[001] Bad Company.

Strange. He stared at the ceiling, cardboard covering empty spots for tile, the water stains and light mold; it smelled like dust. He smelled like dust. That was it, really, nothing else in his head. That was it.

And he remembered staring at a lot of needles and wondered just how many vaccines there were, but they gave him some pills and instructions to come back the next day. So he stood outside the clinic with the pills and realized then he had nowhere to go.

There were a few people huddled around here and there, pressed into the recesses of old buildings in small scrappy homes. He wondered if he would go back tomorrow. Wondered a lot of things. He looked back down at his hand, the orange container, no label, antibiotics, and he pocketed them before someone ran up to kill him for it. And that was it. Deadhead.

It was quiet, but that was probably what the nowhere was like, sort of. Maybe he ought to have remembered. He picked a direction and started walking, hoisted his backpack up against his shoulders and started the trudge down the alley off of the main street. His head hurt. Everything hurt still, actually. And he was nauseous, but trying to forget that—he was cold. He was sick of the air creeping through the last few rips in his jeans he hadn’t managed to tie off. He was sick.

Further down the alley, enough where it felt like he was in entire isolation again, he leaned against the rough wall and shut his eyes. The concrete was cold on his cheek. And his bag was so fucking heavy. And he was too fucking tired to keep carrying it. And that hurt. He bit his lip, held his fingers, dug in nails.

Tried to keep his breathing even and think of maybe where to go next. He didn’t. That would be too much. Peeled eyes open slowly and breathed out slowly—there, what was probably once a back door, it spilled somewhere darker and he took off his bag and ducked in.

He had to crawl on knees and elbows to clear a section of caved-in wall, tugged his backpack through after himself. The floor look like it had once tried to be carpet, so he tried to find anything to go between him and the ground. It was dark, but he didn’t really care anymore than he could have, and he dragged the pack closer to himself and curled up and laid his head down against it, staring at the dim sunlight through the shaded alley and the city rubble. Maybe rats would chew out his brain while he laid there passed out from exhaustion.

He closed his eyes, rubbed the back of his hand against them, hugged his knees to his chest and hoped he wouldn’t have to deal with existing when he woke up.

“Wow, lookin’ real alive there, sunshine.”

Caius jumped and that already made his head hurt and the flare didn’t really help. Fuckin’ hell.

“You know you talk in your sleep?” Julius lowered the flare and pulled up his goggles, mask down.

“You followed me here?”

“Eh,” Julius sat down and crossed his legs on his piece of cardboard—his piece of cardboard, mind him.

“You obsessed with me or somethin’,” Caius pulled himself up to his knees and pressed his palms against his temples.

“I’m so cold and lonely in the big ol’ blue all by myself.”

“Nothing here is blue,” Caius muttered, maybe bitter, and smashed his palms against his eye sockets.

“It’s a figure of speech, hotshot.”

What do you want,” Caius snapped and put his hands down so he could glare at the stranger.

“Came to see if you got yourself mugged and murdered already, just after I paid to get you dewormed, you mangy puppy.”

Caius narrowed his eyes but Julius gave him an innocent shrug.

“And why’d you do that“.

Julius tugged his gloves off finger-by-finger, setting them down on his lap, and opened his bag to look for something, “Don’t you mean ‘thank you, wonderful and awesome man’.”

“I certainly do not.”

The stranger gave him a pout, looked back down and took half a loaf of bread out and clutched it close to himself.

“I guess I’ll just eat this entire loaf of bread myself, then.”

“You fuckin’ followed me to taunt me with bread. The absolute what is wrong with you. Leave me alone.”

“The absolute what?”

“I said: leave me alone.”

The man didn’t say anything and stared intently at his bread. Another few seconds he split some of it and held it out. Caius stared at it.

“What. do. you. want.”

“Uh, hello? This place gets boring with no one to listen to me talk. And you kinda need some help.”

“I don’t fuckin’ need help,” Caius sneered, leaned in, snatched the piece of bread from his hand and threw it back in his face.

“What you need, mi amigo, is to get laid.”

“Get. away. from. me. I’m going to fuckin’ light the rest of your bread on fire and throw it at your face.”

“Sheesh, you could at least steal it and eat it,” Julius had managed to catch the piece of bread and tried to hand it to him again.

