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Taken Its Toll

Chapter Text

Savannah sure as hell was a long ways away now. Nick never thought in a million years that he'd miss a shitty place like that. Things were easier then. Just had to grab some cola for Whitaker and get into the mall. Then it got a bit more complicated in Rayford. Just had to cross through the sewer to have some random assholes lower a bridge for them.

As soon as they set foot in that goddamn carnival, everything changed. Helicopter pilot was bitten. Had to be. Only way in hell that he'd turn into a zombie mid-flight. Had to crawl through the swamp reeking of sewage, piss, and bile. Virgil picked them up--and they were fucking lucky that he did. No way that they would've survived another ten minutes without that asshole being there. But then the boat didn't have enough gas to make it to New Orleans. Had to stop. And of course the goddamn town didn't have gas. Of course they had to go into an abandoned sugar mill that was teeming with Witches. Of course.

New Orleans was a shot to the gut. Military bombing the shit out of it. Piles of corpses--not bitten, not infected. Just people, gunned down by an increasingly nervous military that'd obviously been losing against the infected. Coach'd still believed in his heart that the military was going to save them. Somehow. Even when the radio ominously called them "carriers"--whatever that meant--Coach still believed them.

That helicopter pilot wasn't able to get away from the explosion on the bridge fast enough. Whole thing came down in the woods. Pure luck was still on their side--not so much the pilot's side. Poor bastard looked like a piece of toast dipped in jam. The four of them were mostly unscathed, but it wasn't as if they could relax. The zombies were pouring out of New Orleans. Rats jumping off of a sinking ship. If the four of them waited around too long, they'd be swarmed. Fire wasn't helping much, either. Forest wasn't bone dry, but it was dry enough to convince them to dive headfirst into that cold stream and get to looking for their next escape.

Somehow, the military had an outpost out in the woods. Unsurprisingly, it'd also been overrun. But there was a helicopter pilot. Always seemed to be one of those assholes hanging around. Some noble duty made them hang back for stragglers. Better than the shitty pilot back in Savannah. Asshole had no problem leaving the four of them to die in a burning hotel.

So, okay, maybe this guy wasn't such a saint. Just like the guy in the carnival. Bitten. So he was a sicko and a freak, trying to drag down some other people with him. Nick never got that. Assholes like that were the reason that shit like this got spread around. Too busy thinking about themselves to realize that it'd really be best for the whole world if they just stayed far the fuck away from everyone else.

At least this pilot got them out of the woods. Out of the state, too. That was roughly as much credit as Nick was willing to give him. Asshole was infected. Asshole turned. Asshole crashed the goddamn helicopter. Three times in so many days, Nick found himself crawling out of a wreck. Third time that he'd come out relatively unscathed.

He could hear Rochelle groaning in pain behind him. At least that made two of them. Nick's ears were still ringing, but his senses were still with him. The pilot, already gray-skinned and yellow-eyed, was trying in vain to claw out from under the wreck, hissing and snarling at them. Nick glanced over at Ro', traded a grim nod with her, and pointed his pistol at the zombie. Only missed once; he was getting sloppy. Lack of sleep does that to a person.

Coach and Ellis were both groaning, although Ellis more from the effort of trying to drag Coach out of the wreck on his own. Coach's leg had seen better days, judging from the piece of shrapnel sticking out of his ankle. Big guy took it in stride all the same, dragging himself over to a nearby bench once Ellis tugged him free of the helicopter. Nick headed over, tiredly reaching for his own medkit. It wasn't worth arguing or trying to hold onto his own; no one else had anywhere near his level of experience with bandaging up nasty wounds. Besides, they needed Coach to be able to walk; anything that'd slow them down would just lower their abysmal odds of survival even more than they already were.

"Looks like we're in some little suburban town, right on the outskirts of Texas." Rochelle winced. "I think." She couldn't remember the last time that she'd been in Texas. "We weren't in the air long enough for us to be anywhere near Austin, I know that much." She shook some broken glass off of her shirt, thankful that none of it was embedded in her skin. "Looks like we're in a park of some kind. I'd bet we're near the border. It'd be great if we had a map."

Apparently Ellis heard that and considered it to be a command; kid started scouring the nearby area for any sort of map. Even after all of this shit, he was still bouncing up and down. Cheery as ever. Fucking backwater freak.

Coach helped hold his leg up as Nick wrapped it with a makeshift splint, teeth grinding together to avoid screaming. As soon as the worst of the pain had passed, his mind drifted back to the issue at hand. "Lord knows I ain't been to Texas since I was a kid. I'm afraid I won't be much help in figurin' out which way gets us to Austin quickest."

Nick looked up from his work, scowling. "We're not going to Austin."

The big guy's brow furrowed. He had a feeling that Nick'd put up some sort of resistance. He probably wanted them to just hide out in a house nearby and pray that it'd all end. "Nicholas, we've got to. Military's holed up there, I'm sure they've got-"

"Got what, Coach? Got it covered? What, like New OrleansChrist, we didn't even catch the goddamn name of that last outpost." Nick pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing. "You really got another one of these falls in you, big guy? 'Cause so far the military's been as useless as CEDA." He bitterly remembered those assholes on the bridge; they'd declined joining up, rambling on about the military fucking up just as bad as CEDA. They'd been idiots not to listen to that warning, even if it had been coming from someone as stupid as Francis.

"What's your big plan, then?" Coach folded his arms across his chest, wincing as Nick let his leg fall once it was patched up. "If you wanna stay here and die, be my guest. Military's the only hope we got and you know it."

Nick sneered and backed off, kicking a nearby can. Coach was right. They didn't really have a better plan. It wasn't like the four of them could expect to keep fighting zombies forever. Not without one of them dying. They'd been stupidly lucky, even with every shitty roll of the dice.

Nick paused, staring up at the darkening sky. Jesus, it was so stupidly simple that it almost made him laugh. "Coach?" He turned, smirking. "We go to Vegas." Coach's eye roll and snort were to be expected. "C'mon, big guy, it beats the hell out of going to another outpost, finding it torn all to hell, and having to go chase after the next torn all to hell outpost. We're always one step behind these zombies."

"Shit, I think Nick's got a point." Ellis popped up out of the trashcan he'd been rifling through, a mostly-clean map of the town in hand. "Las Vegas is all isolated and shit, right? We get ourselves out there, man I bet there ain't no zombies there yet. That's a lot of desert for zombies to cross with nothin' to chase along the way."

Ro' chimed in not long after, a tiny glimmer of hope in her eyes. "If we can find a car along the way, we could drive it there. I've been on a road trip to Vegas once; it's way too long of a walk in the desert for us to do. But that just means that the infected wouldn't be able to get there." She looked at Coach pointedly. "Look, I saw the charts back in Savannah. This infection started on the East coast and is spreading West. What we need is to get ourselves isolated. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people went for the ocean route and stole a boat--which is why we shouldn't do that. Harbors are probably all teeming with infected. I doubt we'd run into much trouble once we started driving."

Coach looked between all three of them, rubbing at his temples as he tried to reason through this new plan. It wasn't as though it was a worse plan. The only difference he could see was the isolation--if Nick was wrong and Las Vegas was infected, they wouldn't have as many options to escape. They'd be forced to stay put in the city or else risk trying to head deeper into infected territory. If Austin was overrun, they'd at least be able to follow a trail to the next military outpost.

But three votes were already pushed for Vegas, and Coach wasn't of a mind to argue. If he ended up being right, he'd rub it in Nick's smug face. "Well, I guess it ain't the worst idea I've heard. Might as well give it a shot." He grinned when Ellis hollered and fist-pumped; lord knows that Ellis's enthusiasm was contagious.

A bit too contagious, it seemed.

The distant howl of an infected mob on the move motivated all four of them to get going. Even Coach was able to overlook the throbbing pain in his leg and jump to his feet. Problem was that it didn't seem like there was a safehouse in the area, and the wreck had all but ruined their chances of finding their guns amidst the twisted metal.

"I saw a safehouse sign just down the street while I was rummagin' for a map." Ellis jerked his thumb towards the street corner he was talking about. Spraypainted in white right onto the closest building, but unmistakably the sign of a safehouse. Ellis lead the way, with Ro' not far behind. Nick stayed back with Coach, hands glued to his pistol. They'd all come too goddamn far to die now. Not in some nameless town in Texas.

Luckily, the safehouse wasn't far at all. Save for a few stray zombies, the route was mostly clear. Something about the town screamed "successful evacuation"; it truly seemed deserted, with very few bodies strewn about. Even the safehouse looked fairly untouched, as if CEDA themselves hadn't had much of a chance to use their own facilities in the area. Lights weren't working, but it didn't take long to find a lantern.

Not a well-stocked safehouse, unfortunately. A few sleeping bags, a musty couch, and a few shitty little machine guns. Not even enough for four people. Just one medkit, too, opened up with the painkillers plucked out. CEDA might not have used it, but other survivors certainly had. Graffiti on the wall confirmed as much.

Disheartening graffiti at that. All of it mentioned heading to New Orleans, as if that was safety. Any poor assholes that'd come through here had marched on to their death. Made Nick wonder how old some of the writing was. He wondered if the survivors that'd written this were still heading to New Orleans, or if they were part of the nameless pile of bodies within the city. Didn't matter now.

He volunteered for the first shift. It never really mattered before; they never stayed in a safehouse for more than a few hours. Now? Coach's leg was busted up. It wouldn't hurt to give him a night's rest. Besides, they'd personally seen how strong a safehouse door was; back in the carnival, even with a horde and a goddamn Tank pounding away at it, the door hadn't budged an inch. They could afford it.

Nick sat on the couch, listening to Coach's snoring, staring at the safehouse door that they'd barricaded shut. He'd be damned if he was about to die now. They'd come too far for this to be how it ended. Dying now would just seem like giving up.

And Nick wasn't ready to give up just yet.

Chapter Text

Nick couldn't tell when he'd dozed off. He could vaguely remember realizing that he was getting too tired to keep watch for much longer. Hadn't been that many opportunities to sleep, really. A quick nap in the car, some shut-eye on the boat. That wasn't nearly enough sleep for a man to run on. But he'd been sure that he could stay up a little while longer, especially with a Hunter clawing at the door. Occasionally it'd let out that horrific shriek that he'd come to hate, jolting him wide awake every time that it yowled out from beyond the door.

That hadn't been enough, apparently. He snapped awake with a gasp, pupil's dilated and adrenaline racing. Ellis had sat down next to him on the couch, uncomfortably close and wearing that insufferable grin on his goddamn hick face. Nick sucked in a few sharp breaths to try and calm down, scowling. "Jesus, you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"Sorry." Ellis sounded a little sheepish, rubbing at the back of his head underneath his grimy hat. "I was havin' trouble sleepin' and I kinda figured maybe y'all'd wanna get some shut eye. We ain't had that many chances to stop, y'know." He leaned forward a little, trying to catch Nick's eye.

"Yeah, I know." Nick sighed, running a hand through his hair.Grease on grease--first chance that he got to shower, he was taking it. He didn't care if the water was ice cold. "Just a little hard to uh, relax. That's all." He waved a hand to the door, nodding slightly. "Hunter was trying to break in for a few hours. I don't even know when the goddamn thing stopped, or if it's still there. Can't exactly get myself to sleep knowing that if the door breaks down, one of us could die before everyone else even finishes waking up."

Judging from the silence that'd followed, that was a tough one for Ellis to chew on. Nick hazarded a glance over at the mechanic to find that his head was down, staring at some random stain on the wood floor. Safehouse'd been some daycare center before CEDA took it over. The whole place felt all the more grim because of it. Maybe that was getting to the kid? Hard to tell. Ellis was a hard read like that. Dopey, sure, but he'd sometimes get a look on his face as if he was planning something out. Something that Nick couldn't figure out.

Ellis slapped his knees, offering Nick the cheeriest and brightest grin he could muster. "Well shoot, I got an idea, man." He reached into the makeshift waistband of his coveralls, earning an incredulous and partially horrified look from the conman. Apparently any innuendo flew right over the little guy's head; he proudly brandished a half-empty bottle of vodka, chuckling at the look on Nick's face when he caught the older man's eye. "I found it back in New Orleans at that open air restaurant we walked by. Opened, but it ain't cracked none."

"Why...do you have that?" Nick couldn't quite get over the fact that Ellis had apparently been stashing a bottle of booze in his pants ever since they'd first set foot in New Orleans. He couldn't tell if that was impressive or just ridiculous.

"Hell, you're gonna laugh at me." Ellis stared down at the bottle, laughing. "I'm gonna laugh at me. It was real stupid. I just-" His breath hitched for a moment; for just a brief second, there was something else going on besides that dumb hick façade . "I thought we were gonna make it, man." His lips barely moved, the words coming out in a harsh whisper. "We were right there. We'd been chasin' after New Orleans the whole damn time. And we made it, and, and the chopper didn't. And then the next one didn't make it neither." He rubbed at his bruised eye, sniffling. "Shit, I grabbed it 'cause I thought it'd be right for us all to take a drink when we made it. All of us just take a shot, 'cause we earned it." His shoulders slumped. "Sounds real stupid now that we ain't even close to safe. I ain't been to Vegas once, and I know it's real far away."

Nick let that simmer, processing what Ellis had confessed to him. Southerners were always a little weird about the military. He'd noticed it in Coach, too.This was their "Santa Claus isn't real" moment. The military couldn't save them. If the scientists and doctors couldn't stop the infection, and the military couldn't stop it, then what hope of rescue was there? Usually it'd be easy to fall back on the idea that the underdogs would save them. South was supposed to be full of tough survivalists that knew how to live without the government helping them. But they'd gone through a swamp full of people like that. None of them had made it. Christ, now that Nick thought about it, how many people had survived? There was Whitaker, maybe; he'd tucked himself away with "ample provisions"--how ample was that, exactly? Did he expect this to blow over in a week? He'd only wanted a six pack of soda from them; that could be stretched out to a week if he was extra stingy. If Whitaker didn't have any other drinks up there, he'd have to leave his shelter. One man can't survive long out in this shit. Probably dead.

There were the three survivors they'd run into--Francis, Louis, and Zoey. Those three had lost their fourth. They might be alive, but they were still over on the East coast for some God-awful reason. They might be alive. The helicopter pilot they met was bitten--had to be. He was dead. Virgil was alive, and given that he had a boat, he was probably fine, too. Well. Nick had to think about that. Virgil had needed them to get him some fuel, and it'd been a grueling trek just to get four cans. If Virgil had to do that on his own, he'd be dead. No way in hell that one man could make that run. There was the man on the radio--not the helicopter pilot that'd picked them up, but the man they'd talked to. And the other helicopter pilot was dead. That meant that after crossing several states, they'd only met six people that even had a chance of still being alive. Those were some bleak odds.

Ellis took Nick's silence to mean that he just had nothing to say. "Anyway." He tried to force a smile, waggling the bottle a little to catch Nick's eye. "I was thinkin' maybe y'all can just have a drink. Might help you to sleep if you're a little bit buzzed. And besides, I figure I can still save it so we can all have a drink when we make it to Vegas." He held the bottle out, eyes bright and hopeful.

"Tell you what, fireball." Nick grabbed the bottle, unscrewing the top slowly. "I'll drink this down, and when we get to Vegas, drinks are on me. Promise." He winked, guzzling down the vodka as though it were water before Ellis could so much as utter a protest. It burned, and his stomach was already violently protesting his poorly thought out plan, but he figured that this brand wasn't potent enough for it to be a huge problem. Some fruity flavored vodka that probably made it popular with girls. He almost regretted finishing it off, as he imagined that Coach'd hate the damn thing and make one hell of a funny face while drinking it.

"I'm holdin' you to that." Ellis shook off his disbelief, grinning crookedly. He jerked his thumb back behind the couch, lowering his voice once he remembered that they were all sharing the same room. "Sleepin' bag's next to Coach. It don't zip up, but that's okay. I never really got the point of zippin' up a sleepin' bag, anyway." His eyes widened a fraction, gently smacking Nick's shoulder. "Hey, did I ever tell you about the time that me and my buddy Keith went out campin' in my backyard? We thought the sleepin' bag was supposed to fit two people, but we didn't know it had a zipper, so we spent probably like two hours tryin' to squeeze into this tiny little-"

"Ellis? Is now the best time?" Nick pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the alcohol to work faster. Ellis shut up, at least. The conman rose to his feet, only a little unsteady as he adjusted to having a stomach filled up with just alcohol. He picked his way over to the sleeping bag and tentatively settled in, leaving the mechanic to take a shift watching the door.


 

It couldn't have been more than a few hours later when Nick was jolted awake, yet the sunlight streaming in made him realize with a cold twist of utter dread that he'd slept in considerably later than he'd hoped to. His mouth felt dry as he looked around the colorful room, heart hammering away.

The other sleeping bags were empty.

It was too quiet.

He shot out of the sleeping bag, scrambling around. No medkit, no guns, no water. Everything was gone. Nick's mind shot back to the sunlight streaming in. The only source of light outside had come from tiny cracks in the boards covering up the windows. This had been far too much light for that.

Slowly, his head lurched to the side to stare at the wide open safehouse door. It'd been ripped off the hinges, with a bloody trail tracing a grim path down the street. Nick braced himself, stepping outside on trembling legs.

He found Ellis's body barely fifty feet away. Hunter claw marks deeply embedded into his chest. One of the claws had even snapped off from how hard the monster had been ripping into the little guy. Caught in his jugular. From the look of raw agony frozen on Ellis's face, it hadn't been a painless, nor quick, death.

Nick looked around, trying to figure out where Coach and Rochelle were. No sign of them. Had they really just left him behind? Left Ellis? Ellis was dead--no sense in dragging a corpse with them, but they hadn't even bothered to wake Nick up?

"They left you behind because they know what you did."

Nick's head snapped back to Ellis, legs frozen in place. Ellis's face was still contorted, but there was no denying that he was the one speaking--even if his voice did sound weird without his accent in place.

"They know that you're a murderer. They know what you did. They know that you deserve to die alone. You're a monster for what you did."


 

Nick snapped awake, breathing rapidly. He saw Coach out of the corner of his eye, the big guy casually drinking out of one of the discarded water bottles he'd found on the floor.

"Scary dreams?" Coach laughed at the noncommittal grunt that Nick threw back at him, eyes twinkling. "Guess we better leave that bag behind, I think Nicholas might've had himself an accident."

"Coach, next bucket of grease I find is going right down the sewer." Nick smoothed out his filthy suit jacket, scowling as Coach simply grinned and walked away. Rochelle was checking how much ammunition the machine guns had; there hadn't been enough ammo lying around to fully load either of them. They were going to need to be careful.

Nick found himself almost nervously hovering around the couch, wondering where Ellis was. It wasn't as though he could ask--he couldn't bear the thought of how mercilessly the others would tease him for giving a shit about where that hick was. Unfortunately for him, he wasn't being exactly subtle with how he was pacing about.

"Ellis is taking a piss, Nick. Relax." Rochelle smirked. "He didn't go running off with anything, I promise."

The conman stopped pacing, sighing. Somehow, it wasn't exactly a relief to know that people expected Nick to care more about their things than the group. Really, though, he had no one else to blame for that but himself. He caught Ellis's eye when the mechanic stepped out of the tiny bathroom on the other end of the room, but Ellis was already moving over to Coach to see about getting a drink of water for himself.

Nick considered his lack of a hangover and wondered, briefly, if he'd simply hallucinated the entire exchange.

Chapter Text

How many hours had they been walking? It wasn't clear. Suburban towns didn't exactly have any landmarks for them to travel towards. Rochelle seemed to believe that getting on the highway would get them heading the right way fastest. Made sense; all they had was a town map. If they got lost out of town, they could end up too far off track to get to Vegas easily. It was just a matter of making it to the highway on the opposite end of town.

Luckily, Nick's hunch about the town being evacuated seemed to be absolutely right. With almost everyone gone, there weren't more than a handful of zombies on the streets. Good goddamn thing, too, as they weren't packing near as much heat as they'd been used to. They raided a sports shop along the way, all four of them carrying baseball bats. It just wasn't worth it to waste any bullets on the infected in their way. Best to save those for one of the mutated freaks.

"I recognize that street name from the map." Ellis used his bat, already splintered and bloody, to point at an intersection's street sign. "We just gotta take a right up ahead and keep walkin' 'til we hit the exit ramp." He turned to face the other survivors, grinning as he walked backwards. His face fell as he looked at Coach. "Coach, you ain't lookin' too hot. Maybe we should head to the safehouse I saw instead."

Nick looked over at Coach, squinting. No way around that. Coach looked like shit. Even with a splint, he still lacked any painkillers to try and deal with his wounded leg. Walking around all day in the heat probably wasn't doing the big guy any favors. "I think the little guy's got a point, Coach. We get you up on that highway and there won't be a place to safely rest for miles, especially if we can't get a car."

"Yeah, you both got a point." Coach sighed. "Gotta agree. We stop in this next safehouse and see if they got any pain pills. Lord knows I ain't makin' it on a highway like this." Once he knew that there wasn't a need for him to keep up with their admittedly blistering pace, he slowed down. It made him just a hair more comfortable and took the pressure off of his leg, even if it meant taking longer to get to a safe spot.

The safehouse in question wasn't too far from where they'd intended to go to begin with, although CEDA's choice in building was again questionable. Ice cream parlor, from the looks of the cheery sign hanging over the freshly installed door. This part of town didn't even look like it'd had too many survivors through it, as most of the shops on the street still had their glass windows intact. That was a good sign--the safehouse might be stocked as well as the Ducatel ones were.

Ellis got to the safehouse door first, tugging it open with one hand. He turned to step inside, froze, then promptly shut the door and backed up. Confused, the other survivors approached. Nick wanted to shove the little guy aside; no matter how many zombies were in there, they needed to clear it out.

Or not.

A quick glimpse through the bars on the tiny window revealed why Ellis hadn't even tried. Witches. Six of them. All of them were shambling around the counter, a few of them dragging their wicked claws against the display case while softly whimpering. Nick dimly recalled the sugar mill, and how some of the graffiti scrawled on the safehouse walls seemed to believe that the Witches were somehow attracted to sugar.

Guess this confirmed that.

Made sense why no one had bothered swinging by this neck of the woods, either. Chances were that this place had been switched to a quarantine room by CEDA once they realized that the Witches were attracted to it. Certainly didn't matter now. What mattered was that Coach needed a place to rest, and the highway was out of the question.

Nick watched as Ellis scooted a bit farther away from the safehouse to scrutinize the map. Judging from the look on the hick's face, it didn't look good. He stuck near Coach, ears straining to make sure that the Witches behind them weren't getting angry. Rochelle had sidled over to Ellis to help figure out what their plan of attack should be--and her expression didn't exactly put Nick's mind at ease, either.

Eventually, the two youngest survivors approached the older men with matching grim expressions. Rochelle spoke up, keeping her eyes locked on Coach. "This is the only other safehouse in this town." She glanced at Nick briefly, then looked back to Coach. "And apparently this is right on the edge of CEDA's coverage. So you're also looking at the farthest West safehouse."

Nick swallowed, glancing back at the Witch-filled safehouse. Doubling back was out of the question; it'd taken the better part of the day just to make it this far. The highway'd kill Coach. Resting on it was out of the question, too. If they could find a car on the highway, they might be able to cover some decent ground--but that was a gamble that Nick didn't really want to take. Killing one Witch was risky. Two Witches was suicidal. Six Witches? There'd be no way that they could kill that many without either destroying the safehouse or getting themselves killed. Hell, even if they actually had the firepower needed to take down one Witch, it'd still be suicide. With what they had, they wouldn't even be able to irritate a Witch.

"I got an idea." All eyes were on Ellis. Had to hand it to him; he seemed to be pretty good at coming up with plans on the spot. "What if we just hole up in one of them small shops down the street? Can't be too hard to cover up the windows, neither. Places down here always got boards lyin' around in case a hurricane comes through."

The group went silent, the muffled sound of a bunch of Witches crying behind them adding just a touch more tension to the situation than any of them really wanted. It was bad enough to just be standing out in the middle of the road. "Only option we've got." Nick shrugged, trying not to think about just how shitty that was. "Anything else is either a waste of a day or suicide." He coughed, realizing that he'd been a bit too quick to agree with the mechanic. Rochelle was just smirking at him like she knew something wicked. He rolled his eyes. "I'm not dying in some shitty dump in Texas, 'kay? Standing out in the middle of the goddamn street's a death sentence, so, let's get moving and at least give it a shot."

That got her off his back, at least. A convenience store back on the nearest intersection proved to be the most promising place to hide out in. No power meant no alarm, and one swift elbow from Coach was all it took to break through the glass door. Not exactly a comfort, considering that they wanted to use it as a shelter for the night, but if they could move one of the vending machines in front of the door it wouldn't be an issue.

Once they'd guaranteed that the place didn't have any lone zombies hiding out within, the four of them scrambled to start boarding up the windows. The backroom had some plywood--not exactly a sturdy, zombie-proof material, but Nick figured that the zombies wouldn't try to break in if they couldn't see the survivors. They'd just need to be exceptionally quiet. It barely took five minutes to board up the two windows, leaving them with the task of moving a soda machine in front of the door.

Now, Nick thought of himself as a fairly clever man. He didn't always know how things worked at a technical level, but he could usually get by on his wits alone. Coach was a teacher of some kind, Ro' probably went to college. Ellis? Jury's still out on him, but a mechanic probably knows something about moving heavy shit.

It was almost embarrassing to the conman that none of them had bothered to think through how to move a vending machine safely.

