Author's Note: This chapter was previously released on LiveJournal in December 2009, meaning a (very) few L4D2 slash fans will have seen it before, at least in name. This version is identical to the original posting. The same applies to Chapter Two, posted January 2010. I'm uploading duplicates here because I'm considering using FFN exclusively (with the exception of my own fic journal) for Country Fried in the future, for the sake of convenience.

Important: Every word here written is for Jaej, the best person breathing on either side of the Mason/Dixon line. Tremble with fearful awe before her excellence, lest you be banished back to your home on Whore Island.

Country Fried

Chapter One

The steel door slammed, cleanly severing the topmost joint of a once-human finger—a memento of the grey-green hand groping after Coach's trundling form as he bowled into the safehouse. The tiny hunk of mottled flesh took flight, flipped once, twice, and landed neatly in Rochelle's hair. Nick picked it off and flicked it back to its owner, still gabbling with rage behind the bars. Too exhausted to notice or comment upon this brief act of chivalry, Rochelle dropped the bar on the door and threw herself into the nearest corner. Similarly disinterested in thanks, Nick limped off to find a first aid kit. Dismemberment was an old friend of theirs.

"That was fuckin' brutal, y'all," Ellis panted, already doing battle with a fresh and stubborn hermetic seal. He was trying to disinfect a gash on his leg with an assault rifle tucked under his arm. "Fuck-in' brutal." It was the first time he'd sounded even the least bit terrorized since they started their walking tour of the American South; Rochelle made a mental note to be concerned when she could stand up again. She was just about to tell the boy to put the goddamned gun down already—sweetly, if she could manage—when Nick muttered something-dumbass-something and took over. She'd have made some crack to herself about what a chore it must be for Nick to handle a strapping young thigh, but her head was still too full of screaming alarms and sprinting hordes.

It was nice to feel enclosed for a few minutes, her back and sides covered, nothing in front of her but worn carpet and peeling wallpaper. An amusement park is a shit place to be in a zombie apocalypse, they all agreed. Too many small, flimsy structures to hide lurking horrors, enough doorless bathrooms to pack a town's worth of Zombie Surprise into a few square miles, and animal shit lying around to add insult and inflammation to injury. At least there had been enough careless Vicodin and oxycodone addicts in the area to keep their battered bodies flush with forgotten painkillers. She was just glad none of the natives had left their crystal meth lying around instead. They'd been desperate enough once or twice, and things could've gotten a lot uglier.

Rochelle dozed a little while Coach made folksy remarks about food and bonded with Ellis over their mutual manlove for some bearded cellmate rock band. Ellis tried to tell another Keith story—this one time, he and his buddy Keith went to a Midnight Riders concert and Keith decided to try stagediving, only he didn't know that they were just about to light the fireworks shit—and Nick took his turn at shutting him up.

They'd blocked the door to hide themselves or their scent or whateverthefuck it was that zombies found so attractive—assuming infection regressed a person to a toddler's sense of object permanence—and slowly but surely, the gravelly screams and moans faded as the horde dispersed. A witch wandered past the turnstiles a few minutes later; her wails made everyone's skin prickle until the sun went down and she took her weeping and gnashing of teeth elsewhere.

"Dinnertime, Ro." Coach tossed a bag of pretzels onto Rochelle's lap, followed by a can of orange soda on the steel shelf next to her. "Sorry there ain't no beer or nothin' to go with it. Slim pickings out there now. Ellis and I just grabbed shit outta the machine." Rochelle barely stopped herself from rubbing her eyes with bloody fingers.

"That's fine, Coach, thanks," she mumbled, trying to shake herself awake. "Got a wet nap?" She'd meant it as a joke, already hunting for a semi-clean spot on her jeans to wipe her hands, but Ellis materialized in front of her, beaming over a bottle of Purell and a packet of baby wipes.

