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.
Where the hell was he? Nick walked along the side of the road, looking for a sign that might orient him. If he could find something that pointed to a Civil War museum or Howe's Hardware, he might be able to find his way to the group. Would they even wait for him that long though? They had to sleep. But then, so did he. He couldn't exactly do it on the side of this road though. It would be safer to go back into the forest if he was going to lie down.
He sighed. It was empty, desolate, and lonely out here. He missed Luke, and Pete, and his mom, and everyone else. The apocalypse fucking sucked.
Nick was at the end of his rope. He couldn't walk another step without resting first. As he came to a stop he heard a sound in the distance.
Was that a car coming toward him?
Headlights pierced the darkness on the road ahead. It was!
He ran to the middle of the road and started waving his hands wildly as a car - no a van - came into view.
"Hey! Stop! Please, stop!"
It had been months since he'd seen a vehicle. The cabin they'd been hiding out in had been in such a deep area of the woods that even before the undead had taken over a vehicle was probably a rare sight.
Nick decided that this van would either have to stop or run him over.
Thankfully, it didn't run him over. The van came to a stop several feet ahead of him. The front door opened and a woman got out. Even with the headlights, it was too dark to see her features, or what the driver looked like, from this distance, but Nick did see the shotgun she was pointing at him.
"Please, can you help me?" He kept his hands above his head. "I've been shot and I'm lost."
She came closer. She was of medium height, with long light brown hair in a braid, and looked to be in her early thirties.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Nick. I used to be part of a group living in Howe's Hardware. Some of us escaped when a herd of walkers attacked the place. I got separated from the rest of my group."
She stopped pointing the shotgun at him and swung it over her shoulder, sighing. "Okay, okay. You can come with us for now. There's room in the back."
"Oh thank you so much, you've saved my life."
"Yeah, there's a lot of that going around these days."
He followed her to the van and she swung the side door open. There was an overhead light on inside and two children in the backseat peered up at him - a boy of about twelve wearing a knit cap and a girl of about ten with headphones on. Behind them were another row of seats, blankets, cardboard and plastic boxes, cans of petrol, packs of bottled water, and suitcases. He clambered onto an empty seat behind the kids.
"Thank you all so much, I thought I was gonna die out there."
The boy nodded at him warily and the girl smiled shyly. The driver, whose face he hadn't seen till now, turned around. He was hispanic and also looked to be in his early thirties, with shaggy brown hair and a little beard.
"Well you kinda forced our hand, you know," he said with a grin. He stuck his hand out. "I'm Javi."
Nick reached forward across the backseat and shook it. "Nick."
He was then introduced to the woman, Kate, and the kids, who it turns out, were neither Javi's nor Kate's, but her missing husband David's. Javi was his younger brother.
"So, can we drop you somewhere?" Javi said, when they were back on the road. Nick realized, blearily, that they were going in the opposite direction of Howe's and the Civil War museum.
"Um, actually you're driving away from where I was supposed to meet the rest of my group. But I guess you can drop me at the next, uh, settlement you stop at, and I'll try and figure things out from there."
"Hmm," Javi said. "Settlement."
"We haven't really seen any of those around here," Kate said.
"Howe's Hardware was kind of a settlement," Nick said. "I mean a place where a group of survivors are living that's protected from walkers and has a food source, that sort of thing."
"Yeah," Javi said. "We haven't seen any. Otherwise, we'd probably be there."
"If we see any, we'll head there," Kate said. "We want to get off the road too. It's hard to keep scrounging for food and gas."
"I, uh, thanks, I really appreciate it."
"Don't worry, Nick," Javi said, glancing in the rearview mirror at him. "We're all searching for people these days."
They spent the next day on the road, and Nick got to know the Garcia family. They had some antiseptic and bandages, and were kind enough to clean and patch up his shoulder, glad that it was unquestionably a bullet wound and not a walker bite. When they asked him why he'd been shot, he told them he'd gotten caught in the crossfire when fleeing Howe's Hardware when the walker herd descended upon it. Nick wanted to tell them the whole story at some point, though.
"You don't sound like you're from Tennessee," Nick said. He had moved to the seat next to Greg while Mariana took a nap in the back. Greg was reading The Prisoner of Azkaban and seemed to have tuned out to his surroundings.
"That's 'cause we're not," Kate replied.
"We're from Baltimore," Javi added.
"Javi used to play for the Orioles," Kate said, with more than a little pride.
"Hence the shirt. But I haven't played in awhile."
"Oh, cool," Nick said. "You're the first baseball player I've met. I don't really follow sports."
"What do you follow, Nick?" Javi asked.
"Uh, science and tech news, mostly."
