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Tread Softly and Carry a Big Gun

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Fuck, it’s hot out. I stop my plodding walk for a moment to shield my burning face and look vaguely at the sky. The sun is maybe... halfway down the afternoon sky? A bit higher? Best guess would be about 3 PM, give or take...

Again I curse the damned bastards that broke my watch. Fucking Scavs... Next time I see one of those shitty masks, I’m ripping it off. Damn the consequences; I’d rather have nightmares and maybe get sick than bite back my rage again.

So much for trying to play nice... All that got me was even less food and a handful more bruises and cuts. Oh yeah, and they took my FUCKING CANTEEN!! God... If I don’t find shelter soon, I’m gonna pass out from heatstroke.

My head pounds as I take another step, and that estimate of ‘soon’ plummets to ‘NOW’; I sway, lightheaded, and stumble, trying to keep my feet under me.

A soft crunch behind me is all the warning I have before someone’s arms slip under mine, just in time to catch me as my knees give way. Darkness swirls around the edges of my vision, and white spots dance in front of my eyes, making it almost impossible to see even though I hold stubbornly to consciousness, if barely. I’m vaguely aware of being swept up in someone’s arms―someone extremely strong, because I’m not exactly light―but I can’t tell who, or where they’re taking me.

Fuck, if it’s a Scav...

I’m dead. So dead. I’m weakened from no sleep, no water, and very little food. Even one Scav is enough to kill me right now. They’ll skin me alive, bake my skin, and boil the rest of me in a stew.

I don’t even try to fight. Why bother at this point? I won’t last a day anyway. I lean on the guy’s shoulder and pass out.

――

The crackling pops of a fire wake me, and I’m amazed I don’t feel hot. It takes me a full three seconds to realise I’m not spitroasting on a log, nor am I tied up in a pot. It takes me another two seconds to realise I’m not tied up at all.

I sit up sharply, and immediately regret it; my head throbs like it’s trying to explode with every heartbeat, and I get so woozy for a second that I almost fall over. A low, broken groan chokes past my desert-dry throat, and an instant later, someone is by my side, one hand steadying me by the shoulder, the other offering a canteen. I grab for it.

“Whoa, slow down,” a deep voice warns, pulling the canteen away a bit and tightening his grip on it so I can’t wrench it away and drown myself.

“Fuck that; I’m dying, shithead,” I rasp, trying, and failing, to yank it out of his hand.

“You’re going to make yourself sick,” he insists, raising the canteen torturously slowly to my lips. “Drink it slowly, or it’ll all come back up.”

I try to force him to tip it up further, but he’s fucking strong as shit. Finally I give up and let him regulate my water intake. I’ll get him back later; the water is a bit on the warm side, but it slides down my throat like silk and right now, that’s all I care about.

When he pulls it away, I groan and reach for it again, but it’s already out of reach, so I turn a fierce glare on him.

Oh. Fuck. Me.

He’s got the kind of face any man would kill for; high cheekbones, not too prominent; a chiseled jaw strong enough to break diamonds; a sharp, brooding brow hooded over the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. They’re literal chips of crystalline ice; it’s actually terrifying.

“I’m not a Scav,” he notes pointedly. “You don’t have to stare at me like I’ll devour you at any moment.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly believe you.” I meant to huff it sarcastically, but it comes out a bit of a croak, and I grimace, tearing my gaze from his soul-piercing eyes.

“Forgiven,” he sighs, sounding resigned. He stands, and I look back at him, tensing. He’s got a typical Treader’s gear: cargo pants and boots, fitted shirt for mobility―shit, he’s ripped!―holsters under the arms and around his left thigh, spiked glove on his dominant right hand, and a MTU (mobile tracking unit) around his left wrist.

And I don’t even have my goddamn watch anymore.

“How long since you last ate?” he asks bluntly, moving to the fire that woke me. Now that my attention is there, and my thirst partially quenched, I smell the mouth-watering scent of cooking beans. My stomach instantly cramps and I double over with a groan.

“Fuck... I dunno; two days? Day and a half?”

“I don’t have any broth... I suppose I can mash the beans to a paste and water it down...” He swings a well-rigged metal arm away from the flames and lifts the small steaming pot off the hook―without a cloth to protect his hand, I might add―setting it to the side. “Don’t touch; you’ll burn yourself. I’ll be right back.”

I didn’t notice the shack. I mean, I subconsciously realised when I woke that I wasn’t in the sun anymore, but now I see where I really am: the porch of some old, old storage shack or something; an ancient wood structure that looks about two wrong breezes from falling over. The fire is a stone pit just off the lowest edge of the crooked porch, and my apparent saviour has to go around me to get to the door of the shack. He disappears inside for a moment, and careful listening only catches a few faint rustles of something hard scraping on wood. Then he’s back, fork and small bowl in hand.

“Yes, this is where I live,” he says without looking at me. I blink blankly, taken aback, as he crouches by the fire, setting the bowl beside the pot and bending the fork so the tines run perpendicular to the handle.

“I didn’t...”

“You didn’t have to,” he hums, balancing the fork on his knee and scooping a few spoonfuls of beans into the bowl. “You’re still staring at me, trying to figure me out.”

“Can you blame me?” I scoff, but he’s right; I can’t look away from him. There’s something... supernaturally beautiful about his movements. He’s so eerily graceful, and it fascinates me as much as it creeps me out.

