Obviously, he hadn’t thought this through very well. But it was a bit late to turn back now.
Dal rubbed at his bare arms absentmindedly, ignoring the raised scars that his fingers ran over. He had left his hoodie wrapped around the bars of the safe room door so Nick would (hopefully) know that he would be coming back. Without it, he wouldn’t be automatically marked as a… a… what had Nick called that thing? A Hunt? A Hunter? Something like that.
He sort of looked like that one straight out of The Grudge with the hoodie on, so he had left it behind and now wore the hat that he had been carrying around for Nick instead. He had pushed his hair away from his face, leaving the scars visible but deciding that it was possible for someone to get the impression that he was just the victim of a mauling.
The teen stepped across a thin bridge over an equally thin stream, listening carefully. Earlier, he had thought he heard gunfire. Now, there was just silence aside from the occasional grunting and snarling of the lesser crazies – the ones who didn’t hunt their prey so fixedly. They didn’t seem particularly bothered by his presence so long as he stayed rather quiet, so he did just that. Occasionally, one would rush at him for no apparent reason, but he hadn’t had any problems taking them out.
Which was good, because he hadn’t traveled through this place on his own before, and his shoulder was bothering him where he’d been bitten before. It stung harshly when he moved it around to swing, and aside from that it was just a constant, bitter ache. Occasionally, it swelled to a horrible pain that slowed his pace but didn’t stop him.
He pressed on, not quite knowing where he was going. He was simply following the powerful stench of gunpowder and the trail of fresher bodies. Hopefully, he would eventually catch up to the people Nick was looking for.
His stomach clenched with a mixture of anxiety and emotional pain, but he shoved it down hard. He could handle it, if Nick decided to leave him behind. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been left behind in some scenario or another, and it surely wouldn’t be as painful. His parents had forgotten him at a multitude of places, quickly teaching him to stick to their sides like glue to avoid getting lost.
If Nick decided that he would rather leave Dal alone, then… then that was just how it was going to be.
“I wouldn’t mind if you stuck around a little longer.”
He heard a snarl and turned suddenly, eyes widened with surprise at the seven crazies rushing towards him. His anger and hurt swirled into a frenzy of emotion. His shoulder locked up and his stomach twisted with panic, but he let out a cry of his own, mixed with pain and rage, and attacked.
He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious, but his head hurt much less when he finally opened his eyes. It was quiet in the safe room – assuming for a moment that this was a safe room. He didn’t actually remember arriving in the place, whatever it was, and collapsing, but he could guess that he had from his current sweat-soaked position beneath an unzipped, smelly sleeping bag.
He took a mental index of his physical condition before kicking the sleeping bag away and sucking in a breath of the cooler air.
“Dal?” He called immediately, the silence decidedly bothering him. There was no answer, even as Nick slowly started to sit up. He looked around the safe room, his eyes unwilling to focus. After a moment of fighting with his pupils and blinking rapidly, however, he came to settle his vision on the sight of the safe room.
It was empty.
Where is he?
Nick clumsily made his way to his feet, an unexpected swell of anger throwing him into a frenzy of searching, as if Dal would have been able to leave a note or something. The kid couldn’t work gauze, there was no way he could write. Dal wouldn’t have just left without some kind of sign, or note, or something. No, after all that nonsense to get Nick to let him come along, after that ridiculous fight they’d had in the first place, after that stupid confession of weakness that he’d presented for that stupid idiot child, Dal couldn’t have just left.
His hands clenched into shaking fists, and he very nearly started yelling at the walls. After a few stabilizing breaths, though, he mastered himself. Logically thinking, Dal probably didn’t just leave. He might have gone out to look at any nearby shacks for food or other supplies. Or…
Or he tripped over his shoelaces and broke his leg in a ditch, Nick thought sourly. He glanced to the door and halted his thoughts. There it was – the sign, the note, the something. Dal’s hoodie, wound loosely around the bars of the safe room door. Nick could have laughed.
He walked over to it, pulling it out of the bars. It was cold, from the chilly outside air. Night would be coming in probably a couple of hours, give or take. Nick looked outside, wishing for a moment that Dal would just appear around the copse of trees and wave in greeting or something. Nick would, naturally, slap him upside the head and demand to know why he was out past his curfew. And they would return to their pointless task of hunting down the rest of his party. All would be well.
Of course, no such thing would happen. He was going to have to go and track down Dal, now. He couldn’t just wait for him. If the kid was hurt and in trouble… Well, he probably was, knowing anyone’s luck. The actual thought of Dal in a ditch with a broken leg was nauseating all by itself. Even if it wasn’t the case, even if it probably wasn’t the case, even if the statistical likelihood of it happening was close to zero, Nick couldn’t bring himself to just wait.
He had allowed Dal approximately ten minutes just between the moment he had woken up and the current seconds. That was plenty of waiting. He turned, finding the table that held the remaining supplies, and grabbed a second pistol and the automatic shotgun sitting on the table. He slung it over his shoulder, making a point to also stock the backpack he’d picked up with medical supplies and the remaining ammo. Screw anyone else who came through this wretched place.
