The uncomfortable silence that he had spent nearly twenty minutes trying to break was shattered the second Nick locked the safe room door. He couldn’t even try to laugh off the tension anymore. Coach place his combat shotgun on the table heavily, Rochelle following his lead. Nick dumped his gun on the floor as he walked over to a different table and eyed an AK-47. The kid, Dal, found himself a seat on a wooden box near the door, glancing around the room with a neutral expression on his face. He was probably the only one who’s calm expression wasn’t a total lie.
Ellis stayed close to the door as well, his sniper leaning up against the wall by his legs. He didn’t want them to fight, and he didn’t even actually see why there needed to be fighting. Nick, Rochelle, and Coach often seemed to view him as sort of an idiot, but he knew exactly what they were on the verge of arguing about. Dal supposedly being a Hunter was apparently a problem, though Ellis didn’t see how. The kid wasn’t violent, he wasn’t dangerous, and he was most certainly nothing like the other infected.
“Nick,” Coach started, pausing as soon as he had spoken to consider his words. The man in question’s eyes fell on Coach like highly caustic acid, hands already clenching into dangerous fists. Really, if anyone was dangerous and violent, it was Nick, not Dal.
“Before you start patronizing me,” Nick cut in agitatedly, “I’d like to remind you that I’m old enough to make my own decisions, gramps. Hell, I even have a driver’s license.”
“I’m not going to spend the next several minutes trying to piss you off, Nick,” Coach replied coolly.
“You’ve already pissed me off,” was the heated answer. “You pissed me off thirty minutes ago when you found out that Dal’s not like the other kids. You pissed me off when you decided that there needed to be a conversation about something that doesn’t need to be discussed.”
“Doesn’t need to be-…! Nick, he’s a Hunter, for Christ’s sake!” Rochelle suddenly spoke, her voice an octave higher with indignation, “Did you hit your head hard enough to forget how dangerous those things are?”
Part of Ellis wanted to cover his ears and duck out of the room. Another part of him wanted to get into the argument and defend Nick and Dal. Then there was another part that didn’t want there to be fighting at all. He looked over at Dal, who was staring at Rochelle with wide eyes, though the rest of his face was blank. Ellis couldn’t tell if he was surprised or furious. Then he saw the shaking fists sitting in the boy’s lap.
“I’m not a Hunter!” He could picture the kid standing up suddenly and saying that, but he knew just as well as the others that Dal couldn’t talk. Still, that didn’t make it okay for them to be so obviously excluding him from the “discussion.”
“He’s not a Hunter!” Nick snarled, his voice rising in volume, “You think I don’t fucking know what a Hunter is, you stupid bitch? I don’t care who the hell you are, you call him that again and I will fucking shoot you!”
“Don’t you be talkin’ to her like that!” Coach exploded, his booming voice overwhelming the others, “Learn some manners! I’m just tryna to do what’s best for all of us, and you should damn well know that! There’s no need to be threatenin’ violence, Nick!”
“The best for all of us? You haven’t asked anyone’s opinion but your own!”
“Nick, please, you’re not even listening-…”
“Shut the fuck up, Rochelle!” Nick shouted, his fists shaking at his sides, “I’ve fucking heard you! You want him gone because you think he’s dangerous, when he’s obviously not! If you hadn’t found out he was maybe–infected, you would never have had a fucking problem with him!”
“It’s not a ‘maybe,’ Nick, he’s obviously infected, and up until now we’ve dealt with the infected one way, and only one way!”
“I swear to God, Coach, if you or anyone else even fucking tries to kill him, I will gun you down!!”
Very suddenly, Dal stood up. Ellis saw Rochelle flinch out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t take his gaze off Dal as the kid stalked over to the safe room door and jimmied the lock until it opened. Without so much as a sound, he wrenched the door open and stormed outside, not even bothering to pull it shut behind him.
“Still think he’s dangerous, you fucking cunts? He’s scary strong, but he hasn’t once tried to kill any of us, even though I’m sure he was as tempted as I am to just fucking beat you senseless-…”
Ellis didn’t want to hear any more, so he followed after Dal and ducked out of the safe room. He yanked it shut behind him, fully aware that the others were too busy screaming at each other to be bothered with it. He looked around only briefly before he spotted Dal, who was in the process of climbing up a tree. Ellis walked over to the trunk, looking up at the escaping kid.
