He wasn’t trying to be the “bad guy.”
As they all settled on the boat, Virgil not even bothering to come out of his little cabin in the center of the floating vehicle, Coach let out a low sigh. He knew, at that point, that Nick probably hated him. And, given Nick’s particular circumstances, he could sort of see why. Nick was putting an awful lot of stock in his “relationship” with his Hunter, so Coach threatening that “relationship” was, essentially, a threat towards Nick.
Rochelle could see that keeping the Hunter around was akin to carrying a time bomb through a mine field. It was just dangerous. Certainly, it might have been all docile and even helpful at the moment, but who knew what kind of hair trigger would set the thing off? Infected were infected, and even if some of them were like this particular Hunter, that didn’t change the fact that they were infected with some strange mutation of the rabies virus. There was a reason they had been shooting them on sight instead of trying to make nice with them. Why had that changed for this one Hunter?
Coach looked over at Nick and his little friend. They were sitting farther away from the others, both silently watching the passing trees with half-lidded eyes. Nick was visibly tired, but his body was still stiff. He was on guard. Before the Hunter had come into the picture, Nick had started to relax around them. Now, because of all the fighting, he was on guard at all times again, like how he’d been when they’d first met in Savannah.
The older man didn’t understand for the life of him what Nick was seeing in that Hunter that he couldn’t. What was it about the little beast-to-be that was so appealing, over the rest of the uninfected party? Nick had commented earlier during their fight that the Hunter was worth his time because “Dal” understood him. Nick hadn’t exactly specified what it was that the Hunter understood, or why none of them had it in them to understand, or anything really. He had just stated that “Dal understood him.” Coach wanted to understand. He was a good Christian man, and it had always been in his nature to be good to others, to try to understand others, and to use his wisdom and strength to protect those weaker than him. He had been like that before he had found God with his parent’s guidance. When he’d been truly little, he hadn’t believed, he hadn’t understood, and he hadn’t tried. So he’d spent the rest of his life making up for that misdemeanor.
And yet, even with prayers to God for guidance, he couldn’t understand. He couldn’t always be good. He couldn’t seem to be able to protect those weaker than him, though at times he wasn’t sure who it was that was weak and in need of protecting. The younger people he’d been surrounded with during this horrible apocalypse were all strong. They didn’t need his protection, but he still felt inclined to want to keep them safe from harm in any way that he could. The fact that Nick was so keen to undermine his efforts was cause for anger, but he had tried, he had really tried to get Nick to see his points. But the man wouldn’t.
And now they were walking around with a time bomb. Because that was what “Dal” was. That was what any tiger in a zoo was. Eventually, something would happen. And rather than pointing fingers and saying “I told you so,” Coach would be mourning lives lost to a triggered Hunter with brutal killing capabilities.
At this point, all he could do was pray for guidance and hope that his decades of faith would be enough to keep them safe.
“Ooooh, dearie,” Virgil’s voice came over the small PA system on his boat. It was a terrible system, but they could understand him relatively well, “Folks, I am very much sorry t’say, but its’a lookin’ like I might hafta git ya’ll to find me some gasoline!”
Nick looked up at the speaker the older fellow was talking through, “What? Out of gas?”
Virgil hummed over the PA system, “Yessir. This here ain’t enough t’git us to New Orl’ns. I’m re-al sorry, folks. Could I git yous to go up on shore here in Ducatel? Shouldn’t be tha’ far, I don’ think, jus’ a couple blocks.”
Nick heaved a sigh, “Well if we don’t have a choice, I guess…” He trailed off, muttering condemnations under his breath. He glanced over at the others, who looked about as resigned as he felt. “Take us to shore, then, I suppose.”
The boat shifted slightly as Virgil started turning it, “Alrighty then, folks, I really ‘ppreciate it. I’s is real sorry ’bout this, I gotta make it up t’yous, I’m thinkin’.”
“Just don’t leave us in Ducatel,” Rochelle replied half-heartedly, “We’ll be fine, Virgil. We’ll try not to take long, too.”
“Take all the time yous need – there’s a storm brewin’, so you’d best be careful.”
