Caution: this story is not meant to stand alone. The Beyond Happily Ever After stories are vignettes and outtakes showing the O’Kanes in their daily lives, in between the adventures and often after their happy endings. These stories were written exclusively for readers and fans of the series, and will probably not make very much sense to anyone not familiar with the characters.
A Patreon Reward Story. This story is a short vignette voted on by our Patreon supporters. In this story, Laurel & Zeke share a BFF moment with some video game hijinks.
Characters: Laurel & Zeke
Timeline: Set after Ivan
The doorknob rattled, jerking Laurel immediately out of what, for her, passed as a fairly deep sleep. By the time she opened her eyes, she already had her hand under her pillow, fingers wrapped around the grip of the pistol she kept there.
But it was only Zeke who opened the door, his arms laden with a collection of snacks and baked goods—overkill, even for him. “Up, woman. It’s time for me to introduce you to a very serious and solemn tradition.”
She rolled over, away from him. “It’s the middle of the night. The only thing you have to do right now is fuck off.”
“It’s two hours past dinner, if that.” He strode over to the bed and kicked the frame. “C’mon. If you slept at night like the rest of us, you could be awake during the day. And trust me, you don’t want to miss this.”
He had flipped on the light, and she squinted as she sat up and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “What is it?”
Zeke lowered his voice to a reverent whisper. “Zombie invasion night.”
Laurel swung her bare legs over the side of the bed and smoothed her oversized T-shirt into place. “Oh, oka—wait, what?”
He grinned and nudged the toe of his boot under her discarded jeans. With a casual flip, he tossed them to her. “I said what I said. If you want to know more, get your ass to the common room.”
He ducked back out of the bedroom, leaving the door open behind him, and Laurel sighed. Usually, Zeke was a dream of a roommate—he didn’t mind having her underfoot, he barely snored, and there were often plenty of pastries around.
Then again, he also sometimes did things like this.
She pushed the jeans aside and walked down the hall, rubbing her eyes and half-heartedly cursing his name.
The central part of the common room had been cleared, with all the tables and couches pushed against the walls. Zeke was busy fiddling with something that looked like a pair of protective goggles, and the blinking red light of a domed sensor affixed to the ceiling drew her gaze.
A dawning sense or horror began to spread over her. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes.” Zeke had dumped the snacks onto a table next to a bucket of ice filled with some of the hard cider Nita’s cousin made. “C’mon, Laurel. My honor is on the line here. Everyone thinks you’re going to kick my ass at this.”
He looked so happy, so gleeful, that she couldn’t say no. “Fine. But I’m not putting on pants. And if any of your lady friends drop by unexpectedly, I’m totally gonna pretend we were about to fuck.”
Zeke tossed her a set of the goggles. “Please. I don’t make dates for zombie invasion night.”
“Why not? Any woman who actually wants to play this is probably the nerd princess of your dreams.”
“You’d be surprised,” he muttered, sounding a little grumpy now. He popped the glasses on top of his head and retrieved two ridiculously neon orange plastic shotguns. “There is exactly one girl who’s beaten me at this. Once. No one ever lets me forget it.”
Smart money was on Ana. Laurel’s money was on Grace. “Who beat you?”
Zeke held out the second shotgun. “Maricela.”
Laurel burst out laughing.
Zeke growled and lowered the glasses. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll see who’s laughing tonight.”
“Hey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Maricela’s not as soft as she looks.” Laurel fitted the goggles in place. “Now—what am I supposed to do with this toy gun?”
“Wait just a second…” Zeke did something, and a beep sounded just above them. Then—
The common room dissolved, replaced by a barren expanse of brown earth and scrub. It could have been modeled after the nearby desert, except that the desert—while not lush and green—had its own sort of beauty. This was ugly, flat, and scattered with debris and half-buried, garishly painted barrels marked with the symbol for radioactivity.
Laurel tensed. “Wait, when you said zombies, you meant the slow, shambling—”
An inhuman growl roared up on her left side. Out of instinct, Laurel spun just in time to see a rotting gray figure racing toward her, its hungry maw open in a vicious snarl. She fired, but her fingers were clumsy on the unfamiliar trigger. She missed, and Zeke pivoted with style and blew the head off the thing.
“I meant zombies!” he crowed. Then he jerked his head to the right. Another twisted monster was charging them with a snarl that somehow vibrated through the glasses. Zeke took aim and hit it, once in the chest and once in the head. “Five minutes. Whoever shoots the most, wins!”
Laurel tried, she really did, and she got marginally better with each shot. But the plastic gun didn’t feel right in her hands—it was too light, and it didn’t warm to her skin the way wood and metal did. The zombies kept coming, spawning out of thin air in every direction, so that any cover she found was useless. And the virtual world itself was disorienting, like a bad trip fueled by a bootleg hallucinogen cut with drain cleaner.
It all made her head hurt a little. And she was terrible at it.
Zeke was, of course, in his element. He whirled and laughed and pulled off ridiculous shots, and when that beep sounded again and the virtual world blinked away, he flipped his gun in the air with a grin. “You can say it. I’m amazing.”
“Uh-huh.” She yanked off the goggles. “I changed my mind. Any woman willing to subject herself to this is a straight-up masochist, so you’d better polish up your collection of whips and floggers before you go looking for her.”
His grin faltered just a little. “Aww, c’mon. It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Guilt surged through her, and she reached for two bottles of hard cider before answering. “No. No, I’m sure it’s a lot of fun. I just…”
He took the bottle she offered and tilted his head. “Too creepy? Ana says the VR is creepy.”
