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CS: Zombie Apocalypse Edition (I guess)

Chapter Text

  The stench of decay never leaves.  No matter where you go.  Outside, inside.  Everywhere.  And it’s not the scent of food or leaves or anything like that decaying.  It’s rotting flesh.  Not animal.  Human. 

  You get used to the smell after a while.

  Sometimes groups are better.  Sometimes traveling alone is better.  Right now, I’m alone.

  My last group got overrun.  It was a miracle I got out of there.  Or it was a curse.  It seems every time I think I’ve found a stable group of people, they all die.  I figure I should be staying on my own from now on, to save people if I am cursed.

  I adjust my backpack.  Should find a new one soon.  This one is getting worn out, threadbare from carry the heavy weight of ammo, canned food, and extra shit.  I have another set of clothes in there too, but those don’t weigh much.  They’re as threadbare as the pack, and the pair of clothes I’m wearing now. 

  About three years ago, everything went to hell.  People started getting sick and dying, and then coming back.  Nobody knew what to do, and a lot of others got turned too.  It was the start of the apocalypse.  The undead everywhere, hardly any survivors. 

  The news lasted three days before something either happened to the news anchors or the TV stations were taken down.  Radios lasted about two weeks.  Electricity a month.  A country that had lasted almost two hundred years…collapsed in thirty days.  Probably more than half the population gone.  I was seventeen when it all started.  Most of my family is gone. 

  Something rustles in the trees ahead of me.  My hand goes to the hatchet at my side.  I haven’t run into a herd or loner in a few days.  I couldn’t stay lucky for long.

  I left my last encampment…two weeks ago?  Too many people, too many politics.  There hasn’t been another person since.  I’m starting to feel crazy.  Sometimes I catch myself muttering random shit out loud.  I don’t want to, but I need to find another human.  Or a rabid dog to talk to—it’d be better than talking to myself. 

  The rustling gets louder.  A faint growl with it.  The stench of dead flesh gets stronger.  Not strong enough for it to be a large herd, but it could be a small pack.  Hope I’m lucky with just coming across one or two.  I can handle three, four max. 

  I get behind a tree and glance around it.  Two walk toward me together.  I can hear their feet dragging, soft growls, and…clanking?  Metal on metal.  I peek out again and see the chains around each of the zom’s necks.  Their jaws are gone, arms too.  The hell…?

  A human noise—a cough or grunt—comes from behind them.  I get back behind the tree.  Someone’s using them to cover their smell.  I’ve done it before, but it’s too risky.  I can never find just one on its own normally, and it’s too hard trying to get one away from a herd.  Hiding out and avoiding them just seems better.

  The forest is dense enough that shadows are cast everywhere.  Pockets of sunlight light up areas where the leaves are in thinner layers.  I’m hiding in the shadow of a big maple, but I’m afraid of getting spotted.  I grab a low branch and quickly climb up, and up again until I’m high enough I can’t be seen at first glance.

  I’m up just in time, too. The zoms are passing under me.  I hold my breath. 

  They stop.  Growls get hungrier, and they pull on their chains.  Their owner yanks them back a step with a powerful tug on the chain.  I can’t see the person’s face from up here, and because they’ve got on some heavy, hooded cloak that covers their features.  But I can hear them mutter at the zoms.

  “Fuckers…there isn’t anything here.”  It’s a deep voice.  Like gravel.  I tighten my hold on the hatchet.  My palm’s slick.  Don’t look up…Don’t look up.

  They try to get the zoms moving.  The creatures stay clustered around my tree, growls getting more intense.  Don’t look up…

  The cloaked-person catches on.  Going rigid, they reach under the cloak.  The hatchet’s not gonna be enough in a fight against a live-being. 

  A gun slides out and points up.  I freeze.  It’s almost pointed at me.  I see a gloved-finger twitch on the trigger.  Slowly, I raise my arm to throw my hatchet if I have to.  Turns out, I don’t need to. 

  The branches shake and a furry creature bolts past.  The squirrel scampers down the bark, halfway down the trunk when a shot goes off.  It drops, a bullet right through the eye. 

  I watch with my heart racing as the person picks up the corpse and drops it in a sack.  They rattle the chain again.  “Move, or I’m finding new rotters.”

