Yes! I'm still alive!

And I'll be at Anime Weekend Atlanta this week, dressed as a Witch! Feel free to approach and ask me why I'm such a pervert.

Surprise deadened the pain of the Hunter's attack. But Nick could feel the searing and slashing of the thing's claws, its heavy weight upon him, smell its rancid breath in his face. Though it knocked him backwards with enough force to jolt the air out of him, Nick wasn't in the habit of staying quiet when a zombie had hold of him.

So he screamed.

He saw Coach and Rochelle jump to their feet nearby, but their movement was immediately eclipsed by Ellis, who woke with a screech and tackled the Hunter, sending them both tumbling off Nick.

Nick scrabbled to his feet and lurched away from the mass of ripping nails and gnashing teeth that was Ellis and the stray Hunter, the familiar sting of pain now evident in his chest.

"Ellis!" Coach bellowed, gun aimed and hesitant, "goddamn it, move!"

The air churned with flying claws and angry shrieks. Blood rose in beautiful, violent arcs and splattered the wall, black against the night. The two were entangled in a vicious mass, and in the darkness, it was impossible for Coach to aim correctly.

Nick cursed, snatched up a revolver from its place on the counter, and darted back into the fray. The Hunter was on top of Ellis, its arms blurred from the movement. Nick grabbed the rogue Hunter by the back of its tattered hoodie and jerked it backwards. Before it even had time to scream, he set the barrel against its head and pulled the trigger.

The monster didn't make a noise as it died, letting the gunshot scream for it. Nick let the limp body drop and leaned heavily against the wall, his free arm wrapped around his now-aching torso. Ellis lay still underneath the heavy weight of the dead thing, his face peppered with its blood and brains and his eyes wide.

"Get up, boy," Coach mumbled and kicked the dead Hunter off of Ellis after recovering from his own shock, "c'mon, get on up."

"Nick," Rochelle scrambled for a flashlight. He squinted from its light as she turned it toward him, his eyes burning, "Nick, are you okay?"

"Oh yeah. I'm fine. I just got torn apart by a goddamn Hunter. How the hell did that thing get in here?"

"Good question," Rochelle said softly, and swept the flashlight across the expanse of the room. One of the windows was missing a couple of boards, which lay splintered on the floor below. The perfect size for a svelte and hungry Hunter to crawl through.

"Jesus," Nick growled to himself and sat down heavily.

Ellis sat, shakily, and crawled toward Nick, a dark smear of blood behind him. Together they sat, side by side, wounded.

"Coach," Rochelle said, "shine the flashlight on them. I'm gonna patch them up the best I can, then in the morning we can get a better look."

He did as he was told, and she set to applying antiseptic and bandages. Ellis hissed at her touch, but a sharp reprimand left him still and moody. Nick grumbled the whole time, but she bore his attitude with practiced patience.

"All right, boys. That should do you for now. Go to sleep...I'll keep an eye out for any more of 'em."

She stood with a tiny groan and made her way to the other side of the counter, gun tight in her hands.

Sentry duty, Nick thought. I thought we were done with that shit. Done with it. We were done with it in that goddamn camp. Soldiers could sentry and we could rest. Soldiers, they're the ones that actually sign up for this shit.

Nick looked to the side and saw Ellis staring at him. It was a little unnerving. Ellis eyes were wide and fevered from infection, and they glinted in the meager light like bone china. Nick wondered what he saw through those infected eyes, what Nick and Coach and Rochelle must look like to him. What the world looked like to him. Was it full of color, or gray tones, or was it all just a wash of angry red?

Nick lay back down, wincing, and motioned for Ellis to do the same. He did, slowly, and nuzzled close to Nick, his face pressed against Nick's bared chest. He growled, a deep grumble that trilled against Nick's skin. And then he was silent.

The morning light showed them what they were dealing with, as far as their wounds went. Not too bad, really. They'd certainly had worse. But it was never a welcome feeling, the gauze sticking to the exposed flesh, the stinging of every movement. The aches even as the wounds healed.

Ellis seemed to have stayed awake all night, despite Rochelle's sentry duty. His eyelids drooped and, as they sat on the floor eating a breakfast of cold tomato soup, he rested with his head against Nick's leg, a string of saliva hanging from his open mouth.

Rochelle had dark purple bags under her eyes, but otherwise seemed awake and eager to move. She packed their things with efficiency and shouldered open the door as they moved to head out.

There were no happy growls from Ellis as they moved through this town, no scampering up trees, no squirrel-catching. He prowled silently behind them, and Nick began to make it a habit to look over his shoulder to see how the boy was faring.

Ellis seemed tired. Ellis seemed worn down and scared and upset, but how could Nick really know? Once upon a time, Ellis had let them all know what he was feeling at any given moment. Now they'd never know again, not for sure.

