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Sunny days suck.

Doesn’t matter what time of year it is. I can’t feel the cold or the heat or whatever Mother Nature is dishing out that day, so it isn’t like the sun’s going to help warm me up or anything. But that isn’t the problem. It’s just… sunny days are so bright. So cheery. So full of fucking life.

Sunny days are a reminder of everything I don’t have anymore. So yeah, I hate them, as much as I can hate anything. I wander around feeling pretty detached these days. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Don’t feel anything too strongly, and I won’t get just how fucked up the world is. Or how completely unnatural I am.

Being dead really changes how you look at things.

Wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, well, hey, what do you expect? I was pretty distractible when I was alive. At least, I think I was. Totally guessing here, ‘cause really, I don’t remember much from before. Doesn’t matter. Nothing much does. I go along, minding my own business, wandering around day in, day out. No real routine. Maybe I should change that. Maybe I’d care more if I had a schedule, something to motivate me.

But other than dealing with the Hunger when it hits, there isn’t a lot for a guy in my state of being to look forward to, y’know?

Or maybe you don’t.

So yeah, I’m dead. A zombie, or corpse, or, if you’re being politically correct, one of the Infected. Doesn’t matter what you call me, because it doesn’t change the fact that most of the city, hell for all I know, most of the freaking world, is full of people sticking around even when we’re supposed to be six feet under. No idea how. Or why. I don’t even know how I died, or how I lived before that. Job? Zip. Family? Not a clue.

I do remember my name, though, which is more than a lot of the Infected around me can say. Moan. Grunt. Whatever. It’s Ray. My name, that is. Pleased to meet you.

Here, let me show you around. Not like I have anything better to do. But hey, maybe keeping busy is what’s keeping me here. That is something I want. I know, makes no sense. I’m dead, I should go into the light or whatever. But I’m pretty sure that for my kind, there is no light. Darkness, however, that we have plenty of. And if you let it get into you too deep, you become one of Them. The Skels. You know who I mean – the skeletons. And yes, I know the name is really obvious, but hey, brain not running on all cylinders, remember? Anyhow, they’re angry, mindless, mean, and always Hungry. It isn’t pretty, and much as being a zombie sucks, I’d rather be like this than like Them.

They give me the creeps.

So yeah, I avoid them when I can. We all do, because sometimes, if they get Hungry enough, they don’t care if what they eat is alive or dead.

Luckily, the Skels aren’t that hard to keep away from. I mean, it isn’t like they’re sneaky, or even know how to plan attacks; it’s all instinct. Plus, nobody goes too far from their home turf. Again, don’t know why and don’t really care. Maybe it’s territorial, maybe it’s the closest thing to feeling like we have a home. Fuck, maybe we’re too brain dead to know how to find our way out of the area we died in.

Never was big on travel anyhow. Or maybe I was. But I don’t think so.

Here’s where I spend most of my time. Yeah, it’s kind of run down, but the neighbors are quiet, and crime’s at an all-time low.

What, just because I’m dead I can’t be funny?

I even have a place of my own. Nothing big, but I don’t need much. Used to be a record store, so I have plenty of entertainment choices when I want to play something. I like it, the way the songs can speak for me, say all the words I still have in my head, but can’t get out of my mouth. Not that there’s anyone to listen, but still. It’s good, keeps me connected to the world.

The speakers here are big enough you can hear the music from the street if I crank the volume. Sometimes I get a crowd, standing outside the store, staring vacantly at the window and swaying. The way they move doesn’t look in any way like it’s associated with the actual beat of the song, but they seem to appreciate it, even if they have no rhythm. I wonder sometimes what they’re hearing, if it means the same thing to them as it does to me.

Or maybe they’re all just attracted to the noise and hoping there will be a real person attached, an easy meal.

Anyhow, so yeah, plenty of tunes of all types for me to choose from. Not that I can read the labels anymore, but I can remember them by picture, kind of. I set aside the ones I like best, series of stacks throughout the store all based on how the songs make me feel.

Beyond the front area there’s a decent-sized storeroom in the back. That space is mine and mine alone; I never let anyone back there. I tend to collect junk when I’m out (hey, all I have is time, what else am I gonna do?), so it’s good to have a safe place to keep it. Part of the room I converted into a living space. Heh. Living. Took me awhile, but I moved around a bunch of boxes, turned some into tables, made some open space, drug in a couple of chairs. Found a couple of lamps, some strings of lights in funny shapes (the chili peppers are my favorite, all bright and blood red). Even put up some paintings I found. Nothing fancy from the museums, but pretty, lots of color and life, mostly abstracts. I have a couple of posters too. Found ‘em at what must have been a travel agency. Beaches at sunset, the Northern Lights over the snow… Sometimes they piss me off, seeing places I’ll never go, a life I no longer have. But I think even when I hate them I need them, because they make me feel something.

I have a jambox back here for when I don’t want to share my mood. It’s quieter stuff, some of it sad, some hopeful. Lots of it is instrumental. I can spend hours just listening, trying to find meaning in the arrangement of notes, or just letting it all wash over me. Like the art, sometimes it makes me feel a little better; other times it reminds me of the things out of my reach.

So yeah, this is home, I guess. I like it. Nobody bothers me here. You’d think a city this big would be full of us, any maybe parts of it are, but it’s pretty deserted in this neck of the woods. Maybe even zombies have standards, want to move up in the world.

More likely they’ve moved on, pack mentality in high gear, looking for food. If I was a follower-type, I’d probably be with them. But being more of a loner suits me, and I’m betting it always has.

So I stay here. I have shelter, and there’s a park just down the block. Like most of the city, at least what I’ve seen of it, it’s been picked pretty clean, but sometimes there’s a squirrel, or a duck or something. Not my first choice – they’re more junk food than anything that will actually sustain me - but there are times you’re Hungry enough anything moving looks good. And if tufts of fur in my teeth put some space between me like this and me ripping off my own skin and going Skel, I’ll do it. It’s a small price to pay.

Like I said before, anything that keeps me from that is a good thing.

Man, the sky sure is clear today, cloudless and vibrant blue. Usually, days this bright make me want to hide in the back of my store until nightfall. For some reason, today is different. I feel odd, like I’ve been cooped up too long or something. I can’t explain it, even to myself. But it makes me not want to hang around the store. I wonder if it’s just me, feeling this way. Maybe. Probably. But it wouldn’t hurt to go find out. Plus, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen V.

V? He’s one of my friends. Fine, only friend, singular. He doesn’t remember much about his life either, not even his name – V is the best I could get from him. He mostly hangs around the coffee place a few blocks over, sitting at the counter and looking at the machine like it’s got all of life’s answers. Pretty sure it doesn’t, but watching it passes the time. Sometimes he and I even have conversations. Nothing deep, or even recognizable as language, probably. Moans, grunts, that kind of thing. A word here and there, if nothing else gets the point across.

It’s impressive how much griping he can do without saying a word. Seriously, if bitching was competitive sport, V would be the grand champion, the snarky bastard.

We’re a pretty unlikely pair, him in his fancy suit and tie, only a little bloodied, me in jeans, a t-shirt and shit-kicker boots. Him smooth, the bald thing working in his favor since bathing stopped being a Thing We Do. In that respect I haven’t done as well. My scruffy dark-blond hair was experimental when I was alive; it’s a rat’s nest now. Literally once, when I lost track of time and found myself face down in an alley after who knows how long.

Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. I should go, see what’s going on.

********

V is, to my complete lack of surprise, at the coffee shop.

Looks like he wants something; better go see before he gets snippy.

“Hhhhhh,” V says, his brow furrowing as he concentrates. Okay, guess we’re having a real talk today. I’ll just wait, see where he’s going with it.

“Hhhhuuungrrry,” he finally gets out, soft and mostly an exhale.

I think about it and nod; not really Hungry, but I could go for a bite and if nothing else, maybe it’ll help he shake this weird restlessness. Okay, so here’s the hard part, getting out an actual answer. I know what I want to say, just have to convince a body that mostly ignores me to do what I want. I carefully form the word in my head, then with my mouth. “Mmmmuuseum?”

He shakes his head and makes a cutting motion with his hand. I see his point; that’s across town. I could make it, but if he’s already feeling pangs, it’s probably too far.

“Mmm-malll?” he counters. I nod again and stand. If nothing else, maybe I’ll find something nice for my place. There’s still some empty space to fill.

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Forty Seven

The sun has risen, bright and beautiful. I’m taking it as a good omen. I’ll be going out today, hunting for much-needed supplies. The nearest hospital is a bit of distance on foot, and nearer the heart of the city, which means more chances of coming upon the Infected, or worse, the skeletons. We’ll have to go slowly, especially once we’re gotten the medicines we need, so the trip may take more than a day. It will be a small party, as there aren’t a lot of us to spare. Maggie was supposed to come along, but sprained her ankle training yesterday. I’d never tell her this, but I’m glad she isn’t coming. She hasn’t been the same since she lost Casey. I fear for what she’d do, the risks she might take.

As for myself, I’m excited; I honestly didn’t think Father would let me go, despite the fact that I’m as well-trained as anyone here. Better than most, truth be told. Since Mother’s death, he’s changed. Before, he wanted me independent, worthy of the Fraser name. Now, he tries to both keep a tight rein on me and keep me at a distance. I understand his grief, but if he doesn’t loosen his hold I fear I will end up strangled by it.

Thankfully, Buck intervened on my behalf, his words reaching my father in a way mine could not. I owe him a debt.

Diefenbaker is as eager as I am to go out, I think. Neither of us slept well last night. The prospect of time away from the campus is too exciting. I haven’t been beyond our borders in months, and even time in the forest near the campus is no longer satisfactory. I need to see for myself what the city has become. Is it overrun? Is anyone left alive? We’ve certainly seen a fair number of Infected here, and a few skeletons as well, with their shriveled and blackened skin, hollowed, eyeless faces, and sharp gnashing teeth. So yes, I’m excited, but apprehensive and a little afraid as well. It would be a deadly mistake not to be.

The time to gather is almost upon us. I need to re-check my weapons and equipment again before going out.

I will make my father proud today.

#####################

Sigh. Looks like this is turning into a party. This always happens. It’s like the others can sense when we’re going to find something to eat. Or maybe they’re lonely. Or like those rat-things that jump off cliffs, one after another. I don’t know. I was hoping this time it’d just be V and I. Not because I want to be alone with him or anything – not the kind of friends we are, thank you very much – but it’s just a lot easier to hunt if there’s less of us. Groups are noisier, harder to control.

Of course, on the plus side, if we find someone and they’re armed, more targets helps our chances of survival. So V and I share a glance, and come to the mutual agreement not to ditch the group.

It’s a pretty good distance from home to the mall. We pick up a few more strays along the way, and lose a few as they lose interest and wander off. Or maybe see something they recognize and try to chase after the memory. Good luck to them, in either case.

We take the main streets, weaving between abandoned and crashed cars, stepping over dropped purses and briefcases, the occasional body. Not everyone who dies gets back up again. V spots a Skel near one of the cars, and the sound of crunching bone rings clearly over the faint moans of the Infected in the area. Other than that, it’s mostly silent. We give the Skels a wide berth – better safe than sorry – as we move along.

We don’t make it to the mall; V veers off course partway there. The others follow him blindly, but I’m curious as to why the change in plans. I make my way over to him to ask, but figure it out as soon as I’m close. The focus on his face is unmistakable; he’s caught a scent. I take a deep breath. Nothing. V must’ve seen me try. He nods his head toward the right. I try again, closing my eyes and concentrating hard as I can… there. He’s right. There’s prey in that direction.

I open my eyes and nod; he gives me a smug look but I don’t hassle him about it. He’s got one of the best noses around; he can pick up the scent of a Human from distances I didn’t know were possible. It’s part of why I like hanging out with him.

********

We find them in a hospital, rifling through the shelves. Supply run, then. Kind of funny – that’s what we’re doing too. We aren’t the only ones who found them. There’s a trail of freshly-killed Infected we follow to find them. We don’t sneak, as that’s not really possible for us anymore. More like shuffle through the world, sort of trying not to bang into things when we can remember not to. I mean, it doesn’t hurt or anything, and wounds don’t stop us, but they can slow us down, especially if they shatter a bone.

Besides, a group this size is hard to hide. Hopefully the ones before us depleted their ammunition, maybe wore the group out. It’d be greatness if this was an easy hunt. We haven’t been in here long, but I’m already itching to get out. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I don’t like hospitals. I mean, if whatever caused this whole zombie apocalypse was some kind of virus, either docs created it, or couldn’t stop it. Either way, Hospitals equal Not Good. Plus, there’s the smell – disinfectant mixed with disease. Probably that isn’t really there anymore. Doesn’t matter: I still smell it when we walk through the doors.

The smell of food is stronger, though, and it’s a big motivator. It speeds us up, gives us strength, so we’re moving pretty fast when we burst in on the group. Fortunately for us, it looks like we outnumber them. Unfortunately, they’re organized. We surprise them, but they aren’t as panicked as I’d like. And at least one of them has a gun that still has ammo.

Like I said before, this is where traveling in packs comes in handy. There’s more targets for them to have to deal with, so better chances we’re gonna get through and snag at least one good meal. Most of us anyhow. One of the guys in front of me takes a headshot; I get knocked to the side by his falling body.

From there I lose track of everything but the closest prey. Lucky me, the guy panics, and I’m on him in a flash. In a few bites, it’s over. I try to do that – take them out quick. No need to have them suffer, y’know? Plus, if they aren’t struggling, it’s easier to get to the best part – the brain. Skulls are pretty hard, but I’ve had practice figuring out how to crack them open. Not going to lie –it isn’t pretty. But it works, and I’ve gotten my hand in, reaching for the good stuff when a shot rings out.

I look up, and everything changes.

I see the woman who took the shot taken down, two or three of us on her, gun useless in her twitching fingers. I can’t explain what happens next. It makes zero sense, even to me, and I’m the one doing it. All I know is, there’s something about the guy in front of me, the one she must have been trying to protect. It’s like he calls to me, and my gut says to answer, that he’s important. So I pocket the bits of brain I managed to scoop out and make my way over, slow and careful. I don’t want to spook him any more than he already is.

Huh. Didn’t know he had a knife. Hit me in the chest hard enough to knock me back a little, but since it wasn’t a head shot, it didn’t do any good. I ignore it and keep moving, trying to keep a watch on what’s going on around me. If someone else gets to this man first, I think I’d hurt them, V included. The thought stuns me more than the knife hit had and I stumble. Guy must think he’s hurt me; he looks like he’s getting ready to try and make a grab for the gun.

There’s too many of us; he’ll never make it. I speed up, shoving him back into the wall and then down to the floor. The look on his face is a mix of fear and anger. I’m almost hypnotized by the endless colors of blue in his eyes, even more by the sheer depth of emotion in them. I wish I could feel something, anything, like that again.

