and his head drift back to Erszi, and the fact that somehow Roderich knows he will never see Francis again persistently stays at the forefront of his thoughts. He isn’t sure if he thinks Francis is a dead man walking, or if they will simply never cross paths again. Either way, he’s somehow a little more relieved in a strange way.

Sitting in the uncomfortably muggy van, it’s a little harder to breathe, and Roderich glances out the window and waits for the others. Ludwig, Lovino, Feliciano, and Alfred are a few meters away, but Arthur seems to be lagging behind. It looks like he’s shouting something at Francis. Roderich smirks a little, somehow; perhaps Arthur senses they won’t see Francis again as well.

Even with such a dark thought in his head, Roderich still somehow feels hopelessly optimistic for the future, even with the jarring news they’ve received about Ivan. To be honest, he’s probably just in denial about it at the moment. It somehow seems like something he would do, hopeful for whatever comes next even as Erszi is buried in the dusty soil on that hill with Gilbert next to her-

And as everyone files into the car with a sense of finality, Francis nowhere to be seen, Roderich wants to sob.

Alfred has a similar expression, one of both utter devastation and complete denial. Arthur sits next to him in easy silence. Roderich’s chest aches like nothing before, the scene reminding him of rain-blurred afternoons sitting at the piano, not playing, just sitting with her in absolute silence on the bench.

But Erszi isn’t here anymore, and the tears refuse to fall down his face when he least expects it. His eyes are dry. Roderich doesn’t even know what to feel any longer.

The van starts to move, and soon Francis’s desolate rotting apartment building fades away from his mind.

“Matthew is dead. Francis shot him when he- he turned.” Alfred’s voice is a perfect monotone, save for the hiccup at the end like a torn cassette. It feels like Roderich’s heart has just ceased beating.

Arthur spins and stares , looking like he’s about to curse someone to twenty years of hard labor, but Alfred shakes his head sadly. “Mattie got scratched pretty badly by a walker. He didn’t want to w-” He leans forward, eyes perfectly dry just like Roderich’s, unfocused and loose.

“Mattie didn’t want to weigh us down.” The words are heavy on Alfred’s tongue. “So he went to stay with Francis for the last few hours.”

And that’s it. The van is silent again, rocking back and forth slowly. Lovino, at the wheel, sits up a little straighter.

“Nothing wrong with it or anything, but you’ve come to terms with it already, haven’t you, Alfred?” His voice is plain, straightforward, almost calming, and Alfred glances at Lovino with a straining sense of unburdened relief in his face.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I have, in a messed-up kind of way. It’s too soon, isn’t it-”

“Believe me, Alfred, nothing is ever too soon.”

Alfred smiles suddenly, gripping Arthur’s hand now. Roderich glances at the couple, both of them completely free of tension in this single moment. And somehow, impossibly, Roderich thinks he’s come to terms with Erszi too, and the sunlight streams thick as syrup through the clouds.

Chapter Text

ludwig

The air is heavy with humidity, and the sun is beginning to gleam again through the mass of clouds slowly floating through the sky, slow as can be. Alfred is humming a little as he fiddles with the radio. Every station so far has been nothing but flatly crackling static, barely audible against the rumble of the van.

“It doesn’t hurt to try,” Alfred had remarked.

Ludwig dislikes this weather with most of his being. Of course, he has to sit in an enclosed space with five other people in July of all months. The end of the world couldn’t ever happen in some temperate, easy month like April or May, could it? But a little voice in the back of his head insists he loves summer because of Feli somehow, as if Feli’s perspective on something completely mundane can influence anything he thinks, as if-

Oh, who is he fooling, Ludwig Beilschmidt is utterly, completely, always has been, always will be, under Feliciano’s spell. He’s fairly sure nothing will change that.

Still, it isn’t exactly the most favorable position to be in. But no matter; he doesn’t mind too much anyway. After all, he has known Feli for years, since sophomore year of high school, and the familiar buzzy feeling of his chest weighing down with the sound of Feli’s voice is now as foreign as breathing to him.

Alfred’s swiveled all the way around in the passenger seat, his neck craned at an inhuman angle as he points out all the little things about their surroundings to Arthur. The person in question is grumbling something about bloody American patriotism-preachers. According to Al’s long-winded ramble, he grew up in Indiana and frequently drove through Ohio, which is somehow supposed to explain the freakish extent of his knowledge on Midwestern tourist traps and various highway truck stops. Arthur’s rolling his eyes into oblivion.

Still, Ludwig doesn’t fail to catch the occasional flicker of a stare from him as Alfred continues, though. In four days, the two have quickly become fast friends. It reminds Ludwig a little of the first time he and Feli met so long ago.

The radio continues to fizzle with no abandon. Alfred is twisting back and forth from Arthur to the dial, saying something about the exit lane they’re passing. Even with their banter, a soft feeling of relative silence settles over the van. Roderich hasn’t said a word since Lovino’s remark hours ago, and he himself is somehow silent, even as Feli naps with his feet swung over the driver’s seat and onto Lovino’s shoulders.

“The latest reports we’ve received… Approximately seventy-five percent of the population is officially game over. Crazy, huh? A five percent increase over the last two weeks, which is insane. Wait, Lien, where did we get that data again?”

The car is still silent, but it feels like Ludwig’s heart is caught in his windpipe in absolute shock. Everyone is perfectly rigid and wide-eyed, the sound of a live fellow human voice (bubbly and unmistakably female, but another voice nevertheless) freezing them into complacence.

“Bloody hell, louder, lad!” Arthur cries, and the spell is quickly shattered as they all clamp their mouths shut and lean forward in an attempt to hear what the girl is saying. Even Roderich seems startled out of his deep thought.

“Mei, get back to running the program,” intones a serious voice.

“Alright, alright, sorry. Anyways, to all of our listeners, here’s a recap of this week’s current events: rumors say that some of the more isolated countries are developing resistance programs to the constant onslaught of the outbreak, the government released an official statement that basically says they failed at everything they could possibly fail at, and three-fourths of the globe is down for the count. Uh, anything else, Lien? I think I might have forgotten somet-”

“Mei, you insisted on anchoring. Deal with it.” The completely deadpan tone the unknown woman is using is absolutely hilarious for some reason or another, and Alfred starts to chuckle. Before long, he, Feli, and Arthur are laughing riotously, and Lovino is smirking so broadly Ludwig doesn’t understand how he isn’t completely grinning yet.

Strange things strangers can do to you, he thinks. Somehow, Ludwig laughs too, and the girl on the radio laughs along with all of them.

“Okay, jeez. You know you love me.”

“Yes, darling.” Alfred bursts into a whole new wave of laughter. Arthur’s close to crying now from laughing so hard, and so is Ludwig, even though it isn’t even that funny, and the stuffy feeling in the van has evaporated long, long ago.

“Anyways, to you hardcore survivalists out there, doing your thing and shooting up walkers and-”

“Mei…”

“Sorry. But really, to all of our listeners, surviving on canned peas while we sit here alone in a basement with a lot of box wine, Lien’s mixtape of crappy mainstream Asian pop here is dedicated to you. Enjoy the disgusting amount of EXO, and we’ll see you next week.” A light laugh, and the supposed Lien’s voice rings along with Mei’s.

“Good luck to all of you, whoever and wherever you are. Signing off, Mei and Lien with your Asian Occasion of the week.”

A burst of something sung in a foreign language pounds from the van speakers, and the strangeness of the music only makes their collective laughter rise. Ludwig doesn’t even understand why he’s chuckling along, why he’s so suddenly happy in this single moment, why he’s suddenly so out of character. Somehow, he’s feeling so strangely euphoric he can barely pay attention to the thoughts.

Feli turns and grins at him before falling into a new wave of laughter, and Ludwig somehow finds his own hand and Feli’s tightly entwined. His confusion isn’t even apparent anymore, and he wishes it could stay like this forever, this swelling happiness in his stomach even as they pass two corpses on the barren highway, even as they continue on a journey to nowhere, even as they rattle along in a stolen piece of junk prone to breakdowns. The feeling is just too strange to describe.

Arthur’s clutching Alfred’s shoulder in mirth, and his eyes gleam with that ethereal feeling too.


 

lovino

He’s crammed into the back with Roderich again as all the fucking lovebirds are up there choking on their sexual tension, and the landscape blurs by too quickly to notice. They’re officially in Indiana now, Ohio long gone. Both Alfred and Ludwig have distinctly expressed an interest to hit up Chicago and search for survivors, and since Arthur and Feli had blindly agreed, the six of them are back to putting their lives in immediate danger again. Joy. Yes, Lovino absolutely loves being thrust into enormous hordes of walkers to waste bullets and lives. It’s his favorite pastime .

Of course, Lovino can’t whine any about staying out of danger; his old Mafia days are still a main fixture of Feli’s conversations with other people, and it’s pretty much guaranteed the little twerp will bring it up if Lovino even utters a word of complaint. Sometimes, Feli really irks him (even more than usual) with his absolute fucking refusal to let the past be the past. Really, he’s twenty-six now, and he joined New York’s Cosa Nostra at nineteen, so why is Feli still bragging about his fratello ’s dealings with the American branch of the Mafia?

Well, okay, the fact that Lovino kept up associations with them until four months ago doesn’t count.

As Ludwig’s oh-so-cherished creeper van hurtles down the road courtesy of Alfred’s volatile steering, the stifling air in the back makes Lovino squirm uncomfortably. Somehow, Roderich is maintaining a flatly neutral face, eyes half-lidded as the others murmur amongst each other, almost asleep but not quite. He’s looking very relaxed somehow, his posture almost slouchy and completely unlike him. For what seems like the first time, Roderich isn’t tapping or fidgeting, a startling transition Lovino has only just noticed, and it feels so natural somehow that Lovino wants to weakly hit something in annoyance-

His head still reels for some reason, still falling back from something he doesn’t really need or want to think about. The flashy Canto-pop song floating from the radio quickly ends and scratchy static fills his ears again.

“Dammit, the music ended,” murmurs Alfred, going back to station-searching. Arthur rolls his eyes more out of habit than annoyance. Roderich almost kind of smiles then; Lovino can see the impulse flit across his face. He turns toward Lovino then, brooding violet eyes a little more alert.

His voice is something of a slight shock, being completely absent for two days, and Lovino almost jolts in his seat at the sound and the words.

“Antonio.”

Lovi doesn’t want to speak-

“You miss him.” Roderich just stares at him, eyes intent, and Lovino forces himself back under control. He can already feel himself getting defensive and his face starting to burn. Tomatito , that voice sings a little, and he wants to strangle Roderich and his prissy-ass attitude and his stupid fucking voice.

“S-” His voice, about to spit out something probably offensive, suddenly cuts off.

Roderich just shrugs. He fucking shrugs . What the hell did Lovino just do to get sassed by fucking Roderich?

“It isn’t a crime, you know, Lovino.”

Lovi finally brings himself to talk-

“Don’t fucking say t- his name, bastard.”

“Fine, then, you haven’t come to terms with him yet.”

“You little-”

“I hate to be the one telling you this. Feli really should be the one breaking the news and all; but I digress.” Roderich pauses for a moment, stares out the window as the shadows of Chicago peer out on the horizon. “I- Actually, Lovino, do I really need to say it?”

Lovi’s throat tightens- no, Lovino, Lovino knows what Roderich’s talking about, understands perfectly well. It’s all Antonio and he’s alive or is he and you’re still bruised Lovi and why are you red little tomatino and he doesn’t understand a single word all the same-

Where the hell is that Spanish bastard when he- when he needs someone to cuss at? Roderich seems to sense his thoughts and shakes his head. For the first time, Lovino sees the shadow of stubble smattered across his jaw. It’s something so un-Roderich-like. Lovino really wonders what the world has come to now.

“We’re here~!” Feli sings, pressing his nose and lips against the glass as they near the edges of the city. “I wonder if it’ll be any like New York.”

The potato bastard visibly glances at his feet for a second before clearing his throat a little awkwardly, and Lovino leans forward a little in his seat. Alfred steers into an overpass. The skyscrapers peek out from the pavement, and he wordlessly opens the door and steps out, his hair bright against the sunlight. Lovino can see him squint up at the sky and down at the city; his glasses gleam brightly, something tired in his posture.

“Let’s take a look,” Arthur murmurs, sliding open a door, and anxiously peers out before gingerly stepping into the sun.

Feli and his German bastard file out after him. Roderich just sits there, irking Lovino to no extent, and the clouds are wispy and sparse above their heads. A cold wash of anger and utter frustration hits him in the face.

The tears are suddenly forcing themselves out of his eyes, prickly and hot and fast, complete fury sweeping up every thought. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio , intones the thickly raging voice in his head. Lovi wants to scream in complete rage, but all that comes out is a clogged sigh, his vision shaky with stinging tears. It’s as if his eyes are about to fucking explode. The sudden wave of emotion is pooling in them like muddy puddles.

Roderich’s eyes are too shiny too, and he quickly turns and steps out to join the others on the overlook. The loud click of the door shutting snaps Lovi’s resolve in half.

Lovino, Lovino, Lovino, get yourself together , the thick voice mutters again. Lovi feels himself splay across the seat in utter deprecation.

Fuck this. Fuck everything. Fuck Antonio, fuck tomatino , fuck “Lovi”, fuck this van, fuck the anger and the frustration and the unworthiness and Ivan and his deceased family members and fear and helplessness and bullets and asianoccasion and heartbreakheartbreakheartb-

Too many thoughts, too many feelings, too many questions; and the tears stop.