“Permission to enter th’ tree!” He called up. Dal looked down at him, and Ellis wondered if the look on his face was withering or suspicious. Nevertheless, there was a curt nod before the kid continued climbing further. Ellis grinned – it’d been a few weeks since he’d last climbed up a tree, but he’d be damned if he’d let Dal make him look bad.
He started up, wishing briefly that he’d thought to wear sneakers when the apocalypse hit. At least they’d be lighter – his steel-toes added about two to four pounds per foot. Once he had his feet on the branches, though, lifting himself wasn’t a problem. Dal had picked a tree with smaller spacing between the branches, making it easier to climb.
It only took him a couple of minutes to find a comfortable spot a branch below the kid. The simple act of moving away from the safe room and climbing a tree seemed to have calmed Dal significantly. He still seemed tense, but that might’ve been because he didn’t know his tree-climbing companion yet. Perhaps he thought that Ellis was just keeping an eye on him. Ellis would have to find some way to dash that thought.
Or maybe not. Maybe they could just sit in companionable silence and separately marvel at the idea that Coach, Rochelle, and Nick could possibly think of fighting when the world had ended around them. He blew out a sigh, leaning against the bark behind him.
“I don’ see what the dang problem is,” he grumbled, mainly to himself. He tilted his head back so he could see the young man better. Dal was watching him carefully, and Ellis couldn’t tell if he was scowling or just concentrating very hard.
“So, I guess ya’ like Nick lots, huh?” He started talking, as he tended to do when there was nothing else happening, “I always thought he was kind’a jerk but maybe he’s jus’ been hidin’ his better qualities. Savin’ ’em for someone special.”
Dal snorted, shaking his head in what looked to be disbelief, “Wha-at? You got a better theory?” Ellis teased, “Maybe he jus’ really likes you.”
The look on the kid’s face was enough to make Ellis burst out laughing, though he covered his mouth to avoid attracting unwanted attention, “Y’don’t make much expressions, but when ya’ do… Aw, man, you’re great. You jus’ tell it all with one look, ya’ do.”
They fell into silence once again, and all at once the voices in the safe room escalated to a shrieking crescendo. Ellis couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, but they were loud. They’d attract a horde at this rate.
“Man, maybe I oughta go down there n’ shut ’em up before-…” Ellis trailed off into silence, a familiar sort of rumbling sound reaching his senses. “Ya’ feel that?” He looked over at Dal, who’s wide eyes and still body told the tale all by itself.
There was a Tank coming.
“Shi-it…” He muttered, “I gotta… I gotta go and shut ’em up…” He moved to start down the tree but a hand grabbed him, stopping him completely as he turned to look at Dal. The Hunter was staring down at the field below them as the shaking in the branches became more evident. He noted suddenly that the others in the safe room had already fallen silent. They were probably hunched up against the wall by now, waiting for the Tank to go away.
But, it seemed, it was a little late for the Tank to get distracted. Ellis watched in horror as it thumped across the field, in search of the noisemakers. There weren’t any infected around to catch its attention either – they tended to steer clear of Tanks just as much as non-infected persons, it seemed. The huge beast walked right up to the walls of the safe room, pacing back and forth in front of it, snorting and grunting quietly.
It stopped in front of the safe room door, rocking back and forth on its fists. Then, with a rumbling snarl, it lifted its fists and smashed them through the walls around the door. The heavy red down fell with a crash and the Tank continued smashing through the wood.
“W-we gotta do-… Dal?!” The kid was already halfway down the tree, and Ellis wanted to follow him but he could tell that he just wasn’t as fast. He started down anyway, though, his pace slower as he waited. If Dal was going to catch that thing’s attention and then run, Ellis was going to have to be fast about getting the others to chase after him.
