Before Winter Comes [ze_kraken x Morgan]

Morgan

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Having never been stabbed like this before, Riley wasn’t sure what to expect. Pain, of course. But that seemed to be a constant companion now. Physically and mentally. Now, however, the pain she felt was more acute and always at the forefront of her mind. However she moved it hurt. On top of that, her muscles ached from lying in bed so long and she felt weak. So very weak. Her body had spent so many resources on surviving and maintaining itself that it left her weary despite having slept for hours and hours. It was, all in all, unlike anything she had ever experienced before.

When Ethan appeared in the door, she offered him a smile. When he knelt down beside her and took her hand, she blinked and watched him. When tears spilled down his cheeks, she felt them well up in her own eyes and roll down her cheek. Her thumb traced the skin on the back of his hand and she tried another smile. “Hey.” She said, sniffling. It seemed that neither of them knew what the right words were. Riley had two particular ones in mind but they seemed unable to carry the full weight of her gratefulness. “Thank you.” She said eventually. Riley let her hand rest on the back of his head, closing her eyes for a moment. Would Ethan ever know how thankful she was for him saving her life? Would she ever be able to explain it to him? Probably not, and so ‘thank you’ would have to do.

When she opened her eyes again she wiped away the tears with the back of her hand and looked at Ethan. He looked tired. Tired down to the bone. What had he been doing? How long had she been sleeping? Upon inspection it seemed he had managed to change her bandages and clean the wound, but Riley felt filthy from wearing the same shirt and laying in bed for so long. She had been sweating and crying and the air in the room was heavy. Her hair was a mess and she desperately wanted to be clean. Blinking, she pushed those thoughts out of her mind and focused her attention on Ethan again.

“I’m not particularly hungry but I need to eat.” She withdrew her hand from his neck and placed it on her stomach. She knew she had to eat to get her strength back. “I’m really hurting but I would kill for a bath. I want to try and get up. Can I?” She didn’t know why she asked permission. “Just to wash myself for a little bit.” Perhaps if they were really careful, it would be okay? Ethan had stitched her up, after all. Riley moved one bare leg outside of the covers and after a few seconds felt goosebumps crawl over her skin.

Her brows furrowed when she studied the haggard expression on his face again. Riley hadn’t expected a reaction like this but found that it tugged at her heart. “What is it, Ethan? Are you okay?” She asked, out of breath from speaking. She took a few deep breaths but as she did, it tugged at her wound and she stopped and exhaled. Riley tried again, this time sucking in less air before she exhaled again. Soon her breath was back to its normal ragged rhythm and she looked at Ethan once more. “I want to try and get up. Will you help me?”

 
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Morgan

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“Don’t strain yourself,” Ethan muttered, wrapping an arm about Riley’s back and gently gripping her by one forearm to help her up.

The going was slow, Riley’s every movement seemingly tortured out of her, but eventually she was sitting up at the edge of the bed. Her breath came out in ragged gasps, and one hand clutched gingerly at the wound in her side, wincing as fingertips brushed against the bandage.

“Ready to get up?” He asked after pausing to let Riley collect herself, eyes mixed with equal parts care and uncertainty as he investigated her.

She let out a noise between her teeth that seemed to signify that she had no idea if she was ready. She felt weak. Weak from her body spending all its energy on healing the wound and weak from spending so much time in bed. It was dizzying just sitting on the edge of the bed, but Riley gritted her teeth and took a few deep breaths.

It became clear to her now, if it hadn’t been before, that when you stood up from a seated position, you did indeed use the muscles in your stomach. Riley tried not to. Her hand found the fabric of Ethan’s clothes when she grabbed at his shoulder. She was thankful for his arm around her back and eventually she stood. Hunched, but standing up. It was as if the room spun around her. When she tried to breathe deeply, it was as if there was no oxygen in the air and it took a few seconds before the dizziness stopped. Her feet were cold, but she pushed that to the back of her mind.

“I feel so weak.” She said, annoyed. “I need to eat. And I need to change. I…” She tugged at her shirt. “Stink.” Riley said with disgust and glanced at Ethan. Then she chuckled but soon regretted it as it sent waves of pain through her. “Ow, ow.” Her brows furrowed. “Okay… No laughing.”

“In your defence,” Ethan said as he helped her across the bedroom floor and over to the stairwell. “You were just knocked out for half a week in what amounts to your own blood and sweat.”

He kept his tone as light as he could, though the elation in his words was plain to Riley. They reached the stairs and began to descend one tortuous step at a time, the creaks of the steps drawn out as Riley lightly stepped and applied her weight before moving the next foot into position. Once they arrived at the base of the landing, they were both overheated at the exertion, sweat forming along their brows, breathing heavy.

“Let’s start you off with some food - I can fetch you water in the buckets we found a few weeks back,” Ethan muttered, half to Riley half to himself as if to verbalize his train of thought. “We can boil it, get it hot, and see if the tub upstairs’ll work at all. No sense in cartin’ you off to the lake in your state.”

She nodded. Speaking required too much breath. Descending the stairs left her breathless and sweating and dizzy. With Ethan’s help, she got to the table and sat down gently and slowly. Supporting herself on the tabletop, she focused on regaining her breath, taking in air through the nose and breathing out through her mouth. Riley sat like that for a few minutes until the dizziness wore off. It was frustrating that something as simple as going down the stairs left her so weak.

“Thank you. A warm bath would be lovely. I’m already cold.” Riley said and flashed Ethan the briefest of smiles. Halfway down the stairs she had already felt the cold seep into her body. She knew it was because she was weak. Sitting with nothing but her tank top and wearing no pants, and with her body spending all its energy on healing the stab wound in her side, it shouldn’t be surprising that she was already cold.

Dizziness abating, Riley turned her face up and to the side to look at Ethan, realizing that she had only been thinking of herself. He had spent the last couple of days alone, he had been the one to patch her up and to dispose of the bodies of their assailants. She felt bad for not asking sooner. “How are you? Are you okay?” Riley automatically reached out her hand toward him.

“I’m better now,” Ethan remarked flatly, eyes sulking to the floor as he lit the fire and fetched leftover broth stored in a sealed jar. “It was…”

He hesitated, words caught on the tip of his tongue.

“It brought me back to a place I never wanted to go again,” he said through gritted teeth, relaxing as he reflexively took Riley’s hand in his own for a moment. “I’m… I’m just glad you woke up.”

He let Riley’s fingers slip through his own and busied himself with the broth, heating it over the fire before pouring it from the pot into a small blow. A moment later the bowl was laid before Riley along with a worn spoon and bit of cloth they used in lieu of proper napkins. Ethan seated himself opposite her, and it was only then did the sustained exhaustion of the past days collapse down on him with as much force as a pallet of bricks laid atop his shoulders. The weight pulled down at him, and his eyes stared blankly at the worn wooden countertop. Idly his fingernail scratched at a divet in the wood as Riley sipped away at the broth, unsure what else to say as his mind cast aside any words that might have offered themselves to disrupt the silence.

She let the spoon drop and sit in the broth as she looked at him. The few sips she had swallowed had been warm and lovely and it felt wonderful to eat. Even so, she felt a knot form in her stomach. Riley watched Ethan for a few moments and realized now that this was not just worry over your friend, or whatever they were, being wounded and hurt. This was a worry that seemed to hold a greater power over him and to run much deeper. It tugged on memories that she guessed he had done his very best to eradicate.

“I’m sorry, I…” Riley tried, though she didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t been awake, so it was difficult to be sorry for something out of her control. At the same time, she felt bad for not being there. She knew it was not her fault, though. “I’m here now, though. I’m up. I’ll be a bit useless for a while and you’ll have to help me, but…” She fell silent.

The side she was seeing of Ethan was relatively new to her. Riley was unsure of how to approach him. After sipping more broth, she carefully leaned back against the chair. “Did it remind you of… before?” Before being the span of time that covered their time before Haven and way back before the fall of everything.

“A bit,” he admitted after a long pause, eyes fixated on the wafting steam rising from Riley’s bowl. “Only, before Haven I’d never been to a place like that before. That dark, lonely. The world was still somewhat normal - I still had a car with a tank of gas. It was more… violent the first time, more painful and…”

Ethan hesitated.

“But only because nothing would be the same - I knew it then, and rather than face it, I lost myself for a bit like I told you. This time was different. This time I wasn’t losing my apartment or my job or even a fucking bed to sleep in I… I was going to lose you, and I’m not sure if I’m losing myself for even thinkin’ it but I think that would be worse.”

