Shit. That had been close. Too close.

Ellis drew a shaky breath, spots swimming before his vision as Coach shoved the body of the hunter aside and hauled him to his feet.

"Damn, he got you good, boy," he murmured, frowning as he checked Ellis over.

"Think I'll live?" Ellis said, trying for levity, but he was pretty sure it was ruined by the way his voice trembled. Everything hurt, and it just wasn't funny anymore. None of it was.

Coach nodded, though the frown didn't leave his face. "Yeah, but we've gotta get you fixed up soon," he said. "I think Rochelle might still have some pain pills..."

"I'll take care of him," came a voice from behind them, and Coach and Ellis both turned to see Nick approaching, health pack in hand. "There's a barn just ahead. Coach, you and Rochelle wanna secure the place while I take care of Overalls, here?"

"You got it," Coach said, looking relieved, though not nearly as relieved as Ellis felt. He'd been sure they'd used the last of the health kits after that charger had knocked Rochelle and Nick from the second story of that building. Looked like Nick had a trick or two up his sleeve, though.

"Damn, Nick, I owe you one here," he said, as Nick slipped an arm around Ellis' waist, using his other hand to tug Ellis' wrist over his shoulder. He was warm, his body solid and strong, and though it made him blush, Ellis couldn't resist leaning into him, accepting the offered strength gratefully. "I thought we were out of health kits."

"Found one under a pile of bodies back there," Nick told him, giving him a sideways glance and a crooked half-smile. "I should probably save it for myself,, what the hell."

Ellis grinned shakily, letting Nick half-guide, half-carry him toward the barn looming in the twilight ahead. Coach and Rochelle had already disappeared into the glowing gloom; every now and then, he heard the sound of Ro's shotgun or Coach's M-16. Distantly, he noted it was strange that those sounds had come to be comforting to him.

Well damn, isn't this some messed up shit we got into?

When they reached the barn, Nick withdrew, propping Ellis against the outside. "Wait here for a minute," he said. "I'm gonna make sure it's safe."

Ellis nodded, though he hated to be left on his own, and waited anxiously while Nick kicked the door open and slipped inside the barn. He held his breath, listening, but heard only a few shuffles and one grunt before Nick returned a few minutes later and gave him a thumbs up. "Smells like cow shit in there, but it looks clear," he said, repositioning himself at Ellis' side and helping him back upright. "Might be a good idea to stay the night. There's a loft we could secure pretty easily; only one entrance. Too bad the ladder's nailed down or we could just pull it up with us."

Ellis let him talk, trying to focus on the sound of his voice and not how much he hurt. But it was hard. The new gashes on his chest were just the tip of the iceberg; the last attack had seemed to awaken every injury he'd sustained since this whole nightmare had started. His whole body ached; hell, even his hair hurt. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and go to sleep.

"Hey. You still with me there, Tiger?"

Ellis looked up, blinking, and realized Nick had led him to a low workbench; he'd been standing stupidly in front of it for several long moments. He flushed, embarrassed, lowering himself down obediently. "Yeah," he mumbled, shaking himself a bit. "Yeah, sorry 'bout that." He glanced up, giving Nick a crooked half-grin. "Guess you could say I'm not firing on all cylinders right now."

He waited for Nick to say something like, "just right now?" He'd gotten used to the gambler's insults, in the weeks they'd been traveling together. He knew Nick--and hell, Coach and Rochelle too, probably--all thought he was some kind of moron. Ellis had always been pretty good-natured, and he knew they were just blowing off steam, distracting themselves, when they called him names or made fun of his accent. It was nothing personal. But that didn't mean it didn't hurt, just a little.

Instead of insulting him, however, Nick just gave him another little half-smile, already at work with the contents of the kit. "Lose the shirt," he instructed. "I need to see how bad he got you."

Ellis flushed a little bit, but obeyed, taking off his hat and laying it carefully aside before tugging off his now very tattered shirt. He sighed, as he laid it aside; bloodstained and torn, it wasn't gonna last a whole lot longer. Maybe they could find some thread or something, and he could patch it up...

