I don’t actually know how many flesh-eaters I’ve killed. That’s not a boast, it’s just my reality in the After. I know how many times I’ve almost been killed by them. Twice, give or take.

My heart no longer races. My hands don’t shake. I slip into a kind of suspended mental state, where my body is an instrument operating without the need for thought or direction. I fight, and I survive. If they’re faster than me, I die.

I’m so confused by the way my body responds to his outstretched hand that my own hand actually brushes the hilt of my knife. I let my fingertips drift down the side of my boot in an effort to cover the bizarre reaction. 

His fingers tap his palm, reminding me he’s waiting.

I reach up and grasp his hand, and he pulls me to my feet.

He turns from the circle of firelight and chatter, and I follow. Glancing back I catch Theresa’s eye as she joins the group. I feel her watching us retreat.

He leads me back to the dock where I had my chat with his girlfriend. There’s no sign of her, but I can feel the residual tension. In my imagination, fiery letters hang in the air above where they stood: “Hell Hath No Fury.”  

He walks to the end of the dock and sits down next to the post. I join him, staring at our legs as they dangle over the water.

“What’s up, Red?”

The shadow of a smile crosses his lips. I don’t ask him about it because I get this feeling he’s about to unload stuff I don’t want to know.

He raises one foot to the dock and folds his arms around his knee. The moon’s bright enough to show flakes of dried blood on the toe of his boot. “Sasha and I were lovers.”

Damn I’m good.

It’s impressive how not a single drop of the tidal wave that crashes against my chest leaks to the outside. I try to give a dry, unaffected laugh, but I sound more like a sniggering teenager. “Do you think there’s anyone on this island who doesn’t know that?”

His gaze comes to my face, and an earthquake rumbles under the floodwaters. Before he can reply I say, “This isn’t something we need to talk about. It’s none of my business.”

“I’m just trying to be honest.”

I frown and shift my gaze to the moon’s twin resting on the surface of the lake. “I’m sure you got a lashing for running off and leaving her without a word, but you don’t have to worry about that with me. We’re not lovers, and you don’t owe me shit.”

We sit there breathing, and I feel sorry for us. We’re zombie slayers. He was raised by scientists, and my heart dried up and blew away after my parents’ and Aaron’s deaths. We’re just not up to this shit.

“So you’ve got another chance with her,” I say finally. “I’m safe. My dad’s gone. I know you’re hung up on the promise you made him, but dude.” I look up at him. “You’ve gone above and beyond and you know it.”

“I’m not looking for another chance,” he says. “I didn’t tell you about her because I want to be with her. I just felt like I owed you an explanation, and don’t fucking tell me again I don’t owe you shit, because three years of following you around means you owe it to me to at least try to listen without interrupting me every two minutes.”

My mouth snaps closed over my predictable reply. Mainly because I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard him use so many words all at once, and I’m very sure I’ve never heard him use any form of the word fuck. “Okay,” I agree. “What else is on your mind?”

“I’m going with you to look for your father. If you still plan to go.”

“I still plan to go.”

He nods. “I’m going,” he repeats like he’s daring me to argue. 

But I’m relieved and I don’t. “Okay.”

“If you want to stay with them after that, I’ll stay with you. I think you should.”

By “them” he means the Hotel California people. “The idea of it makes me … ” Itchy? I settle for: “Nervous.”

“I know. You’ve survived by avoiding attachments.” My eyes go wide at the keenness of resurrected-barbarian insight, but he keeps going. “Theresa’s right. You need to decide if you want to survive, or if you want to live.”

I pick up a rusty nail from the dock and toss it into the water. “Why me? Why aren’t we talking about what you want? It doesn’t matter your mom was a test tube. You’re still a person.”

“I don’t think everyone would agree with you.”

“Maybe not three years ago. I doubt you’d find anyone here who’d give a shit if your dad was the pope. And don’t change the subject.”

He glances down at me. “I’ve made my choice.”

I frown at him. “Because of your promise.”

He shakes his head.

“Then why? We’re not lovers. We’re not family.” Why me instead of her?

He raises his hand, and my heart flips the fuck out as it comes toward me. His palm grazes my hair, thumb lightly stroking my cheek. His lips part, and I can feel his breath on my face.

I’m a coward. And an asshole. I bend away from his hand, and he lets it drop. Something in my stomach twists into a goddamn Flemish knot, and my throat tightens.

First I lose it because I’m afraid he’ll go off with the Valkyrie. Then I all but force him into a confession of something I don’t even want to know. My body is producing sensations I haven’t felt for a lifetime. Sensations I’m not ready to feel. Maybe never will be.

I’ve lost my focus and my edge and maybe my whole damn mind, and I’m incredibly grateful we aren’t out there in the red zone, where shit like this gets you killed.

I just can’t.

I don’t realize I’ve said this out loud until he replies, “I know.”

Heat surges up my neck and over the backs of my ears toward my face. I clear my throat. “I think we should leave as soon as you’re rested. Before we get too comfy here.”

“Agreed,” he says in a quiet voice. “Day after tomorrow.”

I nod.

“Sasha wants to come. I think we should let her.”

My head jerks up. “Sasha?” He told her? They both knew my dad. I suppose he had a right.

“She’ll be handy in a fight.”

I swallow and give a feeble nod. “Good idea.” I rise to my feet, turning so he can’t see my face. “I’ll ask Theresa if they’ve got a place for us to bunk.” Because I am fucking done for the night.

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