He meets Jack first, Jack who snatches his arm as he’s sprinting from a horde, Jack who pulls him into a room that’s well fortified, and saves his life, and it’s obvious Jack’s been here for a while, if the amount of stuff in the room is anything to go by; and he’s almost certainly got it from other people- killed them, Ryan thinks, and he’s quick on the draw- but Jack ignores him, keeps his ear pressed to the door, tense, before deflating. They’re safe.
Jack saved his life and he’s still got his pistol trained on him, even as Jack blinks at the gun, confused for a moment before moving on to check the other barricades.
It turns out, after Ryan drops his gun- but doesn’t relax, because you can’t if you want to survive, not for a second- that Jack’s been in the carcass of this dead town for a long time, helping out anyone that passes through, offers them shelter, food, medical supplies, and asks for nothing in return.
Ryan’s sure he’s fallen into a ditch and hit his head because people this good were rare enough before the world died, and to find one in an even harsher, more cruel place than it used to be is nothing short of a miracle.
Jack’s made a home that he’s happy with, but Ryan, Ryan doesn’t feel safe, and he itches to move on. Thanks Jack with a weapon he built, and the know-how to make more, and leaves, after a week, with the promise to visit if he ever comes in the vicinity of this town again.
He doesn’t make it more than a day’s travel, reaches the desolate desert roads and veers off them to hide in the decaying woodland when he hears telltale noises of a horde; then he catches the shrieking, high pitched and panicked, but resolute in anger. “You mother fuckers can’t catch me!”
The zombies, in Ryan’s experience, still understand some human cues, and the taunts actually spur them on, if the drawn out “hoooly shit, you fuckers are fast” is anything to go by.
“Holy shit get out of here dude they’re coming and these fuckers are quick”
The guy comes pounding down the opposite end of the trail Ryan’s following, with three zombies on his trail, and, without thinking, he’s moving for the trees, clambering up to the low branch and dropping his hand for the guy to follow him.
Those zombies are really pissed.
Ryan has to wonder about what the guy did to turn them so blood thirsty as he pushes the man further up the tree before pulling out his pistol with steady hands.
He’s done this before.
Deep breaths, line up the shots.
Crack, crack, crack.
They’re all dead, and Ryan and the guy are left straddling branches, breathing heavy.
“Holy shit dude, you just saved my life,” the guy pants, nudging Ryan’s shoulder with his foot. “Thanks for that.”
He looks remarkably well put together for somebody surviving an apocalypse- sure he’s sporting an unkempt beard, but- his clothes look remarkably clean, his shoes oddly shiny.
“What did you do to piss them off so badly?” Ryan can’t help his curiosity, he’s never seen zombies move so fast in the three years he’s been living through this hell.
“I dunno, I killed their god or something…” He’s struggling to manoeuvre himself to drop down and Ryan can only watch, utterly baffled.
“Y- you killed… their god?” He repeats
“Yeah,” The guy drops to the ground below and shuffles his sleeves up to inspect himself for injuries- and he has an impressive sleeve of tattoos that mesmerise Ryan where he sits- before carrying on, unperturbed. “There was this pretty beefy zombie with like a cop uniform that they were all giving gifts to and bowing down before it. It was pretty fucking creepy if you ask me.”
“Okay….?” Because Ryan doesn’t know what to say to that.
Then they just stay there, staring at each other, Ryan still sitting in the low branches and the tattooed man stood below watching him like he’s trying to put some puzzle together. Then Ryan coughs, just because he’s looking for some kind of noise.
“You looking for somewhere to rest up? because there’s this guy I met in the town about a day’s walk that way.” Ryan jerks his thumb in the direction he came. “Let me stay with him a whole week for nothing.”
“Are you serious? Holy shit, thanks dude. I had to get out of there fast and I sort of dropped my backpack along the way, so I could do with the food.”
“I’ll secure it in a tree or something if I happen to find it on my travels.” Ryan teases, finally lowering himself from the tree and landing heavily
“It’s actually got my name on it- Geoff- so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
And because Ryan feels he still needs to be paying back the good the world offered him in the form of Jack, he tugs another pistol free and offers it to Geoff. “If we ever meet again, I’ll take that back, but I can’t just let you wander without some protection.”
A drop of rain splashes against the metal of the gun, making them both look up.
“Better hurry up if you want to keep dry.” Ryan’s already shouldering his pack properly and making to leave, without another word. He’s sure he can replace the guns he’s spent in the next town, or even along the road if he finds some cars with their engines relatively untouched.
Ryan leaves the Zombie God Killer Geoff in his wake, thinks he’s one of the ones that will become nothing in the mess of blurred together days in his memories- never mind the hollowness that fills him after Jack’s town is left days behind- but he starts to miss the noise of having someone about, of having somewhere warm to settle down at night and just as he finds himself wondering if he should team up with the next person he comes across (provided they’re not a grade A douchebag) he actually finds someone.
He finds them fighting for their life on a narrow bridge leading into a small village.
It’s truly a sight to behold.