"Oh yeah? So tell me, how would science explain this?" He took a hand off the steering wheel and gestured out the window, where they'd just passed a putrid pile of walker corpses by the side of the road.
Nick rubbed his chin. "Um, the scientific explanation is...humanity is pretty much fucked."
Kate giggled. "Well there you have it."
"Hey, I could've told you that," Javi said, grinning.
They were silent for a few minutes, watching the bare trees pass by, then Kate spoke up. "I feel like smoking some weed."
Javi furrowed his brow and shot a look behind him. Gabe had fallen asleep with the book in his lap and Mariana lay motionless on top of the blankets in the back of the van.
"You guys have weed?"
"We do indeed," Kate said brightly. "Wanna share a joint with me?"
"I do indeed."
"With the kids around?" Javi said uncertainly.
"Oh they're out cold. And yes, I know I'm being a bad stepmom."
Javi looked uneasy, but didn't object further. Kate pulled out a ziploc bag of weed and a packet of rolling paper from the glove compartment. When the joint was rolled, she took a lighter from her pocket and lit up the end. She took the first puff, coughing lightly, then handed it to Nick.
It had been ages since Nick had gotten stoned and god he could really go for some weed. It might make the dull pain in his shoulder go away and help him forget about how fucked the world had become. He inhaled deeply and let the smoke fill his lungs, closing his eyes and breathing out a white stream. "Ahhhh."
"Feels good, right?" Kate took the joint back from him and had another puff. "Oh yeah, that's it."
Javi sighed and cleared his throat. "I think I'm getting a contact high." He rolled down both of the front windows wider so that they were completely open.
"Christ, I need to get laid," Kate said.
Javi's eyes bugged out and Nick clapped a hand over his mouth, shaking with suppressed laughter.
"I realize that was an awkward transition," she added.
"I could pull over," Javi said dryly, "Wouldn't take a minute."
"A whole minute, Javi?" Nick chuckled, and Kate started sniggering.
Javi's mouth quirked. "You know what I mean."
"So Nick," Kate leaned back toward him, pausing to exhale smoke out of the corner of her mouth, the joint between her forefinger and middle finger, "When was the last time you got laid?"
"Uh...," Nick scratched his head through the opening in the back of his cap, trying to remember. "I guess, maybe a month or so before this whole thing started."
Kate nodded and handed him the joint. Nick took a hit, coughed, and returned it.
"Was she good?"
"Hmm." Nick leaned back in his seat and glanced at Greg. His head was lolling to one side and he had drooled a little out of the corner of his mouth. The book had slid off his lap onto the seat beside him. "Um...." He looked up at Kate and Javi and considered what to say. Baltimore wasn't rural Tennessee. They probably wouldn't care.
"He was alright. Nothing special. He had a wolf tattoo on his shoulder."
"Huh," Kate said, a little surprised. Javi glanced at him, looking thoughtful.
"Javi," Kate looked at her brother-in-law, blowing smoke through her nose. "Your turn."
"A couple weeks before Dad died. Which," he said to Nick, "was also when it started. Met her at Gamblers Anonymous. She had a nipple ring." Kate scrunched up her nose. "She was alright. Nothing special." Kate visibly relaxed.
"Guess I'm up," she said.
"The night before it started. David was on edge, depressed about Dad. He left with the rest of the family the next day, trying to get Mom to a hospital."
Javier sighed and closed his eyes. Kate's face softened.
"It was...better than usual. We'd had a fight the day before and, well, David can be very emotional and intense-"
"Okay, I really don't need to hear about how my brother is in bed-"
"-and the make-up sex was always amazing."
"Ay, Kate, *please*," Javi said sharply. He pulled over. "I have to take a piss."
Javi stomped away to the nearest roadside tree and Kate turned to Nick. "I think I made him angry. He's not as hot-tempered as David though."
"We should probably talk about something else," Nick said.
Kate nodded, taking a last puff of the joint before stubbing it out in the van's ashtray. "I need some advice, Nick." She glanced quickly at Javi, who was behind a tree.
Nick leaned forward. "Shoot."
"I...I've had a thing for Javi for a while now, and David's been gone so long that we don't even know if he's still alive." She sighed. "And things hadn't been good between David and me even before he left, but, I just don't know what to do about it. Javi is...Javi can be hard to read, and sometimes I can't tell if he's being serious or joking.... So, what should I do?"
Nick considered it for a moment. He could certainly relate. And giving advice was a lot easier than taking it.
"I think you should tell him how you feel. I mean, it's the end of the world. No better time to seize the day, right?"