Dal grabbed the first object his saw when he hit the ground – a heavy rock. He ran around behind the Beast, the open field behind him, and threw it. Then he grabbed another rock by his feet and threw that, letting out a yell as he did so. The Beast turned suddenly, letting out a mighty roar as it faced him, and Dal took off to his right, a light jog at first to make sure he would be followed, and once he was certain of it, he took off. He leaped over the fence separating what appeared to be someone’s grazing pasture, and headed into the trees.
He didn’t want to lose the Beast just yet – if he did, it might go back to what it had originally been doing. So, he didn’t work very hard to put distance between them, instead opting for the easier paths and choosing to find a path around obstacles rather than doing the easy thing and going over them.
Dal ran for five minutes straight, the Beast’s closing the distance between them slowly, even as he started trying to put space between them. If he didn’t get space between them, it was going to be hard to disappear from the Beast’s sight and loop around back to the others. He was going to have to find some other way to do this.
The sound of rushing water reached him two seconds before he almost ran off a short cliff into huge river. Shit! He didn’t have time to muster the courage he would need to jump into this water, and he’d probably get swept away by it anyway. He didn’t have time to plot out a different route, either, so he would have to go up, instead.
He grabbed the nearest tree branch and hauled himself up, and he knew the Beast had seen him start up the tree because it didn’t run into the river. He was halfway to the height he wanted to be at when the tree suddenly jerked, nearly throwing him off the branches. He looked down at the Tank just in time to see it punch the trunk again. Another jarring tremor lost him his footing for a second, but he didn’t let it slow him down. He gripped every branch with increasing strength, pausing when he felt the shaking start again.
Finally, he reached the height he was comfortable with. He didn’t want to be in a tree this close to the edge of the river, though. He looked around, searching for some branches that he might be able to reach when another heavy shake wracked the tree. This one, however, was closely followed by a horrible cracking sound. Dal’s eyes widened as he turned back to the trunk of the tree and wrapped his arms around it tightly.
He held on for dear life as the tree pitched to the side, falling over the river. If it wasn’t for the wetness of the swamps that enabled for a more malleable wood, he would likely have been lost to the waters. But, lucky for him, the tree didn’t go into the river. Instead, it stopped, hovering dangerously over the waters, barely attached to the remaining stump. Dal slowly loosened his grip on the tree, turning to look over his shoulder at the Beast. It was pacing back and forth at the water’s edge, uncertain about flailing into the water to chase after him.
Dal swallowed – this river would definitely be deep enough and the current strong enough to take the thing away, but he needed to get it into the water first. Grabbing one of the branches beside him, he straightened up, watching the Beast carefully. He hollered at it to get it’s attention away from the water, and the thing roared back at him, but didn’t move.
He reached for the machete that Nick had holstered to his waist earlier, before they’d reached the safe room.
“You should have something besides your fists to kill with.”
“You’re giving i-… him a weapon?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
He ignored the swell of anger in his chest and pulled the huge knife out of his holster, rearing back and throwing it. It embedded itself in the Beast’s shoulder, and the thing let out a mighty yell of pain before smashing its fists into the ground and plunging into the water. It probably made it two steps before the current took hold, and Dal watched, his heart hammering in his throat, as the Beast was washed away by the waters.
The tree he was standing on shuddered and twisted, and then suddenly started losing its grip with the stump. He made it only a few steps before the tree separated completely from the stump and started to sink into the water. He would have to jump, and even then he might not make it. It had to be a twenty foot distance, but he had to try.
Cursing his luck with all his might, Dal jumped. Correction: Dal jumped.
His eyes widened when he realized that, not only was he going to make it, he was going to make it with change. He tried to brace himself for landing, but there was no real way that he could. He would have to duck into a roll, but on this terrain, that was going to be dangerous.
He cursed his luck further as the balls of his feet hit the ground, his center of gravity continuing forward as he pushed into a roll. Pain ricocheted through his arm and back as he landed on his bad shoulder, rolling several times on his side before coming to a stop. The pain was immobilizing, but he couldn’t stay here. He had to get up and go back to the others – they would have a hard time finding him.
Dal took in a great, shuddering breath and rolled onto his good shoulder, using his elbow to push himself up. His other arm was wrapped around his midsection as he stood up, stumbling slightly. His legs were shaking from a mixture of fatigue and adrenaline.