His gaze casts briefly to the knife still embedded in my chest. I pull it out and toss it aside, out of reach. The goo that oozes out of the wound smells of death and decay, the opposite of the man in front of me. It gives me an idea… a terrible, brilliant idea. I reach down, gathering up a handful of the stuff seeping out of me, then reach out and smear it on the man’s face. His eyes are wide as my hand comes closer, and he starts to open his mouth. I put a finger over my lips, hissing out a breathless, “Shhhh.” Touching his skin send a jolt through me like a shot to the chest. I’ve never, in my admittedly crappy memory, felt anything like it. Don’t know if the guy felt anything, but I can see confusion replace some of the fear as I work.

You and me both, buddy. I have no explanation for why I’m doing any of this.

I get more gunk and wipe it on his neck and shirt. The rich smell of life fades, masked by my gore. Even close as I am, I can’t tell he’s alive, not by scent. I nod, satisfied. He still looks ready to bolt, so I lean in close, holding his gaze and trying to tell him with a look just how important it is that he does what I say.

I can tell it’s not enough, so I take a deep breath, willing the words to make their way from my brain to my mouth. “D-donnn’t mmmooove.” He looks like he’s going to protest, so I add, “ Keeeeeep you s-s-safe.”

I seriously doubt he believes me and honestly, I don’t blame him. I mean, after all, he’s pretty much my main source of food, plus I have the blood of one of his friends on my lips. But he stays still, so I count it as a win.

We stay there, neither of us moving, until my group starts leaving the hospital. I figure we’ll follow but lag behind. Most of them wouldn’t notice we’ve picked up someone new, but V is sharp, and I have no idea how Hungry he still is. I can’t speak to the man any more, not without getting V’s attention, but I try my best with quiet grunts and gestures to let him know he needs to fake being a zombie.

His brow furrows as he watches me, then his eyes widen again and he nods slowly. I get up, holding out a hand to help him. He gapes at it and stands on his own. I shrug; just trying to help, buddy.

He moves way too stiff at first. It looks ridiculous, and a strange sensation bubbles up in my throat as I watch him, making me cough. I shake it off and try to show him how to move; he catches on quick and pretty soon he’s got the Zombie Shuffle down pat.

When we’re close enough to my neighborhood that I’m sure I can get us there without trouble, I start to break off from the group, and gesture for the man to follow me. He frowns, then quickly remembers to keep a blank look on his face. He doesn’t follow. I gesture again; he shakes his head.

I want to grab his arm and drag him along, but that would be a bad move all around. Instead, I stumble over to him, close as I can get, and risk whispering, “Safe.”

He tilts his head toward the people shambling ahead of us and raises his eyebrow. He’d make a great zombie, I think; he’s got non-verbal communication down pat.

I shake my head and point my chin the direction I want us to go. “Safe. Safer.” He still doesn’t change where he’s going. I see V slowing down at the front of the group, and decide to risk one more word. “Please.”

I think I surprised him. He darts his gaze from the group to me, then repeats the move before finally, finally turning in the direction I want us to go.

We shamble side by side off toward home. I can feel V’s eyes on me as we leave, but just wave an arm in a vague good-bye without looking back. I know I’m gonna have to deal with him, but not now.

********

Once I’m sure it’s just the two of us, I find a safe place to stop, hidden from sight by a recessed entryway, because you know what? I’m risking a lot here, and I don’t even know this guy’s name, and for whatever reason, that bugs me. He looks ready to fight or bolt, so I get right to the point, but I take it slow. Not like I have much choice – talking is definitely not my strong suit.

I slap the back of my hand against his chest, then wait. He doesn’t get it, so I do it again, taking the effort to add, “You?”

He blinks; I’ve surprised him again. “Oh! You can’t mean, that is you don’t want to know my name, do you?” I nod. “This is unbelievable. I’ve likely got a hole in my bag of marbles as big as Chicago, introducing myself, but it’s Benton. Benton Fraser.”

I turn the name over in my head, trying to figure out which part, if any, I’ll be able to say. “B-b-b,” I stammer, cutting myself off with a growl. Maybe his last name will be easier. “F-frraser,” I rasp, and a look of wonder crosses his face. I stand taller and try again. “Fraser,” I say, happy at how much better it sounds the second time. My turn now, I guess.

“Rrr,” I start, then push through. Why are names hard? “Rrray,” I finally get out, putting a hand to my chest, then put my other hand out, a vague inkling that it’s what I’m supposed to do.

Fraser gapes at it a second or two before taking it, movements slow and cautious. He gives it a quick shake before dropping it like touching me would Infect him. News flash – if the gunk I spread all over his face didn’t do it, a handshake is probably safe. But I can’t complain (even if I could), because he didn’t have to touch me at all. “Hello, Ray.”

Okay, so now we know each other’s name. It makes me feel… I don’t know. Good, I guess? Satisfied? Whatever. Introductions out of the way, I start walking again, staying next to Fraser both to protect him and make sure he doesn’t try to run. There aren’t a lot of Infected that call the particular neighborhood home, but there are enough of us around he’d have trouble getting very far. Plus, it’s starting to get dark. No real trouble for me – eyesight isn’t the only sense I use to hunt, but it makes traveling a lot more dangerous for Humans like Fraser.

Now that I don’t have to worry as much about getting caught, I take the time to look him over as we walk. I’d feel bad about it, but I’m pretty sure he’s doing the same thing, trying to figure me out just like I’m trying to understand him.

I can’t remember what’s normal, so maybe he’s tall, maybe he isn’t. He doesn’t seem to be much different in height than me, for whatever that’s worth. His eyes are blue and full of intelligence. And I don’t think I think that just because the company I keep isn’t too big on brainpower. He’s keeping a careful watch on me, and scanning the area as we go. Maybe trying to remember our route, maybe just keeping a lookout for more of my kind. Either reason’s a smart one.

He isn’t too thin or dirty, so wherever it is he calls home, things must not be desperately bad. His jacket and boots look worn, but not worn through, and his jeans and shirt (at least what I can see of it) are free of rips or holes.

I wonder what he’s thinking when he looks at me. I catch a glimpse of myself as we pass by a window. Ouch. Sorry I looked. Oh man, I’m such a mess. Didn’t realize just how dirty this shirt was, even before the knife hit, and I’m not even going to mention my face or hair. Gonna have to do something about that when we get to the store. Good thing there’s a supply of t-shirts. Hopefully the jeans and boots aren’t too caked in gore. I try to stamp my feet a little harder as we walk, to shake some of it off.

********

We make it to the store without running into any Skels, which was my only real worry. Well, other than Fraser trying to make a break for it before, but keeping with the group must’ve helped convince him to stick close by me. Plus, I’m pretty sure he’s in shock; he’s pale and his eyes aren’t as focused as they were. And it’s been a long time since I had to, so I can’t say for sure, but his breathing seems off somehow.

Fraser follows me inside, taking in everything around us. I kind of want to show him around, but now isn’t the time. I need to get him someplace safe. I lead him through the store and into my space, no hesitation, even though I’ve never had anyone back here before, not even V. I gesture for him to go through; he stops and I think he’s gonna fight me on it, then his shoulders slump and he walks through the door. I grab a black shirt off the rack and follow him, first tugging off my hoodie, then stripping off the ruined shirt I’d been wearing and leaving it in a soggy heap on the floor. The jacket I pick back up. It’s not too gross, I don’t think, plus there’s some important stuff in the pockets I don’t want to lose.

Fraser’s standing in the center of the room when I get there, watching the entrance carefully, body tense. He doesn’t trust me. Fair enough, but I want him to, more than I’ve wanted anything in a long time. I see that he’s staring at my chest and look down at the wound he gave me, black with ooze. I pull the new shirt on quickly, or try to; in my rush to cover up I forget to drop my jacket first. I manage to tangle myself up for a few seconds. When I finally get my head through to see him still watching, lips pressed firmly together as if he’s trying to hold something back. I get my annoyingly clumsy arms through the holes and tug the shirt down, then grab my hoodie and put it back on, staring at the floor.

I have no idea what I’m feeling, but I don’t think I like it. Except, in that stupid mess he could have tried to leave. Or kill me. And he didn’t. The realization that he hasn’t tried anything bad makes the other feeling fade fast. Because that’s good, isn’t it?

Fraser still doesn’t look quite right. Maybe he’s tired; it was a long walk, and he’s had a hell of a day. We both have. I wave a hand toward the chairs. He needs to rest.

He looks in the direction of the chairs, but instead of going over to them stands up straighter, hands behind his back. He takes a deep breath, blinks once and then asks, “Are you going to eat me? Is that why you brought me here, to save for later?”

I shake my head violently. “Not eat.” I’d love to be able to convince him I don’t see him as food. But since I have no idea why I’ve taken him out of the food category, I stick with what I told him earlier. “Ke-ep you s-safffe,” I say firmly.

He watches me for a long time. “I can’t explain it, but I think you actually mean that,” he finally says, and I nod, glad he’s finally figuring it out.

“But you realize I can’t stay,” he goes on, and any happiness I’d started to feel leaves as quick as it came. Something must show on my face; he makes an effort to catch my eye. “Even if you mean me no harm, everyone else out there does. There’s no place for me here. I can’t stay,” he repeats, more firmly.

What do I do? I don’t want him to leave. He’s important. I can feel it. I rack my brain for something to say. “F-few more daysss,” is what comes out of my mouth. It sounds good, so I say it again. “Few m-more days. Then it – it-” I struggle, but can’t get the words out. I haven’t spoken this much in as far back as I can remember.

“It will be safe to leave?” he finishes, and I nod gratefully.

I can see him considering the idea, and all I can do is wait. Please please please let him agree.

“All right,” he finally decides, and if I could, I think I’d jump for joy. As it is, I feel my lips stretch and curl upward. I put a hand to my face, trying to figure out what’s happening.

I think… it’s been so long, but I think I’m smiling. I’m not sure how it looks; he’s making an odd face, almost like he’s in pain. I take my hand away and it’s sticky, still covered in bits of blood and gore. I duck my head, embarrassed (that’s what I was feeling earlier, I realize) that I’d forgotten about that. Probably a good thing the new shirt I picked was black – it hides a lot.

Fraser goes to sit, and if I still breathed, I’m sure I’d sigh in relief. I take the other chair, flopping into it and watching Fraser. Staring at him, I realize, and inwardly scold myself. Staring isn’t cool. I look away for a second, but can’t help but look back.

“I don’t,” he says, rubbing his eyebrow with his thumb. “I don’t know what you want from me. Why did you bring me here?” He swallows, and when he speaks again, he sounds lost. “Why am I still alive?”

I shrug. I have no idea what to say. What do I want? Why did I spare him? I just don’t know.

“There has to be a reason,” he insists.

He’s right. Wish I knew what it was. “Im-por-tant,” I finally say, then shrug again before he can ask me what I meant by that.

Fraser looks like he wants to say more, but just sighs heavily and slumps back in the chair. “I suppose, no matter the reason, I should thank you for well, for not killing or Infecting me.”

“You’re w-welcome,” I say with a fleeting grin that barely scratches the surface of how his gratitude makes me feel.

I think my reply startled him; he gives me a strange look, then looks around. “What is this place?”

“Hommme.”

He eyes me, then the pictures I have around the room, the makeshift table. I wonder what he thinks of the place. Probably it just looks like piles of junk to him. I scowl at the thought that to a Human, this place is probably just a bunch of trash.

But it’s Fraser’s turn to surprise me. “It looks like you’ve made a real effort with it,” he says. “Or did you find it this way?”

I pat my chest.

“I didn’t think you - any of the Infected - would care about any of this,” he says, indicating the chairs and art. I get up and walk over to my favorite, a photo of a couple walking along a beach at sunset. It’s too dark to make out faces, but they’re walking close and holding hands.

“Ni-ice,” I tell Fraser. It’s incredibly inadequate, but I don’t have the words to tell him why I like it. Why I did any of this. I don’t have the words for anything, and for the first time in a long while, it really bugs me.

“Yes. It is,” he replies softly. I turn to see him watching me from the chair. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I see less fear. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. Whatever. He isn’t trying to leave or kill me – I’ll take it.

Not knowing what else to do, I sit back down. Fraser closes his eyes, though he’s still sitting up pretty straight in the chair. But he’s starting to slouch back because, of course, Ray, you idiot, he’s tired. He isn’t a corpse like you – he needs to sleep. I get up to leave him to it, too quickly I guess, as it startles him, body rigid and eyes wide. I wave a hand so he stays seated, and he leans back again, less relaxed than he was before.

I see him shiver and wonder if he’s cold. If he is, I can help. I shuffle over to my stash of boxes and flip open the lids, pushing around until I find what I’m looking for. Wiping my hands clean as best I can, I grab it and take it to Fraser, who’s been watching me the whole time. I frown at him, then hold out my treasure. It’s a blanket, bright yellows and cheery blues and greens. I saw it in a store window one day a long time ago, and decided I liked it. I think it reminded me of spring, or the sky. I put it away when I started to hate those things.

Fraser takes it from me and wraps it around him. It looks… cozy, I think is the word. I’m glad I had it. Maybe this is why I never got rid of it.

I reach out and pat him on the shoulder. It’s supposed to be friendly, but I must hit harder than I think I do; he flinches at the contact.

Then I get an idea. I fumble through the CDs by my jambox until I find the one I want. It’s all wordless, quiet stuff that makes me feel calm, maybe even a little at peace when I listen to it. I put it in and push Play, nodding as soft music fills the space. Satisfied, I drag the other chair so it’s near the door. “Sleep,” I tell Fraser, hoping he understand the meaning; I’ll keep watch. He’ll be safe.

He watches me, nodding once I’m in place. That look of wonder is back on his face. “What are you?” he whispers. I don’t know if he meant me to hear, but I shrug anyhow, then turn to watch the door.

He doesn’t go right to sleep, instead pulling something from his coat pocket. A book and pen. He starts scribbling in it. I wonder what he’s writing. Maybe if I ask, he’ll read it to me.

Maybe I shouldn’t ask. Maybe it’s better not to know.

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Forty Seven - supplemental

I don’t know if anyone will ever read this. I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this night alive.

I feel as if I don’t know anything anymore.

I am in the middle of the city, in the back room of a music store. A store that is apparently the home of a man named Ray. He is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He’s Infected, of that there is no doubt. I hit him squarely in the chest with my hunting knife, and he barely flinched. He doesn’t breathe, or bleed. His eyes are gray and lifeless, and his skin is far too pale.

But he isn’t mindless. He thinks, he plans. He communicates. Mostly through body language, but he can speak. And I think, perhaps, he feels. He saved my life, deliberately. Why would he do that? To save me for later? He said that wasn’t the reason, and I believe him, though I can’t explain why. It doesn’t make sense.