  The group goes off, chains rattling and branches snapping under the zoms’ feet.  I don’t think the person makes a single sound aside from the few words they spoke.  I wait for the sound of them to fade before dropping out of the tree and heading in the opposite direction.  I’m not messing with a sharpshooter today.  Plus, with that shot, there’ll be a hoard drawn here within a window of ten minutes to an hour.  Not wasting my life betting it’ll be an hour. 

  I try not to run.  A fast walk makes less noise, and takes less energy.  If I keep this pace, I might make it out of the forest by sunset.  My map says there’s a town on the edge of it.  I can camp out in one of the houses on the outer edge tonight.  

  Every noise makes me jump higher than before my encounter with the hooded stranger and their pet zombies.  Relief floods through me when a house comes into view.  Doesn’t look like any zoms are dragging their corpses around.  It’s isolated, a view unobstructed by a lot of trees.  No signs of humans living here for months.  Perfect to camp in for the night.

  I search the rooms first.  I come up with a couple cans of peaches and three bottles of water on a high shelf in the kitchen.  A roll of gauze and half a bottle of painkillers in the bathroom.  An oversized sweatshirt and another shirt from one of the bedrooms.  Not a bad haul from a place like this. 

  Before I eat one of the cans of fruit for ‘supper’, I barricade everything that isn’t already.  The windows are boarded up on the bottom floor.  All I have to do is move the couch and tables in front of the doors.  I sit on the couch and eat.  I leave half the peaches for tomorrow morning. 

  It’s pitch black by the time I curl up in the recliner facing the front door.  No zoms around, but I can’t be too cautious.  I have a gun laying right in my lap and my hatchet in hand.  The comfort of the worn leather handle is enough to let me slip into a peaceful doze…

  A hand clamps down on my mouth muffling my panicked scream.  A blade presses sharply into my throat.  My attacker leans over the back of the recliner.  A rough voice hisses in my ear.

  “Who sent you?”       

Chapter Text

  Four days.  Four days since we left the broken down truck behind and started walking.  Apparently it’s too dangerous to grab a new car from one of the towns we skirt around.  We’ve passed over a dozen on the highways and backroads we’re traveling that looked like they were in running condition.  Kerrianne doesn’t understand the idea of resting, or not being extremely fit.  The worn army fatigues she’s in should’ve been my first clue when we met.

  Leone walks beside me while Kerrianne walks ahead.  He’s wearing the same camo fatigues as her.  It was luck they found me.  But the only reason they saved me a month ago was for the flash drive that’s still around my neck.  I grip it tight as we walk, the plastic cutting into my palm.  It’s dizzying, thinking about the fact that I’ve got the potential to save the human race dangling around my neck.  All on a bitty chunk of plastic. 

  “Keep up,” Kerrianne barks.  “We don’t have long until night falls.  The planned campsite is another two miles.”

  I groan.  It startles Leone.  Kerrianne either doesn’t hear or notice.  She’s learned since week one to ignore my complaints.  Leone hasn’t. 

  “Everything alright?” he asks.

  I keep trudging.  A fallen branch gets in the way of my shuffling and I trip.  “I’m fine.  Just annoyed.  Does she even sleep when we stop?” I ask, sneaking a look at the woman stalking in front of us. 

  He chuckles.  I’ve gotten him to laugh before, but not Kerrianne.  She doesn’t do much besides look determined or frown.  To be honest, she’s a little frightening.  “Not much,” Leone says.  “She’s worried about finding her brother.”

  Part two of our journey: finding Kerrianne’s twin.  I don’t know how that can be as important as delivering a cure to the CDC or whoever else can make it.  But family can top anything, no matter how urgent something is. 

  My chest aches.  I lost my moms early on.  Not really sure if I have family left out there.  But Kerrianne knows she does, and I’ll let her find them.    

  “Did you know him?”  I haven’t asked much about Leone or Kerrianne.  Everything I do know came from Leone.  I didn’t think I should ask them about their lives.  Didn’t want anything to get personal or create friendships if one of us died.  It sounds cruel, but it’s how you survive sometimes.

 Leone smiles a little.  His eyes get unfocused, thinking about a time long ago.  “Yeah.  We were friends.  After all this shit broke out…”  Leone comes back to the present—somewhat.  His gaze gets darker think about when the apocalypse started.  “…A while after, he bolted.  Just disappeared.  I’m not really sure why he did.  Ker won’t tell me, and no one else will either.  We have been searching for him since then.”

  Almost three years of not knowing where this guy is, and they still think he could be out there on his own?  Surviving without others is harder than surviving in a group of three by a mile.  You need back up.  “How’re you so sure he’s still…y’know.  Out there.”