For a good while she sat and stared at him, unsure of what to say. Again. When the stinging sensation in her eyes made it impossible to keep looking at him, Riley looked down at her hands. She sniffled and wiped away one tear that had managed to spill down her cheek. She wasn’t sure why she cried. There were several reasons. One of them relief. The rest were largely Ethan’s emotions reflected in herself, if she had to guess.

When she looked up again, she gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. Then she planted her hands on the table and pushed herself to a standing position. Her legs felt so weak that, had it not been for the table, she was sure she would have fallen over. Riley took careful steps and supported herself against the table but tried to move fast enough so Ethan would not have time to interrupt. Finally, she made it to the other side of the table and gently sat herself down in the chair at his side. Catching her breath, she carefully reached out and took his hand. She was still silent. There was a darkness in Ethan that she wasn’t used to. A dark pool in his mind that she had only touched the surface of. Riley didn’t want to let him sink further into it. She then put her hand on his cheek and made him turn to face her and soon she could rest her forehead against his. Her thumb traced his cheek. Then she sighed.

“I can’t promise you that things will get better. You know that.” She began, hating that she had to admit it. “But I promise you that I’ll be with you every step of this journey, wherever it takes us.” And whenever it ends. She didn’t have to say it. The truth was, that she had been close to dying and she could never promise him that it wouldn’t happen again. The mere thought of losing Ethan was too much for her to even consider at the moment, so she didn’t. “We’re alive. We’ll survive. We persevere.”

 
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ze_kraken

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In the weeks that followed, Riley's condition continued to improve gradually as the sharp bite of winter continued to sink its teeth into the landscape around them. Come the passage of the new year, or as close an approximation they could make after observing the solstice, Ethan and Riley had shared a drink from the alcohol they found months prior in Coker Creek. A trivial gesture, Ethan had thought, especially when the years blurred into one string of days connected by the same thread of hardship.

Trivial as it might have been to mark the new year, Ethan came to realize that perhaps they were not toasting another year, but instead the last of the hospitable days of winter. Alongside the new year came a fresh wave of bitter cold air and snow, freezing the lake behind them solid and driving them indoors for much of the day huddled about the fire and one another for warmth. Their food supplies began to dwindle bit by bit as the days without fishing mounted up, driving the pair to venture to far reaches of the lake when the sun was at its peak to try and snatch a few hours of thawed water.

So far as Ethan and Riley could tell, the ice was only thin enough in a few corners of the lake to break through easily and attempt to cast a line through. Their labor was often fruitless, or bore them small catches that with ample rationing saw them through a day or two at most. Hunger gnawed at them, driving them to begin rationing their meager reserves of canned food they had been able to scavenge along their travels. For the most part their days spent inert by the fire or walking to and from their marked fishing holes meant most days the hunger was bearable, but by the time the worst of the ice and snow had abated the gains they had made in the fall with ample, consistent access to food had faded and they looked gaunt and hollow.

In the absence of howling winds and dagger-like ice tossed about, the lake once again took on its still, pearly visage. The ice along the lake remained, but come the beginning of what by their count was February, the sun's rays had turned their small fishing holes into more permanent fixtures. Their diet steadily improved with the weather, but left both Ethan and Riley malnourished and tired more often than not.

The reliance upon one another that had begun to build in Coker Creek, and been hurled into the crucible since the fall of Haven, had cemented into something deeper than Ethan could have expected. He supposed, in its own bizarre fashion, that it might even be as close to romantic as their world allowed. They saw one another through the droll of the long, harsh winter nights and shared their work equally once Riley's injuries were in what Ethan had deemed a stable condition. In the evenings they huddled by the fire and clung to one another in a manner that spoke to more than a joint need to stay warm, and though their conversation had always been lively, it now felt just as comfortable remaining in silence together for long stretches of time.


Come the end of February, a version of spring began to emerge steadily as the snow and ice ceased and the sun seemed strong enough to begin to melt much of the accumulated stacks of snow. Though the air remained bitter cold, and the lake frozen still, the ice grew thinner and thinner by the day until it was unstable enough for a firm booted foot to crack it with little effort. With the ice sheet beginning to dwindle, a return to the normal they had established in the fall came to replace the oppressive specter of winter. Ethan and Riley's strength returned, and by the time early spring blossomed into life, they were back to a semblance of their prior strength.

One evening, after a particularly fruitful day fishing, Ethan sat across Riley at their table, each having poured out a drink in celebration. The air about them both was warm and hopeful, their talk mirroring their mood. They shared stories of the world before, and of all the sorts of trivial facets of pre-collapse life that now seemed like the height of luxury. Nothing out of the ordinary for their time together, but the memory persisted as the first time Ethan had seen Riley genuinely smile since her injury without wincing through the display. And, much to her chagrin, the first time she had blown water from her nose from laughing.

More weeks passed as winter mellowed into a climate more suggestive of autumn in the old world - brisk mornings, cool days, and frigid nights. Again they sat by the fire as so often they had, enjoying a pinch of ground coffee boiled in water they had found a week prior in town.

"Once we feel ready, I think we should find a new place to go," Ethan said after a long silence had built between them, internally wincing as he felt the amicable silence between them shatter with the weight of reality. "We can't survive another winter like that just the two of us - we need people, or somewhere warmer. Somewhere we might be able to tend to crops, make defenses."

He paused, exhaling softly.

"It's hard... going back to the road like that, but I think.. I think we need to."


 
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Morgan

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The brutal, harsh and cold months of winter had felt like an eternity. And that was in spite of some of the days going by in a blur as she had been bedridden for half of them due to her wound. It had felt like she was on a train that went into a dark tunnel and it had taken forever before she could see the light at the end. The time before she had been well enough to be up and about had been especially challenging. More than once, she had realized that she had been annoyed at Ethan when he had demanded she stay in bed and rest. She knew, of course, that he was right and that he only meant well, but it was driving her insane to be useless and to lie and a dark room for half a day. But as her wound healed and she was able to get up for longer durations at a time, her mood had also improved. Now, Riley felt bad that she had let her frustration be directed at Ethan who had done nothing but help her. Who had saved her life.

She looked up from her hands and fixed her eyes on him. Before she gathered up the courage to apologize, she found herself drifting away in thought. During cold winter nights they had huddled up close together. For warmth. But there was more to it than that. She could feel that it served more than just a practical purpose. Right? Ever since she had first indicated to him what she was feeling and the two of them had kissed on the porch, they had not said a word to each other about it. And despite having a hundred worries and as many tasks and chores to do, Riley sometimes still found herself left with her thoughts when she was alone, or when she could not sleep at night. In those hours, she would wonder just what this thing was between them. They spoke only rarely of their emotions regarding each other and the physical aspect of their relationship was limited to huddling by the fire and a quick kiss from time to time. Riley wondered why that was, but she couldn’t seem to muster up the courage and ask Ethan. There were so many things that seemed more important. And then she would tell herself to stop being emotional and focus on surviving.

Then, on rare occasions, that stern mask Ethan had been wearing for a long time now faded from his face. His eyes became softer, present and more aware. He no longer had that far-away gaze. These were treasured moments, to Riley. When the daily routine had its hold on them, she would often look at him and be incredibly frustrated because she would so love to know what was going on behind those eyes. But she could not read his mind, no matter how hard she tried.

“What?” There was a tone of surprise and disbelief in her voice. The very thought of leaving this place that they had fought so hard to make a home of. This house that had kept them warm all winter. Where they had caught plenty of fish and where they could go hunting from and… “No. Ethan, we can’t... “ Anxiety closed its icy fingers around her heart and she felt her heart rate climb. “This has been… Home. Almost.” It had been as close to a home they’d had in a long time. The thought of leaving frightened her. The thought of going out there, without knowing where they would go or when they would reach their destination, or if they would have food enough made her feel dizzy. Her hands were now pressed flat against the table - an obvious attempt at trying to control herself.

I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t go back out there. I can’t. The words flooded her mind and drowned reason. She took a shaky breath and she looked away from him, down at her hands still pressed against the table top. There were too many dangers out there. And her physical strength had lessened noticeably over the last many weeks. Before they left she would have to regain her strength. I can’t go out there when I’m this weak! Riley thought to herself, having already forgotten Ethan’s words. ‘Once we feel ready…’ He had said.

