First, a brief love letter: So... it's been four months. Yes, it has. A fairly complicated four months in a number of ways—I even broke my laptop!—but still an inexcusable length of time. In spite of my shocking negligence, so many total strangers who've read this fic and enjoyed it have been kind, supportive, and encouraging in ways that I never expected. You've all been sparkling examples of the best fandom has to offer. Please know that, somewhere in Texas, a bleary-eyed girl banging on a broken computer loves you all dearly.
Author's Notes: Thanks to nekocrouton, terabient, and of course Jaej for prereading and providing much-needed critique/encouragement/paranoia-soothing. Half this chapter would have fallen to select + Backspace without them. Also, I've only just now realized that FFN deletes my linebreaks when I upload the doc files. Sorry for the clutter. Finally, the fic is still ongoing and there will indeed be more chapters.
Nick was in Hell.
It was a quieter hell than he'd imagined for himself. As a man who'd done a few very bad things for very stupid reasons, his vision of the afterlife had always been more in line with the classics—lakes of fire, grotesque demons prodding the damned with oversized silverware—but this laminate and Naugahyde illusion served just as well.
He had no memory of dying, and the space in which he was surely doomed to spend eternity was a cruelly perfect replica of the living room on the Lagniappe, but its torments betrayed its true nature. This was Hell, and his punishment for a life of violent and/or selfish misdeeds was to sit at this table until the end of time, overwhelmed by longing and a real need to escape into the bedroom, always just out of reach, while his hands burned in a bowl of garlic-scented ice water. Satan's personalized water torture. What a prick.
The door was less than five feet away, closed against the light and noise of the living room. The room beyond was quiet, as far as he could tell. All four walls were solid: water and unidentified boat-parts on two sides, Rochelle's room on the other, Nick glowering at the door on the last. They were out on the water, safe for the moment. Nothing could get in or out of that room without his knowledge. These were facts; he didn't trust any of them.
His imagination ran wild with paranoid fantasies, most of which would have required a shift in time and space to become reality. Adrenaline and stress had flayed his nerves and fried his brain; he was exhausted, tense, boneless, wired as a gerbil on speed. He wanted to go and sit on the bed and stare down at Ellis with crazed, hypervigilant intensity until he passed out from eye strain. He needed to be there.
Coach sat adjacent to him at the table, mildly sipping a cup of Virgil's paint thinner moonshine. However intense the torment, his stern but amiable supervision kept Nick tethered to his seat like a kid in detention. "You'd best see to those hands if you plan on firin' a gun again," he'd said, and fuck, he was probably right. Nick could feel them swelling, growing useless and heavier by the minute, his rings painfully tight. They weren't coming off any time soon without a hacksaw.
"I may not know much about all this first aid and what-not," Coach had added, rinsing out a beige plastic tub, "but I got enough sports injuries in my day to know a thing or two 'bout swollen joints like that. The boy's gonna be fine now, so sit your ass down. You gotta take care of your own shit for a minute."
Nick had been in plenty of fights, but always against opponents who could feel—or at least, took some scant notice of—pain. The infected weren't immune to physics. They could be knocked down, staggered by a solid punch, but they never stopped coming back for more. And whatever it was the infection did to people, it sure as shit didn't weaken their bones. His split knuckles insisted he'd spent the day knocking out wall studs with his bare hands.
The details of the fight itself were fuzzy—he remembered knocking one infected down long enough to stomp its face in; reaching Ellis, hearing his shouts—good, excellent, nothing on his windpipe; struggling to loosen the tongue, that fucking anaconda, leaving him with nothing but palmfuls of viscous slime, the angle was all wrong; two infected closing in, circling, a fist slamming into the back of his head as another grazed Ellis. Everything after that was a frenzied blur of red and gray and diseased blood arcing black through the rain. He remembered three loud cracks when the world came back into focus; the moment the Smoker's burst of noxious gas filled his throat and eyes. He hadn't been able to draw breath until they were halfway back to the boat.
