Nick couldn't sleep.
Lying on his back, staring up at the top of the canvas tent the CEDA officials had shoved him into, he simply couldn't get his brain to shut down. He was exhausted, more so than he'd ever been in his life. But every time he tried closing his eyes, something would be there, waiting--the glaring eyes of a crouching hunter, the hunched form of a sobbing witch, or a stream of burning acid flying toward his face.
He turned his head to one side. He couldn't see very well, but beyond the edges of the tent, he could hear movement in the darkness; the crunch of the guards' boots on gravel, the quiet sounds of voices, and further away, the thump-thump of the helicopter rotors as they prepared to take off or land. The military was still looking for survivors, which by now meant others with the immunity. They were pretty much the only ones who could reasonably still be alive at this point. It had been nearly seven weeks, and Nick knew from experience just how long that was to try to stay alive even if you were immune. No...by now, anyone who wasn't was either dead, or infected.
Frankly, given those options, Nick would take dead any day.
From the sounds of things, though, either choice meant death eventually. He'd heard the officials speaking in hushed undertones, as they'd worked on him--heard a few of the volunteers speculating, too. The infection was fatal. It didn't really surprise him. He'd seen first-hand zombies curled up in pain, vomiting blood; seen the way many'd had limbs simply rot off their bodies. Necrosis, one technician had called it. Some kind of degenerative condition that was literally eating its victims alive, turning their brains to mush and making them rip themselves--and each other--to pieces in their agony.
Yeah. Nick would definitely take a fast death at the hands of a tank or a smoker over that.
But fate seemed to have other ideas, and for some completely inexplicable reason, she had chosen to save him. Him: the foul-mouthed, cynical, back-alley swindling gambler with no family to speak of and no home to miss. It didn't make sense. So many good people had been lost--so many families that would never again be whole--yet here he was. Alive, whole (relatively), and as alone as ever.
Well...maybe not as ever. He rolled onto his side, peering into the darkness beyond. He couldn't see them, but he knew they were there: Coach, Rochelle, and Ellis. All safe, all sleeping.
They were the reason he was alive. Coach had been right: he wouldn't have lasted a day out there on his own. And as hard as it had been to trust them--he'd woken every night for a week half-expecting to have been abandoned--they'd never left his side, never stopped watching his back.
In a way...they were his family now.
His lip quirked up into a rueful smile. They probably wouldn't be too thrilled to hear it; if they were a family, he was the drunken uncle everyone tiptoed on eggshells around, hoping he wouldn't cause a scene. But hell, it was more than he'd had in a long, long time, and black sheep or not, he was glad to be a part of it.
He sighed, closing his eyes, trying to pick out their breathing in the darkness. Closest to him, that was Ro: quiet, soft in-and-out. Rochelle always slept on her left side, curled up in a fetal position, and slept lightly but soundly. She needed a good six or seven hours to function at her best, but she could go pretty far on two or three, if she had to, without losing much acuity.
Coach, now...Coach was another story. The man slept on his back, and snored loud enough to wake the dead--but not, apparently, himself. Nothing woke Coach, once he was out for the night. They'd had to be sure their resting spots had been in secured locations, because Coach could attract a horde without ever stirring, once he really got going. The person on watch when Coach was asleep usually took upon himself (or herself) the unofficial job of turning him over when he got too loud. He'd go without fuss, though, and quiet down after awhile.
That left Ellis. Ellis, their boy--their team mascot. Their cheerleader. Their ever-present reminder that every cloud had a God-damned silver lining, no matter how much you tried to insist otherwise.
Ellis was somewhere between Coach and Rochelle, in terms of how he slept. You could rouse him, if you had to, though he was more reluctant to wake than Rochelle. He did snore, but it was far softer than Coach.
No, the most noteworthy thing Ellis did in his sleep was exactly what anyone who'd known him for more than ten minute would expect: he talked.
