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Blind Man's Bluff

Chapter Text

Nicolas had absolutely no idea what to think. For a man more than used to scheming his way out of bad spots, freezing up was definitely a new sensation.

What. The. Fuck.

He could hear the strange, animalistic growls and snarls just a few inches away, so loud and close even the wet undertone of gnashing teeth could be picked out. He'd seen the woman's face before diving behind the car he was currently plastered against, and the image was burned into the backs of his eyelids.

It wasn't so much the blood that soaked the lower half of her face, crusted on her lips and dribbling down toward her neck, that disturbed him. It was the glowing and beadlike yellow eyes stuck wide open in wild rage. She hadn't seen him, somehow, but she was sniffing wetly at the air as if she could smell him.

It was a nightmare come to life, and Nick was almost panicked as he tried to come to terms with what was going on. He'd heard something on his car's radio about some flu or illness, sure - some hyperactive reporter rambling on under a headache-inducing static. He'd turned it off too soon, uninterested, and now very much regretted not paying attention.

What the fuck is this - rabies?

Darting his gaze to the side, he glanced down the row of parking spaces in the convenience store lot, a few other cars scattered here and there. Poking out from behind a particularly dusty truck was the tail end of his dark silver Fiat Barchetta, pristine and silent where he'd left it.

This store had been the first thing he'd seen for miles. The highway was supremely quiet, something Nick had found incredibly relaxing. He'd rolled the top down, wind snapping at the few strands of hair that escaped his hair gel. Steering (not that the forest-entrenched road curved much) with his left hand while his right arm was tossed over the empty seat beside him, thumb rolling the singular ring on his middle finger… It had been perfect.

He groaned faintly under his breath, so quiet he thought it was imperceptible. Why the hell did I stop…?

Nick started to shift his hands to get himself into a running pose, intent on bolting for his car, when the sickly woman screamed a gargling howl at him from the other side of the car. Smell wasn't the only thing to give him away, and the scuff of his shoeheels alerted her.

With a grunt of slight surprise, he heard something crash into the car he was hidden behind - it even rocked a bit under the collision, jolting him forward before he'd planned. His dress shoes dug into the asphalt as he tried to catch his balance and steady his gait, twisting his head and glancing over his shoulder at the same time.

The woman was crawling over the car, head snapped up at a strange angle to stare directly at him with unnaturally lit eyes, teeth bared hungrily. She jerked her body up to try and get on top of the vehicle, legs kicking madly, and her knee crashed through the passenger window, spilling blood in immediate rivulets down her bare and dirty shin.

As far as Nick could tell, it didn't seem to be the pain that got her to react - it was the fact her leg got stuck, trapped there with glass impaled deep in her knee. She'd have to back off to pull her leg out, and her desperate, mad intent to get to Nick didn't allow her to do anything but try to go forward.

The woman slammed herself against the car, glass crunching loudly as it dug deep into her thigh. She was stuck, but wouldn't be for very long.

"Gun.. gun.. gun.. gun.." immediately became Nick's mantra, looking away from the gruesome sight, feeling a little rise of fear in his gut and forcing it into a blank sense of anger instead. He sprinted toward his Barchetta; a Magnum was just under his seat, hidden in an unassuming box with very blatant claims of containing condoms.

Magnum branded, to be precise.

It was much funnier to himself at less frantic moments.

He felt the uncomfortable screeching of his heels as he skidded to a stop, catching onto the side of his sports car with a slight grunt. He vaulted the back, wincing as he was forced to climb over the trunk, shoes definitely scuffing the metal.

(He couldn't help the thought from crossing his mind, even if he didn't let it slow him.)

Nick crammed himself between the leather seats, the shift pressing into his gut awkwardly, and shoved his head under the steering wheel. He swatted the box out into the floorboard and ripped the top open.

His Magnum came easily to the fingers of his right hand from where it lay inside, palm molding to the cool grip and thumb rolling to flick the safety off with a click. The gambler twisted around to sit up, aiming back over himself with a perfectly straight arm just as the woman came running at him.

She'd broken her knee, it seemed. Her gait was one-sided, blood covering her whole left leg, mixing in with the crusted dirt already caked onto oddly grey skin. She should have been crippled by the wound, but there was this feral determination in her attack that made her seem completely numb to any pain...

BANG.

His bullet hit her right in the neck, piercing through her spine with a bloody spray. The force of it on her unbalanced body sent her torso toppling backwards and her feet flinging up in front of her. He heard her land with a thud on the asphalt, and waited out the desperate gurgling and scratching, flopping smacks as she struggled.

Then, she fell silent. An acrid smell rose up, catching on the wind, harshly.

Nick realized he was panting then, chest heaving a little. His mouth was dry with cold adrenaline, pulse spiked to an uneasy pace. His anxiety irked him, and he swiped his gun-holding wrist over his mouth in a short motion to calm himself, other hand moving to open the car door beside him.

The gambler crawled out of the sports car, letting the Magnum drop to the seat as he did, getting up on his feet and smoothing palms over his crisp white suit and the blue shirt underneath. The act relaxed him a bit, although the fact that woman - thing was dead certainly helped on its own.

"Alright, bitch... if you so much as speckled blood on my Barchetta, I'll run you over so many times you'll be rabies paste." He grumbled, lowly - but despite the words, his car's sleek, silver haunch wasn't the first thing he looked at.

It was that damn corpse and those still-open, ravenous, almost glowing yellow eyes. His nostrils flared a bit, forced to take in the nauseating scent in the air radiating from her. It was almost like decomposition... (not that he'd explain how he knew that) but not quite. More like sour meat.

Slipping his ringed hands into the pockets of his suit, he walked over to stand just beside the sprawled, bloody corpse, staring hard down at it with a severe crinkle between his eyebrows. He'd never seen anything like it, and he didn't even want to think about the possibilities. There were a lot and he didn't like any of them.

Something was seriously wrong, and Nick was pretty sure it wasn't a case of rabies.

He'd dealt with his fair share of crazy women, sure. In fact, plenty of them had leapt at him with that level of hostility, if not even more. Though, I usually solved the problem a little differently. He tried to smirk at his own weak attempt at humor and failed, stepping back from the dead ... creature. He hesitated to call it a 'woman,' although what it was besides that was beyond Nick.

Suddenly, figuring out what the shit was going on seemed a little more important than his initial plans for his trip into Savannah. Gambling the pants off inept tourists could wait... if there was some kind of disease going around, he sure as Hell wanted to know what it was.

Maybe his road trip hadn't been such a brilliant idea after all.

Chapter Text

Nick strode back out of the convenience store with a pack of cigarettes between his fingers, in the act of popping it open and pulling one out. He forced out a sigh as he settled the stick between his lips, dangling it out one corner of his mouth.

He'd left money on the counter, despite the fact the store was oddly empty. He'd completely considered just taking the pack and running… but the security camera on the wall behind the register had a tiny red light that blinked with a rapid severity. He really couldn't afford getting caught robbing a store... so he left a few bucks by the register. No harm done, really.

Stepping around the corpse that still laid in an ever-growing puddle of dark blood on the asphalt, Nick walked over to get into his Barchetta's front seat. He sat a bit askew, legs spread, side relaxed against the arm of his seat. Pinching his fingertips over his cigarette, he keyed the car on and then used the car lighter to light his cigarette, closing eyes as he gave a muffled inhale and his car purred to a steady idle.

He could almost feel the nicotine creeping into his bloodstream, heart picking up just a little, a faint buzz entering his body that let him relax. It wasn't so much the actual act of killing the creature that had him unsettled, but more how it complicated his life. Suddenly he had to think about how he'd handle it: run away? Tell the truth? The convenience store may have had a camera on the parking lot, too, for all he knew, which would perfectly cement his story of self-defense… but the fact remained it was illegal for him to have a gun.

Damnit.

Just a few weeks ago, he'd been further west, trailing from casino to casino in a dizzy see-saw of wins and losses. It was a lazy business, really, though one that kept his wallet full enough to keep afloat. Over-confident and inexperienced marks lined up at the poker and blackjack tables, and he'd done fairly well for himself. It was in his blood, lining his veins with a sweet addiction.

Georgia had been his next stop, then down into Florida. Florida and its warm sunlight, the burning press of a beach chair against his back, the burn of liquor rattling past his teeth, the scantily clad women prancing around the sands... the chance to get one or two on his lap... Just thinking about it made him sigh, breath laced with smoke as his lips pulled into a small 'o.'

I should've gone there first. Passed up goddamn Savannah, Georgia.

Shaking his head quickly to disperse the self-chiding, the gambler let his lazed posture in his seat straighten up, catching his cigarette between the knuckles of his left hand and then punching the car radio on with his middle finger. If there was something on the news with any information about strangers going feral, or any indication of the supposed sickness going nuclear, he wanted to hear it.

He hadn't changed the channel; it'd likely be that same woman he'd heard earlier, chattering on incessantly. Her neurotic and over-excitable manner should've thoroughly turned him off.

Of course, I'd probably still fuck h-

Both his small, self-satisfied smirk and his train of thought broke off abruptly, staring at the radio with an expression of half-annoyance and half-confusion. It was silent, and that made no sense. Even if it wasn't the woman he'd heard before, or news at all, there should have been commercials or music. A radio station didn't simply go silent. Testingly, he nibbled his cigarette back between his lips, freeing his hand to turn the volume dial a little.

Maybe he'd jostled the volume in his flurry to get his gun... but, as he spun the dial, there was nothing.

More...

Still nothing.

Little more -

He hit the end, a small click announcing the dial's refusal to go any farther. Forcing a sigh through his nostrils that sent acrid smoke blustering from them, Nick sat for a quiet moment, listening to the now-audible, constant wall of static facing him. I must've gotten outta range. he reasoned, easily, although the static set his teeth on edge. 

"Fuck the South." he grumbled quietly, throwing blame in a frustrated gesture to relax his nerves - and then nonchalantly rolled his fingertip over to hit the "SCAN" button on the radio, tightening his lips slowly over his cigarette.

The signal garbled for a moment as it ran through stations, hunting for a clear signal.

Then:

"-NSUR͢E ̕A͘LL ͠O̴P̶E͏ŅINGS ͝HAVE̛ ͢BEEN ̡SE̴CUREL̷Y͏ ͢OBSTR̡UCTED̴.͏"

Though the voice itself was monotone and calm, the radio screamed the words at him at him, so loud he nearly lost his cigarette in his lap trying to jolt and turn it off.

"҉SECŲRE ̢T҉HE ̵ROOM҉ W̨I͡TH P͜L̡AST̡IC̛ SH-"

He just barely managed to hit the off button on the radio with a strong smack of his palm against the controls, immediately going to rub at his ringing ears with the heel of his left hand. "Jesus Christ!" he complained in a groan, pawing the dial all the way down before he could make the same mistake again.

He hadn't really registered most of the words with how loud they were. It had sounded like some kind of public announcement, like weather and flood warnings... but this was different. He'd never heard the like before, and certainly not on a public radio station.

Moving to turn the radio back on after he felt his ears had been nursed enough, the gambler felt a little focused pinch start up between his brows, flicking the volume up just a few notches until the voice came back into focus. "...͞Įf̸ y̨ou thin̡k yo͏u̸ ͜are̢ in̡f̵ected, ŗema̕i͢n͢ ̧ca̡lm.̛ ͠Qua̵r̛a̷n͞ti͜n̴e you̴rself͘ fr̵om ̡th̷e uninf̸e̴cte̴d̸ po̡pu͜la͡t̴ion̕ im̶m̢ed͢iately̸." His dark brows went up a little, startled, but before the voice could go on, he turned it back off. That answered his question well enough, and he didn't want to hear another word.

"Oh great. There is something going around... damnit..."

He'd just reached over to pick his Magnum back up from the passenger seat, preparing to stow it away with a frustrated sigh, when he noticed something.

Over the purr of his car, and the repeated echo of the radio going on his head, he picked out a distinct sound coming from behind him. It was like the far-off din of a football stadium, incoherent shouts drawn out into roars. He blinked, sharply, disoriented.

The gambler got his elbow braced on the back of his seat, pushing up on it so he could twist around and flicker his gaze over the pruned, road-side treeline the noises seemed to be coming from. They grew louder, fast, and his pulse rose as he noticed he could hear the crashing of something breaking its way through tree limbs and shrubs. A lot of something.

And then the horde broke through the treeline, scrambling in a screaming, blood-covered mass as they tripped over one another in their frantic fight to run at him. It was like floodgates had opened, and they came in a wave that tore through the forest. Their eyes bobbed in their loping, bright and blank yellow flashing in the sunlight, their skin greyed and washed out.

Nick panicked. He nearly bent his finger back in his desperate jerk to get the gearshift out of park. He barely even managed, finding his hands clumsy on the button - but his car rolled obediently into reverse, and he slammed his foot on the gas.

He turned too fast, hearing the tail-end of his Barchetta scrape the truck parked beside him, and it made the car wobble a bit before he could get it back under control. The gear shift fluidly rolled into drive under his palm. Green eyes moved frantically between the road ahead and the rear mirror, screeching out of the parking lot and making a dangerously skidding turn to get back on the highway.

There he floored it, the engine purring now that it was on the move. The gambler stared intently at the rear view mirror, knuckles going white on the steering wheel as he watched the crowd of what had to be twenty or thirty people, all covered in blood, leaves, and dirt, sprinting down the road after him.

What he didn't watch was the road.

He actually didn't see what did it. All he knew was something roared, this scream, that sounded both a little too human and a little too animalistic... and then his car was in the air, flipping to the side. Colors blurred in green and blue and grey, dizzying. Without a seatbelt, he felt his body start to lift, this surreal sensation of weightlessness.

Then the car hit the treeline and everything went black in a screaming chorus of bending metal and breaking glass.

Chapter Text

It took a long time before consciousness drifted in for more than a few seconds at a time.

Nick felt... movement. Heard things. Felt pain, cold, and warmth, in slow pulses. Half of it seemed a kind of dream-state, yet some too real to be imaginary - though it all blurred into one mess of memory and stimuli.

After some amount of time, he stirred - and when he did, he regretted it.

Pain was shooting up his neck in this constant pulse, and he tasted the metallic twang of blood in the back of his throat. Both worsened when he tried to move, and he was belatedly aware of the loud groan that escaped him.

The gambler laid still for a moment, eyes tightly shut, trying to get some grasp on how badly he'd hurt himself. The hurt seemed focused mostly on his head and neck - like he'd crashed it into something. Maybe his steering wheel.

As he slowly grew a little more aware of his surroundings and a little more used to the pain arching up his spine, he started to notice something ticklish plastered up against his chest, poking against his nose and twitching slightly with the breeze.

Forcing out a little breath, Nick peeled his eyes open with some hesitance. He realized it was grass. He was lying on his side just at the edge of the treeline. With slight bewilderment that he blamed on a clear head wound, the conman tried to work out how he wasn't in his car.. and more importantly, how the hell he wasn't dead.

What eventually hit him was that he hadn't had his seatbelt on. He must've been flung from the car, landing in the ditch and spared, at least, his car colliding with the-

with the ...

colliding...

car with...

tree..

"Oh you have got-" he barely managed, coughing it out under his breath as little twangs of pain sparked over his body for the effort. "-to be goddamn kidding me.."

Grunting mightily as he did, the gambler forced himself to move, body protesting loudly. He got an elbow under himself, shoving his weight against the ground to steady his movements and wobbling up to a sitting position.

He let a hand lift up and carefully probe at his head, trying to find a wound, as faintly glazed emerald eyes roved up to search out the crash. As much as he wasn't looking forward to the sight, it wasn't something he could avoid, either. The car was doubtlessly done for.

And it didn't exactly take long to spot, either.

His lovely Fiat Barchetta was wrapped around a tree like a wet noodle just a few feet past where he'd landed. Glass had been scattered around on the ground from the impact, the bumper and a sleek silver door both fallen off to lie in broken piles nearby. Grass and dirt splattered on the wreckage, scraped gouges in the earth from where the car had rebounded off it.

Nick stared at it helplessly, feeling a growing sense of useless anger and frustration overriding his pain. He'd crashed a car before - just as bad, but it had been on purpose and somebody else's car... His Barchetta was - well, it was just that. His.

Groaning again, this time in remorse, the man bent forward a bit, retracting his hand from the back of his head as he felt a sting of pain. Sure enough, his fingertips were red with a tacky layer of blood, although the flesh wound itself seemed pretty minor. He'd definitely had worse - it was the internal damage he was worried about.

Checking over his arms, torso, and then lower body, he was fairly confident that he'd escaped the crash the best he could have. There was a cut he belatedly noticed on his forehead, dribbling just a little bit, but it did little more than sting. His crisp suit now sported some dirt and grass-stains at its edges, a sight that made him wince, but there wasn't much he could do.

If he'd had time to seatbelt himself into the car, he'd be a pancake between his Barchetta and the tree trunk. He was generally pro-seatbelts, but this time, he was glad he'd forgone it… being flung from the car (and not through the windshield, either - he could've kissed the salesman who convinced him to upgrade to a convertible) was far preferable.

Replacing his hand on the wound at the back of his head, he pressed hard against it, letting his hand sit there as he shifted to stand up slowly.

One heavy-lidded eye shut, pain fluttering over his scalp and a slight sense of dizziness creeping over him, but he pushed through it, walking toward the wreckage as he glanced around him. He'd had head wounds before... better he keep moving than stay seated, as much as the ground called to him.

Far as he could tell, the roadway was silent and empty. In fact, staring around, Nick found himself wondering an instant if he hadn't imagined all the previous events.

Yet he could see the tiremarks on the road, clearly marking where he had, in fact, been run straight off the road sideways. They were almost perfectly parallel smears of black all the way to the edge of the asphalt.

He hadn't swerved… no, he'd been run off the road, like he'd been T-boned. There was no sign of another vehicle - it was like the hand of God himself had come down and bitch-slapped him off the road.

"Goddamnit, my car."

He settled his free hand on the Barchetta's ruined, twisted nose, the metal burning softly against his skin. The conman felt like taking a moment of silence for the thing sitting crippled on its side, an honest sensation of remorse twinging in his gut - but with a reluctant exhale, stepped back and squinted down the road.

He could see a sign, a few yards down the road, that had printed out in bold letters,

SAVANNAH - 3M

Alright. Not... that far. Sure, I'd rather drive it than walk it, but at least it's... doable. These shoes'll be hell by the time I get there, though... damnit. And what if I run into more... well.

He gave a minute shrug to himself in an attempt to dismiss the thought, deciding to avoid going anywhere near that line of thinking. The conman returned to the car's side, getting himself where he could reach into the interior of the totaled vehicle.

Nothing else to do but head to town. Fuck.

Feeling blindly under the driver's seat, he came up with his 'gun' box, it having been fortuitously protected by the seat that hid it. Balancing it against his hip so he could keep using one hand, he managed to open the box up and tug out the dark brown thigh-holster that he kept stowed in there as well.

He knew he'd need two hands to get it attached to him, but for the moment, he wanted to keep the pressure on his head wound a little longer. He felt it throbbing, although the pain was starting to lessen as he found other tasks to focus on.

Lifting the holster and letting the box just drop nonchalantly to the grass, Nick bit onto his holster's strap, holding it between bared teeth and growling irately to himself as he started to look around his plain brown wingtips.

Where the fuck did my gun fly off to? Hell if he was leaving his Magnum behind, particularly if there was some kind of madness going around. He tried very hard not to compare the eight - no, seven, counting the one he'd used at the gas station .. - bullets in the Magnum's chamber to how many of those things had come out of the trees.

Achingly getting down onto his knees, he reached to check the passenger side's floor with a pawing left hand, just in case it'd slipped down there.

Sure enough, he brushed his fingertips against cool steel, prying it free from where it'd gotten stuck under the seat's gears. "Gotcha!" he announced, muffled past the holster between his teeth. He checked it over momentarily, clicking the safety back on, then shoved it into the pocket of his jacket before peeling his other hand from the back of his head and glancing over his palm.

The lessened traces of blood over his palm were comforting, glad to see it was clearly scabbing over quickly. Head wounds were notorious bleeders, and he didn't have any kind of time to deal with it.

He wiped what hadn't begun to dry off on the headrest of his ruined Barchetta's passenger seat and set to attaching his holster round his white-slacked thigh. Settling the Magnum comfortably into the sheath, the gambler took one last stock of himself.

He didn't have anything but his wallet, the pack of cigarettes he'd "purchased," and his Magnum. Sure, there was a small suitcase in his car's trunk, but firstly, he was moderately sure the trunk was crushed shut.. and secondly, he had enough winnings from his last stop left over in his wallet to make buying back what he needed in Savannah easier than carrying his luggage with him.

Sighing one final time, in this angered fashion, Nick tugged out his cigarette pack and slipped one out, nipping it between his lips. He set into a mildly paced stride, getting close to the side of the road to try and get off the grass, hoping to spare his suit any more trauma.

..and then he realized he didn't have a lighter.

"Tits!"

Chapter Text

It didn't take long for Nick to grow hot, and he found himself peeling off his suit jacket and slinging it over his shoulder, free hand slipped into the pocket of his slacks. He kept his eyes half-closed and his lips tightly sealed, following alongside the road with a determined pace.

Long, hot shower. he chanted to himself, like he had to convince himself not to give up walking. Which, in fact, he did. Tall drink. Long, hot shower... tall drink. Just at the end of this road. Hot.. hot.. burning hot shower.

Scalding hot shower.

Curling his tongue against the roof of his mouth, the conman sighed wearily, looking down to inspect the damages so far to his clothes. He'd found a few glass shards trapped in the fabric of his suit when he'd taken it off, and watching them tinkle to the ground just made him mourn the loss of his Barchetta all over again.

