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Cassandra leaned against the back window of the truck, taking advantage of their stop to really stretch out her aches and pains. With how far they were from California, most of their day was spent on the road, covering as much ground as possible. And when cooped up in a vehicle for as long as she has been since she joined this group, only an idiot wouldn’t celebrate these infrequent breaks. The Apocalypse may be Hell on Earth but, as she gazes across the rolling green fields of Amish Country, Cassandra is sure she has found a little piece of Paradise.

As her slender fingers worked at a knot in her shoulder, Cassandra returned her attention to 10k. The roads were long and monotonous, so she had had to find something to do. And people watching had always been a favourite hobby of hers. The kid was the most entertaining of all her companions as she never really knew what was going on inside of that head of his. Like a puzzle she couldn’t quite fit together but found impossible to put down. He clearly was uncomfortable around groups of people yet chose to give up his lone wolf wanderings to travel with them to California. He was as curious about their other companions as she herself – always watching, soaking up any and all information made available – yet was reluctant to talk about himself, instead choosing to blend into the background. And he shied away from any unnecessary physical contact yet endeavoured to be close to Murphy, who insisted on touching the kid whenever he was within arm’s reach.

Murphy was another interesting creature. For one of the older members of the group, he certainly seemed like the least mature. Always demanding extra food and water, talking back at Warren, chiming in with vulgar jokes whenever he can… Hell, he even declared he should be the first to get to go during this bathroom break because ‘holding it in for too long can cause bladder problems, Warren, and do you want to explain to the fine doctors with the CDC that they can’t have their cure due to a UTI?’ Cassandra would chalk it up to the man just being a jerk if she hadn’t noticed him glancing at 10k during all of his tantrums. It’s like he’s a little boy trying to show off in front of the girl he likes. Which would be cute if he wasn’t a grown ass man. It was more than obvious to anyone with eyes – and enough boredom to watch – that Murphy was fond of the kid, but adults should know how to express themselves without resorting to such petty school yard tactics!

Kneeling at the end of the truck bed, 10k idly twirled the slingshot in his hands. He was as deadly with that thing as with the rifle resting next to him. Less powerful, but he claimed that the more abundant and oft reusable ammo had made it an indispensable weapon over the years. Doc had sung the slingshot’s praises, too. Apparently, the kid had used it to save the old man back at the Jersey Devil Refinery. It was an interesting weapon of choice, and certainly not one she would have thought to be as useful as it seemed to be. Maybe she could talk 10k into letting her try it out at some point…

The kid’s attention once more turned from Murphy, glancing instead at the two Zs that had been shambling slowly towards the truck since they pulled over. With their modest black jackets and simple straw hats, it was clear that these used to be Amish men. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. They were in Amish Country, after all…

It was unusual for the kid to leave such close Zs alive this long, as he often chose to take them out as soon as they were in killing distance, but it seems that protecting Murphy has quickly become his higher priority. The man in question was ducked down in the field, taking his sweet time while some of the others desperately held on until it was their turn with the toilet paper. And 10k had barely took his eyes off of him. Just a quick glance now and then, tracking the Amish Zs leisurely progress. And once he’d confirmed that they hadn’t yet gotten dangerously close, back to watching Murphy he went.

From beside her, Doc let out a gentle laugh. “At least we know the kid takes his job seriously… though those Zs are starting to get a little bit too close for comfort!”

Shaking her head, Cassandra shot the old man a grin as she slides down, taking a seat on the bed alongside him. “Yeah, Doc. That, or he’s trying to catch a glimpse…”

The old man met her smirk with a disapproving frown, scratching at his beard. This was a topic that had come up between them a few times now. Cassandra didn’t mean anything serious by it, instead taking her enjoyment from how protective Doc had quickly become of the kid. And as amicable as he tried to be, it was obvious to her that he was wary of 10k becoming too close to Murphy. Because Murphy was an ass, and Doc thought the kid naïve.

“You’re not still on about that whole ‘bet’ thing, are you? I thought we called it off. Not the kinda thing we should be gossiping about, anyway.” Leaning in close, Doc’s voice dropped low. “And look, even if the kid is… gay, which I don’t think he–”

“The bites, Doc. I was talking about Murphy’s bites. Don’t think 10k has seen them yet.” Despite the bubbling of laughter that escaped her lips, it was clear that Doc didn’t fully believe her. The old man was sharp! But 10k had managed to drag his attention away from his charge to stare at her, that insatiable curiosity back in his eyes. Well, she might as well try and use him to work her way out of Doc’s doghouse. “You haven’t, have you? Seen his zombie bites? They’re… really something.”