“I can’t… Ethan.” She couldn’t bring herself to look up at him now. “Where would we go? Somewhere warmer? Sure. But… Do you think there’s anywhere left in the world where people are actually able to grow crops? Like in Haven?” She shook her head and curled her fingers into fists to stop them trembling. “And why would you want to find other people? People destroyed Haven. People almost killed us.” She swallowed, exhaling a breath that was still shaky. “We made it this far… I… I can’t do it.”

 
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"It isn't a decision we need to make now," Ethan said calmly, moving to lay a hand over Riley's balled fists. To his brief dismay, she flinched from the gesture before relaxing and allowing him to touch her, though it did little to settle the obvious disapproval and anxiety that lingered in the lines of her downturned face. "We both still need a few more weeks of decent meals, and I want to make sure that wound's all squared away before we put you back out there."

The memories of Haven were unpleasant ones, as was the recollection of those two men who had attacked them when first winter had begun. Ethan could still hear the pleading voice of the man he had killed atop the stairs, could still see the trail of crusted red and brown blood he had left dragging the corpse down the stairs, the stench of his burning flesh when he left the body for the lurkers. Riley was right, people had taken everything from him - from them. Haven was a start, but the lawlessness of the early days of the collapse and the fall to banditry and violence in the years that followed had harbored a great distrust of others in Ethan, and now had begun to take its toll on Riley as well.

As he studied her face, frown creasing her brow and tugging lines at the corners of her cheeks accentuated into hard angles from months of malnourishment in the winter, he saw much of himself before Haven in her. A drive to stay guarded and safe, to minimize any and all risk. It was an easy reality to accept, as Ethan knew from bitter experience. Even now the desire to agree with her and remain secluded from what last traces of society were left lingered in the back of his mind, and annoyingly though they had not struck in weeks now, Ethan found himself craving a cigarette.

"Back..." He hesitated, gnawing at his lower lip as he fought the urge to shut out the memories primed to spill over his tongue into words. "Back, before - before Haven, but after the fall of the camp I was in I was with a small group. I've told you that before."

Ethan paused again, swallowing back a lump in his throat and trying to loosen the tension in his arms he had not known he was carrying so suddenly.

"It was autumn at the time, back when we still had real autumns. It was the few of us and a couple of cars we kept running with whatever gas we could siphon, pushing them when they were empty since they were loaded with our supplies. Winter came, we settled down in an old farmhouse - the owners had killed themselves, we found their bodies in the barn along with some notes. I..."

He shook his head.

"That part isn't important. That winter, flu broke out in our little group. Three of us died, everyone else got sick. Then the dead found us - not everyone was immune to the bites, and we lost another two. By the end of the winter, it was me and someone else."

Laura, he thought. Her name was Laura.

"Her name was Laura. We were... close, but never quite went to doing anything about it. There was no time, no space filled with less important things to worry about. Along the road up into the mountains we were ambushed by a couple of raiders looking for supplies. Normally I would have just let them take their cut and leave, but we had next to nothing. We wouldn't have made it another week if they got what they asked for. Laura went for her gun and..."

Ethan choked back a subdued sob at the memory, and he felt the warm and salty trace of tears seep into the corners of his mouth from tears he had not known had been shed.

"Arrow. Through the throat. She was dead a second after she hit the ground. I was able to fight them off, but that earned me a couple of those scars you saw back after Haven. I couldn't protect her by myself, and I couldn't protect you by myself either. If I had been out cutting firewood, or hunting, or any million other things the both of us need to shoulder just to stay with our heads above water you'd be dead Riley. Dead. I... I can't live with the weight of someone I..."

It was too late, the words had already formed.

"I can't live with knowing someone I love died because of me," he finished the thought, too caught in his own thoughts to even spare an ounce of blush at the admission. "And if I alone can't protect you, then I want to make sure that it falls to more than me to see it through. So... think on it. We have a few weeks, maybe a few months, to consider it.. but, yeah... I..."

Without another word, he stood, wiped at his cheeks, and fetched the platters atop the table...


 
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Morgan

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I’ll need more than that. I need food. I need to run. I need to get my strength back. I... Her counterpoints and arguments were welling up in her mind, and she could almost form them into words. But it was difficult. It was difficult because she had never really argued with Ethan. Not like this. Definitely not out of fear and anxiety. Two emotions, she was very aware, that had never gotten a hold over her as powerful as now. Two emotions that in her case often manifested themselves in angry words and frowning. Riley took a breath to begin talking but before she could, Ethan started.

Yes, he had told her this before. They had both told their stories of life before Haven. Had told each other how and when they ended up in Haven. Riley almost raised a hand to interrupt him and ask why he was telling her this again, but she quickly realized that there was more to the story this time. Shut up, Gray. She looked at him and knew immediately that he was struggling. As he continued, Riley found that where she had hardly been able to look at him before, now she couldn’t take her eyes off him. This was Ethan at his most vulnerable, she thought. This was one of those rare moments where really, truly dropped his guard. The chink in his armor. And Riley listened without saying a word, taking in the whole story. When he explained what had happened to Laura, she found that she had a tear in the corner of her eye. She sat there, nodding. It explained so many things. It was tragic and she wished she could take the pain away, but that was a wound she could never mend. And then she flinched.

What did he say?

In true Ethan fashion, he stood and tried to busy himself to escape the uncomfortable situation. Riley followed him with her eyes but didn’t let him get very far. She got up from her chair - considerably faster than she would have just a few weeks ago - and placed herself in front of him. Looking up at him, a few tears spilled down over her cheeks. Her expression was one of determination, despite the crying. She took the plates out of his hands and set them on the table.

“Someone you what?” Her voice trembled only a little bit, but she got it under control quickly. “Is that why you are so careful around me? Is that why you touch me as if I am made of glass?” Riley demanded, though she immediately regretted the tone in her voice. “Look…” She tried a different approach, closing her eyes for a moment before continuing. “I’m sorry about Laura. I really am. It was tragic and no one deserves anything like that. Least of all you.” She took his hands and squeezed them. “But…. Protecting me is not your job. It’s… You have to trust that I can protect myself. And that I have your back as well.” Riley was not sure she was doing a very good job at explaining. “I know this was a close call.” She looked down at her wound and up again. “But you can’t go around checking on me every other second, all of the time.” She knew that it would be difficult for him. Riley wanted to protect Ethan as well. But she could take care of herself. The incident with the stab wound was something else, something you couldn’t plan for. Yet it had happened nonetheless, and if she had been in Ethan’s shoes, she would probably feel exactly the same way. “We can’t plan for what happened. It was too random. “

Riley let go of his hands and cupped his face. She took a few breaths, blinking a few times to make her eyes stop stinging with the tears that threatened again. “And if you love me, then don’t you ever hold back. Don’t keep it from me.” Her left hand found the spot over his heart on his chest and she pulled his head down so his forehead could rest against hers. “If you do, I might forget I’m even human.”




The following weeks were spent productively. If they weren’t out fishing and hunting, they had plenty of things to do around the house. It took quite a while for Riley to get used to the idea of leaving, but as she healed and began to venture outside more and more, it seemed less and less frightening. Ethan played a large part in that as well. He was there to reason with her and encourage her. When fishing and foraging was good, they ate in an attempt at gaining some weight. In this they also succeeded. When Riley felt she was ready for it, she began her mission to get her body back in shape. Not only had she been weakened from her injuries, but the lack of food had not helped either of them. When she did run, it was by the lake and always within view of the cabin. It was hard work to begin with, but she knew all there was to do was keep going. And it paid off. Every time she ran or worked out, she felt stronger.

It was after one such session by the lake that she came back inside, cheeks red and with her done in its signature tight braid. They had begun preparing for leaving, inspecting all the gear they had and wanted to bring. Some of it was in poor condition and was useless, but they were generally good at taking care of their things which meant that most of what they had brought to the cabin, was still in decent condition. Riley slipped out of her boots and sat down at the table, breathing heavily from her run. On it lay a couple of maps upon which were drawn lines, circles and even a scribbled note here and there. So far, both of them agreed to head west. But where exactly they would go, they were not sure.

 

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Life continued on after the argument, picking up a pace much like it had been before Riley's injury. The tension between Ethan and Riley had taken well over a week to dissipate, broken only when, rather than protest her heading out on her own to build back up her strength, Ethan had instead presented Riley with a fresh polishing and maintenance on her handgun as a token of belief in her ability to defend herself.