Kate nodded. "You're right. I should tell him." She smiled at him. "Thanks, Nick. I'm glad we picked you up."
"Not half as glad as I am."
A day later, catching sight of a road sign, Nick realized they were in Virginia. "We've made a semi-circle," Kate said. "Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and now Virginia."
"We should check out the cities," Javier said. "Maybe we'll find somewhere habitable."
"What about army bases and airstrips? Those should have pretty good fortifications," Nick said.
Javi chewed his lip. "There's an idea. Kate, can you pull out the map?"
The found a couple of places they could try. The nearest was an airstrip called Prescott. They were also running low on food and fuel, so if they weren't able to locate Prescott, or if there was nothing to be found there, they would have to start scavenging.
"If we are where I think we are," Javi said, peering at the map, "We should reach it by mid-afternoon."
"Want me to take over?" Kate asked. "It's been awhile since you've slept."
"Sure, thanks." Javi smiled at her and they switched seats. The two of them had been getting along better today, though they were both a little worried about being low on supplies. Nick felt guilty whenever they offered him food, and tried to take as little as possible.
"Don't be silly," Kate said. "We're all in this together now."
Javi levered his seat back and folded his arms over each other. He closed his eyes and his breathing began to lengthen.
When she was sure he was asleep, Kate glanced over at Nick. "He looks so peaceful. I love watching him sleep. Makes me feel like everything will be okay."
"I know what you mean," Nick said, smiling sadly. He tended to be an early riser and Luke liked to sleep in. He remembered several occasions where he watched him sleeping, hesitant to wake him for breakfast because he looked so at ease. Yet again he wondered where Luke was, and if he was still alive, and if he thought Nick was dead, and if he would ever see him again. God, he missed him.
"Who are you thinking about?"
"The guy from your group? The one you went into business with?" Nick had told them that story, after Javi had told him about how he got kicked off of his team - and the league - for betting on his own games.
"That's the one."
"You don't happen to have a picture of this guy, do you? I could really use a visual. I mean, you've made him sound so special to you and I'd like to put a face to a name."
"I do, actually." Nick pulled out his wallet. He'd thrown the cash and credit cards away ages ago, but kept his driver's license and the few photographs he had put in there.
He took out the photos. There was one of him, his mom, and Uncle Pete from when he was a teenager, posing in front of the family home, which he quickly put away. It was still too hard to look at both of them. The one beneath was of him and Luke after their graduatio ceremony at the University of Tennessee, standing in front of one of the trees on campus, with their hats off but their robes still on. He handed it to Kate, who held it up to the windshield with her other hand on the steering wheel.
"Okay, I see what you mean. He's a good looking guy. Nice smile. Sad eyes, though."
The last photo was of him and Luke on Luke's parents' farm, taken when they were eight years old. Luke had just lost his front tooth and they were sitting on a bale of hay, arms around each other's shoulders, straw in their hair, grinning.
Kate passed the graduation photo back to him and he handed her that one. "Aw, that's really cute. Must've been nice to grow up on a farm."
"I guess. It got pretty boring at times and there was a lot of slaughter, which I was never fond of."
She handed Nick back the photo and he put it away, tucking his wallet back into his front pocket. "Well, I hope you see him again. And if you do, I think you should tell him."
"That farm life is boring and bloody? Believe me, he already knows that. He never wanted to take over the farm. Luke wanted to be a curator. He was even considering moving to New York at one point, wanted to try working at the Guggenheim."
"No, dummy, you know what I mean. Tell him how you feel about him. Same advice you gave me."
"It's not really the same situation, though."
"Yeah, you're not married to his older brother."
"You know what I mean."
"Nick, it's what you said. We're at the end of civilization. We could die any day. There's no time to worry about rejection. It's just us against the apocalypse. And we have to be real with one another."
"Yeah." She was right and he knew it. If he saw Luke again, he would try to find the right way, the right time to say it.
"So when are you gonna tell Javi?"
"Touche." She sighed and pursed her lips. "I'm waiting for the right moment."
"I'll know it when it comes."
At a little past three o'clock, soon after they were back on the road after stopping at a gas station to check for any remaining fuel in the pump (none) and food in the convenience store (only a gumball machine, which Javi busted open with a hammer, and they had a tooth-rotting snack), they saw a sign for Prescott airstrip.
"Good, it's only 25 miles away," Kate said.
"Let's keep our fingers crossed there are people there," Javi said.
"Good people," Nick added.
Gabe had finished his book and was drumming his fingers against the window while Mariana sat between them in the middle seat, listening to her Walkman.
"Hey Nick, do you know any good jokes?" he said, turning to him.
"I know some bad ones."
