Before Winter Comes [ze_kraken x Morgan]

ze_kraken

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181372
Despite having his own canteen, Ethan hurriedly brought the container to his lips with shaking hands, trying best to avoid metal clattering against metal as he drank from the water sparingly. He needed a cigarette - he could feel the craving tugging at the back of his mind, stabbing the corners of his temples as withdrawals set in. He did not dare light one - lurkers could smell just as well as any human could, and even if they could not recognize the scent of tobacco smoke they would investigate its source.

Ethan handed the canteen back to Riley, offering an unsteady, well-intending smile. He remembered his days back in Texas as a rookie, hearing how the vets felt after a while on the force after being exposed to high-tension situations time and time again. How they never truly adjusted to it, and how the only part that got easier was performing.

They were dealing with armed thugs, Ethan thought. That's nothing to say of flesh-eating monsters.

"Yeah, we made it this far," Ethan echoed hollowly.

How long had it been? Five years? That certainly had been far but there was still a great deal more to go. Was it worth-

"...Doors and doorways?"

Riley. She was asking him a question. What had it been? Ethan snapped back to attention, welcoming the distraction from his dark thoughts and rousing himself to his feet. He could see from the way Riley was moving the chairs around that she intended to begin setting up a loose barricade. Sensible. Without a word, Ethan began taking chairs and placing them first at the top of the stairs, securing them in place to fight tightly together on their own friction and overlapping chair legs. Next came bracing the door to their room, which he and Riley managed together with an overturned bookshelf that fit into the rusted doorknob perfectly.

Satisfied with their work, the two returned to their temporary shelter as Ethan produced his own rations from his bag. Salted and stale bread along with dried tomatoes. Meager, but at the very least filling enough to settle his rumbling stomach. He could still feel the compulsion to pull a cigarette from his bag and light it, but could fend it off for the time being as he and Riley ate in relative silence. Ethan washed down the last chunk of rough, stale bread with a small sip of water and turned to Riley.

"This is the hardest part," Ethan said, keeping his voice low just so Riley could hear him over the low groans of lurkers below on the streets. "Harder when you're alone."

He did not really know why he was saying what he was saying, but the distraction helped his craving.

"So," he paused then, chewing through his words like he had the stale bread. "I'm glad you're here. We'll get through this tomorrow, be back, and keep going. We made it this far."


 
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Morgan

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She was satisfied with the reinforcements they had made. Both of them knew all too well that nothing they could do would protect them from a rushing horde. But it didn't have to. They were supposed to be quiet when they went about their mission. Besides, there didn't seem to be an actual horde nearby. Not as far as they had seen through their scopes on their way down from the hills. Riley felt safer now. She was sure she could crawl into her bedroll and sleep when the time came. As they ate in silence, Riley briefly entertained the thought of sitting here playing cards with Ethan. To pass the time. But she dared not turn a light on. They would have to talk to each other instead. Fortunately, Ethan showed signs of improving on that front. She smiled and took a sip from the canteen she had offered Ethan moments ago.

The bread she ate was stale and dry. They rarely ate fresh bread in Haven. It was a funny thing, as bread was baked often enough. But most things were stored as long as they would keep, even if it didn't taste very well. It wasn't about eating well, it was just about eating in their little society. Riley looked up as Ethan spoke up. His words caught her off guard. They didn't match the image she had of him as a person. Riley saw Ethan as a brave, stoic but struggling man who spoke little but always pulled his weight and did what was needed. Hearing words like these coming from him was a surprise. She smiled again.

Riley nodded, not sure what to say. She agreed with him and she was very pleased to have him there as well. She wouldn't have been able to undertake this mission on her own. Well, she might, but she wouldn't have felt comfortable with it. Hell, she hadn't felt comfortable being selected for this. Her brown eyes were fixed on him for a few moments before she looked down at the bread in her hands. A memory triggered a sharp exhale through her nose - a short laugh.

