December 22nd


The atmosphere in the worn-down inner city bar was dark, grimy, though not fully unpleasant. It was small enough, the light from the three small fireplaces glinting off the scrubby tabletops and the smell of smoke both warming and inducing a sick feeling in the drinkers all at once. It wasn't exactly the place people went to to socialize around the holiday season, and neither was it the venue that lonely people took to to wallow in their misery. For this reason, the place was typically rather empty.

The bloodstains on the walls had been dealt with easily via a fresh coat of grubby-grey paint, and were rarely thought about these days. However, the messages scribbled across the walls of alleys had been left untouched; arguements of 'art or vandalism' aside, these were something different, almost sacred.

Three years had passed.

December 22nd. None of them could remember precisely why it had been that day that they'd chosen, or when or why they'd chosen a day at all in the first place. Surely it didn't matter. Surely those few hellish months could be left behind, and life could move on as it always had?

A bell tingled somewhere near the bartop as the heavy door opened and a whirlwind of snow entered alongside the woman. Tiny flakes melted into her pulled back dreadlocks while her small hands clasped her scarf more firmly in place along her dark neck. She glanced around once, and immediately moved towards the back of the bar.

Rochelle had always been the punctual one, even way back when.

The woman in her early thirtes sat down and began to finish up some last-minute work in the poorly lit room. The fact that she was uncomfortable being alone was clear; her legs were crossed and lips pursed in a terse manner, daring someone to give her trouble. So, predictably, when a shadow was cast across her writings, her look upwards was defensive.

Coach smiled. 'S'good to see you, little sister.'

She gave a short little laugh, and stood to allow herself to be enveloped in a tight bear hug. Rochelle smirked slightly; every year, her thoughts were the same. He hadn't changed. Not a bit.

'Thanks for the birthday card, Coach.'

The older man chuckled. 'Least I could do, seein' as I couldn't get round for a visit. How you been?'

Rochelle shrugged as they took a seat in the redwood booth again. 'Same old, I guess. Work's been goin' good... quiet. And I ran into Louis a couple of weeks back. Remember him?'

'You serious? 'Course I do, girl.'

'Quit his job. He's doin' some kind of charity work, now. Still has a limp from that time on the bridge; said cos it didn't get treatment right away it sort of exacerbated. Anyway- seemed happy, you know? Told me Zoey just finished college so she's backpacking some place. Neither o' them have seen Francis around, though...' she trailed off with a tight, humorless smile.

They were on their second drink by the time Ellis showed up in a flurry of icy air and apologies.

'The goddamn car broke down!' he announced flippantly once he'd practically thrown himself off the table in order to throw his arms around the two of them. 'I mean- ya just don' get snow like this is Savannah, so the engine just shits 'erself on me. Good thing Keith was drivin' me, else there's no damn way we'd 'a gotten halfway. No sir-ee.'

'Keith's here?' Rochelle asked, more out of bemused interest than much else.

'Naw, man,' Ellis answered. ''E was gonna be, only on the way in we saw this snow-clearin' thing. Like I was sayin', ain't never seen real snow like this afore, so I think he was gonna have words with the guy drivin' the thing and ask if he could borrow it for a while.'

Coach and Rochelle exchanged a look.

Ellis blinked. 'What?'

'Nothin', sweetie.'

Third drink, and things had quietened down. Just a little. Small snippets of conversation came and went, old memories and dark jokes exchanged. Finally, Ellis went out and said it. It was always Ellis to bring it up; just like the year before, and the one before that, face solemn and voice quiet.

'If...' he stopped, revising the question for a moment. 'Ya'll think he woulda come t'night?'

Rochelle's fingers tightened around the base of her glass momentarily, and she licked her lips. Beside her, Coach breathed out. Eventually she glanced up at the young man. That unhappy smile on her face, that contradicting expression, had returned. A lie in and of itself.

'Well, I don't know, honey. Not that kind of guy, I think... but I don't mean nothin' by it. You know.'

Ellis placed his beer down and nodded, habitually tracing a thin, pale scar that ran jaggedly from his thumb's second joint to his wrist. The corner of his lips twisted in thought, and his eyes were far away.

'Yeah. I getcha.'


Rochelle gave an almighty grunt as she threw her full weight against the armored door of the safe room. The thing slid shut- too slow, always too slow- and made an ugly sound as something outside forced an arm through the crack at the last minute.

The noise out there was deafening.

'Little help here, guys?' she snapped, shoving against the metal more firmly. Coach hurried forward, placing a pair of sturdy arms above her own.

A Boomer gagged and something warm splattered, catching her on the forearm through the small opening.

'Like, NOW?'

Bang.

Another spout of liquid was let loose as the infected person's arm slid away with a wet sound. They didn't hesitate- finally. Silence, but for the dry coughs, and bliss. for for the rancid smell and stinging injuries.

Rochelle threw her gun away from her and let her legs fold like a beach chair, finding herself hugging her knees against the rough wall. 'Oh, God,' she muttered, hanging her head and squeezing her eyes tightly shut.