Brows creased, 10k’s head tilts to the side. He does that a lot. Almost like a disarming tactic while he tries to think of a suitable answer. Something that won’t give too much away. It’s kinda cute, though, like a puppy. Cassandra had always wanted a puppy. With a lick of his lips, the kid turns his attention back to Murphy once more. The man has obviously finished his business in the tall grass, now lighting a cigarette while making a beeline for the truck. The back of the truck. Where 10k is. No surprise there – Murphy has become a lot more predictable than the kid.

With Murphy safely back at his side, there was now nothing to distract 10k from finally killing those Zs. Two gears were fired in quick succession, clean hits taking the zombies down easy with a gross but satisfying ‘splorch’. Content smile tugging at the corners of 10k’s lips, he accepted the lit cigarette from the man. Taking a deep drag, the kid’s eyes lingered on Murphy, tracing down his abdomen. So, he hasn’t seen the bites, then. It certainly looks like he’s interested in peeking under the man’s shirt, though Cassandra isn’t sure the scars are the only reason.

Cigarette now back in his own hand, Murphy grimaced at the dead Zs before leaning against the side of the truck. Right next to 10k, of course. “Don’t even know why Garnett decided to come this way. No real towns for miles – civilised ones, anyway – so it’s not like he’ll be able to scrounge up some useful supplies. Especially for you, kid.” With his trademark teasing grin, Murphy leaned in closer to 10k, passing the cigarette back once more. “Unless you secretly have a penchant for long sleeve dresses, that is. Amish women aren’t exactly known for bearing arms.”

Cassandra had quickly realised that Murphy’s jokes were a fifty-fifty gamble where 10k was concerned. And judging by how the kid looked slightly too confused to be annoyed at this one, it was one of the many that flew straight over his head. Murphy still wanted praise for efforts, however, turning to seek out Doc’s approval instead. He didn’t get it. And honestly? She agrees with the old man on this one. As amusing as it was to watch their back and forth, and how insightful she had found the kid’s reactions to Murphy’s jabs and sexual innuendo, the last time the man had likened 10k to a girl hadn’t had the best outcome for him… Face now its usual blank mask, 10k silently offers the cigarette back, only to be waved off as Murphy sulks towards the front of the truck. “You’re no fun, the lot of ya…”

Finishing the last drag, 10k flicks the cigarette butt towards the dead Zs, hitting one in the side of the head. The kid’s accuracy really is uncanny… Plonking down roughly in the bed, 10k slips his slingshot back into his bag before stretching out his shoulders with a little groan. Seems Cassandra wasn’t the only one who gets sore from riding all day.

Rummaging through his bag once more, 10k pulled out a strip of leather and lay it over the edge of the bed. A knife was pulled from somewhere under his clothing, the blade dark and seemingly formed from a flat piece of metal. One edge had been sharpened; the end tapered to a point. The kid began running the knife along the leather, skilled in his movements as he flipped the blade over to alternate the side being worked. The ease at which he set about his task, likely honed over many hours of refining his tools, allowed 10k’s eyes to wander. To focus on something more taxing. To follow Murphy. Now, keeping his eye on his charge is one thing but Cassandra has had plenty of time to watch the kid. She isn’t blind, and she isn’t stupid. 10k has been able to hide from most of their companions, allowing his social awkwardness to muddy the waters in his favour, but how he always seems to orient him actions around Murphy is more than simply a desire for a job well done.

Maybe Murphy’s childish tactics have been more effective than the man was hoping for!

Beside her, Doc watches the kid from his reclined position, the crinkles around his eyes deeper than usual as his worry is etched into his skin. The old man likes 10k, that was plain to see. Even Warren had commented, asking Doc to make sure the kid will still be comfortable travelling with them after the… incident in Upper Darby. All in all, Doc was worried because he disapproved. Disapproved with how close Murphy was getting to the kid. Disapproved of how Murphy seemed to enjoy flaunting that the kid lets him near enough to touch. Disapproved of the jokes Murphy makes at 10k’s expense. And with the jokes, the ones about the kid’s sexuality irked the old man the most. A look always creeps into his eyes, pained and mournful. A look Cassandra recognises well. A look he gave her when she confessed to luring men to survive…

Does Doc think that the kid resorted to similar tactics in the name of survival?