He didn't look like himself. This could have been a different person entirely from the kid he'd met on that hotel roof. His cheekbones were visible under too-bright eyes, gleaming sickly behind a heavy fringe of uncut bangs. He needed another haircut, and a good shave to boot. His ribs showed through the bloody gashes of in his shirt, skin pale and bruised and running with black and blue veins. He was thin and unclean and Nick knew he'd be shot the minute a soldier set eyes on him.

"Ellis," he called back, beckoning with a hand. The boy cast tired eyes his way, "Ellis, c'mere."

Slowly, uncertainly, he sped up until he was crawling alongside Nick. He stumbled and bumped Nick's leg, and Nick just set a hand into Ellis' dirty hair and it seemed to make them both a little happier.

Ellis' condition, his silence, reminded Nick of an incident that had happened, long ago. A few days after they had first met.

They'd been inspecting a run-down old storehouse when Ellis had broken down a door and found himself staring right into the gaunt face of a Witch. Nick could remember it perfectly, Ellis poised above the broken boards, eyes wide and scared, and the Witch, her own orange eyes blazing. She screamed, and lunged, and Ellis was on his back in a flat second.

And the rest of them, Nick, Rochelle and Coach, had hesitated. Had almost watched this boy they didn't know being torn to death.

Maybe it had been because none of them knew each other too well. Maybe they were all just scared; Nick knew Rochelle was, her knees shook for hours afterwards. But they stood, and stared, and no one moved for precious long seconds.

Coach was the one who finally took up his ax in trembling hands and sliced the Witch's head clean off. It had flown in an arc and landed on a table with a sickly 'whump'. Ellis lay on the straw-covered floor, stark white and covered in blood and the tattered shreds of what had been a shirt. They had patched him up the best they could, and rested for a scant night, but they had to keep moving. They had to keep moving, and so they did.

Ellis hadn't spoken much down that stretch of road, Nick remembered. They were all sure he was going to die, sure that he wouldn't last another day. And even then, it had terrified them.

It was the most quiet Nick had had since he met the boy, and for some reason, he couldn't stand it.

"Where are we, redneck?"

"Hm?" Ellis looked at him, thumbing the bill of his cap. His face had been white but for a heavy brush of stubble and a magnificent slash across the bridge of his nose. The skin there was open, red and black. The bandages around his torso weren't holding well, and the bloody gauze draped like entrails over his coveralls.

"Where are we?" Nick repeated.

"Well, shit, Nick," Ellis sighed, using that favorite phrase of his. He looked wearily from one broken sign to the next, to the cornfields around them, to the burnt houses and dried-up ponds, "I reckon we're 'bout to step into Claxton. Ain't too far away from Vidalia."

"Vidalia?" Rochelle asked. Her voice, to Nick's tired ears, had seemed far away, "like the onions?"

"Yeah," Ellis nodded, but the motion seemed to make him sick; he grimaced and went tight-lipped for several long seconds before continuing on, "that's where them onions come from. Vidalia ain't nothin' but a little ole town, but I reckon it makes a killin' on them onions. Or used to, least."

They settled back into silence and the evening wore on, hot and humid. The road stretched between a grove of trees, their long branches dappling Appaloosa shadows on the asphalt. They all walked alone, unconsciously keeping their distance; at least until Ellis stumbled to the side and bumped Nick's shoulder.

"Personal space, hick," Nick grumbled.

"Sorry, Nick," there had been a tired smile on Ellis' young face.

"Just don't get too close" Nick said sourly, "why are you always hanging around me, anyway? Are you gay for me or something?"

Ellis laughed, and it sounded more like a wheeze. He gripped his side, where the bandages were loose.

"Shit, Nick, maybe I am. Maybe I am gay fer ya. Lord a'mighty."

"Oh yeah?" Nick asked, interest piqued, but not too terribly much. They were tired and hurt and probably slowly going insane. It felt like it. It felt like the sun above was a milky yellow zombie eye, watching and watching and swallowing them up and killing them slowly with the heat and infection. "So you wanna pound my ass, huh?"

"Aw, Nick," Ellis said through an honest laugh, "I'd be jus' find with you poundin' mine, if you wanted."

And, if Nick recalled correctly, he had felt the slightest twinge of pressure in his groin when Ellis had spoken those words.

Later, long after Vidalia, Ellis' wounds had healed. And even later after that, Nick had pounded Ellis' ass, with the boy groaning his name in that Southern drawl like some redneck mantra.

It seemed so very long ago.

They walked a long time. For hours, for days. Without Ellis' constant zombie-chatter, they were left in an uneasy silence. It made them focus too much on their thoughts, and sometimes Nick went so far into himself that he struggled to find his way back out.

Some days were harder and some easier. Some days they'd trek, hot and hungry, down endless expanses of asphalt, tired eyes downcast and bleary. Even Ellis' stamina couldn't hold out forever; he could only go so long before he dropped onto his stomach in the middle of the street, curling up defensively and refusing to move until he had rested. His wounds were stubborn and were healing far too slowly, and he snapped at their cautious touches.