"Maybe it was a bull. There are farms here, right?"

It was a joke. Definitely. The more he thought about his crash the more it bothered him. Something had swiped his car off the road like it weighed nothing, and he didn't understand that.

Even more than that, he was bothered by the fact that the crowd that had chased him down the road had seemingly disappeared. If they were gone… great. If, however, they were somewhere nearby, he wasn't sure he could outrun them on foot. Seven bullets was not enough.

And that brought up a whole new line of thought.

Say it's rabies... Bitten by raccoons or something. Shooting a rabid animal - no one'd blame you for that... but shooting a rabid person… even if there's a cure or something, that's still self-defense. Right? He couldn't afford police attention, particularly not on top of the fact he'd get jailed for having a gun at all.

Shaking his head, even though it made him slightly dizzy, the conman forced that line of thinking out of his mind. It wouldn't do any good until he got to town and found someone to explain the situation to, anyway.

Of course, then he started to wonder if he should really be going towards civilization if there was some kind of disease spreading...

He'd dump the gun and holster once he got to town, he decided, and avoid the police entirely. They always enjoyed pulling up his records, (petty theft, arson that didn't stick, auto theft, manslaughter, a wide array of arrests by various casinos.. a lot of which did stick), and while the most they could do when he was behaving was wave it around and glare threateningly...

He certainly wasn't reporting the attacks on him today. He didn't need that kind of attention. The gun hadn't been obtained legally, so it wasn't traceable to him, and he'd just have to hope everyone was too distracted to worry about some random corpse at an abandoned gas station.

Maybe he'd just grab a hotel room and check the news stations... Hope Georgia has something more than 'Farmer falls in love with livestock' on their news channels.

The thought made him outright smirk.

Those depthless green eyes opened with a blink, using his wrist to wipe over his forehead - cautiously avoiding the cut that had stung itself into silence by now - to dry some of the sweat he'd worked up, disliking the tacky, greasy sensation.

"Hot shower, hot shower, hot shower..." he reminded himself, this time aloud and with a vague sigh.

He'd just begun to slump uncomfortably, tipping up his stubble-dusted chin like he could hunt out a breeze to cool off, when something caught his ear from behind. The road had sloped to the right in a hard curve just a few minutes ago, and when he twisted around he could see nothing but trees and a few roadsigns... yet off in the distance, he heard the distinct, calm roar of a car engine.

Releasing a relieved sigh that just bordered on a moan, Nick halted where he stood, leaning to the side a bit and trying to get a look down the way. He pulled his coat from his shoulder with the other so he could drape it against his hip casually.

It dangled down perfectly to hide his strapped Magnum from sight, and with a subtle cock to his hip that exaggerated the exhaustion in his posture, he waited with what anyone else might have described as bated breath - but to him, was just the pooling and gathering of adrenaline.

Unnecessary, maybe.. he had no intention of stealing the car. Hiding the gun was just to keep the driver from panicking. Still, under the current circumstances he was fairly nervous to come across other people, and adrenaline flooded his veins and made his pulse quicken.

The engine grew louder (a bit louder than he expected) and, sure enough, a musky red truck with monster wheels and an almost comically tiny, rust-splotched chassis came squealing around the turn. It was going far too fast even for the country highway, swerving a bit back and forth.

The sight immediately changed Nick's plans, and he reversed off the roadside at a quick backwards jog, not wanting anything to do with the rickety contraption or its pilot.

He noticed, with a prompt rise of agitation, that the driver apparently didn't even pay him any mind. There wasn't a pause or a jerk in the driving to give any indication he'd been so much as glanced at, the truck just blaring past him. He turned a bit to stare off after it, nostrils flaring, affronted.

Nick heard, in the moments after the truck passed, this obnoxious shout that set him to scowling. "HOOOOOOOOOO-WHEE!"

It was the cherry-on-top of a shitty day. If it had been raining, he would've gotten splashed, He just knew it. Like a shitty Lifetime movie. The conman fumed in the instants after the truck had disappeared around a bend, unable to resist the urge to clench his fists a bit. "Asshole."

His rapt attention after the truck turned out to be well-timed. His eyes caught onto something, just a little bit of movement at the very tips of the road-side trees. Just beginning to poke up from the treeline, marring the rather gentle blue sky, was a few wisps of grey.

Nick found himself squinting slightly as it rose higher... and higher.. and more started to join the first.. and soon the horizon was speckled with columns of grey smoke, swirling with increasing enthusiasm as they started to turn black, rising up like the foaming head of a tidal wave.

Lifting his hand to the side of his head, he very slowly itched his pinky finger against his cheek.

There were fires in Savannah.

"At least I'll get a light." the conman managed under his breath, with absolutely not an inch of humor. Re-slinging his jacket over his shoulder, Nick moved into a half-jog, suddenly feeling a rather grim urgency as his free left hand settled just softly near the holster at his thigh.

Chapter Text

The situation only got worse as he got closer.

Nick slowed his pace when he noticed a few dark shapes on the asphalt far ahead. They were bodies, sprawled this way and that on the roadway like macabre bowling pins. A strange, out of body sensation prickled his skin into goosebumps.

Damn. Did that truck just mow them down? He found himself wryly glad he'd moved well out of the way, but also a little sickened. It wasn't really squeamishness... he'd seen death, but not to this gruesome degree. He'd killed a man before, but it was mostly an accident and mostly clean.

This was... well, messy as hell.

As he came up on the corpses, he found himself hunting out their faces with his gaze, keeping his inhales short to avoid smelling too much of the blood and.. worse. He didn't want to think too hard about the various liquids coating them, and the asphalt.

Most of them were smashed to gruesome roadkill on the highway, but there were one or two whose heads he could still make out. Their mouths were still stuck in how they'd been upon death - bared teeth, wild snarls. Blood covered them from their deaths, sure, but there was a lot that was crusted on them, too... and then those eyes.

At least they're sick. Guess I can't blame the guy for running down these rabid freaks.

He fully blamed them for the loss of his car - and, even if it was some kind of illness, he didn't really feel that much sympathy. They're already dead either way... shit, and they're starting to smell, too..

Nick half-stepped on a thin metal pipe as he backed up, only sparing it a glance before he kicked it away. It was probably knocked off the truck.

He crinkled the bridge of his nose slightly, and, stepping deliberately around the whole mess, Nick made more than sure he didn't get anything on his shoes. He supposed, at least, the truck had cleared the way for him. He would barely have had enough bullets to defend himself against this group.

The city's gotta be safer than - .. and then the rising smoke regained his attention, and the thought withered. Maybe not.. Pausing just an instant, it occurred to him.

Shit, what if there're even more down the road the truck missed? "If I run out of bullets, I'm fucked..." Turning his head slightly, tightening and easing his grip on his shoulder-slung jacket, the Northerner stared a moment in thought before he turned back entirely, striding to re-trace his steps.

He bent over, snatching up the pipe and weighing it in his hand, swinging the thing a few times. On the third test swing, he felt a stab of pain on the back of his head and grunted, reminding himself he was injured. The conman leaned a bit to one side, shoving the pipe under his belt. Fortunately, the tip was hooked, so it caught and stayed.

It wasn't really an optimal weapon, but it felt sturdy enough to do some damage to them.

Them?

What are 'they,' exactly? Sick? Sick people get better. That's not comforting.

Curling his tongue a bit, he found himself in a slightly more disturbed silence as he kept going, the pipe bouncing periodically against his thigh. Rabies was sounding more and more cheesy in his head. This was some grim shit for something contracted from a foaming raccoon...

Zombies? Aren't they supposed to rise from the grave, and shamble or some shit? That made him laugh, even if it came out as a little neurotic huff of air. He wanted to say it was ridiculous, but then again… 'ridiculous' was becoming a little meaningless.

Nick noticed a sign on the side of the road, half-hidden by branches. A few more strides, and he could read the whole thing. What made him uneasy wasn't the 'WELCOME TO SAVANNAH, THE HOSTESS CITY OF THE SOUTH' plastered gaily over the front... it was the hurried graffiti painted in the corner.

CEDA EVAC IN THE VANNAH HOTEL!!

Evac?

Shifting his gaze further down the road and continuing on, he saw the road widen and the trees filter out. There were a few cars on either side of the road, a few of them crushed much like his had been, while others were just.. abandoned. There were more bodies here, some on the ground and some trapped in the cars.

There was a good number of them that weren't sick. He could tell instantly, as even dead their pallor was far pinker than the grey-white of the infected. Fortunately, none of them had been run over. They'd been mauled to death instead.

"That... actually isn't all that comforting." he noted to himself dryly in retrospect, suddenly pulling his Magnum from its holster and gripping it carefully, finger just brushing on the trigger. His stride turned into a slight strafe, one foot in front of the other, muscles tensing as adrenaline rose up to tighten his body.

The city started around him, buildings rising up on either side of the thinning road. Windows were broken and doors left hanging on their hinges, a few fires burning here and there, leaving the air around him with a heady weight. The cars were thicker here, though he noticed a path weaved through them, cars pushed to either side. There were even more corpses here, these all having those distinct yellow eyes Nick was really fast growing to hate.

That damn truck again… much as it pains me to say, thank God for it.

Reluctantly, he had to admit that really the smartest option would be to follow the thing's tracks - after all, it was the only sign of actual life he'd seen so far, and he had to admit the path the thing had woven for him was a bit impressive.

Then he heard a gunshot.

It was a heavy one, with a kickback to the sound that tipped him off it was probably a shotgun -and then it kept firing off, one after the other, a slight delay between each shot. On instinct, Nick dropped to a crouch beside a car, traversing forward through the trench almost made for him between the dead vehicles.

He subtly and slowly pulled his white suit jacket back on, not wanting to lose the thing if he had to run. His pulse was running like a motor, and his eyes darted around every few seconds.

Gunshots mean targets.. and right now targets mean bloodthirsty freaks who could very well get me sick too. Greeeeat. He hadn't considered that before then, and suddenly he wished he had a face mask. And some hand sanitizer…

The gunshots grew louder, and with them a voice - enthusiastic, loud, and so very Southern it hurt. It was so out of place for the situation Nick balked where he crouched.

"YEAH!" bang "Take that!" bang "WHOO!" bang "DIE DIE DIE!" bang "Hooo-wheee, that one lost his head! MAN I wish someone'd seen that!"

Oh great. Georgia's prime gunslinger, here to save the day. the conman mentally groused, leaning slightly to peek around the car he had his shoulder pressed to. As if this couldn't get any worse…

Nick saw the tail-end of the red truck he'd seen earlier right up against the side of a building - one side was crushed and a tire was gone, causing an almost comical height disparity that sagged it into a severe tilt. Glass, metal, and plastic was scattered around on the side street in its wake. Leaning slightly more, he finally caught sight of the aforementioned gunslinger.

The guy couldn't have been past his early 20s, balancing on the truckbed with his stance wide, hips planted against the back of the cab for support, and a heavy-looking shotgun cradled firmly in his arms. His yellow shirt was a little too tight, faded and dirty, both with blood and black grease Nick could only guess at. There was some kind of stamp on the front, but hell if Nick could make it out.

Blue overalls sagged on his legs, tied up goofily around his hips, the image was made worse by the thick steel-toed boots that kept him firmly planted on the ruined car. His sweat-drenched head was topped by a blue cap, pushed far to the back of his head and revealing all of his face, like he'd blindly swiped at his forehead and nearly knocked it off.

The Georgian was spinning this way and that at the waist, shooting off a blast to (and Nick only noticed this belatedly, rising up a few more inches) force off the yellow-eyed freaks that were trying their hardest to clamber up and get to him. They'd crawl up without the slightest hesitation, and just as they got themselves onto the truckbed rim, the kid would blast off a round right at them, pumping the gun to reload as fast as he could.

His hand darted furiously from the folds of his overalls to the ammo dock whenever there was a break, this constant flow of reloading suggesting both a familiarity with the weapon and that the man was well-stocked. Sparing a small glance to his Magnum and realizing he was goddamn lucky he hadn't used up his meager shots already, Nick forced a snort of derision under the continuing, though slowing, gunshots.

Leave it to the rednecks to have ammo stashes in their pants.

The conman shifted, trying to get both a little more comfortable in his crouch and a better view of the fight going on in front of him. It seemed the things couldn't get any ground on the guy, and they were weeding out fast, dead in piles around the truck. It was, he begrudgingly admitted again, an intimidating sight - maybe impressive, too, as Nick's view of the yellow-eyed freaks' death was starting to numb.

"Oh YEAH! You like that, yuh stupid zombies?! GET SOME!" The guy was absolutely hooting it, self-confident emphasis on all his vowels, breaking into a foot-to-foot victory dance as the count collapsed down to three.

Nick was just about to let his forehead fall onto the car in front of him, exasperated. He still couldn't really register what was happening.. like it was some joke, a twisted dream... when hearing that word from somebody else struck him a bit. Zombies?

No way. I was kidding-! Could they really be goddamn z-

Something crashed into him from behind, just barely forewarned by an all-too-familiar scream, the very sound speckled with blood and gnashing on the air. It was all he could do to keep from shouting when he felt a hand try to get a grip on his neck, nails scrabbling when his shoulder shot up and half-blocked it.

With barely any thought, the Northerner twisted his arm around awkwardly, trying to shoot the thing. The gunshot was too near to his head, and his eardrums screamed at him in protest.

He missed, much to his panic, and the hand got a better grip as a foul, squirming body achieved enough leverage to batter at his back with what felt like knees. Nails dug into his throat, making him choke with pain and give a growl.

Pain sparked. The thing dug in with animalistic intent - most people held their punches, even in a fight. There was no hesitance there. The nails sunk straight through his skin and made furrows as they slid toward his collarbone.

A little deafened, he barely heard a startled "Hey!" from across the road, nor did he notice the shotgun give one last bang and then fall silent. The conman tried again, and this time he heard the bullet connect, his neck freed and the body flopping away from him with a wet squelch as it collided with the pavement.

Panting, more than he should've been, Nick twisted around to get his back against the car, quickly standing up and taking a step away from the corpse. He reached up to check his neck, patting at the wound and grimacing heavily when his hand came away with blood and some congealed mess of dirt and .. something.. foul, rubbed off from his assailant's fingers and grinded into the gouges at the base of his neck.

"Well, look what we have here!" Nick heard the voice, and the slow footsteps as the Georgian walked up to the other side of the car that separated them. "Ain't no zombie, are you? I mean, shit, if they're usin' guns, I ain't sure if I'll hang 'round here too long, after all!"

Nick uttered a bare "No..." in response, eyeing the bloody muck on fingers that were suddenly unsteady. If it's an illness, it's contagious… isn't it? Shit… The thought came with a flicker of fear. The other man must've caught that something was wrong, because he started to shift from foot to foot like an antsy horse. He lifted a hand to pull off his cap, scratching his head with it dangling between his curled fingers.

He spoke up again, first syllable awkward and the rest of it jumping into this simplistic, almost obliviously cheerful tone. "Uh.. Yer the first person I've seen so far. Real glad! I was startin' to wonder if there is any folk who ain't zombified yet! Spread real quick-like -"

Nick spun around like a shot, glaring rudely at the Georgian even as his left hand surreptitiously popped the collar of his white jacket, feeling it sting as it laid against the wound but a little more concerned about hiding the injury. Hell if some hick is going to shoot me because he thinks I'm going to turn into a zomb- Oh goddamnit, now I'm thinking it too!

The youthful man across the car shrunk a bit, brows rising slightly as he pulled his cap back onto his head, uncertain at the glare. Even so, it didn't take but an instant for him to speak up again, tone somehow managing a layer of friendliness with this good-natured affront. "Well, yuh don't gotta get mad, I was just-"

"Look, would you shut up?" Nick couldn't stop the cascade from leaving him, tone as furious as it was chilly. "I just got here, I wrecked my car, I need a shower, I need a smoke, people are apparently going goddamn rabid - some inbred Georgia peach guffawing in my ear is not what I want right now!"

The kid blinked easy-going blue eyes in this little motion of shock, lifting his gun up to cross it over his chest and hold it there. He didn't seem completely sure of how to react, like the man rather coldly reaming him out was just so much more disarming than the horde of wild humans he'd just shot down.

Like he just couldn't help it, the capped Georgian said with a hapless tone, ".. I crashed muh car too."

Nick stared at him severely, fingering the trigger of his mournfully under-stocked Magnum, making the motion very visible to the other man. It seemed to work, the younger man falling silent.. though Nick paused, waiting a few extra beats to make sure the guy really understood.

"... good." Nick let out a sigh, lifting a hand to pass his palm over his gelled hair. "Now I'm not particularly interested in being around you or anyone for too goddamn long, but this - " he raised up the Magnum, noting with a smirk how fast the kid looked toward it. "- is fast running out of bullets, and from what I just saw, I'm going to need a lot. That and we're both out transportation. So, if you can possibly keep from talking... I'd appreciate it if we could just stick together long enough to get the hell out of here. Think you can manage that, Overalls?"

And oh, how snidely Nick said it. He had to, mostly to finish his explanation with something that didn't sound like a loosely worded 'I need an escort.'

The other man seemed to take a little offense at the tone, shifting a bit and using his free hand to self-consciously pull his tied overalls a bit higher on his hips. It was far more offense than he'd shown at any other time in Nick's monologue. Which, honestly, just spoke to the guy's priorities.

Unflatteringly.

"Well yeah, I reckon that's smart... I mean, we'll have tuh get you a better gun, but there's some shops 'round here... I don't got any problems groupin' up, yuh don't gotta be all grumpy 'bout it."

He almost instantly, and much to Nick's dismay, brightened, throwing his shotgun's shoulder-strap on and vaulting up on the car. He clambered over it, forcing Nick to retreat as the Georgian hopped down next to him. The guy yanked off his cap politely and stuck out his free hand to offer the conman a shake.

"Name's Ellis! Me'n'muh buddy Keith work at an auto shop hereabouts - well, before the zombies took over. Don't anymore, I guess… Oh, 'n we play in a -"

After very deliberately looking over the grease and blood-covered hand offered out to him, Nick simply glanced up at the kid's goofy smile and interrupted him cuttingly, a line twitching its way between his brows. "You know where the Vannah hotel is, then?"

Ellis' smile didn't fade so much as it stuttered a bit before returning to its former blaze, shaking out his hand in the air self-consciously before he set to replacing his cap on his head. "Well yeah, uh'course. I was headin' there for the evac when muh car crashed. I don't mind killin' zombies none, but I ain't gonna see Keith'n my mom anytime soon if I stay here."

Resisting the heavy urge to sigh at the unwanted elaboration, although fast getting the sense he was going to have to survive that for a while yet, Nick gestured out his hands and turned slightly away from the kid. His shoulder raised up, feeling the sting of his clawed neck. His tone was a little too irked for the situation… at least in Ellis' opinion. "That's where we're headed, then."

The mechanic didn't move. Didn't even stop looking at him, under the bill of his cap, actually. Nick waited just a beat, then said rather coldly, "Do you need some motivation? I have bullets left in here." That, with an index finger tapped to his Magnum.

Ellis quickly lifted hands to wave off the conman, backing up a bit before he vaulted back over the car's nose. He did it even smoother than the first time, sliding over the hood and hopping to his feet on the other side. Nick took a more composed route, stepping down to the next car where there was an actual break between it and the next one he could slide through.

The mechanic waited for him obediently, saying pointedly once he'd stepped up, "Well, I ain't got yer name yet.."

Ellis tried not to risk pissing the conman off again, and Nick couldn't help but feel a dry satisfaction as the other man quickly started off, leading the gambler down the road at a pace that was a touch faster than a walk but not quite a jog.

Knowing he couldn't really.. not give the kid something to call him, the conman simply shrugged his shoulder (but only his left one; he let the one on his injured right side stay still) and responded hollowly, "Nick."

The response was over-enthusiastic, like he'd been given one little foothold and had to pounce on it before he lost it: "Ohh, cool! That's a real smooth name! Slick." He misinterpreted Nick's silence, and clarified, "That's a good thing! You are kinda smooth-lookin' - like, that's a real fancy suit. Nobody wears nothin' like that down here outside of Sunday. Though you got some .. zombie on it… I mean, I bet it'll come out, ain't nothin', just.. sayin'. I heard, uh, white vinegar was good fer stains..."

He laughed, suddenly, and Nick could do little but stare forward in blank bewilderment as the kid just.. kept.. going. "I got a story 'bout that, check this out.. My buddy Keith got some ketchup on his shirt once, so he was gonna try that, 'cept he went into the wrong pantry 'n what he thought was white vinegar was actually -"

"I. Will. Shoot. You."

Chapter Text

The two men trudged down the street in spotty silence. Ellis was like a puppy who didn't understand that 'no' meant 'don't do that at all' - he just thought it meant 'don't do that right now.'

Every few minutes the mechanic would tense up, those youthfully brawny shoulders rising a bit as he shifted the shotgun in his hands. It usually started with a "Hey," or a "Y'know," and he didn't get much further before Nick interrupted him with a simple, flat "No." or a dark stare.

Ellis never seemed really upset at it. He just continued on with vague sighs and shakes of his head, a hand rising to adjust his cap like he was bemused by the other man. Nick was set closer and closer to the edge of either shooting the guy or just turning around and walking the other direction, hoping he didn't notice.

The only thing that kept him from tipping over was the fact that every few blocks, a zombie or two would come rushing out from an alleyway or around a car. Blood dribbled from their lips and eyes like an absolute nightmare, their limbs clawing at the air as they shrieked out strange snarls.

Sure enough, the mechanic would snap up his shotgun, blasting off a shot once the thing was close enough. Both he and the zombie jerked a bit with the strength of it, the latter falling to the ground with a splatter of blackened blood.