A few sturdy pushes didn't result in the machine sliding across the tiled floor. It didn't even wobble. The whole thing lurched forward, with two of its feet remaining planted firmly in the same spot. Ro' figured out what was happening right away and jumped back, while Coach and Nick scrambled to try and grab the machine. Ellis tried to run around to the other side of it, hoping to stop it from crashing down.

The sound of it slamming into the tiled floor sounded infinitely louder in Nick's ears than it probably was. He looked around, nervously waiting to hear some horde excitedly howling away. Nothing. Not even a Charger. "Christ." Nick laughed, his voice cutting through the silence that'd followed the crash. The machine wasn't tall enough on its side to block the door, but at least now they could try to push it in front of the door and then get it upright.

Nick's blood ran cold as he heard an absolutely vicious roar. No one needed to say it. There was no denying what that was. A Tank. "Of all the fucking things to piss off..." Nick scrambled to shove as many bags of food into his pockets as he could, ignoring the look that Coach was giving him. "We can't fight it, we don't have near enough firepower." Nick looked at Coach, grimacing. "You and Ellis go looking for a car on the highway. I'll stay back with Ro' and distract the Tank."

Coach looked about ready to start a fight, but Ro' stopped him. "Seriously, Coach? Your leg's busted, and Ellis knows how to hot wire a car. Just go. We can do this."

The four of them split up, with Nick and Ro' frantically looking around the intersection for anything of use. One pistol and a machine gun weren't enough to take out a Tank--they were going to need a strategy, and fast. The ground was shaking from how close the Tank was, although it was unclear which direction the monstrosity was coming from.

"There!" Ro' pointed to a locked up storage unit full of propane tanks nestled in the alley next to the hardware store across the street. Still locked up, of course, but it didn't take a genius to piece together what her plan was.

But Nick could see a problem with her plan. The Tank wasn't going to go into that alley unless it was chasing someone. Was there enough distance between the propane tanks and the end of the alley so that someone could survive running in there? If so, would it still be enough to kill the Tank?

Any chance of questioning the logistics of the plan fell to the wayside once the Tank bounded onto the intersection. Nick started yelling, firing off his pistol into the massive infected's back. It hadn't spotted Ro' yet. Screw it. Nick ran into the alley, diving into the bags of trash at the end. He was thankful that the mystery bags weren't full of used needles. Or food. Small blessings.

He was about to shout for Ro' to take the shot when she did just that. The blast was obscene, sending the Tank's body hurtling forward before it crumpled on the ground, its back a massive crater of destroyed tissue. Nick's ears were still ringing long after the impact. He was only half aware of Coach's arms hoisting him up, and Ellis's nervous babbling. Ro' was shouting, although it sounded distant.

Nick found himself sitting in a truck, with Coach and Ro' chattering away in the bed of the truck right behind him. Ellis was driving, trying to talk to him, but the words all sounded muted. All that Nick knew was that he needed to try and stay awake, even if his eyelids felt heavy.

Chapter Text

"...and then I found Keith's backpack 'bout ten miles down the river. It wasn't ripped up too bad so he kept usin' it all through the school year, but man did that thing smell like fish and mud."

Nick's eyes slowly focused on the passing scenery. Late. Had to be really late. He could barely make out a thing in the darkness around the truck, save for the occasional crashed vehicle. Whatever position he'd slumped in wasn't comfortable, but that didn't matter. What mattered to him was that his ears weren't ringing, his vision was fine, and he'd simply blacked out for a few hours.

"Keith never did wanna go back to that river. Man, I ain't even blamin' him, 'cause that was a real scary day. I went back there a few times with Dave, but it just ain't the same without the whole gang bein' there-oh shit man, you're up!" Ellis had only glanced away from the road for a second, his tiny smile growing into a massive grin when he caught Nick's eye. He looked back to the road immediately. "Coach and Ro' fell asleep a ways back. Been drivin' for..." He trailed off, looking down at the clock. "Ho-ly shit, been drivin' for 'bout six hours now. Just past midnight."

"And you're fine with that?" Nick shifted to sit up a little, trying to see if Ellis looked tired. Hard to tell in the dim light, harder still given how energetic the kid always seemed to be. "I mean, you're fine to keep driving?" Last thing he wanted was for Ellis to doze off and get them all killed, especially with Coach and Ro' sleeping in the truck bed.

Ellis shook his head, wincing. "Ain't got a choice, man." He jerked a thumb back where they'd come from, sighing. "Horde was a ways back with a Tank runnin' next to it. I figure that we gotta get as much distance as we can between us and them. So I'm gonna drive this baby until she ain't got no more gas." He smiled, briefly, then started laughing.

Nick looked out the window. Whatever. If the kid wanted to push himself that far, it wasn't Nick's problem. Well, it was Nick's problem, but he didn't feel like arguing it. As soon as they got to Vegas he could get away from this little group and never have to suffer another hick accent for the rest of his life.

"Almost sounds like y'all're worried about me, Nick." Ellis grinned when Nick's head snapped over to look at him. "Better watch out, or else people're gonna start thinkin' you ain't as bad as you think you are."

"Oh please." Nick snorted, rolling his eyes. "If you pass out, we all die. I'm just looking out for number one. Me." He looked out the window again, stretching out a little in a vain attempt to get comfortable. "I don't need the group to survive, you know. I did just fine before I got up to that hotel." He didn't know what point he was trying to make--it didn't take a genius to see that he wouldn't have lasted five minutes on the same route they'd taken.

Before Ellis could admonish him, Nick went further. "If I hadn't stopped to help Coach on the way, I probably would've made it onto that helicopter." It wasn't something he'd wanted to admit to the group. "Some building had collapsed and his leg was stuck under a support beam. I could've just kept walking, but, I didn't." He sighed, bumping his head against his seat. "Took me a good hour of moving rubble to get him loose. I told him about the evacuation point up on the hotel roof." Nick closed his eyes. "If I'd gotten there an hour earlier, I would've been on a chopper. Probably the one before it, at that. I'd be safe."

Ellis took a while to respond, just listening to the engine hum. "First of all, y'all wouldn't have been safe. Serious. That chopper would've gone to one of the outposts, and since we saw that every outpost got overrun, I'd be willin' to bet that you'd end up alone in an overrun outpost. Or shit, what if it went to New Orleans and you got lined up and shot down by the military? Your ass'd be dead."

He scratched his chin, then smiled. "Secondly, I think you proved my point. You ain't as bad as you think you are. You could've left Coach to die back there, sure. But you didn't. You stayed back and helped him, even though you ain't know a thing about him. And you've been plenty generous with helpin' the rest of us out when you can." He held up a hand to silence Nick's protest. "I know, I know: y'all only did that 'cause it benefits you. But there ain't much hesitation. Hell, Ro' said you threw yourself into that alley without hesitatin'. You trusted Ro' to shoot them tanks just right. If she missed? Y'all'd be dead, for sure."

Well, it was hard to argue that. So Nick dropped it. Ellis went back to telling stories, and Nick just let him. It wasn't too hard to tune out the hick now that Nick had something to chew on. It was true that he didn't want any of the other survivors to die; they'd all gotten too far to lose somebody now. But he'd been hiding behind the fact that he needed them alive in order to survive. If he was really only thinking of himself? He wouldn't take risks. He would've shouted at Ro' to take the risk. Christ, if she'd screwed up the shot, he'd be dead. But he hadn't been thinking about it. He'd known she'd make the shot. She could've just run and used him as a distraction, but she didn't.

He remembered his announcement to the group. You three are the first people I have ever trusted. Part of him had been saying it sarcastically, mostly to take the bite out of some of the things he'd said the night before, but now it seemed to be ringing true. He'd trusted her not to backstab him. He trusted Coach to never leave him behind. He trusted Ellis to always be a decent friend-

That thought made him clench his teeth. Jesus, was he really thinking of Ellis as a friend? That insufferable hick? Kid was babbling on about going out horse riding with his friend, and somehow Nick's mind had considered this guy to be his friend. Probably one of the better friends that he'd had, actually. Most of his friends in life had been other conmen. Criminals. Gang members. You couldn't trust them, but you had to work with them on occasion. Ellis? He had a feeling he could trust that kid with anything.

"You talk about this Keith guy a lot, you know." Nick cut off whatever story Ellis was diving into, smirking at the glance Ellis threw his way. "I've only heard you mention Dave a few times, but Keith? Christ, were you two dating or something?"

Ellis slammed on the brakes, earning two muffled swears from the back as the other survivors were rudely jostled awake. Nick wondered if he'd hit a sensitive spot, although Ellis seemed to be trying to force a smile.

"Naw man, it ain't--he's my best friend, okay?" Ellis's voice had dropped to a whisper, looking at Nick but deliberately avoiding eye contact. "Keith ain't gay." The mechanic seemed to understand his slip up immediately, stammering out a line of gibberish before shaking his head. "I ain't gay neither, okay? Do y'all have no friends of your own?"

Ro' tapped on the glass, groaning and rubbing at her eyes. "Ellis, sweetie, why'd we stop?" She couldn't tell what time it was, just that it wasn't day and they weren't off the highway yet.

Ellis coughed, leaning over to look back at her with a sheepish smile. "Well, we got a problem. There's a whole big pile-up up ahead. Looks like a buncha folks tried to get on the highway without lookin'. Ramp's all backed up, too. We're gonna need to walk down into this town and find us a new ride."

There was? Nick looked ahead, feeling immensely stupid for failing to notice. The truck's headlights illuminated what looked to be the largest pile-up he'd seen in his life. That pile-up by Whispering Oaks hadn't looked this severe. He imagined that had more to do with the fact that there'd been more time for an evacuation in Texas. Any last second stragglers probably hadn't been thinking about driving safely.

"Shit." Coach sounded tired as he struggled to get out of the truck bed. His flashlight illuminated some more of the cars as he stretched his back, grimacing. "Let's all stay as close together as we can. I don't trust bein' out on foot this late when none of us is armed half as good we should be."

Ellis fumbled with his makeshift holster briefly, then handed Nick his pistol with a lopsided smile. "Here, you can take it. I'll just carry that baseball bat." He noted the look on Nick's face, laughing. "We didn't have no time to make sure we grabbed your shit. Ain't fair to have you walkin' with nothin'. Besides, you're a better shot than me."

The mechanic climbed out of the truck after shutting it off, and Nick could swear he even heard Ellis whispering things to the truck. Little guy was weird like that. Nick dusted himself off reflexively, lip curling at the sorry state of his suit. It only had the faintest resemblance of the shining white it'd been merely a week ago. He could only pray that it could be cleaned. Somehow. He didn't want to think about losing it.

Coach walked past him, still carrying the faintest limp from his injured leg. "Remember folks, there ain't no safehouses here. We gotta find us a vehicle and get out." His brow furrowed, quickly working out a plan B. "And if we can't find one, we've just gotta find a place to hole up for the night. Don't go shootin' unless y'all have to. We don't want a horde gettin' startled none."

"Right, right, 'cause trying to hide out in a non-safehouse worked out great before." Nick snorted, ignoring the look that Coach threw his way. "Whatever. Let's find a car and get this over with."

The four of them set out slowly, flashlights sweeping the area to try and find any cars that'd be in decent enough condition to take. Each of them deliberately avoided shining their lights at the worst of the pile-up. Chances were that there were decomposing bodies within--even though the infected were obviously still people, it didn't feel the same to see them dead as it did to see uninfected people dead.

Unfortunately, it didn't look like anyone had simply abandoned their car at this disaster. Anyone with a functioning car had backed out and changed course; everything else was smashed all to hell. Nick swiftly flashed his light across to the other side of the highway, heart sinking when he saw the same pile-up mirrored over there. Somehow, it pained him to think that people must have been informed to evacuate to the New Orleans outpost as well. How many people had even been armed?

"Waco, huh?" Nick looked at the exit ramp sign not far past the pile-up, grimacing. "Never been there. Guess we'll find out if the infection spread this far." He didn't believe for one second that it hadn't. People wouldn't be scrambling like this if it wasn't right in their backyard.

He sighed, reluctantly heading down the ramp with the rest of the group. He remembered his earlier grab for food and pulled a few bags of chips from his jacket's inner pockets. The sound of four plastic bags crinkling open sounded twice as loud as it probably actually was, but none of them cared once they started eating. It was difficult to remember to eat when death was waiting around every corner.

Chapter Text

It reminded him of Miami, in a way. Or Florida in general, really. It wasn't like New Orleans, which felt closely knit and surrounded by buildings. Sure as hell wasn't Jersey. Nick wondered why the hell the buildings were so far from the road. Had to be a reason. Probably something stupid that no one cared about.

Without any cars on the road, this place looked dead. He couldn't even see any zombies shambling about. This wasn't like the last town, which at least had a few of the infected scattered about. This place was empty. Empty and deathly silent. He didn't let his flashlight rest on anything for more than a second. Nick had a funny feeling that he knew where the infected were.

"Looky-looky." Ellis nudged Rochelle in the side, nodding over to an emergency surgical center. "Bet that place's got loads of medical supplies." He looked over to Coach, eyes bright. "Hey, I bet we could find you a real splint, and not one thrown together like that."

The group paused, four separate flashlights shining over the building. It wasn't too far from them, and if it was a medical center of any kind, it was bound to have tons of useful supplies. Too many useful supplies. Nick's eyes narrowed. "We don't have time to go digging through a place that big. If a horde comes, none of us are equipped to handle it." He ignored the crestfallen look on Ellis's face. "We find a car, and get back on the road."

Coach grimaced, nodding. "Hate to agree with 'im, but he's right. I bet a whole mess of people would've gone to one of those for help, too. If there's any zombies hangin' around, I'm gonna bet they're in that building." The last thing that he wanted to do was run into another Tank. They'd been lucky with the last one.

"Sorry, Ellis." Rochelle patted him on the back. "Maybe we'll find something smaller on the way. I know that some pharmacies carry medical supplies that could help Coach's leg. Keep an eye out for that, okay?" She smiled when Ellis nodded. Might as well give him something to do instead of just shooting him down outright.

It didn't take them too long to realize that something was off. It was too late (or too early, depending on perspective) for the sun to be rising, yet the sky seemed to have an orange haze to it. Fires, Nick realized. Somewhere in the town. Too far away for them to directly see, close enough to see the glow of them. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if that was the reason for the distance between buildings and roads--that the dry environment would encourage fires to spread alarmingly fast without it. Didn't matter.

"Lord, I could go for some waffles. All drippin' with maple syrup, big slice of butter meltin' on top, and a whole pile of bacon." Coach whined, patting his stomach. "I'm gonna waste away if we don't get real food soon." Apparently, it didn't occur to the big guy that he was packing a considerable paunch that'd probably allow him to outlast all of them.

Nick snickered, shaking his head. "Relax, Coach. We can always just eat Ellis if it gets that dire."

"What was that?" Ellis's head snapped up from the can he'd been kicking, blinking owlishly.

"I don't know, Nick, he looks a little stringy." Rochelle grinned, laughing at the terrified little whine that came from Ellis. "I don't think we'd get a lot out of him."

Coach smiled, looking Ellis over. "Yeah, I don't think he could feed more'n one of us." He held his arms out in front of him, loosely gripping his own bat. "Brains..."

Ellis smacked Coach's arm, earning a chuckle from the big guy. "C'mon man, that ain't funny! We been fightin' zombies forever now, I ain't wanna hear about none of you turnin'!"


 

"Man you should've seen it! It was the biggest thing me and my buddies ever worked on before. Huge hippie bus, all painted up and lookin' like it came from Burnin' Man." Ellis scuffed his boot against the road. He wasn't looking around anymore, since all of the other survivors seemed to have that pinned down. "Had like a mini-fridge in it and everything. I ain't never seen another like it. Folks drivin' it paid in cash, and they tried to give Keith some weed to get a discount. Keith said no, but I think he really wanted to say yes. I reckon if me and Dave weren't there? He would've taken it." He laughed. "But man, weed don't pay no bills, even if it’s loads of fun."

Rochelle rolled her eyes. "Ellis, I don't think you've smoked weed before." She looked at him, listening to him trip over his words as he tried in vain to recover. That didn't last long, of course. He wasn't good at pretending to be something that he wasn't.

"Yeah, you got me there." Ellis scratched his nose, grinning crookedly. "Ain't touched it. I mean, I think Keith has, but I never wanted to. Too dang expensive to be affordin' on my paychecks. And illegal, don't forget illegal." He laughed. "Of course, illegal ain't stopped me from doin' a whole mess of dumb shit with my friends. But-oh shit, I never told y'all that story!" He didn't seem to notice the collective groan that came from the group, nor Nick's offhanded little 'here we go again'.

"One time, oh lord this is probably gonna make you mad Coach, so I'm sorry ahead of time, but one time, me and Keith were skippin' school." Ellis stopped talking when he tripped over a discarded bottle, catching himself before he fell over. "It wasn't like I hated school or nothin'; I was just gettin' kinda bored 'cause I was in them lower classes, but they was too easy for me. Anyway, Keith pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and says, shit, we gotta try 'em, right?" His eyes lit up at the memory. "So we're both smokin' these cigarettes, Marlboros I think, and we're both coughin' 'cause them's some real nasty shit. Well, turns out Keith snagged 'em from the principal, and the principal was headin' outside for his smoke break. Man, you shoulda seen that guy's face, he looked 'bout as red as-"

"That's great, kid, look." Nick had no problem interrupting Ellis, his patience already wearing thin. "Pharmacy. Looks broken into, but, might have some shit we can take. Looks like there's some cars still in the lot, too." Nothing that Nick'd normally be caught dead in, but they didn't exactly have a lot of options available to them.

"Okay." Ellis frowned. Nick hadn't done quite as good of a job at hiding his frustration on that one. The mechanic wandered towards the parked cars, trying to make sure that he didn't accidentally trigger any car alarms. Newer cars weren't an option, in his mind--too risky that they'd be alarmed.

As Ellis looked over their options, Coach and Nick explored the pharmacy. Rochelle stayed nearby Ellis, nervously scanning the horizon with her flashlight. They hadn't run into a single zombie since they'd exited the truck. That didn't feel right.

"Oh sweet, merciful painkillers." Coach grabbed a bottle of Advil and kissed it, laughing as he pocketed it. The looters hadn't been focusing on getting essentials, apparently. Most of what'd been looted also passed as recreational drugs. Made sense, in a way--people this far away from the worst of the infection probably hadn't realized how serious the situation was. People always did like to try and take advantage of a disaster.

Nick grabbed some cough drops, gum, painkillers, Dayquil, and some hot packs. He nodded to Coach when the big guy walked by with a ton of bandages in hand. Nick glanced behind the counter, temporarily considering looking through the prescription drugs before dismissing it. Chances were that anything half-decent had already been looted--and if not, it wasn't as though Nick was confident enough to know which medication to take.

Coach had happened upon a chocolate aisle; it had been close to Halloween, after all, and that meant tons of candy. Nick just let the big guy have his moment, instead focusing on scrounging for peanuts and beef jerky. They needed foodstuffs that'd last and give them a boost of energy. Who knew if they'd be able to drive straight to Vegas from here? Nick usually avoided driving through Texas at all--the state was too goddamn big, and he didn't like stopping in most of it.

The sound of a car's engine revving made the duo burst out of the pharmacy, half expecting to see Ellis waiting for them. Instead, they saw a damaged minivan go flying by on the highway. They gaped, Ellis scrambling to get the car he'd chosen working for them--a God-awful looking Dodge Caravan, straight from the 80's. Nick almost didn’t even care. What mattered was that those were clearly other survivors. More than that, they were clearly running from something.

"C'mon, y'all, get inside!" Ellis waved them over, helping to yank open one of the back doors. Rusty--hopefully they wouldn't need to escape this thing in a hurry. Ro' and Coach piled into the back, leaving Nick to sit next to the mechanic as Ellis started the car. Not a moment too soon, either.

The other car had been fleeing from an outrageous number of infected, easily over a hundred. Ellis focused on the road, getting them back on the highway and praying that he'd picked the right exit. One screw up now would kill all of them. Nick rolled down the window to get a better look at the infected chasing them--several were on fire, casting terrifying shadows in the horde.

Now they knew where the infected had been. Probably chasing around those survivors as they worked to escape the burning center of the town. Nick half hoped that they'd catch up to the other group. More people would increase their firepower, at least.

To Nick's surprise, the horde actually slowed down. Apparently the infected couldn't handle chasing after something that was going sixty miles an hour. Small blessings, really. The four of them shared a crazed, adrenaline-fueled laugh as they sped off on the highway.

They never did find those other survivors.


 

Hours later, with the sun just barely beginning to rise, the car sputtered to a stop. Nick hadn't been able to sleep; not with the engine constantly whining away. Ro' and Coach did easily enough--he had a funny feeling that Coach grabbed some sleeping medication while they were in the pharmacy. He reached back to shake Coach awake, the big guy nudging Rochelle with a yawn.

"Shit." Ellis sighed. "We ain't goin' nowhere with this car. Shit!" He shoved the door open, then walked around the front to check under the hood. "Lazy asshole that owned this car ain't been keepin' up with her maintenance. Ain't got no coolant, engine's rusted all to shit." Ellis stopped--no one probably cared about the damage. He sighed again, looking up as the survivors stepped out of the car to join him. "Sorry guys. I should've been more careful in lookin' over the car. I can't get this one fixed without a garage full of tools, man."

He looked at the highway ahead of them, cringing. Dawn. Texas. Sunny day, too, from the look of it. "Shit." Ellis kicked the closest tire to him, face scrunched up in frustration.

"Relax, fireball." Nick squeezed Ellis's shoulder gently, frowning. "You got us this far. Not much else you could've done--we didn't have much time back there." He wasn't looking forward to the heat, but there was no point in taking that out on Ellis. "If we get walking now, we can find another car." He squinted, trying to remember any town names that he'd seen on the signs on the way. "If I'm right, Vegas isn't more than a half a day's drive away from here. We're almost there, kiddo. No sense in giving up yet."

Chapter Text

Giving up sounded goddamn wonderful. Nick just wanted to crawl under one of the dozens of abandoned cars along the way and sleep until evening. He'd thought that Savannah was hot. At least they'd been in a few buildings that still had power. At least they'd had a car with air conditioning. At least they'd crossed through the carnival at night. At least the swamp was mostly shaded and wet. At least it was raining in Ducatel. New Orleans had been rough, but there'd still been enough buildings that got them out of the sun. Even that stream they'd been following had been fantastically cold.

This? This was hell. This was walking on a highway with no shade in sight. Worse, stopping in any of the towns was a goddamn bad idea. They'd found the other survivor's vehicle on an exit ramp, blood soaking the interior and infected piled up around it. At least they were able to pull an assault rifle from one of the dead survivors. Unfortunately, even a brief glance down the ramp had revealed just how many infected were swarming that town.

So the plan was simple: keep searching on the highway until they found a working car. Don't get off the highway unless they had no other choice. That didn't make Nick hate the plan any less. They weren't exactly packing a ton of water, either; the last bottle had been discarded fifty feet back, emptied and useless.

The weight of his suit was bearing down on him harder than it had before, insulating him in the worst way. He didn't dare take it off--not now. Not when he'd made it so far with the filthy thing. He didn't want to abandon it. It meant too much to him to lose it now, out here in the middle of fucking nowhere.

His thoughts screeched to a halt when Rochelle stumbled, Ellis right there to help keep her propped up. She immediately rolled up her shirt, tying it just beneath her breasts with a curse. She threw Nick a dirty look, positive that he'd be leering--but mildly impressed that he looked more concerned than lecherous.

"We've gotta take a risk." Nick regretted talking; his throat felt like sandpaper in this heat. "This ramp here, we've gotta get some water. I'm not dying on a goddamn highway in Texas." No one seemed fit to argue with that. So far, every car had been broken down in some way or another. Hell, not a one had been abandoned for an empty tank of gas. If they kept walking, someone was bound to die.

It looked like whatever town this had been had suffered another brilliant effort by the military to stop the infected. Even the exit signs had been bombed all to hell, leaving them with very little to go by to tell them about where they were. For a moment, Nick's mind wandered off to Vegas. He'd been certain that they'd be pushing to the edges of the infection by now. How fast did this shit spread? Zombies could run fast, sure, but zombies didn't have helicopters and cars. He was pretty sure that even an Olympic runner couldn't keep up with a car for very long.

Yet the disease was already out here, deep in Texas. Constantly spreading. He felt sick inside. If it spread that fast, then what if Vegas was already gone? What if they drove all the way through the desert, just to find the city burning to the ground? Nick didn't want to think about it. There wasn't another plan if Vegas was gone. If an isolated city hadn't managed to avoid infection, then they'd never be safe. They'd have to keep moving like this forever, constantly scrounging for supplies.

"Lord, I really don't like this none." Coach grimaced, loudly chewing on a piece of gum. "Looks like the military cleared through here some time ago." Long enough ago at least that there weren't anymore fighter jets flying around--if there had even been any in the first place. "I've got a feelin' they hit here 'round the same time they hit N'awlins."

"Well, maybe if it's bombed out, all of the zombies moved on?" Rochelle didn't sound like she even believed herself. "Okay, that was stupid. Pretty sure that the zombies would just stay here. Something about loud noises seems to get them going, so I bet all of the bombing made them run around this whole town." She checked her pilfered assault rifle, nose crinkling. "Let's just hope we don't run into a horde."


 

Nick had thought that Coach's injury would slow him down. Funny how fast the big guy can move when he knows a horde's nipping at his feet.

