He shouldn’t have shot that guy, he shouldn't have shot that guy. What was wrong with him, what had he become? Trigger happy idiot. This what the world was like now. Dead people coming back to life and eating them, psycho dictators carving out their own little fiefdoms among the ruins, and people like him who hated guns panicking and blowing the heads off of other panicky people pointing them.
The way Luke had looked at him afterwards, the shock and anger in his eyes. Nick cringed. He hated himself, hated that he had let Luke down, hated that he couldn’t be more like him.
But they had kept on going, they had found the ski lodge, and Clementine had found his watch, so there was that.
He wished he had never killed anyone - not that guy on the bridge, not his poor infected mother, not the legions of nameless, faceless undead they’d been fighting off for months. And if wishes were horses he’d ride the fuck out of here on the fastest one, with Luke behind him and Clem up front.
“Let’s go inside,” Clementine said, and he nodded and got up, trying not to think about that guy who looked about his age clutching his throat as blood spurted out of it and falling sideways off the suspension bridge.
The lodge was homey, better decorated and tidier than the cabin. He sat across from Luke at dinner and tried not to think about Pete. Luke was worried about him, he knew, and they were all worried about Rebecca. How the hell would a newborn survive in a world like this, when seasoned hunters like Pete couldn’t even make it? Clementine sat down next to them, which cheered him up. She had made it this far, and she was what, eleven? Then that ornery Florida guy she knew, Kenny, came to their table and started making conversation. Nick had taken a dislike to him immediately, the way he thought he knew best about everything, the way he bossed his gilfriend Sarita around, the fact that he was just a general loudmouth. He could tell Luke didn’t like him either, but he was Clem’s friend and they were fellow guests of Walter, so they had to try and get along.
“So it’s Luke...and Nick. Luke and Nick. You guys sure do look like a match.”
Nick froze, a spoonful of beans halfway to his mouth. He put it back in the bowl. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just saying, you two look like good friends.”
Smug asshole. That wasn’t what he was saying. Nick was about to tell him to shut the fuck up, when Luke shot him a look - *don’t* - and changed the subject.
Nick fumed. Was it so obvious that he had a thing for Luke that some hick fisherman from Gatorfuck, Florida could see it? Perhaps he should be happy - if they looked like a match, then maybe they should be. He tried to put Kenny's remark out of his mind and focus back on the conversation.
Luke pulled him aside after they had finished eating and stood up from the table. “Listen, don’t start shit with that guy. He’s just trying to rile us up and you both have tempers.”
"Maybe he was right," Nick wanted to say. "Don’t you think we’re a match?" But he just nodded glumly.
And then there was the picture. Clem and Luke had tried to keep him from seeing it at first, but he could tell they were hiding something. Then they wanted him to keep what he'd done from Walter, which made him feel even worse. Walter had taken them in, cooked them dinner, been an all-around gracious host, and he had shot the man’s partner - *partner* - which was more serious than boyfriend, and goddam could he feel any more terrible right now?
Nick wanted to wink out of existence, but he couldn’t ‘cause the noise from the wind powered generator was drawing walkers, and they had to shut it off and clear them out.
And then Walter found Matthew’s knife in their belongings and Nick couldn’t keep the truth from him any longer. It felt awful telling him, blurting out excuses, apologies, but a weight had lifted from him and there was no time for Walter to do anything to Nick because walkers were swarming them.
Nick survived, barely. One of them had almost taken a chunk out of his throat, but Walter had shot it, and thank god the man wasn’t vindictive.
Then Carver and his minions rounded them up and Luke disappeared. Nick prayed he wasn’t dead or bitten.
They were cuffed and locked up in a van headed back to Howe’s Hardware - Carver’s Kingdom, the place they’d fled weeks ago, and here they were back at square one with Pete dead and Luke missing. Fuck. At least Clementine was with them this time. And maybe it was better that Luke had not been captured. That way he was free to follow them to Howe’s and help them escape. If he survived somehow, out there on his own.
Howe’s was as they’d left it - a prison camp. There were some new faces; Mike, a black guy who looked a few years older than him and wanted to be left alone, and Jane, a quiet, tough looking woman maybe a year or two younger with a dykey haircut. She looked like the girls he used to go out with, back when he thought he could be interested in girls.
The bunks were still hard as shit, and the showers were cold, but at least there were showers. He was able to wash his ratty clothes too.
