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Chapter Text

"So how'd you get that?" Nick asked, pointing at the small slit that ran across the bridge of his nose.

Ellis shook his head with a touch of embarrassment. "Oh, nuh uh… I'll only tell if'ya tell me how you got that," he returned, referring to the scar on the man's brow.

Nick laughed and shifted against the wall, flashing a large grin at him. "Alright," he consented, "but you might not like it."

Ellis stared across the room at the white-jacketed man. It was late, real late, probably around two AM– he hadn't bothered to check the time. In a couple hours they'd be waking Coach and Rochelle to get some shuteye themselves, relinquishing watch to them until the sun came up a ways and they all hit the road again. The four of them were holed up in a safehouse just south of Brunswick tonight; they had walked to get there and it had been a pretty long day. Hell, it had been a long three days. It felt like it had been longer than that... longer than that that he had met the three other survivors up in his hometown and they had grouped together.

Coach was a pretty cool guy. Amiable, a love for all things food– Ellis could relate– and a decent leader when it came down to it. Sometimes he got grumpy though and didn't always have a lot of patience when it came to tomfoolery, likely from working with all those youngsters in the high school where he used to coach. He was reasonably familiar with Georgia, being a native.

Rochelle was neat too. Very friendly towards him, sometimes a little sassy towards the other two men of their party. She had rather impressed Ellis from the get-go with her ability to handle a gun, cuz he didn't know all that many girls who took to that kind of thing so easy. She was also knowledgeable about random things, Ellis supposed because of her job working as a newscaster.

And Nick.

Nick was just… well, goddamn interesting. The man was like a puzzle.

As it was, staying up on watch with him wasn't so bad at all, for all that Coach and Rochelle expressed a distinct desire not to. Personally, he didn't understand their aversion to him. Sure, he was a little different, but different wasn't always bad was it? Ellis squirmed in anticipation of the story. Nick had quite a few; they had been sharing back and forth all week… heck, the guy had half as many as he had himself, maybe– and that was pretty good for anyone who wasn't good friends with Keith!

"I had a guy try to knife me in the alley," Nick said casually.

Ellis' eyes widened. "For serious?"

"Yeah, I guess he didn't really like my face." Nick laughed. "I was plastering him at a game of Poker. I donno what he expected; when I sat down to play I warned them all I worked at the casino. They don't just let any dumb twit work the tables, you know." His pale green eyes flashed with a kind of mischief.

"Which one?" Ellis couldn't help but ask now, bubbling over with interest at this tidbit. "Y'dun mean Vegas, do you?" he asked incredulously.

Nick swept his hands out show-offishly. "Of course, Vegas, Overalls! Where else?" He chuckled a bit before returning to the question. "I worked at the Rio," he nodded.

"I was gonna bust a gut if ya said Circus Circus," Ellis said, his imagination placing the conman in the middle of all those clowns and animals and striped backdrops. It was quite the ridiculous sight.

Nick shuddered. "Ugh, I can't stand that place. I wouldn't set foot in there if they had the last slots on earth." He lifted an eyebrow with a smirk. "I had a respectable job, thanks."

Ellis stuck out his tongue. He would've jumped at the opportunity to visit the destination, but it hadn't ever exactly been within 'road-trip' distance. Hell, he hadn't even ever been outta Georgia. Though this whole apocalypse thing was going to change that.

Nick continued. "And, of course, as an employee, I wasn't allowed to bet in-house, so," he shrugged, "I took my gambling elsewhere." The conman gave a pause. "Happened to just pick a bad spot that night. You know, 'wrong place, wrong time' sort of thing. And this guy I was playing with kept ordering beer after beer– as if he was going to have enough cash to pay his tab when I was done with him…" he shook his head with a smile, playing with the rings on his fingers. "Anyway, I stepped out of the bar to get some fresh air and count my winnings and he comes out of nowhere with this thing," the conman held his hands out to indicate the length of the blade– a good six inches. "And yours truly manages to duck, but not soon enough to save me the shave."

"You didn't kill 'im, did'ju?" Ellis asked with shock.

Nick laughed. "Hardly. A bloke like that ain't worth the trouble. You know much it costs to hire a lawyer in Vegas?" Ellis chuckled uneasily as he went on. "No, no reason to kill a drunk idiot, but I can tell you he got a mean uppercut," Nick lifted his fist, then studied the floor, brow knitting ever so slightly. "Had trouble with the wife though. I guess she had difficulty believing I could get a scrape like that from slipping and falling on a roulette table."

"Well, sure she'd be worried about you," Ellis said matter-of-factly, finding her concern understandable.

"She could've at least appreciated the extra one grand I brought home that night," he said with subtle humor. "Not every guy can bring home a bonus like that on a regular basis."

The hick gave a shrug. "Money ain't everythin'."

Nick eyed him and inclined his head. "You got that right."

Ellis wondered at his sentiment a moment. He certainly hadn't expected the man to agree so readily, dressed as he was.

A puzzle, like he said.

"That's my end of the bargain," Nick stated, a smile creeping across his features.

Ellis rubbed the back of his head with chagrin. "Oh boy, well, shit that's a story-topper before I even got mine told," he said.

Nick stuck out his palm and curled his fingers. "Ante up, El."

El, ha. The conman had been calling him that ever since he had told him he preferred his full name. He wasn't sure if he was trying to get his goat or just be contrary. But either way it didn't really upset him on account of the fact that the way Nick said it made it sound so nice. Not like the way Keith said it when he was teasing him for stuff, nothing like that at all. It had actually made Ellis realize that maybe the reason he didn't like the shorthand was because of Keith, who always made it into some kind of joke when Ellis didn't want to try his next great scheme that might get the both of them killed. He looked up at Nick and blushed, then considered how to word his story. "Well, okay. Y'see, Keith an' I…"

"Christ, I should've known," Nick interjected.

Ellis continued without pause, already gaining steam. "Keith an' I went deep sea fishin' this one time. A'course, we didn't know nuthin' about it or anythin'– it ain't like regular fishin', y'know. Anyway, Keith figured, fish is fish, right?" Ellis stopped to laugh. "Couldn't've been more wrong. He brought 'is favorite rod, the one he used at the lake, on the boat, put some bait on'it an' cast her in. Well I didn't think he was gonna catch nothin', cuz the boat was movin' so dang-awful fast, but what'd'ya know if he did? That mother pulled 'im off the railing so fast– oh man!– ya wouldn't've been able tuh blink! Next thing I know he's there in the ocean, an' disappearin' fast too, wavin' 'is arms an' yellin' an' I don't figure there's much hope fer the people runnin' the boat tuh stop an' notice, so I wave at Keith to tell 'im tuh throw me the line, ya'know? So he does, but Keith ain't always all that good uv'a shot, an' the hook grabs me by the nose an' I almost fall off the railin' my-damn-self! So then there I am, holdin' ontuh the line by the wrong end, tryin' to reel my buddy Keith intuh the boat, as if he were the damn fish!" Ellis gave a snort, and Nick gave a chuckle. "I did evenshuhly git 'im back in an' he looked so wet an' cold an' miserable… an' I was bleedin' like crazy, but there wasn't much I could do about it. But… but…"

Ellis blinked, still a little unaccustomed to actually managing to finish his stories. Over the past couple days the conman had obliged him, unlike the other two, and he had to admit, it was real nice having someone to talk to, or rather at. "Well, I guess tha's it!" he concluded. He then gave a wry chuckle. "Ain't nothin' cool like yours was though."

Nick gave a shrug. "It's not just about how you got them, it's also about how you wear them afterwards."

"I hadn't ever thought of it that way," Ellis thought aloud. He looked at him curiously. "Do I wear mine good?"

The conman chuckled. "You wear it fine. It suits you."

Ellis tipped his hat, complimented. "Thank'ya." He scratched at his nose, that weird feeling happening where the thought of it made you itchy there all of a sudden. "I git the feelin' I'm gonna have a few more after all'is is over," he said.

Nick nodded. "You and me both, kid."

Chapter Text

He hadn't been too keen at first on informing his fellow survivors that he did indeed know how to hot-wire a car, mostly because he didn't figure it would help his initial reputation any. The kid… Ellis had an excuse, he was a mechanic. Of course he knew how; there would be something wrong if he didn't. But the sleazy-looking guy in the expensive suit?


Only Ellis had expressed out loud: "Cool! It's like we got similar talents an' stuff!" and Nick was pretty sure the kid's reaction was because he hadn't realized the implications behind his know-how. And there certainly wasn't any reason to go into that– why he knew how. Still and all, he appreciated the boy's blithe exuberance because it was way better than the scowl from Coach or the worried frown from Rochelle.

But the last thing he was going to do was stand around and be useless and let the kid do all the work, so he had fessed up rather readily.

As he was bent under yet another steering wheel, cramped and feeling overly warm, but not so unbearably so as to remove his suit jacket, he found another reason to wish he hadn't let on. He was quickly losing patience with the whole operation.

He took his left gloved hand– Ellis had the right glove, not being ambidextrous– and twisted the two wires together. They gave a pop and a spark inches from his face and he grit his teeth, knowing the only thing that had just saved him from a nasty bit of electrocution was the protective glove. He really ought to try and stay focused. But somehow it just wasn't as easy when he was working on the fifth goddamn car that day. He could now say that he had hot-wired more cars in the last three days than he had the whole rest of his life.

The engine of the SUV roared to life, briefly, then shuddered and sputtered back into silence.

Yep. Another one out of gas. No big surprise there. He lifted his head to see Rochelle looking at him with disappointment knitted all across her brow. "Shit…" she mumbled from her seat on the sheet metal barrier, rubbing an arm.

"They're all going to be like this," Nick said, lifting an eyebrow as he sat up. He pulled off the glove and dropped it to the pavement. "It would be a better use of our time to quit trying and walk."

"Six hundred miles??" she said with exasperation. "You've got to be joking."

Coach placed a calming hand on her shoulder. "Maybe, maybe not. Ain't no reason we can't keep our hopes up. One of the evac stations on the way could still be open." He began to list them off, in order, "Jacksonville, Tallahassee…"

Nick rolled his eyes to himself, leaning back on the floormat while Coach continued to ramble. Brunswick hadn't been open when they had gotten there, and he had no reason to believe any of the other towns would be either. He studied the underside of the steering wheel absently with a frown. The maps laid out there at the abandoned evac-station had been just the same as those in Savannah. Big, ugly, red X's over all the little cities, including Charleston and Atlanta and Charlotte and anywhere else that was big and close and seemed like should have still been open– literally everything except New Orleans and Chicago. And hell if they were going to Chicago. Not only was it an extra two hundred miles, but it was north.

And a lot closer to that hideous reddened circle in Pennsylvania.

So, at his own relentless urging, they had taken the time to map out their course before leaving Savannah. They'd work their way down to Jacksonville on I-95, then head west on I-10 until they got to New Orleans. The whole trip was about seven hundred miles, rounded up. At the time, none of them had appreciated his, admittedly, cynical opinion that they'd have to be pretty damn lucky to even get down to New Orleans in time to be evacuated. And his own confidence about the unlikelihood was certainly growing with each and every precious minute they were wasting stationary on these damn cars.

The truth of the matter was that they were all going to be empty spread out along the highway like this, because for the most part, the owners had run out of gas in their retreat with no place to stop to re-fuel, forced to continue their journeys on foot. So unless the four of them were 'lucky' enough to find a vehicle that stopped because its owner turned while driving instead, they too were stuck on foot.

Nick had never had trouble describing his own luck in terms of others' misfortune before, but for some reason this wasn't setting well with him.

Perhaps though it was because of the dead, rotting zombified carcasses they found in those cars, bleeding and leaking into the plush seats and carpeted interiors; the vehicles wrecked or upside-down, having lost control at high speeds, likely above the speed limit if the long black skid marks were any indication. And the smell. The god-awful, horrifying stench of bloating corpses baking in their enclosed little metal ovens for who knew how many days.

All that aside, most of the cars that hadn't suffered such a fate, that would have been available for them to salvage, had been left idle until they also ran out of gas.

He frowned. There simply wasn't much for stragglers like them to benefit from, and that was the plain and hard truth of it.

Coach fired his gun at something in the distance, but didn't raise an alarm. "How's it goin', boy?" he called.

"I've almost got it…!" Ellis drawled back. Nick didn't know how the hick kept so enthusiastic what with the circumstances, but not understanding aside, he appreciated it; shit, it even managed to make him smile just a little. He closed his eyes and imagined the kid, lying on his back as he worked meticulously at the car's wires. He could just as easily stand and take a look, but there was a certain kind of satisfaction with just picturing it instead. It was an odd pleasure, but he didn't deny himself it.

Now, why he had taken an attraction to the young man… especially such a quick one… was beyond him.

Well, sort of.

The kid had a charming quality about him. He was friendly, and while that usually equated to 'target' in his book, Ellis was also curiously nonjudgemental.

"Aaaaan' there we go!" The Ford Pinto the hick had chosen to 'work his magic on' as he had put it, rattled uncertainly before the engine caught… and stayed on.

Nick lifted an eyebrow. Lucky twice. This was the second car the hick had brought back from the dead. The first being the one that had gotten them from the outskirts of Savannah to Brunswick.

He stood.

Ellis pushed himself into the driver's seat, leaning in to quickly look over the gauges. "Well boy-howdy, it ain't much, but it's sumthin'!" He waved them over, "Get in, y'all!"

They all hurried to the little car. Rochelle made for the passenger's seat and Ellis motioned at her. "Nuh uh, my main man Nick here gets shotgun, he been doin' work!" the hick grinned and she laughed and consented, clambering to the seat behind the driver's.

Coach joined her. The whole car gave a large shift downward as he settled in. "I am too big a man for this little thing," he said, shaking his head with chagrin. Nick withheld any commentary about finding the man a wheelbarrow.

Appreciative of the extra legroom he had just been granted, the gambler plopped himself in front and slammed the door shut. "Let's roll," he said, casting the boy a smirk.

"Alright, alright," Ellis gave a couple bobs of his head. He put the vehicle into gear and steered onto the median to get around the wreckage in the street. "I reckon she's got about fifty miles left in her," he nodded with a grin, tapping the indicator as he sped up to thirty.

"You got those wires tight together?" Nick asked. The car jerked up and down on the rough terrain, so he had need for concern. If they rattled loose, they'd lose the engine permanently.

"Shucks, I think so," Ellis said, his head ducking down to check.

Nick suppressed a wince and leaned over to grab the steering wheel before they ended up in a ditch or something.

Coach laughed. "You crazy, boy."

"Sweetie, you're supposed to keep your eyes on the road," Rochelle said in a gentle, reminding tone.

Ellis came up a couple moments later. "Sorry, Ro'," he apologized, then looked at Nick and took the wheel back from him. "We're gooood." He got past the road block and drove the car back onto the freeway, easing the little compact up to sixty.

"Fun fact about Ford Pintos," Ellis began to jabber happily. "The original gas tanks– you know, the ones put in by the manufacturer, not like if ya git 'em replaced– which a lotta folks did, I did bunches uv'um myself, I kin really thank Ford for that." He laughed. "Well anyway, they were defective cuz they wanted tuh keep the weight under 2,000 pounds– iono marketing or sumthin'– so they were sorta structurally weak an' whatnot, an' it turns out that if you crash a Pinto at twenty-five miles an hour or faster, it consistently– like I'm talkin' every single time– the tank'd rupture an' gas'd leak all over the place, an' half the time it'd light an' man oh man." Nick gave him an amused sideways glance; the kid's grin was huge.

"Oh, that makes me feel bunches better," Rochelle said now eyeing the backseat. Coach shifted.

"Dun worry," Ellis was quick to interject, "this one's been replaced. I checked when I was tappin' it. Most uv'um have been."

Nick looked over, suspicious that he was missing something, but almost too proud to bring it into question. He fiddled with the lock on the door. Against his better judgement, he finally decided to ask. "Tapping it?"

"Yeah, tuh see if there was any gas in it," Ellis nodded, his gaze steady on the road.

Nick licked his lower lip. "You're telling me there is a way to tell?" he clarified.

"Well shit, man, sure. I mean, it does take a bit uv'a trained ear sometimes," he admitted. "But if it sounds hollow, it ain't got nuthin' left, an' if not, well, then there might be sumthin' in there. No guarantee, but yeah."

Okay, so it wasn't a complete crap-shoot. Nick gave himself a brief moment to feel stupid for not thinking of such a simplistic check, and a longer moment to appreciate the mechanic's expertise. At least one of them had a useful background when it came to dealing with a zombie apocalypse; he couldn't say the same for football has-been or little miss reporter.

Coach chuckled from the rear, giving the back of his chair a kick. "You just got schooled, Nick."

The conman frowned and held his tongue stringently because telling the man that his fat ass wouldn't even fit underneath the vehicles wasn't likely to make this short car trip any nicer.

Oddly though, the hick came to his defense. "Come on, Coach, give the guy a break." He gave a snorting laugh, "You prolly wouldn't'a thought uv'it either." The older man lapsed into silence at this and Ellis leaned over and drove an elbow into the conman's arm. "Ain't like he lives underneath a car like I do."