What can he say? Throwing tantrums has always been his forte. Lovino wryly chuckles to himself somehow, the spilling tracks of tears sticking to his cheeks. Outside, Alfred shakes his head as he whispers something to Arthur.

Lovino just sighs. The pang in his chest burns, and sometimes he wonders when he’ll forget Antonio ever happened.


 

alfred

The screeching roar of the horde grates on his ears like the sound of an oncoming train. The thick walls of the mansion they’re in do little to shield them from the noise. He can feel Arthur’s shoulder tightly pressed against his, his uneven breathing the only other sound he can hear.

The other four are a little behind them, sticking close as they wander across padded carpet, the walkers’ groans slowly fading. The house itself seems sturdy enough, and it’s big enough to have some sort of nanny door in the back they can escape through. Alfred doesn’t regret his idea to explore here at all; sure, there are a few ghouls outside, but it’s nothing he and Lovino can’t deal with, and a huge mansion on the outskirts of Chicago has to have some good loot.

Arthur glances over with pupils like pinpoints. “Alfred, are you regretting your idea to explore here at all?”

He feels a cheeky kind of smile spread across his face, and Al playfully shoves at Arthur. “Artie, I think you might want to think before you ask those kinds of questions.”

“Arthur, please, Alfred. ” Arthur rolls his eyes, lashes fluttering slightly, running long fingers through messy hair.

“Sure thing, Artie.”

“You’re a git, you know that?”

“The one and only.”

Arthur’s a little pink around his ears. Al takes a slow breath in and out.

Ludwig clears his throat behind them. “Alfred, what exactly are we searching for? Do you want to split up?”

“Ve, Ludwig, have you ever seen a horror movie?” Feli’s bright voice still makes Al shiver a little, thinking about strange horror movies. The thick carpeting even muffles footsteps, something that makes his hands shake a little, so he quickly shakes his head and wanders into another hallway.

“N-Nah, Ludwig, I don’t think we’ll need to split up. The place isn’t that big.”

Arthur just smirks and cracks open a door, revealing an expensive-looking dining room. “Scared, are we? Can’t blame you, lad, the suburbanism of this McMansion is enough to make me shiver i-”

“Oh, shut up,” Alfred mutters, elbowing him, but he still presses a fraction of an inch closer.

Lovino mutters something about bickering couples behind them and pulls open another door. There’s a sizeable kitchen behind it, the glossy counters lightly dusted and the air reeking of rot, and he and Al quickly get to the pantry. Surprisingly, there’s still a decent amount of cans left in there, along with a good deal of rice. Lovino starts with stuffing all of the cans of tomatoes in his bag.

Arthur rummages through the countless cabinets filled with Tupperware and wine glasses, grabbing anything valuable-looking. On Ludwig’s back, Feli grabs everything Arthur can’t reach, the person carrying him in question poking through utensils on his own, and Roderich is going through the fridge with pronounced disgust flitting across his face every now and then as stacks of rancid food are tossed onto the floor. Even with the abnormal amount of rotting greens, it really is a treasure trove, Alfred smugly thinks. Who the hell said he had bad judgement?

Their bags are as full as they can stuff them; the only things left in the kitchen are the multitude of frosting tips, china, and silverware. Ludwig declares an exploration of the other rooms of the house is in order. As he heads out the door, Lovino neatly cuts ahead of him as they file along the corridor, practically drinking his canned tomatoes in what Alfred thinks is supposed to be bravado but seems more false than intimidating. Somehow, Al almost wants to laugh at the sheer insanity of that single moment. Then again, the key word is almost. Lovino dubbing him something along the lines of “hamburger bastard” is a fate he hopes he never has to suffer, in more ways than one.

Roderich suddenly jumps back with a sharp hiss, stumbling into the wall. The gurgling moan of a walker hits Al’s ears like a bullet, and all of them seem to instinctively shrink away from the source of the sound. Arthur seems to catch a glimpse of whatever’s in that closet Roderich opened and pales like he’s been doused in bleach.

Before Alfred can ask, two completely rotted walkers wander out, their eyes and mouth both empty cavernous sockets in their gray faces. They’re both kids : a boy, maybe eleven or twelve, with blood-matted hair in his face, and a brown-haired girl who looks about nine both hissing blindly at them. Feli makes a little choked noise in the back of his throat, and Ludwig stumbles away from the two.

Alfred feels something cold pool in his stomach and an uncontrollable need to shiver it away. Countless scenarios run through his head, horrible visions of devoured parents or locked doors or the agonized scream of a sibling, all possible, all so very real he wants to throw up.

Lovino turns away in absolute revulsion, his eyes screwed tightly shut. Al feels his feet freeze in place as the girl turns toward him, starting to shuffle in his direction as the others back away, the boy snapping his jaws and reaching out with bony arms. Something in his head slows to a sluggish pace, barely functioning as the two approach, Arthur’s shaky voice not even enough to bring him out of it. They’re both dressed nicely, Alfred observes, with the girl in a torn purple dress…

His dazed reverie is snapped in half when two muffled gunshots sound in his ear, crisp and clear as they burrow into the walkers’- no, the kids’ skulls. Still too painfully slowed, he turns to see Lovino there, wide-eyed and frozen now, the pistol and silencer still clutched in his hands.

Behind him, ever-so-slowly, he can hear an audible thump-thump as their bodies hit the ground.

Roderich just stares, a little shell-shocked by the looks of it, as the thick dullish-red haze of walker blood seeps slowly into the cream colored carpet. Arthur suddenly throws open a random door and retches for a solid fifteen seconds before turning back with a flushed face and tired eyes, and Al feels his head whirl.

Finally, after what seems like an absolute eternity, Ludwig shoulders Feli again and turns his eyes away before speaking.

“I’m sorry, Lovino.”

“I-” Lovino shakes his head and turns around. “I’m- I don’t know. Let’s just leave. I don’t want to think about these things anymore.”

Feli buries his head in Ludwig’s shoulder and really does start to cry. They all slowly scatter out of that hallway, and the coldness sloshing in Al’s stomach only starts to burn even more. He wants to collapse on the plush floor and pull someone close and cry too. The stack of frosting tips they left on the counter sit there almost accusingly, and he feels his stomach turn horribly like never before, a fresh wave of revulsion making his eyes water until tears spill.

Arthur presses against him lightly, guiding his now-clumsy feet towards the back door as the diminishing cacophony of the horde rings in the empty foyer, and Al just leans against him with an empty chest. This house was an absolutely horrible idea. His skin still crawls at the thought of those rotted eye sockets and bloody faces.

Somehow, once again, thoughts of Kiku and his companion return to his head, and a flash of an image flits through his head with astounding speed and terrifying precision. The green eyes, the long fingers, the endearing eyebrows, the ash-blond hair, void of emotion and matted with blood, that lilting inflection in his voice nothing more than a rattling hiss in Al’s ears. And for some reason it didn’t matter if Arthur’s immune, doesn’t matter if he’s the most capable person on earth; the fear is there, lurking in the back of his head like an invisible phantom, always ready to strike.

Al is completely terrified of something that’ll probably happen to him before it happens to Arthur. Somehow, he kind of wants to laugh himself silly, and somehow, he kind of wants to cry too.

As they pick their way back to the van, loaded down with what now feel like stolen goods, the weight of what they’ve just seen settles down comfortably on Alfred’s shoulders like sandbags.

 

Chapter Text

roderich

 

The bright sunlight and the sweltering heat from before have faded into chilly fog and gathering clouds as they all rattle away from Chicago, Lovino dangling a cigarette out of the window, and the cold seems to settle into the tips of his fingers and stick there. The radio is still buzzing with static. The reek of smoke floats through the car, and Alfred frowns a little at the steering wheel.

Ludwig is asleep again, his hair hanging in his eyelashes, and Feli is still leaned against him. He’s blankly staring at the seat in front of him. Roderich feels another twinge of hunger. The cold still pools in his hands, and his fingers are too numb to move now, even as Arthur tugs off his jacket with ease. It must be his imagination; everyone seems to be doing fine. Maybe he’s just too hungry to think properly.

He had insisted on slowly rationing out their many cans and only eating proper meals once a week, an idea everyone had reluctantly agreed with, except for Alfred. The supply Francis gave them is larger than anything they could ever scavenge, so eating it all won’t do them any good. As his hunger rages, the van seems to be getting nowhere, only making the time pass even slower. It doesn’t exactly do wonders for his slowed state of mind. Roderich feels like he’s trying to swim through cold syrup, practically drowning in a hazy death trap, struggling to even think basic thoughts.

Okay, it’s a little too dark and nonsensical for a metaphor, but it’s functional enough. Quite honestly, it only adds to the rapidly hiking self-alienation and confusion in his mind. Roderich feels like banging his head into the window out of complete and utter frustration with himself.

Ludwig suddenly jolts awake. Feliciano visibly jumps, even as he settles against the window again. Alfred is looking more and more agitated by the second. Roderich can barely process any of this.

Where the hell is all of this coming from? Just yesterday, he was absolutely fine, and today he can’t even string together a coherent sentence. Already, his eyelids are subconsciously drifting shut. Alfred turns on the radio again and starts to cycle through the stations, listening to the blurred static on each for a moment before moving on, and Arthur leans over on his shoulder and mutters something every few seconds.

As his head buzzes with hazy irritation, the muggy weather seems to loom mere feet above them. A dark blotch across the horizon rises toward them like a thickening cloud. Roderich’s heart slowly slides to a stop, even through the daze, and Feli scrubs at his eyes with something akin to fear. Alfred makes an irritated noise in the back of his throat and pokes at his glasses, and Arthur immediately reaches for his pack. Roderich catches a glimpse of dark gunmetal and a once-glossy magazine. Even as Ludwig stirs from his sleep, Lovino just coughs and coughs as everyone hopelessly squints, smoking for what must be the first time in years. Roderich wonders where he found the cheap cigarettes he’s fishing out of his pocket.

“Slow down,” Lud mutters, eyebrows pulling together. Obliging, Alfred slows down, but they’re a little too close to whatever it is for comfort. As his vision clears, Roderich’s heart suddenly starts to hammer again like nothing else because those might just be what he thinks they are and a sudden wash of terror makes his eyes glaze. The sleepy feeling from before is now nothing but unadulterated terror.

Lovino’s voice is sharply creased with frustration. “Goddammit, is that… is that another fucking horde? Are you even-”

“Wankers,” Arthur breathlessly mutters, still rummaging through his backpack. “Ludwig, how much of a chance do you think we have? I want to know how many sleeping pills to put out.”

Al grins brightly, swerving quickly through a roundabout as the walkers loom, and Feli grimaces and clutches his stomach. Roderich can distinctly spot a few from where they are, bloody-mauled and snarling horribly. “Oh, come on, Artie, you’re such a pessimist. We’re definitely getting out alive. I’m the best dodge-and-swerver that ever dodged and swerved. We just need to get to the highway, and we’ll outrun them no problemo.”

“Please don’t disrespect any more cultures than you absolutely have to, Alfred. And it’s Arthur.”

Feli giggles a little, even as they plow through several scattered ghouls that were probably wandering from the horde, and the van shakes back and forth dangerously. Arthur just shoots him another eye-roll and shakes the bulk bottle of sleeping pills at him.

As they round into the overpass, another twelve or thirteen walkers seemingly pop up out of nowhere. Feli frantically glances around, and Lovino theatrically sucks at his cigarette and pokes his head out the window.

“Where the actual fuck are you bastards coming from?” His voice is thick and hoarse. “Alfred, run those sons of bitches over. Let’s just get out of here.”

Alfred grins and seems to floor the gas pedal, the van speeding forward and slamming through several walkers, and Lovino smirks and takes a sip from a peeling coffee thermos. Roderich somehow struggles into the realization that he has never seen Lovino this drunk, suddenly just noticing the reek of sweet wine, and the van rattles on.

Looking down from the overpass, he can spot the horde they narrowly avoided along with several stragglers if he peers over Lud’s shoulder. The window is smeared with thick walker blood.

In an instant, with an earsplitting shriek, the van suddenly grinds to a halt and throws them all forward, and the last thing Roderich can see before everything goes dark is al-


 

When he manages to come to, the first thing he sees is Ludwig hovering over him, posture stiff and eyes frowning. Feliciano’s peering over his shoulder, amber eyes wide and glossy, and a dual sense of relief and fear floods him.

Coming to, he lets his eyes wander over the others. They’re all still in the van, the others in their seats swiveled around to watch him, similar expressions of both extreme anxiety and slight panic flitting across their faces. Roderich feels the last of his sluggishness fade, and Feli whimpers a little and clings tightly to Ludwig. A loud thump shakes through the van and through his chest. Reeling from the sudden impact, Roderich opens his mouth to ask Arthur what the fuck is going on . And then he sees the walkers.

There are so many of them, too many to count, clustered around their van like ants. Their faces are twisted into sharp snarls, their fists pounding against the glass, their rotted and mutilated faces pressed flat against the windows. He’s never really fully observed a walker up close before. It’s completely, paralyzingly, horrifyingly awful; he can see loose and yellowed teeth, gray-green skin, dried-out eye sockets, deep maroon gashes, peeling fingernails splayed too close.

And so this is where humanity has gone. Someone sets a hand down on his shoulder before he can scream.

How the h- how did they get here? Roderich gets the unshakable feeling they’re going to starve to death in this van, the same kind of feeling he had about Francis, as if to go through anything else would be to defeat fate itself. Right on cue, Arthur sarcastically grins and rattles his sleeping pills again, the bags under his eyes a dark and brilliant violet against his pale skin, and Alfred sits with his head in his hands.

