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Nick hated it how he was after time and a time again forced to tolerate Ellis. If there wasn’t a zombie apocalypse at hand he would have never even considered associating with anyone like him, wouldn’t have looked after him on the street; would have under no fucking circumstances be seen with him, talk to him, fucking help him out of certain death.

He would do nothing he was doing now out of what he feared was a necessity.

It was the one true rule he lived by: everyone who wasn’t him was a liability and the only person he could truly trust was himself. He had first learned it in Vegas, then thoroughly with his ex-wife, then again while doing time. Right there it was his lifeline. And it was a good rule, it had gotten him this far and he was alive and free, that was definitely something.

Unfortunately that wasn't how things worked in this motherfucking land of the dead and for the first time in his life "just Nick" wasn't enough for him to survive and win. He had to cast aside everything he knew and welcome three very unwelcome others in. At least it proved out to be a working solution: they helped in keeping Nick safe and in turn Nick helped keep them safe. They scratched his back; he scratched theirs.

Coach and Rochelle were all right: Coach was downright trustworthy although his ideas were mostly completely hare-brained (yet always seemed to work) and Rochelle was very easy on the eyes and therefore excused of all personality flaws she might have possessed, but Ellis… Ellis was annoying, stupid, almost hysterically stereotypical redneck simpleton and cheerful to the point of being absurd (considering that it was the zombie apocalypse and Nick himself couldn't come up with a single reason to feel cheerful) and so goddamn chatty, Jesus Christ if Nick ever for some reason wanted to know something about the people he was with—and for the record he didn't—he would ask. He didn't have the fucking interest to listen to Ellis talk about what-the-fuck-ever it was that he did with that what's-his-name while he wasn't staying in the trailer with his white trash mama or sticking it to a car's tailpipe—yes, he had heard what Ellis had whispered to that Jimmy-whatever's car under his breath and ew, fucking hell.

Telling Ellis to shut the hell up shut him up for approximately two minutes and then he was at it again, endlessly, until he had to shoot someone or bash someone's head in with a baseball bat, and sometimes even that didn't make him shut his trap and he merrily continued on the wildly irrelevant story while covered in zombie guts. If Ellis wasn't such a virtuoso with his gun Nick would have already found a way to shoot him in the head and blame it on the infected.

And of course, for some reason Nick didn't even want to delve deeper into, Ellis had taken some sort of liking to him. Nick didn't mind having someone always watching his back—and that Ellis did well, he had to give him that—and sharing ammo, medical supplies and pain pills with him, but unfortunately the boy trailed after him even when there were no infected, always ready with a "Hey Nick, I ever told ya about the time—" or something, anything that always started with the words "hey" and "Nick".

Nick, Nick, Nick, "I just like the sound of 'Nick'." Jesus Christ.

The worst part was of course that Ellis was just unable to take a hint. Nick couldn't say if it was because he was so stupid that he didn't actually understand the more-than-obvious implication behind the words "shut the fuck up, Ellis" or because he didn't care that Nick didn't care, or because he was actually fucking deaf—a theory that he had wanted to believe so badly that he had actually spent some time trying to find out if Ellis reacted at all to noises that didn’t come with an obvious visual cue. Unfortunately, he did.

Sometimes Nick thought—for the sake of trying to preserve his sanity—that maybe Ellis did hear and did understand, but still kept doing it only because he knew that it pissed Nick off and so what Nick took as "Ellis liking him" was in fact the exact opposite, and Nick had to admit that it would have been pretty admirable of Ellis. Mutual dislike and animosity he could have lived with; it would have made all the times he had to tell Ellis to shut up bearable. Then he realized that he was probably giving the kid way too much credit, because most of the time Ellis seemed to be just as thick as he let on with no layered complexity to his actions and "Ellis liking him" was just genuinely that and nothing more.

"Don’t be so hard on him," Rochelle told him during guard duty one night.

"You have no fucking idea how annoying it is," Nick sighed, running a hand through his hair. Eugh, he really wanted to get a shower, but there hadn't been a saferoom with running water after they had left Savannah. "You're lucky he isn't on your heels all the time like some retarded puppy dog."

Rochelle shrugged. "I didn't mean you have to be nice to him if you don't want to," she said. "That wouldn't be fair. Just cut him some slack, share a medkit or two with him every now and then. He's shared everything he has with you for days now, you know."

Nick smirked. "Leading him on would be funny, though."

Rochelle gave him a look, her lip curling up in disgust. "Jesus, you're such a jerk."

"Well I don't see you letting him finish his stories either."

"We don't really have the time for stories or distractions, Nick, honey, you know that."

"Don't tell me you don't think that they're stupid."

A ghost of a smile lingered on Rochelle's lips. "A bit."

Nick assumed his regular smug look at that point and didn't continue the conversation. Rochelle stood up and started to sort out their ammo supply.

***

"Hey, Nick—"

"Ellis."

"Yeah?"

"If it's about you and 'your buddy Keith', I'll tell you to shut the hell up preemptively."

"Well, actually it ain't."

Nick sighed. "So what is it?"

"I ever tell ya about the time me and my buddy Dave—"

"For the love of god I am going to count to three and if you're still standing there so help me I am going to shoot you between the eyes. One."

"Geez, Nick," Ellis muttered, sounding hurt. "Sorry."

"Two." He cocked his pistol.

There was a hint of doubt in Ellis' eyes. "Hey I said I'm sorry, you ain't really gonna—"

"Three." And just like that Nick raised the pistol, aimed it and pulled the trigger.

An infected behind Ellis tumbled down with a disgusting gurgle and Ellis himself was unable to do nothing but stare at Nick, wide-eyed, his jaw hanging a slight bit open. With a nonchalant grin Nick lowered his weapon, put the safety on and slid it back into the holster strapped to his leg. He didn't even have the decency to feel bad as Coach passed him by and slapped him upside the head none too gently, cursing under his breath that he would shoot Nick without any fucking second thoughts if he ever even thought of trying to pull off shit like that again. The look Rochelle shot him was something between disappointment, disapproval and disgust. Dis-whatever.