Though the air was still chill and snow still hung to the landscape, the air was beginning to warm from inhospitable to simply uncomfortable. Enough so that the pair felt comfortable taking extended hunting trips, both to bolster Riley's endurance and offer themselves respite from their wintery prison atop the hill overlooking the lake. They bagged mostly rabbits and squirrels, enough to add much-needed variety to their various canned rations they still scrounged up in town and the fish they managed to wrangle from the icy lake.

With the increasing temperatures came renewed waves of lurkers, waking from their dulled hibernation to prowl about for new food. On a few evenings Ethan and Riley took to the town street to lure and remove a handful of them that prowled too close to their marked hunting trails or abode. Those they burned on the opposite shore of the lake once they had collected enough to cart off in a small wagon, the ones they encountered on their trails they avoided or killed and left to decompose.

In the evenings they gathered together what maps they had and plotted their route, relying heavily on Riley's skills at analyzing routes to pick the quickest ones. They had both agreed early to head towards Texas to avoid another grisly winter should they get caught out in the cold before reaching a suitable home, but that left much to discussion in between their start and end. Cities were marked off with a one hundred mile radius, both to avoid clogged ruins of streets and the droves of the walking dead that doubtless still lurked in and about the former hubs of society.

One evening, after Riley returned from one of her evening jogs and laid down her weapons and changed into fresh garments, Ethan motioned her over and gestured to a spot on the map. It was due a month's travel or so south from their current position and would take them more or less down the Appalachian Mountains and through its opening west, cutting through Tennessee before venturing down through Arkansas and then eventually around Corpus Christi in Texas.

"I think this might be the one we take," he said after walking Riley through the route in the broad strokes, finger coming to rest on the Texan coast hugging the Gulf of Mexico. "We'll need to be careful around Nashville and Chatanooga, but I think there's about a twenty mile corridor we can pass in relative safety once we clear the mountains. I heard Atlanta's got a nasty crowd there after the government collapsed, but I'm not sure they could've survived with so many lurkers around."

He waved his own comment aside, tracing from Nashville through Arkansas.

"Fortunately with temperatures this low, Arkansas' summer won't be nearly so brutal when we pass through it. All goes well, we should be in Corpus Christi come autumn. Gives us time to settle in for winter on the coast, find a good spot with plenty of access to the sea and decent land for crops if we find seeds. After that, we can start making real strives to secure ourselves or go looking for others."


 
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She was nodding along as he took her through the route. They had been staring at maps for some nights now and it was beginning to make her restless. It was partially because she knew which route they were likely to take - and so did Ethan - but she was hesitant in saying it out loud. Riley was also aware of why that was. Although she had been working very hard on burying her worries about leaving and accepting it, and listening to Ethan’s reassurances, the thought still made her a little anxious. That was why she hadn’t yet been able to announce her agreement with their route, even though she did agree.

Now it was different, however. They had planned it down to the smallest detail possible. Given the nature of their circumstances, it was impossible to plan everything perfectly. This was not a road trip or a hiking vacation. There were far too many unknown factors that you could not possibly account for, in a world filled with monstrous, walking corpses that only wanted to tear the flesh from your bones. But she had prepared for having to change their route. Sometimes she would remind herself of the same words she had told Ethan. They had to persevere. Her physical strength was returning. Now she needed the strength of her mind to come back. And although she was not looking forward to leaving, she had come a long way already. The jogs in front of the house and the simple activities like fishing and hunting helped. Going into town and scavenging and luring the dead away had been terrifying the first time, but it got easier and she felt stronger and stronger.

Now she sat at the table, dressed in black cargo pants, thick wool socks and an extremely comfortable wool sweater she had found recently. It was in good condition and after a wash or two, it was a welcome addition to her limited wardrobe. Her eyes followed Ethan’s finger as it traced over the map. There were several circled points of interest along it, but the thick red line that was to be their route was their main goal. It was a long journey ahead of them, but at least it was well planned. Nodding, she leaned in and went over the route meticulously from start to finish. Something she had done many times before.

“I can’t think of any changes I want to make.” Riley said when she was done and leaned back in her chair. “I agree. That’s the route we take.” In her head she went over the cities mentioned and circled on the maps. Years ago, when she had wanted to take her friend on a road trip, these were places she would have likely stopped to see and experience. Now they were places she wanted to avoid. “I think it’s a good plan,” Until something goes wrong. She almost said it out loud as a joke, but was unsure of how Ethan would take it.
“But when were you thinking we would leave? I’m feeling a lot better. I was thinking we might want the snow to start clearing before we go.”

Riley looked out the window briefly and then into the fire that was burning in the fireplace. The thought of going south was nice because winter had been so hard for them here. But summer meant heat and humidity. It meant the sickening stench of rotting corpses. A couple of years ago, on a hunting trip that had taken her too far away from Haven, she had found an old barn. The doors had been barred and someone had painted ‘Do not open’ on them. Riley had been curious, of course. The sight and smell of the many dead creatures inside would stick with her for years. It had been during the summer and whenever she thought of summer, she would always think of that.

“Years ago I used to love winter. I like the cold. I don’t do too well in the heat.” Riley ran a hand through her hair and sighed. Absentmindedly, that same hand fell and came to rest against her side where her healing wound was. “I think that might have changed.”


 

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"In Texas I used to look forward to winter too, after those long brutal summers," Ethan said, a soft smile tugging at the corner of his lips that swiftly faded. "What a silly thing to take for granted - enjoying a season that for thousands of years was brutal and unpleasant. But fuck, what I wouldn't give for one of those cheap hot chocolate packets - Swiss Miss, with those really crunch marshmallows."

He made ovals with his fingers as if to emphasize their shape, frown creasing back into a smile, mirrored for the briefest instant by Riley.

"Yeah, you know which ones I'm talking about," he added, letting the sentence drift into a silence that was neither awkward nor amicable, reminding him of the silence that had engulfed him in Riley's absence and sending a shudder down his spine. "But, to answer your question - I think we can wait it out 'til spring starts officially, not sure marchin' down while there's still ice blocking the passes is the best plan."

That night passed in relative quiet, as most of their nights did now. There was not quite a lingering tension between them, but Ethan could sense Riley's hesitancy. It pained him to see her so distraught, but every attempt at confirming their plan had so far ended in her agreement. Part of him suspected she was simply playing along for fear of upsetting him, and so they had skirted around the issue in their planning. They cleaned up and prepared their newly bolstered defenses including barricades at the door and windows before turning in for the night.



The following weeks passed in much the same manner as the ones that had come before. Ethan began taking longer trips into the surrounding cabins about the lake to forage for supplies, often returning with scraps of canned food and the odd tool or two that when coupled with their own assortment left them with a handful of properly functioning pieces of equipment. They began tracing their planned route to as detailed a level as they could with the aid of Riley's acumen for reading maps, with estimated times they would reach key milestones to keep from being caught in another winter along the road.

Riley's condition continued to improve, and as the ice and snow disappeared and food returned to rest within its normal bounds of scarcity, the rate of her improvement accelerated. By the time, as to the best of their ability to calculate, March began both she and Ethan had almost fully recovered from the worst of winter's woes and Riley's injury had all but become a shadow of the past. It left in its wake a wheeled, wicked scar that stood out taut and white across her steadily increasing sun-kissed skin and often whatever satisfaction Ethan derived in seeing traces of Riley's skin was dashed by the reminder of that night and the weeks that had followed it.

With spring's arrival came more of the dead, wandering down from the mountains as more routes thawed and gave them passage to the valleys below. As the years had gone by and they were left without as much food, the lurkers' numbers come the spring were a fraction of what they were after the first few winters. Still, for every lurker that keeled over or became a sleeper, there were still at least two or three that had managed to survive it seemed. So in addition to their usual supply runs, Ethan and Riley took to luring and clearing the dead in the town square twice a week before disposing of their bodies further north along the lake in what had once been a church.

When at last March seemed to come to its close, and the last of the yellow straw-like grass and dead trees began to bloom into a verdant green, they appeared to be ready to depart. One evening, washing down their catch of the day with a cheap bottle of communion wine they had found in the church and enjoying the end to a particularly grueling week of skirmishing with lurkers with but only the faintest trace of that undercurrent of tension still lingering, Ethan had rolled close to Riley and planted a kiss on her lips for the first time since their argument. He could taste the trace of wine on her lips, barely trace that scent of pine on her hair. He retreated from the gesture, unsure how to gauge Riley's reaction, and for a second he feared the tension had returned...
 