“We will, Virgil. Thank you,”
Nick settled back against the wood framing. Dal was sitting almost uncomfortably close to him, but he had steeled his nerves against his impulse to want to move away. He wasn’t exactly comfortable with physical contact, but Dal wasn’t exactly touching him. He was just almost touching him. He glanced over at the kid, who’s eyes were closed, his expression blank as usual. Nick couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or just resting his eyes. Evidently, bright light really bothered the kid’s eyes.
Virgil brought the boat to a complete stop at a poorly constructed deck that had pretty much fallen apart.
“Ya’ll can turn on that there Burger Tank sign from that roof! I’ll see it fer certain n’ come gitcha.”
Coach called back to him this time, “Alright, Virgil, we’ll do that. We’ll be right back.”
Nick led the way into the Burger Tank, where they found a mess of ammo and guns. They were already pretty well stocked thanks to the backpacks and the convenience of just not shooting things, so they left most of it, instead opting to grab two pipe bombs to attach to Rochelle.
“Let’s go?” Nick called from the front of the store, “Virgil wasn’t kidding about the weather.” He looked over at his shoulder as Ellis, Rochelle, and Coach came up behind him to and saw the sky. It was extremely dark in the distance, but it was moving towards them fast.
“Let’s make this snappy, guys,” Rochelle agreed, starting forward, “We should avoid stopping at all costs, if we can help it. I don’t like the look of that storm.”
“Well, we are in the Gulf,” Ellis offered unhelpfully, “Maybe it’s a hurri-…”
“Don’t even say it, overalls,” Nick interrupted, throwing him a nasty look. Ellis closed his mouth immediately, his lips pulling into a frown. Nick didn’t say anything further, even as they walked down the street. Dal was walking next to him, his movements stiff. The kid was probably looking forward to the rain even less than the others were.
Because they were in a hurry, Nick decided that it would be alright for them to shoot infected, but only if those infected came towards them. Don’t waste ammo. Be quiet. Flashlights off, for God’s sake. They moved quickly but relatively quietly, only bothering a few infected as they hurried along.
“Are we gonna stop at the first safe room, or skip to the next?” Ellis asked suddenly, “D’you think we should just go until someone get’s hurt?”
Nick frowned, but nodded, “I’m pretty sure we have enough ammo to last us until someone get’s hurt.”
“I feel like you shouldn’t be assuming someone’s going to get injured,” Rochelle piped up, sounding wary of conversation. She was probably afraid that talking would piss him off, after their fight earlier. The thought infuriated Nick all by itself, whether it was accurate or not, “I mean, it’s kind of bad karma, right?”
“Naw, I think we’ll be fine,” Ellis replied optimistically
“I bet one of us will be hurt before we get to the second safe room we see,” Nick stated bluntly, “Ellis is the Great Attractor of Danger, after all.”
“I am not.”
“You definitely are.”
He felt a hand enclosed around his elbow, bringing him to a stop. The others paused in their steps as well, looking at Nick for direction as he looked at Dal in confusion. The kid was concentrating very hard on something, but Nick couldn’t tell what. Dal had done this a few times when they’d been traveling with just the two of them – he’d stop Nick in his tracks and listen very carefully to something before pulling him out of danger’s path.
Slowly, Dal started walking, pulling Nick along by the elbow. They all continued forward at a significantly slower pace. Dal was moving very slowly, concentrating hard on whatever he was picking up on.
“What’s uh… he seeing now?” Rochelle hissed, her voice skeptical and sounding slightly irritated.
“He’s not seeing anything,” Nick retorted venomously, glaring at her briefly, “I think he hears something.”
“I don’t hear anythin’, Nick,” Coach chimed in, his voice heavy. Nick didn’t respond for a moment, deciding whether it’d be worth it to snarl. It wouldn’t be.