Lovino barks out a sharp cough. “Well, now that our dearest Roderich is awake, can we take those pills now? We don’t exactly have all day, do we?”

Lud just shoots him a sharp glare, and Feli curls into the seat and faces away from the rest of them. Silence amidst the hissing and pounding catches in their throats. The piercing fear in his chest feels like it’s about to explode. The van still absolutely reeks of Spanish wine, and Lovino takes another long sip.

“No. We’re getting out of this.” Ludwig straightens up and pushes his hair back out of sheer habit. It limply falls back into his eyes, but he just winds his fingers through his bangs again with renewed determination. Feliciano curls further into the seat, and Lovino massages his temples with a loose scowl.

“And how do we do that, potato bastard? We have no idea why any of this happened, and we can’t exactly run over a shit ton of walkers anyway, what with the strain on the engine. And I don’t even know cars.”

Alfred straightens up a little along with Ludwig and frowns in thought. “Actually, I may have a hint. Care to listen?”

“Overdramatic git,” Arthur mutters, and he tosses the bulk bottle of sleeping pills at Alfred with what seems like renewed determination. “Go on, lad, we’re listening. Hold onto those for me, will you?”

Alfred grins, quite obligingly, and launches into an animated explanation of something . Roderich hears the first three words out of his mouth, “So the best-”

Anything else he tries to hear is quickly masked by another sudden jolt running through the van. Directly behind Alfred, through the driver’s window, a surge of ghouls nearly tower above the van and slam into it again, leaving blood and teeth and handprints all over the windows. Roderich feels a little nauseous, even more so than usual. Alfred continues with his explanation as if nothing went wrong, and Roderich can’t pull himself far enough out of visions of the horde and ripping metal to hear a single word he’s saying. The sick fear pounding in his head refuses to leave. Years of panic attacks have barely prepared him for this, and the attempts to quell the rush aren’t doing too much. He’s trying to think objectively, trying to think calmly in English not German , trying to function as normally as the others seem to be with ease.

Obviously, it isn’t going so well.

After what seems like an eternity of compressed hysteria and mumbling he can’t understand, Ludwig nods and says something in reply, something Feli still can’t bring himself to hear, and Alfred solemnly nods. Another gut-twisting jolt makes the van rock from side to side.

Ludwig crawls into the driver’s seat along with Alfred and rummages around. Quickly, the two somehow find cables and screwdrivers and things Roderich can’t recall the names of, starting to tinker around. He’s not exactly surprised when what they’re doing is entirely beyond his comprehension; he’s completely illiterate when it comes to anything requiring physical effort.

Years of scoldings and taunts about his frailty pad and numb the feeling of utter uselessness running through him a little, but it still stings to see even Feli advising the two on something he has no knowledge on whatsoever. The prickly feeling blends with the utter terror in his hands, going from hot to cold to hot again, Roderich somehow wanting to piss himself and attack someone simultaneously.

As he tries to stem the flood of conflicting emotions, Alfred whoops, grins, and holds out his hand for a high five, and Ludwig awkwardly taps at his hand with a finger. All of a sudden, the American slams a foot down on the gas pedal, once, twice, three times, and the rumble of the engine makes the walkers go absolutely hysterical. Shrieking moans crescendo in Roderich’s ears, and he feels his eyes involuntarily clench shut for a moment.

Lovino whoops while Feli burrows into Ludwig’s chest, and Arthur shouts something unintelligible in Alfred’s ear. With another start, the van shoots through the horde, making their bodies jerk forward. Nausea builds in his throat, and his throat is choked in both fear and apprehension. Ghouls smash against the windshield, sliding past against the windows, the van’s pure horsepower forcing them out of the way. Dessert wine and ash smear across the seats as Lovino lets out another whoop. Somehow, amazingly, impossibly, the wheels of the van stumble over the last walkers and hit the asphalt once more, the horde rapidly shrinking in the rearview mirror. Feli wipes his eyes with a massive grin. Roderich lets himself slump against the seat and lets the full chaos of what just transpired wash over him, and the van trundles along the once-again blank highway.

They’re alive. No matter what happens, they’re still alive and healthy. No matter what happens, they’ve lived. He can’t ever turn back now; they’ve all survived through this much. And he has no choice but to keep on surviving with them.


 

arthur

He finds himself huddled around the flickering of a fire by the side of the highway, crouching uncomfortably on the balls of his feet as the others chatter mutedly around him, and the air is still too cool against his skin. The punctual crackling of the flames interrupts his thoughts every so often. Arthur wonders what the date is.

Lovino stands up unsteadily, calling out something in Italian before stumbling into the van and slamming the door shut. Feli slurps on a can of soup before translating through a mouthful of chicken and thyme.

“He said something about sleeping in the van. I think.” He shrugs and turns to Ludwig, offering him the can with a sweetly tempered smile. “Lovi hasn’t gotten that drunk in a while, ve, Lud, hasn’t he? I almost forgot how he gets.”

Ludwig takes a long sip before responding. “Mmm. Not as bad as some of our other friends, though. He’s very reasonable.”

Alfred rolls his eyes good-naturedly and stands, stretching with a yawn, and turns to the rest of them. His glasses reflect the firelight, obscuring his pupils. Arthur feels his head spin as he stands up as well. Something in his back cracks unpleasantly, and he winces as the next two steps he takes produce similar mystery noises. Really, for someone trapped in their twenties, Arthur feels like a grizzled old man more often than not. There have been moments he’s wanted to get a cane (yes, a cane ) because of his ankle pains, and if that isn’t just a little awful, he doesn’t know what is.

But the existential questions can wait for now, because Alfred is going on his nightly walk, and Arthur is more than determined to go along with him for a lack of better company. Besides, it’s a little chilly outside. He might as well try to take his mind off of everything that’s happened lately with a conversation, and Alfred tends to have that effect on him anyway.

It’s indescribably lovely to finally find a- to find a friend, a friend , in the middle of this hellhole. As Alfred beckons on the empty highway, Arthur lets his feet wander, the cold air suddenly feeling crisp and clear. The lack of a moon in the sky only makes the stars shine so much brighter.

In the relative silence they float in, the only thing he can hear is the scuffling of Alfred’s feet across the asphalt and his own even breathing. After what seems like mere seconds of strolling but must have been much longer, Alfred slowly turns to him, a sidelong glance in his eyes.

“So, what’s up?”

Arthur frowns, staring at him for a moment before slowly replying. “Where exactly are you trying to go with this, Alfred?”

He just shrugs, looking infuriatingly, strangely elusive in that one moment. Responding after a drawn-out beat, he sighs and looks away, uncrossing his arms and letting his shoulders relax fully.

“I think I’ve realized something.” A strange sort of smile flits across his face. “Wait, how long has it been since we’ve met, Arthur?”

“Ah…” Arthur’s puzzled by the question, but he still runs through the days in his head, pretending to recount a number he already knows. “Ten days.”

Alfred laughs a little, light and sweet. “Wow. Not long at all.”

“Hmm.” A pause, and Arthur hears the audible crunch of their feet slowly sliding to a stop. “Why do you ask, lad?”

“Things move fast in the apocalypse,” Alfred simply responds, his tone teasing, and the echoes of implications are quickly pushed back out of Arthur’s head. All he can bring himself to do is stare at the cement between their feet.

“Really.”

Alfred really laughs then, something that makes his stomach flip. “Yes, Arthur, really.”

So many shades of emotions, from denial to embarrassment to fear to something else he refuses to acknowledge, and Arthur can’t decide on a single one to adapt. Something in his head spins frenzily. Clouded-over stars make the sky a strange color, and Alfred is still staring ever so intently.

“I d-” Arthur feels his voice cut off abruptly; he isn’t even sure what exactly he was about to say, but he’s confident it was either awful and completely inappropriate for the situation or just saying too much. Alfred seems to sense his thoughts and turns away, perching on the traffic barrier and taking off his glasses. There’s something Arthur hasn’t seen in his eyes before, a softened, moony sort of look, and Arthur suddenly gets the feeling he has that exact same look across his face. The damn American just grins at him with those misty, pensive eyes. Arthur has the urge to melt into a puddle on the asphalt out of sheer emotion. What emotions, exactly, he still can’t tell.

Arthur hates confusion more than anything else, but it seems like his life is nothing but confusion these days.

“Arthur?”

“Y-Yes?”

Alfred leans forward on his perch, and Arthur feels his feet unwillingly slide toward him. The stars dim out in the backdrop.

Alfred slides his glasses on. “I… I think-”

Before he can finish his sentence, before he can do something he’ll p- something he’ll regret, regret , nothing else, Arthur’s already gone.

Shame and fear, both completely unaccounted for, completely overrun any and all of his thoughts, and Arthur somehow finds himself stumbling backwards faster and faster until he’s practically sprinting. Narrowly ramming into the van, his head is spinning yet again. The gritty door handle is cold against his palm.

Inside, Lovino is snoring away, the smell of alcohol edged out by the harsh bitterness of cigarettes. A half empty pack of smokes spills over the seat. He somehow threads his way through the piles of jackets and cans, his eyes stinging and feeling as if they’re about to burst, the inside of the van substantially warmer than the blustery weather outside. Something in his head throbs, and Arthur curls into the back row with an unshakable chill under his skin.


 

ludwig

The scorching midday heat makes his eyes burn. Roderich is fidgeting under his coat, probably trying to keep up without getting too sunburned, and the crunching of their shoes across the gravel is occasionally punctuated with an off-beat drag as he adjusts his pack. It reminds Ludwig of their childhood, playing vague games with Bruder as Roderich would lag behind, dragging through dust and asphalt.

A lot reminds him of Gilbert these days, everything from the way his laces are tied (Bruder taught little Lutz a while ago) to the way the van’s engine rumbles (Bruder’s first car sounded a lot like that) to the way the-

And there Ludwig goes again. Roderich gestures to him, slowly creaking open a building door. They haven’t found a single drop of water in this tiny Colorado town they’re in. It irks him to no end. Even the abandoned gas stations they’ve passed have had something . The only things that aren’t slightly disconcerting are the bodies and the walkers, ironic as that statement is. All the other places they’ve visited have been completely empty, only a couple of undead roaming the streets, ghost towns swarming over the landscape like colonies of ants.

As they cautiously tread in, he notices the inside of the building smells faintly of dust and cheap detergent, just like his old dorm. Roderich starts down the hall. Ludwig follows him, carefully smashing through the lock, and starts in the pantry while Roderich goes through the kitchen cabinets.

There’s not much in there, only an old (and probably expired) box of cereal and a heavy layer of dust, but Ludwig takes it anyway for a lack of anything better to do. Roderich seems to be having similar luck in his efforts, only finding a single pack of M&Ms that Feli will probably eat in six seconds if he gets his hands on it. It’s not too disappointing, considering the things they’ve been finding in the other homes. It isn’t exactly what they need either. Honestly, he’s just thirsty; is that too much to ask?

Ludwig’s legs ache. Something in his head blurs a little, and Roderich sighs and shakes his head in front of him. It looks like noon is rapidly passing outside.

He misses Gilbert. Little Lutz misses his Bruder.

“Gilbert, where do you-” Roderich starts and suddenly catches his blunder, pale as bleached bones, as if to respond to his wandering thoughts.

Ludwig feels the blood drain from his head too. “It’s alright.”

“I…”

“I miss him too, Roderich.”

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

Somewhere along the path of the conversation, they’ve both slipped into German, and the words somehow feel strange and foreign on Ludwig’s tongue. Gilbert was the one who extensively spoke German to both of them, and talking to Roderich in the language is like speaking to Gilbert in English. It makes his eyes water uncomfortably, and the stagnant wind rustles against the trees outside.

His voice is light against the silence. “I wonder what he’d think of our plans as of right now.”

“I’m not sure they’d be awesome enough.”

“I beg to differ. I am his brother, after all.”

Roderich shakes his head fondly, and they both float in the muddled moment of happiness for a few precious seconds. Something in Ludwig’s chest settles down comfortably, and as they leave the building, the crushing pressure in the back of his mind is suddenly lifted. He wants to preserve this moment forever, but even as they step back into the sun, it’s already faded. Roderich isn’t fixing his coat anymore. Ludwig stretches a little and starts the trudge back to the van.

Little Lutz is gone. So is Bruder, as much as it pains him. Somehow, it’s alright.

Chapter Text

arthur

Dying light scatters off the reddish hills stretching across the landscape. His watch ticks along at five thirty-seven, and the comfortable static on the radio makes a delicate backdrop for the raw scenery.

As soon as they had passed the border into Utah, Lovino had proclaimed the state the shittiest place on earth as Feli raved about the clear skies, so Arthur can’t exactly pick any sides. Still, it’s definitely nicer than driving through Nebraska, wherever that is. All he can remember is rotting cornfields. (American geography, and Americans in general, come to think of it, are both completely nonsensical to him.)

Alfred stretches in his seat, glancing at the atlas in his lap with a weary glow in his expression. Shame pools in Arthur’s eyes at words unsaid.

Ludwig, immersed in an old paperback he picked up somewhere, brushes his hair out of his eyes again. Peering out the window, Feli leans up against his shoulder with wide eyes. Other than his occasional enthused remarks about the scenery and said radio static, the van is completely quiet.

With a quick jolt, Lovino quickly swerves into an exit, making them all sway. Alfred frowns for a moment, quickly fading into confusion and bewilderment. A sloping hill looms in the distance, ochre red and dotted with green, and Arthur can see the shadows of a town beneath it. The almost-drunken veering is too distracting for anyone to ponder why Lovino’s suddenly snapped. Arthur isn’t one to get carsick easily, but even his stomach is lurching uncomfortably.