He started walking back the way he had come, surprised at the obviousness of his trail. The Beast had left a real wreckage behind him. Maybe it wouldn’t be hard for the others to find him, after all.
There were crazies wandering out of the wood works, looking at him with what almost seemed like wariness. They were sniffing the air, growling and chuffing and shuffling their feet, looking for the noisemakers and not finding any. They didn’t seem inclined to bother Dal when he was quiet and alone.
“He’s obviously infected!”
“Just get rid of him!!”
He took a shuddering breath and exhaled on a quiet sob. His shoulder really hurt. He wanted to grab at it and potentially rip it off, it hurt so bad. He hadn’t realized how bad it was evidently injured until now.
His vision was blurring with tears. The pain was shooting down his arm and through his back. He had no idea why this was so painful, but he wished it would stop. He stumbled over to a tree and leaned up against it, his head bowed and his entire body stiff with tension. He couldn’t stop. He needed to get back.
“Dal?” He heard Nick’s voice call to him, and he lifted his head to see the four people headed towards him. Nick and Ellis were leading the group, and both looked like they’d been run over by a steamroller of stress. Dal couldn’t even bring himself to smile, but he managed to reply weakly.
“Da-al.” Nick was upon him as soon as he knew that Dal was well enough to speak, his eyes blazing.
“Fuck Christ, Dal, stop running off like that! I’m gonna die of a heart attack because of you!”
His heart swelled painfully, and the tears were flowing. He bowed his head, taking in a shuddering breath as he absorbed what Nick had said. Nick had been worried about him. Normally, he was sure, people would feel bad about making others worry, but Dal couldn’t. He couldn’t summon those emotions because he was just so happy that Nick had been worried. That Nick had thought of him. That Nick had come looking for him.
He choked on a sob, his arm flaring up again, but it wasn’t as bad. Maybe it was because he wasn’t moving it, or maybe his joy was drowning out the pain. He had no idea.
“Y-…” Nick stopped in his tirade, “Are you okay?”
He wanted to burst into hysterics and hug Nick and sob about how much it meant to him that someone cared, but right then he didn’t have either the energy or the vocal prowess for it. In response to Nick’s question, he shook his head ‘no,’ pulling himself away from the tree and reaching over to grab tightly to his bicep. His shoulder hurt.
Nick seemed to be briefly at a loss for words, but it didn’t last more than a second. He felt that calloused, heavy hand fall on his good shoulder and steer him around, “C’mon, I left like everything back in the not-so-safe room.” They started walking, Nick carefully guiding Dal along. The distance back to the not-so-safe room wasn’t far, only a couple of minutes of strenuous walking.
They reached the edge of the small fields, and Nick was all business, “Go with Ellis over to that house,” he pointed to a building with blue walls and a tired looking porch, “I’ll be right over with the rest of the supplies.”
Coach and Rochelle were quiet, but looked unhappy about Dal surviving his first encounter with one of those things. He had a feeling he understood – sort of – why Nick had gotten so angry at them. Dal had gotten upset too, but not nearly furious enough to warrant threats of violence. His anger was directed at them referring to him as a Hunter. He wasn’t one of those Grudge-things. He wasn’t, and he didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that. The rest of it was… hurtful, but not infuriating.
Ellis led the way into the the relatively well-preserved house, finding a moth eaten couch and settling Dal on it. The kid didn’t want to take off his hoodie – that was going to require arm movement, but he knew he would have to. He could wait until Nick came back.
“Ellis?” The man in question turned at the sound of Rochelle’s voice, stepping over to the window she was posted by.
“Yea?” He responded in his good-natured tone, “What’s up?”
“What do you think about…” She probably gestured towards him at that point, but Dal didn’t have the wherewithal to glare at her.
Ellis replied good-naturedly, “I like ‘im.”
Once Nick had finished treating the very infected wound in Dal’s shoulder, they started off. The kid had a mild fever, but with an anti-pyretic and the allowance of a thirty minute nap for everyone, Dal looked and probably felt much better. He and the kid were currently leading the expedition through the small village. They were scavenging through each building, looking for supplies, of which they found plenty. Ellis was charged with carrying with second backpack they came across and stuffed with supplies.
