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Cassandra leaned against the back window of the truck, taking advantage of their stop to really stretch out her aches and pains. With how far they were from California, most of their day was spent on the road, covering as much ground as possible. And when cooped up in a vehicle for as long as she has been since she joined this group, only an idiot wouldn’t celebrate these infrequent breaks. The Apocalypse may be Hell on Earth but, as she gazes across the rolling green fields of Amish Country, Cassandra is sure she has found a little piece of Paradise.

As her slender fingers worked at a knot in her shoulder, Cassandra returned her attention to 10k. The roads were long and monotonous, so she had had to find something to do. And people watching had always been a favourite hobby of hers. The kid was the most entertaining of all her companions as she never really knew what was going on inside of that head of his. Like a puzzle she couldn’t quite fit together but found impossible to put down. He clearly was uncomfortable around groups of people yet chose to give up his lone wolf wanderings to travel with them to California. He was as curious about their other companions as she herself – always watching, soaking up any and all information made available – yet was reluctant to talk about himself, instead choosing to blend into the background. And he shied away from any unnecessary physical contact yet endeavoured to be close to Murphy, who insisted on touching the kid whenever he was within arm’s reach.

Murphy was another interesting creature. For one of the older members of the group, he certainly seemed like the least mature. Always demanding extra food and water, talking back at Warren, chiming in with vulgar jokes whenever he can… Hell, he even declared he should be the first to get to go during this bathroom break because ‘holding it in for too long can cause bladder problems, Warren, and do you want to explain to the fine doctors with the CDC that they can’t have their cure due to a UTI?’ Cassandra would chalk it up to the man just being a jerk if she hadn’t noticed him glancing at 10k during all of his tantrums. It’s like he’s a little boy trying to show off in front of the girl he likes. Which would be cute if he wasn’t a grown ass man. It was more than obvious to anyone with eyes – and enough boredom to watch – that Murphy was fond of the kid, but adults should know how to express themselves without resorting to such petty school yard tactics!

Kneeling at the end of the truck bed, 10k idly twirled the slingshot in his hands. He was as deadly with that thing as with the rifle resting next to him. Less powerful, but he claimed that the more abundant and oft reusable ammo had made it an indispensable weapon over the years. Doc had sung the slingshot’s praises, too. Apparently, the kid had used it to save the old man back at the Jersey Devil Refinery. It was an interesting weapon of choice, and certainly not one she would have thought to be as useful as it seemed to be. Maybe she could talk 10k into letting her try it out at some point…

The kid’s attention once more turned from Murphy, glancing instead at the two Zs that had been shambling slowly towards the truck since they pulled over. With their modest black jackets and simple straw hats, it was clear that these used to be Amish men. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. They were in Amish Country, after all…

It was unusual for the kid to leave such close Zs alive this long, as he often chose to take them out as soon as they were in killing distance, but it seems that protecting Murphy has quickly become his higher priority. The man in question was ducked down in the field, taking his sweet time while some of the others desperately held on until it was their turn with the toilet paper. And 10k had barely took his eyes off of him. Just a quick glance now and then, tracking the Amish Zs leisurely progress. And once he’d confirmed that they hadn’t yet gotten dangerously close, back to watching Murphy he went.

From beside her, Doc let out a gentle laugh. “At least we know the kid takes his job seriously… though those Zs are starting to get a little bit too close for comfort!”

Shaking her head, Cassandra shot the old man a grin as she slides down, taking a seat on the bed alongside him. “Yeah, Doc. That, or he’s trying to catch a glimpse…”

The old man met her smirk with a disapproving frown, scratching at his beard. This was a topic that had come up between them a few times now. Cassandra didn’t mean anything serious by it, instead taking her enjoyment from how protective Doc had quickly become of the kid. And as amicable as he tried to be, it was obvious to her that he was wary of 10k becoming too close to Murphy. Because Murphy was an ass, and Doc thought the kid naïve.

“You’re not still on about that whole ‘bet’ thing, are you? I thought we called it off. Not the kinda thing we should be gossiping about, anyway.” Leaning in close, Doc’s voice dropped low. “And look, even if the kid is… gay, which I don’t think he–”

“The bites, Doc. I was talking about Murphy’s bites. Don’t think 10k has seen them yet.” Despite the bubbling of laughter that escaped her lips, it was clear that Doc didn’t fully believe her. The old man was sharp! But 10k had managed to drag his attention away from his charge to stare at her, that insatiable curiosity back in his eyes. Well, she might as well try and use him to work her way out of Doc’s doghouse. “You haven’t, have you? Seen his zombie bites? They’re… really something.”

Brows creased, 10k’s head tilts to the side. He does that a lot. Almost like a disarming tactic while he tries to think of a suitable answer. Something that won’t give too much away. It’s kinda cute, though, like a puppy. Cassandra had always wanted a puppy. With a lick of his lips, the kid turns his attention back to Murphy once more. The man has obviously finished his business in the tall grass, now lighting a cigarette while making a beeline for the truck. The back of the truck. Where 10k is. No surprise there – Murphy has become a lot more predictable than the kid.

With Murphy safely back at his side, there was now nothing to distract 10k from finally killing those Zs. Two gears were fired in quick succession, clean hits taking the zombies down easy with a gross but satisfying ‘splorch’. Content smile tugging at the corners of 10k’s lips, he accepted the lit cigarette from the man. Taking a deep drag, the kid’s eyes lingered on Murphy, tracing down his abdomen. So, he hasn’t seen the bites, then. It certainly looks like he’s interested in peeking under the man’s shirt, though Cassandra isn’t sure the scars are the only reason.

Cigarette now back in his own hand, Murphy grimaced at the dead Zs before leaning against the side of the truck. Right next to 10k, of course. “Don’t even know why Garnett decided to come this way. No real towns for miles – civilised ones, anyway – so it’s not like he’ll be able to scrounge up some useful supplies. Especially for you, kid.” With his trademark teasing grin, Murphy leaned in closer to 10k, passing the cigarette back once more. “Unless you secretly have a penchant for long sleeve dresses, that is. Amish women aren’t exactly known for bearing arms.”

Cassandra had quickly realised that Murphy’s jokes were a fifty-fifty gamble where 10k was concerned. And judging by how the kid looked slightly too confused to be annoyed at this one, it was one of the many that flew straight over his head. Murphy still wanted praise for efforts, however, turning to seek out Doc’s approval instead. He didn’t get it. And honestly? She agrees with the old man on this one. As amusing as it was to watch their back and forth, and how insightful she had found the kid’s reactions to Murphy’s jabs and sexual innuendo, the last time the man had likened 10k to a girl hadn’t had the best outcome for him… Face now its usual blank mask, 10k silently offers the cigarette back, only to be waved off as Murphy sulks towards the front of the truck. “You’re no fun, the lot of ya…”

Finishing the last drag, 10k flicks the cigarette butt towards the dead Zs, hitting one in the side of the head. The kid’s accuracy really is uncanny… Plonking down roughly in the bed, 10k slips his slingshot back into his bag before stretching out his shoulders with a little groan. Seems Cassandra wasn’t the only one who gets sore from riding all day.

Rummaging through his bag once more, 10k pulled out a strip of leather and lay it over the edge of the bed. A knife was pulled from somewhere under his clothing, the blade dark and seemingly formed from a flat piece of metal. One edge had been sharpened; the end tapered to a point. The kid began running the knife along the leather, skilled in his movements as he flipped the blade over to alternate the side being worked. The ease at which he set about his task, likely honed over many hours of refining his tools, allowed 10k’s eyes to wander. To focus on something more taxing. To follow Murphy. Now, keeping his eye on his charge is one thing but Cassandra has had plenty of time to watch the kid. She isn’t blind, and she isn’t stupid. 10k has been able to hide from most of their companions, allowing his social awkwardness to muddy the waters in his favour, but how he always seems to orient him actions around Murphy is more than simply a desire for a job well done.

Maybe Murphy’s childish tactics have been more effective than the man was hoping for!

Beside her, Doc watches the kid from his reclined position, the crinkles around his eyes deeper than usual as his worry is etched into his skin. The old man likes 10k, that was plain to see. Even Warren had commented, asking Doc to make sure the kid will still be comfortable travelling with them after the… incident in Upper Darby. All in all, Doc was worried because he disapproved. Disapproved with how close Murphy was getting to the kid. Disapproved of how Murphy seemed to enjoy flaunting that the kid lets him near enough to touch. Disapproved of the jokes Murphy makes at 10k’s expense. And with the jokes, the ones about the kid’s sexuality irked the old man the most. A look always creeps into his eyes, pained and mournful. A look Cassandra recognises well. A look he gave her when she confessed to luring men to survive…

Does Doc think that the kid resorted to similar tactics in the name of survival?

Now, Cassandra knows the kid isn’t completely innocent – his kill count is enough to attest to that! – but sexually? She isn’t so sure. He certainly isn’t as naïve as he tries to seem, at least. The one thing she is positive about, though, is that no one would be able to make 10k do something that he didn’t want to do. And anyone who tried wouldn’t last long.

The kid is a hunter, after all.

“You know, take it from somebody who knows first-hand. Other than the fact that they find brains delicious, when it comes to zombies nobody knows nothing.” The brash tone of Murphy’s voice was more than adequate a warning that he was trudging his way back to the truck bed. He obviously wasn’t getting enough attention from the rest of the group. Or, at least, the kind of attention he was seeking. So of course, he comes bouncing back like a rubber ball, straight to the one person he knows won’t immediately call him on his bullshit.

