The need to heave and suck air into his lungs is strong but the need to not be devoured by a lone zombie is stronger. It is the only reason Team holds his breath, peering through the branches as the creature snarls below, swerving its head back and forth.
The Skele, once human but now past its ability to do anything but feed on flesh, growls low, sensing that there’s a meal close by but not able to pinpoint the location. Its deadened leg trails behind in the dirt, rotting and oozing pus that mixes in the mud, sending putrid fumes into the air that Team struggles not to gag on.
Instead, he quietly roots around in his backpack for the one thing that will save him right now. Emerging with a baggie filled with rabbit meat, Team pulls out two pieces and as stealthily as he can, throws it as far as he can in the opposite direction. The sound of the blood filled meat is loud and wet against the ground and distracting enough for the Skele to change its menu for tonight.
With a barrage of snarls and hisses, the half-rotting creature ambles away and only when he can’t see it anymore does Team inhale a lungful of air.
And then immediately gags because the fetid miasma hasn’t disappeared yet.
Cursing inwardly and trying not to cough, Team gives himself a few more minutes to make sure there’s no more Skeles around before nimbly dropping down from the tree.
He was only 5 minutes away from his safe-house before the Skele made him take the detour so Team finds his way back home with no issue, easily scaling the stone wall with the help of some missing chunks of rock and dropping down the other side without a sound.
Being within the walls of his compound means that he’s the safest he ever will be and Team takes a few extra precious seconds to stretch, reaching for the dark sky with his hands above his head and going up on his toes. He inhales deep, leaning against the wall as his fingers drop down to trail over the lemongrass, where it grows in fresh bunches around the edges of the compound, a simple yet effective way to mask the scent of his blood.
Once the lush backyard of some poor soul who’d succumbed to the virus, Team has spent the last year fortifying the area, building on the foundations of the stable stone wall until it reached past his height of 5’8” and was impenetrable from all sides. The small cottage that stood on the grounds was comfortable and homey from his many forays out into town for whatever supplies could be scavenged and while it wasn’t an ideal life, it was the best Team could do given a zombie apocalypse.
With one last inhale, Team opens his eyes, ready to head inside and organize his new supplies from today’s trip. He steps forward, feet steady as he makes his way to the small cottage but then stops.
At this time of night, the only sounds that Team should hear are his own breathing, crickets, distant screams and the low growls of the Skeles.
And yet, he can hear it. Faint. But still there.
A soft snarl.
Feet dragging in the dirt.
In the second it takes Team to realize that he’s about to be ambushed, a vice-like grip catches hold of his forearm and yanks. With a yelp, Team tumbles onto the earth, backpack digging painfully into his back and a heavy weight settles atop his chest as his arm is yanked up and towards a wet mouth.
Team’s heart beats once. Twice. He doesn’t close his eyes as the man atop draws closer, Team’s arm still in his grip.
It’s worth it to see the pleased smile spreading across Win’s face.
“I...caught...you.” He says slowly, lips brushing against Team’s arm and it makes the younger giggle.
“Good job, hia. You’re getting better at ambushing me.”
The compliment serves to make Win even happier, eliciting a soft grunt from him. He slowly moves back as Team pushes lightly on his chest and sits up, putting him face to face with Win.
Win opens his mouth and Team waits patiently, knowing it takes the man a few seconds to process words and actually say them.
“Yo...you...are...late. Very...very...late.” The smile slowly turns into a pout and Team winces as he glances down at his watch. He’s ten minutes past his promised rendezvous time.
Reaching up to pat the cold cheek, Team explains the reason for his delay, “I’m sorry. I ran into a smelly-skele on my way here and had to hide in a tree for a bit.”
The pout turns into a look of concern and a pained whimper emanates from him as Win reaches out to touch Team, almost as if checking him for any new cuts or bruises.
Team allows the petting, knowing it’s the only way to reassure the older man, “I’m okay. I got rid of it thanks to the rabbit meat idea. That was really smart. You’re still very smart, hia.” He punctuates that with a little tap to the side of Win’s head, a move that gets him a happy hum.
Pushing himself to his feet, Team reaches down to tug Win up too, mindful of the man’s precarious balance with the loss of one foot and then guides them both into the cottage, “Come on. It’s getting cold and your body temp might be used to it but mine’s not.”
Inside, Win’s already got a small fire going in the fireplace; a gesture that pleases Team. He knows Win’s been wary of fire since his turning but he tries hard for Team, starting up the flames when the younger is out with metal tongs and long matchsticks. To see him try...it warms a place in Team’s cynical heart he thought was forever destroyed.
