My first L4D 2 fanfic ever... so let me know what you think! I'm especially worried about how in-character they are.
I couldn't help pairing Nick and Ellis. What with Ellis's adorable pout and constant stories about Keith, and what with Nick always picking on him and - if you notice - literally having almost EVERY programmed response to all of Ellis's lines. Almost anything he says is followed up by something sarcastic from Nick, who actually does like him at least as a friend. Draw your on conclusions, my friends. :3
Nick's shout echoed off of the water-stained walls. "Yo! Ro!"
Ellis snickered. "Haw! Yo, Ro. That's a funny one. Yo-Ro."
Up ahead, Rochelle heaved an enormous sigh and ignored them both, picking at some dirt on her gun. She felt comfortable here, in this abandoned house – the familiarity of books and empty lemonade glasses on tables, photos on the walls, rugs on the floors. For a split second, before you noticed the bloodstains streaking towards the doors, before you noticed the shattered windows and upended lamps, it was almost as if she had stepped back into a normal time again, as if she was back home and everyone was safe and alive and not eating human flesh.
"I'm serious, Ro!" Nick called again.
"Yeah!" Ellis chimed in. "Git on over here!"
"What do you want?" Finally, she stopped and turned back to them. She put a hand on her hip to show that she meant business.
Ellis, who had been coming up on her in a sprint, stopped at the look on her face. "Shucks," he muttered. "Don't look at me like that. It ain't me."
Nick came around the corner, bearing something in his hands. At first, Rochelle didn't recognize it, and then it was horrifyingly clear – a human head, pocked with infection.
"Check this shit out!" Nick said, gripping the grotesque trophy by its hair and holding it up. Without further ado, he shoved his flashlight into the gaping neck cavity and turned it on. A monstrous glow came through the open mouth and nose, lighting it up. Rochelle moaned in disgust.
Ellis leaned over and worked the mouth, masking his lips with his hand.
"I am the Lord Oz! Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch!"
"That's not even fucking funny."
Nick flashed the light obnoxiously, until the head looked like some sick Jack-O-Lantern. "Lighten up, Ro," he said.
Ellis started giggling. It was that high-pitched, hysterical giggle they all knew too well, had let loose themselves more than once on this unfortunate journey.
"Hey, honey… take a sec to breathe," Rochelle said, reaching out to touch his arm.
Hitching in a few more breaths, Ellis relaxed. He reached for his pill bottle with trembling hands and then decided against it. "Shit," he said softly. "I jus' wanna go home."
Nick wrenched out his flashlight with a nasty sucking noise that made Rochelle feel ill. "Hey," the conman snapped, "your home is swarming with zombies. If you want to go there and die, be my guest."
Ellis blanched and lay a hand over his stomach. "I reckon Keith's still okay," he said in a wavering voice. "I mean, he's got to. He's pulled through more shit than this, I mean…"
Something in Nick's expression seemed to soften, just imperceptibly. But he didn't speak.
Ellis turned and retched once, twice, and then it came, that stringy, pathetic sort of vomit that comes from living off of canned tomato sauce, stale twinkies, and impure water. The stink was tangy and pitiful compared to what they had come to associate with vomit – those Boomers. It was enough, though, to bring a nearby infected wandering from the bathroom down the hall. It stood there and looked at them blankly, drooling. Not wanting to make too much noise, Rochelle approached it and cleanly severed its head from its shoulders with her axe.
"You all right?" Nick was asking Ellis, and Ellis was muttering over and over, "Fine, fine, fine, don't worry 'bout me, don't… I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine…"
And he was fine. Ten minutes later, he was back to his grinning self, whistling as he sloshed through the knee-deep muck of Louisiana swampland, though he stopped every once and a while to spit. "Damn," he said. "Wish I had brought a toothbrush."
Nick scrubbed his bloodstained flashlight on his sleeve. He never would have done it a week ago, but now the suit was so caked in mud and gore that it hurt more than it helped.