So now he owed Coach everything. Which was fine, fantastic, but it meant that if Coach told him to sit the fuck down and listen to reason and take care of his own shit, he was compelled to do it. There'd be nothing on the other side of that door without Coach—and no one to glower at it, but that was beside the point—so fine, he'd ice his goddamned hands and take the pills, but he didn't have to like it.
They had stripped Ellis down and rinsed him off in the shower, Nick propping him up while Coach handled the detachable showerhead. Ellis' preternatural luck had held, leaving his neck and ribs intact and his abdomen clear of any signs of internal bleeding, but he'd hardly escaped unscathed. Livid purple marks ran in ugly rings around his chest and shoulders. The sole of a dead man's boot was stamped with eerie clarity on his thigh. A jagged cut on his left arm had taken four amateurish stitches after Nick painstakingly picked out several pieces of bottle-brown glass. All of the gauze and tape Nick had used to dress his wounds at the gas station had soaked off in the rain; the cut on his hip had become crusted with mud and grit.
Very few words were exchanged throughout the treatment. Every now and then the patient would mumble or curse, try to express thanks or embarrassment. His nurses would ignore or hush him: Coach was busy, Nick was trying not to react like a hysterical old woman. They wrapped Ellis in cold compresses and put him to bed, satisfied that he didn't have a concussion, and Nick had prepared to settle in for a long and feverish vigil. But when Ellis' eyes closed, Coach grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back out into the living room. He tried to protest, tried to explain that he had to keep watch in case /something/ happened. He babbled and Coach ignored him.
Preparing the ice bath had been kind and considerate and all that, but something full of garlic and piss had been living in Virgil's freezer since the '70s. The ice melted under the tap, leaving the water redolent of ancient leftovers and Lysol. It hung in a cloud around Nick's head, mingling with the traces of more rancid stuff that he knew would stick with him for another four or five showers. It was unpleasant but tolerable. It was nothing compared to the burning desperation of staring at that door.
Nick was far from ungrateful. He'd tried several times to offer apologetic and sincere thanks. As far as he was concerned, from that night forward, Coach could do no wrong. He was a rock star. He was Jesus. But he'd also insisted that Virgil's bathtub wine was "better than medicine," and Nick, with his hands both imprisoned in a plastic tub and too unwieldy to handle a flimsy paper cup besides, was now being forced to accept sips from a Winnie the Pooh training cup. Seeing those meaty paws hovering in front of his face as he got drunk with Christopher Robin was no less bizarre with Rock Star Jesus than it would have been with Coach Classic.
And thus was the most self-absorbed drunkard in America trapped by gratitude, desperate but unable to watch over and tend to another human being, and compelled to drink homemade liquor from whimsical Disney paraphernalia. Hell had a vicious sense of humor.
Nick coughed as a dribble of wine caught in his windpipe. "Thanks." Coach didn't cut him off this time, so he added, "For everything. You know. I don't know how—"
Coach shrugged. "Ain't nothin'. We couldn't leave y'all hangin' like that. Wouldn't be right." He stretched, popping a few stray vertebrae into place. "That was some serious shit back there, though."
"Don't I know it." Nick looked down at his hands, distorted by the water and diminishing pebbles of ice. Crazy shit. He looked up to find Coach looking in the same direction, his expression unreadable.
"You did good back there, Nicolas," he said finally. "That boy wouldn't be alive without you goin' after him when you did."
"Neither of us would be alive if you hadn't come after us. I was pretty sure we were up shit creek, myself."
"Be that as it may," Coach shrugged again, "you did a good thing. Crazy as fuck, but a good thing. You're OK."
Nick replied automatically, "I didn't have much of a choice." His own words barely registered before Coach answered with startling intensity.
