Disclaimer: I don't own Left 4 Dead 2.
Ellis isn't the smartest man to be plucked out of his common Southern lifestyle and thrown into a zombie apocalypse, and he knows that.
Sometimes, he gives his last pack of health to Nick when he's bleeding from the ear. Sometimes, he shoots his AK-47 and grazes Coach. Sometimes, he wanders headfirst into the shack that Rochelle told him to stay out of to let the witch weep in peace. And sometimes, he falls in love with a man whose only concern is not losing limbs during a zombie apocalypse.
He's a man who knows how to wield a knife and start a chainsaw, but that doesn't mean that he's above the belief of miracles. He's made it this far, semi-intact, and his entire four-man group has survived too. If Ellis was smarter, he'd tell himself that after all of this is over, he'd need someone to buy him and all of his friends coffins. He'd tell himself that were they somehow to magically crawl out of this nightmare with beating hearts, he wouldn't be able to go back home and reunite with his survival buddies from years back every decade or so. There's not a single ounce of sense in letting himself grow a fixation by Nick, but then again, Ellis has already admitted to himself that sense isn't one of the attributes he's lucky enough to possess.
Ellis muses, sometimes, on the aspect of running into Nick before the circumstances of their current situation came into play. Not that it'd be likely that two men of such diverse backgrounds and ways of life would ever find themselves in the same block of ten feet to have a conversation, let alone bump into each other, but if they had, maybe in a high-profile casino down in Georgia, Ellis wonders if they would have found each other agreeable. He can tell from the grim poker face that is often Nick's default expression and his manner of speaking that Ellis might have found himself being condescended much more than he would have found himself interested in the older man's personality. But in Nick's point of view, Ellis might have been just another man who could get his ass kicked at poker faster than he could deal the cards, with a remarkably obnoxious accent and a need to always keep his mouth moving and tongue talking.
Death is undeniably in-season this year, and Ellis knows it. The blood stains on his shoes know it. His team members know it. It's why eight hours of sleep a night and a healthy ration of bananas and low-calorie cereal in the morning aren't imperatives anymore. Survival has rapidly become a luxury that only the very best can afford, and there isn't a single one of them that's growing an ego big enough to convince themselves that they will forever use luck as their weapon and be immune to the ultimate resolution of death, always on their feet, always on their heels, like all of them might as well be prisoners.
Ellis is starting to learn just how mindless he really is, because he's forgetting that even miracles run short during the mass annihilation that's sweeping the nation like a nasty bout of influenza.
He remembers being in second grade, and not getting the hang of subtraction. His mind was always muddled with too many numbers and too many concepts that he failed to understand properly. He remembers being in seventh grade, and not being able to secure a date with a girl without faltering and stumbling over his words simply because of his poor elocution. He remembers being nineteen and following along with the multitude of Keith's illogical plans, scars on his knees to prove each one of their tales.
Never before, has he wished that he was a smart man as much as he does now.
He's too slow. He's too far away. When he thinks about it, they sound like excuses. Ellis has used excuses all of his life and labeled them as innocuous reasons to get out of the trouble he always finds himself knee-deep in. But right now, his excuses feel cheap. Nick deserves better than the overused excuses he's lived off of for years.
He's played his fair share of video games, and he's seen his generous portion of movies. There's the musical montage part of the movie where the colors dull, the violins overwhelm the beat of the suspense-building drums, and everything turns into a blur of slow-motion. All that's left is an inference of silent screams, death, failed attempts of rescue, and the fact that everyone else with their eyes glued to the screen are crying waterfalls like their tear ducts have been sliced open. Ellis doesn't see anything through a filmy television screen. He doesn't hear the music, and for a second, he's almost praying that this means that no one's dying. Everyone's okay, like they always have been. They've been playing hide and seek with the Reaper for weeks, and by now death by zombie is much more of a laughable joke that Ellis can easily evade rather than a problematic situation that really needs fixing, like the flat tire in the emergency ambulance.
Nick takes a nosedive for the dirt. There's a hunter, just a hunter, Ellis can take down a hunter, crouching beside him as though it's completely unsure whether or not Nick's down for count or not, and Ellis won't have that. His ammo has been running low ever since he charged out of the safe house and was bombarded by the hoard before any of his teammates could provide support, but mentally ticking off bullets and preserving his adrenaline are the last priorities his mind is generating at the moment.
Bullets fly through air, but Ellis can't. He aims and hits, and the hunter's down before he can even make his presence known. But he's too slow. He's always been too slow. Too stupid.