And Ellis took a look at the fallen infected and then followed Coach and Rochelle without even glancing at Nick again and 'lo it was a miracle, because he didn't open his mouth again that day.

Nick didn't remember having such an all-around nice day ever since the infection hit, and even the fact that the murky swamp water had finally completely ruined his $3,000 suit couldn't bring him down. The bugs, the mud, the humid air, the hordes of infected, running out of ammo and having to resort to an ax as a weapon and getting even more zombie brains on his suit; nothing mattered because Ellis was silent.

Of course his glee wasn't meant to last, because after they had settled down in the saferoom for the night, it turned out that the first guard duty that was always the shift Nick and Rochelle shared was now suddenly the guard duty that Nick and Ellis shared. Rochelle bemoaned a headache and of course everyone was out of pain pills (although Nick was quite sure that it was all just an elaborate ploy to force him to apologize to Ellis for that "horrible" thing that he had done earlier. He knew women, after all).

Thankfully Ellis still remained quiet, sitting in the corner as far away from Nick as possible and plucking absent-mindedly at the two remaining strings of the guitar he had picked up at Whispering Oaks and dragged along through the chopper crash and all the swampy shanty towns. The guitar was originally red but Nick couldn't even tell where the original paint ended and blood began. Maybe it was all just blood.

And for some reason Nick was starting to feel very uncomfortable all of a sudden. For days he had hoped that Ellis would shut up for even a moment and now he was finally quiet and it felt all… wrong. Strange. Heavy. As if he should break the silence and say something and be a complete hypocrite because suddenly he was the one who couldn’t stay silent. It was like giving Ellis a permission to ridicule him.

Suddenly – and oh boy did he loathe himself for it – he was hoping that Ellis would say something. Anything. Tell him a Keith or even that motherfucking Dave story.

He didn't.

He just plucked at his stupid, crooked half-broken guitar as if Nick didn't even exist.

Nick stood up and went to the door, peering outside into the darkening night through the barred window. He was trying hard not to feel guilty for what he had done and failing gloriously at it, the guilt gnawing at him like some persistent mental beast and a part of him felt almost proud: he didn't even remember the last time he had felt guilty for anything he had done, and he had done a lot of bad, horrible things, out of which pointing a gun at some stupid Georgian hick was definitely not even close to the worst. It wasn't even worth a fucking mention, for fuck's sake.

Oh, bitchtits.

"Listen," he said, drawing a deep breath he hoped didn't sound quite as nervous as he feared it did.

Ellis didn't look at him, but his fingers had stopped on the neck of the guitar, frozen in a grip around it.

"I'm sorry, okay?"

There it was. Motherfucker. He wondered if he would be able to live it down.

Ellis looked at him, face in an expression Nick couldn't quite read, which perplexed him since he was good at that stuff; good at reading people and knowing exactly what was going through their heads—it was exactly what he had based his (criminal) career on after all—and he had thought that he had Ellis all figured out only to be presented with this; something he knew was important but that he just couldn't read, had never seen on his—or anyone else's—face before. Relief? No, more like thankfulness or happiness, but not quite, and something entirely undecipherable, something hell-if-he-knew; that tiny little hint of a smile at the corner of his lips. It was actually the first time Nick took a really good look at Ellis (all the previous half-hearted looks he had taken had only resulted in the thought that the boy had "punchable cheekbones"), the kind of look he took at women when mentally rating them for hotness, and realized that for a guy he was something that could be easily described as pretty. And that was a scary new thought because holy fuck had he just looked at Ellis and seriously thought that he was fuckable? The whole zombie apocalypse and celibacy that it enforced was apparently finally getting to him. He needed to get it on with Rochelle and fast.

All that and the fact that he had just apologized to Ellis of all people because he hadn't known what else he should do to break the silence and the stupid tension all added to Nick's snowball of frustration.

"It's okay," Ellis said, raising a hand to knock back his cap and scratch his head. "I'm sorry too, y'know, for…" He apparently looked for a word for a short moment. "For bein' a pain in the ass."

There was Nick's fleeting moment of triumph.

"I'm sorry I made ya so mad," Ellis said quietly, pulling the cap back over his eyes and fixing his concentration back on the guitar, fingers moving again. "Wasn't really my intent."

The feeling of triumph was gone and there was guilt again, but Nick decided firmly against any further ventures to the unknown land of fucking remorse and remained quiet for the remainder of their guard duty. Ellis stayed true to his newfound sense and did the same.

When it was time for the change of guards Nick approached Rochelle with his best seduction smile and asked under his breath if she would be interested in a quick and dirty little fuck.

Rochelle slapped the hell out of him without a moment's notice and courteously told him under her breath that there was no way she would consider it even if they were the last two people left on the planet—which was a frighteningly possible scenario—and that at least Ellis had some tact in his advances, to which Nick replied with a shocked "Ellis has been hitting on you?!" and that slap was way worse than the physical one Rochelle had just delivered.

Rochelle's smile was downright dirty, of the shit-eating kind, as she nodded and promptly continued out of the room to join Coach.

Ellis stepped in, yawned and said "Good night, Nick," before sitting down in a corner with his shotgun in his lap, setting his guitar down on the cement floor, pulling a dirty blanket over his knees and yanking the cap deeper over his eyes, settling for sleep.

Nick sat in another corner, closed his eyes and hated, absolutely fucking hated everything, especially the tiny little twinge in the bottom of his stomach at the knowledge of Ellis hitting on Rochelle.

***

That was exactly when it got weird. Ellis was back to being his usual chatterbox self, although it seemed like he was walking on metaphorical eggshells whenever he was near Nick, saving all his Keith stories for the moments when he thought that Nick was out of earshot. Nick was feeling even more morose than before, once again hating the bugs and the mud and the humid air and the infected and fucking everything about this apocalypse. His fucking expensive tailored suit? Ruined. Why couldn't have he been at Vegas when the shit hit the fan? Being eaten up by the infected at Caesar's would have been a thousand times better than this survival bullshit.