"Jockey!" Rochelle's warning came about a second too late, as the tiny infected lunged onto Ellis's back. They were all desperately trying to avoid using bullets; they needed them in case something a little more dangerous than a Jockey came around. Ellis's wailing got Nick running, yanking the Jockey off with a curse and more undignified flailing than was necessary.

They were in the thick of it now, with a decent pile of zombies slowly building up around them. The sound of skulls cracking in was no longer audible over the din of the infected horde. The sound of a Hunter, however, was. Nick reached down to pull Ellis up, only to feel something barrel into him hard enough to knock him down. He'd assumed a Charger, although the claws in his back quickly confirmed that the Hunter he'd heard wasn't nearly as far away as he’d thought.

Shit, it's cutting through my suit! From this position he couldn't do much but attempt to roll over, all while Ellis thrashed and flailed beneath him. The mechanic's hand brushed up against Nick's, both of them freezing for a moment before Nick let go of his pistol. Ellis grabbed it, aiming just past Nick's head to shoot the Hunter between the eyes. It slumped over, and both of them groaned--that was some extra weight that neither of them needed.

Ellis managed to squirm out from underneath the conman, shoving the Hunter off of him as soon as he could. Coach and Rochelle rushed over, helping Nick up to his feet as Ellis caught his breath. Another horde survived, yet again by the skin of their teeth. How many more could they take?

"Tits!" Nick kicked the Hunter's corpse, hatred burning in his eyes. He had a feeling that he was scaring the rest of the group; they hadn't seen him pissed off before. Angry, sure, but never before had he looked like this. They wouldn't understand. How could he even try to explain it without condemning himself?

His suit jacket was barely clinging to him. Ripped all to hell. If he hadn't been wearing it, the Hunter probably would have killed him. He felt at the fabric, grimacing. This wasn't something that he could justify carrying. Hell, he wanted to keep it. He wanted to frame the goddamn thing, tears and all. But it wasn't as though he could fold it up and tuck it under his arm. He couldn't keep wearing it like this; not without risking it falling off, or worse, catching on something and getting him killed.

He let the jacket drop, his shoulders slumping with it. Nick didn't look quite as big as he had before--although some of that might be more due to his sudden change in demeanor than anything else. He looked haunted, staring down at the Hunter as if it'd taken something from him that nothing could give back. He felt Coach's hand on his shoulder and sighed. "Easy, big guy. It's fine." It isn't. "Let's just get a goddamn car and get the hell out of here."

"Alright." Coach frowned. "Don't worry, mister. I'm sure Vegas has got a whole bunch of suits just like it." He nudged Nick, trying to get a smile out of the conman. "I won't go tellin' nobody if you buy a new one and say it's the one that went through the apocalypse. Honest." He waited until Nick gave him a faint little smirk, then moved on. That was the best he could hope for, really.

But Ellis wasn't buying that Nick was over it. Nick didn't need to be a genius to tell that. Kid was trying to keep in stride with him. Kept dipping his head down in an attempt to make eye contact with Nick, too. Coach and Ro' were both starting to gain some distance on them, as a new priority was to try and find water as well. Sure enough, they stopped at a convenience store, waiting for Nick and Ellis to catch up.

"You boys keep lookin' for a car. Me and Ro' are gonna see if there's any water left." Coach handed Nick his holstered pistol, smirking. "If y'all run into any trouble, don't hesitate to use them bullets. We sure as shit can't afford to be stingy when it's just two of us." Ro' was already picking around inside, assault rifle firmly held in both hands. Coach shrugged and followed in after her.

Nick started rolling up his sleeves as he walked down the street, hoping that Ellis wouldn't try and strike up a conversation. That hope was quickly dashed once Ellis caught up to him. The mechanic stood in front of him, stopping him from walking any further. He rolled his eyes, groaning. "What?"

"Hey, y'all are completely different now." Ellis frowned. It looked like the kid was trying his best to look concerned without pouting. Wasn't working. "Now c'mon man, I know that jacket had to mean somethin' to you. You didn't even mind it so bad when we were in the sewer! Y'all just look-" He paused, craning his neck to look over Nick's shoulder at the convenience store before lowering his voice. "Y'all just look defeated." Ellis finally caught Nick's eye, cringing. "What's the big deal with the suit?"

"I won it in a back-alley poker tournament." Nick wanted to leave it there, even as he saw some of the concerned light in Ellis's eyes die. If he left it like that, then his image would remain; he'd be the aloof, self-centered asshole. Maybe that'd get the kid to stop pushing. Maybe. But Jesus, Nick couldn't stand looking at that face. Ellis's lower lip was trembling--did the kid know how full his lips were? It wasn't normal for a grown ass man to have a mouth like that.

Nick closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath. "I set it up 'cause I wanted to beat this guy bad. Wanted to make him pay. I, uh, I caught him. With my wife. My ex-wife." He couldn't look at Ellis, pushing past the little guy to resume the search for a car. "She knew I didn't have a clean record, so uh, when I tried to call her out on it, she had an easy ass time convincing the court that I was the one that was cheating." He caught the look on Ellis's face and scowled. "Don't. Say it. I didn't cheat on her. But she won. She got the house. Got everything, really. Money's nothing to me, kiddo."

He wanted to stop, but Christ, who had he told this to? Not a goddamn soul. "Made that bastard lose everything. Had him strip right there. Put on his sleazy ass white suit--you know, I like gray better--and I, uh. I shot the guy." He heard Ellis's footsteps falter before the kid caught up with him again. "I didn't care that she took my house. Or my car. Or half my money. It sucked that she took those things, but that shit can be replaced. I loved her, Ellis. And she was conning me from the start. And I didn't see it."

He had to stop walking, nearly choking on the words. "She got full custody--what judge'd give a conman criminal with a rap sheet like mine anything?" Nick turned to look at Ellis, seeing that the kid was shocked. Confused. Lost. He looked away, letting out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding in. "She took my kid from me, Ellis, and I don't even know if my little girl's still alive or not. I'm just out here in the middle of fucking Texas."

Chapter Text

Well, that made Ellis leave him alone.

The two of them were now searching for a car in dead silence. Ellis was purposefully avoiding so much as glancing in his general direction. Unsurprising. He'd dropped a hell of a bombshell on the little guy--it would've been bad enough if it was just one bombshell, at that. Murder, lost custody, and a slip in his mask? Might as well tell the kid that there was no chance he'd ever see his family and friends again for how much of a shock to his system that had to be.

But the silence was welcomed with open arms by Nick. He needed it. It was starting to get goddamn exhausting to be around these people. They weren't conmen, or gang members. Christ, he was pretty sure that none of them had even been to jail. Probably all had normal lives with loving families. They were all so fucking normal. Coach might be the sort of guy that he'd swindle in a poker game--not the big draw, but just one of the curious tourists trying it for the sake of it on vacation. Rochelle would obviously cross the street to avoid walking anywhere near him. He'd never meet a guy like Ellis--kid probably never wanted to set foot out of the deep South in his entire life, and Nick sure as shit didn't like being there for more than a few hours at a time.

No matter how hard he pushed them, they just kept pushing back. Rochelle could keep up with whatever insults he threw, often hitting back with her own scathing retorts that'd shut Nick up in an instant. Coach was good at making Nick feel goddamn guilty. Big guy had this tone to his voice when he was disappointed in Nick's behavior--that'd usually make Nick shut up just as fast as Ro'. And Ellis? No matter how harsh he was to Ellis, the little guy always just sprang right back up and kept talking to him. That'd been the first sign of trouble for him. It's easy to trust people when they seem to be okay with your worst personality traits.

That'd been his mistake. He'd started trusting them. Lowering his guard. As soon as he honestly believed that he could trust them, that was when he made himself vulnerable. All it'd taken was that one little push: his suit ripped, and his humanity shone through. Briefly.

Nick hazarded a glance over at the mechanic. Ellis still wasn't looking at him. Figures. He wondered if this'd shaken up Ellis's little worldview at all. He knew what the kid had thought of him before this. He'd heard Ellis's hushed voice excitedly talking to Ro' about how cool he thought Nick was when he'd assumed the conman was out of earshot. Ellis saw Nick as some sort of James Bond-type. That image was shattered now; Nick was just a man with a violent past and some lost loved ones under his belt. The ex-wife not for show, nor of his choosing--he'd been ditched for someone else. Probably someone better than him.

"Found one." Ellis's voice sounded hollow. The mechanic was looking over a minivan. Recent model, but it'd clearly been broken into already. "Looter took the radio out, so it's gonna be real borin' of a drive. Not like anything was playin' on the radio." Ellis climbed up into the driver's seat, slowly working on hotwiring the car.

"Least it's got space." Nick climbed into the passenger side, watching Ellis work. He'd almost be embarrassed to admit that he'd never learned how to jack a car. He always just went for the keys. "We drive a couple of stops, then hop off the highway and see if we can't find some gascans. Load 'em up in the back so we don't have this shit happen again." He leaned against the car door, resting his head on his hand.

"Hey, Nick?" Ellis finally looked at him just as the car sputtered to life. "I'm real sorry about what happened to you, man." He offered a faint smile to the conman. "I don't know how old your daughter is, but man, if she got half the brain y'all've got, I bet she's doin' just fine." He reached over, patting Nick's knee gently. "Maybe don't go tellin' Coach about that...killin' business. I don't think he'd get it. But, I get it. Y'all were hurtin', and you wanted revenge. That don't make it right, but, it makes it what it is."

Nick stared at Ellis's hand--it lingered longer than it needed to. He looked up, catching the mechanic's eye. "...Thanks. It, uh, it means a lot." He coughed. How the hell did people do this? "I'm not used to being open about that shit. I've, uh, never told anyone. Any of that." He noted a small shift in how Ellis was looking at him. That probably made the kid's day, knowing that Nick had trusted him with it. "So, uh, I guess...thanks for being a good friend."

The words burned his throat like acid. Christ, it was embarrassing enough to think that to himself, let alone saying it out loud. But that seemed to be the right thing to say. Ellis's face lit up just like it had back on that shitty roller coaster and he set off to bring them back to the convenience store.

And really, Nick couldn't hate how things had turned out. It felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from his heart. He'd finally told someone. More than that, he'd been...well, forgiven was a stretch. Ellis hadn't forgiven him for what he'd done. But Ellis had understood. Ellis wasn't turning him away or distancing himself.

Nick almost hated the stupid smile he had on his face when they finally made it back--had they really walked that far away? It certainly hadn't seemed that far. Coach and Ro' were both dragging out a few cases worth of water. That was a little disheartening. Still, if they kept pushing, they could make it to Vegas within the next day. Hopefully water wouldn't be an issue then.

"No food?" Nick stepped out of the minivan with a groan, walking over to help them lift the water cases. "Wait--this was all you could find in there? Seriously?" Just two cases of water, without so much as a single can of food. He'd hoped that they'd have something. Hell, even a bag of chips. But Coach just grumbled something under his breath and loaded his case of water in the back before climbing in.

Ro' rolled her eyes, smirking up at Nick. "A Boomer was waddling around in the back. Coach is mad 'cause I shot it before it could puke. All the guts happened to fall right on top of where we'd been piling up the food." She watched as Nick lifted the water case for her, sighing loudly. "Those two were the only ones not covered in Boomer bits. If you wanna risk eating any of that? Be my guest."

Nick laughed, shoving the second case onto the passenger's side floor up front. "Yeah, I'll pass. Whatever. We've just gotta keep up on the road. Can't be more than a day's drive away now." He settled into the car again, cranking up the air conditioning. "Thank Christ for modern air conditioning, Jesus."

Ellis was quick to get them the hell out of the town, graciously accepting a water bottle once Nick pulled one out for him.


 

It was almost surprising how uneventful the trip quickly became. They were able to find a gas station, load up on gas, and breeze out of there before the distant horde even caught up to them (although Coach did scream like a little girl when a Charger tried to punch the back of the minivan, a fact that had the rest of the group laughing for hours). The Charger scare had been serious enough for all of them to unload nearly every bullet they had into the zombie's hide, unfortunately.

Once the novelty wore off, they mostly sat in silence. The three passengers kept dozing off, with Nick trying his hardest to resist just in case the mechanic needed a break. Every time he asked, Ellis would say no. Ellis was quickly reaching his breaking point, however.

Nick blinked himself awake when they slowed down, glancing over at the mechanic. "What's up, sport?" Stupid question. Ellis had bags under his eyes and looked like he was going to pass out at any minute. Shit. "Uh, Coach?" He leaned back, noting that the other two survivors were starting to come to as well. "We've gotta stop somewhere. All four of us are too tired to drive."

Ellis took that as a go-ahead to pull off into the nearby town, rubbing at his eyes as he slowly meandered into a more suburban area. It'd admittedly been a few hours since they'd seen any infected, but that didn't necessarily mean that they were in the clear. After all, this was still Texas--and there still weren't any uninfected people in sight. Either this area had been evacuated, or it'd been overrun. Or both.

"This neighborhood looks rich." Ellis pointed at the dozens of ADT signs on the lawns, all neatly lined up. Nick wanted to roll his eyes. Did Ellis think that a security system meant that a place was rich? Probably, given how shitty most of the South had looked. Security systems were probably a sign of wealth to hicks.

"Neighborhood looks paranoid." Nick patted Ellis's arm. "Bingo. This one ain't alarmed." As soon as the car stopped, Nick was out and stretching his legs. "Wait here, and keep the car in neutral. If there's zombies, we've gotta keep moving. No way that we can handle a horde with the-how many bullets did we have, Ro'?" She held out 7 fingers through the open window in the back. "Right. Not enough bullets to be fighting a horde. So just hang tight."

He almost wanted to complain when no one spoke up to stop him from risking his life, but he understood why. He was offering, after all. With a sigh and a quick smoothing of his hair, Nick headed up to the front door. Locked. Of course. These people must have had plenty of time to evacuate if they'd bothered locking their door before leaving. He gave the door several firm kicks--the sixth kick finally flung the door open, nearly throwing him off balance.

Drawing the only pistol with ammo left in it, Nick started pacing around the house. It almost felt surreal to see a home as untouched as this one. Not a single bloodstain or ripped up piece of furniture in sight. Out of curiosity, he checked the fridge--most of the food had gone bad. Unfortunately. But there were some sodas and beers inside. Cold drinks. He wanted to cry from how amazing that alone was.

He checked the second floor cautiously, nudging each door open while fully expecting to find a zombie within. Nothing. The whole place was spotless. That just left the basement. Christ, the basement. He swallowed nervously, then doubled back down to the first floor.

Nick almost wanted to just clear the place and tell everybody not to go downstairs, but he didn't want them to end up screwed over by something hiding out down there. He flicked on his flashlight, grimacing as the light flickered, then started down the stairs. Wait a minute. Nick smiled, smacking himself on the forehead. Power's still on here. He flicked on the basement light, then carefully descended with his pistol drawn.

The stench of death made him immediately pause, eyes narrowing. Not a good sign. He gripped the pistol tighter, ears straining for the slightest sound of shuffling or groaning. While the infected didn't reek of death--their victims surely did. As soon as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he confronted the cause of the stench.

He'd never been so relieved to see a hanged man before.

Chapter Text

"Don't nobody touch a one of them cokes." Coach had already guzzled two of the sodas, walking around the first floor with a third can in his hands. Nick couldn't blame the big guy, not when it'd seemed as though they'd never be touching anything but water for the rest of their lives.

Rochelle was a bit more practical than that. She'd stuck a few water bottles in the fridge after chucking all of the rotting food outside. "Guys, let's try and keep the talking to a minimum--and keep it quiet if you can." She was looking at Ellis almost the entire time that she was speaking, making the little guy squirm a little as he realized that he was being called out. "We don't know if there's any infected around, and if we're looking for a place to sleep, you had best believe I don't want zombies breaking in." She shoved past Nick, who was about halfway through drinking a bottle of beer, and tested the tap.

Nick stopped drinking when he saw the water running.

He shared a look with Ro', and regretted it. His expression must have given it away: there was only one bathroom with a shower in the house. He dropped the beer in the sink and bolted towards the second floor, Rochelle right behind him.

"C'mon, haven't you heard of letting a lady go first!"

"That shit's for nice guys; I am not a nice guy!"

Unfortunately, he still had a belt. She grabbed onto it, yanking him backwards before lunging into the bathroom. Nick groaned, then banged on the door. "If you use all the hot water, I swear to God you're not gonna hear the end of it!" When all he got was a laugh in response, he sighed and turned away from the bathroom.

Rochelle's muffled voice sounded from beyond the door a second after the water turned on. "Yo' Nick, catch!"

Nick turned, only to get slapped in the face with her filthy clothes. He grumbled, letting them drop to the ground as he tried not to think about just how many of those stains were literally from sewer shit. He headed back downstairs to the smaller bathroom, washed his hands, then made his way back to the master bedroom. If he couldn't shower, then maybe he could find some decent clothes.

Or not. The man of the house was a fatty, apparently. Nick would die before he'd wear an XXXL t-shirt. Hell, the shirts looked too big for Coach to wear. Still, he pulled one out for Coach, just in case the big guy wanted a change of clothes. Nick opened the underwear drawer briefly, appreciating the difference between the man's giant underwear, and the woman's tiny, dainty underwear. Nothing particularly sexual--and Nick's mind wasn't in the right place for being that sort of pervert to begin with.

He pulled out a pair of pants for Coach as well, then left the room. No sense in trying to get anything pulled out for Ro'--if she was anything like the ladies he'd known, she'd probably be offended by whatever he picked out. It was tempting to grab the pink, frilly looking pajamas and tell her that was all that could fit her, just to see her face, but he also didn't want to get punched.

Apparently the family had a daughter that was into punk-rock. Nick's eyes fell on the essentials strewn on the bed--tampons, pain pills, snacks--it looked like the only one that'd been in a rush to leave was the daughter. He had a feeling that he knew why. Wasn't a hard story to pull together. Mom's body wasn't around, but none of her shit was thrown about, so she was probably out of town. Or downtown. Daughter might have rushed off to get mom, or refused to stay and wait. Dad killed himself when neither came back. Or, dad was a coward and killed himself first.

Nick hadn't told the rest of the group about the body in the basement. No one was eager to go down there anyway. He started rummaging through the dresser's drawers, frowning at the clothing. Definitely wouldn't fit him--but it'd probably fit Ellis. That made him smirk. Ellis was a skinny little guy. Pretty feminine, now that he thought on it. Big, pouting lips to go right along with this big, pouting eyes. And the hips? Jesus, he'd never seen another man with hips like that. Not without looking at a model, at least. If it weren't for that accent and some of the stupid faces that the kid could pull, he'd be calling the kid attractive. Not that he wasn't--Ellis was definitely eye candy.

Jesus, the apocalypse was getting to him.

"Hope you ain't lookin' for bras or somethin'." Ellis's voice made Nick jump. The mechanic had somehow crept into the room, smiling at him. "Pretty sure she ain't eighteen." He nodded over to a picture hanging up on the wall. Looked like a small gang of girls all posing for a picture with matching grins. "If she's one of them, I mean."

"Looking for clothes for you, actually." Nick grinned when Ellis's face fell. That's right, kiddo, you're gonna be wearing girly clothes. "There's a washer and a dryer in the basement, so. Not like you'd be wearing it for long. Just something for when you're done showering, 'cause otherwise you're jumping straight back into dirty clothes again."

Ellis scratched behind one of his ears, nodding. "Yeah, guess that makes sense. You sure there ain't like a son or somethin'?" The mechanic leaned out of the room, as if expecting another door to magically appear in the hallway. He leaned back in, huffing. "Well, shit. Guess it's okay. I'd be real tore up if I lost this here shirt." He tugged on it, smiling at Nick.

Nick knew that smile. Shit, not another goddamn story.

"Did I ever tell you about it?" Ellis didn't wait for an answer, eyes lighting up a bit. "Me and Keith and Dave, we was all kinds of trouble in school. Well, Keith mostly. Dave was just the first of us to get his learner's permit, and he'd just moved to town so he didn't have no friends anyway. I've known Keith all my life, so wherever he went, I went." He coughed, blushing. Nick wondered if the kid remembered how Nick had accused him of being gay. "Anyway, one day, Keith started callin' us bullshitters, 'cause that's what we'd do. Bullshit our way outta gettin' into trouble." He laughed. "Keith's dad retired from workin' his garage, and he gave the whole business over to Keith. So Keith hired me and Dave, and we decided to get some shirts printed. Now we couldn't go callin' us the bullshitter's, 'cause that ain't proper--but I figured, heck, we call ourselves the Bullshifters, 'cause we gotta do a lot of movin'."

Nick slowly went back to rummaging around in the room, mostly wondering if he could find anything that a kid might try to hide from their parents. Cigarettes, if he was lucky. The withdrawals were seriously starting to kill him. Yet no matter how much he tried to ignore Ellis, he couldn't. The mechanic was just staring at him. He turned to look at Ellis, frowning, and Ellis suddenly blinked and stammered out an apology.

"Shit, sorry." Ellis laughed, quickly averting his gaze. "Just...y'all didn't tell me to stop that story." He timidly looked back at Nick, smiling faintly. "Everybody's always tellin' me to stop talkin'. I know I talk a whole lot, but, man, y'all listened to the whole thing."

"Well, yeah." Nick spoke slowly, frowning. "We're not in a rush here, sport." That wasn't the entire truth, but it was good enough. He didn't find Ellis to be as obnoxious as he'd been before, at least. Almost like the kid was sobering up to the apocalypse. "Here." He tossed a Ramones shirt over to Ellis, quickly followed by a pair of sweatpants. "Try not to get them too dirty."

A knock at the door made him look up, noting immediately that Ro' was wearing a baggy shirt and mom jeans. Guess the woman of the house was bigger than her by a landslide. "Shower's all yours, big guy. No cologne, though. Guess you'll have to settle for smelling like a normal person for a change." She grinned at the sour look Nick gave her. "Ellis, let's try and see if there's anything useful out in the garage, okay?"


 

Nick felt like a million bucks. Water was one thing--but hot water, too? Might as well be at a goddamn spa. He made sure to scrub himself clean, even going so far as to wash his hair out three times with the cheap shampoo available to him. He could care less if the washcloth was dirty or not--it couldn't be as dirty as he was. Old Boomer bile, blood, infected blood, and sewage was caked on him. Was. Now, he was squeaky clean.

He used the razor on the counter to give himself a quick shave as well. Razor burn? Who gives a shit? What mattered was that he was clean. Clean, and wearing a towel around his waist. Shit. Hadn't thought through the fact that there weren't any clothes that fit him in the house.

He opened the bathroom door, freezing when Ellis was on the other side. Ellis was holding out a pair of jeans, but Nick's eyes weren't on that for long. Ellis looked weird without his hat on, his hair a curly mop plastered to his head from days of sweat. More than that, Nick was now finding himself staring at a shirtless Ellis--and Jesus, was this kid ripped. Ripped and hairless. The word "model" came to mind once again, as did “eye candy”.

Ellis appeared to be staring at his own hairy chest, which made him frown. Nick wasn't exactly fat, but he sure as shit wasn't in shape like Ellis was. "Can I help you, kiddo?"

"Uh." Ellis blinked, then shook the jeans a little. "Ro' and me checked out the neighbor's house. Alarm was off, we saw it through the window. Found y'all a pair of pants." He seemed to have his eyes glued on Nick's body. Now Nick was starting to think that the little guy had a thing for hairier guys. "Anyway, Coach said I could shower next. Said he wants to talk to you." Ellis jumped when Nick took the pants and shut the door in his face.

Nick hung the towel up, then pulled the jeans on. A bit too big for him, but at least they were clean. He ran a hand through his hair, frowning. Jesus, was he goddamn blind? Kid had hesitated back there, most obvious tell in the world. Ellis hadn't just tripped up in excluding himself from reassuring that his friend wasn't gay. Ellis was gay.

He opened the door to find that Ellis was still waiting there. Of course. And Ellis's eyes lingered on his chest before drifting up to his face. Now the little guy was blushing, stammering, trying to cover it up. "Ellis? Relax." He leaned forward, smirking. "I'm bi." He left it at that, walking past the flabbergasted kid. Hopefully his assumption had been correct; otherwise, he'd just outed himself for no reason. Christ, I’m giving Ellis too much dirt on me.

Nick made his way downstairs, finding Coach standing next to the--shit. Standing next to the basement door. And that look on his face, haunted, told Nick all that he needed to know. He wanted to just turn around and go back upstairs, but that wasn’t an option.

"Nicholas." Coach folded his arms across his chest, his tone quiet enough to indicate that no one else knew yet. "Were you plannin' on hidin' that hanged man in the basement from us? 'Cause his ass is swingin' right in front of the washer."

That was a problem; he didn't exactly want to shove the body aside and risk it oozing something on himself. "Kind of figured that uh, you know. The others didn't need to know about it. Seemed like a sensitive topic." Nick didn't know how else to explain it.

Coach sighed. "Well, we gonna need to move it. The smell's gonna grow stronger the longer that body sits there. Poor man must've done it not that long ago, 'cause it don't smell up here. Help me cut him down and take him outside, Nick, 'cause I gotta agree: I ain't wantin' Rochelle and Ellis to see it."

Chapter Text

Nick didn't need to say it--this was not his first time moving a body. Hard to tell if Coach got that or not, but if he didn't, there was no point in telling him. With Ro' upstairs digging through the room that the family had clearly been using as a storage room, it wasn't too hard for them to sneak out with the hanged man.