"Man, there's /always/ a choice." The Pooh cup rattled from the impact of Coach's emphatic slap on the table. "Before I ran into y'all up on the roof, there was a man n' his girl with me in the lobby, lookin' to get on that CEDA chopper." He glared directly into Nick's eyes, speaking with low, rapid fury. Nick tried not to look away. "We got up t'about the sixth floor when she got a Jockey on her. That mother/fucker/," he stabbed the table with one enormous finger, "he ran right on ahead, didn't even look back. Poor girl got run right out a window before I could help." His face contorted with remembered rage and sadness. "One minute it's all 'baby' this and 'baby' that, the next he's runnin' off like a bitch. That little weasel /fuck/ was prob'ly on the helicopter that left us, too." Coach shook his head, breaking eye contact as his fury dissipated. "I don't wanna wish ill on an innocent man or nothin', but I can't help but hope that piece of shit got himself a zombie pilot, too."
Once upon a time, Nick would have sympathized with the weasel fuck, assuming he'd have done the same. Look out for number one, fuck everybody and anybody else. It was unsettling to know better. "Christ."
"Yeah." Coach sat back heavily. "It takes a real man to do what you did. For all the shit that went down, I was damn glad to see it." He looked at Nick's hands again. "That shit right there, that's real. Goddamn."
Nick blinked. Somewhere in the past thirty seconds, he'd lost the thread of the conversation. "Um." Somewhere in the stacks, far from the rattled nerves and paranoia on the surface levels, something scrambled for an appropriately dismissive line. "I don't—" Coach cut him off with a squashed, disapproving frown.
"Boy, you think I'm deaf and blind or just stupid?" The frown disappeared as quickly as it had come. He cleared the air with a backwards wave. "Ahhh, never mind, I know how y'all get. Look, I know what you're thinkin' and yeah, you'd've been right a little while ago. But now, I dunno. Shit got real, things are different. I've seen some bullshit, but nothin' beat what I saw in the hotel that day."
Coach wasn't really listening. He was still looking at Nick's hands. "If my wife'd lived to see this shit—and I'm glad she didn't—I'd've done anything, /anything/ to protect her. What that man did, it makes my blood run cold to think on it. What you did, though, it gives me hope. If there's still love in this fuckin' mess, I don't much care where it comes from. Nothin's the same anymore."
Nick was completely out of his depth. He knew he should be jarred by his Least Favorite Word, but it was hard to argue in the face of empirical evidence. It occurred to him for the first time that he had plunged headlong into his own death for a man he barely knew, except in the biblical sense. There wasn't much left to say. "It's only since we got on the boat, you know. I don't think—"
"No. You don't." Coach offered Nick another sip of wine. "You're a good man, Nick. Don't be a dumbass and fuck it up."
A yellow fan of light spread across the mattress, stopping just short of Ellis' face, then shrank into nothing as Nick closed the door behind himself. Flooded with the giddy relief of a man finally on parole, he reached for his top button, forgetting the bindings on his hands. It was like trying to undress with oven mitts. After a lot of yanking, squirming, wiggling, and muffled cursing, he worked his way out of his wet clothes and uselessly wiped himself down with a damp towel spared from compress duty. The warmth of the quilt laid over his moist, clammy skin and the sound of Ellis breathing blunted his frustration. He moved the pillow to the center of the bed and laid as close as possible.
"Hey," Ellis mumbled, turning his head in Nick's direction. He shifted inside his terrycloth swaddling, trying to close the narrow gap.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you." Nick was afraid to touch him. Every cut and contusion was precisely mapped in his memory, but it was dark and his hands were a clumsy mess, wrapped and taped into thick claws. He found Ellis' forehead and awkwardly stroked his hair.
"I was already awake." With a thin hiss of pain, Ellis reached up and pulled Nick's hand to his chest, gingerly running his fingers over the bindings. "Shit. Your hands. I'm sorry." He was still hoarse, but considerably more alert than he'd been an hour before.
"Christ, don't apologize. It wasn't your fault. I'm just glad we got you out of there alive." Nick tried to meaningfully close his hand over Ellis' fingers, but was forced to settle for closing a meaningful lobster claw. Ellis held it close, anyway, quietly running his thumb over a ridge of tape.
