His mind keeps slipping but not just from the anger, the aggression that bubbles up from deep within his psyche, tainting every thought, every feeling, every action… No, the anger 10k can deal with. Can recognise it coming, push it back down before he does something he shouldn’t. Something he’ll regret. Usually…
No, this time it’s due to another emotion. One he hasn’t felt in a long time.
Concern for Doc’s safety as the old man had yet to emerge from that Government building, been gone so long that the others were rounded up to mount a search and rescue effort. Concern for Murphy as the handsome man had been taken inside on Garnett’s orders instead of being left here where 10k can protect him. Even concern for Cassandra, the young woman who accepted him – trusted him – despite having seen more of the kid than anyone else. Well, anyone else that’s still alive. She’d even promised she’d find Doc, bring him back safe. Look after Murphy, too. 10k hadn’t even asked her. Hadn’t said anything. She just knew. Just promised...
And that is what his problem is. This emotion. This concern on the part of others rather than just over finding his next meal, his next outlet, his next release. But it was here now, and 10k had had enough denial in his life to know that it will ultimately get you nowhere. That, if left to its own devices, it will just grow and grow until you can carry it no longer. Until it breaks you, crushes you under its weight.
So, he’ll admit it. The kid will actually admit it. He cares about Doc, about Murphy. And now, he also cares about Cassandra. Being concerned for their safety is not wrong. Not shameful. It’s part of him, something he has had no control over, and something he must admit to if he is going to keep travelling with them. Help them get to the Government lab in California. The lab where Murphy needs to go. The lab where the Government will make a cure. The lab where 10k can finally ask his questions. Get his answers.
Which means he needs a way to clear his mind of this new distraction. A way to ground himself. And he thinks he has a solution.
While searching the corpses of the numerous dead and undead that litter the compound, 10k had found it. A new scope. Higher magnification than the one he currently has, and built to handle enough recoil, too. The last few times he’d been sniping away at Zs, the kid had noticed it. His scope has a slight blur, one that no amount of cleaning has been able to rectify. Maybe one of the lenses has been knocked out of alignment or something, he doesn’t know. But what ever the cause is, he’d do best to replace the thing before it starts to become a problem.
That brings him to the here and now, laying on the top of the abandoned ambulance, rifle resting over a sandbag, his bipod taking the weight of the barrel. The new scope he’d found has already been mounted, so all that is left is to sight it, to zero it in. And this is the ideal place to do it: the compound is relatively secure, the nearby Zs largely slow or stationary and, with the time the kid has to kill, his task isn’t likely to inconvenience Garnett.
Slouching down slightly, the kid peers through the breech end and selects a target. The Z is roughly one hundred metres away, gently swaying back and forth upon unsteady legs. Centring it within his view, 10k assures the rifle remains as stationary as possible as he straightens up again, goes to peer through the scope to align it so his target Z is sitting firmly in the crosshairs and–
It’s blurry, just like his old one.
Heck, it’s blurry in the exact same way! Is everything broken and falling apart in this fracking Apocalypse‽ Keeping his hands steady, he finishes bore-sighting it anyway. The kid had used up the last of his thread locker mounting this scope, so it’ll be more trouble than it’s worth to switch back to his old one.
Pulling back from his rifle, 10k digs the heels of his palms into his eyes. Frack it. Frack everything. He’s not normally like this. This stupid. Wouldn’t make such a simple fracking mistake! But it’s not the kid’s fault, is it? No, it’s Doc’s. And Murphy’s. They are the ones in that fracking Government building while he’s fracking stuck outside following Garnett’s fracking orders! They are the ones distracting him, worrying him, making him forget something so simple, so fundamental, as checking the fracking equipment before he fracking uses it!
So, frack it. Frack everything. Frack them!
With a harsh sigh, 10k lets his hands drop from his face, lets them thump against the white metal of the roof. He’s staring, now. Staring at the zombies, milling around in their military fatigues. They wander aimlessly, shuffling their feet in the dirt. The dry grass. No thoughts; no feelings. Mindless. Because that’s what it does, isn’t it? The disease or virus or whatever the frack it is that turns people into that. It steals their mind away, forcibly strips them of what made them human in the first place. Because, once they are unable to care about others, even those they do know? Well, all that is then left is the insatiable need to kill. To feed. To sink their teeth into warm flesh and lap up that salty, metallic tanginess that oozes–
A low growl rumbles from deep in his throat as 10k tears his eyes away. Clenches his fists. Sharp nails dig into his palms even through the gloves. And the pain drags his mind back. Back to the here and now.
To the present.
They’ve gotten too long again, his nails. He’s left it too long. The kid hasn’t done that in a what seems likes years. Always keeps them short. When even the smallest of scratches can become infected, turn sceptic… Well, it’s best if he keeps on top of them, right? Not like he would have much of an opportunity while travelling with this group– His group? Anyway, 10k is unlikely to get much down time alone, what with how protective Doc seems to have become over him. And Murphy’s neediness… No, he probably won’t be allowed much down time alone, and anything else might be too complicated to travel with. Especially with Garnett now watching his every move…
The kid unclenches his fists, rubbing his stiffened hands together to ease the tingling in his fingertips. Doc is a good person, someone who cares about those around him, even those who don’t deserve it. And Cassandra? She’d accepted him, still wants to be near him, though as for why, 10k doubts he’d ever fully understand. Heck, he doesn’t even know why she promised to find Doc. To keep Murphy safe, too.
Doc had told him about how the handsome man had volunteered for the Government’s experiments. How he had been willing to sacrifice himself to the doctors’ desperate search for a cure. Many would have refused, let someone else die in their stead. 10k knows he himself would have! But many of those who would have said no would still have been good people, right? Sometimes being a good person means knowing when to put yourself first: can’t look after others if you can’t look after yourself. Before now, the kid had thought that Murphy was simply arrogant and selfish, but if he volunteered? If he had been willing to throw away his own mind, his own humanity, his own autonomy, for the slim chance of helping to create a cure…
Wouldn’t that make Murphy a better person than most?
As he fishes a cigarette from the red carton in his pocket, the kid briefly allows his fingers to skim along the blue trailing over his heart. A better person than most, huh? That’s the kind of thing that Tommy would have wanted to protect. But not for survival, nor to gain a favour. Not even to endear himself to someone, to prove himself useful, to manipulate his way into a group. No, not like 10k. Tommy would have done it out of misplaced idealism, a fanciful notion borne from naivety and youthfulness and Jeff.