Pressing up close to the side of the truck bed, Murphy tugs at light blue fabric, pulling the kid’s scarf back into place. 10k barely reacts to the man’s insistent wardrobe alterations anymore. He hasn’t even looked up from the leather strap, still sharpening away. To Cassandra, it seems like this has quickly become a little ritual between the two. Something that allows Murphy to check up on 10k without having to acknowledge what it is he’s really doing. Something that allows the man to keep up an air of petty shallowness instead of admitting he might care. And from the way he has started to relax into the touch, 10k himself doesn’t mind in the slightest.

Doc watches their little ritual with curiosity. It was obvious to them all that the old man desperately wanted to know how Murphy does it. How Murphy can pacify the kid so easily, so effortlessly. There was maybe a touch of jealously, too – 10k still shies away from Doc’s touch, a fact that clearly pains the old man. He had hidden his distress well, but Cassandra had noticed. And she’s pretty sure 10k has, too. Doc undoubtedly wanted to dote on the kid, to take him under his wing and protect him, a kitten rescued from a thunderstorm.

And Murphy? He was an ass about it. Nothing new there. Seeing the old man watching, he throws Doc a contemptuous smirk. Haughty. Mocking. It’s like it entertained the man to see Doc’s jealousy at his closeness to 10k. A trap the old man walked into every time.

Boys – they were useless, the lot of ‘em.

Doc pulled his eyes from the jerk behind 10k as he tried to find something – anything – he could use to draw the kid’s attention to himself. Motioning his hand towards the two dead Zs, he made his move. “You wanna know what I think? About the Zs, I mean? There ain’t nothing there. No thoughts, no memories. No soul. Nothin’.”

Ooh, good opening serve, Doc! 10k’s favourite subject! Wanting to help the old man out, if only to knock Murphy down a peg or two, Cassandra chimed in, trying to develop the conversation further. To keep it going until the kid felt comfortable joining in. “Well, they’re not dead. They want something.”

“Yeah. Brains.”

Pulling at his tattered black top, Murphy rubbed at his side, fingers pressing into the scarred flesh underneath. “Partial to a bit of rib, too.”

Murphy clearly wasn’t intending to hold back, staring Doc down as he spoke. His masterful return drew the kid’s curious gaze to his abdomen. 10k even licked his lips…

Feeling Doc start to slump beside her, Cassandra decided to help the old man out. He was at a serious disadvantage, what with Murphy appearing to be more the kid’s… type. “You can’t want something if you’re not conscious, if you don’t have a soul.”

“When my pa was wounded, he told me to tie him up before he turned.” 10k’s voice was soft, quiet. No one had expected him to speak up yet, to join in their little philosophical titter tatter. It’s likely the men’s vying for his attentions went straight over the kid’s head. But to freely offer up such personal information? To talk about his family? Even Murphy recognised the significance, shutting up without hesitation. “Made me promise to show him mercy when he died. Kill the brain, you now?” He runs his finger along the freshly sharpened blade, applying enough pressure to make Murphy wince behind him. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurt my pa, no matter what he’d become. I stared into his eyes for the longest time, just looking for some sign he was still in there.”

Cassandra wanted to move closer, to reach out and comfort him. But she knew it wasn’t a gesture he would accept. From her, at least. “Did you see anything?”

“Just an animal. Diseased. And suffering.”

Murphy had moved in closer, his face tight, jaw clenched. He wanted to comfort the kid, that much was plain to see, but he was now way out of his depth. Not knowing what else to do, he turned to Doc, his eyes pleading. For help in handling the situation. For support in soothing the kid’s pain. For guidance on how to actually play the role he has been competing with the old man to fill.

And Doc – loving, caring Doc – acquiesced. With a short nod, he cleared his throat, pulling the kid’s hollow gaze away from the knife. “What did you do?”

“I killed it. Like any other rabid animal.”

“Damn, kid. You had to put down your own dad?”

“Didn’t kill him. Killed it.”

Murphy’s grip on the side of the bed tightened, his knuckles a deathly white. Cassandra stared at him, her eyes drilling deep. Willing him to act. To touch the kid. To move his scarf, to squeeze his shoulder, to smooth down his hair. Something. Anything. He was the only one who could comfort the kid.

But he froze up. Did nothing.

Doc had winced at 10k’s blank stare, himself powerless to help. These men had both been competing over the kid’s attention. His affection. Trying to one up each other in their race to be the person 10k would choose to lean on. And neither of them knew how to support him when he needed it the most. Cassandra didn’t either, but what she did know was that this silence wasn’t the answer. This conversation couldn’t be left to end on that note. That sentiment isn’t the kind one should allow to hang in the air where it will stagnate. Fester. Poison the very lifeblood of their bonds.

She had to try something…

“But if it’s not alive, how did you kill it?”

He turned to her, the beginnings of confusion trickling onto his face. “It was alive. They all are. Just not human. That bit died.” 10k gently shakes his head as though it would dislodge something. Rid him of a thought, a memory, he’d rather no longer have. With another lick of his lips, the kid’s eyes drop once more to the dark knife. “Was my first kill.” His empty hand slides up into his scarf, teasing an opening into the folds of blue fabric. Twisting inside. Hiding underneath. “I always wish he knew, you know. Knew that I kept my promise. Knew that I’m…”

The kid moved away from them, then. Further into the corner, pressing as close to the cold metal as he could. As if it would yield under his pressure and encircle him. Envelop him. Embrace him.

Pale eyes stared blankly out over the fields, drifting along the perennial crops, long left unharvested. The truck engine groaned back to life as they peeled away from the roadside, their journey underway once more with little incidence. And even less consideration for what they may have left in their wake. Soon, the knife lay forgotten in the bed as a second hand wove its way into blue.

They were all silent. Watching him. Taking it all in. Unsure how to proceed.

Doc looks even more worried than he had earlier. More worried than Cassandra has ever seen him. She knows he cares for the kid – they all do – but Doc was a counsellor, was the one most equipped to help him. To look out for him. Stop him spiralling. But he needed the kid to talk to him more in order to know how best to approach his issues. Building the trust necessary for 10k to open up would take time, however. Doc has shown that he has the patience for the task so far: he has gotten the kid to speak a little more each day; to sit closer to them around the fire when they stop for the night. 10k still shies away from the old man’s gentle attempts at physical contact, but he’s getting better. It is obvious that the kid is trying, and Doc picked up on that quickly. Appreciates it.

Only Murphy has an easy time getting so close to 10k. Touching him, casual and unrestrained. Unchallenged. Cassandra had been curious about that. Curious enough to ask the kid about it. The excuse he had given was that he needs to be near Murphy in order to protect him. That he needs Murphy to trust him enough to rely upon him and go to him for help. But when she had pressed, when he had realised that she wasn’t going to buy his excuses – when she’d asked if he liked Murphy more than that… 10k had just stalked off, announcing the need for a perimeter check. Now, it may have just been the light – the rosy tint in the sky playing a trick on her, leading her see what she both did and did not want to – but Cassandra is sure that the kid’s cheeks had coloured, the flush delicate against his usual ivory tone.

The silence remained, though the thickness of the air began to diffuse, taking some of the tension with it. They didn’t need words, not this time. Not with their common goal. The intent behind the questioning glance Murphy threw between Doc and Cassandra was understood, loud and clear. At their return looks, a nod and a smile, Murphy slid ever so gently towards 10k, just enough to bring their young friend into reach. Pulling a battered pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket, the man lit up, taking a long, deep drag. Stretching his leg out, Murphy nudged at 10k’s knee with his foot.

For the first time since they set off, the kid turns from the rolling green fields of Amish Country. His pale eyes flit across Cassandra’s face, then Doc’s, before finally resting on Murphy. Seeing the man with his arm outstretched, 10k’s eyes softened.

The proffered cigarette was accepted with a smile.

Chapter Text

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 shirt.”

“Both human.”

“Black bandana, then.”

“Also human.”

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.

 

Chapter Text

Confusion.

Ignorance.

A complete lack of understanding.

It’s one of the worst feelings Murphy has experienced in literal years. And yes, that includes being pumped full of fuck-knows-what and left to be eaten alive. So why, out of all the people wandering these Apocalyptic wastes, did it turn out to be him? Logically, he knows that there are better fits. More suitable candidates. But people aren’t always logical, are they? One of the greatest mistakes that can be made when dealing with people is to forget that they are ‘creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.’ Who was it that said that, again? Some head-up-his-own-ass motivational speaker, no doubt. Probably to con some suckers into buying a load of self-help books.

But the kid didn’t seem prideful. Or vain, for that matter, not with that appalling fashion sense. Seriously, those boot soles on his shoulders? As practical as they may be, visually they were almost as bad a faux pas as double denim!

Another soft bump sounded from over his head as 10k no doubt shifted his position again, trying to get more comfortable on the roof of their Bug. He had waited for Murphy to claim his own seat in the back before deciding which side of the roof to drape himself across. And he just had to go and pick the same one as Murphy. Garnett was already giving the man enough of a stink eye without the kid actively making it worse…

10k seems to like him. That in itself isn’t the problem here – the kid also likes Doc. Maybe even Cassandra. But he seems to like Murphy in a different way. A way that allows him to touch the kid, despite 10k flinching when others try to do the same. Sure, the kid still tenses under Murphy’s hands if he catches him unawares or fails to telegraph his intent clearly enough, but he quickly relaxes again. Melts into the contact. With the others, it appears more like he’s simply tolerating them. At other times, though, it can seem like 10k is purposefully seeking out the man’s touch. Little brushes here and there, a discreet squeeze of his elbow, pressing a knee against his leg… Not that Murphy is complaining – he hasn’t exactly been drowning in such pleasant physical contact recently. And if he’s completely honest, Warren would probably be doing everyone a favour if her tendency to grab him – to push and shove him around – wasn’t so… aggressive…

No, the problem was that he doesn’t understand why.

