Ellis awoke from what felt like a long nap– one of those ones where you had gotten up real early in the morning and worked hard, then laid down in the afternoon and accidentally slept a lot longer than you meant to, until well after dinner, and then because you were so well-rested and it was late it threw your whole body out of whack and you couldn't sleep for shit later no matter how bad you wanted to.

Yeah, it definitely felt like one of those as he came to.

Except it wasn't evening, it was morning and sunlight was streaming into the room… from the second story.

The hick pushed himself onto his elbows and glanced around blearily, taking in the rest of his surroundings.

He didn't recognize them. At all.

Ellis fidgeted uncomfortably. His shifting in bed received a snore from the man beside him.


Well now holy shit, how could he forget about Nick?

Ellis immediately raised a hand to rouse the sleeping man, then froze, noticing something else he hadn't expected to see. He frowned as he now studied the sleeping face.

He looked… older. The lines in his face, on his forehead, under his eyes, had all deepened, though gracefully. And the cheeks had sallowed ever so slightly, dipping at the cheekbones where they used to be more full. Hell, even his adam's apple looked like it projected a bit further from his neck and Ellis spotted a couple of short grey hairs sprouting from the top of his scalp.

...Why did he look older?

He stared and stared and stared.

Ellis wracked his brains and wrenched his eyes away to peer down at his hands. They looked just like they always did, calloused and roughened, skin thick on his palms, the cuticles battered, a little dirt under the nails that needed a bit of a trim.

Why did that seem odd?

He leaned over and snatched his hat off the bedstand, fitting it to his head. He gave another frown and pulled it off, fitting it a second time, then a third and a fourth, testing the motion. That felt bizarre too. Shit, why would that feel weird? He did that every goddamn day. He drew his legs up towards his chest, rubbing his arms with concern, eyeing the man beside him once more. Maybe… maybe Nick could tell him what was going on, or rather, what had happened. If Nick knew. He glanced back over to the bedstand.

His eyes fell upon the shock collar.

And it all rushed back.

Months and months… no, years and years… of a different, far-away life. So murky and dim in his mind that it felt like it must have only been a bad dream.

Ellis gave a choke; his fingers finding his own neck, wringing at it. Was he himself again? Was he… not infected? He leapt from the bed and ran for the bathroom, nearly tripping on his awkwardly small feet. He pressed himself to the counter, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

He was. No yellow eyes stared back at him; brown ones did. He stared into those eyes, those eyes that seemed so familiar, yet not, because the last time he had looked into them was back when he was losing himself, and it had been the most frightening moment of his whole life. The brown pools began to tear.

"…El?" Nick's voice sounded from the bedroom, having been woken in his dash. Ellis didn't respond, unable to draw himself away from his doppelganger. The conman appeared behind him in the mirror, green eyes meet brown in stunned disbelief. Ellis swiveled around to face him in the doorway.

Nick stared at him.


The hick trembled in his presence. Trembled and waited for acceptance.

He didn't know why he had any reason to fear Nick might reject him. He had wanted this just as much as he did, to be 'normal' again.

But maybe it was those long years… those years that had changed them both.

The better part of their relationship he had been infected.

Did that make being infected... 'normal'?

Uncertainty crushed him as green searched his form.

The eyebrows tugged downward and a smile spread across the worn face; he opened his arms wide and Ellis pressed himself into them with a hiccup of thankfulness, stemming back tears. They rocked together for a long time before Nick pulled him away to study his face some more, with both eyes and fingertips. Ellis waited in suspense for his words. Finger and thumb rose up to tip his chin up.

"About goddamn time," the man grinned.

Ellis laughed for expecting anything other than his old crass demeanor. He shook his head with chagrin. "M'sorry tuh keep yew waitin' so long, Nick."

The green eyes flashed, the strong arms pulled him crushingly close.

He kissed him, long and deep, eyes open.

Seconds elapsed, followed by minutes and Ellis forgot everything but those lips. It felt like he was standing under a waterfall, a massive torrential waterfall that was Nick, like a thousand days of accumulated hope and desire flowing over him and into him. He opened himself to it, let it overtake him, basked in the downpour of passionate gratitude until he nearly drowned.

The hick drew back, his body quivering as his voice took on a note of sincerity. "You know I kin never repay you… for all you've done for me…" he whispered, head sunk low.

Nick traced a hand over his cheek and Ellis lifted his eyes at its touch. "You already did, El," he murmured, "the day you let me into your life."