He was put to work with Jane, reinforcing fences around the compound. She worked fast and didn’t talk much. Still, he was able to get to know her a little, and figured she’d be up for joining them on their second break out, and that she would come in handy when doing so.
Jane was smart. Nick saw how she flirted with Carver’s lunkhead guard dog Troy, smirking at him when he turned his back. He grinned at her knowingly after Troy left to doubtless harass another group of Carver’s prisoners.
“So what did you do, back before all of this?”
“Lab geek,” she said. “You?”
“We’re getting out of here in a bit. Want to join us?”
“I’m not good with groups.” She paused. “But I’ll come along for a little while. Can’t stand this place.”
“Yeah, that’s why we left the first time. Luke tried to reason with Carver. Back in the early days here he was a lot more reasonable. But he kept getting worse, more tyrannical.”
“The ones who want power are the worst ones to be in power," she remarked. "Who’s Luke?”
“Oh, he’s a friend of mine. Since age six, actually.”
“That’s a long time.”
“So I guess he...didn’t make it.”
“He was outside the ski lodge we were staying at when Carver and his people rounded us up. If anyone can survive this thing it’s him. Luke can always keep going, no matter what.”
“I wish my sister had been like that.” Jane frowned and dropped her gaze, busying herself with nailing down a fence post.
Nick could tell the conversation was over and wondered if Luke would ever show up. He had to be alive, ‘cause if he wasn’t, then Nick truly had lost everyone.
After they had finished putting up a new fence along one side of the compound, Nick was sent to a storeroom to gather materials for another one. While pilling slats into a crate, he heard footsteps behind him and spun around.
“Shhh, lemme close the door.”
It was now almost completely black, and Nick bumped into Luke as he stumbled forward.
“Whoa, careful there, buddy.”
“I knew you’d come back for us,” Nick said, putting his arms around him. Luke had grown so thin he could feel his ribs through his sweatshirt.
“Course I would.” He pulled back. “Listen, we don’t have a lot of time. I’ve already talked to Clem and asked her to get me a walkie talkie. Once she does that, we can all get the hell out of here.”
“How’s she gonna do that?”
“She’s Clem, she’ll figure it out. I just - shit, I’m feeling dizzy again.”
“Are you alright?”
“Not really, I haven’t eaten and slept in so long....” He trailed off and dropped to a crouch on the floor, leaning against a crate of nails for support.
Nick crouched down next to him. “You need to get some rest before you do anything else. I can try and bring you some food, or leave it for you somewhere.”
“Yeah, that would be good. Leave it in one of the crates in here, cover it up. I should get back to my hiding place in the comics shop, try to take a nap there.”
“Be careful, alright, Luke?” He squeezed his shoulder.
“You too, Nick.” Luke covered his hand with his own before standing up and opening the door a crack, peeking out to make sure none of Carver’s people were watching. Then he was gone.
Nick bent over, hands on his knees, and let out a sigh of relief. Luke was still alive, and he had found them. Nick had been right.
He hurried back with a crate of slats to the outdoor area where he and Jane had been working. She was sitting on the grass, leaning against the new fence and eating an apple that they had been given for lunch.
She looked at him curiously. "What took you so long?"
"Luke's here. He's gonna help us get out," Nick said in a low voice.
Jane raised her eyebrows and leaned forward. "For real?"
Nick nodded. "I need to get him some food though. He's half starved."
Jane chewed on the core of her apple. "Then he's in no shape to help us."
"Exactly. Which is why we need to get him into shape."
"Well, there's that." She pointed at a brown paper bag in front of them. "Your lunch."
He picked it up and opened it. There was a plastic spoon, a red delicious apple, a bottle of water, a packet of peanut butter crackers, and an instant chocolate pudding.
"Pretty slim pickins, I know."
Nick sighed and rolled it closed. He was hungry - they'd only been given weak cups of Nescafe and half a piece of stale toast for breakfast - but Luke needed it more.
"I have to go back and leave this for him."
"No, you'll arouse suspicion. You were already gone when they came round with lunch. I'll do it. If anyone asks I'll say you didn't bring enough slats."
"Alright. He said to leave it in one of the crates in there."
"You can have some of my water. I finished the pudding and crackers already, sorry." She handed him a half empty water bottle.
They worked through the afternoon, the sun hot on their backs, and Nick couldn't help worrying about Luke. What if he got sick from pushing himself too hard? What if he got caught? What if he got mistaken for a walker and shot?
