A lone wolf sees the wisdom in guarding the sheep and hunting their predators.
- T. F. Hodge
It’s good to take a quick break every now and then, to let everyone stretch their legs, burn off some of the pent-up energy that would otherwise lead them to fidget restlessly in the truck. At least, that’s the excuse that Warren keeps using. Murphy can never make up his damn mind about where he wants to sit – inside the truck where he’s sheltered from the wind, or out in the bed where he can entertain himself pestering the kid. And whichever way he decides, he always comes to regret it. So, Warren is grateful to have such a simple and believable reason to pull over when he starts to get on everyone’s nerves. A reason that won’t give away why she’s really doing it. Can’t let that annoying bastard knowing he’s successfully gotten under her skin. That sort of childish behaviour does not need reinforcing!
They are parked up alongside a long-abandoned gas station, its store shelves as empty as its gas tanks. Nothing for them to scavenge, nothing for them to kill; just wasting a bit of time while it’s peaceful. Good for morale, too.
And speaking of boosting morale, Addy and Mack had snuck off to the others side of the building as soon as it was declared safe, claiming that they wanted to scout a bit further afield, just in case. They must be getting desperate, not having had much opportunity for alone time since this little road trip of theirs had begun. Maybe if they come across somewhere more secure – a little homey, even – Warren could try convincing Garnett that they should rest up for a bit longer than these impromptu stops, or the occasional overnight camping. They could maybe even take a full day or two, get some real down time in. Goodness knows they need it…
She’s leaning against the truck, Garnett and Doc at her side, Murphy sulking on top of the hood. They are watching 10k and Cassandra, the young woman having asked the kid to show her how to use his slingshot. He’d lined some old bottles against the wall of the gas station, three little make-shift targets for her to aim at, before beginning his lesson. Not that she’s been able to hit any of them – not even close. The marbles they are using as ammo have all harmlessly plinked off the brick wall, bouncing off across the dusty lot.
How well those two have been getting along over the last week or so hasn’t escaped Warren’s attention. Anyone’s attention, for that matter. Maybe it’s because they both started as outsiders while the rest of them had already known each other for some years, barring Murphy of course. It had started fairly simply, Cassandra always choosing to tag along with the kid whenever he wandered off to scavenge or hunt down any nearby Zs. Pretty soon after, when they had been able to find somewhere safe enough to camp for the night, Cassandra had staked her own claim on the truck bed. And 10k had forgone his usual tree climbing, choosing to stay in the bed with her. Warren had been the one to find them when she went to wake 10k for his watch: they were huddled under the same blanket, Cassandra’s head resting on the kid’s shoulder… Both of them have struggled with trust or relaxing around others so it was a kinda sweet thing to see.
Although, with how close those two have gotten, Warren hopes beyond belief that whoever was responsible for raising that boy pre-Z had had the sense to teach him about the damn birds and bees. There is no way on God’s green earth that she is having that conversation with him. Maybe it’ll be best to leave that up to Doc…
On another night, one where Murphy had gotten to the bed first, causing Cassandra to sleep inside the truck, Warren had expected the kid to be back up in a tree. She wishes she could say that finding 10k in the bed with him was a surprise, but with how close those two are, too, she really wasn’t. They’d been sharing the blanket, but at least the kid wasn’t snuggled up as closely with Murphy as he’d been with Cassandra. And with how grumpy the man was the next morning, and how quietly he slept through the next day’s drive, it was easy enough to put two and two together – Murphy had stayed awake with the kid for his watch.
Warren had told only Garnett what she’d seen that night. To test the waters, see how he’d react. When all he’d done was roll his eyes, she’d known that Charlie’s problem with Murphy – whatever it had been – was dealt with. He’s no longer glaring at the asshole when he messes with the kid, too.