Neither does why I’m here. I should have overpowered him, bashed his brain in, ended his miserable existence, and made my escape. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Because he isn’t what he should be. He isn’t an it, a thing. I don’t know what he is, but he’s not a brain-dead, soulless killing machine.

He brought me to his home, and there’s no doubt that’s what it is. There is an area set aside that reminds me of a living room, chairs and a table, the latter crudely made from boxes. He put on a CD I think is meant to soothe me, help me sleep. And there’s art hung haphazardly on the walls, and boxes and boxes of things I think he collected. Perhaps he means to add me to his collection.

He’s… impossible. And yet, he exists. But his very existence begs the question:

What else might we have been wrong about?

#####################

Once I’m sure Fraser’s asleep, I reach into the pocket of my hoodie and pull out a piece of brain that I’d saved. They’re the best part; everything that makes a person who and what they are is in the brain. And somehow, eating it lets me access all that temporarily. And not just access it – experience it, like the memory was mine all along.

For us zombies, that’s a pretty tempting treat. I mean, we lose some of who we are when we die, then more as time goes on. Dreams, wishes, desires… all slip through our fingers like sand. Is it any wonder we do what we do to get some of that back, even if it isn’t really ours to begin with?

I get myself settled and take a bite. The images start rushing in immediately, sparks of light and life filling my head, I close my eyes; everything I want to see is inside my head, so I won’t need them open.

As always, it’s a crapshoot as to what I’m gonna get. There’s never any rhyme or reason, and normally, I don’t care. It just feels so good to feel, even if it’s something bad that happened. This time, though, I’m hoping for something specific, something that will tell me more about Fraser. I wonder what this guy was to him; I hope they weren’t too close. I would hate it if I’d eaten his best friend. That kind of thing’s hard to forgive.

The memories keep flashing by, moving too fast for me to grab onto, spinning and swirling until they finally coalesce into an image I’m surprised to recognize. It’s the room where Fraser and I met.

*******

The guy is strutting around the pharmacy, tapping on glass, opening cabinet doors at random, his gun slung across his back. Ray can feel how cocky he is. This isn’t his first supply run, and he’s enjoying being in charge, especially with the Commander’s punk-ass freak of a son in the group.

Fraser signals to get everyone’s attention and he sneers. Ray realizes that it’s Fraser he’s thinking those insults about. “Dief’s spotted something,” Fraser says, oh-so serious. Ray can feel his derision – he finds Fraser ridiculous and borderline offensive.

The others laugh. It isn’t a pretty sound, like Ray thinks a laugh should be. Fraser frowns; Ray does too.

“He probably found the cafeteria,” he says, dismissing Fraser’s concern. “Only thing that mutt’s good for spotting is donuts.”

“Diefenbaker wouldn’t lie about possible danger.”

“The only one who believes that mutt can talk is you, so stow it,” the guy replies, obviously annoyed. “Your daddy may be in charge, but that doesn’t mean you automatically are.” He turns away with a sneer and a muttered, “Freak.”

*******

Unwilling to watch any more, I spit the bit of brain I was still chewing to the floor, wiping my hand on the back of my arm. I am simultaneously glad I ate this guy, and a little sick to my stomach to think someone that stupid and hateful is any part of me.

I glare down at the wad of mashed tissue. I want it gone. I want all traces of that jerk out of my space. I lurch out of my chair and grab it, then take it to the bathroom. I wrap it and the rest of the bits that I had in my pocket in wads of toilet paper and stuff them into the trash can, far down as I can. It makes me feel better; guy like that doesn’t deserve more than to be thrown away.

I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror as I start to leave, and look at myself more closely than I have in a long time. Not going to lie, it isn’t a pretty picture. My skin is pale, showing no hint of life, no blood pulsing underneath. My eyes are a watery bluish-gray that I think used to be just blue. I don’t know, I could be making that up. My hair is sticking out all over the place, dirt and other things darkening it to a dull brown.

I’m grimy all over, and sticky with the remains of who knows how many meals. No wonder Fraser doesn’t want me near him.

I can’t figure out how to get the water going, but the toilet bowl is still full. The water is stale but clean, and there are plenty of paper towels. I take off my jacket and shirt and do my best to clean up. It takes a long time and a lot of paper towels, but finally, the reflection I see doesn’t completely disgust me. I still wouldn’t pass as a living person, but at least now maybe Fraser won’t mind looking at me so much.

I put my shirt and jacket back on – no way to make the wounds and scars I have look any better, so hiding them’s the best way to go. I don’t have a comb, so I run my fingers through my hair to tame it. The end result is still pretty wild, but it looks more deliberate, I think. I like it.

I return to my chair and take up watch again, feeling more human than I have in a long, long time.

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Forty Eight

I’m still alive and unharmed.

I must admit some surprise. Part of me expected that Ray would kill me as I slept, or else others would find this hiding place and kill us both. But that didn’t happen, and I have no idea why.

Ray isn’t here, but I can hear shuffling from the front room. I assume that it’s him, and while I’m bewildered as to why he’d leave me alone, I am grateful as well.

I took some time to survey the room, having been too exhausted (and under watch) to do so last night. There is a back door, but it’s completely unmovable, blocked from the outside. I found a bathroom, and tried to clean myself up as best I could with the limited supplies at hand.

I haven’t found any traditional weapons, but there are plenty of other things here that I could use in a pinch. Ray is something of a hoarder. The room is full of boxes of assorted items, piled haphazardly all over the place. Well, except for the area set apart as some kind of living room. Does he entertain? Do the Infected visit one another? Or is it just some remnant of Ray’s existence before he was Infected, some memory driving him to try and recreate the life he lost?

I find myself hoping it’s more than that. Hoping that Ray is more than that.

#####################

I’m in the main part of the store when Fraser wakes up. I decided I could watch out for him from here, and hey, I figure the guy could use a little privacy. Plus, I tried to keep an eye on the door last night, but kept finding myself staring at him instead. Not in a Hungry way or anything. Though I was maybe a little jealous. I don’t sleep – don’t need to. At most, I lose track of time, sometimes for hours, sometimes days. But real rest? Not a thing the Infected get to do. Guess that’s reserved for the ones who don’t come back.

Anyhow, part of me just wanted to keep staring, which is when I realized I really needed to get out of there. Watching someone sleep all night is not the best way to win their trust.

I heard him moving around in back a while ago, but figured since there’s no way out but through the front, I’d leave him be. Heard him try the door though; smart guy, but no way was it gonna budge. He puttered around awhile after that; I’m guessing he’s searching the place, maybe for an exit, maybe just to figure out the lay of the land. If it makes him feel better, more power to him.

I glance up briefly when he finally comes into the main part of the shop. He still looks tired, but his color is better; last night he’d been nearly as pale as I am. I wave hello and keep flipping through the stack of CDs. He comes over to see what I’m doing.

“Do you have favorites?” I nod. “Do you, are they-” He stops and clears his throat. “I mean, are they your favorites from… before?”

The fact that he’s trying to be delicate about the fact that I’m dead is both funny and kind of sweet. I shrug.

“Don’t you know?”

Another shrug.

“Honestly, Ray, if you don’t want me to talk to you, just tell me. You don’t have to be rude.”

I stop fiddling with the CDs and look at Fraser, honestly confused. I thought we were talking. His face falls.

“I’m sorry. That was rude of me, pushing you for answers like that. It’s just, I’ve never seen anyone like you. I can’t help but be curious.”

That’s me, Ray the curiosity. The freak, even after death. Guess it’s better than him hating me though, right? It feels weird and awkward. I hate awkward, so I pick up one of the CDs in the stack I’d been collecting and shove it at him.

He takes it, turning it over in his hands. “The Ramones? You like them?”

I definitely do. They're pissed off in a way that makes blasting them at full volume feel really good. “Loud,” I reply.

“Ah.” He studies the CD some more, then gestures toward the stack. “May I?”

I push it toward him, and watch him try to make sense of the mix. It is pretty mish-mash.

“Headstones, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Beastie Boys,” he murmurs as he shuffles through the cases. Huh. Now I have names to go along with the music. No idea who goes with what, but it’s a start.

I wonder if he thinks the choices are all random, that maybe they aren’t preferences at all, just me mimicking what a live person would do. I frown; I don’t want him thinking that, seeing me as less. Even if it’s true.

“Full of life,” I say, pointing to the CDs. I want to explain better, but the words aren’t coming, so I stomp my foot, creating a rhythm, trying to show him instead. I see when he gets it, his facing lighting up.

“You like music with a strong beat,” he says. “Because you can feel the pulse of it?” he wonders.

I nod, then sway and shuffle my feet. “Ee-easy to d-dance to,” I tell him and amazingly, he laughs. Only for a second, but it’s real, and I wish I could join him, but I don’t remember how. He’s still smiling as he continues looking at my choices.

I like his smile. I like even more that I’m the one who got him to do it, and decide to do whatever I can to make him smile and laugh more.

He stops and turns to me, a look of surprise on his face. “I just realized – you look different today.” He sweeps his gaze up and down; if I were still alive, I’m betting I’d be blushing. Guess being a corpse does have an advantage or two.

“You’ve cleaned up,” he says as he finishes his inspection.

“Yes.”

“Is that something you do often?”

I know it’s gonna bug him, but I answer with a shrug. No way am I gonna go any farther with that answer. He probably suspects I did it for him, but I’m thinking confirming it will only freak him out. As it is, the way he keeps watching me is making me feel strange. Not in a bad way, exactly, but different. I think… I think maybe I like it.

“What kinds of things do you do?” Fraser asks. “What else do you like? You like music, obviously. You have all those things you collect in the back room.” He points a finger at me. “And don’t just shrug at me.”

I think about it for a second, then bring both of my arms up, chest high, palms out and facing up. I very carefully do not move my shoulders.

Fraser gives me a blank look, but can’t hold it. I see a tiny smile turning up the corner of his mouth. “I’ll add ‘tries to be funny’ to the list,” he says with a shake of his head. “So you have no suggestions as to how I should spend my time while I’m your guest?”

I make a face. Even if I did tell him what I do it wouldn’t be interesting to him at all. I can't imagine that he would want to wander around aimlessly all day. What do I say? I don't want to bore him or make him want to leave sooner.

Then I get an idea. “You like?” I ask, hoping he will think of something that we can actually do.

I hear a noise then, a rumbling, and Fraser puts a hand to his stomach. “Pardon me,” he says, cheeks flushing.

I recognize the sound, even though it’s no longer one my body makes. “Hungry,” He looks alarmed, and I shake my head, gesturing toward him. “You. Not… not me.” And it’s true. Even though I didn’t get much to eat yesterday, I’m fine. I haven’t felt like biting him once; even thinking it now makes me feel wrong.

“I suppose I am,” Fraser admits with a sigh. “You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find anything edible, would you?”

I do! I go behind the counter, kneeling to search… found it. I pull the box out and place it on the counter, triumphant, then fish out a candy bar. Feeling cocky, I try to throw it to him. He catches it, despite my crappy aim.

“This has no nutritional value whatsoever,” he complains, turning it over in his hands.

I want to protest. Somewhere, something deep inside me disagrees. “Good,” I tell him. “Eat.”

He eyes the candy bar, frowning, then starts to unwrap it. I’m betting my stellar argument there didn’t sway him; more likely it’s the fact that he realized beggars can’t be choosers. But I don’t care. He needed something, I got it for him. I’m taking care of him. I feel a warm jolt at the realization, something in my chest swelling and tightening.

Fraser eats the bar quickly but neatly, and I watch, wishing I could remember what candy tasted like. As soon as he’s done I pull out another and hold it out to him. No way was that enough to fill him up.

He shakes his head as he takes the second bar. “You and Diefenbaker would get along famously,” he tells me as he opens the wrapper. “He’s always trying to convince me that junk foods, especially baked goods, are his natural prey.”

I stay silent, honestly stunned at his words. He thinks his friend and I would get along! The implications of that are more than my brain can handle.

He gives me a quick smile. “Dief’s a half-wolf,” he explains, then crumples the empty wrapper in his hand. “Or he was.” He keeps his eyes on his hands; his knuckles are white where he’s clenching the paper tight.

My mind flashes briefly back to the memories I saw last night. I remember now, there was a dog at the hospital. “Not… dead,” I say.

That gets his attention. He looks up, eyes shining. “What?”

“Not dead,” I repeat, stronger.

“You mean Diefenbaker?” he asks. “Are you certain?”

I start to nod, but stop. I have to be honest. I try to remember if I actually saw the wolf, or if I’m only keying in to the jerk I ate’s bits of memory. I can’t separate the images, and give Fraser what I hope is an apologetic look.

“Not… eaten,” I tell him. That I can be sure of. We only go after animals when there’s no other choice and the Hunger is too strong. Even then, you have to be pretty desperate to try and eat another predator. And desperation is something the Infected can’t remember to feel.

Considering how many Humans we found, it’s a safe bet everyone left the wolf alone.

“Well, that’s something,” he sighs. I hate how sad he sounds, but there’s nothing more I can say that will help.

“Ray, could you take me back there? To the hospital where you – where you saved me?”

I’m honestly not sure. I mean, I kind of know where it is, but it was less following a route, more following V’s nose. “Mmm-maybe.”

I don’t know if he believes me or not, but he doesn’t question me more. “If there’s a chance Dief’s alive and injured… I can’t just leave him there.”

But that means we have to leave, I want to protest. You said you’d stay a few days, I want to say. But I can’t. And even if I could, I won’t. This isn’t his world and the longer I’m with him, the more I realize I have nothing to offer him, no way to convince him to stay. That bringing him here was a crazy idea. Hell, I’d leave this behind if I was alive, like him.

“Oh-okay. B-b-but not yet.” I can see he wants to fight me, but I know I’m right on this one. “Need more,” I go on, waving at the candy.

He understands me immediately. “Supplies, yes. Something more nutritious than this, if you know where we can find it. And water as well.” His face hardens. “And weapons.”

I have a couple of ideas as to where to look, but no way can Fraser come along. I probably won’t be noticed; I mean, I pick through stuff all the time, bring back whatever catches my eye. Heh. Maybe that’s why I brought Fraser here.

I start toward the back room, nudging Fraser as I pass him so he’ll follow. When we get there I point toward the chair where he’d slept.

“I’m not tired,” he says. I shake my head and point again, but he stays where he is, next to me. Great. I’m going to have to try to explain.

“I go,” I tell him, gesturing again at the chair and Fraser. He figures out the rest pretty quick, and it’s obvious he doesn’t like it.

“I can go with you. You got me here. Isn’t it safer for us to stay together?”

He’s close enough I can see all the different blues in his eyes and I want to say yes, anything to keep him near me. But he’s wrong.