"Do you remember the taste of apples?" She looked up for the briefest moment, instantly feeling silly. The question came out of the blue and had nothing to do with what they had been talking about. But lately, Riley had found herself thinking a lot about the past. About life before all this. About music she had liked. Movies. Life in general. And the memory of fresh apples had haunted her for a while now. Riley struggled to remember the taste. They didn't get fresh apples in Haven. All she could remember was that she had loved the taste of a fresh, red apple. Sitting there, eating stale bread in a dimly lit room, hiding from the dead, it didn't sound so bad at all. "I can't remember the taste anymore."

Riley silently cursed herself for reminiscing. She hadn't meant to make either of them sad. It was hard not to think of the past though, when you ventured outside the borders of Haven. After all, they walked among their past. Among the dead that were not dead and broken buildings. "Thank God for Ol' Maggie's fine cuisine." Riley decided to try and lighten the mood instead, raising the last piece of stale bread she had. She had some beets and a couple of potatoes as well. All of it was soon gone and her hunger was sated for the time being.
 

ze_kraken

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181707
"One of the guys on the force back in Texas had this old-school grandma, the sort that grew up in all that old-school Americana," Ethan began, smirking at the thought as he spoke. "She fucking loved the station, she made this great apple pie. It's funny, you know, she died probably two, three weeks before all this..."

He stopped then, swallowing down a bite of bread and washing it down with water, swallowing hard as the nostalgia broke and the weight of their reality returned. They were not old friends reliving the good old days in the comfort of their homes over food and drink. They sat where people had died, in a dusty and mold-infested shop surrounded by walking monsters grunting down below.

"Anyway," Ethan resumed after a brief pause. "Yeah. I've been trying to get Maggie to see if she could make one, but problem is apples. We haven't found a tree or anything yet."

Ethan closed his eyes and leaned his head back into the wall, exhaling sharply. Conversation was helping, but the urge to pull a cigarette and light it still pierced through his thinly veiled attempts to cloud it. It was his own damn fault, he thought as he reflected on the ridiculousness of it. Sustaining a smoking habit in this world - when he had nicotine patches left - had not been so bad, but those had run out almost two years ago now.

As the silence enveloped the room once more, Ethan and Riley focusing on finishing their meager rations as they kept a keen ear on the doorway and the stairs leading to their hiding spot, Ethan roused himself to his feet and began to shuffle around the cabinets of their room. He kept his movements fluid and quick, ensuring to keep hinges from creaking and contents from clamoring as he searched. He was not entirely sure what he was looking for as he rummaged through tupperware, rotted boxes, and office supplies.

There. Was that... glass? Ethan carefully removed a stack of tupperware containers from a hanging cabinet above a counter top, fishing out a dusty glass bottle. It was tinted a forest green, its label having well worn off and faded away years ago. As he swilled the bottle around its contents sloshed around. Curious, Ethan brushed the dust off the bottle and gently swirled its contents around again. It was about halfway full, the bottle stopped with a screw-on cap.

Resuming his seated position across from Riley, Ethan attempted to unscrew the bottle, grunting in exertion as its rusted cap resisted him. Ethan hmph-d and drew his knife from its sheath, anchoring it below the rusted rim of the cap and pushing up. The cap creaked open with a soft, grating scrape of metal on glass as Ethan hurriedly finishing unscrewing the bottle. He leaned down, giving it a brief sniff and recoiling almost instantaneously. He should have known from its square shape.

"It's Jaeger," he half-cursed, grimacing with a chuckle.

As much as he hated the stuff, he wanted to drink from it if even to let it momentarily wash away the dread of being far from home and exposed to the dangers of the world. Still, a bottle of alcohol was worth its weight in gold now - it could be used to create makeshift firebombs, trade, or treat injuries and burn them clean. One sip, then, Ethan thought to himself, hoisting the bottle to his lips and taking a quick swig. He recoiled immediately, shaking his head as the liquor burned its way across his tongue and down the back of his throat. Still, it left in its wake a rosy warmness that eased the edge just a little. He gestured to Riley with the bottle.