Now, the only problem between those three she can see is that the kid has now been watching Garnett much more closely than he had before. Sure, 10k’s always been quietly observant of them all, but this is more than a simple curiosity flitting across his face as he watches the man. It’s like he’s unsure of himself, like he wants to say something but cannot quite figure how to approach or which words to use… And if Garnett has noticed, he’s doing a damn fine job of hiding it.
A glass marble shatters against the brickwork, shards flying in all directions. Seems that Cassandra is starting to get the hang of the slingshot, now able to draw the pouch back far enough for the little projectiles to hit with considerable force. She’s still not hitting the bottles, but she doesn’t let that stop her from raising her fists in a little victory dance, laughing as 10k smiles back at her.
It’s sweet. It really is.
“So, what do you guys think? About Cassandra and the kid?” Doc’s smile is soft, caring, but his eyes twinkle with an amusement that Warren hasn’t seen since Blue Sky. The old guy has been clucking about that boy like a mother hen since they’d picked him up, and no one has been happier than him to see this friendship with Cassandra begin to bloom.
Garnett’s brows are low as he frowns slightly, considering. “They certainly seem to be getting along well. It’s good that they trust each other with their backs, too. Makes them a good team for clearing out Zs.”
“Oh, come one, man – don’t try and play all coy with me, here! You know that’s not what I mean.” Doc turns to Garnett, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Please.” Murphy slides off the hood, smirking as he shuffles towards them. “Like the kid could handle someone like Cassandra. Our sweet little sniper may know how to fire his own rifle, but he wouldn’t know where to begin with a woman, never mind one as feisty as she is. And anyway, even if they’ve gotten closer, it’s not her he’s been watching lately.” His smug smirk still intact, Murphy crosses his arms as he leans against the side of the truck. An eyebrow raised, he sleazily drags his gaze up and down Garnett’s frame.
Another thing about Murphy and 10k that Warren finds herself not being surprised at: with how closely those two keep an eye on each other, never straying far from the other’s orbit, of course he’s noticed how much attention Garnett has been getting from the kid.
Not raising to the bait, Garnett just lets out an exasperated sigh, ignoring Murphy’s crass attempt at humour in favour turning back to watch the intimate little slingshot lesson. Even if he has stopped trying to hog all of the kid’s attention, Murphy’s tactless jokes about 10k are still going strong. It’s probably best if they all just to get used to them – seeing as the kid himself doesn’t seem to mind them all that much, the jokes are likely here to stay.
With another marble smashing into the wall still some distance from any of her targets, Cassandra drops her head, clearly disheartened. “You could hit them all with your eyes closed and I can’t even get close! I’m never gonna get the hang of this…”
Smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, 10k steps in closer to her. “Been doing it since I was five. Takes practise, is all. Here.” Moving up behind her, his chest almost pressing into her back, the kid reaches an arm around Cassandra to steady the hand holding the slingshot as she readies it once more. “Don’t hold the draw too long. You’ll tense up, throwing your accuracy.”
Cassandra leans back into him, drawing a deep breath before pulling the pouch to her cheek. Beside Warren, Doc’s smile only grows wider. The old guy really does care about these two, the strangers that had joined their peculiar little family only a few short weeks ago. He’s been watching out for them since then, trying to ease them into the group, to help them find their place and relax, so of course he’s enjoying seeing them getting comfortable with each other. Seeing them get this close. And, knowing how much Doc seemed to like playing matchmaker back at the old camp, there is no doubt in Warren’s mind that the old romantic hopes that they will only continue to get closer still.
Releasing the pouch, the marble smashes against the brickwork much nearer to the bottles than any of her other attempts so far. Smile splitting her face in two, Cassandra eagerly loads up another marble.
“Focus on the target, not your hands. Don’t over think it. Use instinct.” While he speaks, 10k lets his hand drop from Cassandra’s arm, instead moving it down to rest on her hip.