Quietly, for the most part, at least; you had to be sitting pretty close to him to hear it. And most of it didn't make sense; the parts that were in English at all were generally pretty incoherent. Occasionally a name would slip in, sometimes a soft laugh, if the dream was pleasant. Other times, if it wasn't, Ellis' face would screw up tightly, and he'd shake his head a little in his distress. Once, Nick had even seen two tears slip like quicksilver down his cheeks in the moonlight, though when he'd tried, casually, to inquire as to the subject of Ellis' dreams the next morning, Ellis had shrugged, grinned, and said, "Well, hell, I dunno, Nick; I never remember my dreams!"
Nick wasn't sure he bought it, but he'd decided to let it go.
Lying in the darkness now, Nick strained to hear Ellis' familiar chatter. But Ellis was in the bed furthest from Nick--the bed closest to the canvas wall of the tent--and even listening as hard as he could, Nick couldn't make out any of the familiar sounds of Ellis at rest. Coach's rumbles were probably drowning them out.
But as he lay in bed, a nagging sense of unease began to grow. He'd gotten pretty good about keeping tabs on his team, as he'd come to think of them, and he'd never been able to fall asleep until he'd known where each of them was, and that they were okay. That one night Rochelle and Ellis had gotten separated from him and Coach had been pure torture; Nick hadn't relaxed until they'd found them the next day, curled up in a barricaded maintenance shed.
He sighed at himself, frustrated. Ellis was fine. Of course he was fine. They were safe now; right in the heart of the CEDA quarantine camp, in the middle of a God-damned military fort. There wasn't a single zombie within a five-mile radius. The worst danger they were in here was from the constant poking and prodding of various needles and syringes, as the doctors and scientists ran tests on them to determine what about their physiology made them immune.
Ellis was fine. And he sure as hell wouldn't appreciate being woken up, just because crazy old Nick couldn't fucking sleep without seeing it for himself.
Oh hell, he thought with a sigh, rubbing a hand over his face. You know you're gonna do it; just do it, already. You don't have to wake him up.
Groaning to himself, he shoved the stiff, scratchy linen sheet aside, rolling himself up into a sitting position and swinging his legs over the edge. The ground beneath him was cool--the tents were set up on a smooth expanse of concrete that had probably been used for cross-training of some sort--and his shoes had long been confiscated. He refused to wear the stupid little bootie slippers they'd given him, though; it was bad enough he'd been forced to wear these ridiculous pale blue scrubs. At least they'd let him wear a plain t-shirt instead of the scrubs top. No way in hell was he gonna walk around looking like a Doogie Howser wannabe.
He pushed himself up off the cot, grimacing when it creaked in protest, but no one stirred. He padded quietly down the row of cots, past the dozing Rochelle and the snoring Coach, until he reached the last on the row. There, he moved forward, up alongside the bed, situating himself between it and the wall of the tent. And as he peered down into the darkness, his eyes adjusted, and he could make out the faint shape of the figure sleeping upon it.
Ellis lay curled up on his side, more tightly even than Rochelle, huddled in on himself with his arms pulled in against his chest and his hands tucked snugly under his head. His curls stood at odd angles, dark against the pristine white pillowcase, and his blanket had slipped down to his waist, leaving his upper body exposed to the cool night air save for the thin t-shirt he wore.
Nick felt a strange stirring of sadness, as he studied the sleeping figure. Ellis didn't usually sleep like that--all curled in on himself like he was his own sole protection against the world. In the time Nick had known him, he'd seen Ellis in just about every sleeping position possible--sprawled on his back like Coach, stretched out on his stomach, reclining against whatever semi-soft surface he could find. But never huddled up like this.
And never, ever so completely silent. In fact, Nick couldn't even hear him breathing.
Concerned, he leaned closer, kneeling beside the cot, straining to see through the darkness--then nearly fell back onto his butt, when he realized a pair of eyes was looking calmly back up at him.
He lifted a hand to his chest, feeling his heart pounding. Ellis watched him impassively, apparently neither surprised nor put off by the fact that Nick had crept over to watch him sleep. Nick frowned, wondering why. It wasn't like he'd made it a habit to do this, or anything.
Of course, whispered a smug little voice in his head, usually you haven't had to go anywhere to see him sleeping. Usually you've been close enough that all you've had to do is turn your head.