Alfred, even more confused than the rest of them, awkwardly clears his throat as they trundle down the road, turning to look at the others for a moment. Feli and Ludwig both have mirrored expressions of confusion across their faces. Arthur doesn’t even want to think about what he looks like right now and shrinks under his gaze. At last, Alfred hesitantly talks, still swiveling back and forth in his seat. “Wait, Lovino… where exactly are we going?”

“Cedar City, Utah,” Lovino drawls, right as they pass the sign:

“Welcome - Cedar City - Festival City USA”.

His face is still impassive; Feli glances at Ludwig with another incredulous expression of confusion. Down the highway they go, swerving into Main Street. Arthur feels the uncontrollable, spinning urge to vomit all over the fake leather seats.

Roderich sighs, clearly irked. “Lovino, why are we here? I thought we were following the route that-”

“Well, the route doesn’t mean shit. I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t even know why I turned into that random exit. I just did.” And with that exasperated statement, Lovino hits the brakes and slides the van to a stop in the middle of the street, neatly stepping into the amber sunlight with squinting eyes. Roderich rolls his eyes and slides open the side door, his back stooped as he steps out as well.

With resigned sort of sighs, the rest of them slowly shuffle out of the van into the soft sunlight, Feli leaning heavily on Ludwig as he wobbles on his right leg. He’s clutching the makeshift cane Ludwig found him. The concrete is smooth against the soles of Arthur’s shoes, and the sparse avenue (at least, compared to New York and London) feels like it’s slowly shrinking in on him. That soft sunlight sharply stabs at his eyes, and Arthur is lanced by a twinge of alienation once more. This little town in the middle of nowhere/Utah is heavily depressing, even more so than usual, a setting he clearly isn’t acclimated to.

It’s funny, the way this sort of thing works- Arthur had mostly moved to New York to acclimate himself to a different climate, namely, America. And yet, throughout the vast majority of their road trip across America , Arthur has felt like a complete foreigner trying to backpack solo through Northern Mongolia. Not understanding a single thing in his surroundings, never really getting anywhere when it comes to understanding where he really is…

Honestly, these blasted metaphors need to stop. Lovino starts off in a completely random direction down the street, heading towards a brightly graffitied wall. It's plastered with a smeared rendition of the American flag and crest, the shades ominous and dark, the motto running along the bottom messily scrawled in gold spray paint.

The rest of them slowly trudge along in Lovino’s erratic steps. Arthur can feel his breathing lag. Slowly but surely, their shadows start to stretch and lengthen across the empty road, the sun sinking lower and lower, everything slowing down.

“In the silence, it became so very clear, that you had long ago disappeared…”

The voice seems to float up out of nowhere, freezing even Lovino in his footsteps, high and smooth against their ears. The song is familiar somehow, eerie melody ringing uncomfortably in his ears. There’s a dull hiss, the sort of sound an aerosol can would make. Arthur can’t feel his feet against the concrete anymore.

“I cursed myself for being surprised, that this didn’t play like it did in my mind…”

Lovino snaps out of it, straightening up and cramming his hand in his pocket where the familiar outline of his pistol rests.

“Who’s there?” he shouts, voice barely wavering, and the voice suddenly cuts off. Silence ensues, unusually sharpening Arthur’s emotions instead of suffocating them. The abrupt clicking of heeled boots he hears is slow and deliberate. They’re all still frozen in place. He suddenly can’t feel his breathing anymore.

The voice responds with heavy undertones of fear, slowly in time to the clicking of their boots. “What do you want?”

“Show yourself, dammit!” Lovino mutters under his breath, but he nudges at Feli anyway and crosses his arms. Feli smiles a little tiredly and straightens up on his cane, Ludwig close behind.

“Ve, we’re not robbers. I swear. We’re just passing by. Do you need any help?”

Arthur vaguely wonders what exactly these people are doing, offering help to strangers in a total wasteland again . But he can digress. The stranger’s boots start clicking again, the sound accompanied by soft rustling and an even clatter.

The stranger is fairly young-looking, short and blond, dressed in those heeled boots and a bright pink blouse. He’s clearly male, but his hair is braided elaborately and his shorts don’t hit mid-thigh. Cans of spray paint rattle in a grocery bag slung over his shoulder. In that moment, Arthur can clearly hear the others let out a distinct sigh of relief; the stranger obviously has no ill will. He can feel himself sighing too, and the oxygen desperately returns to his lungs in a long gulp of air.

Feli bursts into a grin, holding out his hand, and the stranger hesitantly reaches out to shake it.

Arthur feels his head spin as Feli starts to talk, rambling through paragraphs and paragraphs of random questions and eager interjections. The stranger just looks on in a mixture of fear and confusion.

“Hi! I’m Feliciano, these people here are my friends Ludwig, Arthur, Alfred, and Roderich, and my brother Lovino. What’s your name? Do you live here, or are you like us? You know, just passing by? Wait, wait, wait, why are you carrying spray p- Oh, I know! You’re one of those people who, uh, I don’t remember the name… But did you do that drawing over there, on that wall? You know, that one? If you did, it’s really nice and I love it. Well, even if you didn’t, it’s still really nice and I love it. Wow, you know, you’re only the second survivor we’ve met so far! It’s crazy, we haven’t met anyone . Have you? We came from New York, so we don’t really know about the situation out West. How is it? Have you met any other survivors? Well, hopefully only the nice ones, not the thieves and stuff. They’re pretty bad. But we really haven’t encountered anyone, so I’m not really sure what the etiquette is with, you know, fellow survivors, but if you need us to help you out with anything, we’d be really happy to! Wouldn’t we, Lovi? And Lovi, don’t you love his clothes? Lovi’s really into fashion, and tomatoes. Oh! I remember the word! You’re a graffiti artist, right? A lot of the work we’ve seen on our trip has been so cool! And I thi-”

Ludwig coughs awkwardly, tapping his shoulder. “Feliciano.”

“Uh, hi,” mumbles the stranger.

Feli grins, still shaking his hand. “So…”

“Feli, you can’t expect him to answer all your questions when he didn’t even understand what you were saying,” Ludwig admonishes, shaking his head with a faint smile before turning to the stranger. “I’m sorry about that. He’s a bit energetic, so it seems. I’m Ludwig, as Feliciano previously stated. May I ask for a name?”

“Uh, I’m F-Feliks,” he mutters, shifting his weight and the bag of paint cans to his other shoulder. “Look, what do you want with me? It isn’t safe around these parts. You should leave, now, before, like-” He shakes his head. “What business do you have out here, around Utah?”

Lovino rolls his eyes and tugs moodily on his ratty shirt. “Look, pretty boy, we don’t have time for this. Do you know any about an Ivan, or can we haul ass out of this rat hole?”

Feliks turns and stares, his narrowed green eyes now wide and edged in paranoia, and they all stand and stare for a moment in something mirroring confusion.

“Shit. Like, get inside. Now. My crushing anxiety around complete strangers can totally wait.” Feliks suddenly sets off, face inscrutable, practically jogging in his boots. His hands are shaking almost violently. The sun is completely blinding Arthur as they reluctantly follow, and the click of heels on the pavement is no longer comforting. That weighted sense of foreboding pounding in his chest refuses to go away.

As they walk, Feliks is shaking even more, his braid swaying back and forth, and Arthur wants to reach out and tug it out in complete frustration with the situation. The sun still sets in the background, and for the first time he doesn't even bother with a glance.

Bloody hell, why do these sorts of things always have to happen?

Finally, they reach a building completely swamped with illustrations in vivid spray paint, everything from rosy-eyed deer to hordes of undead to blocks of angry fluorescent letters. Feli mumbles appreciatively, the others glancing around wide-eyed. But even the staggering amount of amazing artwork doesn't distract at all from the heavy terror in Feliks’s voice when they asked about Ivan, and Arthur has a horribly nagging feeling the man they're searching for is a part of something they don't want to find out about. The frog’s ominous words about the risks of his immunity float back again.

Wonderful; Arthur is simultaneously pissing himself in fear of a random (assumedly Russian) man he's never met and hearing the irritatingly French voice of a wanker he slept with a year ago. Honestly, what has his life come to?

(Well, it isn't much of a question, seeing as he’s following a group of people he's only known for eleven days, a cross-dressing European graffiti artist, and an American he’s completely queer for. These absurd lists are just going too far.)

Stepping into the decrepit building and slowly up the sets of stairs, Feliks is still shaking, so much he can hardly walk, and the air smells faintly of rotting fruit. He’s mumbling constantly under his breath.

At last, after an eternity of nerve-wracking anxiety, they reach another door lining that looks like all the others, until Arthur’s eyes quickly pick out a single word scrawled on it in dull blue paint: WALKERS . Feliks fumbles with his keys for a solid minute before the door creakily swings open, and they nervously follow him in.

“Uh, like, sorry about that stuff on the door,” Feliks mutters, glancing around as he latches the door shut again. “That’s mostly to keep people out of here. Go, go, sit down, don’t open the windows and all.”

He flippantly gestures toward a semi-circle of mismatched chairs in the darkened living room. Arthur settles into one of them, an ancient ivy-coloured footrest, watching through bleary eyes as Alfred reluctantly sits across from him. He wants to say something as the two of them sit there alone, Alfred with a withdrawn, almost resentful look on his face, but it’s too late as Feliks and the others approach.

Somehow, he tears his eyes away from Alfred’s. Somehow, Feliks gets perfectly still for a moment before he speaks, his voice low and fragmented.

“I don’t know- I don’t know, like, what business you have with that motherfucker, but whatever it is, get out of it. You shouldn’t even be here in Utah if you know who he is. Honestly.” Feliks shakes his head again, and Roderich frowns deeply for a moment before clearing his throat.

“We just want- we want some basic information. Some friends of ours were apparently kidnapped by him, and we’ve heard some things from another survivor about this Ivan. The immunity, the gang of people, the violence and theft…” Feliciano and Lovino simultaneously shift uncomfortably in their seats at the statement. Arthur suddenly feels a little nauseous again.

“Look.” Feliks has his head in his hands. “Ivan is dangerous, okay? I had a- a friend who was involved with him. I don’t know where he is now. I have, like, absolutely no idea why you all are actively searching for the batshit guy.”

 

He pauses here, taking a deep and audible breath, and Arthur feels the thick tension snagging in his throat like fish bones.

Oh, fucking ace , as his neighbors from Liverpool used to say- the comparisons have returned. Feli is clutching Ludwig’s arm so tightly his knuckles are completely white. Somewhere in the background, a walker practically shrieks, making everyone in the dusty little room flinch.

“But if you want to know, I can’t exactly say no. Even if you’re being totally fucking stupid. You know, I don’t even know why I’m doing this. You all are complete strangers, and Liet, you know how I get around str-” Feliks sighs and tugs out his braid, weariness evident in his face.

Feli glances up, softly mumbling, eyes moonlike in the dying light. “It’s fine. Take your time.”

Arthur feels his shoulders suddenly relax, slumping too suddenly, and it’s like he’s suddenly let out a breath he’s been holding for hours. It’s not exactly clear where the relief stems from, but even Alfred’s frowning eyes can’t deter it. Feliks awkwardly clears his throat and hesitantly starts to speak. His voice warbles just a little, and Arthur is reminded of that strangely unpleasant and familiar song he was singing, the words wandering back into his head as Feliks mumbles fast and blurry.

“So it all started when Liet, or Toris, or, like, whatever you want to call him, was trying to get us some stuff from Ivan when the walkers started coming up, back when we still lived in Vegas. And Ivan was an old acquaintance and kind of totally a high school bully, but we kind of totally trusted him because the world was, like, ending, and so- and apparently he had some connections, some work with a privatized company. So Liet went with him and I was going to, but then one day Liet got back from whatever shady-ass place Ivan was employed at, maybe four days ago, and-”

Another pause, and Feliks takes a gasping breath. That fuzzy relief from before is already wicked dry from Arthur’s thoughts. Lovino is huddled into his chair as the sunlight gleams through a tiny gap in the shutters, his stare half-lidded and fearful. Arthur can barely spot the whites of his eyes.

“Liet got back that day,” Feliks intones, his voice low and trembling. The color of his blouse looks unsettlingly dull in the dim lighting. “Liet got back, completely terrified, spoke in scrambled Lithuanian for an hour. When I finally got him to calm down, he insisted that we leave Vegas, wouldn’t say a word about what he saw back there, said something about walkers and The Venetian, that casino and hotel and resort on the Strip… I don’t know, it was bad. It was bad.”

The room is almost completely dark now. Alfred is shaking the slightest bit in his chair, and the air is suddenly stifling.

“He- He wrote a crazy long letter in fucking Lithuanian and Russian , for god’s sake, and just disappeared the next day, this crazy letter he told me to burn once I read it, a letter about- Oh god, this letter, I couldn’t read most of it, since it wasn’t in a language I could understand. And all it talked about in English was the virus and people turning, experimentation? Completely illegible. The point is, all I could get from it was that there’s something seriously off with the Ivan situation. And Liet just wrote the same thing over and over at the end. At least half a page of the same line. He is not who you think he is. He is not who you think he is. He is not who you think he is. ” Feliks sighs and glances up at the ceiling, his eyes glossy and pooling. Arthur glances up there too, more out of instinct than anything, his eyes burning at the strain. There’s nothing there but lumpy paint and mold.