'Well, doesn't... that just beat all.' Nick said with a sardonic smirk, lowering the pistol that had severed the limb. His other hand moved away from his side and smirked weakly at the sight of the blood that covered his palm like paint. 'One... of those bastards... actually managed to get me.'

'How bad?'

Ellis. Of course it was only Ellis who could ask that when the con-man was gritting his teeth in pain and his suit was becoming more stained by the second. Then again, the younger man did look liable to have a mild concussion.

'Med packs?' Rochelle chocked out, trying to scrap her arm free of the Boomer's pulpy vomit.

'Over here.' Coach tossed one in her direction; she didn't try to catch it but instead moved awkwardly to her knees, jerking her head in Nick's direction.

'C'mon, Nick. Get.'

He leaned further back on the wall, using most of his energy to raise a single eyebrow. 'Yeah, how 'bout no. I'm fine.'

'Nick.'

'Look, Ro, are you a doctor? Didn't think so. Unless you're a doctor like Dr Pepper's a doctor, which might actually be of better use.'

'Nick,' Rochelle sighed. 'I am covered in puke. I am exhausted. I am in pain. And I am pissed. So you're gonna get your ass over here and you are going to let me heal you.'

Appearing at first to consider biting back, he seemed to think better of it. He swore and stumbled towards her, taking a seat beside her and closing his eyes in exhaustion.

They worked in silence- Rochelle disinfecting and binding the mess that was Nick's wound as best she could, and Coach trying to get Ellis to stay awake. The boy was a little worse for wear, slurring vague complaints of a tingling feeling.

Nick hissed as she pressed the rag to his abdomen, shirt pushed aside. 'Shit.'

'How the hell did it get you with it's teeth?' she asked distastefully.

'I was sort of spending more time shooting than wondering about that, truth be told.' He twitched in pain once, raising a ringed hand to push his sweaty hair out of his forehead. 'We gonna rest up here before we move out?'

'Prob'ly a good idea,' Coach replied. 'Boy ain't in no shape to go back out there right now; and don't get me me startin' on you, Nick.'

'I've had worse.' They all knew that was a lie.

Coach merely shrugged, allowing Ellis to finally lie back. The mechanic mumbled something beneath his breath, eyes closing immediately. The eldest of the men turned back to the other two.

'Ya'll want me to take first watch?'

ooo

Sleep came and went like a sun-shower; before Rochelle had been awoken by the very faint whimpers- whimpers- Nick had begun to emit in his sleep. The reporter groped tiredly through the darkness, her hand finding his wrist...

... and let go again without a second thought.

He was burning up.

She cursed beneath her breath and twisted around in her sitting position, reaching for a nearby rucksack and delving for a flashlight in the front pocket. She switched it on, blinking against the beam, and inched closer to where the con man and Ellis lay, intent on checking up on them. Through next door's thin wall she heard Coach squeeze the trigger four, five, six times and wondered how she'd managed to sleep through that in the first place.

The light found Nick's face.

This was when he half-opened his slate-coloured eyes and cried out. Not a cry of fear, nor one of shock, or surprise, or even just one to scare her for the kicks. Nick was in pain- in pain from the brightness.

'Holy shit turn it off, turn it OFF-'

'What the hell is-'

'OFF.'

Ellis stirred in his sleep at the commotion and Rochelle dropped the device promptly as Nick grabbed her arm with a weak, damp hand. The flashlight clattered to the floor with a clunk, rolling away beneath an ammo-stacked table and once more drenching them in black.

There was a short moment during which they were silent. Rochelle wrenched her arm from his clasp, confused.

'... Nick?'

His voice was strained, still in agony. 'What?'

'What was the light-'

'Ro. Listen to me very carefully.' And just like that, five words managed to make her blood freeze on the spot in her veins. Because, somewhere dark and sick inside her, somewhere she hated, she already knew what he would say next.

'Remember... remember we all said we'd been bitten before? Immune as shit and all that jazz?'

She didn't respond. Merely held still and waited.

'I was lying through my fucking teeth.'

He probably said something next, but she didn't hear it. Because the world was softly shattering, breaking up into smaller and stupider pieces than it already was. They were meant to do this together. All four of them. A team.

The four riders of the goddamn apocalypse.

'Jesus, Nick,' she hissed, her voice low and angry and broken.

He didn't offer a sarcastic comment. No sharp joke said in bad taste. Instead he asked her another question.

'Know what I'm asking you to do, sweetheart?'

Her head was starting to throb.

'I ain't gonna...'

'Well you'll have to. Soon. That's all there is too it.' And then, softer- 'Don't tell the kid.'

'Stop it,' Rochelle snapped. She'd had enough. 'Ain't no need to tell him, cos we're gonna get to one o' the militarized zones, and we're gonna get you the cure, and you're still gonna bitch and moan about it. That's how it's gonna happen, okay? Nick?'

Instead of responding, Nick passed out, slumping beside her with a strange little half-gag.I t would have been almost comical if it'd been something from a movie or TV show, half a world away from now. Her mind wasn't working straight, and she clamped her eyes shut as though to keep the unfairness of it all out and far away.

Close by, someone sniffled, and her stomach dropped.

