New Orleans was the complete opposite of Ducatel. It was a perfect day out, with the sun shining and a cool breeze keeping the humidity from being unbearable. The streets were relatively still and quiet, the infected evidently deciding that it was too hot out and choosing to find themselves comfort in the shade.
Dal hated it.
Nick had assisted him in taking off his hoodie and Ellis had lent him his hat. The latter effort had done little for him. The sun reflected off approximately everything, blinding flares of white light getting into his eyes no matter how far he lowered his head. The heat beat down on him, and he was sure that his arms were going to be terribly sunburned before the day was out. The breezes were nice, but the fact of the matter was that it was just too hot and too bright.
Dal figured he probably wouldn’t even mind the heat so much if it wasn’t for the sun itself. With a cloud cover, at least the heat wouldn’t be so direct and it wouldn’t be so bright out. As it was, he wasn’t feeling well. His body felt even hotter than what seemed normal, and it was making him feel both nauseous and a touch dizzy. It wasn’t like they’d just finished running for three blocks or anything.
He lifted a hand and started gnawing away at his nails. They’d started to gain rather significant length again – they grew remarkably fast, and he never seemed to be able to keep up with them. Especially lately, considering how much time he’d spent not thinking about his nails in favor of thinking about how much he hated the rain. He’d only discovered how long they’d gotten a few minutes ago, when he’d clocked some woman in the head and nearly broken the skin on his palms. He managed to power through all the nails on both hands before his jaw tired out on him, and shoved his hands back into his pockets. He wished he still had that speech board.
He hadn’t thought Ellis was as thoughtful as he’d turned out to be. The man was worlds more compassionate and considerate than Nick, and he was kinder and obviously more attuned to other human beings on a positive level. Ellis didn’t see Coach and Rochelle as “attacking him,” he saw them as “not understanding Dal.”
Nick, it seemed, took Coach and Rochelle’s distrust as a personal insult and behaved accordingly. He didn’t seem to be fighting for Dal’s basic human rights so much as he was fighting to get revenge for those slights. Ellis wasn’t interested in fighting with anyone; he just wanted everyone to get along and for Coach and Rochelle to get over themselves and see Dal as the human being that he was.
In all honesty, Dal had discovered that he quite liked Ellis. Perhaps even more than he liked Nick, on the more basic level. Nick was self-centered, but Nick was also just as lonely as Dal was, even though he seemed unwilling to accept anyone’s companionship. He was a jerk, but he was also bitter and it showed in the ways he spoke of Rochelle, Coach, and Ellis having an “easy life.” In general, Nick was on the darker side of the spectrum of human personality, and that made him harder to like, but it also made Dal want to be closer to him.
He couldn’t say why, for sure. Perhaps Nick fundamentally reminded him of his father, who was just as angry and hateful towards pretty much everyone. Nick, however, was willing to have some weird, unhealthy semblance of a relationship with him. The conman made an exception for Dal because, as he’d told Rochelle and Coach back in the swamps, Dal understood him.
Or, at least, Nick believed that Dal understood him.
There was no way either of them could understand one another without some form of language. Sometimes, Nick would look at him like he was the only thing in the world that Nick could relate to, and that was a source of joy for Dal – to be that important to someone was something he’d never had before. But at the same time, that was the same look Dal had reserved for a cat he’d sort of adopted off the streets. He could recall looking at Chamomile and finding something in those amber eyes that he couldn’t have found anywhere else.
Dal didn’t mind it, really, but it meant that on some level, Nick wasn’t really identifying with a person. He was identifying with a cat or a dog that he had projected himself onto. That was… not quite irritating, but it did bother him. For all his yelling and hollering about how Dal wasn’t a Hunter, Nick didn’t seem to see him quite as a person either.
Nick saw his reflection, even where it wasn’t. They didn’t understand each other at all.
He slowed his steps when a soft sound reached his ears. Dal looked to the right, peering down an alleyway, and then another. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded… weird. Almost like a high-pitched whistle. He wondered if it was a dog whistle – could he hear those? He could hear pretty much everything else. If it was a dog whistle, someone might be over there looking for their dog.