There was a difference here, of course. Nick was used to moving bodies that were freshly killed. Well, "used to" was an exaggeration. Well over a decade ago, back when he called it a good day if he had a roof over his head, he'd done some gang work. Messy business, and thankfully nothing big. As soon as a gang war had started, he'd split out of Jersey. But he could still remember what it'd been like, dragging bodies out to a pier late at night, still bleeding and riddled with bullet holes--sometimes on the corpse, sometimes on himself.

This was a suicide, and a body that'd had time to start decomposing, too. The smell was something new, as was the relative softness of the body. Too soft. Nick had a feeling that they were lucky that the power hadn't gone out in this town yet--the Texan heat would've made the whole house reek of death.

Nick glanced up to find Coach's eyes glued to the man's face. He couldn't blame Coach. The eyes were bulging and the tongue was swollen--it didn't look pleasant. "Easy there, big guy, almost done." He smirked when Coach's eyes shot up to his own. It wasn't quite the same moment he'd shared with Ellis--but it was something. An understanding. Coach knew he'd had a violent past already; he had to from half the shit Nick had said in the past. But this sealed the deal. No one takes carrying a body in stride unless they've done it before.

They dumped it in the bushes next door, although Coach did stop to say a little prayer for the man. Nick felt awkward, standing over a corpse that was splayed over some trimmed shrubbery. It obviously mattered to the Southerner, however, and Nick wasn't about to rain on his parade. He got it. Everyone had to cling to something in situations like this. Nick had just wanted to be clean, but he could respect that Coach just wanted to pray. Whatever it took to keep them all sane.

"Thanks for stayin', Nick." Coach looked up at him, bleary-eyed and still clearly more than a little queasy. "We ain't no better than monsters if we don't pay our respects when we can." He got a strange look on his face, then grinned and nudged Nick with his elbow. "But I still ain't prayin' none for them Jockeys. That ain't right."


 

The sun had set by the time any of them had chosen to do something about their exhaustion. There were only two beds, after all. Ro' grabbed the girl's room immediately--she wanted some sense of privacy, after all. However, there wasn't much of a fight to be had for the master bed. Ellis immediately offered to sleep on the couch, only for Coach to turn him down. He'd have to sleep on the floor. There was no way that Coach would let one of them sleep downstairs when the rest of them were upstairs.

They found enough blankets and pillows to construct a makeshift bed for the little guy, while Coach moved to quickly get himself comfortable on the master bed. Now Nick understood why Ellis hadn't wanted to sleep in it--Coach would probably hog all of the blankets and snore. And God help Nick if Coach was a sleep-cuddler.

Or maybe it wasn't so simple. Maybe Ellis's mind was on what Nick had told him earlier. Nick wandered into the master bath to wash his face as he pondered that possibility. It'd been a hell of a gamble to tell that to the little guy. If Nick was wrong about Ellis, then there was a good chance that Ellis would now shy away from him.

Nick hated that he was hoping that Ellis wouldn't do that to him.

His eyes drifted to his rings, still gleaming gold even after all the shit they'd been through. His gang ring, a pathetic carryover from a time when it'd meant something to flash that at a casino. His status ring--an expensive purchase he'd made when he was a young idiot, but one that he'd always hung onto in case he ever hit rock bottom and needed to pawn it. And, most importantly of all, his wedding ring. Even after everything she'd done to him, he'd never been able to stomach letting go of it.

Somehow, they didn't mean a damn thing to him anymore.

"Hey, y'all see a comb in here?" Ellis stepped in shyly, keeping his voice low. "Coach is off makin' sure the front door's barricaded enough and settin' up some shit on the stairs so we don't get surprised in the night." He paused, looking down at Nick's hands. "Er, what're you doin'?"

Nick had two of the rings off already, the third halfway off his middle finger. "I'm uh, taking these off. And throwing them out." He didn't quite know the reason why. "Just, uh, feels like I should." He exhaled. "...More than that." He laid them out for Ellis to look at, watching as the kid touched each one. "Gang ring, high roller ring, wedding ring. Just hanging on to shit that I should've dropped years ago."

He swiped the rings up, then tossed them in the bin under the cupboard. "Just...I don't know. This zombie shit shook me up, kiddo. I've been drifting for pretty much my whole life. I don't think I'll stop gambling, but...I don't know if I can keep drifting after this. Running around from town to town..." Nick finally got why it'd troubled him so much, his heart skipping a beat. "This shit ain't that different from what life was for me before. The zombies are a new touch, but. Drifting, never staying put, only getting what I need to survive? Sounds about right. It, uh, it ain't a way to live."

Ellis had found a comb in one of the drawers, but he hadn't started brushing through his hair at all. The kid breathed in, then faced the mirror and started combing through his curls. "Well, I ain't never drifted before. Only left Savannah twice, man. I couldn't afford no vacations on my own, and I was mostly livin' paycheck to paycheck. Not like I didn't have fun, I mean, shit, Keith and me got into all kinds of fun shit." He laughed, eyes lighting up.

"But I reckon that ain't really a way to live neither. I never even seen a real snow storm before. Or gone skiin'. Or surfin'. Or gone on a plane. I don't think I'll ever get to see another country. And the only concert I could even afford is the Midnight Riders. Shit, there's so much I ain't seen yet." Ellis's smile faded. He set the comb down and looked at Nick. "So maybe your life could've been better, but so could've mine."

Nick processed that slowly. Oddly inspiring, in a way. "Guess you've got a point. I'd probably lose my goddamn mind if I was stuck in one town like that." He pushed away from the counter and started out of the bathroom, only for Ellis to grab his hand. Curious, he turned to face the little guy, noting how Ellis's slim, calloused fingers had curled around his hand.

Ellis's eyes were darting around nervously, and the kid was bouncing from one foot to the other anxiously. He looked ridiculous. "W-well." Ellis cleared his throat, forcing himself to calm down. "Maybe when we're in Vegas, y'all can show me around? 'Cause I'm gonna be real lost, and I'm positive y'all've been there at least once."

"Is that a date?" Nick arched an eyebrow, watching as the kid blushed--actually blushed like a school girl. "Guess so." He smirked. Well, shit, he'd brought this on himself. He leaned forward, capturing Ellis's lips with his own. It was chaste and brief, but the effect was obvious. Ellis just about melted. It made Nick wonder how little experience he had if that was all it took to have him swooning. "Get some sleep, kiddo. We should be in Vegas before you know it."


 

Morning brought on a new wave of paranoia. The survivors had all thrown on their old clothes once they were clean; dried by hanging them up in the living room, of course. None of them wanted to risk running both the washer and dryer--one was noisy enough, even if barely audible on the first floor.

Still, they all crowded around the kitchen together, eating fruit and beans out of cans they'd found in the cupboard. Ro' had a milk crate from the storage room; it'd been used to store records before, but now it'd do just fine for stocking up on as many cans of food as she could fit in it. They each got dressed in the living room. Even Rochelle didn't give a shit if one of them looked at her. The infected could very well be swarmed around them, after all. Too much noise or separating each other when their weapons were all stored in the car just sounded like a stupid way to die.

When they finally moved the barricade and slipped outside, the streets were empty. Eerily so. Nick had expected the place to be crawling with zombies, yet there wasn't so much as a single one in sight. He helped Coach move the milk crate into the back of the van, watching as Ellis started working on getting the car started. Little guy was dedicated, he'd give him that.

Unfortunately, Ellis wasn't thinking, as he was still a bit groggy from sleeping on the floor. He leaned on the wheel, the horn's distinctive blaring snapping him awake in an instant. A house alarm went off across the street, causing them all to look up as a single infected burst through the window.

Shit.

The place had looked abandoned because everyone had locked themselves up tight.

This place was crawling with zombies.

That one alarm lead to dozens of others, the din soon rising even further as an infected horde howled above it. Nick lunged into the front seat, Coach simply leaping into the back of the van and slamming the door shut from the inside. Ellis took off once he was sure everyone was inside--seatbelts be damned--and barreled down the road.

It took a couple of turns to get back on the highway, but once they did, the group breathed a sigh of relief. This horde had been more tenacious than any they'd seen before. Even after getting on the highway, Ellis could still see the infected chasing after them. Nearly twenty minutes passed before the infected finally slowed to a stop, giving up on chasing after a car that was driving six times faster than they could run.

"Jesus, we were lucky." Nick swallowed thickly, his heart still hammering. "If we'd been any louder, that would've happened to us yesterday." They'd been goddamn careless. What if one of us had been showering? What if the washer had triggered a horde? What if praying next to one of the locked up houses had done us in? What if-

He paused, glancing over at Ellis. The kid had his hand resting on top of Nick's knee, a smile on his face. Nick glanced back to find that Ro' was too busy trying to help get Coach into the back seat with her to notice them. He looked back at Ellis and smiled. Well, a lot of shit could have gone wrong. But it didn't. Because at the end of the day, Lady Luck was obviously on their side.

Nick saw a sign saying that they were leaving Texas, and felt the tiniest flicker of hope forming with it.

Chapter Text

Every town was starting to blur together. Not that they stopped in any of them, of course. They barely had enough bullets between them to guarantee that they could kill even one zombie, much less a horde. Or a Tank. So instead, Coach would occasionally pass a can of peaches or something equally mediocre around to the group while Ellis refilled the car with a few of their gas cans.

It was sort of funny to see the untouched billboards along the way. Cheery McDonalds ads and ominous biblical verses--if it weren't for the lack of cars on the highway, it'd almost be believable that they were just on a road trip. No graffiti, either. Almost like everyone either fled or stayed put, with no CEDA involvement.

Or maybe that'd been the plan.

Nick could remember seeing a zombie movie a few years back--it wasn't his thing, but the chick he was with was smoking hot and got off on fucking in public, so he was willing to make an exception. Some infection that'd spread in England, with one of the soldiers babbling about a "quarantine". Had that been why CEDA setup the safe houses? All of the evac zones and military outposts had been in the infected zone. If the East coast was hit first, then it made sense to quarantine it. Keep the people trapped there, evacuate the Midwest, and hope that a distance of a third of the country would be enough. It made enough sense to make him feel ill. There'd never been a chance that they'd be rescued. They were on their own from day one.

Well, jokes on the goddamn military and CEDA. Nick smirked, leaning back in his seat. We got out, and we're not stopping until we're goddamn safe. He glanced over at Ellis. The kid was absolutely focused on the road. It was impressive, really. Ellis could apparently drive for hours on end without needing a break of any kind. Even Nick usually had to stop every three hours or so.

The lack of a map was screwing them, though. It was hard to tell if they were even on the right highway or not. Nick usually came to Vegas from the Northeast, a far cry from the highway they were on now. Worse, Ellis had taken a wild guess and switched from a highway to an interstate a while back. Coach had a hunch that the interstate went into Vegas based on a trip he'd taken there twenty years ago where he thought he'd seen that interstate listed on a sign at the edge of the city. That wasn't promising, but it was something, at least.

Still, with evening fast approaching and Vegas still not on the horizon, Nick started keeping an eye out for a place to stop at. Not that they were in a populated area. One of the drawbacks of driving to Vegas, of course, was the long stretches of desert between it and the rest of civilization. He knew that there were usually trucker stops along the way, though. Tiny scraps of civilization out in the wasteland, usually outfitted with a diner, motel, and gas station. They'd passed one already, but that was nearly six hours ago now--surely there'd be another.

Sure enough, there was one up ahead, the faded "Eat N' Sleep" sign still lit up like a bright beacon against the darkening sky. Nick tapped Ellis to get his attention, pointing to the sign. "Stop here, kiddo. Might be a map we can check out in the gas station, and if we can clear the motel out, it'll be a good place to sleep."

Rochelle heard the word "motel" and leaned forward, squinting at the joint as Ellis slowed down. "Looks like there's just one car there, too. If there's zombies, it won't be more than four of them. We can take that." That was a relief, at least.

Coach and Ellis both headed towards the motel side, baseball bats in hand. It seemed as though all of the rooms were locked, which meant that no zombies had been banging on the doors. Ellis started swinging his bat against the ice box sitting at the end of the far end of the motel, hoping to get any zombies moving.

Meanwhile, Nick and Ro' went over to the gas station. Convenience store was brightly lit inside and obviously full of food and drinks. It must have been recently renovated, given how spotless it looked. Nick had his pistol in hand nonetheless, carefully roaming the aisles. He could hear the sound of something shuffling back and forth--it almost sounded like a broom if he tilted his head--in the aisle next to him. He glanced back to make sure that Ro' was alright. She was looking at the toothbrushes and travel sized toothpaste. Good call, Ro'.

"Excuse me, can I help you si-OH GOD!"

Nick nearly jumped a foot off the ground, aiming his gun reflexively at the source of the noise. Voice, not noise. An elderly looking man, holding a broom, stood in front of him. "Holy shit."


 

Nick awkwardly stood at the counter, his pistol tucked into his holster with the safety on. Ro' stood behind him, shocked as all hell that this man looked fine. "Uh, we need four rooms, too." He watched the old man grab the keys and set them out for him, then glanced at the register. Not as bad as he figured the price would be, considering how much shit they'd bought. Soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, snacks, first aid kits, gum, candy, soda, beer--the list just kept going.

"I've gotta say, I wasn't expecting a single soul to come through here." The old man took Nick's cash--it apparently wasn't suspicious that Nick carried that much cash on him--and smiled. "News has been bleak about folks out East. I sent all my workers home and told 'em to keep going West, just in case, but you two are the first people I've seen. Guess you're lucky."

Nick smirked, watching as Ro' grabbed half of the shit and ran out the door to tell Coach and Ellis. "Guess you could call us that." He chuckled. "Thanks for, uh, not calling the cops. It's been a few days since we've seen someone alive. Just a little bit jumpy." He heard Ellis and Coach actually cheering from outside. With that, he scooped up the rest of the shit and made his way outside.

They packed some of the snacks and supplies directly into the car. Even if the old attendant was alive, he was pretty isolated--it could still be possible that Vegas was overrun. Better safe than sorry. They divvied up the rest of the food and toiletries so that everyone could have their own decent chunk of junk food to eat. The weapons were left in the car; it'd be hard to explain those to any cops they might meet, but that'd be an issue for another day.

Nick made his way to his own room and immediately settled in. Last night's sleep had been stressful, with the looming fear of a zombie horde hanging overhead at all times. This? This felt safe.


 

It was almost surreal, now that Nick was relaxing on the bed. TV still worked, although it was just showing re-runs. Christ, he never thought he'd miss TV this much. The sitcom was cheesy, but that brought a sort of comfort. It didn't feel like they were anywhere close to being in danger. Not when the zombies would have to somehow know to follow a road with no people in sight for hours on end, well over a week of nonstop running, just to catch up to them.

Nick cracked a beer, slipping his pants and shirt off. It felt incredible to know that he was safe enough to walk around in his socks and boxer-briefs. Off, but incredible. He'd expected safety to be a little different. He'd expected it to be the military, or CEDA, or hell, some kind of government program. Something with tents and government issued clothing. Something depressing like that. This didn't feel right.

He lay down on the bed, grimacing. That was the problem. It didn't feel right. Some part of him was horrified that the country was apparently still running just fine. Like everyone had just decided to abandon half of it to rot away once they found out that the infection couldn't be stopped.

Just as soon as he opened a bag of chips, he heard a knock at the door. Frowning, Nick set the bag aside and walked over, opening the door with a grunt. Ellis was standing there, looking like some lost kid. Nick waited, expecting to hear Ellis say something. When nothing came, he rolled his eyes. "Yes, Ellis?"

Ellis jumped, laughing nervously. "Can I come in?"

Odd request, but Nick didn't see a reason to turn him down. So Nick let the little guy in, shutting and locking the door behind him. As he turned, he found that Ellis was sitting on the edge of the bed, nervously wringing his hands. "What's up, sport?"

"It's just...man, you're gonna laugh at me." Ellis sighed, hanging his head. "We been running for about a week now, and I got kinda used to always havin' someone around." He paused. "I mean, I lived alone, but Keith was almost always over, or Dave, and I went to see Ma every Sunday, and I talked with people on the internet." He looked up at Nick. "So I just kinda ain't used to bein' alone alone."

Nick scratched the back of his neck. "And?" He didn't like where this was going. He'd been about ready to enjoy having some privacy for a goddamn change of pace.

Ellis looked away, his voice dropping down to nearly a whisper. "I tried to go to sleep, 'cause I was real tired from all that drivin'. I couldn't sleep. Kept dreamin' that zombies was gonna eat me, and I wasn't gonna be able to get help 'cause y'all were all too far away." His voice cracked. "I guess I'm just scared that this is too good to be true. And I know it's stupid, I was talkin' to Ro' and she told me we're real safe here, but I still got scared."

It was one thing for Ellis to admit that he was lonely--Nick had a feeling that Ellis was never alone for more than a few minutes at a time when he was up. But scaredThat was surprising. Nick sat down next to Ellis, reaching over to rub his back. "Easy, fireball. I get it. This shit's enough to give anyone nightmares." He grabbed Ellis's chin, forcing the kid to look at him. "You can stay in here with me tonight. It's fine."

It surprised him even more when Ellis kissed him, clinging to him like some desperate chick. He just kept rubbing Ellis's back, awkwardly comforting him to the tune of some cheesy commercial jingle. When they parted, he ruffled the kid's hair, smiling. "You made it this far, kiddo. Don't go breaking on me now."

Ellis smiled, then kicked off his boots and scurried up onto the bed. "Hell yeah. I ain't givin' up now, man. We made it halfway 'cross the country, and shit, it was kinda fun." The kid was grinning broadly by the time that Nick settled in next to him. "How many folks get to say that they drove a famous racer's stock car and rocked out to a concert in the same day?" His grin faded a little, a warm blush replacing it. "And...shit, I ain't never been on a date before, so I’m lookin’ forward to that in Vegas." He tilted his head. "Well, not one that counts. I went on a date or two with some nice ladies, but that was 'cause I had to. Folks get real weird if you ain't datin' women back home."

Nick just let the kid ramble as he casually flipped through the channels. There was something calming about it, in a way. By the time he'd finished his beer, Ellis had actually curled up against him. He would've teased the little guy for it if he was still awake. Instead, he slipped the blankets over them and ran his hand through Ellis's hair until he felt too exhausted to stay up any later.

Chapter Text

Finding out that Vegas was a mere three hour drive away was like winning the goddamn lottery. Nick liked Coach's plan. They'd drive out there, and if Vegas was infected, they'd come back here. Isolated just enough that they wouldn't have to worry with a decent enough supply of food that they could hold out a while. Maybe even going on supply runs in exchange for shelter.

Ro' was giving the old man a rundown of what to look out for, even offering up one of their baseball bats in case he didn't have anything to defend himself with. Admirable, really, to see her doing her best to help out someone else. Nick watched for a few moments before heading over to the car. He opened the driver's side door, tugging Ellis out to the sound of the Southerner protesting.

"Uh-uh. You're not driving into Vegas, kiddo." Nick smirked at the pout he received in response. "I know the city, you don't. If it's infected, I'll know how to get us back out safe and fast. If it's uninfected, I don't want you driving in it." He sat down, grinning as Ellis reluctantly moved over to the passenger side. "Driving in Vegas ain't the same as most cities. Last thing we need is to get in a crash and have the cops find us in a stolen vehicle with stolen guns."

"Oh shit, you're right." Ellis smacked his forehead, eyes widening. "I didn't even think about that. Guess it is a better idea for you to be drivin'."

Once everyone was piled in, Nick sped out of the truck stop, grinning as he heard Coach inhale sharply behind him. "What? You're not driving to Vegas until you're speeding to Vegas, big guy." He laughed, enjoying the tiny bit of reckless freedom offered to him.

Time seemed to blur into a meaningless mess, as it felt like they'd only barely left when Vegas loomed on the horizon. Nothing visibly on fire, at least. In fact, as they closed in, he could see cars. Cars that were moving. Cars that were moving slowly and obeying the traffic laws.

Their ridiculous cheering could be heard nearly a block away.


 

"Any luck getting a hold of your wife, Coach?" Nick looked Coach in the eye; he didn't need to ask, really, haunted look like that. They'd all bought cheap phones at an electronics store close to the hotel they'd stopped in. Rochelle had tried calling everyone she knew, without any luck. Ellis hadn't bothered beyond calling Keith.

"Nope." Coach sighed. "They was goin' up to Minnesota to visit her mother. No offense to the woman, but we do not get along." He laughed weakly, then cringed and put the phone away. "Asked the guy in the store and he said that the line's been down for anythin' East of Nevada, so it ain't like I could've got the landline anyway. She don't even have a cellphone."

Nick patted him on the shoulder. "Hey. I'm sure she's fine. Snows early up there, and snows hard. Zombies are still people, just people that are too stupid to keep warm. Give it another month and she'll be skiing on the back of a frozen zombie." He hoped that was reassuring. It wasn't exactly a talent of his to be nice like that. Seemed to work, since Coach immediately grinned.

The four of them headed back to the hotel to finish checking in. Not the most expensive one in town, as Nick didn't exactly feel like dropping over ten grand on a few suites, but he still made sure that they were setup somewhere nice. It'd be easy enough for him to make back whatever money he threw down to treat the group.

He convinced them to head down to a decent restaurant, too, although Ellis was fussing nonstop about not feeling dressed up enough to go to it. Nick was a little inclined to agree; rolled down coveralls looked about as fancy as a farmer in a field. Still, Nick was adamant--they made it this far, they were gonna eat something nice.

And drink, obviously.

They spent hours sharing their own stories of how they got to the hotel. Coach admitted that Nick saved his ass, surprising Rochelle. Coach filled in the rest of the story for Nick. The building had been a library with more than a few kids in it. Coach'd stayed to make sure everyone got out when a support beam crashed down on his legs. It somehow didn't surprise Nick that Coach had been playing hero. It just wouldn't sound like him to let anyone die for no good reason.

Rochelle sobered when it came time to share her story. She'd just barely arrived in Savannah with her cameraman, Jacob. When Jacob saw the chaos in the city, he told her that he was not staying; there was no way they'd survive, much less get any decent footage. He tried to convince her to come with him, and she'd refused. She needed the big break. Being some coffee-running pseudo-intern for the rest of her life was as appealing as chewing on tin foil. Of course, she hadn't realized that it wasn't just random violence that erupted out of outrage over CEDA's mishandling of the green flu--it wasn't until she hit the hotel that she learned that zombies were the cause of the chaos.

Ellis's story was fairly simple. Keith'd been out hunting in Tennessee with his dad for the week, so Dave and Ellis had been holding down the garage. They heard a rumor that the city-wide evacuation was because of zombies, so they set to work on building a zombie-proof truck. Even if they were wrong, it'd look cool and it'd keep people from flipping them. Well, the truck wasn't entirely zombie-proof. A Tank smashed into it, and after it flipped them a ton of times, Ellis got out and ran. Dave'd been in the passenger side, and apparently there hadn't been much left of him--that'd been exactly where the Tank punched through. Ellis hadn't stopped running until he made it to the hotel. He figured it was a Tank, at least; he never got a good look at it, and at the time he'd just figured that a military vehicle had hit their truck's blind spot or something.

Nick was well on his way to his fifth Manhattan when it came time to tell his story. "It's, uh, stupid. I was on a riverboat cruise, looking to score some easy money. Needed to take my mind off some, uh, things." He glanced to Ellis, although Ellis was clearly too wasted on vodka to know what Nick was talking about. "Anyway, I got this hooker to sit on my lap and kiss at my neck. Distracts the other players at the table when shit like that happens." He chuckled. "She, uh, she turned. On my lap. I didn't know that was what it was, just that she was clawing at my chest and drawing blood. And uh. Biting. I got her off before she could break skin with her teeth. Then a smoke detector went off. Knocked her down and got out of the room, whole boat was fucking on fire. Jumped off, swam ashore, heard someone shout that the city was getting evacuated." He touched the fading wound on his chest. "I guess I'm lucky. She could've killed me."

Everyone was quiet until Coach started laughing. It was infectious, especially given the amount of drinks they'd all collectively burned through. 


 

Nick just wondered how long this could possibly last. It wasn't as if he'd ever willingly hang out with people like this. After the shit they'd been through together? He couldn't imagine separating from them. Even as they headed off to their own suites, he still found himself staring down at the phone. Typically he never saved a number for more than a day or two--and usually the name would be something like "big tits" or "short blonde". Something to tell him why he'd bothered to save their number. Now? Rochelle, Coach, Ellis. He had a feeling he'd be keeping those names with him forever.

"Hey Nick?"

Nick turned, noting that Ellis hadn't gone into his room yet. Nick started to open his own door anyway, a smirk on his face. Ellis didn't need to ask--and apparently Ellis understood that, as the kid came rushing over and practically slammed into him, sloppily trying to kiss him.

He half-dragged the kid inside, the door sliding shut with a click as they staggered over towards the bed. Ellis was moaning and groping at him, eyes lidded and breath reeking of booze. Clearly the little guy couldn't hold his hard liquor worth shit. Nick shoved him down on the bed, crawling on top of him while clumsily trying to unbutton his shirt. Ellis tugged his coveralls down, grinding up against Nick with a whine--but when Nick reached for the mechanic's boxers, Ellis grabbed his hand and shook his head.

So he didn't want to go too far. Nick could roll with that. He leaned in for another kiss instead, pulling Ellis's hands up above his head. He tugged his own pants down to his knees, grinding their semi-clothed erections together. Ellis was breathless beneath him, only moving to kick his coveralls off with his boots before hooking his legs around the conman. Nick didn't care that it was sloppy. After all of the pain, exhaustion, starvation, and fear? Even the tiniest jolt of pleasure from grinding his dick against the slimmer man felt incredible.