Ellis would look back over his shoulder, flashing a lopsided smile at Nick like he expected some kind of compliment.

Like hell.

A snidely lifted brow was more than enough to dissuade the younger man, although Nick could tell each time there was more and more confusion in his reaction. It was naive people like him that just got under the conman's skin - that countryside ideal that just being human made you friends.

He vastly preferred the city, where nobody so much as made eye contact with strangers.

Proving him right almost instantly, Ellis prompted up yet another conversation, tossing up a dirty, nicked hand in this vague gesture. "Hey, this once, -"

"You actually shut up?"

Nick was torn between smirking and actually cracking a laugh when Ellis finally turned around, stopping in the middle of the road to face him. His grease and dirt-smudged expression was drawn in this look of confusion, a little bit of a pout actually twitching at his mouth. His little break was borderline hilarious.

The gambler hadn't really been trying to get a rise from him, but it was a welcome pleasure.

"You don't like me much, do yuh? I dunno why, I ain't done nothin'!"

Nick crossed an arm over his chest, the other one still dangling at his side with his Magnum tight between fingers. He had settled for a smirk, and it stayed solidly at his lips even as he noticed another zombie bolting out into the street from a broken alleyway. He calmly raised up his pistol, the nozzle placed just before Ellis' shoulder. The Magnum went off with a heavy BANG, catching the zombie right in the chin and splitting his lower jaw with a gruesome pop.

The mechanic didn't even have time to react before the gun went off, just jumping in shock and clamping his wrist over his ringing ear after it had finished. "That shit was right in muh ear! That hurt!" he complained, twisting around at about the same time as he said it. Seeing the zombie Nick had shot at, the hick gave a little "Whoop!" noise, apparently completely forgetting his consternation in favor of running over and leaning to look at the zombie's blown head.

"Shiiiit, Nick! You got damn good aim! Say, you do a lot of shootin'?"

Nick sighed just faintly, although he found the topic far more tolerable than anything else the other man had tried to talk about. The conman moved to catch up and then pass Ellis, absently smacking out the Magnum's magazine to morosely inspect the four bullets he had left.

Worth it.

"I don't go out every morning shooting ducks out of the sky and bottles off the fence, no, but I took something called lessons." Sending a small glance over his shoulder, expression fairly impassive, he made sure Ellis hadn't lagged behind too much and palmed the mag back into place.

The mechanic apparently didn't catch the two-pronged insult, because he jogged up beside Nick with a goofy grin spreading across his face. "How'sabout we start up a game?"

The conman narrowed eyes and twitched his brows as they hit an intersection (the lights of which were out, he noted) and Ellis gestured to the left road, getting a few steps ahead to lead the way. Nick rather dangerously prompted him with a "Game?", awaiting an explanation.

Ellis' grin stayed solidly on his face, gesturing with the nose of his shotgun. "Yeah! We can keep count'uh how many zombies we kill, see who's better!" He seemed to realize the flaw in his plan, tapping his thumb against his weapon. "Once we getchya more ammo, anyhow."

At the same instant Nick felt disbelief at the idea of Ellis actually making a game out of the situation, he felt the slightest inclination to... agree to it.

No reason not to make the guy look stupid.

The conman was just starting to mull over the pros and cons of humoring him, when both their heads snapped up to the sudden sound of gunfire in the distance. Nick's eyes widened just a bit, then narrowed, and he tugged the metal pipe free from the makeshift holster he'd made out of his belt. His Magnum was shoved back into its sheath at his thigh, aware of its encroaching uselessness. He needed to save the remaining bullets.

Swinging the pipe a little, Nick made certain of his grip, utterly ignoring the Georgian beside him. He was not looking forward to having to use the damn thing, but gunfire meant zombies... hopefully whoever was fighting them would keep them distracted enough for him and Ellis to slip past -

"Lordy, you think they're in trouble? Shit, man, we gotta find 'em!"

Cue the dumbass.

Ellis had this blatant look of concern on his face, smacking up a hand on top of his cap to screw it down a bit on his head, like he was preparing a charge. When he moved to bolt away, intent on chasing down the gunfire, Nick snapped after him, "Hey, Overalls! You want to go running around town, be my guest, but I'm not here to play Superman! There's an evac waiting for me, and I'll go without you if I -"

The kid wasn't paying him an ounce of attention, darting forward with his gun grasped tight against his chest, head swiveling to pin down the direction of the noise. Nick scowled a bit, taking a half-step forward and raising his voice.

"Hey, kid! I'm saying, I don't have time for this shit and I'm going to go with or withou- " He realized quick his words weren't getting him anywhere. "Oh, goddamnit!"

Despite his claims to the contrary, he was noticeably not interested in losing his guide or the gun the Georgian was carrying. Whether he liked it or not, (mostly not), he was bound to the whims of his newfound acquaintance. Nick was forced to race after him, suit jacket flapping a bit at his sides with the wind.

Survival was a little more important than his pride.

A little.

Chapter Text

Nick struggled to keep up with the mechanic as they raced down the street, the fires and disorder on the sides of the road getting worse as they got deeper into town. It wasn't even that Ellis was fast - although he was, doggedly darting along the road and dodging cars like an expert, overalls bobbing at his waist and one hand keeping his cap tight to his head - but mostly that the kid was just sprinting through without a thought.

His flurry attracted more than a few zombies from the sidewalks and broken-down buildings. They raced out like mosquitoes on a hot day, snarling viciously after Ellis in a trickling group. They were so focused on the younger man Nick almost thought they wouldn't even turn to attack him, just running almost in front of him. Still, there wasn't exactly another option.

Without stopping, he hefted the pipe in his hands and aimed a hard swing right to one's head. Its skull cracked back with a loud gargle, the thing wobbling back and forth on shaky legs before collapsing, left behind on the street.

The conman gave a huffed 'heh', finding the sight more entertaining than he should have, and turning to the other side to do the same to the zombie on his left. The hooked end of his pipe connected with the thing's neck this time.

Even though he didn't feel he'd swung that hard, the creature's neck snapped back with enough force that he heard the crackle of its vertebrae dislocating from one another. He almost expected its head to come clear off.

That zombie gave a much louder gargle than the first, and apparently, Ellis finally took notice of the things behind him. Before Nick even registered the mechanic had spun around, he heard a hoot of, "Nick, duck!"

With the distinct knowledge that Ellis had a fairly large shotgun in his hands, and the feeling he understood what the kid was going to do, Nick wasn't inclined to take the time to argue. Quickly dropping to a low crouch, he jammed his wrists against his ears in preparation, scowling a bit.

Barely a breath later, three loud shots flew right over him in quick succession. The cha-chunk of his pump-action reloading was the only thing to separate each blast, and with each one, blood tinted black and dark green splattered onto the back of his jacket as Ellis shot down the zombies left between them.

"Damnit, you hick! I'm ruining this suit enough without you helping!" Nick snapped as he swiped something wet and chunky off the back of his neck. Ellis' boots trotted into his view, followed promptly by a hand, palm up, stretched down to him in offer.

Nick couldn't help but survey the calloused fingertips, the muck buried under the nails, the black practically ground into his skin in little splotches… and grimace.

"Come off yer high horse," was Ellis' response, this oddly cheerful brand of chastisement, almost playful. "Least it ain't your blood."

Nick lifted his head at that, giving Ellis a very distinct stare of annoyance before reaching up to roughly smack aside the proffered hand. The conman stood up on his own, shoving his pipe back into his belt. He grabbed the collar of his suit and shook it a bit, like he was covered in dust rather than blood. Ellis took a half-step back, swinging his shotgun up to balance on his shoulder and eyeing Nick with a bemused look.

"Yeah, and if you'd aimed a few inches lower it could've been, you idiot. Try watching where you're going instead of running past them like a complete dumbass. How aren't you dead?"

Of course, he was actually thinking How are you doing better than I am so far?, but he didn't say that.

Ellis snorted a bit with a laugh, although it sounded distracted, pulling his shotgun back off his shoulder and smacking it a bit in his palm like that was a good enough answer. Nick didn't pay any mind to his sudden quiet and slightly focused attention on the conman, not until the kid spoke up.

"Got a nick there, Nick? Happen jus' now?"

Ellis was pointing, right at Nick's neck. The gambler had almost forgotten the wound he'd gotten on the crook of his shoulder, previously covered. He'd accidentally flashed it as he'd adjusted his suit.

Popping his collar up quickly but casually, he waved Ellis' hand away, responding with a cool and snide tone. "Real observant. Good job. One jumped me earlier, and I have you to thank for distracting me. You want to play Sherlock? How about you try noticing that our friend stopped shooting?"

Ellis propped his mouth open to respond, but Nick's snappy, sudden change of topics distracted him enough to succeed in shutting him up. Turning around with a slight pinch to his expression, Ellis listened a moment before nodding in rather serious agreement.

"Sure did... yuh think they're okay? Not shootin' means one of two things." The hick pulled his cap off, scratching his scalp with his wrist slowly. Nick heard it. Faint but not imperceptible, this fear… concern in the guy's voice. Ellis just looked around - roved his gaze over the street, perked onto the toes of those workboots like some over-attentive prairie dog.

It wasn't that Nick took pity on him. More, Nick merely recognized the fact that he wasn't going to drag the kid away without a fight. The faster we check this out, the faster we get to the Vannah. He sighed.

The conman's exhale snapped Ellis out of it, but before the younger man could really react he felt a hand shove his shoulder. It quite nearly knocked him over, stumbling to both catch his balance and keep from losing his grip on his hat.

"Move it, assclown." Nick said rather sardonically, pulling the pipe free from his belt and swinging it with a rolling wrist like it were a cane. "They'll either be well and dead or well and gone if you keep standing here."

Ellis turned to glance over his shoulder, flashing a lopsided grin as he snapped his mechanic's cap back onto his head. It was a look that gave Nick the distinct sense he was being made fun of - though why was beyond him.

Rather than interrogate him on the point, though, Nick simply followed after as the kid walked down the road at a quick pace. He noticed Ellis was paying much more attention to his surroundings now.

So he does learn.

They were coming up on a four way stoplight, bodies littering it heavily. It may have been the most corpses Nick had seen in one place so far. The lights themselves had been dragged down when a car crashed into one of the poles - a car which was, in fact, still there, flipped and plastered onto the sidewalk. The vehicle was absolutely flattened, just a few pieces of chassis still struggling to hold up shape.

The two men slowed as they came into the middle of the intersection, Ellis looking down at the heavy piles of (thank God, zombified, although Nick found the curdled and ill smell plenty revolting) bodies and prodding them here and there with the muzzle of his shotgun.

"Bullets. Look kinda fresh, don't they?" Nick wasn't really listening, crossing the intersection with one hand slipped into his suit pocket. He eyed the crashed car - or what was left of it, smashed and wrapped in the sparking remnants of the stoplight wires. This car is crushed to shit... like my Barchetta, I think, only... even worse.

"They were here, fer sure... you think they're still close? Shit, there's a lotta these zombies. Wonder how many - I mean, guess there's however many folks lived here, at least… Some people had tuh survive, though, right?"

There was an arm sticking out from the window, twisted at such an angle it was obviously broken at the elbow - and wherever else. Nick's nose crinkled, just the bridge of it, and he refocused on the rest of the car.

"Kinda scary, though. Liked it better when I was thinkin' zombies were only already dead folks."

Nick screwed his brows up just a bit, reaching to touch a fingertip to the car's... hood, maybe. He couldn't tell up from down on the thing. I know I didn't just flip off the road earlier - something... hit me off, knocked me off. Practically flew o"OW fuck!"

He snapped his finger back, grumbling very lowly under his breath and shaking his hand. His fingertips were practically singed by the metal.

"Had to be hot... of course."

Ellis suddenly just showed up at his elbow, standing there, shotgun sat across his shoulders and behind his neck like a barbell with wrists dangled over either end. "Only crashed a bit ago, then. Ain't like this whole zombie mess has been goin' on that long. 'Course, you didn't have tuh burn yer finger figurin' that out."

A few things went through the conman's head. One: he hadn't heard a thing the kid had said before then. Two: he was very tempted to beat the shit out the kid. Three: there were very unsettling implications of what the mechanic said.

"Only a bit ago, you said?" Nick half-trailed, glancing focused, rather narrowed eyes at the car.

"Yeah, sure... engine's gotta cool off after the car turns off. Plus it's in the shade… but it ain't cooled off, so it must'uv been in the sun a real short time ago. Man, this one time, my buddy Keith sat on the hood of his car 'cause we didn't have chairs - campin', y'know, up in - wait, where're you goin'? Nick?"

But the conman was already on his feet and moving, pulse far faster than he would've preferred. He halted, just on the crosswalk to the leftmost road, dress shoes placed with subconscious caution to not brush against any of the bodies sprawled around... staring with growing discomfort down the street.

"Hey, dumbshit, you seeing this?" Nick muttered, lifting his hand up to gesture down the road. Cars were tossed this way and that - flipped like vulnerable turtles, half-squashed and crushed in on themselves. When the conman let his green eyes trail up, he sucked in a short inhale, this little shocked noise.

Ellis saw it at the same instant, halting just beside Nick and leaning in to gawk.

"Oh…mah…gaawd, there's CARS in the BUILDIN'S!"

They were barely dangling from where they'd broken in, vehicles thrown into the faces of streetside buildings, jamming straight through brick and windows. There were holes and breaks in other places that suggested the cars lying broken on the street had been, at least, thrown in the same way, even if they rebounded and fell to the ground.

Nick's brows were screwed up into a tight knot, faint wrinkles around his eyes drawn a little deeper as he tried to work out what he was looking at. There was this ringing in his ears... a hum that wouldn't quit - and belatedly he realized it was the kid standing beside him, talking.

"...just like Godzilla or somethin'! Ohhh, MAN I wish Keith could see this! How'd they even get up there!? Jeeesus... I've seen twisters do shit like this! We get them here sometimes, y'know! ... I mean, this wasn't one.. ain't stormed. But-"

Goddamnit this kid cannot shut UP... five seconds, PLEASE... the gambler found himself rather desperately thinking, turning on his heel and taking a step forward to stare back across the intersection.

Whether Ellis did shut up or Nick just managed to drown him out could've gone either way - but for an instant, Nick just felt deaf. His heartbeat was thudding in his ears, skin prickling with sweat like he'd started a fever. He vaguely heard his name and ignored it. The whole other side of the road, it was all the same. Cars tossed like toys, odd breaks in the buildings - even in the asphalt. Like... fuck if I want to quote, but.. like a tornado ran through, really is. What the hell did this?

Forcing his head to shake and lifting up a hand to wipe over his forehead, Nick muttered a quick, "Screw this..." and then raised his voice.

"Okay, Overalls, you're going to shut up and listen - you're finding me ammo, like you said, and then you're taking me to the Vannah Hotel. Like you said. I am done with this goose-chase and there's something running around tossing cars... Forgive me if I lack your stupid optimism, but we are going to die here - and I am NOT dying here - so we are leaving. Now. Got it, Farmer Joe?"

Silence. Not a peep. Not even a half-chuckled noise of vague confusion at Nick's irritation.

Twisting around, Nick realized he was utterly alone in the street.

Chapter Text

Turning this way and that, hand shooting up to flatten onto his forehead, the conman hunted for any sign of where Ellis had gone.

"Overalls! You damn son of a bitch, where the hell did you go?" he hissed, fighting the urge to yell. He got both hands on the pipe in his fingers, squeezing at it in frustration. His gaze darted around the intersection, trying to spot the dirty yellows and blues of the hick's outfit. "W- I don't have goddamn time for this. What are you doing?"

Taking a step back, like it might give him a better view, Nick clamped clean, neat teeth onto his lower lip and held silent just an instant. Nothing... not a sound.. and then a loud, hacking cough and a short gurgle. He'd heard gurgles, from dying zombies shot in the neck, sure... but this one was different. It was a pained, struggling noise, that of a man being choked. And he swore it sounded like Ellis.

Snapping up his head toward the source of the noise, he noticed that the doorway to the building directly lined up with the crosswalk was wide open. Inside, it was almost pitch black, but he saw enough to see the butt of a shotgun lying in the threshold.

The weapon was just protruding into the light streaming in from the outdoors that made a severe square on the floor, but reflected no further. The windows were blocked with thick curtains, keeping any sunlight from entering the building. He couldn't see anything.

Hefting his pipe with a tightly set jaw, the conman darted toward it before he could think enough to reconsider, sprinting through the doorway. He skidded to a slight crouch, snatching up the shotgun and ditching his pipe in a quick switch.

There was a moment - just an instant there... where his hand clenched on the shotgun's grip and he shot the smallest look down. He could tell by the weight of it that it was fully loaded - Ellis had kept it like that, feeding it constantly. The forethought was impressive. It was probably an 8-shot capacity.

Four bullets in his Magnum, eight in the shotgun, and a pipe. Would that be enough? He could probably find his way to the gunstore… but what if he didn't?

He weighed his options. Leaving the kid crossed his mind. He wished he could say that guilt or morality played a big part in his decision. Maybe a better man wouldn't have even paused to begin with; Nick mainly decided that he didn't want to risk his neck alone with barely more bullets than he had fingers.

Then he was moving forward, blinking rapidly to try and acclimate to the darkness inside the building. The air was heavy and putrid, almost like cigarettes except... rotten. He stayed a little low, hunched, one hand out to feel for any furniture in his way while the other tucked itself tightly against the shotgun's trigger, bracing the butt against his shoulder to make up for the weight of the front.

Nick could hear this shuffling, struggling noise, punctuated by the desperate stamp of a boot against wood and another hacking cough. The cough didn't sound like Ellis, either. It was wet. Spongy almost, with a wheedling breath on either end. The darkness and emptiness - and the conman's beating heart - fuzzed its direction, disorienting his perception of the room.

His fingers brushed onto the fabric of a couch as he turned and started to drive in toward where he swore it came from, and he worked his way around it, hissing a short "Overalls! I can't see for shit, keep making noise! Come on you stupid hick, where are you?!"

But it wasn't more stamping that the kid managed; sudden light flashed on in an off-yellow funnel, spasming wildly and blinding Nick for an instant. The moment he got his bearings, he realized it was a flashlight.

Ellis managed to point the thing up, messily illuminating both himself and what had him. There was a thick, fleshy tendril wrapped around him from head to toe. It squirmed, constricting his mouth, throat, torso, knees... he'd just barely gotten enough of his forearm and hand free to get the flashlight on.

There was this obvious look of panic on his face, bright red and almost purpling, and his eyes were struggling not to roll up to the back of his head.

Holy fucking shit.

Nick had his shotgun up and aimed, ready to shoot even before he actually made to confirm what the corners of his eyes suggested - there was something tall just behind Ellis, and Nick saw the bubbling, contorted image of a face mutated into something unnatural, just before he jolted forward and pulled the trigger.

Something exploded, a sound rather like a burst balloon, and Nick had to shield his face against a heavy breeze of that same putrid air he'd smelled in the whole house. He'd practically lived in dive bars and gambling halls, yet he couldn't stop himself from breaking into thick coughs, hacking painfully and throwing his forearm against his mouth.

It reeked, and inhaling made his chest clench as if his lungs were trying to expel the gas on their own.

"M- Moron.." He broke off to cough again, spitting hard off to the side and dropping down as low as he could to try and get out of the smoke. It was just clear enough that he could open his eyes, and though the flashlight had fallen and was only barely pointing at him, Nick could tell Ellis had crumpled down to the floor and wasn't moving.

Middle of being strangled and he had enough sense to remember he had a flashlight AND managed to get it out... okay, fine. Not the dumbest moron I've ever met... My luck, he's dead.

Crawling forward on knees and elbows, the conman pulled up close to the Ellis' side, snatching up the flashlight and flickering it over the unconscious mechanic's form. He dropped the shotgun, freeing his hand so he could unwind the tendril still wrapped (though, he noticed, loosely) around Ellis' head.

It was thick and fleshy, and as he pulled at it, it twitched and squirmed. He gagged and coughed in the same breath, and it was all he could do to keep himself from vomiting. That, and looking past Ellis to examine the strange, elongated body collapsed behind him.

The fuck is this thing…?

He passed a quick finger close to the Georgian's mouth, feeling the brush of hot breath from his nostrils, relieved to note he was alive. Alive but not awake, and they didn't have time to sit there and wait for him to drift back to consciousness...

Even less than he thought, in fact. Just as he'd dug fingers into Ellis' shirt and pulled him up just a little, shaking him firmly in the hope of rousing him, he heard it from outside - screaming, although not of fear or pain. It was, very distinctly, the scream and shriek of zombies. And there was a lot of them.

Nick was getting too familiar with that noise.

He twisted around, shining the flashlight over the living room they were in. There was a door in the corner, squat and thin, just below a staircase in the corner that lead up to a top floor. Looks like a storage closet.

Nick set the flashlight down quickly, leaving the funnel of light pointed over at the door so he could see.

Grabbing hold of Ellis' wrists, he turned around and heaved hard, yanking the younger man onto his back like a heavy pack. He strained a little against the dead weight, pulling Ellis' arms tighter around his neck and struggling up to his feet.

He wasn't heavy, but he was completely dead weight and Nick wasn't feeling at the top of his game. He grunted loudly, fighting across the room. Ellis' elbow was digging into his neck, and the clawmarks on the conman's neck stung until his eyes screwed up. "Nearly.. dead.. and.. still.. causing.. me.. problems.. you.. dipshit.."

Tossing his weight into the wall just beside the door, Nick trapped Ellis' left half against it and let go of that wrist. He forced the door open and spun with a groan, dropping Ellis to the floor just inside. He collapsed into a pile on his rump, thudding against a cardboard box and nearly crushing it as his arms went akimbo and his head lolled back.

