Murphy was cold.
Not teeth chattering cold, nor blue lips cold, but the type of cold from being outside too long with nothing to break the winds bite. The fact that he was in a damn truck bed of all things only made the matter worse. Mack had offered his seat inside next to that Addy girl – must be some trouble in paradise… Pulling his ratty jacket tighter around himself and ignoring the prickling of the hairs on the back of his neck, Murphy regretted turning the blond down. 10k had relaxed enough, anyway, so it’s not like Doc and Cassandra still need him out here to clean up their messes. Yet in the truck bed he had stayed, suffering this cold for their sins. Guess I’m their fucking Saviour in more way than one…
Flexing his fingers, Murphy wished he could rub his hands together. Last time he had tried that, the kid had offered him his gloves. Worn, grimy, no doubt blood-stained gloves. No thank you – Murphy was determined to keep his hands as clean as possible. Getting them dirty was what grunts and bodyguards were for, after all. But if he tried to warm his hands, 10k would probably offer them again. And he’ll turn them down again. Which means Cassandra will give him that look. Again. What that look was, Murphy had no idea, but it was even more annoying than the one Doc gave him…
The old man was jealous, you see. Jealous of how the kid had chosen Murphy over him. Jealous that 10k turned away from the old man whenever he tried to do his hippy counsellor routine. Jealous that Murphy could pet their little stray without getting bitten. Between the prison, the experiments, and the Apocalypse, the last few years had been fucking horrendous. But seeing Doc – that delicious sourness dripping down his face – whenever Murphy slings his around 10k’s shoulder, or straightens up that scarf… Well, it made it all worth it. Almost.
Doc had warned him, said that he needs to be careful, that the kid had ‘problems.’ News flash – they all have problems. That’s kinda what an Apocalypse does. Not that the old man’s word’s fell on death ears: Murphy is well aware that 10k ain’t the type to trust too easy; that abusing that trust would mean the man would be unlikely to make it to California in one piece. But all that awaits him at the end of the line is the pleasure of being tortured in the name of science by that bitch Merch while she claims to be one of the ‘good guys.’ And when Murphy thinks about it – like, really contemplates, weighs up the pros and cons – getting taken out quick by that cute little shit starts to sound more tempting by the day.
No, not cute. Annoying. Annoying, yet interesting.
Watching 10k take down Zs was like seeing a kitten learn to dismember a bird…
Not that he was the only threat Murphy would face from the group – quite a few of them had a soft spot for the kid already. Doc, sure: he was actively trying to usurp Murphy as 10k’s favourite, after all. But the smiles the little shit had been getting from Addy? And hell, even their very own cold and heartless Roberta Warren had gained a predilection for the kid… If he wasn’t so socially awkward, 10k could be a real lady-killer!
And Cassandra? That little cannibal had been almost as irritating as Doc! Throwing Murphy cryptic looks and smug smiles whenever she sees him doing anything nice for the kid. She must think it’s because he’s taken as much a shine to the stray as the rest of them. He hasn’t. Really! The kid was useful to him, and a happy bodyguard was an alert bodyguard. If he lets him sulk about for too long, the kid would be too distracted to do his damn job, so it’s only logical for Murphy to keep an eye on 10k in return. There is no other reason. None whatsoever.
Unable to ignore his prickling neck hairs any longer, Murphy looks up. Up into pale grey eyes. 10k just flashes a shy smile before ducking his head, picking at a loose thread on his sleeve.
It isn’t cute.
Men aren’t cute.
Beside him, Cassandra shifts, catching Murphy’s eye. Her lips are curled in a small grin, dark eyes crinkled and amused. Like she knows something no one else does. And isn’t planning on sharing. Smug really isn’t a good look on her.
Before he has the chance to retort, however, the backfiring of an old, stuttering engine pulls all eyes back down the road from whence they came. A car had pulled in behind them, still a little way back. Beat up orange VW Beetle. A classic, in a kitchy sense. If one was bothered to maintain it. The Apocalypse had been almost as harsh on that old girl as it had on Murphy himself…
With a rap on the back window, Doc informs the others of their new friends’ arrival. “Humans! Six o’clock!”