"Found 'em in the office-thing bathrooms," he announced, glowing with pride. "I figured it'd be better if we weren't all slurpin' zombie guts off our fingers for breakfast." Lovely. Rochelle quashed that image with immediate and extreme prejudice, but gratefully accepted the supplies and set to scrubbing the unspeakable off her hands. It might not kill the sprawling empire of B-horror bacteria surely springing up all over her, but at least she wouldn't have to look at the shit.

"Good /work/, Ellis!" She smiled at him and he beamed a little brighter.

He really was the sweetest thing. Charming as a doll and— occasionally— dumb as a brick. When they first met, she took him for your average beer-slugging redneck, the kind who'd need at least one solid pop in the mouth before long, probably over some form of the "I banged a black chick once" story. She'd met enough of the type since she'd been in Georgia, mostly in the pool of cocksure townie pricks hired to lug cables around in the field. But Ellis had been different, and her assessment of him had transformed from yokel to affable dunce to a sweet but dense little brother in the course of a few short but never-ending days. He'd even said the words "aww, shucks" once when she'd hugged him. Aww fucking shucks, without the tiniest bit of irony. It was almost intolerably cute.

As the current bearer of baby wipes, Rochelle became the focal point of a loose circle of exhausted and bloody bodies, collapsed on the carpet around her. Each of them took their turn with the too-fragrant wipes and sanitizer and tore into their meager supplies. Rochelle moved a pretzel around her mouth with her tongue, sucking on the salt while surveyed the ragtag bunch. There was Ellis, of course, the perky, drawling greasemonkey who'd won her heart, more or less. Nick sat beside him and directly across from her, their resident hooker with a heart of gold. Or some skeazy male equivalent thereof. He was a complete dick, to be sure, and a lot shadier than she'd be comfortable with in a sane world. But apocalypse-inspired camaraderie had a way of bringing out the softer side in even the most hardened jerkoffs. He'd saved her ass countless times already and sometimes made an effort to be friendly. He even made a few stabs at giving a shit when Coach and Ellis had started fawning over the Midnight Riders poster.

Coach, now grumbling into a bag of chips like they had broken in transit just to piss him off, was a decent guy. Again, in the world of a few weeks ago, she'd have found his salt-of-the-earth fat guy shtick and the simple fact that he referred to himself as "Coach" close to insufferable, but zombies change everything. During their quieter moments, she still sometimes felt like she was the only real person left on Earth, surrounded by cartoons and caricature personalities, but they'd been good to her and kept each other alive. It was the best you could hope for, these days.

Zombies change everything.

When she tuned back into the conversation, they were talking about the witch. "Bitch is lucky she shut the fuck up," Ellis was saying. "I was just about to go out there m'self and put a bullet in that mouth of hers. Damn, I hate them things." His shudder was badly concealed.

"Oh, that would've been fantastic." Nick rolled his eyes. "We finally get to a safe room and you go out and get yourself mauled by a zombie on her period. It's not like we /need/ the extra medkits or anything."

"Hey, man, I'm a crack fuckin' shot, ok?" Ellis protested. "I coulda done it." He mimed firing a shotgun into an invisible witch's skull. "Ka-POW! 1000 badass points, right there. Y'all should see me shoot skeet. I fuckin' made it RAIN clay. Course sometimes we used my mama's old dinner plates when she went n' got a new set from the Wal-Mart and didn't want the old ones no more. 'Cept this one time me and my buddy Keith got 'em mixed up and got all this shit outta the kitchen..."

"Later, Ellis," Coach warned, momentarily distracted from his rapidly diminishing share of snack food.

"Okay."

Rochelle was pretty sure they stopped the Keith stories out of habit by now. God knows he was a decent multitasker when it came to talking and shooting, but it was probably best for everyone if he didn't tell one of them with his mouth full of pretzel. It was hard enough to work up an appetite covered in semi-human remains. Nick seemed to be having a harder time than the rest of them; he was still meticulously picking gunk out from under his surprisingly well-manicured nails. Rochelle couldn't decide if this had more to do with his habits as a sleek and deliberate (probable) conman or the fact that the man was gayer than springtime.