"It's your call," he said. "Figure one sip can't hurt, we save the rest for whatever we'll need it for."


 
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Morgan

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As much as it was surprising, she enjoyed listening to his little story. A memory from years ago. She knew everyone thought about the past. But perhaps not everyone was as vocal about it as Riley was right now. She didn't usually go around talking to people about the world before all this. It usually just made people sad. Sometimes happy, but mostly sad. Riley didn't really talk to very many people in Haven. She listened as Ethan continued. The thought of freshly baked apple pie made her heart swell, despite the unlikelihood of ever tasting one again. She could almost smell it and easily see Maggie's smiling face warning them not to overindulge. But for now all they had were their rations.

When they had finished eating, Riley packed their bags so they were as ready as they could be. She made sure all the food was eaten and the trash packed away. They didn't know for sure, but she was afraid the dead might still have some sense of smell. It wasn't a risk worth taking. When she was satisfied and she had prepped her sleeping kit, she turned and sat back down on her chair, watching Ethan.

"Jaeger?" She repeated, smirking. Riley could not remember the last time she had tasted that, but she was pretty sure it had been at a party and that she had been quite drunk. She couldn't remember the last time she had been drunk either. She watched the bottle as he held it toward her cautiously, but took it. She glanced up at Ethan again and then down at the bottle. Then she shrugged and carefully lifted the bottle to her lips, taking a sip. Her face contorted as she was quickly reminded of its taste. Riley handed it back to Ethan, swallowed and smiled again. She didn't like it, but it did leave a pleasant feeling in her chest. A sort of warmness that spread into her stomach and out to her fingertips.

"Now that was a blast from the past." Her voice carried a light undertone tinged with happiness. It was getting so dark inside that they would soon have to use the lantern she carried, though she dared only spread a dim light. It wouldn't do to fumble around in the dark when they were going to sleep, in case they knocked something over. "But yeah we should probably save it."

Rubbing her eyes, Riley felt their journey in her body. Some rest would do her good. She fought a yawn but had to give in. Her hands found the end of her braid and quickly unraveled it, letting her brown hair fall onto her shoulders. Riley ran her hands through her hair a few times, making a noise that clearly indicated the pleasure she felt. She tilted her head and stole a glance at Ethan again. He had the type of hair that looked good no matter what he did. She realized she was staring and averted her gaze.
 

ze_kraken

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181929
"I was more of a Jack Daniels type myself," Ethan admitted, taking the bottle from Riley.

He screwed the cap back in place and slid the bottle into his pack, hesitating momentarily around his pack of cigarettes before shifting his attention and removing his bedroll from the bag's straps. The light had all but faded now, casting the room in near pitch darkness. Ethan had never quite adjusted to life without street lights, feeling still that the world before had not ever been so dark even without the lights. Tom back in Haven had told him it was light pollution - and, maybe, it had been. Still, there was enough light to see the hazy outline of Riley cast in a pale outline by the moon.

Ethan blinked, eyes adjusting to the sudden influx of moonlight as he, rather unintentionally, watched Riley's hair tumble around her shoulders, spreading the moonlight across her tangled locks. Her hands shifted up and rustled, quite unsuccessfully, her hair, the messy brown strands budging uncooperatively as she coaxed them into a more agreeable state. His eyes shifted away as she turned her attention to him, eyes flashing with reflected moonlight as Ethan made as if he was rolling out his bedroll.


Ethan hunched over and straightened the bedroll out, being sure to avoid clattering around as he straightened the padded sleeping bag into place. Satisfied for now, he stole another glance at Riley before shifting out of his jacket and placing it by his pack, fishing his pistol from its holster and laying it within reach as he slipped off his boots and quiver, placing them by the crossbow and pack; if they found themselves in a situation where he did not have time to throw on his boots, they were likely dead anyway.

