A/N: My first - and perhaps only - admittance to this fandom, depending on how things go. Let me know what you think!
"Yes!" Ellis falls apart with hysterical laughter as the Witch, engulfed in flame from the cocktail, runs a full eight, blind steps before crumpling at the foot of a tree. "Goddamn! That was fantastic!"
Rochelle smiles wanly and, off to the side, Nick lights one of his last cigarettes. In a way he's almost glad they gave the kid the Molotov so he could do his party trick. Almost. Anything to get him to stop with his damn stories.
"Didja see, Nick? Didja see?" Two hoards later, Ellis is still like a child, begging for assurance all the way up the slope. "Didja see it? Wasn't that fantastic? Oh man…"
"I saw," Nick grunts, right as Ellis slips and hits his head tumbling back down into the river.
When Ellis comes to, ten minutes later in the safehouse, Rochelle has a cold hand on his forehead.
"Good things don' last I guess," he says to her blearily, and she glows at his perpetual enthusiasm. "Shit, I can't wait to tell Keith about this one!"
Across the room, Nick guffaws like it's the funniest thing he's ever heard. "Don't be fucking ridiculous, kid," he mutters, going back to wiping his bloodied pistol while Ellis' thin smile falls completely.
It's quiet for the next two days.
"What is the kid's problem?" Nick demands, brushing dirt off of his suit. "Does he really think his buddy is still alive? Christ."
Rochelle hisses at Nick to be quiet. Not ten feet ahead, and clearly within earshot, Ellis speeds up.
"Would you shut the hell up?" she snaps.
"What? Fuck me for being realistic then!"
"Ever consider the one with the problem is you?" Annoyed, Rochelle swats him roughly across the arm.
"Oh right." Nick snorts. "I try to talk some reality into him, and he gives me the silent treatment like a goddamn four year old…and that's my fau–"
Up ahead Ellis intentionally shoots a parked car, and the conversation is cut short by the wailing alarm and sounds of an approaching hoard.
Coach lays two bottles of eighty-proof whiskey on the table at dinner. "Y'all go crazy," he says benevolently. "Lord knows I can't touch a drop."
Ellis takes to drinking until he can't stand, and breaks the two-day silence to Nick with "Don' yew ever…talk shit 'bout…my fr…" before blacking out across the older man's lap. Nick can only sit and twist the rings on his fingers, drenched in alcohol.
He wakes up the next morning so hungover that it takes an hour to realize that Ellis is still in his lap, with glass shards from the broken liquor bottle in his forehead.
As he picks them from Ellis' skin, the kid mutters, "Aw hell. I can't stand mad at you, ya snarky bastard."
Nick kills a child for the first time three days later.
By then, they are all used to slicing blades and putting bullets in zombies. And Nick knows that, as he shoots the snarling, jerking boy dead, it shouldn't feel different.
But it does, in the way the others hesitate now to fire – in the way that Nick can see names and faces put to every pair of jaws snapping at him, every blackened hand grabbing. In the way that Ellis won't even look at him and Coach keeps muttering, "They aren't people no more, they just aren't."
Instead of sleeping, Nick stares at the ceiling all night.
"What did we do tuh ya, God," he hears Ellis whisper, "that made us deserve this?"
Rochelle waking up screaming doesn't exactly surprise any of them, but the Charger it brings with it is a spike of pure chaos.
Somewhere between beating the massive thing off of Coach – who is hacking and wheezing horribly – and trying to catch their breath does she finally have the ability to lose it, bloodying her knuckles on the wall and screaming, "I just can't fucking do this oh God I can't I can't I can't."
"C'mon, Ro. We ain't but a day's walk from the evac," Ellis tells her softly, though his smile is cracked around the edges. Nick suddenly feels his insides turning with the velocity of a top, and lurches out to the back porch.
Once his stomach is emptied into the flower pots, it feels so good to cry that he can't stop, not until he's hunched over and choking into his hands. He cries until he's completely numb, his mind blacked out by tears.
Ellis only sits beside him after he's wrung dry, and by then Nick has regained enough of himself that he says, "Please don't make me deal with your shit right now, overalls."
"He turned, y'know."
"Keith." Ellis' voice is so different – heavier, like he's atoning sin. "Got this shit caught up in his system 'bout a month 'fore I met you. Said he was immune like me, even when he was pukin' blood n' everythin'. He was a stubborn sonuvabitch, right to the end."
Of all things to say, Nick asks, "Where'd he pick it up from?"