  Leone shakes his head, smiling again.  “You don’t know Maddox Strange.  The guy was—is—like a walking army even before the zombies.  I know he’s still out there kicking.”

  “If that’s true, then why did he run away?  He can take on walkers fine—“

  “He didn’t leave because he was afraid of the outbreak,” Leone says, words short and clipped.  It’s a one-eighty from the easy tone he normally uses.  “It was something else that happened with him.  I know that much.”

  I duck my head.  It was a reasonable question to ask—I’m not an idiot for asking it.  Leone blows out a sigh, looking around and anything but me.  “Sorry.”

  “You don’t have to—“

  “No, I do,” he insists.  “I shouldn’t have snapped.”

  I shrug.  “I didn’t know him—you were right.”

  “You were curious and really it’s not right of me—“

  Enough of the going back and forth.  We could do this all day.  “We’re both right and wrong, ok?” I offer.  “Let’s save our breath for a real argument.”

  He lets his shoulders relax.  “I agree.”

  I enjoy his company usually.  Really easy going and kind.  Friendly, compared to—

  “Car!  Both of you—in the ditch.”

  We quickly follow Kerrianne into the overgrown grass at the side of the road.  Kerrianne yanks me back farther into the muck and weeds and forces me to lay down.  Leone stays closer to the road, kneeling with his rifle ready.  We’re all on high alert as the sound of an engine gets louder.  Every muscle in my body is tense.  I’m afraid to move. 

  The car zips by lightning fast.  It doesn’t slow down.  Doesn’t stop.  We weren’t seen, or whoever’s in that car is in too big of a hurry to stop and investigate. 

  Kerrianne makes us stay in hiding for five minutes after the car’s gone.  When we finally get up, the front of my clothes are muddy and soaked from laying on the ground.  I sigh.  Great.  I get to spend another two miles wet and cold.  My night’s going great so far.  

Chapter Text

  His forehead’s burning up under my palm.  Sweat clings to his cheeks and his body shakes violently despite the blankets wrapped around him.  I’m dying of heat stroke underneath them all.

  The car jerks and bumps over the cracked road.  Ellie swerves around a giant hole in the middle of the road and almost sends both of us out of the backseat and into her lap. 

  “El!  Watch it!” I shout.  “None of us want to die yet.”  Hopefully none of us will.  It’s a silent hope that’ll stay silent.  No worrying Kyle more about everything than he already is. 

  He started getting sick days ago.  With each passing day, his light brown complexion was getting paler and paler.  He was too weak to get up.  We snuck him out of the compound at dawn.  There wasn’t time to get permission. 

  “Do you want to get there or not?” Ellie snaps.  She shifts gears and the car puts on another burst of speed.  We’re probably going eighty, almost ninety right now.  It’s dangerous as hell.  Pretty sure there’s a chance we’ll die on the way to the hospital—or whatever they’re calling it. 

  “Yeah, but not as zombies,” I fire back.  She doesn’t slow down.  I don’t tell her to.  We’re both desperate. 

  The car eventually skids to stop when Ellie sees the sign.  It’s an old info sign on the side of the highway with ‘Medical’ spray-painted over the names of towns and miles. 

  Ellie peers through the windshield.  “Where the hell is this place Halliday?  We’re in the middle of a fucking forest.”

  She’s not wrong.  Evergreens line the sides of the road.  The forest floor is covered with rust-colored needles.  But there’s more to these trees than meets the eye.

  “It’s hidden.  Why do you think it’s lasted this long?”

  I get a glare in the rearview mirror.  “The assholes running it aren’t actually helping people and are cowering in their nonexistent haven—that’s how I think they’ve lasted.”

  Better I don’t keep this conversation up.  El’s relentless when it comes to arguing and insults.  Now isn’t really the time to get her started. 

  Kyle whimpers in my arms.  He cracks open a watery and bloodshot eye.  “Where…where’re we?”

  “Someplace that’ll help us get you better,” I tell him soothingly, patting his damp head.  Normally it’d gross me out, but with how sick he is…I’d touch every sweaty person left on earth if it meant Ky made it out healthy.  “Can you sit up?” 

  He tries.  I give him a push until he’s sitting up.  He’s about ready to pass out just changing positions.  No way he’ll be walking through the woods. 

  “Alright, Ky, we’re not far from the place, but you shouldn’t walk to it.  I’ll carry you instead.”