With the weight gone, Nick bolted back across the room, grabbing both the flashlight and shotgun with a slight stumble. He got back to the storage closet just as the first zombie flung itself through the doorway, screaming in heightened rage as it saw him. Nick shoved the flashlight onto a shelf just against the wall, pointing out into the main room.

The conman dropped to a knee, thrusting the shotgun up and downing the zombie with a strong hit to the chest. It fell - but there were more racing in behind it, and Nick heard breaking glass. Flashes of light shot into the room as zombies thrust themselves through the windows, too, fingers tearing at the curtains that had previously covered them.

Nick shot straight through the doorway, bullet spraying through a good number of zombies at once, then pumped the next round in and twisted to the side to do the same toward the group struggling through the curtains. He heard them shrieking and gurgling - in anger, not pain.

Tipping onto his rear and pushing back with the heels of his shoes, Nick felt himself bump against the mechanic. He fought a growl as he realized with a flicker of frustration that he'd pushed himself between the sprawled mechanic's thighs. However, as he tried to pull the pump and reload only to find it locked in place, indicating it was out of shells - he realized the position was actually fortuitous.

More zombies crawled over their fallen compatriots, and came running toward the closet. Shit-!

Nick shoved his foot up, catching the edge of the closet door and kicking hard to slam it shut. He left the flat of his shoe braced on the door, keeping it shut when bodies slammed against the other side. Panting in his hurry, Nick dropped the muzzle of the shotgun to rest on his knee and reached back a hand, digging into the folds and pockets of Ellis' overalls.

The door slammed against his foot, jolting a startled noise out of him before he bit it down with a growl. The flashlight sent odd shadows scattering as a sliver of the door fell inward, grungy fingers digging through the gap. Blood dribbled down from the tiny break, and the infected got louder.

Ellis' overalls were just baggy enough to frustrate Nick's attempts to find his pockets, grabbing at the thick fabric until he found an opening. In a less desperate situation, he might've had some concern for where his blind groping would put his hand.

Come on, come ON, where the hell are they... I saw you grab them, they were... somewhere...

Then - "Jackpot." His fingertips found the cool shapes of some shells, and Nick grabbed a handful and dragged them out. He twisted the shotgun up and managed to load it in the dim lighting, each shell clicking like a little chime of success.

He blinked past sweat, emerald eyes murky with a mist of something unreadable. It was definitely not fear. The door - and, thus, his leg - was shivering with collisions, and when he glanced up the hole broke open, splitting wood in a rain of splinters.

An arm came through, the owner snarling with its success. Before it could get a grip on anything, Nick let off a shot, sacrificing a good bit of the door to force the zombies back. Not that it lasted, as the next layer was immediately on the door, and they had more room to crawl into the closet that time.

Nick had to pull his legs from the door to avoid getting clawed at, going almost crosslegged, pumping the shotgun and shooting them back again.

He heard a faint groan from behind him as Ellis stirred, this bedraggled noise that he tuned out. Not exactly his top priority - though Nick noticed the horde seemed a little thinner the next time they flung themselves at the door.

Getting into a rhythm with the shotgun, he reminded himself to keep a count of his shells. He'd only loaded 6 before the zombies broke in, which put him at 4 -

BAM, cha-chunk

Okay, 3 -

BAM, cha-chunk

Shit. 2.

The zombies kept coming.

Nick darted back his hand to dig for more bullets. Realizing he was unable to shoot at all without a free hand to pump the forend, all Nick could do was re-adjust and kick hard at the zombies just reaching through the wide hole in the door. His heel smashed down on a forearm, the flesh giving way underneath his force.

"Guhhh.. whut?.."

It took Nick just an instant to realize it was Ellis, his voice cracked and wheezing from his near-strangulation, struggling toward consciousness. Not exactly wanting the kid to process that his hand was burrowed into his pants pocket, Nick dug some shells free and just dropped them onto his own lap, Nick quickly shot off one of the bullets he still had, earning a long enough reprieve to load a few bullets in.

"...whus .. uhhg.. whus 'appen'n..?" the mechanic managed, wracked with a very audibly painful cough and trying to shift out of his uncomfortable sprawl, only to find his attempt at adjustment blocked by .. well, Nick. "Gr- ahgk.. grabbed me... thing grabbed me…"

"Shut it, and hold still!" the conman snapped, leaning in to aim a little more precisely, scanning cautiously to see - a smirk overtaking him at the knowledge - there was only a few zombies left.

And they, lining themselves up by running toward the single door, went down with one precise shot to their upper bodies… and then there was silence, just the faint little bubbles of half-gurgles as the zombies struggled and died, and heavy panting as Nick tried to cool down.

"Chrissakes, they're persistent bastards.." the gambler managed, wiping his wrist over his forehead and giving a short smirk of self-satisfaction.

Blowing out a long breath, Nick tossed the shotgun to the side and picked the unused bullets from his lap. He shifted forward onto his knees and turned around to offer them back, finally eyeing the mechanic in the light now streaming into the house from broken windows.

He'd gotten his elbows up, braced a little on the box he was leaned against, odd marks on the skin of his cheeks and neck where the tendrils had nearly squeezed the life out of him. Ellis' neck, particularly, was blemished with bruises and red marks, and his frame heaved a bit with the effort he put into breathing.

His cap was off, lost somewhere in the living room during the struggle, and his bright blue eyes were quite visible in their confusion, uncomprehendingly glancing from the offered fist to the rest of Nick, kneeling in the space between his sprawled legs.

He was confused, and the longer the silence lingered, the closer the atmosphere edged toward awkward.

Yeah, okay. This looks weird.

Nick twitched a brow once as he lifted his fisted hand and just opened it over the hick's head. "Get up, dumbshit. I just saved your ass." His handful of bullets rattled down over Ellis and startled him into yelping, the sound a bit pitiful with how fiercely it rattled.

"Whuh -" He coughed, lifting up a hand to both push a bullet off the top of his head and touch his neck. "Whuh's s'at for!" He honestly looked a little hurt, although with a second glance, Nick decided that might've been physical and not emotional.

Sighing in cool frustration and setting the shotgun against the wall, Nick forced himself to stand up, turning around and reaching down to get ahold of Ellis' sleeves and drag the mechanic to his feet. Nick talked - a low tone, though still snide somehow. "Come on, Overalls, we have to go. I'm getting the feeling there might be more on the way, and I do not like our odds... that, and we're sure as hell going to miss that goddamn evac at this rate."

The moment Nick let go, Ellis staggered - so, like he were helping a drunk man down the street, the gambler pulled one of the mechanic's arms over his shoulders and held onto his forearm. Ellis slumped, weakly dangling his body as Nick scooped up the shotgun and tucked it under his armpit.

"'M fine... jus'.. gotta.. catch muh.. breath." the hick protested, tone utterly unconvincing, shaking his head and seizing up a little like he might vomit.

Nick warned: "If you get sick, I will drop you."

But nothing came of it, just a little gasp and grunt, and Nick forced the mechanic into movement - though not before grabbing the flashlight he'd nearly left on the shelf, their footsteps out of sync and staggered. "Catch your breath on the move, Overalls, it's your fault we're here at all."

They stumbled suddenly when Ellis halted, digging in his heels, and Nick snapped, "C'mon, I'm not carrying you."

"M-muh hat! I ain't l-" Two coughs, slow, although softer than they'd been - and then he finished it, firmly. "I ain't leavin' it!"

Giving a frustrated noise, Nick tossed the kid right to the ground, ignoring his pained groan as he landed in a little mess on the floor, barely catching himself in time to avoid hitting his head. The mechanic glanced at him in a wounded fashion, only to see Nick stride over toward where Ellis had been choking.

He flickered the flashlight around to hunt out the cap. It gave him a chance to get a better look at the creature that had nearly strangled Ellis to death. It was human - mostly, limbs strangely long and its countenance bloated by what seemed like fleshy tumors.

The shotgun blast had split its head mostly apart, but one glassy yellow eye glinted in the flashlight's beam and seemed to glare at him. The tendril hung from the ruined maw where a mouth used to be, already going leathery and wrinkled after death.

Nick's anger may have been fueled by a desire to distract himself when he growled: "Just my luck, I get stuck with the single biggest idiot in Georgia. Because this shit wasn't bad enough to begin with."

He heard a faint cough, one that wheedled into a laugh, and then there was a very polite "Thank yuh." that didn't take Nick seriously in the slightest.

Chapter Text

Nick noticed Ellis was oddly quiet as they stepped back out onto the street, the latter still leaning a good amount on the conman. His breathing was fast recovering, even the short break of Nick having to hunt his cap down doing the kid good... but Nick resigned to hold him up a little longer, gripping Ellis' shirt just at his waist while Ellis had him by the shoulder.

The Northerner gave in to an inexplicable urge to start up a conversation - Oh God, he's contagious... - as they crossed the intersection again, stepping lightly over the sparking streetlight wires.

"Lucky you didn't break a rib or two, Overalls. I'd have had to shoot'cha."

Maybe it was just the slight discomfort over their proximity that made him want to talk. He was honestly tempted to let Ellis hobble along on his own, but he'd already condemned himself to keeping the kid with him - and it was maybe, possibly, his fault for not getting to the guy sooner.

Not that he'd say that outright.

In for a penny, in for a stupid Georgia redneck. Or something like that.

Nick smirked a bit, just slightly, glancing up at the sight of movement down the road. He wrangled the shotgun into his grip without releasing Ellis, yanking it up a bit to get it braced on the crook of his shoulder, and gunning down a stray zombie who came snarling at them across the broken street.

The kickback of the shot sent little pangs through Nick's wounded neck, the scratches throbbing angrily at him. He ignored it, shuffling his hand down the barrel and bracing the gunstock against his hip to pump back the forend and keep the gun at the ready - snapping a short, grumbled curse when it came up empty again.

"That's horses, Nick.. I ain't a horse... 'n it's their legs, anyway." Ellis clumsily dug out a few shotgun shells from his overalls' pocket, offering them up to the conman. "Runnin' low..." When Nick gave only a faint eye-roll in response, releasing Ellis' shirt in favor of loading the shotgun up as they walked, the mechanic prodded him further.

"Yuh heard me say thanks earlier, right?"

Nick snorted, clicking in the last shell and stowing the others in his slacks pocket with a careful lick of his lips. "Yeah, which thing-I-saved-your-stupid-ass-from was that for, anyway? The tongue zombie or the horde of zombies?" Lifting his head, Nick squinted, halting a moment and feeling Ellis stop with him.

The mechanic lifted up his hand, pulling his cap lower on his head, the grungy bill shadowing the top of his face. "Both, man, fer real... I -"

Nick instantly waved him to silence, shrugging the younger man's arm off his shoulders. Ellis cooperated, and was only a little unsteady as he got his footing and stood on his own. Nick tipped a glance at him, slightly irritated, even though he'd been the one to start them talking again. "Thank me by shutting up... how far is the hotel?"

Ellis winced a bit as he patted at his neck and chest in self-sympathy, looking up toward the tops of the buildings around them, squinting past the morbid decorations of cars protruding from their windows.

"Aaaahhh..."

The sound of blank thought was just about to earn Ellis a good punch. Nick was really not interested in getting lost - but the mechanic saved himself with a brightening of his expression and this lengthy pawing gesture of his hand off in the distance. "Couple'uv roads down from this shop here. Iffin we cut through them alleys we could get there real quick - whatcha think?"

Nick hesitated an instant, eyeing the shadowed spaces between the buildings in the direction Ellis pointed. They twisted off, shrouded by the roofs above.. he could pick out the vague shapes of trash cans, bins, piles of boxes...

Something flashed yellow, just a blink, like the momentary gaze of a bright eye, and Nick had Ellis by the elbow, tossing him a bit down the road. "Like hell. Muggers, sure. Murderers, sure. Zombies? Fuck no. That is one goddamn thing I am not going into a dark alleyway with."

The kid laughed, quiet under his breath. Nick let it slip, mostly because the noise was honest humor rather than mocking. Considering the alley set him far more on edge than he'd let on, the fact that Ellis took it as a joke was fine with him.

Picking up the pace and forcing Ellis to match him, the two men darted down the road, pausing only to shoot down stray zombies and reload the shotgun. The conman kept seeing it - flashes of yellow in the alleys they passed, little blinks. He kept quiet about it rather than alerting Ellis, just keeping an eye out... but within the next three alleys it stopped happening.

Nick could tell they were, in fact, getting tighter and tighter on ammo by the way Ellis was slower and slower to fish them out of his pocket.

They wheeled around a street corner at Ellis' command, forced to stop and press up against the wall when they quite nearly ran straight into a group of zombies. Nick noticed, with some discomfort, how they'd just been sitting there. They were leaned up against the nearby building and hunched over their knees, heads in their hands. For an instant he thought they were alive...

That moment of hesitance was more than enough for them to notice the two, and Ellis dragged him back just a step with a grip on his bicep so they didn't get too close before Nick got the gun up and aimed. The closeness let Nick's shotgun blasts go straight into their faces, and they exploded into so many chunks. The last thing he saw of their expressions was that rage.

Neither men were quick to start walking again after the zombies were downed, but neither spoke up either. Both of them were thinking about the same thing; how very lost and … human those zombies had seemed for a moment there.

The hick broke the spell with his usual chatty tone, though he seemed to have dropped telling his stories since that tongue zombie got him.

"'Ey Nick, these here houses might have a gun or two in 'em. 'Specially what with this bein' a zombie apocalypse 'n all that, ain't like anyone'd miss 'em - we could just take a look -"

Just this once, the mechanic shut up on his own, perking up slightly as Nick did the same. They both heard it at the same time, interrupting the hick's thought. A heavy takka takka takka of gunfire sparked into life down the road, so close Nick reflexively half-ducked like it might be aimed at them.

"So he ain't dead!" Ellis hooted, missing Nick's reaction entirely and swiping his cap off to grin. Sure enough, there were a small number of zombies peeling out from houses and alleys to sprint toward a side road in pursuit of the noise. "C'mon, Nick! I thought we lost 'em, but they're even closer now!"

Before the conman even got his mouth open to respond, the shotgun was suddenly gone from his hands and Ellis was off, running full-speed after the trickled flow of hunting zombies. Nick twitched his empty fingers just an instant, then bolted after him with a frustrated, "Don't wait or anything!"

The gambler grumbled sarcastically to himself as they skidded around a street corner, regretting leaving his pipe behind as he heard the gunfire stop - again. "And I thought nearly dying would've mellowed you out a little.. what are you, five? I wasn't prepared for goddamn babysitting."

Ellis didn't react.

Just a few blocks down the next road, the zombies had gathered around the front of a small bar. The windows were already broken in, but there seemed to have been a makeshift blockade made of furniture to seal them up. The door was mostly broken, ripped apart like Nick had seen happen before his very eyes, but something big had been shoved against that, too.

The zombies were beating at the blocking furniture, snarling wildly and cutting their own hands on the shattering wood. They weren't getting much done, but they'd get through eventually… if only by virtue of their persistence. Ellis was quick to start bolting toward them, intent on rushing the group thoughtlessly.

Nick snatched the back of Ellis' shirt, yanking him to a slightly yelped stop like a dog reaching the end of its leash. His collar slammed into the front of his bruised neck, the yelp turning pained. The mechanic instantly whipped his head around, shaking off the gambler's grip but looking at him expectantly.

And, honestly, not really as annoyed as Nick expected. It would apparently take much more effort to piss him off.

"I try not to run straight at buildings with armed people in them. Yeah?" Nick held out his hand, palm up, curling fingers in demand of the shotgun. The mechanic had a little bit of a dubious quirk to his brows, but he handed it over, glancing back at the shuttered bar.

"Whut for? They wouldn't shoot us - we ain't zombies."

Nick smirked a little, moving across the road to get on the same side as the bar. He dropped down to a kneeling position, though he didn't actually let his knee touch the ground, and set the shotgun tight to his shoulder. Gripping it tight and putting his slightly stubbled cheek as close as he could without touching it, the conman took careful aim at the zombies that still hadn't taken notice of them.

Ellis tagged along with him, obediently taking his flank and managing to actually be quiet.

Rewarding him for it, Nick gave an actually robust response out of the corner of his mouth. "Yeah, because people never betray each other during disasters... better safe than sorry, Overalls. Honestly, I'd probably crack someone over the head if they walked past with a gun I could use."

Nick didn't really notice the half-frown Ellis gave him after that. The lack of a response, sure, but he ignored that.

One blasting shot drew the zombies' attention, and the gambler managed to hit one of them even from that far away, stumbling it to the side and drawing a snarl from the whole group. With that, they wheeled around, charging right down the sidewalk toward the two.

Nick aimed low, blowing their legs out from under them. His shots grew more accurate as they got closer, and the last one fell dead maybe a yard or two ahead. The conman got up with a slight grunt, turning his head to glance at Ellis, expecting the kid to compliment his shooting or otherwise make a comment.

Nope. He was standing there, hands in the pockets of his tied up overalls, jaw set a bit in this odd, almost upset kind of thought. Oh, Christ. Leave it to the good little Georgian boy to get his chaps in a twist over a stupid comment.

"I wasn't serious, assclown." Well.. that wasn't entirely true, but Nick didn't see a real reason to say otherwise. Let alone mention the beat of time where he mulled over leaving the kid to die. "Take a joke."

Yeah. Let's leave that out.

Half-sighing, Nick just shook his head, turning back and stepping up close to the building beside them. "Just follow close, Overalls, if that isn't too hard. I'll handle it." He turned his back against the house's face, strafing carefully along the wall up toward the bar.

"Don't shoot nobody." was Ellis' response. It sounded, for a moment, like honest disdain - but just as Nick was about to turn round and give him a sound 'I can think of someone I'd like to shoot' as a response, he noted the goofy grin the mechanic had adopted.

Rolling his eyes dryly and growling quietly under his breath, the conman just turned back around. He dropped into a half-crouch as they got to the bar, dodging underneath the window and halting right beside the door, feeling Ellis settle beside him.

Nick used the butt of his shotgun to bang on the mostly broken door, three times, turning his head and calling out sharply, "Someone in there? We cleared the zombies out here for ya."

There was a few beats of silence, Nick straining carefully to listen - and when a response came, it was so close he flinched a bit. Just on the other side of the blockage, it sounded like. "They're sick, not zombies."

A woman, something that drew up one of the conman's brows. He felt Ellis start to stand up, mouth popping open to talk, and Nick jammed his elbow hard into his side, knocking the wind out of him and flopping him back into the wall.

'EY!' the mechanic mouthed, coughing with honest pain flickering over his face as he grabbed at his already-bruised ribs. Nick gave him a distinct 'I told you to shut up' look, his expression going blank when the woman spoke up again.

"Who's coughing? I heard that - if you're sick there is no way in hell I'm opening up. There are enough of you running around outside."

Nick growled slightly, narrowing his eyes at Ellis even though it had technically been his fault. At any other time, he'd have tried some charm, but he wasn't deluded enough to think he was in any shape to do so. I probably look awful at this point.

"He's not sick, he's stupid. Even if he did turn, I'd be the first to shoot him. So don't worry about it." Ellis was too busy still nursing his ribs to really react that time, nor to notice the pinch to Nick's expression as he made sure his suit collar was covering his neck wound. No sense in giving anybody a reason to think he was ill, too.

The woman sounded immensely unamused, voice lowered and a little muffled through the door. "Oh, great, a possible infected and a jerk... today's just going great."

Then Nick heard a new voice, male that time and more muffled, a booming tone with a slightly tired gruff to it. "Girl, you quit that. The world ain't gone to such shit yet that we'll turn sour to our own. A'sides, with the street clear, we gotta get movin'."

The conman and mechanic shared a small glance, Nick mostly irritated and Ellis rather entertained.

"Oh fine, fine, Coach." the girl conceded quietly, more respectfully than her word choice let on. "Help me get the shelves away from the door, then..."

Nick used his elbow against the wall to push up to stand, stepping over to stand in front of the doorway and glancing over at Ellis. The hick hopped up to join him, nudging him insistently with an elbow. "Heh... really needed yer people-skills, didn't we? Saved the day, there, Nick."

Oh, good. Sarcasm. From Ellis. Because that's what I need right now.

Nick snapped a short glare sideways, stepping away from the nudge. "Shut it, dumbshit. Notice how they're opening up?"

Ellis' goofy grin in response suggested he had half a mind to respond, but the sudden shifting of whatever was blocking the door distracted both of them. It rocked and shuddered, screeching a bit as it pulled away from the door. They could hear the faint grunts of the two inside, and within a few seconds it was clear.

The door swung open, revealing the panting face of a maybe-thirty woman, healthy chocolate skin dusted with sweat. Her jeans and pink shirt were fairly stained with what was becoming an expected mix of blood and dirt, though a good bit cleaner than Ellis' wear. She passed a dubious look over Nick, and he had the sense she was trying to read him.

She turned brown eyes to Ellis after an instant and flashed a smile on him. "Sweetie, you usually hang with shady characters like this?"

Ellis shuffled his feet together and offered that stupid grin of his, lifting his hand to grip onto the bill of his cap and tip it down in this gentlemanly motion. "He ain't so bad.. he's saved muh life once -"

Nick sighed quickly, tossing the shotgun to Ellis and forcing the hick to break his stance in order to fumble and catch it. "First of all it was twice, second of all, let's all start a general leaving movement... we've wasted enough time and I'm not real pleased with how today's gone so far."

Leaning out from behind the woman came the man purportedly named 'Coach,' his bulky shoulders crunched up as he got a backpack strapped onto them, the muzzle of a gun poking out from behind his hip. He drew his heavily stubbled chin up a bit, nodding toward the two men.

