One. Two. Three.

Silence filled the little room, heavy and awkward, and I knew the others were watching me, but I didn't turn around. Instead, I kept my back to them, slowly and methodically reloading the chamber of my sniper rifle. And counting.

Four. Five. Six.

A hesitant cough preceded the stammered words, "Listen...Nick..."

I rammed the bolt action of the gun, loading a round with more force than was absolutely necessary, and the voice broke off.

Seven. Eight. Nine.

"I'm sorry, okay?" the words exploded from the younger man's mouth, and I heard Rochelle trying to shush him, but once Ellis had gotten started, there was very little that could shut him up. "Look, it was the only way to keep him off ya. It was just like the time me and Keith was huntin' and we ran into a couple of these wild pigs, an' Keith said--"

"Ellis. Shut. Up." I grated, abandoning my efforts to reign in my temper.

"I'm just sayin', I--"

I whirled, glowering at the young man as Rochelle continued to wind the bandages around his chest. Ellis's mouth snapped shut, at the look I gave him, but he didn't look away, lifting his chin stubbornly. "I had to do it," he said softly.

"You had to do it," I repeated, mocking the other man's accent, which made Ellis's pale cheeks go faintly red. I knew I should turn around, stop talking, maybe try counting again, but I found now that I'd started, I couldn't stop, either. "Jesus Christ, you God-damned stupid hick. You have no fucking idea..." I shook my head, turning and slamming my fist down on the table, making the boxes of ammo jump and rattle. "Fuck!"

"Nick, that's enough," Coach said softly, voice firm as he moved up behind me and drew my hand into his, checking it for injury.

I jerked my hand away, storming back to the door and peering out, jaw clenched to keep myself from saying anything else. Behind me, I heard Rochelle sigh, then murmur, "Coach, do you want to come help me check upstairs? There might be more health packs around."

Coach didn't answer immediately, but after a second, the floor creaked as the large man moved away. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Ellis, rest up for a few seconds. We'll be right back."

Subtle, I thought, annoyed. Rochelle probably thought she was being sensitive, atuned to my needs, leaving me alone with Ellis so we could talk it out. Well, she was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe Ellis was one of those pansy-assed types, but I was a guy. I didn't talk. I punched walls (or tables) and counted to ten and cursed, and left the sissy touchy-feely shit to the chicks and the fags.

Besides, this wasn't a touchy-feely moment. I was mad. End of story.

"I'm sorry."

The words startled me, not because they broke what I'd assumed would be a long, stubborn silence, but because they actually sounded sincere. I blinked, stiffening a little, and turned my head just far enough to see Ellis in my peripheral vision.

The mechanic was still sitting on the table where Rochelle had been patching him up, shirt off, bandages wrapped around his chest and shoulders. He still wore his hat, though, and I realized abruptly I didn't think I'd ever seen him without it. Even in sleep, the kid never took it off, tugging the visor down over his eyes to block the light. I couldn't even picture him without it, and found myself trying to guess how long his hair was, and whether or not it was curly.

I snorted faintly, the absurdity of the thought making me shake my head; catching the movement, Ellis looked up at me, slumped and wilted like a kicked puppy.

"I was just tryin' to help," he said forlornly. "I just thought if I distracted the rest of 'em, you could..."

"Ellis," I cut him off, turning a little so I could stare at him with both eyes. "You opened a can of boomer bile. And poured it on yourself."

"Yeah, I remember," Ellis said, cringing a little at the bite in my voice. "I just...that hunter, he was gonna pounce on ya, and...if I didn't distract them all somehow..." he bit his lip, shrugging with one shoulder. "They'd'a killed you," he finished.

"They did kill you!" I exploded, furious. "If Coach hadn't had that defib unit you'd be a corpse right now! Or did that not ever occur to you? Did the thought ever drift through that dense crawfish-sucking skull of yours that you could have died?"

"I really thought I could hold 'em off all right," Ellis said in a small voice that didn't sound like him at all. "I mean, I coulda...if that spitter hadn't...I coulda..."

"It was a moronic move, Ellis," I scowled, pacing now, completely forgetting I'd planned to stay quiet until Coach and Rochelle came back. I couldn't, now. I had to make the kid see how stupid he'd been. How compeltely, utterly, shoe-in for a Darwin award retarded it had been to do something like that. "God, I knew you were slow, but this goes beyond a little harmless hillbilly shit. This was fucking mental."

"It worked," Ellis said quietly, more serious than I'd ever heard him.

"Define worked!" I cried, not wanting to lose my momentum. God, I was steamed, and I was really going to lay into him this time. This was gonna be a no holds barred, knock-down drag-out tongue lashing, enough to make a smoker proud. I was going to let him have it. "In what screwed up little beer-drowned part of your brain does this qualify as a success? Great merciful Jesus fucking Christ, Ellis, you--"

"You're alive."

Well. That threw me off my high horse a bit. I halted mid-stride and mid-sentence, turning to gape at him. He was still sitting on the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes lowered. The bare bulb above him made the visor of his cap cast half his face in shadow, but I could still see his lashes, clumped and wet; could still catch the gleam of a tear track on his cheek. Aw, shit...