  “A piggyback ride?”  He smiles weakly.  “That sounds fun…”

  I don’t know if he heard what else I said.  I manage to get him on my back.  Just hope he has enough strength to hold on. 

  Ellie walks behind me, watching Kyle in case he falls off.  He isn’t heavy and because of it I can keep a good pace.  Ellie mutters more than once about getting lost.  What she doesn’t notice are the hidden etchings on the trees we pass.  They’re little arrows pointing to where we need to go. 

  The concrete bunker’s concealed by piles of moss and vines.  It was here decades before shit hit the fan, and it proved lifesaving and vital—to everybody who knows about it.  Ellie and even me can’t spot it right away because it blends in with the green of the forest so well.  The only sign that catches my eye at first is the odd square-ness the front of one of the hills has. 

  I check that Ky’s still snug on my back, tighten my grip, and walk quickly to the bunker. 

  “Doesn’t look like much,” Ellie grumbles.  Her eyes narrow looking at the small structure. 

  “It’s an underground bunker.  Don’t think it’s supposed to look like much above ground.”

   We push aside the curtain of vines and step through.  The little alcove is shady and tinged green from the light filtering through the vines.  The metal doors in front of us are dull brown from years of dirt and grime. 

  Made it.

  El helps me sit Kyle on the ground.  I pound on the door.  I won’t start yelling until I don’t think I’ll get anyone’s attention this way.  Don’t want zoms cornering us.  

  Turns out like I thought:  I’m not getting anywhere with knocking.  I bruise my fist on the metal, desperation leaking in hearing a soft groan from Kyle. 

  “Hey!  I know there’s people here!” I yell.  Ellie punches me.  She doesn’t want to deal with zombies either.  Can’t protect ourselves and Kyle too.  But I keep yelling despite that.  No stopping until this damn door opens.  “Open up!  We’re not leaving!  Open the fu—“

  I almost topple into the woman standing at the top of the stairs.  Her white coat is frayed and almost the color of dust. She scowls at me with irritated brown eyes. 

  “What are you doing here?  How did you find this place?” she asks sharply.

  “You have a sign that says ‘Medical’ on it,” El snaps.  “That intentional or not?”

  75/25 chance of her shutting the door right now.  It’s my turn to punch Ellie.

  “I was here before,” I explain.  “I know people working here—plus, you’ve gotta help us.”

  The woman eyes me.  “I don’t remember you.  And sorry, we’re not taking people in at the moment—“

  “Ann,” I blurt out the name before she moves to close the door.  “She’s one of the main medical personnel in charge.  No last name—older.  Greying hair she’s always got in a braid.  Never changes out of her scrubs.  How would I know all this if I was never here?”

  She hesitates.  My heart swells.  Got her.  Her gaze moves past to Kyle slouched against the side of the alcove.  “What’s wrong with him?”

  “Fever.  We had meds back at our camp, they just weren’t working.”

  Her brow furrows.  “How long has this lasted?”

  I try to think back to when it started.  It’s hard.  “I don’t know…over a week?”

  “Alright, get him in here.  Now!”  She yells when we don’t move right away. 

  El and I hurry to get Ky up.  Stumble down the stairs after the doctor.  She speaks into a walkie-talkie, words strung together in a fast moving stream.

  “Got a patient coming in—fever, hasn’t broken for over seven days.  Prepare quarantine room six.  Isolate halls until further notice.”

  We glance at each other over Kyle’s head.  Quarantine?  Isolation?  Better be protocol, or the gun hiding under my jacket is gonna come in handy. 

  The doctor leads us through pristine, white halls.  All doors are shut.  It’s quiet.  Eerie.  We’re the only people here. 

  The last hall we’re taken to is so quiet it hurts my ears.  At the mouth of it, the doc hands us all masks—not including Kyle.  “Precaution,” she tries to assure us, but the glint of fear and worry I catch doesn’t calm my nerves.

  These rooms have windows.  Most are empty, but a few have patients that look too weak to move an inch.  Each one is flushed rosy pink, sweat beading on their foreheads.  I keep my eyes ahead after seeing the first two.  No looking in the rooms.  No looking at Kyle. 

  She opens the door to one of the last empty rooms. Pointing to the bed she says, “Lay him down there.  Wait in the hall until a nurse comes to get you.”

  “But we want to stay with him—“

  The mask doesn’t have to come off for me to see her frown.  “Do as I say, or all three of you can leave.  Which do you prefer happens?”