He walked back over to the door, wrenching it open and stepping out into the cool air. His head was still aching, but it wasn’t as bad and he could easily ignore it. He holstered the second pistol and started walking, looking around for signs of where Dal had been. Obviously, the kid couldn’t use a gun so the bodies trail would be limited.
Did he decide to go and see if he could catch up with the others alone?
If that was the case, the sheer capacity for Dal’s stupidity was even greater than Nick could ever have perceived. Clearly, the kid didn’t realize the fact that he was infected, or at least looked like one of the infected. Nick was almost a hundred percent certain that Dal was infected with this stupid rabies-flu, but he couldn’t be certain because Dal didn’t act like them, he just looked like them. But there were little things. Like how he apparently couldn’t work his hands right, and how he couldn’t talk, and how his facial expressions were so weird. Whatever form of the infection had hit him, it had left him disabled in odd ways. Ways that would make more sense if his primary drive was to attack and kill things.
What it came down to was that Dal looked like an infected and he couldn’t talk to prove any theories otherwise. Nick muttered several curses under his breath as he stepped over a thin bridge, looking around for any sign of anything.
He walked several more feet before he came across bodies. His heart leaped clear into his throat as he looked at the bodies, wanting desperately to make sure that none of them were Dal. He flipped over all seven of them, looking at their crushed faces. Not Dal, thank God.
They had all been taken out by strikes to the head and face, nose cartilage smashed, cheekbones crushed, heads caved in… Definitely the work of the little brat he was looking for.
The kid’s almost-superhuman strength frightened Nick on a level that he didn’t quite understand. The fact that he could do so much damage with a single punch incidentally reminded him how glad he was that most Hunter’s relied on their claws rather than their fists. None of the other infected – save for the Tank – were as physically powerful as the Hunter.
Dal wasn’t a Hunter, but if there was a separate mutation of the virus that made those physiological changes in the infected, then Dal probably had the one reserved for “Hunters.” Nick continued on, hoping that he was heading in the right direction. Dal’s hoodie was tied around his waist securely, and he wasn’t sure why. He just felt like he ought to keep his safe for his partner.
Suddenly, he hoped that Dal hadn’t caught up with the others after all. This whole trip was for the purpose of hunting down his companions, but he suddenly wasn’t sure that he wanted to catch up with them. It wasn’t necessarily like he hated them or anything, really. Coach was annoying, Rochelle was a pain, and Ellis was just obnoxious, but he didn’t hate them, per se. It was more that he’d rather not be around the kind of people who had never had any trouble in their little tiny lives, and therefore couldn’t possibly begin to or try to understand him or his reasons.
Dal, at least, seemed to ‘get’ him, on a certain level. Or at least, Dal didn’t think that the way Nick behaved was horrible or strange. Dal seemed to view much of Nick’s behavior as relatively normal, if not understandable. He couldn’t really tell, since the kid was so hard to read with his odd facial expressions (or lack thereof).
He saw an infected running towards him and swung his fist into the thing’s face, hearing a satisfying crunch as its nose broke. The infected woman fell back, twisting around to catch herself on her hands. Before she could get back up, he was upon her, grabbing her head and fluidly snapping her neck.
He wanted to avoid using his guns as much as possible – ammo was limited and the noise would only attract more infected. Certainly, using his fists was going to damage his hands, but it wasn’t that bad if he watched his aim. He really wished he had stopped at that Spencer’s back in the Savannah mall and pick up some brass knuckles. They would’ve been very useful.
He walked over to a set of four corpses, kicking them over to make sure they weren’t Dal. They weren’t, and he couldn’t help but let out a brief sigh of relief. He was going to make himself sick with worry at this rate.
He wanted to call out for Dal, but he didn’t want to risk attracting a horde. He scowled. This really was all Dal’s fault. If that stupid brat hadn’t decided to go and attempt accidental suicide, Nick wouldn’t have to be out looking for him. He was sure the kid thought he was being noble and brave or something – he probably thought Nick was still going to kick him off the island when he found the rest of his group. That thought alone infuriated him.
“Really, what part of ‘you can stay’ is difficult to understand?” He grumbled to himself, plodding into knee-deep water. “I’m gonna slap him.”
He paused in his sloshing, straining his ears and listening carefully. He thought he had heard… something. A voice, or three. He frowned, and continued forward, making as much racket as he could in the water. The infected would stay away from him if he was in it, but perhaps the others would hear him splashing about. He saw a body floating in the water and stepped over to it so that he could flip it over. Not Dal.
He really wasn’t looking forward to seeing them again.
The energy he was putting into getting through the water quickly was making his head pound again. He ignored it skillfully, stepping up onto dry land and starting a brisk but quiet pace. Another infected – this time a man – came charging at him, and he sidestepped the guy and pulled out his gun, firing once to get him in the back of the head. There weren’t any other infected nearby enough to be startled by the noise, thankfully.