"Why did the scarecrow win an award?" He paused. "'Cause he was out standing in his field."
Gabe snorted. "Oh god."
Kate giggled. "That was pretty bad."
"I told you."
"Go on," Gabe said.
"Do walkers eat fries with their fingers?" Another pause.
"Wait, I know this one," Javi said. "They eat them separately."
"Gross," Gabe said. "Hey, we're gonna stay at least one night at this Prescott place, right? I'm getting so sick of sleeping in the van."
"We'll see when we get there, Gabe," Kate said. "We don't even know if it's safe yet."
"I'm so tired of being in here all day."
"We're all tired of it, bud," Javi said. "We want this place to be somewhere we can stay just as much as you do. Now settle down, alright? We'll be there soon."
After a little while the airstrip came into view on the horizon. Small groups of walkers shuffled around its high walls, and a lookout was visible from atop them.
"Looks like we're in luck," Javi said. "Now let's hope they're friendly."
"Identify yourselves," a man's voice boomed over a loudspeaker as they approached the front gate, "And state your business."
Javi brought the van to a halt.
"Get ready," he said. "We're gonna have to clear out some of these muertos before we can ask them to let us in."
He picked up the shotgun from above the dashboard and Kate grabbed a pistol and some ammunition from the alcove next to the stick shift. "You kids stay in the car."
He looked at Nick. "Do you have something?" Nick pulled out a screwdriver he had taken from the warehouse. Javi nodded. "That'll work. Stay behind us, though. You can take the ones that we don't have time for."
Javi exited the van and Kate followed him. Nick slid the side door open and nodded to Gabe and Mariana. "Stay safe. We'll be back soon."
"Be careful," Mariana said, looking a little worried.
"What she said," Gabe added, trying to hide any anxiety he felt.
The nearest bunch of walkers had noticed them and came shuffling forward, retching.
"We'll get back to you in a minute," Javi shouted in the direction of the loudspeaker.
"Fair enough," the voice boomed.
Kate cocked her weapon at the closest one and put a bullet through its neck. Javi shot the one next to it. The noise alerted another group, which began to advance on them from the left. Kate took down another one from the first group and Javi began focusing on the second group.
"Nick, I'm gonna have to reload soon," Kate said. "Back me up, alright?"
"Right here," Nick said, coming up next to her.
Kate fired her last round, kneecapping the nearest walker, and reached in her coat pocket for another clip. Nick stepped forward and stomped the head of the walker crawling toward them. Javi was still busy blasting the second group. Kate loaded a fresh round and Nick ran forward and plunged the screwdriver into the glassy white eye of another walker, yanking it out and kicking the walker back into the one behind it, sending them both sprawling.
"Nice one," Kate said as he ran back. "I'll finish 'em off."
When the area around them was clear, they walked in front of the van and Javi addressed the imposing white gates ahead of them.
"I'm Javier Garcia. We're a family of five. We're running low on supplies and were wondering if you could help us out. We're happy to help out here in any way that we can. We're good people."
"You're not with the New Frontier, are you?" the voice asked.
"The who?" Javi said. "That name mean anything to you, Nick?"
Nick shook his head. "Maybe it's a local group. I've never been to Virginia before."
"We don't know what that is," Javi shouted. "Could you let us in before any more walker groups come toward us?"
There was a long pause. Then the loudspeaker crackled. "Get back in your vehicle and put your weapons away. We'll open up the gates. Drive in quick and then we'll talk."
"Yes!" Kate pumped her fist.
"Thank you!" Javi called out, looking ecstatic.
"Fuck yeah," Nick breathed, sliding the screwdriver back into his pocket. They were in, and Javi had said he was part of his family. Garcias and Nick: 1; Apocalypse: 0.
They had spent the night at Prescott and met Tripp, its de facto leader, along with Eleanor, its medic, who cleaned and rebandaged Nick's shoulder, Conrad, the bartender and cook, his girlfriend Francine, a supply runner, and Eli, a weapons maker and dealer.
It was a small settlement, but there were enough places to sleep for all of them, and Tripp said they were welcome to stay as long as they made themselves useful.
Nick told him that he had experience in mechanical engineering and could help with maintaining any machinery such as the vehicles, generator, and the like. Javi and Kate volunteered to assist Francine with supply runs and said the kids could help with cleaning the bar and kitchen, and preparing food. Separately, Kate told Javi and Nick that while Prescott seemed like a suitable place to stay for the time being, it wasn't a good fit for the long term.
"I don't want us to be risking our lives every day out on these supply runs, away from the kids while they play janitor and dishwasher. It's okay for Nick 'cause he can just work on machines, but it's not good for us and the kids. And I don't like the sound of those New Frontier folks Tripp was telling us about. What if they try to take over this place like how he said they recently took over Richmond?"