"Stupid bullshit." It was only a rough scrape of a whisper. Ellis cleared his throat. "Keep that hero shit to yourself from now on, you hear me?"
"I could see /everything/." His voice started strong and faded back to gravel; he had to stop at regular intervals to clear his throat again. "I don't know how, but I could, and that was the stupidest goddamn thing I've ever seen. Promise you're not gonna do it again."
"Jesus Christ, are you crying?"
"Fuck you, I'm not crying. Promise me."
Nick sighed and rubbed a lobster claw over his face. He had exactly two known talents in this arena: makeup sex and cruel, petty bickering. That was it. Whatever was happening now, it wasn't on his CV. "Don't be an asshole, Ellis. I couldn't leave you there."
"/You're/ an asshole." The rasp made him sound like a petulant Sesame Street character. "I'd like it better if the last thing I saw wasn't you gettin' ripped to goddamn shreds."
"That won't happen unless you land in another dead-end clusterfuck."
"/I/ didn't have a fuckin' choice. That kamikaze shit you pulled, though—"
"Yeah, well, that's out of my hands, too. Don't be a dick about it." Ellis had his hand in a deathgrip. "Ow, by the way."
"Sorry," Ellis muttered. He relaxed his grip. "You of all people oughtta know better than t' run off on a fuckin' suicide mission for /anybody/. Nobody's gonna thank you for gettin' yourself killed over a fuckbuddy." Of course he wasn't crying. Those were drops of concentrated masculinity snotting up his throat. Nick pulled his hand away and sat up.
"'Fuckbuddy,' very fucking cute. Need I remind you that /you/ were the one going on about… Whatthefuckever. Forget it."
This was so much easier when he didn't give a shit. Just tell them what they need to hear, calm them down, get laid, return to business as usual. It was an infallible formula until actual emotion entered the picture. It snuck up behind him and tore away his practiced artifice like bandages off a burn patient, leaving his core being stinging in open air: an irascible, hypersensitive, emotionally retarded fuckwit, self-centered but self-aware enough to watch the train wrecks in slow motion.
Every fiber of his being was screaming at him to backpedal as hard and as fast as he could. But he'd come this far, and there was only one option left to him: Applied Bullshit 101. He took a deep breath, meditating on his role. For added authenticity, he superimposed the sulking face of a formerly profitable fling onto Ellis' head. He felt his way around in the dark, found Ellis and kissed him.
"Ellis," he said. No response. There was a solid and terrifying chance that he'd see through the act, but Nick pressed on. He'd emerged whole from two fresh Hells in one night; he refused to fall into his own steaming pile now. "Ellis, baby. I'm sorry." Nothing.
Don't snap, don't growl, don't react.
He's someone else, convenient but unimportant and incapable of causing more than mild exasperation. He's just a pretty boy in a sulk. Smooth things over as quickly as possible and move on.
"I'm sorry," he repeated. "You know how I get. I'm really sorry. You don't deserve to deal with my shit after what you've been through. I..." Nick paused, flummoxed by an unprecedented paradox. He was trying to talk his way out of something, deliberately using the skills he'd honed to that end, yet every word was true. For the first time in his life, his bullshit had doubled back on itself and merged seamlessly with reality. "I'm sorry."
Still Ellis said nothing. Nick was out of lines, permanently derailed by accidental sincerity. He laid down and pulled the quilt back over his chest, stewing in irritated self-loathing. Less than half an hour ago, all he'd wanted out of life was to be in this room, to be with Ellis, to watch over him and take comfort in undisputable evidence of his continued existence, with flagrant disregard for what those desires implied. Once inside, it had taken him ten, maybe fifteen minutes for him to fumble a minor flare of post-traumatic melodrama and send them right back into the same brand of useless bickering he'd started before the Ducatel fiasco.
Then finally, hoarse and barely audible from Ellis' side of the bed, "Did you just call me /baby/?"
Two seconds to midnight, the phone was ringing and the governor was on the line. "… It's possible that I did, yes."
Ellis coughed his voice back to life. "That is so weird."