Somehow Ellis annoyed him more by not pestering him the whole time, and every time he approached Rochelle Nick wanted to smack him with his ax. And every time Rochelle smiled at Ellis, her usual tight but courteous and at least half-hearted instead of completely faked little smile that seemed to be saying "that's nice, sweetie," he wanted to hit one of them, either one, it didn't really matter.

Then along came the next saferoom and the next guard duty that Nick and Ellis shared again, and before Coach had even closed the door to the smaller room he and Rochelle were sleeping in, Nick was grabbing a handful of Ellis' dirty T-shirt and pinning him against the wall, bristling.

"Why are you hitting on Rochelle?"

The look on Ellis' face was pure confusion.

"'Cause she's cool?"

Nick tightened the hold he had of his shirt.

Ellis hurried to rephrase. "'Cause she's a girl n' we might could be the last people left on Earth so I'm kinda coverin' my bases, y'know," he said and added in a very small voice, "Is that wrong?"

Nick stared.

Ellis squirmed, breaking the eye contact with Nick and trying to find a neutral, safe spot to look at.

"So why do you like me so much, then?"

Ellis' head snapped to face Nick again and this time he was looking utterly surprised. Damn it that was the Ellis Nick knew: like an open book, every tiny nuance of every fucking predictable expression easily readable, so what the hell was that strange expression the night before? It still bothered Nick, even more so because generally Ellis was the kind of a person he would rob clean in a game of cards: Ellis wouldn't even stand a chance. And Nick wouldn't even have to cheat.

"I, well… you… I mean," Ellis tried to look for words, failing. God, he was so flustered. "'Cause you're Nick. It don't really mean like I'm necessarily gay or nothin' like that, I just… you're cool."

"Does that mean," Nick said then, leaning a tiny bit closer to Ellis, who instinctively tried to draw his face away, only unable to do so as the back of his head was against the wall already. "That if I asked you to, you would, I don't know, maybe suck my dick?"

Theoretically, it of course meant exactly that. Nick had been betting on it, and as usual, he wasn't going to lose something he was betting heavily on. Ellis didn't seem too surprised by the question, just looked at Nick: green eyes nervous, embarrassed and serious as fucking hell and for a moment it almost scared Nick, but that was also exactly the moment when Ellis revealed his entire hand and Nick realized what the enigmatic look last night had been. With a victorious shit-eating grin that he was trying to hide so hard he knew that the game was his.

He owned Ellis and he was getting exactly what he wanted. He always did.

Ellis sank to his knees, fumbled with Nick's belt (his hands were shaking) and the buttons and zipper of his once-white pants that eventually dropped to the ground, the metal buckle of the belt giving out a loud clink against the cement. Nick spun around to lean his back to the wall, hand tipping Ellis' baseball cap off of his head and fingers entwining in his hair and he hissed softly as Ellis pulled down his underwear and the cool, humid air hit his slowly hardening cock.

It wasn't the best blowjob of his life, not even close: Ellis seemed like he hardly even knew what he was doing, but paid it off a bit by at least trying. He didn't really watch his teeth at first and he had no sense of rhythm even when Nick tried to force his movements with the hand that was tangled in his hair. Then came the moment when Ellis dragged his tongue along the underside of Nick's cock all the way to the tip to engulf it with his mouth and Nick decided to just throw all the petty nitpicking out of the window, sit back and enjoy. He was getting a blowjob in the middle of an undead-infested god-forsaken swamp, would it ever get any better than that? No it fucking well would not. And Ellis was finally minding his teeth and the way he just sucked without any fancy tricks and oh, God.

Nick's both hands squeezed into tight fists in Ellis' curly mess of hair, trying to force a rhythm and not really caring if it hurt or if some hair came out. He was fighting the instinct to thrust hard into Ellis' mouth, knowing that it would probably only throw him off or trigger his gag reflex or something that would ruin the fleeting perfection of the moment, and he could tell that Ellis tried to be good; tried to make him come, and it was enough to finally push him off the edge. He came without any warning aside from bucking hips and a softly, even borderline gently hissed "Ellissss…" and Ellis pulled his head away, gagging.

Nick just stood there leaning to the wall and trying to even out his breathing, pants and underwear around his ankles and happily softening dick between his legs, peering quizzically at Ellis, who was sitting back on his legs, one hand in a tight-fisted ball on his lap and the other wiping at his mouth. He was not looking at Nick, head turned completely away from him and purposefully avoiding his eyes.

Nick gathered his underwear and pants and pulled them up, then zipper, buttons, belt: ran his hand through his hair once to get the few strands of loose hair away from his sweaty forehead and then walked past Ellis and took his post by the armored door, picking up his rifle from the table next to it.

Neither spoke a word to each other before Rochelle and Coach appeared yawning from the room they had been sleeping in and even after that Nick only wished Ellis good night, to which he never received a reply as Ellis curled up on one of the mattresses and turned his back to Nick.

***

The next day was more of the same. Ellis stayed away from Nick, although this time there was nothing that bothered Nick about it, not even when Ellis finally did look at him, all condemning and hurt but also a bit quizzical, like he wasn't really blaming him nearly as much as he wanted to. While Nick wasn't quite sure why exactly Ellis was giving him the silent treatment, he didn't let it bother him: there was no reason for him to feel even slightly bad about basically forcing Ellis to perform fellatio on him the previous night. Nick himself would of course deny everything, saying that all he did was suggest, which, if you didn't take all the mind games and subtle manipulation into account, was the truth. He had never said "suck my dick", all he said was "you would, right, because you like me". Ellis wanted to suck his dick. That's it. And who the hell even cared? It didn’t faze him even when Rochelle finally sensed that there was something going on and insisted on staying with Nick while Coach and Ellis scouted ahead.

"What did you do to him?"

"Nothing," Nick replied. It was half the truth anyway, although Nick didn't really give a flying fuck about telling the truth or lying. "What do you care, anyway?"