It quiets, and Nick can almost smell the infection and rot. The death. He's never wanted to apologize more than he does right now, call himself an asshole for poking fun at Keith – but something about the way Ellis tears at his own fingernail until it bleeds shuts Nick up.
"I could die happy right now knowing that there are still stars," he says finally. "At least there's someplace else out there, other than this fucked-up little planet. Maybe someplace better."
Ellis just rests his head on Nick's shoulder, and Nick really wishes that they could fall asleep forever.
Rochelle cries when they finally reach the evac center, and Ellis empties his gun into the air, whooping and laughing until his voice frays.
But Nick shoots the last pilot twenty minutes later, after hearing the growling, seeing red eyes at the end of his barrel. Black blood flies into his eyes, and an onslaught of infected CEDA workers swarm out of the tents.
One attaches itself with mutated fingernails to Nick's shoulder and thigh before knocking him to the ground, giving him a concussion. As Ellis helps him up, he resists, sputtering, "Enough, goddamnit – I deserve to die."
"Now don't'chu go sayin' that," Ellis says thickly. He's borderline pleading. "C'mere, man. We'll keep goin'. We'll get you to safety, okay?"
Nick just drops his head.
That night, Ellis sits alone, out back. When Nick peers through the doorway, the younger man is dropping a match into a trash can. An infected's hand dangles over the side, and Nick feels ill.
Ellis just watches it burn and burn.
After that, every laugh is bitter. A brittle, damaged thing.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck. He's bit." Nick wakes up to Coach's voice loudly ringing out in total darkness. He jerks suddenly, at the steady, new smoldering in his shoulder. It's being dressed in gauze.
"Shit, boy," Coach whispers. "Why didn't you tell somebody, huh? Why didn't you speak up?"
All Nick remembers are bloody teeth and the CEDA worker's last, gurgling breaths.
"He's immune, damnit. I'm tellin' ya, we all are. He survived this long, he's gonna survive this."
"Ellis? Ellis, where the hell are you?" Nick asks, lifting his free arm. "Can't see shit in the dark."
"I'm…Nick, whaddya mean? I'm right here." Ellis' voice dies away. "Coach, what's he mean? It's the mornin', it's light in here. Why's he sayin' that? Coach?"
Nick feels the words in his throat sourly melt away.
The realization is so, so cold.
"Musta been the way you slammed your head," Ellis whispers after a while, mostly to himself. "It's nothin'. You're immune, don't worry 'bout it."
The only sounds in the room are tearing gauze and uncertain breathing.
When he comes to, he can see the bandages, tight around his shoulder and thigh. Speckles of blood flower under the fabric.
Ellis is sitting quietly from the corner with a shotgun across his knees, watching. "How ya feelin'? Can you see yet?"
"Not yet." Nick rolls over. He doesn't want to lie to the kid, but facing the unquestionable wetness of Ellis' eyes will hurt him worse than anything.
"Shopping carts?" he squints, wandering slowly into the kitchen. "Am I seeing that right, Ro?"
Rochelle's face stretches with a grin. "Oh my God. You missed it, Nick – we came across a liquor store in the city. Full stock."
"You're fucking kidding." Nick dives for the nearest cart, grabbing a packet of Ho-Hos off the top of the pile. He can't believe the weight of it in his hands, never more astonished to see the fattening little snacks in his life. "You are fucking kidding!"
"Hot damn," Ellis whistles. "You shoulda seen it, Nick – we was chasing the infected down the carts after we came back. Shit, sweetest fuckin' batterin' rams I ever seen, these things are. Hot damn."
"I'll bet. That almost makes me want to forgive you for leaving me here." He grins, barely managing to avoid the box of elbow pasta Rochelle throws at him.
He's barely asleep more than a minute when Ellis is shaking him awake.
"Before you git mad, I grabbed some booze today."
Nick sits up and feels ridged glass in his fingers. He could hug Ellis for this, throwing down a hard, straight line. He comes back coughing, but ringing inside-out.
"Yeah." Ellis takes the bottle back. "Me, too."
Thirty minutes and half a bottle later, Ellis says, "Do ya think you're immune?"
"Do I? I don't know, probably."
"Probably," the kid repeats softly, turning the word over in his mind like a stone. "Fuck. I don' like that one bit. I don' fuckin' like that at all, Nick."
Ellis takes three mouthfuls of the tequila, and his voice comes back angrier. "It's not fuckin' fair, y'know? You git bit and suddenly it's all, I can't stop thinkin' 'bout what it'd be like wakin' up and findin' you as one of them." He drinks again.