The world never was like a fairy tale, but now it is even less so. The ‘good guys’ don’t always win; the ‘evil’ isn’t an obvious black and white; there is no glory to be found in death.
Trying to play the hero is simply the stupidest way to get yourself killed.
The cigarette is lit now, safely secured in the makeshift holder, itself little more than an old bullet casing strapped to the side of his rifle. 10k reloads before he once more gazes through his new scope, setting it to the highest magnification. Allowing himself a few slow blinks, he tries to relax his eyes, to counter the blurriness, to get as clear an image as possible. It helps, but only a little. He can still make out the Zs fine, they’re just not as sharp as they used to be. It’s not as ideal as he would have liked but is still preferable to iron sights. Not like he needs to read the Z’s faces, anyway.
Checking the direction of the cigarette’s smoke and selecting his new target – a Z roughly twenty-five metres away and standing stock still as it stares vacantly towards the compound – 10k takes aim. With the wind blowing consistently across from the right, a shot aimed directly at the centre of its chest should hit right about–
He squeezes the trigger, the round sparking as it glances the metal fence to his target’s left.
–there. Huh. It was perfect, no adjustments to the scope seeming necessary. But there’s no harm in double checking, right? With a short-lived smile, little more than a twitch of his lips, 10k readjusts his aim. To the right of the Z, now, level with its head. And when he squeezes the trigger once more, sees how the Z crumples lifelessly to the dirt as he hits it square between the eyes, the kid cannot help but smile again at the cool satisfaction that flows through him.
Swinging back to the first Z – the one a hundred metres away, the one he used to bore-sight – the kid takes aim. Still to his target’s right to allow for the crosswind, but now level with the tip of its nose. Well, where a nose would have once been… When the bullet hits it in the centre of its forehead, a clean three inches above where he aimed, he knows that his new scope has been sighted perfectly, set up to allow for the most effective maximum range. He’d done it first try, too. No adjustments needed. If he had been here to see it, maybe Pa would have been proud of him…
The kid hadn’t meant to open up that much, hadn’t meant to tell them about Pa. Doc and Murphy and Cassandra. He’d told them about how he had tied Pa up before he died. How he had stared into his eyes before giving him the promised mercy. But he hadn’t told them everything.
He hadn’t told them what else Tommy had done.
Tommy presses the cigarette to his lips, taking a reluctant drag. He has to make sure it’s lit properly, right? So, when the smoke burns down his throat, stings in his lungs, he coughs. Splutters. Almost chokes. The acrid smell he has always thought was bad enough, but the taste? It makes his stomach lurch, his head spin. Tommy wants to gag, it’s so nauseating. Now he’s even more confused about why anyone would want to do this. Would find this enjoyable. Why does Pa insist on finding room in their tight budget for these? And why would Jeff risk being punished if he was caught sneaking some away from his father’s jacket? Or pocketing some from the store when the cashier isn’t looking? It’s a disgusting, bitter taste, and one that Tommy hadn’t been fully prepared for. After all, the closest he’s gotten to actually experiencing it for himself has been from the smoke that always seems to linger on Jeff’s lips.
Tommy never minded it, then…
Leaning forward, he gingerly holds the cigarette up for his Pa to take a drag. The man couldn’t light it himself. Hold it himself. Not with how he’s tied up.
After holding the smoke in his lungs, Pa gently exhales. Whispers. “Thank you, son. It’s good.”
Tommy feels useless. Utterly fucking useless. Pa has spent years sacrificing everything he had to help him, to make sure he stayed safe. Stayed hidden. And in return, all Tommy can do is sit here on his ass, unable to do anything except watch as his own father dies… “Can I do anything for you?”
Pa’s head briefly lolls back, the line of his throat drawing Tommy’s attention down. Down to the bandage taped next to his collarbone. To the wound he knows lies beneath. To the bite. The bite that they hadn’t known would kill him. Would turn him. But even if they had known, what could they have done besides the thorough scrub and rinse usually afforded to the bites of rabid animals? The collar isn’t exactly a place they could amputate. And would amputation even work? Toxins spread too rapidly once they enter the bloodstream. You’re betrayed by your own beating heart…
“Make sure those knots are tight.” With a shuddering breath, Pa’s eyes drift closed, his head listing side to side. “It’s not gonna be long now.”
“It’s double half hitch. Just like you taught me.” Pa has always been pleased by how quickly Tommy picked up knotwork, especially the hitches. Once, he had even proudly proclaimed that Tommy’s midshipman’s hitch was far better than the man’s own.
“Just be sure.”
So, Tommy checks. He leans around his father, tugs at the taut ropes, the tight knots. The round turn wraps around Pa’s limbs, meant to secure the load while the knot gets formed; the two half hitches are tied in the same direction to form a clove, a knot Tommy can tie with one hand. There’s a long tail end, though. Maybe he should have added an extra half hitch or two, or at least tied them using a bight instead, to use up more length. A loose tail end can be a tripping hazard.
Not that Pa’s gonna be walking anywhere…
“Promise me you’ll do what we talked about when the time comes.”
Tommy sits back, tries to hold Pa’s gaze as he speaks. It’s something he’s never been comfortable with, eye contact. Faces show your emotion, can betray what you really think. Really feel. Really are. For a few years now, Tommy has been scared about what Pa might be able to see in him. What he could find out. How he’ll react…
He lifts his eyes to his father, just a short flicker, before letting them drop back down to the unfamiliar blue draped about his neck. To the silk scarf. Jeff’s scarf. “I promise. Just like we talked about.” He’d made a promise with Jeff, too, hadn’t he? Another promise he knows that he should keep. “I swear.”
“Don’t swear. Your mother never liked that.”
Jeff… Pa… “I promise.”
“Good. I could always trust you to do the right thing.” Pa’s voice is getting quieter, the little shudders of pain wracking his body becoming more frequent. “You never did tell me, you know. Where you got that scarf.”
The man’s eyes drifted downwards, now. Down from Tommy’s face. Down to Jeff’s scarf. It was bright, demanding attention just like Jeff himself does. Tommy knew he shouldn’t be wearing it, that it would only draw Pa’s questions. Questions that Tommy doesn’t want to answer. Questions he’s been dreading for a while. He knows that he shouldn’t be wearing it, that he should have kept it as hidden away as so many other parts of himself. But he couldn’t take it off, could he? Not yet. And not in front of Pa.
