Chapter 46: Cards

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

Ah, life. Another birthday, another year gone by. In November of last year, I was hired, and then became unemployed in January, when the seasonal period ended. Down, but not out, I have gotten a more permanent job that unfortunately eats spare time like a log in a wood-chipper.

Such is life.

" ... Please tell me you have a four?"

" Nope, go fish. Jeeze, Ellis, you suck at cards."

" Not my fault y' keep reading my cards somehow!" Ellis snarled.

" Kid, if I could read cards, I wouldn't be playing go fish with you, I'd be playing Texas hold 'em or poker, and money would definitely be involved." Nick said, setting down a pair of threes and reclining slightly.

" When do ya reckon Coach and that other guy are gonna be done talkin'?" Ellis asked, groaning and adjusting his cards from highest to lowest to make it easier on himself.

" Probably by noon or so." Nick replied. " They've been talking since practically yesterday, so they're bound to have wrapped things up by now. By the way, I know you have a five, so hand it over." he added, extending a hand.

" ... Yer the devil at cards, you know that?" Ellis grumbled, fishing the card from his hand and slapping it into Nick's outstretched palm.

" Yup. Got any nines?" Nick said, leafing through his cards before looking up as Rochelle entered the room. " Any word from Coach?" he asked as Ellis dejectedly handed the card over.

" If by word, you mean the occasional shout coming from the back room, then yes, we're communicating well." Rochelle said. " Negotiations don't seem to be going well."

" The hell is there to negotiate?" Nick asked, Ellis asking if Nick had any kings and sighing as he had to pick up a new card. " I swear you're cheating somehow..." he said as Rochelle shook her head.

" Primarily, it's negotiating with Desert and Matthew. Matthew intends to take us as far as Ducatel if possible, while Desert intends to remain here to protect the plantation home."

" Sounds like a pretty open and shut case if you ask me..." Nick mumbled, Rochelle putting a hand on her hip.

" It would be, but we've got some factors. One, the other group intends to head in a different direction, and Desert is trying to get them to take Colt with them for a little bit to get him home. Two, Zephyr is somewhat refusing to travel any further for Zane's sake, and Three, Alexander wants to take Ark home. Ark's refusing though, so that's causing a bit of an issue."

" Guess there's nothing we can do but let them figure it out..." Ellis said, fiddling with his card before brightening up. " Hey, Ro, wanna play with us? Nick's just too damn good at this kinda thing, maybe we can tag team him!"

" You're trying to catch the tail of a certified cardshark? You're gonna need a bigger boat." Rochelle chuckled. " But... you know what? What the heck, deal me some cards."

Grinning, Ellis retrieved all the cards and shuffled them, Rochelle grabbing a chair and sitting down at the table. " All right, we got this." He said, dealing the cards out. " Let's take Nick down!"

" Good luck with that, sport." Nick said, getting his cards together.

" ... So what do you think's gonna happen when we get to that boat?" Ellis asked, hoping to keep the conversation going.

" Hopefully, nothing bad." Rochelle said, organizing her cards. " Who goes first?"

" Ladies first, as always." Nick replied. " As for the boat... hell, for all we know, we could end up on the boat with the wrong people."

" Right. Ellis, got any fours?" Rochelle asked, Ellis beaming for once and proudly telling her " Go Fish" as she thought, grabbing a card and adding it to her hand. " We'll have to prepare first obviously..." she said, Ellis glaring holes through his cards and glaring at Nick. " So I think we should spend a little time setting up around the plantation house to make sure we all get this done safely."

" Right." Nick said, tossing a two to Ellis who looked pleased, only to have his face fall when his streak ended on the next card. " Then we gotta make sure we're all together when we make a run for the boat. If that helicopter at the carnival's taught us anything, it's that surprises can and will happen."

" Don't we all know it." Rochelle sighing. " Remember leaving the mall?" she asked, both men visibly wincing. " Yes." they replied in unison.

" I sure did love drivin' that car though..." Ellis crooned, picking up a new card. " Wished we coulda kept it."

" Well, it was either us or the car at the carnival kiddo... and I'll be damned if we're all gonna die over a hunk of scrap metal." Nick said, going over the numbers in his head.

" Make fun of it all you like, Nick... that car saved us in the mall. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for it." Ellis shot back, Nick conveniently remembering that it was a touchy subject with Ellis.

" Boys, please." Rochelle said, setting a pair of sixes down. " What's done is done... we're all here. That's what's important." she played with a strand of hair. " I'd rather lose a million cars or guns then lose one of you."

" Don't jinx it." Nick said, selecting a new card. " The world is more than happy to try new tricks to kill us each day. No reason to try and help it."