He stopped completely when he heard it again, looking back at an alley they had just passed. The rest of his party was continuing forward. It wouldn’t take him more than a moment to check it out. If someone was in trouble and looking for their dog, he figured it would be neighborly of him to offer them a hand. Dal frowned, turning back to walk through the alleyway, looking around curiously. The sound he had heard was beginning to sound less like a whistle and more like a violin or a flute. He walked further, finding the entrance to a parking garage, but no people.
Dal was beginning to think that he was just losing his mind when he heard something scrape against the ground. He looked down, finding the toe of his boot against a portable CD player. He crouched down, picking up the attached headphones and listening. Definitely a flute. But why was it just sitting there? He pressed ‘stop,’ looking around in confusion from his position on the ground. Weird.
Just as he was deciding to go and catch up with the others, something hard swung into his bicep with enough force to knock him over. Pain ricocheted up his shoulder and he grabbed at it, eyes watering – was it broken? He didn’t think it was broken. He hadn’t heard a crack. He didn’t think he had heard a crack. Had there been a crack? He caught himself on his elbows, injured arm raising up to defend himself as he made to sit up.
Something – no someone grabbed the front of his shirt, a terrible weight slammed into the side of his face. His back hit the ground again, his hands instinctively coming up to try and fight back. One of his arms was suddenly immobilized, and the other was hurting too much to be of much help. His vision started to clear, but what he suddenly recognized as a fist was suddenly crashing into his head again, twice in a row this time. His head bounced off the pavement, his eyes crossing as the world splitting into doubles.
He made a thin, weak sound, trying to find his bearings as a curious prodding pulled his mouth open. He grunted, trying unsuccessfully to turn his head while still trying to gather himself.
Something was in his mouth, and he made another sound that he wasn’t sure he heard properly, realizing belatedly that his eyes had closed. He cracked them open, finding the blinding sun above his head and recognizing the object that had been shoved into his mouth as a pair of… of…
No! He started thrashing as best he could, noting that whoever was sitting on his chest had pinned his forearms beneath their knees. He bucked, but it wasn’t useful since whoever the hell this was wasn’t sitting on his hips. He couldn’t breath right, and he gagged, turning his head back and forth in an effort to dislodge the pliers in his mouth. A second hand wrapped around a fistful of his hair and held his head against the pavement. He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t get in enough air.
The pliers clamped around a tooth in the back of his mouth and the weight on his chest lifted slightly, directing weight – and therefore pain – to his arms instead. He felt it when they started pulling, and pain pierced through his skull, his eyes widening and tears streaming out of them as he let out a long scream.
Nick glanced back to do a quick headcount and paused in his footsteps.
“Where’s Dal?” He asked, hoping he sounded less worried than he immediately was. They’d been off that boat less than twenty minutes and already the kid had disappeared. Ellis looked over his shoulder as well, blinking in confusion.
“‘E was ‘ere a minute ago,” the hick stated dumbly. Nick’s heart dropped into his stomach, very much against his will. Dal had a penchant for wandering off to take care of things and then somehow being unable to return immediately.
“Maybe it just wandered off,” Coach stated, his voice heavy and still holding much of the hostility from a couple hours ago.
“Dal wouldn’t just wander off.” Nick replied halfheartedly. The hostility itself wasn’t lost on Nick, but at that moment he wasn’t concerned with it. He looked around, searching for some sign of movement, when a piercing scream cut through the air. It was long and agonized and Nick’s heart stopped dead, his mouth going dry and his eyes widening in horror at the same time his lips parted in shock.
“Oh my God,” was all he said before he took off running, forgetting that there were other people with him. He knew that Ellis was hot on his heels, probably even paler than he was. The scream had cut off suddenly and he didn’t know why but it didn’t help. He slowed down slightly, looking at every storefront, down every side street, everywhere, when the screams started up again.
“W-what the hell’s-…?” Ellis didn’t finish his sentence and Nick didn’t want him to. He rounded a corner and froze, taking in what little he could see. Someone pinning down Dal efficiently, looked like the person was holding his head in place, something metal glinting in the sunlight.
Nick didn’t even hesitate. He sprinted forward, clasping his hands together and smashing them into the side of the bastard’s head. The guy hit the ground, pushing himself away from the assault with his hands as he rolled over to face his attacker. Behind him, Nick could hear Ellis dropping to the ground beside Dal. He stared at the person before him, his chest heaving and a familiar hate and rage boiling from the depths of his memories.
