Chapter 45: Trees

Disclaimer: I do not own Left 4 Dead 1 or 2

" To be fair, I didn't think you could climb a tree that fast." Zoey said, watching the angry Shooter down below clawing at the bark, Nick panting on a higher branch. " Nor did I think I could."

" Anyone can do amazing things from fear." Nick replied. " For our next trick though... how do we get down without becoming lunch?"

Thanks to quick thinking on both their parts, they had dashed away from the two Shooters and climbed trees to escape, however they were now faced with the fact that they were stuck. The Shooters themselves seemed to be too heavy or lacking in knowledge of how to climb a tree, but were more than capable of waiting for their prey to come down, both sitting at the base of the tree and clawing at the bark.

" I give it another two minutes before they start ramming the tree." Zoey said. " Any ideas on how to get down?"

" Scream like hormonal girls at a concert and pray someone hears it?" Nick offered.

" Ha ha ha no." Zoey replied. " You still have your gun?" she asked, having dropped hers in the climb.

" Would I still be up here if I did?" came the reply, Zoey spotting Nick's rifle underneath the clawed foot of the second Shooter. " This is terrible..." she sighed.

Both let out a squawk as the tree was rammed, Nick making a worried noise. " They're starting to think fast, and we had better start thinking faster than them if we don't want to end up on the menu."

Zoey was jarred from her spot, clinging to the branch tightly as she tried to think. " … Do you think we can outrun them?" she asked.

" You tell me, I know they can shoot those spine things on their arms." Nick said, adjusting his grip. " If one of us gets hit, we've only got a small window to escape before that limb goes numb and that person is screwed. I'd rather not chance that..."

" Can't stay, can't go... your turn." Zoey sighed.

" … Do you have anything to throw at them?" Nick asked. " Might be a good distraction..."

" Only thing we have between the both of us is our shoes, and I am pretty sure we need those." Zoey replied.

Surprisingly, the two Shooters gave up for the time being, both resting at the bottom of the tree like they were exhausted, Nick leaning forward on the branch to look at them. " Huh, guess they can't keep up the violent infected act for very long." he said. " Course, we still can't get down..." he wasn't putting it past the behemoth infected to be acting tired to get them to let their guard down.

Zoey sighed. " On the bright side, we're not immediately going to be lunch. Still doomed, but not immediately." She too didn't trust the infected to be truly tired, figuring it was a waiting game for the time being.

" Could we call that a good thing?" Nick sighed. " Well, since we're stuck here more or less... how long do you think it's gonna be before the others come to find us?"

" I give it anywhere between ten to twenty minutes." Zoey said. " Either they'll find us, the Shooters get their second wind and try to kill one of us, or one of us murders the other up here."

" …. To be fair, they'd probably be distracted by shiny objects." Nick replied. " That or me throwing you down there to save myself."

" You try it and I will keep a deathgrip on your ankle." Zoey threatened. " I will not go down alone."

" Can't you take a joke, princess?" Nick rubbed at the side of his head, though his tone suggested that he had at least considered the idea once or twice. " That group of yours would have my head for something like that."

" If you think I trust you, you're really barking up the wrong tree." Zoey said bitterly.

" I don't need your trust, I have enough trouble with my own group." Nick shot back, readjusting his grip again since his hands were starting to hurt.

" They'd be more willing to trust if you didn't act like such an ass all the time." Zoey replied. " A little kindness goes a long way."

The conversation pretty much died out for the time being, both trying to think of a way to get down safely without too much noise. Both Shooters were curled around the tree with their spines scraping the bark, so the minute they slid down, there would be hell to pay.

" Damn... I remember the one in that damned tunnel of love, and it reacted pretty quickly when the others found it and woke it up. How much time would I even have if I just jumped down and started running? Even if I did get away, we're pretty far from the plantation home... and that damn thing is sitting on my gun!" Nick mused, Zoey trying to think as well. " Couldn't we just jump down since they're sleeping right now and then just run like hell?" Zoey asked.

Nick sighed faintly and tried to calculate the exact time it would take for them to escape before the trees shook again, both getting jarred forcibly. Without thinking, Nick grabbed onto Zoey's hand to keep her from falling, seeing a Tank angrily chasing one of the now fully awake Shooters around, the muscular infected clearly annoyed with their presence as the second one went to go defend its companion... or wait to see what scraps it could get.

" … Not exactly what I had hoped for, but beggars cannot be choosers..." Nick said, jumping down from the tree, landing and wincing from the pain in his feet, Zoey mimicking him and wincing as well, both quickly looking for their guns since they knew that the Tank wouldn't be chasing them for a bit and neither would the Shooters. " Which way was the plantation home?" Zoey asked, Nick pointing it out to her wordlessly while locating his weapon. Neither had much to say to each other as they tried to hurry to the plantation home before the Tank got bored or killed, spotting the Tank chasing the Shooters across the somewhat destroyed town a short time later, the muscular infected covered in numerous spines and roaring angrily.

