"Well. That's, uhhhhhhhh, weird."
Leave it to Hanna to state the obvious in the dumbest way possible.
Worth looked as best he could out of the dirty side window, RV lumbering its way down the cracked asphalt of unkempt road. The world in general had settled about as much as could be hoped. It wasn't pure, exhilarating and exhausting chaos these days. Now they had order. Now they had an alliance of sorts between the natural and supernatural. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't even respected in all areas of the country, but, generally speaking both sides were, for the most part, getting along, adjusting, helping one another. It wasn't even uncommon these days for their little group of mismatched soldiers to drive into a new town and find dryad sentries keeping watch, leaves blinding intruders, twiggy appendages scratching out an SOS against houses and windowpanes when danger was approaching.
Life, dead, undead, living, and yeah, there really should be a checkbox for "other", had poured in, filling the empty places vacated by the once dominant humans. But if they didn't know better, they would assume they were drifting their way into yet another ghost town. The weight of the air in the area, however, and the golf course now covered in sprouting crops, gave enough proof that someone had to be around. Plus, they had it on good authority from a few towns back that this one had sent women in to trade and, oddly enough, look for husbands. You'll know them when you see them, had been the repeated reassurances. Same eyes on all of them and you can't see much else. They had taken what supplies they could source from that town back to Arkham and then made a straight (ish, there had been a bridge with a gaping hole in the middle they had needed to find their way around) shot west down Interstate 78. Now that they were there, they weren't quite sure what to do.
"We could scout around? Maybe kinda?"
"That sounds good, Hanna." The doctor replied, arms crossed over his chest.
"Whoa, wait, really?" Peering around the seat, squinting into the dark of the back, Hanna replied, "I figured you'd be all "Yer gonna get yerself killed" or something cranky like that."
"Thought I'd use a li'l reverse psychology on ya this time. Spice things up."
"...Kay so go out or don't go out?"
"Depends. Ya wanna get yerself killed?"
"Not particularly no."
"Will stayin' in th' camper keep ya alive?"
"Er, definitely yes?"
He stared at Hanna who pulled a face, then turned back around to face forward in the passenger seat. "Okay, okay. We'll check it out in the morning."
A green hand touched Hanna's shoulder while an ivory one shifted the vehicle into park.
Going to sleep early hadn't netted much more rest than usual. Worth's body was unaccustomed to sleep at such an early hour and had fought and resisted, resulting in Conrad pinning the doctor to the bed, threatening to dislocate his limbs to prevent all the flailing. Being pinned down hadn't really done much to help with the sleep, especially in certain areas of his anatomy. Even with their fun little romp in Arkham nearly two weeks behind them, his arm was still pissy, ugly purple bruising now fading to yellows and greens more befitting the skin of their zombie companion. It was giving off stings zipping their way along nerves with the way Conrad was gripping and manhandling it. He had offered to lie very still while the vampire provided some "woman of the house services" and, despite both of their still recovering states, that had been enough to earn a quick passage from the land of the conscious. Hell of a throbbing headache when he came to, though.
Of course, it had been around the time that he'd actually managed to nod off when he heard the zombie knocking on the door to the back of the camper. "Worth. We have visitors."
Worth's default mood was cranky. Worth getting interrupted during much needed sleep tended to ratchet down a few more levels straight into pissy asshole territory. "Tell 'em ta come back later."
"I attempted. They are now dragging Hanna off somewhere. I will check back later."
"Fine, wotever." He pulled sheets up and over his head, then kicked them off completely, limbs flinging haphazardly as he launched himself from the bed. "Fuck ya mean, draggin' - OI!" Conrad didn't stir amidst the frenzy and Worth stomped his way from the back of the RV into the main area and out the door without looking back.
There was a group that had formed, a few children and mostly adult women as far as he could tell from heights. Dead bloke was circling the edges of the group like a bedraggled herding dog, not sure which heels to nip at to integrate himself into their midst. Even had that forlorn look on his face and goddamn, Worth had spent far too much time around these assholes if he was starting to assign emotions and personality traits to a dead man.
As the doctor continued to advance, he picked up the chatter - oh yeah, definitely a group of women, just the sort of thing he wanted to deal with on two hours of shitty sleep. Hanna did seem to be lost in the middle of the throng, and only bits of his attempted dialogue clued Worth in to the fact that he hadn't been swallowed whole by the mass. They appeared to be taking him to one of the houses as best Worth could tell, and he wasn't sure he liked the notion of the ginger disappearing into one without him.
"OI!" The chittering stopped and handkerchief covered faces turned towards him in near unison. "Ya wanna tell me jus' what th'-" he growled low and long in the back of his throat as an extra step forward off the street and onto a front yard brought the unmistakable feeling of cold, clammy mud squirting and blurbling up between his bare toes. "Fuckin' fantastic."
Half of the women broke off and suddenly swarmed, surrounding him, eager eyes and, oh, hello there, some very eager hands as well. Ordinarily he might not mind as much, but as it was, he simply wasn't in the mood and roared. "Knock it off!"
Somewhere in the distraction, the zombie managed to integrate himself and reach Hanna, picking him up and doing his best to wade his way back out of the crowd.
Worth was picking up on questions now that the hands weren't up to funny business and his feet had adjusted to the feel of cold mud. He picked one woman out (mostly because she was right in front of him) and grabbed her shoulder, giving it a quick and solid jostle. "Wot? Slow down 'n' repeat."