Rochelle narrowed her eyes at him, her full lips curling into a frown. "What do I care? Because we are all in this together, Nick, sweetheart. All this selfish shit that you're pulling off will break this group apart faster than those… those things ever will. We have to trust each other. Believe me, I don't give a shit about you or whatever it is that you do with Ellis, but I will be pissed if you ruin this."

So now it was "with Ellis", not "to Ellis". Nick frowned inwardly: she must've heard something, or simply figured it out. Women. He didn't say anything, just watched from the corner of his eye as Rochelle tried to gather herself. It was funny: he hadn't seen her so upset or even so emotional ever since they met. She was keeping her shit together much better than Nick gave her credit for. There was a tinge of pride, and Nick frowned again: since when had he started caring about these people so much?

Rochelle continued after a while, uncharacteristically silent. "I don't wanna die here. You are not going to get me killed here."

"We're not gonna die," Nick said sternly, happy that he at least sounded convincing. It was the one thing he still believed in: he was not going to die here, not wherever it was that they were going; not as long as these fucking zombies were around. And he had a far better chance of survival as long as Rochelle and Coach and even (especially) Ellis were alive, thus, Rochelle was not going to die either. That was the plan.

And he wasn't going to ruin that. What he did with Ellis was harmless; it had nothing to do with anything.

Rochelle's reply was a sneer, half-laugh; fake amusement. "I'll hold you to that."

Nick didn't say anything, just made sure that Rochelle caught the lopsided half a smile on his face.

***

Nick and Ellis took the first guard shift again. This time there was some sort of wordless agreement between them and after only a passing glance Ellis was down on his knees again, opening Nick's belt with steady hands and as he took the tip of Nick's cock in his mouth and sucked viciously there was almost no trace of the previous night's fumbling. Nick couldn't stop his knees from buckling or a sudden pleased grunt from escaping his lips. Ellis' hand was on his thigh, fingers kneading the skin softly and he saw as Ellis reached for the barely visible bulge in front of his overalls with his other hand, apparently trying to ease off his own erection a bit.

The thought of Ellis being turned on from sucking his cock gave Nick some sort of sick glee as well as turned him on even more and watching Ellis jerk himself off made Nick come faster than he had the previous night. This time Ellis swallowed without gagging, wiping at his mouth afterwards only to clean up. He was back up on his feet before Nick had even fully recovered from his orgasm. Ellis still wouldn't look at him, and the indignant expression Nick caught on his face as he strode to a corner and sat down, taking the banged-up guitar on his lap, only made Nick feel something akin to pride. So cold and efficient.

So much like Nick himself.

That round had definitely gone to Ellis, evening out the score. Nick couldn't help but smirk as he pulled his pants back up, glad that Ellis was so invested in his own cool image that he couldn't see it. The kid was trying so hard to play his game; it was the first admirable thing Nick had seen Ellis do.

And thank fucking god, but he was silent. If Nick had known it would be this easy he would've shoved his dick down Ellis' throat the first day they had met, back in that burning hotel in Savannah.

***

The sugar mill was a nightmare personified. Witches on every corner and a storm Nick was sure would bring a motherfucking hurricane at its wake, or maybe it was a hurricane but its full force had been exhausted as it had hit land in the south and they only got the leftovers. The hurricane season wasn't over yet, they were smack-dab in the middle of motherfucking Mississippi and according to Virgil about to hit New Orleans "soon" and who the hell knew: there were no weather forecasts, no warnings, no nothing.

The storm hit them full-on while they were crossing the sugar cane field after getting the fuel and it robbed them of mobility, sight and hearing. Nick heard Coach yell something—that's it, he heard him yell but had no idea what he had said—and felt Ellis take hold of his hand that wasn't holding the magnum (he couldn't see him, not with the rain whipping at his eyes, but it wasn't hard to guess that it was Ellis' hand). Ellis squeezed it hard and for a moment he felt a sense of serenity there in the middle of the fucking storm: whatever happened it would be okay because Ellis was there. Ellis was always there.

He frowned a bit after realizing what had just gone through his head, scolding himself mentally for being such a sap (maybe the kid had spent every single night sucking him off ever since the swamps but it was no reason to get emotional over it, it would be like getting attached to a cheap hooker, for crying out loud), but by the time they were back at the now flooding mill he took everything back and was once again nothing but glad that Ellis was there. (To watch my back, Nick told himself). The water reached their knees and made walking difficult and running nearly impossible—it was like being back on the swamps, Jesus—and the hard rain prevented them from seeing or hearing each other or even the infected.

At the first opportune moment Nick wrapped an arm around Ellis' waist, pulling him close. Ellis stumbled a bit from surprise and froze almost completely as Nick lowered his head a bit, nose against his cheek as he yelled, "Stay with me!" not sure if he could even hear him over the storm.

Nick extended his other arm at Rochelle who in turn extended an arm to Coach and together they all made it slowly but surely back to the saferoom, fuel cans strapped to their backs and lucky enough to have made it without running into Witches or something even worse. Thankfully the infected were just as sensory deprived as their prey.

For the first time during the week or so he had spent with these people Nick was actually genuinely surprised that they had made it that far. Not the crazy escape from the mall back at Savannah, not the carnival of the damned, not even the chopper pilot turning into one of them during flight and crashing into some god forsaken shanty town in the middle of an Alabama swampland, nothing had brought him as close to actual fear than advancing through an old flooding Witch-infested sugar mill practically blindfolded.

And for a moment there he had been afraid that they (he) would let him (them) down, that they would all just die there, drowning and taken by a surprise and unarmed by a fucking storm.

Nick would have at least wanted to go fighting, not blind and deaf and helpless and guessing.

But they had made it, they were still alive and no promises had been broken and Nick had never felt as thankful in his entire life. And the first time since the infection hit he was actually genuinely happy that he had companions that were worth of his trust. It was an empowering feeling.