Why did the kid pick him of all people? Murphy isn’t exactly the easiest person to get along with, and many would have likely thrown his ass to the Zs by now if he wasn’t so important. Self-centred and arrogant to the point where his own family hadn’t wanted much to do with him, even pre-Z Murphy was far from surprised when those he thought were his friends had been so quick to throw him under the bus to save themselves. He had almost seen it coming. Which is why he had always made it a priority to cover his own ass. By hiding the full extent of their little money-making scheme from even his ‘friends’, Murphy had only been sentenced to three years. Such a tiny, insignificant drop in the ocean compared to the life sentence he should have been facing… Not that it had mattered, in the end. The world would have still gone all batshit Apocalyptical either way.

And he didn’t have anyone waiting for him outside, either. After his mother had passed, there wasn’t anyone permanent in his life. None of his relationships ever worked out long term… Murphy is an acquired taste, and no woman he has met has ever had the right palate.

All these thoughts swirling around in his head: people who were likely dead; things that he could never change; love he had failed to find… They were all suffocating Murphy. Stifling him. The air quickly growing stagnant. With lips curled in a frustrated snarl, he shoved the window open. Say what you want about this junky little Bug, but the old owner had had the right idea installing these pop windows in her. She opens up just enough for him to stick his hand outside, the fresh air blowing in passed it. Onto his face. It clears his head; cools him off.

His fingers stay warm, however, as fabric brushes up against them. 10k had shifted his foot, twisted his leg. Pressed his calf up against Murphy’s hand.

Okay, fine. Murphy can be stubborn. He freely admits that. But now, he can also – though rather begrudgingly – admit that some of the things that the kid does can be cute. In a weird, ‘mama-never-taught-him-proper’ kind of way. With how reverently 10k had been staring at that stale Oreo, there was just no way that Murphy couldn’t steal it! It was like the kid was gazing upon the face of God! And those socks? The bright pink ones with the little stars? They were a complete surprise. Murphy prides himself on his wit, his ability to clap back and talk shit, but his brain had just cut out. He had wanted to tease the damn kid, but his mind had gone blank. He couldn’t think of a single thing. As much as 10k tries to seem like a stoic, world weary zombie hunter, in that moment – with his eyes wide and cheeks coloured, just staring up at him… He had made Murphy think of a fairy-tale princess. An honest-to-goodness damsel in distress.

No one has relied on Murphy for anything in years. No one has really trusted him enough to consider doing so. But if that is the expression someone can wear while looking up at him? Looking up to him? Well, Murphy certainly wouldn’t mind giving it a try…

Whether the kid had fully intended to or not, he had shown some of his softer, more vulnerable side to Murphy. And the man wanted to see it again. Wanted 10k to show it willingly next time. Intentionally. But only to Murphy. The man has had to give up all of the few things that he had had in life. Now he wants to have something he can keep all to himself for the first time in a long time. And if that thing is the side of 10k that the kid refuses to allow others to see? Well, Murphy is sure that that’ll be enough. That he’ll be content.

His fingers shift along the fabric, searching around. Seeking out a loose piece, a gentle fold, onto which he can grip. Hold on to. At a cursory glance, the trouser fabric is tough, hard wearing, made to take a beating and still hold strong. But now that he has spent the time to pay attention, to feel it out – to really look – he has found that it is much softer than it first appeared. Than one would immediately assume.

Pressing his fingers in, Murphy began gently digging into the soft flesh beneath. He feels the muscle tense and flex, like the kid was trying to reach back towards him…

Murphy doesn’t understand why the kid has chosen him over all the others, but he’s glad he did. Grateful, even. 10k has given him help that he himself wasn’t even aware that he needed. Taken his mind off the Zombie Apocalypse; Merch’s experiment; the fate that awaits him in California…

Murphy doesn’t understand why.

But he doesn’t have to.

“I think it’s sweet.” Cassandra’s voice was low, meant only for Murphy. He throws a questioning look at the woman sat beside him. A look she answers with an inconspicuous nod towards the open little window. “How much you think of him. And how much he thinks of you.”

The annoying twinkle in her eyes pissed Murphy off. Made him scowl. Yanking his hand inside, he slams the window shut.

Cassandra just laughs. “Very sweet.”

The laugh caused Garnett to turn his head. To look back at them. Seeing 10k’s leg pull back from the window, the soldier resumes his little vendetta against Murphy. A stern look. A clear warning. Did he overhear Cassandra spewing her fanciful tales? Murphy is unsure how Garnett seems to be reading the kid and his… attachment. But from how the soldier has been overly protective, Murphy wouldn’t put it passed the man to have completely misconstrued the situation and incorrectly assumed the kid had a crush. If that was how Garnett sees it, Murphy would be deeply offended: he’s an asshole, sure, but he isn’t a monster! Taking advantage of the kid would never even cross his mind! And anyway, he’s pretty certain that if he tried to do anything that 10k didn’t like, the kid could more than look after himself. Plus, even if the kid did have a crush and had the balls to make the first move, Murphy would turn him down without a second thought. He doesn’t have any interest in men. Well, no real interest, anyway. He’s secure enough in himself to admit that there has been the occasional guy that had turned his head – some people were just too pretty for him to care that they were men, even if he had never felt like he should act upon the desire. But 10k? The kid was too aggressive, too rough around the edges, to qualify for that rare exception.

Who knows how the kid would react to his advances, anyway? Even if 10k was into men, Murphy had already made him snap once with his teasing. His sexual innuendo. If he was to say or do the wrong thing without Warren there to intervene this time, then ‘Goodbye Saviour of Humanity – there isn’t enough left of you to make a cure!

As cute as kittens can be, Murphy knows that he’ll do well to remember that they still have claws.

“Y’all see that?”

At Addy’s words, Garnett finally – though likely reluctantly – tore his attention away from Murphy. With one last stern look, he turns to the front and out of the windscreen. Glaring again, of course. At least now he has another target on which practice mimicking the Warren Glare™… The soldier almost growls. “That’s them, alright.”

As he leans forward between the front seats, attempting to get a good look at the scene before him, Murphy hears 10k begin to shift on the roof above him. It was the bandits. The ones that had ambushed them and taken their truck. They were once more standing in the middle of the road, though this time their guns were levelled at a family. A family with two small children, no less!

Warren stops the car, the handbrake squeaking. “Bastards.”

Rifle in hand, 10k hops down from his perch on the top of the car roof. At least he had the sense to let their damn ride come to a full stop first, this time. The kid doesn’t look inside the car, instead opting to keep his eyes focused on the bandits, simply tapping his fingers on the little pop window to draw Murphy’s attention. Crooking his fingers, 10k motions for the man to follow him. If it had been him on the roof with the kid, Murphy had no doubts in his mind that he would have been brusquely dragged off and then up into the trees again. Thank fuck Garnett had insisted he ride inside!

Without waiting for any orders, Warren pulls herself out of the empty doorway. “Looks like they’re trying to rob some poor family this time.”

Yes, very astute observation there, Warren. Oh, how lucky we are to have you and your insurmountable skills in deductive reasoning, lest we misread another situation and walk headlong into another fucking ambush…

“Not if I have anything to say about it. Come on.” Garnett’s words came out almost as a snarl. Which made Murphy glad that he hasn’t actually managed to piss the man off. Yet. Would probably do well to be more mindful of him in the future…

The only one left in the kitschy car, Murphy could only watch as the others made their way towards the bandits, weapons firmly in hand. Only 10k had hung back, hand still lingering on the window even as his eyes stayed resolutely pointed forwards. The kid was tense, more so than Murphy had seen so far. The knuckles on the hand holding his rifle had gone a deathly white.

The kid has been more reliable than the others…

Sticking his head out of the empty doorway, Murphy calls to Garnett and Warren, hoping they would listen to him just this once. “Would it matter at all if we said this was a bad idea?” He was ignored, of course. Typical. For a Saviour, he gets such little respect…

Beside him, 10k shifts. Pulls his hand from the window. Gently places it on Murphy’s shoulder instead. Even gives it a light squeeze. The kid’s brows were drawn low again, his lips tight. 10k is worried. “Bad Idea.” With a soft tug at Murphy’s jacket collar – barely more than a caress of the leather – he nods towards the embankment along the side of the road. “With me. Hurry.” And with that, he stalked off.

Garnett and Warren may be the soldiers – well, the ones formally trained by the US military, anyway – but that training has let them waltz right into one ambush already, today. An ambush that the kid saw coming. And pulled Murphy out of. So, he knows exactly who he’s going to trust more. With an exasperated sigh, he pulls himself out of the Bug and takes off after 10k, his longer strides allowing him to swiftly catch up. He walks a step or so behind the kid up to the top of the embankment, to just before the treeline, before they walk along the road until they are almost level with their stolen truck. Murphy kept his attention on Garnett, who had his gun drawn on the bandits. This, of course, meant that he took his eye off 10k. So, when the kid suddenly stopped, Murphy’s momentum almost knocked the slender guy over.