“You know you can tell me anything. I won’t get mad at you. Because I love you, Tommy. I always will.”
Their eyes meet once more, and this time the gaze holds, neither of them looking away. Deep down, beneath all the pain flooding into in Pa’s eyes, Tommy could see them. The questions. About everything Pa wants to know; about everything Tommy wants to hide. And pushing its way through it all is something else. Something stronger. More desperate. Borne from the knowledge that their time is almost up.
A silent plea for his son to trust him. To let him in. Just like he used to.
But the words don’t come.
Tommy remains silent.
With a sigh, now little more than a pained exhalation, Pa broke eye contact. “Your mother, she loved you too. Gave her life to protect you. And I know it hasn’t been easy on you, son. Growing up how you did. Living this way. But I couldn’t lose you, too. Couldn’t let them find you…”
He wants to ask again. Has always wanted to ask. To finally know. Why did Ma die? Why couldn’t Tommy grow up normally? But the one time he’d worked up the courage to ask, Pa hadn’t given him the answer he sought. ‘When you’re eighteen, son. That’s when you can know. You’ll be old enough, then. Old enough to decide what you want to do. What you want your life to be.’
And now, he’ll never know, will he?
“You’re a good boy. Always followed my rules. But I didn’t do this to make you lonely. It’s okay if you had a… a friend. As long as you kept your head down.” The tears that had welled up in Pa’s eyes flow freely, now, carving little tracks through the thin layer of dirt and grime and summer sweat that coats his face. “You remember the rule for going into town, right? The one I told you the first time I took you with me?”
“I remember it, Pa. ‘No cops, no docs, no workers or drones.’”
Pa’s weak laugh is more a pained wheeze, his eyes screwing tightly shut. “You were so young back then. So small… I tried to come up with a memorable rhyme, but that was the best I could do. Your mother was always the better one with words.” His eyes open now, Pa stares at Tommy, waits until his son once more meets his gaze. “Keep that rule in mind. Just because this… this… whatever it is… just because it’s happening, doesn’t mean they’re now safe. There will always be those who remain loyal, even if the Government falls. As tempting as it may seem, you’ll never be safe with them.”
The man pauses, his eyes flicking to where one of his son’s hands is rubbing at the edges of the scarf. It’s something Tommy has found himself doing without realising it. A simple action, and one that brings him some small piece of comfort, as bittersweet as it may feel.
“Your mother… She’d be proud of the man you’re growing up to be.”
With another gasp of pain, Pa’s body twitches. Spasms. Neither say it, but Tommy supposes they don’t actually need to. Because they both know. That this is it. That their time is about to run out.
Pa’s last smile is small, weak, barely a twitch at the edges of his mouth as he nods towards the cigarette still held between Tommy’s fingers.
“Give me another puff… will ya?”
“One thousand one hundred and thirty-two.”
The last Z is down, the compound’s perimeter secure once again. 10k loves this feeling. The one he gets from the counting. The killing. Knowing that with every squeeze of the trigger, every thrust of the knife, he takes one more step towards his goal. It flows from his side, up his spine, like cool fingers tracing under his skin. Once the initial wave of aggression – of hunger – dissipates, it leaves him feeling calm, grounded, satiated. It’s not something he thinks others feel. At least, not the ones he’s mentioned it to. Always got the same blank stares, or worried eyes, or fearful anger. So, he stopped asking. Stopped searching for someone else who’s like him.
He’s long come to terms with the fact that he’s just meant to be alone.
Swinging his rifle onto his back, 10k slinks down the side of the perimeter wall, his boots hitting the dusty stone below with an almost imperceptible thud. It’s not like he’s stupid enough to use the steps, what with how close they are to the main entrance…
There is nothing for the kid here, inside this building. Sure, it may still be being used by the Government, but with the state of it? The state of that guard? Weapon unloaded, eyes red-rimmed… Yeah, there is nothing for him inside. The kid isn’t going to risk alienating himself from Garnett’s group over something so unlikely, not when he still has California.
As he climbs up to perch on the edge of the truck bed, 10k takes another look around. The structures are crumbling, the roads and walkways on both sides of the barricade littered with the dead. They’re looted clean, left with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs and all the time in the world to slowly decay. There is nothing for the kid out here, either. Nothing except to guard Garnett’s truck and trust in Cassandra. In her promise. That she’ll find Doc, protect Murphy. That she’ll get them safely back to him. Back to where he can once more keep his watchful eye on them. On all three of them.
Try to protect them.
Pay them back.
That’s another goal he now has, isn’t it? Something he’s failed at every time he’s tried: protecting the people he cares for. Guess that’s why the kid just stopped… caring. But he cannot do that now. Cannot deny how he feels. Cannot keep himself isolated, an outsider. Travelling any considerable distance in the Apocalypse takes more time than you’d initially expect, what with all the detours, the hordes, the scavenging. If he wants to make this work, he needs to truly become one of them, not just pretend. He’s already started to let Doc and Cassandra in. Letting himself care, letting himself be vulnerable, letting himself be human… He can do it once more, he’s sure. Another failure isn’t guaranteed, right? What was that old saying? ‘Third time’s the charm’?
And as for Murphy…
…No. He can’t go there. Not yet, anyway.
10k had thought that he had messed that one up. Fracked up his chance before it had even begun. That he’d pushed Murphy away too harshly in his speculative attempts to appease Garnett. So, when the handsome man had turned to him, had taken his cigarette, had tried to assert himself… Well, that’s when the kid knew. Knew that he’s managed to worm his way into Murphy’s head just as much as the man has somehow managed with his.