  Ellie and I lay Kyle on the bed and creep out with our tails between our legs.  We stay at the window and watch the doctor start her check-up on Ky.  The way she acted when we told her about the fever…I’m gonna keep hoping he’s gonna pull through.  It’s not as serious as the doc’s making it…

  “If she hurts him in any way, I’m gonna—“

  “You will do what, Miss?”

  Ellie and me spin around in unison.  Ann stands a few feet away, wearing light green scrubs.  Her hair is braided in the exact same way I remember.  She smiles. 

  “Welcome back, Jevon.”

Chapter Text

  “Who sent you?” he repeats, digging the blade into my skin.  A swallow draws blood. 

  The hand on my mouth loosens.  I can mumble past the palm. 

  “No one—“

  Fingers grip my jaw, locking it in place.  I can’t talk.  Grip so tight it’s like my jaw’s wired shut.  My breathing quickens—in and out through flaring nostrils. 

  “Lying will do you no favors,” he growls.  “Tell me who sent you—now, or I slit your throat.”

  “I’m telling the truth,” I hiss when he lets go of my jaw.  “No one sent me out here.  I’m alone and passing through.”

  His hold stays tight.  Knife still cutting my neck.  My heart pounds.  He doesn’t believe me.  He’s going to kill me. 

  The man’s silence eats me alive.  A cold trickle of sweat runs down my spine.  Is he deciding how to kill me?  If he still wants to use the knife?  Or does he already know what he’ll use it and he’s just choosing to let me sweat—relish my fear?

  My eyes shut.  I thought I’d go out by a herd of rotters, not killed by someone alive and not a decaying piece of meat.

  His voice is quiet and sends a shiver through me.  “And where are you passing to?”

  I open my mouth.  Nothing comes out.  Somehow, I get words spat out.  “I don’t know.  Just somewhere…away.” 

  The pressure of the knife blade is gone.  So is the hatchet and gun from my lap.  His presence isn’t suffocating anymore.  But the stranger’s still close by—that I know.

  “Stand up—walk to the window.”

  Having nothing else to do or anyway to defend myself, I do as he says.  He’s half a step behind me the whole seven feet to the front window of the living room. 

  “Do you see the two walkers by the oak?” he asks.  The tone he has is as cool as the metal he had at my throat barely sixty seconds ago.  I see them—chains and no arms.  This is the same cloaked-person I saw in the woods earlier.  I nod.  “They were sent to follow me.  They failed to answer my questions correctly, resulting in that.”

  I swallow, touching my neck.  Sticky blood smears under my fingers.  “And did I pass?”

  Something in his voice tells me he’s smiling.  I don’t dare look behind me.  “For now…yes.  It may change, depending.”

  The zoms pull gently at their chains.  It’s probably my imagination, but I think I can hear their soft growls.  They weren’t turned this way by accident or chance.  They were turned for a purpose and revenge.  The hairs on the back of my neck stand up knowing that the person who was capable of doing that is three steps away. 

  “Depending on what?”  I have to stop asking questions.  It could just piss him off and push him over the edge. 

  “If I think you are lying.”

  Now I’ve decided I’ve had enough.  There’s probably a one in three chance he chooses to kill me just because he wants to.  Enough being afraid and submissive to this guy.  I turn around, keeping my arms at my sides.  Cold metal slides into my palm with a flick of my wrist.  “But I’m not lying—I literally have zero reasons to lie to you.  Also: who the hell are you?  What gives you the right to decide if I live or die?”

  That tinge in his voice tells me there’s a smile under his hood again.  “Whether or not you pose a threat to my life.  Or if the mood takes me.”

  “Then the same applies to me, yeah?”  The knife’s handle slides from my sleeve and into my hand.  He doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

  He blocks my attempt to stab him between his ribs.  With his focus on the knife, I bring my knee up into his crotch.  Bent double, soft groan passing his lips.  I push the man into the recliner I was sleeping in before.  The knife slips from his grip and falls on the floor.  Now my knife is at his throat, twitching close to his artery.  The hood’s fallen away from his face.  He returns my scowl as his nostrils flare in irritation. 

  I take a few seconds to look him over.  Angry, light green eyes try to burn a hole in my head.  Olive skin, dark bruises and white scars mottling it.  Hollow cheeks.  Dark circles around the eyes.  Hair as dark as his clothing, short, like it’s growing out from being buzzed down.  Sharp jaw tightens. 