"Okay, but it's safer than being on the road," Javi remarked. "And it's not like we know of anywhere else we can go."
"Kenny, one of the guys who joined our group, mentioned a place in Ohio called Wellington. He heard it was a safe community, and that the cold up there slowed the walkers down. Back then I thought it sounded like bullshit - I mean, the cold slows everyone down. But maybe it's worth a shot. Ohio's just one state away."
"Yeah, let's rest up a few days here, help out with the supply runs and all that, get a full tank and food stock, some warmer clothes if we can find them, and head toward Wellington," Kate said. "And if Kenny wanted to go there, then maybe that's where you'll find your group," she said to Nick.
Good point, he thought.
"Let's ask around about it first before we make any decisions," Javi said.
And ask around they did, but no one in Prescott had heard of a settlement in Wellington, Ohio, or Wellington, Ohio for that matter.
"We could always just go there and come back if it doesn't go well," Kate said over a dinner of canned vegetable soup and beans their second night in Prescott.
"Kate, it's too small to even show up on our map," Javi said.
"Then we could go to Cleveland or another city and see if there's anyone there who's heard of it - or if there's anyone there period. Maybe the cities in Ohio are set up. We did talk about checking out other cities," Kate pressed. Nick could see she wasn't going to be dissuaded, which was fine with him.
"Alright, alright. Let's give this place a week. Maybe someone'll show up who's heard of it, or heard of someplace else we can consider. Tripp had said that they usually get visitors passing through once or twice a week."
"I like it here," Mariana piped up. "There's electricity and the walkers can't get in. And I don't mind cleaning the bar and helping in the kitchen."
"How about you, Greg?" Javi asked.
He shrugged. "It's okay here, but I don't like you and Kate being gone all day. We never know if you're coming back."
"That's true," Mariana said. "I like it when we're all together."
"Alright, let's play it by ear then," Javi said, scooping the last of his soup out of the can. "We'll see what tomorrow brings."
The next afternoon Nick was taking apart the engine of a pickup truck that kept stalling when Tripp burst into the mechanic shop with some good news.
"Nick, get out here, we've got visitors," he said breathlessly. "They said they were on their way to Wellington but ran low on ammo and came here to trade batteries and machine parts for some. They're with Eli now, but I told them I got people here who were asking about Wellington and would want to talk to them."
Nick put down his tools and wiped his greasy hands on a rag on the table. "That's great, Tripp. I'll head over to Eli's, um, office, then."
"You do that, I gotta get back on watch. There're a lotta walkers out there today."
Nick walked toward the shell of the aircraft that Eli conducted his business in. As he came closer, he saw the two of them from the back, the dirty orange sweatshirt and smudged up baseball cap unmistakable.
"Oh my fucking god," he breathed.
They turned around.
"Nick! Fuck! *Nick*!" Luke shouted, wide-eyed.
"Nick!" Clementine shouted in unison, tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
"You know Nick?" Eli said, bemused.
"For more than twenty years now," Luke said, and ran toward him.
Nick met him halfway, almost knocking their heads together when he grabbed him, Clementine right behind him. He knelt down and pulled her into their hug, an arm around each of them. Luke was half laughing, half crying, tears leaving streaks down his dusty cheeks.
"Oh Nick, we thought you were dead. Where the hell did you go? And how the hell did you end up here?"
"We looked for you," Clementine added. "All around where the museum was."
"I got shot, slowed me down." Nick spoke fast and breathlessly. "Couldn't find you in the herd, ran into the forest. Then I got lost, came out the other side onto a road. Van came along, I waved 'em down. They let me come with them, thank god, but they were going in the opposite direction. Real nice family. We were on the road till a few days ago when we stopped here."
"We wanted to wait for you," Luke continued. "Everyone else left, but we stayed. Thought you might still be out there since we hadn't found your body or...seen a walker who looked like you. We waited for one whole week. Then we had to leave 'cause our food and water were running out."
"I'm so sorry. I split you up and put you in danger of running out of food." Nick felt his eyes watering.
"No, don't say that. It's my fault, I shouldn't have left you behind in the herd. Got too focused on going after Sarah and when I turned around you were gone and it was just walkers behind me. Didn't even notice you'd been shot." His eyes flickered to the bandage around Nick's shoulder.
"Where're the others? Do you know?"
"Sarah's dead," Clementine said, blinking back tears.