Great. Just great. Murphy was already near his wits end thanks to the people he was being dragged across the damn country by. The last thing he needs is more of them. Or less…
10k had sat up straight, rifle in hand, head tilting to scan the area around them. Like he was scenting the wind. Watching the kid work could be kind of fun, Murphy will admit to that, but as entertaining as it all was, he really wished it didn’t mean that they were now all in danger.
Doc leans in close to Cassandra, his hand waving vaguely towards the Beetle. “Is that more of your cannibal friends?”
Her voice was low, wary, her eyes never leaving the vehicle. “No longer a problem. This is something else…”
Having risen to his knees, 10k leans over the side of the truck, brows furrowed as he stares up at the road ahead. He was leaning too far over for Murphy’s comfort. He wanted to grab him, pull him back in. But the kid quickly righted himself, nodding forwards with a small grunt. Leaning around himself – a reasonable amount, that is – Murphy sighed. There were Zs standing on the road, just idling around as if there wasn’t damn truck with a grill full of corpse chunks hurtling towards them. Of course. All the open fields and copses of trees here in Amish Country, and the Zs choose to play in the middle of the damn road!
As the truck starts to slow down, 10k makes his move. Grabbing a tight hold onto the collar of Murphy’s jacket, he gracefully springs out of the bed, roughly dragging the man with him. Being suddenly treated like luggage was… unexpected, to say the least (from the kid, anyway: Warren was another matter entirely) so there was no shame in how Murphy had to scramble in order to not end up landing flat on his ass. Some forewarning would have been appreciated, too. Dammit, Ten – I’m a Saviour, not a mind reader!
“Where’re they going? Hey! Kid! Murphy!”
Shrugging back at the old man’s call, Murphy doesn’t fight it as the kid wraps slender fingers around his wrist and pulls him towards the treeline. Not much use fighting it; the kid seems to know what he’s doing, and God knows he has survived solo long enough. Murphy may have one hell of an ego, but he knows when to keep quiet and defer to someone else’s expertise.
Now, Murphy knew that 10k was warm – the kid likes to press his leg against him when they sit close, after all – but right now… his hand seemed hot. Sure, the kid wasn’t wearing his gloves as he had tucked them into his bag when Murphy had refused his offer, so maybe it was just due to this being some rare skin contact between them, rather than the heat having to pass through clothing first.
Or maybe it was because Murphy has been touch-starved…
That wouldn’t be too surprising. There wasn’t exactly an abundance of women in prison, and the Apocalypse hasn’t left much opportunity for privacy, especially when he always had Hammond breathing down his neck. Now that he’s with Garnett, who knows if the effectual bastard would give him enough alone time to take these matters into his own hands. Maybe Warren could be the one keeping an eye on him. Maybe she’ll even offer a helping hand…
With a short, sharp shove, 10k thrust him into the trunk of a tree, the movement sending flakes of dried bark raining down over them from the branches above. Murphy opened his mouth to complain – and rightly so! – but snapped it shut again after the little shit sent him a glare. 10k’s warnings seemed to hold much more weight than Docs… So, fine. He’ll hold on to it. Murphy is happy to wait for a while, then give the kid grief later. If they’re still alive…
10k’s movements were swift, precise, borne from the kind of efficiency one can only gain after years of honing one’s craft. If Murphy had ever needed proof of how deadly the kid truly was, he had just gotten it. Leaning into the tree and resting his rifle in the bough of some branches, 10k takes a deep and calming breath before peering through his scope. He was aiming towards the road. Where the others were approaching the Zs.
Murphy shuffled closer to the kid, kept his voice low. “And this is…?”
“Ambush. Stay close. Stay quiet.” Didn’t even have the courtesy to look at him when he spoke. Bastard.
Murphy rubs at the back of his neck, his fingers soothing the area where the leather of the collar had bit into his flesh. It had better not have left a mark… And close? Sure, if 10k wants him close, he can give him close. Shuffling forwards, Murphy gently draped himself against 10k’s back, the man’s broader body engulfing the slighter frame. Beneath him, the young man tenses, his grip on the rifle making his knuckles pale. Then 10k closes his eyes. He was warm and wanted him close – if he didn’t think Murphy would take advantage of that, then the man had given him more credit than he deserved. But 10k needs to pay attention to the others right now, not him. Rubbing a hand absently down the young man’s side, Murphy leaned down, spoke low in his ear. “I’m flattered, Ten, but now is not the time. Shouldn’t you be focusing on them and not me?”