Come to think of it, the entire run-down apartment complex in this tiny little town is nothing but lumpy paint and mold. Mismatched chairs and dusty floors, fading sunlight and hazy air, rotting fruit and rotting people-

Feliks slumps in his chair, haggard and worn and tired. Arthur’s stopped consistently breathing a while ago.

“Goddammit, I hate this. I don’t even know why I’m telling any of you any of this stuff about Liet or Ivan or anything.” He pauses again. “It isn’t like I have a choice anyway, is it?”

Feliciano is huddled between Ludwig and Lovino, his eyelashes tightly pressed together. The silence of his unanswered question is heavy and oppressive, clogging his thoughts up. Lovino and Roderich exchange worried glances.

‘He is not who you think he is,’ huh,” Alfred mutters, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Was your friend referring to Ivan, or…”

Feliks shrugs exhaustedly. Somehow, he’s aged years within the fifteen minutes they’ve spent in this room. Arthur wonders what he looked like before everything went to shit; he wonders what everyone looked like before the excrement hit the air conditioning.

And of course, the same realization hits once again, the unsettling fact that none of them have properly showered or washed their clothes or had a clean shave in weeks, the unsettling fact that he’s probably aged more in three weeks than he has in three years- and it stings a little, it really does. Really, when has it not?

As they stew in the silence, Feliks abruptly coughs and coughs, not a smoker’s cough like Lovino, but a genuinely worrying hacking sort of cough. Arthur suddenly notices how obviously sick he is, judging by the spots of red on the tissue he coughed in and his anemic complexion. Feli opens his mouth, as if to say something about it, but quickly shuts it all the same.

“You should leave,” Feliks finally rasps, “before you catch something from me.”

Everyone just stares back at him, and he shakes his head. “I don’t need anything from you. You have what you want. Now leave, before something happens to you. Go back-” Another bout of coughing, more spots of blood. Feli’s anguished expression does nothing to deter his demeanor, still fearful and pained, his voice hoarse and uncomfortable. “Go back east. You’re safer digging through the rubble than digging your own graves out here. There’s no place for you where Ivan is headed.”

Alfred just sadly shakes his head again and stands up uneasily. Feliks has his head in his hands now, the complete darkness in the room completely overriding anything Arthur can possibly think or feel right now, and the image of the outside of the building runs through his thoughts again.

All of the illustrations, all of the colors and the words and the paint, all of it looked brand new. Nothing was even so much as touched by any walkers. Arthur can suddenly see the sharpness of the paint all over again, as if it had just been painted yesterday. And, come to think of it, it probably was.

Frowning, Ludwig rummages through his pack, taking out the cans of soup they were going to share later. Solidly setting them down on the table with a strange expression on his face, he sighs for a single moment before straightening up and closing his backpack. Feliks mumbles something as Ludwig leans closer to him, nodding occasionally, and finally coughs one more time before snapping his fingers with what seems like the faint ghost of a smile on his face.

“I don’t talk like I used to, do I? Get going now, Lutz, get going.”

And as they cautiously head toward the car under the clouded stars, Alfred suddenly leans close to his ear. Arthur resists the urge to shout something obscenely loud at him as the rest of the group continues forward.

“It’s okay, Artie, I forgive you.” And there he goes again with that bloody smile, and Arthur feels his head spin with that shame from before and that something else .

Arthur .”

Alfred pokes him, rolling his eyes. “Whatever, Artie. Just wanted to get that out there. It’s like we’re getting a fresh start right now, anyway.”

Even through the stir of mixed emotions, Arthur can’t help snapping back a response. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know,” Alfred shrugs. “I mean, we had that weird-ass conversation with that weird-ass dude about another weird-ass dude. It’s a weird-ass kind of closure, you know? I have a feeling things are only going to be looking up from here.”

Arthur tries not to laugh. Alfred just smiles at him again. He’s really right- it’s strangely foreign, closure, but it’s true. He’s already feeling relieved, even through the mood swing, even through the possibilities of their looming future, even through thoughts of coughing blood and rosy-eyed deer. Weight settles in his chest like a stone dropped in a pond, turning this and that as it sinks. Alfred’s finger brushes against his for a single moment.

Chapter Text

lovino

The theatrical glow of sunrise hits his eyes first, somehow blindingly bright in the darkness of the van, and his head spins uncomfortably. Outside, the Strip is barely visible beneath the winding highway they’re on. He can see the shadows of deserted buildings, a few walkers scattered here and there, torched trees lining the landscape. The dry air makes his eyes itch a little more than they should. It’s all glaringly eerie, to the point where he can’t look outside for more than a few moments.

The others are sprawled over the seats of the van or pressed up against each other, damn that potato bastard, and Lovino decides to go outside for a smoke. The van door is irritatingly grating and loud as he slides it open.

Lovino hates how quickly his fingertips have stained that disgusting piss-yellow color again, that dreaded color you only ever saw on balding tourists’ khakis in Lower Manhattan. It’s a little strange, a routine he still hasn’t really gotten into yet; Lovino hasn’t smoked for years, not since Antonio waltzed into the room one day and told him he didn’t want to suck face with an ashtray (not the exact words, but he isn’t going to repeat what that bastard said anyway.)

But free cigarettes (albeit rather inferior ones) are abundant across all the hick town gas stations they’ve passed, so he can at least try to digress, clumsily perching on the roof of the van with a lighter in one hand and a Lucky Strike in the other. If he can’t get back into smoking again, Lovino decides he can ironically appreciate the sarcasm of cigarette brand names instead.

The heavy cloud cover above is irritating beyond compare. Lovino can barely take a full breath through the fucking humidity and the smoke in his lungs, and the sun starts its exceedingly slow crawl up into the sky once again. The only semblance (God, is he turning English?) of thought left in his head is “He is not who you think he is” , read in that annoying Eastern European accent that “artist” bastard had, echoing over and over. Lovino wants to do something exceedingly stupid as he takes another shallow drag. Maybe jump off the overpass, or punch the roof of the van too hard, or faceplant into the asphalt in his dizzy stupor. The shallow irritation buzzing in his head is probably the most annoying thing of them all.

Goddammit- that visit yesterday did nothing to settle his nerves (yes, he heard Alfred’s irritatingly lovesick speech) and his thoughts are even more frazzled than ever before. Lovino isn’t sure what any of the others got from knowing “Ivan” really is a fucking psychopath , or from finding out people who hung around him somehow got his fucking psychopathy too , but it seems to have had a generally positive impact.

Is it too late to question the sanity of their group?

His cigarette is dying down. Almost instinctively, almost, he reaches for his cheap lighter and his cheaper pack of smokes. Lovino can only vaguely contemplate the sharp green of Antonio’s eyes and the taste of sweet, sweet Spanish wine in his drug-fueled haze. His next cigarette refuses to light up.


 

alfred

The first thing he can coherently hear is Roderich’s voice, totally panicked and in a language he can’t understand, rushing and stumbling and catching and turning this and that like a loose leaf caught in white-water rapids. The rapid assault in what he’s assuming is German (or Austrian? Was that a language?) is unrelenting, even as what’s clearly Ludwig’s voice interjects several times. The halting flow of Arthur’s voice saying something he can’t really understand interrupts once or twice too, and he chooses to fixate on that as his eyes struggle to open and his voice struggles to speak. Alfred’s hands are numb, somehow, and so are his legs.

At last, after finally dousing his thoughts in ice water, he manages to jerk awake to find the others messily clustered outside of the open van door. Arthur’s hand is still on the handle, and the others slouch around him, glancing up at Al with widened eyes, even Roderich’s torrential German pausing.

Unease drips into his stomach. Something is wrong. Alfred’s voice uncharacteristically shakes as he speaks.

“Uh, guys?” No response. “What’s going on here?”

Ludwig’s eyes dart back and forth between Roderich and Alfred, while the rest of them just look plain confused. Al vaguely notices how pale Roderich is. Ever so slowly, Ludwig takes a deep breath, the kind of breath that makes your diaphragm pinch.

“Yeah, Lud, Roderich,” mumbles Feliciano, sitting criss-cross on the grass, his bright eyes now subdued and shadowed. “What’s going on, ve?”

Ludwig turns just as pale as Roderich, who clamps a hand over his own mouth with wide-eyed fear. Something in Alfred’s stomach sways slightly; it feels like he’s in that dim room with the mismatched chairs that graffiti artist stayed in all over again, the same pressing fear and tension running in his head.

“Roderich… Roderich says he’s found Yao.”

As the others just stare in shock, silent and trembling, Al feels the sense of closure from just last night completely collapse. A sluggish breeze creeps through the air and rakes across him. The implications of Ludwig’s statement are altogether way too clear; whoever this Yao person is, he’s obviously dead, and judging by Roderich’s frozen horrified expression, there’s more to it than just that. Arthur’s eyes are heavy and dulled as well, the only thing Al can kind of concentrate on once more.

Lovino opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again. The motion reminds Alfred of a malfunctioning toy in the weirdest way, with his movements erratic and slowly deteriorating. Finally, Lovino seems to bring himself to speak, and even then, it’s a single, warbling word.

“Shit.”

Roderich’s eyes are still blown wide open. Arthur shuts his eyes for a moment and opens them again, carefully and deliberately holding out a hand, and Roderich unsteadily takes it. Those jade green eyes, now bright, stare into Alfred’s for a moment, and Arthur speaks.

“Let’s go. We haven’t got all day, have we?”

Trudging along the ragged edges of the city, just a few steps ahead of them, Roderich finally starts to talk. His voice still shakes and his accent is still heavier than it normally is, almost bringing back that cacophony of German in Al’s head.

“I-” His face contorts for a single moment. “I found him in one of the flood tunnels, close to the Strip. He’s… You might not want to look.” His voice snags on the last sentence, and the last of that relief from before is flushed out of Alfred’s system faster than a dead goldfish. And of course, the unavoidable thoughts of Kiku and his unnamed companion start cycling through his head at the mere thought of blood, everything from tiny individual spatters to perfectly round drops to people-sized splatters-

Arthur seems to sense his already-rising discomfort and slowly strafes closer, the two of them straying a little behind the rest of the group. Alfred’s suddenly vividly aware of the scrape of his shoes on the ground as they continue.

After another minute or two of prolonged silence, Arthur finally turns to him with something resembling worry in his eyes. His words are whispered, soft and rustling against his ear, laced with something Al can’t quite read.

“What’s ailing you, lad?”

Alfred shakes his head determinedly, trying to look away and distance himself from the conversation. Still, he manages to whisper back, keeping an eye on the four in front of them. “It’s nothing. Nothing.”

“Doesn’t look like nothing.” That wry tone makes his pulse roar through his ears, almost deafening, the rambling words threatening to spill out any moment now.

“It’s nothing. Just- something I saw- thinking about- Nothing.”

Another pause, and Arthur finally raises an eyebrow in something that looks like slight irritation but is probably just expectation. The gesture is more than a little endearing on him. Al holds back the weird kind of smile about to bloom across his face, even as the images in his head get progressively gorier.

The words leak out anyway, still slow and whispered, a steady flow Alfred can’t possibly staunch now. “Just two people Lovino and I met, a few days before we met you. Two people. A couple.”

“Okay.”

“A couple.” It’s like he’s trying to reassure himself of something as his voice continues to spit out the words. “One of them was bitten.”

Arthur stares at him and does the Lovino-broken-toy thing, looking like he’s about to speak for a solid thirty seconds. Everything is coming out too fast for Al to comprehend, so he decides to just roll with it, letting the last of it emerge.

“They both hurled themselves off a roof. Lovino and I were there when they did it. Together even in death, I guess.” He tries to make it casual and short. It doesn’t exactly come off like that at all, though, and Al holds back a serious cringe during an admittedly more serious moment.

Arthur just stares ahead, eyes serious and unblinking. They’re still a few steps behind the others, Alfred notices, and the thick air suddenly isn’t so suffocating anymore. At last, Arthur clears his throat with a sense of finality.

“Thank you for telling me, Alfred.” A beat, and he turns to look at him for what feels like the first time. It’s probably true; in the two weeks they’ve known each other, Arthur has never directly looked at him and made eye contact. But he’s doing it now, and Al marvels at the delicate but sharp shade of his eyes. “Those things aren’t the easiest thing to even think about, much less divulge. It’s good of you.”

“You’re- You’re welcome, I guess.”

Arthur just snorts in a very undignified way. The spell is lifted in that single moment, a twitchy kind of warmth flaring in his stomach, those intent green eyes still there, still bright.

Alfred has a sudden urge to take his hand. So he does- and this time, Arthur doesn’t flinch away. The two of them just stroll along, somehow pretending everything is right with the world, even as they pass the shattered glitz in the streets, even as they steadily approach the start of the end. The looming fear isn’t enough to discourage him right now; nothing really is.

Roderich makes a noise in the back of his throat as they near what looks like a plain of empty pavement, perfectly flat and that weird gray-white color all new pavement is, his slowing steps making the rest of them drag. The only mark on the ground is a dark reddish brown smear that suspiciously resembles blood. Alfred’s left eye twitches suddenly and uncomfortably, and Arthur squeezes his hand for a moment before pulling away. There’s something constantly fluctuating in his face, something Al can’t read.

As they get closer, he can see it sits on several concrete walls that look maybe four feet tall, effectively making gaping tunnel-ish holes under the flat asphalt. So these are the infamous flood tunnels; Lovino breaks into a sharp coughing fit right on cue, and Feli awkwardly slides his right foot across the ground as his balance slips up a little. Ludwig pats his back (with equal awkwardness) and mutters something under his breath.