Nick's not getting up. Nick's not getting up. All his mind can think, is that Nick's not getting up. There's no twitch of his ankles, no groan of agony, no cry for help. Nick is always yelling for help, yelling like a girl who can't ride her bike without training wheels, always hurt, always adding to the brown crust of blood in his recently crisp attire. Ellis can't tell which blood stains are old and which are new anymore, not even on himself. But all he's seeing right now is red, blotches of red, a film of red, and he knows that it's Nick.
Why is it only him? Ellis wonders, and swallows on an all too dry tongue, as though he's forgotten it's in his mouth. Why have Coach and Rochelle not even stopped to help Nick up? He's too far away, he's too far gone. Why would no one else help him?
The last Ellis remembers is being faced with a throng of zombies, groaning, staggering, one mass of mangled bodies complete with a stench of death, and Ellis is drained. It's not like it's two fists against two dozen zombies, but the gun in his palm is cold, and he's too focused on the path ahead of him to poise it over his shoulder and shoot. He fights his way through with a demanding elbow and a pushy leg, like a man attempting to reach the front line on the battlefield, oblivious to the feckless punches and scrapes being delivered to his back during his expedition. Nick, Nick. He's getting closer, and getting colder.
It's not until Ellis rolls him over that it sinks in, and even that is like an ice bath. There's a steady trickle of blood flowing from his lips like he just stumbled out from a nasty fist fight, but Ellis knows that this is more than that. For one, his eyes are closed.
All he wants, is for Nick to open his eyes. Open, open, flutter and close like broken blinds on a window. A pulse of life to remind him that he can't be dying now, he can't be sleeping now, he has work to do. He knows that Ellis won't be able to function if he's not being mocked for his incredulous stories, and that Rochelle won't have anyone watching her back when she becomes an easy target for a tank, and that Coach won't have anyone to cover for when Nick takes his sweet time reloading his gun, and that, just because Ellis knows it won't work any other way, he'll die.
So instead of his mental pleas of please wake ups and his blink at mes, Ellis' mind reverses into the denial he's not used to. He's used to optimism, but he can't find a single thing to smile about in Nick's face, his motionless eyelids, his ajar lips, the tint of the blood running out of his mouth in the shadow Ellis' figure is casting over him; no, Ellis wasn't a pessimist, but he wasn't insane either. There's a never ending litany running in his mind, let him sleep, let him sleep, he's just exhausted. Ellis wants to sleep, God knows he wants to slump against a corner and never open his eyes again until the murk has passed over the sky and the blood has cleared from the dirt, but he can't. Nick, he can. He's older, he works harder, he works faster, he needs sleep. He just needs sleep.
Ellis grabs his palm, and doesn't realize it's wet for at least two minutes until the realization kicks in. It's a sticky blend of sweat and blood and it leaves Ellis' already weathered body feeling even grimier than before, but it's not like cleanliness is his biggest concern right now. He grabs Nick's hand as though he wants to pump blood up into his fingertips just to get them to warm up because he's too cold, much too cold and much too swiftly. He squeezes until Nick's knuckles start to dig into his hand, and keeps holding it anyway.
"Ellis," a voice says, but it's far off, distant, and Ellis can tell it's not Nick's mouth that says it, "Ells, c'mon. We gotta move."
There's a heavy rumble to it, and Ellis identifies it as Coach within the moment, but it doesn't matter whether it's human or zombie or teammate, Ellis isn't looking for comrades anymore. Comrades are there for safety, security, all the things that Ellis knows he didn't provide. He's wasn't smart enough then, and he isn't smart enough now, not when he instantly finds himself scooting toward Nick as though Ellis' touch and his presence and his warmth will revive his blood back into pumping. Coach is here to take him away. Take him away to kill the next hoard. Shoot the next round of relentless zombies in their distorted faces. Ellis is drained, drained of losing his humanity and taking everyone else's.
"...Nick," he says, directing it over his shoulder at Coach, as though that explains his refusal to budge. Coach is silent for a moment, but he doesn't have the patience to wait for more than that, just because zombies aren't taking coffee breaks. He nudges his knee insistently into the small of Ellis' back and the other man whines, shaking his head straight at Nick's chin.
"C'mon," Coach says again, more firmly this time, the deep voice Ellis would crack under would the circumstances be any different, "We gotta get moving. Rochelle is still up there."
And Nick's still down here.
Let him sleep.
...just let me watch him.
Nick doesn't look very good on his back. His collar is rumpled and his body looks much too flat, much too prepared to be swallowed into the ground and deteriorate right through the dirt. Ellis hoists him up by the shoulder and has him by the hand, squeezing, still squeezing, thumb smearing blood over his knuckles. It's almost as if he's mollifying Nick right before a bad surgery or a nasty exam in school, but Ellis knows that Nick would never accept sympathy. He wouldn't even accept hand-holding.