Morgan

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There had been such a strange energy between them. Or so Riley had thought. Whenever she would look at Ethan to try and figure out if she was right and whether he felt the same, he had looked back at her and she would give him a brief, awkward smile and then occupy herself with something, leaving her none the wiser. It had lessened over time, for sure, and when Ethan had kissed her that night she had thought it would all go away. Riley had felt that same electric tingle run down her spine, just like the first time they had kissed. Her heart had fluttered and threatened to beat its way out of her chest, but at the same time she had let out a breath and felt a wave of calm wash over her, and she felt as though the covers and Ethan’s embrace tightened around her and then… Then he had pulled away. All the calm and warmth left her slowly, and Riley had wondered what it had meant.

Frustrated and unsure about what she should do or say, she had continued in the same way since the injury. Smiled at him, talked to him, planned with him, helped and worked, but didn’t mention the elephant in the room. And although the tension between them was not nearly as unbearable as before, Riley still found herself wondering and over-analyzing. At the end of the day she was no closer to a conclusion or a solution and found herself frustrated, and that made her feel like she was being over-dramatic, which in turn made her feel silly because the challenges they both faced were so infinitely more real and dangerous and terrifying than her complicated emotions.

These were the thoughts running through her mind as she, more aggressively than she had intended, was packing equipment into her back. She had been repairing straps and other damaged parts of their backpacks so they were ready. Riley, acutely aware of how important it was to pack your things correctly, was doing a good job of packing everything they couldn’t live without on their journey, neatly and in the right order. Thankfully, the past few days had been busy with preparing, so the only time where she had been anxious about leaving was when she lay in bed, staring at Ethan while he was sleeping. She was not as nervous as she had been initially, but there was still a lingering worry in the back of her mind. Somehow, the fact that winter was over and spring had taken hold helped. It was as if, in a world overrun with death, life had found a way and breathed color into everything around them. Riley even had to admit that when the spring sun hit her face, she couldn’t wait to put on her boots and go.

If only the dead weren’t out there, trying to eat us. She had hardly finished that thought before she put her head in her hands, chuckling at the absurdity of it. The dead were actually out there, wanting to eat them. As if she was in one of those horror movies from when her parents were young. “Fuck…” She breathed, shaking her head. At the same time she heard Ethan on the porch outside.

“I’m almost done packing.” Riley said as soon as she heard the door open behind her. With Ethan, in came the scent of fresh air and spring and him. She turned and looked at him, smiled and then zipped a pocket on her own pack shut. “I made room for the last few things we won’t be packing until we leave.” She turned around now to fully face him. “I think we’re pretty much ready.” Riley shrugged, having gone over her list, both the one in her head and the one she had written down, countless times by now. There was a moment of silence as Ethan took off his jacket and boots. “Dinner is simmering. Don’t worry - it’s not fish soup.”



 
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The night passed in quiet anticipation, one that was was as palpable to both the house's inhabitants as it was unnerving to behold. For Ethan's part, he wandered about after they had finished a dinner of bits of dried venison rehydrated in fish stock with an odd air of nostalgia clinging to him. He recounted with a warm smile their first night here, with winter in pursuit on their heels. Their first kiss on the balcony just a few paces off from where they had washed up their dishes before packing them. Rose-hued abandonment had even managed to hold momentarily as he viewed the patchy, rust-brown splotches of blood along the staircase from their altercation with those two men what felt like half a lifetime ago.

She almost died that night, Ethan reminded himself, forcing his legs to carry him away from the entryway and to the living room they rarely used. And now things are different. You need to leave. You need to keep her alive.


It struck him as strange, still, as the nostalgia was replaced with a distinct, aching hollowness, that he never felt for Haven what he felt for this house. Mangled in the complex concoction of emotions boiling to the surface rested distant echoes of moving from town to town as a child. He felt now as he had felt then - that same realization of impermanence, of the new coming to replace the old, no matter how cherished the old might have been. He supposed then, as he wandered about the living room back to the balcony, that this was the source of the hollow feeling that persisted inside him. He and Riley had made a life here, sad and difficult as it had been at times, but still filled with fleeting moments of joy.

Riley was there, overlooking the lake when he stepped out onto the stable portion of the balcony, wincing as its boards creaked underfoot. Riley was unfazed, but he noted with a quick flash of acute pain that her knuckles tensed and her head had tilted back such that he caught a passing look of the corner of her left eye. Words were forming on his tongue, but none of them felt right. And whether it was the nostalgia, or the hollowness, or some other part of him Ethan was unaware of, the silence felt amicable. Rather than let his words shatter it as gracelessly as a hammer to glass, Ethan instead joined Riley at the edge of the balcony and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, kissing her forehead gently.

Time stood still as they lingered there, neither speaking, as if words would make the reality of their departure tomorrow real.

"We'll make it," Ethan finally said, mind urging his mouth to speak of an accord that was not entirely his own. "We have each other, and that's enough. It always has been, and... and it always will be."



The weight of a pack felt unfamiliar and strange as Ethan adjusted it for what felt to be the hundredth time that day. At first it had been a welcome unfamiliarity, one that brought with it the excitement of change and new beginnings. Such excitement was not long-lived, for after the first hour on the road it dawned upon Ethan that for all the safety of their lakeside lodging the world beyond was still a dangerous place and he berated himself for his foolish dive into self-satisfying fantasy. Snapped back into the same sort of awareness he had cultivated during his trips beyond Haven's walls, Ethan had marched alongside Riley, spirits high but laced with a healthy dose of caution.

Their road took them southwest first, around the southern edge of the lake before connecting with the remnants of what had once been a major roadway. Here the grass stood to their waists, fluttering in the cool spring wind that blew in from the north alongside light grey clouds. About them sat the reminders of days gone by - lines of rusted-out hulks of cars and semi trailers interspersed throughout the ruins of concrete and steel dividers. Ethan and Riley took to walking atop the cars where they could for fear of sleepers in the grass below.

All was going well to plan until the first drops of rain began to fall from their backs, developing into a spring rainstorm before much longer, driving them to the fringes of the road lined with trees to seek shelter from the gentle, but copious, droplets. Ethan found solace in the satisfying, heavy plop each droplet left as it struck the ground or roof of a rusted hulk but the dampness that now clung to his clothes and his pack added more unwelcome weight.

I suppose I should be thankful, he reminded himself. For a week or two from now, this pack will be much lighter.

They had packed salted and dried bits of meat and fish with them, as well as whatever canned goods they had managed to scrounge up. Ethan carried with him the rifle from Haven as well as his crossbow, a toolbelt wrapped about his waist lined with a hammer and crowbar. Riley was similarly encumbered, but after spending much of early spring rebuilding their strength, the pack's weight was as familiar to them both as it had been before Haven's fall.

As the rainstorm came and went, leaving the grass covered in a fresh coating of dew that glistened in the afternoon sun, the humidity blossomed, leaving Ethan's forehead covered in a film of sweat before long. Along with the fresh air and scent of new rainfall came a handful of lurkers, which drove Ethan and Riley into the woods along the road proper to avoid them. A handful of lurkers became a pack, roaming the road in their curious habit of unspoken cooperation, and by the time the sun was setting the two had counted perhaps twenty lurkers between them along the road. As they made camp that night, they did so a full mile off the main interstate in the remnants of a gas station, tucked away in its supply closet for fear of leaving themselves exposed with so many of the dead around.

The pair sat silently, having barricaded the door with the crowbar, huddled about a solar-powered flashlight covered in a thick blanket to dim its light output. Despite the coming of spring, the nights were still chill, and they sat huddled together in the damp, chill closet, both watching the door with knives not far out of reach.

"We'll need to keep an eye out on that pack," Ethan said, voice hushed. "Hopefully we aren't seeing the fringes of a proper horde that's come down from the mountains, but either way, I don't feel like fighting off twenty or so of them. We could do it with the rifle and our handguns and hand weapons if we find a good spot to make a stand, but if there's more of them and we bring them down on us with guns, might be we'll make it another day at most."