That night was different. The storm kept raging at the world outside, the deafening roars of thunder practically shaking the sturdy building the saferoom was in and this time Ellis was fidgety, still wearing all of his drenched clothes and too nervous to take a seat. Maybe it all had left him happy to be alive too but he didn't know how to show it; hoped that Nick would take the initiative.

Nick peeled his jacket off—glad to find out that the rain had washed at least some of the blood away—and spread it on the table hoping it would dry, closed the distance between him and Ellis and stood there for a moment, suddenly hesitating. Ellis gave him a glance, the sort of desperate, hopeful glance, and just as he was once again about to drop to his knees, Nick stopped him, both hands on his shoulders and shaking his head. Ellis' eyes widened a bit and now there was pure hope there and it made Nick feel guilty for a fleeting moment, although this time he didn’t know what exactly did he feel guilty for.

Nick took Ellis' hand and guided it to his cock, grunting slightly at contact, while his other hand pressed hard against the front of Ellis' overalls and elicited a surprised little noise from him. Nick was amazed to find him almost fully hard (anticipation, maybe?) and even more amazed at the fact how that tiny little insignificant—ridiculous, really—sound made him fully hard, and he leaned back against the wall, head tipping back and pulling Ellis into a sort of an awkward one-handed embrace with him while kneading at the erection beneath Ellis' overalls. Ellis was fumbling with Nick's belt, slightly nervous again because this was a new thing, but after finally getting Nick out of his pants and underwear he wrapped his hand carefully around Nick's length, pulled the foreskin back from the tip, brushed his thumb over it and then just did what he probably knew best without much hesitation. He rested his head against Nick's shoulder and Nick could feel his hot, slightly shallow breath through the fabric of his shirt. Ellis let out a tiny ridiculous noise—a grunt, a stifled moan, a sudden breath—every time Nick did something that he hadn’t done before and every sound elicited a similar unwilling response out of Nick, much against his better judgement.

Ellis was clearly eager to get out of his overalls, squirming slightly and grinding into Nick's hand in a fashion Nick figured was nothing but pure demand, so he finally humored the younger man, opening the knot Ellis had tied his overalls' sleeves to and letting them fall to the ground. Ellis shuddered in anticipation and Nick decided to tease him a little; see what he would do when he took his sweet time pulling off the boxers.

"Nick…" Ellis whined, breath hot and quick against Nick's throat and really, really testing Nick's endurance, continuing with almost ridiculously huskily whispered "please." To that Nick couldn’t really reply with anything but a grunt of his own, tearing down the boxers and dragging his hand along Ellis' naked cock, making Ellis stifle a cry against his shoulder. Nick wrapped his hand around the shaft and just pumped and Ellis crumbled a bit, apparently fighting not to let his knees give in. Nick's other hand ended up behind Ellis' back and he pulled him close, their cocks now together with the help of Nick's hand and Ellis kept whispering "Nick", almost sobbing, losing it; both of his hands fisting in front of Nick's shirt and thrusting against him with almost no semblance of rhythm.

From that moment onward it didn't take long for either of them to come; nearly in unison, cocks together, Nick biting his lip with his face in Ellis' damp hair and a hand behind his back and Ellis completely incoherent, practically folding against Nick in post-orgasmic euphoria.

Nick found somewhere the strength to support them both until Ellis regained the control of his feet.

There was a silence during which neither moved: Ellis just shuffled his feet a bit, both hands lax against his sides and head still against Nick's shoulder, while one of Nick's hands was still resting on the small of Ellis' back under his T-shirt, thumb brushing softly against skin there.

Nick didn’t even realize.

(He had never seen Ellis come before.)

"Aw, shit, man," Ellis whispered then, sheepish as hell. "I done ruined your shirt…"

At which point Nick looked down and saw exactly what Ellis meant and Jesus Christ as if swamp water and motherfucking zombie guts weren't bad enough.

***

Later that night while trying to catch sleep but finding it hard when all he could hear inside his head was Ellis whispering his name and his erection was almost painful inside his still-damp pants, Nick decided firmly that what happened earlier had been the first and last time that he would do anything mutual with Ellis. He was getting attached to a cheap hooker, god damn it, why couldn't have he been in Vegas or even in Atlantic City with an actual hooker? He wouldn't have had to feel so fucking bad about it if that had been the case.

He would've jerked off, but it was Rochelle sleeping right next to him, and Nick didn't really feel like helping to expand the image she had of him from just a selfish asshole to a selfish asshole pervert.

They had shuffled the guard duty around a bit: when it was Nick and Ellis' turn to sleep, Ellis had explained cheerfully that he wasn't really that tired at all so if Rochelle wanted to sleep some more, he could take her place. Rochelle, who wasn't looking very good for wear had seemed genuinely worried about Ellis skipping his turn to sleep, but gave up after he insisted. "I ain't that tired, I got a lot of sleep last night" was nothing but a brash lie because Ellis had spent most of last night with Nick's dick in his mouth.

Rochelle probably knew it, but Nick had noticed that she had hard time denying things from Ellis.

Nick sighed and shifted a bit, trying to ease off the tension by rubbing his erection to the mattress in passing. It didn't really help. Not really at all.

He pulled his dirty old blanket tighter around him and willed himself to think about something else.

***

They had decided to stay the night only because they hoped that by the time they woke up the storm would be gone or at least exhausted. Unfortunately the still-raging storm was very much the only reality they awoke to in the morning and Nick grumbled as a loud echoing crack of thunder nearly directly overhead brought him out of his everything-but-peaceful slumber.

It seemed like the rain hadn't ceased at all. After a short council they decided that the river had to be just there, it couldn't be a far away and they couldn't just sit and wait indefinitely without any food supplies or clean water. And maybe Virgil even needed help: the storm wasn't going to be any easier to deal with on the flooding river, on a fucking boat.

Unsurprisingly everything went straight down to hell pretty fast. Coach's hare-brained idea to turn on the Burger Tank sign to signal Virgil that they were back of course attracted every single infected in a mile's radius to them, the bright sign like a fucking lighthouse beacon in midst of the still hard-falling rain. Fortunately Virgil saw it too, sounding the boat's horn from the river to acknowledge the sign.