"Fuck off, it's not weird. It's something people say."
"It's weird comin' out of /you/."
"What, I'm not allowed to say 'baby?' Baby, baby, baby. There, I said it three—no, four times."
"Four times too many. So weird."
"No one's ever called you 'baby?' It's, like, the go-to term of endearment for besotted morons."
"'Besotted.' You're so weird."
"It's a word!"
"I keep tellin' you, I went to high school."
"And no one ever called you 'baby' in high school?"
"So I'm not allowed to call you 'baby' and I can't say 'besotted.'"
"I never said you couldn't, but it's still weird."
"It is not /weird/."
Ellis made a quiet, breathy noise that could have been a laugh. "So that's what you are now? 'Besotted?'"
"What? Are you calling me gay?"
Three wet splats hit the far wall as Ellis threw off his compresses and curled into Nick. It had to hurt like hell, and the embrace introduced Nick to a previously undiscovered set of bruises on his own back and ribs. But it had to be done. Ellis' breath against his neck was the most reassuring thing he'd felt in his life.
"Never again," Ellis said.
"Not an option." His voice was muffled by the cold tangle of Ellis' hair. "It's a goddamned apocalypse out there. To paraphrase an old fuckbuddy."
"Sorry," Ellis mumbled indistinctly. Then, more clearly, "I couldn't've left you, either."
"Ah, fuck. Ow." Ellis rolled away in defeat. They shuffled painfully for a few seconds, swearing and giving directions until they found a workable position in each other's arms. Once settled, Ellis groaned, "We gotta find another way to do this whole bondin' thing. The damsel in distress shit is gettin' /old/."
"No arguments there," Nick agreed. "I've got you naked and grateful, fresh off a life-threatening disaster, and neither of us can do a goddamn thing about it."
"That's just offensive right there."
"No more damsel in distress. Chargers, Smokers, fuck 'em. We're doing things the old-fashioned way from now on. Flowers and dinner and a movie."
"You bringin' me flowers or the other way 'round?"
"I don't care. We can trade off."
Ellis snorted. "So the usual."
Ellis yawned widely, then grunted in pain when his bruised neck muscles protested. They were both falling asleep, struggling through every muddled quip. "You'll prob'ly hate all the movies I like, y'know."
"That's ok. We'll just make out in the back row, anyway."
"Ok." Nick kissed Ellis' shoulder, sleepy, stupid, too overwhelmed with relief and affection to be self-conscious.
This was it, then. It was complicated; it could get them both killed. But with bigger, uglier, infinitely more malicious things trying to kill them at every turn, it seemed a fair trade.
The water routes had taken too long. They were very, very late to the party.
Rochelle turned her back to the pier. A slow, horrible gurgle rolled across the water as the silent craft sank into the harbor. There was no sign of what brought the steamboat down, no cries for help as it disappeared beneath the otherwise placid surface. The familiar sounds of the infected rumbled close, just above the docks. The bridge was miles away. New Orleans was deserted. The city evacuation maps could already be outdated.
This was the endgame. No more second chances. They'd find the military evac or die trying.
As the others made their way off the boat, Rochelle laid out their supplies on a rough wooden table, assessing what they had left. It wasn't much, but with any luck, there would be a few saferooms in the city and some extra weapons and ammo around. After some deliberation, it had been agreed that they could only afford a few lightweight food items and water. There'd be no time to rest here. She was distantly aware of Nick bitching somewhere behind her. Every scabbed-over wound and newly flexible joint in his hands had brought him a little further back to his bellyaching bullshit self.
"No, really, this is fucking great. It's like being back in the mall, except bigger!"
Rochelle was on the brink of whirling around and threatening to break his goddamned hands for real this time if he didn't shut the fuck up and—
"Nick. Shut up."
And he did. Rochelle glanced back to see Coach frowning out at the sinking steamboat. Nick followed his gaze, shook his head, and cocked his gun. "/Y'all/ ready?" He gently nudged Ellis up the pier with his elbow and started for the gate in silence.