For a second, Ellis feels obligated to let go. He props Nick up against the wall behind him and stares straight into his eyelids, still drooped over his pupils like curtains, ebony eyelashes framing both of them and licking the top of his cheekbones. He holds on tighter, and smooths away a flyaway strand of hair in Nick's forehead, still clean against the brush of his fingertips. Nick, always clean. His clothing has taken a beating meant for mechanics like Ellis, not gamblers used to breathing in cigar smoke rings and hiding playing cards in their pants pockets, and Ellis feels bad for his pants. He feels bad for his shoes, scuffed and worn at the soles. He feels bad for his shirt, missing the bottom button.
"Ellis," Coach's voice tries again, softer this time, and Ellis' thumbs itch. He wants them gone, he wants their intentions gone, because Rochelle and Coach just don't get it. He shakes his head, harder this time, and squeezes Nick's hand. He wants him to squeeze back.
"'S fine. Really, Coach." Ellis is saying, and is astonished to find his own voice in his throat. There's a heavy ring constricting his esophagus, as though there's a build-up of constricted words clogging his throat. His eyes are watery, and he doesn't know why. He looks at Nick, waiting for him to tell him the answer, waiting for him to mock him and his hand-squeezing and his suicidal attitude, but he doesn't. Ellis almost wishes he had.
"Ellis," it's Rochelle, this time, and Ellis doesn't appreciate the sound of her voice, a hint of concealed exasperation egging at her tone and sympathy that can only be feigned so well when survival is on the line, because zombies aren't waiting on a clock. Zombies aren't attending Nick's funeral.
"No," Ellis says again, and this time, he throws his health pack off of his back as though it's weighing him down, one ounce at a time. Coach and Rochelle don't even scramble to get it like it's gold in a cornfield.
"Nick's not getting up," Coach says, "but you are. So get your ass off the ground and keep moving! C'mon! You're not leaving us to do this alone now!"
"You don't get it."
"No, I sure as hell don't! Get up, Ellis! Pick your gun back up and keep going! This is the apocalypse, and we don't have time for stunts like this!"
Ellis wishes this was a stunt. He wants to spring to his knees, pointing an accusatory finger straight at Nick's chest and hoisting the older man back to his feet, wiping the smear of blood of his chin and grinning a smile devoid of any negativity through the whole massacre. Fooled you, he would say, and Coach would swat him over the head, and Nick would instantly blame Ellis for his childish games.
Nick isn't moving.
"Leave, please," Ellis tries, and it sounds much more like a beg when it leaves his lips instead of a demand. He feels Rochelle's hand on his back, imploring and small, and he shakes her off, "go kill your fucking zombies!"
For once, he wants them to listen. Rochelle and Coach exchange glances, as though they're unsure whether to heave Ellis up by the armpits or do as they're told, and just once, Ellis is glad that the latter is chosen within a matter of seconds before the guilt and the doubt sets into their minds. The health pack lays abandoned in the ground, as though it's been tainted, and Ellis stares at it. It was too late. He was too late.
Ellis threads their fingers together and rakes one hand through the clump of hair by his ear, like a mother tidying up her son. He's sure that if Nick were to awake at this moment, this exact moment in time, hands intertwined and stuck together with blood and sweat and salt, he would reprimand Ellis. He should be tailing behind Coach and Rochelle, gun up and eyes level. But Nick doesn't always know best.
Silently, he wonders if Nick knew that Ellis was harboring unrequited adoration for the older man, the way his mouth twitched when he managed a crooked smile, the way he exhaled after he shot a round of bullets, the way he adjusted his collar when they reached the safe houses. Ellis likes to imagine that Nick never knew, never suspected a thing, head in the clouds of the zombie apocalypse and ears filled with gunshots, because if he knew and didn't find it necessary to mention anything to the younger mechanic, there was clearly nothing worthy talking about in the first place.
Ellis doesn't realize he's crying until he feels the unmistakable trail of wetness streaking down his cheeks, down to his chin, and curling under his neck. They're silent tears, out as he blinks, insistent on falling and falling until they dehydrate him dry.
He wants to know if Nick loves him. Not the solidity of the love itself, but just if the love is there, and Ellis is a little miffed with himself for that. Just the knowledge to know the love is there, like batteries in the emergency flashlight in the hall closet. Just if it's there. Ellis sinks his fingers through the tendrils of Nick's uncultivated hair, and frowns when his head lolls to the side, chin bumping against the wall. Ellis uprights his head with his index finger and his thumb, brushing his knuckles against the bristly feel of his unshaven cheeks.