Letting out the whisper of a shuddered breath, 10k turns his attention back to the road.
Huh. The kid had been right to think that it was an ambush. Some of the Zs had drawn guns. And drawing guns was a decidedly unZ-like behaviour. And with that maltreated little Bug pulling up behind their truck, the others were trapped on both sides.
“Pick a Z.”
Straightening slightly, Murphy rests his chin on the top of 10k’s head. His hair isn’t exactly sweet smelling, but Apocalypse. “Hmm?”
The kid lets out an amused little snort as Murphy’s breath tickles at his hair. “A Z. Pick one.”
“Black bandana, then.”
Murphy smirks. “Not like that’s stopped you before.”
10k tenses up again, though this time he shrugs his shoulders, attempting to dislodge Murphy. Yeah, okay, that might have been taking it a bit too far. That their little killer had finished off Cassandra’s old fucked up family was something of an open secret amongst the group. They all knew it; they all knew that the others knew it. No one actually says it, though. Acknowledges it. Touchy subject and all that. So, sure: bringing this up now only proves that Murphy is an ass. But that was another thing that everyone knew – in fact, it’s a well-established fact by this point – though they were gleefully vocal about this one. Such an offensive double standard! However, there was a time and a place for him to wind the kid up, and an ambush certainly wasn’t it. Murphy pulls back slightly, removing his weight from off of 10k’s back, lifting his chin out of his hair. He keeps a hand gently placed on his hip, though, his rough fingers tracing small circles along the little slither of exposed skin. So that he knows Murphy is still there. Don’t need the kid to turn his eyes away from the ambush, after all.
He doesn’t apologise, just peers passed 10k’s head as he feels the kid being to relax once more. Instead, he picks a Z. “That one. In the gauche, tan jacket.”
10k shifts his aim. Squeezes the trigger. Kills the Z.
And Murphy smiles. Good to know my mouth didn’t just get everyone killed…
As some of the Z-bandits begin to twist and turn their gory heads in search of their assailant, Garnett raises his hand, a signal for 10k to hold fire. The kid lets out a guttural growl, little more than a raspy hiss, but pulls back from his scope. It was obvious that he wanted to kill them all – Zs and humans – but doing so would endanger the group. And whatever guise of innocence the kid was trying to hide behind. Which is probably a good thing for Murphy. Whatever it is that 10k was hoping to find from travelling with his escort, he would be unlikely to get from Murphy alone. And with how mercenary that kid seemed to be, should to group go down, 10k would probably shed the dead weight and leave Murphy to deal with the Apocalypse solo…
So, Murphy needs as many of the others to survive as possible. “Give them the truck!”
The words had barely left Murphy’s mouth before 10k had him by the collar again, this time unceremoniously dragging them both to the ground. Knees pressed into the grass beside the man’s head, the kid clamped his hand over Murphy’s mouth. And glared. Oh, so he can shoot all he wants, but Murphy talking is what will give away their hiding place? Nothing could be more ridiculous!
“Don’t give them a goddamn thing!”
Okay, so, Murphy had spoken too soon – think too soon? Murphy had thought too soon. Of course, Warren would find a way to prove him wrong without even knowing she was doing it. But what does the woman think that they can do here, exactly? Sure, the kid is a good shot, but not that good. At least one of their side would die, and Murphy is not playing shoulder to cry on to the kid if it was Doc! Staring back into 10k’s pale eyes, he rips the hand away from his mouth, squeezing it tightly. “Do the math, Garnett! We have other priorities.” At that, 10k slowly pulls back, releasing Murphy’s jacket collar. And Murphy reluctantly relinquishes his hold on the kid’s hand. “Give them the damn truck.”
How long they continued to stare at each other, Murphy unsure, though it couldn’t have been as long as it seemed. The kid’s face was back to that tight blankness; the one that Murphy had always found unreadable. What is 10k able to see in my face?
