YES, ANOTHER ONE. DON'T JUDGE ME!! Anyway, I posted this on the NickxEllis comm on LJ, but I thought I'd post it here too before I deleted the file from my computer (I always erase the first chapters, then write over it with the second chapters, etc, because I'm weird like that.)

After six long months in a CEDA internment camp, Nick was relatively ecstatic when uniformed employees had marched into his tent and proceeded to tell him it was time to be shipped out to a larger military outpost, where the survivors would be set to acclamating back into the real world.

Of course, Nick didn't need acclamating. He just needed to be free of this place and its antiseptic environment, free from all the soldiers and science nerds telling him what to do, when to do it, where to go, what to eat...he didn't like being told what to do, and this place was all command and no freedom.

Of course, Rochelle and Coach had told him to shut up and stop complaining about it, because sitting clean and safe in this place was a hell of a lot better than tripping over bloated corpses in a mosquito-infested bayou. Nick had eventually shut up as they recommended, but only because Ellis seemed to find his complaints funny and he was tired of the kid grinning and sniggering after every comment the gambler made.

What was worse, upon reaching the camp all those months ago, the kid had immediately volunteered for he and Nick to be bunkmates. Nick could have throttled him at the time, but he didn't, because it turned out that sharing a tent with Ellis meant free sex from a young, very good-looking and very exuberent partner. It also meant blankets shared without a second thought if Nick was cold, backrubs if he was tense, extra food from the mess hall squirreled away in the boy's coverall pockets if he was hungry.

And somehow, they had cobbled together a relationship, one that Ellis, despite all his redneckiness and Catholic upbringing, did nothing to hide. He was especially given to cupping Nick's face in his hands, running calloused fingertips across the dark stubble, and murmuring with those soft, plump lips "IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou," over and over again.

Nick thought about it a lot, and wondered if he loved Ellis back. But he was so messed up and selfish and angry at everything that he didn't quite know what love was anymore, and in the tender moments of the night when Ellis would murmur those words to him, Nick had nothing to say in return. He thought about it a lot, though, and could never quite convince himself that he didn't love Ellis.

And that was why, when they were unable to find Ellis before being removed from the camp, Nick became a little less ecstatic and a little more panicked.

"Where's the young'un?" Coach asked, turning to Rochelle and Nick while they were being herded toward an armored truck with a paltry handful of others. Rochelle, formerly lost in the sweet oblivion of being transported back into society, snapped back to attention at the notion of her somehow-adopted little brother not being among them.

"You don't think he's getting left behind, do you?" she asked nervously.

A few glances around and they agreed; Ellis really was nowhere in sight. Now that they were looking properly, Nick noted, there were quite a few people missing.

"I'll handle this," Nick huffed and pushed his way to the front, where he tapped on the shoulder of a gruff-looking soldier, "hey, is everyone being transported?"

"Yessir," the guy responded, and seemed content to leave it just at that. But that wasn't good enough for Nick.

"Well then, how about telling us where our friend is?"


"Come on, you can't miss him. Redneck kid in his 20's, never shuts up? Always wears a goddamn baseball cap?"

Realization seemed to dawn on the soldier's face and he nodded, adjusting the strap of his weapon while they walked.

"The boy from Georgia? His name's Ellis, right?"

Nick grunted in the affirmative and the man nodded again.

"We shipped him out a few minutes earlier; had to get everyone on board the trucks as quick as we can. This group is only the second wave."

Nick scowled.

"Why the hell didn't you--" he paused, noting the soldier's hands gripping the weapon more tightly, and redirected the route of the conversation, "We're all heading toward the same place, though, right?"

"Yessir," the soldier answered and looked ahead, giving Nick the silent cue to stop talking. Nick frowned and stood still, waiting for Coach and Rochelle to catch up.

"Well?" Rochelle asked.

"They said he was shipped out in a different truck a few minutes ago. But it doesn't matter, we're all going to the same place...wish they'd have told us, though. Don't know what the hell they think they're doing."