Both Ellis and Rochelle nodded solemnly before jumping at some loud sounds from upstairs, both glancing at the ceiling worriedly. " What in the hell is that sound?" Ellis asked with a hint of worry.

" Fifteen people in here right now and you're asking what the hell that noise is?" Nick said with a raised eyebrow. " Guess."

" It's either Alexander or Francis, since you're here with us..." Rochelle sighed. " I swear..."

" You shouldn't. Doesn't suit you." Nick said almost instantly, Rochelle hitting his shoulder playfully. " Not that kind, Nick. I mean, Alexander's been foaming at the mouth to get Ark to come back home with him, but he doesn't get that Ark doesn't want to go." she remedied.

" Ark's what, an adult now? If he doesn't want to go home, then that's all there is to it." Nick said. " Hell, when I hit the right age, I hit the road and never looked back."

" I couldn't imagine being away from mom for so long before..." Ellis said softly, looking down at his cards. " Now... I'd give anythin' to have one of her Sunday dinners again..."

Nick fell silent as Rochelle gently patted Ellis' back. " It's... it's gonna be okay. We're all together in this... and we're not gonna leave each other behind." That was about the most she could do, she couldn't promise him that his mother was safe and sound, nor could she promise him that she would be found while they traveled.

" ... Right. A team, kiddo." Nick said, trying to go with the mood. " Albeit a half assed one... but we're one none-the-less."

Ellis gave them both a half-smile, looking a little better, setting his cards down. " I think I'm done for now... ya'll can keep playing without me." Before either of them could object, the young man got up from the table and left the room, Nick sharing a glance with Rochelle.

" ... It's really eating at him, isn't it." he finally said, resting one hand on his face. " All this shit going on in the world... we're too busy trying to survive to even think about what we've lost."

" In a way... yeah... It's eating at most of us." Rochelle said. " I miss my job... my coworkers... I was just a low-on-the-ladder reporter when this all started." she gently moved her chair to sit by Nick's side. " Main girl was out... they needed someone to cover the illness in the south." she lowered her eyes. " I thought it was my big chance. If I covered it well, then maybe I might get my own news slot... start going places. They gave me a crew and a ticket out here... and well, you know the rest."

" Actually, I don't." Nick said. " And before all this, I probably wouldn't have cared, but I guess I'm kinda in a listening mood. Keep talking, there's a huge gap between you getting here and us meeting."

" You, listening to someone else's troubles? We really are going to hell in a hand-basket." Rochelle said, chuckling.

" I think we ditched the hand-basket for a Ferrari back at the hotel, sweetheart." Nick said, a half smirk appearing on his face as Rochelle laughed a little bit, smiling at him.

" Right." Rochelle said, composing herself and beginning again. " It was during the first few days... back when the flu was on the news, but as of yet, there were no televised zombies. Just infected zones and countless warnings to stay inside. I had a small camera crew with me, and we were reporting on the hospital closest to the mall... which had received infected patients. All hell broke loose in the form of a wave of bitten patients, doctors, and CEDA workers."

She fiddled with her earring softly, looking up at the ceiling. " It fell into chaos so fast, my head was spinning from being there for only two minutes. We only just managed to escape in the van, but we had lost some of the crew in the chaos." slowly, she set her hand down, only briefly glancing up to see if Nick was still watching her.

" We had driven away from the hospital and were near the hotel when a horde caused us to crash. One of us didn't survive the impact... I was so panicked when the horde started in on him...the rest of us ran for our lives. I couldn't have done anything even if he was alive, I was so scared... there was only three of us left by the time we made it onto the main road. The others wanted to try another hospital, to get evacuated, but since we got into trouble at the first one, I tried to urge them to go to the nearby hotel, since we had seen helicopters. That's more or less where we split up, we just had no choice when another horde came. I remember running into you on the fourth floor, and then we all made our way up the stairs to eventually make it here."

" ... Quite a tale." Nick said, adjusting his sleeve slightly. " That explains why you knew about them before we had even seen a single infected. You were practically at ground zero and survived. That's a hell of a story to tell others when we finally leave this place."

" Nightly news special, it is." Rochelle said, stretching out. " But that's only if we all make it through to tell the story..."she looked somber as she rubbed out a knot on her left shoulder.

" Well then, we all make it out, you can take all our survivor stories and make a nightly special about it." Nick said in a attempt to make her feel a bit better. " Nothing cheers people up in a disaster like hearing survivor stories."

Rochelle chuckled faintly, nodding at Nick. " I agree. It always made me feel better after seeing the news looking so bleak..." she winced as she heard a crash from above. " ... Looks like it escalated into fighting."