Kicking off his shoes, Team plugs his phone in to charge and then brings his large backpack to the table to begin unloading the provisions from his latest run. He unearths canned meats that won’t spoil, two boxes of granola bars, bottles of water and a large packet of Lays chips for himself. As a special treat, he’d even managed to find some comic books to add to their meager collection of entertainment.
Still, his haul is not enough for Win, who makes a soft sound of disappointment. Team plays along for a second before giggling, “Stop pouting. Of course I got something for you. You just can’t smell it because of the lemongrass.”
Reaching in, Team pulls a large plastic bag filled with meat and drops it on the table. It’s been wrapped with the lemongrass growing from outside; not just for Team’s benefit but to also deter any other Skeles or zombies that he could have encountered tonight.
Win makes a happy squeak, the sound of which makes Team grin and he squeezes Win’s hand, “I know. Tonight was good. I’m going to wash up, you think you can handle making rice?”
The look Win levels at him makes Team laugh and he leans in to press his lips against the cool cheek, “Thanks. I’ll be quick.”
He’s barely taken a step away when Win yanks him closer, pulling them chest to chest. He rests his forehead against Team’s, saying nothing.
It’s more than enough for Team though. I’m glad you’re okay. I’m sorry this is happening. I love you.
Team lets out a shuddery breath, blinking against sudden tears, “I know. Me too.”
Win lets him go then and ambles slowly to the kitchen. Team watches him for a second before his first tear can fall. He makes his way down the hallway to get to the bathroom, needing to change and wash up after being outside.
As he splashes his face with cold water, Team is reminded for the upteenth time how incredibly fucking lucky he is.
Win might not be fully alive but he’s not fully turned yet. They have a contingency plan in place. A handgun, loaded with just 2 rounds, kept in a box by the fireplace. One for Win. One for Team.
It’s dark really, how ready he is to die but Team remembers what it was like to live before. What life was like when the virus first hit and the horrifying truths that soon emerged. He remembers watching the news for the first time with Manaow and Pharm, Manaow’s tears never stopping as body counts increased day after day.
He remembers calling Win in Bangkok, begging him to be careful, begging him to return. He remembers Win soothing him, telling him to stay safe, to stay alive but he doesn’t remember a promise to return home safe.
Team remembers when Dean had proposed leaving the campus, finding shelter with some larger human strongholds in the main city. Their large circle of friends had dwindled down to the single digits, leaving a group consisting of Team, Dean, Pharm, Del and Manaow. Win was most likely dead, the hotel he and his father were at being overrun by the creatures.
They were just supposed to catch a bus that would take them to the fortified grounds but small as they were, the group was large enough to attract a nearby horde of the undead. The bus was gone before the first creature had ripped Del’s throat.
Manaow had gone down with a spray of blood but not before she’d felled at least three of the bastards who’d gone for Dean with a flamethrower. Team had dropped three more with his own makeshift acid sprayer and was yanking Dean away when he’d seen it.
Pharm, sweet Pharm, small in stature but big in heart, cutting a line of red down his arm to attract the last few who were gunning for Team and Dean. In one hand, a knife. The other, a makeshift pipe bomb. He’d given one last angelic smile before being pulled under by the blood-thirsty horde and Team had barely a second to push Dean down for cover when the bomb exploded.
Team remembers the last noise he’d ever hear Dean make, a scream born from the anguish of a broken heart.
He remembers three days after, when he and Dean had been bunking in an abandoned building. Remembers how his eyes slid open in the middle of the night, how the body next to his rose up, inhaled, exhaled and then walked out the door.
Despite anticipating it, Team’s body still flinched when the shot rang out.
He cried that night, soft silent sobs as the moon shone down on him and screams and snarls filled the air. The next morning, eyes red rimmed, Team set his senior’s body on fire and walked away.
For a few days Team contemplated ending his own life too. He had no one now; no friends, no family, no home, no Win. What was the point of living? Why even bother?
The thought had buoyed him far enough to sit at the edge of a rooftop, high above, with a gun in his hand. If the bullet didn't kill him, the fall certainly would.
The gun sat heavy and metallic on his tongue and with a trembling breath, Team had clicked off the safety. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. His finger just wouldn’t move.
Not when Win’s pleas came back to him, soft and so full of love. No matter what happens, who we lose, you have to live. Stay alive. Till the very end. Even if it hurts. Promise me Team.
The bastard couldn’t make a promise but still insisted on making Team swear to stay alive. It’s the only reason Team chucked the gun as far away as he could, crying and mourning for the people he’d lost, for the life he’d live now.
He remembers finding this abandoned home, resigning himself to living the rest of his days here, to die by his own hand or by the undead.
And Team remembers with startling clarity, coming back one night from a raid and attempting to climb up the wall only for a hand to clamp down on his shoulder and a voice he’d thought long gone croak out his name.