"Immunity," she gasped, and the doctor now had an idea what it must feel like to be a rock star. Women of all shapes and sizes moving as one large crazy sea, surrounding and grabbing in some weird communal bit of ecstasy from your sheer presence. He might have liked it when he was sixteen, but he was just too goddamned old for that bullshit now.
"Fuck ya sayin'?"
"You are men and you're still alive. You must be immune."
"Dunno wot th' fuck yer on 'bout," he grumbled and some of their trance faded, adoration being replaced by uncertainty in their eyes. "Ain't many blokes who're immune, but we sure 's fuck ain't among 'em." He wasn't seeing much blue veining in the eyes around him and grew suspicious himself. "Don't look like yer immune neither."
"We've been wearing facemasks," one of the women ventured, speaking up. "When the disease hit, we were careful with soap and covered our faces. Mostly stayed indoors, too."
"Indoors, eh? Oi, Hanna."
"Yeah, bro?" Came the redfaced reply from near the dead man's shoulders.
"That house they was tryin' ta take ya off ta. Smell like anythin' in particular?"
"Smoke like you wouldn't believe, bro. But not exactly from cig-"
"Right. There's yer immunity," gruffly, he trudged closer to the house and the porch, wiping his feet off on the steps.
The group began to close in on itself. "That doesn't make sense."
"Look, I ain't makin' th' rules, 'm jus' tellin' ya how it works. We're stayin' alive by smokin' 'n' somehow yer all keepin' alive th' same way."
"That's not possible," a strong voice reasoned, stepping closer to the edge of the group, "none of us smokes any more. Some of us never smoked."
"You just have to inhale it, you don't have to actively smoke," Hanna offered, still looking flustered, "just the exposure is all you need."
The woman had moved to the front now and was clearly visible. On the short side, stocky. Reminded him a bit of Lamont's mother with the way she put her hands on her hips. "The only smoke we've been around in the past two years is from wood burning in our fireplaces. And not even all of us have."
"Ain't no one smokin' cigs?"
"No. And I'd appreciate it if you'd stop wiping your feet on my porch."
"'Course ya would. I'd appreciate gettin' a full night's sleep. We don't always get wot we want, do we?"
She was glaring. Well that was fine. Worth could glare right back. He wasn't actually sure if he knew how to not glare these days. Maybe your face really did stick. Huh.
"Did you have any one living with you who smoked?"
A sigh and her glare softened, moved over to where the ginger was still being held out of harm's (or hands') way and mossy was giving reproachful looks when the girls go too close. And Hanna wondered why people questioned his sexuality. "The older generations did. My mother did. Most of us who smoked gave what we had to the older members."
"Okay, well then you can thank your grandma 'cause she totally saved your bacon."
"Er well um...thanks anyway?"
"The mouth covers have kept us safe. Prevents us from breathing in germs and from getting ours on others. It's worked for the past three years. What we need are men who are immune or at least won't stop wearing their face covers and won't disappear in the middle of the night."
"Nightly disappearances? That sounds like our speciality!" Within the zombie's grip, Hanna squirmed and, with a reluctant sigh, the zombie set him down. "If you can give us some details," he adjusted his glasses, grin wide and electric, "we would be happy to be of assistance!"
Worth could have been mistaken, but the group of women and children seemed far less enthusiastic about their guests than they had a few minutes earlier. "Don't look like much, but he's good at figurin' that kinda shit out."
"Thanks, I think?" Excitement faltered briefly before Hanna picked right back up, a puppy confused by an unexpected sound that was soon forgotten. "For seriously reals, that's kinda what I did before everything went kablooey and you know, I think I kinda have more work to do these days, just, for some reason? Pay isn't as good. Go figure."
A young girl pulled on Hanna's shirtsleeve. "Can you bring Tony back?"
"Aaaah, no? I mean, yes, I could, probably, but it gets really messy and dramatic and they don't usually keep as well as Jeremy here and-"
The zombie kneeled, hands on the child's shoulders. "I am sorry, little one. It is an impossibility."
"Her brother," another woman speaking, the girl's mother, Worth assumed, as he watched her scoop up the child, hand stroking across the back of her hair.
"Er, is this only happening to dudes? Uh, guys? Manly men types?"
"Yes." Mamma Monty there. At least Worth could assign a name to that one.
"Any bodies? I mean, like, are they just poofing or..." Even Hanna picked up on the unease rolling through the crowd. "Okay, so, not poofing. I kinda need info though if I'm going to fix this."
"Everyone go ahead. I'll talk to them. I'm the one who took care of them." Mamma Monty waved her hands and the rest reluctantly dispersed. The children and a handful of women moved to the playground while the rest made their way to the converted golfcourse. "You better not be shitting me here about helping."
"Totally no shitsville here, ma'am. Hanna Falk Cross, paranormal investigator, at your service! If it goes bump in the night, I'm your man."
She looked unimpressed, but led the way into the home with mud caked on the porch. Worth reminded himself now was not the best time to make a joke about bumping in the night and Hanna's lack thereof. It could backfire.
Hanna was right - it didn't smell much like cigarettes, though Worth could spot tell-tale yellow staining at the top of the wallpaper as they passed through the living room and into the dining room. They sat at the table and Mamma Monty folded her hands, resting her chin on them. She took a breath. "I've been telling them that it's illness taking the men. I haven't wanted to scare them. They think if they wash and wear their face covers that they'll be safe. One of them got this immunity idea in her head a year ago and I couldn't stop a group from using what gas we have to do a trading and scouting trip a few towns over."