As soon as his hand lands, Cassandra flinches, releasing the pouch, causing the loaded marble to fly off wildly. It smashes into the metal shutters locked over the gas station’s windows, a thunderous clattering sounding at the same moment Cassandra’s arm jerks backwards, her elbow slamming into 10k’s gut. As the kid drops with a strange gasping grunt, he reflexively shoves out with the hand that was on her hip, knocking the young woman off balance and causing her to stagger forward in order to right herself. As soon as she’s steady once more, Cassandra spins around to face the kid, her hands raised placatingly.
Whatever apology leaves her lips is drowned out by Murphy’s raucous laughter.
Seems there is still one great hurdle between them: when it comes to hypervigilance, Cassandra and the kid are as bad as each other…
Addy races into view, her hair as wild as her eyes, Z-Whacker at the ready and Mack close on her heels, gun in hand. “What? What happened? What’s wrong?” She frantically looks around, counting heads and searching for Zs. Seeing 10k hunched on the ground, clutching at his stomach and struggling for breath as Cassandra squats beside him, gingerly rubbing his back, the redhead falters. Turning back to those leaning against the truck, Addy raises her eyebrows questioningly.
“Seems Casanova here got a little too handsy.” Murphy’s smirk is wider than ever, and Warren cannot resist letting out one of her own.
“Well, he did tell her to rely on her instinct…” With a nod towards their two companions, who are now sitting on the dusty lot, Warren looks at Addy and Mack, not bothering to try holding back her gentle laughter. “They probably won’t need it just yet but keep those two in mind next time you find some condoms. Might have to start sharing your stash.”
“Oh, fuck no.” Mack slings his arm around Addy’s shoulder, frowning down in 10k’s direction. “They’re a rare enough find as it is without having to share. If the kid wants some, he’ll have to get a hold of his own.”
With mirthful smiles all round, they watch as Cassandra finally straightens up, offering a hand and helping the kid to his feet before handing him back his slingshot. Brushing the dirt from his ass, 10k starts to open his bag so he can stow away the little weapon inside and–
-his head snaps around, eyes zeroing in on Murphy.
The man in question has himself spun around, facing the gas station. Staring. Just staring…
Garnett starts towards him, his brows lowered as confusion sweeps across his face. “Murphy, what’s wro–”
With a guttural snarl, a zombie sprints from around the building.
Mack grabs at Addy, pulling her safely from the Z’s path. But it doesn’t turn to follow, instead staying on course. Making a beeline for Murphy.
Warren moves quick. Grabs Murphy by the back of his jacket. Yanks him away as the Z’s gnarled fingers reach for him. Scrape at his collar. Rake down his front. Murphy trips, feet stumbling with the sudden momentum. Falls backwards into the dirt. And the Z falls, too. Lurching sideways into the side of the truck, its skull splitting apart. Sliding down the door, leaving a spattering of gore on the window. It crumples to the road, dead.
Glancing over at the kid, seeing his slingshot still raised, Warren gives him a small nod. A thanks. Because that was a close one. Too close.
But the kid doesn’t acknowledge her, his face blank as he rubs at his neck, watching Murphy.
The man is still on the ground, having lurched away from the dead Z, pulling his legs up close as turns away. Breathing ragged, eyes glassy, expression both distant and fearful: this has happened before. Doc says that it’s like a panic attack, that he forgets where he is, that it’s probably caused by the trauma of what happened back at the prison. From surviving being bitten so many times. From almost being torn apart… Warren can’t blame Murphy on that one – she’s seen what can happen to soldiers returning from a tour, the way that they never quite leave the warzone behind. Being eaten alive isn’t the sort of thing that would be easy to forget…
They all know the drill, though: keep their distance so as to not crowd him, not panic him further, and just let him breath. Quiet is needed, too, so Doc can talk to him, voice low and soothing as he helps bring the man back to reality.
Murphy’s breathing eventually returns back to a more normal rate, the man slowly clambering back to his feet, so it’s about time for them to head off again.