"Boy, you keep yo' suit on. Ain't like you're the only one hankering t'get outta here." There was a little taint of disdain in his breathless statement, and it was very shortly responded to with a snide quip, the conman's voice quirked with an unuttered laugh.

"Sooner we get started the better, it'll take a while to squeeze you through the doorway..."

Both Ellis and the woman shifted with clear intent to try and stop what was obviously sparking to start a fight, but a sound from behind them made all four of them freeze up in utter silence - even Ellis, and somewhere Nick savoured the concept.

It was a growl. Sharp, yet quiet. Quiet, yet…

Hungry.

Chapter Text

That feral, malicious growl changed the whole flow of the moment. Everyone froze, Nick and Ellis instantly looking up toward the other two. Neither of them wanted to look back. Nick started to step forward, had just started to move, when the woman frozen in the doorway hissed quickly, "Hold- just hold on!"

Both men's eyes widened, though for slightly different reasons, blurting out in hissed whispers at the same time. Nick took advantage of the instant to steal the shotgun back from Ellis, yanking it away too quickly for the younger man to argue.

"Are you kidding me?! What sort of goddamn advice is that, 'hold on'-"

"Whut is it?! It ain't a dog is it?! Oh mah gawd, they got the dogs - !"

It was Coach's time to shut them up, leaning in with a hard grip clasping onto the edge of the doorway and speaking with the softest voice his booming tone could manage. "Both o' you, shut up 'n calm the shit down..."

It wasn't quite soft enough - another growl echoed out, louder and longer, vibrating slickly through the air. Ellis couldn't take it, spinning around on the heels of his workboots and snapping his eyes up to try and find the source.

"Maaaannn..." the mechanic managed, tone awestruck. "That ain't right..." That decided it, and Nick spun, too, snapping the shotgun up to try and take aim... but stopped. It was too far away to hit with a shotgun.

Crouched just inside an alley on the other side of the street, curled down on all fours like a cat, sat a very attentive zombie. The torn and bloody hood that draped over its face let in just enough light to see a bared fence of wild fangs between peeled back lips.

Rochelle whispered a cautious command, silently drawing her pistol out of her back pocket and nervously stepping closer to the doorway. "Just come back, slowly... that thing jumps at you but we can kill it - if you shoot now, it'll just leap away.. we just have to time it.." Coach mimicked her, very slowly pulling out the submachine gun that was hanging from his back.

The conman slowly took a step back, shotgun still pointed up, uttering a faint "Ellis..." to catch the kid's attention and get him to do the same. Step by step, they backed up toward the door - only to have that crouching infected follow them, two steps for their one.

"Why ain't it.. pouncin'.. whut's it waitin' for..." Ellis whispered, glancing from Nick to the zombie rapidly like he was just waiting for the gambler to shoot. There was severe focus on Nick's face, brows pinched.

"It's like it's..." the woman managed, lifting up the pistol and aiming out of the doorway, bracing the grip with her other hand. "...picking."

She'd barely gotten the words out when suddenly there was a scream, this high-pitched howl, and the thing was flying through the air, stretched out like a frog mid-jump. Wicked claws were poised to maul, fangs spread open...

Right at Nick. Without a doubt, straight at the conman, ravenously eager. His stomach lurched.

"MOVE!" Coach's voice was like an explosion, a barked command that was so fierce, Ellis didn't even think twice before obeying, leaping to the side with a half-shout and clamping his hands onto his cap. He landed on his side, rolling a bit on the concrete and curling slightly.

Only Nick didn't move - he stayed right there, locked against the wall, and three guns fired all at once. The snap of a pistol, the rapid rattling of a machine gun, and the single explosion of a shotgun.

When Ellis lifted his head, peeking out from under the bill of his cap, he watched Nick shove the now-dead zombie off himself. It'd landed on top of him, but flopped lifelessly like a dummy, the only damage it did being fresh blood stained down the front of his blue dress shirt.

The conman peeled his jacket away slightly, surveying the damage with a small, inward sigh. Well, today is just wonderful. Lifting his head, Nick felt a surge of nausea he fought down. Just nerves, he was sure. He watched the two others finally step out of the bar completely, checking over their weapons just momentarily before they tucked them away.

Coach stepped to stand by Nick, looking the man over with obvious concern. There was something very solid about the man - weight puns aside. Judging almost, like the big man was standing there and sizing Nick up for something. There was age on that face, tension in the same places that there were laugh wrinkles. "He get you, boy?"

Nick wasn't a fan of being sized up.

He pawed his jacket back into place, reaching into a pocket and prying a cigarette free from the box inside. Nicotine would still his roiling guts, hopefully. "Dead before it landed." His lips, thin and going a little pale with dehydration, quirked in a snide smirk up at the older man, gesturing his pinky at him. "Consider us even for the zombies earlier, not that that'll last."

Turning on the heels of his dress shoes, the conman strode over to crouch by a ruined car. The crash had lit a good bit of the vehicle on fire, and there were still flames burning dully on the upholstery. Coach watched him light his cigarette on the thing with a slight "hmph," turning his head to see Rochelle offering a hand down to Ellis, bent in a bit.

What he didn't watch was Nick bending his head and covering his mouth with his wrist, eyes closed in a sick expression.

"C'mon, honey," Rochelle said rather sweetly to the kid still sprawled a bit on the sidewalk. "You alright? You look pretty banged up."

Ellis grinned a bit, sheepishly, taking her hand and hauling up to his feet in a clumsy little roll. He let go once he got up, raising his hands up to sweep off his cap again, holding it in front of his chest. "Oh yeah, miss. I'm alright, wasn't nothin' but a fall... All this -" He gestured to the bruises around his neck. "- happened a bit ago. Ran intuh this zombie with a big tongue… Anyway, I'm just fine, heh. I'm Ellis, real pleasure, 'n that over there's Nick. He really ain't that bad. Bet he's glad tuh meetcha, too."

She grinned back, settling her hands on her hips and leaning back slightly. She seemed half startled at his rapid-fire speech, and half tickled by the kind greeting. "Rochelle, and this is Coach." As if on cue, Coach walked up behind her, offering out a heavy hand to take Ellis into a handshake that the mechanic returned gladly. "We bumped into each other running from-"

"For fuck's sake, how about this." Nick spoke smoothly past the cigarette burning between his lips, striding back toward them... and past them, with the shotgun rested on his shoulder.

"You three can have your little hugs-and-kisses party while we walk. In case you don't know, there's an evacuation going on at a hotel near here and I really don't want to find out what happens if we miss it. I'm pissed enough Overalls there made us detour to save your asses."

Coach crossed his arms over his chest, the sweat-stained fabric of his bi-colored shirt crinkling up with the motion. "You just hold on a minute, now.." The conman stopped, though, turning back around and tapping his fingertip against the shotgun he held.

Rochelle interceded there, patting a hand onto Ellis' shoulder as she spoke, head shaking a bit and bangled earrings bobbing. "Look, ... Nick. We saw a few supplies in this bar. Just give us a few minutes and then we can go, alright?"

Ellis glanced just momentarily from Coach to Rochelle, then toward Nick, turning his hat slowly in his hands. He prompted, with an awful amount of plea in his tone, "Ain't gonna take long, Nick, 'n we're 'bout outta shots anyhow."

Nick gave the three a particularly scathing shrug of his shoulder after just a moment of eyeing them. "Five minutes, and then I'm going, you three or not." he said simply, with a sigh, pinching his cigarette between index and middle finger. The conman walked over to the wall of the bar, leaning his shoulder against it and crossing his legs, facing away from them.

A hand came down with a sturdy clap on Ellis' shoulder, and Coach nodded back to the bar.

"C'mon now, son." The big man retreated into the bar with little more than that, disappearing through the doorway.

Rochelle flashed the kid a smile, waving him on as she followed Coach. He scratched his scalp momentarily, shooting the smoking Nick a confused stare before giving in and tagging after the pink-shirted woman.

"Don't mind 'im none, I think he ain't much fer .. well, other people." he apologized, replacing his cap onto the top of his head and stepping around the pushed-back shelves. "But he's pretty nice otherwise."

The bar was a dingy little place, the smell of alcohol strong in the air. The tables had been pushed over and shoved against the windows, leaving most of the floor empty, and in the process of pushing the shelves against the door, bottles had tumbled from its innards and shattered all across the floor. Ellis' boots squeaked and crackled on liquid and glass.

"Awh, it's alright, Ellis." Rochelle stepped up to the bar, where a few guns and boxes of ammo were piled haphazardly. "None of us are really feeling our best. At least he's good with a gun." She picked up one of the boxes, turning it a little in her hand with a pinch to the edge of her mouth. Turning to Ellis, she offered it out.

"Aren't these right for the suit's shotgun?"

Ellis gave a goofy grin at that, taking the box and popping it open, pulling out a bullet and rolling it between his fingers in inspection. "Yeah - but it ain't his, it's mine... better get it back, too, though he ain't too shabby with it." He dumped the bullets into the billowing pocket of his tied-up overalls in a lackadaisical motion that made Rochelle stare, then break into laughter. The mechanic just grinned rather bashfully.

Coach suddenly straightened up from behind the bar, making both of them jump. They'd barely noticed him walk behind it and crouch down, though in retrospect missing the large man's passage seemed unlikely. He was tucking something into the backpack he'd been shrugging on earlier, and when Ellis gave him a curious look, he noticed.

"Ain't nothin', son. Lotta places keep first aid kits lyin' 'round... just planning ahead. Got some other things in here. Prayin' we don't gotta use any of it, but I just grabbed it on the way outta my house."

The hick immediately brightened with interest. "Like a survival kit, yeah? Oh, man, I had onna those in muh truck, but... well.." His face fell slightly, tucking his cap back on and reaching to pick up the chrome shotgun lying on the bar. He fiddled with it, checking the ammo and aim. "I sorta crashed it... got crushed. I used tuh make kits like that with muh buddy Keith - he's the best, we run an autoshop and we got a band - uh, but we always ended up wastin' 'em 'cause all the stuff in 'em was cool, like gloves 'n bandaids 'n gauze 'n stuff, so -"

"Lordy, son... you talk like that all the time?" But the big man was smiling in a humoring motion, like he were listening to a child talking about his imaginary friend.

Rochelle smiled, too, almost laughing as she reached over the table to hold her hand out to Coach. Both of the two looked like they'd needed a laugh, and though Ellis felt his head bow a little in embarrassment under their obvious humor at his expense, he couldn't help enjoying the moment of normalcy.

Then, of course, he watched Coach unstrap and hand Rochelle the submachine gun that had been dangling from his bulky shoulder, and normalcy seemed a strange and tiny concept.

"Maybe the suit out there will like having this better..." she explained belatedly, though Coach hadn't argued or even really given a look. He'd understood what she'd been asking for and just did it. "Anyway, Ellis wanted his weapon back, and we have four guns between us."

Coach sighed a bit, rubbing his palm over his mouth and then the curve of his bald head. "Yeah, a'ight. Boy, toss me that.." He held the hand up, and Ellis tossed the gun over the bar, tipping his cap obligingly.

"C'mon, Nick'll be gettin' mad here in a few. Got whut we need, right?" The kid flashed both of them a smile, taking the machine gun from Rochelle's hand and stepping back toward the door, pushing his free hand into the empty pocket of his overalls.

"Sho, sho, son, we're comin'..." Coach assured him, starting around the bar to go after him, picking up the ammo left on the counter with Rochelle stepping up to help collect everything.

Ellis didn't wait, ducking out of the bar and quickly looking down the road. With a half-sigh of relief, he saw Nick was still there, a stream of cigarette smoke rising in a tiny column from him. "'Ey, Nick, trade ya..."

The conman barely turned his head, just enough for one dark green eye to narrow at the Ellis. Upon seeing the submachine gun the mechanic was lifting up in the air, there was a considerable rise in interest, Nick turning and stepping away from the wall.

"I thought I recognized that gunfire... do I even wanna know where they found a machine gun?" Then he smirked, faintly, correcting himself sarcastically; "Oh, right. We're in the South."

Ellis grinned at him, stopping a few steps from him and offering both the machine gun and an empty hand out. "I can tell'em you don't want it…"

Those green eyes narrowed a bit at him, Nick snatching the machine gun up and shoving Ellis' shotgun at him in the same instant. As Coach and Rochelle walked out of the bar, he urged them on very simply, rolling his cigarette to the corner of his mouth and turning away to start walking down the road at a striding pace.

"Let's go."

Chapter Text

"'ey, Ro?"

Two blocks. Two GODDAMN blocks. We have not gotten two GODDAMN blocks from the bar, and he's already started.

It was all the conman could do not to claw his own ears off when Rochelle turned her head and humored him, sounding entirely too interested for her own good. While it would have been tremendously satisfying, he decided the inconvenience wasn't worth the dramatic effect.

She'll learn. Sooner than later.

"Yeah, sweetie?"

Nick sighed audibly past the cigarette in his lips, smoke roiling up along the features of his face. He got the joy of interrupting them for a few moments when a group of zombies came barreling around a corner. He shot from the hip, hands clamped tight on the gun to keep it steady with the heavy vibrations that shot up his arms from it, mowing them down easily with how they'd clumped together.

"That's more like it... I am definitely keeping this." the gambler said aloud, then raised his voice a bit more. "Bit sweaty, though - or maybe it's not sweat. You didn't try and eat this, did you, Coach?" Nick smirked and rolled the gun in his hands before continuing on unfazed.

"Boy, you better watch yo'self," Coach called after him, wiping his wrist over his forehead and giving a weary sigh that suggested he wasn't pleased at all with Nick's behaviour. "I should'a just kept that shit."

Rochelle bit her lip carefully to avoid cracking even the slightest smile, shaking her head just once and turning brown eyes back to the hick walking beside her. "Those two are never gonna get along, I can tell already... You were saying, Ellis?"

The hick rubbed his head through his hat, dirtied fingers gentle on the fabric. "... well uh, I was just wonderin'. Earlier, you said they was sick, not zombies. I mean, yeah, I heard that too, s'just that seems like a right weird thing tuh say all'uv'a sudden unless - no offense, yuh know.. - but unless you know somethin' about it."

Rochelle half-turned, blinking a bit at him in something a lot like confusion. She broke into laughter again and reached out to smack his shoulder. "Honey, you're quick! You hear that, Coach?"

"Yeah, I heard."

The short, clearly unfocused response from the big man earned him a small brow-raise from Rochelle. He was watching Nick and his practically swaggering stride, some mix of the machine gun and the cigarette pinned between his lips putting the gambler in an odd mood. He looked kind of criminal.

"Anyway, sweetie... I know.. some things. As much as we can, I guess. Probably the only reason Coach has stuck around me so far."

That knocked the older man out of it, his head twisting around to give her a grin. "Awh now, baby girl, don't say that shit. I'm the one with the bum knee... you should be safe already."

She grinned back, fiddling with one of her bangled earrings just a little and tipping her head toward Ellis again. "I came to report on the infection from Ohio... Eyewitness 10 News, y'know them?" The hick nodded emphatically, just about to open his mouth and respond when Rochelle glanced forward and kept going. "My cameraman got sick... from there it all went to shit, but I actually got some insight from CEDA before then."

Ellis saw the little twitches at the corners of her mouth, even as she flashed him a smile, and he realized she was more upset than she let on. He hitched his overalls up with his thumb in hesitant thought, looked up to make sure they were still on the right track toward the Vannah, then prompted her again.

"Whut kinda stuff? I heard a bit on the radio afore muh truck crashed, but it sounded kinda dodgy. Tapin' up windows..? That really work? I mean my buddy Keith 'n I had plans fer zombie apocalypses, 'n there wasn't no tape involved in that, lemme tell ya..."

Rochelle laughed gently, shaking her head and turning her eyes out toward the road, watching with a little bit of a squint as Nick and Coach shot down a few zombies on the way toward them. The two men were rather silent. All Ellis could do was listen to her, lips drawn in faintly.

"Maybe at the start, when they thought it was just some airborne sneeze-and-cough illness... the Green Flu. But it turned bad somewhere along the way, really bad... It made people deathly sick, sweetie. Fever, throwing up, losing their mind.. like their bodies were just falling apart. But they don't die."

Ellis gulped, and Rochelle may as well have been telling a ghost story for how raptly his head was bent, watching her face. She looked stoic, if a little sad. "They look like they will, but then they just go rabid... like animals. They aren't zombies; the dead don't rise, they don't eat brains or something… but.. I dunno, Something snaps, and they're just gone. Whoever they were, before, they -"

"Holy shit, what the FUCK are you talking about?!"

Everyone jumped - even Coach. Nick had spun around on his heel, halting the lot of them, and the words were infused with a cold rage. Maybe the most frightening part of the whole thing was how composed his expression looked in the seconds afterward.

Coach was the first to try and talk, rolling his shoulders a little. "Boy, you-"

Nick didn't even interrupt him... he just smoothed over him, so cool and even it was like the big man hadn't even been talking.

"Nobody is interested in hearing that bullshit right now, unless you like thinking about how the things we've been killing were human once. The hotel is just around this corner and if I hear one word from any of you before we're on an evacuation truck or.. helicopter or whatever they're planning, I will smear zombie all over all of you and tell them you're all sick. 'Kay?"

Green eyes roved over the three of them, testingly... expectantly. His cigarette had dropped to the sidewalk in his rant, and smoke rose faintly up from it in dying, sputtering curls. He didn't even bother to stamp it out - what good was that?

Ellis started, finally creaking out of his startled posture, "… Nick, whut -"

"Zombie blood. Your face. Shut up." Nick elucidated very shortly, jabbing a finger at the Georgian.

The conman turned back after that, silently continuing on toward the upcoming streetcorner, replacing that finger onto the trigger of his gun to watch for infected. Coach glanced back at Ellis and Rochelle, just for a moment, and then very subtly nodded them to keep going.

Ellis bit his lower lip tightly, feeling Rochelle hook her arm in his and pull him into motion. He glanced at her under the bill of his cap, giving a slightly awkward shrug of his shoulder. His discomfort wasn't so much with her closeness as it was Nick's behaviour.

"Ellis…" she whispered sideways to him, voice a little strained with confusion. "... what's up with him?"

The kid shook his head once, using the butt of his shotgun to push his cap up a little. "I ain't real sure, ma'am... I mean -" Ellis cleared his throat, glancing down for a good beat of time, clearly uncertain of whether to speak or not. "... well, I dunno.."

She didn't let it go, squeezing his muscled bicep a little and tilting her head. "What?"

Ellis still hesitated, jaw twitching and easing like he were actually chewing on the words before he spoke them, glancing up toward her and whispering back even quieter, "He got a zombie scratch earlier, on his neck... maybe he's scared."

A pinch of surprise touched Rochelle's face, but then faded. "Well… Everything I know says it's airborne. Even if he did get scratched, I don't think it works like that." There was a little too much emphasis on 'think,' and Ellis seemed about to protest when she clarified comfortingly, "If we were going to get sick, I think we would have already. I got this a while ago, see?"

Rochelle offered her wrist out, showing Ellis a thin set of gouges where a zombie had grabbed for her. It had already clotted over, and definitely looked older than the wound on Nick's neck. He peered at it, feeling a strong sense of relief.

"Oh… good." Ellis' face swapped between a few different expressions; he hadn't really considered the idea of them getting sick before. "Are we immune or somethin'?"

That left Rochelle at a loss. She shook her head, scratching at her earlobe. "I'm … not sure. From what I got, CEDA was still trying to figure everything out." When that didn't seem to comfort Ellis, she smiled and met his gaze strongly. "I just know we're not sick, okay?"

It worked, and he grinned a bit at her, bashfully. "I wasn't worried or nothin'. We're too badass tuh get sick."

They both looked up when Coach broke in, the big man sounding tense. "Got other worries. Just 'cause we're healthy don't mean we're outta the woods." He shook his head at their obvious attention behind him, not continuing, and it left the three in an awkward silence. Nick either didn't hear them or just ignored them.

The gambler had just reached that street corner, spun to the side with his gun lifted up to catch any zombies unawares... and then he froze up.

Of course, there were zombies around the street corner, and Nick's hesitance forced the other three to have to bolt up and quickly gun down the couple infected who'd been quite ready to kill him.

"Jesus, Nick!" Ellis chided as he tossed his gun back onto his shoulder, stepping up to the conman with a slightly meek look before he tried to give a grin, it coming off as goofily stupid as it always did. Nick didn't even look. "Whatcha tryin' tuh do, feed 'em? Y'know-"

"Ellis." It was Coach, but Ellis ignored the interruption for once, lifting up a hand to wave a bit in the air toward Nick's face. Coach and Rochelle had stepped past him, and out of the corner of his eye he saw them stop and stand there, just like Nick.

"- they ain't really the types tuh give a breather -"

"Ellis." This time Rochelle - but Ellis couldn't get his eyes to move, peering at the gambler's stoic, faintly stubbled face, paling lips pinched tight like they still had a cigarette to trap between them. Ellis was waiting for some snide comment, some sarcastic jab - anything to distract him.

But Nick said nothing.

He could just tell. Whatever it was everyone was staring at, he didn't want to see.

Yet…

He'd just been about to force himself to turn when Nick's hand suddenly reached up and grabbed the top of his shirt, yanking him like a dog by its collar, twisting him around. The gesture forced Ellis to face the Vannah Hotel looming up in all its whitewashed, window-pocked glory, alongside the cityscape just before them.

"There's no one here." the gambler uttered flatly.

The parking lot was empty - 'empty' having gained a new meaning for them, anyway. Just a few scattered, bloodied parked cars and zombies, wandering around - sitting and leaning against the cars and the walls of the hotel. Windows were broken in on all levels, the doors hanging off their hinges - and maybe worst of all, flames licked out of every exit and entrance.