"So you know it's something else, then?"
She nodded. "I saw lots of people die. Lots. I worked in a nursing home for nearly twenty years. Saw people I'd been caring for for nearly a decade up and go within days. We had waiting lists, but every time we called, we found out they were gone, too. Called and checked in at the nearest hospital, kept hearing about neighbors never making it home, riots in the bigger cities. It didn't take long to realize what was going on. I bunkered down with family here and we waited out the storm. But the men...boys, too," she took a breath, "that's been a new thing. That's not part of the plague."
"You're sure? I mean, maybe they just haven't been around the smoke? Or, maybe they were immune then weren't immune?"
"When we found them, their heads were missing. I'm pretty sure it's not related."
"Oh. Uh. No, doesn't sound like it. Were they uh, gnawed on at all? Any sulfur smell?"
"No. Heads were there, by the bodies. A few of the younger ones said they saw when Paul was...well...they saw, or saythey saw. They said a woman asked him something, then they said she took off her handkerchief, he screamed, tried to run, and then she...killed him. It couldn't be someone in our group, but, we don't know who it is. I told the girls that the woman breathed her germs on them and reminded them to stay safe and keep their handkerchiefs on. What else was I supposed to say?"
"Oh, whoa, you have a slit-mouthed woman! Bad ass!"
Eyes narrowed and Worth felt the barely restrained rage of an older Italian woman bearing down on Hanna. "Excuse me?"
"Er, sorry," his hands flew up defensively, grin turning sheepish, "I mean, those are rare, so uh, not bad ass but um...bad? Uh, you could just tell everyone to take off their handkerchiefs and that way you'll know who she is. She's probably hanging around in the middle of you guys all the time and no one notices 'cause, y'know, you're all covered up. Soon as those covers come off BAM! No way you can miss her."
"Go against everything that has made them feel safe for the past three years? Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea. Why, exactly, should I go against what I've been telling them? What will that accomplish? How are we even going to know who she is? It's been so long since we've seen each other without face covers I might not even recognize some of the women here until they speak."
"Uh, well slit-mouthed woman is kinda self-explanatory? They wind up being disfigured by jealous dudes and come back as vengeful spirits. They look normal and stuff till they take off their mask and then grossville. That's when people flip out, and it's no good. You kinda need to manage to stay neutral or dismissive to throw them off and buy you time to escape. Otherwise, uhhhhhh, yeah, your head is totally no longer going to be one with your body. Total one hit kill. So exposed face equals exposed demon."
"How ya been buryin' 'em?" The doctor asked, finger tapping against the table top.
"The normal way. Six feet deep and covered in prayers. We don't have caskets or proper headstones, but we know which graves belong to which relatives. They're a few houses down in the back yard. We found the bodies all nearby, on the playground or the road mostly, and no one wants to touch a dead body, so it was just up to me and a few others to do the transporting and the burial. Would have been nice to take them to the far side of the golf course but," she shrugged and adjusted her handkerchief, "not even I want to put a body in the backseat of my car. Some smells never come out."
Worth was mildly glad Conrad wasn't around. The ensuing hygiene quip and likely fist fight might have scuffed the furniture, and that would be a shame. It was nice furniture.
Mamma Mont seemed to have come to a weary conclusion. "You're sure you know what this is and you can get rid of it?"
"Absolutely one hundred totally. And uh, tonight? I'd like to do it tonight. Especially since we're, y'know, dudes and here and she'll probably target us but also? When they run out of men they usually go for the easiest prey next and um...that would be the children."
"I don't want to lose anyone else. It's hard enough handling things as it is. You ever try wrangling around a group of women and teenagers all cycling at the same time?"
"Uhhhh," Hanna's left cheek attempted to play patty cake with his forehead.
"Guess ya can't tell 'em ta jus' get back in th' kitchen."
Three sets of eyes looked at him. Orange and blank. Blue and pleading. Brown and murderous.
"Jus' sayin'. Ain't like there's no chocolate in there no more."
Orange and blank. Blue and relieved. Brown and considering.
"Plus, it'll take 'em fergoddamned ever ta make a sandwich with all the bodies in the way."
A slight frown, a head smacking against the table (whoops, looks like the furniture would take a beating anyway), and apparently Conrad wasn't the only one who had no trouble backhanding someone from across a table.
"Right. S' why is it that th' most fucked up monsters're always women?"
"Uhhhh," freckled nose wrinkled as Hanna replied, "I'm afraid to answer this 'cause I think it's gonna turn sexist and contrary to popular belief, I do like the ladies."
Shoulders shrugged. "Seem ter remember that skin crawler. Was female."
"Walker? Well, was in a female body, but I guess that counts."
"Then there wassat woman eatin' kids. Had ta send yer ass in ta figger out where she was keepin' 'em all."
"Yeah, okay, would have been easier if that house was actuallymade of gingerbread, total bummer that it was just regular old brick, but I'll give you that one."
"'N' th' CUT was run by a woman."
"Er, yeah, okay, behind the scenes manipulation but y-yeah, okay."
"Then ya got that woman ya hired tter swallow sins."
"I didn't hire her she kinda volunteered and was hungry and tired of wandering so I was like "hey, free food!" and she was like "fuck yeah, free food!" only with less "fuck yeah" and more creepy, quiet happiness."
