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Cassandra was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only had Doc redoubled his efforts at getting 10k to talk, but that he’d been largely successful. And that success is probably what led her to be sitting in the truck bed with them right now. She had been seated been inside, comfortably squished between Addy and the door, trying to ignore the way Murphy was repeatedly banging on the back window. If the man had been a headache before, now he had graduated to a migraine. Warren had wanted to ignore him, stating that giving in to his petulance would only encourage the behaviour, but when Garnett had firmly told her to pull over, she’d done so with little more than a disapproving side eye. And with Murphy already in a mood, there was no way Cassandra wanted to be stuck in the cramped back seats with him!

Which is what brought her to the here and now, sitting in the truck bed, watching as Doc enthusiastically recounts the entirety of the first Rocky film. And the kid was hooked! She’d been surprised that 10k hadn’t ever heard of it – everyone knows about Rocky even if they haven’t seen it for themselves! Doc had first broached the topic back in Philly while they were carrying the satellite between them, but the kid had simply brushed him off, picking up his pace and saying that they should hurry back. At the time, Cassandra had thought that he was simply being antisocial, still too used to travelling solo, but she quickly came to realise that it was something else that had been motivating his haste.

Murphy.

10k had wanted to get back to Murphy.

If it is friendship that the kid sought, Doc has been right there all along, and the lovable old guy had it in spades. Yet until recently – very recently – 10k had been trying to keep his distance from him. This led Cassandra to believe the kid’s fixation on Murphy is something entirely less… wholesome. And how 10k acts when he thinks she isn’t watching – when he thinks no one is watching – is a dead give-away. The way he’s always aware of Murphy’s position; the casual, seemingly innocent touches that draw Murphy’s attention to him; the dark spark that all but glints in his eyes as he watches the man, studies him, dissects him…

Not that Murphy himself is in any way irreproachable. The way he insisted on being in 10k’s personal space, despite the kid’s very obvious aversion to touch; the jokes he makes at 10k’s expense, trying to make the kid focus on him and him alone, even if at times it’s only to annoy Doc; the gentleness that smooths out the harsh lines of his face when he takes comfort in 10k’s presence. Yet, he remains unaware of how the kid now looks at him…

10k may be trying to hide behind his youth, to allow an apparent ignorance about the pre-Z world lend some plausible deniability to his actions and reactions, but he is a hunter through and through. The kind that is more than a learned habit. The kind that is purely instinctual. But should Murphy truly be unaware of the full extent of the heat behind that gaze, if he continues to entice 10k closer and closer, to draw him in…

But that doesn’t matter anymore. She’ll likely never get to see it now. Not with how Murphy seems to be pulling back from the kid. And all because 10k was covering his own ass for a change. Sure, he had been abrupt, maybe even rude, in how he had ignored the man’s attempts at joining in the conversation, but it was hardly intentional, right? The kid isn’t exactly good at this whole ‘socialising’ thing. Plus, Cassandra has seen the way 10k looks at Garnett, too. His gaze is just as intense, analysing their leader’s every move, every word, every gesture. But, going from the uncertainty in the kid’s eyes, an emotion that appears to swing from simple hesitation to outright dread, it isn’t because 10k might have a thing for tall, older men! No, it was probably something to do with how Garnett has developed a particularly strong distaste for how Murphy was treating the kid.

So, 10k had dismissed Murphy to save his own skin, and now Murphy was retaliating by outright pretending that the kid doesn’t exist. Three guesses as to who is being the most childish about this whole thing… Garnett seems to have now relaxed a bit, sure, but what his problem was in the first place, Cassandra has no idea. Yeah, 10k may be interested in Murphy as more than a charge or a friend, but is that really so bad? The Apocalypse has made the world even harsher than it was before – you can’t begrudge people their little distractions, the tiny slices of happiness that they use to keep the darkness at bay. What part of that would Garnett have a problem with, anyway? Murphy being the ‘Mission’? Their age difference? Surely, it’s not because they are both men! Garnett doesn’t seem the type.

Wait. Is he concerned that Murphy might hurt the kid? As arrogant, self-centred, even downright egotistical as Murphy can be, this kid is an entirely different breed. Something primal, something untameable, something unabashedly feral. But, oddly enough, not cruel. At least, not to those he seems to care about. Looks like the kid has played his role convincingly enough if even Garnett has fallen for it. Cassandra, however, as been in the game too long to not realise that it wouldn’t be 10k who’s liable to get hurt.