At least half of the place was on fire, and it looked (just by eyeing the windows implanted in the walls every few feet) to be spreading fast. They could almost feel the heat from here.

"But..." Ellis started, a little chirp, squashed like a bug by Coach's booming gruff.

"Fuhget it, son. Hate to agree, but he's right." All Ellis could do was watch with slight shock as the big man bent his head a little, one hand coming off his shotgun to cross himself in silence.

Ellis then turned to Rochelle, nearly strangling himself as he'd forgotten Nick, expression turning severe as he stared down the hotel, still had him by the collar. Twisting out of the gambler's grip and looking hopefully to the woman, Ellis prompted again, "But.."

She smiled just faintly at him, a smile that was so hollow it barely avoided being a grimace, and reached out to touch his shoulder. "Honey... we'll be fine. I'm sure they're still hangin' around somewhere. We just missed 'em, okay?"

The younger man pulled his cap off, turning it in his hands slowly. Coach sighed, glancing at his watch and then clapping his hand down on Ellis' shoulder again, shaking him just enough to get his attention. "C'mon, you three. We ain't got long till it starts gettin' dark, an' none of us wanna be out here when that happens."

Ellis and Rochelle looked up at him, but Nick turned away, bending forward slightly to pull his jacket off, guarded green eyes inspecting the blood drying on his dress shirt while his mind visibly worked on overdrive. The wheels in his head turned so fast there might as well have been steam coming out of his ears.

"Whut should we do, guys?" Ellis managed after a few beats, lifting his cap up to screw it down on his head and suddenly breaking into a grin that got him stares from both Coach and Rochelle. "We gonna set up camp?"

Neither could really believe his enthusiasm. It took them an instant to adjust, Rochelle quicker than Coach. She gestured around them at the street, responding, her voice starting slow and then picking up a little speed as she got comfortable with the concept. "There are houses all around us... I don't think anyone would really care if we borrowed one. Coach has a few flashlights but.. well... call me coward but I don't wanna be out in the dark."

The big man nodded, wiping his palm over his mouth again and then turning his head to glance at the yet-silent Nick, staring just a moment before speaking up. "Nick. You stayin' with us or goin' yo' own way?"

There was a moment of silence. A long, heavy moment of silence, and Rochelle's hand on his shoulder was the only thing that kept Ellis from speaking up and pleading with the conman not to go off on his own. It was too dangerous... and Nick was cool. Angry and snide.. but cool.

And, Ellis was almost sure, more scared than he let on.

That dark-haired head turned, and with a momentary glance-over by mistrustful green eyes, the conman acquiesced quietly.

"Yeah, sure. Why the fuck not."

Chapter Text

Nick sighed heavily as he stepped over a crack in the road, adjusting the suit jacket slung over his shoulder. After realizing the Vannah hotel was abandoned, suddenly everything seemed a little worse. He was sticky and sweaty; nausea kept clawing at his gut; there was a heavy blanket of burning rubber and rotting flesh in the air; his dress shirt was clinging to his chest like sandpaper because of the crusting blood that painted its front; his neck was aching like an overextended muscle…

Oh, and we're all going to die.

Coach, Rochelle, and Ellis were ahead of him a few paces, trying to hunt down a building both not on fire and close to the hotel to set up inside for the night. The three were clustered together, Rochelle between them like she was their charge, and Nick considered making a quip about feeling left out.

Fact was, he appreciated the isolation, particularly with how shit he was feeling. That, and he didn't have to do much shooting with them leading the way.

"Whut 'bout that one?" Ellis piped up, pointing just a block down the road at a squat little house plugged snugly into the city rows, brick and dark mortar. It seemed to have dodged the flames and damage a lot of the other buildings had taken, and the two tiny windows on either side of the door had survived unbroken - though the door itself was busted open.

Coach pointed out that very thing with a tone of faint humor, shrugging his backpack more onto his shoulder and taking advantage of the focus to stop for a moment. He shifted some weigh onto his good leg, giving his bum knee a break. "Don't think we need a workin' door, son?"

The hick scratched his head just a little, digging fingertips under the edge of his cap, and thumbed over his shoulder toward Nick. "We seen 'em break through doors like nothin', won't matter either way... Y'all blocked up that bar door anyhow, figure we can do somethin' like that."

The big man nodded a bit in agreement, though slowly, patting up a hand on Rochelle's shoulder and leading the other two toward the building. "Let's get a look inside, then. Yo Nick," He turned his head a bit, eyeing the conman. "Mind watchin' the door?"

tch... Asshole.

Nick raised his gun to rest it against his shoulder, not even bothering with actually responding. He stepped up near the doorway as Ellis was carefully wrenching what remained of the door open. Whatever had busted it had done a number on the hinges, and the Georgian had to push and shove at the thing with his shoulder and a palm, gritting his teeth.

His biceps trembled just a little with the exertion, body curling to force more of his weight against it, and underneath the tight shirt he had on, his stomach clenched up. It sent taut lines across the fabric, tensing over the muscle it covered.

The gambler, before he could catch himself, found a particularly unwanted hum in the back of his head. Try as he might, Nick couldn't wrangle his gaze away from the show of force, nor shake his fascination with the younger man's frame.

Well, fuck.

Mercifully, the door shortly cracked with a loud noise, and Ellis stumbled right into the building along with it, landing with an audible clatter and yelp of surprise in a pile on the floor.

Snapping his eyes quickly out to the street, Nick set his jaw and huffed out a breath, folding his suit jacket over his gun-wielding forearm. "Nice going, Overalls." he called sarcastically over Coach and Rochelle breaking into laughter, the first words he'd spoken in a good while.

"... man, I busted somethin'!" the mechanic complained inside, voice muffled slightly. "Owwwhhh..."

The two others clambered in after him, Coach alert with his shotgun in hand, and Nick could hear Rochelle utter a sympathetic, "Are you okay?" and Ellis start up with "Yeeah.." before he focused his gaze down the road and tuned them out.

The conman raised his free hand to gently touch at the sore scratch on his neck, flinching as the touch brought little sparks of pain. He pulled the hand back, flexing his fingers testingly. He didn't even bother to check his clothing over, knowing full-well his suit was in bad shape.

I'll steal whatever kind of tap we find in there and get it soaking... goddamnit, I can't believe I left all my clothes.

Nick sighed, focusing his attention on that frustration for the time being. Raging inwardly at his ruined $3,000 suit was a lot more satisfying than thinking about his mental slip-up; the latter would just bring back bad memories and make him angrier than he already felt. He was running out of energy, fast. He just felt.. drained.

A flicker of laughter - from whom, he couldn't tell - inside drew his attention for a blink of time, before he just shook it off and grunted. Oh goody, they're bonding. Just what we need in the middle of the goddamn apocalypse.

Those dark emerald eyes stood guarded under his brows, inspecting off in the distance. He could see little clouds of infected huddled against walls and wandering across the street, but they hadn't taken notice of the four. He just eyed them, expression flickering in and out of disgust as they'd bend over and vomit on the sidewalk, or claw at one another, or stumble to their knees and just... sit.

Without warning, Ellis' capped head popped around the doorway, grinning stupidly like he'd startled him and waving at the - expectedly - unfazed conman. "Nick, there ain't nothin' bad in here. Whoever lived here got out quick, 'n whatever broke the door ain't around no more. We gotta look at how we'll block up this door, but yuh wanna come in?"

Nick pushed off the wall, striding over to duck into the building as Ellis backed up to give him room. He'd committed to staying with the group, sure, but the sooner he could get some privacy, the better. Today is fucking with me.

It was a thin little house, the carpeted front room taken up mostly by a fat couch and coffee table. There had been a TV set up against the wall, but the boxy thing had been knocked over somehow and lay broken on the ground - fortunately glass side up, so it hadn't shattered, just cracked the back casing and tore its cord out of the wall.

There was a staircase on the far wall, leading up to a second floor, and just underneath it, an open door to a dark-looking tile kitchen. Rochelle was just stepping out of there, and she lifted a hand to wave at the two returning, Nick suddenly noticing the bangles she had on one arm.

He was pretty certain jewelry wasn't optimal zombie-fighting gear, but didn't comment. Guess a suit isn't, either. "Food?" he questioned, almost blandly, passing his tongue over dry lips and forcing a sigh.

"Mh-hmm. They must've just ... left." Her word choice was careful. "There's a bathroom upstairs, and it looks like the water's still runnin'.. Thank God for city water." she informed them, lifting a hand to tiredly rub her forehead before flashing a strong smile. "Electricity's out, though. All the frenzy, and a lot of the power lines got knocked down, I think."

Nick gave a simple nod, stepping up to the coffee table and laying his gun down on top of it to join Coach's shotgun and Rochelle's pistol, already lying there. "Perfect. I'm sure we'll have just a grand time together. Who needs electricity when we have each other?"

Apparently his sarcasm was too light that time, because Ellis piped up with full enthusiasm, swinging his shotgun up onto his shoulder and hitching his overalls up his waist with a large grin. "Yeah! Man, it'll be like campin', 'cept with zombies 'n shit! I went campin' with muh buddy Keith once, down in Fort McAllister, 'n we didn't have nothin' and nothin' tuh do fer like a week 'cause all our stuff fell in this lake, so we were beggin' these other folks fer food'n'shit - oh man, and then Keith -"

"Whatchyou on 'bout again, son?!"

Nick had never felt so glad to see the huge man as he did then. He actually uttered it, with a short, "Thank-you, Coach..." that it seemed nobody heard. Coach came down the stairs with a slightly staggered gait, the angle of descent sending discomfort through his old knee injury, backpack in one hand and banister in the other.

"Anything and everything.. but mostly Keith." Rochelle said rather sweetly, stepping around the couch so she could reach up and tip Ellis' capbill down over his face teasingly, flashing a smile to show she was joking.

The kid ended up embarrassed, lifting up his free hand (he hadn't relinquished his shotgun so quickly) and only barely raising the cap up to peek out from under it. He didn't quite blush, but there were hints of it beneath the shadows that masked his face.

Nick caught a glimpse of it, a little twitch narrowing his eyes and inspecting the tiny bit of heat gathering on the hick's face. He found himself musing on it, a little longer than he should've let himself. If Ellis thinks he has a chance with her, I'll laugh.

"I been dealin' with kids all my life, and you gotta be the biggest talker I've met, Ellis, shit..." Coach cracked, face breaking into a little grin as the big man used his grip on the banister to ease himself down to sit on the bottom of the staircase, grunting slightly as he settled.

If anyone has a chance, it's me.

"I got'uh lotta funny stories is all!" Ellis defended obliviously, pushing the cap back down to mask his eyes when Rochelle's smile turned into a grin, too... a little too large for Nick's comfort.

… With Rochelle.

The fact he had to clarify for himself was not comforting.

"He sounds sort of-"

"Overalls," Nick suddenly interrupted, flicking a hand to wave Rochelle off and then beckon the mechanic as the older man slipped around to the other side of the coffee table. "Quit being an idiot and help me move this table against the door."

Rochelle looked a bit miffed at him, but just shook her head and walked over to lean against the banister next to Coach, arms crossed, sharing a very small look with him. Ellis, on the other hand, practically leapt on the chance to get out from under his embarrassment. He darted to the opposite side of the table and bent down to get a grip on a leg.

Nick mimicked him after he'd moved the weapons off it and onto the couch, and both were silent as they tilted it onto its side and carried it over to block the doorway. There was nothing really to be done about the small open space at the top of the doorway it couldn't quite reach. It was a thick enough table - thicker than a door anyway, and that would have to do.

"I'll move the TV, too... help keep it up." Ellis offered, moving to do so even before anyone had a chance to agree. He passed by Nick stepping over to it, and he whispered the tiniest of "Thank yuh"s as he did, drawing a quick, sharp little stare from the conman behind his back.

What- .. oh. He thinks I interrupted to save him, doesn't he? Oh, perfect.

Nick couldn't help but give him a little bit of a disdainful stare, watching the hick crouch down and get his hands on the TV to start pushing it over in front of the table. The gambler finally retreated with a little roll of his eyes. He needed to get some air, splash some cold water on his face.

"I'm grabbing the bathroom." he announced simply, walking over to the stairs to gesture Coach to let him pass. The big man was surprisingly unargumentative with him, tossing the backpack at him with a simple "Front pocket." before he moved to get half up, Nick catching it, nodding, and slipping past him.

As he went up the stairs, the light from the front of the house faded. He pulled Ellis' flashlight from his jacket pocket, flicking it on. The light was pale but white, sending a sudden and stark contrast scattering along the house that sucked the depth from everything.

The staircase took a sharp left turn, funneling into a small hallway. There were two doors, both open - bedroom on the left, bathroom on the right. Nick hesitated a moment, eyeing the bedroom through the doorway. He could see the dresser against the wall beside the tussled, unmade bed -light streaming in from a window sent a honey-gold halo that fuzzed them to silhouettes and blinded him to any details, but there were picture frames lined up there.

Something balked him from going in and looking. Maybe a little hint of squeamishness, or some kind of discomfort. It felt strange... he'd broken into a house before, actually. Several. Privacy wasn't an issue, but this was different. Creepy.

The homeowners were probably - definitely? - dead.

Shaking off the idea entirely, Nick pushed into the bathroom, relieved to see it was clean. There was even a shower, somebody's soap and shampoo left behind in bottles on a shelf inside. If Rochelle had been right about the water, they'd be able to clean up before they left in the morning.

The conman stepped up to the sink, tossing the backpack onto the floor by his foot and placing the flashlight on the countertop so it illuminated the room. Nick pulled his folded jacket off his arm and hung it up on the towel rack just by his shoulder, glancing just momentarily over it and noting dirt stains and suspicious blotches here and there, particularly along the sleeves.

Looking up at the mirror hanging above the sink, he was treated to a frontal view of just how badly stained his shirt was. Red and odd tints of black soaked into the fabric like some morbid water balloon had broken on his chest.

Ugh... this used to be a nice suit.

That, and how tired he was looking. But, he tried to glaze over that part.

Sighing with no small amount of disappointment, the gambler set to unbuttoning his dress shirt. Crusted blood came off on his fingertips from the buttons, making him curl his lips a little in dismay. As each button came undone and revealed more of his torso, he noticed the blood had soaked through and stained his chest an odd shade of blushed pink, dark hair a little matted.

Shaking his head and quickly steeling himself against the desire to shudder, the conman pulled the shirt off his arms, a slight chill brushing over the bare stretch of his back. Nick twisted the sink faucet toward the 'C' and let it spray a moment before pushing his shirt under the stream and carefully rubbing at the fabric, watching the water run red down into the drain as it worked at the top layers of the stain.

It was hard keeping focused on the work, even with his shirt's safety in the balance. The mindless scrubbing let his thoughts wander. Namely - wander toward the view he'd gotten of Ellis' muscles. It wasn't that he wanted to, but there the images were.

Of course. World falls apart, and I get trapped with Georgia's finest hayseed. Karma couldn't give him a buck-toothed yokel. It had to be sun-tanned muscle, lean torso, brawny shoulders -

Shaking his head furiously, he sighed. Nick. Man. Get your shit together, goddamnit. You're just stressed - there's probably matches somewhere around here... get a good smoke in you and you'll feel better.

After a moment, he flicked off the faucet and grabbed the bar of soap sitting beside the sink. Scrubbing it into the stain till a soapy foam had collected over the whole of the mess, Nick rubbed it against itself for a moment and then pulled back, letting it sit and resting his palms against the edge of the sink.

He turned his chin a little, eyeing the scratch on his neck in the mirror. It was inflamed around the edges, an angry shade of red, and the scab that had started to form over the dual-lined clawmark was an ugly color. Nick closed his eyes, rolling his head forward with a slight sigh.

Could at least TRY to look like a normal scratch... why do you have to look all fucking infected…?

"Hey, suit..."

The voice came suddenly from the doorway, and with one guarded eye flashing open, Nick glanced at the mirror to inspect the reflection cast in the glass. He'd left the door open without really thinking.

Rochelle leaned in a bit, although it was apparent she hadn't been there very long - when her eyes set on his shirtless back and tensed up shoulders, she let out a startled "Whoops!" and took a step back.

It made him smirk, despite himself, and he turned his head to actually look over his shoulder at the door, leaning his weight a little bit to one side. Being covered in blood didn't put a dent in his ego. "Doesn't bother me, Ro'. I happen to be a very handsome bastard and you're welcome to enjoy it."

Plus, being around a woman made him feel a little better. Get his mind off things.

She did step back into the doorway after a second, giving him a distinctly unamused narrow of her eyes (even though her lips were twitching in and out of a distinctly amused lift) and raising a hand to set on her hip. "You're some kind of bastard, I'll say.."

The woman waited just a beat to see his reaction, and when his smirk curled an extra snide centimeter or two, she continued with her hand raising to point at him. "I came up to see if you wanted a hand with that cut on your neck. It seemed kinda nasty, figured you might need some help."

That faded the smirk just a little, although he didn't necessarily scowl instead. The conman straightened up slightly, turning his shoulder and glancing himself over in the mirror. "I can handle myself. I've dealt with this shit before."

Rochelle flashed a simple roll of her eyes, noticing the lack of an explicit 'no', and stepped around him to pull Coach's backpack up onto the sink. "You're sketchy as shit, y'know that?"

Nick watched her sideways, not making any motion to move out of her way in the slightly enclosed space, nor respond. He watched her unzip the front pocket, digging through and pulling out a tiny bottle of antibiotic, a pack of gauze, and a small roll of tape, tightly tucked into the pack.

"I just meant claw-marks, doll. The ladies love me."

Rochelle took a half-step back, grabbing a hand-towel from the rack and folding it over her thumb. "Uh-huh. Could've fooled me, but I guess girls go for assholes." She stepped back and rested her hip against the sink counter, glancing up at him with this bemused look as she got the towel wet under the faucet, the momentary water flow disturbing some of his soaking shirt's suds.

Getting a better look at his neck wound, her lips twitched downward. "Bend down a little, honey." she ordered in a sympathetic tone as she reached up to daub a little at his scratch, so light and careful he barely felt it. It was, however, cold, and between the temperature and her attention, goosebumps snuck up his arms.

His smirk was definitely back now, bending down to settle his weight on his forearms, balanced on the edge of the counter. "I'm honey now?" he purred quietly, keeping his eyes focused at her and letting his lids sink just a little.

Rochelle jabbed the towel onto his sore wound so hard he cringed in on himself and hunched down, completely not expecting it and cursing a violent, "Fuck!" that was as much pain as it was surprise.

He squinted slightly at her in the instant afterward, rather irked to see a fairly large grin settled neatly on her features. He'd been joking! .. mostly. "What the fuck was that for!?"

She flashed him a wider grin and then moved to daub at the wound again, giving a little coo when he tried to dodge her. "Being a jerk. I'm trying to help, calm down and quit the ladykiller bullshit... I'll strangle you. If Coach doesn't first."

Nick scowled a bit, holding still after a moment and giving her a displeased glare... though something in the way she shook her head at him, bangled earrings swinging, made him crack another half-smirk.

"..fine, fine. Just don't... do that again. Crazy bitch..." Green eyes locked gazes with themselves as he glanced up at himself in the mirror, and spent just a moment focused on their reflection before turning to monitor Rochelle.

The jab had made it bleed, although in the end that would probably be more helpful than anything else, breaking the scab to let the antibiotics soak in quicker. She daubed and brushed at the two scratches, cleaning them up and soothing the agitation with the cold water, before tossing the towel to the countertop and picking up the antibiotic tube.

It was as she was gently laying a line of it along the two claw marks that she spoke up again, voice suddenly very soft as her free hand alighted onto his shoulder. "I was talking to Ellis, earlier. I'm sure all four of us have been exposed plenty... if you were going to get sick, it'd have already happ -"

Rochelle instantly regretted bringing it up, because the previously still conman suddenly straightened right up, forcing her to pull away and drawing a slight inhale from her. Nick didn't even look over, expression a mask of indifference, and he said coolly, "I can bandage it."

She barely had her mouth open to argue when he nearly pushed her out of the way, picking up the gauze and tape and turning toward the mirror, completely ignoring her while he leaned in to delicately lay the gauze strip over the wounds.

Rochelle shook her head just a little, downturning her gaze and stepping around him. She wasn't stupid, she could tell she'd pushed it and couldn't turn it back. The woman lingered just a minute in the doorway like he might break and thank her, watching him tear off bits from the roll of tape with one hand and his teeth, but eventually gave up and disappeared down the hallway.

As Nick settled the bandage into place with a piece of tape to either side, staring at it for a moment before he bent in to turn on the faucet and scrub-and-rinse his shirt, he found himself glancing more than once at the door's reflection in the mirror.

He didn't want to think about the weird clammy sensation on his forehead, or the way his neck was throbbing. Or the nausea that was encroaching in random waves.

He definitely didn't want to think about that.

Chapter Text

Nick was still rearranging the soaked, black strands of his hair as he came downstairs, wearing nothing but the white slacks of his suit. He'd hung his shirt up to dry over the sink and left his jacket on the towel rack, shoes and socks set in a corner of the bathroom floor. Even though the shower had been cold, he felt rather crisp and clean, and the grin on his face earned him very focused looks from all three of the other survivors.

Not even the shivers and the goosebumps on his skin could shake his abruptly good mood. If anything, the cold shower had been clarifying. He even felt a little less feverish, and the shock had taken some of his nerves away.

"Bathroom's open." he announced unnecessarily, reaching the end of the staircase and lounging his elbow on the banister. Nick sent a fairly lecherous smile over toward Rochelle, perched on the arm of the couch. She just shook her head, eyes rolling, and turned around to call over toward Ellis, who'd gotten himself hunched down in front of one of the windows and was intently looking out over the road.