It was cold already. Cold enough that as he sat upright in his shirt, Ethan shivered, arms tucked tight to his chest as he looked back to Riley. He had not, until now, given much more than a brief look over the denizens of Haven. Truth be told, he had never seen Riley closer than 10 yards since his first arrival to Haven, and she had been obscured by the blinding light of her flashlight then. Oh, what a time it had been, having working batteries, he mused as he stole one last glance of Riley before his desire for comfort won out over his want to view more of Riley and he tucked himself into his bedroll, keeping it unzipped but tugged tight across his body.

Almost immediately the chilled night air leaking through the boarded up windows gave way to the warmth of the bedroll. Ethan lay there, motionless, staring up at the ceiling as he caught flickers of Riley moving in the corner of his eye. Down below the grunts and groans of the lurkers still echoed, but it was peaceful if even for the briefest moment...


 
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Morgan

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The silence only made her work more quietly. She did her best, like Ethan, to unpack and prepare her bedroll with as little noise as she could. Riley took her jacket off and her shirt, sleeping only in her tank top. She undid her belt and slid the knife off it, placing it right next to her so it would be easy to grab if she needed to. She placed her boots at the end of her bedroll and sat down. She rubbed her feet and flexed her toes a few times. Riley sighed and crawled into her bedroll as well. Ethan lay still next to her, a couple of feet between them, not saying anything. Was he tired, or was his mind racing like hers? She crawled into her bedroll and yawned, letting out a shaky breath as she shivered. The inside was not warm yet and the room was cold. The outside air easily crept in as well, but it would only be a matter of time before she would be warm. Riley pulled her feet up under her slightly and tried to still her breath and get warm.

There were no more words she would speak to Ethan now. The day had passed and the two of them needed to rest. She didn't want to disturb him as he was trying to fall asleep. Riley wanted to sleep all through the night if she could, and looked forward to not be aware of the constant danger they were in. "Good night, Ethan." She whispered gently, closing her eyes, her breathing slowing with every breath. After that, it didn't take long for sleep to claim her and Riley slept calmly through the night.



Morning. Early morning. Riley stirred in her bedroll. The room was quiet but still chilly. A pair of brown eyes searched it but found that everything was as it had been the night before. Ethan was next to her still asleep. She pushed herself up to a sitting position, a mess of brown hair falling about her face and shoulders. She tried to find a crack in the boarded windows and yawned. The sun was rising but not yet peeking over the hills around them. It wouldn't be long though. There were no alarm clocks being used anymore. Not in Haven. They were noisy and could be a death sentence if brought on a mission like this. But it didn't matter. Riley's inner clock had been set on sunrise. She always woke when the first rays of sun reached them.

She took a few seconds to rub her eyes and wake up. Or try to at least. Riley unzipped her bedroll and flung it off her, flexing her toes again. She put on socks and boots, turned to Ethan and gave him a gentle shove. "Ethan." She half-whispered. She almost felt bad for waking him, but that was quickly washed away by her sense of duty to their task at hand. She knew they had to get going, and she knew he would think the same. But he looked peaceful as he slept, though, and not so worried and serious as he often did. "Ethan the sun is up."
 

ze_kraken

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182181
For the first time in months Ethan slept through the night. He had tossed and turned after laying down, the craving for a cigarette pushing his resolve to its limit, but as sleep uneasily grasped Ethan it dragged him steadily but surely into its depths. Whatever dreams he conjured were lost as the combination of filtered sunlight and Riley's voice roused him from his peaceful slumber. The former cop jolted, darting upright and glowering around, hand wrapped tight around the hilt of his knife. His heart threatened to burst from his chest for the briefest instant as he relaxed, letting out a sharp sigh as he realized it was only Riley.

"Right," Ethan remarked, voice trailing off.