  I’ll admit, the stranger’s attractive.  Looks a little worse for wear, but everybody does these days.  So, still attractive. 

  “Pissed to be in my shoes?” I hiss, tilting my head.  He thinks he’s the only one who can be ruthless and threatening?  Well, he’s wrong.  Probably every person left alive has had to be at some point.  I’m not an exception.  “Give me one reason not to kill you for threatening me.  I’m not waiting long for one.”

  Besides being pissed, he’s actually pretty calm.  He watches me with an intense eye.  “Because I am—“

  Glass shatters in another room.  When we hear the first snarls and growls, the guy and me forget about almost killing each other.  I shove my knife in his hands and grab the hatchet and gun from the floor.  He’s already at the edge of the kitchen when I stand.  I join him at the doorway.  He holds out a hand to stop me from getting closer.  I purse my lips, but don’t move forward. 

  Turning his head to me, he holds a finger to his lips.  Yeah, I was really planning on running in there and screaming at the zombies before.  The guy points to the front door and the couch blocking it.  I follow him to it and catch a glimpse of the zombies shuffling their way into the kitchen.  I grip my hatchet tighter. 

  We carefully lift the couch up and slide it far enough from the door that we can open it and slip through.  I grab my bag and sneak out the door just as the first rotter gets in the living room.  Quickly walking across the porch, then running across the overgrown yard to the treeline.  I don’t make it far before an arm wraps around my stomach.  I kick out as it lifts me up and takes me back into a hollowed-out trunk. 

  “Be quiet—the walkers in the house were not the only ones.”

  I grit my teeth.  Of course.  He found me again.  Thought I lost him and had just the zoms to worry about.  I struggle against him, but his arm wraps around me tighter.

  My struggles stop.  A rotter hits the hollow tree.  The stranger’s tense behind me, and I’m the same way—spine like an iron rod. 

  When its face peers in through the crack, rotten flesh assaulting my nose.  It’s so bad I’m close to gagging.  I forget about it when a hand slips in my waistband and takes my extra knife.

  The stranger plunges it into the zom’s head.  One last snarl leaves it before it starts slumping.  I lurch forward and grab it.  I bury my nose in my bicep to get away from the worst of the smell.  My eyes fall on the forest beyond the corpse.  A bunch more walk past behind it.  My heart pounds against my ribs. 

  “There’s a whole horde,” I murmur.  It’s muffled in my sleeve, but he hears me. 

  “I know.  I stopped you from running directly into them.”

  I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of him.  Can’t—it’s too dark.  Barely an outline of him.  The only way I can tell he’s there is the arm still clutching around my waist.  My nose goes back to my arm.  I watch the horde pass by.  “Then why didn’t you let me?  You wanted to kill me.”

  “Hardly productive creating another zombie for the horde.”

  Thanks, I think sourly.  My fingers curl in the ragged collar of the corpse’s.  It’s getting heavy. 

  My arms are trembling by the time the horde passes.  Collar rips as the last one wanders off.  The guy lets go of me to grab the body.  He stops it from thudding on the ground, turning us sideways so he can lower it down without a sound.

  We stay in the tree for who knows how long after the rotters are gone.  Him crouched, me standing with my back against bark.  He stares out into the forest for several minutes before he stands up again.

  I back farther against the wall.  We’re face to face now—more like face to chest.  He towers over me easily.  My chin tilts higher when the blade presses into my neck for a second time.

  “Really?  You’re still going to kill me?” I spit.  “There’s how many zoms out there—“

  “I’m deciding.”

  I bite my tongue.  “Excuse me?”

  I feel his eyes on me again, watching closely.  “Are you useful?”

  Are you kidding me I—  I scoff and grab his wrist.  “I’ve been traveling on my own for the last three months.  That make you think I’m useful?” I say.  A smile curls on my lips.  “I’m alive and I can survive this shitshow of a world.  I’d like to think I’m pretty damn useful, even if you don’t think so.”

  The knife leaves my throat.  My fingers still circle his wrist.  He slips his hand out and ducks out of the tree.  I scramble out after him.  He’s walking back towards the house.  No looking back at me. 

  “Hey!”  Stupid thing to do knowing a horde’s nearby.  But it gets his attention easy.  His shoulders bunch up, and he spins on his heel.  He stays still as I stalk up.  I hold out my hand.  “I want my knives back.”

  His eyebrow arches.  He drops one and then the other in my hand.  “Is that all?”