Now, Cassandra knows the kid isn’t completely innocent – his kill count is enough to attest to that! – but sexually? She isn’t so sure. He certainly isn’t as naïve as he tries to seem, at least. The one thing she is positive about, though, is that no one would be able to make 10k do something that he didn’t want to do. And anyone who tried wouldn’t last long.

The kid is a hunter, after all.

“You know, take it from somebody who knows first-hand. Other than the fact that they find brains delicious, when it comes to zombies nobody knows nothing.” The brash tone of Murphy’s voice was more than adequate a warning that he was trudging his way back to the truck bed. He obviously wasn’t getting enough attention from the rest of the group. Or, at least, the kind of attention he was seeking. So of course, he comes bouncing back like a rubber ball, straight to the one person he knows won’t immediately call him on his bullshit.

Pressing up close to the side of the truck bed, Murphy tugs at light blue fabric, pulling the kid’s scarf back into place. 10k barely reacts to the man’s insistent wardrobe alterations anymore. He hasn’t even looked up from the leather strap, still sharpening away. To Cassandra, it seems like this has quickly become a little ritual between the two. Something that allows Murphy to check up on 10k without having to acknowledge what it is he’s really doing. Something that allows the man to keep up an air of petty shallowness instead of admitting he might care. And from the way he has started to relax into the touch, 10k himself doesn’t mind in the slightest.

Doc watches their little ritual with curiosity. It was obvious to them all that the old man desperately wanted to know how Murphy does it. How Murphy can pacify the kid so easily, so effortlessly. There was maybe a touch of jealously, too – 10k still shies away from Doc’s touch, a fact that clearly pains the old man. He had hidden his distress well, but Cassandra had noticed. And she’s pretty sure 10k has, too. Doc undoubtedly wanted to dote on the kid, to take him under his wing and protect him, a kitten rescued from a thunderstorm.

And Murphy? He was an ass about it. Nothing new there. Seeing the old man watching, he throws Doc a contemptuous smirk. Haughty. Mocking. It’s like it entertained the man to see Doc’s jealousy at his closeness to 10k. A trap the old man walked into every time.

Boys – they were useless, the lot of ‘em.

Doc pulled his eyes from the jerk behind 10k as he tried to find something – anything – he could use to draw the kid’s attention to himself. Motioning his hand towards the two dead Zs, he made his move. “You wanna know what I think? About the Zs, I mean? There ain’t nothing there. No thoughts, no memories. No soul. Nothin’.”

Ooh, good opening serve, Doc! 10k’s favourite subject! Wanting to help the old man out, if only to knock Murphy down a peg or two, Cassandra chimed in, trying to develop the conversation further. To keep it going until the kid felt comfortable joining in. “Well, they’re not dead. They want something.”

“Yeah. Brains.”

Pulling at his tattered black top, Murphy rubbed at his side, fingers pressing into the scarred flesh underneath. “Partial to a bit of rib, too.”

Murphy clearly wasn’t intending to hold back, staring Doc down as he spoke. His masterful return drew the kid’s curious gaze to his abdomen. 10k even licked his lips…

Feeling Doc start to slump beside her, Cassandra decided to help the old man out. He was at a serious disadvantage, what with Murphy appearing to be more the kid’s… type. “You can’t want something if you’re not conscious, if you don’t have a soul.”

“When my pa was wounded, he told me to tie him up before he turned.” 10k’s voice was soft, quiet. No one had expected him to speak up yet, to join in their little philosophical titter tatter. It’s likely the men’s vying for his attentions went straight over the kid’s head. But to freely offer up such personal information? To talk about his family? Even Murphy recognised the significance, shutting up without hesitation. “Made me promise to show him mercy when he died. Kill the brain, you now?” He runs his finger along the freshly sharpened blade, applying enough pressure to make Murphy wince behind him. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurt my pa, no matter what he’d become. I stared into his eyes for the longest time, just looking for some sign he was still in there.”

Cassandra wanted to move closer, to reach out and comfort him. But she knew it wasn’t a gesture he would accept. From her, at least. “Did you see anything?”

“Just an animal. Diseased. And suffering.”

Murphy had moved in closer, his face tight, jaw clenched. He wanted to comfort the kid, that much was plain to see, but he was now way out of his depth. Not knowing what else to do, he turned to Doc, his eyes pleading. For help in handling the situation. For support in soothing the kid’s pain. For guidance on how to actually play the role he has been competing with the old man to fill.