“He has a better sense of hearing than we do,” He replied quietly, “He’s done this before.” Dal suddenly stopped him in his tracks again and Nick looked over at him, seeing alarm on his face, “What?” The kid jerked to the right, elbowing Nick in the side gently to get him to shift his course. Whatever he was hearing was mildly frightening him, obviously. It was probably-…
There was a loud shriek, and Nick jerked away from Dal, reaching for the pistol at his hip before he knew what he was reacting to. Another Hunter was in the area, and it had just spotted them in its territory. His eyes were ghosting over the entire area in front of him, from whence the noise had come. Abruptly, a weight crashed into his side, sending him stumbling to his right, shortly followed by an enraged snarling. He twisted back around in time to see the Hunter turn faster than lightning and spring after Dal, this time. The kid’s arms came up in a reflexive guard, one of his knees lifting before his back hit the ground. In a beat, he was able to kick the Hunter back off, sitting up into a crouch and diving on top of it, fists swinging. The Hunter beneath him shrieked loudly, reaching up to grab Dal’s injured shoulder and digging his fingers in. Dal’s movement halted jerkily as he yelped in pain, throwing himself back to remove the source of pain.
It was then that Nick saw an ideal opening – that was the trouble with fighting with Dal. The kid was so up in his opponent’s face, Nick didn’t want to risk opening fire at all. But at that moment, he moved forward swiftly, hitting the Hunter in the face with the butt of his gun to stop him from getting back and then stomping hard on his throat, crushing his windpipe with ease. The Hunter was dead instantly, and Dal fell back off it, gasping for breath in a frantic way that Nick didn’t recognize as a Dal-trait.
Ellis hurried over, looking a little shaken, “Shit, you okay, Dal? Man, next time, you just point an’ I’ll take it out ‘fore it even gets to us.”
Dal looked over at Ellis, his eyes wide and… angry? Disbelieving? Nick couldn’t quite tell if it was one or the other, and he wondered then if it was a maelstrom of both. He stepped between Ellis and Dal then, crouching down, “You alright?”
“Has it-… Has he done that before?” Rochelle suddenly asked, sounding breathless and quite a lot frightened, “Y’know, like… lost it like that?”
Right then, the look that Dal directed at Rochelle was one that Nick was glad she couldn’t see from her angle. It was that same blank-faced rage he’d expressed at Nick when they’d first met.
“She’s askin’ a good question, Nick,” Coach bringing himself into the conversation made everything worse, as usual, “Has it done that before?”
Rochelle whispered something low enough that Nick couldn’t hear, but Dal did and the kid wasted no more time getting to his feet. Nick could tell that his shoulder was bothering him again – that dirty move from that Hunter had probably caused his wound to start bleeding again. Dal then threw Coach and Rochelle the nastiest glare Nick had ever seen on a kid his age. His expression was mostly blank, as usual, but his eyes were more expressive then than Nick had ever seen them.
“He didn’t ‘lose it,'” Nick finally replied coldly, “One would think you two would understand why he’d be so furious at Hunters, but I guess not everyone can have a trying adolescence.”
Rochelle and Coach were noticeably offended by that, but they didn’t say anything further, instead pursing their lips and holding their tongues. They were obviously trying hard to avoid fighting with Nick, and he was a little tiny bit grateful for that. Fighting in the middle of the streets would do them no good. Dal tapped Nick’s elbow, and the man looked over at the kid. He was tilting his head in the direction they had been walking – “Let’s go.” Nick nodded, and started walking again, glancing over at Ellis to make sure the hick hadn’t wandered off like some lost puppy or something.
He was tired of being the bad guy.
They had stopped at a safe room at Nick’s command, because he wanted to make sure that Dal’s shoulder was alright. He always forgot how smart the Special Infected could be. Especially the Hunters, Jockeys, and Smokers… they were scary smart for rabid animals. He helped Dal shrug off his hoodie and pulled the collar of his shirt to the side so he could see the bandages. It didn’t look like he’d started bleeding any more, so Nick left the bandages be, handing the kid a couple of pills to relieve his pain.