He sighed again. He should probably just get a new shirt the next time they went through a shopping center. But...he liked this shirt. And it didn't seem fair that the apocalypse was taking everything.

"Long as I don't lose my hat," he muttered aloud.


"Oh...nothing," he said, looking up to find Nick frowning at him in confusion. He grinned weakly. "Just talking to myself."

"Hmm." Nick moved forward, pushing his flashlight into Ellis' hands. "Hold that in your lap so it's shining up at your chest," he said. "I need to be able to see what I'm doing here."

Ellis obeyed, squinting as the light shone up into his eyes. "Want me to tell you a scary story?" he offered.

Nick snorted. "We're already in one," he replied, reaching forward and lightly laying his fingertips on Ellis' chest. "Damn. He got you pretty good here."

"Guess that's why it hurts," Ellis said, a little breathless suddenly. Nick's fingers were warm, and far, far gentler than he'd expected them to be. He shivered, as they skated over his unbroken skin, the pleasure of the touch a strange contrast to the pain of his gashes.

"Well, don't worry, I think we can take care of it," Nick said, drawing away, and Ellis felt a strange swell of disappointment at the loss of the touch, and the warmth of Nick's closeness. Huh?

He didn't have time to ponder it, though, because in a second Nick was back, holding a bottle of peroxide and a patch of gauze, looking apologetic. "This is gonna sting," he warned, holding the gauze over the mouth of the bottle and tipping it over for a second to let the liquid seep into the fabric.

"Gettin' kinda used to that," Ellis said, but he couldn't stop the hiss of pain that escaped him, as Nick began to carefully clean his wounds. Shit. Shit, shit, shit! That fucking hurt worse than the damned zombie slashing at him. Shit.

"Sorry," Nick said, glancing up at him, looking concerned. "Need me to stop?"

"No, just get it over with," Ellis gasped, squeezing his eyes shut. Why did the stuff that was supposed to help you have to make you feel so much worse? It was like the way medicine always tasted so gross. It wasn't fair to make you suffer when you were already miserable.

Fortunately, Nick finished up pretty quickly, setting the peroxide back into his kit. "Okay, bad part's over," he said, sounding at once apologetic and amused. "You can open your eyes now, Ellis."

Ellis did so, finding Nick standing in front of him with the bottle of spray-on antiseptic. "This should numb it up," he said.

Ellis stared at the bottle, then gave Nick an incredulous look. "You couldn't'a used that first?" he cried, indignant. "Geez, Nick!"

Nick looked sheepish. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't think of it. Hey, at least I found this stuff at all, right? You're gonna need stitches on a couple of those cuts."

Ellis sighed, morose, unable to stay upset. Nick was using his only health pack on him; he certainly wouldn't have expected that, a week ago. From the look of things back then, the gambler couldn't wait to get rid of him. Hell, of all of them.

He watched him, as he worked, considering. What had changed? It couldn't just be that Nick had realized he stood his best chance at surviving if he stayed, could it? If that was the case, he wouldn't be using his health kit on Ellis now. No...there had to be more to it. Nick wasn't just sticking with them, or tolerating them; he was acting like he liked them, really actually liked them.

Maybe the whole badass gambler bit was just a front.

"Okay," Nick said, when he'd finished. "I'll let that settle for a second, then we can get started. I think really the only ones that are gonna need to be stitched up are the two across your chest here." He lifted his hand, laying a finger next to the gashes in question--the ones that hurt the most, though the spray was already helping. "They've stopped bleeding, mostly, but they'll scar pretty bad if we don't close them up, and they're more likely to get infected if we leave them open. How's that gash on your shoulder doing, by the way?"

Ellis blinked, surprised Nick had even remembered; he'd gotten that gash several days ago. "I think it's doing okay," he said. "Doesn't even hurt anymore, really."

"Well, I'd better go ahead and take a look while I'm at it," Nick said, moving around and angling Ellis forward so he could see his shoulder blade. Ellis felt him lift the gauze that covered the sutured wound, and felt him prod the skin around it gently. "That hurt?"

