A couple hours later, Nick was wondering. He felt that, while his initial reaction had been fairly exaggerated, it was completely justifiable. He could justify it further by thinking of reasonable comparisons; Batman waking up with the Joker treating his injuries; Al Qaeda offering to rebuild the Twin Towers; a serial murderer babysitting the child of the woman he’d just killed. Sure, they were pretty drastic comparisons, but it made him feel a little better about over-reacting.
But, had that been an over-reaction? What could be considered an exaggerated reaction, anymore? Was it reasonable or unreasonable to shoot a teammate in the foot after they accidentally shoot you? Was it a big deal or a little deal if you finally caught up to your wife of twenty-six years, only to find out that she’d been sleeping with your best friend in your absence? The whole situation was reminiscent of a poorly-made drama series. The kind that ended with everyone dying because the writers had no clue what else to do with the show by season three.
Sure, the situation had a dramatic twist added to it, but really, what was the big deal?
Of course, it wasn’t a question he really needed to ask or have answered. He knew what the big deal was. The big deal was that his new traveling companion was an zombie teenager. The big deal was that it hadn’t killed him.
Yet. He made sure to remind his brain that he had no reason to trust that this thing wouldn’t suddenly turn on him. Wasn’t that how rabies worked? Something about mood swings and hallucinations, right? It was perfectly sane for him to imagine that this Hunter might suddenly start seeing a giant, juicy Nick-steak and tear into him. Right?
It’d been two hours since they’d left. It’d been probably four to six hours since he had initially awakened in that cabin after the crash. The Hunter still hadn’t killed him, even in that long amount of time. The zombies weren’t supposed to be relatively stable individuals. Nick hadn’t seen any sign of the sociopath-style anger the creature had exhibited towards him back at the cabin. There hadn’t been any inconsistencies with its muted behavior. It just walked with him, in silence, bright green eyes darting around the area.
“This sucks,” he informed the trees around him. It was probable that the stupid Hunter didn’t even understand him. It turned towards him at the sound of his voice, but didn’t make any offer of a reply.
No, that’s not right, he thought, part of him disappointed and a little irritated at the revelation, he was perfectly responsive and engaged in “conversation” earlier. He does understand me.
That meant that he probably couldn’t get away with treating the kid like a dog and teaching him tricks like “fetch” and “kill that zombie.” In fact, if he was even going to expect the brat to not leave him for dead in the face of a horde, he’d need to find a way to make a peace offering. This wasn’t going to work in his favor if he didn’t have the kid on his side. Sure, it seemed fairly bent on following him around, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it’d protect him or watch out for him.
He smiled ever so slightly, suddenly feeling like he was playing catch with a time bomb. He needed to play his cards right. He was a conman – a gambler. He’d played Russian Roulette, he’d had poker tournaments with the mafia, he’d lied and cheated and stolen his way to get whatever he wanted. He’d been playing with fire since he was eight, and he’d never been caught in a con.
For some reason, the idea that he might get to play one last con brought a brightness and shine to his outlook on life. He’d always loved the feeling, the rush of danger and uncertainty. He could be confident, but he could never be sure.
He could make this work. This stupid kid wouldn’t know the difference between being helpful and being used. He could do this with his eyes closed and his hand tied behind his back.
This would work perfectly. He just needed to act; to pretend that he was warming up to the Hunter, that he’d begun to trust it. It was indeed a fine line to walk, but he could do it. It wouldn’t be hard. He’d been married twice on false pretenses. This would be a cakewalk.
He glanced over at the Hunter, who didn’t look up. He felt rather like a drug dealer at a playground – this Hunter couldn’t have been older than 17. But it was a dog-eat-dog world, and if he was going to survive, he needed to use every tool in his possession. This was something he needed to do, that was all.
He looked ahead again, his jaw set and his eyes straying to the Hunter that seemed somewhat desperate to keep him around. It didn’t matter what kind of life the Hunter had experienced up until now. Everyone had their skeletons.
It’s survival, he told himself. There’s no room for morality in survival.
This over-dressed bastard obviously thought he was an idiot.
Honestly, he couldn’t really blame anyone for making such a deduction. It wasn’t like he could talk to prove any theories wrong. The only thing he’d proven himself able to say was the first half of his given name – “Dal.”
However, with his senses apparently enhanced, little changes and ticks didn’t escape his knowledge. His companion had a concussion, likely sustained before his fall. He’d been unconscious when Dal had caught him, and the teenager hadn’t missed the blood that had congealed amongst his companion’s black hair.