Or Christmas or rainbows or fairy dust or any of those combined. There were plenty of straight men overly concerned with their clothes and hair, but she had the most finely-tuned gaydar in the Midwest. The evidence had been piling up from day one, but really, she'd known from the first time Nick threw her a barbed little "sweetheart." She recognized it instantly. Rochelle didn't give two shits as to which set of equipment Nick preferred to play with, but it did make for a few entertaining exchanges. He knew she knew and vice versa, and more than one guileless comment from Ellis had led to stifled snorts and withering sideways looks.

Sweet little Ellis. She liked to think he wouldn't care if he knew about Nick's preferences, however bred in the Bible Belt he'd been, but she couldn't help imagining his face if anyone ever bothered to explain what a prime piece of gaybait he really was.

And oh, did Nick struggle to ignore that bait. Regardless of his feelings toward whatshisname—Ricky Bobby or whatever—Ellis was the absolute paragon of football-tossing, wrench-twiddling, alphabet-burping, country-fried heterosexuality. As if to underline this point, Ellis shotgunned the rest of his soda and let loose a most impressive belch.

Coach guffawed and then quickly remembered himself with a, "Not in front of a lady, Ellis," just as Nick said, "Very attractive, Cletus," and Rochelle snorted orange soda up her nose. She coughed and hacked for a minute while Ellis patted her on the back, apologizing profusely, then got up and stretched her aching limbs. They were good for distractions, these three. It was easier to ignore the death waiting outside when they took stage.

"Well, boys, I think that's my cue to retire," she announced, folding herself under a table and bashing in a cardboard box for a pillow. "I'm taking a nap. Wake me in a couple of hours, would you?"

--*--

*/One more word and I'll punch him in the mouth. I don't fucking care what they do about it. I'll fucking punch him. One more word./*

Nick strapped a bottle of pills to his hip and /waited/.

Alas, Ellis was finished bemoaning the loss of their fucking zombie pilot. Nick was almost disappointed. Losing the helicopter and surviving a crash landing had been enough of a pain in the ass. The last thing he needed was to listen to Junior bitching him out for using goddamn fucking common sense. That kid pushed his luck like nobody's business. God help him if he even /breathed/ the word "Keith."

Once the others finished gearing up, Nick ducked out of the supply shed and led the way onto the street. Apart from the weathered remnants of zombie battles past, the silence was almost serene. It crawled up his spine and dug into the base of his neck, knotting the muscles there. They'd learned the hard way to be wary of peace and quiet. The most insignificant goddamn noises seemed to echo in silent streets like this, attracting all manner of zombie shit storms.

They made their way down the only route available to them, walking on eggshells and twitching at shadows. Nick had just drawn breath to make a suggestion when they heard it—one of those mutant one-armed freaks was close, and it was coming for them. Fuck. Chargers weren't as big as the tank-sized monsters they'd seen, but neither did they have the life-saving, 'roid rage ADD of the bigger zombie jocks. These things were huge and fast and they were /persistent/. Fuck.

The four survivors circled, desperately trying to locate the source of the big retard's roar. Nick heard the rumbling footsteps too late. The motherfucker came out of /nowhere/ and plowed straight through their defensive knot, sending every last one of them flying like ragdolls. Nick scrambled to his feet, the air knocked out of his lungs and stars dancing in his eyes. He'd gotten lucky this time, landing just a foot short of a small but nastily jagged rock.

The gun was barely back in his hands when he heard Ellis screaming. Shit. Nick whirled around unsteadily. Rochelle had landed badly; she was still fumbling to right herself. None of that cheeseburger and donut padding had done Coach any favors, either. He was even further down the street than Nick, swearing and looking for his weapons. Triple shit.