His mind conjured the image before he could stop it– the boy on his back again, legs spread, head back…

Okay, time to quit thinking about that. He squeezed the door handle and willed it away, staring out the side window. But the boy wasn't too helpful when it came to getting to stop thinking about him.

"Any of y'all wanna sing a song?" he asked abruptly, his eyes on the rear view mirror to peer at Coach and Rochelle in the backseat. The two exchanged somewhat hesitant glances.

"One hundred bottles of beer on the wall…" Nick mumbled to himself, half sing-song.

Ellis heard it and grinned. "One hundred bottles a'beer!" he continued.

There was no stopping the kid now. Nick joined him, both their voices growing in volume; he matched the kid's baritone. "Take one down, pass it around…"

"Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall," Coach and Rochelle couldn't help but add in.

And so they went down the road.

Chapter Text

They only got through fifty-two of the bottles before the car pooped out. Ellis grumbled to himself for being wrong about the mileage, because they had only gotten about thirty miles further down the road, but worst of all, he had passed the off-ramp that lead to a safehouse in Kingsland about five miles ago– the freeway sign about the various eats had been spray-painted over with a bright orange house and cross– and he had figured they could get to the next one, or at least close, cuz the sign also had 'next 18' marked on it.

So, they'd be backtracking, unless they wanted to walk another thirteen miles.

The previous owners of the vehicle must've mistreated the poor thing, abusing regular maintenance checkups to ruin its mpg the way they had, that was for damn sure. Ellis gave an irritated huff.

Nick, as it turned out, wanted to go the thirteen forward. Coach and Rochelle wanted to go the five back. And Ellis, well, heck if he knew what was the right call… sure shootin' he could hoof it the next thirteen, though it'd make for an awful long day considering the ten they had put behind them before acquiring the Pinto. What more concerned him was the lack of vehicles they had passed on the drive. Oh, they had passed a few in the last thirty miles, but most of them had been wrecked or turned upside down.

That, and they had passed a lotta zombies.

As they all got out of the car, Nick took to clearing the area, magnum firing cleanly as he took down six of the nearby wandering monstrosities. "The place is probably crawling with these things," he said off-handedly, reloading.

"And what's to say the next place isn't?" Coach eyed him.

Nick glared back, stuffing his gun into the holster at his thigh. "Nothing. But at least we'd be further down the road."

There was a brief pause. Ellis could tell that as far as Coach was concerned, the argument had already been won the moment Rochelle sided with him earlier. Mostly because the gambler couldn't form a majority by himself what with Ellis 'holding-out' like he was. Ellis tentatively stepped around the car to join them on the right side.

"I'm gettin' real sick of your attitude, Nick," the elder man grumbled.

The conman turned and lifted a supple eyebrow. "Fine, you know what? Maybe I'll just go myself." He swept out a hand south with an all too confident smirk. "Then, you won't have to deal with my 'attitude'." His fingers made the quotation marks in the air, though the tone of his voice was enough to get the implication across on its own.

Ellis felt his stomach do a flip-flop. "Whoa, whoa," he quickly stepped in between them. He looked back and forth at the each of them, making sure both were calming down. "Let's not get hasty none," he said. He looked up at Nick, feeling… well, honestly, a little hurt by his threat. He thought they had gotten past the whole 'I'd be better off without all you' jag he'd been on their first day together, at least, he hadn't brought it up since.

The man's green eyes shifted and unhardened when they met the blue. "Relax, El, I didn't mean it."

"Like hell," Coach grunted, folding his arms.

Nick's brow drew down, but he didn't say anything more, sinking into a brooding silence.

Rochelle shifted awkwardly on her feet, still standing close to the car, having kept out of the argument thus far, probably not wanting to aggravate it or make it worse. "So, we're heading back, right?" she asked off-handedly, scratching an itch.

He felt Coach and Nick's glances both round on him. Ellis swallowed uncomfortably and studied his feet, stalling for a little time to think.

Damn he hated bein' stuck in the middle of decidin' things like this.

And he imagined if he sided with Nick, it'd start a real ruckus.

Nick, however, spared him the decision. "Yeah, we are," he said, his feet already starting into motion, headed northward briskly. All of them were a little surprised by his quick change of mind, Ellis included. Rochelle bent to get the few scant supplies they had out of the car; Coach took their backpack from her and put it on. Ellis snagged the knapsack of food and water and his hunting rifle, securing it to his back. Both Coach and Rochelle began walking, but chose to maintain the distance the cardshark had gained on them, staying in the rear. Ellis gave them each a glance, before jogging to catch up with the man.

Nick emotionlessly plugged off what was in front of him as he went along, his face pulled into a deep, but unreadable concentration. Ellis wasn't even sure if he had noticed him when he jogged up on his right. He waited a moment in lockstep, then plucked up the courage to speak. "Hey, uh…" he started, peering at him from around the lifted gun. The conman gave him his attention; Ellis quickly began fiddling with his hat. "I woulda agreed wit'chu… 'bout goin'."

"I know."

Ellis tilted his head. "You did?" he asked.

There was a subtle nod and another shot from the magnum.

Ellis straightened up, pulling his shoulders back; they gave a little crack with the stretch. He wasn't sure what to say to that, cuz if Nick had in fact known, like he was saying he did, that seemed like more of a reason to argue pressing on towards Yulee than relenting and going back up to Kingsland.

Didn't it?

The green eyes flitted over. "But thanks."

"Oh, no problem," Ellis drawled. He fiddled with the pistol on his waist. "Ya want some help?" he asked. Nick didn't respond for a moment, reloading once more. Ellis blinked, then blushed, hoping he hadn't come off wrong with the offer. His tone quickly changed to an apologetic one. "I know ya got it covered, I was jus'…"

"I'm not angry at you, kid." A smile fluttered across his features, as if to prove it. But Ellis was busy being impressed by his ability to read him with such ease. "A little irritated by the situation," the gambler admitted, "but not you."

Ellis scratched at the back of his head. "That one was my bad."

"You got us another twenty-five miles down the road," Nick reminded him. "What would have been a full day's walk took half an hour cuz of you."

"I guess'so…" His mood began to lift. He smiled appreciatively. "Hey will you stay up on watch wit' me tuhnight?"

The conman laughed. He seemed to weigh something in his head before responding. Ellis watched as the man put on a sneaky grin. "You don't have to ask. It's not a date."

The hick felt himself blush a second time. The reason they had been paired together the first time back in Savannah was because neither of them had been tired yet. Since then it'd just developed into the routine. He and Nick stayed up for six, then Coach and Ro' stayed up for six, then they got as far as they could in the next twelve or so hours before repeating the process. But in the short week that they had all been together, Ellis had grown attached to those six hours he got with the man, who seemed to understand him and listened to him and at the same time challenged him just a little bit. His mouth began to work awkwardly. "No, but, I mean… well…"

But the conman was quick to reassure him. "Of course I will, El." He switched his magnum to his left. "You take right, okay? I'm going to get in a little practice with this side."

Ellis lifted his pistol and smiled. He knew the man didn't need the practice, but he didn't care, just happy to be so readily accepted.

Chapter Text

Nick had been right about the swarm of zombies.

As they walked down off the northbound off-ramp, they were greeted by at least two dozen of the angry creatures, hissing and growling as they ran towards them. It had given Ellis more than enough reason to whip the machete off his hip and slice his way through half of them while the other three backed him up. The zombies practically lined themselves up for him and he dispatched them with several flourishing swings.

He lopped off a final head and gave a whoop, twirling the blade in a circle with his wrist. "That's how it's done right!" he announced, pulling his bill down further over his forehead.

Rochelle flashed him a quick thumbs up and Coach gave a nod before taking to scratching his scruffy chin.

The hick peered over at the conman, eager to garner his reaction as well, but the man's attention was to his far left, under the overpass.

"Nick?" he asked.

The green eyes blinked, then moved to focus on him. "Way to go, Tiger," he inputted, voice low.

The words would have normally made his chest swell, but the man's prior distraction deflated it for him. Ellis felt his eyebrow lift, wondering what he had been staring at, his own eyes now scrutinizing the direction with a sort of annoyance.

The other two hadn't noticed Nick's distraction.

"Sign says we just got a little further to go," Coach said, inclining his head at a sheet wood board that had been erected to the railing.

"Thank goodness," Rochelle said. "My feet are killing me."

"Just make sure nothing else does," Nick mumbled with a half-sided grin.

They stayed to the sidewalk, crossing an intersection. "Looks like we got eee-lec-tricity," Ellis drawled, motioning at the streetlights that shone a constant green for the high-traffic through-street and red for lesser. It was one of those ones that was rigged to operate with metal detectors, so when cars got in a particular lane, it'd flip to accommodate them.

Which probably made this the longest red light ever, cuz there weren't no traffic to switch for.

As they passed by the corner, he couldn't help but give the crosswalk button a push to force it into changing.

The system gave an immediate chirp and he winced, not even having considered the possibility that it'd be fixed up for blind folks too. Coach shot him a disparaging glare that made his shoulders droop. Nick and Rochelle both pulled close as the chirps continued and the indicator across the street displayed the count-down. Ellis gawked. Twenty freaking seconds? It wasn't even that big of an intersection!

He quickly switched to his pistol, eyes darting around him. He could hear the scrambling of feet. Nick leveled his magnum, east; Rochelle peered through her scope, south; Coach closed in the rear direction from where they had come. They waited, wordlessly.

All four of them began firing seconds later.

Zombies poured out in all directions.

Thankfully, out in the open as they were, the creatures had to close quite a distance to reach them, and that gave them a significant advantage. In his head he kept track of the shots.

Nick tugged his eighth. Ellis briefly backed him in the split second it took him to shove another clip in. He returned to his own angle until he had to feed a new magazine into his own pistol. Now Ro' reached fifteen; he turned a 180° to plug a few coming her way and Nick tossed the magnum into his left hand to cover his angle during his short absence. Coach shoved a new shell into his shotgun with each shot he took, taking aim for any zombies that made the mistake of being clumped, maximizing the spray of his ammo. Ellis turned from Ro' as Nick reloaded a second time, and his eyes flitted to the blinking display.

9… 8… 7… Chirp, chirp, chirp.

Nick covered his reloading time again. The brunt was now coming from the south.

"Boys…?" Rochelle's voice was laced with a hint of panic as her fingers fumbled at the empty clip of her rifle.

All three men turned to mow down the predicament headed her way. Coach half-unloaded to a remainder of four. Ellis blasted his balance to the west while the older man refilled to capacity.

2… and 1.

A few more frenzied moments.

Then silence.

All four heaved a sigh. Ellis straightened his hunched posture awkwardly, rolling his neck.

Coach's gun smoked at the barrel. "Can't'cha keep your hands off anything, boy?" he asked gruffly.

"Not really…" Ellis mumbled, taking cover under his hat.

Nick cast the older man a glance, twirling his magnum on his finger into its holster, his face the picture of calm despite the onslaught. "The kid probably did us a favor," he said, admiring the littering of corpses. "Cleared things out."

Rochelle gave a shrug of her pink shoulders. "A little warning might have been nice," she laughed semi-uneasily. "But yeah, it sure did. Thanks, Ellis."

Coach grunted. Ellis felt mollification, but moreover, he felt a kind of gladness and light-headedness that the conman had stood up for him, even if had been kind of a stupid thing to have gone and done in retrospect.

They stepped their way around the bodies, following another safehouse sign to the right and down the street a few blocks.

Ellis scrunched up his nose and Rochelle gave an exasperated sigh.

"Son of a–!" Nick cursed.

The safehouse was a converted McDonald's. Where the entrances had once been now stood the thick red metal doors, and all of the original sheet glass windows had been replaced with a dull grey steel. But what had given them all pause was the huge crowd of zombies wandering the spacious parking lot. They were as of yet unaware of their presence, but there sure were a lot of them.

"Goddammit," Coach grunted at the spectacle. "You'd think there wasn't a better place to hang out than a rest stop in Southern Georgia."

Ellis noticed Nick's face was a wash of "I told you so", but the man kept it to himself.

One of the zombies upchucked quite monumentally then, emptying what had to be the entire contents of its stomach onto the pavement in a single projectile heave. A few others nearby followed suit.

"Must be some good eats," the cardshark commented. Rochelle blanched.

Ellis readied his machete once more, fingers tightening around the handle. He didn't have many glock clips left, and he didn't want to waste any of the 7 mm Remington mags for his hunting rifle in the chance he might not be able to replace them. Rochelle nervously rubbed her palms on her jeans, likely to get rid of any perspiration there that might make her hands slip on her weapon. Ellis knew that one. His hands were always getting all sweaty, especially when he got all pumped up.

"Hold up," the oldest man grumbled at the both of them, now turning to dig through the bag on his back. He removed a pipe bomb– they still had a few they had found in the hotel in Savannah, but they had used them rather sparingly on account of the fact they didn't know when or where or even if they'd be finding any more. Coach depressed the button on the side and heaved the small device quite professionally into the center of the lot. The beeping immediately attracted the desired attention as every nearby zombie rushed forward to claw at it in a mindless rage.

Both Rochelle and Coach turned their heads away for the bloody explosion that followed shortly thereafter.

Ellis stuck out his tongue at the smear left on the asphalt. "Well now that's sumthin' that really kills a person's appetite."

"I donno, I could go for a BigMac," the gambler grinned back at the football player. "What about you, Coach?" It wasn't clear whether or not he was teasing him, but Ellis figured he probably was, cuz really when wasn't he?

"Mmhmm…" the man mumbled, clearly in favor of the idea, regardless of whether or not he was being poked fun of. "And an order a'fries," he added. "Extra large."

"Well, let's go git us some grub!" Ellis announced jovially, leading the way down to the restaurant.

Chapter Text

They found plenty of food in the walk-in freezer. Nick watched the goosebumps prickle up over Ellis' exposed forearms as he helped him collect the patties, fries and other various foodstuffs. Coach and Rochelle meanwhile busied themselves firing up the grill and fryer. He and the hick found everything they needed to prepare burgers, including cheese, onions, pickles, lettuce– though that wasn't looking too good anymore– the works. Some of it didn't really belong in the freezer, like the buns, but it had been placed there by someone to ensure it stayed, while not fresh, edible, which was the important part.

"Thank God for deep frozen meat," Nick mumbled, dropping a bag of quarter-pounders on the counter. "A freezer like that could hold a lot of food for a long time… assuming the power stayed on."

Ellis dumped the sack of fries into the fryer net in preparation; the oil needed a few more minutes to heat before he could drop it in to start cooking. "The sick thing is," Ellis commented with a sideways grin, "these'd prolly last ferever with or without it!"

Nick stuck out his tongue with semi-mock disgust. McDonald's fries were rather… notorious for their unnatural longevity after all.

Rochelle opened the bag of patties and threw a few of the meat pucks on the grill. They started to sizzle and pop instantly and she reached for the sliced cheese next.

Coach took a deep breath, practically hovering over her shoulder as she worked gracefully over the slate. "S'already smellin' good," he said, eyes half closed in desire.

Rochelle laughed as she reached for a spatula hanging above her head. "I worked in a fast food restaurant for a little while before I broke into the news business," she said, now flipping a patty over with the metal utensil. "Who knew it'd come in handy again, huh?"

"I'll say it sure-as-shit is now," Coach nodded.

Nick folded his arms and leaned against the countertop cooly. It was kind of gross but he was salivating himself, looking forward to a meal of grease and a couple thousand calories. For a good few minutes none of them spoke, listening to the sole sound of sizzling.

Ellis stared at the vat of oil in a kind of half cross-eyed fashion that signaled to Nick that the kid was in thought. A grin spread across the hick's features just a moment later. "Did I ever tell you guys about the time mah buddy Keith tried tuh deep fry a turkey?" he asked, breaking the silence.

Rochelle took her eyes off the grill long enough to raise a thin eyebrow at him. She laughed. "I don't think it'd fit, sweetie."

"Well, that was part a'the problem," Ellis scratched his head. "An' he didn't pick no small turkey neither, sucker had tuh be at least twenty-five pounds! He kept havin' tuh turn it around tuh git it evenly cooked on all sides, an' then his arms started gettin' tired…"

Coach frowned at him. "There a point to this story, boy?" he asked, clearly still in a bad mood from the kid's earlier miss-step at the crosswalk.

Ellis shrugged with dismissal. "Shit, iono." The fryer gave a beep, signaling it had fully heated. The hick smiled again and dropped the net in, then turned his attention back to his companions. "Well anyway," he continued, undeterred, "the damn thing slipped an' ended up splashin' him sumthin' awful. Third degree burns over ninety percent'a 'is body!"

The kid was obviously exaggerating, but it didn't stop the story from amusing him at least. "Deep fried Keith," Nick chuckled, examining his fingernails. "Sounds tasty."

Ellis stuck out his tongue at him. "Weren't nothin' tasty about it; looked gross as hell."

"You sure have an active imagination," the hooped earrings bobbed as Rochelle shook her head with incredulity and flipped the burgers.

Ellis' face rearranged into a frown and he scratched his nose, studying the checkerboard tiled floor.