He blinked, still gazing at Ellis, turning this new piece of information over in his mind. Had he been making a habit of this, without even realizing it? Was that why Ellis looked so completely blasé?
Ellis watched him, for once completely silent, seeming to wait for something. But what? What could Ellis possibly be expecting from this situation that was so completely...unexpected, for Nick? What was so important that Ellis--the guy who never shut up--was willing to wait in total silence, with such infinite patience?
What question had Nick aparently asked so plainly that Ellis had been waiting for him to come find his answer before he'd even realized he needed it?
Nick swallowed, tilting his head, gazing at the younger man. He thought about saying something, but quickly discarded the idea; he suspected, as Ellis already apparently knew, that words would ruin...whatever this was. Whatever he'd come over to do...he was already beyond words.
Yet he was beginning to feel a little ridiculous. Here he was, kneeling next to Ellis' cot, like some sort of dystopian Prince Charming. Hell, down on one knee like he was, he half-looked like he should be spouting sonnets or serenading the younger man with love songs.
Or proposing, he thought, and the thought was so absurd he had to fight the urge to giggle. He knew, somehow, that that would ruin the mood more thoroughly even than speaking.
But he wasn't Prince Charming. He didn't know any sonnets, he couldn't really carry a tune, and he certainly didn't have a ring. And besides...Sleeping Beauty was already awake. And that was the whole problem. He should've been asleep. They both should've.
Oh, hell, he thought. Everything's already backwards, anyway.
He didn't fully comprehend what he'd decided to do until he was doing it. But Ellis was, once again, already a step ahead of him.
His lips were soft under Nick's, warm and pliant and responsive, but patient--oh so patient. For all he'd done this a thousand times with dozens of different partners, Nick suddenly felt almost virignal, a hot flush creeping up his neck as he moved over Ellis' mouth in tentative exploration.
But even Ellis' patience had an end.
A hand, warm and calloused from years of working with engine parts and various tools, slid up Nick's neck. Fingers brushed his jaw, and a warm palm cupped his ear for a moment before Ellis eased his hand around to cradle Nick's head. He pulled him in closer, deepening the kiss, pushing his tongue past the barrier of Nick's lips and plunging headlong inside, exploring recklessly. Nick had the dizzying thought that Ellis kissed like he killed zombies: no thought to his own safety, no thought to the consequences, just fearless and foolhardy and free.
He wanted to tell Ellis he wasn't like that. Wanted to explain that for all he'd made his living gambling, when it came to real risks, he was as cautious as they came. It was why he'd waited so long to do this, even though he now realized Ellis' offer--and his own acceptance--had long ago been established.
But Ellis seemed more than willing to take the risk for both of them. A hand fisted in his t-shirt, and Nick found himself being tugged forward, as Ellis rolled backward on his cot. He followed, blind and still lip-locked with the younger man, until he found himself stretched out on the cot as well. The cots weren't large, barely big enough for one, so it was of little surprise that he'd ended up half on top of the mechanic, one hand braced on the cot beside Ellis' head, most of his weight resting on his opposite elbow. Their legs became tangled with the sheet, and Ellis broke the kiss with a gasp long enough to reach down and tug away the offending cloth, dropping it onto the floor.
Nick used the moment to catch his breath, though their current position made that somewhat difficult. It had been a very, very long time since Nick had been with anyone at all, and longer still since he'd been with a man. It wasn't an entirely foreign concept, but it was only something he'd done a handful of times. The combination of those facts, and the knowledge that it was Ellis beneath him, had made his arousal climb almost embarrassingly high. He felt like a teenager fumbling in the backseat of his mom's car for the first time, all anxious anticipation and tense to the point of snapping. He was mortified to realize he was already thrusting his hips against Ellis' thigh, practically whimpering.
He might've gone off right there, if Ellis hadn't taken charge. Smoothly and with surprisingly graceful strength, he flipped them over, so Nick was lying on his back, Ellis leaning over him. He finally spoke, just a bare whisper of breath against Nick's ear.
"Easy, Nick. Easy. I got you."