“Are… are you sure any of you really need to see?” Roderich screws his fingers together, his pupils wide and dark against violet eyes. Somehow, strangely, it’s a sight that unnerves Al to the fullest. Out of the corner of his eye, there’s a dark smudge against the stark off-white background he isn’t planning on actually looking at any time soon. Arthur sharply inhales and bites his lip, something Alfred can see out of the corner of his eye too, and it’s pretty clear what he’s about to say.

But Al’s determined to push through his turmoil, to just get over it . “I’m sure. It’s an important part of the whole Ivan thing.”

Arthur frowns a little but shoots Alfred the look anyway. It’s the “are you sure, or are you just trying to put on a jolly good face, lad”, or something similarly British. Al just hardens his expression a little, pushing back the fear and expectation rising in his throat like watery vomit, pushing back the days of repressed feelings, pushing back everything remotely heart-wrenching into nothingness because Alfred F. Jones refuses to live this way any longer.

So they all drift forward, simultaneous reluctance and yearning in their steps. Arthur seems to have strengthened his resolve too, the fact only lifting Alfred back up out of one mood swing into another, reinforcing his thoughts with each second.

Another step. Cold, icy, pinpointed drops of fear seem to glide down his throat, even in his gloried feelings-high. In front of him, shielding the view, Feliciano gasps, a horrible sound. Al blinks, almost missing it, but not quite.

The person he assumes is Yao is propped up against a wall of the flood tunnel sitting up, amber eyes rigid and open, a dark ponytail snaking over his shoulder. Huge gashes rip across his torso, nearly dismembering him, everything messy and horrible and everywhere ; the blood pooled under him and soaking his loose clothes is still kind of reddish, not completely dry by the looks of it, messy and horrible- and Al really wonders how stupid he can get, putting himself in this kind of situation again . His insides freeze up like slushed ice, uncomfortably runny against his veins, those wide amber eyes looking vaguely familiar in his thoughts. Arthur sets a hand on his shoulder in what feels like both the most familiar and the most agonizing way possible.

Al really does suddenly realize how absolutely staggering the amount of blood is. Thoughts of Kiku and his friend, thoughts of Feliks and “Liet”, thoughts of Ivan, everything is just kind of blending together into something he can’t really describe. It’s like a wall of sound in his head, but the sound is really just a lot of fear, flooding his lungs because the fear is really just a lot of lukewarm water, is it blood because it’s too thick to be water? because exhaustion or is it fear or is it lack of oxygen is making him see things-

“Alfred.”

No, no, no, no, no-

It’s a whisper this time. “Alfred.”

I don’t- I can’t-

“Whatever happens, whatever will happen. You know what to do. Just-” A pause. His heart is hammering, clouding his eyes, numbing the tips of his fingers. Is that Arthur talking-

“Just let it go.”

Okay.

And his heart slows, his eyes clear, his fingers throb uncomfortably, but for the first time since this crazy shit started, Alfred is kind of at peace with himself. He really is kind of okay now, somehow, not a false sense of security based on a mood swing, but actually okay.

Those amber eyes just keep on staring, and Al just keeps on breathing.


 

arthur

The ruined glamour of the Strip is beyond what he could ever have imagined, faded neon signs perched on every fanned-out building, broken glass and lights crunching beneath their every step. There are a few cars splayed out in the middle of the boulevard, crooked amidst the yellow grass of the median strips. They pass enormous fizzled-out screens, dying palm trees, those ever-iconic hotels and pyramids and towers and resorts and casinos lining the road.

And just like New York and Chicago, there isn’t a single body, walker or otherwise, to be seen.

Noon is fast approaching, according to his timepiece, and the sun soaks into his dark clothes with overbearing warmth. The smashed bulbs scattering the ground reflect the irritatingly sharp light into his eyes. The edges are ragged against the soles of his shoes.

Roderich fidgets with the only thing they took from Yao’s body, something that sticks bitterly in the back of Arthur’s throat: a single bloodstained Hello Kitty slap bracelet, pale pink and glossy under the smears. The erratic snapping is occasionally in time with their steps, something he doesn’t entirely want to think about. He vaguely wonders about who the man was, who his friends and family were, what he did in his spare time. They’re thoughts that only drag his emotions down- contemplating the life of a mauled corpse seems to do that to you, Arthur wryly thinks to himself, and the clicking noises just continue on. That could be you, Arthur wryly thinks to himself, and they just keep on walking.

As they continue, they pass a huge (presumably manmade) concrete-lined pool of water, probably once a fountain of sorts. The dark water is scummy and dull now, mostly gone and probably only several centimeters deep, the surface brown and green and littered with little bits of trash. Arthur can spot a moldy page of TIME magazine under an empty Snickers bar wrapper. The headline reads “Solanum: The Virus” in blocky print, and Alfred glances down at it then back at him for a moment.

Lovino coughs twice and drops his cigarette in the glass, cursing under his breath. Feli adjusts his crutch and scrubs at his eyes.

“Ve, is that it?”

He points a shaky finger to two adjacent buildings a block down. One of them is taller than the other, the word PALAZZO lined up on its side. The shorter building is the same gold-brown color, VENETIAN clearly spelled out above its columns of windows, the two set behind a smattering of stumpy buildings marked in spray paint and a few dried out pools of water. The mere sight of the building makes Arthur’s vision swim with fear and sudden nausea, mouth watering, stomach churning. Something’s too wrong out here.

“The Venetian,” murmurs Roderich. “Here we are.”

Something laced in fear runs down the backs of his arms, cold and prickly even in the heavy heat. Alfred sidles a little closer, nearly brushing his side, something sharp and clear in his expression as he glances ahead.

Lovino just frowns and clicks his lighter impatiently. “So, what exactly is our game plan here? I really don’t want to go through all of those rooms, and I doubt all of them are empty, either.”

Ludwig anxiously shrugs and glances around, nervously rummaging through his pockets, foot tapping lightly on the pavement for a moment or two. Another cold chill drips down into the hollows of his palms. Somehow, in some way, something is off.

Alfred stares at the two buildings through his lashes. With a sudden jump, Lovino tugs his pistol out of his belt and swivels around to absolutely nothing.

Ludwig imperceptibly shakes his head and collapses face-first into the glass. Before Feli can even open his mouth, his eyes widen just a little, and a sharp stab of pain at the nape of Arthur’s neck makes him jump with a gasp. The confusion of the moment is too thick and fast, and before he can say anything-

His head abruptly slams into the ground, studded with razorlike glass that stings like hell as it drags across his cheek. His vision swims in tears and shock. The shadow of what looks like a girl, long hair pale and clothes dark, gleams in his eyes. That last breath catches in his throat, and something grabs him by the foot and starts to drag. As his eyes flutter shut, Arthur can spy Alfred frozen in his footsteps, gasping for breath before he, too, collapses into the glass.


 

ludwig

Suddenly, with an electrifying shock, he wakes from whatever uneasy dream he was in with a flood of relief. His eyes are still shut, though; Ludwig doesn’t want to open them yet, expectant of the sunlight streaming through his bedroom window. He vaguely wonders where Feli is, judging by how cold he is right now. Maybe he just did that irritating thing again, where he turns off Ludwig’s alarms and lets him sleep. Maybe he just went to visit his temperamental crazy of a brother early. Maybe he’s just boiling some pasta. Sighing, Ludwig rubs at his eyes and slowly sits up, the morning sun glinting in his eyes as he opens them-

And then the whole daydream falls to pieces as he realizes exactly where he isn’t.

Darkness is closing in from all sides, heavy and oppressing except for a too-bright flashlight beam in his eyes. Cold cement presses against his back and legs, the others in their group still unconscious around him, a sharp pain throbbing at the base of his neck. Ludwig’s eyes involuntarily flick upwards, and with yet another jolt, he suddenly glimpses the four people in front of him.

They’re all deathly pale and skeletal, all staring at him with bluntly expectant looks on their faces, and he can do nothing but stare back in complete shock. As they just continue staring, Ludwig vaguely notices the collapsed body of a girl on the dark floor, her platinum hair fanned out around a bloodied forehead, her face perfectly fair as if she were just asleep. He can’t breathe all of a sudden. The four young men just watch in perfect silence as he gasps for breath.

Finally, with Feli unconscious on his left and Roderich slumped over on his right, Ludwig manages to speak.

“What… What went on here?”

One of the strangers, his eyes an icy violet and his tousled hair a brilliant shade of silvery white, turns and looks straight into Ludwig’s eyes for a moment. His pupils are disconcertingly large, and lukewarm nausea makes his stomach churn uncomfortably. Finally, after an almost painful silence, the stranger speaks with a halting voice and the faintest accent.

“Do you know why she took you all here?”

The implications are completely endless, and Ludwig’s head continues to whirl as he goes from the girl to the group back to the girl to Feli’s sleeping frame.

“No. N- No, I don’t know. We were going down the Strip, ambushed all of a sudden…” He awkwardly presses his fingers to his temples in a numbed attempt to quell his raging headache and the mounting urge to vomit everywhere. It isn’t exactly working out so well, but he can try.

Another one of the strangers shakes his head, all wide indigo eyes and slumped shoulders, running a hand through his pale hair. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

Ludwig’s about to open his mouth and probably stumble through a moderately illiterate response, the inept words already in his throat. The second stranger sighs lengthily and turns to his companions.

“We’ll explain everything later. Get some rest- you’ll need it.”

The other two, having been silent in the background the entire time, straighten up a little. One of them tosses Ludwig a scratchy synthetic blanket with a worn out sort of smile. The other one just turns away with a heavy exhale, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. The glare of his lenses from the flashlight makes it completely impossible to catch a glimpse of his expression.

“Get her out of here,” mutters the white-haired boy. “We can’t have her kidnapping more innocents off the damn streets.”

“Language, Emil,” the blond one reasons. The assumed Emil just rubs his eyes and turns to the two in the back, saying something Ludwig can’t quite hear, and his eyelids drift shut with a strange sense of deja vu. The pressure in his head is about to explode, a feeling he can’t put a finger on as soft voices echo in his ears. It isn’t fear, it isn’t confusion, it isn’t anything he’s used to-

Feli’s warm against his side, warmer than the freezing concrete, and the blanket settles familiarly onto his shoulders. The indescribable tension still flooding his head gives way to something that feels a lot like sleep.

Chapter Text

alfred

The beam of the flashlight is scattered and weak, occasionally flickering unsteadily. Mathias methodically runs a hand through his seemingly gelled hair, downturned eyes pale as Emil continues to speak a little nervously. He’s awkward and tripping over his words and constantly glaring back at Tino. The only things Alfred’s really gotten from the conversation/argument between the strangers so far (other than their names) are that they’ve definitely lost someone close to them and that Tino and Berwald are definitely sleeping together.

Honestly, the things that constitute as information in the apocalypse sometimes.

Finally, after a lot of half-starts and another four-way outburst of angry languages Alfred can’t understand a single word of, Emil snappily tosses his gloves on the floor. Al kind of wants to burst out laughing at his completely deadpan expression as the grimy mitts hit the concrete.

“Goddammit, Tino, you explain it. You’re the people person, and you know how much I hate speaking in English. We haven’t actually told them a single thing.”

Tino looks a little sheepish, awkwardly sitting down next to the rest of them. Berwald just shoots a glare in their vague direction. Alfred really, really wonders what the hell they’re still doing here.

“Okay, okay,” Tino sighs, sprawling against the opposite wall of the concrete tunnel they’re in. Lovino exaggeratedly rolls his eyes and continues to fumble with his cigarettes. Feli smiles a little languidly, wrapped in a thin-looking blanket that probably came from Ludwig, but the anticipation in his quick breathing is clear.

“So, Tino-” Mathias starts, right as Berwald starts talking.

“Tino-” Berwald starts, his frown deepening into a grimace at Mathias’s interruption, and the two glare solidly at each other for another thirty seconds. Arthur rolls his eyes again and glances down the passageway. Roderich wrinkles his nose in complete distaste. Ludwig just leans back and halfheartedly pinches the bridge of his nose, and Tino looks torn between breaking it up and hightailing it out of there.

Lovino impatiently jams a hand in his belt, starting to scowl again. The frustration creeping across his face is crystal clear. “Hey, I’m all for a gay catfight here, but you bastards might want to explain-” All of a sudden, that sleek pistol and silencer is cocked and aimed at the four in a flash, their eyes wide as nickels. “Because we’re being tolerant here. Barely. Now talk, before I get tired of listening to excuses.”

Jesus Christ - no, Al was not taking the Lord’s name in vain right now, because Lovino was never daring enough to pull shit like this before. Somehow, Alfred manages to hold back a remark about how grown up his little Lovi-Lovi is. The person in question just continues glowering darkly at the four petrified people in front of them.

Tino lets out a drawn-out breath, Berwald inching closer to him, and Mathias lets his demeanor thaw while Emil still stands frozen.

“Okay. Where do you want to start?” Tino’s voice is wavering the slightest bit. Slowly, emphatically, Lovino lets his pistol inch downwards.

Arthur clears his throat and leans forward, his eyebrows cocked slightly. “So, who exactly was the girl who attacked us, and where is she now? Where are we? And does this have to do with someone named Ivan, by any chance?”

Emil manages to raise an eyebrow through his residual shock at the last question. Tino glances over at the others before speaking, his words hesitant and sparse.

“Ivan is a part of it; he works for the company. So was that girl- she’s his sister. We knocked her out when we found her with you all in tow, and Ber dropped her off across town, which will hopefully deter her for some time. We’re in a facility underneath the Venetian, their headquarters, I guess.”