"Had our fun with Adelaide recently."
"...Yeah. I mean, I don't know that I'd call that fun but you're being facetious, right? 'Cause you're weird and stuff but that'd be weird even for you."
"Uh huh. 'N' then we got th' most damnin' of all."
"Don't say it, I know you're gonna-"
"Weren't yer landlord a woman?"
Hanna blinked hard enough that Worth was certain he had heard the slamming of startled eyelids. "Uh, wow, I totally thought you were gonna say Conrad."
"Yeah? Well sure, if yer gonna bring it up." Shoulder stiffly complaining, he tapped a pack of cigarettes against his palm, then offered it to Hanna.
Pouting, the mage freed one twisted homemade cigarette. "Nooo I was saying what I thought you were going to say."
"G'on. Use that excuse." Worth plucked out his own cancer stick and slipped the pack back into an inner coat pocket. "I'll jus' wander over 'n' have a chat with her royal highness. Sure Connie'll see things yer way."
"Pffft." Hanna crossed his arms. "He probably will, actually."
Smirking, Worth struck a match and lit his cigarette. "Yeah. Pro'lly."
"Still can't believe Mrs. D'Angelo agreed to this even after you were you." A sigh. "You sure you wanna do this, man? Not the most dangerous thing we've done but, still. You're kinda gonna be on your own with this one. Instead of the A-Team you'll just be the I-Team."
"Eeeh, reckon I'm th' best bloke fer th' job. She'll smell th' magic on ya 'n' green bean miles away 'n' besides th' fact that she usually don' go fer th' ladies, I don't think she'll wanna go loppin' the head off a vamp." He gave a pointed look, rolling his cigarette into the corner of his mouth. "'Course we kin always jus' head outta town 'n' not give a fuck."
The edges of Hanna's lips hardened, shadows made deeper as the sun sank lower on the horizon and he drew breath through his own cigarette.
Red rimmed eyes rolled and Worth slumped deeper into his rocking chair, kicking his booted feet up onto the patio railing. "Figured. Don't think yer ever gonna get a sense o' self preservation, kid."
"Coulda fooled me," smoke rings, Hanna's newest way of entertaining himself, chained their way up and out of his mouth, "you just keep trying."
Hands folded themselves over his abdomen and the doctor watched the people around hurrying their families into houses. Windows were shut, curtains falling like thick, dark liquid across the backs of windows. Conrad would be up by now. Should be up by now, anyway. "Might work some sense inta ya one a these days. Man kin try. Thass all he kin do. Hope 'n' try."
"If you didn't sound so resigned and pissy about it, I'd say you're starting to sound more like me."
He snorted, tugged at the skin on the back of his hand, tried to measure his hydration levels even in the growing darkness. He might be able to donate again to Conrad in a few days, finish the fag's healing process. He'd be back to jazzercising in no time. "Jus' make this shit quick. Kill her, get yerself deified by a new city, 'n' get me somethin' decent ta eat. One that walked on four legs if possible."
"Dogs walk on four legs, man. And cats. And hamsters and guinea pigs. And uh, elephants. I don't think you want to eat those."
"Ain't sure if I oughta ask how ya went from household pets ta goddamned Lion King on me."
Broad hand rubbed across a sparsely bristled face. Would need to shave again soon. It was getting too hot for facial hair."Finish yer smoke 'n' fuck off. I gotta broad ta attract."
A final ring was blown and Hanna triumphantly flicked the spent nub of his cigarette through it. Grinning, he hopped up and bounded down the patio steps, singing loud and off key. "Naaaaaaaaaaaaaants ingonyaaaaaaaaaaama bagithi Babaaaaa!."
Unable to find something to fling in the red head's direction, Worth instantly considered the value in feeling his way through Conrad's pockets to relieve him of the keys to the RV and drive off, tires squealing and vampire bitching. It seemed like a pretty good idea in his head. Especially the bitching and groping parts. He flung words as his joints popped and allowed him to pull legs from the railing and back down, wiry frame rising to a familiar hunched walking position. "If ya start up with that Hakuna Matata kumbay ya bullshit, swear yer gonna regret it."
There was tension in the air, not just from Worth's teeth itching, knowing he had a long night of wandering and waiting to see if Big Mouth was going to make an appearance. He didn't have any adrenaline, not yet, just the irritation of knowing something would happen, but not knowing when, or if it would even be worth getting excited about. The doctor found in these situations, the best thing to do was to have a long talk with Conrad. It helped put him at ease, made him, well, happy in a way that no other person seemed able to do.
Of course, a long talk in Worth terms was more along the lines of him spewing acid laced comments and watching to see how long it took the vampire to lose his temper and lash out, screaming in jibberish.
That night, it didn't take too terribly long before he found himself sprawled on his back with a snarling vampire on top of him. They squirmed and elbowed, kneed and threw a punch when a hand wasn't busy trying to restrain the other. In the middle of it all, both panting, grunting, writhing, well, some biological reactions couldn't be helped. Conrad's thigh was right there, pressing against Worth's thin jeans and as it pressed ever so slightly harder, a part of Worth's brain clicked off and his hips rolled, firm and blunt.