As the kid perches on the side of the truck, eyes flicking to the spot in the corner of the bed favoured by the man in his thoughts, he slides his hand into his pack. Into one of the little pouches on the inside. Pulls out a small file. 10k turns it over in his hands, admiring the once rough surface of the metal, the places where the file has become patchy and marred, smoothed into streaks from the kid’s vigilant overuse. He sets about his task easy enough, yet another skill he can utilise through muscle memory alone. Using the pointed tip to scrape dirt and grime and blood from under his nails; running the coarser side of the file over his free edge, whittling them down to a more practical, manageable length; flipping it over to the finishing side so he can buffer away any sharpness…
The man truly is handsome. Tall; broad shoulders; a beard that looks like it would scrape against 10k’s skin just right… He’s arrogant, too; so sure of himself. And that smirk, the one that pushes all of those sweet buttons, the ones 10k keeps buried deep down. Murphy keeps pressing them in all the right ways, as if he’s teasing him. Tempting him. Begging him to reach out, to grab onto his collar. And 10k wants to. Wants to grab onto that handsome, arrogant man’s collar, to pull him down and–
But, no. He can’t, can he? At least, not yet. Murphy has only just taken his first, unsure step towards him…
Once, 10k had lain in wait, in position, completely unmoving for what he’s sure was days. All so he could take one shot. Fire one bullet. Put down one dangerous animal.
The kid knows how to be patient. He also knows how satisfying – how satiating – the payoff can be.
But he’s never set his sights on anything quite like Murphy before, has he? He knew from when he first saw the man that he was not a normal person. That he was something so very different. Something inherently unique.
It will take him quite some time, that 10k knows. Murphy has likely been left with as many issues about trusting others from the Apocalypse as he has from his stint in prison. And as for Garnett? The kid needs to find out what exactly seems to be the problem that he has with Murphy getting close to him. Needs to find it out so that he can figure out a way to alleviate the man’s concerns. Because Murphy is too rare an opportunity, too enticing a target, to let the soldier get in the kid’s way. In fact, Garnett’s resistance has somehow made 10k’s possible pursuit of Murphy even more… alluring.
It has been a long time since he’s been this exhilarated when finding something other than a Z in his crosshairs.
So, 10k will have to be patient. He knows this. And he knows how.
Anyway, it’s still a long drive to California.
As they near where they parked the truck, Warren’s footsteps falter. She hesitates, the sound of low whispers turning her back. Back to where Cassandra has pulled Murphy close, leaned in to speak, to let no one else hear. That arrogant bastard had already been dragging his heels, forcing Warren to keep an even more watchful eye on him, to make sure that he doesn’t attempt to slip away from them again like he had in the elevator. Not that he would stand a chance, now: he wouldn’t get very far, not with how tense everyone is, not with the tight grip Cassandra has on his arm.
She slows slightly, keeping it casual, pretending that she isn’t trying to listen in on what the young woman is desperately whispering in Murphy’s ear.
“I can’t do it! It has to be you, Murphy. Ten won’t accept it from anyone else.”
Oh fuck. Ten Thousand.
She’d forgotten about him. About the kid. Been so wrapped up in finding Murphy and dragging his slippery ass back to her side before the idiot got himself killed. In tracking down that crazy general to see if his chopper still worked so they could pick up the pace to California and get this all over with already. In losing Doc, a sweet and loving man she’s had by her side for years, long enough to think of him as her family…
She’d forgotten that 10k had finally found the courage to start opening up to someone – well, someone other than Murphy. And it had been Doc he’d chosen. He’d finally let the doting old guy’s persistent kindness break down some of his walls. Finally let himself start to relax around them. And now Doc’s gone, has left the kid’s life as quickly as he came into it.
Now that he’s gone, will the kid still want to stay? Or will they lose 10k, too, and so soon after losing Doc?
Cassandra hisses at Murphy as the man wrenches his arm out of her tight grip. The bastard barges passed Warren, picking up his pace as he marches to the head of the group. In front of them. Leading the way.
The way towards the truck.
And towards 10k.
The kid is kneeling in the bed, rifle diligently in hand. He’s watching them approach almost as intensely as Garnett is watching Murphy surge ahead. Seriously, whatever this shit is between them, this problem that Charlie very obviously seems to have with Murphy, he needs to get it sorted. Nip it in the bud before it grows any further, spreads outwards, becomes an actual problem. One that she’ll end up having to deal with herself.
10k scans Murphy as the man reaches the truck, as he wordlessly circles around to the other side of the bed. Now standing behind the kid, Murphy has firmly placed both the vehicle and 10k between himself and that damn building. Or Garnett… Either way, Warren isn’t too worried by it. At least his cowardly ass seems comfortable with the kid being his bodyguard…
But, as the rest of them arrive, their solemn procession complete; as the kid performs a quick headcount, ever vigilant in his role as one of the group’s protectors… Warren sees the very moment he realises. The tensing of his shoulders. The tightening of his grip on the rifle. The dip of his brow as his mouth slowly opens, searching desperately for words.
“Where is he? Cassandra, what happened to Doc?”
Everyone stops. Stares.
At 10k. At Cassandra.
It seems that no one had wanted to be the one to tell the kid, not even Murphy, dealing as they all are with their own grief. But the kid has now taken that decision away from them. Has chosen who he wants his answer from. Has demanded it, his voice unwavering, undeniable, unemotional.
So, everyone stops. Stares. All waiting to see how Cassandra will handle this. Will break the news. Confirm 10k’s fears.
And how the kid will react.
Cassandra takes a step forward, towards the truck, towards 10k, simultaneously tentative and placating. Warren doesn’t blame her. The young woman’s arms are wrapped tightly around Doc’s brown leather bag, her hands shaking as much as her voice. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Ten. We tried, we really did, but we couldn’t–”
As the kid’s face finally starts to close off, becoming as impassive as his tone, the last thing that Warren sees there is in his eyes. They hold a brief flash of pain, one that quickly drowns in an anger that itself is promptly washed away, leaving only that old, familiar blankness. 10k shifts as if to rise, to lean forward, toward the trembling Cassandra. But he hesitates, falters at the hand that grasps urgently onto his shoulder, that pulls him back down until he’s sitting on the floor of the bed, pressing his back into the metal wall.
Murphy’s hand, gripping so tightly that the knuckles start to go white.
Murphy’s hand, thumb and forefinger rubbing small circles in blue.
Murphy’s hand, holding the kid, soothing his pain, his grief, his anger.
Beside Warren, Garnett frowns.
With Addy’s warning, Warren finally manages to tear her eyes away. To leave 10k to his heartache.