Nick latched onto Ellis' voice, his words, and slowly, some of the tension unwound, leaving him in a calmer, more languid state of desire. He released a huff of air, reaching up and wrapping his arms around Ellis' back. Ellis leaned down, capturing his mouth again, and for a time, they occupied themselves with simply kissing.
Soon, though, even Ellis began to grow restless. Nick broke off their kiss long enough to take the smaller man by the hips and, with a grunt, reposition him, shifting his leg and tugging Ellis over so that he lay between Nick's thighs. Their hips aligned, nothing more than the thin fabric of their scrubs between them. Nick could feel Ellis' arousal against his, and he closed his eyes, arching against the pressure. Ellis pushed back in counterpoint, and slowly, they built up a rhythm, as quiet and inexorable as waves against the shore. They kissed more, for a time, but kissing was soon surrendered to the need to simply breathe, as their desire rose to a higher pitch and their movements became more frantic.
"Slow," Nick whispered into Ellis' ear, when the younger man lost control and bucked hard against him. "Slow, Ellis, slow..."
Ellis nodded, burying his face in Nick's neck, clinging to him as he ground against him. Nick arched, tipping his head back, and Ellis latched on, first suckling, then actually biting down, none too gently. Nick understood; he was being marked. Ellis was leaving his own scar among the dozens of others left by various infected, countering their poison with a wound inflicted in a moment of pleasure, not terror.
Though he didn't usually enjoy pain--and less so, after all that had happened--Nick found the thought, and the act, incredibly arousing. He lifted his knees, and Ellis' weight settled more firmly between his thighs; given more leverage, Ellis propped himself up onto his elbows, looking down into Nick's eyes as his thrusts took on a firmer, more conclusive rhythm. Nick held his gaze, sliding his grip down from Ellis' back to his ass, dragging him in tighter with each thrust and grinding in counterpoint.
Close...so close...ah, God, Ellis. Ellis.
"Nick," Ellis whimpered, and that was all it took. Nick convulsed, muscles in his thighs tightening and arms flexing as his cock spasmed and shook, spilling into the thin fabric. A few heartbeats later, he felt an answering warm wetness spreading across Ellis' scrubs, and the younger man had to bury his face in Nick's neck again to mask his low groan.
It was slow to subside. Though certainly not the most adventurous of trysts, there had been a sweetness to it that far surpassed any other in Nick's experience, and for several long, slow minutes, he lay on his back, legs sprawled, feeling aftershocks quiver through him. When Ellis shifted, Nick had to bite his lip to keep from groaning as the renewed friction sent sparks along his spent flesh.
Finally, finally, Nick's hips stopped twitching, his muscles relaxing and leaving him in a boneless heap on the cot. Above him, Ellis was getting heavier as his own body went limp, and his breathing began to even out. Soon, he was snoring lightly, and Nick had to bite his lip again, this time so suppress a laugh, when Ellis began to mumble.
But the laugh melted into something far more tender when he realized that, instead of gibberish, Ellis was mumbling his name--and something that sounded suspiciously like, "I love you."
Smiling, Nick reached down, grabbing the discarded sheet and pulling it up again, tucking it around their bodies as best he could. He grimaced a little, when he felt their rapidly cooling release squishing between them, but he knew he wouldn't do anything about it.
He knew logically, he should. He should get up, find a fresh pair of scrubs for the both of them, dispose of the soiled ones which contained the evidence of their actions; should go back to his own cot, leave Ellis to his, and try to get to sleep. He knew if he stayed there'd be teasing to endure, probably some disapproving stares from the more conservative types, and quite possibly a good long lecture from Coach or Rochelle (or God forbid, both) about Nick's intentions.
He didn't care. They could laugh; he'd laugh with them. They could accuse him of whatever they wanted; he'd have an answer for all of it. They could judge if they had to; he was tired of letting other people's opinions keep him from being happy. And he wasn't going to let Ellis go. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever.
Smirking a little, he closed his eyes, and listened. In the darkness, Coach's snores continued unabated. Beyond him, Rochelle's soft breathing was steady and slow.
And right there, against his neck, Ellis' lips moved a little, snores gradually taking over the chatter as he slipped deeper into dreams.
They were all here; they were all safe.
Nick smiled, and slept.
* * *