It was the crying that made him stop.
Well, not crying, per say. A few sniffles, a choked sob or two. It wasn’t loud, thankfully, or whoever was making the noise would’ve been found by the infected. But it was loud enough for Wash to hear, used to focusing on the smallest noise. He stopped, frowning as he looked around the small clearing he’d come into. It sounded human, at any rate, infected didn’t have the higher motor function anymore to cry. He was still wary as he looked for the source of the sound; not even humans were particularly safe at this point. Panic and desperation made people do crazy things.
He listened carefully as the small noises continued, definitely childlike. Wash took a few quiet steps forward, toward the sounds. It looked like the clearing had been a campsite recently. Signs of a fire that had been covered with dirt, and pressed grass where a sleeping bag had been. Did someone get left behind?
There was a slight rustle in the tree at the edge of the clearing. Wash ducked his head, trying to peer up into the branches. If someone was up there, they were hidden pretty well. He wouldn’t have noticed at all, if it hadn’t been for the crying.
Deciding it was better not to spook whoever was up there, Wash cleared his throat. “Hello?”
Immediately there was a soft gasp and a hiccup.
“Is there someone up there?” Wash continued. “I’m not an infected, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt anyone, I’m just passing through.”
Another shuffle of the leaves on the tree, but no reply.
Wash chanced a few steps closer, peering up into the branches. He caught sight of a small green sneaker, confirming his suspicions. There was a child up there. “Are you alright?”
No reply once again. The branch jiggled a bit, and the sneaker left his vision as the leg it was attached to moved away, trying to circle to the other side of the tree. Wash quickly held a hand out. “Hey wait! Be careful up there, you could fall!”
He was ignored, and the shuffling increased. Wash grabbed at the lowest branch, starting to climb up after them. When he pulled himself up into the leaves, he watched a face peer at him from around the tree’s trunk. A boy, probably no more than five, with dark skin, bright green eyes that were still a little wet with tears, and the most serious frown a child could muster up. Wash paused, staying where he was.
“You’re okay, right? You’re not hurt or anything?”
The boy didn’t speak, but he shook his head, just a bit to get his reply across.
“Okay, that’s good. What’s your name? I’m Wash.”
Again, no answer.
Wash frowned a bit, trying to stay patient. “Are you here alone? Is someone missing you?”
A pause from the boy, then another slight shake of his head.
Wash had only a moment to ponder the reply before something grabbed his leg and yanked, hard. With a yelp, the blonde fell from the tree, landing on his back on the ground, breath knocked from his lungs for a moment. Before he could react, the edge of a metal pipe pressed threateningly against his chest.
“Get the fuck away from my kid,” growled a voice above him.
Wash gasped in a breath, blinking his eyes open to meet the glare of the man holding the pipe. Amber brown eyes narrowed and his grip tightened on his weapon, willing Wash to make a move.
“I didn’t… I was just checking to make sure he was okay.” he finally managed to cough out.
The guy watched him for a moment, before backing up a step, letting Wash brace himself on his elbows. “I’m sure you were. But all the same, stay back.”
“Okay, fine.” He held his arms up, placating. “I just wanted to be sure someone hadn’t left him out here to fend for himself.” He’d seen it before, since the place had gone to shit. Kids were a liability when you needed to move fast and stay unnoticed. Not everyone was ready to deal with the extra responsibility.
The other tensed, obviously offended at the statement. “I didn’t leave him! I was making sure it was okay. If something were around, I wanted him in a safe spot. I know how to take care of my kid.”
“I’m not saying you don’t,” Wash replied. “In fact, I barely even noticed him, except that he was crying a little.”
“Crying?” This seemed to give the other pause. He peered up into the tree. “You okay, Junior?”
There was a little muffled whine in response. Wash blinked up to see the kid had a hand over his mouth, but nodded. Then the boy reached out a hand toward his father.
“You wanna come down now?” Another nod. “Okay, ready to jump?” He held out his arms, waiting for a moment before the boy jumped down, landing easily in his grasp and immediately wrapping his small arms around the other’s neck.
“The infected wouldn’t have noticed him,” Wash assured, slowly getting to his feet. “It was a good hiding spot.”
He shifted Junior to one hip, using his now free hand to keep the pipe ready in case Wash decided to turn on them after all. “You noticed though.”
Wash shrugged. “I’m used to noticing things. It’s how you last out here.”
He seemed to consider this. “Okay, fair point. Sorry about attacking you, I guess.”
“It’s fine. Paternal instincts and all, I understand. I’m just glad you weren’t a bear.”
The other chuckled at that. “I’m gonna assume that was a joke.” He considered the other for a moment before letting the pipe rest at his side. “I’m Tucker. And this is Junior.”
“You travelling on your own, Wash?”
Tucker noticed the blonde flinch, before replying with a curt “Yes.”
“Sorry, shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s… okay.” Wash sighed, “Are you two alone?”
“Most of the time,” Tucker replied, smiling a bit as Junior laid his head against his father’s shoulder. “Sometimes we run into some friends or whatever, travel with them for a bit.”
Wash leaned against the tree, letting his hands rest in his hoodie pockets. “That sounds like a smart idea.”
Tucker looked like he was about to say something else, when a rustle behind the other caught Wash’s attention. In a split second, he pushed past the pair, standing between them and the bushes. Tucker hardly had time to open his mouth to ask what he was doing before a gnarled hand shot out of the bush, reaching for Wash. He ducked back to avoid it, pushing the others out of the way as he went.
Wash drew the handgun from his jacket pocket, aiming it at the bushes. The moment the infected showed its face, flesh gray and full of the dark veins of the virus, Wash took the shot, hitting it right in the temple. The infected went down. Wash turned to Tucker, who held Junior against his chest and stared at the blonde in surprise.
“You’re not immune, are you?” Wash asked.
Tucker shook his head.
“Any others in the area will have heard the shot. You need to get him out of here quick. Trade me weapons.”
“Wait, what?” Tucker frowned, gripping the pipe tighter. “Why?”
Wash huffed. “If you’re not immune, it’s dangerous to get close to them. You need a weapon you can use from a distance.”
“Okay, but what about you?”
“I’ve got more,” he replied, holding the handgun out.
Tucker frowned, considering it, before relinquishing his pipe, taking the weapon from Wash.
“You do know how to shoot, don’t you?”
“Yeah, man, we’ll be fine.”
Wash nodded. “Good.”
Tucker bit his lip. “Thanks, man.”
Wash tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Sure thing. Just keep that kid safe.”
Both men paused as something pulled at them. Wash blinked, turning to find Junior’s small hand grabbing onto the hood of his jacket. Tucker huffed out a tiny laugh, keeping still so the kid wouldn’t lose his grip. Wash looked from the hand, to Tucker, and finally to Junior himself, confused.
“Stay.” Junior said, his voice small and shaky. “Please?”
Wash gaped. Tucker just grinned.
“How can you say no to that?”