Nick can't think of anything to say. He's already pretty light-headed, but now he just wants the alcohol wrapped so tightly around his brain that he can't picture a thing.
"This whole thing ain't fuckin' right. Goddamnit fuck. I can't take this no more. Not again. It's just like with Keith. He just…he…
"Ellis." Nick can hear a slur, but he still wishes Ellis wasn't saying anything of this. He wishes none of this existed in Ellis' head at all. "What's wrong?"
"…Nothin'. Just never mind, okay? It didn't mean nothin'."
Ellis grabs the booze, and he hardly manages to conceal a sniffle.
"Hey," Nick says softly. "Hey."
The mechanic squeezes the tears out of his eyes. "I…I think I might be losin' it, Nick. I really do."
"I know, kid. I think I am, too."
"No. You ain't," Ellis snaps. "You most certainly ain't, and neither is Ro or Coach. Y'all are perfectly fine – meanwhile, I'm losin' my goddamn marbles over here."
He tips back a drink, and Nick is really tempted to grab the bottle away – but he can't, because Ellis is sitting in front of him then and kissing the hell out of him.
The room hitches forward.
It's all tequila and cigarettes and blood and damnit, does Nick taste it. But he realizes how unfair it is, because he's supposed to hate this and he can't really convince himself that he does.
Ellis clambers into Nick's lap, hardly able to disconnect himself so he can find his way. Ellis' face is the softest thing Nick has touched in so long when he takes it between his hands – and it's not the booze, that he's kissing back.
"Jesus," Nick groans. Ragged breaths hang between them. "El, m-maybe –"
Ellis shakes his head firmly. "No maybe. It's okay," he whispers. "We're okay. Please."
So Nick lays him down, and it's the most astonishing few minutes of them falling apart and coming together in a mess of quick, short breaths. Ellis pleads quietly, while Nick presses his face into Ellis' shoulder as he loves him deeply.
They take every step together, flying blind, until they're both unraveled in the other's arms. Ellis cries out Nick's name like a prayer, and lying breathless, it's so wrong, so wonderful and wrong.
All day they have to ignore the knowing smile playing on Rochelle's lips, and the way Coach quirks his eyebrow at them over his shoulder. They have to ignore each other though, too, which is worse.
Nick goes to their bedroom that night to ask for a talk, but he's stopped by Ellis appearing shirtless at the window. The change in Nick's pulse stretches a dull ache over his entire body.
Ellis flushes the most attractive shade of crimson.
Recomposing himself, Nick says, "I think we should talk."
"A-ain't exactly catchin' me under the right circumstances," Ellis stutters, red up to his ears.
"I know." Nick moves further into the room, ridding himself of his jacket. His voice is a low and rich. "Though I tend to disagree."
He kicks the door shut behind him with his foot.
"I think Coach and Rochelle know," Ellis whispers after, when they're lying naked beside each other.
"Let them. Then I can make you scream next time."
"Shuddup." Even in the dark, Ellis' smile is obvious.
"Goodnight, kid." Nick holds his hand over Ellis' heart, making a point to disregard the dull ache in his shoulder, or how his thigh is numb to everything but pain.
He still doesn't fall asleep.
Before the sun's even come out, Nick slips out the back to retch blood into the bushes. Stringy red bile hangs off his chin, and the ground beneath him makes a horrible tilt.
He slips back into bed without waking anybody else up.
By four days of this, his blood is black like tar, and he's left struggling to remember what it's like to be alive.
Breathing is like swimming in chemical sludge.
Nick showers instead of eating dinner and lets the water get in his eyes. He's aware that the others will be more suspicious of this than the persisting hickey he's left on Ellis' neck. But the dirty water washes him clean of anything.
He makes it as far as the wall of his bedroom before his legs give out; trembling on the floor, all he can think is, This is it this is it I am going to die.
The door creaks when Ellis comes in after– how long? Ten minutes? A week? "Hey!" His smile is full, but gradually thins as he takes in the sight of Nick not sitting, but slumped, against the wall. "Hey, man. You doin' alright?"
"Way to make a man feel good about himself." God. His weak laughter actually hurts.
"Shit…Nick, you look gray."
Nick smells acidic blood right before he turns and vomits fully on the floor. It takes a moment to realize that the smell is his own, that blood is pooling at his thigh where the CEDA worker tore into his flesh. He watches it blossom over his skin and feels nothing.
"Oh God," Ellis says, face draining. He throws open the door. "Ro, c'mere!"
Rochelle's hand curls around his blazing cheek, and Nick barely remembers her even coming in the room. He squints up at her.