The only acknowledgement of Murphy’s little blunder was the quiet, disgruntled sound that escaped 10k’s throat as the kid manoeuvred himself around him, placing himself firmly between the man and the people on the road. 10k keeps his eyes forward, diligently playing his expected role of bodyguard. What surprised Murphy, however, was when the kid swung his rifle back, pressing it between them.

“Stay behind me. Hold this and help hide it.” The kid never fully handed over his gun, however, the knuckles of the hand still grasping it pressing into the man’s abdomen.

To say that Murphy is confused would be a serious understatement. Why would the kid be relinquishing his rifle? And in the middle of a possible engagement, no less. He loves that damn thing! Probably worships it as he would a second cock! Almost as if sensing his confusion, 10k speaks once more. “Less intimidating. They don’t need two cars.”

Two cars? The bandits already had a damn car – theirs! And by the looks of it, the family don’t even have one of their own for the bandits to steal. Pulling his eyes from his enigma of a bodyguard, Murphy turns his attention back towards the road. The bandits were kneeling now, hands on their heads, surrounded on both sides. Just like they had done to Murphy’s group. The family’s father glanced up at him, then. Met Murphy’s eyes. Sizing him up. Judging him. And ignoring 10k completely. Finding him to not be a threat. ‘Less intimidating’, indeed. And as the father’s eyes slip away, fell back upon Garnett, that’s when Murphy sees them. The rest of the bandits. Kneeling by the roadside, the fear on their faces palpable even from such a distance.

Oh, sweet karma, the bandits weren’t the ones doing the high jacking this time! And now Garnett – their very own Good Samaritan of a leader – was aiding and abetting literal highway robbery! The look on his face when he finds out will be priceless! How Murphy wishes he could see it!

The kid had known something was up. That all wasn’t as it seemed. And only Murphy had been smart enough to take heed, to listen, to not blindly charge ahead…

Opening his mouth, ready to let the sass roll off his tongue, Murphy found himself quickly snapping it shut again. The family had drawn guns – even the little children. And they executed the bandits with no hesitation. The noise was sudden, loud, making Murphy flinch. He barely noticed 10k’s fingers sinking into his shirt. Holding him. Grounding him. They both just stood there, watching, as the family below climbed into the truck, claiming it as their own before using it to speed off down the road. At least Garnett and the others were just as dumbfounded…

Finally, the kid turns to him, the hand in Murphy’s shirt diffidently letting go. Smoothing out the fabric. Then gently pries his rifle back. As the man watches 10k sling it over his shoulder, he realises that, yeah, that thing does make him look dangerous. Certainly, it would have drawn more attention from the family of robbers.

“You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you? You knew that they were robbers, that they were gonna kill them. Fuck, you even knew how to make them overlook us!”

10k only shrugs, fiddling with his rifle strap. As if he was bored. “Better them than us.”

“That makes two in a row, now, kid. Either that’s a weird coincidence or some freaky shit is going on. And don’t go trying to tell me that you’re psychic or some other crap, ‘caus I ain’t buying it. Played that card too many times myself.”

The kid looks at him, then. Just looks, those grey eyes piercing. Boring deep. Searching. Murphy can never tell what is truly going on behind those eyes. He’s not sure he wants to know… With a lick of his lips, 10k’s eyes fall away, landing instead on his rifle as he resumes idly readjusting the strap. “Was alone. You get good at reading at people.  Or you die.” Nodding down the road in the direction in which their little family of robbers had disappeared, the kid continued. “From what I see in them? Won’t make it far.”

Murphy’s laugh burst forth despite trying his damnedest to hold it back. This kid really was something. “Well, ain’t you a cocky one! If you’re so confident, oh wise prophet, you won’t mind backing up those words. Half a pack of smokes says we never see those bastards again.”

10k’s grin was crooked and familiar, lighting up his face while igniting a wicked gleam in his eyes. And a warmth in Murphy’s chest. “Deal.” And with that, the kid turns on his heel and begins a slow descent back to the road. Back to the others.

Back to reality.

Murphy stares after him, watching how calm – how casual – his gait is. As if they hadn’t just witnessed an execution. He doesn’t know whether to believe the kid or not, either. Reading people? Really? 10k’s social skills are piss poor at best – Murphy doesn’t even recall hearing the kid manage to string together a complete, complex sentence!  And he had seemed somewhere between wary and downright hostile towards Doc the first day or so they travelled together. The old guy was like the group’s fun-loving grandpa. As an aged hippy, it was more probable that Doc would get stoned and eat all of their meagre food supplies than actively, intentionally harm anyone! If the kid was so good at sensing danger, why had he bared his fangs at the old man?

Then again, the kid had not only spotted two sticky situations with ease that the others had completely missed but had also stopped Murphy from waltzing straight into the danger zone with the rest of the group. 10k didn’t seem much of a braggart – Murphy had met enough of them to practically be able to smell them coming! – so… maybe there was some truth to his words.

Starting his own way down the embankment to where Warren was sending him an impatient glare, Murphy quickly caught up to the kid. And when Garnett joined in with the whole ‘let’s glare at Murphy’ thing, he slung an arm around 10k’s shoulders. Because if he was going to get punished with the soldier’s glowering, he might as well get the enjoyment of actually committing the crime. “So… what do you see in me?”

10k laughed, leaning into Murphy’s side. The sound was light and airy, his body firm and warm.

“Been asking myself that all day.”

 

~*~*~

 

“Yo, can’t this thing go any faster? I’m gonna die of old age before we get to California.”

Warren watches as, beside her, Garnett’s fingers repeatedly flex and tighten on the steering wheel. It was a tick she had noticed a long time ago. One she knew well. He was getting angry, trying to hold back. So, when Garnett replied to Murphy, Warren wasn’t surprised at the harshness in his tone. “Long before 10k would, anyway.”

The topic he brought up, however, was. This had happened once or twice, now, and always seemingly out of the blue. Did Garnet have a problem with Murphy talking to 10k? Why? That boy had been a godsend these last few days – if he hadn’t been there to distract the annoying bastard, to keep his attention elsewhere when she was trying plan a route or dish out rations, Warren is sure she would have started looking for reasons to just pike Murphy and get this all over with.

Garnett wasn’t like her, though. The man was kind, caring. He liked to look after people, save as many as he could. A real gentle soul. While the Apocalypse had caused most – herself definitely included – to harden up, to cast sentimentality aside, to start looking out for number one first, Garnett had remained the same sweet, accepting guy she had met all those years ago. Back when this hellscape was still new and confusing, rather than the mundane and repetitive struggle for survival it had become.

But Murphy? Yeah, that guy was a total pain in the ass. And if she’s being honest, if it wasn’t for the mission, Warren would insist that they find a nice and secluded outpost or trading town to dump him in before heading for the hills. Just drive off, leaving him in the dust. Let him be someone else’s problem. Murphy probably wouldn’t last long on his own, though, not with the mouth he has on him. Likely only be a day or two before he pisses off the wrong person and gets a little dose of pre-emptive Mercy… Actually, no: Garnett would never agree to it. Wouldn’t let her leave Murphy to fend for himself. He’d insist that no one gets left behind. That as long as that irritating bastard wants to travel with them, he can, if he can pull his own weight.

Not that he’s pulling his weight now. Being the mission, the one person that they cannot afford to lose… Murphy has been more than happy to take as much advantage of that important little detail as he can. She can’t kick his egotistical ass to the curb, and he knows it. And that is the real reason she cannot stand him. What is pissing Warren off so much.

Bastards like the one they have ended up unfortunate enough to be transporting don’t get under Garnett’s skin. Not like they do Warren’s, anyway. So, what was the problem he has with Murphy? It was something to do with 10k, obviously, that much she knew, but any more than that? Totally in the dark. Garnett had confided in her a few nights ago while they kept watch as the others slept. Told her what he thinks about the kid’s possible past. He seems to be under the impression that their little Rambo might have traded his own body for supplies. It was a ridiculous theory, in her opinion. She’d been watching 10k, making sure he was doing his job. So, she’d witnessed how he reacts to Murphy’s crass jokes and Doc’s risqué tales. Even the confused curiosity when Addy and Mack get all cutesy and lovey-dovey. He knows about guns, about killing Zs, sure. But when it comes to romance? To sex? That boy likely couldn’t tell his own ass from his elbow. And with how 10k could probably kill a man twice his size four times over in the time to takes to blink, Warren is sure he’d be much more likely to just straight up kill for a meal rather than warm some sleazeball’s bedroll.

So, was that Charlie’s problem? He bristles whenever Murphy so much as squints in the kid’s direction. And when he gets close to 10k? Touches him? Even when tidies up that silken scarf like a doting mother hen… Does Garnett really believe that the bastard’s actions are solely sinister? A nefarious plot to, what? Seduce and blackmail the kid? Warren has known Garnett long enough to tell when the guy was holding back, trying not to snap; to punch an asshole out. Does he not realise that 10k was the one damn person that Murphy seemed to not be actively trying to alienate himself from, despite the frequent jokes at the kid’s expense? Can he seriously not see that that kid was likely the only one of them that Murphy might care about, other than himself? So, to what end would Garnett think that the obnoxious bastard was trying to manipulate 10k? To try and escape? Murphy wouldn’t survive a day out there on his own, and they all know it. Plus, 10k takes his job seriously enough that, should Murphy even think of trying to run, the kid would likely beat his craven ass halfway across the next state!