"Ellis, sweetie, you want the bathroom? I think you took your car shop with you when you left."

The hick twisted around, blinking like he'd been startled, and did a quick glance-over of himself. He seemed to just then notice the mess he was. A grin broke over his face, and he swiped his cap off to scratch at his sweat-mussed scalp. "Uh, yeah, guess I better."

With that he darted to the staircase, and as he stepped up to get past Nick, he landed a hand on the conman's shoulder. It was a familiar gesture, just a generally comforting pat with that calloused palm and fingertips... but against Nick's bare, post-shower sensitive skin, he couldn't fight the abrupt snap of his spine straight, something a lot like a grimace working into his features.

The rake of rough, completely oblivious fingers tingled.. sprouting this weighty block of heat that tensed up his shoulder and made him inhale a sharp breath, fingers curling into fists in a little snap.

Ellis noticed. Actually Ellis and Rochelle both did, with Coach only missing it because he'd turned his back to them from where he sat on the couch. The kid quickly recoiled and spun to face him on the steps, looking instantly chagrined.

"Oh shit, did I hurt yuh?!"

He must've thought he'd knocked the conman's wound... but correcting him and saying that it was quite the opposite wasn't high on Nick's list of reactions. He didn't really want to say 'yes,' but 'no' would've just created more questions.

Instead, the conman whipped his head around to glare venomously at the hick, choosing to not respond at all. Sinking his hands into the pockets of his slacks, Nick just retreated toward the kitchen, not seeing any other option in regards to getting out from under the group's attention.

"...awh man, I thought we was gettin' along..." he heard from Ellis behind him, sounding tremendously disappointed.

Nick stepped over to lean against the refrigerator, inspecting the quaint little setup of counters and cabinets with a harsh set to his jaw. Damnit... Shaking his head and feeling a loose strand of hair tickle at his forehead, the gambler turned to settle more of his bare back against the fridge, closing his eyes as the cool metal soaked into his skin, leeching that warm feeling out of him by force.

"Don't worry 'bout it none, son. Ain't yo' fault." Coach reassured him, drawing an inward grunt from Nick.

"...man, should I try 'n talk to 'im? I'm kinda the reason he got hurt at all..."

Nick tensed up slightly, ready to chase Ellis right back out, but Coach's voice redirected him with a weary tone, followed shortly by Rochelle's agreement. "Naw, let him be, son. Go wash up."

"Yeah, Ellis. It'll be fine."

After a beat, Nick could hear the kid's heavy workboots thudding up the staircase that seemed just above his head, and the conman closed his eyes and relaxed. Just a little.

Reaching down into his slacks' pocket, he pried up his pack of cigarettes, eyeing the sticks secreted inside. He was down to fifteen, and with the way things were going, he felt it wouldn't last him long. He wasn't even normally that heavy of a smoker... one somewhere during the day and maybe one at night, with exceptions of more or less depending on where he was.

Sure he was addicted, and he felt it even then, this little need ringing in the back of his head as he hesitated with the pack in hand. But it was a need that time, something he could actually tell he wouldn't be able to shrug off.

I feel like shit. Goddamnit, Nicolas, this is why you stick to women.

So he tugged out a cigarette and curled his lips around it, trapping it firmly and stepping away from the fridge. He dug through a few drawers, finding them mostly full of junk he didn't give a second glance to. One finally held a pack of matches stuffed in the back, and he stole it quickly, turning around to rest against the edge of the counter as he struck the match and bent in to light up.

His eyes closed as he sucked in a hard breath, drowning out his lungs for a moment with the charring nicotine before he exhaled through his nostrils.

A soft 'mm' of approval escaped him, and with the knowledge that Ellis was safely distanced, he dug through the cabinets to find a cup, filled it from the tap, then strode out into the front room.

He was just prying his cigarette from his lips to take a sip when Coach apparently smelled the smoke, giving an immediate protest and twisting his head to stare the conman down challengingly. "Boy, you take that shit outta here! Open a window 'n stick yo' head out or somethin'. You ain't smokin' up this place all night."

Nick didn't even bother getting irritated. He just shrugged a bare shoulder in dismissal, drinking a few swallows of water as he crossed the room to settle on the wall next to the door. He let his body lounge against the wall so the smoke from his breath trailed outside, and he could flick his ash through the open space with ease.

"You two think any about what we're going to do?" the conman asked casually, gaze firmly pointed out the space between the blockading table and the top of the door. He watched a pair of zombies fight in the street like drugged animals, stumbling and staggering against one another with none of the fierce speed he'd seen from them.

They were almost lazy - exhausted.

Rochelle, who'd ended up curled on the couch beside Coach and looked like she might settle into sleep against him, spoke up with an alert tone that went against her tired posture. "I've been thinking a little, yeah. Some of me wants to think if we stay close they'll send someone out to check for stragglers..."

She was obviously going to continue, but Nick slipped in a sarcastic scoff anyway, scratching away a droplet of water that started creeping down his temple with his thumb. "Like hell... we missed it. I know I wouldn't come back."

There was a little bit of silence after he spoke. Rochelle just sighed a bit, tilting her head onto Coach's arm as he tossed it back onto the couch's backboard and settled deeper in the cushion.

Taking in a fair puff off his cigarette, Nick squinted a little out into the street, curling his lips and tongue and exhaling out a single smoke ring into the air before he let the rest of his breath break down into a cloud. He watched it float away from him, critically, only speaking once it had lost its shape.

"Keep going." It wasn't an apology, really, but it was probably better than nothing.

Rochelle did pinch a brow just a little, slightly uncertain at the short nature of his command. Coach nudged the back of her head with his bicep in an urging motion, and she resigned to continuing.

"I did hear some things about the evac plans. From what I remember, there was talk of funneling into ports. I'm not sure what they mean to do there, and they weren't exactly reporter-friendly at the time, but... I think they're trying to get everyone out of the country. Trying to handle the zombies without us getting in the way, maybe."

The conman pried the cigarette from his lips and tapped the ash out the window, taking a swig of water. "So?"

Rochelle gave a small shrug, clasping her hands on her knees and rubbing at her jeans. "Maybe if we head to the coast, we can catch up to CEDA. It's better than sitting around here at least, right? Even if they're not there, we can steal a boat and sail down the shore until we find something. It'd at least get us away from the zombies."

Nick nipped his cig back between his lips and turned to fully face the doorway, leaning his head up to get a good look at the darkening sky. He could hear the water of Ellis' shower suddenly start running, and - after an initial yelp at the cold - muffled and strangled singing.

He half-sighed, scratching for a moment at the bare, crisply-haired expanse of his chest.

"It's a good plan, Nick." Coach finally spoke up, that gruff baritone, rubbing his free hand on the back of his bald head. "I'll check wit' Ellis to make sho', but I think there's a highway we can hook up to nearby. Leads to the coast outta Savannah."

"Yeah, it's a fine plan." Nick shot back with his cigarette rolled to the corner of his mouth, though his tone was even, his thoughts suddenly deliberate and sculpted compared to his dismissive near-silence previously. "That is, assuming they're even still waiting for us when we manage to get there. How far is that, huh? We can't walk that far and make any kind of time, not with zombies to fight along the way. And who's to say they'll happen to be watching the one piece of coast we stumble on to? You're betting on some low odds here, darling."

Rochelle narrowed her eyes slightly at the challenge, although as Nick returned her gaze firmly, he noticed she wasn't so much angry as confident. "My station sent me to Savannah because CEDA had a base here. Sure, it doesn't look like they're doing too well, but if there's any place they'll be keeping their eyes on, it'll be their base of operations. I'd say that's a pretty smart bet, actually."

They stared just an instant at each other after that, this silent tug-o-war with their gazes, the showering Ellis suddenly belting out to the tune of "Iii fell in-to a burnin' ring of fiire.." before his voice muffled again... and then a smirk flashed over Nick's face, and he licked his lips around his cigarette, coolly leaning his head back toward the door to exhale through it. "Okay."

The woman didn't look completely sure of the word, glancing to a shrugging Coach before looking back with raised brows. "Okay?" she echoed.

So Nick repeated it. Slowly. Turning his head just enough to shoot a bland look at her from one half-lidded eye. "Ohh. Kuuh. Haay. Want me to spell it?" But he flickered into a grin and let his arm fold up onto the top edge of the table, massaging his free hand over the slope of his shoulder. "It makes sense. I was driving down here to hit the gambling cruise trail. That's the kind of port I'd want to be on if I were trying to get found; popular and busy."

"Gamblin', huh?" the big man piped up, leaning his elbow on the armrest and his head on his hand. "You do gamblin' then?"

Nick snorted in a humored tone, lifting up that hand to tap his index finger against his lips in a 'shh' motion. "Leave me outta you three and your little bonding parties... there's nothing you need to know about me to get us through this."

Coach relented, just shaking his head and closing his eyes.. but Rochelle wasn't so quick, pushing a little with her bare feet on the couch to straighten up in her curl and eye him across the room.

"Why are you so against talking to us? Ellis thinks you're pissed at him, but I think you just don't want to open up. Christ, Nick. Look around you. Maybe you can loosen up a little?"

Nick realized again how tired he was. His muscles groaned a little in protest as he straightened up, and, crossing his arms against his bare chest, the conman took a sip of water and then moved back across the room to the kitchen. Ellis' shower shut off as he set the glass in the sink, that muffled singing finally shutting up.

"I am pissed at him... and also, no, I don't want to open up. Funny, you seem to have all this figured out already. Guess we can stop talking now."

He could hear her frustrated sigh at his continuing evasion, but still, she didn't give up. "Listen, suit, Ellis is a sweet boy and I'm gonna start getting really irritated if you keep being such a bitch to him - and the rest of us. If you don't want to open up, fine, but quit being so hostile. We don't have to deal with you."

Nick laughed, a rather sharp and sudden noise that had very little humor in it. He snapped his cigarette from between his lips and held it between two fingers, striding back out to the front room and pausing behind the couch. "No, you don't." he agreed, tone flat, and continuing on to the stairs.

He took them at an unbothered pace, almost ignoring the gruff, "Boy, what'ch'you doin'?" from Coach.. but he ended up responding offhandedly.

"Taking the bedroom. You guys can have a sleep-over down here. There's even a linen closet in the kitchen for you."

He'd just hit the top stair when Ellis came out of the bathroom. The kid had his hat in his hands, dark hair mussed and wild with the toweling he'd given it. He'd completely redressed, unlike Nick, but his skin was spotless. His bare arms were chilled to a trembling flush and flexed with the tough muscles of his worked biceps, and he was just tucking his shirt back into place so the conman got flashed with a strip of the bare tummy he'd accidentally pictured earlier.

The only thing that saved Nick, really, was the deep sense of exhaustion and irritation the argument with Rochelle had left him with. Even if he'd had the energy to recognize surge of… well, something, that threatened to flood him at the sight, he was just too agitated to deal with it.

Ellis' voice shook, half with surprise and half with the cold.

"O-oh, hey, Nic-"

"Shut up."

Ellis was left just looking after him, a little uncertainly, as the gambler breezed past him and entered the single bedroom, shutting the door without even glancing over his shoulder.

Chapter Text

Once he shut the door behind himself, there was no going back... and unfortunately, Nick's trepidation to enter the bedroom earlier turned out to be well-founded. He felt uncomfortable and alone.

He could see the pictures on the dresser now, the low-hanging sun having lost its glint and settled into a dim orange. There were four of them, lined up in mismatched stand-up frames that went from a pretty wooden border to some heavy cardboard flowers-and-butterflies monstrosity. A red-haired woman in the snow - the same woman by some lake, posing in a one-piece bathing suit - her and a man a few years younger than her, their cheeks smashed together and their arms stretched up to hold the camera - and then a faded and cracked photo of a wedding, he could only guess her parents'.

Pulling his cigarette gently from his lips and flaring his nostrils to exhale his current lungful of smoke, the conman walked over toward them. For a moment he stood there, weight on his bare heels, eyes glancing over the photographs.

Then the discomfort overtook him and he bent in, flipping each one onto its face.

He felt the same way he always did during his flings with whatever woman he picked up. Always the same routine - back to her place, drinks on the couch, light petting, ... heavy petting... and then she'd scamper to the bedroom, coyly say she needed to "freshen up," disappear into the bathroom, and leave him to stand there in her bedroom for nigh-on an eternity.

Teasing her was one thing. Drawing out the foreplay till she was begging him was one thing. Standing there in a quiet room, just.. waiting... it'd always set him on edge. So he'd pace the room, silently, and the signs of her well-worn existence in the room slowly became strange and jarring.

At least she usually came back out in some skimpy getup or - better yet - nothing at all.

This time, there was no woman a room away - she was probably dead. Maybe Nick had even killed her. There was nothing to eventually deliver him from this state of alien insecurity. There wasn't even anything going to happen that he could leave after it was done, no sleeping body to abandon. He'd shut himself in and that was where he'd stay.

His lips parted to sink his cigarette back between them, sucking a long breath in and watching the stub left spark up into an orange glow. He let his eyes half-close and quietly walked to the bed, tossing aside the blue-quilted sheets to settle into a sitting position on the edge. His eyes closed fully then, and he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, bare torso arched in a tired slump and cigarette dangling from his lips.

Nick was pretty sure it had been an unforgivably asinine thing to do, taking the bedroom. Rochelle should have gotten the isolated room, being the only woman.. Coach should've taken it, rather than camping out on a couch or the floor with his apparently fucked knee. Ellis - well, no, he was the only one of them who didn't need it, but still.

Ellis.

There was a problem.

It wasn't his first time seeing a man in a less-than-innocent light. There had been four incidents in his lifetime, although only two of them had involved actual sex… only one of them had been someone he'd actually known for more than a day or two previous... and most of them had involved anywhere from some to a lot of alcohol.

Most of them hadn't so much as heard from him afterward - though that was usually how he treated women, too.

He'd learned to avoid putting himself in a position to even risk it, which had left him with few close male acquaintances. (His 'gambling buddies' of the past were, after all, not in the slightest his friends. Gambling did that to people.) Although, to be fair, it was probably low on the list of reasons he didn't have many friends.

He blamed it on stress... stress and his addictive, generally selfish nature. One had been an accident a long time ago, one a drunken encounter in a bar, one a release of mind-numbing frustration when he'd nearly completely ruined himself in a bad gambling run, and the last a stupid mistake sprouting from the crash-and-burn ending of his first and only marriage.

He'd regretted all of them after the fact, even if he'd been unable to deny his hand in each. The slips frustrated him, he who felt so in control over his addictions. He gambled, smoked, drank, and chased skirts because he wanted to do those things. Addicted or not, he chose to fall prey to them. They only held sway over him because he let them.

Ellis, however, was creeping into his head and he couldn't stop him. All of those handful of men had, for one reason or another - sudden, burning urges that inexplicably refused to leave him alone. Indulging it had been the only way to shut it up, and being at the mercy of it like that drove Nick insane.

This time, he couldn't even let himself just go after the kid and then leave. He was stuck with Ellis, unless he decided to abandon the group entirely, and considering their current plan involved a good few days of travel...

He was getting the creeping feeling that he'd have been dead already without the troupe downstairs, much as it pained him to admit. Leaving them wasn't an option, not with weird creatures that could leap at you in a flash or grab you up and choke you out with a thick tentacle.

He'd just have to buck up. It was the least of the sacrifices to be made in an apocalypse, he hoped.

Sighing significantly when he was suddenly broken from his thoughts by a too-warm sensation on his lower lip, Nick finally straightened up from where he sat, feeling something pop at the bottom of his spine. His cigarette was burning down low and about to start burning him. Plucking it free with careful fingertips, he leaned over and mashed it out on the bedside table, just barely able to see its outline with how dark it had gotten.

Wiping his hand on his thigh, he shifted to pull his legs up onto the bed, dropping his head onto the pillow and letting his eyes drift half-shut without bothering to draw the sheets over himself. It was too hot already.

The smallest of grunts escaped him as he let his weight shift into a comfortable lounge, though not even that really helped - he could tell already his mind wasn't ready to settle down. It was like a buzzing in the back of his skull, this constant ringing, and he'd dealt with it enough to know it wasn't the innocent kind of restlessness.

Ah, tits. It was that moron coming out of the shower that did it...

He regretted the thought instantly - all it did was mire him in recalling the little flash granted to him. The casual tan that suffused the hick with a tangible warmth... the shaped curves defining his abs... the swell of one hip protesting against his overalls... the line of dark hair that flecked its way down from his bellybutton...

A small puff of interest escaped his nostrils and his lips curled in a sullen moue, shifting to curl an arm under his head and nestle against his forearm, minding the bandage still taped to his neck. Jacking off probably isn't going to help much.

Logic didn't make much a difference to the buzzing at the back of his head. As pleasant a distraction it would be from the zombie apocalypse, that did bring up a concern... was he going to be able to rein it in, or would Ellis turn into some constant frustration eating away at him?

Stress was uniquely damaging to his self-control, and it wasn't like the stress was going to let up anytime soon.

Idly, the gambler drifted a hand down and stroked fingertips along his stomach, curling them to mock a faint scratch along the sensitive stretch of his abdomen. The pleasant tingling brought his eyes to a close, keeping the touch teasingly light.

Curling his tongue absently against the roof of his mouth, he made some kind of effort to keep his mind blank - but as he gave in to sinking his fingers underneath the pinch of his belted slacks, rubbing down the growing bulge in the confines of his boxers, he could do little to stem the flicker of thoughts spurring him on.

A soft huff parted his lips, expression growing serious to the whim of his mind's eye. Memories blurred with fantasy - he could imagine the kid's mouth, harsh stubble and damp lips. Could smell the dizzyingly harsh twang of male arousal as he was pinned to the edge of a table, both of them struggling for dominance. Feel the hard lust under the constriction of unwanted jeans. Hear the rough pant of a moan, unstifled and demanding, twisting into a faint growl.

It was always so angry... this fit of passion, this fight, fierce but mutual craving. It was that clash of testosterone that drew his frustrated desire, and just imagining Ellis' taut, strong frame wrestling against his was enough to drive him nuts.

The gambler arched his back just enough to shift his weight, pulling his hand free with a slight hum. After tugging the two rings on that hand off with his teeth and shoving them in a pocket, he unbuckled his belt, struggling both with a sense of impatience and the feat of getting it undone onehanded.

Nick didn't even bother opening his eyes, uninterested in breaking the almost tactile sense of his fantasizing. He just pulled himself free of slacks and boxers, barely lifting his hips to manage the motion, and found his breath shortened into pants as his fingers brushed against his erection.

His hips shifted minutely and his hand raised to his face. He let his fingers spread, lazily parting his lips and uncurling his tongue to lick up the length of his digits hungrily, the taste of cigarettes swirling through his mouth in a dull twang.

Humming faintly as he gripped his other hand's fingers onto the back of his head, digging nails against the nape of his neck, the gambler coiled now wet fingers around his hard-on, squeezing up it with a small twist of his wrist in a mercilessly tight lubing motion. It made him squirm, though little more than a huff escaped him, and from there all pretense of teasing evaporated.

Slick with his own saliva, the conman pumped himself with quick and tight motions, muscles suddenly tensing up all over his abdomen and thighs as the action sent flutters of lust through his limbs and brought sweat flecking up onto his skin.

"Ah, shit.." he managed just faintly, one eye twitching open and body suddenly shifting tensely, curled fingers burying deeper against his scalp with the rising tension. He let his fingers spread and tighten in their tugging motions, trying to urge his orgasm on.

A faint growl flickered past his lips, tipping his chin up at the sudden thought of those hard- working, calloused hands he'd felt on his shoulder going through the same motion as his own was.

That and a particularly merciless flick of his wrist tipped him over, and a harsh breath rolled over his tongue, so close to a moan it clenched at his throat. His hips bucked up in reflex to the abrupt wave of pleasure.

His palm quickly squeezed over the top of his erection, rocking his hips rather lazily into his own hand as he came, the clenching pressure of his orgasm making his whole body heavy. It ebbed slowly, blood pulsing along his skin, and with a rather indelicate motion that made him shudder, the gambler squeezed his cupped fingers to urge the last drops free and take the last few twinges of pleasure out of it.

A harsh breath peeled from his lips, shuddering faintly as he licked them, shifting his weight when he realized his sweat had caused his bare back stick to the sheets. His hand, sticky with semen, drifted up a bit and curled its fingers. He let his head tip to glance over it, and with a simple Ah, screw it. he tossed his arm to the side and unceremoniously wiped his hand clean on the side of the mattress.

Lazily rolling himself onto his side, the conman groaned slightly in self-protest. His body was over-sensitive and hot, and it was rather regretfully that he forced himself to lift up his hips and pull his boxers and slacks back into place. The brush of the fabric made him suck in a slight breath of discomfort, relaxing quickly after he'd managed it.

He took rebuckling his belt slowly, humming softly to himself in appreciation. The lazy afterglow made his thoughts come a little easier, stress eased all over and lust sated - for the moment.

Not used to doing that with a guy in my head... I should probably have more problems with this but - fuck it, that was good...

Nick let out another half-sigh of a noise, but for some reason found that one tilting into a laugh at the end. Not even the day he'd had could ruin his libido. He pulled his arm out from under his head, catching the pillow with a quick grip and dragging it down to his chest. His eyes shut as his arms wrapped around it, burying half of his face against the fabric and curling his legs up to settle down against the sheets.

He'd rarely had time to think before, not when it came to this. It had usually been far too sudden to even try putting reason to the situation - it hadn't even been his decision that two of his past forays had balked before actual fucking. Given the freedom, he probably wouldn't have stopped short.