With the way that Murphy has been sulking, acting so childish just because 10k didn’t indulge him one time, he clearly has no idea what he’s really dealing with. And if he continues to treat the kid like a plaything, something he can simply discard the moment 10k is no longer deemed entertaining enough… then perhaps it’s for the best. Murphy wouldn’t be doing any of them a favour – least of all the kid – if he were to bite off more than he could chew.

But still – Murphy is an adult, for fuck’s sake. He should be more than capable by now to handle situations with a little more diplomacy. To let someone down properly. To cut off a tie or create some distance without being such a petty bastard about it! If he is simply doing this to punish the kid, he should at least have the courtesy to let 10k know what he has supposed to have done wrong. If Murphy continues to go about this how he has so far, the only thing he’ll succeed in doing is pushing the kid away.

And straight to Doc.

“Wait, so this Rocky dude loses the fight?” 10k had looked up, then. Up from the leather strap he has draped over the side of the truck bed to sharpen his knives. The kid is always active. When he isn’t resting, that is. Killing Zs, keeping watch, general maintenance; something, anything. Never lets his hands lay idle. Maybe that level of preparedness played a part in how he survived so long alone. Not a single minute of daylight wasted, then he volunteers for the night watch…

Nodding his head, Doc smiles at him, ever the one to encourage the kid to speak up, to join in. “Yeah. Yeah, but see in losing, he wins. It’s very zen.”

“I’d like to see Rocky fight a Z.” With a lick of his lips, 10k drops his eyes back to the knife in hand, raises the blade up, examines the freshly honed edge. “If he loses, he’s no longer human.”

“You’ve said that a few times, now, Ten. About things not being human.” As his gaze turned to her, Cassandra just kept her face light, tried to hide the curiosity at his words under a simple, friendly smile. “Didn’t realise you were such a fan of philosophy.”

“Something I often wondered in my own youth. What does it mean to be human?” Doc smiled over at 10k while speaking, even stretching over to pat the kid gently on the arm. The old man’s smile grew warmer when 10k leaned slightly into the touch. “Though I’m sure most of my questions where brought on by something other than zombies!”

“You said…” The kid hesitated then, reaching up to stroke his scarf. It was such an odd tick, very telling of something. What that was, however, Cassandra had no clue. As Doc caught his eye and nodded once more, the kid found his courage, let go of the blue fabric, held the old man’s steady gaze. “You said it’s caring about other people that makes us human.”

“Yeah, I did, kid. And I meant it, too. Way I see it, we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not. And helping people, even strangers that we may never meet? Well, that’s how we’ll see the best of what humanity has to offer, ya know?” Doc shrugged then, looking between Cassandra and 10k, before settling once more on the kid. “Not always practical, sure, but I always thought that’s the best kind of world to strive for.”

Seemingly satisfied, 10k leans back, sliding his hands once more into his light blue scarf, letting his eyes wander along the landscape. It was quickly becoming urbanised, the scattered Zs now closer to the road, thicker in density. Closing his eyes, the kid lets a small smile curl at his lips. One that scrubs away the weariness, softens the sharpness that often accompanied his gazing. One that shows him to be as young as he truly is. And when he began to speak, ever so quietly, the movement of his lips barely registering to her eyes, Cassandra tilted her ear towards him. She barely caught the words he uttered before the wind snatched them away.

“‘A system that fails even just one is a system that is broken.’ He’s just like you…”

 

 

 

The last few miles passed by before they knew it, Doc rambling on about everything and nothing, 10k chiming in with the occasional question. Questions the old man answered with enthusiasm and another doting smile. It was strange, the things that the kid didn’t know about. Things that everyone would have learned about one way or another by their teen years. Turns out porn and Rocky were just the tip of 10k’s iceberg of ignorance. What he isn’t ignorant of, though, is all the dangers that the world possesses. And how to take them out.

Citizen Z had told them to keep an eye out for a tall, damaged building. Like the one that they were fast approaching. Once more Zs were wearing military fatigues than not, 10k quietens down, begins to fidget, soon pulling himself to his feet, rifle in hand. Scanning around them, appraising the situation they were driving into.