" Gotta be Alexander then." Nick said in a bored tone, shuffling the cards. " Want to play something different?"

Rochelle sighed and politely declined, putting her hands on her hips and then going upstairs to see what could be done about them." Nick, can you go make sure Ellis is okay?" she asked when she was at the foot of the stairs, starting to head up while Nick sighed and put his hands on the table.

" Really? Gonna ask the loner of the group to talk to the most eager? She must be going crazy..." he groaned, getting up to go talk to the boy. Normally, he would have ignored her request in favor of some sleep, but since they were in this place until further notice, it was a better idea to stay on her good side for now.

It didn't mean he had to run right there though, the man leisurely strolling down the hallway while trying to form a plan of action.

It took Nick an hour to finally decide to go talk to the boy, knocking gently on the door and repeatedly asking himself what he was doing instead of taking a nap. " ...Ellis, if you don't want to talk, I have no problem with it." he said flatly, giving him the option. If Ellis didn't want to talk, then he'd head right back to the couch to take a nap and tell Rochelle it was a no go later.

"... How on earth do y' not let it get to you?" came Ellis' quiet voice, something Nick wasn't used to hearing. " I mean... when y' slowed down for the day, how do you keep from having those thoughts?"

" I'm fighting for my life every day, kid. I never had the time... and I never had anything that close to my heart." Nick said, lowering his hand from it's knocking position. " Never had the time to slow down and think about it."

" Isn't there anythin' you miss though?" Ellis asked, Nick able to hear the frustration in the young man's voice. " Not a thing or a person that would make y' cry if it was gone?"

"... I miss decent baths. I miss coffee. I miss a lot of things that used to be something I could get every single day." Nick said, rubbing the side of his neck. " But after this shit went down, I realized I had to get over it. There's a lot I used to have, and just like you, I lost it too when the green flu started. I plain and simple don't have the time to cry about it."

" You suck at cheering people up, you know that?" Ellis deadpanned from the other side of the door, Nick letting out a weak chuckle.

" And you suck at hiding things, sport." he replied. " It's from a nightmare, isn't it?" when there was no reply from the door, he took it as a yes. " Let me guess... a dream about all of us getting violently torn apart while you remain out of the way, unable to help?"

" Now I'm convinced you can read minds." Ellis said from behind the door.

" Nope, just went down that route myself a few times in life." Nick said. " Ro said it herself earlier; we aren't going anywhere. Have some faith in us, kid. Now come on out of there, and let's finish that card game."

" You were gonna win anyways, Nick..." Ellis sighed.

" I know, so best two out of three?" he offered. " Also...about your mom... if she's still alive out there, you'll find her again. Families are good for that."

Ellis nodded, knowing it was Nick's weird way of trying to cheer him up. The con-artist usually preferred to keep his interactions with them minimal as possible, but it was clear that he was at least trying. " Thanks, Nick." he said, coming out of the room. " You still suck at cheering people up though."

" Hey, next time, ask for Ro." Nick said in an amused tone. " Cause I'll charge next time."

" Fine fine..." Ellis laughed. " Oh... by the way, watch out for Hunters, k?" he added sheepishly, the dream he had a bit too vivid for his tastes.

" Got it." Nick said, walking back to the living room with Ellis following him. As the two settled down at the card table again, Ellis leafed through his cards before looking up at Nick. " Hey Nick?"

" That's my name, don't wear it out." Nick said around examining his current hand.

" When you had those dreams about the things you cared for... how old were you? Like when did it happen?" Ellis asked, hoping it wasn't too sensitive.

" Oh, I had them when I was in high school and they kinda stopped after my early twenties..." Nick said. " I thought they were gone. Kinda pops up here and there recently." after saying that, he fell silent, Ellis about to pester him as to why before making the connection, going silent himself.

" So... ya got any fours?" he began anew, Nick gingerly taking a sip from his cup before grinning. " Go fish."

" Goddamnit, are you sure you can't read my mind?!" he hissed, throwing the card down on the table.

" Shut up and pick up a new card, Ellis." Nick said with an amused grin, enjoying the peace they had for now.

" Are you guys done fighting?!" Rochelle asked, seeing Alexander spitting blood out of his mouth and making sure his teeth were all intact, Ark growling from his place on the nearby couch. " You know Desert's going to have a fit about the blood!" she said, having seen the man go at a stain on the floor with the same ferocity as a Tank on an injured survivor.

" I'll stop when you stop being fucking stubborn!" Alexander hissed, Ark growling right back.

" What part of 'I don't remember you anymore' doesn't get through?!" Ark shot back around nursing a bruised jaw, Alexander spitting another patch of blood out of his mouth, having bitten his cheek pretty good during the fight.