Nick was already firing as he ran at the Charger. The damn thing wouldn't /die/ and Ellis was still screaming and fuck shit fuck, if only that fucking pilot hadn't been so fucking stupid, stupid fucking zombie fuck, fuck. The creature went down, nearly collapsing on top of Ellis' prone form on the pavement. He could hear Coach shouting his way back to them—goddamn idiot, like they hadn't made enough noise already—and Rochelle was already closing in, but Nick was lost in visions of broken spines and cracked ribs and punctured lungs. Fucking idiot kid, getting pinned like that, what the fuck, it could've been any of them but it /had/ to be him because he was a stupid, cocky little shit who fucking tempted fate with his goddamn idiot bullshit, it was enough to—

"Ellis? Ellis! Damn it, kid. Can you move?" He wasn't too badly hurt. Naturally. Goddamn brat had supernatural luck. It was just like him to make everybody freak the fuck out for nothing. "Are you ok? Sit still. Jesus." Nick would've sworn on his mother's grave that ten minutes had passed since he'd heard the first scream, but the relative lack of mutilation before him said otherwise. Ellis was banged up from head to toe, but the fence had done more damage than the zombie itself. Nick gave him a few pills and forced him back to the ground. "I said sit still! I can't do this if you're squirming all over the place."

Ellis grinned up at him like a battered jackass. "Aw, Nick, I knew you cared," he rasped, coughing to catch his breath. Nick resisted the urge to smack his split lip. Before he could muster a sufficiently scathing reply, Rochelle was kneeling beside the two of them, checking Ellis for breaks.

"Ellis, sweetie, are you ok? Damn, you scared us." Christ, if he were a few years younger, she'd probably adopt him. Dress him in Redneck OshKosh and feed him with little rubber spoons. As it was, she was almost petting him like a scared kitten.

You'd think a strutting little bastard like Ellis would try to brush that kind of shit off, but no. Then again, he probably still slept in footie pajamas. Nick watched him lap up the attention with mild disgust, slapping a bandage on one of Ellis' cuts with overly brisk efficiency. */Don't get your hopes up, kid. Mama Rochelle isn't giving up any of that action to her baby./*

And now not even his most fervent efforts could shake the mental image of Rochelle carrying Ellis around in a Baby Bjorn. Son of a bitch.

Once Rochelle was finished babying the kid, Coach hauled him to his feet and slapped him on the back—Nick swallowed an automatic protest of whacking a recently injured man with those canned ham hands—and they moved ahead together, exchanging some jocular Georgian banter about fried food or tractors or whatever. Nick wasn't paying attention. Hunger and stress were making him bitchy, and he was watching the shadows again.

Or was trying to, when Rochelle sidled up next to him. Relief had added a little bounce to her step and a twinkle in her eye that he found instantly irritating.

"That was sweet of you, worrying about Ellis like that," she said with a thinly veiled smirk. "You're a nice guy when you forget about your suit." She patted his shoulder with her free hand. Nick looked down at her, his mouth set in a hard line.

"Rochelle, I'm in no mood." Her eyes went wide with feigned innocence.

"Hey, I just wanted to thank you for looking out," she replied, removing her hand from his shoulder and holding it open. "I'm just glad you stuck with us, Nick." That, at least, was genuine, so he gave her a noncommittal hey-no-problem shrug and kept his eyes fixed on the road. He saw her smile at him from the corner of his eye. He caught sight of an old man vomiting brains under a tree, but she raised her pistol and beat him to it. Her smirk was back the second brains hit dirt.

--*--

There was no electricity in the drainage pipe, but some wonderful bastard had left a gas-powered lantern inside. They'd left it burning a reasonable distance from the ammo dump, unwilling to give themselves up to the dark in this stinking refuge. Coach had worn himself out fighting off a tongue and passed out as soon as his ass hit the floor. Rochelle was tucked up in a corner as usual, dozing fitfully.

And then there were two.

Leaning into the light, Ellis was putting his NRA membership to good use, checking out the weapons they'd scavenged from the site, cleaning what he could. Nick tossed aside his ancient issue of People—seriously, fuck Jennifer Aniston—and watched. He could handle a gun himself, but he was more acquainted with bats than firearms and had never been all that concerned with maintenance. When he'd been handed a gun in the past, it definitely wasn't for keeps. Anyway, it was fascinating to see Ellis actually /concentrating/ on something. This was probably what it'd be like to see Coach eating a salad.