"Aww, Nick," Rochelle gave Nick a sympathetic look and patted his shoulder, "it's so sweet that you're gonna miss your boyfriend that much. I can remember a time when you didn't wanna spend two seconds with that adorable little country-fried boy."

Nick ignored Rochelle's comment and Coach's deep chuckle and climbed in the back of the armored truck alongside them.

He was happy to be heading out.

But couldn't quite shake the feeling that something was wrong.

About forty minutes into the ride, he found that he couldn't quite afford to be thinking about Ellis.

An ear-splitting chorus of shrieks erupted from the world outside the truck, and before the survivors could snap their heads up in horror, the vehicle had stopped and was being rushed from all sides. It rocked too and fro among the screeches and screams and Nick felt far too defenseless and cursed the military for taking away their weapons.

Things didn't get any better as the ground began to shake and a huge dent appeared in the side of the truck, crushing the reinforced steal like it was a red plastic cup. The doors were ripped asunder and they found themselves staring into the horrifying face of a Tank, its maw wide and slobbering and its huge meaty fists groping for whoever, whatever, it could find.

Survivors screamed, poured out of the vehicle, ran in every direction. There were pops and rattles of gunfire, roars, the unearthly screeches of the zombies as they zeroed in on their pray.

"Stick together!" Coach yelled above the din.

Hey, no problem there, Nick thought, though he realized that now probably wasn't the time for his shit.

If Ellis had been there, he'd probably be whooping and hollering and beating off the Infected with his left shoe.

They ran through the commotion, over the bodies, past the raking claws and the gunfire. Rochelle managed to snatch up a machine gun from a fallen soldier and Coach had taken to punching the Infected out of the way with his bare fists.

Nick was, honestly, impressed.

They kept running and Rochelle covered their backs, blasting the Infected with a spray of bullets whenever they got too close.

They ran and panted and ran until they couldn't anymore.

It was like a nightmare all over again; the military had failed spectacularly in protecting their cargo, and Coach, Rochelle and Nick suddenly found themselves very alone in the middle of an overgrown forest.

"...well, shit," Nick breathed heavily, leaning upon a tree for support.

"Agreed," Rochelle muttered, wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of her arm. She turned to Coach, her eyes both a little hopeful and a little hopeless, "Coach...what now? What do we do now? We were so close..." she choked a little but didn't cry, and instead gazed hard off into the distance, her mouth pursed, "at least Ellis is safe."

"Probably," Nick responded with a sick twist to his gut. Coach closed his eyes for several long moments, and when he opened them again, it was with a resolute sigh.

"The camp ain't too far away. We can probably follow the tracks back to it."

"Okay, yeah, sure. But is anyone gonna be there to help us?"

"Nicholas, don't you start with me. Wouldn't make sense for all of 'em to leave, anyhow, who'd tend to the camp? Gotta leave someone in charge."

"We were so close," Rochelle whispered through the darkness, her eyes still latched onto the hazy horizon.

Nick watched her, then watched the trees and their ruffling leaves, and suddenly they were walking again, silent and wary.

The camp had been overrun. Apparently the havoc wreaked on their convoy wasn't an isolated incident; it looked like a massive horde and a few more Tanks had gotten into the camp and laid waste to everything. As if to reiterate that hypothesis, a few common Infected shuffled around the grounds slowly, moaning and clutching their heads.

"Shit," Nick spat.

The morning sun bathed the scene in a strange, pink glow that bounced off the jagged metal, off torn construction and shillouheted the shambling monsters black against the sky. Tents lay in tatters upon the ground, their sad skins flapping in the breeze. Blood was purple in the pink light.

"Oh Lord..." Rochelle moaned, nearly dropping her gun; Coach took it from her gently and she rubbed her now-freed arms, "No, no, no, no...this is just too much. I can't...I just don't..." she sighed helplessly and sunk down to the ground, shaking her head. Coach handed Nick the gun and kneeled down beside her, a meaty hand on her back.

"Now baby girl, don't you give up just yet. The main building's still standin' here, gotta be some survivors. Come on, baby girl, get up. Ellis is waitin' for us, probably worried sick."