The boat was just about to pull to the pier when suddenly there was a Tank, its loud growling and ground-shaking footsteps lost in the howling wind and the white noise rumble of the rain. Nick didn't even see it until he heard Ellis scream, the kind of sound right out of nightmares and he even thought he really heard the sickening crunch as Ellis went down, disappearing somewhere under the Tank's large fist.

Nick cursed, emptied his AK's already near-empty magazine into the Tank's back in hopes of drawing its attention and making it leave its now helpless victim alone, and his heart leapt in relief at the distant-sounding muddled gunshots and the slightly obscured flashes of muzzle flare from Ellis' pistol: at least he hadn't gone down, you know, permanently. What really worried Nick was all the water: if Ellis really went down he'd fucking drown. The Tank didn't turn, still pummeling at the water, and the ground, and Ellis, and Nick was running out of options: dashing to the rescue wouldn't really help as he didn't trust his dodging ability while shin-deep in mud and water and so he'd probably only get punched down too and then Coach and Rochelle would have a fucking field trip tending to two incapacitated people instead of just one.

He was just about to tell himself "fuck that!" and charge the Tank anyway when he saw Coach (he had really taken his sweet fucking time wading through the water) reach the Tank, raise his machete and slash at it. The enormous infected grunted, not as much from pain as it did from surprise (Nick doubted they could even feel pain) and turned, finally, swinging its giant fist, but Coach was already out of its reach, machete thrown into the mud and shotgun drawn and pointed at the Tank. Then there was the loud tell-tale bang of a 7.62 mm caliber rifle being fired right beside Nick's ear and he turned to see Rochelle kneeling in the mud, chambering a new round.

"Go!" she yelled, scoped in hastily and took another shot, wincing visibly at the recoil.

Nick didn't stop to hesitate and waded through the water to Ellis, who was trying to push himself to sit up with the help of just one arm. His left arm was in a strange angle and just hanging there uselessly: probably a dislocated shoulder. His blood-and-mud-spattered face was distorted in a painful-looking grimace and he didn’t look at Nick.

"Man, my leg's hurtin' like a son of a bitch," he hissed.

"Get up," said Nick, ignoring everything the kid had said and extended an arm. Ellis took it, pulled himself up and screamed, stumbling a bit as he tried to shift his weight to his apparently wounded leg.

"Ah, shit, shit," he huffed, breath now coming in short, shallow bursts. "Where's the Tank?"

And right then both Coach and Rochelle shouted and Nick heard the Tank growl way too close, but that was it: he didn’t even have the time to react as Ellis gave him a shove, stronger than Nick thought he would be capable of with a dislocated shoulder and just one leg to stand on. Nick staggered and fell into the mud, turning just in time to see as the Tank swung at Ellis and the goddamn fucking idiot son of a bitch motherfucker took the hit.

Nick had never felt so fucking angry in his life. He was ready to kill Ellis himself if he survived. When, he then hurried to correct himself.

The Tank went down after that, the shot from Rochelle's rifle piercing its cranium only seconds too late, and before its heavy lifeless body even hit the ground Nick was scrambling closer and pulling Ellis out of the mud. He was lights out but there was no visible damage apart from a split lip and slowly forming giant bruises on the side of his face. That was of course not saying a lot.

He and Coach dragged Ellis to Virgil’s boat and Virgil steered away from the pier leaving the flooded town and Burger Tank behind, heading straight into what was left of the storm.

***

Half a day to New Orleans, Virgil had said after filling the boat's tank, pointing out their position on his wrinkled old map. The storm seemed to be slowly dying out; would probably be gone entirely before they reached their destination. There was no thunder apart from distant roars, but rain was still falling hard.

Ellis woke up only an hour or so after leaving the town and apart from the bruises on his face (half of his face was swollen and slowly turning purple and Nick doubted he could even see anymore with his left eye), dislocated shoulder, badly sprained ankle and a very probable concussion he seemed to be just fine. Annoyingly so, Nick thought, and left the cabin after Ellis started with a "Man, I don’t think I've felt this horrible since this one time me and Keith was—", leaving Coach and Rochelle to suffer through the asinine story, both of them so happy to find out Ellis was alright that listening to a Keith story or two felt like a fucking reward.

Idiots.

Ten minutes later Rochelle was knocking Nick on the shoulder, saying that Ellis wanted to talk to him. Alone. Nick thought that it had "bad idea" written all over it, but maybe, just maybe there was a chance that Ellis would have for once realized what a gigantic moron he was and the reason for wanting to talk to Nick was simply to apologize.

No such luck, of course. Nick should’ve known better.

Nick entered the cabin, busying himself with removing all the rings from his right hand’s fingers and Ellis started with "Oh man I'm so happy that you're all right—" but never had the chance to actually finish before Nick closed the distance between them and punched him in the face.

That’s why it was a bad idea: you probably shouldn’t hit someone who most likely had a concussion, but god fucking damn it, Ellis was practically begging for it. Goddamn punchable cheekbones. And Nick was still angry, and hurt, and fucking worried sick, like sick-to-his-fucking-stomach, about-to-retch sick, but that particular piece of personal information he would never, under no circumstances, disclose to anyone. Especially not to Ellis.

Telling others something like that was like trusting them and the last time Nick had trusted someone he had ended up married. And while Nick did trust his companions to watch his back, he was neither ready nor willing to share with them the kind of trust that entitled talking about feelings and dreams and hopes and all that personal bullshit.

Ellis was dumbstruck, lifting a hand to touch the spot where Nick's fist had connected, not able to do anything but furrow his brow at Nick and stare. He was now going to get a matching black eye for the one that he already had.

"Fuck. You," Nick spelled out, hardly able to contain his rage. "And your hero complex. Fuck you, Ellis."

"What?" Ellis uttered.

"That is not how the things work, Jesus Christ. You just—you don't fucking push the guy who’s just fine away from something that can kill you when you can hardly stand on your own! Fuck! Are you really so thick that you don’t even realize that?!"