Nick felt his spine quiver ever so slightly. He licked his top lip. "I'm going to look for ammo," he announced, popping himself off the counter with a quick flex of his back. He regarded them briefly. "I'll assume you guys can handle the minimum wage jobs?" He held up his left hand and provocatively rubbed his fingers and thumb together, trying to entice a negative response from either of his companions.

Ellis perked, either ignoring or not catching the insult– not that it had been meant for him anyway. "M'comin' wit'cha," he said quickly, "I ain't hardly got no more pistol rounds."

Nick gave a passive shrug.

Of course, the gesture was a bold-faced lie, because he had grown quite fond of when the kid chose to follow him around. And this was hardly an exception. He proceeded out of the kitchen, Ellis on his heels, a smirk on his face.

"Asshole," Coach said once he was out of earshot.

"I'm going to spit on his burger," Rochelle mumbled with another flip.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, like the food situation, the ammunition stockpile was just as good. Rather ironically, all of it had been stored in the 'play place' of the McDonald's. Weapons littered the multi-colored tables, to which the hick rushed into the room with a "oooooooh!" and started touching every single last one, fiddling with their various mechanisms.

The kid was goddamn adorable was what he was.

Which was probably what compelled him to ridicule the twenty-three year old a little. "Didn't your mom ever tell you not to put your hands on everything?" he asked. "You don't know where those have been," he teased, as if to imply the hick could catch germs or a cold or something from handling all the guns.

Ellis looked up at him and cocked an eyebrow. "Well sure she did," he drawled. "Tole me tuh keep outta the mud too, but heck if I listened." He grinned.

"I can tell that one," Nick said, casting a glance at the dirty overalls.

Ellis just chuckled and lifted a scope to his face, peeking through it towards the corkscrew slide.

Nick observed him sneakily while he was still distracted, letting his green eyes dance over the slender form. He had had a hell of a time keeping his eyes off him during the short twenty-second skirmish that had occurred outside. Kid knew how to shoot. And it was sexy as hell. Shit, just look at the way the S of his spine curved into those baggy coveralls, tied so tauntingly low on his hips… the way his taut stomach–

Ellis looked back up.

Nick turned on his heel and grabbed both a box of .50s and 9mm out of the little shoe rack, quickly redirecting his former thoughts. "You know, you have pretty much got this down to an art," he said conversationally, tossing the lower caliber container to the kid.

Ellis caught it and his brow knit, baited. "What'chu mean?" he asked.

Nick regarded him. "Counting shots," he said with mild deference. Flattery had always gotten him his way with women in the past, not that he expected it to work quite the same on Ellis.

The hick laughed as he pried open the box to get at the little cylinders encased in brass. "Well shucks, yeah, t'only makes sense." He jingled a few into his palm with a shrug. "'Sides, you do it too."

Ah El, always so humble.

"Four guns is a lot to keep track of," he continued. He began to pull the multitude of empty cartridges from his pockets where he had stored them, setting them one by one on the red plexiglas table in front of him. He flashed him a coy smile. "Especially when the hands aren't all the same."

Ellis cocked an eyebrow, clearly confused by his usage of the word 'hands' instead of 'rounds'.

"I'm saying you'd make a good card player," Nick elucidated smoothly.

The hick blushed and his fingers hurriedly started into motion to fill a clip. "Naw," he shook his head, as he finished one and started another. "Playin' cards an' shootin' guns ain't anythin' alike."

Nick gave a shrug. "If you say so." Both men continued to refill, but Nick kept his eyes on El surreptitiously, eyes half lidded.

The hick snorted rather suddenly. "How many a'those you got?" he laughed incredulously.

The conman picked up his fifth from the table. "Not enough," he replied sarcastically. He had actually been collecting them like some kind of packrat; whenever he came across another clip he stuffed it away in a pocket. The count at this point was eleven, but he wanted to get his hands on more if possible because eighty-eight shots wasn't sufficient.

At least, not if they were going to start coming across hordes like the last two with any increasing frequency.

Not to mention the hulking thing that he'd seen lumber under the overpass…

His stomach tightened involuntarily.

But El came to his rescue, his voice quickly driving the thought away, drowning it in drawl. "I actshuhly ain't ever played nuthin' more than War with my younger cousins," he admitted, scratching his chin.

Nick dropped his gaze to him. "Oh, that's got to be rectified," he delivered deadpan. A smart kid like El ought to be at least playing something with a sizable skill component. He wouldn't peg the kid for Bridge or anything, but shit, goddamn War??

Ellis laughed and returned the box of bullets to the cubby. He briefly searched them, no doubt for refills for his rifle. "Well, y'see, mah Ma said that cards is 'the devil's bible'," he explained. "I got a real floggin' when she found out later that night I had been playin'." He gave a short whistle, as if to indicate the severity of it.

Nick shook his index finger at him. "Your mom's got it all wrong, kid. Idle hands are the devil's tools." Ellis gave him an amused glance, his lips pursed– obviously he had heard that one as well, but had never equated the two; Nick continued. "And I tell you right now," he flashed a devilish grin himself, "I teach you how to play poker and your mom's going to be real proud of you, cuz your hands aren't ever gonna be idle again."

Ellis blew a raspberry at him, now taking a seat and leaning it back on its two back legs as he propped up his boots on the blue table. "Or maybe you jus' got an interestin' way of interprettin' things," he said.

Nick chuckled and finished loading his eleventh clip, stuffing it into his magnum with finality as it gave a click. "That's a safe bet."

There was another short silence. Ellis studied his hands which he had folded on his lap. "'Sides," he said, scratching his nose, "no one ever said I didn't know how tuh play, all I said was I hadn't."

Nick eyed him shiftily, disinclined to believe the claim. "Oh yeah? Who taught you?"

"Keith," Ellis replied shortly.

He should have figured that. Nick bit his lip with mild irritation. Asshole beat him to the punch.

The hick grinned at him keenly, removing his hat to momentarily run a hand through his hair before replacing it. "But I'm a'bettin' you could prolly teach me a hell'uva lot better," he nodded and Nick allowed himself a half-smile. Ellis shook his head. "Keith was always losin' all sorts a'money whenever we had poker night at his house." He gave a quick shrug. "I jus' watched a'course. But Keith– aw, Keith'd buy all this beer an' try tuh get the guys tuh drink it, so they'd get intoxicated so he'd have an edge, y'know? But then he always ended up drinkin' hisself an' purdy soon he didn't have an edge no more. Guy was like clockwork; completely cockeyed by nine. An' next thing you knew, he was out another hundred or two." Nick laughed; Ellis paused to eye him. "An' you, well..." he chuckled, tipping the seat forward again and leaning onto his elbows; Nick watched his biceps flex, as the blue eyes addressed him slyly, "you prolly don't ever lose, do you?"

He stared at the young man wordlessly, testing his tongue on the roof of his mouth.

So he had complimented the kid and the kid was complimenting him back.

It was nothing more than that, right?

Nick returned to the conversation at hand. He was tempted to play along with the claim, though the truth was that he lost plenty of rounds, all the time, but he knew when he had a bad hand or when others had a better one and never bet high on them, so he always left the table at a gain. Though that in itself could easily be considered 'not losing'. "Not… often," he responded, finding his compulsion towards honestly odd.

Ellis obviously thought it was too, giving him a confused look. He scratched his chin, dismissing it. "Well, anyways, I dun see why I couldn't give it a shot. Now," he added with a snerk. "Ain't got nothin' tuh lose."

His face fell suddenly, playfulness drained out. "Or a Ma tuh swat mah behind..."

Nick gave an uncomfortable shift on his feet. "Your mom was probably right to keep you from playing," he said quickly, though he had no idea why he said it. Maybe he thought it'd bring the kid some solace, or at least distract him from his missing mother. He motioned his hand. "Gambling is an addiction. And if you play half as bad as you say your friend did, you're going end up flat broke and on the streets."

Ellis laughed at this. "Well, he had his Uncle tuh keep him afloat," he said, and Nick gave an internal sigh of relief that he had managed to effectively redirect the conversation. The hick continued. "Ma didn't lend me so much as a dime, an' even if she a'had, last thing I would'a gone an' done was put it on the line like that."

Nick studied him, a little bit impressed by the show of responsibility amidst all his playful nature.

From the kitchen he heard the fry alarm start going off. He inwardly cursed the timing. Just when he was getting to know a little more about the kid. It figured.

The mechanic leapt to his feet eagerly at the sound. Nick swept out his hand in an 'after you' and the kid tipped his hat as he passed him. The conman followed.

Ellis, however, looked back at him with a sideways smirk, resuming their conversation. "I still dun think mah Ma would like ya vury much though, Nick, if'n she met'cha."

"What?" Nick asked as he skirted around a table to come to his side as they made their way toward the front of the restaurant. "You're telling me you'd actually introduce me to the old crone?"

"Hey hey, watch it," Ellis said warningly, though he was all grin. His eyelids drew down slyly. "She ain't all that much older than you, Nick."

Even though it was supposed to be a slam to his advancing age, Nick had to stifle a laugh for the implication it gave the other direction– that his mom had had kids when she was quite young (her teens considering Ellis' own age) which wasn't what he had meant at all.

"What'chu smirkin' at?" Ellis snorted.

"Nothing. Nothing, I swear," Nick failed to keep his mouth shut against a chuckle.

The hick fell privy to the unspoken joke. "Aww, you ass," Ellis gave him a friendly shove as they entered the kitchen. "You have no shame."

Chapter Text

Ellis put away five burgers. Only Coach, who slathered his in an excess of ketchup– perhaps only to lubricate them on their rather quick way down– had consumed more, his count at seven. And 'daintily' Nick and Rochelle had three apiece, totaling eighteen between the four of them. All of which didn't include the rounds of fries and apple pies.

Ellis couldn't recall a time he had eaten more, save Thanksgiving dinner at his aunt's house.

Stuffed to capacity, it took them all a while to even consider moving from their spots in the large round corner booth of the restaurant.

Rochelle took to scooping up the dozens of small twisted empty ketchup packets onto the plastic tray for disposal. Ellis reached an arm over, offering to get up for her to get rid of them; he was on one of the ends while she sat between Coach and Nick. "Thanks, Ellis," she said sweetly, handing it over. The hick tipped his hat and popped out of his seat, proceeding to the nearest trashcan. He dumped them in through the swinging hatch and returned the tray to the top with the rest. No reason not to clean up after themselves and be polite to the next people who came through this way after all.

Coach leaned back in his seat and patted his stomach. "Well, I donno about you all," he said, "but I'm gonna hit the hay. Been a successful day and we got more ground to cover in the mornin'."

Nick set his drink of water in a paper cup down and flicked his wrist at the older man dismissively as if to say 'go ahead'.

"Where'ya gonna sleep?" Ellis asked curiously, now returning to the table, though he didn't sit. The McDonald's didn't offer much in the way of places to lay down other than the floor, especially for someone Coach's size and height. And the hardened tiles didn't seem like they'd make a very good sleeping surface.

Coach frowned, looking around uncertainly. "Guess one'a the booths," he admitted wearily. "Ain't got much more option."

Nick chuckled.

The football player eyed him. "You got somethin' to say, Nicholas?"

Ellis shifted on his feet, hoping this wasn't about to go anywhere, but getting the bad feeling it was.

The conman stood and smoothed down the front of his jacket; Ellis watched him do it, watched him trail his hands slowly down his own form, carefully and deliberately. It was a very eye-catching motion… Ellis found himself unable to look anywhere else as the hands graced over chest and abdomen, coming to rest on his thighs where the coat ended. "Just that I'm glad I'm not the booth," the gambler said, flashing a smile. Ellis winced.

Coach rolled his eyes. "You got about five more years before all that," he inclined his head at his torso, "turns into a gut."

"Doubtful," Nick mumbled, entwining his fingers behind his head smugly, showoff-ishly. Ellis was still staring at his chest, which gapped from the dress shirt wider in the position.

"Boys," Rochelle interrupted with exasperation, "is this really necessary?" Her eyes darted between the two men with a harshness that said she was about ready to slap them both if they didn't cut it out right now.

The elderly man gave a grunt, backing down.

"I'll be outside," Nick grumbled, pushing past in his own form of surrender. Ellis nearly turned and grabbed his jacket to stop him, but restrained himself, letting the man go even though he didn't want him to and it left him with the uncomfortable aftermath of the dialogue.

Rochelle shook her head. "Seriously, why is he like that??" she addressed Ellis, motioning at the gambler as he disappeared through the door. The hick blinked, feeling rather put on the spot, but Rochelle continued, apparently not actually expecting a real response to her question. "I don't know how you can stand staying up with him," she said seriously, leaning on an elbow. "I really don't."

Ellis opened his mouth to say that Nick didn't treat him that way, but thought better of it.

"He's just an asshole, like I said before," Coach interrupted with a shrug. "Nothin' more to it than that, Ro'."

Apparently they had been having this discussion already, while he was absent. He pursed his lips tightly together, wondering what all had been said… behind his back… behind Nick's back…

"But everyone has a story," the woman spoke, her journalism roots showing through. She shook her head again, this time with further exasperation. "I don't know. It just seems to me like he has to have some reason to be such a jackass." She laughed. "Not that he'd ever open up to tell us if there was."

"I wouldn't hold my breath," Coach agreed.

Rochelle sighed. "I just wish he could get down off that egomaniacal pedestal of his and join the rest of us 'down here'."

Ellis dropped his gaze to his feet, uncomfortable to be hearing this. His ears burned a little as he stared far too intently at a crack in the tiling, dead silent.

Rochelle touched him on the arm. He gave a little jump; he hadn't even noticed her stand up and come to his side. "Ellis, sweetie, you okay, honey?" she asked, voice laced with gentle affect.

"Stomach ache," he lied swiftly, without looking up. Good as cover as any with as much as he had eaten.

"Maybe you should lie down," she offered.

Ellis shook his head stubbornly. "Naw, I'm fine, dun worry 'bout it. I jus'…" he hesitated. "You… you an' Coach should git some rest."

"You sure?" she asked carefully. "You don't look okay."

"A'course he's not," Coach laughed ruefully, pulling himself from his own seat at last. "The way he gets to spend the next six hours I wouldn't look too happy either."

Ellis bit his lip angrily at the man's assumption for his distress. As it so turned out, he had been looking forward to spending time with Nick. All day in fact. If the two of them were already settled in for the night, he could be now. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself a little before he spoke. "You know, maybe if ya'd jus' give him a chance, you wouldn't think he such'a bad guy."

They both laughed at him.

His face felt like it must have gone the same color as the ketchup.

Rochelle leaned against the table, scuffing her boots together in an absent-minded motion. "Ellis, sweetie, we've been giving him a chance." One of her eyebrows lifted as she studied the hick, as if to scry his intentions. Ellis dropped his face behind his hat to break eye contact with her, not in full agreement with her evaluation of the situation. She went on. "It's good you have the patience to deal with him. You sure have a lot more of it than Coach and I."

"You can say that again," the elder man mumbled.

Rochelle gave a shrug. "Besides, he hasn't exactly given us a chance."

"He's with us, ain't he?" Ellis argued.

"Yeah, for now," Coach gave a belly-laugh. "But you saw the stunt he pulled earlier, boy. He was ready to leave us all for Yulee."

"Ugh, I know," Rochelle agreed, rolling her eyes.

But he hadn't left them for Yulee. He hadn't. He'd been willing to go back to Kingsland the moment they locked eyes with one another, blue on green.

Not that Coach or Ro would know that.

Ellis frowned, because it seemed to him like they were intentionally missing his point though. That Nick wasn't a bad person who was 'out to get them' or make their lives difficult, that he was part of the team and wanted to get to New Orleans just the same as the rest of them. "All I was tryin' tuh say is that you could try tuh be a little nicer," he tried one last time. "Ya never know, you might get some kindness in return."

Rochelle peered at him. She pressed a hand to his left shoulder, squeezing. He looked up at her this time, and she was smiling. "You're probably right, Ellis. We're all in this mess together…" she paused as Coach shifted, "for now, anyway; so we ought to stay civil and not harbor any aggressions. We'll both try to be a little nicer to Nick and 'turn the other cheek'." Her gaze settled on the stationary football player. "We can do that, right, Coach?"

The man gave a grunt and folded his arms over his chest, nodding solemnly. "Yeah, alright."

Ellis smiled too, a genuine smile. He tipped his hat to each of them, glad to have come to an accord. "Thanks Ro'. Coach."

"Don't be thankin' me yet, youngin'," the heavyset man joked. "I haven't made good on it yet."

Chapter Text

It took them a few moments to get settled in, but once they had, Ellis waited only a couple anxious minutes longer inside before heading outside to search for Nick.

It wasn't hard to find him, in fact, as he rushed out of the building he almost ran right past him. He was standing, propped against the wall just a few feet from the entrance, hands in his pockets, one leg crossed over the other. Ellis was quite glad he hadn't wandered far, though he wouldn't have stopped searching until he found him if he had.

The conman glanced over at him. "Howdy, par'ner," he said with fake accent and a tip of an imaginary hat.

Ellis chuckled. "Evenin', slick," he returned, unable to conjure anything other than his Southern twang.