He shook himself, attempting to ease his tensed muscles as he forced his beating heart to still. Once his muscles were not quite so stiff and alert, Ethan shifted out of his bedroll and went about packing it back up. He clasped it to his pack before taking a drink from his canteen, planting himself down seated on the floor in front of Riley as he went about putting his boots back on. Satisfied, he cleared his throat.

"So," he started, voice cracking momentarily from lack of use. "First goal is going to be to find the supermarket and hardware store - we can check the roof first, see if we can access other buildings and avoid the ground."

Ethan had often utilized connected buildings to avoid drawing unwanted attention - even if they saved no time, they were often safer than an approach at ground level with threats on all sides.

"We might be able to view it better from there, too, and pick off a few of the lurkers along the path with the crossbows," he continued.

Already the craving was coming back as the initial grogginess of wakefulness wore off. Ethan distracted himself by counting his crossbow bolts and ensuring they were in proper shape as he waited for Riley's response - he wanted her opinion, since she had been the one to analyze the map. He was flying off of pure experience and intuition. Perhaps she had a better plan.


 
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Morgan

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She had been more startled than she had let on, when Ethan had jumped up. Especially because he was holding his knife so tightly. She knew he was't going to hurt her, but what if he had woken up thinking she was one of the dead. It was an unpleasant thought. Fortunately, Ethan seemed to quickly calm down and began putting on his boots and pack up his bedroll. Riley said nothing, not wanting to bring it up in case it would embarrass him. Instead she focused on packing up her own things and preparing her backpack for travel. She put on her shirt and her jacket, instantly feeling more protected against the chill air. She found a chair and sat down, listening to what Ethan had to say.

He went straight to business. It was very much like him, she thought to herself and tried to hide a smile. Riley redid the laces on her boots and made sure they were tight. Her fingers began braiding her hair again. They worked quickly. She had done it thousands of times by now, so it was hardly a challenge anymore. Riley was pretty sure she could do it blindfolded and still end up with a pretty good result.

"Yeah." She let out, still braiding. "It'd be a good idea to have a look and see what the lay out of the street is. We can pick out the best way to get to the store. The less we have to walk on the ground the better, if you ask me." Riley wanted to move on the rooftops as much as they could because she didn't want to get up close to the dead. While they did have the maps and she still had a rough lay out of the town in her head, it was worth more to go onto the roof and look for yourself. Maps didn't mention collapsed buildings or road blocks or the like. Assessing the situation first hand was a smarter move.

As she finished the braid, Riley tilted her head as she watched Ethan, smiling at him. He seemed distracted. As if something was bothering him, but she wasn't sure what it was. Maybe this was just how he reacted when danger was close all around them. Maybe it was his stress-response. Whatever it was, Riley wanted to take it away. Once they were out there and going about their mission, she was pretty sure it would go away, though.

"Good morning, Ethan." The words lingered in the air for a moment. None of them had said it until now. Riley cared a lot about little things like that. Small gestures and small, good deeds. It was what kept them human. It was the glue that kept everything together. "Do you want to eat? I'm not really hungry." Riley was a little nervous and had little appetite. She figured it wouldn't hurt to save some food for later if they could.
 

ze_kraken

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1567201220034.png

"Yeah, good morning," Ethan replied as an afterthought, hoisting himself to his feet and throwing his pack on over his back. "I think I'll pass on the food as well."

Food in the morning, especially before a run, made Ethan sick to his stomach. Not to mention that, assuming all went well, the pair had enough food between them for no more than two days which was just enough for their run today and their trip back tomorrow.

Ethan, crossbow in hand and gear all stowed away, gestured for Riley to follow as he set about delicately deconstructing the barricade the two had erected the night before. It was a time-consuming process, made all the lengthier by the duo's desire to maintain a low profile. Once the hallway had been cleared, they proceeded out to the main set of stairs and to a ladder in the corner of the second-floor hallway with roof access. Once atop the roof, Ethan tested the security of the ground beneath their feet before determining that, at least for now, their combined weight would not result in catastrophe later down the line.