"Glad to be out of that no-good house," Nick was saying as their feet once again hit dry land. He had mud up to his hips, and for some reason this made Ellis snicker at him. "I don't like houses. Never again."
"Why?" Ellis asked.
Rochelle listened in but didn't comment. She had a leech on her ankle. She bent to peel it off without speaking. Up ahead Coach said something, something like, "You know what I was expecting? I was expecting a goddamn gator. Wonder if they ate all of the gators."
Nick continued chattering as Ellis moseyed up beside him. "So many sharp corners and dark rooms. Zombies can just… hide in there, and wait for you to show up. And they come through the windows while you're sleeping. Not safe."
"I never thought of it that way."
"There's no place safe. Even the saferooms, sometimes."
"Hell, don't I know that!" Ellis laughed. "You know what else you can't hide from? Keith's ma. Oh, man! Did I tell you 'bout that one?"
Resignedly, Nick played along. "No."
"One time, she caught us drinking in her basement, but it wasn't even that. You see, his ma is – well, I guess, was – a Catholic lady, and I ain't got nothin' against Catholics, cause I'm God-fearin' myself and all, but anyway, you know, she was real strict about it, and she didn't know at the time that Keith was, you know, a sinner, and um… um…"
Nick waited patiently, for which Rochelle was impressed with him, but Ellis's train of thought had flowed off into oblivion.
"Let me guess," Nick said wryly. "He bought a prostitute."
This seemed to jerk Ellis from his reverie. "What? Naw! Keith could be right stupid sometimes, but he'd never do that…"
"I was kidding."
"Yeah, well." Ellis bit his lip. "Anyway. Did I ever tell you, Keith was a homosexual?"
The way he said it was hilarious. Ho-mo-sex-u-ill. Rochelle grinned until it hurt, and got a grip on herself. It was so easy to slip into that spiraling pattern of hysteria. They were all definitely going to need counseling after this. They had killed people, living people… Albeit, it was in self-defense, and anyway they couldn't change back, and they weren't human in spirit anymore… but they were people nonetheless. Luckily, there were no children – the infection was too severe for children, and it killed them off before they could become monsters like these. It was a good thing. It was a terrible thing.
Nick was popping a pill now. "I thought you told a story about him being in the tunnel of love with some snatch, though."
"That was after the basement incident. He did it to make his mama happy."
"Uh huh." Nick's mind was elsewhere. As he walked, he stared up into the sky. It looked like it was going to rain. Then, it dawned on Rochelle, and similarly an expression of surprised understanding stole over Nick's face, and he stopped in his tracks. "Seriously?"
"What?" Ellis had the presence to look bashful. He turned up the accent to appear endearing, because he knew it would win many an argument with Nick.
"I get it!" Nick said, and then laughed. "Hol-ee shee-iiiiit."
"Aw, now, Nick, come on." Ellis ran a hand through his hair, humiliated. "Don't have to make a scene or nothin', do you?"
"You were in the tunnel of love with him! That's how you know –"
"Naw! Noooo!" Ellis was horrified. "I never said that!"
"You saw it, though, didn't you?"
"I was in the swan behind 'em, I mean… Aww, shit, Nick, don't…"
"And you were… with him in the basement, weren't you… you…"
"I ain't never said that." But Ellis's voice was quieter. "He's my friend."
"Friend, huh? That's why you talk about him so goddamn much." Nick paused, struggling to find the words, before it came on the edge of a predatory grin. "You're a fag."
"Am fuckin' not!" Ellis's face turned red, and Rochelle had never seen him like that before, embarrassed and angry until his skin was waxy and hot. "I ain't no goddamn fag!"
"You are, too!"
"I bet you are. I bet you!"
"What does it matter for, anyway?" Ellis exploded, and turned to rush up the rest of the hill, to the street beyond, where they were headed.