Nick wasn’t sure what to make of his new feelings towards Ellis. The hick was, at the very least, to be considered a “good guy” because of his alliance with Team Dal. But that didn’t change the fact that he was annoying. Still, though… Team Dal.
Ellis seemed to genuinely like Dal, even though it was obvious that the guy didn’t understand him as easily as Nick (sometimes) did. But it was good that Ellis wasn’t afraid of him or anything. Well, Ellis didn’t appear to be afraid of anything so that wasn’t really saying very much.
They crossed through a plantation house, peering around in the dilapidated structure. It had obviously been in the process of being fixed up, but the project had evidently been left unfinished. Nick led the way through the house, flashlight off. The others always seemed inclined to use as much light as possible, but Nick, fresh leader of the group (apparently), had demanded that flashlights be left off and guns be used sparingly. Coach probably thought it was to avoid an “accidental kill shot,” and Nick knew that nothing he said would change the old bastard’s mind. So he let it be. As long as Coach didn’t start actively trying to go against “the rules,” Nick didn’t care what he thought.
It still sort of pissed him off, though.
They walked out to the other side of the plantation house. A couple of infected rushed towards them. Nick and Dal instinctively stepped forward. Dal punched the first infected hard enough to break its nose, and Nick came up behind it as soon as it was on the ground and fluidly broke its neck. Another was upon him as he was committing his hourly act of murder, but Dal swiftly smashed the woman’s skull with a solid punch to the side of the head. The third and fourth were slashed open cleanly by Dal’s newly acquired hunting knife – a replacement for the machete he lost. All in all, the four infected fell without any hitches and without any loud as hell gunfire.
Nick straightened up, tugging on the hem of his jacket to re-situate it on his person. He glanced back at the rest of his party – Rochelle looked mortified, Coach looked startled, Ellis…
“Shit, man!” The young man exclaimed, “That was awesome! Gosh, Nick, since when’re you so cool?”
The glare on Nick’s face withered to nothing at the sight of Ellis’ genuine excitement, “Where’d you learn t’fight like that? Were you in that mafia’re somethin’?”
“No, I’m not mafia, you moron.” Nick retorted with a weak scowl. He wanted to smile or laugh at the compliment, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to be really nice to any of them. Which was ridiculous, by the way. “I’m a con-artist, Ellis. Shit happens, people die.”
“Wow, so you’ve killed people before the apocalypse hit?” Ellis’ amazement was somewhere between disturbing and elating. Nick suddenly felt like a popular movie star or something. Like Samuel L. Jackson or Nicholas Cage.
Nick paused, his brow furrowed as something kicked him in the stomach. Something like nausea. He turned his gaze away from Ellis’ face – Ellis’ stupid, excitable puppy face that he wanted punch.
His reply was quiet, “I killed a few people before… this, yeah.” He clenched his fists, anger suddenly boiling up past the nausea. He turned back to Ellis, who looked a little deflated at Nick’s reply. He had probably been kidding, “And I’m gonna kill you in a minute if you don’t stop talking.” He snapped.
Ellis’ smile vanished, and he nodded mutely, sinking into his shoulders apologetically. He wanted to apologize (almost), but Nick chose not to. It was best if people understood when they were standing on nerves and sore spots. And Ellis was so dense, he need all the instruction he could get.
Something was tugging on his sleeve and he looked down at Dal, who met his gaze evenly.
The kid pointed to a sort of exit from the property that led out to the river. It was mostly destroyed now, but he could see that there had probably been boats and such there at one point. He glanced back at Dal, confused at the gesturing. The kid sighed heavily and started walking towards the opened gates, Nick following him and the others followed Nick.
“What’s it doing?” Rochelle asked unabashedly, “Do you think it’s seeing something?”
“What, like hallucinatin’?” Ellis asked in confusion, “Naw, I don’t think so. I think ‘e heard somethin’.”