"Tuck the twerps into bed?" Nick asked.

Ellis gave a snort because referring to Coach and Rochelle as 'twerps' that needed a bedtime was sort of ridiculous, but still amusing. "Yeah, I got 'em tuh settle down eventually," he went along with it, the sentiment closer to the truth than the conman had any right to know. He shook his head. "But heck'if they'd let me read 'em a bedtime story," he quipped, alluding to his prodigious story-telling.

Come to think of it he had been reminded of a time when Keith stuck a straw in each nostril and attempted to drink Coca-cola through his nose... it hadn't worked out all that well for the guy, needless to really say.

Nick snerked. "Their loss." He let his form slide down against the wall, until he was sitting, then propped his elbows on his knees, hands on his elbows, and invited him to sit with a subtle gesture of his hand. "My gain," he smiled.

The hick eagerly plopped himself right beside the man, no more than a foot away. Only after he had done it did he realize he maybe shouldn't've, but it was too late to shift away and anyway, Nick didn't offer any immediate objections to his proximity. Really it was just Ellis' intention to be close enough so they could hear each other just fine while speaking quietly– after all, they weren't technically in the saferoom– but still, he didn't want to make the gambler uncomfortable none. Ellis waited a few moments longer just in case he was asked to move, but Nick remained motionless and silent, so he figured it must be alright with him.

Ellis scratched the scruff growing on his chin. "So… what'chu wanna talk about tuhnight?" he asked eagerly.

Nick grinned and dropped his gaze to the ground between his legs, shaking his head a little.

Ellis supplied an elbow to his shoulder. "Well?"

"I don't know," came the bemused reply. His head lifted with a smirk. "You want to talk about something?"

That almost made it sound like Nick thought he had something in particular in mind. Well, he had asked him earlier to stay up on watch with him, so maybe he had unintentionally given him a reason to believe he did. Ellis fiddled with his hat. "Shucks, beats me," he chuckled, feeling sort of chagrinned that he didn't really have anything either. They sat in a momentary silence.

"Your hat," Nick said.

Ellis blinked at him, pulling an eyebrow downward. "Whatta'bout it?"

"Tell me about your hat," he requested, and Ellis thought at first he must be joking. But then from the subtle smile playing about the man's lips he realized he was honestly asking.

The hick let himself laugh, a pile of memories already stacking up in his head, too many to say all at once even if he tried. "It's jus' an old thing," he admitted, now removing it from his head to study the front of it– the logo– in his hands. He tapped the patch with his index finger. "When Keith an' I opened up our garage we decided tuh git matchin' hats. Sort of like they was a part'a our uniform or whatever I suh'ppose, but also I guess fer advertisin' a bit, tuh let people 'round town know we were runnin' a shop an' all…" He paused a moment to grin. "An' at first Keith an' I had a bit uv'a bet goin' or sumthin' as tuh which one'uv us could wear ours longer an' not take 'em off, y'know? Shit, we was wearin' 'em tuh bed, wearin' 'em in the shower– heck– even wearin' 'em in church. Shoot fire, was Pastor Redfield mad!"

Nick laughed. "Don't tell me I just made you lose your bet," he said, tipping his head at the accessory that no longer sat on his head.

Ellis gave a snort. "Aw, hell no, I won a long time ago." He turned the cap over in his hands. "See, Keith's ladyfriend got real angry at him fer wearin' it 'in the sack'," he gave the cardshark a sideways glance and a quick curl of the side of his mouth, "an' I guess it was either her or the hat."

Nick joined him in a chuckle. "Women," he said jokingly. "One thing they will never understand is a bet between one guy and another." The sentiment amused Ellis, and the man lifted his right hand and stuck out his palm, a wordless inquiry if he could see said cap.

Ellis bit his lip, fiddling with the edges of it protectively. Usually it never left his head, let alone got out of his reach. He knew it shouldn't be a big deal, cuz it was 'just a hat', right? But that's not how he felt. He eyed the conman's waiting hand, eyed the single ring around his middle finger. But he supposed now that if he was gonna trust anyone with holding onto his prized possession in this crazy new world, it would be Nick. Reluctantly he handed it over.

The gambler examined it with odd care, fingers brushing over the mesh and seams with a delicacy that made clear he knew how much it meant to him.

Letting him touch it was rather personal, like touching an extension of his body almost. The talented fingers caressed the bill.

Ellis' breath nearly hitched.

"So you've had this… what… two, three years?" he asked.

"Longer than that," Ellis laughed.

Nick's face readjusted with a bit of surprise. "Four?" came the curious next guess.

"Try six," he grinned with a touch of pride.

Nick tipped his head, truly impressed. "You're telling me you started up a shop when you were seventeen?"

Ellis nodded. "Yesssssssir," he held the reply smugly.

"Well, I don't know what the law is in Georgia," the conman regarded him, "but in Nevada I'm pretty sure you have to be eighteen to start your own business."

"Oh, yeah, it's the same here," the hick nodded. "Keith's three years older than me though, so he's the one who done filled out all the paperwork an' such; I jus' worked under the table fer a year," he explained.

"I guess I figured you were both the same age," the gambler chuckled and gave a shrug. "Hanging out together as much as you say you did."

"Well, we was the same grade," Ellis elucidated. "He got held back a'couple of years back in grade school, an' me, well, I took this ac-cel-er-ated program, or whatever ya call it, tuh graduate a year early." He grinned from ear-to-ear. He didn't mean to brag, but it was one of his accomplishments he was more proud of because he had flown through his classes without so much as a lick of trouble, and he could still see his beaming Ma as he was awarded his diploma on that hot summer day in June.

Nick seemed to perceive his sense of fulfillment, though he issued no praise on the matter. Instead there was something decidedly different from the man. "So then why start a shop?" he asked carefully, his green eyes illuminated in the low light.

Ellis could tell he wanted to know why he hadn't continued with his education instead. Really, that was more of a compliment than telling him congratulations for having graduated early. He scrunched up the bill of his hat awkwardly, inclining his shoulder in half a shrug. "Mah Ma needed the help… financially, a'course."

The conman presented him with a pained half-smile that said he understood and an "oh".

Ellis scratched his nose sort of guiltily, intentionally leaving out the other factor that had been involved. That Keith'd been obsessing about running an auto shop when they got out of high school for years, and that the only reason Keith didn't right-out dropout of school was cuz of the fact that his Uncle wouldn't let him. And that his relative was the one who floated them the check to get the whole operation underway in the beginning– renting the building, buying the equipment and tools– and that that was sort of a graduation present for Keith, heck, for them both really, not that Ellis knew the man all that well and it embarrassed him to accept such a large gift on the grounds of just being Keith's best friend. He just sort of got hemmed into the whole deal. But it didn't really upset him at all at the time and besides, he wasn't about to let down Keith after all that time and it wasn't like he didn't enjoy working on cars.

Nick handed back the hat and Ellis took it gratefully. "Well, it's a neat logo."

"Oh yeah," Ellis laughed, "Mah sister Emma's actshuhly the one who designed it." He smiled and touched the patch, fingers tracing the outline of the tow truck. "She was the artistic one in the family; she was good, real good. An' she painted the sign on our garage too! Full size," the hick stretched out his arms as wide as they would go to emphasize his point, "the whole twenty foot span so you could see it from waaaay down the street, an' it looked real swell I kin tell you. That twelve-foot ladder didn't scare her a bit, jus' up there paintin' away like there was no tomorrow. Had a real passion, that girl." Ellis shook his head, reminiscing. "An' she was only eleven at the time, kin you believe it?"

Nick smiled. "Kids can surprise you."

"Yeah, they sure can." Ellis blinked, thinking of all his siblings now– all his younger– and how proud he was of them as they too grew up. Thought of the weekend visits to his Ma's house, catching up, listening to and telling stories. Even as each of them moved out and got their own jobs and residences they all rendezvoused back at the little house where they grew up to visit with one another from time to time.

Not knowing where they were or how they were made his stomach churn uncomfortably. He forced the feeling back quickly before it could take further hold of him.

"I reckon I'll have a few uv'um," he said, keeping his mouth going so his head wouldn't trip him up. "You know, eventually, not like right now or anythin'," he added quickly. Golly gosh he wasn't ready for kids. Shit, he didn't even have a girlfriend.

Nick chuckled. "Yeah, I should probably have some too."

Ellis quirked an eyebrow. "Ain't'cha?"

The gambler shook his head with a smirk. "Hell no."

Ellis scratched an arm, oddly relieved but still quite surprised. It was good to know that the man's divorce hadn't separated him from any offspring; it was too often kids got left without a father figure from that sort of thing, in his opinion. "Well, I guess tha's fer the better anyhow," he half-mumbled. "On account'a… all this," he shrugged out towards the night, towards the sleepy town.

Towards the zombies.

Silence again permeated their conversation.

Until Nick drew a breath. His voice came out shallow and low. "I'm sorry, kid."

Ellis choked. It had taken the man a long time to say it– unlike Coach and Rochelle, who had offered their condolences their very first day together; though in hindsight, their quickness to offer sympathy when he had simply mentioned in passing that he didn't know where his family had gotten off to spoke more of tact and politeness rather than actual sympathy. Ellis had given up on hearing anything of the like from Nick. The guy seemed like the type to just move on, especially when it came to things in his own life, things that should've effected him greatly, that would have a normal person. Just like water off a windshield after applying a fresh coat of Rain-x. Impenetrable. That's what he was. What he seemed like.

As such, he seemed even less the type to express any form of regret on the behalf of another person.

Ellis closed his eyes momentarily, letting it sink deep. "Thank you," he murmured, touched by the words. Nick remained quiet, though his green eyed gaze stayed on him, watching him with the very mildest of concerns. Ellis swallowed and attempted to regarner his enthusiasm, staring up at the unlit sign in the parking lot. "'Sides, I'm still doin' okay, ain't I? So maybe they is too."

Nick nodded, though guardedly.

"Hell," the mechanic continued, "they prolly headed out a lot earlier than I dun did, when they got word'a the infection." He ran both hands down the fabric of his pants. Truth be told, he kind of felt like a moron for having waited so long to get out himself, but he had just sort of assumed they'd all meet up that Friday evening as had previously been scheduled and depart together as a family. But then when he got to the house and it was empty… his Ma's station wagon long gone, along with a number of her more valuable keepsakes, that had pretty much said it, he was officially on his own. He stayed the whole night through, waiting, just in case any of them showed up or his Ma came back, but not a one of them did and it wasn't terribly surprising, really. So he went to the hotel the next morning for evac, and the rest was history, if you could call such recent events that.

What he really didn't understand about the whole situation was why he never got a phone call from his Ma while the phone lines were still up, before she left. Or from Dave, who must've also fled town early from the number of messages he had left him that never got answered; Dave was sometimes pretty bad about getting back to him, but never that bad. Not to mention any of the rest of his family. But shit, someone.

He shifted. "Anyway, suhppose I won't know 'til we git to New Orleans. Maybe they'll have a list or sumthin' 'bout who made it intuh the evacs, maybe even where they been 'ported to…" he thought out loud. He glanced over at the stoney conman, realizing suddenly that he was the only one talking. He shoved away his embarrassment for hogging the conversation. "Anyone yer gonna look up when we git there?" he asked.

"'Fraid not," Nick kicked one leg out in front of him lazily, in a mannerism that added he didn't care either. Or at least that he was pretending not to.

Ellis quickly took to looking at the ground. He didn't know what he had expected from the question, but he hadn't expected that. No parents? No siblings? No other relatives? Friends? He thought there'd be someone. Everyone had someone, didn't they?

They should.

Nick should.

He briefly twiddled this thumbs. "You ain't got any brothers or sisters?" he queried timidly; he couldn't even begin to imagine a childhood growing up all alone, without any playmates, confidants.

The gambler peered at him, green eyes discerning, then set his head back against the building. "Nope. I was an only child." An eyebrow lifted and he chuckled, motioning a hand. "And an 'accident' one at that, as I was frequently reminded."

"Yer parents said that?" he asked, incredulously.

Nick nodded.

"Tha's a terrible thing for 'em tuh say…" he mumbled, stricken by the harshness. You didn't just tell your kid they were an unwanted mistake. He had been an 'accident' himself, the first of his kin, but so had all of them technically. It wasn't a matter of 'they didn't want them', it was just they had them when they had them, no particular schedule or number of them in mind; they were 'happy accidents', so to speak. It was kind of hard to explain, but he knew his Ma, and his Pa– when he had been alive– loved them all very much.

"Yeah, well, that's about how they felt about it too," Nick went on mildly, lips drawing into the smallest of sneers, "a 'terrible' thing that ruined their perfect lives." Ellis flushed at his matter-of-factness toward the subject, his overall lack of resentment. "Middle of the seventies. Three guesses how it happened," he muttered rhetorically.

Ellis felt his mouth quirk rigidly, unease settling in the pit of his stomach. He had always been taught to 'respect your elders', but he couldn't really imagine now how you could respect your parents in that kind of situation, when you were conceived as a consequence of drug use. Not only must he have been told he was an accident then, but also how said accident occurred. Ellis gave a little shudder at the thought. No wonder Nick hadn't had kids of his own yet, with that kind of experience.

But the man's parents had to have wanted him a little though, if they hadn't sought an abortion. Right? He desperately tried to justify their actions in his head. Unless they just hadn't had the cash, had spent it elsewhere on other things... but now he was just speculating– he shouldn't do that, not without good reason.

Nick kicked at a rock, sending it sprawling out into the parking lot, bouncing off the asphalt.

He wondered briefly what would Rochelle would say if she was hearing this. If this sort of thing was a good enough 'reason' to be an asshole.

He finally found his voice, though it was meek and tiny. "Man, m'sorry."

"Don't be," Nick snorted. He cast him a sidelong glance. "I'm here now, that's what I can thank them for. About all I can thank them for, but…" he shrugged, not finishing the sentence.

Ellis supposed that much was true. The gift of life or whatever. At least he didn't have any side effects from the drugs, he had been real lucky in that respect from what he heard about pregnancy and substance abuse. Still, it brought up so many questions in his mind about the conman's past, about his childhood...

And he was definitely not brave enough to ask them.

"Well, I'm glad yer here," he admitted.

The gambler looked at him.

"Ain't no one else could pull mah ass outta hot water like you did at the crosswalk," he joked with a grin, attempting levity.

Nick's shoulders gave the tiniest of slumps as his eyes fell away.

Well, he had mussed that one up.

Ellis floundered, but he was unable to find anything else to say that could possibly salvage the lost moment. "We should prolly talk about sumthin' else," he mumbled, defeated, "all this's gettin' downright depressin'…" He scratched the back of his head with an uncomfortable chuckle.

The man's response was as contained as ever. "Whatever you want, kid." Nick looked at him again, and it wasn't a mean look, nor a sad one, it was just a look and nothing more. And it made Ellis pine a little bit on the inside.

What he wanted to do was lean over and give the man a hug, but he kept his hands to himself.

Chapter Text

He didn't manage to secure a lot of sleep that night. Mostly because he couldn't stop thinking. About two things.

The behemoth that awaited them at the highway.

And the kid who was snoring on the opposite side of the booth.

Part of him wanted to warn the others about what he had seen earlier that day coming down the offramp, but another part of him said he was just being paranoid. In all likelihood, the huge motherfucker had long since wandered off, cleared out of the area, in search of… food or whatever the hell. And even if it hadn't, if they just stayed reasonably quiet and kept moving, the thing probably wouldn't take any notice of them, and there wouldn't be any sort of confrontation, much like their first passing of it. It hadn't been stirred into action like the other regular zombies had been, so maybe he had no cause for alarm. Maybe it wasn't even hostile.

But from what appeared to be eight feet and four, maybe five, hundred pounds of solid zombie, that seemed more like wishful thinking.

He shuddered against the cushion. It was not something he wanted to deal with, regardless of some of the brawls he had taken part in and come out on top off when he had had no right to. You didn't press your luck. You never pressed your luck. That was the rule to any game, high stakes or low. You only faced what you knew you could handle.

The thing had had its back turned. For some reason or another it hadn't heard them.

That had been luck. 100%.

Ellis gave a snort in his sleep and rolled over onto his side, hat nearly falling as he shifted his neck and legs, now facing him. It was somewhat amusing to watch the kid sleep with it on, one of many curiosities he had about him that, thanks to tonight, he had gotten the privilege to learn about. Nick stared at him contemplatively.

“I’m glad yer here…”

He heard the words the hick had spoken to him in his head. He let them repeat again, listening hard to the way they sounded… the way they had been said to him. Because it had rather startled him at the time. Because he hadn't known El felt that way. Sure, the kid liked to follow him around and bend his ear, but he had kind of figured that was just the way the hillbilly was, that he would've done that to anyone if they let him.

But that wasn't just a casual 'I'm glad you're here', it was more of a you-mean-something-to-me 'I'm glad you're here'.

He shut his eyes tightly. He was deluding himself and he knew it.