 
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From the moment they set out, Riley had decided to be positive about it and be determined. It had worked, mostly. There was still the nagging sensation that caused her to look over her shoulder from time to time, but putting one foot in front of the other was easier than she had thought. Or feared, perhaps. Either way, Riley found herself walking alongside Ethan, less afraid and more hopeful than she thought she would have been, though still with a keen eye on their surroundings. Another thing that surprised her, was how quickly she got used to walking for a long time with her pack. She had feared that the added weight would feel strange and wear her down and that she would have blisters on her feet after the first few miles. But the weight of the pack didn’t bother her that much, and there were no blisters that she could feel. So, with each mile they walked, the more the knot of worry in her stomach loosened.

That was why she was in good spirits when they finally made camp for the night - despite the fact that there were walkers not that far away. Now, in the small supply closet where they would spend the night, she had hung up her jacket and sweater so they might dry off a little bit before they continued in the morning. Riley tried to forget about the dead that she hoped would stumble their way in the opposite direction of the gas station. Goosebumps arose on the exposed skin of her arms, and she moved ever so slightly closer to Ethan. She raised her canteen to her lips and drank from it.

“We shouldn’t take the chance.” She nodded, not even wanting to consider the fact that there might be a horde nearby. That was terrifying. She thought back to when they had fled Haven, when they had fought the dead in some of the buildings they had searched for supplies. Riley had stabbed one in the head back then, and she could still hear the sound of its snapping jaws as it had tried to bite into her flesh, if she focused hard enough. She was thankful that they had better weapons now, so they didn’t have to fight them up close. Still, Riley preferred to not fight them at all.

That day they had made good progress. They had set a decent pace and only after the rainstorm had they walked a little slower. It felt good to sit down and relax, although she was still listening to any sounds coming from the other side of the door. Just like she knew Ethan was. He hadn’t mentioned anything regarding how she felt leaving the lakehouse, which Riley appreciated. Instead, they had talked about so many other things. Small things, important things, silly things. And in the end, time had passed and the dark and the chill approached. There, in the dim light of their flashlight, she was looking at one of her maps. Riley was dotting the route they had travelled so far, and tried to get an idea of how far they could travel each day if they kept up the pace.

“Today was good.” She finally said, placing the map on the floor at her side. “We put some miles behind us. I think we did good, considering…” Riley paused and shrugged. “Considering we haven’t walked this far, with our packs, in a long time.” She looked at Ethan and ventured a small smile. “I think we should try to keep up this pace. For as long as we can, at least. Something always happens that throws you off course, but... “ She shrugged again, smirking and shaking her head. “That seems to happen more often than not.” When Riley thought back, it seemed that most of the plans they made always had to be changed at some point, because they had to go by a different route or they encountered walkers or something entirely different. “For now, let’s stick to the route.” Riley tapped the map on the ground and looked back up at him. “Keep an eye on those things out there, but… Otherwise stick to the plan.”

 

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The night passed in relative calm, both Ethan and Riley trading shifts covering the doorway with hand weapons at the ready. During his shift, Ethan had hazarded a look out from the disheveled gas station. He could just barely remember wandering gas station aisles on nights like this, the fluorescent lights simultaneously obnoxiously bright and yet perfectly suited to creating deep shadows that made details difficult to discern. The front of the store had been blown in, the shelves blown over in a rusted pile of junk and rubble picked clean of all valuables.

Ethan hunched and picked up a mud-plastered wrapper, long bleached by the sun of all recognizable branding but it had the size and shape of a candy bar wrapper. How long has it been since he had eaten one, Ethan wondered as he let the wrapper fall to the ground below, thought leaving his head with as much abandon as the wrapper fluttering to the floor. Outside the groans and moans of the dead echoed faintly and from all directions. His eyes peered out through the hole in the storefront and into the darkness, wondering how many of them wandered just out of view.

Ethan shook himself mentally and ventured back towards the closet he and Riley occupied, shuffling back through the door and next to Riley. Day was slow in arriving, but eventually the glow of the sun was betrayed through the crack between the door and the floor and the holes in the ceiling above. Rays of light flitted down, slicing through floating dust that made the sunlight look like tiny spears in the dark. Ethan nudged Riley awake, and the two gathered their belongings before venturing out of the gas station and back along the road. The air was cold and clammy beholden to the rain from the day before, and a faint mist prevailed for much of the morning until it receded to the tree tops as the sun burned it out.

The day passed much as the first had, with the two keeping mostly to the fringes of the road, which as they ventured further from the lake took on appearances more akin to what roads had been years before. Still overgrown and cracked in dozens of places, they were at least sturdy underfoot and left fewer chances to be snagged by a crawling lurker. Not that the lurkers needed much help in that regard - the road was as littered with them on the second day as the first, wandering about in small clusters of three or four. Their movements were aimless, often guiding them to bump into rusted out cars and stop before turning around and venturing off in the other direction. Still, Ethan and Riley gave them a wide breadth of space, preferring to keep to the fringes of the road.

As they went, they kept crossbows and knives never far from reach. About midday, the two had to resort to clearing three lurkers ahead of them along a narrow stretch of road upon either side of which rested steep cliffsides that would have taken hours to traverse. After their impromptu engagement, the two took a pause to collect their spent arrows and partake in a brief, unsatisfying lunch of half a can of beans each.

Come the end of the second day, the two had taken up shelter in a boarded up house that rested on one end of the road. They had snuck through a hole in its baseboards and up into an empty house that looked as though it had been left long before the end of the world. They boarded up their entrance with a bit of furniture before settling in to the house after clearing the worst of the insects and scaring off whatever small rodents like mice and rats there were. They were left with a one bedroom shack, whose defining features such as kitchen and bathroom had long eroded into a nebulous, undefined space. There were several layers of boards at the windows and the remnants of a couch, bed, and oven but otherwise the room lay bare of everything down to even what had clearly once been carpet judging by the bits of worn and blackened adhesive that rest in patches about the floor.

As they had the night before, the two covered their flashlights in several layers of cloth and kept clear of the windows after placing more to blockade their entranceway. Outside, the sounds of lurkers were more apparent than they were the night before, with a handful of them heard bumping into the walls or scratching aimlessly at the windows.

"I hated when they learned they could scare people into making noise," Ethan muttered softly, almost directly into Riley's ear as they sat once again side by side. "Just a casual scratch at the door... someone shrieks..."

He shuddered.

"We need to be careful the next few days. We're losing pace, which is fine - but it's how many might be blocking our routes along the way that scare me."


 
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It wasn’t so much the proximity that caused her to sit up straighter. They had been sitting next to each other for a while. It wasn’t the closeness that sent a tingle down her spine either. It was the sensation of Ethan’s breath against her skin and so close to her ear. Slowly, she turned her head to look at him and blinked once before she realized that she was supposed to answer him. She took a sip of her canteen and cleared her throat.

“I never thought they would learn anything, back… When all this started.” Riley said and shrugged. “I always thought they were dumb and only able to focus on one thing.” The advantages the walking corpses had over living humans was how they felt no pain, they would keep running at you to get you and then there were a lot of them. If you were spotted by one and they let out a gargling scream then any dead thing nearby would come rushing immediately. That had killed so many people. If they kept learning things, Riley and Ethan - and the rest of humanity - would be at an even greater disadvantage. “Do you think we’ll ever be rid of them?” Riley put her head on Ethan’s shoulder. “It seems so impossible… I mean, I know we haven’t been in this… This World of the Dead for very many years, but…” Riley leaned away again and shook her head. She took another sip of water and chuckled. “I guess I’m trying to say that I’m sick of being chased by the dead all the time.” And even now, years after the Fall, she still was not used to saying things like that.

She shook her head, set her canteen down and reached for her backpack. From it she pulled a map and unfolded it gently on the floor. Adjusting her flashlight, there was enough light for her to read it. She had marked their main route with a thick red line and potential backup routes with a blue and a green one. Tracing the distance they had covered so far, she made a small mark where she was pretty sure they were now. Then she moved her hand, traced the remaining distance they had yet to go, raised an eyebrow and sighed. They had a long journey ahead of them.

“If we keep the same pace as today, we should be able to make it here before it gets dark tomorrow.” She pointed at a spot on the map, to show Ethan. “If we don’t run into any trouble.” Riley bobbed her head from side to side as she thought. It was rarely easy to estimate how far they would make it the next day because they never knew what awaited them. But Ethan knew that just as well as she did and they both accepted it, but they had to have something to go off of. So, whether they would make it to the point Riley had marked for them, neither of them knew. Still, it would remain their goal.