"This way," he whispered in a hushed tone to Riley, creeping along crouched low towards the edge of the roof.

Planting his crossbow firmly across the parapet between the roof and the other side, elbows braced against the damp and cold concrete, Ethan gazed over the edge and down below. Lurkers roamed the street just below them - four by his count, all spread out across the street. To their front was an utterly destroyed building, rubble spilling out over the grass-strewn pavement. He could just barely make out the corners of the original foundation, so heavily eroded and cracked through with vegetation as to be almost unrecognizable.

Further down the street were similar structures, either partially or totally worn or destroyed with a few remaining upright. Just to the duo's left stood such a standing structure, appearing to be in as decent a condition as such a neglected building could. To their right was where the road sprawled back into the foothills. Ethan made a note of the tall, narrow corner ventilation pipe, now sprouting a handful of various weeds and other plants, as a landmark should they need to retreat back this way later.

As he shifted his attention back to the street below, he suppressed the urge to groan in frustration as a handful of Lurkers in a pack emerged from the corner of an upright building, grunting and clicking as they prowled the street. The others acknowledged the newcomers with a handful of groans, but otherwise remained intent on their sporadic hunt. Before being spotted, Ethan calmly and fluidly shifted back behind the parapet and looked to Riley.

"See anything exploitable?" He muttered, keeping his ears pressed for the sounds of agitated lurkers.



 

Morgan

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If she hadn't been completely awake before, she was now. The chill morning air always did something to the mind, especially when it was in a tired state, and usually it was a positive effect. Only now they were both keenly aware of the threat they faced. The excitement of that knowledge also playing a part in waking her. Riley's breath was calm, but she was straining to focus and take her surroundings in. She was trying to find buildings they could use, plan routes they could take to get to their destination. It wasn't that far either, but it was far enough for both of them to be spotted by the lurkers. What awaited them in the supermarket and the hardware store, they couldn't know. Though neither one had said it it loud, they were both silently aware that they might come into close contact with the dead, unless their targets buildings had been boarded up sufficiently. Riley hoped that was the case.

Taking a few moments to have a last look at the streets below them and the buildings, closing her eyes and finding her mental picture of the map of the area, Riley finally had something useful to contribute with. She peered over the parapet and along the street below them. She squatted back down and leaned against the parapet. "The hardware store should be in that direction." She said, gesturing with her hand, keeping her voice low. "Not far." If they could move undisturbed, it would take them ten minutes to get there, by her estimates. Longer perhaps, since they were trying to remain undiscovered. "If we can get to that building," She pointed to the building to their left, which still stood in fair condition. "We should be able to move down a floor and then use the rooftops."

Riley leaned on the parapet again and gestured for Ethan to follow. "Hardware store." She said and gestured in its direction. "That building," She pointed at the building to their left. "Rooftops." Her finger slowly traced the row of rooftops below them. It wouldn't take them all the way, but it was the best plan she could make to keep them off the ground. "That's the building closest to the store we can see from here, I don't know what it looks like beyond that." Riley explained, pointing to the farthest rooftop she could see in the direction they needed to go. "But it's the best I can do without knowing any more. We'll probably have to move the last bit on the ground, but I promise it's not far."

It had been unlikely that they could get there along the rooftops alone, unless they had zip-wires and more technological gear. But Riley had never owned or seen that. Besides, it'd make too much noise. It wouldn't be difficult to make for their crossbows, but it would attract the dead below. Despite their dim and slow minds, they could easily find their way up their building to get them. She leaned away from the parapet once again and looked at Ethan, trying to gauge his reaction and read his mind. "What do you think?" Riley asked, wondering if he thought her plan was insane, or if it was something he was willing to try. It beat walking along the street, in her mind. And that would keep them safer. Raiding the hardware store and the supermarket had better be worth it.