Finally breaking off their eye contact, the kid grabs his rifle from the grass, looking through the scope once more. As Murphy goes to climb to his own feet, 10k flings out a hand, motioning for the man to stay down. How bossy… Nut, not wanting to push luck any further than he already had, Murphy complies. Instead, he just stares at the side of the kid’s face. At how his brows were furrowed, thick and low. At how his lips were pressed into a thin line, jaw clenched. And at how he stares intensely at the road, eyes heavier than those of a man of his age should ever have…
The whooping and hollering of the bandits’ cuts through the air as 10k lowers his rifle. Now offering a hand and a weak smile, the kid pulls Murphy to his feet. “At least you won’t have to sleep in the truck again…”
The laugh bubbles up and out before Murphy can stop it, a much-needed cathartic release. “Was staring to get used to it, I’ll have you know. That truck bed can be rather comfortable with enough blankets, especially if the alternative is a damn tree. We can’t all be fucking Tarzan.”
“Murphy! Get your ass back here, now!”
Ah, Warren. Ever so eloquent a lady. She didn’t get her own way, so now she’s taking it out on Murphy. Wonderful… Well, best to not keep her waiting.
With a shrug, he begins the short trudge back to the road, 10k a few diligent paces behind him. At first, he’d thought the kid was like a puppy – well, a cockroach, but the puppy thing quickly followed! – always awaiting orders, trying to please its master. But right now? Now, he seems more like a cat stalking its prey. The kid gets given a surprising amount of leeway when he doesn’t understand something, but Murphy is beginning to wonder how much of that is simply a ruse. How much of it is genuine youthful ignorance? And how much is simply an unwillingness to follow an order? A desire to work towards his own objectives? As they arrive back at the road and that abused little Bug, Murphy comes to a decision of his own: he needs to be more aware of the kid. More conscious. Mindful. The last thing he needs is to not notice the cat twining betwixt his legs as he walks, endeavouring to trip him up for its own amusement.
The relief in Doc’s eyes as the kid appears before him unharmed is… saccharine. Seriously, how does 10k do it? In the short while he’s travelled with this band of hardened survivors, the kid has already endeared himself to them. And they only just tolerate Murphy! Their whole reason for travelling together! To keep going! To survive!
When the old man pats the kid on his shoulder, a basic friendly greeting, 10k almost manages to hide his flinch. But Murphy saw it. They all saw it. Though they don’t mention it. Like a lot of things about this kid.
Doc just smiles his way through it, quickly pushing the disappointment from his eyes. “Saw that trap coming a mile away, didn’t ya, kid?”
Mack tried to unleash his frustration by kicking at the door of the poor, defenceless Beetle, now discarded in the grass, before throwing a glare 10k’s way. A weak glare. Yeah, the blond had nothing on Warren… “A little heads up woulda been nice, kid.” Beside him, Addy runs her hand along her boyfriend’s shoulder, fingers tickling at the short hairs at the base of his skull, calming him down. Distracting him. Now that is how to keep your dog on a tight leash.
From his place at the front of their new ride, Garnett had been watching them approach. His face was as guarded as Murphy had come to expect, especially when it came to him and 10k. That soldier was suspicious. Too suspicious. What, does he think Murphy is up to something? Trying to hurt his little pet stray? That kid is too unpredictable to even try to control. Manipulate. Murphy doesn’t have that much of death wish.
But 10k sees the gaze. Stops short. Eyes the man back, warily. Garnett simply nods his head towards Murphy. “Why did you take him with you?”
Sparing a sideways glance Murphy’s way, 10k quickly focuses on his scarf. He tries to straighten it out, instead only messing the blue fabric up even more than their little roll in the grass had. Then licks at his lips before answering. “My job is to protect him. Can’t if he walks into an ambush.”
At that, Murphy stomps up to 10k, his long strides carrying him swiftly over, no heat in his mocked scowl. “Well, isn’t that such a wonderful thing to know. And here I was, thinking you might have liked me!” Slapping the kid’s hands away from their ineffectual faffing, Murphy neatens up the scarf himself before he is forced to witness someone accidentally strangle themselves with silk. Seriously, if you want something done right…
While the rest of the group argue back and forth about who is going to sit where in the little Bug, and who will have to cling to her roof for dear life, Murphy doesn’t know what is worse to look at – the soft curiosity in 10k’s eyes, or the stern warning in Garnett’s.