With one hand on the map, trying to commit alternative routes for the next day to memory, the other hand found the scar from the knife wound. It wasn’t exactly sore and she was not bothered by it when they walked, but the skin itself felt strange, as scar tissue often did. When she traced a finger over it, it felt a little numb but at least there was no pain. Riley suddenly smiled and looked from the map and up at Ethan. “I forgot to tell you, you did a decent job of stitching me up.” She lifted her shirt up and revealed the scar, ran a finger over it and nodded. “Your needlework isn’t half-bad.”


 

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"Ah well, you could say I've had a good role model," Ethan replied with an uncharacteristically sheepish grin, hand rubbing at the back of his neck where his hair had begun to grow into unruly strands. "Good to see it's scarred over - I mean, that it healed alright in the end. You had me worried there, even after you were back on your feet."

A silence built between them, and Ethan suspected it was in part tied to Riley's lingering reluctance to leave. Part of him wanted to turn back, to return to days spent fishing and foraging. In the weeks that had followed Riley's injury, no more strangers had happened upon them in the night, but then someone out there knew there were people by the lake. Perhaps they had been the same that had razed Haven for another month's worth of supplies. Perhaps not. The longer his thoughts dwelled on this unspoken block between them, the more he came to realize he was staring blankly at Riley's wound. At a confused glance from her, he shook himself and nodded as she lowered her shirt to cover the wound.

"I think I'm going to turn in early," he said, doing his best to keep his tone light. "You know, make sure we're ready to hit the road right at dawn for when things inevitably go a little wrong."

Again that silence returned, with relief only found in the soft rustling of their packs and bedrolls. The thuds and cracks of branches outside as the dead wandered about had become background noise to Ethan: if they were in any real danger, they would know. Sleep came slowly and uneasily, wracked with shapeless nightmares that would often wrench Ethan from his slumber only to fade into nothingness as soon as they had come. When the dawn sunlight began to creep through the cracks in the boarded windows, Ethan had been awake for an hour or so, silently packing up both his and Riley's pack as to keep her undisturbed.

When she awoke and they shared a meager breakfast consisting of leftovers from their canned food the night before. When they had both eaten their fill, they left the same way they had come, slipping past a crowd of lurkers that had gathered along the facet of the house that faced what had once been the road. They ventured back into the trees and resumed their steady pace as they had in the previous days. Alongside the chirps of birds and din of insects, which the lurkers had long grown accustomed to ignoring, came the low and unsettling din of lurkers' groans. A nervous tension built in Ethan's gut, and the hair along his arms prickled on edge. Was it a premonition, or just tiredness mingling with a healthy since of caution?

To be safe, Ethan unshouldered his crossbow and fetched a bolt to notch in a pinch. Riley had noticed it too and kept her weapon near as they advanced, slower now to keep from snapping twigs underfoot or crunching leftover bits of glass or gravel. All about them the signs of the dead were growing ever-evident from the increasing volume of groans, the sounds of shuffling footsteps, and eerie silhouettes broken out along the road.

The day progressed at a measured pace, much slower than the one they had set out for themselves when first they charted their course through the mountains and foothills. Ethan grimaced to himself, but kept his lips shut: they had built in time for just such a slowdown, but as they went along the pair were forced to greater lengths to remain hidden. Come the mid afternoon they stumbled upon an unmarked structure that once might have been a fast food restaurant off the main road exit. By unspoken agreement, they slipped through the growing crowd of the dead and into the building. Once inside, they cleared the main floor, finding nothing but rats and birds scampering and fluttering about. They rushed to the back, through the ankle-high litter and grime and into what might have once been a manager's office.

It was a crammed space, stripped of furniture and likewise coated in a thick layer of dust and grime. Unlike the space outside, nature had not yet totally reclaimed the office. Though moss and mold grew in damp corners, there was no grass underfoot, and the ceiling, though soft to the touch as Ethan reached up to inspect a low-hanging ceiling tile, had not yet given in entirely to years of exposure.

"We need to find another way through," he said, tone low as Riley shut the door behind her. "I think we might be heading towards something bad. There are a lot of lurkers on the road. Too many for this to just be par for the course. I'm thinking a bunch of them came down in the spring thaws, just jumbled up, and are on their way down and west. Like us.. only, well."

He gestured vaguely at the air, trying to keep the subdued panic from his tone.

"It just so happens they're crowding up the only roads we can use through the passes, too."

He stopped, then, raising a hand to cut off Riley's response.

"Wait, do you hear that? It sounds like there's one in here rummaging about..."


 
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They had spent a lot of time together. That was clear for obvious reasons, but specifically by the way Riley noticed the change in Ethan’s stature even before he took his crossbow into his hands and fished out a bolt. She was certain neither of them could put into words what it was they felt, but both of them felt something. And both of them had learned to react to it years ago. He was always alert when they travelled, but when in this mode he was hyper-aware of his surroundings, knowing exactly where he set his feet and listening intensely for any sounds that might mean danger close. Riley knew exactly how it was to be in that state of mind, but she immediately recognized the change in his posture and the sudden, intense quiet.

This happened on more than one occasion as they travelled. Constantly, Riley battled annoyance that they could not keep up the pace she would have preferred, but there was nothing she could do about it. When they had to progress slowly instead, she kept her head down, stayed quiet and followed Ethan. At the same time, she did what she could to commit to memory, the locations of the greater numbers of lurkers they came across. Each time they ran into a larger group, which became increasingly frequent, so too did the uneasy feeling she had creep to the forefront of her thoughts. Riley knew Ethan was thinking the same as she was, but neither of them said anything. When they came upon the building that would shelter them from the dead, their steps became more urgent although still careful. When they entered the old office, both took breaths of relief.

No argument came from her at his words. For a few hours, she had been thinking the same thing. Or at least, she had prepared herself for the fact. At the same time, she had hoped with all her heart that this wouldn't happen. But as they had learned quickly during their time together: nothing ever really went according to plan. So, Riley had already fished out one of her maps from her pack, having set the latter down on the ground, leaning against a desk.

"Wait, do you hear that? It sounds like there's one in here rummaging about..."

In one rapid motion, she threw the map onto the desk next to her pack and drew her knife with her right hand. She held it close to her chest, ready to stab. She was not keen on using her pistol for two reasons. One, it was loud and two, it might attract more of the dead. Ethan had his crossbow which was both quiet and efficient.

“Where?” Riley whispered, looking toward Ethan. Then she heard a sound from the other side of the desk where her map and pack were sitting. Pointing, she began moving slowly, quietly. Then the labored, rattling breath could be heard. It was the sound of one of those things waking up. A few more steps and Riley could see it. It’s grey-ish green flesh had fallen off in large parts of its left side. The jaw hung open and its left eye was missing. The other one moved slowly in its socket. It was on the ground moving slowly and with difficulty. An easy target. Riley sighed with relief, looked at Ethan and then pointed at the lurker. The relieved smile that found its way onto her face was very brief. When bony fingers closed around her ankle, her expression turned into one of horror. Before she could make a sound, it appeared from its cover under litter and mess. Riley managed to lock eyes with Ethan for a second before she went over. The corpse tugged at her leg, and crawled out further, inching closer to Riley. Before she planted her heel in its ruined face, she heard a gurgling sound coming from its throat. When she kicked it, she managed to wriggle out of its grasp and crawl backwards, knife still clutched tightly in her hand.


 

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It took less than five seconds, but to Ethan it felt like half an hour. The hand that reached out from the rubble. The way Riley lashed out with her foot and was suddenly on the ground. He raised the crossbow and loosed the bolt at the lurker. Its head snapped backward, spraying blackish thick blood across the floor as its companions continued to lurch forward, letting loose a raspy call. Ethan grimaced and hunched down, hoisting Riley to her feet and to the side so that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

He drew his knife and as the pair of lurkers approached they stopped forward in lockstep, knives flashing. Riley stabbed downward at the prone lurker and Ethan slashed at the upright one. A few more tense seconds passed and it was over, a trio of still corpses laying about the floor of the once-restaurant. Ethan stood there, shaking as he wiped clean his knife on a bit of cloth clinging to the lurker and looked to Riley.

"You clean?" He asked.

When Riley nodded, he let loose a shaking breath and nodded. Outside, more lurkers were roaming about, drawn to the sounds of conflict. They had yet to pinpoint its source, but more of them were pouring on from the road below through the exit and about the trees around them. Ethan hunched down out of sight of the windows and ventured back towards their makeshift shelter, beckoning for Riley to do the same. Once back inside, he shut the door behind them and wedged a roll of cloth beneath the door from his pack. He glanced up at the partially collapsed ceiling, shaking his head - no chance they could climb through that to the roof if they needed.