This was useless. There was no way she could figure it out, find a reason in Garnett’s strange logic. She’ll just have to suck it up; ask him. While alone, of course. She doesn’t need this to escalate. For someone to get hurt. Should it come down to it, though – if push comes to shove – she’ll always side with Garnett over Murphy and the mission. And she knows that Garnett will always choose her, too.

His head sticking out from between the seats, Murphy just scoffs. “Old age? Please. That kid will live to be a thousand years old out of sheer spite, and you know it! He’ll see Death coming for him and take the bitch out, double tap right between the eyes. Ain’t no one gonna be making that little psycho their prey!” He shifts closer to Warren, now. Too close. “I, on the other hand, won’t be so lucky, you not letting me have a weapon and all. So, chop chop, tally ho, all that crap.”

The bastard. She wanted to smack him. She really did. He was too arrogant. Self-centred. Did he honestly think that they were purposefully taking their sweet-ass time? Why the fuck would they do that? For fun? This was not some saccharine road trip movie, ending in hugs all around and a plate of grandma’s cookies! For one, Murphy was far from good, wholesome company and the sooner Warren see’s the back of him, the better! When he’s not demanding extra rations or tormenting that poor boy, he’s bitching and moaning about the way that they are doing things. And not once has he volunteered to help. “You can always get out and push.”

But Murphy just laughs. For such a trivial sound, it was unbelievably condescending. Patronising. Haughty. “No, not me, sister. I’m special.”

“Talking to you makes me wonder about this whole ‘saving humanity’ thing…”

The delicate bubbling of a giggle causes Murphy to pull away from Warren, to turn to the back seat. Towards Cassandra. “Is Ten Thousand special, too?”

Garnett’s fingers gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles went white. Warren is justifiably surprised that the damn thing hadn’t been crushed. Or crumpled under the pressure. Torn straight off, even. But, Apocalypse or no, if this seemingly ‘innocent’ conversation begins to deteriorate in any way, shape, or form, she will make Garnett pull this damn piece of shit they call a car over – at gun point, if she must! – and smack those men’s heads together.

Oblivious to the fact that he was prodding at a bear with the mother of all headaches, Murphy just scratches at his scraggly beard with a snort. “Would I accept any less of my bodyguard? He’s a damn fine hunter, very efficient. Great intuition, too. Much better than you lot, anyway. Two ambushes…”

Garnett’s jaw clenched, and she swore she could hear his teeth grinding. His patience was wearing out, threadbare at best. Warren was fully prepared to stand by and watch if he wanted to knock a bit of respect into that bastard, though she knew that she’d have to reluctantly force herself to drag him off of Murphy before it goes too far… Charlie wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if he snapped and accidentally killed the man, after all.

“Stop the car.”

Doc’s sudden call and short bang on the wheel arch had all eyes in the Beetle lift towards him. As Garnett slowly brings them to a stop, they all peer around their companions perched on the bonnet. There was a truck abandoned in the middle of the road. Their truck. The one that had been stolen… And beside it, scattered across the asphalt, was–

“Oh, it’s the family…” The old man’s voice was solemn. As it should be. Sure, they had robbed those bandits – executed them, even – but the little children… They were laying there, too, right alongside their parents. Zs were mindless animals, and don’t have any moral agency. They don’t care how old their victims are, only whether or not they could kill them. Eat them.

It was the one thing that still really got to her. Got to all of them. Children… Fuck, even Murphy had fallen silent.

“We gotta get off this road.” Garnett’s voice was hollow: seeing children like this always hit him the hardest. Made him think of his own family. Amy and the kids. And what has likely become of them…

Sliding from his perch on the bonnet and slinging his rifle across his back, 10k does the one thing that Warren would have never expected, even from Murphy. The kid laughs. Not the distraught type of laughter that can be used to hide pain, nor something cruel and indicative that pleasure is being taken from another’s suffering. No, it was a gentle one, barely audible. Light and innocent sounding. A laugh borne of simple joys and even amusement, despite the death all around them. In front of them.

And from how Doc’s eyes were wide when the old man glanced between 10k and those staring back dumbfoundedly from inside of the car, a very worrying one. Was the kid really that desensitised to what the world has become that even the death of children – and ones so young, at that – had no impact on him at all?

Stepping up to Warren’s rolled down window, the traces of a smile still tugged at his lips as 10k leans close. Leans in. Stretches his arm across her and between the front seats, reaching towards the back. Towards Murphy. The kid was too close for comfort, his elbow almost bumping into her chest. Not that he seems to notice. Instead, he just wiggles his fingers expectantly in Murphy’s direction.

“Yeah, yeah. Enough already, kid, geez.” Murphy huffs, a façade to hide his own amusement, as he burrows into his pockets, quickly pulling out a little box and shoving it into 10k’s waiting hand, before swatting the kid away. “You’ve proven you point, Princess, no need to rub it in.”

When he pulls back from the window, 10k openly smiles this time, flashing Warren a quick beam that she was unsure how to describe: satiated, or smug. Instead, she just watches him. As he turns the box in his hands, revealing it to be an opened packet of cigarettes. As he wanders back to the front of the car, sliding a single cigarette behind his ear. As he stashes the rest of the pack inside his bag, eyeing up the Zs as he rummages.

Garnett turns from the windscreen. Towards the back. His movements slow and deliberate. Presses his face between the head rests to stare at Murphy. Jaw tense, lips pulled back to bare his teeth in a vicious snarl. “What the fuck was that about, Murphy? What have you been saying to that kid?”

The man in question cowers, leans back, tries to sink further in the seats, phase through the window. Flinging his hands up in surrender, Murphy tries to appease the anger of the soldier baring down on him. “Whatever you’re thinking, that’s not it. We just made a bet, is all. One he clearly won!”

Wrong words. Garnett’s rage only grew, hands gripping at the seat back as if it was Murphy’s throat. “You made a bet about dead children?”

“What? No! I mean– Ten said that the family wouldn’t get very far. Thought it would be an easy bet, a quick way to get my hand on some more cigarettes! But the kid is better than I thought. The bandit’s ambush; the family; now this: he’s three for three. Called them all!” Murphy turns to Warren now, a plea in his eyes. Begging her to intervene. Calm Garnett down.

She doesn’t want to. She really doesn’t. That’s how much of a pain in all their asses Murphy was. But she also knows that Charlie would never forgive himself if someone got seriously hurt because of his anger. That he would quickly start regretting it if he truly hurts the bastard… “Garnett–”

“Kid, hold up!”

Doc’s low, harsh whisper cleaved its way through the tension and Warren looked up just in time to see 10k sharply bring his boot heel down hard on the head of the nearest Z. The one eating the little boy. His blow had enough force to split open its skull, smashing it to pieces like an overripe melon, the sound of splintering bone alerting the other undead. All six of them. Attention torn from their feasting, the Zs now focused on 10k, the kid twirling a knife in his hands.

Kicking open her door, Warren wrenches herself out of the Beetle as swiftly as possible, unholstering her gun and aiming at the approaching Zs. Addy had likewise leapt from her roost on the back, circling around the side of car. She held the Z-whacker firmly out in front of her, ready to back up the kid without hesitation.

Neither of them should have bothered. 10k clearly knew what he was doing, had been watching the Zs, reading the situation while she had been staring at those two idiots in the car. The Zs had been spread out enough along the road for the distance between them – as small as it had been – to stagger their arrival. As soon as one reached striking distance, the kid expertly piked it, yanking his knife out and shoving the corpse away just in time to greet the next. 10k held his ground, feet planted firmly between the Beetle and the Zs, one arm sweeping away grabbing hands while wielding the knife with the other, a mechanical proficiency.

When the last Z went down, Warren finally lowered her gun, sending a quick glance Addy’s way. The young woman must have dropped her stance sooner than Warren had, as Addy was now next to Doc, leaning against the bonnet with her bat hanging loosely at her side. And she was smiling. Smiling over at 10k’s back as the kid sidestepped the dead and stalked towards the family, making a beeline for the furthest figure. For the father. He stooped over the dead man, but only just low enough to pike him, making sure that he wouldn’t turn. The mother was afforded the same treatment soon after.

But as he moved on from the parents, began approaching the nearest child – the little girl – the kid paused. Hesitated. Considered. With his head tilted to the side and brows furrowed low, he just stared down at her. Taking her in. The cogs behind his eyes were steadily turning, but about what he was pondering, Warren could not tell. Not sure she wanted to…

Wiping the blood off the blade, 10k finally sheathed his knife before raising his rifle instead. And pointing it towards the girl. As he fired a single round, one that was closely followed by a second shot aimed at the boy, the kid’s lip moved, forming a solitary word. A word spoken too softly to reach her ears. A word Warren herself had uttered too many times to count.

Mercy.

 

 

 

It didn’t take long to scavenge the dead. And to remove the group’s few possessions from the Beetle and back into their misappropriated truck. The ammo found on the family was handed over to 10k with little protest from the others: the kid was their best shot, after all. As such a limited resource, they’d be wise to make every last bullet count. And 10k has more than shown that he understands this need. He hasn’t wasted a single round yet. The kid had taken them gratefully and without question, stashing them away before hopping up to perch on the side of the truck bed. Next to where Murphy was leaning. The man had just been idly watching them all work. No change there, then. The lazy bastard.

As Garnett performed a final sweep of the old Beetle they were leaving behind, making sure not a single crumb nor half empty bottle of water was left behind, Warren saw her chance. “Charlie.”