There was the briefest of hesitations before Conrad snarled and elbowed the doctor in the face. When it happened, Worth wasn't completely sure if it had been out of rage or some kind of foreplay. He didn't much care either way, though. This sort of physical thing had been a painfully long time coming. They worked well together. If someone pressed the issue, he guessed he could say that he sort of liked Conrad. Kind of. Tolerable guy he knew how to read pretty well, anyway, pretty good at covering his back, and how did that one book put it? Gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide? Yeah, that sounded about right.
He worked his jaw, feeling the pain ebbing into a dull heat. "Funny way a kissin' ya got there, Connie."
Face mildly flushed from a recent meal, hair sticking out at stupid angles, Conrad did his best to look like an angry and imposing creature. He failed miserably, of course. "I don't even know where to begin with this except that I'm fairly certain you just tried to dry hump me."
"That's pro'lly 'cause I did."
A muscle beneath Conrad's right eye twitched.
"Are you coming on to me or is this some new stupid game you've come up with?"
"Dunno. Mebbe both."
The vampire grabbed Worth's shoulders and pushed, pinning him fully on his back, staring down at him with hard to read crimson eyes. Worth waited. Conrad was thinking and he'd give him some time with it, but this was a sprint, not a marathon. "Okay," he said, when Worth was giving up on receiving an answer, "okay."
"Okay what? Finally admittin' ya want me?"
He snorted, "Please. I seem to remember you rubbing yourself on me, not the other way around."
"Mebbe, but yer th' one who threw me down on th' bed."
"You're the only person I'll ever know who considers literally being thrown the same thing as, you know what? Nevermind. I'm not even getting into it." He sighed and sat down, weight pressing against Worth's stomach and hips, eyes looking up and off to the side. His fingertips slid along the fabric of Worth's rumpled shirt and were soon blanked by the rough pads of Worth's hands.
"If we're going to...if we're doing this," he spotted Worth's filthy grin and glared, "we're going slow. Very, very slow. Kissing."
"Kin do that."
"On the mouth."
Worth's grin dipped down to a frown.
"Hands will stay above the waistband of trousers. There will be no rubbing of body parts on each other."
"Can't very well kiss then."
"Lips are on the face, Worth. These are the rules. Take it or leave it."
Air shot out of Worth's lungs with exaggerated irritation. "Yeah, sure. Fine."
"Okay," Conrad licked his lips and Worth watched the tongue slide across them. "Okay. Um...so how do uh..."
"Christ, don't act like ya ain't ever kissed anyone."
"Yes," his hackles raised immediately, "Worth, I have kissed women. Oh don't give me that look."
"I'll give ya whatever look I want, ya homo. Kissin' is kissin'. Ain't different if it's men or women...yer "women" have Adam's apples?"
"The window of opportunity is quickly closing. I suggest you stop being a complete dick unless you want it to shut."
"Right like yer some kinda fancy prize." Eyes rolled and Worth leaned up, hands grasping the back of Conrad's head to pull his face down. "Will ya relax 'n' quit fightin' this?"
"I'm not fighting. I...this is a weird position."
"Ya wanna be on yer back?"
"No. Maybe? Jesus, I don't know, I was standing or sitting the other times."
"Fer fucks-fine. Get offa me an' we'll both sit." His erection was waning. All the repositioning and talking was annoying. They were eventually both sitting on the bed and Worth went in again, feeling Conrad's body stiffening as his hand cupped the back of his head. "Wot?"
"Nothing it's, it's just weird. I never, I mean, Jesus, it's you and meand I don't know."
And there went the rest of his erection. "Connie?"
"Shut th' fuck up 'n' lemme do this, will ya?"
"Fine. Fine." And, to Worth's surprise, Conrad was the first to initiate contact, bridging the gap and pressing their lips together. His were cool and unyielding, red irises hidden by pale eyelids. He was just sitting there, and eventually opened an eye, speaking against Worth's lips. "What?"
Everything took on a slightly muffled, slurred quality when spoken against the cushion of another mouth. "Why're you staring 't me?"
"Why're ya starin' 't me?"
Whatever. Worth was just going to take over and Conrad would deal. His fingers were in Conrad's hair as his jaw dropped, allowing his lips to part enough to actually get some action, even if it was still awkward. Incredibly awkward. Seven minutes in heaven when you're twelve years old, gangly as fuck, and in a closet with the cute girl you have a crush on but every time you try something, she just makes a high pitched noise and scoots deeper into the coats while boxed up board games named Trouble and Sorry dig into your spine.
Not the sexiest memory. This wasn't exactly doing much for him, either with the way Conrad was sitting so stiffly. Worth gave up, opening his eyes, looking for a moment, then retreating, rubbing at his close cropped head roughly.
"Yeah. Thass it."
"...That...that wasn't good, was it?"
He snorted and stared at the door; for once hoping someone would interrupt. "Juss about tied fer th' worst I've ever had, Conrad."
"Oh well thank you so very much. It didn't exactly make me hear birds sing, either, you know."
"'Course not. Birds're sleepin' by now."
He didn't have to look at Conrad to know his arms were crossed. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah, wotever. Call me when ya get that stick outta yer ass 'n' learn how ta kiss."
"We don't have telephones anymore, Worth."
Goddamn he just had to say the whole "tel-e-phones" didn't he? Pompous asshole. "Ya know what I mean, precious." Rising from the mattress, Worth stalked over to the door and opened it, nostrils flaring and teeth gritting as he found the zombie standing on the other side. He pushed past him, shoulders cracking together as he squeezed past him in the small space. "How th' fuck long ya been there?"