Luke squeezed her shoulder. "Poor Sarah was inconsolable after losing her father." He continued. "Sarita got bit during the escape. Kenny...took care of her afterwards. Rebecca had her baby somehow, with Kenny's help. We found a safe spot in the museum for it. They left with Bonnie and Mike. The four of them - and A.J., Alvin Junior - were headed up to Wellington, and we were gonna try and catch up with them there."
"What about Jane?" Nick asked. Of all of them, she was one of the most likely survivors.
Luke's face darkened. "Jane, she, uh, she left right after A.J. was born. Didn't even say goodbye. Except to Clementine."
"She told me the group was fracturing and said she wanted to leave before that," Clementine said quietly.
"Come to think of it," Nick said, "She did mention when we were working together at Howe's that she didn't plan on sticking with us for very long."
"Yeah, well, she didn't say anything to me about it," Luke grumbled.
Nick patted his shoulder. Something had happened. "Maybe she'll turn up somewhere. I did."
"That's right," Luke brightened, "You did." He laughed and pulled Nick closer. "Oh Nick it's so good to see you again. I really thought I'd lost you."
He held them both tightly. "I knew you were still out there somewhere. You too, Clem."
They got up and Nick let them get back to their transaction with Eli. When they were done, he gave them a tour, introducing them to Eleanor and Conrad, and ending with the machine shop.
"Nice little office you've got here," Luke remarked, looking over the various machine parts and tools.
"Told you that engineering degree would pay off."
"Yeah, repeatedly, don't remind me."
"Hey, I'm not the one who spent four years learning how to write about paintings."
"Always gotta rub it in."
"Oh shit, I forgot to introduce you to Gabe and Mariana. Didn't see them in the bar. They must've been in the kitchen."
"Who are they?" Clementine asked.
"You'll like 'em, Clem. They're around your age. Part of the family that picked me up - the Garcias. The rest of 'em, Javi and Kate, are out on a supply run with Francine, Conrad's girlfriend."
After introducing them, Nick and Luke left Clementine to play cards with Gabe and Mariana in the bar.
"I'm glad Clem finally has some people her own age to hang out with," Luke said.
They walked back to the machine shop where Nick resumed working on the pickup engine and Luke watched.
"Did something happen between you and Kate?" Nick asked, pausing from tinkering with the engine to look up at him.
Luke sighed and looked uncomfortable. "That obvious, huh? I was stupid. I thought...no, I wasn't thinking."
Nick's suspicions were confirmed. "Oh my god, you hooked up with her, didn't you? And you thought it meant something more." He shook his head. "Classic Luke."
"Hey, don't rub it in, alright? She offered."
"Yep, no one can resist your charms. Even when there's walkers swarming in from every direction. I don't know how the fuck you two found time to be alone out there."
Luke looked away, frowning. "It was a spur of the moment thing. We were on lookout duty. Listen, I already got an earful about it from Kenny and I don't need it from you."
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. You're not jealous, are you? I mean, I know she looks like the kind of girls you used to date, and that you were friendly with her."
"Yeah, but not in the way you think," Nick thought. "No, of course not," he said, shooting Luke an 'are you crazy?' look.
"Well, good, 'cause I really don't want to think about it anymore."
"I get it. Let's talk about something else."
"Tell me about the Garcias. Javi and...Kate, right? What're they like?"
Nick smiled, and wondered where to start.
Javi and Kate arrived with Francine not long afterwards, looking a little shaken and disheveled. Apparently it had been a difficult day of supply runs, with lots more walkers than usual in the areas around them, and there was concern that a herd was approaching.
Kate's eyes lit up when she saw Luke and Nick emerge from the machine shop.
"Oh my god, it's him!" she said, running up to Luke. "You must be Luke." She took his hand and shook it enthusiastically. "I'm Kate," she beamed.
"Uh yeah, hi," Luke said, bewildered. "How do you know who I am?"
"Nick showed me your photos - the one from graduation, and the one where you're missing a tooth."
"Missing a tooth?" He looked at Nick, whose face felt hot.
"I have a couple of photos of us in my wallet," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.
Kate winked at Nick, who looked away, chewing at a hangnail. "But how did you get here?"
"Oh it's a long story," Luke began. Just then Javi came out of the bar, with Gabe, Clementine, and Mariana trailing behind him. "I'll tell y'all over dinner."
They ate together in the bar, a meal of spam, peas, and instant mashed potatoes. Luke proceeded to explain to the Garcias how he, Clem, and the other survivors of Howe's Hardware had gotten separated from Nick and had split up, with plans to travel to Wellington.
"So you know how to get there," Kate said, eyes fixed on him intently.
"Kind of. It's not on my map, but Kenny tried to explain where he'd heard it was, and I had him mark it with a pen I found in the office of the civil war museum we were camping out at. Still have it. Pens are hard to come by these days."