"I'm worried sick too," Nick said flatly, not watching as Coach lifted Rochelle up. He gestured with the gun toward the building; once an elementary school, it had long since doubled for a makeshift mess hall, hospital, file-keeping offices, and god knows what else, "In there."

Nick shot the few Infected who took notice of them and they made their way into the building.

"Helloooo?" Rochelle cupped her bruised hands around her mouth and called through the empty hallways, her voice bouncing off the white painted walls.

It was as if they were on the run of zombies all over again. And, Nick supposed, they probably were. There was no one to protect them, and no one to save them. Coach and Rochelle must have realized this too, because they were silent as they stalked through the halls, peeked through rooms, kicked through discarded instruments. They cut through the gym, a makeshift hospital, so jaded from the months before that they barely noticed the bodies strapped to gurneys, apparently forgotten by CEDA and ripped apart by maurauding zombies.

"Looks like CEDA ran..." Coach murmured, trailing a hand across the cool metal of an abandoned gurney, "and left all these poor souls to perish..."

"Are you surprised?" Nick snorted, but honestly didn't have enough fire in him to take the conversation any further. He was tired, he was distraught at losing their one hope...and he thought, just maybe, one of Ellis' stupid stories would be good for cheering them up right now. Especially Rochelle, from whom the hope seemed to drain out of as if someone had pulled a plug in her heart.

Nick longed to see that grinning, tanned face, the sparkling blue eyes. He actually wanted to hear that voice, wanted to hear the drawling words and the short, pleased chuckles.

"Hold up," Coach whispered, craning his head to the side, "y'all hear that?"

They stopped, silent and listening.

From somewhere deep inside the school came terrified screams.

"Holy shit, someone made it," Nick whispered under his breath. They set forward at a breakneck speed, worn shoes tapping the smooth hallway floors. The sounds grew louder with every step, and they skidded to a halt in front of a large set of doors, torn off their hinges by God-only-knows.

"Looks like a theater," Rochelle said softly. Above them the flourescent lights dimmed and flickered, and the trio gave the lit tubes a brief look before cautiously traipsing into the room.

It was all bright whites and glass, cages and cubicles. Not like any theater Nick had ever seen, but there was a good chance CEDA had totally renovated it to suit their purposes. And the purpose of this room was clear.

Test tubes, needles, beakers, all lay shattered on the floor. A line of hazmat suits stood against the nearest wall, ready to be donned by people who weren't there and would probably never be there again.

A laboratory.

Their ears stung with screams and cries and moans from blurred figures behind plate glass partitions and heavy steel doors.

"Oh God have mercy," Coach whispered, and they walked through the mess and the noise. The lights flickered again, the electricity hummed. They saw more gurneys, more people strapped down to them; some dead, some dying, some...Infected. Their burning eyes centered on the survivors, they gnashed their teeth so hard that enamel cracked and flew in white flecks, they struggled against their bonds and let out wails of misery when they couldn't get free.

"What do you think--" Rochelle started, when Coach let out an abrupt yell and hauled ass to the side.

"Lord'a'mercy! Judith!" he pressed his hands up against a heavy red door, all too similar to the safe room doors they had become so familiar with; except the security bar on this one was placed on the outside. The inner room past the door was dimly lit, but they could easily see her, brittle hands wrapped around the steel of the bars.

Judith had been a quick friend the minute they had arrived at the camp; a personable mother of two who had lost both her kids and a hundred pounds or so to the Infection. Not pretty enough for Nick's tastes, but she was always nice to him, and she seemed to have an affinity for treating Ellis as if he was one of her lost children.

Now she was even less beautiful, even more thin, her cheeks sunken and her skin dyed an unearthly shade of white.

"Judith, shit, what happened?!" Coach asked, undoing the bolt of the door to pull her out. She leaned her sparse frame against the man's heavy bulk and moaned softly.

"Awful..." she muttered, "just awful, what they did...made people turn...they made people turn! I saw it!"