"Ya wouldn't have wanted this, even for me." Ellis admits, quietly, straight to Nick's ear. He tucks another small, almost unnoticeable strand of stray hair behind his ear, "...but I'm kinda stupid, Nick."
He looks at Nick's expression, reading it for a smirk, a twitch, a pulse point on his neck, a symbolism of his living reaction. If he squints, he sees Nick's eyelashes manage a wink, and then he looks again and nothing's moved. He brushes his thumb against the pad of Nick's bottom lip, rough with cold and dry with blood. He would be able to rub it off and destroy the evidence, but he's delicate, like Nick's a porcelain doll that's been misused and put out of care.
"Got some ammo left," Ellis says observantly, and scans his eyes over Nick's gun, fallen a few feet away from his hand, splayed out on the floor, "you do too. Killed that hunter, though. Won't bother you no more."
Now that's he thinking about zombies, Ellis is surprised, and allows his gaze to travel over the shadowy horizon line. There's a few silhouettes of zombies too mangled to walk properly, let alone stand, and he can detect a few screams from the distance, but it's too far away.
"...got nothin' left to do with my bullets, Nick, would ya look at that," he manages a smile, and tweaks Nick's nose, "still got a few. Don't... don't really wanna kill anythin' anymore if you're not gonna kill alongside me and tell me what a horrible shot I am sometimes."
Nick stares at him, hollowly, woodenly, and for a second, it almost seems as if he's patronizing Ellis for giving up, and then Ellis looks again and is reminded that Nick's face hasn't moved at all. His smile drops, and he manages another hold of his hand. It's was amazing how responsive Nick's unresponsive palms were under his own.
"Don't tell me you think I'm an idiot, Nick, I know you think that," he straightens the corner of his collar until the wrinkles are gone, "you don't know what it's like with you gone. Coach 'n Rochelle think I'm givin' up. I think I'm just... done. Zombies are stupid, Nick, but not as stupid as me and maybe I should let 'em handle it... y'know."
Nick stares. Ellis feels a part of himself wither, and he gives, "I already miss you," he confesses, quietly, breathing onto Nick's neck, and waits for a scoff. A tut-tut, a mocking, an insult, a homophobic remark. Nick's silent, wordless, mouth sucked dry of his speech, "...hell, Nick, you got me cryin'."
He doesn't like the warm, wet feeling on his cheeks, clinging, clammy, but he's not going to let go of Nick's hand, furled around his as securely as it can be. Ellis' other hand is occupied with grooming the unkempt hair out of his eyes, and he's not about to pull it away just to take care of the tears he feels slipping down but not slipping out.
"...ya already know I love you," he says, and tries to smile, and it ends up being a grimace, "for whatever reason that may be, 'cause hell, Nick, you're almost stupider than I am. Go - go and get yourself killed by somethin' that sure as hell ain't smarter than you-"
A zombie screeches, and stumbles. Coach and Rochelle aren't yelling, aren't even shouting commands in the distance, and that means that it's just Nick and Ellis now. Ellis props up his rifle again, and cocks it with a languid, tired thumb.
"Don't worry, now, Nick," he murmurs, softly, and breathes onto Nick's collarbone, "I gotcha covered. I'll go down with ya when this gun ain't shootin' anymore."
Frankly, he knows and knew in the past that this apocalypse was going to end bloody. Blood on the ground, blood on the sleeves, blood on the face. Ellis didn't stand a chance, not with Nick lagging behind, and pain isn't a factor stopping him from surrendering anymore. Defeat is a nice prospect, a shiny, silver button out, the thing that's keeping him from leaving behind Nick's corpse for the birds in the morning. Defeat sounded undeniably sweet in his head, and he knows Nick feels the same, because their hands are still pressed together, sticky, bloody, sweaty. Ellis smiles down at their arms, bumping together every time he shifts, and glances at Nick. He's staring again, long and quiet and questioning, and Ellis lifts his hat a little of off the tip of his forehead.
Why would you do that?
Nick looks at him. Ellis looks back, and worries his bottom lip.
"'Cause I'm stupid," he says, and wets his lips, pressing a brief kiss straight on Nick's temple, right by the skinny scar by his eye, "we're gonna be okay."
One zombie, one bullet. Two zombies, two bullets. Three zombies, three bullets. Ten zombies, no bullets.
Ellis wasn't a smart man, but then again, neither was Nick.