“You stay,” I tell him, adding the main reason before he can ask. “Skels,” I say with a shudder. Hey, they're scary, even to a corpse like me.

“Skels?” he says, looking and sounding confused, but his face clears as he gets it. "You mean the skeletons – that’s what you call them?” I nod. “They frighten you, too?"

I shrug, mostly because it annoys him and if he's annoyed, maybe he'll be distracted. No such luck for me today.

"Ray," he tsks, giving me an obvious we've talked about this look. I shrug again, and the look sharpens, then grows serious. "Why do they scare you?"

There's no way I'm gonna be able to tell him all the reasons, not without it taking an hour or two. So I give him the big one. "Don't want to be."

"Afraid? There's nothing wrong with fear, Ray. It's a protective instinct."

I shake my head and try again. "Can't be-become that."

I see when he gets it. "You could become one of those creatures?" I nod. "But how?"

I touch my head, then my chest. "This goes, I g-go."

He pales. "You don't mean physically, do you? I mean, if you lost your brain, you'd just die permanently. So the Skels are people who've totally lost themselves, forgotten what it is to be human?" He looks around. "Is that why you collect things? Is that why you brought me here? To keep from slipping away?"

Huh. That sounds like a plausible reason, actually. Not like I know – I’m totally working on instinct here. But yeah, I’ve felt more alive in the past few hours than I have in forever, and that includes brain-eating fake-alive time. “Im-por-tant,” I tell him. Because I may have no idea what I’m doing, but that much is true.

“And you?” he asks, eyebrow raised. “Will you be safe out there alone?”

He’s only asking because I’m his ticket out of here. I know that, but oh how I want to believe it’s something else, that he actually cares if I live or die… or whatever. I pat his shoulder clumsily. “F-fine.”

“I don’t like this, Ray,” he says. He stops there, and I cross my arms over my chest and watch him, unblinking. He isn’t going to win this one – no way can he out-stubborn me. “I’ll stay here,” he finally relents.

I grab one of the bags hanging by the door. Like I said, I do this a lot. “Stay here,” I say, forcefully as I can, as I flail my arm in an effort to indicate the room. “Stay safe.”

*******

Leaving Fraser there is harder than I expected. But I manage it, only glancing back three or four times until the store is out of view.

The best place to find weapons is the police station, so that’s where I go. It’s not too far, but I wasn’t lying to Fraser about the Skels. I pass several on the way there. One of them glares at me and starts clicking its teeth together. I move away as quick as I can. Spooky motherfuckers. After that I give them an even wider berth.

I’m relieved when I make it to the station safely. It’s mostly deserted, except for a few criminals too stupid to find their way out of their cells, surrounded by the bones of those who’d been devoured instead of Turned, and a couple of cops shuffling around the break room.

I can’t explain it, but I feel at home here. Always have. It’s like I know the place, even though I can’t remember how. I wonder sometimes what I was when I was alive, what I did. Given how familiar this place seems, I’m hoping cop, but there’s just as good a chance I was one of the few crooks that figured out how to open a cell door.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad for the familiarity now, because I know just where to find the weapons locker. It’s pretty bare, but there’s a couple of smaller guns that no one took, and bullets scattered around. I scoop up a variety, hoping that some of them will work, and put everything in my bag.

No one pays me any mind, just like I figured. Feels good to be right.

I pass a snack machine on my way out and stop. It’s still got some stuff in it – not like anybody here’s gonna eat it. No idea if it’s any good, but I take one of the guns and use it to break the glass, then grab up a bunch of the food. If Fraser doesn’t want it, maybe the wolf will. The drink machine next to it is harder to get into, but there’s a lot of bottles, including water. I grab as many as I can fit into the bag. It’s getting heavy. Probably need to go back, see if what I’ve found will work.

When I leave the building, I am surprised to see V waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. I take my time, glad for once that our methods of communication are so limited.

He looks pointedly at my bag. I shrug, trying not to dislodge it as I make my way down to street level. He knows I like to collect things; hopefully I can play this off as just another normal trip.

He keeps watching me, but I have no idea what he wants, so I grunt and walk past him.

And here’s where my luck runs out. He follows me, all the way back home. I let him. I mean, what else am I gonna do? He’s my best friend, for whatever that’s worth when you’re a zombie. Plus, trying to chase him off would only make him suspicious, and he’s sharp enough on his own without me giving anything away.

So I don’t stop him when he follows me into the store, but I do make sure to stay away from the back room. The door, thankfully, is closed. I can only hope it stays that way.

I put the bag behind the counter and go to where V is wandering. Him being here is weird and unsettling.

“Nnnice,” he says after looking around for a minute. I nod in thanks, trying not to look back toward the storage area where Fraser is hiding. I can only hope that V doesn’t stay long. Even with a couple of doors and some space between them, there’s no way he’ll miss the fact that Fraser’s here.

V keeps wandering the store, and I keep acting like I don’t care. The longer he stays, the less I think he’s buying my act. But what else am I supposed to do? Introduce them? Fraser barely trusts me. Now way would it go well. And I can’t see V being any more tolerant. Keeping them apart is the only solution. I won’t let V hurt Fraser, and I don’t want Fraser to hurt V.

There’s a couple of times I’m sure we’re busted. The look in V’s eyes, the tilt of his head, the flare of his nostrils. He knows. But he doesn’t say anything more, just walks toward the door. He stops in the doorway and turns to look right at me.

“Care-ful,” he says, slow and deliberate, then shoots a glance toward the back room before meeting my eyes again.

I start to play it off, but he narrows his eyes and says it again, pointing a tremulous finger at me. “Careful.” He cuts a look toward the outside. I lean forward a little, but see nothing through the broken glass of the front display. I feel like he’s waiting for a response, so I grunt and nod.

“Okay,” he says, apparently accepting my answer. Then he shuffles away, not looking back once.

I want to run to the back, to check on Fraser, make sure he’s there and fine, but V’s warning stays with me. I go back to looking at CDs for a few minutes, then grab the bag and make my way to the storeroom like I don’t have a care in the world. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t think so. V came to see me for a reason.

Fraser is nowhere in sight when I open the door, and I don’t know whether to be scared or relieved. When I close the door it bangs harder than I meant for it to, the sound too loud and hollow.

“F-fraser?” I want to yell it, but stay quiet. Doesn’t matter; he comes out from the bathroom as soon as the door is shut behind me.

He looks me up and down and if I didn’t know better I’d swear he looked relieved. “I thought I heard voices,” he says, giving me a sharp look. I don’t respond, and he finally breaks the look with a sigh. “You were gone longer than I expected,” he tells me.

“S-sorry,” I say, dragging the bag between us. Hopefully what’s in it will be enough.

The first thing he takes out is a water bottle, cracking it open and drinking half of it down in one long gulp. “That hit the spot. Thank you kindly,” he tells me, and he does sound better. Before, his voice was as raspy as mine. It’s smoother now. I like it; it reminds me of some of the singers on the quieter CDs I listen to sometimes.

“I found a backpack in one of the boxes,” he tells me, and I look back to see he’s gone through at least a couple of the stack. “I thought it would be better than the bags you had hanging by the door.” He rubs one eyebrow as he adds, “I hope you don’t mind me going through your things.”

“Fine,” I tell him honestly. Hell, I’m glad he was able to find something useful.

“Good,” he says with a small smile. He sorts the food next, opening a bag of chips and eating as he works. Based on his reactions, it looks like I didn’t do too bad; the pile of stuff he likes is bigger than the stuff he doesn’t. I grab a couple of the discards and stuff them in my pocket. Might come in handy.

He pulls out a gun, flicking it open. “Empty,” he says, and I crouch next to him and reach down to grab the bullets rattling around at the bottom of the bag.

I hold out a handful and he looks them over before picking out a few. “These should work,” he says, loading the gun.

I smile, pleased that I’d found the right thing. He glances up at me right then, and the strangest look comes over his face.

“You really want to help me,” he says, and even though it isn’t a question, I nod because of course I do.

Fraser blinks, looking from me to the gun and back again. “You know I could use this to kill you. That arming me might be the last thing you do.”

I shake my head. “Won’t.”

“How can you think that?” he asks.

I put a hand to my chest. “Know.” His eyes widen as I slowly reach out to put my other hand over his heart. It’s beating so fast, or maybe it just seems that way in comparison to the complete lack of a heartbeat that I have. “Know.”

I stay that way for a minute, just taking in the feeling of life thrumming under my hand, drinking in the warmth of his skin, noticeable even through his shirt. And he lets me. His pulse slows and he shifts, gently moving back enough that my hand falls between us.

He pulls the bag closer and digs around in it some more, not once looking at me or saying a word. That’s okay; I’m not sure what I’d say back.

*******

When it’s time to go, I realize Fraser and I haven’t discussed just how we’re going to camouflage him. I don’t have any open wounds, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not like one more is gonna hurt. Or maybe I can just re-open the one he gave me yesterday. I lift my shirt, trying to see if there’s an easy place to tear into the wound.

Fraser stops me, his hand on my arm. I look at him, confused. He can’t go out like he is – he has to know that. I start to reach for my chest again and his grip tightens, his brow furrowing as he watches me.

“There’s no need to injure yourself further, Ray,” he says as he pulls the edge of my shirt from my fingers, tugging it back in place. “Where’s the shirt you were wearing when I - from before?” he asks.

It takes me a minute, but I remember where I left it. I retrieve it and he makes a face, but takes it from me. “This should cover my scent, I would hope,” he says, and strips off his own shirt.

I try not to stare, but it’s not easy. He’s not wiry like me but thin all the same, though there’s still muscle there, and his skin looks so smooth and touchable. I start to feel a hunger that I don’t recognize at first; it’s been so long. But I can’t deny it; the urge to taste that skin, not to eat, just maybe mouth over it, lick a stripe up his spine, is strong.

I turn away before he gets the shirt over his head. I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. It’s like I’m tapping into the person I used to be, remembering what it was like to be alive. I don’t know if the idea should be exciting or terrifying. If my confusion shows, Fraser doesn’t notice it. He slings the backpack full of supplies on and starts outside, waiting in the doorway for me to follow.

*******

Fraser is better at getting us there than I am; he was obviously paying attention when we made our way to my place. Even so, it takes us awhile before we’re near where I think the hospital is. A crash in the alley ahead stops Fraser and me in our tracks, which is probably the wrong thing to do. Something’s coming toward us, and it sounds like it’s with purpose. I brace myself, because there’s only one thing around here that moves like that – Skels. I see him cock his gun; he flicks his gaze over to me and I nod toward the nearest building. At least that would give us some protection.

Before we can get there, there’s a flash of something moving fast. Fraser aims, then just as quickly drops his arm and kneels.

“Diefenbaker!” he cries out. I wince, hoping no one heard him.

Diefenbaker stops just out of reach, lowering his ears and growling. Fraser’s startled look makes me want to roll my eyes. I’m a walking corpse and he smells like one; of course his wolf-dog’s going to react to that.

Fraser seems to realize what’s the problem is, and whispers reassuringly, trying to coax Diefenbaker closer. It’s both a good idea and a horrible one, considering how out in the open we are. Fraser’s behavior is too un-zombielike. I reach down and tug on his sleeve; the wolf growls at me, but I ignore it.

“Not safe,” I tell Fraser.

He nods and stands up. “Diefenbaker, we have to get off the street,” he says, like the wolf’s gonna understand him. “I realize how this seems, but please, look past what your nose is telling you and see the truth. This is just a disguise to keep me alive here. I’m fine, and neither Ray nor I mean you any harm. We came to find you.”

It’s a pretty speech, one that took too long. I can see some zombies shuffling toward us. They’re still a few blocks away, but we’ve definitely been spotted, and there are too many to take out with Fraser’s gun. We need to find cover or a way out, and fast.

I grab Fraser’s arm, ignoring yet another growl from Diefenbaker, moving us off the street. I don’t really want to actually go into any of the buildings, but we might not have a choice. I start scanning them, trying to see if one of them looks safer than another. Not that I have a clue what that would look like. I’ve never had to worry about being chased by zombies before.

I figure Diefenbaker must be following, since Fraser isn’t fighting me. Thank goodness for small favors.

We’re slowly weaving around abandoned cars in a last-ditch attempt to still look zombie-like when I get an idea. I look in the windows, then call to Fraser, “Keys.”

“We won’t be able to drive through,” he responds and he’s right, there’s too much trash and cars and junk in the streets for a car to get through without crashing, but that’s not what I have in mind.

“Keys,” I tell him again, growling in frustration when the first car I try is key-less. So’s the second, but third time’s the charm. I yank the door open and crawl in, fast as my clumsy body will let me. I turn the key in the ignition. Nothing. I try again. Same result. Fraser’s caught up to me by that point.

“Foot on the clutch, Ray,” he tells me and I stop, confused. He pushes my left leg over and my foot hits a pedal. “Step there and try again,” he says urgently.

I do, and the engine chokes and coughs, but starts. Perfect. I reach over to the stereo, turning it on and hoping my luck holds. Music starts playing – yes! I turn the volume up as far as I can and push Fraser out of my way so I can get out of the car.

“What are you doing?” Fraser asks.

“Lo-ok.”

The crowd, which has gotten a lot closer than I had realized, has stopped coming toward us. They’re looking around, some of them swaying.

“Music soothes the savage breast,” Fraser breathes out. “You’re a genius!”

Don’t think I am, just knew my audience, but my entire body warms at his words. I push the feeling aside – we still aren’t safe. In fact, what I’ve done is likely to bring the Skels down on us, so we need to get away from here as quickly as possible.

I shuffle past Fraser and Dief, moving in the direction with the smallest number of zombies to get past. I see Dief put his ears back when I get close, but we don’t have any more time to let him figure out I’m not the bad guy here.

No one tries to stop us as we pass. But it isn’t just the music lulling them into a stupor. They’re watching us, watching Fraser follow me, watching how close we are to one another. It would take the smallest of movements for me to touch him. I could grab him and take a bite out of him in a second. By the same token, he could shoot me between the eyes before I could stop him. I let the back of my hand brush against his; he doesn’t flinch. And they see that. Not only see it – they get it. They get that Fraser’s trusting me and I’m trusting him. I can see the flash of understanding in their eyes. Some of them move back as we go past them, giving us more space. None of them try to stop us.

It’s more than I could have hoped for.

********

As soon as we find a halfway decent place to stop, Fraser strips off the nasty shirt he’s been wearing, drops it on the ground next to him and holds his arms wide. “See, Dief? It was all a ruse to protect me. I haven’t been Infected.”