"Christ, Ro, look at'im. Christ in a hand basket," Ellis moans.
"Nick?" she asks softly, as she redresses his leg good and tight. The old bandages smell like contamination and something burning. "Nick, look at me now. I need you to look at me."
He does, his eyes still clear. She could cry with relief, but holds herself together as she finishes. Her fingers slip a few times, slick with blood.
Ellis sinks beside him after Rochelle leaves, pressing his face into Nick's neck.
"I don't want this," Nick whispers, choking. "I just don't fucking want this anymore, El."
"Not now." He shakes his head. He's not really holding Ellis so much as he is just holding on.
Rochelle spends all night panicking that they've somehow lost Nick, until he turns up in front of the safehouse, smoking and staring down the dead, empty street. There's no gun strapped anywhere to his body, and Rochelle cries out loudly when she realizes what he wants.
"Talk to him," she pleads with Ellis, back in the kitchen. "He's not thinking clearly. Please."
He swallows thickly and nods, smiling for her sake before grabbing his fire axe off the counter. She just hunches over, shaking.
Nick is nothing but a blank stare and ashen skin when Ellis plunks down beside him, saying, "You could get jumped out here, y'know."
Silence drags out, enough for the mechanic to comfortably break a little.
"Why din't you tell me?" he whispers. "I coulda helped. We coulda helped."
The moonlight is weak and washed out, consumed by a cloud. The deep dark left behind envelops them both, like God's hands around their necks.
Ellis tries to breathe. "Y'know…I remember when you told me that you thought the stars reminded you of hope. Kinda ironic, don'tcha think?"
"No." His voice splinters. "Don' you dare start wit' me, Nick. Don' you fuckin' start or I will shoot you right now, ya hear?"
Nick sighs. "Wouldn't that be nice."
Ellis' punch knocks him backwards, onto the pavement. It should hurt, but it doesn't, not at all. In fact, lying there, he sees a million stars, a billion stars that are like a patchwork universe.
"Hope." He laughs brokenly, and the last thing he hears before blacking out is Ellis screaming.
Cold water washes over Nick like liquid fire. He coughs and sputters, thrashing. The first thing he recognizes is the dirtied edges of the shower floor.
"What happened?" Coach asks, and Nick realizes that it's Ellis' hands hauling him out from under the spray. His arms flap uselessly, bloody water running down his body.
"I'll be dead soon," Nick says to no one. His mouth is full of dried bile.
"Will you miss me?" The hysteria is hitting in a wave. "Huh? Will you even fucking notice when I'm gone, Ellis?"
They've reached a bedroom, and Ellis roughly drops Nick down to the bed. Rochelle shrieks from the doorway.
"Shuddup," Ellis shouts again, and not at her. Nick doesn't have any kind of chance to react to the shift of weight on the mattress, with a slap landing sharply across his jaw. It hurts worse than before, because Nick can feel the sting of his own words in the rough of Ellis' hands.
He lets it happen.
"You fuckin' listen here," Ellis says, his voice closer to shattering than it's ever been. "Because I am gonna fuckin' miss you 'til the ends of this goddamned Earth and you know it, you bastard." A tear falls like a drop of ice. "But if I ever hear you talkin' like that again, I'll…I'll…"
"Ellis, sweetie," Rochelle says softly, touching his shoulder.
"Don't." He rips away from her. His eyes are searing and his voice, broken up by grief, is burning hot. The air trembles, weak, as it wheezes from his lungs. "Don't try an' tell me, Ro. 'Cause it won't work."
Nick closes his eyes.
Rochelle hears the way Ellis' words cracks, and turns to go. She knows. She knows what this means.
Silence has never been louder.
"I ain't gonna see you again, am I?"
Even though they're both awake, nobody says a word for a long time.
"I love you," Ellis chokes finally.
Nick just slips out the door. He doesn't close it behind him and he doesn't look back.
Ellis gets a good bite in his shoulder from a Jockey that catches him off guard. It's not the first time any of them have been bitten – it's not the first time he's been bitten – but, a few days later, he's lost two fingernails on his left hand. A puffy, infected ring has grown around his throat by nightfall, and his eyes are bloodshot and simply gone.
His body has already given up.
"Goddamnit son, don't do this!" Coach barks at dinner, throwing a fist down on the table. But his voice has lost its edge, his punch weak.
Ellis grinds his teeth. Saliva trickles slowly from the corner of his mouth.
"Ellis," Rochelle tries, taking his quivering hand. "El, sweetheart, please –"
He heads off to bed without a word.