“If you’ve recently had a run in with Scavs, as I suspect you have,” he pauses, glancing momentarily at me. “No, I can’t.” Then his gaze drops back to what he’s doing. He mashes the beans to a mushy pulp in the bowl with the fork.

“What gave it away?” I sneer, leaning back on my hands and glancing down for a split second to see that there’s a couple of layers of coarse blankets under me.

Fortunately, I’m still clothed; considering how many wounds hint at what lay underneath, I wouldn’t put it past an overly kind-hearted rescuer to strip me down to dress the wounds. Some of them have been dressed, but only the major ones.

Not so fortunately, my gear has been stripped from me.

“Wounds typical of Scav MO,” he replies to my rhetorical question, “and a notable lack of any worthwhile weapons.” Balancing the bowl on his knee now, he grabs his canteen and pours a little water into the bowl, mixing it in before bringing it over to me. I shift away from him and he stops, holding it out to me. “Drink it. You shouldn’t have anything solid until you’ve recovered some.”

Hunger overrules caution and I take the bowl, hesitating only to wrinkle my nose as the ugly brown goop in it. Then I knock it back in just a few seconds. It eases the gnawing in my stomach, but just as quickly, my gut protests, and for a moment, I’m sure I’m about to spew mushed beans and bile all over his boots.

“Easy,” he murmurs, gently pushing me down on the blankets. “Just relax for a minute; let it settle.”

“God, why does a starving body want to reject food, damn it...” The corner of his mouth twitches and he pats my shoulder lightly, turning away to take the bowl back to the pot.

“How did you become a Treader?” he asks casually, settling on the edge of the porch and leaning against the shack. He looks at ease, but I know from personal experience that Treaders are never off their guard around others, even others like themselves.

“Was a cop in the old world,” I grunt, not really wanting to talk about it but feeling like I owe him something for getting me out of the sun and giving me food and water. “Didn’t get along well with others. After the Pulse, and people began... warping into Scavs, I got tasked with defense in some suburb or another just outside Detroit; had to the leave the city. My partner, Hank, he... I dunno, ran off or something... Middle of a massive surge of Scavs attacking everyone... Defenses fell like a fucking house of cards and it turned into a mass evacuation. The few androids still left functional after the Pulse were repurposed to act as a militia of sorts to help with the evacuation and holding back Scavs... and hunting down the late-warpers, the ones that didn’t become Scavs until later, when they smelled blood. Always when they smelled blood. I got execution duty; had two androids under my supervision for it. One of them was a duplicate of Hank’s fucking boyfriend, an RK model. You know there’s only, like, three or four of those tin cans ever made? Hank’s little boy toy, Connor, vanished a few hours before the Pulse. Found out later, when I finally tracked Hank down, that he had a lead on the android’s whereabouts, and he wouldn’t let up, so I didn’t bother chasing him. Stuck to execution duty until one day, the duplicate suddenly starts spouting some nonsense and runs off, leaving my other android to handle a newly warped Scav alone. You can guess what happened.”

“Your scar?” he offers, tapping his nose to indicate the location of the long scar marring my already butt ugly features.

“Yeah, didn’t improve my mug,” I humph. “I put down the Scav, had to shut down the android too, so I went looking for the damn duplicate; was gonna give it a piece of my mind, and my boot. Found it with Jericho. Fucking deviants were shielded from the Pulse; the old tanker they made their base was used to transport spent nuclear rods back in the old days, before clean energy, so the hull blocked out whatever it was fucked up most android brains. Goddamn duplicate had gone deviant. I said screw it and went back to my post. Except it was all wiped out. Huge Scav attack right after I left; whole bunch of newly warped all at once.” I pause then, realising something, and run my hand through my hair as I take a moment to process it. “...Fuck... I guess I owe that fucking deviant...”

“Why didn’t you go looking for another Colony?” he asks after a long moment, prompting me gently. “There are plenty in the areas around old Detroit. Maybe Hank and Connor are at one of them?”

“Like I give a flying fuck,” I scoff, dropping my arms. It’s getting harder to see now that the sun is setting. “I’m not gonna be a fucking third wheel. Can’t stand all that stupid... mushy-gushy... nonsense.”

“So you became a Treader.”

“We’re loners,” I say bluntly, looking over at him. The fire, which has gone down a little, casts weird little shadows over his features. “We don’t belong anywhere. That’s what being a Treader means.”

“That’s not what I think being a Treader means,” he says softly, looking back at me with an inscrutable expression. “Treaders are protectors. The assassins. The ghosts in the night that keep Scavs away from Colonies. We live war, so that they don’t have to.”

“And when you die, who’s gonna bury your body?” I give him a pointed look. “Nobody. The fucking Scavs are gonna rip you apart for their next stew.”

“What happens to me after death doesn’t matter,” he shrugs slightly. “What matters is how I live my life.”

That shuts me up. I look up at the wood slats above me, turning those words over in my mind as the sun slides behind the horizon and he gets up to put out the fire; it’s a beacon to Scavs at night, and winter is going to be hell until we figure out ways to stay warm without waving a bright red flag to show the Scavs where we are.

“Sleep,” he says finally. “I’ll stand guard tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the river and clean your wounds properly.”