There was nothing romantic about it. This was drunk, desperate, and goddamn stupid. Ellis was slobbering all over him, kissing at any skin he could find. Nick found himself sucking on Ellis's neck, leaving a mark. Juvenile, but he didn't give a shit. They'd survived. They'd made it, God dammit, he could be juvenile if he wanted to. Ellis writhed against him, twisting his head to pull Nick into another sloppy, open-mouthed kiss.

He let go of Ellis's hands, deepening their kiss with a harsh, shuddering groan. He'd just started to grope around to grab at their cocks when he felt Ellis's calloused fingers dip passed his waistband and grip his dick. Nick hissed, quickly moving to reciprocate. Christ, had he been wrong about that accent. Ellis's Southern drawl pulled on every "please" and curse in a way that lit a fire in his belly.

Everything about what Nick's hazy, drunken self was seeing was incredible. Ellis's shirt, hiked up from how desperately they were grinding together, sweat beading on that toned, nearly hairless body. The slight whine to Ellis's voice, no matter how low he groaned--always present, and always needy sounding. The way that his eyes were screwed shut, occasionally peeking open to look at him, lips swollen and parted. Even that drawl sounded like the most beautiful thing Nick had ever heard.

When Ellis arched up, nearly howling his name, Nick found himself spilling over the edge just from how that beautiful face twisted in pleasure beneath him. It took all of his energy not to just collapse on top of the kid. The very second that his head hit the pillow, he was out like a light.


 

He woke up to find that he hadn't moved a muscle. A pleasant, dreamless sleep. Yawning, Nick moved to sit up, then froze. Ellis was gone.

A quick examination of the suite uncovered a simple note, hastily scrawled on a takeout menu. Apparently, Ellis and Coach were heading downtown to live it up as tourists; a message on his cellphone confirmed the same. Guess Ellis hadn’t been sure if Nick would find the note or not. Nick texted Ro', hearing back almost immediately that she was going to the news station. He texted Ellis and Coach next to make sure they were alright. Satisfied, he headed into the bathroom to shower.

Nick pulled on his clothes, leaving his underwear behind. No way he was wearing it when it was soiled with a cum stain--who knew which one of them left that one. Probably both of them, if he was being honest. He stretched, then lay down to watch TV. He was in no rush to leave; not when all of the action he'd want wouldn't pick up until night to begin with.

He'd barely flipped the channel over to the news when the fire alarm went off. Blinking, he shot up to his feet and promptly pulled on his shoes. It was probably some dumb kid pulling an alarm, but that didn't change the feeling of dread settling in his stomach. He didn't want to be stuck in another burning hotel.

Nick used the stairs, texting the entire group to tell them about what was happening. He was nearly down to the first floor when he got his first response back. It was from Ro'. Nick stopped his descent, hand shaking.

Zombies. In Vegas.

Had they arrived as soon as the infection hit here?

It hit Nick suddenly, so suddenly that he turned his head and heaved, the hangover catching up and mixing with the unpleasant reality in a heartbeat.

Carriers.

Too busy thinking about themselves to realize that it'd really be best for the whole world if they just stayed far the fuck away from everyone else.

Carriers.

Those pilots hadn't been infected. They'd been infected. They were carriers. Each one of them carrying the infection. And they'd brought it to goddamn Vegas.

Nick started running down the stairs again, heart pounding. He frantically texted the group again, telling them to come back to the hotel. They needed the car, they needed to run. He got a response back from everyone, thank God for that.

But when he burst into the lobby, his heart dropped.

The entire lobby was filled with infected.

They descended on him in a flurry of shrieking and yowling, his own screams drowned out as they punched and clawed at him. His only recourse was to curl up and try to cover as much of himself as he could, the pain quickly escalating as he realized in horror that everyone was too far away to help him. He shouted for help, throat hoarse, voice cracking as a zombie punched him in the gut. He was thankful, at least, that they weren't eating him alive.

His last thoughts before the blackness consumed him were on the faint sound of Ellis screaming in the distance.

Chapter Text

Everything was a blur. One second, Ellis had been taking a picture with Coach in front of a real funny sounding casino. The next, they were both running down the street. Ro' sending a text right after Nick did was enough to seal the deal. It didn't make no sense to Ellis; at least when the zombie sickness had spread around Georgia, they'd had some warnings. Quarantines and shit.

This hit so fast that nobody knew about it somehow. No CEDA safehouses, no military scramblin'. Just people running. Actually, he could take that back about the military. Apparently the Nellis airforce base was scrambling shit to try and fight it. Ellis half wanted to run over and tell them that wouldn't work.

Right now he was hittin' himself. He'd left Nick back in the hotel. Figured that a day of doing tourist shit wouldn't sound like fun to Nick. The Northerner just wasn't that kind of guy. Ellis had been scouting out different casinos and clubs, writing the names down in his phone to bring them back to Nick. See if maybe one of them could work out as a place to go on a date.

Ellis just felt stupid now. How could he have bought that things were just magically safe here? He should've been more alert. If it's too good to be true, it usually is. He'd worked as a mechanic long enough to know that. But he'd been real hopeful that he was wrong, and this was the end of runnin' from zombies. It was fun for a while, but his bones were aching.

They ran into Rochelle on the way--she had some intern with her, kinda looked like Louis if he had hair, actually. Might have just been the tie, though. She'd spotted a gun store and wanted to break in and get some shit. Had to agree there. So they did. But by the time they got a buncha guns together, the intern started snarlin' and actin' like a Hunter. When he pounced Coach, she kicked him off and shot him. This shit was bad. Real bad.

The hotel was burnin', but luckily it wasn't on the side that their suites'd been on. Nick had mentioned meeting up in the lobby. Ellis just hoped that Nick'd found a piece of pipe or somethin' to defend himself with. Them screams coming from inside sure dashed his hopes right quick.

Just one step into the hotel was heartbreaking. There was a massive horde of zombies inside, all of 'em looked like people that'd been runnin' out of their rooms in various states of undress to try and escape the fire. Ellis caught a glimpse of white in the sea of infected, realizing that it was Nick's pants. He couldn't stop himself from screaming, and the horde was suddenly runnin' right at them.

But a horde's nothin' to deal with when you've got tons of weapons and the experience they had. As soon as the crowd was thinned enough, Ellis stopped shootin' and ran by. He could see Nick layin' there, and shit, it didn't look like he was movin' none.

"C'mon, man, you gotta get up!" Ellis grabbed his arm and tried to tug him up, but a feeling of dread gripped him as he pulled. Nick's eyes were blank and empty. Lord knows Ellis wasn't going to forget that look. He dropped Nick's arm and pressed his head to the Northerner's chest, trying to somehow hear a heartbeat even with all the noise around him. Nick weren't breathin', though, that was for damn sure.

"Ellis, we've gotta get moving." Coach's voice sounded so hollow and broken, like he just knew. Ellis looked up and saw how Ro' and Coach were lookin' at him. No, no, no.

"We can't leave Nick!" He couldn't believe that they were even thinking it. "There's gotta be a defib somewhere we can use, I mean there's gotta be an ambulance or a hospital or somethin'!" Ellis felt himself tearing up. He knew that they didn't have time for that. Vegas was densely populated and falling apart at the seams. Who knew how many hordes would pass through? Or worse, if the military would start a bombing run? This wasn't like Savannah; Ellis didn't know where the nearest hospital even was.

He got pulled from his thoughts when Coach yanked him up. Ellis could swear that it looked like he was gonna cry, too. Or maybe Ellis just wanted to make himself feel better.

'Cause he sure was bawlin' his eyes out as Coach dragged him out of there.


 

They had to abandon the car. The parking garage was teeming with zombies. Folks that'd tried to get to their cars, and folks that'd tried to steal their cars. It wasn't even worth tryin'. So they ran down the streets, only gunnin' down zombies that chased after them. Ellis'd never felt so horrible before. They weren't even tryin' to save anyone else.

There was no real good way to tell if someone was gonna turn or not. They couldn't stop and save everyone. So they just kept runnin' and gunnin'. Sometimes folks'd run alongside them, shoutin' about headin' to Boulder City. Hell of a lot smaller than Vegas, might be a good place to hole up there. Then they'd start spittin' and snarlin', and they'd turn right in front of the group. Ellis'd never seen it happen in front of his own eyes before.

Well, that weren't true. He'd seen them pilots turn.

He felt himself gettin' tired, and shit, if he was gettin' tired, then Coach had to be dyin'. "We gotta take a break, y'all." Ellis waved his assault rifle at a storage facility. "If we can bust into one of them, it'll be pretty safe." And a death trap, he realized. "Shit, wait." He frowned. If a Tank got them cornered, they'd be dead. They didn't have much choice, though, and Coach was already headin' over there.

Ellis found one that hadn't been locked up and yanked it open. Completely empty, thank God. He slid it almost completely shut once they were all inside, letting the sliver of light shine through the bottom to keep them from being totally in the dark. Coach was already sitting down and gasping for breath, while Ro' was pacin' around and worryin' her lip.

"Ro'?" He watched her turn to look at him, feeling some of his resolve wither away. He knew his lower lip was trembling, and good lord did he wish that it wasn't. They didn't have time for him to be cryin'. Ellis swallowed nervously, trying to compose himself before speaking again. "What the hell are we gonna do now?"

She studied his face, like she was tryin' to find the answer. "We keep moving. Take a break here, go to Boulder City. Maybe we can find a car there..." Her eyes lit up. "If we can get back to that truck stop, we can setup there. It's isolated and easy to secure." She cringed. "Well, unless a Tank shows up. I don't think we'll be able to stop one of those from breaking down the walls." Ro' started to say something, then stopped.

"Sweetie..." She trailed off, slowly approaching Ellis. She placed her hand on his shoulder, then trailed it up to stroke at his hair. "It's going to be okay. We're still alive."

Shit, he hadn't even noticed he was cryin'. When did he lose his hat? It probably fell off when they ran out of the hotel. "We ain't still alive, Ro'." Ellis sniffled, feeling his voice crack. "Nick's dead, and we just left him. We ain't all here." He could feel Coach staring at him. When Rochelle's hand stilled, it was like the dam broke. He just started bawling his eyes out, letting her hug him and try to comfort him.

"We can't go givin' up now, son." Coach stood up, walking over to pat him on the shoulder. "Right now, we just gotta find us a safe place and dig in. I'm thinkin' we can't just keep runnin' like this forever." Ellis wondered if Coach was thinkin' that he was cryin' 'cause he was scared.

Coach frowned. "Son." He didn't speak again until Ellis was lookin' right at him. "I know you and Nick was gettin' to be real friendly-" Oh lord you don't know the half of it "-and I know it hurts to lose someone." He smiled sadly. "Just take your time. We've got you. Ain't nothin' wrong with a man cryin' when he loses a friend."

That at least made Ellis feel a little better. But that also didn't stop him from cryin'. Nick'd probably be teasin' him right now. It weren't real manly to cry. But hell, it had to count for somethin' that he was still standing upright. His legs felt like jelly, but he hadn't fallen down yet. That had to mean he was some kind of strong.

Right?


 

It was another hour before they got movin' again. Most of the worst of the violence was behind them. Fighter jets were shootin' in downtown, explosions were goin' off. Fires, visible all the way from the edge of the city. It didn't look good. Ellis knew the military wasn't gonna win. Shit, half of them pilots were probably infected. Probably got infected before they even took off in the air.

And all the while, Ellis just felt numb. This weren't fun no more. He didn't really know what was worse about Nick bein' dead. At first he'd just been thinkin' the obvious. Nick was the first guy he'd ever come out to. Even Dave, when they'd been watchin' guys strip, hadn't known. Ellis couldn't risk it back then. Shit, Nick was his first time kissin' a dude, too. And gettin' in bed with anybody. And for as mean as Nick could get? Nick'd been real nice to him when he came out. Comfortin', even.

But that weren't the only part that made it hurt. It hurt like hell that he'd lost someone before they could even really have something that meant a damn thing, but that weren't all. Ellis shot a man that was almost done turnin' into a Smoker, reloading his gun with mechanical precision.

They weren't invincible.

He'd been ridin' an adrenaline high ever since he got through that burnin' hotel in Savannah. No matter what hit 'em, they always sprang back. Barely more than a few scratches between 'em, too. It looked like they could take on anything. No number of Tanks stopped 'em. The military bombin' the shit out of New Orleans didn't stop 'em. Crashin' in three whole helicopters didn't stop 'em.

They were four invincible heroes fightin' their way through the zombie apocalypse. It was every cool action movie rolled into one. Each one of 'em could joke around and not take shit seriously, 'cause nothing was dangerous enough to stop them. Ellis didn't have time to get real scared; and when he did get real scared, he had someone like Nick to remind him that he was safe. They were a damn good team, best team out there.

But Nick's dead. And that means they ain't invincible. They ain't the best team. They got lucky, and their luck ran out. Three of them meant they couldn't split up to do shit anymore. Three meant that they had less firepower to handle Tanks. Three was too small of a number for a group like them.

And man, things were quiet without Nick there.

He was real whiny, but he always responded to everybody. Now, they were only speakin' if they had to. Ellis thought about tellin' a story, somethin' to kill this horrible feeling in his belly, but nothin' came to mind. He couldn't stop thinkin' about Nick. He'd heard the man screamin' for help, and by the time they finally cut a path to him, he was long gone. Nick'd been a survivor, too. Not just in the zombie-killin' sense. He'd been through some serious shit.

So how come he was the first of them to die?

Chapter Text

Never in a million years did Ellis think he was gonna see Coach and Ro' fight. Not a fist fight, thank the lord, but they were arguin' like their lives depended on it. Not much else to do, walkin' down an empty street like this, but it still felt all kinds of wrong.

"I'm just sayin' that if we go up to Minnesota, them zombies might get too cold to survive!" Coach waved an arm, clearly losing his patience. "We might even find my wife and kids. It's a damn sight better than waitin' 'round here to die." Ellis figured that Coach had a real good point there. What the hell did they have to fight for down here?

But Ro' wasn't havin' none of it. "And what if we get up there and can't find them? Coach, it gets cold in Chicago, really cold, and I still wouldn't be ready for the cold up there. We'd need to find shelter, and when it snows up there? Six feet, with a layer of ice on top. We could get trapped in a building and freeze to death. And that's if everyone leaves us alone. If we get ourselves a good shelter, every other living person in the area is gonna try to take it." Her voice wavered--that was a first, Ellis never heard her sound like that.

Coach didn't back down, and Ellis just sighed. Good lord, it was gonna be a long ass walk in the desert with them fightin' the whole way. He wondered what they'd do if Nick were here. Had Nick ever been up to Minnesota? Maybe he would've known how to survive a tough winter. Or maybe he'd know a real isolated place nearby that they could go hide. Maybe they wouldn't be so screwed walkin' down a street in the desert.

He looked up; Ro' and Coach had both stopped and were in each other's faces, shoutin'. Ellis could barely understand what they were sayin', just that it was gettin' ugly. He quickly shoved them both back, apologizin' under his breath to both of them for being mean.

"Look, I ain't sayin' that goin' up North is the best idea." Ellis scratched the back of his neck. Lord, he missed his hat, that sun was beatin' him down something fierce. "But right now, we're lookin' at the other side of that coin. We're out in a desert. That's real hot, and real dry, all the time. We stay here, and we're gonna be runnin' low on water in a bad way. And anybody else still livin' out here is gonna be fightin' for it. Up North we'll always have snow and lakes and shit like that. And yeah, it'll be cold, but we can just pile on layers until we ain't cold." He stuck out his chin, trying to act brave. "We ain't got nothin' to stay here for. So let's get to this town, go back to that stop and pick up that old man, and get the hell out of here."

Rochelle just groaned, shaking her head. "Fine. I'm not fighting both of you guys on this. It'll be hard, but, at least with three of us it might be workable." Ellis noted that she wasn't even bothering to include the old man; he wondered if she was thinkin' that he wouldn't be much help, or if he was gonna be dead.

Ellis still hoped that she was wrong. He was old, sure, but maybe he was real good at shit. Ellis knew a lot of old guys like that. Years of experience with toughin' it.

Funny how none of them survivalist-types had made it out of Savannah alive.


 

Boulder City was just barely evacuating. Somehow the infection had skipped it. That made no sense to Ellis--this place was more East than Vegas. It made him wish that he hadn't goofed off in Biology so much. Not that his school would've taught him much about how diseases got spread around, but still.

He had a guess, though. When some sickness got to spreadin' around, it'd always hit the more vulnerable folks first. Old people, kids, already sick people, that kind of shit. In a larger area with more people, that'd mean more vulnerable people. It sort of worked in Ellis's head, but it didn't convince him none. There had to be somethin' else.

His mind was more focused on just how much this was remindin' him of Savannah. There were folks drivin' out in a real hurry, and other folks crashin' from trying to drive out in a real hurry. Lots of lootin', of course. He never got that. How were they plannin' to use a brand new plasma screen TV? Hell, how did they plan to even keep it from breakin'?

Some folks were tryin' to shout about workin' together, with only one or two folks listenin' in. He felt bad for them. They probably didn't even realize how bad them zombies were when they got to runnin' around. He could see a few infected folks, not quite turned yet, but pukin' up black shit that looked downright nasty. He didn't shoot them, though. Mercy kill or not, if there was gunfire, it'd make the people around them panic even more than they already were.

But they'd never seen someone turnin' into a Tank before.

Ellis stopped walkin', and it took Coach grabbin' his shoulder and shovin' him to get him moving again. Real muscular guy, looked like he'd been a gym rat before this shit started. He was on the ground and thrashing. Reminded Ellis of when his dad tried to make him go huntin', and he'd seen a deer flailing about in its death throes after his daddy shot it. The man's muscles were all bubbling grotesquely, and the skin was stretching to the point of tearin' open in places. He could hear the man screaming, sometimes with his voice dippin' down lower.

People were runnin' away from him, but some of them in the runnin' group were already infected and attackin' the others. Ellis couldn't take his eyes off the man turnin' into a Tank. Shit was he glad that he was immune. He finally wrenched his gaze away, choking on a breath he'd been holdin' in.

"I know, son, I know. Gotta keep movin' before we get stuck here." Coach's grip on his gun was scary-tight, too. He looked like he was a half-step away from pissin' himself. Easy enough not to think about them zombies bein' people when you don't gotta see them turning. Ellis was just glad that they weren't seein' any Jockeys yet. He didn't want to think about what kinds of folks turned into those little freaks.

They found some folks havin' trouble not that far ahead. They'd just started up their car when one of the folks in the car turned. Now they all scrambled out, the zombie chasin' 'em. Ellis ran ahead and tackled the zombie, bashin' its brains in with the butt of his gun. When he looked up, the other folks had all turned, too. He was gonna shout for help when Ro' shot 'em all down. Ellis barely even flinched when he heard folks screaming from the gunfire.

She helped him up--not that he needed it, but his legs were feelin' like jelly from all the shit goin' on around them--and hopped into the car. At least it didn't need wiring. Ellis didn't even complain when she got behind the wheel, Coach piling in next to her. He didn't know if he could stomach drivin'.

They sped out of that town so fast that Ellis barely had time to think about how much he wanted to puke. His eyes were glued to the window, watching as new hordes popped up in seconds to chase after other folks. So many folks were turnin', and barely any seemed to be resistin' it. Some of the folks that they'd seen earlier trying to plan out a way to work together had finally turned, too. Ellis thought back to all of the folks that'd been driving out of the city and realized, numbly, that they were probably all infected too.

"That truck stop's just an hours drive from here." Rochelle's voice sounded soft when compared to all of the chaos behind them. "I hope that's far enough."


 

As they drew near, Ellis just about wanted to scream.

A truck was flipped over on its side on the road, the trailer nothing more than twisted shrapnel. A Tank wearin' a trucker cap was rampagin' around, chasin' the old man towards ‘em. An old man armed with nothin' but a baseball bat.

They stopped the car and just about lunged out, openin' fire on the roaring infected. They stopped firing when it grabbed the old man, fearing that they'd accidentally shoot him. That didn't matter, in the end; the Tank threw him at the group with enough force to dent their car and flip it, shattering bones deafened by the sound of metal creaking and snapping. Coach just about roared right back at the monster, opening fire first and steppin' towards it. Ellis was right behind him, 'cause good lord, that old man had been real nice to them, and that car was their way out of here.

His heart dropped into his stomach when he saw Coach go flyin', the Tank havin' smacked him hard enough to send him into the twisted mess that was the semi-trailer. Coach's scream just barely sounded out over a horrifyin' sound that Ellis never wanted to hear again. There weren't even any time to go check to see if he was okay; that Tank was ready to do the same to Ellis.

He dove out of the way, openin' fire with his assault rifle as Ro' pelted it with bullets. It turned to go after her, making Ellis panic. Even the thought of possibly being alone made him fling caution to the wind. He lunged onto the Tank's back, punching it in the head while screaming bloody murder. He didn't know what came over him. Whether it was just raw hatred for these infected sons of bitches or somethin' else altogether, he wanted nothing more than to kill it.

Ellis shoved the barrel of his gun down the Tank's throat and opened fire, his free hand digging into the soft, infected skin to help him hang on as it started thrashing about. He felt it jerk forward and go limp, barely havin' more than a second to leap off before it collapsed on the ground. He kicked its skull in for good measure, spitting on the corpse.

It was then that he remembered Coach and went runnin' back over to him.

Coach was still alive, thank God, but his leg was stuck in a tangled chunk of metal that looked awful close to a sharp-toothed mouth. Ellis nodded to Ro' and started workin' on getting Coach's leg free, all to the sound of Coach yelling in pain. Once he was loose, he crawled away, then rolled over to assess the damage.

It was bad. Real bad.

Not a one of them said a word. Coach's leg was mangled. Everything from the knee down was bent the wrong way with the bone showin' through. Ellis made eye contact with Coach, and that was when Coach started cryin'. Scary crying, too, all loud and out of control.

After all, it weren't like Coach could walk anywhere now. Even if they got him a crutch somehow, it'd be too damn dangerous to have him walkin' around. So Ro' helped him drag Coach over to one of the hotel rooms. Still locked, but a quick jog into the convenience store uncovered a key. They hoisted him up on a bed, and Ro' headed off to find first aid shit to try and treat the severe wound.

Ellis took it upon himself to go explorin'. Old man had a car. Maybe they could take that? Might be rough to have Coach in it, but at least they could try to get to Minnesota.

But once he got around the back, he saw that the Tank had flipped it. They were just lucky that the Tank hadn't destroyed any of the buildings. He still checked the car, tryin' to see if it was in okay enough condition to still run. No such luck; bunch of the innards was all busted up.

He headed back to their car, cringing as he looked at the damage. When he got close, he saw the old man's body. But he also saw that the old man was infected. They'd jumped out in a hurry to save him, when he was already gone. He wasn't runnin' from the Tank. He was runnin' towards them to try and kill them.

Chapter Text

He found himself sitting on the edge of Coach's bed, watching Ro' pace around the room. Coach was real quiet; not dead, but real quiet. A broke arm was rough, but workable. A broke leg weren't something they could keep moving with. Hell, it'd be rough in Savannah with a broke leg, but outside of Vegas? This was desert. They couldn't risk a slow pace like that.

Ellis kept staring at the leg. Ro' had done a good job, all things considered. Bandaged nicely, bones weren't pokin' out no more. But that weren't a leg that could go runnin'. If a Tank swung by again, they'd be screwed. He looked up to see that Coach was also lookin' down at that leg. He couldn't imagine what was goin' through Coach's head.

"We've got lots of food here." Ro' finally stopped pacing, sighing. "Almost all of it is non-perishable, too. Solar panel out back, backup generator. Lots of fuel. Isolated." She counted each thing off on her fingers, keeping her tone level and calm. "Not a lot of medical supplies, but we shouldn't need them if we don't have a lot of zombies coming by." She chewed on her lip. "We'll just...hold out here. Until your leg's better, at least."

"Ain't like we got a choice." Coach looked away; hell, it almost looked like he was poutin'. "My leg's all messed up. I ain't gonna be able to walk fo' a damn long time." His eyes dulled. "Maybe...maybe y'all should go without me. Just leave a whole mess of food in here and a gun. I can hold out fo' a while."

Ro' started to say something, but Ellis interrupted. "No way, Coach. Even if we did, we'd be walkin'. Ain't a workin' car left here." He smiled brightly, a feeble attempt to cheer Coach up. "Besides, we ain't leavin' nobody behind." He looked over to Ro'. "Ain't that right? We're sorta like a family now. Ain't right to leave family behind."

"That's right." She smiled, hand on her hip. "Ellis? Let's see about moving some of that bread I saw in the convenience store back to the freezer in the diner. That's going to be the first to go if we don't get it frozen."


 

There were a lot of messed up things about the apocalypse, but this one took the cake. They weren't real used to sittin' still for a long time, and after putting all of the perishable foods that they wouldn't be able to eat right away in the freezer, they'd encountered an issue that hadn't been an issue before.

The Tank's body was still just layin' there in the parking lot. It weren't just an obstacle; it smelled bad. Worse, it'd probably start decomposin' eventually, and that'd mean disease. They tried to drag it, but once they got it on the road they realized how dumb that plan'd been. Where were they gonna drag it to?

"We burn it." Ro' sounded so sure of herself. "Burn the old man, too." She looked over to Ellis. Lord, she already looked like she was gonna puke. "Kills off any bacteria, and we can just bury the ashes and bones in the sand. Easy."

Right. Easy.