But the kid had really opened up that night– that was undeniable. Ellis was far from 'closed off', what with all his yammering, but there was a big difference between being told yet another Keith story and the discussion they had had about his garage, or especially about his little sister. He for one hoped she and the rest of Ellis' likely crazy family were alright, but he wasn't going to hold his breath or get the kid's hopes up. Though as far as he could tell, the crazy kid's hopes were already up just about as far as they could be– like the four of them were just making a jaunt down to New Orleans and when they got there he'd be reunited with his family and Ellis could introduce his newfound friends to them all.

Nick was unable to summon much more than figuring they'd make it to the next safehouse alive, and tonight, he was having difficulty with that much. He pinched the bridge of his nose.

All in all he found it a little ridiculous that the one of them who had the most to lose was also the one who was most optimistic about the whole situation.

But maybe those sorts of things went hand in hand. Anyway, it still kind of bothered him. All he could really do was keep the kid company, be there for him, be supportive. That was what he was doing, right? He studied the placid face a little longer then gave a sigh and returned his gaze to the ceiling, wishing he could sleep so peacefully. But his thoughts wouldn't settle down and his mind kept racing in little circles.

Not to mention a rather throbbing erection, the doubtless result of not having had the opportunity to relieve himself for the past three days. But he was alone now– Coach and Rochelle gone outside to take watch like he and El had done– at least as alone as he was going to get, so he fished it out to quickly take care of business.

Except when he curled a ringed hand around it, he found he didn't just want to get it over with.

He wanted to look back over at the sleeping hick.

Testing his tongue on his upper lip, he allowed his head to incline to the side and glanced over.

His eyes grew wide and he let them roam, hungry and intent. It was dark in the saferoom, but there was ambient light enough he could see the kid top to bottom from both their positions under the table's edge. He worked himself over, slowly, stealing his eyes across the muscular chest and down his front, coming to rest on the curved haunches contained by his coveralls.

His chest gave a flutter and he pumped his arm a little faster, imagining holding those hips in his hands, imagined pulling him close by them. Imagined untying the sleeves around that deliciously thin waist and slipping the fabric off the swell of his firm backside and down strong thighs. He teased the tip with his thumb and bit down on his lower lip.

Shit. Shit shit shit, this wasn't right, he shouldn't be doing this, but he couldn't stop himself. The fantasy had cued itself up, playing in his head like a naughty movie in a porno theatre that he'd paid too much to get in for to just get up and walk out.

Ellis was returning the affection. Was undressing him, slowly, one button at a time. With his teeth. And he imagined Ellis' lips then… thick and plump and in motion– not with talking, but kissing. Imagined them dragging over his own exposed flesh, every-little-where– his neck, his chest, his stomach… lower.

He quickly gave his fingers an eager lick to replicate the fantasy, trailing the moist pads over his cock.

And he was soon reaching for some of the shitty paper napkins the table had to offer him.

Nick cleaned up breathlessly and shoved the wad out of sight. Once he had himself back in his pants and zipped, he began to feel the effects of the release. He relaxed his back into the cushion, body tingling with that post-orgasm thrill, sleepiness already creeping into the crevices of his mind.

Chapter Text

Rochelle was kind enough to have breakfast ready for them when they awoke, in the form of freshly prepared hash browns, neatly wrapped in their paper packages. Ellis hurried forward to snatch one and took an eager bite of the potato morsel, only to end up burning his tongue. "Hot!" he yelped, fanning at his open mouth with his free hand frantically.

"They did just come out, sweetie," the girl laughed at him from afar.

Nick took a more precautionary nibble out of the side of one, lip twitching as he sat down at a booth.

Ellis managed to swallow at last, and he blinked back the moisture pooled in his corners of his eyes, taste buds a little raw and still stinging. "They's good though. Thanks, Ro'."

"No problem!" she said, chipper. She held aloft a few wrapped bundles smugly. "I even packed us lunch."

"Good thinking," Nick mumbled, his first words of the day. Ellis nodded in rapid, full-fledged agreement, mouth too full to speak, at least politely like he ought to to a lady.

"Anything else you'd like, Nick?" Rochelle asked kindly.

The conman looked up and quirked an eyebrow at her. For a while he didn't even respond. "…Orange juice…" he answered slowly, with a hint of skepticism.

Ellis swallowed the remainder of his patty. "Me too, please!" he threw in.

"No problem, I mixed up some of the concentrate this morning," she said, turning to the machine that dispensed the fluid. She quickly delivered a medium-sized paper cup to each of them. "Two cups of sunshine," she grinned and Ellis tipped his hat as he took his beverage.

Nick took a cautious sip, as if he were concerned about being poisoned by said sunshine. Then he cleared his throat and found his manners. "Thanks, sweetheart," he mumbled, taking another bite of hash brown.

Rochelle's lips drew into a smirk and she started putting the wrapped burgers into their provision knapsack.

Ellis watched her, now chewing on his second helping. He took a large drink– it was pretty thick on the pulp, but that was okay with him, it made it seem more like he was drinking actual oranges. But he could remember hating it as a kid and throwing a tantrum if he discovered even so much as a sliver of the fruit flesh in his drink. He was still sometimes a little picky when it came to food, but he never made a big deal out of it or anything. He frowned into the cup, studying the liquid, then looked back to Ro. "Mine don't have pickles, does it?" he inquired suddenly.

Rochelle laughed again. "No, hun, no pickles. I remembered your 'order' from last night." She gave him a wink; the gesture betrayed she was referring to more than just the vinegared cucumbers.

Ellis blushed and beamed. Ro was really making an effort towards being nicer to the conman, and he honestly couldn't appreciate it more. "Yeah, okay, jus' makin' sure," he smiled.

She tightened the drawstring on the sack and gave his cap a knowing ruffle.

Coach came out of the bathroom then, tucking his polo into his pants, the door gliding shut behind him. He took brief stock of the situation. "We all ready to get a move on?" he asked, pulling the fingerless gloves back on over his recently-washed hands.

Ellis stuffed the remainder of his hash brown into his mouth. "M'ready when Nick's ready!" he said around potato.

The gambler glanced over at Coach with irritation. "Gimme a second, I just started eating here." He rolled his eyes and gave a huff, taking another rather uninterested bite, not much bigger than the last, his gaze fixated on the countertop.

Ellis reached for a third patty in that case.

"You can bring it with ya," the heavyset man concluded, as if the matter were already decided. Ellis peered at him and scratched his cheek, hoping he hadn't already forgotten about the deal he had made last evening. Especially after Ro went to the bother of acting so gosh-darn nice; he didn't want the older man to ruin what she had tried to set in motion.

Nick however, reacted slightly different than Ellis expected him to. There wasn't any anger, no snap of retaliation, or even muttered curse, just a subtle pull at the left corner of his mouth. "I think it would be better if we didn't have our hands full," he said with hesitance.

Ellis wondered what was making the gambler so anxious. He munched a little faster and sipped at his drink, studying the man's body language a moment or so more. "I kin cover you," he said quickly, reassuring him, but Nick still didn't look satisfied by the suggestion; his green eyes fluttered back downward and he managed another nibble.

"We should probably get going..." Rochelle said apologetically. "Those eighteen miles aren't going to walk themselves," she attempted humor with a smile.

The conman's expression soured. "Fine," he groused, standing and shoving his unfinished portion at the hick.

Ellis took it in his free hand and blinked down at it. He guessed it was for him then. He began to nom at one and then the other consecutively. Most people he probably wouldn't have 'shared spit' with, 'cept for his Ma or siblings of course, but Nick was just so goddamn clean he didn't even think twice about it as he gobbled into every place the man's mouth had been. Besides, it was hardly the time to be picky like that, what with being in a zombie-apocalypse and the like. Food was food and you should be glad to have it; though he found it funny the cardshark had thought to even offer it to him, because he could have just of easily assumed he wouldn't care to take it. He wished Nick were more hungry, but maybe he would be later. If he was, Ellis would make sure to offer him part of his meal– he wouldn't need it after tucking away three and a half greasy hash browns and a big glass of juice– though it rather suddenly occurred to him it might not work the other direction... Nick might not be willing to share spit with him. He gave the minutest of blushes and licked his now-empty left fingertips clean.

Coach grabbed up his arms and exited the restaurant. Rochelle shortly followed him and Ellis gathered his own things, machete and rifle and knapsack, balancing potato patty in his teeth until his hands were again free.

Nick meanwhile bent to curl his fingers around his new gun, hefting it to his back with a deliberate cautiousness. Ellis had wondered at the conman's choice to arm himself with an extra weapon that morning when they woke up, mumbling something about 'evening the score'. Thus far the man had never carried anything save the single magnum, and an AK-47 was quite the step up. Ellis had no clue what the gambler's intentions for the high-powered weapon were… what was making him so goddamn edgy?

Nick downed his orange juice quickly and discarded the cup with a flick of his wrist onto the floor in the vicinity of the trash can, pushing out the door.

"Keep a sharp eye out, kid," he disclosed in a mutter.

Ellis stiffened and followed him out.

Chapter Text

Nick was quite relieved when they chose to head to the southern onramp, rather than the northern one they had come off of. They made their way up the long stretch of asphalt, and when he saw the clear open stretch of highway in front of him he breathed a lot easier.

Their feet carried them forward, Coach and Rochelle in the lead, he and El in the rear for the next twenty or so minutes. If he wasn't such a pessimist, he might have even concluded they had successfully evaded it, that they were out of the woods and safe. That the AK had been an unnecessary precaution.

So he couldn't say he was terribly surprised when the female member of their party spoke up.

"Is the ground shaking…?" Rochelle asked suddenly, worriedly.

The three others froze in their tracks as if to evaluate the claim. "Well, shoot, now that'cha mention it," Ellis wondered aloud, pushing his hat up on his head as he peered at the earth. Nick felt the small shockwaves in the soles of his shoes and, filled with dread, turned to look north.

And there it was about a football field's length away. The huge, hulking beast of a zombie from the northern overpass.

But this time, instead of having its back towards them, it was barreling towards them on its fists.

"Fuck… we've got company," he informed his compatriots with a grimace.

They all turned at his words. "Holy shit…" Rochelle whispered, her brown eyes growing wide and wider.

Ellis used the scope of his hunting rifle to take a closer look at the approaching creature. "Now normally," he spoke, not lifting his gaze, "I'd say you ought tuh be polite when you've got company, maybe offer 'em a seat or a drink or sumthin', but from the looks'a that big motherfucker, I dun think it'd be awful prudent."

Nick cast him a disbelieving glance for his overall lack of concern, a chuckle held on his lips; he quickly made to draw the AK off his back, readying the mechanism with a click of the bolt. He was well aware that at this distance, coupled with his relative inexperience with such a high-powered automatic weapon, it wasn't likely to be of much use yet, as half the bullet spray would likely miss its target, but that didn't stop him from preparing the weapon. His eyes briefly moved to Coach, who was shifting on his feet, meaty fingers gripped so tightly on his shotty that Nick had to assume the man was harboring similar considerations about his own weapon choice.

Ellis took several pot-shots at the creature then, perhaps to test its resilience; it gave a howl from afar that sounded more like mere annoyance than the infliction of grievous wounds.

Rochelle lifted her own hunting rifle to take aim and follow his lead.

"Thing's built like a goddamn tank…" Coach swore, watching as the two smallest survivors each sunk a full clip and reloaded. "How much do you think it's gonna take to bring it down?"

Nick licked his lips, getting down on one knee to steady himself as best as possible. "I intend to find out," he muttered, narrowing his eyes down.

It was getting steadily closer; if he had to guess, he would've said it had crossed the first thirty yard line. Coach would know better. The thumps beneath their feet had grown in intensity, creating a distinct audible rumble of the loose debris and spent casings on the pavement.

Rochelle reloaded a third time. "This is not good," she shook her head. "Definitely not good."

"S'like it's not even makin' a dent," Ellis added in, frustration straining his vocal chords, testing his original nonchalance.

"You two might want to save your ammo," Coach commented. They both gave him incredulous glances. But the big man's concern was valid in Nick's opinion. At this rate, they were quickly depleting their clips to the point where they would need to make a return trip back to the McDonald's, or take a chance on the amount of infected they would bump into in the next seventeen of eighteen miles.

Under the working assumption that they'd make it out of this, of course.

Ellis grudgingly lowered his weapon. Rochelle did the same.

The gap was closing.

Well, it was now or never, he supposed. Nick bit at his lip, worrying at the kick of the automatic weapon. "One of you two want to steady me?" he asked. If they weren't going to be firing, they ought to be doing something.

Ellis looked to Rochelle and Rochelle looked to Ellis, but they seemed to simultaneously make the decision. El swooped down to his rear and pressed his palms to his upper back.

The hands felt reassuring and warm through the suit coat– solid, firm. Nick shouldered his weapon and took aim down the sight, directly for the center of the raging beast, finger hesitating at the trigger.

He squeezed it down and bullets screamed from the muzzle at 2,300 feet per second– double that of his magnum. He very nearly lost his grip on the thing in the mere four seconds it took to unload the magazine. The recoil carried backwards through his body, but thanks to the kid, all the bullets found their mark, ripping into the behemoth's shoulder, sending a cascade of crimson streaming out the backside.

The tank visibly stumbled in the distance, the assault briefly slowing it.

"It's workin'!" Coach announced, his voice booming.

Nick fed in his second clip. "Ready?" he cleared with the hick quickly.

"I got'cha," he affirmed, giving a nod; Nick could see the cocky grin on his face just from the way he spoke.

The conman opened fire, sending a second barrage tearing into its flesh, stripping muscle into ribbons that clung to its body... lodging bullets deep into its musculature, creating pock-marks that surged with darkened blood. It screamed and howled its displeasure; Nick smirked, hand moving for a third. They had this in the bag.

But then the creature did something he didn't expect. It took a massive swerve and hurtled itself into the brush that served as a windbreaker to the freeway.

Rochelle and Coach both simultaneously took an instinctive step back.

Nick warily trained the gun where he had seen the tank disappear, alarm pulsing through his veins. He didn't dare waste the shots he had shooting 'where he thought it was', he only had so many; he needed to know they were hitting their mark. The heavy foot falls had ceased– it wasn't moving. But it couldn't be dead either. Not yet.

Ellis' hands didn't falter. "What's'it doin'…?" he whispered.

They all heard the creak and wrench of metal. But none of them suspected to see a Dodge Caravan come hurtling overhead, directly for their position.

"MOVE!" Coach bellowed.

They scattered to the left and right; the minivan connected with the ground all but fifty feet in front of them, bouncing, not once, but twice as it barrel-rolled over its sides, glass shattering, fiberglass shredding. Metal screeched against asphalt as it keeled past them, far too close for comfort, finally coming to rest upside-down many feet beyond.

The tank re-emerged, its intent back on them, and it had covered sufficient ground in the interim. Thirty yards, perhaps, was all that stood between them and it, and that distance wouldn't last long.

So Nick didn't hesitate to hunker back down and take his own aim, knowing their window of safety was short, and relatively sure Ellis' help was now mostly extraneous due to its proximity.

Coach came to the same conclusion; he began unloading his shotgun, furiously pumping refills in through the bottom as fast as his fingers would load them. Rochelle panicked and resumed firing her rifle, her aim spotty and inconsistent because she wasn't shouldering it correctly. Ellis whipped out his pistol to add a little more lead to the chaos, though its efficacity seemed questionable.

The tank forced them back. Nick gave up on his crouched position. They went all out, back-peddling; flesh tore from its body, blood soaked the ground in a trail behind it. Its movements became jerky and uneven, massive arms lunging helplessly, too far out of range to reach them. Finally, the creature gave a last dying roar before it collapsed face-first onto the pavement.

Nick dropped his AK; it clattered to the ground. He felt at his palms. They were soft and numb to the touch from the relentless vibration of the gun, and his ears still rang from the gunfire. For a long moment, all four of them were silent, recovering from the monumentous trial; but next thing he knew, they were all grinning from ear to ear at their triumph over the beast.

Coach folded his arms. "We have got to find a better way to do that," he said matter-of-factly, chuckling and shaking his head with a chagrinned smile that spoke worlds.

"I already gots an idea," Ellis piped up, looking rather smug. "Heavens to Betsy," he continued, "Yulee better damn-well have a liquor store."

"Don't tell me you're going to start singing again," Nick teasingly plugged his ears, in reference to their short-lived car drive the previous day.

Ellis laughed and gave him a friendly shove. "Nah, it's sumthin' Keith gone shown me how'ta make." He grinned widely, face lighting up with pure mischief. "Fire in a bottle, baby."

"Molotov cocktails…" Rochelle wondered aloud, nodding her head appreciatively. "Those things are nasty; get thrown around a lot in riots. I've done coverage on the damage." She lifted an eyebrow with a subtle pull to her lips. "Extensive, to say the least."

"Not a bad plan, young'un," Coach pitched in. "You light anything up it ain't gonna last long." He gave him a hearty clap on the back.

And then, like clockwork, Ellis turned to collect his opinion on the proposition.

"What can I say?" Nick supplied with a cavalier shrug. "The idiot's a genius."

He got another shove.