Well, then. At least they had a shot at dying in peace. She loaded a fresh clip into her Kalashnikov and sighed. Hell of a long day ahead.
"How the hell did they get infected in all that?" Nick kicked lightly at the corpse's helmet. The head waggled like a monstrous marionette, barely clinging to its neck by a loose, wet tangle of skin and tissue. "I thought you had to get bitten or something. I mean, you saw the others out there. There are shittons of infected cops. Full body armor and everything."
"We had a zombie pilot, didn't we?" Rochelle couldn't stand to look at the thing anymore. With enormous effort and eventually some help from Ellis, she shoved the riot cop's body out onto the stoop and closed the saferoom door. "It must take a lot of time for some people to turn."
"I dunno if y'all've noticed, but these things don't bite." Ellis dropped onto the staircase and wiped clotted gunk off his shoes with a paper towel. "Not one of us has ever got bit once, an' I don't think they're makin' special exceptions. This ain't like the movies."
Realizing his sudden breach of etiquette, he squinted down at the sole of his shoe and scrubbed with intense, distracted focus. Everyone else did the same, pretending to busy themselves with some minor task or other. There weren't many rules amongst them, but there was always one great, unspoken agreement: They did not talk about their immunity. It was too enormous an idea to grasp in the midst of all this death; too strange, too miraculous, unfair, terrifying.
None of them had ever uttered that one chilling word in all their time together. They'd heard it whispered, early on. Brief mentions in found documents. The odd scribble on a tabletop or wall. Rochelle hadn't understood the gag orders on the term when her crew left Cleveland, but now, standing unchanged after bathing in blood and bile, she knew firsthand how loaded it really was.
She recalled, rather absurdly, her high school sex ed classes. Not realizing she spoke aloud, she recited, "Asymptomatic is not immune." Another breach, but the luxury of ignoring their blessing and curse was running out. The writing was literally on the wall.
/Those are carriers./
/The only good carrier is a dead carrier./
"What, you think this is some kind of zombie herpes?" It figured Nick would go straight to STDs on his own. She snorted in spite of herself.
"You tryin' to tell us you got herpes, Nick?" Ellis grinned at him, but the expression was hard and flat: They were not having this conversation. Not now, not ever.
"What the fuck? No, I don't have herpes. I'm just saying—"
"Hey, man, I need t' know if I should be hittin' a pharmacy before we leave is all. They got them pills now. I seen 'em on TV."
"I don't fucking have herpes, ok? Jesus. You think I would've—" Nick stopped short when Rochelle crossed her arms in his peripheral vision. He grimaced. "Don't be disgusting, Ellis."
"It's kinda late for me to hold it against you, 'f course. But if we need to stock up on some cold sore medicine or somethin'—"
"I do not. Have. Herpes."
Ellis held up his hands. "All right, if you say so. Just checkin'." The topic of any other infection officially shut down, he hopped off the stairs and wandered away to sort through a loose pile of ammunition. After a few beats, he said thoughtfully, "Y'all know what suck the heads means?"
Coach groaned loudly from the back of the store.
The stench was a punch to the gut, so thick it was almost gelatinous, a motherfucking Jell-O mold of death and decay. In the heavy, humid heat, Nick could feel the stink sliding over his skin, mingling with his sweat and sinking in. It was almost impossible to draw breath without gagging on all the rot and shit and piss in the air. He blinked sweat and stench-stung tears from his eyes, wasting three full clips on a bare handful of zombies grunting under the overpass. The survivors staggered forward, desperate to escape the wiggling stench, eyes fixed on a CEDA trailer waiting just beyond the corridor.
A breeze picked up outside, funneling through the exit and dulling the edges of the smell. Nick's eyes began to clear, and he looked up from the sleeve muffling his nose and mouth. The bags registered first: huge, haphazard piles of suitcases, duffel bags, purses, backpacks, stacked as high as the fence could support and clearly never intended to be reunited with their owners. A cold shudder ran up his spine at the sight of the discarded luggage, though even with a lungful of corpse stink he could see the practicality of it. However they'd been carting refugees out of the city, they couldn't possibly have had enough room for everyone's crap.