“It makes my head spin a little,” she admitted, then forged ahead. “Doesn’t it bother you, having things jump at you like that? My heart’s doing weird stuff, and I can’t feel my lips.”
“Oh, shit.” Now he looked really guilty. “Shit, Laurel. You should have told me.”
She liked it better when he thought she was just being a jerk. “Hey, I’m not about to dive under a table, or anything. I’m fully in control here. I just don’t get why you would want to unwind after a long day of having to shoot at shit by…shooting at shit.”
“Because this shit can’t shoot back.” He hopped up onto the table and kicked his legs. “It’s kind of cathartic, I guess. I mean, I don’t actually like shooting people. Not that that stops me from doing what’s necessary, or that I can’t sleep at night or anything. But this is an easier way to blow off steam.”
“That makes sense.” Laurel tossed the lightweight gun controller onto a chair and opened her cider. “Can’t you make them look like something else, though? Bunnies, maybe, or bears? Spiders would be good.”
“Eeeew, what? No fucking way.” He gave a dramatic shudder. “And I’m not shooting bunnies, you sicko. Though I guess that’d be one way to beat Maricela.”
“Where are we on the bears?”
Zeke tilted his head back and forth as if considering it. “I guess…maybe. Though it should take a lot more firepower to bring down a bear. And that won’t really help with the things-jumping-out-at-you.”
“Maybe not,” she allowed. Then she gestured toward the dome affixed to the ceiling. “Your sensors need to be calibrated. Some of them are off.”
“Uh-uh. No blaming the sensors. I hit what I was aiming at.”
Of course he had. He was a pro at this game, with hours of thoroughly enjoyable practice under his belt. “Zeke, I can calculate the trajectory of a bullet on the fly. Every single variable—distance, ballistics coefficient, muzzle velocity, grain load, wind speed and direction. If I can do that, I can calculate simple angles. Your sensors need to be calibrated.”
He stared at her for a long moment, then burst out laughing. “God, it is so nice to have another nerd around. I mean, other than Lucio. Lucio isn’t a nerd, he just knows everything.”
“It’s insufferable, isn’t it?” Still, she had the guts to admit the truth. “I still would have lost your game. I don’t think I’m ever gonna be very good at it.”
“Yeah. It’s not just about the zombies, is it?”
Not entirely. He could switch out the programs so that they were shooting at tentacle monsters or tennis balls or circles of light—anything that didn’t look remotely like a human—and it still wouldn’t be her thing.
“It’s not the zombies, it’s me,” she murmured. “Turning survival into a game… That’s never gonna tickle my fancy. I’ve had enough of it to last me three lifetimes—and none of that came with a reset button.”
“Really?” He eyed her as he drained his cider and set the bottle aside with a thump. “Then you picked a helluva weird retirement, lady. All we do around here is bet on our lives.”
“Precisely. Someone has to watch your ass.” She swept up his empty and replaced it with another full bottle. “Why are you here? You have more money than Jesus Christ. And you’re not exactly beholden to Gideon or this sector.”
“I don’t have more money than Jesus Christ, actually.” His brow wrinkled. “I mean, unless he was broke. I didn’t listen so good during sermons in the City. But, either way…nah. I have some credits tucked away for emergencies, but there are always people who need it more than I do. A lot of people.”
“Uh-huh. You didn’t answer my question.”
“Maybe I don’t want to expose my soft, squishy heart to all your Sector Three cynicism.”
“Watch it, James.” Laurel pinned him with a withering glare. “I already know all about what’s in your squishy heart. You’d do well to remember that.”
Solemnly, he picked up a paper bag of roasted nuts and threw it at her.
Not enough time to dodge. Laurel caught it and lobbed it back at him. “You talk in your sleep.”
“Fuck you, I do not.” His eyes narrowed, glinting with a hint of doubt. “I don’t. And anyway, if you really wanna open this door? You don’t need to talk in your sleep. You talk with your deathless stares and swoony eyes.”
Refusing to show weakness, she shrugged. “I’m not ashamed of my feelings. Can you say the same without flinching?”
For a second, she really thought he was going to. Then he scowled. “Fuck you, Laurel.”
“No, fuck you. Now pass me a donut.”
It was the one thing guaranteed to put them back on even footing. But Zeke still glowered as he leaned over and picked up a paper bag with sugar dusting on it. “I shouldn’t even share. Ana’s aunt made these especially for me.”
Laurel climbed onto the table and sat cross-legged, facing him—close enough to snatch the bag, if she had to. “You dragged me out of bed to fight radioactive zombies and talk about your feelings. You owe me, Zeke.”
“Fine. Whiner.” But he was grinning as he handed over the bag and reached for two more ciders.
“Dude, you won the game and you’re still giving me a hard time. Who’s the real asshole here?”
Neither of them. Both. The important thing wasn’t the answer to the question, it was the fact that Laurel could ask it—and Zeke wouldn’t brush it aside.
In Sector Three, vulnerability was weakness, and weakness got you hurt. Here, the Riders talked about their feelings, about real things. Sure, they all had sore spots that made them recoil when you poked them, but they were willing to put themselves out there. To risk the pain and lay bare their souls.
Laurel couldn’t manage it, not quite yet, but it was enough to know that a place existed where maybe—someday—
Gideon hadn’t asked her to join his Riders, not yet, but she figured he would. And when he did?
She’d be all-in.