  “Yes—No.  I know we just tried to kill each other, but we didn’t.”

  “And?  I could say the same for myself and walkers I’ve come across.  This is no different.”

 I step in front of him when he tries to go.  “I’ve been surviving on my own for months.  I’m guessing you have too.  I’m tired of having to watch my own back 24/7.”

  He’s silent for a brief time.  “Wait, are you suggesting what I think?”  He barks out a laugh when I nod.  “No.  I’m not ‘teaming up’ with you.  Forget the notion.”

  “Why not?  We both have a good idea on how to handle rotters—and possibly-hostile people,” I argue.  “You’re not exhausted from always keeping an eye open?”

  Nothing.  No reaction from him.  You’d think he’d have a pondering expression or look like he’s considering me.  But nope: he’s got neither.  Just a blank look backed with enough steel that I couldn’t guess what he was thinking in the next century.      

  “It seems we feel differently about traveling alone,” he finally says.  “Find someone else—another group for all I care—and forget we crossed paths.  It would be best for us both.” 

  I almost try to argue with him.  I almost start to walk away.  But I see the snarl of rope, realizing what it means as he gets a step away from it.  “Wait, there’s a—“

  The trap springs when his ankle catches the trip wire.  I wince as he zips up in the air, hoisted upside-down by his ankle.  Shockingly, he doesn’t scream—I hear a grunt of surprise though and a couple curses.  I watch him dangle there from the rope, still swearing.  Then, a smile creeps over my face.  I bite my lip so my laugh doesn’t burst out of me. 

  He’ll have to make a deal if he wants help getting free.

Chapter Text

  We stopped a few hours after the car incident.  Kerrianne forced us to stay off the road and stick to the trees the rest of the day.  I didn’t mind, but Lina did.  She stumbled and tripped over every root and rock in her path.  I pitied her and gave her my arm after the first few nasty spills.

  Now, we’re camped out in an old trailer park.  Kerrianne walks the perimeter of the camp, her hawk-like eyes roving over every building and tree.  Nothing will get past her. 

  Lina sits with her arms wrapped around her knees.  She scoots closer to the small fire, shivering.  Laying in a muddy ditch didn’t help keep any of us from freezing later on.  Most of the mud on my clothes is still wet.  I flick a couple half-dried pieces off my knee.  Wish I had time to wash my clothes. 

  Most of the last three years has gone into scrambling around the country looking for Maddox Strange.  Sightings and rumors pull us every which way all the time.  People want the reward offered by the military.  The food, ammo, and gasoline rations offered for info brings in a constant stream of lies.  Wild and elaborate stories about running into him.  Kerrianne goes to each location and interviews whoever sent in the sighting.  Usually, she can tell within the first three questions if they were lying.  Sometimes all she has to do is show up and the survivors immediately admit they made it up.  Both Strange siblings are intimidating.

  I take a swig from my canteen.  Luke warm creek water isn’t the worst.  Swishing the water in my mouth, my gaze flits from Kerrianne to Lina and back. 

  I don’t like lying to Lina about Strange.  Well, I’m not technically lying.  I know Kerrianne isn’t looking for Strange because he’s her brother.  We both have orders—he’s got something no one else does.  Exactly what that something is is the thing I don’t know.  Doesn’t change the fact I’m hiding something from Lina.  She doesn’t really need to know, does she?  Her goal is different from ours—has nothing to do with it.  She has a cure.

  I glimpse the flash drive around her neck.  She fiddles with it constantly.  To make sure it’s there, remind herself to keep moving.  Whenever I see it, it sends a jolt through me.  A legitimate cure exists in the world.  No more watching people die and come back as empty shells.  No worrying about bites or scratches turning anyone.  At least…I hope that’s what the cure will do.  Like we don’t tell her much about our orders, she doesn’t tell us a whole lot about her flash drive.  Why’d she leave the place she was at before?  Was it overrun?  If not, didn’t they have the resources to start making the cure?  None of these questions are going to be asked unless I really need to at some point.

  Kerrianne whips around at the sound of a birdcall.  Her rifle’s up, eye to the scope and finger on the trigger.  Lina scrambles closer and hides behind me and my gun.  The next passing minutes are stiff.  Nothing comes out to attack us.  We lower the rifles but keep our hands on them.

  “Birds…” Kerrianne mutters, but she doesn’t sound convinced.  She’s always been as suspicious as a skittish cat.  No changing that about her. 