His older brother, Scott, blinked several times as he stood up, and grinned, “Nikki!”
His fist came up before he knew what was happening. It solidly connected with Scott’s jaw, sending his head swinging to the side, and Nick was suddenly upon him, hitting him over and over and over, his mind moving to a chilling place, his gaze steady. It wasn’t more than two hits in before Scott was fighting back, and in the back of his head Nick remembered Dal telling him how dangerous it was for him to be engaging in a fist fight, but at that moment he didn’t care. This worthless piece of trash… of course his brother was immune. Of course his brother would take full advantage of the lack of law enforcement during the zombie apocalypse. Of course Nick would run into him like this.
Of course, now he had no reason to not kill him.
“STOP! That’s enough!!” He paused, turning to look over at Rochelle, who was pointing her pistols at both of them. But he knew her well enough – she wouldn’t actually shoot him. Not in a hundred years.
“Ellis,” He said, his voice calmer than a placid lake, “There’s a store front across the street that looks safe enough. Take Dal over there.”
He didn’t want to look over at the kid and see the damage. No, that would send him into a frenzy of emotion and he needed to stay right where he was, in the frozen landscape that his mind had wandered to. Nick could hear Ellis coaxing Dal off the ground, heard their footsteps as they made their way back out of the alley.
“What? That yours?” Scott asked, his eyes wilder than his smile, “I woulda never pegged you for a pet-owner, Nikki.”
“He’s not a pet,” Nick stated calmly. His breathing was already evening out, and somewhere in the back of his head, he knew that he was headed to a dangerous place. Everything within him was frosted over, though. He didn’t care if this was a dangerous place to be in. It was perfect for the scenario.
“Wha-at?” His brother sounded disbelieving, “That’s not a pet? Bro, that’s one o’ them zombies. I know ’em when I see ’em. Why d’you think I was pullin’ his teeth? I’d’a taken his fingernails too, if you hadn’t interrupted me. Properly declaw the bitch, y’know?”
Nick didn’t move, just stared at Scott as he picked through the few ideas his imagination had presented to him.
I guess I’m gonna snap again.
“Ha, you’re pretty pissed, ain’tcha? You sure you wouldn’t call that ‘yours?’ I’ve never seen you so mad for someone else’s sake, Nikki.” Scott mocked, rolling his eyes dramatically. “You gone all soft on me’r somethin’?”
“You talk too much, Scott.” He finally said, voice calm, hollowed out, dead.
A gunshot split the air, closely followed by two separate shrieks – one of horror, the other of pain. Scott hit the ground, a bullet through his kneecap, eyes watering and face twisted up in pain and anger. Somewhere in the farther reaches of the universe, he could vaguely heard Coach yelling something. But Nick didn’t care at that moment, about much of anything.
He stepped over to his brother, crouching down and staring intently at his brother’s face, the barrel of his pistol pressing against Scott’s uninjured knee. His brother stared at him, eyes wide in disbelief and streaming tears of pain.
Nick pulled the trigger, and he wished on some deep, carnal level that he could’ve listened to the sound of the bullet tearing through flesh and bone. He didn’t take his eyes off Scott’s face as the older man let out a cry of agony, closely followed by a slew of colorful swear words. Nick stood back up, staring down at what would hopefully be a corpse in a good amount of time. He didn’t want Scott to be dead quickly – he wanted him to suffer. It was just too bad he wouldn’t be able to watch.
“Nick, what the hell are you doin’?!” Coach grabbed the lapels of Nick’s jacket, yanking the conman around to face him. The man was yelling something – probably morals-related – but Nick couldn’t really hear him over the sound of his own heart thudding in his ears. The blood rushing through his veins was noisy and drowned out the rest of the world, leaving room only for Scott spluttering on the ground by his feet.
Coach froze, eyes wide, when the tip of the pistol pressed threateningly into a spot just below his ribcage. Nick stared at him dully, unhesitating, unrelenting. He knew that even this idiot would be able to tell that his “teammate” wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him dead.