Roderich leans back against the wall, staring up at the low ceiling with clear exasperation across his face. “What exactly is their purpose? No, how exactly do you all know this? Why- no, who , exactly, are you? You owe us some semblance of an explanation here. Just saying ‘the company’ would have been enough two weeks ago, but we need more.” His voice is starting to raise in pitch, getting stiff with an obviously mounting emotional overload.

“Just-” Emil turns away. Mathias stares at the floor, suddenly ashen and fearful. Alfred can feel the tension creeping through his stomach uneasily.

Tino takes what seems like his seventeenth deep breath in the last two minutes. “We were looking for someone. Emil’s brother. Just taken one day- he was immune, and if you know about Ivan, you probably know about that.” His voice is heavy and choked. Emil flattens himself against the wall, Mathias already on the floor. He picks up where Tino left off, and even though Al doesn’t know him at all, something’s definitely off with him. With a start, Al realizes the extent of the quaver in all of their voices, the shaky masked fear flitting across their expressions with each passing second. The easy bickering from before is all gone, replaced with numbing fear.

“So we looked around, found things out, decided to head down here and look around for him. We managed to follow one of Ivan’s sisters in here, we did some more looking around, followed some of the people we saw… We just did a lot of hiding in empty closets and corners, trying to find anything out about what could have gone on with Lukas.” He runs a hand through his hair again. “The only thing we really know is that these facilities down here are definitely being run by some higher group. Ivan, freaky as he is-” Mathias glances at the floor, threadbare and suddenly so afraid , and Alfred instinctively inches a tiny bit closer to Arthur.

“He’s not really operating under his own free will. There’s something else at work, something else pushing him to do what he does and to bring people here; but we haven’t been able to find anything, no Lukas, no Ivan, no evidence, nothing, and we’ve been here, what?” He turns to the others, both uneasy dismay and incredulousness mirrored across his face.

“Been down here eight days,” Berwald mutters. “Not a trace of him.” His voice is low and thick with something Al can’t really read, accented and smooth, pale bluish-green eyes grim as he talks.

“Eight days,” Tino breathes. His eyes are a little dreamy, almost clouded over. “Has it really been that long?”

Al casts another glance at the seemingly shrinking passageway, cold and foreboding, and he wants nothing more than to get the hell out and back into the sun. He can’t even comprehend constantly hiding from batshit crazy people in here for a full day, much less a week. Mathias seems to be on a similar train of thought as he glances up at the ceiling and back at the floor. Emil just dazedly shakes his head, something everyone seems to be doing in excess today.

Finally, after they all finish off a simultaneously incredibly awkward and extremely tense staring session, Lovino shakily stands to step on his cigarette.

“So, do you idiots know the exits to this weird-ass closeted sex dungeon, or are we all just completely doomed to endlessly wander in a LARPer’s wet dream?”

Mathias smirks through the tension, clearly about to crack up at Lovino’s eloquent phrasing (see, Arthur really is rubbing off on Al), while Emil just painfully stares at the wall with a faint blush spreading across his cheeks. Ludwig rolls his eyes good-naturedly along with Arthur.

“We know the damn exits,” Emil says, looking like he’s about to burst into either laughter or tears.

roderich

“Why the fuck am I always bathroom buddies with you on everything ?”

Lovino is chewing on an unlit cigarette, probably more out of habit than anything as he mutters under his breath, and Roderich struggles to stay on his heels as he practically runs down the hallway. The pale circular flashlight beam weaves up and down as they continue. He’s completely out of breath, completely regretting his decision to go with Lovino and attempt to explore the place, his feet completely dying after what seems like hours of too-fast walking.

Damn this entire situation. Roderich wants to go back to where the rest are camped out, all of them probably a little warmer and a little fuller than he is as he completely fails at keeping up with a drug-addled former Mafioso (yes, Feli had informed him of that phase in great detail.) Lovino clicks off the flickering flashlight as they continue on.

Wonderful- he can’t see his own damn feet now.

Lovino coughs once and slows to a reasonable walk as Roderich slowly lags a little closer. As he gets closer, something in his chest jumps in shock: There’s a door to their left, stark white against the darkening concrete. Ever-so-carefully testing the handle, Lovino easily swings the unlocked door open and raises an eyebrow before turning to him.

“Stay out here, keep watch, I’ll call you in if there’s anything,” he hisses. The cigarette in his mouth dangles, almost falling out. Roderich swallows his initial surprise just in time to see him duck into the door and almost disappear. From what he can see, alternating glances between the empty hallway and the room, it’s filled with file cabinets, stacked along the walls and each other. The room itself is about the size of his old bedroom, and Lovino’s busy flipping through thick folders too fast to keep track of. Roderich feels a little dizzy at the sheer amount.

“Lovino,” he manages to whisper, “what exactly are you trying to find? Chances are, Mathias’s group already went through this room.”

Lovino just gives him the finger and continues rifling through papers. Roderich thinks he can hear some sort of mumbled excuse about the Cosa Nostra , Lovino jamming the flashlight into his mouth along with the unlit cigarette, fishing out various files and documents. The paranoia that’s been steadily escalating through Roderich’s every cell is making him fidget uncomfortably. It feels like he swallowed an entire tube of scalding toothpaste- it’s honestly the strangest analogy he’s come up with so far, but the restless burning in his stomach is too distracting for him to think any straighter.

At last, after watching Lovino putter around in the file cabinets as if he had lived in them for several years, Roderich can finally breathe again as they carefully shut the door and speedwalk down the corridor. Lovino’s clutching an armful of folders and papers that flutter as they continue.

At last, Roderich brings himself to ask what he’s been thinking as Lovino’s frantic steps slow down. “So, how exactly do you know those are the right papers?”

Lovino stares at the ground, clearly sullen and reluctant, but he sighs and talks anyway. “I used to file papers for the fucking Mafia, okay? That was my job. Feli’s just really goddamned stupid- I was their fricking secretary, the only thing I did was hide the classifieds in weird places for five years. Yeah, yeah, fucking hilarious, I know. Didn’t even pay so well.” Roderich raises an eyebrow at the rant. Lovino glares at him, defensive now, and they turn a corner.

He seems to sense something as he turns this and that, switching off the flashlight. A dreaded feeling suddenly starts to slowly sink in his stomach, and both of them slow to a stop and turn to each other. Roderich’s ears strain a little. His breathing catches and skids to a stop, and the burning tension from before makes him more than a little nauseous. Lovino warily glances around before lifting his foot to take a step. And then they hear it, the click-scrape of a locked door opening, the sound a little too close for comfort.

Someone is screaming as the door creaks.

Lovino jumps, almost barreling into him and dropping his papers, and his breathing completely wipes out. The weighted darkness only seems to be pressing down on his windpipe as the person screams and screams, their voice incoherent and frenzied, the sound of ripping and the thud of bone against concrete echoing. Roderich can’t even move as the screaming progresses. Lovino, too, is perfectly still, flattened against the wall and slowly sinking toward the ground.

“Now, now…” The second voice is quiet and smooth. His head is whirling, his vision spotty and dark, the nausea surging through his stomach. Chills snake up and down the back of his neck at the voice, the voice , and the first person screams even more. It’s starting to get coherent now, only making his fear spike. The voice is a little too familiar for comfort, and Lovino desperately scrabbles toward the bend in the hallway in front of them. Unwillingly, somehow, he finds himself trying to keep up, crouched down on his knees, the words being screamed too sharp against his ears.

“No! Please! Don’t! Don’t! You can’t!

“Lovino,” Roderich manages to hiss, “get out!”

He doesn’t respond, just inching closer and closer. He’s crying, Roderich notices, clutching the documents to his chest. And then that smooth voice speaks yet again, making both of them freeze in fear yet again, perfectly calm yet again. Roderich can hear the faintest waver as he talks.

“I don’t think I have a choice. This is all for the best, da ? We leave you in the room with them, you contribute to modern science by testing the immunity drug, Katya still lives, everyone is happy. How do you say it in English, let’s see-”

No! Please, please, please, you can’t do this to me, I saw what happened to the other man, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll help you with your Katya, please, have mercy -” The words are choked with sobs. Lovino finally reaches the hallway intersection, peering out from behind the wall. It feels like Roderich isn’t in control of his body anymore as he slowly stands, slowly leans forward, slowly stares down the hallway at the most gut-twisting thing he’s seen in these four weeks.

There’s a tall man there, wearing a long coat and surgical gloves both spattered in blood. His eyes are shadowed in the weak light trickling from an open door, the same sort of door he and Lovino saw minutes before, a table covered with syringes inside barely visible from Roderich’s angle.

With a start, his heart lodges firmly in his throat, suddenly as sharp and painful as a shard of glass hooking into his trachea. Because the person being herded down the hallway, screaming and flailing, is Antonio himself . He’s blindfolded, bloody, pale arms covered in raised marks, two fingers missing and scabbed over, an ankle seemingly twisted- and a sudden rush of overwhelming thought floods his head with both fuzzy nostalgia and pained terror. Lovino crams a fist into his mouth and nearly slams the back of his head into the wall in his shock. Roderich can barely feel his legs sink to the floor as the two of them watch, petrified and unbreathing, as the strange man shoves Antonio ahead, gripping Antonio’s arms as he leads him forward. A terrifying thought flickers to the forefront of his mind: what if this is Ivan?

Lovino is silently shaking now, clutching his knees to his chest as Antonio continues to scream. The possibilities sprint through Roderich’s thoughts, too fast for him to keep track of, so many things this coincidence could mean. Dual pity and horror rush past. He vaguely wonders who Katya is as the man’s gloved hands shake erratically.

“A win-win, is that the word?” The man laughs, uneasy and unquestionably afraid, his eyes dull and dark. Antonio starts to cry, and it almost looks like the man is crying a little too. “You have already cost me Raivis’s death, Toris’s death- I refuse to let it happen again, you understand? I have no other choice, no other choice-”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no-” Antonio’s quiet now, no longer screaming or crying, his head bowed and his voice whispery. Lovino reaches out, opens his mouth, about to speak- the most vulnerable Roderich has ever seen anyone, and he hates to cut it off- but it’s painfully clear what Lovino’s about to do will most certainly get them killed. And so, with a lump in his throat and his hands clamped over Lovino’s mouth, Roderich pulls both of them away from Antonio, pulls them both away from the utter limits of human nature - whatever that could mean.

Lovino shrieks against his hand, snaps his jaws and flails and kicks, but Antonio has started to sob again, and the noise is barely audible over his wretched crying. Roderich feels so incredibly revulsed at what he’s doing, leaving someone he knows to die horribly, dragging away the person who loves that dead man walking the most, but it’s already too late as he finds himself miraculously carting Lovino around the corner the others are camped behind. Somehow, he isn’t tired at all; Roderich curses adrenaline for blinding him so heavily and keeping Lovino in his grip, for flooding his systems with irrational fear and pity for a man who’s condemning Antonio to what’s probably a cruel death, for making him a complete coward when he expected it to do the opposite.

Bursting into the hall closet, the others all swivel around to stare as Lovino howls and thrashes and bites, the papers in his arms flying everywhere. Feli reaches out for his brother with something unreadable across his face, ushering him away from the rest of the group. Alfred blatantly stares back and forth, his eyes wide and alert, and Ludwig and Arthur turn away along with their four acquaintances.

Lovino’s cradled in Feliciano’s lap now, shaking silently, and Roderich somehow finds the strength to numbly pick up the documents scattered across the floor. Ever so slowly, Mathias wordlessly reaches for the papers and hands half of the stack to Berwald, both of them starting to rifle through them. Alfred just sighs and glances at him.

“So.”

Roderich vaguely notices the blood on his hand, shallow bite marks scattering his fingers, the back of his right hand stained with tears. “Yes, Alfred?”

“Is it acceptable to ask for some kind of an explanation right now?”

Arthur sits with his head in his hands. Emil closes his eyes, taking a deep breath, setting his palms against the floor.

“We saw Antonio. And possibly Ivan.” Roderich feels his breath catch as he says the last sentence, as if acknowledging the possibility has just made it real , as if he’s the one in Lovino’s position. Tino’s head whips up and slumps back down again.

But he can’t stop talking, can’t stop the replay cycling through his mind in slow motion. “Ivan said he wasn’t going to lose Katya, already lost Toris and Raivis, crying like Antonio, needles, I think? He was afraid, going to put Antonio in some room with ‘them’ because he didn’t have a choice , don’t know what that means. He said it was to test an immunity drug and Antonio was screaming and crying about not wanting to end up like some other man and Lovino was about to scream so I went back-”

Roderich can’t bring himself to talk anymore. Arthur is curled into the wall now, Alfred leaning close to him with fear flitting across his face. The sheer confusion and residual panic is making his head whirl.

And then Mathias looks up from his pile of paper, face ashen and eyes wide, staring at a document in Berwald’s hands. Berwald himself is similarly pale, paler than he already is as he scans it. Suddenly, Roderich doesn’t want to hear, doesn’t want to know what they’ve seen, doesn’t want to even think about a second Antonio case, but it’s too late to cover his ears as Mathias reads slowly and waveringly.

“Subject’s immunity tested by exposure to infected periodically over a period of seven days. Subject received mostly bites and superficial injuries. Did not succumb to Solanum until the fifth day of constant exposure to undead, most likely due to Solanum mutation SLC76N in infected. Turning took approximately five hours longer than average time, characterized by unusual feverishness and pain. Subject also appeared to have hallucinatory periods unseen in regular victims, shouting what is assumed to be their own name (Lukas Bondevik) and several other words in an unspecified language erratically over the last seven hours before turning…”

Mathias starts to cry, really cry. The other three only stare at each other, eyes watery and red and so exhausted , their faces worn and decimated. Letting it all in, Roderich can do nothing but watch as half the room collapses into tears and the other half collapses into hopelessness.