And Doc – loving, caring Doc – acquiesced. With a short nod, he cleared his throat, pulling the kid’s hollow gaze away from the knife. “What did you do?”

“I killed it. Like any other rabid animal.”

“Damn, kid. You had to put down your own dad?”

“Didn’t kill him. Killed it.”

Murphy’s grip on the side of the bed tightened, his knuckles a deathly white. Cassandra stared at him, her eyes drilling deep. Willing him to act. To touch the kid. To move his scarf, to squeeze his shoulder, to smooth down his hair. Something. Anything. He was the only one who could comfort the kid.

But he froze up. Did nothing.

Doc had winced at 10k’s blank stare, himself powerless to help. These men had both been competing over the kid’s attention. His affection. Trying to one up each other in their race to be the person 10k would choose to lean on. And neither of them knew how to support him when he needed it the most. Cassandra didn’t either, but what she did know was that this silence wasn’t the answer. This conversation couldn’t be left to end on that note. That sentiment isn’t the kind one should allow to hang in the air where it will stagnate. Fester. Poison the very lifeblood of their bonds.

She had to try something…

“But if it’s not alive, how did you kill it?”

He turned to her, the beginnings of confusion trickling onto his face. “It was alive. They all are. Just not human. That bit died.” 10k gently shakes his head as though it would dislodge something. Rid him of a thought, a memory, he’d rather no longer have. With another lick of his lips, the kid’s eyes drop once more to the dark knife. “Was my first kill.” His empty hand slides up into his scarf, teasing an opening into the folds of blue fabric. Twisting inside. Hiding underneath. “I always wish he knew, you know. Knew that I kept my promise. Knew that I’m…”

The kid moved away from them, then. Further into the corner, pressing as close to the cold metal as he could. As if it would yield under his pressure and encircle him. Envelop him. Embrace him.

Pale eyes stared blankly out over the fields, drifting along the perennial crops, long left unharvested. The truck engine groaned back to life as they peeled away from the roadside, their journey underway once more with little incidence. And even less consideration for what they may have left in their wake. Soon, the knife lay forgotten in the bed as a second hand wove its way into blue.

They were all silent. Watching him. Taking it all in. Unsure how to proceed.

Doc looks even more worried than he had earlier. More worried than Cassandra has ever seen him. She knows he cares for the kid – they all do – but Doc was a counsellor, was the one most equipped to help him. To look out for him. Stop him spiralling. But he needed the kid to talk to him more in order to know how best to approach his issues. Building the trust necessary for 10k to open up would take time, however. Doc has shown that he has the patience for the task so far: he has gotten the kid to speak a little more each day; to sit closer to them around the fire when they stop for the night. 10k still shies away from the old man’s gentle attempts at physical contact, but he’s getting better. It is obvious that the kid is trying, and Doc picked up on that quickly. Appreciates it.

Only Murphy has an easy time getting so close to 10k. Touching him, casual and unrestrained. Unchallenged. Cassandra had been curious about that. Curious enough to ask the kid about it. The excuse he had given was that he needs to be near Murphy in order to protect him. That he needs Murphy to trust him enough to rely upon him and go to him for help. But when she had pressed, when he had realised that she wasn’t going to buy his excuses – when she’d asked if he liked Murphy more than that… 10k had just stalked off, announcing the need for a perimeter check. Now, it may have just been the light – the rosy tint in the sky playing a trick on her, leading her see what she both did and did not want to – but Cassandra is sure that the kid’s cheeks had coloured, the flush delicate against his usual ivory tone.

The silence remained, though the thickness of the air began to diffuse, taking some of the tension with it. They didn’t need words, not this time. Not with their common goal. The intent behind the questioning glance Murphy threw between Doc and Cassandra was understood, loud and clear. At their return looks, a nod and a smile, Murphy slid ever so gently towards 10k, just enough to bring their young friend into reach. Pulling a battered pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket, the man lit up, taking a long, deep drag. Stretching his leg out, Murphy nudged at 10k’s knee with his foot.

For the first time since they set off, the kid turns from the rolling green fields of Amish Country. His pale eyes flit across Cassandra’s face, then Doc’s, before finally resting on Murphy. Seeing the man with his arm outstretched, 10k’s eyes softened.

The proffered cigarette was accepted with a smile.