"I am not sure. I was not keeping track." He followed Worth out of the RV. "I thought you would want privacy."
"Oh so now ya wanna give us privacy? Well thank ya ever s'damn much fer that. Any particular reason fer th' sudden urgency? Full moon? Planets alignin'?" He stopped walking long enough to turn and wiggle his fingers at the zombie. "Get that real special tingle in yer joints?"
If he was at all bothered by Worth's sarcasm, he certainly didn't let it show. "Hanna said you might appreciate it."
Tension slightly eased from Worth's shoulders. "Did he now?"
"Yes. He said you could use some time alone with Conrad." The vampire in question had now exited the camper as well and was slowly approaching them, avoiding eye contact and trying to step around the softer, squishier areas of mud. "Once you were ready, he wanted me to remind you of the mission parameters."
"Ain't an' idiot, don't need ta hear it all again."
A slight straightening of the back and something that might have passed for annoyance flitted across the tight skin of the zombie's face. "He assumed that would be what you would say. Conrad, please follow me and I will show you where to wait. In the meantime, please take these," peppermints, still in the wrappers, fell from the zombie's hand into Worth's despite the doctor's disgust. "Please do not misplace these. Also, Hanna wanted me to pass on a message, though the timing may not be the best."
This time Worth was certain there was a smug asshole of a smile trying to tug its way across necrotic flesh. "Can you feel the love tonight?"
"Right. Gonna kill 'im after this, an' it ain't gonna be quick. How 'bout ya pass thatmessage right on back."
Uncertainty squirmed through Conrad's body, easy to read in the way he pursed his lips and adjusted his glasses, despite them already sitting in a preferred position. "Can we just get to this already? The longer we stand around talking the longer it's going to take to just be done with this."
Nodding, the zombie turned and lead the vampire into the patch of trees bordering three sides of the playground. Worth's hands automatically reached for cigarettes, then shoved themselves into the pockets of his jeans, along with the candies. It was going to be a long night. At least he could think of ways to kill a midget to pass the time.
It was dark, but the half-moon was bright enough for Worth to generally see around himself. He jiggled his canteen, listening to the heavy sloshing before dropping it, hands moving instead to grip the rusting chains on the swing. It was too low for someone of his height to properly swing, intended for a child rather than a man over six feet tall. Hell, his bony ass was nearly dragging along the dusty, foot worn dirt beneath the seat. Whatever. The important thing was to keep his hands busy, keep them from going on autopilot and sending a signal too soon.
He narrowed his eyes, trying to spot where his back up had set themselves up. Hanna hadn't used shielding runes, worrying that doing so might pollute the air with too much magic and send Floppy Lips running in the opposite direction. He was supposed to signal by lighting his cigarette. If he wasn't able to, well, there wasn't much option in the "if he wasn't able to signal" category. He had candies in his pockets and back up plan from Hanna was to throw them and run screaming. The doctor wasn't quite sure why that had ever been suggested as a plan, assuming Hanna really ought to know by now he wasn't the run and scream sort. Run and gun? Well now that was a different story. Too bad they didn't make salt bullets. Would really come in handy.
Though maybe it was possible. He scratched the underside of his chin and down along his neck. If he was able to maybe put salt inside a casing that exploded upon impact, maybe that might work? He wasn't sure how much of the salt was the actual chemical compound of NaCl and how much of it was the belief of the user in its power.
A soft voice wafted from behind him, floated around his left ear. "Excuse me."
"Fuck off. 'M busy." Christ, why the fuck was someone always bothering him when he was thinking? And this was a good thinking, maybe some of the best non-sexual thinking he'd had in weeks. Good at killing time while waiting for-
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. I just...haven't seen many people and I was hoping to talk."
Bracing himself, Worth straightened enough to briefly but sharply crack his back before collapsing back into his normal hunch. "Yeah, fine, wotever. Have a seat."
"I'd rather...look at you. Face to face?"
"Christ, I gotta stand up fer this?"
Feet pattered their way around, a shoulder bumped into the swing on Worth's left, rattling the chains as the woman moved from behind to his side, and then his front. She was wearing a handkerchief tied around her face, only her eyes and a bit of her nose were visible. She was wringing her hands together, eyes shifting, head tilted downwards. Long hair, darkened by the night sky, fell and pooled about her shoulders. It looked soft. She was dressed just like every other survivor in the village, but the clothes were a bit snugger, better fitting, top buttons on her faded, plaid shirt were missing. "I'm very sorry I just...there aren't many men around and not many children. They all," eyes flashed up, wide and wet and looking like the eyes of a child watching Bambi for the first time. Not the stripper Bambi, his mind quickly related, though she'd had the moves to make men weep, too.
He sighed and prompted. "They all wot, sweetheart?"
The edges of the handkerchief were darkening with tears. "They think...they think I'm hideous. That I'm a monster."
"Do they now?"
"Do I...Am-am I that horrible to look at?"
"Naw, ya ain't horrible ta look at."
"Are...are you sure?" Her eyebrows were lowering, pinching together. "If I'm not horrible, then am I beautiful?"
"Got a nice rack, I'll give ya that. Can't tell much else, though, sorry."
She took a step back, looked at him, then around herself, regrouping slowly. So far so good. Confusion was good. His hands weren't shaking as they reached for cigarettes, he was only fumbling because he was tired. The light didn't tremble as he moved a match to the stick between his lips, if anything there must have been a slight breeze to make it waver. He didn't look away from her because he had been around supernatural wing dings long enough to start to feel it in his guts when they were collecting a surge of power, he was just looking to see if anyone had ventured out from the trees surrounding the playground.