“Let go of me,” he said quietly. Coach slowly released his jacket, taking several steps back, eyes wide in disbelief and horror. Nick lowered the pistol back to his side, looking down at his brother once again. Scott had rolled onto his back, propping himself up on his elbows. His face was pale and drawn with pain.
“I’m going to call a horde here,” Nick stated coldly, “And they’re going to do the honors of tearing you to pieces, so I don’t have to get my hands dirty.”
Scott threw his head back and laughed and laughed, “I rubbed off you, didn’t I?”
“Not really, no.” Nick replied, taking aim at one of the cars in the nearby lot, “But you didn’t help.”
He fired twice, hitting his mark both times and setting off the alarm in one of the cars. Rochelle and Coach both made some very interesting noises, but Nick wasn’t listening. He didn’t care about them or what they thought of his actions. He couldn’t have expected a couple of idiots like them to understand anyway. They didn’t know what it meant to get your hands dirty. They didn’t know Scott. They didn’t know anything.
They wouldn’t kill Scott because of their stupid morals, but they couldn’t carry him either, especially not if they expected to escape the horde. New Orleans had a high population density. It wouldn’t be long before a couple hundred infected were swarming the area. He turned and started walking away, heading for the storefront he’d sent Ellis and Dal to.
“NIKKI! Nikki, you’re not just gonna leave me here! NIKKI! NIKKI!!” Scott screamed after him. The guy didn’t know anything about his younger brother. He didn’t know what Nick was actually capable of when he let himself go to that place. He didn’t really think that Nick would leave him behind like that.
Nick genuinely hoped that he wouldn’t die too quickly.
Ellis heard the car alarm go off, but he didn’t try to find out what had happened. Dal and he were in the storage room in the back, Dal leaning against the wall, mouth closed, cheek stuffed with gauze, and a hand pressed against his face. There was already noticeable swelling, and Ellis wasn’t sure what to do.
So, he sat next to Dal, arm around his shoulder, allowing the fifteen year-old to lean against him. He heard the front door of the store opening with a small chime from the bell, and glanced over at Dal.
“I gotta go see what’s up. Are ya’ gonna be okay by yourself?” Dal nodded mutely, shifting out of the way as Ellis pulled away, “I’ll send Nick back n’ stuff.”
Dal nodded again, and Ellis walked out to the main part of the store. Rochelle and Coach were breathing heavily over at a table towards the front of the bar, while Nick had taken a seat at the counter. The conman’s eyes looked dulled, his entire expression still and indifferent. Ellis’ heart dropped – Nick had snapped, evidently. That meant the car alarm…
“What happened?” Ellis gently asked, leaning over the counter in the hopes that he could pull Nick’s attention out of wherever it had gone.
The man slowly lifted his gaze to look at Ellis, who stared back at him unwaveringly, “Scott’s getting trampled to death outside.” Even his voice sounded empty. Like someone had taken Nick and emptied out all the contents onto the floor.
Ellis was on the verge of getting lost in thought when Nick suddenly asked, “Where’s Dal?”
The hick frowned, wondering if Nick was in any shape to see the damage. That guy had ripped out three teeth and left Dal in some kind of emotional shock. Ellis had gotten him cleaned up and had him pack his bleeding gums with gauze, but not a single tear had been shed once Nick had arrived on the scene and saved the day.
“He’s in th’ back,” Ellis replied. Nick nodded, but didn’t move. Ellis’ brow furrowed, confused – hadn’t Nick asked because he wanted to see the kid? It would’ve made sense if Nick had been in a normal state, but as he was, he probably hadn’t even thought of it yet. Rochelle and Coach looked like they were about ready to lose it on him, too. They needed to be separated.
“Nick,” he said, waiting for the man to look at him. When he did, Ellis continued, “You should go sit wit’ Dal. ‘E needs it.”
Nick stared at him mutely for a long moment before he nodded jerkily, standing up and walking around the counter to head into the back. Ellis let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He wondered if it made him a bad person to think that the guy who’d attacked Dal was getting what he deserved. Rochelle and Coach would probably think so.
He was sure that they were going to ask him questions any moment now. Ask him if he was alright with what Nick had done. Describe in terrible detail what had happened. And they were going to be disgusted with Ellis’ reaction.