He turned to her, then, his eyebrows raised, a familiar warm smile gracing his handsome face. “Roberta?”

“I have to ask. What is this problem you have with Murphy? And, no, don’t just tell me it’s because he’s an asshole. I’m meaning besides that. The one with Ten Thousand.”

His shoulders slumped lower as her words kept coming. Running a hand over his face, Garnett stole a glance over at the truck. At 10k. The kid had slid over, closer to Murphy now, his knee bumping arrhythmically against the man’s side as they passed a lit cigarette back and forth. Murphy was talking, too, which – knowing how much that bastard likes the sound of his own voice – wasn’t that surprising. They were too far away, however, for Warren to make out their conversation, though with the way 10k’s face held a small smile, it must have been innocuous enough.

“It’s, ah… 10k’s young, a bit naïve, really. He’s just a kid and Murphy is, well, he’s Murphy. A convict as well as an asshole. Don’t want him to be a bad influence on the kid.”

“That all?”

“Yeah, that’s all. Now, come on. It’s time to head on out. Need to find a way to contact that Citizen Z guy. Get off this darn road.” Final sweep of the Beetle complete, Garnett strode towards the truck. As he passed Murphy, he threw that uncharacteristically stern glance the man’s way. Maybe it wasn’t so uncharacteristic anymore. Not with how she had now come to expect it, anyway.

Warren had met Garnett early on. They had even helped found Camp Blue Sky together. Three years is a long time, especially in such dire circumstances as the ones that an Apocalypse regularly throws at you. When shit starts to get real, you tend to find out who people really are. What they actually think. What they are truly capable of, good and bad. She had worked with, lived with – survived with – this man long enough to know him inside and out. She knows his birthday, his favourite colour, even the name of his old childhood dog! She knows about his wife and kids, and how much seeing zombie children tears him apart inside, even if he refuses to show it. And she knows all about the early warning signs – the discreet little tells – that something has managed to worm its way under his skin.

She has survived with this man long enough to know him inside and out. Thanks to that, she knows him better than any other living being left on this forsaken planet.

And that includes knowing when he’s lying to her.

Chapter Text

10k had never eaten fast food. Well, not from a place like this, anyway. A place with bright colours, a drive-thru, even a creepy fracking mascot! Sometimes Pa brought a pizza for them to share, maybe even a few snacks. Oreos, if he was lucky. And a carton of milk. Oreos were the best when dunked in milk! Could only treat 10k on special occasions, though. Like his birthday, and at Christmas. When they’d finished building a new cabin, too. Pa had always gone on and on about the need to eat right; that when times are tough, you’d do well to stay in shape. That’s why they avoided the MREs when they could. Preferred the fresher stuff from town, and what they had managed to forage or hunt. Not the deer, though. They never ate the deer. Wasn’t safe. Just sold the venison instead.

Moving cabin was such hard work: scouting out a suitable location; dismantling the old one to cover their tracks; moving their essentials to the new site. All that was exhausting enough, but then they’d have to build the fracking thing! With all the wood chopping, heavy lifting, and hole digging, Pa always said that they had more than earned their greasy, cheesy, heavenly feast. He made the same joke every time, too. ‘There are some really sick people in this world, Tommy, and they put pineapple on pizza!’

From his perch on the side of the truck, the kid wearily eyed the mascot. It was a pack of French fries. With a face. Why would fries have a face? The rusted metal; the wide smile and lolling tongue; the eyes… Why did it have a face? It didn’t need a face! Especially not one like that. One that said it could be trusted. That it means no harm. That it will be gentle. If only it was a Z: then he could shoot it without questions. He’d shoot it twice. Heck, it didn’t have to be a Z. He should do it right now. It wasn’t human anymore. It doesn’t deserve to look at him like that!

But Garnett and Addy were too close to that thing… And it wouldn’t help him if they were to get hurt.

His head pounded. His shoulders ached. His stomach clenched.

10k turned from the mascot. Back to the store window. Back to when he was safer.

He had never eaten fast food. Not even fries. Seen plenty of other people eat them, though. From across the parking lot while waiting for Pa to get back to the truck. There were always a lot of kids eating them. Even kids his age. But he knew not to bother asking; when Pa ventured into town for supplies, he had a list. And if it wasn’t on the list, then it wasn’t being bought, end of story. Money could be tight – towns only buy so much game, after all – and there were more important things they needed.

One time, when he was really young, he had worked up the courage to ask Uncle Jacques during one of the man’s visits. He always brought Pa stuff – ammo, rifles, medicine – so maybe one time he could bring something for Tommy! Could bring him some fries. But Uncle Jacques had just laughed, saying that fries were bad, that they were too salty, that his liver was important so he would ‘do well to look after it.’ Pa had chimed in as well, saying that fries were also bad for the heart. That he needed to keep it healthy and strong for when he was ready to give it away. At the time, Tommy had been confused: why would he give his heart away when he needs it so badly himself? That if he didn’t have its steady beating, then he would no longer be alive. Be him. And when he stomped his foot and made the defiant declaration that he would never give it to anyone, Pa had just smiled, ruffled his hair, said he’d understand when he was older.

Well, he was older now. He understood now. And he still wouldn’t give it away.

10k doesn’t have a heart anyone would want to accept.

The kid could hear Addy going about her work. Wanted to watch her. But he didn’t want to look at that thing. Even as she split it open, pulled out its guts, rummaged around inside of the now hollow carcass. She was trying to take it over, to reprogram it. Use it. All so that they could contact that government guy. The one that ordered them to take Murphy to California. The one that had been watching them. Tracking their every move. A shiver ran up 10k’s spine: Pa had been right, after all.

If that thing hadn’t already made him antsy, then knowing that it was also a government spying tool would have more than done it. How did it work, anyway? It should only need to send and receive audio to be used as a drive-thru speaker, right? If it was anything like Uncle Jacques’ two-way radio, then as long as 10k stays quiet Citizen Z won’t even know he’s here. It’s not like there would be a camera or something in there. Don’t need a camera to order fries!

Waving away the half-smoked cigarette Murphy held out to him, the kid slid down from his perch, rolled his aching shoulders, then approached the store window. He’s never been this close to one before. Taking a quick look couldn’t hurt. With his hands pressed against the glass to frame his face and block some of the harsh sunlight, 10k took a deep breath. Held it in. Fogging up the window would only serve to hinder his curiosity. And anyway, he could hold his breath for quite a while. Had plenty of practice.

The décor chosen for inside the store was just gaudy as that on the outside. It was red and yellow and plastic as far as the eye could see. A long counter blocked off the kitchen, tables muddled across the floor, booths crowding in from the edges. They had always chosen to sit in the booths. The kids in town, that is. The ones his age. He had been so happy when they had invited him to join them. Happy, but also anxious. He had never done anything like that before. And his heart had never beaten that hard. That fast. But he couldn’t go with them. He couldn’t sit beside them as they dipped fries into chocolate milkshake. Because he couldn’t be late to meet back up with Pa.

Jeff seemed so sad when Tommy said no…

Maybe… Maybe he could go in now. Have a quick look around. Sit in a booth. Just so he could say that he has. It wouldn’t take too long, and there might be some supplies in there somewhere. Hidden in the back, buried deep down. Where no scavenger had yet to look. They had been here for a few hours now, just standing around, so an extra couple of minutes wouldn’t be too much of an ask, right?

“Man, was never sure what to think of this one. Should I love it or hate it? Their food was great, especially the chicken BLT. Paid for it the next day, but it was worth every bite! Clowny, though? That guy freaked me the hell out! And no damn burger and fries was worth a trip that bad, let me tell ya.”

Doc coming up beside him wasn’t what surprised the kid. No, that was the old man intentionally scuffing his shoe. Dragging a heel. Signalling his approach so that he wouldn’t take 10k by surprise. In a way that wouldn’t be obvious to the others, too. Pulling back from the glass, letting his arms drop and his breath out, he turns to watch Doc. The old man clearly wants to get closer to the kid. Wants to get to know him. To bond. But not for the reasons 10k originally thought. Doc was generous and easy going. The only thing he wanted was to help.

Although the gentle smile on the old man’s face never faltered, his gaze did. Ever observant eyes briefly flickered towards the kid’s hand, buried as it now was in familiar blue silk. 10k really should stop this. Stop seeking out the scarf whenever he was in need of some comfort. Because Doc always noticed. He never said anything, but the kid could tell he wanted to. A few questions wouldn’t be so bad. It’s not like 10k can afford to keep them all at too great a distance if he wants to stick with them a bit longer. And it’s not like he has to answer them. It would be his choice to.

It couldn’t hurt, right? To open up. Just a little. Just this once.

“The boneless wings, though… How could I have forgotten about them! Came with this sweet, spicy sauce that made your mouth tingle in all the right ways. Now that was almost worth it. As long as I didn’t come alone!” Doc raised his hand to playful nudge the kid’s shoulder. But it stopped short. Didn’t quite connect. 10k had shrugged him off, flinched away, too many times to count. Understandable that the old man would eventually stop trying.

Gingerly, the kid took a half step towards Doc. Not too close, not invading his personal space. But just enough. An invitation.

Doc’s smile grew.

“What about you, kid? If you could order one thing, right now. Anything off the menu. Hell, even something that isn’t on it! What would you pick?”