Coach called after him. "Hey, junior, don't go off so fast, you dumbass! Want to get nabbed, or something?"
Nick was laughing and laughing and laughing. Rochelle had half a mind to hit him.
"Why are you so mean to him?" Rochelle whispered later that night. Ellis was curled up on the floor of the safehouse, alone in the corner.
Nick glanced at her, then resumed staring at Ellis. "I don't know. I can't help it."
"You're not half as mean to us as you are to him."
"Aren't I? I can fix that."
She smiled tiredly at him. She wanted nothing more than to rest, but she couldn't get to sleep.
"I don't know," Nick began again, his voice quieter now. He sighed and rested his forehead on his knees as he drew his legs to his chest. It was a vulnerable pose, and it surprised Rochelle. "Something about that kid just gets under my skin."
"I bet I know what it is," she said quietly. "I bet I do."
He ignored her, because he probably knew himself.
"What are the odds," Rochelle asked, breathless, as they climbed another hill, her and Coach, side by side, "that we'd get two gay men in the same four-man post-apocalyptic team, and they happen to be attracted to each other?"
"You know, I just don't even want to think about it," Coach muttered. "Turns my stomach."
Rochelle slipped and fell against the hump of the earth, splattering mud all down her front.
"I'm not gay," Nick snapped. "All right? I swing both ways. I'll admit it. I'm not ashamed of it. What do you want? I fucked a boy in high school, and I liked it."
Ellis was off to the left. He had hurt his arm and could only carry his pistol. Although he was looking ahead, it was obvious that he was listening in, because he kept cocking his head and looking over at them with an unreadable expression.
Rochelle tried to keep an eye on the upper-story windows. Smokers liked to lurk behind them and hoist them up when they least expected it. She didn't like the streets. Zombies could come pouring through every door and every window from every direction at the slightest misstep. "I always had a feeling you were too fond of jewelry to be completely straight."
"If you're trying to get your kicks by pairing us up, you're out of luck. I'm much more interested in being alive right now, and getting to a fucking evac that actually evacs people."
"Poor Ellis. You busted up his feelings."
"Women and their feelings. He'll get over it. He's a man."
She raised a disapproving eyebrow at him. "You know what a softie he is."
"That's true." Nick said it without any real emotion at all. "Look, just… Leave it alone."
"You never said you didn't like him," Rochelle teased, and she smiled.
Nick ground his teeth with a steady determination that betrayed his fraying nerves.
Slowly, carefully, Ellis joined their little cluster. "Sorry, y'all, for shouting earlier…"
"Don't worry about it, sweetie," Rochelle replied, smiling.
Nick caught the sharp, hot point of Ellis's questioning gaze. He held it for a moment before he looked away. He didn't speak.
Ellis ran headlong into a telephone pole, and his nose began to bleed.
"Well, shit! Shit, shit, shit!"
Ellis hit the ground screaming. His gun skittered off to his side, out of reach. The dark body almost lurched off of him with the force of the hit, but latched on with the incredible strength of its leg muscles, cinching tight around Ellis's hips; Ellis heaved and rolled them sideways, and they tumbled again and again in the parking lot.
"Ellis!" Rochelle was shrieking. "Oh, God!"
The world seemed to slow. Nick's feet pounded against the pavement, but he didn't seem to be going anywhere. Rochelle gave chase, too, but was slower, her legs shorter. She saw the monster lift Ellis's head in its big, clawed hands, and slam it back down against the concrete, heard the sick smack of his skull, the way Ellis's eyes rolled back and his jaw tightened, his lips foaming as he convulsed once; the arm drawing back and then launching down, like a piston, the long, hooked fingernails puncturing the cloth of his cheap T-shirt, deeper, through his skin, pulling out long strings of flesh and fabric, the ripping sound of skin being pulled from skin, his T-shirt torn open. Again, deeper, the squish of real human meat, now, and Ellis screaming and screaming and screaming, getting his nails into the rubbery, mealy skin of his attacker, having no effect, and the thing, the Hunter, leaned in and opened its jaws to clamp down on Ellis's vulnerable neck –
Nick was there, tackled him with the full force of his body. The claws, embedded in Ellis's gut, dragged him with them, before they popped loose. Ellis screeched in agony, and here came Rochelle running.