The next day he drinks alone, on the steps outside the safehouse.
Coach and Rochelle find him, collapsed, moments before a Hunter does. They drag him back inside as he screams, "I wanna go, too, I wanna go, too!"
"C'mon boy," says Coach. "You gotta eat something, son."
Ellis pushes the plate away, uninterested. One of his fingertips is gray, and Rochelle thinks that it's actually physically painful to see him like this.
"If you don't eat, I'll force ya," Coach warns. "And don't think I can't."
Very slowly, the younger man looks up at him. Coach winces in the face of white, cracked lips, and dismal blue-gray eyes.
"Won't be long now," Ellis says softly. "Won't be long at all."
It's getting harder, not to fall apart.
The night opens up to a downpour that has Rochelle finding Ellis in tears at the kitchen table. But when she opens her arms to him, equal with grief, he just moves past her to his room.
"Come back." He loses his words to the storm as he lies in bed, and closes his eyes. "Please?"
Outside the rain patters the roof like bullets, like millions of gunshots. Like a final stand in a thumping, steady tempo.
"Please," he whispers, and it's not a question.
He already knows the answer.
It's too easy to lose sight of him in the pandemonium.
"Ellis!" Rochelle screeches for him over the roar of the hoard. He stands numbly at the end of the road, blood filling his mouth, unwavering even when a Charger bellows nearby.
"Shit!" Coach knocks a Hunter back and shoots its head cleanly off its shoulders. "Don't you do it, son! Don't you dare!"
Ellis bows his head, feeling hands curl at his wrists, and waits.
"Wake up," Nick says.
"Go away. I'm dreamin'."
"Goddamnit, kid." And something sends the world is rushing back, all bloodied concrete and decaying flesh and the scuffed toes of familiar shoes. He folds into himself immediately, wheezing for breath. His periphery blurs.
"It doesn't last forever," he hears above him. "He'll be okay once we get him to the evac station, in the city." There are other voices, Coach's and Rochelle's, too, but all Ellis can hear is a wash of radio silence and Nick's voice, sweet lord, Nick.
"W-why…why ain't you…" And he can't even complete the thought, dumbfounded, staring. His leg seizes up threateningly.
"Ellis. I found a way out. I can get us out of here. Okay?" Nick plants his chewed-up hands on Ellis' shoulders and presses. "Do you hear me? Three miles from here."
A slow, empty nod responds.
"Come on." Nick hooks an arm around Ellis' bruised torso, dragging him like a busted toy. "I'll be damned if I let you die alone."
"But we all die alone," Ellis whispers, before letting his vision slip away.
It takes eight days for the infection to leave his body.
Of this time, he wakes up four times, remembers Rochelle slapping Nick before hugging him twice, and never feels the rough, worn hand leave his own once.
The distant smile on his face never quite leaves, either.
"Hot damn. For a girl, Ro sure did a number on ya."
Nick crushes his cigarette under his heel, rubbing the pale mark on his cheek. "Shut up, kid."
Ellis stands out on the steps and gazes up through the trees, to the sky, to God. It all looks so different – even the clouds look exhausted.
"You're gonna be okay, Ellis" Nick says.
"Yeah." He nods. "I think so. 'Bout time you…uh…" He covers his mouth and fights, but the sob leaks out of his lips anyways. "I uh…I missed you real fuckin' bad, man," he hardly manages to say clearly.
"I know. I did, too."
"Told ya I would."
"I know," Nick repeats, and they finally crush each other in a hug. They're both filthy, dappled by the blazing afternoon heat, and it's simply perfect.
Ellis doesn't think he's felt a warmth like this ever in his life. Never ever.
"I really oughta just fuckin' shoot you," he says after a while, almost trancelike.
Nick shakes his head, drawing back. "So you've said."
He kisses Ellis then, and the forgiveness is there. It's a little hard to tell, under the tears and Nick murmuring that he loves him. But it's there.
When they reach rescue right where Nick promised, Ellis can't open his mouth to do anything but breathe.
"We made it," Rochelle sobs, falling against Nick in a firm embrace. "Sweet Jesus, we really made it."
"Are you folks ready?" asks the pilot, and Ellis checks his eyes. Completely clear.
Suddenly, he's tempted to say no. Coming so close to death has left him knowing that they can't run forever, but he says nothing – he only nods and steps onto the helicopter.
The city burns below them, slowly, ravaging. Like an infection. All Ellis feels are the flames licking the sky and Nick's hand in his, and a deep satisfaction. He smiles.
The destruction is truly lovely.