"Oh, honey..." Rochelle put a hand to the woman's back. Nick simply watched, his eyes narrow and his fingers tight upon the weapon he held. Surely he couldn't be the only one to notice how unnaturally long Judith's fingers had gotten; or how the pigment seemed to have been stripped out of her formerly black hair. Now it was just gray and seemed to be lightening by the second.

"Then...they strapped me down and took this needle...oh Lord...this needle, and stuck it into my arm...oh Lord, what did they do?" she moved away from Coach, buried her face into her hands, and cried.

And sobbed.

And screamed. An unearthly scream that seemed to rend the very air in two, and she tore her face away from her now-monstrous hands and her eyes were orange coals, burning in the dim light. She lunged toward Coach, knocking the man flat on his back and stood over him, shrieking into his face, her fingers curled and ready.

Nick had to shoot her five times before she fell. She lay crumpled on top of Coach like a discarded paper crane. The older man paused, still shocked, and slowly pushed her off of him. Nick helped him to his feet.

Rochelle cried silently in the corner, and they stayed that way for quite a while.

"They been experimentin' on folks..." Coach leaned heavily against the wall, dragging a palm down his sweaty face, "Oh, Lord in heaven, please look over his woman..."

His muttered prayer was interrupted by a sharp, pained yell, one that the trio recognized far too well.

"Oh God," Nick felt cold all over and shoved the machine gun into Coach's hands before turning on heel and running to the back of the theater toward the noise. It continued, it was familiar, and it was close. Before he knew it, Rochelle, always the fastest, was ahead of him, with Coach slowly puffing along behind.

"Oh God! Ellis, sweetie!" Rochelle moaned as she reached the source.

And then Nick saw him; the boy was behind another one of those steel doors, laying prone on the floor. He rocked back and forth and moaned to himself, hands pressed hard against the sides of his head.

"El! Ellis, shit!" Nick tore open the safety bar and tossed it over his shoulder, charging through the doorway and landing on his knees in front of the kid. Ellis didn't even seem to notice, he just clenched his eyes and breathed slowly through his mouth, lips pursing with the air flow.

"Oh, sweetie, come here!" Rochelle was immediately next to Nick, pulling Ellis by his shoulders into her lap and stroking his hair, damp and dark with sweat.

"Jesus Christ...oh Lord in heaven..." Coach murmured behind them, his grip tight on the handle of Rochelle's gun.

"That soldier said...the military said..." Nick sputtered, looking wildly back at Coach, then to Rochelle and then, finally, at Ellis, "...they said he'd been sent out earlier!"

"They lied," Rochelle moaned softly, fingers still raking through Ellis' curly locks, "they lied."

"Come on, sport, come on," Nick pressed a hand to the hollow of Ellis' cheek, patting the clammy flesh gently, "come on."

Ellis opened his eyes slowly and gave a pained groan.

"Weeelll, sheee-it," he muttered softly, a grin stretching across his cracked lips. The corners of his mouth began to bleed, "I didn't think I'd ever see y'all again."

"Shit, son," Coach kneeled by them, completing their half-moon formation around the pale boy, "what the hell happened? What'd these fuckers do to you? What..." he trailed off, his voice cracking, because he already knew.

Ellis looked thoughtfully at the ceiling for a moment, pained tremors running through his body. He began slowly, then his voice picked up tempo and pitch until it was like listening to a breathless waltz.

"Yesterday...last night, maybe? I dunno, it's like...a blur or somethin'. Y'know, I was jes' kinda goofin' around and they told me they needed me in here an' I went an' they said I had to fix some machines an' then they grabbed me and put this cloth over my nose an' then, shit, everything was black and it hurt and it's been hurtin'--"

Rochelle smoothed a hand over his eyes and shushed him.

"It's all right, honey, we're here for you now. Baby, we're here."

Ellis offered another strained smile at her, then reached out and gingerly held Nick's hand.

"Missed the hell outta you, darlin'..." he breathed and smiled at Nick and squeezed his hand tightly.

Nick squeezed back, and noticed the ugly gray and yellow bruises above the indent of Ellis' arm. Dark bruises with black veins branching from them, and needle wounds like eyes in the centers.