A/N: In some ways I suppose you could consider this my first 'Nellis' writing, though I'd still like to let you interpret this however you want to. Nellis, not Nellis, bromance, friendship, ect. Up to you, really. I've have this idea swimming around in my head for awhile, and it was something I kept putting off and didn't want to write because I wanted to, for once, focus on writing something that didn't end badly for Ellis or injury him in some way. All the same, I think I kind of like how this came out, even if there are certain parts of it that I feel could have gone much better. But yes, there is quite obvious character death; you've been warned. But hey, thoughts, opinions, that sort of thing-go for it. I don't bite. (:
The Sound of Heaven Pulling Down
There are five stages to grief. Nick appreciated none of them.
"Didn' really give much thought ta dyin',"
His drawl was thicker, his words loosely stringed together as his attempts to voice his thoughts were thwarted by the fact that his lips wouldn't move the way he wanted them to.
Nick had ceased telling him to stop talking about death some time ago. Instead, he sat mutely with the boy's head in his lap and simply waited. The absence of Keith stories and constant prattling on about something or other was almost as unnerving as the inevitable.
He couldn't bring himself to lie to the boy, and for him it was actually physically painful to remember the last thing he'd said to him, the last scathing look he sent in his direction and the way he flinched away, murmuring apologies and avoiding eye contact like the plague. His ears were on fire and his eyes were burning, inching away from the words that bit at him and gnawed away the hope he'd been clinging to ever since he'd gone to hell. All before his body had become a gory memory of what it had once been.
He had cursed him and damned him, taking everything he held dear and throwing it to ground, letting it shatter and spitting at the remains.
Nick had broken Ellis. He had taken him and broken him, leaving him in a state of disrepair that he'd never once thought he'd feel guilty for.
Nick had never meant any of it, and they know it.
He was afraid Ellis didn't.
Ellis was their proverbial bait and death had rained down upon them and carried him away, tearing him out of Nick's grasp to sink its teeth into his chest.
At the time he'd had half a mind to throw his hands over his ears, if only to block out the screams and yowls echoing over the din of the horde, catching Rochelle's pitiful, fleeting glance out of the corner of his eye while a chainsaw revved angrily beside her, flecking his back with bits of flesh and sinew.
Ellis had screamed—oh god did he scream—for help or death none of them were sure, but then they had reached a whole new feverish pitch, fear mixing with agony and Nick could almost feel claws digging into his own flesh. He could remember cursing up a storm then, swinging his axe with enough force to decapitate one zombie and embed itself in the junction of the shoulder and neck of another.
The kid had been shrieking and begging and dying and pleading and then suddenly there had been nothing.
The silence was worse than the screams.
Nick had pounded in the face of the Hunter until his knuckles hit linoleum.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Ellis shifted oh so subtly in Nick's lap and successfully became the center of his attention again. A glance downward rewarded him with two wide, watery blue eyes studying him as if waiting to be reprimanded again. They maintained eye contact for another few moments; one regarded him carefully in silence, save for the labored breathing of the other.
There were a few of his own unsteady heartbeats before the realization finally struck Nick.
Ellis was asking to be forgiven.
Had it not been for their exceedingly close proximity, the elder man would have retched then, repulsed by himself and the notion that the young mechanic whose head he was cradling was going to slip away thinking he hated him.
Nick had everything he wanted to say but no words to say them.
"Ellis. . ."
Something flickered across the mechanic's feature before the miserable mask of pain evolved into one of blatant curiosity as his lips trembled. Nicholas found himself dreading the questions he already knew were coming.
If anything, the blues were just a bit wetter. "Hey, Nick?"
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
The man didn't reply for a long moment, having looked away out of regret and still unable to admit that he would have to soon part ways with the boy he was still trying to hold together before he went to pieces. The latter blinked slowly through the pooling tears, watching as the visage of the man above him swam in and out of focus.
"Yeah, kid?" His voice was the sound of sandpaper rustling against itself and for the life of him, Ellis could found nothing more reassuring than that sound right then.
A faded pink tongue darted out between dry lips and he struggled with the words to the question seeking answers he so desperately needed but didn't want.