Once that Tank got to burnin', the two of them scurried off into separate hotel rooms, ‘cause holy shit did it smell worse. Ellis hadn't wanted to sleep in separate rooms, but she was adamant about givin' Coach some alone time to rest and about havin' her own room. He ended up sleeping under the covers, as if that'd somehow keep himself safe from any zombies.

Sayin’ that he was sleeping was generous. It was more like layin' under the sheets with his eyes squeezed shut. He couldn't stop thinking about everything he'd lost up to this point. About how far he was from home. From everything that'd mattered to him.

Keith'd been one of the first folks on a helicopter. Ellis remembered gettin' that call from Keith. Something about the green flu gettin' real bad in Tennessee and CEDA movin' him. He hadn't heard from Keith again after that. Keith was real tough; he hoped that his best friend was immune, too. It'd take more than a few zombies to kill him.

But his ma? Ellis cringed. Soon as he'd heard about evacs happenin' in Savannah, he got her to sign up and go. She didn't wanna leave, but she'd seen how worried Ellis was for her. No sense in waitin'. He had to make peace with the fact that she was probably gone. He'd never heard from her again. Hell, he'd even asked her to call him when she got there, and she didn't. If she'd survived, the CEDA outpost probably got overrun by zombies.

Dave was dead. He'd seen that happen. Seen how he was stuck to the bashed-in side of the truck, with half his face gone. He hadn't been best friends with Dave, but he'd still known Dave for years. Real shy kid that moved to Savannah from some place in West Virginia, always happy to be included in shit. He'd always talk to Dave if he needed advice on somethin' tough. Dave'd been immune, too, he was sure of it. But immune didn't mean invincible.

He never heard if his dad made it out, or any of his other relatives. He hoped his uncles and aunts did. Had a feeling they didn't. They were real traditional, and real conservative; none of them believed for a second that the government could do shit right. So they probably didn't trust the warnings to get out and sat right where they were. Probably got killed real fast. 

Ellis probably should've felt guiltier that he was glad his dad was probably dead. Real piece of shit that only came around on holidays. Ma never said it outright, but Ellis knew his dad was abusive to her. He saw how ma gripped things a little tighter whenever he showed up, and how her smiles got a lot more forced. Dad always wanted Ellis to man up, too, always tryin' to make him into less of a sissy.

Ellis's mind wandered to Nick, feeling a painful tug in his heart. Nick'd been a real jerk when they first met, but hell, he'd sounded real cool, too. Ellis'd never seen a man in a white suit before, and half the shit Nick said sounded like one-liners from an action hero in a movie. He'd wanted nothing more than to be Nick's friend, and when he earned that, he cherished it. But then Nick got him thinkin' about a lot of seriously repressed shit. Nick's voice did things to him, just like them icy eyes. He'd thought he was bein' subtle, but Nick noticed him and his little crush. Instead of bein' mean about it, Nick accepted it.

And now Nick was dead.

Ellis opened his eyes, sniffling. Everyone that meant something to him was dead. Dead, or if they were alive, halfway 'cross the country with no way to know if they were alive or not. All he had left was Ro' and Coach. He had to make sure neither of 'em died. He wasn't ready to try and survive alone.

He didn't know if he'd even be able to keep going if he was alone.


 

Ellis hadn't even realized that he'd fallen asleep. He sure didn't feel well-rested, but he knew that he had to have gotten some sort of rest. He dragged himself out of the bed with a groan and immediately froze. He could hear an engine runnin'.

Cautiously, he grabbed his gun and stepped outside. Looked like a beat up old car had just barely pulled in. Ro' was already outside, her own gun drawn and a hell of a tough look on her face. She dropped the tough act when a man stepped out with a little girl. They both looked like they'd been through hell, but neither one of 'em looked infected. Even had little bits of boomer bile on 'em.

Ro' sent him off to make breakfast, makin' sure to remind him to bring somethin' to Coach. He felt a little weird, cooking in some strange diner. Hell, everything about it was weird as hell. It felt almost normal, in a way, to be flipping little pre-made egg patties and cookin' bacon. He made sure to bring food out to Coach first, tellin' him that there was all sorts of good food in the freezer. Just seeing Coach's eyes light up at the sight of bacon made everything a little bit better.

He brought Ro' and the new folks some food, then sat down with them to eat his own. Apparently that man’d found the little girl and saved her from a Spitter. The little girl quietly announced that the Spitter had been her mom, kicking her feet back and forth as she munched on her sandwich. No word on where her dad was.

Still, they were both immune, and they had a car. They'd been planning on heading East, but Ro' told 'em that East was where they'd come from. Apparently the military had been telling people that the infection was taken care of out East. Probably to stop people from crossing the mountain range and infecting the West coast, Ellis realized.

The car was one of them old two-seaters that folks liked to tweak for drag racin'. Lucky that this one wasn't tweaked like that. The guy'd been workin' on it in his spare time. It weren't good for gettin' supplies, but Ellis figured that if he went with the guy back into town, they could find a better car for supply runs and keep the faster car for emergencies.

Ro' was more forward with their situation than Ellis would’ve been, tellin' the man about Coach's injuries. Serious ones that needed real medical equipment. She asked if he knew anything about medical care, but that was a long shot. He didn't. He was a manager at a retail store that sold electronics. Didn't even know how to fix 'em or nothin', just knew what the different brands were and how best to sell 'em.

It only took him an hour or so to convince the new guy to come with him to go on this little run. Ro' had introduced the little girl to Coach--she wasn't any good at dealing with kids. Coach was. Even with a busted up leg he still was able to have fun, telling her a whole mess of stories while she told some right back to him. He told Ellis to see if he could find any board games while he was out. Ellis promised he would. Hell, they'd all be getting a little bored if they didn't have nothing fun to do.

It still felt weird to sit in a car, especially since he weren't the one driving, with someone he didn't know. His heart started hammering as they drove away, heading right back towards the infected city they'd fled from. He waved to Ro', suppressing his own nausea. He just had to keep moving. If he focused on what they needed to do, he wouldn't have time to mourn. He had to keep his mind off every loss he'd had. He had to keep his mind focused on the present.

If he didn't, he'd go crazy. Lord knows Nick weren't the first person he'd lost in this mess, but Nick was the first one that really hit him hard. No more letting his guard down. This was about survival. You don't survive if you relax for even one second. Nick's death was proof of that. Ellis wasn't gonna die. And if he could help it, nobody in their little group was gonna die neither.

He felt queasy as he realized, numbly, that he wasn't including the man next to him or the little girl in that. All that he could afford to care about was Ro' and Coach. Everybody else from now on was expendable. No matter what. If he had to shoot someone to keep his little family alive, he would.

Good lord, when did he start thinkin' like some kind of heartless monster?

Chapter Text

It was for the best that Ellis hadn't even tried to remember the little girl's name.

The trip out to town had been chaotic, but the store manager fella, Randall, he weren't too bad at drivin'. Turned out that he'd done some stunt drivin' when he was younger, made him real good at cuttin' turns and dodgin' debris. Ellis had a hard time keeping up with him once he got an SUV for himself. The hospital in Boulder City'd been too damn infested to risk going in with just two folks.

They did find a chick nearby. Student nurse. Ellis didn't care if she were a freshman or a senior or just barely applied--nurse meant she might know a thing or two about doctor shit. He considered that a good haul for the day and came back, only to find that Coach was wailing louder'n any Witch he'd ever heard.

Ro' was standing outside with the little girl, tryin' to soothe her. Poor girl was pukin' up black somethin' real fierce. Ellis'd never seen someone get hit by the infection so bad. Then again, he didn't remember seein' any kids alive, neither. He got out of the car hesitantly, Randall hoverin' nearby. The nurse ran over, probably to try and help the little girl, but she backed off when she saw the kid puke something up.

Ellis couldn't tell what it was, just that it was still connected to her mouth by a tube and it-oh. That was her stomach, all blackened and oily lookin' and half-eaten away. What made it all so much worse was that she was still alive, chokin' and sobbin', even though half her body was lookin' eaten away. Weren't no wonder that he'd never seen any little kids; looked like the infection just about ripped through them like acid.

He jumped when Ro' made a decision: a mercy kill, bullet to the back of the head. She looked up at them and Ellis wanted to just curl up in a ball. He'd never seen her lookin' so hurt before. She started talkin' to the nurse and hurried her off to look at Coach, but Ellis couldn't make out a word of it. He felt Randall reassuring him, but that felt hollow, too.

Was this even survivin' anymore? Or were they just waitin' for when they'd bite the bullet, too?


 

Survival was purely a day by day affair at first. He didn't bother learning the name of a new person unless they survived for over a day. The longer that they went between initial infection of Vegas and now, the less likely that someone'd die when they joined 'em. Their little truck stop was turnin' into a bit of a tent city now.

The hotel rooms were kept empty unless someone was sick or injured, with the beds bein' reserved for only a select few. Showers were cold water only, unless you were sick. They hadn't run out of water yet, but Ro' always had them collectin' more in case a pipe ever burst. Coach's leg never got back to workin'; the nurse, Haley, said that the nerves were too damaged and the bone didn't set right. They found him a wheelchair--the mobility gave him some of his old cheer back, especially when they got enough teenage guys at the stop to organize together a few small games of football. Gave him some shit to do, gave them somethin' fun to do.

Ellis just focused on supply runs. Ro' told him to smile more, he told her that he weren't thinkin' about smilin' until them zombies were gone. He'd hoped after a few months that they'd go away, but they didn't. They just kept on existin'. He didn't get how until he saw a pile of them chewin' on cereal boxes. They were smart enough to know they needed food, which meant now he had to compete with zombies just to keep the truck stop supplied.

They also had three separate huntin' parties of four folks, now. Food and water was the job of his group. He didn't envy the medicine group. They had to go into the hospital, which was still the worst place in town for zombies. They always came back, though. Sometimes with nothin', sometimes with a whole mess of supplies.

Some folks'd go through the truck stop without stayin'. Headin' East for some stupid reason. Lone wolves that thought they could survive on their own, maybe. Or folks dumb enough to think that they had somethin' worthwhile to head East for. Ellis never got that; this was as good as it could get. No zombies came out far enough to threaten the stop, plenty of food, electricity, runnin' water. Hell, they even raided a movie theater once and stole a buncha film reels to watch movies on the back of the motel with.

One person'd gone through, some lone wolf that didn't even stick around long enough for Ro' and Ellis to see who they were and offer them a place to stay. Some fool that was apparently gonna drive through Texas on their way East. Most folks picked a more Northern route, hopin' that the cold might stop them zombies a little. Ellis wondered if any of that had a lick of truth to it.

Wait a second. Texas?

Ellis's thoughts shot to Nick right away--not to the conman himself, but to his rings. Nick'd dumped his rings off in that house in Texas. It'd be a hell of a long drive, but Ellis could go there and pick them up. After all, he didn't have nothin' to remember Nick by. Some nights he'd even forget what Nick sounded like, and that'd scare him the worst. He'd known Dave long enough to never forget him, but Nick? Nick was barely a week or two at most. Nick was easy to forget.

"Ro'. I got a favor to ask you." He dropped his SUV's keys down in front of her, eyes hollow. "I gotta go on a trip. Y'all remember that house we stayed at back in Texas?"

Ro' arched an eyebrow at him. "Uh...yes. Why?"

Ellis chewed on his lip, thinking that she might say no. "Nick left his rings there. I wanna go get 'em."

He'd told her, weeks ago, about his crush on the conman. They'd both been drunk as hell and sittin' alone in the diner, mournin' the death of Randall. Poor guy'd lasted a long time, but his car got flipped by a Tank and his whole crew went up in flames. It'd been a rough as hell day, and Ellis'd needed to get it off his chest before somethin' in his head broke for good.

She looked like she wanted to say no. It was a stupidly risky trip, especially given how they'd left a whole horde there. Who knew if that horde had drifted somewhere else or if the place was deserted or what? Hell, with so many lone wolves around and with gold comin' to be a bit precious, there could be folks already scroungin' around there.

"I ain't got nothin' to remember him by, Ro'. Shit, I don't know if I'd wear 'em or nothin', but I wanna at least bury one." Ellis remembered taking a longer drive than normal, into Vegas. Ro' had chewed him out for it, 'cause he went alone and took the SUV with him. He'd just wanted to see if Nick's body was still there. Stupid, of course; the whole hotel was burned to the ground, and any bodies left in the rubble were impossible to identify.

He'd run into some of the scavengers out there. Vegas had a few protected areas itself, all within the city. Ellis used 'protected' loosely, 'cause apparently they got attacked all the time. Real mean folks, too, that shot on sight unless y'all had somethin' to barter. He'd offered up some gold he'd found at a jewelry store, and they let him in.

It was dumb as hell to go lookin' in there for his hat, and dumber still to go lookin' for a body, but he tried. He tried, and found not a damn thing worth a shit. They didn't give him back the gold, and he didn't push it. They were desperate, and tryin' to cling to a barterin' system to get the supplies they needed. Huge overstock of guns, though. Folks armed to the teeth with no food get real dangerous real fast.

He blinked when Ro' snapped her fingers in front of his face. Shit, his mind had wandered off again. "Sorry, Ro'." Ellis smiled weakly, trying at least to reassure her that his head was still all there. "I just got to thinkin' about scavengers 'n shit. I want to see if them rings is still there, and if they ain't, we can bring back some more beddin' shit in the SUV so it ain't a waste."

"I already said yes, sweetie." Ro' sighed, shaking her head. "You've been overthinking things too much lately. Don't forget to let that head of yours take a break sometimes. Drive yourself crazy if you don't."


 

Ellis hardly even flinched anymore when they saw zombies on the road. It was just part of life now. He couldn't even remember what it was like before that. His mind just blanked out if he thought about obeyin' traffic signals or drivin' the speed limit. Sure, he'd believed that things'd go back to normal a few months ago, but now? Hell, he didn't see how it could.

There were millions of zombies, and no matter how many they killed, the number never seemed to go down. There weren't enough people still livin' to possibly return things to normal. They were lucky that they had the power they had--most places had nothin' anymore, not even water. He used to find it reassurin' that everything was close together, but now he saw it for what it was. Fires spread easy, zombies heard you easy, and shelters got broke into easy. Unless a ton of firepower was poured into defense, all of these tightly knit suburban areas were impossible to live in.

The zombies'd moved on from the little suburban area. No more power, neither. That was a good thing, or else them alarms'd probably still be going. He wondered how long they'd been blarin' before they finally stopped. Not that many zombie bodies lying around, so probably no one'd been through here when zombies were around--unless they'd shot a few and ran.

But there was a car. Ellis didn't remember seein' it out on the street before. Him and Ro' checked it out. Typical lone wolf car, packed up with basic supplies. Looked like it had an alarm system of sorts, too. It weren't worth testin' to see if it worked.

"Stay by the car and keep it runnin'." Ellis swapped his shotgun for her pistol. "Don't let nobody take the car. If y'all hear shootin', come get me." He started towards the house, then paused and turned. "But if I scream, y'all drive away. We don't know how many folks they got, and it ain't fair to you to go dyin' out here."

He didn't wait to argue it, stepping into the house. Somehow, Ellis doubted that she'd leave him, even if he screamed. Stupid, but he knew he'd do the same for her.

The house still smelled like it did all them months back; stale, but clean. He could see that someone had been searchin' the house, as all of the canned food that they'd left behind was neatly stacked up in a milk crate. He was tempted to steal it, but figured that'd be in poor taste--everybody had to do what they needed to in order to survive. All he was here for was the rings.

But as Ellis headed upstairs, he heard the telltale sounds of someone else being in the house. Shit. He'd been hoping that the scavenger might be in a different house. Still, maybe he'd be lucky and they hadn't hit the master bedroom yet. A couple of gold rings could be used for some serious barterin' in most of the little outposts still up out there.

His heart sank as he stepped into the master bedroom. Not only was someone in the darkness of the bathroom--they were obviously clearing it out. The toothpaste tube was already sitting out on the dresser, as was the shampoo and set of towels.

Ellis stepped inside, barely able to make out the shape of a male figure hunched over. A few thin strands of sunlight were streaming into the windowless bathroom from the bedroom, giving him the faint outline of jeans and a plaid shirt. He pulled his gun, clicking off the safety with a growl. "Hands up where I can see 'em, get out of there."

He heard a muffled curse when the scavenger banged their head on the cupboard. His grip on the gun tightened when he saw that the man was already wearing two of the rings on on hand. He knew it weren't the scavengers fault, no way that he'd know what them rings meant to a total stranger, but he still felt anger bubbling up to the surface.

"Easy, farmer Joe, no reason to go killing somebody over a couple of rings."

Ellis felt his throat tighten, watching as the man rose to his feet, hands in the air. Wearing his hat. Wearing his blue and white trucker cap that Keith’d had custom made for their shop. Dark, curly hair stickin' out of it on either side. The scavenger turned to look at him, hands still up, gray eyes wide as they met his own.

"...Ellis?"

Chapter Text

Nick couldn't believe his eyes.

Ellis looked a little strange. His curly hair had grown out of control, leaving him with a goofy looking surfer mop on his head. He looked worn down, too. Still wearing that same Bullshifters shirt, but at least he'd ditched the coveralls for an actual pair of jeans.

He watched Ellis's grip on the pistol loosen; poor kid was shaking so bad. Nick took a half step forward, then immediately regretted it. Ellis spooked when he moved, dropping his gun with a yelp--but not before squeezing the trigger. A bullet embedded itself in the wall right behind Nick.

"Jesus Christ, Ellis!" Nick grabbed the gun and immediately set it on the counter, shaking his head. "What're you trying to do, kill me?"

But Ellis was suddenly tearing up and clinging to him, bawling about how much he'd missed him and how hard it'd been. Nick found it a little hard to be pissed off at the little guy. He stroked through Ellis's hair, realizing that wherever the kid was staying now obviously still had running water. "Easy, easy. I've got you, fireball."

Ellis had finally quieted down, although he hadn't so much as loosened his grip on Nick. Nick felt his breath hitch when Ellis looked up at him, smiling like he'd just heard the apocalypse was over. "Nick?" His smile turned a bit crooked. "That beard looks silly as hell, man. Y'all better shave that when we get back."

Nick laughed, punching Ellis in the shoulder lightly. "Yeah, go to hell. I didn't exactly have time to shave it. I don't know if you noticed the uh, what're they called again? Oh right, zombies. Small problem, very small." He grinned when Ellis smacked him back.

"So, uh...are you...alone?" Nick's grin faded as he posed the question. It was a little weird to see Ellis on his own. Admirable that the kid had survived this long, but terrifying all the same. Had the others died? Or had they gone their separate ways?

"Oh hell no!" Ellis grabbed Nick's arm, eyes bright. "I brought Ro' with me, but we got us a whole big base full of people and supplies and shit. Coach's back to coachin' some damn football teams, too. It's awesome!" He faltered, laughing to himself shyly. "I only came back here to get your rings. Kinda figured y'all were dead."

Something about that was sad. Ellis had left some safe area purely to grab his rings? "Jesus, kiddo, and here I was grabbing them to pawn off at an outpost." He looked at the two rings on his fingers, shaking his head. "Might as well get the third one while we're here. I don't know if you saw, but, I collected up all the food we left here last time."

Ellis nodded, eyes distant. Kid probably had a lot on his mind right now. "I'm gonna go through and grab some blankets and pillows and shit. We always need more of that." He started to leave, but Nick grabbed him by the waistband and tugged him back.

He pulled Ellis into a kiss then--in retrospect, he was embarrassed at how tightly he was holding onto the little guy. Nick didn't know what came over him, but Christ he didn't want to let go. He'd been positive that he'd never see Ellis again, and that he'd probably never go back to working with other people again. If he was hallucinating this, he wanted to make the most of it.

Ellis made a little noise in the back of his throat when they parted, searching Nick's face for a reason behind his enthusiastic kiss. Nick rested his hands on those slim hips, smirking down at him. "Sorry." He laughed; felt weird to apologize about a kiss. "Just, uh, never thought I'd see you again. Pretty sure I've finally gone crazy, actually."

His eyes slid shut when Ellis leaned in for another kiss, savoring it. Savoring the closeness that he'd been starved of for months now. He didn't open his eyes again until Ellis pulled back.

"Shit." Ellis laughed. "We better go outside and tell Ro'; she's probably thinkin' that I shot somebody. Don't want her gettin' nervous over nothin'." Ellis started to leave, hesitated, then glanced over his shoulder at Nick. "How the hell did y'all make it, Nick?"


 

It'd been almost fifteen years to the day since Nick had last felt a defibrillator's jolt. Things had been different back then; he'd been right at the surface of gang shit, right before the rival local gangs descended into all out war. As soon as he'd had some back-alley doctor patching up bullet wounds, it'd clicked in his almost-twenty year old brain that this wasn't a good life to live.

He tried to swear from the pain, but his whole body froze up in a violent spasm, choking the word out of his throat before it could even form. Nick had expected to see Coach or Ro' hovering above him, with Ellis in the background. They'd had to use a defib once on Ro', when a Smoker dragged her out of the thick of a horde and suffocated her. It never once crossed his mind that the group would leave him behind.

Instead, he was face to face with a chubby white chick, her eyes the coldest shade of green he'd ever seen on a person. Still wearing her doctor clothes, too--which meant she was either a doctor or a very dedicated stripper. It was Vegas; either one was a very real possibility. He leaned on the former as she pulled him up. She looked like having fun was not on her agenda, ever.

"Shit! I thought for sure he was a goner. You think he's gonna turn like the rest of 'em?"

Nick glanced over her shoulder, finding a scraggly looking bunch of men behind her. All carrying assault rifles. Half of them were holding them wrong. One of them was resting with his finger on the trigger, pointing it at the guy next to him without even looking. Christ.

"Doubt it." Her voice snapped his attention back to the doctor as she started checking his vitals. "No fever, for starters. Pupils aren't dilated, eyelids still pink, no distinct yellowing. No darkening of the veins. But more than that, the runners don't go after uninfected people."

"Runners?" Nick blinked. Who the hell calls them runners? "Uh...you mean zom-"

"Don't call them that." She smacked his head lightly, frowning. "These aren't some horror movie props. They're people sick with something bad. Something that makes them run and kill people. We call 'em runners."

Funny, I call you an idiot. Nick bit back the comment, just in case this group was trigger happy. His eyes fell on one of the jackasses near the back, real lanky kid that looked like he spent every day of his life on a treadmill. 

He'd recognize that stained, stupid hat anywhere.

"You." He pointed right at the lanky kid. Kid leered at him, shifting his stance to try and look a little bit tougher. Nick nudged the doctor aside to get up in the kid's face. "Where did you get that?"

"Easy now." Her voice carried after him, although she wasn't apparently ready to stop him. "A defibrillator doesn't just magically undo damage, you know. You need to take it easy while your body recovers. I don't know how long your heart was stopped for, but you could have serious brain damage because of-" She stopped, looking over at one of the other guys. "Yeah, he's not listening at all."

Nick stared up at the lanky kid, eyes narrow. "Well? Where did you find that hat?"

"I found it on the ground." The kid jammed his free hand in his pocket and stuck his chin out. "Sun gets bad, so I thought I'd put on a hat." He sounded proud of himself. "Most of the clothing stores around here are on fire so I-hey!"

Nick snatched it, and after a long period of hesitation, put it on. Jesus Christ you can feel all the sweat soaked up in this thing. Did Ellis forget to wash this goddamn thing, or does he sweat this much? He scowled up at the kid. "This hat belongs to my-" Friend? One night stand? Boyfriend? "-buddy in my group. You seen 'em? Little guy with a hick accent, loud little black chick in a pink shirt, big fatass black guy?" He looked around, hoping that one of them had seen any of that.

"Haven't seen anyone alive in hours." The doctor stepped forward, placing a hand on his shoulder. "And-I haven't seen anyone that wasn't white. I honestly thought that immunity to the infection was related to a specific white-only gene." She glanced back. "Were they...in the hotel?"

Nick followed her gaze, suddenly realizing that they must have dragged him out of the lobby. The hotel was entirely on fire, infected swarming around it like a bunch of locusts, attracted by the noise and lights. "...No." He could've sworn that he'd heard Ellis screaming when he'd been in the lobby. He could only hope that he'd heard wrong. "They were out having fun in town, we just barely got here. I texted them to get them to meet me at--shit, my phone." He started checking his pockets, then groaned. He'd dropped it when the horde attacked. "Fuck."

He started pacing, trying to clear his head. Had they arrived at the hotel after this group? They wouldn't have found his body. Just whatever infected the group killed. Maybe his phone. And if they arrived before, they probably wouldn't have had the weapons or the defib unit needed to rescue his sorry ass. So they either had to leave him, or they never found him.

He refused to believe that they were dead. They wouldn't have died in the lobby, all of the infected had been swarming around the front desk--the rest of the lobby was wide open, they would've had time to run back out if they set foot inside. That meant they were still out there. He had to find them.

"So, what can we call you?" The doctor held out a pistol for him. "I'm Maria, that's Jason, Mick, Terrance, Jimmy, Robert, Robbie, and Richard." She pointed to each one of them, with half of them waving to him. More than one of them just looked pissed off that he'd actually come back to life.

"Nick." He took the pistol, looking over the group. He'd already forgotten half of their names. This was one group that he definitely didn't plan on sticking with for long. "Let's get the hell out of this city."


 

"So, y'all got saved by a doctor?" Ellis had just finished hitching Nick's car to the back of the SUV, a huge grin plastered on his face. Rochelle still looked stunned, rooted to the spot as she were. She'd probably expected Ellis to have a shootout, or worse, for the kid to get dragged out at gunpoint by some crazy loner.