“Oh, whoa, whoa.” Mack’s voice is soft, almost gentle, such an uncharacteristic thing for the blond, though Warren quickly sees why. “Oh god, is that…”
Before Warren could fully register the redhead’s words, a clattering from the truck bed drew her eyes back around, her hand grazing along the pistol at her hip just in case. 10k surges forward with a snarl, his rifle forgotten to the bed. But Murphy moves, too, his hand falling from the kid’s shoulder, instead digging into the back of his shirt, yanking him roughly backwards. Back down to the bed. Back towards Murphy. Back into the arm that coils and constricts its way around the kid’s chest, holding him firmly in place.
And 10k doesn’t resist.
He lets himself be pulled back into Murphy’s captive embrace, letting himself be held, be comforted, by the very man he’d sworn to guard. The kid’s hands reach up and grab onto the arm holding him down, fingers digging harshly into the leather sleeve. But as Murphy’s face begins to contort, to twist into a pained grimace, the man doesn’t complain or retaliate, doesn’t push 10k away, doesn’t make a single sound. He just accepts it all, pulls him in closer, and remains silent.
The sorrowful whimper had come from the kid.
“Someone’s gotta…” Garnett manages to pull his gaze away from them long enough to nod towards Doc. No. The zombie that used to be Doc.
Charlie always has hated this. Giving mercy. As their leader, most had looked towards him for the act when the time came, but the man was gentle. Compassionate. Loving. Every act of mercy had taken its toll on him, weighed down on his very soul.
And that’s why Warren had stepped up. Taken over the duty. Protected Charlie.
Unholstering her gun from her hip, Warren steps forward, trying to block the lone zombie from the kid’s view. “I’ll do it.”
It’s hard on her, too. Of course, it is. She’s as human as the rest of them. But she has always known how to push things down, to compartmentalise, to deal with it at a later, more suitable, date. She’s stronger than most, which is why she’s always been willing to step up, to protect others, protect her family.
Now, she’ll protect Ten Thousand, too.
“Steven ‘Doc’ Beck. I give you mercy.”
Warren raises her pistol. Takes a deep breath. And squeezes the trigger.
As the gunshot rings out, the Z dodges to the side, recoiling in fear.
“What the hell, Warren‽ You trying to kill me?”
Doc! He’s… He’s… “You’re alive‽”
The old guy swaggers towards them, stained red and dripping with viscera. “Damn straight I’m alive!”
Garnett’s voice cuts through the relieved laughter. “We thought you were dead.”
“Well so did I. Some numbskull threw a grenade in the air shaft I was stuck in.” As he speaks, Doc gestures wildly, throwing his hands about in a comical manner, drawing more giggles from those behind Warren.
“Here.” She reaches into her pocket and pulls a rag loose. Shaking it open, Warren throws the rag at Doc.
The sweet old guy catches it easily, opening his arms wide as he nears her. “Give me a kiss, baby!”
With a laugh of her own and a smile big enough to match Doc’s, she turns around, checks on the kid. He isn’t looking forward with the rest of them, as they watch Doc as he begins to clean himself off. No, 10k instead has his head tilted back, trying to look at the man pressing in close to him from behind. Murphy’s arm has dropped from its protective position across the kid’s chest, now nudging at his shoulder, urging him forward. Ushering him towards Doc.
“Just do it, Princess. And none of your emotionally constipated bullshit, either. Actually try to put some feeling in it.” Murphy’s voice is low, meant for the kid alone.
With one final shove, 10k slides away from Murphy, leaving his rifle in the bed as he stiffly drops to the ground. Doc must have seen it, too, as he just stands there, waiting, his eyes soft and curious – maybe even a little hopeful – as the kid cautiously edges towards him.
“Well, hey, kid. Were ya worried about me for a bit back there?”
Doc’s warm smile quickly falls away as the kid hesitantly starts to raise his arms, folds them awkwardly around the old guy’s ribs, pulls him into an unsure embrace. Shock. It’s shock that replaces the smile on Doc’s face. A shock that Warren feels, too. That they all feel. And as Doc lifts his own gore-drenched arms to wrap around the kid, to return the rare display of affection in kind, Warren looks behind herself. Looks at the man who made this happen. And that’s when she sees it. Just a fleeting glimpse as the man in question turns to duck into the truck. It’s a smile, equal parts relief and joy, and far more affectionate than Warren ever thought Murphy’s face would be capable of.
But she isn’t the only one who has seen it, not if the chary acceptance etching its way across Garnett’s own face is anything to go by.
Warren had thought that perhaps Garnett could be concerned that Murphy would become possessive and controlling, try to keep 10k to himself, encourage the kid to remain alienated from the rest of their little family, especially after the annoying bastard’s petty display back at the drive thru. But if Charlie is starting to back down after seeing this? After seeing how Murphy urged the kid to approach Doc, to show how relieved he is that the old guy is safe, to let him know how much he cares… Well, then she knows that Garnett’s problem likely isn’t over something real. That now is her best chance to force the issue.
“You know, kid, I’ve been thing about what you told about your dad and how you wished he knew some things, like you giving him mercy like you promised.”
Warren watches, fascinated, as the kid pulls back slightly. Not away, remaining stiffly wrapped in close to Doc, but just enough to look up at him. At his face. To briefly meet the sweet old guy’s doting gaze before letting his eyes drop down to the dark, bloodstained shirt. “Yeah?”
One hand drops from the kid’s back. The one lightly grasping the rag. The soft wrinkles around Doc’s eyes deepen as he smiles, lifting the piece of cloth up, begins gently wiping away the faded black streaks their little Rambo likes to paint across his cheeks. “Well, I just want you to know that your dad knows, especially what you did for him. He knows you did the right thing. You kept your promise.”
10k seems to deflate, sagging slightly into Doc, dropping his head to rest gently on the old guy’s shoulder. Hiding his face against the stained clothes. Muffling his voice. “Thanks.”
She shouldn’t be watching this. None of them should. Turning from the two men, she waves her hands, shooing the last few stragglers into the truck, until only her and Garnett remain. Closing the door with a little more force than strictly necessary, she stares up at him, up at Charlie. He knows what this is about; she can see it in his eyes.
With the others all peering curiously through the windows, she steps in close, keeps her voice low. “I don’t care what this problem you have with Murphy is, what you think he’s going to do. You’re wrong. And you need to get over it before it starts to become a problem for the rest of us.”
“No, Charlie. Save it. It’s not me you need to be talking to.”