Breathing in, Nick wedged the barrel of his pistol under the jaw of the Hunter, and breathing out, he pulled the trigger, once, twice, three times, until the body stopped twitching, until the blood pooled on the concrete beneath them both.
"Fuck you," he hissed into its face. "You hear me? Fuck you."
He stood, swaying. Ellis screamed and moaned and flailed. "Don't touch it, ohhh God, it hurts so bad!"
"This is not good, this is not good," Rochelle whispered over and over, staring first into the gaping, bloody hole of Ellis's stomach and then looking back up at the pallid, horrified look on Nick's face.
"Is he going to die?" Nick asked, his words slurred, as if his lips had gone numb. His pupils were enormous.
Recognizing the signs of shock, Coach laid a hand on Nick's shoulder and steered him onto a bench for a time-out. Nick wrenched in shuddering, whimpering breaths, and put his face in his hands. If you didn't know better, you might have thought he was crying. His shoulders shook with the effort to breathe normally.
"So much fucking bullshit! We're going to die out here."
"Stop that, stop that talk," Coach grumbled. "Breathe, man. Breathe."
"I don't feel so good," Ellis whispered up at Rochelle, his eyes glazed. He saw her eyes and smiled, even as he coughed and blood came up in a thin jet, splattering his mouth and chin. "Ughhh."
"Oh, honey… Oh, poor, sweet thing," she murmured, petting his gore-slick hair. "Don't talk, don't talk."
"I'll be all right, I bet you, we'll get there… Sorry, sorry, shoulda been careful, shoulda…"
"Don't talk, honey, please, please, please…" She rummaged around in her satchel, and handed him the pills. "Here. Take three. Take three."
He did, and he guzzled the water when she handed it to him.
"Thirsty," he said wetly, gargling a little.
She had to battle back a fresh wave of nausea at the sound of it. "You'll be okay," she assured him, lying as hard as she'd ever lied before. "Let me just fix you up, just… hold still…"
Ellis laid his head back against the concrete and passed out. It was better that way.
He needed stitches – a lot of them. They took up a lot of gauze holding him together. The blow to his head concussed him, and he was confused and needed to stop often to rest. He got a terrible fever, and kept vomiting, and the vision in one eye wasn't so great anymore – but he was alive. And they had to keep going.
On the third day after the attack, Ellis fainted.
Nick, being nearest to him, caught him before he hit the ground. "Jesus Christ!"
"Can't stop now," Coach said, looking around them nervously. "Evac's only thirty miles away, now. And it's just highway from here."
"He's burning up," Nick said quietly. Ellis moaned in his arms. "Do you…?" Silence as he struggled to piece together the words, and when he spoke, his voice was raw. "Do you think he'll make it?"
"I don't know, son," Coach murmured. "I just don't know."
Rochelle looked about helplessly as Nick slung Ellis over his shoulder, staggered slightly under his weight, and then righted himself. "There," she said, pointing – a child's wagon, turned on its side, in the driveway of a nearby home. Coach retrieved it for them, and, with something akin to tenderness, Nick lay Ellis down in it. For a moment, it was doubtful the wagon would hold, but it did.
"Guess it's better than nothing," Nick muttered.
"Do you need a second?" Rochelle asked him, but he shook his head violently.
"No. No. Just keep walking. Okay? Walk."
They walked, pulling Ellis behind them like some awful child's toy.
"They say you're not supposed to carry your injured," Coach mused. Fifteen miles stood between them and their goal. The sun was staring to edge closer and closer to the horizon.
"Ellis won't turn," Nick said. "He's immune, like us."