Dief wants to believe him; I can see it in the tiny wag of his tail as he slowly creeps forward, sniffing as he moves. Fraser stands stock still, waiting. He doesn’t flinch when the wolf noses at him, checking him out thoroughly. Finally, Dief gives Fraser’s hand a little lick. Fraser’s smile is a sight to see, pure happiness. He immediately falls to his knees, hugging Dief tight and ruffling his fur. Dief’s licking Fraser’s face all over, but Fraser doesn’t seem to mind the dog spit.

I shift my attention from them to the surrounding area, so we don’t get caught by surprise. It has nothing to do with a thing I think I remember as jealousy creeping up on me. Really. I just want us to be safe.

I’m ignoring them so hard I don’t realize Fraser’s right next to me until he says my name.

“Ray, come meet Diefenbaker.”

I shake my head; that is a bad idea. Maybe one of the worst I’ve ever heard. Fraser’s Human, someone that can reason. There’s no way I can convince a half-wolf I’m not a threat.

“It will be fine,” Fraser tells me calmly. He really believes that. I look at Dief; I don’t think he’s any more convinced than I am, ears flat against his head, body practically vibrating with tension.

Then Fraser does an amazing thing. He takes my hand. I’m so shocked I don’t fight him as he gently leads me closer to Dief. For his part, the mutt sits still, watching us both.

Fraser stops, situating himself between us like a shield. I don’t know which of us he’s protecting. He kneels down, my hand still in his. “Dief, this is Ray. I know what your instincts are telling you, but you must believe me. He isn’t a threat to us. He saved me. I know this will be hard, but I’m asking that you trust my judgment in this.” He cuts a glance in my direction. “He’s my friend.”

That hits me so hard I actually gasp; Fraser responds by tightening his grip in a brief squeeze. I want to look at him, but I can’t take my eyes off the wolf, who seems to not only have understood Fraser, but be considering what he said.

Fraser’s incredibly brave. I figure maybe I can be too, at least a little, so I slowly lower myself until I’m on one knee next to Fraser. “Hi, D-dief,” I say, giving him a quick, closed-mouthed smile. I’m betting any show of teeth would be bad. Dief cocks his head at me, like I’ve surprised him. Fraser squeezes my hand again; the action bumps our joined hands against my jacket and I remember something.

I reach in with my free hand and pull out a package I’d snagged at the station. Dief’s ears perk up at that. Fraser makes a noise of disapproval.

“Ray, you shouldn’t use bribery to win his affections.”

I snort. If he thinks I’m not gonna use anything I can to make sure the wolf likes me, and not as a chew toy, he’s crazy.

Dief sneezes, and Fraser lets out a put-upon sigh. “I don’t care if Twinkies are your favorite, they aren’t good for you.”

I hold the package out, ignoring Fraser’s protest. Dief looks unsure, and that makes me nervous, so I put the Twinkie on the ground and push it toward him, then shift back so he can snag it without worrying about me being too close.

Dief noses it, then gives Fraser the most pitiful look I’ve ever seen, whining a little.

Fraser sighs again, shakes his head, and picks up the package, removing the wrapper and putting the Twinkie back down for Dief to snag. Dief eats it in one big bite, tail wagging happily.

I figure that’s the best I can do for now and start to stand back up, but Fraser grabs my hand again and I stop. Dief is regarding me, head cocked and looking for all the world like he’s sizing me up. After a minute Dief yips. Fraser must think it means something, ‘cause he slowly moves our joined hands forward.

Dief leans in and sniffs them. After a minute Fraser lets go, carefully withdrawing his hand so only mine is left. I start to panic, but Fraser’s hand is on my shoulder now, not to hold me in place, I don’t think, but like he’s trying to lend me strength. If I needed to breathe, I’d be holding my breath right now. Dief keeps sniffing, then bumps his nose under my palm. I don’t move; he does it again, harder, and scoots forward a tiny bit closer.

“He wants you to pet him, Ray,” Fraser says, sounding about as shocked as I feel. I think he was just hoping for me to be accepted. I was mostly worrying about losing fingers.

Dief ducks his head so my hand’s on top of it; I flex my fingers, letting them card through the coarse fur. Dief leans into it, tilting his head so I can reach his ear.

I feel something bubbling up in my chest, and a harsh, staccato sound bursts out. Dief jumps back, startled, but Fraser just smiles, and joins me in what I realize is a laugh. Seeing that Fraser’s okay with it, Dief moves back in, and we both pet him.

Something in my chest tightens and thumps. I’ve never felt anything so wonderful.

*******

I can see that Fraser is starting to wear out; Dief too, I’m guessing. We’ve been traveling steadily for hours, and it’s starting to get dark. We need to find somewhere safe to crash for the night. After all the crazy runaround we did to avoid any confrontations I’m totally turned around, and Fraser isn’t looking much more confident about where we are. Besides, now that we have Dief with us, I don’t know if going back to my place is such a good idea. Part of me can’t help but wonder if that was part of Fraser’s plan. I squash that thought – it’s mean and unfair. And even if it turns out to be true, there’s no sense worrying about it now. We need a place to stay for the night.

“Rrrest?” I ask.

Fraser looks like he wants to protest; Dief whines. Fraser looks at the sky, at the angle of the sun. “We should find shelter soon,” he agrees. I hear reluctance in his voice, but ignore it. I get the feeling he’s one who will push himself past his own safety. Lucky for him, he has me to look out for him now. Well, me and Dief. If the long-suffering look he’s giving Fraser is any indication, the wolf isn’t new to corralling Fraser.

We’ve been cutting through a wooded area – forest or park, don’t ask me which one – but we’re still in the city, so there have to be buildings nearby, which means somewhere we can hole up for the night. Safer than staying out here. “Not here,” I say, hoping Fraser will understand.

Fraser nods. “We’ll do better indoors, as long as we don’t get outnumbered. At least it will be more defensible.” He points down the path we’re on. “Dief, can you go ahead a bit, make sure there’s nothing to worry about? And if there, is, come back for us, rather than take it on yourself?”

Dief sneezes and I grin; I like that mutt’s attitude. Fraser narrows his eyes at me for a second but doesn’t comment. “Just, try to stay downwind of him, Ray. I don’t want you confusing him with your scent.”

Right. I’m probably all kinds of nasty to someone with as sensitive a nose as Dief. Only I’m not sure where downwind is, so I stay put until Fraser figures it out and points me in the right direction. Then we’re on our way.

We avoid more than one of my “brethren,” as Fraser calls them, as we travel. Luckily, not a lot of Infected wander the woods. Maybe it has to do with folks staying near where they died, or maybe by what was familiar. Or maybe it’s because there’s nothing here to eat.

Fraser scopes out the area from where we’re hidden at the edge of the treeline. There are some houses in sight, though we’d have to be out in the open for a good bit of time before we’d get to them. Fraser thinks it’s worth the risk.

“There’s a higher probability of us finding food, and a more comfortable place to rest,” he explains.

Neither of which matter to me. “You ch-choose,” I reply. I’d probably be fine staying outside all night, guarding the place. Only, I’m feeling kind of off. Like maybe talking a load off for a few minutes might not be a bad idea. Maybe it’s all the fresh air. Maybe zombies have an allergic reaction to too much grass or being around trees. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head?

The house Fraser picks is a good one. It’s empty, for starters. Wasn’t broken into, well other than by us, and Fraser knows his way around a lock, so the door’s intact. Two stories, one main bedroom upstairs and a study, with limited ways in or up – that makes it easier to find a place to defend. And there’s some canned food in the kitchen that hasn’t spoiled, stuff both Fraser and Dief can eat.

Fraser even finds some first aid stuff in the bathroom, and insists on checking Dief over very thoroughly. I get the feeling this is part of their routine, and wonder how often they go out, hunt. Get hurt. I don’t like thinking about it.

Fraser looks torn about taking the bedroom for some reason. Does he think I’ll need it? “Go,” I say, waving a hand toward the stairs. He opens his mouth, but I walk over and pat the back of the couch.

“You’ll sleep there?” he asks.

“Be fine,” I reply. “Go.” I sit down and glare at him until he starts walking. Dief, I see, is already partway up the stairs, waiting. I figured the wolf wouldn’t leave Fraser’s side; it’s part of why I’m willing to. I also figure that since the wolf doesn’t trust me yet, not a lot anyhow, it’s better for all of us if I separate myself.

Doesn’t make it suck less, but them’s the breaks.

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Forty Eight - supplemental

We found Diefenbaker, alive and relatively unharmed. It took some explaining, but I was able to convince him to not attack Ray. I don’t know that he trusts Ray, but he’s following my lead, at least for now. He did admit to me tonight that there was something different about Ray, beyond the obvious fact that he’s helping us rather than trying to eat us. He even said he thought Ray might be a decent person, as far as Infected go.

I’d like to think that the Twinkie Ray fed him had nothing to do with his decision. But I am afraid I’m just deceiving myself.

But is that the only self-deception I am perpetrating? Is Ray really different? Or is that my wishful thinking blinding me to the reality of this world? Does my desire for things to get better, for a cure to be possible, keep me from seeing the truth?

I’m hoping that the fact that I am even considering these possibilities means that I have a good grasp on the situation. If not, I could be dooming both Dief and myself. But I’ve been given no reason not to trust Ray. It may be hubris, but I believe I’m decent enough at gauging character that I’d know if he was deceiving me. If nothing else, why would he not have just killed me outright much sooner?

Part of me feels incredibly uncharitable even thinking these things. Part of me hates that the way our world has changed makes such thinking a necessity.

In any case, I plan on trusting Ray, unless and until he gives me reason not to. He’s been helpful, kind, resourceful… he’s even got a sense of humor. He’s a decent traveling companion. And while at the time I thought I only told Diefenbaker Ray was a friend to keep him from attacking… I believe that Ray truly is becoming my friend.

I shudder to think what my father would do if he found that out. I wonder what Buck would think. Unless the worst comes to pass, neither will ever read this. And if they do, I will be past the point of caring.

#####################

I don’t plan on closing my eyes. In fact, I don’t even plan on sitting down, but the couch looks really soft, and I haven’t been on one this nice since before I died. I don’t know if I should notice how comfortable it is, but I do. It’s musty, but so am I, probably.

I sink into it, wobbling a bit as I overbalance trying to get situated. I try scooting over toward one side so I can lean a little on the arm of the couch, moving a pillow onto the floor when it proves to be too big and in my way.

The sound of talking filters down the stairway. Guess Fraser and Dief have some catching up to do. Can’t make out what’s being said, and I don’t try to. Fraser really does believe that Dief understands him. If that’s the reason he was willing to see me as more than a mindless monster, I like the mutt even more.

Fraser’s voice is nice and soothing. Maybe I’ll just close my eyes for a second…

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Forty Nine

Another day dawns and we have survived unharmed. I think that now Dief believes what I’ve told him about Ray. It isn’t all he believes, and I have no doubt he’ll be vocal in his opinions. It’s fortunate that Ray doesn’t understand him. Not that it’s bad, but it isn’t true.

I mean, yes, Ray saved me, so of course I feel some gratitude toward him. And he’s not just some mindless corpse. He’s smart, quick-thinking, resourceful. All admirable traits. And he’s trying, very hard in fact, to be better than his awful circumstances.

So yes, I respect him as well.

And in a way I suppose I find him strangely charming. He actively worked to win Dief over, and I am convinced it wasn’t out of concern for his safety so much as his desire for Dief to like him. Ray actually cares about Dief’s opinion of him. And he seems to like me as well. He’s done his best to minimize any reminders that he’s Infected, including cleaning himself up. He’s been considerate of my feelings, given me space when and where he can. I believe he’s been honest with me when we’ve spoken. It's amazing how well he and I can communicate. Perhaps it’s the years I’ve spent learning how to understand Diefenbaker, read his body language. But I think it’s more than that.

He is a good man. Better than a lot of people I know. I don’t know if that’s saying more about him, or them.

But I do find myself enjoying our time together. And part of me doesn’t want it to end.

#####################

I wake up with a start, nearly falling off the couch when I realize I was asleep. I don’t sleep. None of the Infected do. But there’s no denying it – I was out, for hours based on how light the room is now. And it isn’t like I just zoned out. I’ve done that before, I know how it feels. Not weird like this, like my brain hasn’t quite woken up yet. Considering last night might have been the first time I’ve slept in longer than I can remember, I guess it makes sense it would take a minute or two to jump start.

I try to stand, and that takes effort too, more than it should. My body’s… tingling in spots, all along the side I was laying on. And my neck feels stiffer than normal.

What is happening to me?

This is the kind of thing Fraser will want to know, so I head up the stairs to find him. The door is closed. I reach for the knob, then stop as a memory surfaces, and knock instead. After a few seconds, Frasers call me in.

Seems like Fraser’s been up for a little bit, at least long enough to have found some clothes to change into. Probably a good idea, since the ones he had on were kind of gory. Of course, there’s a decent chance these will get just as gross before the day is out.

He’s putting his boots back on, Dief curled up at his feet. I’m not the best judge, both they both seem more rested. I see something on the bed next to Fraser and take a step closer to get a better look. I’m pretty sure it’s the book I saw him with back at my place. I gesture toward it and grunt questioningly.

“It’s my journal,” Fraser tells me as he picks it up. “A record of what I’ve done, where I’ve been. My observations and feelings.” He grips it a little tighter and adds, “It’s meant to be private.”

Oh. Well, no problem there. “Can’t r-read it.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t,” he agrees, then tilts his head. “Or do you mean that you can’t read?”

I tap the side of my head. “All j-jumbled.”

“There are no words that make sense to you?” I shake my head. “ How do you remember which songs are your favorites then, back at the store?”

That’s why I had so many stacks, I want to tell him. It’s my system. But what comes out is, “Pictures e-easier. Some-sometimes a word. Not for long.”

He walks over to me, flipping through his journal as he approaches. “Here,” he says, holding it out once he’s found the page he wants. I take a step back, shaking my head and holding up my hands. Didn’t he just say I wasn’t supposed to see this?

“It’s all right,” he tells me, voice gentle. “I just want to show you one thing.”

He doesn’t have to ask again. I lean in, curious. He points to a short scribbly thing. I shrug.

“That,” he tells me, “is your name. R-A-Y.” He points to each letter and repeats the spelling. “Maybe, now that you know how to spell it again, you’ll be able to remember it.”

I reach out to trace the letters, my hand clumsy and shaking as it hits the page. That’s me. That’s who I am. R-A-Y. I spell it aloud; Fraser nods and smiles. I smile back, glad for once for my inability to hold a real conversation.

Because that’s my name in Fraser’s journal. He wrote about me. Maybe good stuff, maybe bad. Doesn’t matter, because I’m in there, by name even. I’m someone to him. Even if I could talk, I’d be at a loss for words right now.

Wanting to hide my jumbled feelings, I start back to the door, gesturing with my head for them to follow. “You eat,” I say as I go down the stairs. Thank you, I don’t say. But I think maybe Fraser hears me anyhow.