And he certainly didn't flinch out of fear when ice cold hands cupped his face and lifted it upwards. That one was actually a shot to the groin and a reminder of what had been interrupted earlier. "Draggin' me in fer a better view o' th' sweaterpups?"
"I just need to know if you think I'm beautiful."
"Tol' ya, can't tell much right now. Yer a li'l covered up."
"Should I...remove something? That doesn't sound...I mean, we're all alone in the dark and I don't know you. Anything could happen. You could...try to do something to me. You might...you might try to hurt me. Might...might take advantage of me."
"Got my word on this one, I ain't interested in fuckin' ya. Already got me a real steady girl."
"Do you?" She seemed thrown off again, hands pulling from his face as if she'd been burned.
"What's her name?"
He tilted his head back, snorting out a laugh. "Connie."
"Oh. How um...how long?"
"Eeeh, dunno. Been flirtin' fer a few years. Guess we sealed th' deal a few weeks back."
"HA! Fuck naw! Oughta see th' nose. Like a fuckin' shovel got glued on there. 'N' th' ears're fuckin' satellite dishes. Real damn bitchy, too."
"Oh...and yet...you love her? Even though she isn't beautiful?"
"Oi, knock off th' four letter words."
Suddenly, she yanked off her handkerchief and the slit mouthed woman stared at him. One hell of a Glasgow smile she'd been given, split nearly ear to ear. The wounds were old, though, and puckered. She hadn't died when she'd received the wounds. They had healed at some point. "Am I beautiful?"
He took a long, deep breath, feeling his ribs expand, skin stretching over bone. With everything in him, he released it in a definitive "Eeeh."
Again she stared, confused, handkerchief crumpled in her hands. "No one has ever...in my life no one ever said "eeh." What the hell kind of man are you?"
"Now thass a question tha'll keep us here all night, darlin'. Not sure we need ta get inta all that." Worth had had time by then to take extra factors into consideration. Long legs. High cheekbones. Full lips, striking eyes. Height. "So wot. Ya do modelin' b'fore th' country shit itself a new one?"
"I...yes..." She straightened, eyes narrowing. "Beautiful women model, don't they?"
"Some, sure. Some not s'much. Most of 'em are real middle ground, really, jus' got bodies that carry clothes well." He still hadn't seen back up yet and realized the glow of his cigarette had likely been obscured by the woman's body. Fuck. Oh well, he thought he was doing pretty well so far. She wasn't quite what he'd been expecting. "Ya wanna keep talkin', Runway? Less do it over somewhere else." He flicked the spent butt into the dirt and stood, wandering over towards the thicker line of trees at the back of the playground.
"Commercial," she murmured, following close behind.
"I didn't do much runway work. My look is...was...commercial."
"Mmm," he replied, tapping a worn box in his palm before retrieving a cigarette from within. "Guess ya do look th' part. Commercial, that is," he added derisively.
"I wanted runway. Haute couture, Paris, Milan. I only managed one Fashion Week show when I was in New York, and only because a girl I knew put in a good word for me when another girl was in the hospital."
"Sounds like a real humanitarian, that one."
"She was kind of a bitch sometimes. But she liked it when others stuck up for themselves. We got in a fight the first time we met and somehow that made her like me, I guess? All the other girls tended to just run away when she glared. It was over a sandwich."
"Feh," he snorted, frowning as the match refused to strike on the box. "Ain't ever known but one model ta do nothin' more'n smoke 'n' drink. 'Course if I caught her with either in hand," he left the rest of the sentence to speculation, growing ever more frustrated with the match in hand.
"She ate. I ate. Catering table at the photoshoot only had one ham and cheese and we both wanted it. We ended up splitting it and she gave me her number. I thought she was hitting on me at first. She was the only one who talked to me after...After work dried up."
There, finally, it lit, and then sputtered out. Scowling, Worth threw the match down and dragged out another.
"I would have liked to meet her brother. She missed him. Worried once he dropped out of school and stopped answering her calls."
"Uh huh." The match lit, the cigarette sprang to life and with a fresh bit of nicotine on his tongue, something cold slithered its way into Worth's stomach. "She have blonde hair? 'Bout six feet tall?"
"Pixie cut. Cute on her, I never could have pulled it off."
He stopped walking, eyes wide, gaze darting back and forth in the shadows, throat suddenly dry. "Kept in touch with 'er?"
"Yes. She stopped by and saw me when...I was getting sick, the world was sick."
"Was she sick?" Behind him he heard a sound and he whirled. "Was-"
The woman's mouth was hanging open, unnaturally wide like a snake, eyes black, body jerking, hands clawing fruitlessly at the spike of metal protruding from her chest. Worth's canteen was torn from his belt, passed off from pink hands to green as he was pulled back by cool arms, dragged with unnatural speed to a safe distance. Eyes straining in the dark, he watched as Hanna and the zombie splashed gasoline from the canteen across the writhing, keening body. Hanna's hands glowed and her back bowed, form arching severely as flames engulfed it.
Worth crumpled in Conrad's arms, shoved him off, buried his fingers in the mud beneath his knees. His hearing was hollow, tinny. The slit-mouthed woman had stopped moving, was now just a black shape within the flames. Hanna and the zombie were circling her, clockwise, mumbling something, and the doctor could feel the heat of the fire on his face. Conrad put a hand on Worth's shoulder, kneeled, leaned in close enough that Worth could see concern across his pale features.