He cried then, because he simply couldn't hold it back, the words so raw and heartfelt it left him helpless to any other emotion than thankfulness– thankfulness that he could be loved by someone so much, that in spite of everything he had preserved, that he had brought him back; he sobbed against the larger man's frame as hands soothed and caressed his back.

That day actually changed very little between them.

Life just resumed. That was all.

Society did eventually change and reform to an approximation of the original. Once the colonies were well under way and satisfactorily established, government restrictions lifted and laxed, and people began to take up residences elsewhere, spreading the population. Their first neighbors were a couple who settled a few blocks down the street with a few children. Their food arrived by truck, shipped to them, twice a week in small packages as had been done in the bigger settlements. For a long time they remained un-introduced, until the mother brought over a cliche freshly-baked apple pie. That had really tickled Ellis, a graciousness he hadn't seen from humanity in a very long time. When the couple found out that he and Nick were still raiding from a grocery store after all those years, they offered to help get on the list to get deliveries and they were both happy to accept. Some of the food that got sent to them was even fresh– fruit, vegetables, starches and grains. Nick enthusiastically tried out new recipes earmarked in his re-growing collection of cookbooks.

And others joined them slowly and the town grew and swell. Neither of them minded the company, but they never went out of their way to interact with their 'fellow citizens' either, neglecting gatherings and the frequent baby showers and various house warmings they were sometimes hospitably invited to. So long being apart from humanity left them socially awkward and uncouth; Ellis knew Nick had never been the type to socialize pre-infection, other than to make a couple bucks, so the trend just continued; and he never really saw himself as going back to the way he had been either– lots of friends, some more close than others, late night antics, a party or two, maybe some bar-hopping. Maturity had mellowed him. Instead he stayed home and tinkered with his cars, content to be alone with the machines and Nick.

No one asked them about their story. If anything they became something of legend, simply because they had always been there in the little town from the very start and no one could imagine it any other way, without them living in the house at the end of the street. More than once Ellis caught children in the tire swing in the front yard, but he never chased them off, instead just watching from the bumper of whatever fixer-upper currently sat in the drive. On the outside it probably seemed obvious– two men living together in a rapidly re-populating world– but that was a gross oversimplification, and Ellis wondered from time to time what it would have been like if just that had been the case, if he had never been infected. They had been living on the outskirts anyhow, rejected, but would things have gone differently… between him and Nick?

It was one of life's little mysteries, he supposed. Though he wasn't unhappy. He had lost a little time with Nick, those thick ugly months of mindless churning and uncontrollable rage, but he remembered a good number of things very distinctly– particularly, everything after his first turning day was clear in his mind, lucid and accessible to his memory. Others were more difficult to recall… he caught snatches of walks through a park, of evenings on the couch being read to while he lay in Nick's warm lap, of love they made… now almost embarrassing in its heightened fervor and stark animalistic need… of trips to the grocery store and meals from a can, but nothing concrete and solid. But some memories he recalled so very faintly… it frightened him to this day– memories of pouncing, of eating flesh from bone, of hissing and screaming, of zapping… of curling up against a hard floor and willing himself to sleep against the pain.

He still couldn't believe what Nick had gone through. Even after all this time. He didn't think he could have done the same for him, and it tore him up no matter how many times Nick reminded him that it hadn't been the case, that it didn't matter because it was just a 'what-if' scenario that never existed and never would.

Maybe he would've been able to deal with it. He didn't know.

But it had changed Nick. Remembering him from before and returning rather suddenly almost three years later threw it into stark contrast. They used to squabble and bicker and get on one another's nerves all the time. Which wasn't to say they weren't in love back then, they were, like mad were they in love. But it was a love of passion, wild and hungry between them, never satiable in its capacity to overwhelm them. The old Nick had been stripped away by those years of care-taking, leaving a patient, reserved man, whose interests were only to please his lover, rather than himself.

It had been a little shocking to come back to, to say the least, but what it sparked was a renewal between them, and Ellis could truly say he had never loved Nick more.

Weirdly, they kept celebrating his "turning day", but his "unturning day" didn't really roll off the tongue and they didn't bother with it.

Besides, it wasn't really all that important. In his five years of being 'normal' again, of possessing untainted skin and stubbed, rounded fingers and toes, he came to realize the only thing that really mattered was the man who never gave up on him, even in his darkest hours.

"What'cha doin', El?" the gentle voice asked from the bedroom doorframe.

Ellis bowed his head, a smile playing about his lips. "Remembering," he spoke softly. He set the small shock collar back down upon the bedstand and faced his lover with a turn.