“Do you even know what he did, out there?” Rochelle suddenly said, her voice wrecked, “He shot that guy in the knees and left him for dead.”
Ellis nodded, unwavering, “Yea, I figured it was somethin’ like that.”
Coach stared at him like he’d grown another head, “Are you seriously alright with him doin’ somethin’ like that, Ellis? To another human being?”
“Are ya’ seriously alright with that guy doin’ what he did?” Ellis asked in return, “He tore out three o’ Dal’s teeth. With pliers. Are you okay with that?”
Rochelle wrung her hands helplessly, “No, Ellis, that’s not even… that’s…”
A pit of anger started in his gut, “That’s not what, Ro?” He questioned, “A big deal? Somethin’ we should worry ’bout?”
“No!” She replied quickly, “God, Ellis, two wrong’s don’t make a right!”
“No, they don’t, but there’s also no use tryin’ ta’ change the past.” He retorted, “You ain’t gonna make me change my opinion about Nick, just because we got t’ witness him doin’ somethin’ terrible. He told us that he’d done terrible things before this mess even started and we weren’t gonna judge him for it then.”
“Ellis, that man just killed someone.” Coach said, his voice low and angry, “You’re tellin’ me you’re okay with that? How could you be okay with somethin’ that barbaric?”
The hick stared at Coach for a long time, “Are ya’ okay with what happened to Dal, Coach? Rochelle? Does that bother you at all?”
They both paused for a moment too long, “Ellis, we’re not-…”
“Naw, see, that’s all I needed from either of ya’. Ya’ don’t give two shit’s ’bout Dal, and now that he’s given you proof o’ what he can turn into when ‘e needs to, ya’ don’t give a shit ’bout Nick either. Ya’ll think I’m some kinda moron, but I ain’t. I’m smart enough t’ be able to choose the right side, at least.” He snapped, fists clenched angrily, rage coloring his words and disbelief aching in his chest. He couldn’t believe this. Coach and Rochelle both, throwing Nick under the bus like this, over something so… trivial, considering the circumstances of the rest of their world. They were all horrified by what Nick had done, calling it barbaric, but that bastard was getting off easy, because he was dead now. He was dead by Nick’s gruesome choice of murder, and therefore he could be considered a victim. They didn’t care about Dal or Nick, and now that the latter had shown his darkest possible side, they didn’t want anything to do with him.
“Ellis, sweetie,” Rochelle finally said, sounding hopeful and defeated at the same time. He bristled at the tone she took, suddenly irritated with the patronizing way she and Coach always seemed to talk to him. “I’m not going to stick around with Nick anymore. He’s… he’s dangerous. Him and that kid he’s been dragging around.”
Coach nodded in agreement, and she continued, “And I don’t think you should stick with him, either. He’ll only drag you down. He’ll probably get you killed, and for what? A Hunter?”
Ellis stopped then, eyes wide as he stared at the duo standing before him. Even after the deal with the speech board, even after all that had happened, they were still calling Dal a Hunter. And now they wanted to ditch Nick and Dal, all because Nick had decided that he wasn’t going to let anyone hurt the kid. Just like how Coach had said he wouldn’t let anyone or anything hurt or kill Rochelle. The only difference being that Nick actually meant what he said.
“You two…” He began, his voice catching his throat, “You two are awful. I don’t care what ya’ decide t’ do, or where you decide t’ go” He said, his voice raw and angry, his eyes showing his feelings of betrayal, “I’m stayin’ wit’ Nick and Dal. At least I’ll be able t’ sleep at night.”
Rochelle and Coach were dumbstruck. They obviously hadn’t expected him to be so stubborn. Either that or they hadn’t realized how fed up he was with them. He couldn’t believe how awful they were about Nick and Dal. He couldn’t believe how awful they had become. Rochelle and Coach had been great until Dal had come along, and then their group had been split clean down the middle. It had been a real “us against them” scenario, and Ellis couldn’t believe that neither of those two had it in them to just accept that Dal was a human being and Nick was willing to do whatever it took to protect the people he cared about.
“I sure hope ya’ll are gone by the time I come back out ‘ere,” Ellis said lowly, glaring at them with a cocktail of emotions he wasn’t accustomed to. “Who knows how much angrier I’ll be if I see ya’ again.”
