written in water

This is how Ellis met Zoey:

"Well, hello! Heh… hello… he-howdy, uhh. Beautiful weather, huh? We're having a, uhh…" Ellis's voice lowered and he swiveled in his shoes, pressing his toes into the ground, suddenly fifteen: "Oh, God, I'm too nervous to talk to her, man, one of you better do this."

Nick rolled his eyes and Coach patted him on the back, and the conversation went from there. She wore a pink hoodie and he decided right then and there that this was the girl he would marry, and Ellis McKinney didn't do take-backs. Keith told him on the straight-up, way back when: you see a girl that strikes you in the heart, you follow her. That was before Keith ran out on his own wedding day, but that was on account of the fact his to-be mother-in-law brought a shotgun to the rehearsal, right there into the church and everything. Ellis swore to his own ma he'd never be a runaway-groom like that – she took Keith in like her own and was just crushed. She'd remind Ellis about that promise for three whole months after the whole thing, wooden spoon stern in hand at supper times whenever Keith's name came up. Well, Ellis didn't have his ma anymore, but he knew sure as rain she'd find him hell or high water if he broke a McKinney promise.

"The name is Zoey? That sure is a nice name," Ellis yelled up, running by with hell on his heels as the gas sloshed round inside his canister.

"Ellis now is not the time," Rochelle screamed over at him, smashing an infected with the butt of her rifle while Nick soared overhead like a swan – well, not so much soared as be thrown clear across the pavilion, and he lucked out, landing right onto a dead Charger – well, depending on your definition of luck

"TANK. THAT IS A TANK," Nick's strangled voice floated out. They'd already met six of those suckers in a row and a horde, in the span of maybe an hour. Nick could've shot Ellis dead and he'd be just fine, though, because Ellis was counting his lucky stars he'd met a girl named Zoey.

This is how Zoey met Ellis:

"A girl who can shoot? I am in love!" the boy in the dirty yellow shirt crowed as he shot past their holdout like a bullet. Francis guffawed, and Zoey felt her ears heat up. She had shooting on the brain and sniped – there, two more infected down with one shot. Bill had told her she was a damn sight better than some of the men he'd been in service with, back in the day, and that was one of the things he'd told her that kept her going the most. She had shooting on the brain but something curled straight down to her toes as she glanced at this boy, something she couldn't afford to think about right now. There's something to someone making you feel special, though, and when she'd think on it later, she knew these things: there was a boy out there named Ellis who told shoddy tall tales and flashed her a smile that warmed her from the inside out. She locked that smile up inside of herself, and later - in the quiet - she'd pull it out, cup it in her hands, turn it over and drop it and roll it in her palms, hold it close, to feel human again.

Francis snickered and Zoey called him an asshole, and that was that. They lowered the bridge and the boy named Ellis said, "I won't forget you!" They went, and Zoey and her boys left.

This is how Ellis plans to meet Zoey again:

They'll meet at an evac camp, maybe where things will be more normal, and the first thing he'll do is tell her that she's the prettiest girl he's ever seen and then ask her right there and then to marry him, serious-like. Ellis figures he'll go on the fly and speak from the heart; he can't do any wrong there because it's a good feeling and a true one, and those don't come along too often these days. And then they'll ride off in Jimmy Gibbs Jr., just the two of them.

"Nick, I'm gonna have to borrow your suit 'cause we're skippin' right to the marriage—"

"Ellis, shut the hell up."

This is how Ellis actually meets Zoey again:

The evac in New Orleans was a hardcore bust. Nick said it best as they sat in an abandoned shack off the shoreline, beaten down and exhausted: "well, fuck."

The boat went on without them, but maybe they shouldn't be so surprised to be left for dead (ha, ha, ha, Rochelle said, dropping her head into her knees). Again. South was a bust and, well, nowhere else to go but North, Coach said with tired eyes, his bum knee laid out straight while he sat, hunched over on a dead radiator.

"That other group we met, didn't they say they were headed down to Florida Keys?" Ellis knew he sounded hopeful, but there wasn't much else to go on. The rest of the group made noncommittal noises.

It was a long shot, anyway.

They gathered their sore selves up and trekked back to the city for supplies. You only stay on the outside, ever – wanna survive, you'll never risk going in too far. The day was starting to head into dusk, hazy afternoon light hitting the empty city outskirts. There was smoke on the horizon (and there always was, with every city they'd come across, never-ending fires sending ghosts up to the sky), and the air smelled like burnt grass, and the sea. Everything was quiet and still.

Ellis would have dreams, every once in a while, about that quiet. It was the worst, because there was anticipation there, too. Always anticipating, always waiting, a slow kind of tremble that sucked the good juju out of you, straight from your bone marrows out. That was the worst, for Ellis, and he'd wake up sometimes in a shiver-shriek, muscles tight, that blinding, deafening silence suffocating him. They hit a motel by twilight and when a creaking broke the silence, his gun was out faster than his brain knew what to do with it.

Footsteps, first: they were in a supply room connecting to a stairwell right outside the lobby, and they all palmed their weapons, but then instead of the pounding weight of a mindless meatbag—

"—hate witches, and this dead thing," a gruff voice groused and Coach held up a hand before anyone said anything and lifted up the barrel of his rifle, and trained it on the stairwell door as it opened.

"And—" the voice stopped as the biker man from the bridge stepped through the doorway and froze.

"Fran—?" and the girl's voice froze, too: everybody stared at each other and then Coach lowered his gun with a relieved sigh.

"Well fancy seeing you folks here," Nick said easily, and that was the day Ellis truly believed in miracles.

"How did the evacuation pan out?" the tech – Louis, was his name – asked, and Coach waved his hand, shaking his head. Both groups were at the butt-end of failed evacuations and fake snatches of rescue rumors debunked; Florida Keys was a pipe dream, struck down as just another mindless wasteland. Nick asked the biker if they had a safe room; upstairs, he said, so as they started up altogether, Rochelle turned around, hands on her hips with a knowing look.

"Ellis, sweetie, didn't you have something to say to Zoey?"

The girl looked at him, expression questioning, and every last bone in Ellis's body turned to pure-grade petrified wood. "I, uhh," he stuttered. There was a dirt smear on her left cheek that he fixated on, and he had never found any girl in the world so beautiful, so he said, "well, jus – Miss Zoey, you're the prettiest girl I ever seen in my whole life and I might die if I don't see you smile," a fast vomit-jumble and Ellis felt like he could just over and puke. A slow smile spread across her face, though, pink as a petal, and she said,

"Well, Ellis, you know how to make a girl feel special. I'm gonna have to hold you to it now."

Gladly, Ellis said, a balloon fit to busting filling up his chest. Rochelle grinned at him as Zoey turned towards the stairs, ears glowing, and together they all followed their friends upward, for at least a momentary safety.

A - somewhat late - Secret Santa for my darling Pen Against Sword.

(Because we can't stop playing this game, and also because has anyone else played The Passing and faced a continuous spawn of Tank after Tank to the umpteenth time. Seriously.)