"What's it like. . . " He paused and tilted his head away, glancing down at his body sprawled limp below him in a pool of his own blood, gaze roving around the expanse of the last room he'd see before he slowly returned it to Nick, gauging the reaction he was expecting to receive and simply in need of conversation. Even the simplest droning of noises in the same tone as the gambler's voice was preferable to dying to the tune of the endless death march just outside the doors.
". . .dyin'?"
Nick didn't respond immediately. Ellis didn't expect him to.
He fought with himself for something that would warrant a decent, meaningful response. He wanted to lie, wanted to tell the kid that it wasn't so bad, that it was easy, peaceful. He wanted to lie and tell Ellis that it was little more than falling asleep and that all he had to do was quietly let it happen and that would be that.
Nick could not tell Ellis that death was painless.
All the king's horses and all the king's men,
". . .I don't know."
For a brief moment, fear and anger clashed in the young man's irises at the brutal, painful honesty he was given. He turned away and bitterly gnawed at his lower lip and tried to ignore the dull throb of his entire body, it being the same body that Rochelle had turned away from in tears because there was only so much they could do with a nearly empty bottle of pain pills and band-aids at the absence of skin and remnants of what had once been a decently toned chest.
Ellis had jokingly asked what his intestines looked like before his head had lolled back in miserable whimpers.
At least he wasn't coughing up as much blood as he had been before.
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
Nick had tried. Oh Nick had tried and pleaded to whatever deity that had not yet failed to listen as he'd choked back his own sobs while he'd attempted to stitch back together the man he'd cursed.
Cheap gauze did not make for miracles and prayers them surgeons.
Despite the pain and inability to do anything about it except for forcibly endure, Ellis hummed thoughtlessly to himself in a daze, mind partly fogged over from blood loss and as a general attempt by his personality to deal with the situation. Once upon a time mindless humor had made everything better, but right then he just wanted someone to hold him and lie to him, telling him everything would be all right.
Rochelle was in the next room vomiting and sobbing and Coach was too busy keeping her from asphyxiating to provide much aid otherwise. All Nick could do was prop Ellis up and sit with him until the end finally came.
Guilt mixed with nausea.
Ellis closed his eyes and his body trembled weakly as he cried, turning his head to bury his face in Nick's shirtfront. The ever-present cap had been knocked to the ground in a bloodied mess, leaving room for lanky, ringed fingers to slip through knots of sweaty curls as the young man in his lap wordlessly pleaded.
"I-I don' wanna die, Nick. . ." he stuttered into the stained blue cotton, having reached up one hand to clutch at what had once been a white suit jacket. His other shook as he forced it to his own chest, crumpling the obscure logo in trembling fingers. "I. . .I don' wanna die. . ."
He openly sobbed when the conman held him all that much closer, muttering something he couldn't understand and petting down his hair in an attempt to soothe him as one might approach a skittish horse.
"Nick, please. . . Please, I don't wanna. . ."
His words were muffled but carried the same weight as Ellis spoke into Nick's lower chest, half delirious from the way his entire body just ached.
There was silence and absolutely no exchange between them more so than the young man's cries and the gentle shushes as the elder found himself unable to lie. There was no telling Ellis that it would be okay, no telling him that he'd just pop a few pills and be right as rain in the morning—'Dr. Nick' could fix some things, but he was no miracle worker. Ellis was already too far gone to be saved and he was quickly growing to realize that.
Eventually the sobs subsided into hiccups and the Southerner was left sniffling into the shirt he'd tried to bury himself within in hopes of finding solace and reassurance. All he'd received with the gentle words of nothing and fingers running through his hair and down his face in attempts to alleviate his troubles.
Perhaps in some ways those were almost comforting enough.
In truth, he only pulled away from the embrace because he felt horrible for staining Nick's once prized clothing even further. He let out a weak chuckle, lips still quivering as his head was settled back against long legs, a small, pathetic smile peeking through the tears and he gifted the man looming over him with the most apologetic look he could muster.
"S-Sorry," He murmured, hand loosening its grip on the jacket only marginally as he ran the back of his arm across his nose as best he could. "G-got snot on yer, yer shirt."
Nick almost wanted to laugh.