Instead, they'd both strutted out of that house like they owned the joint. Nick would've paid good money to see her initial expression again. She'd dropped her shotgun and covered her mouth with one hand, eyes squinted up. Smiling, but crying. Christ, he didn't want to know what kind of shit they'd gone through that he was something to be happy about.

"Sort of." Nick loaded his box of cans into the back of the SUV, smirking. "She was an eye doctor at the goddamn Wal-Mart vision center nearby, but her group had raided an ambulance along the way and got two defibs and a medkit, so." He settled into the passenger side of the SUV. Just like old times. Really, he was happy to get a break from driving for a change.

"Well, at least y'all had people with you." Ellis hopped behind the wheel, that damn grin still on his face. He hadn't stopped smiling ever since they got out of the bathroom.

Nick leaned back, cranking up the air conditioning with a dusty laugh. "Yeah, uh, about that."

Chapter Text

None of them survived the night. Nick had expected a few of them to die, but all of them? That was almost impressive. He'd finally found a group that went even lower than his already low expectations that he reserved for other people.

He'd spent the better part of the day covering their sorry asses, often having to drag one of them out of the fray so he could run back in and save another. It didn't help that the doctor died right away; none of the rest of the group came even close to being intelligent.

She'd been adamant that they had to help everyone, and for whatever reason, she believed her "runners" definition for the infected was so perfect that she refused to listen to Nick's warnings about the Witch. Hell, he couldn't blame her; a Witch just sounds like a crying little girl when you're a decent distance away.

Nick had two of the idiots pointing guns at him and threatening him to back off, so, he did. He didn't know her, and while she'd saved his life, he wasn't about to get killed just to save her. Of course, the Witch didn't even do her in. Once the Witch's head whipped around and she lunged on the doctor, the group freaked out and opened fire.

And in the end, the Witch just ran away crying while the group stared down at their bullet-riddled leader.

Despite that, they still didn't give Nick one of their guns. He was fine with that. They were all skittish, constantly wasting ammo to shoot at piles of trash. A pistol put him at a small disadvantage, but it still gave him the option to defend himself. He didn't know why he stuck around with them. He'd blame his own little group for that. He wouldn't have trusted that Coach, Ro', and Ellis would make for capable survivors, but they'd proven him wrong.

Besides, surviving on his own would probably be suicide. Even if this group was weak, he could at least count on them being able to knock a Hunter off of him. Hopefully. He hadn't seen any of them actually succeed in helping him, but he'd seen them help each other. That had to count for something.

The next one to go was one of the guys that couldn't hold his gun worth a shit. A Charger ran into him and kept running until it slammed him into a broken street sign. The pole pierced through his lung, judging from how oddly he was wheezing, and then the Charger did what Chargers do best: pounded him into the ground. Half the guys were squealing and freaking out, leaving Nick to kill it.

Now they were starting to get it. This wasn't a time to act macho or to try and force Nick to "earn" their trust. If they didn't listen to him and stick together, they'd all end up dead.

But that wasn't enough. They were all too jumpy. It'd almost be funny if it weren't so goddamn tragic. Each one of them lacked the basic skills needed to survive. He kept alternating between protecting one asshole and rescuing another, never getting more than a moment of time to recover. None of them had a plan, none of them knew what to do, and goddamn did he miss his group.

He missed how Coach always knew when to come up with a plan. He missed how Ro' knew just enough about the infection to fill in some gaps in what they knew. He missed how Ellis could spring back from just about goddamn anything and keep an upbeat attitude.

These people? Not a one of them knew what was going on or what to do. Bunch of big, tough guys with tattoos and a scrawny kid, and they might as well have been a bunch of middle school girls. Hordes started getting bigger, and the group didn't improve with it.

Then a Tank came.

Tanks were always a cause for alarm. You had to think fast and move faster. It was just one against their seven guns. Nick had assumed that they'd be fine. Better than fine, even--hell, he'd seen his own little group take a Tank down in mere minutes. Christ, he'd seen Ro' take one down all on her own.

One hour. One fucking hour of running and shouting orders as the Tank barreled through. Three of the guys had run the other way, apparently deciding that they'd rather leave their group to die. He didn't know if they expected to somehow survive on their own when they'd barely been scraping by in a larger group, but he didn't have time to think about it.

Instead, he lead the remaining three guys around, barking out order after order. Two of them couldn't figure out how to run and gun; too much brainpower needed for two tasks at once, obviously. The third guy couldn't aim worth shit; that was the lanky kid that'd been wearing Ellis's hat.


 

"Speakin' of my hat." Ellis reached over and plucked it off of Nick's head, proudly putting it on. "Y'all look funny wearin' it." He glanced over at Nick, grinning. "I didn't know you had curly hair. Ain't never seen it when you ain't got it all slicked up with hair gel."

"Ellis, sweetie, can you watch the road?" Ro' tapped the back of his chair with her boot, earning a soft "okay" in response. She didn't want them getting in a wreck now.

Ellis counted on the steering wheel with his fingers, puffing air. "So, let me get this straight. Maria and all them guys, that was a group of eight folk. She died, and another one died, and three of 'em ran away. Shit." He frowned. "So that's two dead, three runaways, and three definitely alive, and it ain't even the end of the first night?"

Nick sighed, running a hand through his hair. He'd grown so used to wearing that hat that he'd forgotten what it felt like to not have it on. At least his hair had been shorter than Ellis's to begin with. "Yeppers." He closed his eyes, propping his legs up. "You have no goddamn idea how fast I started missing you guys."

Rochelle snickered. "Yeah, I bet you were really choked up when you realized that you couldn't just complain all day."


 

Nick regretted learning the names of the ones that stuck with him. Jimmy and Robert were the two that died next. Messy, too. The road they were on was blocked off by a building that'd tumbled over. The military had started its bombing runs, which only served to make the city even less safe. Robert must have looked like a zombie to the passing fighter jets, as they opened fire on him. Nick had to physically yank Jimmy and the lanky kid into a building to keep them from dying, too.

Nick had never seen a guy get gunned down by a fighter jet before. When he was just a kid, he'd sneaked into the movies to see Robocop. In a fucked up sort of way, he was reminded of how over the top the gore had been; those bullets ripped through Robert's body and didn't leave much of him behind.

Jimmy didn't even survive to the next street. They had to cross through an office building, and Jimmy was hanging too close to the windows. A Smoker smashed through the glass in the building across from them, whipping Jimmy out of the building and dangling him over a horde below. The kid had simply reacted, firing at the Smoker reflexively in an attempt to free Jimmy. The tongue snapped, and the Smoker walked off.

But that left Jimmy to fall into the waiting hands of a pissed off horde. Nick spotted the Spitter waddling her way through the group. He turned away right when she reared back. Nothing to do about the sound of Jimmy's face being eaten away by her acid. Apparently the poor guy couldn't even scream from how fast it was ripping through his vocal cords.

The kid was having a hell of a time keeping up, stammering and obviously frightened. He'd just seen how bad things could get, after all. Nick figured that the kid was starting to learn something about his own mortality--for better or for worse.

They found the three that'd run off not long after that. One of them had bullets riddling his face--obviously the piss-poor shot had been in their group. Curiously, one of them had chest paddles still stuck to him. He'd obviously died to some sort of trauma that wasn't immediately visible, and one of the other guys had tried to revive him. Tried. They hadn't figured out how to use the defibrillator correctly, resulting instead in burning two holes into the guy's chest that would've most certainly killed him if he weren't already dead.

The third guy wasn't too far away. Boomer bile still stained him from head to toe, although the horde had long since lost interest in him. Looked like he'd shot the Boomer up close. No way that he could know that it was a bad idea to do that.

Terrance--that was the kid's name, Nick always struggled to remember it--wasn't taking this well. The sun was setting, the fighter jets had quieted down, and the city was no longer as hectic as it had been. Nick picked out a place for them to rest; a restaurant that was only open for dinner; no one in there besides the staff when the infection hit, and they'd all booked it right away. Place was thankfully empty.

Nick cooked them something; he wasn't a particularly skilled chef, but it wasn't hard to throw a couple steaks on the grill and season them. He sat at a table with the kid, eating. Terrance was crying, and he just let the kid go for it. It'd been that sort of day. Nick didn't give a shit about any of the people that'd died, and this zombie shit wasn't new to him. It was probably new to the kid.

But when they finished eating, the kid ran to the bathroom to throw up. Nick thought it was a waste of food, but that was fine, too. At least, until the kid didn't stop puking.

For the next few hours, he stayed there with Terrance. Kid was infected. Not immune, not a carrier. Just infected. He'd been healthy as hell prior to this, only got sick twice in his life. Probably took a while for the infection to take hold. Nick could tell that the kid was scared; between violent dry heaves, Terrance would choke out sobs. Sometimes he'd spit up some black vomit. The first few times, he made an effort to run to the bathroom. Then it happened so fast that he barely had time to turn his head.

Then the kid was sitting on the ground, retching up black bile onto his shirt. Nick just sat with him, ignoring the smell of decay. He could hear growls forming in the kid's throat, but whenever he moved to stand up, Terrance would grab his arm and sob. Nick asked if he wanted to die, but the kid just shook his head. Obviously not--no one wants to die, really, even if they know the inevitable is coming.

So he sat with Terrance, letting the kid smear black bile on his arm. Eventually, the kid let go, and Nick stood up. He washed his arm in the bathroom, and stepped back out. 

Funny, in a way; he'd never seen a male Witch before. That was his best guess, at least. Terrance didn't have long hair or tits, but he had the claws of a Witch--and he never did stop whimpering and crying. Nick picked up their guns and holstered his pistol.

If Terrance was a Witch, then he couldn't even risk trying to give the kid a mercy kill. So he left him behind in that restaurant. If he was an idiot like that doctor, he probably would have cited that as "proof" that the zombies were still people. Really, he was just lucky that he got away before Terrance finished turning.

Goddamn luckiest man alive.

Chapter Text

Heading to the edge of the city was turning out to be a plan that Nick needed to abandon. Most of the cars on the road he'd taken were either bombed out by the military or flipped. Or worse. Alarmed. He'd been hoping to get some distance between him and the city before the night was out, but that was quickly looking like a non-option.

His second plan was to try and find a car dealership. The sheer quantity of cars at one of them guaranteed that at least one would still be in working order. Plus, the car keys would be somewhere in the actual dealership, too; he'd just have to be careful about zombies. After all, he didn't know how to hotwire a car-


 

"You don't know how to hotwire a car?" Rochelle sounded honestly surprised. Ellis was just laughing; he probably got a kick out of the fact that he knew how to do something illegal that Nick didn't know how to do.

"I'm telling a story here, come on." Nick just whined, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Do you want to hear it or not? Jesus."


 

It wasn't an easy decision to make. Turning around and going right back into the city sounded suicidal. He knew that he had no choice, however. Without a car, he'd die from heat stroke. Even if he kept walking for the entire night, he wouldn't be able to reach the next town before the sun rose. Unless he carried a few gallons of water and got some better clothes, he'd die in the desert. Not exactly appealing.

He briefly considered going back to the restaurant, but dashed that idea. While infected seemed to avoid Witches, he'd be in trouble of Terrance started roaming. Nick froze when he heard a fighter jet flying nearby, trying to listen for bombs. The building next to him shook from an explosion on the other street.

Restaurant it is.

Nick was careful of two things: distance, and indirect line of sight. He needed to keep the Witch in view at all times; the last thing he needed was for the kid to sneak up on him. He'd need to place himself on the exact opposite end of the room, too.

It was a stupid plan, but it was all he had. They'd walked through tighter areas before with Witches in them. Christ, the sugar mill had been packed with Witches. This'd be a walk in the park in comparison. Well, a walk in the New Orleans park, maybe.

He could hear the Witch wailing from a block away, and felt utterly insane for walking closer. Kid was still right where he left him. That crying was definitely a Witch's cry. Somehow, that made it creepier. He'd never had such a direct comparison between the infected's crying and a person's crying. It almost sounded too perfect, without the usual hitches and snotty, wheezing sounds that people had.

Nick sat down in a booth on the other end of the restaurant. Had to avoid eye contact, obviously, but he didn't need to glance over for long to tell that the kid had finished turning. His face was all twisted--almost waxy, in a way--and his claws were longer than his hands. Oddly, it looked like he'd ripped through his clothes. Nick couldn't even begin to guess why.

But the Witch left him alone, and he left the Witch alone. Hard to sleep with the constant crying, but eventually he got too exhausted to keep awake. When he woke up, the Witch was still sobbing. Had to give him credit, that was goddamn impressive. Nick pulled himself out of the booth and stretched, then headed back outside.

He thought that'd be a one-off experience with the infected, but working on his own meant using the infected to his advantage constantly. Witches became his new best friends. The infected hated them; whatever area they were in, the other infected avoided. It gave Nick a breather, and if he found one that was sitting down, it gave him a place to sleep.

Just about every car dealership was either trashed or swarming with zombies, too. A lot of people had either thought that they should get a car to escape, or else thought that they should steal an expensive car because it'd be cool to own one. Either way, it wasn't an option. For all of his cockiness, he couldn't just fight a horde on his own. Even if he could somehow take down hundreds of zombies without getting overwhelmed, he lacked the ammo for it.

So that meant getting smart about the zombies. He'd picked up on the warning signs of a Tank easy enough. Without other people constantly talking, he could hear a Tank growling and huffing to itself from several blocks away. Avoiding them was a top priority for, well, everybody. Even the infected avoided those things. He'd caught a glimpse of one rampaging after another survivor once; it had no qualms with killing other infected along the way, and even after the survivor was dead it still ran around attacking the remaining zombies.

Most of the infected were intensely stupid, too. They just seemed to find something about uninfected people offensive. Smell, maybe, or sight--Nick couldn't tell, and Nick couldn't care. He learned that he could lead them around by sound, however. Shooting an alarmed car that was on the other end of a street resulted in the horde swarming the car; so Nick would use them as a way to quickly travel across densely populated areas. The car alarm often ran for hours, distracting zombies for an ample amount of time.


 

"You said 'most'." Rochelle frowned. "Are you trying to say that some of the infected aren't stupid?"

Nick was quiet for a moment, trying to find the right words to explain it. "Most of the infected we've seen are just mindless zombies, I'm sure of it. They run through fire and don't give a shit if you blow their arms off." He stared down at his rings, grimacing. "But, uh, some of them aren't that dumb. And a few of them are smart. I think. Smart for a zombie, anyway."

He let that hang for a while, partially relieved when he saw that they were out of Texas. Nick didn't know if he wanted to admit how much he'd missed talking to people. He might leave that out of the little 'story'. He'd left out almost everything that Terrance had told him. It was useless information, anyway. He didn't need Ro' and Ellis getting all weepy-eyed over some kid.

He'd left out how that kid had been sobbing about his parents. How he was seventeen, and he was supposed to have picked up his little sister from daycare. His parents were at work on the other end of town, and he didn't even know if they were alive or not. He'd watched his friends turn, except for Robert, who stuck with him until they found that group. He'd just barely asked a girl out, and she'd said yes--he was supposed to be dancing with her out at a party, not alone with some stranger in a restaurant.

Nick left all of that out. He didn't want to embellish the story, of course; it wasn't as if he needed to make himself sound like a badass when he'd essentially survived on his own for months, but he didn't want to include everything. Some of it was too bleak to mention.

"...How exactly where they smart, Nick?"

Ellis's voice startled him out of his thoughts. He looked over to find that the mechanic was worrying his lip.

Maybe that'd been something to exclude from the story.


 

It'd been by chance that he'd seen the infected "talking" to each other. A Spitter and a Boomer, not quite facing each other. The Spitter was bobbing her head, almost like a bird, and the noises the two of them were making didn't sound exactly the same as what he was used to. They both seemed to be constantly spitting shit up, although once they spotted him they went on the attack. Nick learned to avoid those infected at all costs. Noisy, and deadly. He couldn't afford to face either one alone.

Jockeys were similarly a nuisance; he never hesitated to waste bullets on them. They were loud, zombie-attracting assholes that seemed hellbent on ruining his life. He always kept an ear out for them; if one of them jumped at him, he usually only had a split-second to knock them back with the butt of his gun. Chargers were just as deadly, although much easier to avoid. Those two were highly aggressive, to the point where Nick would always attack them first. Not any different than most infected, really.

But the others? It got a little bit more complicated.

He usually only needed a bullet or two to convince a Hunter to leave him alone. They didn't like getting hurt, and so long as he moved quickly and quietly, they didn't get a second chance. He'd only had to kill less than a handful of them in the past few months despite having encountered hundreds of them.

Smoker's were equally "friendly". He usually just had to cut their tongue; for that reason alone he started carrying a knife. Once the tongue was cut, the Smoker would just leave him alone. If it actually snared him, he shot at it; sometimes he'd hit it and it'd let go, other times it'd actually become frightened and leave him alone.

Curiously, he started finding Tanks were just showing up dead. There weren't enough survivors left to possibly be taking them out in these numbers, yet he kept finding dozens of the fuckers. He just assumed that they were starving to death and left it at that. He'd seen other zombies eating food, after all, and Tanks didn't seem to be able to calm down long enough to eat anything.

So that left the Witches, easily his favorite of the infected. Not only did they serve as excellent indicators of a safe spot to sleep--they could be bartered with, to an extent.

He'd found a pile of them in a Wal-Mart while he was scrounging for food. Five of them, all in the baking aisle, clawing at the bags of sugar. Nick remembered that they'd found tons of Witches in the sugar mill, and it just clicked. He started making it a habit to find bags of sugar in stores. If he found a Witch that was wandering around, he'd dump the sugar out somewhere so that she'd sit down and try to eat it. Frustrating to watch them, since their clawed hands made it impossible for them to eat more than a few grains of sugar at a time, but it made them even more passive than before.

It was around that time that he encountered the first "base" of Vegas survivors. That was probably a good thing, as he'd been out on his own for a few weeks without a single living person to talk to. Any longer and he probably would've started talking to the goddamn Witches.

That base had given itself some stupid name; even on reflection, Nick couldn't remember it. Mostly military-run, although only a few of them were actually part of the military. The rest were gun-nut militia types that apparently believed that they'd been training for this their entire life. Babbling on about "the liberals" causing this, somehow. Nick had foolishly believed that he'd be safer with more people, and if they had an actual fortified base, then clearly they were doing something right.

But their base was small, and there weren't any women, children, or non-white men in it. That probably should have been Nick's first warning. He didn't think about it at the time; all he could think about was having a bed to sleep on without the constant sounds of a Witch crying.

But to live in their base, he had to carry his weight; and newcomers were required to go on solo supply runs to "prove their worth".

Chapter Text

"Don't tell me: you're one of those 'I don't see color' guys." Rochelle sounded about as impressed as she looked, scowling at Nick. They made eye contact through the rearview mirror. "If I saw nothing but a bunch of white guys in a base? I'd probably avoid walking towards it. Just saying."

Nick shrugged. "I didn't think about it. I just figured that those were the guys that'd survived." He turned around to reach into the backseat for a water bottle. "Not really, uh, used to seeing that many racists in one concentrated group. I don't even know if all of them were racist, but-" He paused, guzzling down nearly half of the bottle. It'd been almost a day since he'd had more than a sip. "-I knew that enough of them were."

He set the bottle down in the cup holder, then twisted his neck to grin back at Ro'. "Trust me; I'm a piece of shit about a lot of things but, uh, not race. People can't help that." His grin faded as he settled back down in his seat. "These guys were, uh. Something else. Let's put it that way."


 

They sent him on a food run. Probably thought it'd be dangerous since Witches were so common in the stores, but Nick knew those Witches like the back of his hand. Bag of sugar, avoid that aisle, rinse, repeat, head back. They didn't give him anything to carry the food in, so he grabbed a backpack while he was in there, all while casually leading a small group of wandering Witches around the store.

When he came back, he'd expected that he'd proven himself to them. That turned out to be wrong, of course. They needed him to do more than that. He needed to work on reinforcing some of their walls, a job which mostly just involved nailing up planks. Half of their "base" was a Home Depot, and they were making the most out of the supplies within. Nick thought it was a waste of time, considering how quickly the zombies could break through wood, but trying to reason with anyone in the base was like pulling teeth. They didn't consider him "worthy" yet.

Nick had also made the mistake of assuming that people didn't act like this in real situations. Movies and TV, maybe. It made for drama, or some ham-fisted attempt at social commentary. When it was life or death? Who the hell had time to be picky about who they ran with?

Well, these guys, apparently.

He'd been stuck on guard duty with two of the dumber looking guys. Reminded Nick of the old days of being a bouncer, standing around in relative silence with people that looked like they lifted weights for a living. Neither of them talked much. Or at all, really. It was unnerving.

Then a lone black guy came staggering towards the gate he was guarding. He figured that they'd be happy to have another able-bodied guy to go looking for supplies; they weren't exactly rolling in food and medicine, after all. He went to open the gate, but the two guys stopped him.

And then they launched into the longest racist tirade Nick had ever had the misfortune of listening to. They started shooting at the guy's feet until he ran, laughing the whole time. Nick just stood there slack-jawed; it'd been the strangest goddamn thing he'd seen since the infection started.

He told the guy in charge about it, suspecting that maybe these assholes were just out of line. He even offered to try and find the guy. Funny, he expected that this was what Ellis must feel like constantly: horribly naive to the horrors of the world. His heart sank when the little group of guys leading the operation just parroted the same racist shit. They talked about "initiating" him, and that was when Nick decided that he needed to get the hell out of there.

The very next assignment that they gave him was another food run--and that time, he didn't return. Unfortunately, that meant avoiding the area. After all, they had other hunting parties, and they had told him that they shot anyone who tried to abandon their little "community". He did make an attempt to spill out as much sugar as possible between him and them. Let the bastards try and mow down an army of Witches.

But all of that put him right back at square one. He tried to find that black guy, figuring that at least one other person would keep him from going insane. Found him two days later with a bullet in his brain. Hard to tell if it'd been a suicide or a murder, since it looked like someone had looted his body already.

Nick eventually found a working car. Not the best car, and not exactly spacious, but it was a car. That was after a few months of being almost entirely on his own, with no more than a few days spent in a few other little outposts. He'd figured that he would swing by that truck stop, see if the other survivors were there. Hell, he remembered that it had plenty of supplies. Might be worth checking it out.

But when he got there, it was teeming with people. He was starting to get sick of these outposts. All of them had a quirk, and this one was a bit too friendly. He didn't trust it. Outposts that talked about being "family" usually also talked about "culling". So he picked up what resources they were willing to barter for--he hated giving up ammo, but they did have a ton of food and water, so he made sure to get enough supplies to make it across country.


 

Ellis looked at him in surprise. "That was you? Ho-ly shit, what a coincidence. We didn't even decide to go on this run until y'all came through, then." He laughed. "We must've missed each other by a good hour or two. Damn." He started to slow down; the truck stop was just on the horizon, and Ellis hated speeding into it. He scratched the back of his head under the hat. "Why exactly where you goin' back East? Thought we all agreed that was suicide."

When Nick didn't reply right away, he could tell that the other occupants of the car were tense. Nick stared at the truck stop, with the destroyed truck converted over to some sort of lookout spot. Some old man was sitting under the shade of an umbrella on top of it, binoculars to his face and waving. Now Nick knew why the base had appeared so over-the-top with its cheeriness. It'd been attracting people like his group of survivors. Christ, could he even handle that many people acting like that?

"Nick?"

Nick looked back at Ro' when she spoke, grimacing at the worried look on her face. It matched Ellis's expression. Shit, right. He was supposed to answer that question, not leave it hanging. He licked his teeth and let out a dry little chuckle, turning back to look ahead. "Relax. It-I wasn't suicidal. Really. I got too goddamn far to die like that."

He breathed in deeply, then sighed. "I think I was crazy. Or almost crazy. I'd been spending every single day surrounded by goddamn infected, feeding sugar to Witches to earn a place to sleep." Pointing guns at crazy racists. Shooting rapists. Shooting cannibals. Seeing the worst of humanity unfold in just a few months of society going to shit. "I knew that there weren't as many survivors out East. CEDA rounded them up, as did the military, and that probably killed most of them."

The car rolled to a stop and Nick ran a hand through his hair. "So, I thought I'd risk it. Head East. At least I knew what to expect from the zombies, you know? And so long as I stuck around the Witches, I'd be able to sleep. Christ, at least there's safehouses, too. I could convert one of those into a base."

He looked over at them both again, haunted. And he regretted telling them, just from how they both looked. "Jesus, sorry." Nick cringed. "It's just...it's good to see you both again. I don't know what would have happened if I had to keep going it alone like that. Never thought I'd be saying that. But. It's true."

"Well, you're safe now." Ro' stretched, forcing herself to shift the tone to something a little less bleak. "I'll tell Coach; I bet he'll be excited to see you back. You should shower, too." She smirked. "You stink."

Nick started to leave the car, but Ellis grabbed his hand. He looked over at the kid curiously.

"I'm real glad we found you, Nick." Ellis sounded as though he was shaken, but Nick didn't think that it was because of his little confession. "I weren't doin' that hot myself, neither. I mean...everybody I cared about is probably dead. All I've really got is you three. Coach is kind of like the dad I should've had growin' up, and Ro's like a big sister." Ellis had started rubbing his thumb along the back of Nick's hand. "I missed you real bad, man. I'm glad you're back." He smiled, lower lip trembling. "Don't you dare go doin' a thing like that to me again. I can't handle losin' you again."