As they start piling back into the truck, the kid inches by the man whose life he’s once more saved, his worried eyes never leaving Murphy’s face. And the man reaches out to him. Waves him in close. Tugs the blue scarf back into place from where the kid’s spontaneous introduction to Cassandra’s elbow had ruffled it up. Finally relaxing himself, the kid gives Murphy a quick relieved smile as he lifts his gloved hands, smoothing the jacket collar back into place, rumpled from the man’s own run in with danger.
Once Murphy is safely seated inside the truck, 10k closes the door firmly behind the man before he continues his own trek to the bed, hoping up over the side with his usual grace.
“So, what do you think about those two?” Beside her, Garnett nods towards the back of truck, to where the kid is pulling up Cassandra after him. “We gonna have another pair of lovebirds on our hands?”
“No sure, but I’ll give Murphy one thing: he’s right about the kid watching you.”
Charlie’s face, all wide eyes and open mouth, makes Warren smile. Eases some of the tension from her bones. She always has found him relaxing to be around. There is just something about Charlie’s presence that makes her want to forget: about the apocalypse; about her past.
Sometimes, even about Antoine…
“Not like that, Charlie. Like he wants to talk but doesn’t know how. You know how he is, how he finds these things difficult. Maybe you could help him out?”
With a quick smile of his own, Charlie nods before turning to open the truck door. “Sure, Roberta. I’ll see what I can do.”
It’s a lucky find, this secluded little farmstead they’ve stumbled upon. The main farmhouse itself is still largely intact, its white-painted wooden walls safely secured behind a fully functioning electric fence, the perfect deterrent for the few Zs that like to wander aimlessly on by. The house has a quaint garden, too, complete with flowers and a bird bath. Hell, it even has Old Glory, raised up high and dancing proudly along with the breeze. It truly is the closest to perfect that they’re going to get, and Garnett decides that it’s just the place for them to finally get some much-needed R and R.
Once the Zs had been cleaned out, of course.
There hadn’t been many, just some of the old occupants that had met with an unfortunate fate, but with the ease at which 10k and Cassandra swept through the rooms, letting the agile young woman draw the Z’s attention to allow for the kid to get in close and pike them from behind, the house was theirs in no time. With constantly seeing the corpses likely to put a dampener on their down time, they had decided that it would be best to pile them up in one of the bedrooms, allowing their little family free reign of the rest of the building.
And while he’s at it, Garnett might as well kill two birds with one stone.
Grabbing the arms of the last Z that needs carted off out of sight, he looks over at the kid. “Could you give me a hand with this one, 10k?”
With a curt nod, the kid passes his cigarette to Murphy, the man taking it without question and sidling over closer to Doc. Slinging his rifle onto his back, the kid strides across the room and grabs the Z by its ankles. Between them, lugging the thing up the stairs to dump it into the back bedroom is light work. Watching Garnett dropping it on top of the other dead Zs, 10k doesn’t leave, instead choosing to linger in the doorway, staring at the man with that same unreadable expression he has been seeing the kid shoot his way since they left Virginia. Since Garnett had warned Murphy to back off from the kid…
And it was just what Garnett had been hoping he’d do. Now’s as good a time as any.
“Are you okay, kid? You can come to me with anything you want to. I’ll always be willing to listen, and it won’t go any further.” He tried to keep his voice light but concerned, just like the one Doc uses.
With the usual tilt of his head and lick of his lips, 10k steps fully into the room, closing the door behind himself. Sliding his rifle from his back, the kid leans it against the wall before moving into the centre of the floor, weapon still within reach but not immediately at hand. 10k has isolated them while trying to communicate that it’s not meant as a threat… That’s a good sign, right? Shows that the kid truly just wants to talk.
Thinking it best to respond in kind, Garnett slowly unholsters his own gun one-handedly before placing it gently on the bed and stepping away.
10k relaxes a little, his posture much less tense, his face now expressing a little more emotion. Still not something that Garnett is able to put his finger on, but more open never-the-less. And a far cry more human than the kid’s habitual, eerie blankness.