"I think I've had worse, sport."
Both men chuckled weakly and chanced a look at the angry patchwork of gauze and false hope; the elder chewed viciously at his lip at the dismal expression of his young comrade. Ellis sighed dejectedly, leaning his head back into Nick's palm and engaged the ceiling in a staring contest he was already losing. To both their surprise, the sleeve on the arm that wasn't cradling Ellis brushed along the side of his face, clearing away the nasty mixture of blood and mucus as best it could.
The Georgian sniffed.
"It. . .it hurts," His voice was pitiful and it made Nick's chest pang. His expression furthered morphed into the drawn, anxious look that Ellis had never liked on him, and the addition of guilt and raw misery failed to help matters any. His heart pounded just below one of the deeper gashes carving holes in his chest.
Not for the first time in his life, Nick had no idea what to do. He'd always, always been quick on his feet, especially when the time called for it and he needed to make a hasty retreat when one of his marks realized they'd been swindled out of their money and he'd wanted to keep his head firmly on his shoulders and his heart in his chest. That had all been a lifetime ago and before he'd gotten mixed up with Ellis and fallen much too far and hard. Had they been sitting in the position they were in now weeks ago he would have dumped the body and thought nothing of it, but now he was in too deep to even consider giving up on the kid.
But had Ellis given up on him?
What had he swindled Ellis out of? Everything. He taken his hopes, ideals, everything he had and destroyed it, replacing it whatever sticky bits of inky darkness and cynicism he felt best suited the situation. Ellis hadn't taken too kindly to any of it, but he'd taken the man in stride none the less and replied with a few of his own hot remarks.
Ellis, no one cares. Ellis, is now the best time? You know what I like best about your stories, Ellis? Nothing. Hey Ellis, shut up contest! Ready? One, two, three, go! I hate you, Ellis. Well I still like you, Nick.
I hate you, Ellis.
Well I still like you, Nick.
"Nick, I'm scared." The statement was more of a gentle whisper than anything, and Nick could feel his brow pucker at the utter fear in Ellis' eyes. Tears carved their way through dirt and grime in tiny rivulets across the checks that had once been stretched into grins and laughter at the memory of some asinine adventure lost in his thoughts or stunt that Keith had pulled only for it to end badly.
Nick didn't want to care—he tried to tell himself that this all would have been oh so much easier if he just gave up and said good riddance, but he couldn't bring himself to disown the only person he'd grown to truly care about in at the end of the world. Granted, there was indeed some feeling aimed at Rochelle and Coach, but there was something about Ellis that had ended up taking priority and he hated himself for it.
The conman did not smile. Those grins were saved for the special occasions that he couldn't recall and the rare moments when he thought no one was looking.
But he tried to, for Ellis.
". . . I know," He kept his voice gentle and level, working to calm Ellis during the last few death throes as both worked to convince themselves of a reality that didn't exist. The boy was quiet as they both waited for Nick to continue speaking, making it so clear that he had more to say but wasn't overly sure how. He dragged his fingers through the curls he'd rarely seen and the dying man closed his eyes at the sensation. "I'll stay right here, Ellis."
A mournful whimper was the response.
This dying man slumped on the bloodied ground was hardly twenty-three years-old god damn it all and in their eyes still only a child. His mannerisms and personality highlighted his immaturity in their few moments of downtime before they were back out in the thick of it, and Nick had watched as something in the kid harden over the past few weeks; his cheers every time he pulled a trigger or swung a bat had lessened until they were nearly non-existent and he'd gone from that damn cheerful bundle of joy to a young man unsure of what to make of the world he was trapped in and ruined because of it.
Ellis had finally become aware of his mortality and he was paying the price because of it.
Ellis was meant to live his life to some exceedingly old age and die surrounded by family and loved ones, not in the middle of nowhere held by a conman he'd grown too attached to.
Lying had been something he'd been meaning to avoid but Nick found that he couldn't help it—whether or not he knew it, Ellis needed it.
"It'll. . .It'll be okay." Nick bent his own heavy head just enough to murmur against the slick skin of his friend's weary forehead and Ellis kept his lids shut at the gentle puffs of air just above his eyebrows. Audibly, the cynical green-eyed man swallowed and his tongue darted out to lick his own cracked lips and he could practically feel Ellis' erratic heartbeat pound in time with his own unsteady one. ". . .I promise."