Garnett sighs, running a hand through his soft curls. Casting a quick glance inside the truck – one no doubt aimed at Murphy – he nods. “Fine. Alright. I’ll talk to him later, alone. I’ll… I’ll sort it out.”
“Make sure that you do.”
And with that, Warren takes a deep breath and hauls the heavy door open.
It’s not from the cold, the summer night still young enough for the day’s heat to be lingering. No, it’s fear that makes him shiver. Fear of the creature tied up before him; fear at the unquenchable anger in its eyes; fear that that anger might have been Pa’s.
He’d promised, hadn’t he? That he would kill Pa when the time came. That he would make sure that his father wouldn’t have the chance to harm anyone, least of all his own son. That he would do it quickly, without hesitation or regret. So, Tommy had had to wait, had to make sure, had to be certain that nothing of Pa remained.
And that’s when he saw it.
It isn’t Pa in there anymore. It’s something else, one of those things.
But that doesn’t mean it stopped looking like Pa’s face. Pa’s eyes. Eyes that are now looking at him with the anger – the pure hatred – that Tommy has always feared he might one day see.
He’d tried his best to be a good son, to hide those parts of himself that he knows not everyone could accept: his awkwardness, his insecurities, his shame, his love. He’d done everything he could to be a good son, be a good person, but here it is anyway, the very thing he never wanted to see, the anger the hatred the complete lack of love he had tried so hard and still he has to see it has to look at it has to he has to he has to he has to hehasto–
“Jeff! It’s from Jeff. His name is Jeff.”
The knife thumps into the dirt, Tommy’s fingers twisting painfully into blue silk.
“His name is Jeff and he’s beautiful. More beautiful than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s tall and he’s loud and when he smiles it feels like I’m the only other person in the world.”
Tommy’s hands drop, one smearing off the tears stinging down his face – when had they started to fall? – while the other searches for the knife.
“He likes to sing, Pa. He’s always singing songs I don’t know, but when I listen to them, listen to him, it’s like I’ve always known them. Always known him. It makes me feel like he has always been here, been with me… That I’ve never been lonely.”
The knife is firmly held in his grasp once more, but the weight of his guilt leaves it hanging by his side.
“You always said that you wished I could live a normal life, but that’s not normal, is it? It’s not normal but… But when he kisses me… when he holds me… When he held me tight and told me that he loves me… Nothing has ever felt so fu– fracking right.”
He lifts it, now. The knife. Stares again into those eyes.
“I wasn’t ready to tell you, Pa. Because I was scared. Scared that you’d no longer love me. That you’d hate me. I couldn’t lose you, Pa, you’re all I had.”
Tommy grips underneath Pa’s– no, its jaw, twisting the head to the side. Not far enough to break away from those eyes, but just enough to let him reach it. Reach the pterion. The temple. Weakest part of the skull. Easiest place to pierce with a knife. Quickest way to give mercy. Because that’s what this is, isn’t it? An act of compassion.
It was like this the first time, too. The first time he killed a deer. Killed anything.
Pa had found the deer near their cabin, had brought little Tommy to see it, to teach him. He’d stared in wonder at its fluffy brown pelt and wiggly white tail, at its big antlers still wrapped in fuzzy velvet. And then he’d noticed: the way its ribs were sticking out from how thin it had become; the way its mouth was dripping with saliva that then dribbled down its chin; the way its jaw was working hard as it ground its teeth. He remembered Pa telling him about this, how some of the deer are sick, that you can never tell until near the end. That’s why they don’t eat them – so that they wouldn’t get sick, too.
That was when Pa told him. Told him that the act of killing isn’t itself wrong because death is a natural part of life. That what can make it wrong is the reason behind the killing. That what they were doing here was an act of mercy. That he loved the deer and didn’t want to let it suffer.
He’d handed little Tommy the knife, hold him how to make it quick, then held the deer close as it passed. Wiped the blood from his son’s hands. The tears from his face.
He wasn’t here now, on this young summer’s night. Pa has gone. But this animal remains, diseased and suffering.
The last of his tears long fallen, the kid moves the knife, levels the tip to the side of its head. This kind of killing isn’t wrong, because it’s done out of compassion, and compassion is love.
Loves them both.
The knife sinks in.
A door creaks.
Footsteps. Two people.
“Well, of course it is. The kid has already been this way. He’s probably taken out half the damn zombies in town by now.”
More footsteps. The squeak of old springs.
“Suppose it would be too much to ask for you to help.”
“Lay off, Garnett. I’ve had a rough day. Can’t I rest my feet for five lousy minutes?”
“We’ve just driven for four and a half hours.”
“Yeah, and it was cramped in the back. Whatever kind of people she’d been eating, they clearly weren’t fattening. Cassandra is all skin and bone, especially her damn elbows…”
“Batteries. They might still hold a charge.”
“Oh, batteries. Just what we’ve been needing. Now all we gotta do it find a cassette player and–”
“Either make yourself useful or shut up.”
More footsteps. Coming towards the window.
A drawer scrapes open. Slams shut.
The humming gets louder.
Something shuffles. Clicks. Light.
“Flashlight still works.”
More humming, louder still.
The humming stops.
The footsteps move away.
“Are you trying to draw in Zs? Keep quiet!”
“Just… Help me look for anything useful.”
Springs creaking again.
Footsteps back towards the window.
“I’ve already searched–”
“Yeah, I noticed. Was kinda watching you do it. Just grabbing these for the kid.”
“…Murphy. About that.”
“What about him?”
“You need to be careful.”
“I need to? No, Garnett: you need to be careful. Today, this thing with Doc. What do you think would have happened if I wasn’t there to stop him from doing something stupid?”
“We would have been fine–”
“Now you’re the one being stupid.”
“Murphy!” A growl.
“You’re the mission. You know what that means for when we get to California.”
“Of course, I know! It means that bitch–”
“Exactly! So, you know that you need to back off! If 10k has a little crush, fine. It’s happened and can’t be helped. But you’ve got to stop encouraging it. Leading him on. I can’t let you make it become something more.”
“Look, Garnett, I don’t know what fanciful notions you have about prison life, but I’m not interested in men!”
A thud. A heavy thump.
“You don’t have to be!”
Then a sigh.
“Murphy… just think about it. You’re the mission, and it’s our job to transport you to California and get you to that lab, no matter the cost. This is the cure we’re talking about, something that could potentially save thousands – maybe millions – of lives. What do you think could happen if the kid gets attached? If he doesn’t want to give you up?”