For once, it’s blissfully not the groaning, squelching movement of zombies, but a refreshingly human fight that Ryan’s privy to. Between a guy who Ryan can easily tell is young, in his early twenties and a pair of hulking assholes that just radiate their awful intents all the way back to where Ryan’s emerging from the trees, and as he approaches, he watches as the little one twists around one of the guys aiming to grab him. He twists around and he slams his foot into the guy’s back, sending him stumbling into the water below with a colossal splash
The sight of Ryan, strolling towards them bearing guns at his hips and hanging off his backpack is enough to send the other guy packing, collecting his dripping friend on the way.
“You better fucking run you dickbags!”
and okay that guy is young and impressively violent; Ryan can see why he’s survived so long.
“You want a piece of me too?” the kid yells, making Ryan halt.
“I’m just passing through.” He calls back, sure to keep his distance.
and because he can’t keep his mouth shut. “Unless you really want one? Can’t guarantee I’ll be much of a challenge but…” He shrugs his shoulders and continues on towards the bridge, the only entrance to the village, unless he fancies wading through the river.
“You the bridge troll or something?” and okay, Ryan really needs to stop, he just watched this kid kick two asses twice the size of him, he could easily take on worn down, road weary Ryan, who’s not really had a fight since he met Geoff.
He thinks he’s in for it, but the guy just pulls a beanie out of his pocket with a laugh and tugs it on over his greasy curls. “Something like that. You’re alright though, you can pass.”
“I’m just trying to keep my friends and I safe. People see this village and they think it’s easy pickin’, but we were here first! We claimed it.” They’re walking together through the winding, gravelled streets and it feels oddly peaceful and tense at the same time, like they’re both sure they can take the other, but they’re still waiting for a move to be made.
So Ryan finds himself looking for conversation. “There many of you here?”
“Just me and two others… why?” The kid is suspicious, and narrows his eyes at him.
Stupid. Of course that would come off shady in their current world state.
“I’ve just been on my own too long. Could do with some conversation.”
There’s a snort from his side and he looks to the beanie kid to find him looking off at a building. “You’re going to love Gavin then,” and Ryan tracks his gaze to find it landing on two figures emerging from what may have once been a post office. “He never shuts up.”
One of them, in the distance- the taller one- is gesticulating frantically as they approach Ryan and his new companion. “Michael, Michael!” The two break into a sprint, “Michael, behind you boy!”
Michael, apparently, let’s out a hiss the moment he spins around, and Ryan follows him to be greeted by the sight of a nice full horde of around 15 zombies.
“Goddammit, it’s one fucking thing after another around here! Please tell me you know how to use those guns?”
It’s not even a question, Ryan’s passing one over to Michael before he’s finished speaking, and he takes aim. Fires.
He wastes a clip and only three fall. Replaces it, fells four more before handing Michael another clip.
Gavin and the shorter one join them with nothing but a baseball bat (which looks like it’s going to splinter in one hit) and a pretty solid looking sledgehammer.
“Back up and take these.” Ryan interrupts his shots to fumble rifle’s into the other guy’s hands.
“Christ, please don’t give that to Gavin.” Michael snaps, reaching out to swap his pistol with the rifle.
They keep firing, backing up, firing, backing up, and the zombies seem to keep coming, streaming in from the bridge and whatever other path there is leading into the village.
“I think the noise is drawing more of them.” The smaller, more muscular one has a deeper voice than Michael and Gavin. “We should maybe stop firing, take them out the good old fashioned way.”
“If you want to get yourself bit Lil’ J, be my guest.”
Ryan can’t help but snort at that. “Lil’ J?” It’s accurate, he supposes- in the sense that the guy’s only just over five foot tall, but that’s about the only thing he can see that’s small.
“Hi, how’s it going? My name’s Jeremy and I’m like 5′4 or something, haven’t exactly measured myself since the outbreak.”
And oh Ryan likes these guys. (They’re kids, they’re all so young) He’s finding that he almost slots in with them when it comes to the fighting.
Jeremy was right, the noise of gunfire was drawing more in, and Ryan only had so much ammo.
“Hi, I’m Ryan, and this is the last clip I’ve got for your rifles.” He returns in a cheap imitation of Jeremy’s humour while slotting his pistol back into it’s holster on his pack and offering Michael the last clip.
And now the stakes are raised, because he thinks this is it, this is the end of the outpouring of zombies, that came from seemingly no where- and Ryan just barely spares a thought for the two guys Michael fought earlier- there’s a handful left, but Ryan was carrying ammo for one, not four, and they’ve blown through it in a matter of minutes.
They have to rely now, on the baseball bat, the sledgehammer, a crow bar and a tire iron.
It’s hard work, but they seem to fit in well, Michael and Ryan knocking the zombies off balance, Jeremy and Gavin coming in to smash their skulls in.
(and it really is impressive that Jeremy can lift that thing)
It works impressively well, right up until the moment one zombie lady seems to catch on to what they’re doing, and Michael, putting too much into his lashes is left stumbling past her. She catches him by the hood of his jacket, reaches a hand hand around him, and slashes as he moves to twist out of her grip.
Michael’s suddenly on the ground, shouting, bleeding.