********

Fraser and Dief eat more of the canned stuff. I look in one of the open cans, but it holds no appeal for me. Then again, neither does taking a bite out of Fraser, so I’m not sure what to think.

“Sleep,” I tell him as he eats.

“I did, yes, thank you,” he replies, misunderstanding me.

I shake my head and thump my chest with one hand. “I w-was asleep.”

Fraser stops, spoon halfway to his mouth. He puts it slowly back into the can and takes a closer look at me. “You slept last night? I take it that’s not normal.”

“No,” I agree. “Not since -” I gesture at myself.

He reaches out slowly and takes my hand, sliding his fingers up to my wrist and feeling around. His face falls when he doesn’t find a pulse.

“Sorry,” I say.

“No, it was just a crazy idea I had,” he tells me, giving me a smile that doesn’t quite chase the disappointment from his eyes. “Did you dream?”

Did I? I think about it, but don’t come up with anything concrete enough to know for sure.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” Fraser says, then shrugs at me, eyebrow raised.

I grin and nod. “G-got it in one.”

Fraser smiles as he goes back to eating. “We need to decide where we’re going now,” he says.

Where we’re going. I guess I should be happy that I’m included in the travel plans, right? Or maybe I’m not part of the we. “Go?”

Fraser flicks his gaze from me to Dief, then back to me. “Well, we both knew I couldn’t stay with you forever, not as I am. And I don’t want to be Infected.”

I shake my head; I don’t want that either.

“All right, then we’re on the same page. Which means Dief and I need to return home. And I suppose you do as well.”

I take heart in the fact that he doesn’t sound too happy about the idea of us parting ways. Or maybe I’m just hearing it because I want to. Either way, I’m going with it. “Go with.”

“With Dief and I? Ray,” Fraser shakes his head, a sad look in his eyes. “That’s a death sentence for you.”

“J-just until you’re safe,” I counter. Because even if we can’t stay together, he’s still important. I can’t let anything happen to him.

Fraser eats a few more bites, then nods. “All right. But only until we’re close. You need to be safe as well.”

Dief whuffs; Fraser glares at him and I wonder what he said. Pretty sure it isn’t the, “Dief concurs,” that Fraser tells me.

After they’re done eating, Fraser looks through the house, and finds a city map. I can’t read the thing, but it doesn’t take too long for him to have our location more or less figured out. From there, it’s easy for him to plan a way home.

“I still think staying off the main roads is our best course of action. Not that we won’t have to be out in the open at some point, but while we travel, this might be better, even though it will take longer. And with Dief here now, we have a good forward scout, one that isn’t as tasty a target as I am.”

Dief sneezes; Fraser rolls his eyes. “Only you would be offended at not being seen as edible,” Fraser tells him. I watch the exchange, amused. They really do talk to each other.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to get back into the cover of the woods,” Fraser goes on, “assuming the path from here to there is clear. If it isn’t, can you try that trick with the music again?”

I can, but, “Danger. Maybe Skels come.” I warn him.

Fraser considers that. “Will they follow us once we’re in the trees? Would we have a better chance of losing them there?”

I shrug; I have no idea. Fraser sighs. “I thought we’d gotten past your shrugging,” he tells me. I shrug again, both as an answer and because I can, and he raises his eyebrow at me. Doesn’t matter; I still see the smile he’s trying to hide.

I don’t bother hiding mine.

********

Fraser packs some more food into the bag, plus the map and a few knives. I give those a dubious look, but he just promises he’s a better shot with them than his hitting me in the chest would suggest.

Once we’re stocked up and ready to go, we head outside. It’s still early, but it looks like it’s going to be a nice enough day. The sky reminds me of Fraser's eyes, clear and blue.

Maybe sunny days aren't so bad after all.

We make it back into the forest without any trouble, Fraser back in his disguise shirt, Dief keeping his distance from us both. We haven’t been traveling too long before Fraser stops, a look of concentration on his face.

“Ray, there’s something coming up behind us,” Fraser whispers. Now that he’s pointed it out, yeah, I can hear it too. Someone is shuffling through the woods. Dief lopes back to where we’re stopped and sits, head cocked. He hears it too.

“Check,” I say, tapping my chest. It makes sense; I’m the least likely to get hurt, since what’s out there is either an animal, a zombie or one of the Skels. Only the last one worries me.

Fraser doesn’t look like he likes me going off alone. “Take Dief with you, let him help,” he suggests. I shake my head; Dief needs to stay with Fraser, protect him.

“I’ll be o-kay,” I tell him, and maybe I’m crazy, but I think I see the wolf agree. Or maybe he just wants me gone. I don’t speak wolf, so I really have no idea. Probably takes more than one Twinkie to win one’s loyalty.

I start walking toward the sound, not worrying about hiding or sneaking. I refuse to believe it’s a Skel, and animal or zombie, makes no difference. One will know I’m here and the other won’t care.

And here’s where I’m wrong. Because the zombie I nearly crash into is the only one on the entire planet that would care.

“V!”

“Rrray.” He stumbles, back hitting a tree, glaring at me when his sleeve catches on a branch.

I hunch my shoulders in apology. He’s always been strangely protective of his clothes.

V looks past me, like he’s waiting for something. Or someone, I realize. I shake my head. “Me,” I say.

He frowns. “A-lone?”

I’m not sure what I should tell him. It’s obvious he knows something, but I have no idea exactly what, or for that matter, what the hell he’s doing here. My hesitation seems to be answer enough for him. He starts moving in the direction I came from. I grab his arm to stop him before he can pass me.

“What d-do you w-want?”

“Tell. T-tell you b-both,” he replies and starts walking again. There’s no way I can stop him without a fight, and I don’t want to do that. Guess Fraser and V are going to meet after all. I get ahead of him so I can lead the way.

“Careful,” I tell him. I have no idea how to explain Dief, so I don’t. He’ll find out soon enough. Besides, I need to use what brainpower I have to figure out what I’m going to say to Fraser. I hope he trusts me enough to hear V out. There’s no way he isn’t here for a reason.

When we get close to where I left Fraser and Dief, I stop V. “Here,” I tell him. “W-wait.”

V shakes his head and starts walking, but I block the path. This has to be done a certain way, and I’m the one who knows how to play it. V glares; I glare right back until he nods.

“Wait?” I confirm.

V rolls his eyes and makes a shooing motion. Impatient bastard.

I make sure to make a lot of noise as I approach, then call out to Fraser so he’ll know it’s me. He steps out from behind a tree, and I am happily surprised to see a relieved look on his face, like he was worried about me.

“Is everything all right, Ray?”

I think about that. “N-not sure,” I finally answer. I huff a laugh, because that answers pretty much been true since I laid eyes on Fraser.

“What did you find?”

“Frriend.”

He frowns. “I don’t understand.”

I don’t either. And this isn’t gonna be easy to explain, but I have to try. “From city. Followed.”

“Your friend is here now?” I nod. “Do you know why?”

Fraser buddy, I don’t have Clue One as to what V’s doing here. “Tell us,” I say, knowing it won’t really help.

“Us? You mean, he knows about me? And wants to talk to me?”

I nod again. Fraser just keeps looking at me like he doesn’t understand what’s going on. I can only think of one way to fix that. “Bring him? Safe?”

“Do you trust him?” he asks, deadly serious. Fair enough question, and the answer’s easy.

“Yes.” Because I do. I mean, I don’t know why he’s here now, but I do know that V knew about Fraser and didn’t try to eat him. That had to count for something.

“Safe?” I ask again, looking from Fraser to Dief and back again. I’m pretty sure he gets my meaning, but doesn’t answer right away. That’s okay; I’d rather he think about it and give me a straight answer than just bullshit me.

Finally, he nods. “I’ll be armed. But as long as he doesn’t try to attack us, he’ll be safe here.”

Sounds fair to me. I flash a quick smile in thanks, and head back to get V.

“Safe,” I tell him once I find him again. “Follow.”

Right before we get there, I remember I haven’t said anything about Dief. “Wolf,” I tell him. V gives me a quizzical look. “Wolf,” I repeat. “With Fraser. Friend.”

The look he gives me clearly says he thinks my brain has rotted beyond hope. I shrug and keep walking. He’ll see for himself soon enough.

********

I can’t help but chuckle when V comes face-to-face with Fraser, Dief at his side. The I told you smirk I send him is met with a glare, but V doesn’t react to the gun Fraser’s holding, or the wolf’s growl. Brave son of a bitch.

Both Fraser and Dief look tense, but I see a little of it leave Fraser at the exchange.

“V,” I tell him, indicating my friend. “Fraser.”

Introductions out of the way, I settle back to see what they think of each other.

V studies Fraser for a minute. Fraser studies him right back, just as intensely. When Fraser shoots a glance my way, I try his raised eyebrow trick. Not sure if I pulled it off, but whatever he sees relaxes him. He tells Dief to stand down as he lowers his gun. I still have zero doubt he could take V and I out before we got to him or tried anything.

For his part, V looks unconcerned, not in the zombie way so much as he isn’t worried about what Fraser might do. So either he really thinks that much of himself, or he trusts my judgment. I’m betting it’s the first one.

I can tell Fraser is getting antsy, wanting to know what’s going on and not sure how to ask. Or maybe he’s just being polite, letting me take the lead because V’s my friend. Either way, I figure it’s time to start with the questions.

“How?” I ask, waving to indicate Fraser and Dief. I know V will hear the rest of the question – how did he find us?

“Fffollowed you.” He gestures toward Fraser. “Knew he was with you.”

No surprises there, at least for me. I knew he’d figured out Fraser was there. Doesn’t explain why he’s trailing after us though.

“Why were you following us?” Fraser asks, like he read my mind.

V snorts and shakes his head. “Not sssafe,” he says.

“Hey!” I answer immediately. I’ve been keeping us plenty safe, and he’s a jerk to imply otherwise.

Fraser doesn’t like it either. “Ray has done a fine job keeping me safe,” he tells V.

I stand straighter at Fraser’s defense of me. He shoots a smile my way.

V’s brow furrows and he shakes his head. “Not you,” he tells Fraser. “Rrray. Not safe with you.”

Fraser and I get it at the same time; V is worried about me. I’m pretty sure my face would be red if I had the ability to blush. Fraser looks troubled.

“Ray never indicated my presence would put him in danger.” He turns to me, and I just shrug. It was a possibility, I guess, but I didn’t care. Still don’t.

“Need to leave.” He’s looking at me, but talking to Fraser. He wants Fraser to go back where he came from. That’s why he’s here, I realize - he wants me to do the same, return to the city with him.

“Taking him back,” I tell V. “Keeping him safe.” Hopefully he can hear that I’m not gonna budge on this.

“After?” V presses.

“He’s going back, aren’t you Ray?” Fraser answers.

I shrug. I have no idea what happens after Fraser’s gone. There’s a fifty-fifty shot of me finding my way back, but I’m not sure I want to. The thought of going back, being virtually alone again, leaves me feeling more hollow than anything the Infection ever did.

“After,” V asks again, softer.

“Can’t go back,” I decide. “Too dif-fferent. Feel things. Remember things.”

V’s eyes widen, either at my words or the fact that I got them out without serious effort. I step forward, willing him to see me, to validate the changes I believe are happening. He studies me, grayish-green eyes (was there always green? I can’t remember) peering close. When he steps back, there’s disbelief on his face. “Changing,” he says.

I nod, much more calmly than I feel. It isn’t just all in my head. Knowing that is an incredible relief.

He keeps staring, the look on his face as intense as any I’ve seen him make. “Not j-just you,” he tells me with what I could swear is reluctance.

I shake my head, confused. But Fraser picks up on it right away.

“Others are changing? It isn’t just Ray?”

“Mmmaybe,” V says to Fraser, still keeping his eyes on me. He taps the side of his forehead. “P-pictures. Here.” He closes his eyes as he goes on. Maybe it’s easier to see the pictures in his head without the real world distracting him. “House. People. Crowded.” He pauses, a fleeting look of want crossing his face. “Happy.”

“Your family,” Fraser suggests. V opens his eyes and tilts his head toward Fraser, considering. He nods.

“Family,” he says, like the concept is one he’d forgotten. Maybe it was. He looks back at me. “Memories.”

I don’t know what to tell him. I haven’t remembered anyone from before, but maybe there wasn’t anyone for me to remember. Maybe I was a loner. Maybe I was an asshole.

“How long have you been remembering?” Fraser asks. Good question – I was wondering the same thing.

V thinks for a minute. “Saw you. With -” he points toward Dief. “All work together.”

“And that triggered your memories?”

V shrugs. I’d laugh, because I know the gesture bugs the shit out of Fraser, but this is serious stuff.

“Are others remembering things?” Fraser asks.

V shakes his head. “Don’t know.” He moves forward, reaching out. Dief growls, and V stops short. “You come. You see.” He grabs me instead. “All come.”

“Why?”

V points an accusing finger at me and Fraser. “You’re ch-changing everything.”

Going back to my home isn’t part of Fraser’s plan. V doesn’t care, and honestly, I don’t know which of them is more stubborn. If what V says is true, maybe we should go back.

Fraser sees it differently.

“If you really are changing, possibly even curing yourselves, we need to continue on,” he argues. “We can show people there’s hope.”

Or we can get shot in the head, I think. Pretty sure V’s right there with me.

What follows is possibly the funniest argument in the history of ever. Fraser’s all long sentences, making points with references and fancy language. V counters with meaningful looks, a lot of eye rolling, and a minimum of words.

I stay out of it, but I’m kind of torn between wanting to go back to the relative safety of my store, the barely-there life I have, and staying with Fraser, which could very easily end in my permanent death. The longer I listen to Fraser, the more I’m willing to take the risk.

It takes some convincing, but V agrees to follow us to where Fraser’s people are staying. Unlike me, he isn’t willing to go in, but I don’t think he wants me completely out of his sight either. It’s kind of nice that he cares. Or maybe I’m just more entertaining than anyone else he knows.

By the time we get things settled it’s getting late, Fraser decides we need to find somewhere to stop for the night. Dief leads us to a little guard house at the far edge of the woods. Works for V and I; not like we need much. And hey, defensible. Fraser and Dief get situated inside, while V and I stay outside, keeping watch.

In the morning, well be heading out again, plan in place. I hope to hell it’s the right one.

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Forty Nine - supplemental

Ray has a friend.

How is this possible? The Infected are mindless, that’s what we’ve been taught. I’ve known the fallacy of that statement since I met Ray, of course. But I suppose I assumed our interactions were unique. It seems I was wrong – V is proof of that.

I don’t know why I find that surprising. After all, I consider myself Ray’s friend. I just… even with everything that’s happened, I suppose I thought him alone in his differences.