Things like that reminded them all that Ellis wasn't a tireless animal. He was sick, infected with the worst plague humanity had ever seen.

So when he insisted on resting, they'd hunker down around him, sit on their bags and rest too. Except for one evening, when Ellis had decided to rest right in the middle of an ant bed; the sudden stings sent him howling up a tree, where he remained for hours on end, despite their switching between gentle coaxing and irate threats to cut the tree down.

They decided to take an exit into a small residential area; Nick, in all honesty, didn't know what to call it, really. It was mostly marsh and woods and creeks, with only a few trailers scattered here and there along a tree-sheltered road. The day was windy and cool, the trees swayed and the long grasses rustled. They took to walking along the bank of a lake, its rippling waters dark and unaware of the strife surrounding it.

"Jesus Christ," Nick moaned, "I am starving."

"I hear ya, Nick," Coach grumbled in response, "I'm so hungry, even that God-awful food CEDA made us eat would be welcome right about now."

"I wouldn't go that far," the gambler answered and Rochelle snorted in laughter. Nick looked back to see Ellis straying behind, nipping at a bunch of tall grasses growing at the side of the pond, "Overalls! Don't eat those, they could be poisonous!"

But Ellis just lifted his head and continued chewing, slowly, while looking at Nick, as if trying to provoke him.

"Goddamn it, El-" Nick began to storm up to Ellis but the boy dropped the weeds and darted away, too quick for Nick's tired body. With a roll of the eyes, Nick dropped to his knees to inspect the grass, to make sure it wasn't something poisonous. Not that he'd know, he admitted, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Something to show he still cared, that he had a little control over the boy's fate. Which, he admitted, was looking bleaker by the second.

"Bitter-root," Rochelle's voice came from above him. He looked up, from where she stood beneath the sunlight, "that's what that is. Remember? That time we were all so hungry and Ellis found it and said we could chew on it."

"Right...I called him a grass-eating redneck," Nick answered.

"And then you fainted from lack of food," she said. It could be been a joke, but something told Nick that it wasn't. She walked off and left him kneeling in the grass, with the memory of Ellis' voice echoing through his head.

"You gon' be okay, Nick? I told you, you can chew on this grass if you helps, I promise, it really does."

He clenched the long red stems in his fists and hung his head, because there was no way he could help Ellis like Ellis had tried to help him.

Their residence for the night was a library, a two-story building decorated with washed-out, blood-splattered murals and raised pedastals flanking the stairs. Lions carved out of granite sat on the pedastals, broken and useless. Nick made what he thought to be a brilliant remark about how useless a library would be in this little backwater town, but instead of laughs he just got heavy sighs and tired eye rolls.

"Well, I thought it was funny," he grumbled to himself as he made his way up the concrete stairs. As Coach finished prying the boards off the door, Ellis hopped up on one of the pedestals, gave a weary sigh, and sank to his belly beneath the lion's great stone gaze.

"Ellis, sweetie, get up," Rochelle coaxed, "We're going in here now."

The boy closed his eyes tightly, in what seemed to be a child's attempt at pretending to sleep. But it occurred to Nick that maybe it was more than just that. It could have been genuine pain. Ellis wasn't doing well.

"You guys go on ahead," Nick said, and he sat on the lowest step, his back leaning against the pedestal, "I'll stay out here until Ellis wants to go in. I have my gun," he lifted his firearm in demonstration. Rochelle didn't seem to be too happy with the situation.

"Nick-" she began, but Coach quickly interrupted her.

"Now baby girl, it makes sense. You and me, we can search the library, make sure there ain't no zombies. Nick and the boy can keep watch out here. We'll all hear each other if one of us yells."

"Okay...but I don't like it," she muttered and, shouldering her weapon, stepped through the door with Coach.

The stillness was a welcome change. Nick felt like he'd been walking forever, down a single road that had no end. But there'd have to be an end eventually, even if it was death. And, he thought with a painful tug on his heart, death would probably reach Ellis before it reached him.

"And we have to walk down this stupid road while making half-assed conversation. That's the worst part," he sighed, to no one in particular, "at least your conversations were full-assed. One-sided, but full-assed."

There was a moment of stillnes before Nick felt a light pressure on the top of his head, and glanced up. Ellis lay with his chin over the edge of the pedestal, his arm draped over the side, hand resting gently on Nick's head. He gazed at Nick with an expression that was unreadable; either from lack of emotion or from too much emotion entirely. Then the boy closed his eyes and sighed again, his hand gently brushing back Nick's hair. Nick felt the light scrape of the claws against his scalp, that controlled and gentle touch, and shut his eyes as well.

He leaned back, alone with Ellis and his own restless thoughts underneath the oranges and yellows of the dying sky.