As Jeremy lets out a vicious cry, Gavin rushes to Michael, panicked and if Ryan had time to look, he would be sure to see the boy’s hands trembling as they move to grasp Michael’s face. But there isn’t time. There are still zombies shuffling towards them- Jeremy had made swift work of the one that sunk it’s claws into Michael- but their numbers, now, are few, and they know that they can get this done between the two of them.
As the last one drops, they’re left panting, bloody and with aching muscles- Ryan doesn’t want to think about how Jeremy’s arms must burn,- with lines of dead bodies before them, completely unresponsive and most, with brains and skull shards splashed around them.
They don’t take a single second to stop and admire it, Jeremy’s whirling around, dropping his hammer the second the final one falls. “Gav! Is he okay?”
Gavin’s cradling Michael in his lap, trembling hands pressed against the wound and Michael’s face is scrunched up in pain, but his hands are trying to brush Gavin’s away, so that they can actually look at it first.
Jeremy and Ryan approach them, both crouching down next to them and he can already see that it’s just a scratch, lot’s of blood but nothing too dangerous.
“Gavin, let go for a minute will you?” He finds himself saying, already shouldering his pack off and delicately searching for his water bottle and the bandages Jack had insisted he take.
Sheepishly the man does shift his hands away, moving to hold Michael’s shoulders steady instead.
It looks fine; not that he can know for sure until the blood is cleaned away, but in Ryan’s experience, zombie claws aren’t sharp enough or strong enough to cut so deep that they find organs.
“Have you guys got anything I can wash it with?” He just needs a strip of clean fabric, but out here, after all this time, most things are covered with dust and grime.
“I’ll see what I can find.” Jeremy disappears into a nearby building and leaves Ryan to get on with doing what he can, searching for the needle and thread he knows sits in a tin somewhere in a side pocket, alcohol in another to sterilise the needle.
“I’m not great at this,” He tells the two boys whose stares he is overtly aware of as he works at packing things back in their proper place. “but you learn a thing or two when you travel on your own.”
“You haven’t found somewhere to settle?” Michael asks, and Ryan wishes he had painkillers better than just a distracting conversation.
“No where feels safe enough.” He offers with a shrug, rinsing his hands, just as Jeremy returns with a blessedly unopened pack of dish cloths, a beautiful shade of white that Ryan hasn’t seen in such a long time.
“I did meet someone last week though, in a town not far from here, who just took in anyone that needed help, let them stay as long as they needed and never asked for anything.” He works as he speaks, hoping that his words are something for Michael to focus on over the pain. “I left after a few days… I dunno, I just got itchy to keep moving, y’know?”
And that was the fact of it. Peace was never enough for him. Ryan needed a goal, something in sight that he could make his way towards.
It was always just get to the next town, avoid the cities, avoid people. Gather and build.
“I was the same way.” Michael grinds between his teeth as Ryan tries and fails to be soft as he cleans away the blood. “Before I found these assholes. Turns out I just needed something to fight for, something that I should keep safe.”
The ground he’s kneeling on feels too hot through his jeans, he feels painfully aware of the sun beating away, the water sloshing in the river not too far away, and the body of Jeremy pressing close, hovering in some hope to help.
“Someone take his hand, this is going to hurt.” He instructs instead of responding- because Ryan has known that truth for a while, somewhere deep inside himself he’s wondered about finding a home, a family, and having them to protect, and that, it turned out, terrified him.
He wants it.
He aches for it now that the thought is tangible.
“Fuuuuck.” Michael groans as the needle first pierces his skin, but he is otherwise determinedly silent through the rest of the stitching.
It’s a tough few minutes for Jeremy, whose hand blooms an embarrassing pink before turning white from how hard Michael grips him, but no one makes a noise, the silence clings to them and it feels so terribly overwhelming to Ryan, who is suddenly very responsible for this kid’s wellbeing. He feels almost as though hes responsible for them all, despite their apparent, pre-existing unit.
“Maybe we should get you back to that town…” Ryan finds himself saying, “Jack’s something of a miracle worker, and I’m kind of curious how the zombie-god killer I met is getting on.” There was little to think about on the road, so Ryan’s thoughts often snapped back towards the little home Jack had made for himself.
It’s not because he misses the company.
“The….Sorry, the what?” Crows Gavin
“Yeah, that was about my reaction.” Ryan knots the thread somewhat untidily and snaps it with a pocket knife. “Met a guy on my way over here who was sprinting by like his ass was on fire…. Turns out it was just three zombies, but they were super pissed about something. So after I killed them for him, he told me about this bigger zombie that they were all like worshipping, and this guy- Geoff- for some inane reason thought it a bright idea to kill the thing and taunt the zombies.”
For a moment, there’s silence again.
“Wow, okay. I wanna meet this guy.” Gavin intones.
And they sure as fuck meet him.
They find Geoff and Jack fleeing from a sizeable fire near the northern exit of the city, panting heavy breaths and fumbling to hold on to a myriad of Jack’s supplies.
“Not that it’s not good to see you again,” pants Geoff, shoving things into Ryan’s arms. “But we’ve gotta move, like yesterday."