And when they pulled up to the gate of the Headquarters, the truck slowing to a stop, Cassandra watched, fascinated, as the kid reached out for Murphy. As if it was second nature already. The man was one of the first to climb out of the truck, quicker to move than he usually was, and had started to take a few steps towards the building. But 10k didn’t actually touch him, pulling his hand back at the sound of Garnett’s voice.

“Not exactly what I was hoping for.”

“One of these days you’re gonna learn to quit hoping for things.” Murphy had stepped back towards the truck, choosing to lean against the side of the bed. Keeping his eyes stubbornly facing forward, not acknowledging the kid standing directly behind him.

So fucking childish…

Warren marched around the front of the truck, gun drawn and pointed towards the barricade surrounding the building’s entrance. “You better hope not, cuz that’s when we leave your ass at the side of the road.”

10k is now even more on edge, though whether from Warren’s words or the place the group were waltzing into, Cassandra isn’t sure. What she is sure of, however, is that with Murphy lingering near the truck, the kid felt comfortable enough to direct his attention more towards Doc. Reaching out to grab his shoulder and stopping the old man in his tracks, 10k never took his eyes off of the building looming over them. “Don’t go. Stay here where it’s safer.”

Casting a quick smile over his shoulder, Doc pats 10k’s hand then leans against the truck bed. Right next to Murphy. “Don’t worry, kid, I’m not going anywhere.”

Well, as Murphy said, the kid has had an uncanny intuition so far… It didn’t take Cassandra long to make her own decision. If 10k didn’t like that building and didn’t want Doc or Murphy anywhere near it, then she isn’t going near it, either. She’s staying right here in the truck bed.

As if on cue, a soldier pops his head up over the barricade, aiming his rifle directly at the approaching group. “Halt! Who goes there‽”

10k raises his own rifle with a snarl, zeroing in on his target and– lets his arms drop back down with a sigh. At Doc’s cautious, questioning glance, the kid just shakes his head. “He’s not a threat. Ain’t even loaded. No magazine.”

So, they just stood there, watching in silence as Garnett said his piece. Murphy even gave a sarcastically cheery wave when his role in the ‘Mission’ was brought up. Though when Garnett called him over, he stood firm, pressing back into the side of the bed. Almost as if he was searching for 10k. Reaching for him. Yet still determined to deny he misses the kid’s comfort. The kid’s attention.

The man is as stubborn as he is egotistical.

The soldier glared over at him, not willing to leave his station, to walk through the group to check out this apparent person of interest. “He looks like a damn Z.”

Scowl curdling his face, Murphy looked the soldier up and down. “You don’t look so good yourself, roadkill!”

The snort of laughter Murphy’s slapdash comeback elicited from 10k made the man smile. It was a small one, something he obviously tried to fight, to hide from view, but she saw it. As did Doc. Murphy doesn’t hate the kid, no matter how much he is now trying to make it seem that way. But whatever this is between them, this thing that soured their relationship before it could even properly begin, it was bad for them both. And should it continue to build, to be left to fester for much longer… Well, one of them would have to go purely to keep the peace.

And Murphy is the ‘Mission’.

10k had finally began to open up, to crawl out of his defensive shell and let himself be human for a change. He had found a way to bond with Murphy of all people, and over goodness knows what, even if it didn’t last long. Now he’s letting himself get close with Doc, finally feeling comfortable enough to answer the old man’s overtures of friendship in kind. He’s starting to drop his guard, to let people in. If Murphy takes his tantrum too far, if 10k gets kicked from the group, she doesn’t know what would happen…

What Cassandra does know, however, is that she won’t let the kid go alone.

“Doc! Get over here.” Warren’s shout pulled all their eyes to her, the woman waving the old man over without looking away from the soldier. She still had her gun in hand, too. Whatever they had been talking about, she clearly wasn’t impressed with the man. She was a soldier herself, after all, so it must be hard on her to see what a sorry state these parts of the government she once served have become. “And bring your bag.”

As Doc leaned over the side of the bed to rummage around, 10k let one hand fall from his rifle. Land on Doc’s arm. Grip it tightly. “Don’t go in there. If they ask, then say no. Say anything. Just… Doc, don’t go.”

And Doc just smiled up at him. Placed a hand over 10k’s, tried to reassure him the best he could. “It’s okay, kid, I’ll be back before you know it.”