Ellis noticed his audience and grinned. The click of the now-reassembled pistol in his hand was ominously cheerful. He picked up his pack—a neon pink fannypack he'd found in the hotel that had brought the others fucking /endless/ mirth when they'd noticed it, though none of the ribbing had fazed Ellis in the least—and moved to sit next to Nick, who unconsciously shifted a few inches away. Undaunted, Ellis produced a stick of heavily processed, meat-like material and handed it to him.

"Snap into a Slim Jim, man. I got extras." Nick had sworn off that kind of cheap shit white trash food as soon as he could afford better, but he doubted he'd see another steak for a while yet. He didn't want to hurt the dumb kid's feelings, anyway. After the day—days—they'd all had, it'd be too much like kicking a puppy. Or a baby hound dog. Whatever.

He tore the wrapper open with his teeth, spitting a wad of gristle and plastic and pasteurized cheese onto the floor. It figured Ellis would want to bond over sticks of meat—god damn it. That was Rochelle's fault. He chewed with dogged determination, blocking out memories of her past insinuations. "Thanks, kid."

"Sure thing, bro," Ellis replied around a chunk of jerky. He swallowed and looked at Nick, suddenly serious. "Hey, man, thanks for before. Gettin' that pounder freak offa me n' all. I ain't gonna lie, that shit hurt. And when I saw all y'all knocked on your asses I kinda panicked, y'know? There ain't shit you can do when one of those motherfuckers got you pinned. Scared the shit out of me." Nick tactfully refrained from pointing out that, given their last few run-ins, Ellis probably should've been used to getting a beatdown from the specially mutated freaks. He just gave the kid a little knock on the shoulder and shook his head.

"Anybody would've done it," he said. "We've all got each other's backs." Which was true, for some reason. "You don't have to thank me." Ellis grinned at him again. He still looked like a jackass, but Nick was getting used to it.

"You're a good guy, Nick."

Ah fuck, they were having a Moment.

It was already too late to stop what was coming— Ellis had him swept up in a big honkytonk bear hug before he could blink. There was a lot of muscle under that douchebag T-shirt; he nearly crushed the air out of Nick's lungs. Nick gave him an obliging pat and tried to pull away. As soon as he managed an inch of breathing room, a sucking, tearing noise ripped up from between their parting bodies.

Apparently it was just humid enough in the swamp to loosen the dried shit on their clothes into a paste. Pressed up against each other like that, distressed cotton and Italian silk had formed an unholy union, bound by blood and bile. They had to literally peel themselves away from each other to sit back. Ellis snorted. "Shit, that's gross."

"It is that," Nick agreed, envisioning all the zeroes on the credit invoice he'd signed for this shirt. "Pretty fucking gross."

Awkward sticky moment aside, they sat together in amiable silence, just outside the lamp's steady pool of light. Nick finished about half of his meat and cheese stick before returning it to Ellis, who decided to save the rest of his, too. Given a little protein and a few minutes of useable silence, Nick's general irritation with Ellis started to seem a bit irrational, even to him. Stress and bullshit had a way of bringing out his more intensely misanthropic side.

Hordes of infected or undead or whatever the fuck constantly swarming around them definitely ranked high on the stress and bullshit meter, to say nothing of how long it'd been since he'd been laid, paid, and properly fed. Christ knew there was no fixing any of that here. Zombies were just a fact of life at the moment, the casinos had gone dark, and his only human companionship came in the form of non-options, to say the least—fat (and old and straight), female (a handful of bar chicks and one miserable marriage had cured him of that curiosity), and Ellis (the name, he felt, said it all).

*/Might as well loosen up and make the best of things,/* Nick thought, leaning back against the ridged wall of the pipe. */The faster we get ourselves out of this shit, the – /* He felt a soft thump on his shoulder. Ellis was snoring softly against him, his face unperturbed and bizarrely angelic under a crown of flattened hat hair. Nick opened his mouth to say something, to wake him up and make him go cuddle his adoptive mommy instead, but the quiet peace of the sleeping jackass' face stopped him short. The kid was barely old enough to drink, but he'd handled himself well. He deserved some undisturbed, mouthbreathing rest.