  Lina twists to look around.  “You think it was only birds?” she murmurs.  Wide eyes stare out through her smudged lenses. 

  “It’s not a sound zombies make,” I murmur.  Kerrianne and I raise our rifles at almost the same time. 

  Getting out her own pistol, Lina slinks closer to my back.  “Yeah…you guys really seem to think it’s birds.”     

  There’s another bird call, closer this time.  Our senses are heightened.  Twigs snap to our right.  We aim in that direction. 

  “At least three at the edge of the tree line,” Kerrianne says in a low voice.  “Two more farther back.  Leo—any flanking?”

  I scan the trees and trailers.  I catch sight of three more shadows moving across the back of one of the trailers.  “Three on our left.  Can’t see anyone else.”

  The figures ahead step into our clearing.  Two women and a man, dressed in dark browns and greens.  Simple camouflage.  Two more men step out behind them, three join from the left.  All of them are heavily armed with guns, knives, bats—other hand-built weapons.  The woman with shorn, black hair speaks first.

  “Fatigues, hmm?  Steal them from a military camp?”  I see why she’s the leader: her harsh, grating voice reminds me of a few sergeants we’ve had.  Her eyes travel over the rifles in our hands.  “One close by?”

  Kerrianne’s knuckles become a shade paler.  Her spine is a steel rod as she stares down the woman and her friends.  “No.  The only military camp in this vicinity is right here.”

  The woman raises her eyebrows at her.  “Actual military?  Explains the arrogance oozing from you.”  She nods to us.  “I think it’s time to relieve you from your duties—and your guns.”

  “Pamelina, now would be the time for you to run or shoot,” Kerrianne says.  She aims and takes out the woman by the trailers.  The sniper rifle falls beneath the body.  The fight’s started.

  I take out the other man and woman with guns.  The others have melee weapons—getting the guns out first is our best shot, even though each one probably has their own gun.  We can have them down before they can draw them. 

  Lina fires off one shot at the blond man charging towards her.  The bullet catches him in the thigh.  I have to silence him with a shot to the head.  Our guns have silencers, but his scream don’t. 

  Her gun lowers and points to the ground.  “Leone—“

  “There could be more of them out there.  Zombies too,” I say as I topple one of the remaining men.  “Can’t bring more to the party.”

  Three left.  I ram the butt of my rifle into a woman’s face before twisting the machete from her hand.  She trips over her own feet, falls on her back. 

  The machete’s tip digs into the flesh of her throat.  “Run now, or your head rolls.”

  She wastes no time.  Scrambling up, she heads for the woods.  Two left. 

  I turn to where the rest of the fight is taking place behind me.  Kerrianne’s gun is on the ground and blood coats her upper lip.  With a snarl, she charges at one of the women with blood on her knuckles.  Kerrianne takes out a slim dagger and thrusts it into soft part below her jaw. 

  Kerrianne doesn’t wait to make sure the dagger hit home.  She removes it and stands.  The dark-haired woman is the last one left.  I keep my barrel trained on her as Kerrianne approaches. 

  “You shouldn’t’ve let her go,” she spits at me.  “I have more people.  She’ll bring them to hunt you down—“

  “Bluff or not, we can handle them.  Look around you,” Kerrianne interrupts.  Her cool tone nearly raises the hairs on my nape.  “Nothing has been much of a threat to us so far.  Why would the likes of you be?”

  The woman’s lip curls back in a sneering smile.  “You don’t know who we are or what we are capable of.  We will get our rev—“

  Lina and I flinch as the shot goes off.  The woman collapses on the ground with blank eyes and a hole between them. 

  I didn’t see Kerrianne draw the handgun from her belt.  She tucks it back under her jacket.  “I don’t care for drama.”  She looks up from the corpse to us.  “Doublecheck none of them are going to turn, then make certain you have everything.  We leave in ten minutes.”

  I follow her orders and start checking the bodies.  Lina is rooted to the ground.  She stares at Kerrianne with a mix of disgust and disbelief.  “You didn’t have to fight them—or kill them.  There’s—There’s a chance we could’ve talked to them, show them mercy—“

  “This is showing them mercy, Mercado,” Kerrianne hisses, rounding on her.  “I’m not letting them become mindless flesh eaters, am I?  No.  I am being merciful; believe it or not.” Kerrianne picks up her rifle and pack.  “Nine minutes.  We have more ground to cover now.  I want to be out of this area before noon.”