" I know that." he said, wiping his mouth. " Which is why I want you to at least come back home with me, there may be something there... something that at least helps your burger-addicted brain remember more than some hazy snippets!"

" I don't have the time." Ark said, turning away. " I'm not the same person anymore, and I have to help them get to the next safe place. I don't have time to indulge you in trying to revive a memory."

" You mean you don't have the time to think about it while running away." Alexander said, Ark stiffening and looking back at him with a glare. " You heard me. You're afraid. You don't want to come with me because you're afraid of losing them. You don't know a life outside of helping survivors to the next safe place, you're afraid that if you break away from that, you can never return."

" It's all in your head." Ark replied back bitterly.

" Really?" Alexander said, a scowl etched on his features. " What did you come to the south then for, boy? You were chasing a memory. It was foreign, but you came out here anyways. Why? 'Cause the others were safe, there was no use for you anymore. The minute you found some new friends to help, you dropped the idea of finding your memories like it had burned you." Upon seeing the hurt look on Ark's face, he continued.

" You can't think of a life before the survivors, and you can't think of one after it. What will you do after this group is safe, huh? Start making your way to where you think home is until you find the next group of sob stories to help?" he seethed. " Wait until your medic friend remembers how to mix chemicals in a lab and starts studying to find a cure? You're just going to end up left behind and vulnerable." he slowly stalked around the room.

" It's still better than being a moving target alongside you." Ark replied weakly, unable to find much of a retort.

" I don't give a damn if you don't care about me or my issues." Alexander said. " I never asked you to. I'll get rid of that problem on my own, but what I want is to see you survive."

" I've been doing a fine job of it without you!" Ark shouted.

" You call this fine?!" Alexander said, gripping Ark's arm roughly and tugging back the sleeve, looking at all the scratches and healed wounds from battles. " Can you look at your body and tell me that you're perfectly fine?" he barked, seeming to gather his senses after a few moments and breathing in deeply, exhaling slowly. "You... you're not built for this." Alexander said, his voice softer now as he dropped Ark's arm. " You're not built to handle a life like mine... you never were. As Noah... and as Ark. I just... I don't want to see you putting yourself at risk aimlessly for everyone you meet."

He slowly dug his nails into his palms. " ... Help them get onto the boat... they can take it from there. Please... just come back home. There's an evac location not far from our house, and there's some people there who will take us in, no questions asked. We can rebuild... we can survive."

" What about Sion? Chad? I can't leave them to find safety on their own..." Ark said, holding his head a bit higher. " And what about Desert and Matthew? They're your friends, right? Don't you want to see them safe?"

" If anything, Desert and Matthew are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and any guests they choose to have." Alexander sighed, shaking his head. " I just want to see you safe."

" You're starting to sound like a broken record, and it isn't even playing a good song." Ark replied flatly.

" Hey, at least I have my tune straight." Alexander said, towering over his son. " At the end of the day... what's your tune? Are you that one hit wonder that disappears after a few months or are you a group that lasts for years?"

Before Ark could reply, Alexander backed down. " The others are leaving soon. Think things over, and talk to me before we call the boat." he said tunelessly, turning his back on his son and heading out the door. " And clean yourself up, you look like shit."

" Runs in the family, then." Ark called back, rubbing his jaw as Rochelle came over to him, the woman sighing. " You two... are more exasperating than Nick and Ellis, you know that?" she said, helping to clean Ark up.

" I know." Ark said flatly, wincing when Rochelle touched a sensitive spot.

" Why do you hate him?" Rochelle asked, Ark gently brushing her hand away.

" I don't hate him. I just hate how he's looking back at the past instead of looking at the future. I'm not Noah anymore... and I don't think going home will change that." was his reply.

" He's just worried..." Rochelle soothed, Ark looking at her.

" Worried about me, or about Noah?" he said, yelping when she seized his jaw and forced him to look at her.

" The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, it seems." she said, her normally gentle voice hardened. " How many people are you going to push away like this? You're confused, I get that, but hey, I haven't had a clue for days. I don't go slugging everyone that tries to help me though." she turned his head to the side, dabbing medicine on his jaw. " Maybe you can't figure out what to do... but don't use us as a crutch to keep having an excuse to run." finishing with the treatment, she released his face, standing up as Coach patiently knocked on the door, clearing his throat.

" Ya'll ready? We're heading out."

End chapter

FINALLY, we can head to the dreaded Hard Rain Campaign!...after the finale, of course! Personally, who do you want to see in the Hard Rain Campaign? Also, would anyone be interested in seeing a finally finished rewrite of chapter one?