Feeling dizzy from working all day on an almost empty stomach, he just about collapsed after they put up the rest of the fence, grabbing onto the post at the end to keep himself upright.
Jane came around back of Nick, gripping his elbows to support him. "Take it easy."
He staggered toward the now empty crate he'd carried and sat down with his back against it.
"We're done, right?" Nick pulled his cap off and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His head had started to ache and his joints hurt like crazy. The hard cots they'd spent the past night on had never felt so inviting.
"Yeah, we just have to clean up. I'll take the crate back. You should try and lie down or something. Say you're sick if anyone comes round."
The sun would be setting soon and it had grown cooler. Nick pulled his cap over his eyes and lay on his back in the grass.
He dreamed he was back at college, at one of the parties Luke had thrown at their apartment. He didn't like the idea of a large group of drunk and stoned undergraduates trashing their place when he still had finals to study for, but Luke had insisted, because he liked parties, and getting drunk with people, and dancing like an idiot, and trying to impress girls by talking to them about what Marina Abramović's performances *mean*, or how we are all living in the simulacrum or some other stupid shit that sounds smart because it's wrapped up in pseudo-intellectual language, and at least he's learning how to build things.
He couldn't say no to Luke, though. He could never do that. So chipped in for the booze, and the nachos, and the salsa and guacamole, and the paper plates and plastic cutlery, and he helped lay everything out, and he said hi to people, and pretended to be interested when they talked to him about their majors or what they did on spring break, or what internships they were applying for, or other boring shit. Like, why didn't people here have anything interesting to say? Didn't they read anything besides celebrity tweets and Buzzfeed listicles? He read Popular Mechanics and Scientific American regularly. He was currently in the middle of Guns, Germs, and Steel. And he still found time to complete his coursework and maintain at least a 3.0 GPA to keep his scholarship. Why did just waking up and coming to lecture on time seem to be so hard for everybody else?
"Having fun?" Luke said. He had come over to where Nick was sitting on the end of the large couch in their living room, sipping a plastic cup of Guinness and reading an article about how the Mars rovers were assembled, ignoring the couple on the other end who were alternating between making out and sharing a joint, but not ignoring the ash falling from it to their carpet.
"Can't you tell?"
Luke laughed and fell back, a little unsteadily, onto the couch, his drink, something bluish and icy - probably the vodka punch they'd made - spilling a little onto Nick's jeans. Luke was drunk, but no more than he usually got at parties.
He clapped a hand on Nick's shoulder, and Nick shoved his phone into his pocket, protecting it from any additional punch spillage.
"Listen, I know this isn't your scene, but I really appreciate you being okay with this and chipping in and helping set up and everything. Thanks." He moved his hand to the back of Nick's neck. Luke always got even friendlier and touchier when he was drunk. Nick just got sadder. His dad would get angry, but Nick tried not to think about him.
"You're welcome," Nick said. "You can thank me by kicking everyone out and putting your hands all over me," he didn't add. "Get laid yet?" he asked instead.
"I got a couple of balls in the air - maybe you can help me decide," he replied, leaning in closer, and Nick could smell the vodka and fruit juice on his breath. "Been talking to a skinny readhead, long wavy hair, dance major, and also a girl with curves and hair died half blue and half green, cut short, studying cognitive science. What do you think?"
"Blue green hair girl all the way. The chlorine algae look always makes me hard. Plus, curves, and she's smart. The other one - how is dance even a major?"
"Whoa, I'm not looking for smart, I'm looking for multiple orgasms and scratch marks down my back. And if she's a dancer she probably curl herself into a pretzel." He grinned. "Thanks for helping me decide, though."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Happy to help."
Then the scene changed and he was standing on the suspension bridge behind Luke and Clementine, pointing his shotgun at Matthew. Luke was waving his arms and yelling something at him, but he couldn't hear it and he pulled the trigger. The shot echoed out over the hills around them and he staggered back from the kick. Luke was staring at him wide-eyed, clutching his neck where blood had started to stream out. Clementine was screaming his name, and he took a couple shaky steps to the left and fell off the side of the bridge into the ravine.
Nick was shocked awake by a kick in his side. He rolled over, groaning and clutching it.
"What the fuck are you doing sleeping on the job?" Troy growled, standing over him.