“If you let this continue, anything that happens will be on you, especially if it gets him hurt… or killed.”
Old springs squeak once more.
A sigh, this one lower.
“What are you telling me to do? Ignore the little shit? Push him away?”
“Just… Just make sure he knows you’re not interested. You can still be friendly, but don’t let it become anything more. For the kid’s sake.”
A sigh. Relieved.
“Thank you. Now, come on. We’ve still got the kitchen to search.”
“…Lead the way.”
A final creak of the springs.
Footsteps. Two people moving away.
He doesn’t need to follow any further. He’s heard what he needed. Clutching his rifle tight, 10k slips out of the shadows and heads back to the truck.
He keeps his eyes closed, but he’s awake. Opening them would be like admitting defeat, willingly acknowledging that something as simple to find as sleep has been eluding him more and more. Not that the scant amount of sleep he has been able to get has been of the best quality – no one’s is, these days, but being constantly on the move just compounds those problems. The tragic lack of any beds while on the road has left him with aches and pains that only a long, hot bath could soothe, and while the tender skin on his feet from the weeks of walking with Hammond has now almost healed, suddenly spending so much time sitting in the truck is giving him leg cramps. But all this, he’s gotten used to, learned to deal with: since the start of the Apocalypse, it’s been one kind of pain after another preventing him from getting a decent night’s rest.
But tonight? Tonight, his sleep is bad even by Apocalypse standards. Because he’s shivering. And not just from the cold he’s come to expect from sleeping outdoors or in the truck bed, either. These shivers are also from the peculiar tickling that’s been welling up from deep down in his mind, and from the way it makes the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as they stubbornly insist on standing to attention.
When Doc lets out a muffled snore, Murphy finally lets his eyes crack open to look at the old hippy, agreeably alive but irritatingly asleep. It’s like every time Doc closes his eyes, he’s instantly dead to the world. The good kind of dead. What the hell is his secret? Murphy would gladly– Well, no, he’d consider trading half a day’s food for just one night’s rest to be that good… And here Doc is now, rubbing Murphy’s nose in it, out cold while hunched over in his favourite corner, his head fallen forward and buried in a ratty old blanket.
A grey one.
The kid had started their night-time drive with the damn thing wrapped around himself. Guess he still doesn’t feel comfortable showing that he cares for Doc, even after that hilariously robotic attempt at a hug. Shit, the cute little bastard had likely waited until the hippy had fallen asleep to throw the blanket over him and everything!
But… If Doc now has his blanket, what is the kid using? Has he had another one he’s been unwilling to share all this time? Or has he chosen to go without? To be cold?
Murphy glances over at 10k: he’s blanketless, leaning against the side of the bed, his legs splayed out in front of him, rifle draped across one thigh. And looking right back at him.
As soon as their eyes meet, the kid ducks his head, fiddling with his gun strap. Has he been watching Murphy? For how long? It would be creepy if he wasn’t so cute…
“Gotten any sleep, kid?”
10k shakes his head, still looking downwards.
“Have you at least tried? Don’t need you collapsing from exhaustion, not when you’re supposed to be keeping me alive.”
“Don’t sleep well near people.”
“Is that why you always climb up a tree like a damn monkey?”
A small nod, the kid still staring at his lap as if his life depended on it. Murphy hates it when 10k’s like this. Like he’s trying to ignore him or escape the conversation. Like he doesn’t trust Murphy enough to meet him eye to eye. The kid did harp on about being able to read people so maybe he’s scared. Scared of showing too much, or the wrong thing; something that will finally break that façade of innocence that most of the others have fallen for.
With the kid refusing to even let Murphy look him in the eye while they talk, there’s really no point in facing each other, is there? If he’s going to have to put up with 10k’s stubborn attitude, he might as well get something out of it.
“If you’re gonna be useless to me tomorrow, you might as well be useful right now instead. Get over here – you’re meant to be protecting me, not letting me die from exposure.”
10k finally looks up, watching in curiosity as Murphy unfolds his legs, letting them stretch out straight. Patting the floor next to his thighs, the man gives a light-hearted scowl. “And hurry up – it’s damn freezing.”
With a curious glance towards Doc’s happily snoring face, the kid moves. Sliding his rifle down as quietly as possible, 10k starts to slink his way slowly across the bed. His movements are fluidly precise, almost feline, as he creeps closer, determined to avoid detection, to not wake Doc or alert those still awake inside the truck. And as soon as he’s moved far enough – gotten close enough – Murphy reaches out for him, coiling an arm around his waist and pulling him the rest of the way. Tugging 10k in close, nestling him down into the corner, and pressing in tight until he’s leaning into Murphy’s side.
This quiet, almost intimate, proximity… It’s so similar to how closely he had held him that afternoon, comforting the young man when they all believed Doc to be dead. Similar, yet vastly different. This time, there is no pain, no desperation, no anguish. Instead, there is only them, two humans huddling together, trying to block out the horrors of the world around them. And an incredible warmth, one much more potent than what Murphy felt this morning while they leaned into the tree. The man’s hands had been cold, then, but not now. Not as they sought out that slither of skin along 10k’s hip, as they pressed into the taut muscle beneath.
“What are you–”
“Shush, Princess. Don’t make this weirder than it already is. You’re just warm, is all. Nice and warm…” Murphy presses his chin down on to the top of 10k’s head, his beard catching in the dark, grimy hair.
The young man leans further into Murphy, a gentle sigh escaping his lips as his head tilts to rest upon a shoulder. Eyes slipping shut, Ten lays his gloved hands over the rough ones resting gently on his hips. “What did Garnett want?”
And just like that, his own fanciful façade broke, the splintered shards of his false comfort raining down around him as he crashed back to reality. The kid just had to ask, didn’t he? Just had to bring it up, to unintentionally spoil the very kind of moment that everyone’s beloved leader is trying to prevent. The kind of moment where 10k gets some much-needed socialisation, to get used to something as basic as human contact so that he doesn’t end up disembowelling some poor bastard for brushing up against him in a crowd. And in return, Murphy gets to be warm, he gets a little something he can keep to himself and call his own, he gets to feel like he’s still seen as a human being and not just a fucking science fair project!