Nick tried to find a comfortable angle against the wall to get some sleep himself, but the steel ribs made it difficult to settle in. He couldn't move away without waking Ellis. He heaved a sigh and looked back down at his shoulder. A tiny droplet of drool glistened at the corner of Ellis' mouth, certainly a herald of greater torrents to come.

Son of a bitch.

--*--

"Well, don't y'all look cute." The smirking drawl integrated itself incomprehensibly into a dream of firecrackers and an old lady from a late night horror movie, until it came again, "Two peas in a butt-ugly pod. C'mon, boys, time t' get a move on." Ellis mmprhmed and mmrgled his way back to the waking world, gradually aware that he was warm and comfortable except for a tiny crick in his neck. He opened his eyes to see Coach standing over him, looking especially amused and massive with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. It finally occurred to him that he'd fallen asleep on Nick's shoulder, and that Nick's head had toppled over on top of his before he could shove him off. Fucking awww. Better yet, Ellis had turned and cuddled a little closer in his sleep. Probably made one hell of a homo-tastic scene. He grinned sleepily up at Coach and didn't move.

"Y'all're just jealous 'cause y'all slept on the floor and here we are, cute as puppies in a fuckin' basket. C'mere, Ro, you wanna cuddle, too? It's all right, this here's a survival situation!" As expected, "puppies in a basket" took the wind right out of Coach's sails and he walked off to load up on ammo, muttering something about getting on the road before dark. Rochelle was trying hard not to laugh, so Ellis egged her on. "It's body heat, girl! This here's how they do it in the wilderness! Ain't that right, Nick?" Nick had just snapped awake and was trying to play it cool.

"Right. The wilderness. Camping or something." He was still too sleepy-stupid to pull it off, rubbing his neck and getting up on his knees first so he wouldn't fall over.

"I think you have to take your clothes off for that, Nick," Rochelle said, and ooh, did Nick give her a look. Rochelle was one funny chick. Ellis winked at her and she laughed all cute, but then got kind of a weird look on her face, which he chalked up to being tired or thinking about something else. Probably zombies. He thought a lot about zombies, too.

Ellis stretched and hauled himself up off the floor. It was already late afternoon, the sun slanting and murky on the muddy water outside. They'd slept a whole day away, goddamnit. It was probably best they all got the sleep, but damn. It's not like they didn't have somewhere to be. Maybe. Hopefully. Whatever! Now wasn't the time to be thinking like that. There'd be people in a town somewhere close and they could point them in the right direction and /this/ time Nick wouldn't shoot the pilot or whoever came along. Everything was gonna be OK. Ellis stuck the barrel of a hunting rifle through the door and shot a mudman in the face to prove his point. Everything was hunky fucking dory.

"In retrospect, couldn't we have just walked /around/ the plane?"

"It was all blocked by shit! Anyway, we're all ok, ain't we? So it was kind of fun, right, like a movie about zombies on an airplane or some shit! I'd watch that movie. That movie'd kick ass!"

"This isn't a movie, Ellis. One of us could've been seriously hurt. And if we'd run out of ammo..."

"It's a moot fuckin' point now, Nick, so let it the fuck go."

"All right, fine. I was just saying." He closed his mouth damn quick. It was kind of cute how Nick acted when Coach shut him up, all intimidated like a little kid. Ellis grinned at him and Nick didn't look too happy about it, which was kind of cute, too. Now, just how he might react to being called "cute" and all, that might not be so cute, but it was damn funny to think about.

"Hey, did I ever tell y'all about the first time my buddy Keith rode on an airplane? His grandma had just moved to Houston and he was on his way to visit her, and he'd never flown before but he'd heard about the Mile High Club in the movies and shit, so Keith decides that sounds like his kinda club and he wants to join up. Only he didn't have nobody on the plane with him, so like mid-flight he goes back to the bathroom and—"

"Not now, Ellis."

"Okay."

Too bad for them. That one was a good story.

--*--