He turned away and rose, jaw clenched, blunt nails digging into his palms, pressing wet earth deep into the lines weaving across calloused hands.
Back in the camper he stripped, coat and shirt first, then, sitting and smearing mud on the sheets, his boots. After a moment of hollow contemplation, he removed his socks as well, leaving them inside his boots. For once he regretted sleeping on the side of the bed closest to the door. It meant he was painfully aware of the exact moment when Conrad hesitantly entered the back bedroom.
The vampire shut the door quietly and moved forward. Worth could feel him looking down at him, but kept his eyes shut. He didn't want to deal with this shit, not now.
"I know you're not asleep," fucking of course he did, "I can hear your heart beating. What was that back there?"
Worth was weighing the pros and cons of trying to keep up the ruse, even if it wasn't working, well, at all.
"Are you going to talk to me or are you going to be a dick and just lie there?"
Fine. Whatever. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and stared blearily up at the vague shadows where the vampire stood. "Sounds ta me like ya got a problem if all yers does is lie there."
"Ha. Look, I'm...I'm trying to understand. That wasn't like you. Are..." It was clear what Conrad was trying to say was difficult and Worth did his best not to interrupt. Eventually the words came out, not in a wheeze or hail of bullets, but simply, softly. "Are you okay?"
He didn't respond right away. How the hell was he supposed to respond to something like that. He waited until too much tension filled the space between them, ice threatening to crack with a single wrong step. "Careful," he muttered, "might start ta think ya care."
"Oh, of course, we can't have that, can we? Fine," the shape moved in the darkness and Worth felt it settle on the mattress behind him, shifting slightly, cool air whisking between the sheets as Conrad pulled them over himself. "When you want to talk, talk. Otherwise," the sentence and implications hung in the air, a canopy of frustration above their heads.
It was difficult to determine when a vampire had fallen asleep. They didn't breathe. Their hearts didn't beat. They didn't spasm or toss in their sleep. They were simply there, the light of the sun chasing what remained of their humanity into the deep recesses of their mind till evening blanketed the earth. Worth rolled on his back, feet hanging off the edge of the bed. Eyes tracked what they could see of the murky ceiling and he listened, waiting for Hanna and dead bloke to go to bed. Dead bloke never really went to bed, though. He just slipped into some weird gargoyle sort of sentry duty. As long as Hanna was out, though, it would be safe.
It had been quiet for some time, nearly half an hour by Worth's estimation, and so he carefully freed himself from the sheets and walked to the door. It wasn't for Conrad's benefit, that fucker could sleep through anything, but Hanna could be a light sleeper until REM kicked in. The last thing he needed was a stupid red head flying into the back asking if everything was okay or if everything was okaywith an eyebrow wiggle upon Worth catching his feet in the covers and face planting. It had happened before. He assumed it would happen again.
Easing out through the door, early morning gray provided just enough light for Worth to work by. He pulled a well loved bottle from a kitchen cabinet and sat down on what little part of the bench was free from Hanna and his nest of blankets. The liquor burned as it skidded down his throat, pooling and sizzling in his empty stomach. Worth grimaced and set the bottle down on one of the many open maps scattered across the table.
"Would you like a glass? That is the preferred method of beverage drinking."
The doctor stared over at the zombie, sitting in the passenger's seat, gazing out the windshield. "Wot? 'n' make all sortsa extra unnecessary dirty dishes fer her highness ta take care of? Tsk, I recognize how under appreciated housewives are these days. Ain't gonna make more work fer 'em."
Humming, the zombie turned, looking at Worth and then the lump of blankets that was probably Hanna. Worth assumed it was Hanna, anyway. A few more solid swigs and he might be willing to risk the wrath of Wilbur and start poking at the blankets to verify. He took another long drink, hissing at the way it scalded, then waved off the zombie's apparent concern. "I kin keep it down. Won't wake yer precious puddin' pop."
Another hum. "What will you do when the alcohol is gone?"
"Fuck if I know. Ain't gone yet. Ain't gonna worry 'bout it."
"Perhaps a plan for the future may be wise."
"Oh, right, like how Hanna plans?" His upper lip curled, glass clanked dully and painfully against his teeth. "No thanks."
"He needs you as much as you need him."
Liquor swished, a light amber with only a few small swigs remaining. "Wotever. Needs me to keep 'im from dyin' is all. If he ever manages ta be fully functional and learns some self-preservation he won't need me no more."
The zombie turned to face forward again, staring outside. "I wonder if we are talking about the same person."
Beside him the blankets shifted and mumbled disdain for formal wear at pool parties.
Worth rubbed his face, hands smelling of dirt and torn grass. He cupped them, breathed out, added the caustic scent of alcohol to the mix.
"If you would like, I believe there are fresh birching sticks in the bathroom sink."
"If you would like, I believe ya kin shut th' hell up." The bottle was capped and Worth stood, returning it and its meager contents to the cupboard. He paused at the door, hand on the knob, feeling the cool brass against his skin. "Got any cinnamon?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Eh, fuck it. Maybe when I get up." He opened the door and returned to the bed, feeling the liquid weight in his stomach swish and burn as he lied down on top of the sheets, long forgotten and ignored voice mails looping through his head.