"Nah," he said, shrugging. It was mostly true, too; it was a little sore, but he could tell it was getting better, because it was good-sore, like after a hard workout when your muscles kinda hurt. Healing sore. "Not really."

"Good. It looks good," Nick replied, taping the gauze back into place. "Coach did a good job with the stitches."

Ellis didn't know what to say to that, so he simply nodded, waiting for Nick to come back in front of him. It was kinda strange, having him leaning over him like this; Ellis could feel his breath on the back of his neck where he was looking at the wound, and it was making him shiver a little.

And not just shiver, either; he was having another, far more...disturbing reaction to Nick's touch, and he really, really didn't want Nick to notice that. At least the stitches should take care of it pretty quickly...

At last, Nick pulled back, though his fingers brushed against the back of Ellis' neck as he slid around, in a gesture that was almost but surely couldn't be a caress, because it was Nick, and Nick wasn't interested in guys.

Was he?

Mind already spinning from pain and blood loss, Ellis felt faintly dizzy at this new and startling possibility. Nick was being almost sweet, and that was so far from anything Ellis would've expected that he was pretty sure he might start laughing hysterically any moment, because he'd definitely lost his mind.

You're nuts, El' ol' boy. It's Nick. You know, guy who calls you Overalls and Hillbilly and thinks you're a dumb hick. Nick. Remember? He doesn't like you, not that.

All at once, an image sprung up in his mind, crystal clear: Nick, touching him, but not because he had to, because he wanted to, and there was a lot less pain and a lot more pleasure, with fingertips stroking down skin damp with sweat instead of blood, and gasping breath, and his name on Nick's lips like he'd said it once or twice, all soft and gentle like he was cradling something precious...

He was pretty sure he moaned aloud, because Nick suddenly paused. Ellis' eyes snapped open, and he saw Nick watching him, expression blank and completely unreadable.

He swallowed. "Um..." Shit. Shit! He tried for a grin, but knew it probably didn't come across terribly convincing. "Sorry. It...hurts?"

Nick glanced down at Ellis' lap pointedly, then looked back up at him and arched an eyebrow. "Yeah, it looks pretty swollen," he said.

Ellis looked down at himself, and nearly groaned again. What had been just the faint stirring of arousal was now a raging hard-on, and his loose coveralls weren't doing anything to hide it, either. He blushed, shame and humiliation creeping up his neck hotly as he grabbed his discarded shirt and covered his lap. He couldn't bear to lift his eyes, look into Nick's face again, not wanting to know what he might see. Disgust? Anger? Loathing? Worse...pity?

Tears that hadn't even made an appearance when that hunter had been trying to rip out his heart suddenly stung his eyes, and he sniffled, hunching his shoulders in on himself. "I...I can ask Coach to finish patching me up, if you want, Nick," he offered at last, hating himself when his voice cracked. Dammit. The others were right; he really was a moron.


He flinched as if struck, keeping his eyes resolutely glued to the floor.


Nick's shoes appeared in his field of vision, the once-shining black leather now spattered with mud and scuffed to hell. His white pant legs were brown halfway up his shins. But Ellis couldn't bring himself to look any higher up, too humiliated to face those sharp green eyes.

At least, until Nick's hand suddenly appeared, rings glinting in the light of the flashlight, sliding beneath Ellis' chin and tipping his face up gently. Ellis swallowed, looking up reluctantly, mentally bracing himself for anything Nick could throw at him. When he thought he was prepared, he dared to open his eyes.

Turned out he wasn't nearly as prepared as he'd thought. Because Nick's mouth was a breath away from his own, green eyes glittering with something Ellis couldn't identify, something dark and a little wild. He didn't have long to wonder about it, because Nick closed the distance between their mouths a heartbeat later, crushing his lips to Ellis' in a bruising kiss.