Something squished and popped under his heel. He growled in exasperated disgust and looked down to better pick his way through the ragged pile of corpses choking the exit. A pair of milky brown eyes stared back up at him, sinking into what remained of a teenage boy's face. Something was off. The body was bloated and bloodless, but his skin was still recognizably tanned. It wasn't grey or ulcerous, it wasn't—
"Jesus Christ! They're people! Actual fucking people!"
The bodies weren't infected. He should've noticed earlier. The infected smelled like rotting meat and disease and a little like ammonia, but the stench under the overpass was different: horrible, but natural. Almost clean by comparison. He'd been too busy choking on it to think twice, but there was no mistaking the difference. They had been fully human, and they had been mown down by the very people that promised them protection. Nick caught sight of a little girl in a Dora the Explorer T-shirt, still clinging to the legs of a woman without a face. He ran through the exit and doubled over, retching. What little came up pooled against his shoes.
He felt Ellis pat him on the back. "C'mon, man. We got a ways to go yet."
Nick wiped his mouth with his sleeve, smearing more filth than it removed. "Those are /people/. The bodies. They're not infected. For Christ's sake, they were still human." He straightened and ran a hand over his face. It stank like the corridor.
"I know." Ellis looked ill, but steady.
"What the fuck were they doing here? If they were shooting civilians, then—"
"We can't think about that now." Rochelle paused on the ramp into the trailer. Her eyes were distant and blank. "We have nowhere else to go."
It was true enough. Nick could feel himself falling apart at the seams, but the others were unnervingly solid. They were completely focused on that bridge, ready to find anything they could on the other side. But as far as Nick was concerned, the bodies changed everything. He'd been worried about their chances at getting out of the city, worried about their luck running out somewhere in the tight evacuation passages with nowhere left to run or hide. He'd never considered the possibility that they might die at human hands. It was so much worse, the thought of making it so far, beating the odds and finding their way back into what was left of the world, only to be slaughtered like cattle at the first signs of life.
But there was nowhere else to go.
Coach cursed from inside the trailer. "Another alarm! There's always a goddamn alarm!"
Nick forced himself to breathe at a normal pace and looked back at the lumped corpses. Ellis gripped the back of his neck, forcing him to look forward. "There's no goin' back now. C'mon," he repeated. "Long ways to go yet."
They walked up the ramp and closed the door.
"Come on, come on, it's wearing off, come on." Nick hauled Rochelle to her feet, kicking away the flattened box that had sent her skidding backwards. The fall had knocked the breath out of her, but she was running again before she was even halfway upright.
The infected were still sprinting back into the bus station, tearing each other apart over a puddle of bile and broken glass, but the pheromones were dissipating fast. Already a few stragglers had lost interest and drifted away from the pack. It wouldn't be long before they noticed their retreating quarry.
The back lot was clean, apparently cleared out by the alarm. The survivors lowered their weapons and pelted at full speed for the steel door at the far end. Rochelle gasped and coughed as her lungs refilled, slowing to a stagger as her initial burst of adrenaline wore off. Ellis turned and half-carried her into the saferoom; Nick took over to get her clear of the door. It closed with an anticlimactic thump.
Rochelle braced herself against her knees, sucking air and still coughing. Ellis hovered nervously around her, troubled by the loud whooping breaths. Coach called her "baby girl" and helped her sit down. She was trying to say something, waving her hands and pounding on her chest to force the words out. The men took her gestures to be a mimed dismissal until her hand shot out and smacked Coach on the arm. She gasped, "/Look/."
They hadn't heard the crying under Rochelle's distress. The room went cold and airless. Coach slowly straightened from his worried crouch, reaching for his weapon. Ellis froze in place, half-kneeling beside them, as Nick slowly turned his head to face the source. The fluorescent light had gone out on the opposite side of the room, leaving yet another pile of uninfected bodies in pale, gritty shadow. Just beside them, a hunched figure rocked back and forth, wracked with strange, unearthly sobs. She should have been wandering, even inside the confines of the room. They'd never seen a Witch sitting still in broad daylight.