Chapter Text

The St Mary's River loomed ahead, wide and looping back on itself in numerous near oxbows. The water, which Ellis had learned years ago from his 'local geography' class drained from the Okefenokee Swamp to the west, served to separate and designate Georgia from Florida, giving the latter state its famous 'boot' shape. Distractions of intermittent zombie attacks aside, Ellis couldn't help but gnaw his bottom lip in anticipation as they approached the long expanse of bridge that would carry them across the border– he kept looking back behind him and gradually he found himself falling further and further behind his compatriots. His footfalls became progressively fewer and at the bridge's commencement, he stopped dead in his tracks altogether, staring at the toes of his well-worn work boots. Coach and Rochelle had already gotten a good sixty feet or more across the trestles, not a hesitation or falter to their steps, but the gambler, who had seemed to be pacing him ever since the tank, noticed his pause and turned to look at him.

Ellis caught the green-eyed gaze. "This's it," he informed the man, motioning at the seam that divided asphalt and metal bridge. "Soon as we cross this bridge, I'll've finally been outta Georgia."

Nick chuckled, waving at him, magnum still in hand from the last thing he had shot down half a mile back. "C'mon, Dorothy."

Ellis stuck out his tongue at the man for associating him with the fictional Kansas female. "M'comin', hold yer horses." He licked his slightly chapped lips and turned to peer back one last time at the expanse of his home state that he was about to leave behind. He'd spent all his life there, all his twenty-three years in one place, and he'd never ever thought to leave in his whole time there. It had always been his home.

He couldn't help but wonder when he'd be back again. If he would.

Nick waited, patiently, some twelve feet onto the long bridge, unmoving; he was apparently scanning the landscape as well with partially squinted eyes. The water beneath them carried with it a light breeze oceanward, not more than a lazy five or ten miles an hour, he would've guessed, and Ellis noticed now the way it fluttered the man's jacket and swept at his greasy hair, attempting to free strands from the mass that was the rest. He looked rather brave standing there all alone like that, he realized, and for a fleeting instant he had to wonder what might be going on in that contained reserved mind, if any of his thoughts were on 'home' as well.

But that was probably silly.

Ellis peered around him; Rochelle and Coach's forms were shrinking with every delayed moment, getting ahead of them. Nick didn't look terribly concerned, but when did he ever really, besides earlier that morning? Since their triumph over the tank the conman had gone back to his typical aloof demeanor, calm but cautious. They couldn't stay standing here forever though. Ellis bit his lip. With a heavy heart, he took a deep breath and stepped onto the bridge. In a few quick strides, he had joined the conman and they both resumed southward together. "'Sides," he broke the silence, "this ain't much'uva yellow brick road," he quipped as he deposited his hands to the pockets of his coveralls, shrugging his shoulders as they walked side by side.

"And New Orleans probably won't be much of an Emerald City, either," Nick carried on semi-sarcastically, his eyes to the west, toward the mentioned destination.

Ellis scratched the stubble on his cheek. "Still dun think we'll make it in time?" he asked.

The gambler shrugged, which he supposed was the answer.

They spent the next few minutes at a slightly increased pace, closing the lost distance between them and the other two survivors. As they walked, Ellis couldn't help but glance over to his older compatriot. The way the conman walked, with such a purpose to each and every step… seemed so contradictory to his pessimistic notion that there was nothing waiting for them in New Orleans.

Everything about Nick still seemed like such a mystery… Sure, Ellis knew he must've lived a good portion of his adult life in Nevada, what with working at a casino and all, but was the silver state the only place he had lived, the place he would refer to as 'home'? Where else had he been? Had he travelled? For that matter, what had he been doing in Savannah when he had… to get himself into all this mess? As far as he had seen and heard, the west was clear of the infection, at least for now.

Ellis knew he should probably save the questions for later, but it was eating him up inside wanting to know at least something more about the man he was quickly beginning to so greatly admire. So he asked the one that seemed most relevant to his own thoughts. "Where'ju grow up?"

The older male didn't seem to be caught off guard by the sudden inquiry, instead eying him briefly, before turning his chin back to face front. "Cali," he said succinctly.

The answer didn't narrow it down all that much, but he supposed he wasn't going to get much more from the contemplative man at the moment. He fiddled with the safety on his pistol in its holster.

"Foothills," Nick added abruptly, and Ellis looked back to his profile. The man's voice dropped to a lower volume, partially mumbling. "North of LA. Hated it."

Ellis would have asked why– as it was he was bursting with inquisitiveness at the hint of information– but the gap was closing and Coach and Ro were now within earshot, and he knew Nick wouldn't be comfortable carrying on the dialogue any further. He shut his mouth, having respect for the man's privacy.

Rochelle noticed when they caught up and turned to flash them a smile. "How's about lunch?" she suggested. Ellis blinked and looked up toward the sun. It was a bit early in the day for their midday meal, but the bridge was literally abandoned; they hadn't seen a single infected across its length yet and they'd only need to cover the two angles– front and back– if anything did show up, so it made a good spot to stop, rest their legs, and refuel.

"A'right," Ellis agreed, pulling the provision sack from his back and handing it to her. She began to dole out the allotment she had packed to each of the men.

They all sat and dangled their legs out over the bridge, staring at the water of the St. Marys underneath them as they consumed their lunch, listening to its gentle churning.

"Would'ya look at that?" Coach said with slight wonder; he pointed a large arm south. Ellis followed it and felt his eyebrows raise.

They hadn't seen it before when they had been on the bridge proper, but their current positions nearly overhanging the ledge gave them a new perspective. A large freight boat was caught underneath the bridge; it hadn't made the clearance. Water flowed around its hull, eastward, towards the ocean, careless of its large intrusion, though various plant life had gotten stuck on it, the current not enough to sweep it away. Apparently, the bridge hadn't raised for the fleeing vessel, and the captain had decided to try and make it through anyway, only to wedge it into its current locked position. Ellis frowned. After that the ship must have been abandoned by its occupants and crew because it was very much desolate, no sign of anyone or anything on said craft, except for a message that looked like it had been blow-torched onto the side of the hull: Freedom or Bust.

"What were they trying to do…?" Rochelle wondered aloud at the spectacle. "Weren't they headed for evac?"

"Apparently they thought they could make it their own way…" Coach trailed off.

"Dumbshits," Nick imputed.

There was a silence between the four.

Ellis couldn't help but wonder what the heck would make the passengers even attempt their own form of evacuation, rather than that provided by CEDA.

One thing the display did make clear was that the power in Florida, unlike Georgia, was out, considering the control box sat on the Florida side of the border. Moreover, it signified that the two states had handled the news of the infection differently– the more northern state endeavoring to keep electricity flowing and available within its border, the southern cutting it off, whether on purpose or accident it was impossible to divine. What it meant for them was that things were undoubtedly going to be a little less easy from here on out, that they'd be roughing it for a good long while if they were planning on following their original route– shit, it'd be until they got out of Pensacola, in the very toe of Florida, which was quite a ways off… and nothing guaranteed Alabama, or Mississippi, or even Louisiana itself– their destination– would be any different.

"Y'know, maybe we oughta jus' keep goin' south an' go tuh the Keys," Ellis joked to his compatriots, sinking his teeth into the quarter-pounder with cheese.

"It would be lovely this time of year," Rochelle nodded, motioning with a french fry, "A balmy eighty degrees, as they put it in the biz."

"I forgot my swimsuit," the conman quipped sarcastically.

"That's alright, we can all just go skinny-dipping," Coach joked back through a full mouth.

"Dear Lord," Nick pinched the brim of his nose at the thought, no doubt imagining the suggestee with a lack of proper swimwear.

"No thanks," Rochelle laughed, understandably uninterested.

Ellis just chuckled. No doubt the older male, once a minor football star, had no qualms with seeing other grown men naked– frequent after-game showers would have done that for him. The prospect didn't bother Ellis much either– it wasn't like he hadn't gone 'skinny-dipping' before. He and Keith and some other friends had done so on a couple of occasions, back at the lake when the fishing boat got too warm and they needed a quick cool-off. Of course, Keith always wanted to make a big deal out of it, make it a race, saying the last one undressed got to do the gutting and scaling on the day's catches, and then he'd stand there at the bow of the boat in the full nude, hands on his hips in triumph because inevitably he was always first to be stripped.

Ellis nibbled his bottom lip with a touch of a frown. At least with Nick and Coach and Ro he wouldn't be stuck gutting fish all the time.

He stared down at the swirling, ebbing water, letting them sweep the unwanted memories away. "Y'think they kin swim?" he asked suddenly, compelled. All three of his fellows knew exactly who he meant by 'they'.

"I don't see why not," Nick reasoned, leaning back on a palm. "If they could before getting infected."

"I guess'so," Ellis stared hard at the flowing surface. "S'jus' you don't see zombies swimmin' in the movies, so…"

"I can think of one good way to find out," the conman said, filling his mouth with a large bite.

"What are you going to do?" Rochelle laughed, "find one and throw it in?"

Nick shrugged. "Sure."

"Sounds like sumthin' Keith'd do," Ellis contributed, unable to help himself. "This one time he was playin' with a rattler, trying to git it tuh swim, cuz I guess he'd seen this segment on the tv about water snakes not that long ago an' he was curious tuh see if they all could do that– they can't, by the way," he added, "an' anyway, he had this long stick– I didn't wanna git involved, cuz originally he wanted me tuh up an' distract it or sumthin' while he made a grab fer its head– an'…"

A coughing hack startled all four of them. Ellis jerked his head right, as did Nick; Coach and Ro both looked left. But they were still alone on the bridge.

"Damn echoes," Coach mumbled in dismissal, stuffing the remainder of his meal into his mouth.

Ellis peered over the edge uncertainly, feeling nervous, his story of his friend's resultingly swollen up, snake-bitten face long forgotten. Even if the water was causing an echo, that still meant whatever had made the noise was nearby. And it didn't sound like the typical infected they had been encountering. He eyed the northerly bank momentarily, and set down his food on its paper package to grab the hunting rifle from his back to use its scope to take a closer inspection.

"See anything?" Nick inquired calmly after the mechanic had spent a moment searching.

"Nothin'…" Ellis pulled his eye away, biting his lower lip.

"What about on the ship?" he inclined his shoulder, eyes not leaving his half-consumed burger. The guy was really digging in, which was good; Ellis was glad to see him properly filling his belly since his breakfast was sparse.

The hick swung the weapon around to access the threat, his left eye– his bad eye– squeezed shut. "No…" he murmured. There was another hack and then a slick whirling noise that reminded him of a loose fan belt.

The very next instant, something long, dark, and indistinguishable had wrapped itself around Nick's shin. "What the shit?!" the man got out. The appendage went taut and instantly he was pulled right from the ledge.

Ellis' fast reflexes caused him to abandon his rifle and seize ahold of the man's arm.

He only realized how stupid a thing it probably was to do when they were both tumbling from the bridge, through air, towards the quickly approaching water below.

He heard Rochelle shout out in alarm before the crash that was their bodies hitting the surface of the river and rushing into his eardrums. The water swallowed them up in its cold maw and the world became muffled; he forced his eyes open underwater to get his bearings, to determine which direction was up– seeking out the light of the sun through the murk. His fingers were still clutched around the gambler's bicep… the man was struggling with something, kicking his legs, likely trying to get free of whatever had snagged him, and Ellis pumped his own to get them above water, his lungs already pounding in his chest.

His head breeched the surface with a gasp and he was joined by two others–

Nick and something entirely else.

Its face was covered in boils, so much so that all that remained of the person's original face was a single glowing eye and a wide open mouth from which a long muscle protruded.

The thing hooked around Nick's leg was a tongue. A couple other tendrils coiled and curled about its head, moving to find targets to wrap themselves around– least of all the conman's neck. Ellis flailed to get them away from the advancing writhing, slimy muscles.

Next thing he knew there was a loud pop! and the air around them filled with a green smokey vapor– and the creature was gone, its body sinking beneath the surface. Rochelle must have picked it off from the bridge with her hunting rifle.

"Christ!" Ellis coughed, it stung his eyes– he was already having a hard enough time catching his breath and…

"It's still got–" Nick managed to get out before his head submerged again.

Ellis' eyes widened and he dove. The weight of the dead infected's body was what was dragging the man down, its tongue still tightly wrapped around his ankle. Nick was struggling at the now-lifeless bindings with his fingers, loosening them slowly but not nearly fast enough. Ellis yanked the machete from his hip and took a slow-motion swing through the water. The dull blade sliced the darkened appendage and released him from the anchor.

Both men resurfaced sputtering.

"Shit…!" Nick spat river water numerous times, understandably still shaken by the encounter.

Ellis re-secured his machete quickly, but next his hand jerked to his head because he realized what was missing from it. Frantically he scanned the surface and gasped when he located his hat, barely floating a bit off. He made a beeline for it and managed to snag it before it went under, plopping the wet headgear back over his hair with a quick prayer to the Lord– he probably would have never been able to retrieve it from the depths of the river. He gave a sweep of his arms, turning to face back upstream.

The river had managed to carry them quite a distance from the bridge. While it was by no means fast flowing, they were quickly losing sight of the far-off forms of Coach and Rochelle– dots of concerned pink and purple standing on the edge.

"North or south??" Ellis shouted to his comrade; they needed to decide quick before they lost visual contact altogether.

Nick grimaced as he buoyed. "We don't know what might be waiting for us on the south side," he cautioned over the rush of water.

Ellis nodded his understanding.

They paddled for the north bank. It made his arms and legs feel heavy as hell. Shit, he wouldn't have guessed swimming in full clothing would be so much damn harder, though the steel-toed boots were for sure weighing him down considerably. When they finally got there and crawled up onto land, he flopped down and rolled onto his back to take a breather, not caring how much dirt would be caking onto his wet shirt later.

Nick took a seat beside him in a patch of dried grass; he was already fussing over his damp magnum, draining the water from the barrel. Droplets drained out of his hair, dripping along his jawbone and off his chin and nose; he drug a soaked sleeve across his eyes. The dress shirt underneath the jacket clung to his chest and torso, some of its opacity lost, and Ellis couldn't help but notice just how toned the man was underneath all the formerly obscuring clothing. Especially in the abdomen– shit, did it look good… damn. He flushed a little and sat up.

Coach and Rochelle's shouts sounded to their rights; they were on their way to meet them. He cupped his hands to his mouth. "We're over here!" he sounded out to them, then waved his arms. They caught sight of them and hurried their pace; Ellis could see they had his hunting rifle– he was instantly glad he hadn't lost it to the river. Nick was probably lucky his thigh holster was so tight. Ellis looked back to the wet cardshark.

"Guess that answers your question," Nick flashed him a smirk as he slicked some of his loose hair back into place with chagrin.

"Yeah," Ellis laughed humorlessly, ringing water from his hat as he shook his head, "I guess'so."

Chapter Text

It had taken he and Ellis a good few hours to dry out, mostly because the humidity prevented it. His shoes were still soggy, even as they entered the outskirts of town, but he could get over it. Rochelle had even been kind enough to take his suit coat for a bit, wringing it out as best she could and shaking it in the wind so the dampness could drain away from the fabric. Though naturally her concern for the hick had been more immediate– it was only after multiple reassurances of 'm'fine' from the thick lips that she finally relented and accepted the answer. Coach didn't have much to contribute to the discussion of the encounter, looking stoney-faced and serious, and the big man's silence certainly didn't upset him any as he surreptitiously shook off the cold that numbed his fingers and ears. Ultimately Nick knew that the older man's thoughts were hung up on the facts– that their little group had been separated within the time frame of an eyeblink, literally.

Which personally just reinforced in his mind what he had been preaching to himself from the beginning– that they all needed to keep a sharp eye out and take better stock of their surroundings. They certainly wouldn't be hanging their feet off any more ledges, that was for damn sure.

He was a little chilly at first without the extra layer of his suit coat; he just wasn't used to the climate– but the sun was warm and dried their skin quickly, bringing heat back to their bodies as they resumed their trek. Fuck if Ellis hadn't decided to physically remove his little muscle shirt to give it a quick wring out, and the display of still-wet skin and flexing muscle warmed him faster than the sun ever could; he'd honestly been that close to sporting an embarrassing bump in the front of his trousers before the kid pulled it back over his head.

He had been very careful with his magnum the first few fires, and he encouraged Ellis to ensure his pistol was free of waterlogging before he did the same, though glocks were particularly resistant due to their construction. Thankfully, neither of them suffered any misfires, though Nick was adamant about giving his weapon a good thorough cleaning when they arrived at their safehouse.

There was in fact a liquor store in Yulee as Ellis had hoped, one of those little corner-store hole-in-the-walls with iron bars over all the windows, that doubled as a bait and tackle supplier– it made sense considering the town's proximity to the river. Nick didn't have any trouble picking the thick padlock set onto the door with the provided bobby pin from Rochelle, at which point he stepped back to let Coach take over. The ex-football player took a running start at it, throwing his massive shoulder into the door. It smashed the interior bolt loose from the doorframe, fracturing and splintering wood as it flew open on its hinges, colliding with the check-out counter just inside the door with a crash. The elder man rolled his shoulder in its socket once, stretching his neck in quick recovery. So maybe his weight and background had some merit. Nick made a mental note not to stand in front of the man when he was on the move from there on out.