Nick just sat in the car for a bit after that, stunned. He hadn't really thought about how much Ellis cared for him. Apparently, it was quite a lot more than he'd thought.


 

Showering felt like a goddamn miracle. He savored it, even though he'd been warned not to be too wasteful with the water. Coach had actually cried when he saw Nick, trying to convince Nick to lean in for a hug. Normally Nick would've said no, but Christ, Coach was in a wheelchair and he wasn't that much of an asshole. They didn’t talk for long, with Coach getting an even shorter version of what'd happened than what he'd told to Ro' and Ellis.

Nick dried off, glancing at the clothes that Ellis had picked out for him. Not the worst, at least; a black button-up and some jeans that were a little bit too form-fitting for his tastes. Beat the hell out of the plaid nightmare he'd been sporting before. He tested out the shoes that Ellis had offered up. Too big. That was fine. He could always just switch back to his old shoes if he went on a supply run.

Ro' was running a tight ship, with Ellis second in command, and Coach acting more or less as an adviser. Ro' rationed out supplies and determined what they needed to get every day, while Ellis worked with multiple groups to ensure that no one had to go out with someone they didn't much like. Coach would add in suggestions for fun things to pick up--something that none of the other outposts appeared to consider. That might be why this one was succeeding where others were failing.

Nick headed back out to rejoin the group. Twenty-seven people, all huddled around a campfire. One of them, a chick that honestly looked like she'd never actually left the seventies, was playing a guitar and singing some Pink Floyd song. She wasn't hitting the notes or quite remembering the words right, but it was music, it was by a fire, and it was pleasant.

Ro' introduced Nick to the group, and they all cheered and clapped as if it was a big deal that he'd survived. Apparently they were just always that enthusiastic; not that many people were still showing up alive and uninfected, after all. Every new person was worth celebrating.

Nick sat down next to Ellis, which seemed to shock the group. Some of them were talking about how Ellis never smiled, like he was some sort of ruthless zombie-killing machine without a single caring bone in his body. They all seemed a bit shocked by how much Ellis was laughing and how excitedly he was talking.

And then Nick kissed him--and Nick smirked at the look on Coach's face.

Oh yeah, he wasn't forgetting that look.

Chapter Text

The normalcy was what made things unbearable.

They'd been surviving like this for almost a year--Nick could tell purely from the birthdays that'd passed already, with his the next on the lineup. The infected numbers were starting to diminish; all of the easy to open food had been looted, burned, or consumed already. The rest involved can openers, cooking, or hell, farming.

Nick didn't believe that'd be possible, not in this environment. One of the survivors--Stacy, maybe?--had been growing pot in her basement before the zombies came. She made a list a few months back, and after a brief run to Home Depot (one surprisingly devoid of racists; Nick enjoyed the fact that their little base was ripped to shreds) they had one of the motel rooms converted to grow food. Space was so limited that only a few people were allowed to check in. Ro' turned a blind eye to the weed plant growing in there; if Stacy had risked her life to get one, then she had earned the damn thing.

There were a few other outposts in the area that'd setup a radio system. Phones weren't working, but the old school radios were. Coach, as it turned out, was a bit of a radio hobbyist; he got one setup for their outpost after just a day or two of tinkering. A few of them would just play music over the radio, while Ro' used it strictly to discuss survivor count, infected count, and supply count.

Most of the zombies were gone, but the ones that were left were not something to fuck with. These were the zombies that'd been smart enough to know how to scrounge for food, or desperate enough to eat other zombies. They hardly resembled people anymore, with half of their bodies rotted down to the bone. Even the skeletal structure beneath didn't look human; too warped and filled with new growths.

Any outpost that tried to use violence or militia tactics didn't last the year. Paranoia in their own ranks did them in, usually--and if not that, the zombies would overwhelm them. Guns were scarcely used anymore; the noise attracted the mutated infected. Not just any infected, either. The ones that came running for sounds made the Tanks look like kittens.

But all of that was background noise now. Every single day was the same. Check supplies, list what was needed, split the workload between groups, go get the supplies, come back, see if any of the work around the base needed additional hands, help get the fire going, eat dinner, listen to hippie-chick sing, go to bed in designated sleeping bag. Rinse, repeat.

Nick was going crazy.

He wanted a change of scenery. Hell, he just wanted to be able to do something. Gambling wasn't really possible; money was meaningless, and it'd be cruel to gamble with necessities. Entertainment was fairly limited. Books were rare, given how easily they'd burned up in the fires. They could only find so many film reels, and after that they had trouble trying to find anything that'd let them play a DVD outside for everyone. It required too many parts that were too hard to find safely. Going into larger buildings was becoming less and less viable with the new zombies hanging around.

Ellis made things easier, at least. Kid had a million stories under his belt. Months ago, it would've pissed Nick off. Now? He relished each one. It gave him something new to think about. Some new distraction. He was more bold with public displays of affection than he ever would've been before, especially with a guy. It seemed to bother Coach for a while, but then Coach just accepted it as part of their day to day lives.

And then that fateful day came.

It was almost Christmas when he saw a massive crop duster flying overhead. He barely had time to push Ellis into the hardware store that they'd been considering exploring before it dumped its load; a pinkish dust that settled in the air like a thick fog, and didn't disperse for several minutes. It burned at Nick's eyes, and while he'd taken the time to cover up Ellis's mouth and nose, he'd already breathed in some of the shit before he could cover his own.

That was enough for them to all call it a day; whatever that was, it couldn't be good to breathe in. The other groups had the same idea, causing them to drive in a single-file line back to the base. Ro' was quick to greet them, saying that the same crop duster had flown by the base and spread the same shit. No one knew what to make of it, but Ro' agreed that it was too dangerous to go out into town.

The radio was abuzz after that. Several of the outposts were located in Vegas, after all, and they were constantly sending out confused messages about the pink fumes in the air. Visibility was so low in downtown that none of them were even daring to leave their radio room for fear of getting lost in their own base. Coach said a few prayers to them over the radio to help them calm down; although they obviously had a sarcastic atheist at their base that could be heard in the background complaining about how pointless that was.

When the dust settled, it was already close to midnight. The outposts all signed off in the name of getting some sleep, hoping that this'd be the last of whatever that was. Nick slept a little bit closer to Ellis that night, paranoid that whatever was being spread would be something that'd kill everything in the area.

Naturally, the dusting didn't stop.

Next day, same time, more crop dusters came through. Ro' put a stop to all supply runs until further notice--by her calculations, they could make it a week without needing to go for another food and water run. Two weeks if they stretched supplies thin. No one was particularly happy about it, but they didn't have much choice.

Four days later, the dusting stopped. Ro' scrambled the groups, marking them all down for food runs (her estimations with the water had been generous, while the food ones hadn't been even close to correct). She was about to send them when Coach called her over to listen to the radio.

Everyone was crowded around it not more than a minute later, staring in disbelief.

It was a government official from California.

The chemical was a cure for the virus.

The virus had been neutralized.


 

This didn't mean much, of course. Dusting a state takes time. Dusting nearly the entire country? It'd probably be another year before all of the zombies were gone. Or most of them, at least; Nick had a feeling that a few would survive. Still, they setup a meeting with the other outposts and started threading through the city. Curiosity motivated them more than hope.

What they saw was gruesome in the best way.

Thousands of zombies littered the streets. Even the mutated ones were lying in motionless heaps. Whatever the hell the government had sprayed was obviously working. The question became what this exactly meant for them. Should they consolidate their bases into one big one? Should they re-enter the city as a big group and reclaim it? Should they try to go back to the way things were?

That last one sounded laughable. Even with all of the bases together, it didn't look like more than a hundred people. How could they go back to any sort of life like it used to be? Forget jobs--how would they even be able to keep up with basic maintenance? Cleaning up the city alone would probably take the better part of a year with their limited tools and manpower. Almost every building was destroyed, either by the bombing runs, Tanks, or fires.

"Nick, Nick! Look!" Ellis was running off down some street, forcing Nick to chase after him. The kid just didn't seem to care that there might still be a risk of zombies walking around; all that mattered to him was that the coast looked clear.

But what Ellis had seen was worth it. Nick heard a few stunned people behind them, although he didn't bother looking back. The sight in front of them was almost alien after everything that they'd endured.

CEDA trucks. Dozens of them driving down the streets. Dragging the infected into burn piles, hosing down the buildings. Disinfecting. Cleaning. Clearing debris. It was an actual goddamn cleanup crew, sweeping through the streets of Vegas. Nick pinched Ellis, earning a yelp and a slap from the mechanic.

"Guess we're not dreaming." Nick smirked at the indignant look on Ellis's face. "Looks like we might be getting that rescue that we wanted after all."

Ellis rubbed at his arm where Nick had pinched him, frowning. "Shit, I don't know. Sounds too good to be true." He watched as a CEDA truck opened up, six CEDA workers jumping out with flamethrowers in hand. "You think they're gonna help us out? Or are they gonna just burn this shit up and leave?"

Nick didn't answer. He didn't know if either one would be good for them or not.


 

Much to his surprise, CEDA didn't want them staying in the city yet. Not until they'd finished sweeping through. This meant that a few outposts had to relocate to Boulder City, while a few ended up at their truck stop. They weren't prepared to house that many people by a long shot, but they had to make do. CEDA gave them a few tents to work with and a few MREs. It wasn't enough, but it made things bearable. Nick didn't mind volunteering to sleep out on top of the truck instead, with Ellis all-too-eagerly joining him.

Ro' became even stricter for the next few weeks; everyone was down to a meal a day, and everyone had a specific time period for when they could shower. Doors had to stay unlocked for that--there weren't enough bathrooms, and when you're trying to house well over fifty people in an area that probably was never meant to handle more than twelve people at a time, that meant that some people had to go while others were showering. Due to the limited time, one of the survivors took it upon herself to help Coach with showering. He was stubborn and insistent that he didn't need help, but relented when he realized that it wasn't fair to everyone else when it took him twice as long to bathe.

Just when rations were starting to run low enough that Ro' was getting worried, CEDA radioed them. They could re-enter the city. More than that: they had to rendezvous at a specific point within the city. Nick marked it on the map; he recognized the street name and realized that they were heading to the airport. Once that was relayed to the drivers, they all headed out in one massive caravan.

Most of the city looked cleaned. Not the buildings, obviously; they were rubble. Looked like a warzone. Coach had stunned tears in his eyes; it was the first time he'd seen the city since his leg was busted up. All of the debris was gone from the streets, and every drop of blood was gone. It didn't look like anything anymore, really. More like an unfinished bunch of buildings than the ruins of a city.

The airport was devoid of planes, and bizarrely empty within. There'd been dozens of buses out front, however. CEDA had a representative standing in front of all of them--and Nick was noticing that there seemed to be upwards of a few thousand people, far more than he'd seen before. Had CEDA bussed them in from somewhere?

He only half-listened, as most of what the CEDA rep was saying just sounded like fluff to reassure them that the zombies were taken care of. From what Nick gathered, they were bringing in survivors from surrounding states and revitalizing Vegas. California was willing to supply aid to get them back on their feet as a town. They would be issued new identification cards and would be given a stipend to help them out, as well as a plethora of jobs to try and fix the city.

They were trying to go back to how things used to be. Nick found himself squeezing Ellis’s hand. No matter what, he didn’t plan to let go--and if CEDA tried to separate them, he was ready to crack some skulls.

Chapter Text

Nick rarely headed downtown without Ellis, but today he was making an exception. It was the little guy's birthday, and he'd been looking up Southern recipes. He wasn't the best cook, but he was passable; especially if he had a recipe to work off of. He just needed to pick up a few things (and pick up a deep-fat fryer, something which he imagined he was going to regret).

He pulled out his phone and texted Ellis to make sure that he was okay and received a cheery reply almost instantly. Of course he was fine. No zombies for miles. Hadn't been any in Vegas for nearly three years now.

Traveling was still restricted. You had to go through just about fifty different layers of bureaucracy in order to get a pass to fly to one of the other cities. Even with the infection neutralized, none of them were allowed to head West. Too many carriers among them; the risk was too great.

He stepped into the Wal-Mart--another store that he usually avoided like the plague, but the only one that'd have the supplies he needed. Nick made sure to avoid the baking aisle nonetheless; last time that he'd been out shopping with Ellis, he'd started hyperventilating just by looking at it. Not that they didn't have sugar in the house; Nick made sure that they had five bags of it. If a Witch somehow broke in, he wanted to be ready. Needed to be ready.

A scream from across the aisle made his head shoot up, but no other screams followed. Probably just a kid. A few people had little toddlers now; stupid mistakes during the apocalypse when they believed that they wouldn't survive. That was Nick's best guess, anyway. Why anyone would willingly want to have a kid here when the kid would die if so much as a single untreated carrier came in contact with them was beyond Nick.

But then he heard another scream and felt his blood run cold.

He barely had the time to dive out of the way of the shelves as they toppled over, a Tank snarling at him. Nick started running, putting as much distance between himself and the Tank as possible. Not again, not again.

Thankfully, the Tank got distracted by another group of shoppers, but when Nick burst out of the store, his worst suspicions were confirmed. Half the block was on fire, with the infected swarming around the living. Cars were crashing, limbs were flying, screams were echoing. Didn't CEDA have this shit figured out?

In a panic, Nick pulled out his phone and tried to contact Ellis. No response. Shit. He had to force himself to calm down, remembering that it was just as likely that Ellis had put his phone away, or if the zombies had reached that side of town, Ellis had lost his phone somehow. Somehow.

Nick never ran so fast in his life, ducking under Jockeys and shoving other people aside. This wasn't just about his own survival anymore. He couldn't lose the little guy now. He couldn't lose Ellis. His lungs were on fire and his legs wanted to give out, but he didn't slow down.

The garage was just down the street now, almost blissfully untouched despite the chaos around it. One of the bay doors was open, though. Nick paused to catch his breath, then stepped inside.

Blood. Everywhere.

His heart was hammering as he plucked through the garage. Ellis's coworkers were all ripped up to shit, with barely anything recognizable about them beyond their blood-soaked name tags. Nick heard a noise in the back office and tentatively approached, grabbing a wrench from a nearby table.

Nick nudged the ajar door open and felt bile creeping up his throat.

Ellis was crouched in front of him, empty eye sockets vacantly pointed at him and blood dribbling from his mouth. Nick wanted to scream, wail--he wasn't sure what, but he felt his legs give out. Ellis had turned. The infection must have mutated. He was looking at a Hunter now.

He dropped the wrench, frustrated tears in his eyes as Ellis pounced him. Nick barely even put up a fight when Ellis clawed into his chest, the pain distant and hollow compared to how numb he felt.


 

Nick jerked awake with a yelp, soaked in sweat and breathing heavily. It took him several minutes of clutching at his hair to recognize that it'd been a nightmare. Yet another one. He had them just about every night now. He turned to look at Ellis, only to find that the bed was empty.

He swallowed thickly and forced himself to get up. Shit, it's three AM. Nick walked into the living room, utterly relieved to find Ellis sitting there. Kid's fine. Christ.

Wordlessly, Nick sat down next to Ellis. Kid was watching some late night cheesy sci-fi movie. Nick never got it; Ellis still read and watched tons of zombie-related material. Nick couldn't even touch it. No matter how far-flung from the actual infection it looked, he'd still find himself locking up and shutting down at the first sight of a zombie horde.

"I couldn't sleep." Ellis sounded dead tired. "Neighbor's baby girl was cryin', and it kinda sounded like a Witch." He hunched forward, trying to laugh. "Tried to go to bed, and I just kept picturin' a Witch gettin' in the apartment complex. Then I got up, and the, lord you're gonna laugh at this, the shadow of my jacket hangin' up in the closet kinda looked like a Jockey, so I spent 'bout...twenty, thirty minutes starin' before I even got up the nerve to check and shut the door." He looked over at Nick, frowning. "I didn't wake y'all up, did I?"

Nick shook his head. Told him that he needs to shut that closet door tight. "No. Just, uh, nightmares. Again." He sighed, staring at the screen. Funny how the rubber suit of the monster in that flick didn't even bother him a little. "I was dreaming that I went out in town alone and the, uh, infection came back. And you turned into a Hunter and killed me."

Ellis nodded along, looking a little pained. "You have that one a lot, baby. Guess you go worryin' about me a lot." He smiled, leaning against the Northerner.

"Yeah." He didn't even try to lie about it, wrapping an arm around the mechanic. "I'm always worried that one of these days, you're gonna go to work...and I'll never see you again." Not an easy thing to admit, but it'd been one of the more difficult things about adjusting to life in the new city.

Nick could handle starting with no money before the apocalypse. That was easy. Just go pickpocket a few people, then gamble up enough money to drift around comfortably. He couldn't do that here. There was only one functional casino left in the city, and the take was always pretty small. He brought home enough money that he didn't feel worthless, but it was still strange to have to think about bills.

Ellis, no matter how many times Nick had tried to convince the kid to just gamble with him to make money, wanted a job. A real job, not a gambling job. So the kid got work at the closest garage. Nick hated it. Ellis was gone almost all day; he had to leave early, which left Nick to panic every morning when he woke up to an empty bed, and he could only sometimes use his phone on the job.

"I wouldn't worry about it, man." Ellis rested his head on Nick's chest, sighing. "Been so long since the last zombie got sighted. I even heard that it's been damn near six months since the last one was seen out East. Pretty sure we're in the clear now." He didn't sound confident in that at all.

The duo sat in relative silence for a while, save for the occasional yawn or sigh. They both knew that sleep wasn't in the cards now. At least Ellis had the next day off; he wouldn't be able to work if he had to come in on no sleep.

"Nick?" Ellis looked up at him, not continuing until they made eye contact. "...How long's it gonna be like this? Them nightmares and shit."

It took Nick a while to answer. He didn't know a lot about PTSD, really. "Well." He breathed in. "I don't know. Some people it takes months, some takes years. It's gonna take everyone in this goddamn town a long time to get over it, kiddo." He started rubbing Ellis's arm, noting that the little guy was shaking. "We made it through hell, Ellis. It'd probably take less time if we went to a therapist."

But neither of them wanted to go to one of those. Ellis didn't want to talk about his father; he had a sinking suspicion that it'd reveal something that he didn't want to know, especially in regards to his interest in older men. Nick had a laundry list of shit that he didn't want to face. Not yet, anyway.

He gripped Ellis's chin lightly and pulled him up for a kiss, smiling when he felt Ellis relax. He pulled back to say something, but Ellis followed right after him and started kissing him again, making soft noises in the back of his throat. A distraction, then. Nick was on board with that.

Nick was breathless when the kid finally pulled away from him, Ellis's lips somehow looking even fuller than usual. He grinned when Ellis gently bumped his forehead against his own, just enjoying the closeness briefly. The moment passed when Ellis slid off of the couch and started fumbling with Nick's pajama bottoms, earning a lecherous grin from the conman.

"You sure that you want to do that? Last time you were whining that it was too much to suck o-FUCK." Nick's head banged back against the couch when Ellis responded to his challenging tone, taking nearly half of Nick's cock in his mouth and sucking. It'd been a while since they'd done anything; a combination of being too busy and too stressed out. Apparently Ellis had been more frustrated about it than Nick'd been.

Nick looked down with a groan, eyes half-lidded as he watched Ellis bob up and down on his rapidly hardening erection. There was only one reason that he could think of that Ellis was trying to get him rock hard this fast; little guy usually liked to tease him. Ellis wanted to fuck. That thought alone made him moan, reaching down to stroke through Ellis's curly hair.

Ellis moaned, trying to take more of Nick's cock down his throat. His gag reflex reacted right away, forcing him to stop. Ellis was breathing hard through his nose, leaning back into Nick's reassuring hand. He tried to take more of it, but the next fraction of it that slid into his mouth neared the threshold of pain; too close for comfort, in his mind.

Nick watched as the mechanic pulled off of his dick with a lewd pop, breathless as the kid started licking at whatever he hadn't been able to fit. For a guy that'd been a complete virgin to any form of gay sex before he'd done anything with Nick, it was a little impressive to see how quickly Ellis was getting the hang of it.

When Ellis pulled away entirely, he whined. Nick closed his eyes when Ellis kissed him, smirking when he pulled back. Didn't take a genius to figure out why Ellis had stopped. Had to go find the lube.

But after nearly five minutes, Ellis sheepishly walked back into the living room and shrugged. "Shit, I can't find it nowhere."

Shit.

Nick got up, reluctantly pulling his pajamas up over his half-hard dick, and started combing through the apartment with Ellis.They checked every drawer, every cupboard, under the bed, between the sheets, under the mattress, under the dirty clothes--Christ, they even checked in the fridge.

"Guess I threw it out or somethin'." Ellis grimaced, looking up at Nick awkwardly. "Can't we just, you know, skip it or somethin'?"

Nick rolled his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Yes, Ellis, we can skip it, and then your asshole's gonna bleed and you'll have to go to the hospital. Probably." It all depended on how often they'd been fucking--and it sure as hell wasn't often enough for him to feel safe using anything less than lube. "Whatever. Guess we'll pick some up tomorrow."

But Ellis was pouting at him.

"Ellis? No. It's three AM."

Now Ellis's bottom lip was trembling.

"God damn it, we're not driving out to Wal-Mart just to get lube."

Now he looked like he was going to cry.

Nick groaned, sighed, then gave up. He couldn't compete with that look that the little guy could give him. "Fine, fine. But we're getting dressed. I'm not walking into a store with my goddamn pajamas on." He hadn't stooped that low yet, and he wasn't about to start now.


 

Roughly thirty minutes later, they were in the store. Not too many people out that late, but enough were. They looked just as exhausted as Nick felt. That was just how things were now. Whole population had, at the very least, a severe case of PTSD. Some people had already recovered, but for the most part? Everyone was in the same shitty boat.

He hadn't heard from Ro' in a while, but he knew why. She was the only reporter in town, making her constantly busy. Apparently she was enjoying it. Coach called them up fairly frequently; he'd recovered from the worst of it pretty fast--possibly because he'd been out of the thick of the apocalypse for longer than the rest of them. Last that Nick heard, he was trying to get clearance to fly to Detroit, see if he couldn't find his family.

Vegas as a whole was stuck in limbo. Some things were still normal; movies and TV were still being regularly produced out of California. Stores received shipments at a much slower pace due to the nature of shipping to a carrier-city, but the tiny population made it not so big of a deal; it sucked if your favorite food was sold out, though. Might be a few months before they got it in again.

Every transaction was done in cash. No banks were open. That made things a little bit rougher than they should've been, as people would have to carry around massive amounts of money whenever they made a big purchase or paid rent. Yet crime was fairly low. Nick imagined that had something to do with the tiny population; if someone tried to rob a store, they'd probably be robbing from a friend. Everything about the town was so fragile, too; one little crime could potentially push the whole place into anarchy.

They stopped in the proper aisle, looking over the options for lube. Ellis grabbed a flavored lube, Nick put it back.

"That's for oral, kiddo. To make it taste better, I guess. Never got it." He ignored the shit-eating grin on Ellis's face as he tried to figure out which lube would be best--and which one would have the brightest packaging to avoid losing it again. Nick picked one, showed it to Ellis, then shrugged.

"Nick, Nick! Look!" Ellis smacked his shoulder and took off, making Nick groan. Of course Ellis was hyperactive now. Going in the store with him was a death sentence for the wallet, usually.

He followed after the mechanic, yawning as they stepped into the electronics section. Ellis was excitedly pointing at some video game system that was locked up in the display. "Xbox...One? Is that what it is?" Nick scratched at his neck, trying to see what the big deal was.

But Ellis looked like a kid outside of a Christmas store, eyes wide as saucers. "Nick--this just came out this year. And they got 'em stocked. Here. Right now." He looked up at Nick hopefully. "I know it's expensive, but shit, I ain't played an Xbox since before this all happened, and this one can go on the internet and play videos and shit!" His old one could, too--but it was currently in Savannah. Probably destroyed, too.

Nick really wanted to say no; it was expensive as shit, and it looked confusing as shit. But he also knew that Ellis loved playing games--and they could always just pinch pennies and get more money later.

They headed home after that, game system and lube in hand. By now, any thoughts of sex had gone out the window; it was almost 5 AM, for Christ's sake. But setting up the system gave them both something to do, with Ellis excitedly trying to tell Nick how it worked and waving one of the games around as he spoke.

It all went over Nick's head; he hadn't played a video game since the 90's, back when he would kill time in arcades while waiting for the bus. The controller looked complicated to him, but he was prepared to try and learn for Ellis's sake. Little guy loved it when Nick humored him and tried out new shit, even if it usually wasn't the kind of shit that Nick would ever be caught dead doing.

Sometimes it ended up being fun. This looked like one of those cases. It was close to seven AM when they finally had everything hooked up, installed, and downloaded. Ellis tried to show him Battlefield 4, but Nick couldn't get the hang of it. He did, however, enjoy Killer Instinct. Even managed to beat the little guy in a round or two.

Eventually, they were both getting tired out. Ellis was barely even pressing the buttons anymore, leaning heavily against the conman. Nick eventually set the controller down and turned off the TV, smiling at the mechanic. After everything that they'd gone through, this was it.

They had an apartment together, and steady enough pay to live off it. They had friends--not many, but enough. And as Ellis fell asleep, Nick felt himself starting to drift off as well. It wasn't just that they'd merely survived the apocalypse. They found a new home. It wasn't perfect, and it could be better, but it was theirs.

Nick kissed the top of Ellis's head, then rested his head against the mechanic's and closed his eyes. Nothing could beat how this felt.