" If anything, those things are persistent... kind of like Ellis with those damn stories of his." Nick said with an amused tone while watching the two Shooters prowl angrily in a circle formation around the Tank, having teamed up.

" You know he means well." Zoey defended, adjusting her grip on her gun in case things turned bad again.

" You try enduring that whenever it gets quiet and you tell me if you still want to stick up for him after that." Nick retorted, feeling like Zoey was quick to jump to whatever side he wasn't on.

" God, you are such an asshole." Zoey grumbled. " Even more so than Francis."

Nick said nothing in reply, nudging aside a thin branch to look around, spotting the plantation home in the distance. " There it is. Let's hurry up and go before muscles back there is killed."

On the way there, any attempts at a conversation was like landing in a thorn bush; painful for one party, mainly Zoey. Nick was being rather stubborn about the whole incident, and despite her best efforts to attempt to get along, her words were shot down faster than ducks during hunting season.

" … Nick, right? It's short for Nicolas, isn't it?" Zoey asked finally after a long break in the conversation. " Why not use your full name?"

" I don't hear you calling Bill "William," or Coach by any other name." Nick replied bluntly. " Nick is just easier."

" Well, scratch that conversation topic..." Zoey sighed. " It's impossible to find common ground with you."

" I'm not a common person." Nick replied sarcastically.

" Obviously." Zoey replied. " Almost makes me wonder why your group hasn't shot you yet."

" As much as they may or may not hate me, we're all using each other for survival. Only reason we haven't bailed on each other yet." Nick's words echoed in Zoey's mind, reminding her of what Francis had said in Mercy city before they met Ark. It was sort of true, Francis and Nick were cut from similar cloth. Both looked out for number one, and while they did help their fellow survivor, it was for mainly their own interests. If anyone in a group died, that cut the number of potential targets down to three. From a twenty-five percent attack ratio to thirty-three point three didn't sound like much of an increase, but if the third person died, it jumped to fifty-fifty. The odds were not good at any time, so to ensure personal survival, one had to not only look after himself, but his team.

Zoey sighed and played with her jacket before she noticed Nick's odd manner of holding himself. " Is your shoulder bad?" she asked in a much more gentle tone.

" Big Hunter, could have been that dick Alexander's doing." Nick said. " It's almost healed, but still pulls. Why are you interested in it?"

" I dunno, injuries kind of remind me that I'm still human at the end of the day." Zoey replied, looking down at her feet. " Maybe you think of me and Ellis as annoying kids, but let this annoying kid have a moment to speak. I'm just a college girl, Nick. On the day the virus broke out, if someone had told me I'd have to fight for my life with three people I just met to escape the city from thousands of infected people, some of them mutated beyond recognition... I'd tell them to write that idea down, it'd make a good zombie movie. We've all lost so many people... Louis lost coworkers, Francis lost friends... I lost my family. It's a bit much for one person to take in, so as we're fighting for our lives, I almost feel like this isn't real. Like I'd reach the safe haven and then the world will shake, only to find my roommate shaking me awake for class and scolding me for leaving the TV on."

She gingerly ran her fingers over some of the bandages on her arm. " Injuries remind me that this is all real, that this is really happening. There's no extra life, there's no rapid healing behind a chest-high wall, and no infinite ammo. My last bullet won't strike the target dead center like in the movies, and I certainly won't be coming back for a sequel if I'm seriously injured. It's a reminder that I have to take care of myself if I want to live."

"... If someone had told me the same thing, I'd have told them to set the bottle down and turn in for the night." Nick finally said, his tone softer as well. " So I guess we're all in the same boat of disbelief."

" I'm still in shock that the infected are... well, you know... not dead." Zoey said. " If you think about it... we're murdering sick people who want to kill us. If I told somebody how many infected I've killed so far, I'd be likened to a serial murderer."

" I doubt you'd be." Nick replied. " Even the few infected that are with us aren't sympathizers to them." He had hightailed it out of the twins' garden when he watched Matthew beat a common into fine paste, having previously thought that Matthew was the more peaceful of the two. Wrong on all counts. " And any other human I've met has been too scared to even touch us, but don't mind us killing the infected for them."

Zoey sighed, amazed that Nick was having a conversation with her. She figured it was because they were pointedly avoiding mentioning the others except to prove a point. Still though, the time had come to break the ice. " Last I saw, Bill and Coach were negotiating on where to go... what's your opinion on all this? Like where to go, what to do?"

" … Blunt and to the point, aren't we?" Nick said, looking at her, stopping for a brief moment. " I don't mind getting evacuated, but the ones we've been to so far have either been do it ourselves or a big failure usually resulting in a crash. The military also sounds like a bad idea. Call me paranoid, but the idea of running to the military covered in what must be layers of blood and bile when they're trying to save as many as they can makes me nervous. Who's to say we won't be treated like captive infected? Studied and then killed."

" Sion would know a lot about that..." Zoey said solemnly. " He was very sick by the time we managed to get to him. Ark nearly went berserk trying to make sure he'd be okay. It was also the first time we met Desert."