The guy was trying to hide his headache and nausea, but he wasn’t succeeding. Every so often, in increasingly frequent intervals, he’d press his palm into his gut and grimace, or run a hand through his hair. He had considered suggesting they stop, but Dal hadn’t yet been able to figure out a pantomime to explain that particular thought.
The man beside him sighed agitatedly. Dal was considering attributing the temper to the concussion, but he didn’t know this person well enough to make that deduction. For all he knew, this guy was just an asshole by nature.
He glanced over at the man when he cleared his throat, looking a little green, “Do you even know where we’re going?” His voice was strained, words spoken around a tense jaw. He was trying not to throw up. Dal could imagine he would probably lose that battle. The Campbell’s had probably been a bad idea.
Dal nodded in reply to his question, turning his attention back to the landscape in front of them, steering his thoughts away from dangerously hostile sarcasm. It was easy to get angry anymore, though he wasn’t sure if just a newfound function of his personality or not.
He stopped when he noted that the second set of footsteps had disappeared from his hearing and turned around. His nauseous traveling partner was bracing himself on a tree, eyes slightly wide and fist digging into his gut. His grey-green eyes slowly closed, his posture relaxing slightly.
He looked like he was ready to start walking again, but Dal stepped over to him and leaned up against a nearby tree. The guy needed a break – that much was clear. He sank into a crouch, staring at the man expectantly. Slowly, the man moved to sit down on the forest floor, one hand still pressed against his stomach. That all by itself was a little weird. Either his companion was feeling worse than he was letting on, or he had decided that arguing was a pointless exercise. The prospect that this guy could be feeling worse was a little disturbing. His face was pale and covered in a sheen layer of sweat. The physical exertion wasn’t good for him.
Dal had, in his short time as a reckless fool, sustained three different concussions of varying degrees. The second had been the worst. He’d been laid up in bed for days, more or less unable to move and definitely not interested in trying.
The point was that Dal knew all about head injuries – he’d done his research. He knew that it was dangerous to be traveling with a head injury when there were crazies running around and the risk of a second injury was high. If he thought he could talk the guy into it, he’d be more than willing to carrying his companion – he had already noticed his increased strength, so he could probably handle sprinting with an extra 170-or-more pounds on his back. It’d be much faster, and probably safer if he didn’t run into anything or anyone. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough crude hand gestures at his disposal.
He considered for a brief moment the option of simply picking the guy up against his will and running anyway.
“How do you know where we’re going?” Dal looked up at the sound of the man’s voice, blinking past his hair. The man was staring at him, still looking fairly ill. He was probably trying to distract himself from the discomfort. The guy was lucky that there was a person around who was willing and able to tend to him while he was hurt and otherwise unwell.
Dal reached up and tapped his nose to indicate that he could still smell the hot metal and gasoline from the helicopter. It’d crashed not much farther from their current location, and had made an incredible racket and stench in the process. If he had to guess, there were probably going to be a little more than a few crazies wandering around the crash site.
The man didn’t say anything else. Dal cleared his throat, working his jaw carefully as he pointed to himself.
“Da-…al.” He managed, throat croaking around the syllables. He frowned and tried again, “Dal.”
The guy stared at him for a long moment with an odd look on his face, somewhere between disbelieving and confused.
“Dal?” He repeated, “What’s…? Is that your name?”
At least he’d figured it out quickly. That meant good things for his cognitive function. Dal nodded in response, offering a smile of acknowledgment.
“I’m Nick.” Was the relatively quiet, unhappy reply. Dal nodded, committing it to memory. They lapsed into silence once again.
“How long are we going to sit here?”
Dal looked up at him, thoughtful. The color was starting to return to his face, and overall he looked like he felt better. Dal shrugged, gesturing towards Nick and then to the wooded area around them. Nick stared for a long moment, obviously taking the time to process what, exactly, Dal was trying to say to him.
Slowly, the man stood up. Dal followed suit, glancing around and sniffing the air. No signs of life. To be honest, he was a little surprised that they hadn’t been attacked while they’d been sitting there. But, he supposed, not every day could be a Monday.
Dal had led them through a particularly decimated portion of forest, keeping a careful eye on him the entire time. They’d done no more than exchange brief pleasantries and find civility amongst themselves. He reminded himself endlessly that this was what his intention were; that it was a good thing that Dal seemed to be warming up to him rather quickly. He hated the idea that he was being looked after by this freak, but it was convenient to him and that was all that really mattered. But even though he reminded himself of that, he couldn’t help but wonder too much about the kid. Why was he so eager to have company? Why was did he seem like it didn’t matter to him that Nick treat him terribly?
He knew better than to let those thoughts corrupt, though. Wondering turned into caring faster than anyone could ever be prepared for. He disciplined his thoughts down a carefully constructed path made up of how much he hated his situation and why he hated Hunters in the first place. It was those kinds of reminders that kept him away from the dangerous land of curiosity and giving a damn.