"Hopefully," Rochelle amended bitterly, pulling the wagon. "Right? Hopefully."
Ellis started to come to about ten minutes later. He gargled, mostly, and moaned, and just a few times he whispered, "Keith, Keith…" and sometimes "Nick" and sometimes "Ro" – but not Coach, for some reason.
The cool air soothed his fever, and when he finally opened his eyes, he was mostly lucid. He beamed first at Nick, who was walking alongside him, before it occurred to him what was happening.
"Why am I in a wagon?"
"'Cause you're a dipshit," Nick replied, glancing down at him. Rochelle saw the barest hint of a smile on his face. "Ain't you, horse-lover?"
"Aww, man," Ellis whined. "Did I pass out again?"
"You fainted again, yeah."
"I don't faint."
"Well, you did."
"I didn't. I'm sorry, y'all, I didn't mean to… Man, I must be a real pain. Sorry. Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Rochelle said, throwing him a smile that seemed to pacify him somewhat.
"Let me out," Ellis said, moving to sit up; the pull on his wound hurt him and he cried out, laying back again. "Aww, shit! Ow!"
"Told you, idiot," Nick grumbled.
"I can walk, I swear! I'll be right as rain in jus' a sec, I promise…"
"Ellis," Nick snapped. "Shut up."
Ellis turned those huge, hurt eyes on Nick, whipping out his effective pout. He could win anyone over with that pout. The more Rochelle thought about it, the more childish he became.
"Don't look at me like that. That won't work on me," Nick muttered, just to be contrary.
"Why are you so ornery all of the time?"
"Why are you so disgustingly happy? You're like a five-year-old with a freakish history about a man named Keith."
They waited for it, and faithfully it came. Nick couldn't resist the low blow.
"… who you liked to fuck."
"Aww, fuck!" Ellis scowled. "That again? Why we always got to fight, Nick?"
"Don't know." Nick shoved his hands in his pockets. "Don't care."
Ellis hung his head back and allowed himself to be dragged in the wagon another five miles before he tried to get up again.
"Stop that," Rochelle scolded. "You'll tear your stitches."
"I just feel so useless!"
"Here." She handed him her shotgun. "Be sentry."
Ellis beamed. "Yes! Hey, Nick, I get to be sentry!"
Only one zombie tried to attack them before they reached city limits. Ellis blew its head clean off and giggled at the small cloud of blood that drifted on the wind.
After that, there was nothing .Short on things to do, Ellis poked Nick repeatedly with the barrel of his gun until Nick swore at him and pinched him, which made Ellis yowl like a girl.
They reminded Rochelle of kindergarteners, yanking on each other's pigtails.
"Why are you so ornery, Nick?" Ellis asked around a mouthful of sandwich. It was a long haul to the evac point – the stadium in the dead center of the city – and so they were stopping for a lunch break in a more or less well-preserved convenience store, which, once cleared of a few straggling zombies, was actually rather pleasant. The food was palatable, so they sat around and indulged.
"You asked me that question already," Nick said darkly.
"You didn't really answer." Sometimes Ellis could be obnoxiously observant, and once he was on a subject, he wouldn't let go of it. "Is it 'cause of your ex-wife?"
"That was like, five years ago, man, come on."
"Jus' wondering." Ellis sulked. He looked at Rochelle, who was drinking a room-temperature bottle of water and munching on some Cheetos. "Ain't he? Ain't he always a grouch?"
"Yeah, usually," she agreed with a wry grin.
Coach was on the other side of the room, reading everything out loud.
"Ellis, you want to know the truth?"
"It's because I hate you."
Unsure if he was serious, Ellis offered a nervous sort of smile. Nick stared at him hard for a while before he got up and went to the bathroom.
Rochelle was forgotten for a moment as Ellis put his face in his hands miserably; but then he remembered she was there, and looked back up, and turned on his grin.