Nick had been about to say something before he heard a set of insane giggles, Zoey moving closer to him. " What the hell was that?" she asked, worried.

" Welcome to the south." Nick sighed, now fully aware of the movements in the trees, trying to locate the jockey. The arrival of the two Shooters plunged the area around them into chaos, the Jockey leaping from the trees onto Nick's back, spindly arms coiling around his face and mottled feet digging into his shoulders, the injured one immediately protesting the weight. Zoey turned when she heard Nick's shout, seeing the Jockey trying to steer him into the fight between the titan infected. The small portion of her brain that was prone to saying dumb stuff at the wrong time almost cracked a dirty joke, but the rest of her was geared into saving him despite their issues.

She didn't want to take a chance shooting at it, instead charging at it and dropping down low, taking Nick's legs out from under him and causing him to fall backwards onto it, a squeak being heard from it as Nick's weight knocked it silly, Zoey pulling the Jockey's arms loose from Nick's face and letting him escape.

A continuous string of curses let her know where Nick was behind her as she shot the Jockey up, rough hands grabbing her shoulders and pulling her away from the corpse as a Shooter rampaged past, trying to maul the distracted woman, Nick holding onto her tightly and moving her behind him as the other Shooter growled at him, the two infected circling. It was clear that the partnership between the two Shooters was over, they were snarling and hissing at each other while keeping Nick and Zoey from fleeing.

" Back where we started." Zoey said quietly, watching them. " … and by the way, Nick, didn't know you liked the bottom."

Nick let out a hiss through his teeth, not wanting to respond to that little insult while their lives were in danger. " If we could just lose one of them..." The two shooters were watching warily, ready to bolt at seconds notice if they suddenly sprinted. Due to there being two of them, it wasn't like they could split up either...

A braying noise broke their focus again, Ark leaping onto one of the Shooters, immediately regretting it but hanging on, the infected beast roaring and trying to dislodge the Hunter from its person, Colt biting onto its hand and holding on tightly, both not seeming to care much about the fact that they were getting scratched up.

" ...Now!" Nick ordered swiftly, running to the side as the other shooter roared and charged, Zoey on the other side of the clearing by now, both of them racing to get away as the first Shooter bucked Ark off it and then threw Colt against a tree, roaring angrily and trying to crush the young Shooter underfoot, Colt rolling away and getting to his feet clumsily, the missing arm throwing off his balance. Both infected were in pain, but scrambled to get away as the group left the two Shooters behind, Zoey catching up with them as she broke through the wall of trees to reach where the three of them were.

" That was intense..." she panted, crouching slightly as she heard the two infected roar in the treeline, having turned on each other rather than give chase. " ...but somehow, we made it. Thanks for coming to get us, Ark. You too, Colt."

Colt gave her a pleased look while Ark scuffed his shoe. " I was worried when we couldn't find the both of you." he said, Nick rolling his eyes at 'both' as Ark rubbed his head nervously. " C'mon, we should head back..."

" 'Both.'" Nick emphasized, walking behind Colt as they headed for the plantation home. " Riiiight." he was still holding his weapon and watching the scenery, but the adrenaline for now had passed, watching the kids up front. Zoey seemed to have bounced back from the attack so quickly, animatedly chatting with Ark while Colt seemed distracted, gazing off into the distance.

The con artist was many things, but stupid wasn't one of them. He could tell it in the voice, mannerisms, and overall behavior that both Ellis and Ark possibly had a thing for Zoey... he couldn't claim to know the story behind it, but he knew that it could lead to fractures in the group should things go sour. As they reached the main gates though, he remembered the fight from earlier and a grin crept across his lips.

" Hey, cupcake?" he called softly. When Zoey turned to face him, he carefully brushed past her. " With all the stories others tell me of infected chasing you... I'd say you take the bottom far more than I do." he said softly, Zoey spluttering as he made his way back inside, feeling accomplished. Sure, they didn't manage to get the supplies they had found, but they were all alive, and the middle finger he saw out of the corner of his eye left him feeling in a pleasant mood.

" Today is a good day."

End chapter 45

Yeah... that thing I said about out by next halloween? Didn't count on life hitting me with a shovel again. I'll try to pick things up again! As a bonus, here's a part that didn't make it into the final cut of the story. Ciao for now!

Grimacing, Nick tried to think of another way down, looking up when he heard growling, Ark lunging out of the trees to kick at one of the Shooter's legs. The spined infected crashed to the ground, the second one roaring loudly at him, startling the Hunter as it prepared to take a shot at him. Scrambling backwards, Ark charged for the tree, scrambling up it and clinging to a branch.

" ...Our hero." Nick and Zoey groaned. " Where the hell did the spine you had in Mercy City go?" Zoey added.

" Dried up when I saw a southern Hunter." Ark admitted. " They're so big..."

" Yeah, you are kind of short." Nick said, avoiding the glare he got. " Telling the truth, kid. Can't sling anything at me for that."