Neither of them had said a word to the other. Which was fine, really, because Nick didn’t have anything to say and Dal’s entire jaw was probably too sore to move. Not that Dal could talk, but whatever.
He knew that the kid was in a world of pain, probably in some kind of emotional shock, and definitely needed any affectionate contact Nick could offer him. So, he had an arm around Dal’s shoulders, careful to keep his hand clear of the swollen side of his face. Dal was, in turn, leaning heavily against him, occasionally making quiet sounds of pain when the ache in his jaw flared up. Nick did his part by praying to God in his sweetest mental voice to send Scott to the deepest pit of Hell.
When he’d first walked in, he hadn’t known what to do. His brain had still been frozen solid, unwilling to thaw long enough to allow coherent thought. Dal had looked up at him, face mostly hidden by his mop of dark hair. Nick had just stood there, staring at him, able to see the way Dal was holding his cheek with one hand, seeing the bruises on his face, noticing the blood that stained the corner of his lips, and he hadn’t known what to say or think or feel or do.
So, after a moment of silence, he had sat down next to the boy and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and waited for the others to come in and tell them it was time to go.
He thought he had heard them talking, but it still seemed like everything was a bit farther away than it should have been. He wished he could see Dal’s face from his current angle, but at the same time he figured the kid probably wasn’t too keen on being stared at in his current condition. He wondered briefly if Rochelle and Coach were arguing with Ellis. They had seemed pretty upset with his choice of justice. He wouldn’t be surprised if they started calling for his execution. Neither of them probably realized that he would’ve done much the same thing if it had been another member of their party. They also didn’t realize that Scott was a genuine psychopath and had been one more or less since birth.
Well, there was nothing he could do to change their opinions anyway.
The door to the storeroom creaked open, and Nick looked up from the spot on the floor near his feet. Ellis walked into the room, hands shoved in his pockets, looking agitated. Had there been fighting? Must’ve been. It was a surprise, since Ellis had been adamant about not fighting anymore, but Nick supposed he must have been a bad influence on the poor guy.
He took a moment to recall how words worked, and asked, “What happened?”
Ellis looked up from the ground at him, and frowned deeply. After a beat, he replied, “Coach and Rochelle left. Well, they better’ve left.” He added under his breath, but Nick didn’t miss it.
“Why?” He asked, and the look Ellis gave him made feel like a moron for asking.
Nevertheless, the guy replied, “They didn’ wanna be hangin’ around you dangerous folk.”
Nick snorted at the sarcasm – Ellis in a bad mood was an Ellis he could probably get along with, actually. The revelation alone was hilarious to him. Ellis sat down on Dal’s other side, hands in his lap, knees crossed.
“What’re we gonna do, anyway? You got any destination in mind?” Ellis asked, never looking at him, “I mean, we can’t jus’ take Dal into a safe zone anyways, right? They’d rush ‘im to the labs.”
Nick nodded in agreement, “I was thinking about that, too. I dunno, El,” He concluded, using the nickname that Ellis didn’t like. “I guess we’ll just have to find some place to hole up until the infected all die off. Shouldn’t take too long, I think.”
Ellis didn’t reply. “Probably find some town with a Walmart that’s got a pretty low population.” Nick continued, “That should serve us until this mess is done and over with.”
“Do you think Dal’ll recover from it?” The hick asked, and Nick looked over at him, “I mean, do you think he’ll jus’ get better eventually? Like a reg’lar flu?”
It was actually a very thought-provoking question, and Nick didn’t have an answer for it. Dal shifted against him, adjusting himself until he was lying on his side, head resting on Nick’s thigh. He seemed inclined to want to sleep at that point, and the conman couldn’t blame him. He stared down at the kid’s head, hand now resting on his arm instead of his shoulder, and sighed heavily.
“I don’t know,” he replied quietly, leaning back and closing his eyes. “I hope so.”
If Ellis replied, Nick didn’t hear him. He fell asleep, uncomfortable and exhausted, finding room in his cluttered head to hope that Coach and Rochelle made it to safety in the end. They deserved to have that, just so long as they got it as far away from Nick as possible.