For example, he told himself to think about how much it was pissing him off that Dal seemed too keen to watch out for him. The Hunter had one eye on him at all times, it seemed, like he was worried about something. Nick had gone through his nauseous episode earlier, sure, but other than that he was fine. His head hurt, but he’d also smashed it into a helicopter less than a day ago. Having a residual ache after a blow like that was normal. The actual damage wasn’t even that bad. He had a nice cut on the back of his head, and probably a bump and bruise.
He’d been clocked before. Sure, he’d never taken a baseball bat to the skull or anything, but it wasn’t like he’d never been hit upside the head before either. It wasn’t nearly as bad as this Hunter seemed to be making it out to be.
He glanced at the kid again for a brief moment. What kind of nonsense went through this brat’s head? It was hard to read the kid – his facial expressions didn’t always match up with the look in his eyes (on the occasions when Nick could see his eyes) and when he was expressing something, it was very slight and difficult to even notice. Whether that was a function of his illness or related to his actual personality, Nick couldn’t tell.
When they’d had their little altercation an hour or two ago, Dal had vocally expressed anger, and his eyes had burned with a fierceness that Nick hadn’t seen since his father had died. But, despite his physical assault and vocalizations, he hadn’t expressed much emotion at all. The only movement on his face had been when he looked like he was trying to work his jaw, but was snarling instead of talking.
Jesus Christ. What did you just say, Nick?
Uh… oh. Oh. Yes, yes, sorry. Not thinking about these things. Not doing it.
Dal led him over to a smashed bit of foliage and trees, crouching down and peering through and over the broken branches. He beckoned for Nick to crouch down and join him, his movements deliberate. Clearly, they were hiding. The conman carefully crawled over to the Hunter, peeking through the trees. There were seven Infected milling around the chopper – much less than he’d been expecting. Dal was sniffing the air, eyes scanning the area. Nick couldn’t pick up on the stench of a Boomer or a Smoker, so he had no idea what Dal was seemingly hiding them from.
He made to move slightly, but Dal’s hand shot out and grabbed his arm, squeezing tightly to keep him still. He froze, a lump moving into his throat. Something was wrong. He wasn’t so stupid that he’d jump to anger at the contact, nor was he blind enough to miss that something was pushing Dal dangerously close to fight or flight mode. Whatever the Hunter was picking up on, it wasn’t good news.
Nick just wished that he knew what the Hunter was hearing, or smelling, or seeing so he could help make a judgment call, or respond appropriately to any suggestions that Hunter might throw his way. He felt the Hunter shift slightly beside him, and adjusted himself silently when he felt the kid gently trying to tug him closer.
They stayed like that, in complete silence and hidden by the foliage around them, for probably ten minutes before Dal started to relax a bit. Nick softly let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, looking at the Hunter again. Dal was obviously concentrating hard, even though his face was startlingly blank, his eyes darting around the area, nose twitching as he took in every scent he could.
Finally, Dal shifted forward, pulling Nick with him. The conman allowed himself to be led, fully understanding that there was something more dangerous than a few zombies in the area. They were going to have to move through the area pretty fast. Dal seemed to be making calculations as he looked up and around the area, likely searching for route that would take them farthest from the bigger threat without slowing them down.
Somewhere in the back of his head, there was room for the conman to feel a certain amount of contempt at the situation. He was, without a doubt, relying on this Hunter’s skills to keep him safe. He couldn’t take care of himself in this situation. He couldn’t handle things on his own, like he was so used to do. He had to rely on Dal. He didn’t know how well this kid knew the area, or if he was any kind of a tracker, or anything about him. Sure, they’d found the helicopter, but that one was easy. Finding his group was another story.
Dal tugged him to the right and started moving. Nick followed after him, making sure to stay low to the ground. They crept around the smashed up area of the forestry, undetected by the Infected. Nick was slightly impressed with how quiet the two of them could be. Normally, he and the other three seemed to storm through areas like a pack of elephants. Then again, they were also usually armed with assault rifles and machetes.
It took probably ten minutes of crawling around the forest floor and hiding, but they made it to the other side of the helicopter-made clearing, and crept up behind the chopper itself to stay hidden. The zombies hadn’t yet noticed their presence, and Nick had to thank his lucky stars for that one. He made his way up to the chopper, peering inside. Dal was sniffing around the remaining artifacts – a sleeping bag that had been buckled down, and what looked like Ellis’ hat. That would be perfect to help with tracking – assuming for a moment that Dal was as much of a bloodhound as he had portrayed himself to be. He picked it up and handed it to the kid, who pocketed it in silence and without question. Nick had hoped he might find a pistol, or even a knife amongst the mess of twisted metal, but he had no such luck.