Caius blinked, “Are you fuckin’ serious. Just fuckin’ leave me alone, I don’t want your shitty bread, I don’t want your shitty ‘help’, and I definitely don’t want your shitty company.”

“Ouch.”

Sure. He rolled his eyes, grabbed his backpack and put it on and stood up and booked it towards the sunlight. What would it take to get him to leave. He was paranoid then, that he would be tailed, and he’d wake up again, chihuahua yapping in his face. He stuffed his bag through the crumpled wall and knelt down

“I have chocolate,” the stranger added, and he. stopped. Hadn’t previously thought about it—when was the last time he had chocolate. And that hurt so he flattened himself against the floor and clawed his way through as quickly as he could. No chocolate, no fucking annoying stranger, not fucking dealing with it.

He huffed and dusted off his pants and picked up his backpack. Clear it. Book it.

He almost screamed when he walked straight into a wall he didn’t remember being there.

“IS THIS A FUCKIN’ NIGHTMARE? HOW MANY OF YOU ARE THERE.”

“There’s a way around, next door up, hotshot.”

Caius pressed his palms into his skull and how it could get worse. How could it possibly get any worse.

“Look. You, you look like shit, you’re kinda diseased right now, kinda too skinny, really miserable looking, and also kinda normal and it’s not often you meet people that aren’t gonna rip you apart and sell your organs or throw you into the slave trade.”

“That. Is where you are FUCKING MISTAKEN.” Caius punched him in the face.

“Jesus christ,” the man held a hand to his face and stepped back, and Caius turned and “have I offended you in some way?”

“YES. YES YOU HAVE. YOU. YOUR FACE. JUST YOUR FACE IS OFFENSIVE. LEAVE ME ALONE.”

The stranger stared back with a deeply concerned expression, and he ran through the logistics of punching him again so that he couldn’t talk anymore, or make that face, or any face.

“Okay. I’m sorry. I just wanted to see if you were alright. And say thanks for carrying my bag, and not murdering me while I was,” he rubbed across his nose bridge one final time and sighed. “Burying my dead dog.”

He’d forgotten about that uh “Well. Sure.”

Julius held up his arms in surrender and backed up and he got quiet in a way that wasn’t the not-talking; his shoulders dropped, and it was kind of awkward because he—he inhaled slowly. Nope, fucking stranger probably just playing him. Get outta there. Julius was staring at the ground rubbing a hand against his cheek like he was lost in thought.

Was it a war crime to leave a stranger whose dog had just died? and, hell—maybe it was even “Um. It was my fault. So. Uh. Sorry. I guess.” That should cover the bases, and so he turned and started walking off.

“Not your fault. Those who walk like a hawk talk like a hawk”—(the absolute what was that supposed to mean?)—”Well. It’s gonna storm tonight. Rain and dust,” the stranger sighed and leaned his shoulder against the wall, crossing his foot over his ankle. “I have a place—hot water, food, and everything. And I really,” he sighed again, and it was starting to seem a bit dramatic, “don’t care if you hang around just because it’s free food. I just want company.”

Um. And what was he supposed to do with that.

“And if your ego is too big,” he pushed off the wall and knelt down and held his palms together looking up at him. “Pretty please with a cherry on top?”

Caius frowned and Julius shrugged and stood up.

“I just punched you in the face.”

“It’s in your best interest not to remind me.”

He really just. Didn’t understand what was even going on.

Or how he was sitting by a small heater with a cup of hot chocolate in a stranger’s hideout a little while later.

They were holed up in a small space that had been cleaned up, two stories off the ground, nestled inside some building complex that had become a maze of crumbled rubble. It was somewhat furnished with scrapped up pieces that passed for furniture, electric stove and a store of water and a fairly clean tub and basin. Julius lit a few candles and moved a large piece of plywood from an open doorway-remade-window. Julius had shut up then, and didn’t say much else except telling him where supplies were and offering them. The stranger crawled up into his hammock and pulled up a blanket and pulled out a book and turned his back and kept to himself.

So he felt a bit awkward sitting there, afraid to move in case the man was listening; he frowned. So he waited until the stranger seemed to be asleep before raiding his pantry. He fell asleep sometime after, and Julius probably had woken up then, to move the plywood back over the window before it started storming.