The best answer would be something healthy, right? The Apocalypse has left food scarce enough that malnourishment was just as big a problem as starvation. So, something with protein. With nutrients. All the vitamins he’s likely lacking… don’t have to be on a ship to get scurvy.

But…

“Fries…?”

The old man’s face was warm, his eyebrows raised, a gentle nod. Encouraging.

“And a chocolate milkshake.”

Closing the gap between them, Doc softly clasped the kid’s upper arm. Then the old man’s smile lit up, became brighter, caused something to shine from deep within his eyes. Happiness.

Because 10k didn’t flinch.

“Fries and a shake. Now that’s a classic combo, kid. Such great taste! You know, Ten, they may call me Doc, but I always wanted to try my hand at being a miracle worker. If there’s a way to get your hands on some fries and a shake in the Apocalypse, I’m sure I’ll find it eventually!”

“Oh, don’t even bother. You’ll just be getting the kid’s damn hopes up. And how long has it been since you’ve even seen a cow, anyway? The only ones left around are likely infected and trust me: anything zombified isn’t gonna be friendly enough to let you milk it.” Murphy’s dry comment yanked 10k’s attention from Doc, the old man’s hand falling from its comfortable clasp on his arm as the kid turned to face the handsome man.

No, not handsome. Scruffy. And arrogant. Maybe lonely. Warm, at a push. But not handsome. This was complicated enough already. Too much of a balancing act. Handsome could disorient him, distract him from his relative bearing. Throw him off course. Right now, 10k couldn’t afford handsome.

When he stepped out of Doc’s space, 10k instead found himself firmly back in Murphy’s. And the scruffy man was too predictable, his hands immediately raising to the scarf. To begin straightening it out. Even though it hadn’t even had a chance to get messed up after last time Murphy had neatened it. Not that the kid minded, really: it kept the man close, kept him out of trouble. And it calmed 10k’s mind. Eased the aches. Which was strange. He never let people touch it. The scarf was only for him, no one else.

So, as Murphy’s hands came up, reached for the silk–

“10k, come here a sec.”

–the kid stepped back.

That gentle voice was unmistakable. And he dreaded it. Feared it. That one day, Garnett would finally see him for what he really was. Tell him that he didn’t belong with respectable people like them. Force him to leave. To be alone once more. Because Garnett was a good man, a strong leader. He would always protect those he cared for. It would happen one day. It always did. But for now, 10k will count his blessings. Appreciate each day as it comes. Each day that he is allowed.

Garnett was rising from where he had been squatting next to Addy, watching as the redhead’s nimble fingers set about their task. The man had been… odd since they left Philadelphia. Still wanted 10k to guard Murphy but was always watching them. Like he was waiting for something to happen. Something bad. It’s not like he doesn’t trust 10k to do his job, right? Murphy was too important to be left under the protection of someone Garnett deemed suspicious. Is he waiting for the kid to mess up, then? To make a mistake, to prove himself incompetent. 10k was doing his best – had pulled Murphy out of two ambushes and everything! And made sure to always be close by to help the man, to keep him distracted so he doesn’t interrupt the other’s work. So, what had the kid done wrong? Was his best not good enough…?

By the time the kid had gotten to him, Garnett had straightened up fully from his crouch. But still stood too close to that… thing. Clowny. As soon as his hands started itching, twitching for his knife, 10k instead moved closer to Garnett, used his broad shoulders and solid chest as buffer between himself and it. Now standing almost toe to toe with the man, the kid looked up. And swallowed. Garnett was tall. A bit shorter than Murphy, maybe. But with those lax curls and rough beard, he was just as handsome. Less arrogant, though, his eyes kinder. Softer. More caring…

But the kid didn’t like caring. Not anymore. Those ones always wanted something – asked for something – that he didn’t want to give. And they never had what he himself was after, either. Not that Garnett seemed the kind who would ask. Wasn’t 10k’s type, anyway.

As he stared, Garnett held his gaze, face curious. “We need your help. Satellite has to be held up somewhere a bit higher than this to try and catch a signal. You up for it?”

Now, 10k might not know anything about electronics and wiring and whatnot, but holding something up? That he could do. He’ll be helping out, too. Being useful. Prove himself. Show that he deserves to be there as much as anyone else. Looking around, the kid spots the perfect place. High up, easy enough for him to reach, a bit more defensible than the ground, too. “Roof okay?”

Garnett’s gentle laughter was… unexpected. Had 10k somehow messed up again? “That won’t be necessary, kid. Back of the truck should do just fine.” Giving his shoulder a quick squeeze, moving with the flinch that they both knew was coming, the man smiled at 10k, a graceful curve at the edges of his mouth, kind wrinkles embracing his eyes. Fondness? The kid must have done something right, then.

“Stop being such a killjoy, Garnett. Let the kid climb! That hunk of junk doesn’t look too heavy, so I’m sure even you could pass it up to him just fine. Anyway, I heard from a rather reliable source that idiots tend to like high places.”

The longer Murphy kept talking, the tighter Garnett’s smile became. So… It was Murphy who was the reason behind the brunette’s change in behaviour? Not 10k himself? The han– scruffy man seemed to enjoy winding people up. Trying to make then snap. Like he wanted attention badly enough that he had long ago decided even the negative sort was better than none. But it hadn’t seemed to have bothered Garnett this much before, just rolling his eyes and moving on without commenting. So why now? Was it because Murphy is interacting with 10k? Is that where the problem is coming from? That must be it. It has to be it. The only reason 10k could fathom. That makes sense. Garnett thinks that Murphy is going to do something. Something bad that involves him.

Hmm… So how would they…

Snatching the satellite from its resting place against the side of the truck, 10k shoved the thing into the bed, hopping up after it. The metal dish in hand once more, he turned to Garnett. Ignored Murphy. “Which way?”

The brunette’s smile loosened, a lightness returning to his eyes. Not fondness this time, and it definitely wasn’t worry. Relief, maybe? Relief would be good. Means it worked. That 10k was right.

Murphy, of course, was much easier for him to read. He hadn’t gotten a reaction from 10k, instead the kid had dismissed him without comment just like everyone else would have. And that irritated the scruffy man to no end, his face pinched and lips thin, though a small speck of confusion sparked in his eyes.

“Well, we ain’t exactly working with precise measurements, here, dude.” Addy popped head out from behind that– …from behind Garnett. “As a best guesstimate, though… North? Or north-east? Try something like that.

Orienting himself was easy enough – before noon places the sun in the east, so ninety degrees counter-clockwise from there would put him at north. When in doubt, split the difference. If you don’t think you could get away with taking it all, that is. A quick little spin leaves 10k facing north north-east. Right down the middle. And staring directly over Murphy’s head, too. That was unexpected – a surprise, even – but not at all unwelcome.

The man just glowered, daring the kid to meet his eye. A blatant challenge. So full of arrogance. Something 10k had never been able to resist. Making sure to keep his arms steady as he held the satellite aloft, the kid dropped his gaze. Stared right back at Murphy. Met the man’s challenge with one of his own.

Murphy’s movements were heavily exaggerated. Overly telegraphed. As dramatic as the rest of the man seemed to be. Pinky out, he swept his arm in a wide arc, ending at his pocket. The one where he kept his smokes. With the packet pulled free, Murphy took his time inspecting the contents, sliding one out for a closer examination before finding it lacking. Pushing it back inside then pulling out another, the inspection process began once more. When one was finally granted his approval, the packet was placed back into his pocket with all the pomp and pageantry with which it was removed. Lighting the cigarette that had been deemed worthy of such an honour, Murphy met 10k’s eyes once more. Raised it to chapped lips. Took a long, deep drag. Lifting his head high, the handsome man pursed his lips. Exhaled. Smoke swirled against 10k’s thighs.

With a sharp, self-important sniff, Murphy turn on his heel, his back now facing 10k. And smoked the rest of his cigarette.

10k wanted to smile. It was a desire stronger than any he had felt in years. But he knew the others had likely been watching the man’s display. Were just as likely to be waiting for his response. So, he licked his lips instead, the action solely to cover up the sharp twitch that tried to cut at the corners of his mouth. No other reason. And especially not because of Murphy. Not because of how he had challenged him. How he had pursed his lips. How he had dismissed him.

Perhaps allowing a little distance to form between the two of them would prove to be just as rewarding as their closeness has so far. Safer, too. With Murphy’s essential status safely securing his place in the group, should any friction occur it would be 10k losing his spot. No matter who he befriended. If he wanted to tag along with them for a bit longer, to get to California, then he’ll have to play it safe. Be mindful of his bearing. Not stray too far from the path the group were travelling down. The route Garnett has chosen. No, he’d have to split the difference. Go right down the middle. At least, while the others are watching, that is.

There were many things that 10k desperately wanted to keep a hold of: the scarf about his neck; the rifle resting by his feet; the knife weighing down his pocket. Now, his place alongside these travellers numbered amongst them. His position within the group was important and, just like Uncle Jacques said, he’d do well to look after it.

 

~*~*~

 

The visual feed flickered in and out, grainy and saturated sepia, the usual distortion Citizen Z had come to expect from Apocalypse grade maintenance. But when it finally settled down, cleared up, the face staring back at him was unmistakeable. The face of the Delta member with the most complete profile. The face of the man who was going to save humanity. If there was enough humanity left to be saved, that is.

“This is Sergeant Charles Garnett calling Northern Light. Charles Garnett calling Northern Light. Come in, Northern Light. Can you read me? Citizen Z, are you there? Over.”