Dief finds this all hilarious, saying I’m jealous, which is patently absurd. It would be ridiculous to be jealous of their friendship. Utter nonsense.

Maybe the Infection doesn’t take as deeply in some. Maybe it depends on how you are Infected. I haven’t got the medical knowledge necessary to even form a hypothesis. But the proof is here, right before my eyes.

V is genuinely concerned about Ray, and vice versa. And V is unsure of me, that’s obvious as well. He sees me as a threat, if not to their friendship, to Ray himself. I find myself trying to think of ways to prove to V that I’m not the threat he thinks I am. But what if I’m wrong? What if just by being around Ray I have changed him so that he no longer fits in with the others?

I find myself not caring. No, it’s more than that. I hope that I have influenced Ray, made him more human. I want this to be the sign that there is a cure, that we’re somehow making Ray better. But my reasons are far from altruistic. Perhaps Dief is right about my feelings toward Ray. All I really know is that I don’t want to lose him.

And that thought terrifies me.

#####################

After Fraser’s asleep, Dief at his side, it’s just V and me keeping watch. Only V is paying more attention to me than keeping an eye out for trouble. It’s like he’s studying me; I’m really confused. He’s known me for… well, as long as I can remember, however long that is.

I glare at him when he won’t stop with the staring. He huffs and rolls his eyes. It feels normal, but there’s something still off.

“What?” I ask, annoyed.

He cuts a glance to the door, then gives me a knowing look.

“Fffriend,” I tell him. The look I get in return tells me he’s not buying it.

“Followed you,” he reminds me. “Saw.”

I get what he’s implying and decide to ignore it, which V seems to find amusing. He shakes his head and pats me on the shoulder as he shuffles past.

I let him walk away, frustrated that he’s bringing up stuff I’ve been trying to avoid. Not that I can. As cool as it is to see V, him finding us has brought some things to my attention that I really didn’t need to know. Mostly about how I feel about Fraser. Which I thought was buddies, like what V and I have only with more talking, at least on Fraser’s part. Now that I’m with them both, I can’t lie to myself any more.

Not that V and I aren’t friends, because we are. But the longer I’m around Fraser, the more I remember what being Human was like. Not only that, the more Human I feel, and it sucks. Which is ironic, considering a couple of days ago feeling something was all I wanted.

Here’s the problem: I have definite feelings about Fraser specifically. I’m grateful to him, for trusting me, for listening to me. For treating me like more than a walking corpse. For being my friend. But it’s more than that, because I’m pretty sure friendship and gratitude shouldn’t make me want to lose myself in his eyes, or spend all my time with him. Shouldn’t make my stomach clench when I look at him, or make me do all sorts of crazy things for him.

Then there’s the physical stuff, none of which I have any clue what to do with. I find myself watching his mouth. Wondering what it would feel like to press my lips against his. How he would taste, and not in the I want to eat you kind of way. None of that is anything I’ve ever felt for another Infected. Or any Human I’ve ever seen until now. Until Fraser. I think I could lose myself, kissing him. But I’ll never find out, because if I kiss him, I’m pretty sure I’d be dooming him to be like me. If I ever heard exactly how the infection is spread, I don’t remember it now, but I know what I’ve seen. Bites definitely do it, unless the brain is eaten. Blood, or whatever we have that passes for it? Maybe. I’ve been careful so far. It seems like touching is okay, and I’ve kept to the idea that bodily fluids? Not so much. Even when I was smearing stuff on Fraser’s face, I kept it away from his mouth.

Not that it matters anyhow, which is why I’ve been doing my best to ignore it all. Because I am absolutely sure the last thing Fraser would want is someone like me.

********

We head out the next morning. I slept a little, and I’m pretty sure V did too, though he isn’t admitting it. Maybe he’s worried if he does, Fraser will insist he go with us. I don’t know. I’m still not Hungry, and neither is V.

The hiking we do is pretty easy. Not surprisingly, we’re left alone. The wooded areas aren’t that traveled, plus having V and I around helps confuse the scent of Human.

We’ve been walking for probably a couple of hours (I don’t have much of a time sense, but the sun’s definitely higher than it was) when things change. Dief’s been scouting ahead, Fraser in the middle and V and I bringing up the rear. Dief comes back, wagging his tail and yipping at Fraser. Fraser's eyes light up and he begins talking excitedly with the half-wolf. V shoots me a look, and I know what he's thinking. I shake my head; Fraser's not crazy. "Talk to each other," I tell him, gesturing between the two.

V gives me a look like he's sure I'm fucking with him. I stare back until he shrugs. I mean really, we're walking talking dead men - how is a guy that can understand animals any harder to believe?

Fraser's smiling as he makes his way over to us. "Dief says there's a patrol not far from here." V and I both take a step back at that, but Fraser's shaking his head and holding up his hands. "No, really, it's all right. Buck is with them."

I can tell that's supposed to be reassuring, but it means nothing to me. Fraser realizes it, adding, "He's a close friend of my family. I've known him my entire life. If anyone will listen, and try to understand, it's him."

V doesn't look convinced. Not that I am either, but if Fraser's sure, I'll take his word for it. Sounds better than walking into wherever Fraser’s home base is. I start to nod, but stop at V's hand on my arm.

"Ba-ad idea," he says.

I wrack what's left of my brain for an argument that will work on him. But honestly, I don't have one. I'm willing to go with Fraser because the alternative of being left behind sounds worse. V has no reason to feel that way. I turn my attention to Fraser. "Safe?"

I know V well enough to know he’s only with us now because he wants to take me back once Fraser and Dief are safe.

Fraser shakes his head, and it looks like it breaks his heart to do it. "I don't know, not enough to guarantee anything. But I can promise I'll do my best to keep you both from harm."

It won't be enough for V; I know it. "I go," I tell Fraser, then point at V. "You stay away. M-meet later."

Fraser nods slowly. "That might be for the best. This is going to be a lot for them to take in, and having only one of you there would make everyone less nervous.” He turns his attention to V. “Dief and I know this area well. He can lead you somewhere safely away from the patrol route, and come for you later when it's safe to do so."

That's a pretty good plan, actually. V seems to agree, though I can tell he still doesn't like the idea of me going into what could be a deathtrap.

"Have to sh-show them, too," I remind him. "See us changing."

I can tell by the slump of his shoulders when he finally agrees.

“C-careful,” he tells me somberly when Fraser and Dief have the meet up place sorted out.

“Al-ways am,” I respond with a grin.

He rolls his eyes and cuffs the back of my head as he walks past me. I would never tell him this, but part of me is glad V isn’t coming along. Because there’s a chance this will all go south, and if it does, I don’t want him there. What we have isn’t much, but at least this way he still has a fighting chance.

********

I’d like to say I was confident about this plan, but that would be lying. I mean, I’m sure Fraser meant what he’d said, but that didn’t guarantee anything. I brush at my clothes as we walk and finger-comb my hair. Maybe if I don’t look like a mindless flesh-eating corpse, they’ll at least give me a chance.

Fraser notices and smiles. “You’re fine, Ray. Though I have to admit I’m glad that you’re cleaned up.” He makes a vague gesture toward my face. Yeah, gore would have made things more awkward, and we already have enough of that, I’m sure.

I try to match Fraser’s stride, but my legs just aren’t as agile as his. I guess it’s easier to play dead than to try and imitate a living person. I settle on a something that doesn’t seem too shuffly, and stick close to Fraser.

All too soon for my liking I hear noises up ahead. Fraser does too; he stops, looks me over once more, and puts a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it once. “We’ll be fine, Ray. I’ll make certain of it.”

“Let you do th-the talking,” I reply, attempting a wink.

There’s laughter in his eyes when he answers. “That’s probably for the best.”

There’s a funny feeling in my gut when he gives me one more reassuring shoulder squeeze before letting go and moving forward. I stick close, but a little behind him. This is Fraser’s show now. We haven’t gone more than a few paces when Fraser stops and calls out a string of numbers and letters. A handful of very tense seconds later, someone returns with their own sequence, which Fraser replies to immediately.

“We’re to stay here,” he leans back and whispers. Fine by me, but I scoot a little farther back behind him, wishing for a second that we weren’t almost the same height. Hiding sounds pretty good right now.

********

Turns out the patrol is four guys – one older, the other two maybe in their twenties, and a girl – woman, that is. The older guy and woman seem happy to see Fraser; the other two look bored. I stay as out of sight as I can, not that I think it will do me any good.

They don’t seem to notice me at first, though, or at least they don’t see what I am, what with the afternoon light mottling my face as it streams through the leaves. There’s smiles, and the woman starts forward, but then I’m spotted, or maybe the fact that Fraser hasn’t moved tips them off that something’s hinky, I don’t know. In any case, everyone stops, and I can see the two younger guys starting to play with their downturned rifles.

“Benton, we thought we’d lost you,” the older guy says. I can hear the confusion in his voice.

“I was fortunate,” Fraser replies. ‘The rest of my group wasn’t.”

“Dief?” The woman asks softly.

“He’s fine, Maggie,” Fraser assures her. “He’s doing a bit of scouting, but he’s safe.”

She gives him a relieved smile, then darts her gaze back toward me. The other three have been watching me too while they talked. For my part, I’ve been trying not to make eye contact, or seem in any way threatening.

Fraser catches the looks, of course; I see his back stiffen as he steels himself for this next part. I shift just enough to brush my hand against his back, out of sight of the others. I feel him relax just a little and am struck again by how amazing this is, my being here, him trusting me.

“I wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Ray,” Fraser says, tilting his head to indicate me. “He saved my life.”

That’s my cue, I guess. I shuffle over a few steps, still a little behind Fraser but in clear view, and wave. “Hi,” I say, trying for what I hope comes across as a smile.

I don’t think it matters how friendly I am; they figure me out right away, and the weapons come up, all aimed at me. Fraser reaches back and shifts so I’m behind him.

“Fraser are you crazy?” one of the bored ones says. “That guy is Infected – he’ll kill you!”

“I know what Ray is,” Fraser replies. “And he isn’t what you believe. He deserves a chance.”

Yeah, nobody’s buying that.

“That thing doesn’t deserve anything,” the second guy chimes in, and if looks could kill I’d be even deader than I am. “It killed our people, Fraser!”

Fraser tilts his gaze toward me. What can I say? It’s the truth and we both know it. And yeah, the most recent guy I killed was a jerk, if his memories are anything to go by, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to die. None of them did.

“Are we any better?” Fraser asks. “We killed his people as well.”

Glaring Guy sneers. “It doesn’t have people – it’s a corpse. It doesn’t have anything.”

“I’m sorry, Benton,” Buck cuts in, and surprisingly, he actually sounds like he means it. “We can’t just let one of the Infected roam freely. Perhaps this one is different, but it could just be a temporary state. Are you willing to risk that?”

“Ray hasn’t tried to hurt me once, and he had ample opportunity,” Fraser replies. “He’s even defended me against other Infected.” He turns his attention to Buck, and I find myself hoping Fraser was right about the guy being willing to listen.

“Ray is different,” Fraser says. “He’s… we think he might be curing himself somehow. That’s why he’s here, Buck.”

Glaring Guy looks like he wants to say something, but a look from Buck stops him. Whoever this friend of Fraser’s is, he’s got some pull, I’ll give him that. Makes sense now why Fraser thought talking to the guy might be a good idea.

Buck looks from Fraser to me, then back to Fraser again. “That may be true, Benton, but are you willing to risk everyone you know on your hypothesis? Can you guarantee that this Infected -”

“Ray,” Fraser interjects.

“That Ray,” Buck goes on smoothly, “will be able to control himself? Because while I don’t believe you’re lying, dear boy, you’re not going to be able to convince me that there’s no danger here.”

I can tell Fraser’s conflicted; wish I had a way to help but Buck’s right. We have no way of knowing what’s really going on with me, so we can’t tell him for sure I won’t go on a killing spree if I’m around more people. I mean, I’m not feeling it now, haven’t been Hungry in days, but there’s too many unknowns. Fraser sees it too, but can’t admit it.

“What do you suggest then?” he asks. “I won’t let him be killed. I promised him safety.”

Glaring Guy laughs, a loud, ugly sound that reminds me of a Skel’s cry. Buck ignores it, considering.

“In good conscience, we can’t let him go. Just how sure are you that there’s some sort of change going on?”

Fraser looks to me. “Diff-erent.” I get out and tap my head, then my chest. “More here than b-before.”

“Well, he’s talking. That’s something,” Buck says. “And he hasn’t tried to attack any of us. Maybe we could take him. But that isn’t my decision to make.” He looks to the others. “Are any of you willing to take this news back, find out what we should do next?”

That worries me. These guys don’t know me from Adam, and they obviously don’t believe a word of what Fraser’s saying. But if he goes to explain things and leaves me here? Don’t think there will be a me to come back to.

“I’ll go,” Maggie says, stepping forward. She doesn’t look too sure, but the smile she gives Fraser when he thanks her is warm and sincere. I don’t think she’ll deliberately screw him – us – over.

“All right,” Buck agrees. “Thank you, Maggie.” He points at Glaring Guy. “Mark, you’ll accompany her back. We will make camp here, and wait for a reply.”

Bored Guy doesn’t like that idea. “We didn’t bring any provisions!”

Both Fraser and Buck make a face at that. “There’s plenty here to live off of,” Buck tells him.

“And there’s water not too far off,” Fraser adds. “At most we’ll have to boil it to make certain it’s clear of contaminants.”

Bored Guy looks from Fraser to Buck sullenly; he’s not going to win this one and he knows it. “Fine, but we aren’t letting that -” he point to me, “roam around camp freely.”

“I agree. He needs to be under guard, and restrained.” Buck holds up a hand before Fraser can start to protest. “That’s how it has to be, Benton, and I think it’s more than fair.”

Fraser looks around. I follow his gaze; neither of us like what we see. Of them all, only Buck is looking at me with anything other than fear, disgust or outright hatred. I don’t think my chances are very good, especially if I can’t run or defend myself, but what choice do we have?

I step around Fraser before he can answer and hold out my hands like I’m waiting to be cuffed.

“Ray, no,” Fraser exhales, looking stricken. I shift so I’m facing him and nod toward my outstretched hands, trusting him to do the right thing. “Safe,” is all I can say.

********

Fraser volunteers to be the one to tie me to a tree, a solution that nobody seems happy with for various reasons. I don’t complain though; I know I’m lucky not to have a bullet in my brain. But Fraser apologizes both with words and looks, and I just shrug, hoping to get a smile out of him. It kind of works, though the worry never leaves his eyes. He knows as well as I do just how precarious my position here is.

Buck is eyeing us the entire time, watching Fraser more than me. He’s worried too, and not trying to hide it. One everyone’s sure I’m secure, Buck waves Fraser to him. They aren’t so far from me that I can’t hear them.