They stood in silence once more as Doc walked towards the group. Talked to the soldier. Entered the building alone. Well, the men beside her watched. Instead, Cassandra watched them. She watched how 10k’s hands gripped tighter and tighter on his rifle; how his face became more distraught until he forced it cold and blank; how he finally pried one hand away from his weapon, letting it sink up into comforting, distracting silk. She watched how Murphy clenched his fists, the knuckles going white; how he glanced side long at the kid, his own face eventually crumbling, displaying the distress they were both feeling; how he eventually reached up to tug at his collar, then rubbed at the back of his neck.

There is already too much between these two for them to just pretend there was never something there. To try and be partial strangers who just happen to be travelling within the same group. This isn’t healthy for either of them. Or her: Cassandra is pretty sure that the strain of watching them attempt to blindly ignore their obvious need for a connection is going to give her a damn ulcer. As soon as Doc gets back, she’s going to have to enlist the old man’s help. Get him to talk to Garnett, find out what the man’s problem is. Fix whatever has been broken between these two idiots standing at her side. Before someone gets hurt. Or worse.

She has watched them long enough to know neither of them will be the first to make a move, to extend the olive branch. Because neither think that they are the one in the wrong. Idiots, the both of them! A mess like this, though? It’s too complicated for her to tackle alone. So, she’ll have to wait patiently for when Doc gets back.

 

If he gets back.

 

~*~*~

 

“Trouble in paradise, huh?” From her place atop the barricade, Addy nods at 10k and Murphy. The kid was still standing in the bed, checking out the area, keeping watch back the way they came. And Murphy? That ass was leaning against the side of the truck, doing just enough, moving in the exact perfect way to make the kid’s head snap towards him. To become the sole focus of 10k’s attention. And then the arrogant bastard ignores him! Pretends like it never happened. That he hadn’t done it on purpose.

She had been elbow deep in drive-thru guts and as such had missed whatever had transpired between them. And when Murphy had started his incessant banging on the back window, she just had finally caved. Asked what it was all about. Only for both Mack and Garnett to tell her to leave it. Mack, she expected: her boyfriend was overprotective and 10k’s little episode back in Philadelphia had made him really not like the kid. Which is stupid, by the way. 10k had gone above and beyond what had been asked of him to rescue Cassandra and he had backed up Addy to boot. But Garnett? He’s liked the kid so far and was one of the few members of their group that didn’t let Murphy’s charming personality get to him. Hell, back at Camp Blue Sky, Garnett had always been up there with Doc when it came to the promotion of the importance of ‘harmony’ and ‘co-existence’ and other hippy shit. So, if he doesn’t think it’s worth trying to work it out, it must be something seriously complicated.

“It’s ridiculous, is what it is…” From her place next to Addy, Cassandra just shook her head in exasperation. The petite woman was quieter than Addy herself, but more observant. Seeing as she seemed to spend more time watching 10k than any of them – even Doc – if anyone knew what was really going on, it would be Cassandra.

“What’s it all about, anyway? I was kinda, you know, busy.”

The smile Cassandra threw her was equal parts amusement and frustration. “10k ignored him.”

“Wait, really? That’s it? Murphy’s seriously throwing his little hissy fit over something like that?” Damn. He’s more of an ass than I thought!

“Yup.”

It was ridiculous. Absurd. So over dramatic and blown out of proportion. Just, so totally and spectacularly Murphy. No wonder the kid seems so confused. He hasn’t done anything wrong and now he finds himself shut out, being cut off by the person he’d spent the most time with, the very one he is tasked with protecting. And all because he didn’t go along with the bastards every whim just once?

Perhaps it’s for the best, then. That Murphy pushed him away so soon. 10k doesn’t seem the type to open up to others easily and if he’d chosen to do so with Murphy? If he had gotten attached to the man only to be thrown out with the bathwater? It certainly wouldn’t help the kid with his trust issues, that’s for sure.

10k had stopped staring down the road, now. Stopped scanning the area. Instead, he’s begun to eye up the building behind her. The Headquarters. He’d seemed reluctant to let Doc go in at all, never mind alone. That one didn’t take much figuring out: Doc had been trying to get to know 10k since he first picked him up, trying to endear himself to the kid, to let him know that he can be relied upon. Asked for help. Trusted. And the lovable old guy seems to have succeeded. Which is the best news Addy has gotten in a while. So, if this is how Murphy is going to behave, then anything that can create a bit of distance between him and the kid is a good thing. And good things don’t get much better than Doc!