“I dunno, El,” Rochelle replied, her voice quiet, “I thought those things hallucinate, and that’s why they’re violent and stuff…”
Nick was decidedly ignoring them, but there was a boiling rage in the pit of his stomach that was telling him to shoot her. He shoved a hand into his pocket, running his fingers over the package of cigarettes he’d picked up. Now, if only he had a lighter. He looked up at where Dal had stopped, and blinked, before a smirk grew on his face.
Hallucinating? No, Dal had heard a damn radio.
“‘Eeelloooo? Thi’is Virgil! Issere anyone at that there plantation, cause I’mma think I sees you!”
Nick stared at the ancient machinery for a moment before he found himself gently poking and prodding to get a feel for how it worked. Ellis stepped over to him, picking up what was probably some kind of receiver and handed it to him.
“Jus’ press that button and he’ll hear you,” the young man instructed, “It’s already all set up, actually.”
Nick gave him a look before taking the receiver, “Hello?” he greeted uncertainly, “Any chance you’re headed west?”
“Well ay-looo there! Yessir, I’mma shufflin’ folks down stream to New Orleans from ‘ere. You want me ta’ come over n’ pick yous up?”
“If you could, yeah.”
“Alrighty, folks, gimme just a few minutes, me n’ m’girl’ll be right over!”
“Uh, thanks. We’ll be waiting.”
Nick handed the receiver to Ellis, who put it back on its holder for him. A few minutes, huh? He blew out a sigh. He didn’t really want to be standing around aimlessly with Rochelle and Coach. He was sure it was only a matter of time before he had to punch one of them.
“D’you think Virgil will let us on with a Hunter?” Coach asked suddenly, and Nick had to actually refrain from turning on his heel and socking the man in the face.
“Probably not, so it’s a good thing we don’t have a Hunter with us,” Nick spat venomously, “He might not let us bring your corpse on board though, so you ought to watch you damn tongue.”
“Guys…” Ellis spoke up, his voice half-pleading. Nick huffed angrily, turning his attention back to the waters. Dal stepped over to stand close to him and tugged gently on his sleeve. The conman looked down at him, unable to mask or push away his anger enough to not scowl at the kid.
But Dal didn’t look upset by the scowling, or anything like that. He didn’t look surprised or hurt or anything by the conversation that had just taken place. He just looked at Nick, his face blank and his gaze quiet and still. But still, there was a light that was shining in his eyes, like a beam of happiness and joy that didn’t fit with the situation. Nick couldn’t place it, he didn’t understand it at all. This wasn’t the first time Dal had looked at him like that, either.
He sighed heavily, “I wish you could talk,” he muttered softly. Dal nodded in agreement, and then they broke eye contact, both looking back to the water.
“They’re sort of right though,” He continued, a little louder, “Here, come here.” Dal turned to him, and Nick took his hoodie off, tying it around his waist. Then, with Ellis’ permission, he put the hick’s hat on Dal’s head to block out the sunlight. He allowed Dal to keep his hair in his face, though.
“If anyone asks, he was mauled by an infected.” Nick announced, tightening the hoodie around Dal’s waist.
Ellis nodded in agreement, “I’ll back you up, Nick, don’ worry.”
“You’re not the one I’m worried about,” Nick grumbled, straightening up, “You look a lot smaller without that hoodie on.”
Dal punched him lightly in the arm, and Nick couldn’t help but chuckle, “Like a deflated balloon, really.” That earned him an expressionless glare, and Nick smirked in reply to it.
When Ellis glanced back at Rochelle and Coach, hopeful that they were at least a little in on the fun, the grin on his face disappeared. Part of Nick was infuriated by that, but there was another part of him that just wasn’t surprised. It was, apparently, just how things were going to be. It was unfair and stupid and infuriating, but there wasn’t anything Nick could do to change their minds.
The fact that the two of them were so hung-up on his appearance was infuriating. Part of Nick understood where they were coming from with their bias against Dal, but that same part of him didn’t understand why they couldn’t get over that and see that Dal wasn’t a Hunter. He was an abnormal case. He wasn’t dangerous. He wasn’t violent. He wasn’t a risk factor. He was just a kid.
It was ironic, but Rochelle and Coach just couldn’t see past the hoodie.