Nick sat up, rubbing the area beneath his ribs on his right side where a bruise was no doubt forming. "We're finished."
"Hmph." He scowled at the fence, then looked around. "Where's Jane?"
"Putting the empty crate back."
"Well, when she's back, tell her to meet me over by the showers. And then get back to the warehouse."
"Sir, yes sir," Nick said, saluting.
"Knock it off, faggot," Troy sneered at him. "I could kick your ass right now and nobody would stop me." He spit on the ground next to where Nick was sitting, its white flecks disappearing into the grass. "And you're never gonna get with her - I've seen the way you look at her. She's with me, got it?"
Nick giggled. He was feeling faint again, and woozy from the catnap. It was like all the assholes in Tennessee who'd survived had come to serve Lord William Carver the first of Howe's Hardware. "Troy, do you even know what a faggot is?"
His eyes blazed. "Fuck you!"
Nick put his palm out, gesturing toward Troy. "There you are."
This time Troy kicked him in the chest, sending him flat on his back, pain flaring through him. Nick bit back a groan, not wanting to give him any more satisfaction.
"Troy, what the hell are you doing?" That was Jane's voice. Nick couldn't see her though, he was staring up at the darkening sky, clutching his chest.
"Showing this little queer who's boss. Hey, we have a bit of time till dinner. I want you to come with me."
"Uh, lemme just check if he's okay first. He wasn't feeling so well."
"That's cause he's a fuckin' pussy."
Jane appeared above him, looking concerned. "Are you alright? What did you say to him?"
Nick managed to push himself up on his elbows. "He started it. He's called me a faggot, a queer, and a pussy. If he calls me a cocksucker I think that's bingo."
Jane covered her mouth to surpress a laugh. "Just try to go along with everything without being a smartass. You'll save yourself a lot of pain."
He nodded and smiled ruefully at her. "Have a good time."
"Don't even," Jane mouthed, and walked back to Troy. "Lead the way."
Nick staggered back to the warehouse, his chest and side throbbing. He would try to take a shower before dinner. It would probably make him feel better.
When he walked into the main room where their bunks were, a ring of people had gathered, with Carver in the center. He was standing over someone and beating them.
Nick got closer.
Fuck, it was Luke. Carver had him on the ground and was kicking the shit out of him. Nick pushed his way through the bodies in front of him.
"Found this traitor stealing food," Carver spat, his knuckles smeared with blood. Luke's lip was split, and blood and saliva trailed down his chin onto the front of his sweatshirt. He grimaced and clutched at his ribs.
"This is what we do to traitors here." Carver pulled Luke up by the collar and cocked his fist.
"Get the fuck away from him," Nick snarled.
Tavia, who was standing behind Carver, aimed her rifle at Nick.
Carver let go of Luke's shirt and he felt back to the ground, groaning.
"Or what?" Carver said, looking amused.
"I'll kill you," Nick replied, his eyes cold blue points of light.
Carver chuckled. "You've got spirit, boy."
Before he could tell Carver that he wasn't his fucking boy, Nick felt a hand pull at the back of his shirt.
"Don't, Nick," Carlos said. "You'll just get yourself shot."
Carver started speaking again. A walkie talkie had been found on Luke and another had gone missing from his office. Whoever had taken it had better give it up now or he would beat Luke to a pulp.
There was a movement from the crowd and he heard Clementine start to say something, but Kenny cut her off. Kenny waved the walkie talkie in front of him and stepped forward to hand it to Carver.
Like Nick, Kenny had a temper, and he couldn't resist provoking Carver's wrath. Carver proceeded to beat Kenny so badly his eye popped, and Nick wondered if he really would kill him, but finally the unhinged tyrant stopped and left them to tend to him.
While Carlos was trying to patch Kenny up, Nick went over to Luke, who was still grimacing and clutching at his left side.
"Luke, fuck, he really did a did a number on you." Nick pulled off the black Chasers t-shirt he wore over his long sleeved white shirt and wiped the blood from Luke's face.
"Think he might've cracked a rib," Luke murmured. "God, it was so stupid of me, getting caught like that."
"Don't say that, you're the smartest guy I know."
Luke smiled painfully, teeth pink behind his swollen lower lip. "You were always the smarter one. Though threatening to kill Carver was pretty fucking stupid."
"He said I had spirit, *boy*."
"Yeah, okay, badass."