Both women just watched the kid from where they were leaning gently against the top wall of the barricade. 10k is entertaining, his movements precise, perfectly calculated, though what kind of equations he uses is anyone’s guess. Addy can see why Cassandra has taken such a liking to this little pastime.

He eyes Murphy again, this time of his own accord. Brows drawn low; lips pressed together; head tilted slightly to the side. Thinking. Planning. Plotting. Then, slinging is rifle over his shoulder with a practiced ease, 10k makes his move. Jumping down over the side of the truck bed, 10k lands next to Murphy with all the finesse of an alley cat. The man in question didn’t move an inch, discounting how he flinched at the suddenness of the kid’s arrival. Neither men looked at each other, eyes still glued to the high-rise. They both really are stubborn. Almost like they were made for each other. At least 10k seems to have the brains to know when enough was enough, though. And has the temerity to bite the bullet, to make the first move.

Rifling through his bag, 10k pulls out a little red carton. It’s a packet of cigarettes. The one he won from Murphy back on the highway. The kid was quick to make his selection – a smoke was a smoke, nothing fancy about it. Once it was lit, he took a deep drag, held it, exhaled, then turned to face Murphy.

It isn’t a challenge. Well, not a real one, anyway. With each drag, he continued to stare at the man beside him, his gaze focused with laser precision, yet still passive enough to not be seen as a threat. The kid’s body language sang out ‘I’ve swallowed my pride and made the first move: at least have the guts to meet me halfway.

It isn’t a challenge. No, it is more like a declaration. An ultimatum. The kid’s final gambit. ‘Face me now, before I give up on you.’

So, the kid just stands there, smoking the cigarette, eyes never once leaving Murphy. Smaller and smaller it got, burning down with each drag. And his face remained stoic, blank, empty, 10k not letting himself give away anything more. Not if he is hurt, desperate, or even relieved by Murphy’s continued avoidance. Nothing.

He raised his hand up to his lips for what is likely the final time, little more than the cigarette butt remaining. His hand didn’t make it. Murphy finally turned to him, then. Plucked the cigarette from the kid’s fingers. Lifted it to his own mouth.

“The cock finally crows, huh, kid?” Murphy voice was low, its gravelly tone only just reaching the women on the barricade. As the man exhaled, he flicked the butt down onto the road, ground it under his heel. “Don’t deny me again, Ten. Not for a fourth time.”

10k just smiles. Little more than a curl at the edges of his mouth, but it’s cocky, fills his face with the level of self-assuredness usually only afforded to the man in front of him. When Murphy lifts his hands once more, this time to straighten out the kid’s messy, windswept scarf, 10k also raises his own. Slides them up Murphy’s shoulders. Folds down the man’s collar. Lets his fingers linger along the back of his neck. Before finally turning away, moving closer to the barricade, eyeing up the Zs across the compound.

When Murphy smiles, all Addy can see is relief.

She’s missed something. She really has. There was something between the kid and Murphy, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. A kind of closeness, a type of bond, a peculiar flavour of camaraderie that wouldn’t be possible between any other two members of their group. Addy will be first to admit that the two of them don’t seem like they should get along at all. Murphy’s brash arrogance and 10k’s natural, cautious distrust really shouldn’t mesh together as well as they do. Garnett may have been wary about those two getting close, may have thought that whatever had made them fall out and act like little children was too complicated to bother trying to fix. But Addy has a more reliable source.

Cassandra.

Addy had seen the petite woman talking to 10k that first night. The one after they left Philly. She has no idea what was said between them then, or why the woman’s words were so effectual where her own and even Doc’s had failed. But it was because of Cassandra that the kid had agreed to take them up on their invitation to stay, of this Addy has no doubt. 10k had even accepted the woman’s hug…

So, when Cassandra, the person who likely knows 10k well enough to understand what actually just transpired between him and Murphy, smiles at their reconciliation, Addy knows that their rocky road has all but passed. That Garnett’s concerns are unfounded. That she herself shouldn’t be concerned about the kid. Or Murphy.

Because seeing a smile that dazzling, Addy knows that there is nothing to worry about. That, when it comes to 10k and Murphy, as long as Cassandra is there to watch over them, everything will work out just fine in the end.