Coach and Rochelle didn’t understand why he was so… attached to Dal. He had tried to explain, but there was no real way to do so. How could he possibly be able to explain the wretched loneliness that came from having a past that no one else could begin to relate to? To Dal, his bitterness, his pessimism, and even his mild abusiveness was, on some level, understandable. Dal understood his anger, Dal understood why he never felt that there was anything good to look forward to, Dal understood why he was always so mean. Dal understood his loneliness. They didn’t understand each other on very basic levels, but on a deeper, emotional level that Nick didn’t quite understand, Dal was the only one he understood, and vice versa.
Coach and Rochelle, who had lived their perfect, happy little lives free of the horrors of reality, couldn’t possibly begin to understand the depths of Nick’s character. He wasn’t just a shallow conman with a bad attitude. There was more to it than that. There was so much more to him than just his chosen profession.
Coach was the worst of the two of them. The older man seemed to think he was doing the right thing, protecting them or whatever, but what he was really doing – at least in his and Dal’s eyes – was pushing judgment down Nick’s throat. He wanted, on some level, to place Nick into some pre-made character box so that he could act according to his beliefs about people and “fix,” or at least “deal with,” Nick. But Nick didn’t fit into those boxes. Nick didn’t fit because Coach had grown up in small town Savannah, where the world had seen no worse tragedy than beer deficits. Coach believed himself to be a “good Christian man,” but all Nick saw was judgment and narrow-mindedness and a terrible inability to really understand. Coach wouldn’t listen, and even if he did, he wouldn’t understand.
And Rochelle… she was just terrified of Dal. She was deathly afraid that he would snap and kill all four of them at the push of a button. And she stubbornly refused to change her mind, no matter how many time she infuriated both Nick and Dal. Neither of them had tore out her throat yet, so he couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t see past her irrational fear. Dal wasn’t dangerous. Out of the two of them, Nick was the one who was more like to commit homicide within their group – and he’d do a better, faster job of it too. He’d almost committed violence against Rochelle already – Coach had had to physically put himself between the two of them, and Nick had, for a moment, been full prepared to go through the large man so he could throttle her.
“He’s not even human anymore! Why are you so attached to a monster?!”
Probably, Nick thought, glancing down at Dal, because I’m a monster. Takes one to like one.
He hated that they called Dal “it” or “thing.” He hated that they treated Dal like a time bomb. He hated that they seemed to think, on some level, that Dal didn’t really understand what they said about him. He hated that Rochelle flinched when Dal moved with suddenness. He hated that Coach always had one eye on Dal. He hated the knowledge that, if they were surrounded on all sides by infected, Coach would kill Dal and claim that it was an accident. He hated that they couldn’t see past the ashen skin, the scars and the hoodie. He hated the comments, the questions that didn’t need to be asked but were asked anyway.
He hated Coach and Rochelle. He hated them for being unable to understand. He hated them for judging him based on “facts” that they had decided about him. He hated them for making those presumptions about him and never asking for the truth.
Nick was tired of being the bad guy. He was always the enemy, the antagonist, the pessimist, the abuser, the tiger in the zoo. He spent his life surrounded by the kind of people who couldn’t understand his cruel streak, the kind of people who smiled at his dark humor only to hide their revulsion.
He had been surrounded by the kind of people who would never be able to read and understand him because they were easier to con. Even the two ranking members of the mafia that he’d managed to snag hadn’t been able to get him. They’d lived sad, even tragic lives, sure, but they’d lived those lives with a sense of togetherness. Nick had always been alone.
And that was why he was so attached to Dal. He could tell that the kid had also always been alone. Dal, who seemed to cry whenever Nick came looking for him out of worry. He was sure those weren’t tears of guilt. He was sure, from the shine in the boy’s eyes, that those were tears of joy. That Dal was just so happy that Nick had worried about him that he’d been reduced to tears.
The idea that the emotional energy he put into this one relationship had such a profound affect on the other party was a source of happiness for him as well. It was bittersweet joy, but it was joy nonetheless. His positive emotions would probably always be like unsweetened baking chocolate, but they were there. He had them, and they were as real as the apocalypse around him. The timing was crap, but at least he wasn’t going to be quite so alone anymore.
At one point, he had decided that his relationship with Dal would be false and based around a con. He could have laughed. He had really lost his touch, hadn’t he?