"We don't have much time to make a choice," he said. "We need to press on through the night if we can, or hunker down here and avoid making a single sound. I don't know if this door holds up to any of them, or for how long, but I also don't like our odds finding our way safe in the dark."


 
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Riley was doing her best to calm her breathing. The adrenaline that was coursing through her veins was making it difficult, but she found that, compared to when they had fled Haven, she recovered more quickly now. The sudden rush of adrenaline was not something she could help. It was a natural reaction. But the two of them had been through so many difficult and life-threatening scenarios that they knew what to expect. The way her hands trembled after having fought the dead was familiar now. Still not exactly pleasant, but no longer a surprise. It was strange to think how quickly human beings could adjust to new conditions and surroundings.

With a shake of her head, she brought her hand to her forehead and inhaled deeply before exhaling a few seconds later. She nodded, knowing that Ethan was right, but liking neither option. It was hard to judge which was the better option because both of them seemed to put them in great danger. Riley sheathed her knife and leaned back against the wall before she looked up at Ethan.

"I don't know…" came her reply, useless as it was. But then she shrugged and let her thoughts be heard. "If we stay here will we be able to rest? If we don't, we will have little strength in the morning." Riley shrugged. They could take turns staying awake, but it might take a toll on them nevertheless. "That is, if they don't get through that door." Which, although she did not want to say it out loud, she was relatively certain they would, if they heard them. "And we can't be sure they'll be gone in the morning, either." Riley said, unsure if she had helped the situation by voicing her concerns. "Look, I know moving in the dark is reckless, dangerous and well… scary." Riley said with a sigh and raised an eyebrow, wondering what Ethan was thinking. "I really don't want to fucking die in here. I'd rather have a fighting chance out there. I say we go." She was unsure what his opinion was. But her reasoning was simple. There were too many unknowns in this, but it would be better to have a chance out there than being overwhelmed in this small room, where they were guaranteed to die should the dead find them. And if they were lucky, they might have a little bit of moonlight to help them navigate.

With another deep exhale she raised her foot so she could rub the spot on her ankle where the dead thing had closed its bony fingers around her. She could still feel it. It made her shiver. They had such strength in them still, despite not really being alive. And the noise it made when their teeth snapped shut as they but at their prey made her feel sick. It was a disgusting noise and it had accompanied visions of her own death in her dreams many times. Riley knew that whatever happened in their lives, even if she and Ethan found a place where they could live in safety for years to come, she would still be haunted by memories like that.

 

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"Let's go, then," Ethan said.

He took in a deep breath, willing the fear nagging at the back of his mind deeper into silence. He busied his hands with loading a new bolt in his crossbow to keep them from shaking. Weapon ready, he hunched low and made for the door, signaling for Riley to follow behind. Raspy moans and groans flitted through the windows and walls from outside, broken up by the shuffling of directionless feet. He was distantly aware of the subdued throb of fear pulsing through his veins, but the hard steel of instinct clamped down tight until there was nothing left of Ethan.

Once he reached the door, Ethan gently prodded it with an outstretched hand. It gave way without much resistance, hinges creaking loudly. He grimaced and pushed harder, the groan of rust and wear playing its song loudly for a split second before the din of the lurkers about them returned. A handful of curious lurkers began shuffling towards them, drawn to the noise. Without hesitation, Ethan rushed through the open doorway, crossbow clutched in both hands in a ready stance. More lurkers came to the sudden noise of rushed footsteps, drawn from the darkness in a hunting pack. Ethan reached the highway exit they had taken up to their would-be shelter and wheeled about, loosing a bolt at a lurker swiping for Riley.

Before the walking corpse had the time to stagger forward and collapse to the ground, Ethan had planted the crossbow down and was already pulling back to ready another bolt. Tired muscles sent an echoed scream of protest, barely registering past the firm steel of survival sheltering Ethan's mind from intrusive thoughts. Riley had caught up to him by the time he had readied the next bolt, and with her a trio of lurkers at the head of a pack stretching back dozens into the darkness beyond. Ethan stepped back, loosing another bolt at the closest of the three before pirouetting on the spot and waving for Riley to follow.

They sprinted down the ramp and back onto the highway below, nestled in the light cover the cars provided. Ethan shuffled forward, hunching low to break immediate line of sight to the lurkers chasing them from the ramp above. He waited for Riley to catch up before the two began to run low towards the opposite end of the road, where a patch of trees would conceal them better than the cars could. The lurkers along the road had noticed their presence, and before long a trail of them were following the pair as they rushed through the rusted hulks and crumbling concrete barricades.

"Fuck!"

Ethan slipped as a hand reached out from beneath one of the cars and sliced at his ankle. He staggered forward, crossbow clattering as he landed on it beam-first. The weapon bent inward and screeched as the composite materials scraped against the ground-up concrete rocks below. Ethan spun about and kicked the prone lurker in the face with his boot before staggering to his feet as Riley disposed of it. He left the crossbow on the ground and tested his ankle - painful, but not enough to be a concern for now.

"I'm fine," he said sharply. "Let's keep going."

 

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As she had almost come to expect in situations like these, there was something that took over her mindset. When faced with danger, there was a routine. A familiarity. It was not that the fear was gone or that her heart beat any less in her chest, but she knew what she was getting into. Riley prepared her weapons, touched the knife at the small of her back and followed Ethan outside. They moved with eyes constantly scanning their surroundings, but at the same time they were watching each other, looking for any signals or hand signs or changes in movement.

But nothing was out of the ordinary for the first stretch. Not until they got to the highway. When Ethan fell over, she disposed of the lurker as quickly as she could, but the situation was dangerous and doubt immediately took a hold of a portion of her thoughts. Had this been the wrong decision? Was it too dangerous? If it was, it would be her fault. She took a few deep breaths and took a look around. It was difficult to see the lurkers. In the moonlight she could make out a few shapes, but their shadowy figures quickly blended in with the darkness. And that was exactly why Ethan said the only thing to be said right then.

’Let’s keep going.’

Riley glanced down at the crossbow on the ground, let out a sigh and nodded. She moved past Ethan. She wanted to ask if he was certain he was fine, but there was no time for it. They had to go. And he had said he was good to go so she had to trust him. Riley took point, weapon at the ready and moved as quickly and steadily as she could through the vehicles and concrete obstacles in their way. When they reached the other side of the road, she jumped the barrier and landed with a thud on the soft ground, weighed down by her backpack. She turned and saw Ethan do the same. As he landed next to her, a group of their rotten pursuers smashed into the barrier. It was clear that they would climb over soon and there were more coming behind them. Riley nodded to Ethan and began to move.

It was hard to see how large this patch of trees were. They were on a slope that followed along the highway. But the two of them went down, holding onto trees to keep themselves from falling. Riley worried that it would put too much strain on Ethan’s ankle, but she pressed on, listening to his movements and checking over her shoulder once every five seconds or so. A momentary lack of focus on the path ahead of her caused by this, meant that she was swiped across the cheek by a branch, which drew blood and stung pretty badly. But they went on.

Eventually, they reached the bottom of the slope and the ground began to flatten. Riley paused, one hand against the bark of a pine tree and panting heavily. As Ethan appeared next to her, she looked back up the slope and then back at him. The walkers not so much ran down the slope as they tumbled down. The sound of limp bodies falling against trees, landing in the underbrush, breaking branches and rustling leaves was urging them on. Riley shook her head, looked in the opposite direction. Sixty feet ahead of them, the patch of trees ended and there was a large, flat terrain to cover. If they turned right they would find themselves back on the highway, though they would have to climb back up the slope. If they turned left, the flat area seemed to go on in the darkness forever. But straight across from them, they could make out the tops of trees against the moonlight. Riley tried to calm her breathing, looked at Ethan and nodded in the direction ahead of them. “We have to cross. We might be able to lose them if we are fast.”

They could outrun the dead in a sprint across the field in front of them. But they had to put some distance between them to make sure they couldn’t pick up their trail. The dead were not encumbered by hunger or fatigue. They would chase them forever, if they didn’t kill them or shake them off their trail. Riley looked over her shoulders, the sounds of their approaching enemies growing louder. “Ready?” She asked, looking at Ethan and preparing herself to run.