Finally, he actually heard it. A brief round of gunfire. He followed the source of the sound, his stride lengthening. He was still pretty furious at Dal, and that anger suddenly resurfaced as he practically jogged towards the sound.
He slowed down briefly to listen to the sound of gunfire again, and instead heard voices coming closer. He definitely recognized Ellis telling a story, and that was enough to tell Nick that they were right in front of him.
He shoved his way through some thick shrubbery and emerged on the other side, right in front of Coach, Rochelle, Ellis, and – lo and behold – Dal.
Dal’s eyes were wide with probably-surprise, but Nick was too furious to question the startled gaze. Suddenly, it hit Nick how worried he’d been, how angry he’d been… but mainly how worried he’d been. The pit of nausea that had made itself permanent in his stomach for the past half hour or so he’d been searching through the swamp, turning over every body he came across to make sure it wasn’t Dal.
You little shit.
Before anyone else could really react to Nick appearing in front of them, he smacked Dal upside the head as hard as he could bring himself to.
Ellis’ hat, which he had been wearing for some reason, flew right off his head and landed nearby. Dal’s head swung to the side from the force of Nick’s hand. The conman had had a whole array of things he had been intending to say to Dal, but he couldn’t remember any of them.
“You little shit!” He snarled, “Do you have any idea how fucking worried I was!?”
“N-Nick, calm down,” Rochelle managed to speak first, breaking past her surprise and unable to control her smile of relief, “He just wanted to bring us to you…”
Nick looked up at Rochelle, and then realized something very important – she hadn’t been able to see Dal’s face yet. Not if he had been wearing Ellis’ hand tipped down the whole time, his hair all over his face. She didn’t know, yet. Neither did Coach. Ellis probably didn’t even know. He’d simply been so happy to hear that Nick was alive that he’d permitted the kid to keep his hat.
“What if they’d shot you?” Nick asked, his voice low, strained, “I get that you’re swimming in denial, but if they’d seen you and not realized you were, well, sane, you could be dead. And-… God, you’re such a fucking idiot!”
Dal’s head was lowered, and Nick couldn’t see his face at all.
“Are you even listening to me? Do you get what I’m saying, at all?”
The other three were uncharacteristically quiet, and Nick had no idea why. But, he decided, he didn’t especially care. They seemed to be able to tell that he was standing on his last nerve and they at least had the sense to not try and butt in again.
Finally, Dal lifted his head just enough to nod slightly. Nick grunted in affirmation of the gesture and pulled the hoodie off his waist, holding it up for Dal to put his arms into. He could imagine it would be painful to watch the kid do it himself. Once he was in the hoodie, he turned back around and Nick zipped it shut for him. Immediately, the hood came up and one hand lingered to rub at his eyes.
Nick remedied his guilt by reminding himself of how worried he’d been. The brat had that coming from a hundred miles away.
“Wait,” Coach suddenly said, staring at Dal with a look in his eyes that Nick didn’t like, “Is that…”
“No, he’s not. We can talk later, in a safe room,” He looked down at Dal briefly, “My head is killing me.”
Dal looked up at him again, and Nick immediately saw the smeared tears on his face. He pushed down his guilt swiftly and turned to Ellis, “Which way were you going? We’ve been sort of lost.”
Ellis just grinned, and Nick thought the kid might cry. Or hug him. Nevertheless, Ellis gestured in the direction they’d come from, “That way. There’s a safe room up by a road that I thought I saw.”
Nick sighed, deciding not to comment, and grabbed Dal by the shoulder, bodily turning him, “Come on, I’m sure I attracted something by yelling at you for ten minutes.”
“Are you bringing th- … him?” Rochelle had cottoned on as well, it seemed, and she sounded wary. Whether of Dal or Nick, he couldn’t tell and he didn’t care.
“No, I plan to leave him at the first church I see,” He retorted sarcastically, “Yes, I’m bringing him.”
“O-oh…” Rochelle replied, sounding nervous and looking a bit embarrassed. She swallowed hard and turned with Ellis, starting off in the direction they’d been walking. Dal and Nick picked up the rear, the latter glaring daggers into the backs of the two dark-skinned adults standing at the front of the group. Ellis seemed to be inclined to drop back to walk with Nick and Dal, but the unpleasant vibe coming off the the conman was enough to stop even a mosquito.
Dal didn’t seem bothered by the exchange, and Nick couldn’t tell if it was because he didn’t quite understand the meaning behind those words or if he hadn’t been paying much attention. Nick kept a hand on his shoulder for several minutes before he let it drop after realizing he’d had it there in the first place. Dal shifted his path so he was walking just a little closer to the conman. Perhaps he was anxious, or perhaps he just wanted the contact. Nick didn’t understand the kid at all, but he obviously wanted contact and attention much more than the average teenager. Dal seemed to crave attention like Nick sometimes craved alcohol.
He sighed softly, and resumed his grip on Dal’s shoulder, just for a little while.