With another lick of his lips, the kid asks his question. “What will happen in California?”
Garnett’s brows tighten, his mouth curving downward. It can’t be this simple, right? Surely the kid would feel able to ask anyone for more details of the Mission, not just him. Hell, Doc has told 10k most of it already during their long chats on the road, anyway. “Well, we’ll locate the lab and deliver Murphy safely to them. After that, I’m not sure. Why? You said that you didn’t have anywhere you needed to be. Has that changed?”
10k’s eyes shift, desperately searching for somewhere to look, anywhere except at Garnett himself, a hand reaching up to fiddle with his scarf. “My job is to protect Murphy until the lab.”
Oh. Is that what the kid’s been thinking? What he’s been worrying about all this time? That once the Mission is over, they won’t need him, won’t want him around anymore… That they’ll, what, push him away or tell him to leave? “Just because your job will be completed doesn’t mean that you’ll no longer have a place with us. If you want to stay, no one will object to that. You’ve been getting along well with Doc and Cassandra, anyway, so I’m sure they’ll be hoping you stick around.”
“Really?” The kid’s eyes met his, then, all wide and hopeful and young. When he looks like this… No wonder Garnett had gotten all mixed up in his grief… The man hadn’t been able to save the children back at Blue Sky, and then he’d let his guilt mistakenly latch onto the kid, to try and use 10k as a surrogate. To see him as a second chance, a way of attempting to redeem himself from his failure…
But 10k isn’t helpless, is he? Watching the kid clear locations or snipe Zs from the back of their moving truck, only for him to then still be able to look like this, or to smile brightly at Doc’s praise, or frown in confusion at Murphy’s more suggestive jokes… Even nestling in close with Cassandra during the night… It really has been an eyeopener for him. He’d been mistaking the kid’s youthfulness with innocence and naivety.
Now, if only 10k did like Cassandra in the way that Doc seems to think he does – that would be the one last Murphy-shaped worry lifted from off of Garnett’s shoulders…
Reaching out slowly, clearly telegraphing his intent as Doc had taught him, Garnett takes a step forward. Looks down at the kid. Squeezes his shoulder. “Yeah, 10k. We all do. I do.”
Relief lighting up his eyes, the kid quickly turns his head, averting his gaze as a soft pink starts to tease at his cheeks. Clearing his throat in a manner that he hopes doesn’t sound as awkward as it feels, Garnett drops his hand, takes a step back. Goes to turn to reclaim his gun–
“What about Murphy?” 10k’s quiet words cause him to hesitate. To turn back towards the kid. To see that 10k’s face has closed off slightly, not completely blank, but certainly much more guarded than it was just a moment ago. “What will they do to him? Will they hurt him?”
Garnett has been wondering if this was going to come up. No, when it was. He’d hoped it wouldn’t but had planned for it, just in case. “I’m not sure what they’ll do, but since it’s Murphy’s antibodies that they need then it could be as simple as drawing some blood. Quick and painless, just like at the doctors.”
Wait, what? He’s never been to the doctors? Even when he was younger? Garnett is acutely aware of how often little children can get sick as his own kids were no exception. With how atypical – how straight up bizarre – the little pieces of info about himself 10k lets slip make his past seem, Garnett can’t help but wonder…
But, either way, the kid seems satisfied with his premeditated answer, turning to collect his rifle from its resting place against the wall.
“It was my pa.” Slinging his rifle comfortably into place, 10k looks back at him, his eyes soft, a fondly nostalgic smile pulling at the corners of his lips. “You asked where I learned to shoot. My pa taught me, and not just for hunting, you know? Knew he couldn’t always be here to protect me, so he made sure he wouldn’t need to be.”
And with that, the kid tugs the door open and slinks out of the room.
With his own gun once more securely holstered at his side, Garnett shakes his head with a sigh before trudging downstairs to join his family.
Like I said, bizarre…