Seeing Win alive had taken what little strength Team had left in his legs. Seeing Win’s panicked expression as he limped forward with a freshly bitten foot, was what returned his strength.
In between shoving Win over the wall, carrying him to the cottage, shoving a rag in to stifle the screams as acid burned off Win’s infected foot, Team wouldn’t know for a few hours how the only man he’d ever truly loved had returned from the dead and shown up at his front door.
Win had somehow managed to escape their hotel, hitchhike with a group of campers on their way to a stronghold and come all the way here before being attacked by a lone newly turned zombie. He’d been able to fend it off with a bottle of acid, but not before it managed to take a bite of him. The process to turn was at least a few hours and Win had every intention of ending his life if it happened before he found Team and they were able to treat him.
“But how’d you even find- how’d you know where I was?”
Win had given him a tired smile, eyes bloodshot, “I’ll always find you. Remember?”
It’s not an answer to his question but Team remembers how for the first time in a long while, he’d finally been able to sleep with the warmth of Win by his side. (Later on he found out that his location was still on; the fact that it kept moving was how Win knew he was alive.)
A rap on the bathroom door makes Team flinch, hard enough that his arm slips from where he’s been bracing it on the sink and it bangs on the porcelain. At his pained yelp, Win pushes open the door, concerns in his brown eyes. He makes a soft confused noise.
“Ouch...crap that hurts. Sorry hia, got lost in my thoughts. Food’s ready?”
Win nods once, slow and still worried. Team smiles at him softly and reaches up to run his fingers through the blonde hair. The roots are showing again which means his next raid is gonna to have to include hair dye. Seems unnceceassry in retrospect, you know, with the apozcalypse and all, but Team's determined to keep some sense of normalcy in his life.
“I’ll be okay. Memories, you know. Painful little fuckers.”
Team gets a smile for that and when Win takes his other hand and tugs at it, Team follows without a word. Before, he’d have whined and bitched about being led like a baby.
Now, he takes every precious second, every idle touch as a gift.
When they emerge into the living room, Team is given another gift. Their dining table, normally strewn with ingredients for homemade acid and supplies have been cleared and a lone candle sits in the middle. Two bowls of rice and meat, steam still blowing across the top, lie opposite each other as well as two cans of pop. What’s most surprising is the single short-stemmed rose that lies in the middle of the table.
“Wha- what’s this?”
Win lets out a happy little hum and looks at Team, “Happy...anni...versary.”
The tears hit suddenly, burning as they slope down Team's cheek. Win lets out a surprised grunt, hands squeezing Team’s, “What...wrong? Don’t...like?”
In lieu of an answer, Team simply pulls Win to him, burying his face in the long neck and cries harder. His fingers crush the back of Win’s shirt, crumpling the material and soaking the collar with his tears.
He can feel Win stiffen a bit at having him so close by but the tension leaves just as quickly, arms coming up to wrap themselves around Team’s waist, “I...di- didn’t...forget. I...forget...lots. Not...you.”
Here...here is where Team has been blessed with the most luck. He thought he’d hit his limit with the return of Win but someone up there must really love them.
The best way to kill a zombie or a Skele was with acid or fire and early bites could often be treated the same way. Whether it was effective or not was often the question because the virus could work quickly and infect a human within seconds of the bite and early treatment or it could lay dormant and benign.
Win’s wound had been there for an hour before Team had finally been able to treat it and in the early days, both of them thought that maybe the worst was behind them.
Then they realized there were small changes.
Win’s taste for raw meat. His ability to smell Team from so far. His aversion to lemongrass and spices. His sluggish gait. His lagging mental capacity.
All signs of being turned but Win was always in control of himself. Even when he took forever to speak and couldn’t think as fast, he was still Win. When Team asked him what the reason he was able to control himself, Win’s response had been simple.
“You. I see...you. I love you. I...ca-ca..cannot eat you.”
They never questioned it further and Team thanked every deity in existence for his luck.
He thanks them again now, wiping his tears and laughing when Win clumsily tries to do the same. He lets the man lead him to the table in slow limping steps, sitting on the proffered chair and letting Win tuck the flower into his greasy hair. Win takes the opposite seat and reaches across the table to join their hands.
“I...love...you.” Win says, eyes crinkling up into a smile.
Team takes their joined hands and brings it to his lips.
There are screams, sirens and growls from the city around them.
They’ve lost best friends... family... their humanity.
The world is, quite literally, burning to the ground in blood, brains, acid and fire.
A handgun with two bullets sits not 5 feet away from him.
But at this very moment, brown eyes watching him over an orange flame, nothing else matters to Team.
“I love you.” He says back, smiling as his lips press against the cold hand, “Always and forever.”