He heard a loud snarl, and his head shot up, eyes widening at the zombie running towards them, four others right behind him. Nick stumbled back, nearly tripping over his own feet. Dal stepped in front of him, growling lowly, but the Infected didn’t back off.
To be honest with himself, Nick had been expected a pounce-and-shred sort of situation, but that wasn’t what he saw. Dal reared back a fist and socked one of them in the face, the force of the blow smashing the skull into the metal around them. The Hunter grabbed a fistful of another woman’s hair and drove his knee into her face, crushing bone. The other three fell in similar fashions, all killed or otherwise taken out in a single hit.
That particularly style of movement reminded Nick of the kind of fighting he used to partake in – street brawls, bar fights, and the like. Had he done a lot of fighting in his life? Was he a regular brawler or just a punk who liked to start shit? Did he fight or did he just get the hell beaten out of him by the bigger kids? Had he been bullied, or had he done the bullying? Did his parents beat him, or was it a sibling who had taught him to fend for himself?
Not that it matters, he viciously reminded himself. The conman stood up slowly, ignoring the pulsing headache that was spreading through his skull. He took a moment to blink the vertigo out of his vision before turning his gaze on Dal. The Hunter was staring at him again with that blank look that didn’t match the weird glint in his green eyes.
The Hunter pointed to his left, poking at the hat in his pocket to indicate who he was referring to. Nick scowled at him, but it was mainly the pain that was putting him in a foul mood. He didn’t like hurting, but he supposed that was true for most people. His straying thoughts were also starting to bother him. Why was it so hard to keep himself in the “look out for number one” mindset anymore? His brain felt like it’d been scrambled around and replaced with something that was way too friendly for his lifestyle. He hated it.
“How can you be sure they went-… no, why the hell should I even trust you? I mean, sure you found the chopper, but you could be stringing me along just so I’d keep you company for all I know.” The words were tumbling out of his mouth in a mixture of paranoia and disbelief. How could this kid possibly trust him so much? Was this trust, or was it just plain desperation? Why would anyone ever allow someone like Nick into their life without some kind of bargaining chip or contract?
Dal had rescued him twice now, and seemed fully intent on looking out for him without expecting anything in return and it was not normal. In his head, it was wrong. People were supposed to look out for themselves. That was just what people did. They looked out for number one and used others to further their own goals. That was natural. That was just how the world worked.
The Hunter stared at him, head slightly tilted and lip pouting out in what Nick was beginning to feel certain was supposed to be a frown.
This kid kept not-smiling and not-frowning. His eyes would light up, and his cheek would spasm, but he wouldn’t smile. Sometimes his eyes would betray his unhappiness, and his jaw would slacken and his lower lip would poke out slightly, but he wouldn’t be frowning. All in all, it was making it harder to understand Dal when he was gesticulating and trying to make himself heard. He didn’t quite understand why the kid couldn’t just talk. It was probably rabies-related.
Nick could imagine the kinds of things Dal was thinking – why wouldn’t you trust me? What have I done to prove I’m not trustworthy? The conman himself was wracking his brain for a reason, a plausible reason for a person to behave like this towards him, but he couldn’t think of anything. No past experience could have ever prepared him for this ridiculous, unsolicited trust. What the hell was wrong with this child?
Finally, Dal shrugged. It was such a simple, stupid, non-committal reply. What the hell kind of answer was that supposed to be to a question like that? Nick had half a mind to start laughing. The kid knew that Nick was absolutely right. There wasn’t a reason for the conman to trust him, and there wasn’t even a reason for him to trust the conman. And it didn’t really seem to matter to the kid either way – Nick was his companion now. Trust was (apparently) not relevant.
“Fine, I’ll… go with it for now,” Nick finally conceded, frowning deeply at his decision, “Lead the way.”
Dal’s face was curiously blank for a long, long moment, before his expression twisted into a strange kind of grin – at least, Nick was relatively sure it was supposed to be a grin. The scars on his cheek twisted about and the corners of his mouth didn’t pull up (or down) at all. It looked like he was trying to smile but couldn’t actually feel his face. He stared at the kid for a long moment, brow furrowing at the bizarre expression. Dal’s “smile” relaxed back into his usual blankness and he turned and started walking, glancing over his shoulder briefly to make sure Nick was following him. The conman sighed, hoping he wouldn’t regret his decision. Maybe he wouldn’t kill Dal the moment he found a gun. The kid was useful and…
No, Nick didn’t like him, but Dal was entertaining.