Ellis was too startled to react much at first, and before he'd gotten his muddled thoughts in order, Nick had drawn back a little, and was watching him almost warily. Ellis realized abruptly that Nick was actually nervous about what they'd just done--that for all the evidence, he wasn't sure if Ellis had wanted it.

The thought gave him confidence, and he grinned, slowly, reaching up and slipping his hand around the back of Nick's neck, drawing him back down. He saw Nick's face ease into an answering smile before he was too close to see properly. But it didn't matter, because then he could feel it. He sighed softly, and Nick took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, slipping his tongue into Ellis' mouth and stroking lightly along the roof.

Ellis moaned deeply, his dampened erection flaring back to life. Oh, hell, no amount of fumbling with girls in cars or in the back row of the movie theater had ever even come close to this. Those kisses had been clumsy and uncertain. This was...

This was professional. Nick knew exactly what he was doing, and dammit, he did it good.

Ellis didn't even realize that Nick had moved away from his mouth and onto his jaw until he heard himself whimper the conman's name. He was clinging to the back of his suit like his life depended on it, and Nick was doing something at his earlobe that was just...

"Oh fuck, Nick," he gasped, hips lurching forward with a mind of their own, seeking something to press against. They found Nick's thigh, and he moaned again, grinding in as best as he could.

"Shh," Nick hushed him urgently, shaking his head. "Easy, Ellis, c'mon...they're gonna be back any second, here..."

"Don't care," Ellis mumbled, and he didn't. He just wanted...oh, God, he wanted...

Nick drew back a little, glancing over his shoulder toward the entrance of the barn, hesitating for only a moment before nodding once. He moved forward, bracing one knee on the bench beside Ellis, reaching down and untying the arms of Ellis' coveralls. He slipped his hand inside, into the flap of Ellis' boxers, and wrapped his hand around Ellis' erection to draw him out. "Fast," he whispered into Ellis' hair, as his had began to stroke and squeeze.

He needn't have worried. Ellis arched hard, biting hard on his knuckles to stifle a shout as clever, calloused fingers moved over his long-neglected flesh. His hips were thrusting again, shoving his cock into Nick's fist; when Nick's thumb ran over the leaking head, he swore he saw stars. In seconds, he was shuddering, stuffing his filthy shirt into his mouth and biting hard to muffle his scream as he spurted over Nick's fingers.

He'd barely had time to register what they'd done before Nick was easing him back into his boxers, retying the coveralls around his waist and moving away, grabbing the med kit as if nothing had happened at all.

Ellis gaped, bewildered and a little hurt, but before he could ask what was wrong, he heard what Nick must have already: muffled, familiar voices approaching the door to the barn.

"Nick? Ellis? You guys in here?"

"Yeah, Coach," Nick called, voice steady and casual as ever. "It's clear, come on in."

The door creaked a little as it opened, and Coach and Rochelle entered, black silhouettes against the blue gray dusk. "Ellis?" Rochelle's voice this time. "You okay, sweetie?"

Ellis opened his mouth, but found he couldn't speak; Nick covered for him smoothly. "He'll be fine," he said. "Just getting ready to suture up the worst of it. Why don't you guys check out the loft? This is probably as good a place as any to stay for the night."

"You got it," Coach said, already heading for the ladder. Rochelle paused only long enough to glance at his wounds herself and give him an encouraging smile before she was following the larger man up the ladder and into the loft.

Ellis swallowed, watching them go, then turned to look back up at Nick, uncertain. What now? What were you supposed to do, after...after that?

Nick was threading the surgical needle, but he seemed to feel Ellis' eyes on his, because after a second, he glanced back down at him, and gave him a tiny wink. Leaning down under the guise of checking something, he whispered into Ellis' ear, "I'm on first watch tonight. Why don't you volunteer for second?"

Ellis grinned broadly. "Deal," he agreed happily, and Nick pressed a kiss to his temple as he drew away, chuckling softly. As he started in on the stitches, Ellis barely even felt the needle.

Looked like he'd gotten himself a boyfriend. Huh. Score one for the zombie apocalypse.

* * *