"Hey, this sandwich ain't half bad," he said brightly.
She smiled back at him, seeing the tears in his eyes.
As they approached the stadium, Ellis launched into another story.
"One time, when I was in high school, me and Keith really wanted to go see a baseball game – I can't even remember what teams, or nothin' – but anyway, we didn't have no money, and Keith had this idea that we should…"
Nick fired pointlessly into the distance, drowning out Ellis's words for a second. They looked around for the kill and, not finding one, realized what had happened.
"Christ, Nick," Rochelle muttered. "Why do you have to be like that?"
"It's not the time for this shit. We're in the home stretch."
The stadium was devoid of infected, for once. There were military personnel there. They took notice of Ellis's injuries and, finding that he was not only well, but still quite human, they allowed him to pass on. Once, weeks or even days ago, they would have shot him on sight – because he had the disease in him, for sure – but there was really no avoiding contamination now.
"I thought for sure I was a goner," Ellis said. "You know, all those signs saying, 'report your sick' and such."
Nick's eyes took on an opaque look. He didn't speak.
It was with a sense of numbness and unreality that they climbed into the waiting chopper. Rochelle blacked out for a split second, and Coach had to steady her. Her limbs felt like icewater.
"I can't believe it," she said, and her voice sounded dim, so very far away. "We made it. We're alive."
Nick burst out laughing, that pealing, insane laughter, on and on and on as they climbed up into the sky. He couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, until he was out of air, was hunched between his own knees gasping, giggling like a madman.
Coach was impassive. "Glad that shit's over with," was all he said.
Unexpectedly, Ellis began to cry.
"Oh, honey," Rochelle began, but there was no helping it.
"Oh, God!" Ellis moaned, and put his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with the force of his sobs. There is nothing quite as bad as watching a grown man weep.
It seemed to sober Nick's hysteria, because he looked up and his lips parted as if to speak, but no sound came out. His eyebrows came together. Ellis, catching his stare, turned away.
"Sorry, y'all, so sorry…"
"Don't apologize," Coach grunted. "Get yourself together, boy, come on, now. It's over."
Ellis went on crying pathetically for a few more minutes as they passed over the city and finally, finally, Nick reached out to him and touched his knee, then, uncertainly, just his hip, and then his shoulder, saying, "Hey, hey… Hey."
Ellis's final pillars of resolve crumbled and fell away, then. He leaned into Nick's arms and cried, and cried, and cried, and Nick, looking lost, held him.
"Don't cry, don't worry about it, we're through it… Everything's going to be okay…"
"I bet you anything Keith's dead," Ellis rasped. "I miss him, I miss him, I miss him… Oh God oh God oh God. Everyone's dead, everyone's dead!"
His screams bothered the pilot, who glanced back at them and raised an authoritative hand, just once.
"Ellis, sweetie, come on, get a grip," Rochelle urged him, leaning forward to pat his leg.
"Sorry," Ellis croaked. "Sorry."
"No, no…" Nick said, trying to look in his eyes and failing. Rochelle had never seen him try so hard to be kind. "Hey, you gave us a few scares, but it's all right, now…"
"Didn't mean to, not ever… Didn't mean to hurt you none…"
"No… What? Come on, man. Look! Look. We're alive."
Hiccupping, finally seeming to get a hold of himself, Ellis looked up at Nick's face, and a smile began to bloom. "Hey… hey, you're right," he said, and laughed a little. "We're all right."
"Yeah we are." And Nick smiled, too, just a little.
Everyone, probably including Ellis himself, was surprised when Ellis closed the gap and placed one soft, tiny kiss on Nick's parted lips. Nick sat in stunned, burning silence as Rochelle clapped a hand over her own mouth and Coach muttered something about morals; Ellis turned away and watched the city disappear behind them. There was something serene and complete in his tear-stained face.
The rest of the flight home was quiet, but full of an inexplicable easiness. They were all free, now – free of everything.