After Carlos had done all he could for Kenny for the time being, and Sarita was looking after him, they clustered around Luke, who had managed to sit up, leaning against the lockers, and discussed escape plans.
They decided to run as soon as possible, in the chaos that was sure to ensue when walkers advanced on the compound, with a little help from the store's speaker system. Jane's strategy of camouflaging themselves with walker guts made a nauseating kind of sense. Nick wondered if Luke was ready for something like this. Even his resilience had to have a breaking point, and he had not wanted to move on to escape plan B this soon. And then there was Kenny, who looked like a veteran with his eye-patch and scraggly beard. But they would have to make do.
Gathering up, with Bonnie's help, whatever food and weapons they could find, they prepared to leave Howe's Hardware for the last time. Clementine would sneak into the office and set off the loudspeaker, drawing the walkers and distracting the guards, and they would have an opening.
They were about to take that opening when Carver showed up, faster than anticipated. He waved his gun at them, ranting about Rebecca and the child she was carrying that he, likely the father, was obsessed with.
Then just about the coolest thing Nick had ever seen happened. It was like something out of a movie - Clementine, who had crawled onto the overhead piping from the office, jumped on top of Carver, knocking him forward so that Kenny could punch him in the face and Luke could disarm him. Nick almost applauded. He wanted to spin Clementine around the room and toss her in the air. But they had to get going. And he didn't need to watch Kenny bludgeon Carver; it was worse than shooting a deer.
And then they were outside the compound, their faces and clothing smeared with the foul smelling innards of the undead.
Troy had tried to stop them on the way out, but Jane did the second coolest thing he had ever seen, and shot him right smack in his dick. He would have to high five her for that after they got through the herd.
Once the walkers reached them, their camouflage seemed to work, and they could pass through them safely. But Sarah was freaking out about being so close to so many of them. Carlos tried to calm her, but aroused the nearest walkers and got attacked, which brought Sarah to hysterics. She ran off, shrieking, and Luke headed after her.
Typical Luke, everyone's big brother, Nick thought, following him.
Carver's people were shooting at them, at the walkers, at anything. Every gunshot was like a thundercrack, walkers dropping left and right in front of them. Nick felt like he was in a war zone, and in a way he was.
Another thundercrack, and his left shoulder was on fire. He cried out in pain and grabbed it, and his hand was soon soaked in blood.
Shit, this was bad. The bleeding might alert the walkers, who were everywhere, and they were still being shot at relentlessly. He looked around. The wound had slowed him down and Luke and Sarah were now far ahead of him. There was a forest to the left. If he went in there, maybe he could get away from the crowd of walkers and tie his t-shirt around the wound. Then he could try and catch up with the others.
Nick slowed down, keeping his hand pressed onto his shoulder, and turned left towards the trees. The pain was blinding. He gritted his teeth and hoped the adrenaline would power him through the rest of the walkers in front of him till he made it into the forest and could try and fix himself up.
Panting, Nick staggered into the forest. It was thick and dark inside, and he stumbled blindly through the trees till he felt he was deep enough in to stop. Fortunately, the bullet had only grazed him, and the wound had stopped bleeding, but he felt lightheaded after losing so much blood. He leaned against a tree, pulled off his t-shirt, and tied it around his throbbing shoulder.
After catching his breath, Nick headed back through the trees toward the field in front of Howe's to regroup with the others. But when he failed to reach the edge of the forest after several minutes he realized he must have gotten turned around in the dark and had been walking in the wrong direction. Cursing in frustration, he tried to retrace his footsteps, but he was utterly lost.
"I'm gonna die here. All alone," he muttered to the trees. "Trapped in this fuckin' forest."
He felt completely exhausted and at his wit's end, just about ready to collapse. But somehow, Nick urged himself onward. He walked in near darkness, almost bumping into tree trunks every now and then, and wondered what Luke was doing, if he had caught up to Sarah and had saved her from the walkers, if he was looking for Nick, or Clementine. If anyone had made it through the walkers it was Clementine, he thought. Jane too. Carlos was probably dead. That meant they were without a doctor, which would make Rebecca's labor even more difficult, if she was still alive.
The trees started to thin out. Nick perked up. Maybe now he could get out of here and finally catch up to them. They were all supposed to reconvene at a small civil war museum Luke had found on his map a little ways past the field. But when Nick stepped out of the forest, instead of stepping into a grass field, he stepped onto road.