"I'm sorry," she moaned. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't've hid, I should've stayed outside, I'm so sorry." A talking Witch.
Ellis clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a yelp; Rochelle screamed. The Witch didn't seem to notice. She repeated her apology over and over, and her voice had the same unnatural resonance as any other of her kind. Even in the shadows, they could see her claws, twisted and chalk grey, lying helplessly across her lap. They were clean.
"Ohhh, what the fuck," Nick breathed. He and the rest stayed locked in position for over a minute, paralyzed with baffled terror. Rochelle was the first to move, pulling herself up with Ellis' shoulder for balance. She gingerly removed the shotgun from his hands and crept towards the Witch.
"Careful!" Coach hissed. She shushed him.
"Who were you hiding from?" she asked, continuing her quiet, steady approach.
"The guns. The guns! There was one of /them/, in the lines, then more, and they started shooting. I hid in the bus, it was wrong, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Her voice warbled between the desperate moans of a terrified young woman and the ululating howl of a nightmare made flesh.
"It's ok," Rochelle cooed in a brittle, lilting whisper. "Don't worry. It's ok now." The Witch's head snapped upright.
"STAY AWAY FROM ME!" she screamed. Ellis lunged for a rifle, but the Witch didn't attack. Instead she scrambled backwards into the corner, her hands slipping and sliding over the swollen corpses. She stumbled into pile and wailed. "I'm sorry! I don't want to! I don't want it!" She struggled to her hands and knees, wicked claws piercing the dead flesh beneath her. "I'm sorry, I don't want to, I don't mean to, I'm sorry. I can feel it, it's everywhere in me, I thought I'd stop seeing but I can't stop seeing, but I can /feel/ it, I don't want to…"
"Jesus Christ." Rochelle's terror dissolved into horror and pity.
"Please," the Witch-girl pleaded. Her whimper was almost human. "I can't do it, it's a sin, I tried to do it anyway but I can't, I'm sorry, I shouldn't've hid, I should've stayed, I can't stop seeing and it's filling me up…" Rochelle took the final step forward and fired. Her hands were shaking; the shot wasn't perfect, but it was enough. The girl slumped forward, face-first onto the grisly pile. Rochelle managed a few backwards paces before her legs gave out. She and Nick slid to the floor in unison.
"Jesus Mary and Joseph," Nick said, still staring at the girl or Witch or whatever she'd been. A pair of absurdly bright green pants pooled around her waist. She'd been shrinking out of them. "I knew it had to be different for them, but… holy fucking shit. You ok, Ro?"
"I'm a hell of a lot better than she was." Already she sounded more like herself, shaken but firm. "Poor thing must've been here for a day or two like that." She pulled herself together, briskly wiping a stray tear from her cheek. "I wish we hadn't had to leave the rest of them alive. If they never really stop—" She didn't let herself finish the thought, pursing her lips and rising to fastidiously dust off her bloodstained jeans.
At least a few evacuees had made it past the checkpoint with their things. Clothes and trampled jewelry were scattered across the concrete floor. Ellis pulled a sateen bathrobe off the floor and laid it over the girl's body. "Yeah," he said to Rochelle, adjusting the edges to cover as many dead as possible. "I know exactly what you mean."
A perfectly framed tableau of fiery devastation laid beyond the fence: Cracked, charred foundations piled with burning timber. Dark, billowing columns rising in the distance. Day-old fires still flickering in scattered corners. They only had eyes for the centerpiece—a crumpled heap of glass and steel and wilting blades.
"This looks familiar."
"Not a zombie this time, though."
The four turned as one away from the smoldering wreckage, marching back into the winding ruin of the evac route. Fingers of acrid smoke chased them down the street, and were ignored.
There was nowhere else to go.