They split up but Nick stayed at the store entrance, just inside the door, his eyes outside, keeping watch in the off chance something tried to jump them during their raid of the small shop. But there were only a few meandering commons that came to explore the loud crash caused by their breach of the door, and he was more than happy to oblige their curiosity with a .50 cal bullet hole between each pair of searching yellow eyes.

Of course even with the supplied target practice, he couldn't stop thinking about how the mechanic had grabbed his arm as they toppled over that bridge together. How they had both taken the twenty-foot plummet into the water below, even though he had been the one to get pulled. He swore he could still feel the imprint of Ellis' fingers, the tightness with which the young man had clutched with instinctual urgency– Nick couldn't help but wonder if he had unintentionally left bruises on the skin. He briefly reached up to touch where they had been.

He wouldn't go so far as to say the kid had saved his life or anything, but the appreciation he felt nonetheless was undeniable. He honestly wouldn't have expected the other two to dive in after him had he fallen in all alone. He turned a jade eye to Ellis.

The kid swept an armful of beer bottles from the shelf and deposited them to the plastic basket in his left hand. Nick watched warily as Ellis counted them out. They had already managed to find a hardware store where they had grabbed supplies, which included, but wasn't limited to, a large gallon-sized tin of turpentine that would be serving as the flammable ingredient for their makeshift bombs, along with a pint of motor oil– for cohesion purposes– both of which had been put into his possession. He absently swung the brown paper bag at his side, letting it brush against his leg– the one he had been so rudely snagged by– gently, listening to the sway of fluid inside the containers. It was a good 144 ounces of liquid altogether when mixed, so they'd be able to whip up a full dozen of the things if they filled the bottles to their full capacity. Now, how they were going to carry them all was another matter altogether; they had to be stored mostly upright. But he supposed they weren't worrying about that just yet.

"Alrighty!" the hick lifted the basket a moment later, with an eager nod, "I think I gots what we need." He had added a small vessel of vodka to the twelve beers– no doubt what they would be soaking the cloth wicks in– trundling over to them with his spoils.

Coach had helped himself to a small bottle of chocolate liqueur, which he was practically suckling with frequent sips; he gave a hearty nod to the boy. "Good," he paused the mouth of the bottle at his lip to speak. He shrugged his shoulder to the east, "Then let's get outta here and get to that safehouse."

Nick wagered the older man was eager to get back so they could actually take some time to relax. The seventeen-mile distance had only taken them seven hours after the run-in with the tank, even with the backtracking the smoker had caused them, and as such, they had agreed on the walk to give themselves each a little time to catch an extra hour and a half of sleep, figuring the lost time on the road would refresh their bodies and benefit them in the long run. Nick had to admit, it was a rather strenuous pace they had adopted, especially for anyone who wasn't used to regular physical exertion, which he doubted Rochelle was. And Coach's prime had long since come and gone. Thankfully they were both keeping up. Though he still probably owed the reporter for plugging off that long-tongued freak before it could sink its claws into him. God had that thing been nasty to look at.

"Sounds good tuh me!" Ellis responded enthusiastically to the football player, never dampened, not even after twenty damn miles or an inadvertent swim in the river. He popped the top off of one of the beers to take a ready swig; Nick lifted an eyebrow. Oh God, he hoped to hell the kid wasn't planning on drinking too many of those to empty them out. Ellis caught his gaze and, misinterpreting it, offered him the brown bottle with a grin. "Want'some?"

Nick's mouth quirked. Under normal circumstances he wouldn't be adverse to consuming alcohol, especially something with such a low percentage because his drink of choice was primarily scotch, but he wasn't too keen on the possibility of inhibiting any of his faculties, even slightly; he needed to be on the top of his game. His stomach gave a growl, as if to remind him how little was there to dilute the drug. Ellis waggled it provocatively. Ah, what the heck, what harm could a sip do? He took it and slugged back a single quick swallow, letting his tongue linger on the twist-off glass edge before handing it back. Hick spit, he noted with a pleased lift of an eyebrow. Little had he known when he handed over that morning's hash brown that he'd be starting something. Sheesh, next thing you knew they'd be sharing everything.

The concept of 'sharing a bed' came to mind, but he roughly shoved it away as quick as it had come.

"We're not there yet," he commented cooly, "so don't get drunk off your ass." He meant it; drinking and shooting were not a good mix, and with the way Coach was sucking down that liqueur, he didn't want he and Rochelle to be the only ones left able to point a gun.

Ellis chuckled, lifting a dirty blonde eyebrow beneath the almost-lost hat. "Yer gettin' me confused wit' Keith," he said matter-of-factly. "I told'ju he was the one who liked gettin' plastered, not me. Shoot," he swore and shook his head, mouth starting, "you shoulda seen 'im this one time. He went fer this beer run in the middle'a the night, an' the manager a'the store didn't wanna sell him no more alcohol on account'a the fact that he was already so schnockered he could barely stand…"

"Good Lord, Nicolas, look what'chu gone and started," Coach mumbled over the kid, half joking, half serious. He clapped Ellis on the back. "How's about you save it for later, boy," he suggested.

Ellis' gaze dropped with an "Okay," effectively silenced. He took another drink, though more timidly under the beefy man's arm; Nick shifted anxiously in the doorway.

"C'mon, baby girl," Coach beckoned to the female survivor inside the shop, turning to head out the store door.

Rochelle was standing with her back towards them, in front of the west wall of the little building, still eying a singleton case of Mike's Hard Lemonade inside one of the formerly-refrigerated displays. She shifted on her feet before looking back to them, almost questioningly.

Nick gave her a teasing lift of an eyebrow. "Just take it," he said, flicking his wrist. "It's not going to hurt anything." He could tell her conscience was what was holding her back, eating at her. It was one thing to take supplies from designated safehouses, another to rob from an abandoned convenience store. She hadn't much liked absconding with the turpentine and motor oil either, though she couldn't argue how great a commodity having the mollies would be. She'd best get used to swiping things though, in his opinion. Who knew where their next meal would be coming from. It was quite possible they would have to resort to burglary frequently in the near future, though he wondered about the potential scarcity of provisions further down the road, depending on who all had made the same judgement call.

"Well, maybe you're used to stealing," Ro shot back at him, though good-humoredly.

"Not stealing if no one misses it," he shrugged with a grin.

She glanced back in through the glass door, considering the logic behind his statement, before opening it up and snagging one of the four, leaving the other three. She proceeded out the door with her fellow survivors, closing the broken door behind her. "Tonight's top story," she said aloud, tracing the sky with the bottle like a headline, "Yulee Liquor Store Plundered. Culprits, as of yet, unknown, but security cameras indicate one man dressed in a white suit…"

All three men laughed, Nick's a chuckle. "As if it'd be that easy to catch me," he murmured and she gave him a sharp elbow to the arm, opening her beverage with a pop of the screw-top bottle cap. He meant it though; he was not easy to catch when it came to making an escape.

Again, not anything anybody needed to know though.

They set out, goods in tow.

Chapter Text

Their safehouse turned out to be a duplex that had had its interior walls knocked out. The result was six full-sized bedrooms, and a couple of kitchens and bathrooms, though one of said bathrooms had been modified for reasons he could not discern into what they could only guess was some kind of storage room; it had been sealed off with numerous locks and upon the thick metal door were spray-painted the words 'in case of emergency' in all caps. The lettering was messy and uneven, as if it had been written in a hurry, the can discarded to the floor, though the carefully hammered nail that the keyring for the padlocks hung from didn't convey the same urgency.

None of them really knew what to make of it. And while they couldn't classify anything they had been put through as of yet an 'emergency'– zombie apocalypse of course withstanding– all four were helplessly curious as to what lie inside.

But for the moment they agreed and decided to leave the room alone and check out the rest of their sanctuary– Coach the kitchen, Nick and Ro the sleeping accommodations.

Ellis chose to scout the outside perimeter of the house quickly, to make sure it was secure. The original fencing, a rather simple design made of 2x4s and 2x8s, reaching the standard six foot height, had been partially re-engineered, reinforced with steel rebar, horizontally connecting the wooden boards. In addition, razor wire had been strung over the top to discourage the 'hopping' of said fence. All in all it looked like an effective deterrent to whatever might want to get in from the outside– he sure as hell wouldn't want to try and breach it.

There was a smallish backyard with a cute little shared redwood deck, carefully assembled with screws, and even a barbecue grill hooked up to a propane tank, which he quickly determined was still in operation; they'd be able to cook even with a lack of electricity– that was good news. There was also a large septic tank in one corner, in the other a shed, which he found to contain the typical kinds of shed items– a lawnmower, various gardening tools, a few coils of watering hose, fertilizer. A rocking seat built for two stood near the sliding glass doors that had been covered by corrugated metal panelling, welded into place and already partially rusting. Well that was sure to increase property value; Ellis gave a laughing snort.

Satisfied by the short explore, he went back around to the front to join his group and tell them the news.

He tromped in through the red metal door, kicking it closed behind him. His comrades had settled in, having set their things down on the coffee table in the center of the living room. Nick and Rochelle both sat on the couch, the former with his legs up on said table as a foot rest. "Looks like it's hooked up tuh a well y'all," he informed his two present fellows, swiping his hat quickly across his brow with a grin. "We should have runnin' water."

"You're shitting me," Nick's green eyes widened.

"Hallelujah," Rochelle exclaimed, standing in her excitement.

The man and the woman looked to one another, their thoughts simultaneous.

"Now there may not be hot water…" the hick began to warn each of them before they got in a fight over the shower. He couldn't imagine the water heater, if there was one, was operational without power, but he didn't know if that alone was enough to stop the two cleanly survivors from having a row.

"Ladies first," the conman concluded, waving his hand and looking promptly away.

The reporter laughed. "Even after the drink you took back at the river? You sure?" she seemed a little incredulous, but she was smiling, tapping her right hoop earring with a finger absently.

"Might have been a longer one if it weren't for you," the man shrugged his thanks with as careless an attitude as he could summon, intentionally not looking back at her. Ellis cocked his head with interest. The gambler gave a pert nod. "Was some sharp shooting," he admitted with a flash of green.

"Well that's nice of you, Nick," Rochelle smiled.

He shrugged, then focused his attention to getting some dirt out from under his lengthening fingernails. "I've been filthy for days… another hour isn't going to hurt," he reasoned with faux-nonchalance.

Ellis beamed from ear to ear. Rochelle's brown eyes caught his and she smiled widely at him. They shared the brief exchange of wordless mutual appreciation before she turned to go utilize the blessing of running water, snagging the backpack that contained their scant toiletries on her way.

Ellis hid his smile the best he could and took what had been her seat next to the conman, relaxing into the cushions with a sigh. It felt so nice to get off his feet he realized as he put them up with Nick's; they were downright sore from all the walking around, he wouldn't be surprised if they had swollen up so much it'd be hard to get them out of the boots.

"So… did you do that, Overalls?" the conman asked, blase.

"Do what?" he played dumb.

"Convince cupcake to be nice to me." The sly eyes tilted at him knowingly.

Ellis didn't know how the man did that. He was a card player, not a mind reader. Least, last time he checked.

He also didn't know what to say. He looked away briefly, quickly considering his response. Would Nick appreciate his attempts to create civility behind his back, or would he be insulted? Or– perhaps most likely– would he simply remain indifferent as if nothing had happened at all? If he could have predicted the outcome, it would have made the decision of what to say considerably easier, but he was plum out of luck on that one.

"Yeah," he chose to admit slowly. "I asked 'em both tuh treat'chu a little more fairly." He paused, then continued with assertion, "Y'ain't given 'um any reason not tuh trust ya." He looked up, but to him the green gaze was completely unreadable, masked by emotionlessness. Ellis bit his lip and hoped the explanation was enough.

The conman wasn't going to let him in unless he wanted him in.

Nick gave a noise somewhere between a grunt and a cough, slinging one of his arms over the far-end of the back of the couch to look away again. Ellis shifted and drummed his fingers across a knee, disconcerted by the unusual silence stretching between them. He was about ready to say something, anything really, most likely apologize, when at long last a smirk pulled back across the man's maw, signaling he was going to speak. "I haven't given them any reason to trust me either," the cardshark pointed out, an eyebrow lifting tightly.

"I donno, man," Ellis shook his head, eager to prove him wrong on that note. "I think that whole thing with the tank pretty much showed ya gots our best interests in mind," he brought up the rather monumental event with a fond chuckle. "Shit, was that ever cool," he said with a mild awe. He still couldn't get the image out of his head, it kept coming back… of holding him steady as the man cooly blasted bullets into its hulking form, steadily taking it down. And though it was gruesome to watch and bore a much more striking reality than a few of the worse horror films he'd been subjected to– compliments of Keith– he savored the moment for an entirely different reason.

He had gotten to touch the man.

The gambler gave a small laugh now too. "Guess I'll give you that one," he nodded and slung his other arm over the back of the couch too. The action would have placed it around his shoulders, had it not been for the construction of the furniture. It wasn't a romantic gesture by any stretch; the man was just getting comfortable. Ellis flushed for even having thought of it.

"Man, I can't wait for that shower," the cardshark added.

Ellis laughed. "Yeah, me either. I still feel all slimy… an' it didn't even hook me!" he poked at him teasingly.

And then Nick did something he never would have predicted.

He pulled that arm Ellis had been so self-conscious about from the back of the couch and hooked it right around the back of his neck, pulling him into a firm, but gentle head lock, briefly knuckling the top of his head through his cap, grinning like a hyena the whole time.

The chummy gesture shocked him into baffled speechlessness, even as he was let go.

"Thanks for watching my back today, kiddo," the gambler relayed, still smirking that amazingly beautiful white smile, green eyes half lidded. It made Ellis freeze, time suspended for just an instant as he lost himself in it.

"No problem," he recovered, looking mildly embarrassed, but mostly relieved. He couldn't pull his gaze away, so instead he just smiled and left it at that.

Chapter Text

Coach had found a large freezer full of meat in one of the kitchens, and though there was no power to the device any more, the meat had not yet thawed completely due to the sheer amount of it and was safe for consumption still. Upon news of the barbecue out back, he opted to cook for the evening's meal with hearty enthusiasm. Since they had had hamburger the night previous, he went for grilling up a generous sampling of chicken legs, thighs and breasts for them all to enjoy, which went fairly well with the canned green beans and canned corn he discovered in the pantry. At least, Ellis certainly opted for seconds of everything.

About the time Coach had a second batch ready, Rochelle joined them, her rinse-off complete. She smelled like hotel bar soap, the oatmeal stuff they had snagged from some rooms of the Vannah before departure. Though her hair was still wet, she had already put it back up into the bob behind her head. It looked as though she had also chosen to give her pink Depeche Mode shirt a quick cleaning, scrubbed with the soap no doubt, then wrung out to get most of the dampness out. It clung to her slightly as a result; Ellis could easily make out her bra straps underneath, though he made a point not to stare. He probably ought to follow her lead and do the same to his own clothing to the best of his ability– he was certain they smelled like sweat, and as of the day's misadventure, the muddy St. Marys.

Rochelle took a paper plate from the stack and the big man motioned her over to the grill to pick out which pieces she liked best.

"Guess I'm next for the shower," Nick concluded, pushing his plate of chicken bones away and standing. He'd literally wolfed down two and a half chicken's worth of thighs and drumsticks– Ellis had watched him do it– and he had no doubt in his mind it was because of his petite breakfast and lunch cut short combined.

"Enjoy," Rochelle tittered, not looking up as she shoveled some corn out of a can and onto her plate with a plastic spork. "I left the things on the counter."

The gambler nodded and turned to go.

Ellis watched him leave from his seat in the swinging chair, rocking it leisurely as he bit at a chicken leg between his fingers, paper plate propped in his lap. He couldn't help but wonder how long the conman would be; briefly he studied his other two compatriots from afar. While he didn't have any problem spending time with Coach and Rochelle, he'd rather hang out with Nick.

Coach turned off the grill and sat down at the small folding card table they had found inside the duplex, beginning to dig into his portion. Rochelle chose to come over to him and take the second place on the rocking seat, drawing her legs up indian style.

Ellis kept up the gentle swinging by rolling his shoes from the toes to the balls of his feet, putting a little more effort into the motion so he could rock their combined weights. He looked to the girl, swallowed his food and opened his mouth to speak. "Hey, Ro', I jus' wanted tuh say thanks… again."

Rochelle placed a palm to his knee, patting it gently. "No problem, sweetie," she said with a smile. "Anything for you."

Ellis flushed, finding the statement a little difficult to believe. She was probably just saying that– a turn of phrase or something– though it had sounded genuine enough. He looked away, scratching his head with some amount of awkwardness.

Rochelle caught the gesture. Her hand pulled away from his leg and quickly went back to the spork to push the little yellow kernels of corn around on her plate. "Sorry," she said suddenly, in half a laugh.

The hick looked back at her, confused as to why she was apologizing to him. "Fer?" he asked.

She shook her head and stared down at her food. "Oh nothing," she started, clearly hesitating at her next words, whether she even wanted to say them, but she followed through. "Just… for treating you like my little brother."