He seemed to take my silence as cue to continue, looking up at me and swallowing. "I've lost lotsa friends to this thing, Nick," he said, voice still the same strangely serious tone from before. "Lots of 'em. Good people, dead or...or worse. I..." he swallowed, looking down at his hands, and shook his head. "I had to kill some of 'em myself, when they got the infection and wasn't them anymore. And...I dunno. I just...I couldn't let it be you, too. Not you, Nicky."

I thought about castigating him for the diminuative, but found myself far too enraptured by this strange new Ellis--this Ellis I'd never seen, never acknowledged before, for all I knew he must be there, under all the goofy stories and ridiculous accent. You didn't survive this long in an apocolypse if you were really as dumb as Ellis pretended to be.

The only word I could get my stunned brain to force past my lips, the only question that really needed answering, was, "Why?"

He shrugged again, still staring at his hands. "Just...because, I guess," he mumbled, hedging. And then I understood. He'd made his move; laid his cards on the table. It was up to me to call his bluff, or fold, and let the whole thing pass.

Maybe if this had been a year ago, I'd've let it go. But a lot had changed in a year. And I'd come to realize that second chances were getting few and far between. Without really understanding why--without even conscious awareness--I lay my weapon on the ground, moving forward until I stood right in front of him. He didn't move, though he did stiffen a little at my approach, and when I reached out to cup his chin with one hand he flinched slightly before letting me tip his face up, forcing his eyes to meet mine.

"Not good enough, Ellis," I murmured.

He swallowed again, and I saw his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat; saw as his tongue darted out nervously to wet his lips. They parted on a breath, and that was all it took.

I leaned forward and captured them with my own. It was barely anything, really--just a brush of mouths together--but his breath hitched, and he reached up, curling his fingers into my lapel. I slid my other hand up to his cheek, brushing back and dislodging his cap; it fell to the table behind him. My fingers found his hair (curly, damp with sweat) and buried themselves in it, sliding around to cradle the back of his skull and hold him in place. He hadn't protested, so I crossed the scant distance between us again, pressing my lips to his more firmly this time.

And this time, he responded. His hands tugged my jacket, pulling me closer, until I was standing between his knees, my thighs pressed to the edge of the table. I left one hand at the back of his head, but the other drifted down to his neck, resting against the sweat-damp, gritty, sticky skin. He was filthy, and he still smelled faintly of the bile he'd poured over himself to attract the horde, to draw them away from me and to him instead. But he couldn't have been more perfect to me right then if he'd been doused in rose petals and smelling of potpourri. I heard a moan, and I wasn't entirely sure if it came from him or me; it didn't matter. I knew the sentiments were mutual, either way.

His lips parted beneath mine, and I took the invitation gratefully, sliding my tongue into his mouth. He tasted of chocolate. Coach had raided a vending machine we'd found in a mini-mall, and Ellis had been popping M&Ms all afternoon. For some reason, the taste, the knowledge, made my heart clench and my lips curve into a grin that stung my eyes. I should have known the first time I kissed Ellis, he'd taste sweet.

"Whasso f'nny?" he mumbled around the kiss, feeling my grin against his mouth.

I shook my head, unwilling to pull away long enough to explain it. Besides, it wasn't ha-ha funny; more like "make you think" funny. I was smack dab in the middle of a zombie apocolypse, stuck with a group of yahoos I wouldn't have been caught dead associating with in what I'd come to think of as my "other" life--the life before the infection. If anything, these guys would've been my marks; just another group of suckers I could swindle out of a little change before they wised up to my game.

Now...now they were the closest thing I'd ever had to real family, and dammit if Ellis hadn't crawled right into my heart and set up shop. Shit, I might've known the real reason I'd been so pissed, when he'd taken such a stupid chance for me.

The thought drew me back to myself a little, and I pulled away slightly. The little whimper of protest Ellis made shot straight to my groin, but I forced myself to ignore it, cupping his cheeks until he opened his eyes again, blinking up at me dazedly.

"Ellis," I said strenly, thumbs stroking his bruised cheekbones, "I want you to promise me you'll never do anything that stupid again. Ever. You got it?"

Ellis gazed up at me for a second, before quirking a tiny rueful grin. "Can't make that promise, Nick," he said softly.

I frowned. "Ellis..."

"But," he cut me off, reaching up to press one fingertip against my lips to silence me, "I can promise to try."

I sighed, but nodded, finally, kissing the fingertip gently. "Guess that'll have to do," I murmured, before leaning down to kiss him again. In a few minutes, Coach and Rochelle would be back; we'd finish reloading and restocking our supplies, and then we'd have to leave again, head back out into the growing dusk and try to find a way to live one more night. This moment was simply an oasis in the hell our lives had become: a fleeting respite made all the more bittersweet for the knowledge that it might never come again. Because for all my scolding, I knew Ellis couldn't make any promises. Neither could I. All we could do, as he'd said, was try.

And as I'd said, it would have to be good enough.

* * *