"Then we can mark it on our map," Javi said.
"Sure, it's locked up in our car with the rest of our stuff. I'll get it out after we're done eating."
"When can we leave?" Kate asked. "I don't know if I can take another day of this. There were so many out there."
"Yeah, it got pretty hairy today," Javi said. "We had a couple close calls."
"Heck, we can go tomorrow if you like," Luke said. "Just have to get ourselves stocked up on supplies, and maybe have Nick take a look at our car, make sure it won't break down on the trip. Clem and I had to fiddle around with it a little bit after we found it before we could get the motor running."
"Sounds like a plan then," Javi said.
"Here's to it," Luke said, raising his water bottle. They clinked bottles, smiling.
"Oh, and here's to you folks," Luke added, looking at Javi and Kate. "Thanks for rescuing this guy." He put an arm around Nick, who looked down at the table, embarrassed. "My best friend for more than twenty years now, and hopefully at least another twenty."
"That's ambitious," Nick thought.
"Hey, it was our pleasure," Javi said, "And he did throw himself in the middle of the road, so it was either that or run the guy over."
Luke laughed. "Huh, he told it a little differently."
"We're gonna miss him in the van. We had some great conversations," said Kate, looking pointedly at Nick.
"Oh yeah? Nick, you're gonna have to catch me up."
Nick nodded, making mental notes of what he would and wouldn't tell Luke about what they had talked about. "Sure, Luke. Now why don't you go get that map for these lovely people and we'll clean up."
With Tripp and Eleanor's help, they found places for Luke and Clementine to sleep, and blankets they could sleep on, as all of the mattresses were currently in use.
They had also informed their hosts that they would be leaving tomorrow, once they had completed their preparations, and heading to Wellington.
"We'll miss you in the shop, Nick," Tripp had said.
"We'll miss you guys, even Eli," Nick had replied, and Tripp chuckled.
Clementine and Luke turned in first, tired from their journey and looking forward to spending a night outside of a car, even if it was on a musty old blanket on the floor of an office.
Kate came into the room where Nick had been sleeping, which seemed to have been a break room for air traffic controllers and other workers. He had been packing tins of sardines and beans in a canvas bag for the journey.
"Hey, how come you and Luke aren't sleeping in the same room?", she said, sitting down at the table where he had laid out the cans.
"C'mon, Kate, this room's pretty cramped as it is, and he and Clementine are used to staying together."
"You haven't told him yet."
"He just got here." Nick's mouth twisted. "Anyway, what's been going on with you and Javi? You said anything to him?"
"Don't change the subject."
"It's the same subject."
"Fine. I'm going to speak to him tomorrow. When we're in the van. When both kids are asleep. Maybe after smoking a joint. I haven't decided."
"I strongly advise you to do the same."
"You would." He paused. "Oh, but I don't have any weed. Can I bum some off you? And some papers? I snagged a lighter from the shop."
"Ah Nick, I really am gonna miss you in the van with us." She got up and gave him a hug. "And yes, I'll pass you some tomorrow morning."
Nick didn't feel particularly tired, even though it was late and they had a big day tomorrow. He was full of nervous energy and had trouble falling asleep. When he finally did, he woke several times during the night and couldn't remember his dreams.
In the morning he walked over to Luke and Clementine's makeshift room and found it empty, blankets rolled neatly up and placed on top of the desk.
Outside he found Javi and Kate loading up their van, and the kids helping.
"Hey there, sleepyhead," Kate greeted him. "I have something for you," she added, in a lower voice. She pulled out a ziploc bag with weed in it, along with the packet of rolling paper, and handed it to him.
"Wow, this looks like a lot. Isn't this the rest of the bag?"
"It is. I'm turning over a new leaf. Trying to be a better role model for the kids. And I know Javi disapproves of the smoking, especially around them."
"Hmm, well we probably shouldn't smoke around Clementine either, but...I know Luke won't be able to resist a good toke."
"Enjoy - oh, and there's a note from me on the paper on the top of the packet."
"Uh, okay. Hey, have you seen Luke?"
"He said something about going up to the roof, where the control towers are. He wanted to check out the view. He also wanted you to look at his car."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll do that, but I think the keys are with him."
"Go find him then," Kate said, raising her eyebrows, and walked back to the van where she resumed loading it up.
Nick turned to do so, but wanted to look at the note Kate had mentioned first. He opened the packet of rolling paper and pulled out the first piece, which had been folded up and written on in pencil.
"Live each day as if it's your last, and don't leave this world with regrets cuz it's us against the apocalypse," Kate had written. Nick smiled and put it in his wallet, underneath the photos.