The grin made his face ache. It was the biggest smile he’d had in days! “Yes, this is Northern Light for Garnett! Citizen Z hitting you back. Go for Garnett.”

As he replied, the Sergeant’s face changed, morphed into one of shock. It would be funny if this mission wasn’t so important, if the world wasn’t in such a dire state. Oh, who is he kidding? Something like this was perfect to chuckle about at a later date, once all was said and done. Maybe he could screenshot it, put it in the man’s profile.

“Thank God. We’ve been trying to make this work for hours.”

“What are you broadcasting on?”

“Uh, Clowny the French Fry Guy. One of our team, Carver, jerry-rigged a drive0thru camera.”

A drive-thru camera? That would certainly explain the terribly low-quality feed! While the foreground was clear enough to make out Sergeant Garnett’s expressions, the mid- to background was grainy as shit. Suppose it wasn’t really intended for long distance transmission but–

Wait. Carver? “Addy Carver?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she there? I wanna say hi.”

“Oh, okay…”

As Sergeant Garnett turned his attention to the crowd gathered behind him, so did Citizen Z. The detail wasn’t great, just blurred figures, obscured faces. Colours and vague shapes. All clearly people, but indistinct. There really was no excuse for such abysmal quality AV equipment! Then again, he was used to being soiled rotten by the multimillion-dollar budget of a world superpower. Well, former superpower…

One figure left from the truck, jogging up close, red hair and black jacket gaining more detail. And then there she was. Addison Carver. Addy. As beautiful as her social media portrayed her.

His mouth was dry, this throat thick. When had he last brushed his teeth? Did his breath smell? Did he smell?

What ridiculous thoughts: this was a camera feed! They could only see each other. Well, he could see her…

“Hi Addy.”

Her smile was small, her eyebrows raised. A small wave. “Hey.”

“How’s it going down there?”

“Um, it’s pretty effed up, actually. How’s it going wherever you are?”

She throws a quick glance Garnett’s way, the Sergeant himself scratching his chin impatiently as he turns to the people behind him. One in a brown jacket, another with white hair, a third in all grey and holding a satellite–

Wait. All grey? How did he not notice? Beauty truly is distracting…

“Aww, you know; same ol’, same ol’. Busy keeping an eye on the world. Speaking of, quick question… Who’s that holding the dish?”

Addy tilts her head to look behind her, braided hair dancing over her shoulder. The figure in question seems to visibly tense, noticeable even in such low quality. Some people really don’t like having attention on them… “What, 10k?” Turning back to the camera, her brows were low. Eyes curious. Maybe even a bit… defensive? “What about him?”

“Tenkay?” An unusual name. Not one he’s came across before, and he’s been trawling through a lot of files and databases. Not to be nosy or anything. To alleviate boredom. But having a name like that? It could be useful – if it’s rare enough, it’ll really help him track the man down. Fill in the blanks of his Delta folder of who’s who and what’s what. “Could you spell that for me?”

“One, zero, letter k. Why?”

“…Like the number?” Dammit!

“Yeah, Ten Thousand. But why? What is this about?”

“Oh, and while we gotcha…” From behind Addy, the figure with hair barged their way through – Stephen ‘Doc’ Beck, if his files were correct. And they always were. “Can we get a chocolate shake and fries for Ten Thousand?”

As Addy tried to stifle the smile that was gracing her beautiful face, the brown jacketed figure yanked Doc back, away from the camera. “Could we please leave the kid out of this and get on with it before the Zs find us?”

That voice. He knew that voice. Had heard it enough times when it was complaining while he was in coms with Lieutenant Hammond. “Wait. Is that Murphy?” Scanning the man, his facial recognition determined that, yes, it was indeed their package, the one and only Alvin B. Murphy. “Outstanding. Glad to see you’re still alive, sir.”

The eyeroll Addy directed towards to camera – towards himself – spoke more than her words ever could. Judging from the package’s history, Murphy had proven quite the handful. Hell, even dutiful Hammond had queried the efficacy of transforming his escort mission to simply delivering a body bag.

Their leader taking control of the conversation once more, Sergeant Garnett spoke up. “Yeah, but he won’t be for long if we don’t get off this highway. We’re in desperate need of alternate transpo. We’re looking for an airplane or a chopper or… a hot air balloon! Anything airborne.”

“Uh… There is one thing.” Where was it, where was it…? Citizen Z swivels his chair, turns to another monitor. Clicking away, pulling up tabs, aaand… voila! “I’ve been monitoring some random transmissions from what’s left of the Emergency Headquarters for Infection Control. I can hear them, but they don’t respond when I reply. And it’s pretty garbled… General McCandles might still be holed up in there.” Just gotta pull up the satellite feed… Huh. “You’re in luck. I have a visual confirmation on that chopper. It looks like it’s still there.”

“Where is it?” Garnett was getting impatient. Not that Citizen Z could blame the Sergeant – he’s seen enough through hijacked camera feeds to know how antsy an unsecured location could make people.

“McLean, Virginia. Twenty clicks due west of Washington DC. Look for a high-rise with structural damage and a chopper on the roof.”

“Now that’s a hundred miles south from here. We’re going west, not south. West!”

Glad to see Murphy was still up to his old tricks. He always interjected when it was Lieutenant Hammond asking for intel–

“Do you want off the road or not?”

–though Sergeant Garnett seems to be much less harsh on the man for interrupting. So that was good: Murphy was more likely to be delivered intact.

“Puppies and kittens!”

The call came from offscreen, a woman’s voice, probably Lieutenant Warren’s, and the group began to scramble. And only Sergeant Garnett said goodbye. It was a little curt, a bit of a second thought, but still a vast improvement on lost time. Not that he minded. They had stuff to do. Important stuff. And he’ll still be here should they need anything else. Not much else for him to do.

Except watch.

Watch as beautiful Addison spins on her heel, hair splayed, and retreats to their truck. As heroic Garnett gives him a final nod before ushering his team to safety. As the satellite skitters across the ground when that annoyingly mysterious ‘Ten Thousand’ chose to throw it haphazardly aside in favour of dragging Murphy into the truck bed by his collar.

Ten Thousand… That wasn’t his real name, that much was obvious. An old screenname, maybe? Or a gamer tag? Murphy had called him ‘kid’ so if he was Addison’s age or younger, maybe a web search for accounts using similar monikers would be more fruitful than trawling public record and government databases alike.

Citizen Z spent more time than he would ever care to admit scrolling back through that footage, watching it again and again, grabbing frame after frame trying to get a clear visual on Ten Thousand’s face. The distinctive blue scarf was no longer blocking it as it had in the refinery footage but all he’d managed to screenshot was a blurry mess! He’d taken a step back, given Pup some much needed love and attention, then came back with fresh eyes and a new mindset. Sure, he doesn’t have a legal name or a clear face, but that isn’t the only way to identify someone.

Male, dark hair, likely Caucasian. Narrower shoulder and the lexical choices of others suggest adolescence to young adulthood, so age estimated as under twenty-five. Using the specs of the truck, an estimated height would be five eight to five ten. Which is average for an American man… but it’s still something! Sometimes, having not one distinctive physical feature can be what sets you apart from the crowd. Makes you look too conspicuous, like you’re trying to blend in. To hide.

And not one can hide, not in the Twenty-first Century! If anyone so much as sneezed in the direction of US soil, there would be a digital fingerprint – maybe even a soundbite! – on a server somewhere. Servers that he now had full access to.

Delta were doing important work. On the kind of mission that, if successful, songs would be sung about for generations to come! Citizen Z may not be able to do much for them, may not be doing any boots-on-the-ground type of work, but information was his speciality. If it was out there – and it almost certainly was – then he would be able to find it, and he would use it to complete Ten Thousand’s profile.

Then, if Ten Thousand turns out to be one of the heroes that save humanity, then the world deserves to know his name, know his life, know his contribution.

It’s all out there, waiting to be found. All it will take is a dash of patience and a fuck load of time.

Citizen Z has both.

 

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

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.

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–

Blurry.

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.

Reality.

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.

Murphy…

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…

Pa…

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…

“Promise me!”

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…

Murphy

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.

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?

“Hey!”

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–”

“You promised.”

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.

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.

“Zombie.”

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…”

“It’s Doc.”

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.”

“Warren–”

“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.

 

~*~*~

 

Tommy shivers.

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.

The anger.

The hatred.

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.

Love.

“Love you.”

Loves them both.

 

 

 

The knife sinks in.

 

 

 

 

~*~*~

 

A door creaks.

“It’s clear.”

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…”

A sigh.

Silence.

Cupboard doors.

“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–”

“Murphy.”

“What?”

“Either make yourself useful or shut up.”

“…”

More footsteps. Coming towards the window.

Humming.

A drawer scrapes open. Slams shut.

The humming gets louder.

Something shuffles. Clicks. Light.

“Flashlight still works.”

More humming, louder still.

Another sigh.

“Murphy.”

“Hmm?”

“Stop it.”

The humming stops.

The footsteps move away.

More cupboards.

A whistle.

“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.”

A rattle.

“…Murphy. About that.”

“About what?”

“The kid.”

“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.

Quick footsteps.

“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!”

Silence.

More silence.

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?”

A pause.

A scrape.

Footsteps.

“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.”

“…”

“Murphy, please.

“…Fine.”

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.

 

~*~*~

 

Murphy wakes.

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.

10k’s.

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.”

“…Why?”

“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.

“Defending himself.”

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–

Seducing…

Huh.

“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?”