Ellis stared.

"Do you even realize how fucking—how I—" Nick didn’t know how to finish that sentence: didn't know whether he even wanted to finish that sentence, and he wiped at his brow: a completely unconscious insecure gesture that he would've hit himself for if he had only realized that he had let it slip in the first place. "You're not fucking invincible! And what was that stupid shit about not sleeping at all? You're just a liability if you're tired, you can't protect anyone like that and protecting you becomes a fucking chore! We need to make it to New Orleans, all of us, okay? I can't do this without you."

Ellis shook his head. "So, uh, lemme get this here straight, Nick. You’re mad at me 'cause…" He hesitated.

"Because you took the fucking hit, yes," Nick finished, frowning. "You're going to fucking kill me one day, Ellis."

"I'm not," Ellis muttered.

Then Nick saw Ellis' lips curl into a grin, and he realized something, well, everything, in fact, and without really doing much trying to hide his confusion, he left the cabin before Ellis could actually say it out loud. Because knowing Ellis he was only a nerve impulse away from just blurting it out, just like that.

Holy fucking shit.

What a fucking way to realize.

***

Nick was sitting at the bow of Virgil's ship, legs dangling over the edge of the boat, smoking a cigarette (he had asked Virgil one of his hand-rolled ones: Nick wasn’t a smoker but every now and then he felt like having one, especially when he was drunk or stressed out and this moment definitely qualified) and staring at the particularly stunning sunset. Count on nature to show all of its best sides in time of a crisis.

And out of all the people in the world he was thinking about his ex-wife.

He wasn't reminiscing, oh no, he was thinking about the things that had eventually led him into making one of the biggest mistakes of his life; the one thing that he actually regretted. The county had felt like a fucking release after that; freedom behind bars.

Back then it had felt like a risk worth taking: the strength of her smile was reassuring and the hastily written vows were read straight from the heart in that tacky little chapel and Nick had believed that the smiles would last forever. Eight months and the smiles had finally turned sour and he was dodging as an expensive antique vase shattered into thousands of regretful pieces above his head and she was screaming with tears in her eyes.

He wiped at his forehead, sighing. He had really gotten himself in some fine mess right here, and that wasn't even taking the goddamned zombies into account.

He heard lopsided footsteps behind him and wasn't surprised at all as Ellis plopped down next to him. Nick had been kind of expecting him to show up at some point or the other. Probably couldn't fight the need to say it.

"You’re such a jerk," Ellis said.

Well, that wasn’t what Nick had been expecting at all. "I thought I was supposed to be 'cool'," he said with half a smirk.

Ellis shrugged. "You are. But you're a fuckin' huge jerkass too. It evens out, y'see."

"Yeah. That's me."

They were silent for a moment, Nick staring at the sunset and Ellis at the water, watching the boat plow through the soft waves. Nick took the last deep drag of his smoke and flicked the butt into the river with rehearsed ease.

"I still ain't gonna apologize for savin' ya back there," Ellis said then. "An' I don’t think that I'm invincible, it was a…" he searched for the word, "what'd ya call it? That I didn't really choose to do it?"

"Instinctive."

"Somethin' like that." Ellis shrugged again. "I was like, shit, man, this leg really hurts, y'know, an' then the Tank was right there an' I panicked 'cause you was standin' right next to me and… I reckon it was a bit stupid. But I don't regret it at all, y'know, 'cause you're sittin' there all fine an' bein' all Nick-like. This here bruise wouldn’t look very cool on your face." He pointed at the swollen half of his face and attempted a grin.

Nick thought for a second. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Yeah, sure." Ellis sounded a bit surprised. Nick couldn't blame him.

"What happened to Keith?"

Ellis' eyes widened before he hurried to look away. "Why'd ya ask?"

"You go on about him all the time; all those stories. He sounds like a good friend of yours. So the question remains: where is he now, why isn't he with you?"

"It’s uh, kinda long story."

"We have time."

So Ellis told him. It was a long story with Ellis adding things that didn't really have anything to do with the story itself, but with Keith or something that they had done together, and Nick wondered if all the other stories were equally as long and convoluted, suddenly feeling a bit bad for never letting Ellis finish. Maybe it was for the best that this was the one story that he didn't interrupt.

Ellis fell very quiet when the story ended and Nick wondered if that was the sound of a heart breaking.

"I'm sorry," Nick said.

"Nah, don't be," Ellis brushed it off, shrugging. "That's just the way it goes sometimes."

A silence.

"Hey, Nick?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks, man. For listenin'."

"No problem."

They sat there for a minute or so in an unexpectedly comfortable silence until Ellis got up, stretched his arms and legs and with a yawn told Nick that he would hit the sack: dead tired, leg and head and face and, well, everything still hurt a bit; all that jazz. Nick waved his hand dismissively and wished him good night, listening to the odd footsteps die out against the wooden deck.

***

Nick couldn't sleep. The boat was rocking too much, Coach was snoring and he had a head full of thoughts that just wouldn’t leave him alone and grant him a moment of peace. Apparently he wasn't the only one, as Rochelle left the small cabin they were crammed in after several hours of tossing and turning on her moth-eaten mattress.

Nick waited for a couple of minutes and then got up, only to turn on his heels before even getting to the door. He stared at Ellis who had been asleep ever since he had come back from the deck. It was a good thing: Nick would have probably punched him again to make him fall unconscious if he wasn't sleeping. The kid needed rest; otherwise he was nothing but a burden.

Nick kneeled down to pick up his blanket, stepped next to Ellis and carefully spread the blanket over him. Ellis shifted slightly in his sleep but didn't wake up, and Nick exited the cabin, hands shoved deep in his pockets and thankful no one had to know how his disguise kept slipping.

Rochelle was standing at the bow, illuminated by the first light of sunrise with the city of New Orleans spreading as a backdrop, bathed in gold. Nick walked to her.

"It's hard to believe this is a land of the dead now," she said without turning to face him, staring at the still distant city.