Somehow, he can feel something has irreversibly changed in their minds. There are still too many unanswered questions running through his head to think straight. Rationality has gone out the window, and he watches as they all descend into complete chaos.

Chapter Text

arthur

Slitting through his sleep, the now-familiar piercing glow of a flashlight hits his eyelids, stirring him from uneasy dreams and strange thoughts, Mathias's voice muttering something in the background. A strange feeling coils in his stomach, a feeling of vague unease and fear. Already, even through the haze smothering his thoughts, as soon as he feels his breathing slow, he can tell something is about to happen. Arthur doesn't dare open his eyes.

"...What are we going to do?" Is that Tino? With each word, his voice lowers a couple of tones. Someone sighs heavily and clears their throat.

"Well," says Mathias's voice, "we're definitely not leaving with them when they leave, and we know they will."

A cold trickle runs down Arthur's fingers, as if he's running through wet leaves, Mathias's next words suddenly unheard. Something is happening , surprise surprise . For a moment, his breathing seems like the noisiest thing in the world. The beam of the flashlight waves quickly over his eyes again, and for some reason, Arthur has never been more terrified than right now. Mathias continues to speak. Of course, Arthur still can’t process a word, yet the mounting confusion in his head ebbs and swells again. The cold concrete pressing against his back is nearly unbearable now, the clammy air quickly suffocating him in tension, the fingers in his left hand starting to fall asleep as he attempts to balance his weight on them.

A voice that's clearly Berwald's coughs before speaking. "Why not?" His tone is very clearly passive aggressive, cold and completely unwavering, Mathias's exasperated sigh cutting through the air at his interjection.

"Berwald," he begins. Arthur is struggling to even out each breath now, either about to laugh or cry at how sensitive he's gotten after the apocalypse. The thick emotion creeping into Mathias's voice makes the coiled fear in his stomach clench. Judging by their voices, it's all too clear something bad is about to happen, something Arthur wants no part of whatsoever. "Berwald, they fucking dropped- dropped him in a room full of walkers until he turned, kept him as a damned guinea pig, and you expect me to-"

"Expect you to avoid risking others' lives, yeah."

Arthur still can’t understand a single thing that’s going on, head whirling from sleep and confusion, all the built up stress from the last few days hitting like a brick. They're both clearly enraged now, and the rabid panic continues to steadily stream out of nowhere in his head. Faintly, Arthur hears Tino muttering in a foreign language, smooth and quiet and slowly starting to quell his fear. Almost like white noise, it fills the gaping silence with a constant hum. Slowly, Arthur takes his first shuddering breath, feeling the air catch in his throat as Tino continues mumbling. Breathe, blast it, breathe! The voice is back again, thickly smothering his previous panic, and feeling renewed once more Arthur resolves to open his eyes-

Before he can even flutter an eyelash, Berwald howls suddenly, the sound of fists against fists against bones slamming into Arthur's ears and rendering his previous resolution useless. Vaguely through the panic, he can hear Mathias and Tino practically screaming incoherently. The once-familiar chaos of a fistfight is echoing through the corridor like a stray bullet. Arthur can feel his eyelids firmly wrench together again, the fear and confusion and pent-up feeling making his stomach churn.

As quickly as it started, the noise suddenly halts. Emil's voice, flat and low, runs easily through the sound of heavy breathing.

"Arthur, I know you're awake. They've stopped."

Somehow, Arthur lets everything drop as his eyes barely open, taking in the scene before him. He's a bit down the corridor; the others are quite a few meters away, a decision he hazily remembers making as an attempt for some peace and quiet. In front of him, Mathias clutches a bruising eye as Berwald tilts back his head with an inscrutable expression, blood marring his pale face, Tino wiping some off his knuckles with his shirt. Was he the one who ended the fight? Arthur can only wonder. Emil shoves his hands in his pockets, shooting a sullen glare at the others before turning to Arthur.

“We won’t harm you,” he begins. “Any of you. We’re just trying to figure things out, right, Mathias?”

Mathias’s eyebrows pull together, like a child about to throw a fit, but he sighs and slumps against the wall anyway. Some semblance of defeat slips across his face as he hesitantly responds. “Yeah, guess so. I- I figure we can take our time.”

“And I figure we’re leaving, now,” Berwald mutters, dabbing at the blood on his chin. Before Mathias can jump up again, Tino loudly coughs, scuffing at the floor with his boots, and the two only exchange sharp glares in silence.

“Look, guys,” Tino begs, his eyes wide and gleaming. “Let’s just compromise, okay? No more fighting. I don’t want to break any more bones to settle conflicts between you guys.” Even as he subconsciously grimaces at the remark, Arthur has to give it to him for effectively silencing the two. Their stony silence seems to smother everyone else’s thoughts, and they all stare at each other for a few awkward moments before Emil clears his throat.

“Hey, Arthur, what’s your perspective on this?” He stares at him curiously, an unreadable look on his face. Before he knows it, Arthur can feel his heart lag a few beats and suddenly start up even faster.

“Um,” he mumbles, clearly the most articulate one in the room. All eyes are on him all of a sudden, all varying shades of blue and violet, watching and waiting. “Y-you mean on what you all should do?”

Tino shrugs. “I guess Em is thinking on the right track. We all want to leave except for Mathias, who wants to stay here and pull some suicide stunt involving burning the whole thing down. And we’re definitely not separating again, especially not with Lukas gone. You’re an outsider. Maybe you can go at it objectively, or, uh, something like that.” He shrugs again, looking a little defensive as he picks at his hands. After yet another heavily awkward silence ensues, Berwald tentatively puts a hand on his shoulder; Tino beams easily this time, his walls dropping quickly, eyes large and moony. The change in his face is crystal clear, every single hard line softened and blurred together. Something in the back of Arthur’s chest burns at the little scene, a faint glimpse of what he could have been, making him cough a little as flashes of something float across his thoughts.

Emil coughs too, snapping him out of his daze. “I think,” Arthur manages to rush out, still a little startled, “I think we can both help each other out of here, and I can pull a few things for you if you want it.”

Mathias barely leans forward, thoughtfully pondering Arthur’s rushed ad lib solution with a contemplative look. “What kind of thing will you all be pulling, exactly?”

The panicky confusion from before is boiled down now, only plain adrenaline fueling the random words and sentences and ideas flooding his hasty dialogue as he blurts out some response he himself doesn’t understand.

“Don’t know what we’ll do, maybe fire like you said. But who knows, maybe we’ll try for something fancier- this is for revenge, right? I honestly have no goddamned clue why I’m involved in so many revenge missions, but I completely understand. But you’re going to have to- no, I don’t- wait, wait, wait…” And on Arthur goes, letting his metaphorical feet wander across town, all logic and reason flying out the window as intuitive emotions start slotting in.

But both Mathias and Berwald thoughtfully nod at his jumbled words as he just talks and talks and talks, their foggy eyes clearing as his explanation dwindles a little pathetically. Tino glances back at the sleeping frames near the end of the hallway as Arthur stammers on, and he gets a feeling it isn’t so much about the content of his speech as it is about the context , and the others stare with distanced expressions as he wraps up his completely pointless commentary, as if trapped in a dream of a faraway memory.

And finally Emil stands on steady legs with a determined expression on his face and a practiced ease in his stance, and somehow his eyes seem like they’re gazing millions of miles away in that single moment.

“Arthur, that was the most washy and strange and unhelpful advice I have ever heard, but-” and here he stumbles- “You know what, I think it’s time we all get some sunlight again.” His voice is thick with something Arthur faintly recognizes in his own, and Emil tugs on his smeary white gloves with an immovable expression across his face.


 

alfred

“Up ahead,” Mathias hisses, even his whispering sharp and bright. “I think we turn here to get to the main hallway. Wait, what are we doing again?”

No one answers him, something he doesn’t seem to mind, an ability Al absolutely marvels at. He has been nothing but concerned about others and their opinions his entire life, and yet here Mathias is, continuing to grin as he pokes at stony Emil. Strange people , Arthur had murmured in his ear when they had started off. Don’t know what they’re doing, but I’m going with it.

Since that had seemed like the wisest option, seeing as Arthur and the four hadn’t explained a single thing to the rest of them, Al had decided to complacently go along with it. Even Lovino isn’t bitching, only glaring broodily every once in a while. Ludwig, on the other hand, is animatedly chatting in rapid German with Mathias, the seemingly clumsy words long and eloquent in their voices. Alfred has never seen him this excited- it’s strange, really, since Roderich can clearly speak the language too, judging by his occasional additions to the conversation. But something in the chilly air has changed, judging by their exuberant expressions. Ludwig and Mathias and sometimes Roderich just keep on going anyway, never seeming to take a breath for air, and Alfred lets the wall of language wash over him with a strangely comforting warmth.

And then it starts- “Hey,” Feli mumbles sleepily, tapping Ludwig’s shoulder. “Lud, shush, do you see that?”

Lovino stops dead in his tracks at the sight of a pale ray of light from around the corner, Roderich halting mid-sentence as well. As they all go silent, before-dawn silent, the faint ringing of someone sobbing hits Al’s ears, even louder in the sudden absence of constant German. His heart plummets, a proverbial stone cold and hard in his stomach, and Lovino desperately paws at Feli’s sleeve, eyes almost popping as he swivels back and forth.

“Antonio?” Roderich manages to croak out, his fists loosening weakly, and Alfred feels the very first shiver of fear run through him. This place is just one surprise after another, one horror story after another- his feet seem to melt into the floor with a strange sense of finality.

Tino takes a cautious step forward, then another, then another, and hesitantly tails the trail of light on the balls of his feet. Ludwig shakes his head before following. And of course, because Alfred seems to have a knack for getting into horrific situations, he follows them on his numb legs and pretends not to notice the sticky feeling on his soles.

“Get the fuck back-” Feli, goggle-eyed too, quickly clamps a hand over Lovino’s mouth before he can speak any more. Mathias’s head starts to bob, yet Alfred himself can’t shake the feeling.

Arthur’s voice rings in his head, smooth and soothing all of a sudden. Just- just let it go. Let it go.

And so with a deep breath and renewed confidence, he creaks the door open as Emil and Tino and Ludwig peer over him.

The room is lit with a dim yellowed lamp dangling from the ceiling, making the concrete walls look strange and mottled. A peeling recliner sits in the center, facing away from the doorway, all of it in torn mustard-colored cloth upholstery. Through the thick, hiccupy sobbing, Al can see a bloodied hand lashed down to one of the arms of the chair- Tino shoves a fist into his mouth as his eyes screw shut.

They stay frozen there for far too long. Somehow, through the pervasive terror, Ludwig takes a hesitant step forward.

“Are you…”

As he somehow pulls himself forward, Alfred slowly becomes aware of the others around him shrinking backwards, of Ludwig’s wide eyes as he scrabbles with a roll of bandages, of a broken nose and pulled teeth and fingernails and red-tinged blue eyes, of the continuous sound- when he finally dampens his shock, the only thing he can really concentrate on is the mere boy in the center of the room, dried blood in his fair hair and trembling eyes, his voice mumbling something as Ludwig runs thick bandages across his arm as a makeshift sling, asking question after question in a voice like smog.

“Is there anywhere else broken?”

The boy coughs again, patting his ribs. “N-no-”

Ludwig bites his lip as he fumbles around in his pockets. “And your name?”

“I-” He glances around the room, at everyone else, and as his eyes meet Alfred’s he can see something solidly shift in them. “Take off- off the bandages, please, please, they’re coming soon, you can’t get caught, whoever you are-”

“What?” The clear disbelief in Ludwig’s voice is almost painful to hear. “What are you- Gott, alright, you’re coming with us, we’re getting you out of here, I don’t know what the hell they did to you but we can help, please .”

The stranger is almost shaking back and forth now, glancing around. “Just- go the opposite direction and never come back, never open any more of the doors in this damn place, never think back on this again, now, before they kill you, no matter what.”

Ludwig reaches out, about to grab him and make a run for it. His arm is suddenly jerked to a halt out of nowhere. And there Tino stands and stares at the boy, his left hand tight on Ludwig’s arm and his right grasping a hunting knife, his eyes half-lidded and dark.

“Eduard,” he begins. “Eduard-”

Al stands in shallow amazement at the sheer level of coincidence they’ve all been pressed through so far as the person he assumes is Eduard reaches for the knife with an almost-smile. Thoughts float back to him: Francis, Antonio, Lukas, names that echo in his mind and pull his head into something thick and existential. Ludwig sighs lengthily, shakes his head, crams the roll of bandages into his pocket with flooded eyes.

“Tino,” Eduard mumbles. He’s missing both his canines, eyes watery and bleak, but he still smiles as he flicks out the blade. “You should go.”

Tino shakes his head, faintly smiling too. “Yeah. Yeah, I should.” A pause, and he presses his sleeve to his eyes. “Keep it. What a coincidence.”

“Yeah.”

“You know, I’m sorry.”

Eduard shakes his head almost regretfully. Tino turns away, walks out with perfectly even steps, and Alfred can do nothing but follow with Ludwig. Somewhere behind him, the sound of bandages ripping halts, and the only sound left is a slow and steady drip. The others are nothing but a faint shadow against the concrete wall. He doesn’t turn back as they step back into the darkness, their footsteps completely silent, marking the beginning of their ascent into the end.