'Ro, what's goin' on?'

ooo

The stale heat swarmed around them, pouring in their noses and flooding their chests, but Ellis's hand still felt rough and cool beneath Rochelle's own.

'Ain't no way outta it, then,' Coach said gravely. 'You heard what he said, girl.'

She had. Clear as unwelcome day.

'We can't,' Ellis mumbled. 'I don' wanna let 'im die... I ain't gonna. I won't let ya.' His brows knitted together once and he brought in a deep, juddery breath. 'Nick's my buddy...'

'Soon he ain't gonna be Nick,' reminded Coach grimly. Ellis's fingers trembled involuntarily, and when Rochelle squeezed them tightly- more to stop the movement than anything, the distraction, the humanness of the motion- they still didn't stop.

'He won't wake up,' Rochelle said blankly.

'S'at mean somethin's goin' on?'

'I don't know.'

Really. She didn't.

ooo

Tap.

The three survivors flinched at the knock that sounded from the other side of the wooden door; they were sitting together in a stony silence, unmoving, and watching the occasional infected mess amble by through the steel grating.

Another tap, followed by his voice, hoarse and strained. 'You three out there or not?'

'Yeah,' Ellis said immediately, leaning toward the door. 'Yeah, we ain't going nowhere.'

Nick paused and gave a grunt of apparent discomfort low in his throat. 'I'd have thought you had the sense to get the hell out of here by now. This... I'm not gonna be around much longer.'

'Nick, you can't-' Ellis started, expression distressed. His heart was breaking. They could practically hear it. That was why Coach cut him off.

'We're stayin' til the end, boy. Not gonna leave you alone.'

A dark chuckle. 'You d-don't think I'm used to b-being alone, big fella?'

No one said a word.

There was a tinny thump as the suited man lowered himself to the floor on the other side of the panel, casting a slight shadow beneath that trembled when he hacked dry cough out. This led to another, and it took almost a minute for the little fit to subside before Nick gave an irate sigh. 'You three are stubborn as shit, you know that?'

Rochelle nodded, though he couldn't see her.

'Thanks,' Nick muttered eventually, only a little reluctant. 'But... I changed m-my mind. I'm tellin' you- none of you come in here. Don't open this door. Y-you hear that?'

'Yeah,' Coach confirmed. 'How you feelin', son?'

'Like... l-like shit, obviou-'

There was a heaving noise and a splat. A familiar sour smell met their senses, and Nick had stopped speaking. Something moaned, a half-formed sentence lost in the utterance.

'Nick?' Ellis pulled forward, closer to the door. 'Nick, man, you okay?'

'Don't-' Cough. 'y-you dare touch that doo-'

The rest of the word streamed off into something loud and ugly. Nick gasped and without warning, let out a howl of agony mingled with various swears. He was gibbering, now; senseless words seeping into his voice as he collided roughly with the door before him. The surface trembled, and Rochelle found herself tightening her grip on her Uzi.

The exclamations didn't stop there. It seemed to go on and on, and the three immunes stood rigidly as children waiting for a thunderstorm to pass.

Nick went crashing into the door again, and there was a sickening crack as something was bent at a funny angle.

Instinctively, Rochelle grabbed Ellis and pulled him close to her. She couldn't listen to this, to what was happening. She wanted to be dead rather than hear it. The young man's tears ran steadily down her neck, dampening the front of her shirt.

Don't. Don't listen.

Ellis was speaking.

Crash.

'-can't jus'-'

Bellow.

'-have ter-'

No-oh-God-stop-no-no-no-just-please-let-it-stop.

The mechanic had broken away.

Coach's roar of warning.

The open door.

Nick had been waiting, but perhaps had given up hope at this stage. This was the reason, reckoned much later, that the infected in the once-snowy suit seemed to pause for the briefest of seconds. His nose seemed to be shattered, perhaps from diving into the metal, and fresh blood was pouring down his clothing like a rosy waterfall. And his eyes... his eyes.

He lunged with a shriek, a battle cry- not a battle cry, no, not at them, not at his team- and stumbled backwards immediately as a spray of dark blood shot from his chest. There was a second bang, and his time he toppled over without a sound back into the saferoom.

Ellis gave a strangled cry of loss as Coach threw the gun he had snatched from Rochelle away from him in disgust. For her part, Rochelle looked away.

The sun glinted on the grating.


They didn't stay much longer than they felt the need to, pausing to exchange tight hugs that expressed more than any mere words really could. These hugs hid worlds; of pain, of relief, of friendship. And then they broke apart, and it was over.

After all, Rochelle mentally reasoned, they had their own lives to live. Lives they had saved for each other, and what better way to thank one another than to live them. And so it came down to that. Yeah. That's what it came down to.

Two or three hours. Once a year.

December twenty-goddamn-second.

Damnit, Nick.


A/N: A dark little oneshot about Nick becoming infected, as suggested by Zipper Whippersnapper. (: Rather interesting to write, really. Hope ya'll like it, because although I'm happy with it on most levels, I'm still a little eh about it. All comments are welcome.

Also, be sure to check out Zipper's rather awesome L4D OC story, The Way- I promise, it's probably the best OC story you'll find in this section!

Thanks, guys.