"Yeah," Nick agreed thoughtfully. "You could make some really bad metaphor about river Styx."

She gave an amused grunt and the smile on her lips at least tried to be genuine. "I think we're past making up metaphors."

Two fighter jets screamed overhead towards the city, followed by distant bangs that sounded a lot like explosions and caused Nick and Rochelle to exchange worried glances. Rochelle bit her lip, the smile gone now.

"Well, look at the bright side: at least the military's still there."

Rochelle snorted and leaned into Nick, her head falling to rest against his shoulder. Nick draped a comforting arm over her shoulders.

They stood like that for a long while.

***

Virgil left them at a pier close to a shrimp shack. They wished Virgil good luck and Virgil wished them good luck back and pulled away from the pier. They stood in perfect silence, watching, and Nick wasn't sure if something was beginning, or coming to an end. He felt a tiny bit nostalgic, watching Virgil's ugly old boat drift downstream, although he didn't know what exactly he was feeling nostalgic for.

Another pair of fighter jets screamed across the sky and there were more distant explosions. Were they seriously bombing the city? That wasn't good.

Coach finally cocked his shotgun in a dramatic manner and told them to mosey.

The pier area was fenced off and devoid of infected, so they had some time to gather and distribute all their supplies equally and also devise a crude plan of action apart from the obvious (kill as many infected as possible and don't turn into one of them). Virgil hadn't known about New Orleans' evacuation plans, so their first step was to find out where the evac was. The next step was of course to reach it. Easier said than done, as usual. The fact that military was apparently bombing the city posed yet another obstacle, and bombs were indefinitely more deadly than any infected.

"I dunno, which do ya reckon hurts more? Tank's fist or a rocket?"

"Gee, Ellis, maybe you should try catching a rocket with the good side of your face to find out!"

At that point Ellis gave Nick a very uncharacteristic glare and left to target practice on the infected on the other side of the fence.

"Rude, Nick," Rochelle scolded him with a disapproving sneer.

Trying to catch the attention of the jets was probably an impossible gambit, unless they managed to wreak such havoc it was impossible not to notice. If a chance to wreak such havoc presented itself, Nick was definitely game to try and catch the attention of the pilots (he wouldn't mind setting the whole zombie-infested city in fire), but he wasn't going to go out of his way to do it, and neither should anyone else.

So the plan was basically "don't get killed". Funny, it had been the same ever since they left Savannah. Some things never changed.

Coach gave Nick an extra bottle of pain pills and told him to get them to Ellis: the kid was definitely in quite a bit of pain although he would never admit it. Nick rolled his eyes and stalked to Ellis, leaving Coach and Rochelle to sort through their ammo supply.

Ellis was taking potshots at the infected with his pistol through the fence, careful to make every shot count so as not to waste too much ammo. He aimed at an infected man, concentrating so hard that he was chewing on his lip while lining up the shot. He pulled the trigger and dropped the monster with a clean bullet between the eyes. The infected tumbled down mid-step, gurgling. Ellis flicked the pistol's safety on and slid it under the knot he had tied his overalls' sleeves to. Nick frowned. He would never stick a loaded gun into his pants; not even with the safety on. Ellis really thought he was invincible.

"Easy as shit," Ellis said cheerfully and flashed Nick a proud, lopsided grin, pointing at his swollen eye. "Don't even need to close my eye to aim."

"That's great, kid," Nick said dismissively and handed him the pain pills. Ellis looked at the bottle like he had no idea what it was, but took it either way and pocketed it.

"Actually," he said then, dragging out the last syllable in a manner that was way too thoughtful for him. "I have something for ya, Nick."

"Oh," Nick said and immediately assumed a defensive state of mind. That couldn't mean anything good, coming from Ellis.

He wasn't prepared at all when Ellis just recoiled back a bit to gather momentum and punched him straight in the jaw. He didn't even hold back and from the intensity of pain Nick's first coherent thought—fleeting as it might have been—was that the impact had fractured his jaw. His second one was wow, how in the hell does he have balls for such a punch? and he staggered back, seeing stars. And Ellis just stood there, a toothy, lopsided grin on his bruised, swollen face and looking rather smug, and when Nick finally recovered enough from the smarting pain in his jaw and looked at Ellis', his heart swelled a bit in respect and, hell, maybe even affection. Or maybe the punch had knocked his brain loose.

Yes, he realized that he had had that coming.

"Goddamn," he tried to say, but his jaw protested and it came out sounding something like "go-ham". Not his finest moment. He spit out some blood (his teeth had nicked his cheek and lips at impact, nice) and spent a while trying to find out if any teeth had come loose from the punch. Not a single one. Lucky.

"That was for everything, for your information."

"I know," Nick managed.

"Good," Ellis said and stepped closer. Before Nick even realized what was going on, Ellis kissed him on the lips. It was very hasty, and his aim was a bit off as he mostly just caught the corner of Nick's mouth, but in any case the sentiment was still as clear as day, and it was forceful enough to stop Nick's world for a second that stretched out to feel like it lasted at least a minute. The impact of the shoddy kiss was stronger than the punch had been: it was just less about pain and more about enlightenment and acceptance and even regret, which were all painful in their different bullshit ways, of course.

Ellis drew back and licked at his lips thoughtfully.

"Yeah," he drawled. "That was for everything too."

So ridiculously adorable, goddamn; Nick thought he was going to get diabetes if this shit were to carry on any longer. He slapped his hand on Ellis' shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Ellis," he said, trying to articulate around the pain in his jaw, although his biggest inhibitor was trying to be honest. He remembered painfully well why he often felt it unnecessary and complicated, opting to remain dishonest. "Thank you."

Ellis laughed, confused. "Okay, Nick, I have no idea what for, but I guess you're welcome."

Nick thought that it would make for a fine, heroic confession if he saved it for some tragic moment he was dreading was looming in their immediate future. Or maybe he would even tell him once his jaw didn't feel like it would tear in half every time he tried to pronounce something other than a vowel.

Maybe.