The Savannahite's chuckle was dry and broken; Nick pulled away just enough to make eye contact with the trembling, dying mess in his arms and the boy's chin twitched as he attempted a feeble smile meant solely for the man holding him.
"Don't make promises you can't keep."
Nick's laugh was less of a bark and more water than anything.
Without much thought about it, the taller, older man reached up with the hand he'd been dabbing at Ellis' face with to wrap his fingers around the calloused one tugging at his jacket with a death grip. The hick said nothing, seemingly appreciative of the muted display of comfort and affection from the rather stoic man propping his mangled body up off of the unforgiving cement ground beneath them.
Gauze and bandages stretched and ruffled with each breath he took, and he shivered once as he released the hold he had on his own T-shirt to reach up toward Nick as best he could.
There was a certain look in his eyes as his hand came to rest on a slumped shoulder, and it was then that the gambler wanted to laugh in an almost spiteful manner and Ellis reversed their roles, trying to placate the man that wasn't sure what to think of anything anymore.
"If I had to. . . to be stuck with any one durin' th' 'pocalypse. . . 'm glad it was you." Nick's grin at his words was broken, but Ellis accepted it regardless.
He shook his head slowly, incredulously. "God damn you, kid."
"I think He already did." There was a not so subtle roll of the eyes from the boy before he promptly coughed.
Nick's grip on him shifted as he tried to find him a more comfortable position to spend the remainder of his life in. He whined softly as fresh blood stemmed from the wounds across his torso and the gambler immediately regretted the movement.
Ellis didn't. It brought him closer to Nick.
In order to apologize for his own reasons, Ellis turned his head back into the suited man's shirt and prodded it with his nose, practically nuzzling his abdomen.
"Tell me a story, Nick."
"What?" He couldn't help any of the harsh tones that come out in his voice, both too shocked and confused by the sudden demand to really think of how else to reply.
Ellis sat as complacently as he could given the circumstances and waited. "Tell me a story."
A worn, only slightly wrinkled brow furrowed and Nick felt a flash of resentment at the rather absurd request. The boy might not have had a great deal of time left, but he wanted to spend it telling stories? He wasn't going to break down and start cursing, pleading for forgiveness or bartering for his life, hoping to get a bit mileage out of his beaten body?
"What, like once upon a time there was a frog and some bimbo kissed it? That kind of story?"
"Nick. . . " Ellis frowned and sniffed. "Not that kinda story. 'N' don' call princesses bimbos neither." The elder man said nothing, and the kid took it as a hint to further explain his dying wish. "I mean a story 'bout you. I dunno lotta 'bout you, 'n' it'd be nice to. . .before. . ."
It didn't take much for Nick to concede.
Awkwardly, at first, did he begin his tale, starting with his parents and sister before branching off into a tangent about school and how he'd hated it but had still done pretty well and even though he found all of these tidbits about the life he'd been ignoring for the best decade boring Ellis seemed to eat it up, staring up at him earnestly as his eye lids slid downward.
Nick was just mentioning something random about playing Go Fish with his cousin and this girl he'd met his freshman year of college when Ellis muttered something quietly about being tired, but that he was just going to close his eyes for a just a minute, but he'd keep listening.
And so Nick continued talking, and eventually his story evolved into his life shortly before the apocalypse, the ex-wife and gambling and money and the riverboat back in Savannah that he'd never made it to. He told Ellis about the bright lights and hazy nights of Vegas, what Atlantic City was like and the women and people he'd met but never connected with. Eventually his story reached a point where he mentioned this interesting man he'd met on a hotel rooftop in Savannah and how he'd initially hated him at first and then had grown to appreciate what he was and what he could. He talked about a young man he was surprised he'd managed to befriend and grow attached to.
Nick kept talking long after Coach pried his arms away from the dead boy with a small smile on his face.
There are five stages of grief. They slipped quietly through each one, ticking sluggishly through the fear and realization as one man held the other closer and whispered promises he could never keep.
They never made it to acceptance.