But it’s not the kid’s fault. Not really. He doesn’t know what has been going though Garnett’s head, as ignorant to the Sergeant’s worries as Murphy had been.
“He’s been getting overprotective, somehow getting it into his thick skull that I’m going to hurt you. Or break your heart.”
“Look, kid. You may not have noticed, but a lot of your new friends don’t think very highly of me. Shouldn’t be too much of a leap that a goody-two-shoes like our very own Garnett would think that I‘d stoop that low. He’s going about it in the worst possible way, but at least he’s trying to look out for you. Has been since you told us about the guy that attacked you.”
10k shifts, lifting his head from Murphy’s shoulder as he twists to face him, cold air quickly replacing the warmth of their now lost comfort. He stares, lips pressed tight, brows drawn low, anxious grey eyes searching the man’s own blue. “Didn’t attack me.”
“…You said that he offered you a trade, then broke your nose.”
The kid’s face shifts, closes off, goes blank. Casting a quick glance at the still sleeping Doc before pulling further away, 10k slides sideways to force more space between them, to separate himself from Murphy. To isolate himself. Isolate them both.
Murphy felt cold. Colder than he’s ever felt. This isn’t from the night air or even the wind as they drive down the highway. Nor is it from the harshness of losing the kid’s warmth. No, this cold is from realisation. From finally seeing the kid more clearly than he had before. 10k handles his weapons – rifle, slingshot, and knife – with the level of proficiency that can only be found a comfort if you believe it’s only Zs that he’s been honing his skills on. Taking out the remainder of Cassandra’s old family is one thing: those freaks had harmed someone he cares for. But the man that broke his nose…? If 10k had sought him out, had selected him, targeted him, then taken him out…?
Now, it is Murphy’s turn to ask. “Why?”
Still unable to meet his eye, the kid sinks lower, pulls his knees up, hides his face. “He wasn’t a good person. People like him… They hurt others, those they think are weak… And they think I’m weak. I play along, let them believe what they want, let them touch me, just enough for their guard to drop…” He bunches his scarf in his hands, rubs the blue silk against his chin, his nose, his lips. “I made a promise to try and help people but…” The kid turns to him, his face haunted, twisted with a distress that makes Murphy’s chest ache. “But I can’t, Murphy. I tried so hard, but I can’t protect anyone! Not Pa, not… Not… I can only kill…”
Murphy didn’t even have to think about it. As 10k’s breath began to grow ragged, as his eyes gave Murphy a silent plea, he reaches out. Pulls him back in close. Wraps his arms around him. Murmurs into his hair as he holds his slender body against his chest. “You do, Ten. You are. These bastards you’ve killed? Everything you did to them, those pieces of shit brought upon themselves. And they would have kept hurting people, too. Taking them out has helped people you’ll never even know exist. Isn’t that protecting people?”
How long they stay like this, with 10k pressing into his chest as Murphy holds him tight, neither of the men know. But as their breathing syncs up and slows, as their bodies relax into each other, one part of Murphy remains tense. He can’t get it out of his head. Around and around it swirls, tainting everything it skims passed; touches. He has to get it out. He has to know. He has to ask. He has to–
“Did any of them actually…?”
The kid lifts his head, easily meeting Murphy’s questioning gaze, his grey eyes softening at the concern they see. “No. Don’t sleep with the ones I kill.”
The absurdity at their conversation, of the direction that it has taken and 10k’s choice of words, pulls a soft, unexpected bark of laughter from the man. “Really, now. You think you’re some kind of post-apocalyptic Casanova or something? Just wandering around, killing zombies and fucking survivors!”
With a gentle laugh of his own, 10k nuzzles back into Murphy’s chest. “Only if they’re handsome.”
Could this world he has found himself in get any more ridiculous? First, there was an actual, honest-to-goodness zombie apocalypse. Then, he wound up being selected as a damn ‘compulsory volunteer’ for Merch’s experimental cure. And now? Now, he’s in the bed of a truck, being dragged across the country, with his only way of keeping warm to cuddle up with 10k!
10k, who has atrocious taste in fashion and ghastly hair.
10k, who has convinced Murphy’s escort that he’s a naïve, backwoods boy.
10k, who as spent the last three years roaming around, slaying monsters and seducing–
“You know, ‘handsome’ isn’t a word normally used for women…”
10k tenses, but Murphy had expected that. He goes to pull away again, but that was expected, too. Murphy doesn’t let him move, doesn’t let him leave. Because the kid doesn’t need to. This changes nothing between them. He’s still the same kid Doc picked up from the school; the same selfish little bastard who wouldn’t share his Twinkie; the same bodyguard that’s watched over Murphy from the moment they met.
It changes nothing. Because he’s still 10k.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.” Like before, again holding him close, this is another thing that the man didn’t have to think about. He just did it. Just knew it. Said it. Burrowing his face once more into the kid’s hair, Murphy knew that he wanted to try protecting the one who had promised to protect him. “And don’t worry. I’m not gonna say anything, either.”
“Are you…? Do you like…?”
Ah, that is the big question, isn’t it? Murphy may have started to take a liking to calling the kid ‘Princess’, but that is because of something different, right? Because of those startled, doe-like eyes 10k had given him when he’d spotted the ridiculously bright pink socks he was wearing. Seriously, he dresses like he’s tying to be a macho militiaman, but then wears the most adorable little socks imaginable under his big, bad booties! Who wouldn’t think that that was weirdly sweet? And, yeah, okay, there are other things that Ten does that are kind of cute–
“Women, kid. I like women.”
With a gentle hum, 10k relaxes, leans back, nuzzles into Murphy’s chest once again. “Garnett’s wrong. He doesn’t have to worry about you breaking my heart.” Tilting his head upwards to meet Murphy’s gaze, the kid smiles. Not the small twitch of the lips that he usually has. No, this smile is barbed, wicked, accompanied by sharp teeth and mischievous eyes. “Wouldn’t be my heart you’d be getting.”
Murphy’s laughter is thunderous, uncontrolled, bursting forth with enough intensity to startle Doc awake. As 10k slips from his grasp, casually returning to a less conspicuous distance, the old hippy was too busy rubbing at bleary eyes to have noticed the intimate nature that was in their closeness.
Dipping a hand into his pocket, Murphy grabs the little pouch he’d picked up while scavenging with Garnett. “Anyway, kid. These marbles any good for your slingshot?”