Ellis laughed. "Well, I mean, in'a way we're all brothers an' sisters," he said, keeping the swinging chair going as he shrugged. "So it's alright."

"Amen to that," Coach imputed from the table a few feet away. He shoveled a sporkful of green beans into his mouth, chewing heartily at the vegetable matter.

Rochelle smiled downward with chagrin, quiet for a second or two. Finally she lifted her head. "I meant my actual baby brother. Elijah," she clarified.

"Oh," Ellis blinked with a touch of surprise, not sure what to say; he felt a little silly for having misinterpreted what she had said. "Well, shit, I didn't know ya had siblin's, Ro'." She hadn't even mentioned them until now after all, so why should he have assumed such?

The reporter laughed and shrugged. "He's the only one."

Coach leaned onto his elbows, his weight making the table squeak with mild protest. "He okay?" he asked. Obviously the information about the girl's brother was news to him as well, though the question seemed like he was wanting to make sure Ro was doing okay emotionally more than anything else.

"Oh yeah," she gave a gesture with a flick of her wrist, the bangles moving with her arm as she did so. She took a quick bite of chicken. "He and Mom are fine. Got on a plane for evac early. They even sent me a postcard."

Ellis chuckled, though the reaction was partially fake, a certain jealousy– or maybe it was worry– filling his heart at the fact that his fellow survivor had heard from her loved ones that they were safe and sound and had successfully made evac.

"You want to see him?" she asked Ellis.

Ellis blinked, caught off guard by the offer. He had never been much of one for sharing pictures or albums or the like, but he gave a shrug and an ever-polite "sure", mildly curious about the girl's family.

The reporter set down her plate and got up to spritely fetch said postcard from indoors, licking her fingers clean of chicken grease as she went. Ellis got another bone clean himself in the interim. She was only a minute or two, hoping back onto the wood deck with the card in hand; Ellis stopped the swing briefly for her so she could settle back in. "I was keeping it on my clipboard," she explained, sitting down and handing it to him. Ellis knew the one– she had still been carrying it around still when they had met her. She explained she was a reporter from WTTQ 10, and on it was her schedule for the broadcast she had been planning on doing the next day. The photograph must've been clipped somewhere behind it, Ellis reasoned. Rochelle resumed her meal, having delivered it to him.

Ellis frowned down at the little piece of mail. On the front, which had been presented to him, was a photo of Ro's aforementioned brother and mother, taken up against some backdrop or another for the snapshot; large letters stenciled in the upper left corner pronounced "CEDA, Internment #44111". He didn't turn it over immediately, studying the woman and boy in the picture a little longer. Rochelle's mom looked a lot like her– a little older, a little greyer, a little rounder about the middle, but ultimately the same strong upright woman. Rochelle's little brother, on the other hand, was decidedly only half-black, the other half white, which took him briefly by surprise because it meant Ro and her brother didn't share the same father. The kid was more gangly, and taller, than his mother too, wearing dark jeans and a tight-fitting top. Ellis had to wonder what he and the boy shared in common that so enamored Ro to him. It couldn't just be the similarity in names after all.

He flipped the card over to take stock of the more specifics of the mailing. It was 'postage paid', no stamp required, and looked to be quite strictly formatted, only a couple of lines inside a small box allowed for writing– hardly enough to fit a proper heartfelt greeting if you asked him. Rochelle's mom had succinctly written "Good luck in Savannah. Miss you lots, Mom and Eli" in a highly loopy cursive with pink sharpie. He bit his lower lip nervously, the distinct lack of a postmark making his stomach do flip-flops. Without it there was no way to tell when, or, more pertinently, where it had mailed from. Which was assuredly intentional on CEDA's part.

He swallowed hard, but didn't point it out.

"Can I see?" Coach asked, breaking him out of the silent reverie he had fallen into.

"Yeah, a'course," Ellis quickly stood to hand it to the bigger man, not upset in the slightest to have the little piece of mail out of his hands. He nervously rocked the swing a little faster, staring at his feet as he tried to resume eating.

"Aww," the football player's lips spread into a smile after just a moment. "Your mom looks like a sweet gal, Ro'."

Rochelle laughed, one eyebrow pulled high on her forehead. "Looks can be deceiving."

Coach belly laughed.

Ellis scratched his arm and politely attempted to get back into the conversation. "How old's Eli?" he asked, automatically choosing to use the shorthand as Rochelle's mother had done, hoping to glean a little more info on his 'counterpart'.

"He's a fair bit younger than you," the girl admitted, swallowing another bite of corn in order to answer his question. "Turned seventeen just last month."

Coach's interest piqued once again. "He play any football?" he asked. It was hardly a surprising question coming from Coach now that the info that the boy was in high school had come out.

"He was more into basketball," Rochelle grinned teasingly. "And cars."

Oh, so there was the connection.

"Ahh," Coach shook his head as if it were a terrible shame. "Too bad, looks like he would'a made a good wide receiver," he chuckled with good-humor, poking at the boy in the picture with a stubby forefinger. He reached for the corn to finish the remainder left in the bottom of the tin.

Rochelle stood to take back the postcard; Coach readily returned it. The reporter just stood for a minute, her lips pulled back into a smile and her eyes locked on the photograph. Ellis licked his lips, watching her enviously, wishing he had thought to grab one of the many pictures of his family off his mother's davenport before leaving; then again, he had assumed there'd be a helicopter waiting for him on that hotel rooftop, assumed he'd be seeing them all sometime that evening at the latest, maybe even Keith and Dave as well.

God, what an idiot he'd been.

"I guess I just miss him," Rochelle said with a roll of her eyes, though she was still smiling. "Silly, I know."

"Naw, makes sense tuh me," the hick reassured her. He looked into the brown pools of her eyes, but they didn't really connect, as if they were just looking past one another, beyond. To be perfectly honest, he didn't think missing her little brother was a very good excuse to use him as some kind of substitute, and though he wasn't angry at her for doing so, he thought it was important to clarify to her that he wasn't Eli. Ellis licked his lips. "We all got family we miss," he said frankly, meaning the words very much.

Rochelle's face twisted into instant sympathy. "Oh sweetie…" she swooped down to give him a hug.

Ellis took it but didn't offer any affection back.

"We'll all be back with all of our families soon," Coach asserted, sensing his upset. "Don't you worry, boy," he motioned firmly with his spork, "just keep your chin up and your eyes forward."

The hick glanced at him from under the bill of his cap, keeping his tongue pressed firmly to the roof of his mouth to avoid speaking. Slowly he put on a smile, giving him a nod to assure him he was doing just that.

And while he knew he should appreciate the older man's outlook... for some reason he connected more with the prospect presented by the male currently absent from their group.

He hoped he'd be done with his shower soon.

Chapter Text

He was eager to start immediately in on the creation of the mollies, partially to distract himself from the negative thoughts that had been trying to take over his mind; draining the twelve bottles and gathering a plastic five gallon water drum to do the mixing. He intentionally chose to sit under the eaves on the west porch of the duplex-turned-safehouse, for ventilation purposes– he didn't want to stink up the inside of the evening's accommodations with the smell of rotting pine resin; as it was the smell could carry quite a distance. He unscrewed the cap to the turpentine and poured it carefully in, watching the liquid glug-glug-glug out of its tin.

"Hey, sport. Already starting?"

The unexpected but welcome sound of the man's cool voice caused him to briefly pause what he was doing. Ellis turned to grin at his compatriot who had come out onto the stoop, freshened from his shower– the man had even shaved and re-gelled his hair, and was looking more clean-cut than Ellis had ever seen him before, the stains on his suit notwithstanding. If he was a little bit bolder, he might have actually complimented him on his appearance. Ellis nodded as he gave the can a shake, ensuring the square container was completely empty before discarding it to the side. "Yup. I figure, the sooner we gots these ready, the better."

Nick took a seat next to him, dusting off beneath where he sat– as if it mattered– first. "Probably right." He inclined his head at the plastic basket full of recently drained bottles. "How are we planning to carry them all?"

Ellis took to adding the pint of motor oil. "I figure we'll actshuhly only take one the each'a us; leave the other eight here fer other folks tuh find an' use."

The conman nodded to the idea.

Ellis screwed the cap onto the water jug. He grinned and held it up. "Wanna swirl it?"

Nick chuckled. "Not really, but sure," he took it from his hands and began to gyrate it around in a circle; the greasy liquid coated the insides in a mini-vortex.

The hick watched him a moment longer before becoming satisfied with his technique and made to ripping up strips of cloth with his father's pocket knife which he fetched from his back pocket with a flip. "We're jus' gonna have tuh keep the vodka on us," he said. "Alcohol evaporates purdy quickly, so we ain't gonna be wettin' the wicks 'til round the time we need tuh throw'um." He worked for a moment more until Nick stopped, the mixture well-homogenized.

"Stirred but not shaken," the gambler joked, offering it.

Ellis chuckled at the play on the movie reference and took the jug back.

"So your buddy Keith taught you how to make these…?" Nick said conversationally, leaning back on his palms to watch him work.

Ellis stuck their funnel into the top of one of the bottles and began to pour slowly and cautiously, eyes glued to the task. "Uh huh. He was makin' 'em out in his uncle's backyard, along with some fireworks." He shrugged. "I didn't have nothin' better tuh do that day, so I let him show me." He tipped the container away and made to grab for a second bottle; Nick intercepted and handed one to him so he wouldn't have to reach as far. "Thanks," he said quickly, resuming pouring and talking. "An' this was before I gone an' took chemistry, but he seemed tuh know what he was doin'… 'cept maybe on them fireworks, m'purdy sure yer supposed tuh use powder, not gasoline, in a firework. But anyway, about halfway through the lesson, Keith's ladyfriend of the time comes over…"

"This can't be good…" Nick shook his head.

The hick grinned. "No, it sure as hell wasn't. She was mad as piss at'im cuz I guess he'd tole her he wasn't gonna make anymore after he accidentally set fire tuh her mom's car– way I heard it, he'd been tryin' 'um out or sumthin' an' it was jus' an unlucky throw or some shit, went right through her front windshield, iono– he got his uncle tuh pay fer the damages, so'm not sure what the problem was. But anyway, she gets the bright idea to grab one'a the filled bottles an' chuck it at him…"

"Jesus Christ," the man said incredulously, handing him a third.

Ellis tipped the brim of his hat up ever so slightly. "Yeah well, Keith dodged it, but it hit the side'a the house an' went goddamn everywhere… the lawn, the patio, the whole number. About tha' time I decide I prolly oughta git goin' cuz it's not really my place an' I dun really wanna see another argument between 'um. Cuz I mean, it's like the third one that week an' anyway tha's when she decides she's gonna have a smoke tuh calm her nerves or whatever…"

Nick face-palmed. "You're shitting me."

"Nope. An' I guess when she threw the dang thing, she must've tipped it up over her head or sumthin' cuz when she flicked her lighter, woooosh!" he snapped his fingers dramatically– "her hair went up in flames faster than you could say 'Jack Robinson!'" He shook his head with a grin. "She started screamin' an' wavin' her arms– an' oh Lord, lemme tell you, could that girl scream– I mean, I hadn't ever heard her scream a'fore, 'cept at Keith, but this was an entirely different kind'a screamin'. An' Keith, well, poor Keith dun tried tuh help her out, but all he really ended up doin' was lightin' himself up too." Ellis shook his head as he filled a sixth bottle. "I left in a hurry 'bout that point tuh go an' call 9-1-1… cuz I was pretty sure they was gonna need it. Iono what happened next," he shrugged, "'cept I guess they broke up not long after that."

"Shit, why? Sounds like they were made for each other," Nick grinned.

Ellis laughed long and hard. "I guess you could see it tha' way." He continued filling and he and Nick stayed quiet until he finished off the twelfth and final bottle, tipping the remainder of the fluid from the jug into it, letting it drip before setting it aside.

Nick shifted on the porch, staring out at the road. He ran a hand through his hair. "So I get to hear plenty about Keith's 'ladyfriends'…" the green eyes flickered over to him, "what about yours?"

"Whattabout my what?" Ellis asked, face falling.

"Your girlfriends," the conman clarified.

The hick blushed. "Well, shit, I ain't ever had no girlfriends. Can't talk about somethin' you don't got."

There was a short silence. "You're kidding me," Nick arched an eyebrow. "You're telling me your idiot friend could hook himself a new gal whenever he wanted, but you've never ever had a single one?" Incredulity and disbelief twanged in the conman's voice, and rightly so.

Ellis scratched the back of his head beneath his hat awkwardly. "Well, I had a crush on this girl in the third grade…" It was the only thing he could think of that was closest without admitting more than he wanted to. His gaze drifted away from the man and he hurriedly began to stuff cloth into one of the bottles to at least keep his fingers occupied.

The cardshark shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense. Girls are stupid, but they're not that stupid." He considered him seriously, and Ellis wondered then if the gambler could see right through him with that piercing gaze. "They couldn't all miss a nice guy like you," he said, and it seemed to Ellis that he was perhaps fishing for an explanation.

Ellis bit his lip and gave a tentative sigh. He set the single completed molotov back in the basket, staring at the label of the bottle for a long moment. "I jus' didn't wanna git in a serious relationship wit' no one while I was still helpin' tuh support mah Ma." He rubbed his arm, squeezing at the tattoo that adorned said bicep. He'd turned down a dozen girls, be it for the high school prom or just an afternoon at the movies. Not that he'd ever told anyone. Not Keith, not Dave, and especially not his Ma– man, would she have had his head to have known.

So exactly why the conman had managed to loosen his tongue on the subject confused him mightily.

But maybe it was the damn apocalypse. It was part of a life he no longer lived, part of a mantra he'd adopted and stuck to for years, obliterated in the space of a week by an epidemic that had swept the entire east coast. None of it mattered anymore. There wasn't an auto shop, there weren't any pay checks, there weren't groceries to buy or mortgages to pay or any of that. He could pick up a girlfriend tomorrow– well, if there were one to pick up.

Or maybe it really was because it was Nick.

The green eyes were staring at him, but not with the sort of look he had expected. Sure, it was surprised, but it was also tentatively curious. Nick's posture relaxed, lightly clasping his own wrist as he leaned his elbows out onto his knees. "So girls did want to get with you, you just said no."

"Yeah," he responded. Ellis started on a second bottle, nervously packing cloth into the neck.

The conman was quiet, contemplative.

And he couldn't stand it.

"I mean, you understand, right?" he suddenly asked, feeling a touch desperate. "It was already a stretch… payin' the rent on mah apartment an' sendin' the rest'a what I didn't need back tuh her. There weren't really no way I could hook up wit' someone… I– I would'a had tuh git us a bigger place, I would'a had tuh git a better payin' job." He gestured with the bottle. "An' then there'd be two mouths tuh feed, an' two've us tuh clothe…" He felt silly, hot and embarrassed, half-spluttering the words, wishing he hadn't said anything at all because it made him feel stupid.

"No, no, I get it," Nick reassured him, still looking partially confused. He shook his head with chagrin. "It's just so…" the dark eyebrows raised, "selfless."

Ellis dodged the faint emerald gaze again. He resumed work under the long stretching silence, trying not to fidget too much.

"You and I led very different lives," the man wondered aloud, drawing Ellis' attention back to him with curiosity. The gambler continued. "I was always stealing my dad's credit cards." There was that mischievous twinkle again. "Not that he much missed the cash."

Ellis allowed himself to chuckle uncomfortably. Somehow it hardly surprised him to learn. A distinct part of him wanted to know more, about that childhood, but another part of him was too awkward and nervous to say anything. He poked wadded material into another bottle. "What'd'ya buy?" he settled on the innocuous question.

Nick shook his head then. "Shit," he said bluntly, "To make me feel better." He paused for half a beat– enough to make Ellis partially seize up. "Not that it ever did." The conman smirked at him, but it was a gesture filled with irony.

Ellis nibbled at his lip without a word. He didn't know what to say to such a declaration… or the honesty.

"I bet you didn't have much growing up," the gambler spoke, his voice unwavering, confident in the guess. His head tipped ever so slightly. "Am I right?"

The hick gave an involuntary shiver; memories filling his head as if summoned to the surface. Of sparse Christmases, re-used wrapping paper, hand-me-down gifts and arts-and-crafts paper tree ornaments. Meager birthdays, no parties, but a home-made baked cake and a round of 'happy birthday to you', a single heartfelt gift from the whole family, allowances pooled together, to bestow upon the birthday boy or girl of the occasion. Infrequent 'family vacations' to the beach or wherever was cheap, souvenirs coming in the form of shells or pebbles rather than those purchased from a store. Literally sliding by on what he later learned was his father's slowly dwindling reserve to pay the mortgage and bills. "Not a whole lot," Ellis admitted, only committing to generalities; he wasn't looking for sympathy from the man, not on that.

Nick's look was far-away, however, almost lost. "I bet you were pretty happy anyway." A touch of wistfulness had been added to the tone.

Ellis inclined his shoulder with a pained shrug; he felt an odd mixture of nostalgia and sorrow drift through him. "Yeah," he smiled despite the subtle pressure around his heart. "Yeah, I was."