Buck has questions; of course he does. To his credit, he asks them objectively. Fraser responds with honesty and a minimum of defensiveness, getting Buck as up to speed as he can without blowing V’s cover. I’m a little surprised, but I appreciate that he’s protecting V. Not that I thought Fraser would rat V out, just that this Buck is obviously someone he cares for, respects. And Fraser doesn’t seem the type to like to lie to anyone.

I realize I’ve let my mind wander, and tune back into the conversation. Yeah, probably shouldn’t eavesdrop, but I’m not feeling real secure right now, so I’m hoping to hear something reassuring.

“You don’t seem happy to see us,” Buck says.

“I am,” Fraser says. “But… I’m not, if that makes sense.”

Buck shoots a glance my way. “You really like this Infect- Ray, don’t you?”

“He’s not what we’ve been told, Buck. Some of them are, don’t get me wrong, but Ray… he listens to music. He collects art. He makes jokes. And he saved my life. None of that lines up with what we’ve been told to believe.”

“If what you’re saying is true,” Buck holds up a hand, “and I’m not doubting you, so don’t get defensive, Benton Fraser. But you’re right – it’s nothing we’ve ever seen. Which means when we take him back, they’ll want to study him. You know that, don’t you?”

Fraser doesn’t answer for a long time. Too long. Long enough that I know he knows exactly what Buck’s talking about. “I’m hoping to dissuade them from that course of action.”

“Because you like him.”

“Because it’s the wrong thing to do. I don’t think studying Ray is the answer. If it was, scientists would have found a cure before now. I think it’s more than simple chemistry.”

Buck watches him, gaze sharp and knowing. Fraser sighs, shoulders sagging. “And yes, I care about him. But I wouldn’t risk you all because of that.”

“I know that, Benton,” Buck reassures him, a hand on Fraser’s upper arm. “Just, make sure you’re ready for what happens next.”

He leaves Fraser with those words. I watch, but Fraser never looks my way, instead walking off to settle himself by a tree. He’s not so far that I’m out of sight, but it feels like we’re miles apart.

#####################

Journal Entry: Day Two Hundred Fifty

I thought that what I wanted was to go home. But now I’m not so sure. While the last few days have been terrifying at times, and stressful in the extreme, I cannot deny that I’ve felt more alive than in longer than I can remember. And more importantly, I’m hopeful, a feeling I was beginning to despair of ever having again.

If I go back, what happens to Ray? I see now that he can’t come back with us. I’ve heard the others talking before the group split up. Of them all, only Buck is even trying to believe any of what I’ve said, despite the fact of Ray’s existence. Even Maggie is reluctant to see beyond what we’ve been trained to believe. If they’re a good example of what we’ll face once we’re home, I fear for Ray’s life.

No matter what I decide to do, he must be freed. If they don’t kill him outright, they’ll take him apart, try to discover what makes him different, and in doing so I feel they’ll destroy any chance of finding a cure.

So what do I do? Go back to my father and life behind walls, eking out an existence that’s barely more than surviving? Or do I stay out here, and try to change things?

And what will happen if I do go back? If I help Ray escape, but then leave him alone? Will the progress he’s made continue? Or will he regress or worse, become one of the Skels?

That prospect frightens me. Not because the Skels are so repugnant, though they are, but because I don’t want that to happen to Ray. Not if I can help stop it.

But it’s more than that. I don’t want him to leave. I don’t want to go without the friendship we’ve formed, the comfort of his presence… even one of his silly shrugs.

And as I’ve written before, the hope I’ve been feeling isn’t as general as it should be. It isn’t just that there might be a cure; it’s that Ray might be cured. I find myself wanting that more than I should, considering our short association, for reasons that aren’t entirely unselfish. I’m drawn to him. He’s endearing, and as such has become dear to me. I find myself wanting to know more about him, not to understand his existence, but to know him better. I find myself entertaining thoughts about him that are more than friendly. And, considering our current situation, impossible.

What should I do?

#####################

I have to say, being tied to a tree isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world. Not that they cared about that when they did it and hey, probably a couple of days ago I wouldn’t have cared either. But I notice and think that maybe it’s a good thing the ropes are kind of tight; not sure I’d still be standing on my own.

I wonder what’s going to happen next. I know this isn’t what Fraser hoped for, but I can’t say I’m surprised they didn’t take him at his word, and there was no way anything I said would make a dent. I mean, really, why would they listen to me? All I can hope for is that whatever they do is quick, painless, and that Fraser’s nowhere near me when it happens.

I’m still following that cheery train of thought when I see Fraser. It’s really late, or really early, I guess, depending on your point of view. Anyhow, dark is what it is, just the tiny glow of the small fire lighting the campsite. Fraser looks like he’s trying for stealthy and Bored Guy, who’s supposed to be guarding me, hasn’t spotted him, so I pretend I haven’t seen him. I watch silently as Fraser takes him out, quick and clean, knocked out cold. His eyes dart around, glittering in the firelight as he moves toward me.

If I were a better man, I'd tell him to stop, to leave me to whatever my fate will be. Hell, even a week ago I'd probably have been fine with whatever they were planning. But now... Fraser makes me want to live. Exist. Whatever it is I'm doing. So I find myself hoping he'll succeed in getting me free, and that both of us can escape. Because if I have to go back alone, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

He's smiling at me despite the concern in his eyes, reaching for the rope when a voice stops his hand.

"Benton. Please." Buck’s voice is quiet as he steps into view. He looks from Fraser to me and sighs. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

Good question there, Buck. I’ve been wondering about that one myself. I sag against the tree and resolve not to fight, figuring it will give Fraser a better chance. Because I don’t care what happens to me as long as Fraser is okay.

But Fraser just nods, a firm look on his face. “I can’t let you take Ray back, not if he’s to be experimented on,” he says as he starts to loosen the ropes. “And I can’t explain it, other than to say that I believe doing so will destroy possibly the last hope we have for finding a cure.”

“A bit full of yourself, don’t you think?”

“Very possibly,” Fraser replies, fingers working on a knot. “But you can’t deny that Ray isn’t like the other Infected we’ve seen. He thinks. He feels. And the longer we’re together, the more human he’s become. That has to mean something.”

Fraser eyes never leave mine as he starts to unwind the rope that’s bound my upper half to the tree. "You’ve heard the others as well as I have. I can't leave him to this, Buck. He doesn't deserve it."

Buck has let Fraser keep going, but I can’t see that happening for much longer, and when Buck decides Fraser’s wrong, he’s going to pull out his gun, and we can’t stop him. Best case scenario is I get away and Fraser stays. Because I know if they come after me, it won’t be to bring me back as anything but truly dead, and I can’t, I won’t let Fraser risk his life for my existence. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

“Son, there’s nothing you can do for him. You need to let us take him back. I’ll do my best to vouch for what you’ve said, but you have to let him go.” Buck’s voice is kind but firm. He really does care about Fraser; that much is obvious. But he’s not gonna let that get in the way of what he needs to do.

I want to tell Fraser that it’s okay. That I don’t regret a second of the time we’ve had. That if this is the end for me, I can die happy, because even if they can’t figure out what it is that makes me different, for a few days I got to live again. That it was worth it. That he’s worth it. But I can’t get the words out. I don’t think I could have even if I was still Human. So I just smile. “Keep you safe,” I tell him.

“You have,” Fraser agrees, smiling sadly at the familiar words. “I wish I could have done the same.” He reaches up, fingers gentle against my cheek; I lean into the touch. His eyes soften, and before I know what’s happening he moves closer and brushes his mouth against mine.

At the first touch of his lips to mine, I’m done. I’m lost. I can’t find it in myself to stop, even though I know it’s dangerous. Instead, I find myself kissing back, pressing my lips against his like I’ve wanted to for what feels like forever. Even if I had a perfect memory, I don’t think I’d remember a kiss better than this. It’s electrifying, sending a jolt through my entire body. Fraser grips me when I start shaking; I do my best to grab him back with the tips of my fingers and find out I’m not the only one feeling this; he’s shivering in my grasp.

But neither of us let go, instead deepening the kiss like we need it to live. He pulls my face closer and I wish my hands were free so I could slide them into his hair and see if it’s as soft as it looks. His hands slide up and down my arms before trailing down to take my hands in his. We tangle our fingers together desperately, never breaking the kiss.

I find myself praying to a God I don’t believe in that we haven’t just signed Fraser’s death warrant. And hate myself for not being able to stop.

We finally pull apart, both of us gasping, needing air, me included, which is something of a shock. Then I look at Fraser, and get an even bigger one. Because Fraser’s eyes have changed. They aren’t the dull empty gray of the Infected, thank God. In fact, they’re still blue, but they’re so bright they almost shine. I’m pretty sure human beings don’t have eyes that color.

I start to tell him whatever version of that I can get out of my mouth, but before I can, he reaches up and gently traces my cheek, fingers trailing up over my eyebrow. “Your eyes,” he tells me, voice full of wonder, “are bluer than the skies on a clear day. And so full of life they practically glow.”

Something’s pounding at my chest. No, wait, pounding in it. I wiggle around until the rope slides down to my waist and reach a hand up to feel. I stand there a second, amazed, then grab one of Fraser’s and pull it between us, holding it in place so his palm is flat against my chest. His eyes widen and he presses harder, staring at our hands. I’m holding my breath, something I haven’t had to do in who knows how long.

“Your heart… it’s beating,” Fraser whispers, wonder filling his voice. “You’re alive.”

I want to believe him, I do. More than anything I’ve ever wanted maybe. Because if I’m alive again, if I’m somehow cured, then that means that even though something’s obviously happened, I haven’t doomed Fraser.

“You’re alive,” Fraser repeats, a wide smile lighting his face. He pulls his hand from mine and wraps his arms around me as best he can with me still half-tied to a tree.

“Fraser,” I laugh, and try to wriggle out of his grip. He holds me tighter, laughing with me, then slides one hand up to the side of my face and kisses me again.

The sound of a throat clearing reminds us we aren’t alone. Fraser’s blushing when he pulls away. Buck’s looking completely astounded, which is only fair. I can’t believe what’s happened either. Determination fills Fraser’s face and he shifts to start untying me again. I do my best to help, mostly by shifting around to get out of the mess as soon as it’s loose enough. I may be alive again, but my fingers are still corpse-clumsy.

“Benton, what have you done?” Buck asks, horror lacing his voice.

“I’m not entirely certain,” Fraser says as he continues to work on the ropes. “But I don’t believe I’m Infected.”

Once I’m freed, Fraser stands and takes my hand, gripping it tightly. I squeeze back, a united front as Buck strides over to us. He reaches for his belt and I’m worried he’s gonna pull a gun, but instead it’s some weird device that he holds it up first to Fraser’s eyes, then mine.

He stares at it, shaking his head slowly. “You’re not, at least, not the way we’re used to detecting.” He looks up. “Neither of you are.”

I can feel Fraser relax a little at that. I do too, because the last thing I want is for Fraser to die because of me.

“May I?” Buck asks me, hand raised. I nod and step forward, hand still clasped in Fraser’s. Buck puts a hand on my chest and his eyes widen as he feels my heart thumping under his palm. I can’t help but grin and nod.

Buck pulls his hand back after a minute, still looking like he’s been hit with a two by four. “This is impossible,” he finally says, looking from me to Fraser.

Fraser and I share a smile. I’m good with impossible, as long as it doesn’t go south on us.

“I told you Ray was different,” Fraser says.

“That you did,” Buck admits with a relieved chuckle. “But you can’t tell me that it’s as easy as a kiss.”

“I don’t believe it is,” Fraser replies. “But I do think that making an emotional connection is key.”

Buck shakes his head. “You can’t expect people to go around trying to find an Infected to befriend. That’s suicide!”

“Maybe,” Fraser reluctantly admits. “But I’m willing to try.”

“Me too,” I add, because I am one hundred percent sure Fraser’s on to something. That what we need is to be connected to the living, see ourselves as what we used to be, that they aren’t a them, we’re an us. I don’t think it will work on everyone, but guys like V? Not that I want Fraser to try and kiss him – Fraser’s strictly my territory. But the friendship thing seemed to make a difference, and we can work with that. Yeah. I’m pretty sure we can bring some of them back.

“Perhaps,” Fraser starts. “Perhaps, once we get a few more of the Infected to where Ray was before, well, before we changed each other,” and yeah, there’s a blush there that I’m hard-pressed not to grin at – “we could send word to you, meet up with anyone willing to try and help.”

Buck’s expression grows serious as he realizes what Fraser means. “You’re not coming back.”

“Not now. We can’t. And given what just happened, we shouldn’t. There are others out there like Ray. We have to try to help them.”

Buck gives Fraser a wry smile and a shake of the head. “Your father will never understand. I’m seeing it with my own eyes and I’m not sure I believe it.”

Buck’s going to let us leave; I can see the relief hit Fraser.

“I know. But I hope someday that will change. Until then,” Fraser looks off into the distance, away from Buck, from me. “Until then, I have to do what I can to make things better. And I can’t do that from behind a barricade.”

Buck extends his hand; Fraser lets go of mine to meet him halfway, and the handshake quickly becomes a fierce hug.

Buck releases Fraser and turns to me. “You take care of him, watch out for him. And for God’s sake, don’t eat him,” he tells me.

I look from Fraser to Buck and stand up as straight and strong as I can. “Keep him safe.”

He blinks at that, then nods, his serious expression changing as a hint of a smile plays on his lips. “I may be crazy, but I believe you will,” he replies quietly.

“And you,” he says to Fraser, “you keep in touch. You know the routes we use, the routines. Send word when you can. I’ll do my best to help. And to explain this, though I have no idea how that’s going to work.”

********

We walk for hours, taking pains to keep our tracks to a minimum, and at the very least, leave a trail too confusing to lead anyone back to where we’re really going. V will still be waiting, I have no doubt.

We stop to watch the sun rise, sharp and bright on the horizon. I’m not the type to believe in signs or omens, but I’ll take this one.

“Are you alright?” Fraser asks me.

I take a minute to think about it. It’s strange, being alive again, or whatever it is that I am now. Sometimes I have to remember to breathe, like my body hasn’t quite got the memo it’s supposed to be doing that again. And while I’m sure it isn’t true, part of me thinks I can feel the blood running through my veins, an almost uncomfortable feeling, like ants just under my skin.

But I’m not gonna complain. This is a thousand times better than what I was, and a million times better than what I would have become.

Fraser’s waiting for an answer. I still have trouble talking, so, “Getting there,” is all I say. It’s the truth.

“It's a good day to travel,” he says, and takes my hand, squeezing it.

I squeeze back, loving the connection, the feel of warm skin against mine. I tilt my head back to let the sun shine on my face. The sky is clear and blue as his eyes.

“Yes. It is,” I agree.

Sunny days rock.