He climbed the stairs up to the roof. Nick had only been on it once, when he had explored Prescott his first full day there. There was nothing much to do up there, besides take in the view. The two control towers were not in use and could not be reached from outside the building anyhow.
He found Luke sitting on a ledge overlooking the back of the airstrip, his legs dangling over the edge.
"You always did like hanging out on rooftops," Nick said.
Luke turned around, smiling, and patted the ledge to his right. Nick sat down next to him, the concrete warm in the morning sun. "Almost broke your leg jumping off of one."
"But I didn't."
"So I'm gonna need the keys if you want me to make sure the car's good to go."
"Oh right, here ya go." Luke pulled the car keys out of the pocket of his jeans and handed them to Nick.
"Hang on a moment, though. I wanna ask you something."
"What was the photo Kate said you showed her? Where I was missing a tooth."
"Uh, it's an old photo of us, from your farm. Your front tooth had recently come out." His face was starting to feel hot again.
"Here." Nick took out his wallet and pulled out the photo, passing it to Luke.
"Oh yeah, I sort of remember that day. We spent a lot of time diving into hay bales, and throwing straw at each other. God, we look happy."
"We sure do."
Luke handed it back to him and Nick returned it to his wallet. "And you've kept it with you all this time?"
Nick nodded. "Don't you keep old photos in your wallet?"
Luke sighed. "Maybe I did. I don't even have my wallet anymore. Lost it somewhere along the way in all the commotion."
"Well if it makes you feel any better I left my watch - the one Pete gave me - back at the cabin. If Clementine hadn't found it, it'd be gone."
"How is that supposed to make me feel better about losing my wallet?"
"Um, I don't know. I guess 'cause I also left something behind...."
Luke shook his head. "You're a funny guy sometimes, Nick."
Nick didn't say anything. He thought about getting up and going down to look at the car, but didn't. He looked over at Luke and remembered what Kate had said about knowing when the moment was right.
"On that note," he began, his voice faltering a little, "I want to ask you something too."
Luke turned to look at him. "Okay."
"Remember at the ski lodge when Kenny said we looked like a match."
"Yeah. You asked him what he meant."
"Right, and it was obvious what he meant, wasn't it? That we looked like we should be together. But he backpedaled and said he was saying we looked like good friends."
Luke stared hard at him, searching his face. Nick swallowed but didn't look away. "What's your point, Nick?"
Nick took a breath. "Do you think he was right?"
Luke was silent, his face a mask. Several long moments stretched into an eternity for Nick.
Finally, he spoke. "Only one way to find out."
They were on the road again, and this time Clementine was behind the wheel. She'd insisted upon being the first to drive.
"I taught her after we found the car," Luke had said. "She's a real quick learner, just needs to ease up on the gas from time to time."
Luke was in the passenger seat and Nick sat behind him in the backseat, the Garcia's van in their rearview.
Nick looked down at his hands, remembering what it had felt like slide them down Luke's chest, up his thigh, to stroke him through his clothes. He remembered how Luke had kissed in between his knuckles and wrapped his arms around him, dragging his own knuckles down his back. They hadn't had much time up on the roof, and it was hardly enough to make up for all those years of not touching, but it would have to do for now.
Nick leaned forward and reached toward the left armrest to grab Luke's elbow. He slid his hand down Luke's forearm and entwined their fingers. Luke stroked the back of Nick's hand with his free hand and squeezed his wrist.
After a few moments, Clementine glanced over at them.
"Why are you holding hands?"
"Eyes on the road, Clem." Luke said, stilling his right hand and letting it rest on top of the other two.
She looked back at the empty highway ahead of them. "Okay, but why are you holding hands?"
"Because we haven't seen each other in a while," Nick said.
"And we like each other," Luke added.
Clementine looked over at them again. "Are you going to do kissing stuff?"
"Kissing stuff?" Nick said.
"Ah, if we do, it won't be when you're awake, or anywhere nearby," Luke said, his cheeks coloring. "Now watch the road, alright?"
Clementine ignored him and glanced back at Nick. "Luke and Jane did kissing stuff."
"Oh." Nick tried to keep a straight face.
"Clem, what'd I just say?" Luke's tone had sharpened. He moved his right hand to his lap but kept his left underneath Nick's.
"But Jane said there wasn't time for kissing."
"Really?" Nick suppressed a laugh.
"*Clem!*" Luke hissed.
Clementine turned her gaze back to the road. "I'm just answering Nick's question."
"It's gonna be a long fuckin' day, I can tell already," Luke sighed.
Nick grinned. "If it helps, I have weed."