It didn't matter, anyway. They were in the Deep South - if anything, his best call would probably be to outright confess to the kid. Scare him good, save us both the trouble. He chuckled a little, the thought somehow cathartic.

Maybe he just liked the idea of regaining control.

Chapter Text

Nick awoke with a jolt, clutching instantly around the pillow he had embraced flat to his body. It was that startling sensation of falling and hitting the mattress, where no amount of focused reflection could determine if the dreamer had actually dropped a few inches onto the bed, or simply flopped up like a fish in protest of the abrupt break from sleep.

He quickly sat up, pillow folding under the pressure of his arms, disoriented in that instant of morning confusion. For just a moment, he'd completely forgotten everything. He looked around himself at the pink-and-orange sunlight washed - and utterly unfamiliar - bedroom, a sleepy mumble spilling from him. "Where the shit-"

And then the fog lifted, and with a small grumble protesting his consciousness in the obviously early hours of the morning, the conman leaned forward and rubbed slowly at his face with his palm, clearing the sleep from his eyes.

He'd had a dream... but now he couldn't remember it. Just a voice, faint and incoherent, and fading fast in his memory even though it felt like it had just happened.

"......Nick?" It was Ellis' drawl, coming from the other side of the closed door, the hesitant raising of his voice indicating to the gambler it wasn't the first time he'd called out for him.

Or maybe not a dream.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm up." he shot back, sighing slightly as he pawed the pillow off his chest and curled his arms up behind his head to stretch, ribs clenching and stomach going tight as the motion sent waves of appreciative tension up his back. It sent pain through different parts of his body, sure, but he took the compromise.

"We gotta get goin' here soon, Nick. Coach 'n Ro' are wakin' up too. I found some cereal, 'cept the milk was all warm 'n' the fridge's probably been dead fer.. I dunno, awhile.. so... I thought you wouldn't want none of it. Keith drank reeeally sour milk once, 'n he got so sick the doctor said he coulda died. Well, he didn't, but man, he was ill just lookin' at cows fer like a year after... so yeah. Dry cereal."

Nick's mouth opened, then shut, and he found a sigh crossing over his lips, musing on how Ellis had been so utterly silent in his fantasies the night before. Settling down from his stretch and checking on the loosening bandage attached to his neck with gentle fingers, he spoke up to invite the kid in.

"Alright. C'mon in, then." He shouldn't have done it... it was a stupid thing, but he felt at ease after the night before and so convinced he'd found a way to beat that demon, that all he really cared about was getting some food.

He was starving.

His slacked legs pushed off the edge of the bed, sitting him comfortably at an angle and letting him lean back onto his palms lazily.

... at which point nothing happened. There was a somewhat awkward silence from the door, though Nick noticed with a lifting brow that he could see the shadows of the Georgian's boots through the bottom crack of the door, indicating he was still there.

There was a clinked thud like ceramic against wood, and after another moment of silence that Nick made no effort to break, Ellis finally spoke up again, audibly chagrined. "Well, Nick, I would, but I only got two hands 'n' I got two bowls, so, uhh..."

The conman couldn't help it. He cracked a smirk, the curl rather cruel with its humor, realizing Ellis' situation and also the implication of his having two bowls. "Coming. Don't over-work your little brain, Overalls, Nick's here to handle all those tough jobs. We wouldn't want you break a nail trying to get a door open." he quipped sarcastically, pushing up to his feet and padding over to the door. He reached one hand into his pocket, fingers catching onto the two rings he'd stuffed there last night to free his hand.

Nick pulled the door open with them in his palm, smirking with darkly narrowed eyes at the hick on the other side. He swore for an instant that, underneath the bill of his blue-and-white cap, those blue eyes twitched down to his bare upper body - but the utterly innocent way they promptly tipped up to evenly meet his made him regret even noticing it. The gambler's hands turned, and he wormed the rings back onto their appropriate fingers, flexing them against the familiar weight.

"Gosh, Nick. You woke up spittin' fire." He grinned, that stupid look he flashed so often, and the conman crossed his arms over his chest, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. Though the smirk had disappeared in a flash at the hick's words, Nick's expression settled into a smooth look rather than a scowl.

"I don't like mornings... so, what induced you to think I'd want to eat breakfast with you?"

The mechanic immediately sputtered, shooting an incredulous glance between the bowls of cereal he cradled in either hand, like he thought they'd tattled on him. "W-well..." But he'd been caught, so with a small, guilty sigh, he finished, "You been actin' all pissed at me since we met, so's I thought I'd try'n catch a word or two with yuh over breakfast, figure out what I done wrong.."

Nick's jaw tightened a bit, drawing this roll of the eyes from him. If he wasn't so fuckin' naive I might be able to stand him better. Why is he so goddamn convinced we have to be friends? Without a word Nick snatched one bowl up from Ellis' hand, the kid gawking a bit as the gambler sent a fairly irritated look his way and turned about to saunter back to the bed, dropping down onto the edge.

He didn't look up when Ellis just stood there in the open doorway, totally unsure of what to do. Nick wasn't going to take pity on him and tell him to come sit; Ellis would just have to figure it out for himself. He just swirled up the spoon implanted in the bowl of crisp, sugary little flakes, and took the first crunching mouthful.

The sweet taste wasn't his favorite this early in the morning, but he was definitely hungry. He'd just swallowed and made for a second spoonful when Ellis cleared his throat a little, raising his free hand to clamp onto the top of his cap like he was just about to leap off a bridge, and scuttled into the room.

"I saw yer shirt while I was takin' muh shower last night... it looked real good... Figure you didn't use no vinegar but it worked anyhow. Ohh, 'n how's yer neck?" That grin flashed up, effortlessly amicable, and Nick glanced up with a raised brow as the younger man dropped down to sit crosslegged on the floor a few feet in front of him, pulling his bowl up by his mouth so he could use his spoon more like a shovel.

The conman stared just a little, startled more by his own overpowering interest than the actual image itself, at the unexpected sight of those a-little-too-plump lips taking in the width of the spoon's head -

Shit. Down, Nick.

Fortunately the mental command was enough to snap himself out of it, and Nick distracted himself by pawing at his cereal with the tip of his spoon like he were pondering eating it. He solidly tossed up the mask of a smirk as Ellis got a curious look on his face, not completely oblivious - just mostly.

"My neck is perfectly goddamn fine... and I have a very shitty feeling this suit won't last long... look at you, after all. You're a mess, and you've only barely been in more trouble than I have. The whole suit'll be ruined by tonight at that rate."

Ellis grinned after rather roughly swallowing a slightly-too-large mouthful of cereal, illustrating his words with waves of his spoon. "Shit, man, I ain't that bad... yer exaggeratin'..." He tossed his utensil into the bowl, using his freed hand to pull his shirt down a bit and get a better look at it, twisting his head slightly.

The conman smirked a bit more, leaning forward over the bowl in his lap to gesture with the end of his spoon over the worst of the weirdly tinted splotches that had long since dried into the fabric. "Yeah? So this kind of mess is just normal for you? What, do you sleep with the hogs?" He mocked a little southern twang there, ribbing on Ellis and entertaining himself a little more than he meant to. "And.. I dunno.. radioactive sewage?"

Ellis gave a laughing snort, smacking at his dirty 'Bullshifters' shirt with his palm and shaking his head in disagreement. "S'just a few li'l stains! Whut'ch'you expect, killin' zombies? That's messy shit, man!"

Nick's gaze focused more upwards, narrowing on the hick's turned away face in something a lot like curiousity. He dug up a spoonful of flakes, hovering it before his mouth a moment. He said rather evenly, "You're a weird-ass kid, Overalls.", before snapping teeth down on the utensil and scraping them back. He simply chewed a moment while Ellis seemed to try and understand what he meant without asking.

That peach-fuzzed face scrunched up a bit, nose crinkling, a motion that pinched at the wound across the bridge of it. The thought was so tangible, and the face so stupidly innocent, Nick cracked this stifled snort, lips curling as he swallowed.

It was pretty clear he was being made fun of, but Ellis either didn't notice or didn't care, as his voice was light and questioning when he gave up and chirped, "What's that s'posed to mean, Nick?"

The gambler released a sigh, swirling his spoon in the dry, rustling cereal as he rolled his tongue over his teeth. He must've been twenty three or even four, but he was so kiddish Nick would've thought him younger - if it hadn't've been for that body of his, anyway.

... Maybe he was intentionally trying to steer them toward the morbidity of the situation. That was really the only distraction he had from the young guy sitting innocently just in front of him, practically waist-level.

Boner-kill on purpose.. Jesus Christ, this is really fucking me up.

"You don't seem all that upset about the, y'know, rampaging sickness that's killed who-the-hell-knows how many people. In fact, I'm getting the feeling you're enjoying it. You might be an outright nutcase."

The mechanic scrunched up his face again, this time in protest, straightening up a bit to shake his head slowly with an overly solemn look. "Well, Nick, no offense, but them things out there ain't really people no more.. yuh heard Ro. A'sides, I've watched all them zombie movies. They're already dead, man, and every time you think they ain't 'n' try tuh reason with 'em, they bite yer arm off."

Sure enough, and to Nick's chagrin, that dumb grin came back promptly. Ellis popped a spoonful of cereal into his mouth like he was particularly proud of his speech, tacking on through his mouthful and behind a politely shielding forearm, "Ain't no sense gettin' upset 'bout it, we'll get out fine.. 'Sides, it's fuckin' cool! 'Zombies ain't real,' my ass."

Nick gave the slightest of sighs, twisting his spoon in his cereal and giving Ellis a focused stare that the kid didn't notice as he shoveled down more of his own, crunching audibly. It.. made sense, sort of. And something, though it was nothing Ellis said or any vibe he gave off, made Nick lose interest in breaking his neat, content bubble of logic.

He wasn't a nutcase; he was a kid, with his own reasons not to feel guilty - and self-comfort not to feel scared. As much as Nick delighted in torturing him, he just didn't see the appeal in arguing.

So he moved the subject elsewhere, digging up a spoonful of cereal as he did so. He didn't really register at the time that he was encouraging conversation.

"Rochelle told me the plan. You think it'll work - heading to the coast? I'm not exactly happy to be stuck with you three for another few goddamn days, but I know shit-all about this stupid backwater edge of the country."

Ellis visibly brightened (not that he'd been particularly somber before) at the question, tossing up his spoon-wielding hand and spilling most of it off to the side without even noticing. "Hell yeah! We'll cruise there like pros, Nick, you'll see.. Ro's real smart 'n she got the plan all figured out - Coach 'n I live here so we got the travelin' down. Plus, I love the beach! I mean I ain't really gone tuh the beach beach recently, but.. y'know. Keith'n'I-"

It was hardly the first time he'd been interrupted, but it was the first time he was interrupted with an actual question. Nick was borderline scowling when he asked it, outright exasperated.

"Okay, once and for all, who the fuck is Keith?"

The immediate, beaming grin that burst across Ellis' face made the gambler groan softly under his breath, already regretting the question. He bent his head down and nibbled on another spoonful of cereal, practically feeling the buffeting of Ellis' emphatic response.

"Oh, man, he's like muh best buddy ever! Muh mama says we was babies together, 'cause we met when we was reeeeally tiny - well, really our mamas met, but we played together 'n' shit cause of that, y'know - but I always thought that sounded weird - but anyway, he's the goddamn coolest. He does all this crazy awesome shit 'cause he ain't got no sense, like he jumped a fence when he was just a kid but got foot caught on the- ohoh, or when he tried tuh make a bandage outta leaves 'cause he cut his knee on this nail crawlin' on a roof, but he - wait, no, I gotta better one - he tried tuh SWALLOW a BATH PLUG 'cause he was tired of pissin' - well it didn't work, duh - well unless you count gettin' hooked up to onna those pissin' tubes 'cause he got put in the hospital fer like a week 'n his guts were all fucked up... man, that shit was sad. Guess he did pull it off fer a while... Oh, but when he got it OUT-"

It was like he'd broken a pipe on the inside, and out came the words, spilling in senseless streams in all directions. He couldn't control himself, quite nearly exploding with the apparent excitement behind the subject, and Nick made a mental note.

Never.. fucking.. ask him.. about Keith.. ever.

All he could do was straighten up and half-shout over the hick's voice, shutting him up with the severity of his tone. "Jesus Christ, Overalls, okay! I get it! He's your maniac friend! Don't need the full encyclopedic version..."

Ellis seemed a little surprised by his interruption - although it was almost a surprise at his voice at all, like the Georgian had completely forgotten about Nick's existence in the room. He flustered slightly, lifting his spoon-wielding hand (he hadn't even noticed that he'd dumped his spoonful of cereal on the carpeting beside his crossed legs) and adjusting his cap with a knuckle.

The little fluster of color to his face settled on Nick's mind like water to a burning stovetop; with a tangible sizzle of interest, he felt his irritation steaming slowly off him until he settled into a one-sided smirk.

The conman pushed the bowl of cereal off his lap and onto the bed, prying his cigarette pack and matches from his slacks' pocket, ignoring Ellis as he tapped out a cigarette and slipped the filter between his lips. It was almost instinctual, as if nicotine could dull any other urges he was feeling.

He started to strike the match, pausing and twisting green eyes toward the open door when he heard Rochelle's voice suddenly rise up the stairs.

"Ellis, honey, is Nick yelling at you again?"

His gaze flicked to the mechanic, eyeing him impassively as his fingers moved again, striking the match and lifting the flame up to light the tip of his cigarette. All he did was arch a brow vaguely, and Ellis ducked his head to shadow his face under the bill of his cap, hiding his embarrassed expression from the gambler.

Seeing his silence as clear indication Ellis would've said 'yes' to that, Nick spoke up for him. His voice was coolly sarcastic, just loud enough to be heard downstairs while not sullying its faux-apathy with a shouting tone. "Yeah, doll. Mean ol' Nick is making the little Georgia peach cry."

Nick was just shaking the match to douse it and inhaling the first tickle of half-burning nicotine and tar when Ellis' head suddenly lifted, a rather thoughtful look scrunching up his nose again. The conman lifted his brows at the change, raising a hand to touch fingertips to his cigarette with an almost feathery touch, steadying it as he sighed out a calm breath of hot smoke.

"What, Overalls?" He said it as he stood up, stowing the rest of the cigarettes and matches back in his pocket and quirking a demanding look down at the mechanic sitting just a foot or two in front of him.

Ellis squinted up at him, then let his expression melt into a grin, packing down a final bite of cereal before he let his spoon clink down into the bowl and tossed the thing aside. He leaned in a bit, making Nick's fingers suddenly clamp onto his cigarette as it occurred to him he was far too perfectly aligned with the conman's crotch.

Ellis was looking straight up at him, eyes tipped up and focused. The fact that he was a bare few feet from Nick's pelvis didn't register in the slightest. Of course he's goddamn oblivious…

"Actually, Nick," the mechanic retorted in a low voice, something like a whisper but nowhere near as quiet. He looked like a guy who'd won something. "I'm thinkin' my plan worked. Yer bein' kinda nicer tuh me!"

The gambler, unable to relax his fingers with Ellis placed so suggestively in front of him, struggled not to glance at that full-lipped grin and have his mind go ... 'there.' He was just sure he'd lose it. He couldn't trust himself, that much was apparent.

And then they heard it: "Uh…"

Neither of them had suspected a thing. Not heard a sound or even felt the slightest sense of anyone approaching - but both of them whipped their heads around at that single, awkward syllable, and there was Rochelle in the doorway. She stood with one hand lifted to the frame, blinking brown eyes with obvious confusion at the scene.

Nick, shirtless and standing at a rigid attention… Ellis, propped forward in his sit on the ground - barely one shift of his position away from being on his knees in those stupid overalls…

Rochelle - not so oblivious.

It was some freak stroke of luck that she looked toward Ellis first. Nick was almost certain his face had some lusty expression plastered all over it that no sane person would miss - but when Rochelle saw the completely innocuous, happily triumphant grin Ellis gladly turned toward her, she relaxed.

"Hey sweetie, hey suit. Is he actually being mean, Ellis? I'll whoop him one, break him into shape."

Nick could've collapsed with relief at the bullet he'd dodged. He honestly didn't know how he would've reacted if she'd looked at him first. Balked, probably - and then Ellis would've been confused too... and shit if he wanted to be the focus of both of them.

Taking advantage of their distraction, Nick sidestepped to get some distance between Ellis and himself, snapping out a reflexive retort at Rochelle. "You lost your shot at that when you turned me down, doll."

It worked precisely how he liked, startling her just enough to force anything else out of her head without completely pissing her off. She got a hand to her hip, shaking her head at him in distaste and apparently deciding against gratifying him with a response.

He was okay with that. Ellis got the chance to actually answer her, widening his grin and scrambling up to his feet. "Naww, he just don't like wakin' up this early. Bet we'll be best buds later today!"

Turning half away from them and cupping his hand over his cigarette slightly, bending in toward it, he grumbled a short "Don't count on it, killer." and then absorbed himself in taking a slow, calming inhale off the thing.

Rochelle rolled her eyes at his bare, hunched back, beckoning Ellis as she took a slight step back. "It'll be later today pretty soon if we don't get going... come on, Ellis, we should help Coach try and pick what we can from the kitchen. Nick needs to get dressed."

"Awh, okay, Ro'. Sorry, I didn't mean tuh waste time, s'just we was talkin'."

He obediently trotted over to her, and Rochelle sent a small glance toward Nick, one slightly dubious, as her hand guided Ellis by the shoulder past her. Her head shook, letting off a helpless sigh and turning to catch back up with the younger man.

Nick could hear him start up talking, his voice buzzing as it echoed up the stairs, but the gambler didn't even try to pay attention. He rubbed his forehead with his wrist, forcing a rather frustrated grind of his teeth and abruptly pulling his cigarette from his lips, mashing it out on the footboard of the bed. The smoke was just giving him a tight feeling in his abdomen as it licked at his throat, not quite nausea but close.

Okay... so no, last night didn't help. Well... tits. If I can't last ten minutes talking to him without nearly popping a vein trying not to grab the back of his head and - Jesus, Nicolas, just shut up!

Pushing his hands into the pockets of his slacks and quite nearly growling at himself, he left the room to duck toward the bathroom and grab his shirt and jacket, eager to get fully dressed and try to force his mind to focus on business.

Going through the monotonous and familiar routine of buttoning the blue dress shirt over his chest (leaving, out of habit, the top one undone), Nick found himself staring wearily at his own reflection in the mirror, shadowy in the bare illumination from borrowed light that touched the tiled room.

If I didn't think Coach would wring my neck I'd just stare at Ro's ass all day.

Nick wasn't sure why that sounded like a joke.

Chapter Text

The hum of conversation downstairs sharpened into focus as Nick took the first few steps of the staircase, and he wasn't surprised in the least to find Ellis' voice the only one doing any talking. "..he didn't even see that shit comin'! I mean, we thought the nest was abandoned! Keith'd JUST gotten up tuh the top of the tree 'n this fuckin' HAWK - oh, hey, Nick!"

The guy broke off instantly when he saw Nick stepping into the main room of the house, flashing him a grin from his place across the room. Rochelle and Coach were, at first glance, nowhere to be found, with Ellis knelt down and in the middle of folding up a pile of blankets.

From what Nick could tell, he was packing up the sleeping arrangements the three had managed the night before. The conman lifted a brow in a slightly scoffing motion as he noted that Ellis was actually taking focused care to line up all the edges with each halving fold, something entirely too... neat... for Nick to have believed had he not seen it.

He finally gave the mechanic a nod in response to the greeting, not yet calmed enough from earlier to convince himself to risk walking much closer than the couch. He worked one hand into his pocket, the other curling on the sofa and flexing its fingers as he settled down into a lounge against it.

Making me nervous now. Damnit.

Glancing around the room with a small amount of confusion, both at not seeing Coach or Rochelle and at Ellis' work, he rolled his shoulder in its socket till it popped and questioned,

"Where'd they go?"

Ellis jabbed up a thumb at the mostly-closed kitchen door, explaining cheerily, "We found some canned shit in there, but Coach wanted me tuh clean up here afore we left. Least we can do! Fer.. well, whoever lives here."

A sly grin rose up onto Nick's features, the humor relaxing a few muscles he hadn't noticed had been tense. Ellis was probably utterly oblivious to it, but Nick saw straight through the ruse -they'd been trying to get him to go do something else (useless, even, considering the owner of the house was likely dead) so they might dodge his constant chatter.

Hypocrites. Least I'm honest.

"Oh, yeah. I'm sure she'll be really eager to thank us, right after she finishes tearing out our eyes and gnawing off our limbs. Yep." ... maybe honest to a fault. Nick smirked narrowly across the room at the kid, unfazed as he got a particularly crinkled look of distaste.

"That's nasty, Nick."

Ellis pawed off his hat and rubbed at his scalp after dropping the last blanket into the folded pile he'd made, grunting and hopping up to his feet. He stretched once there, flopping his forearm behind his neck and getting a good scratch between his shoulderblades. "Sides, what with all four of us lookin' out now, ain't no way none of those zombies are gettin' the best of us. We -"

The conman quickly interrupted him, lifting up a hand to wave him into silence with no small chastisement. "Christ, you dumbshit. Are you trying to jinx us? The minute you say that it'll all go wrong." He crossed his arms over his chest, settling his hip against the edge of the couch instead and staring severely at the mechanic.

Ellis blinked a bit in surprise, his over-expressive face scrunching up while he tugged his cap back into place. "Yuh superstitious, Nick?" He gripped the knot of his overalls with both hands, leaning his weight back onto his heels and rocking idly - although he did look fairly chagrined, like he'd accidentally insulted the older man. "I wouldn'tuh pegged you fer that."

Nick half-sighed, relaxing some of his expression and giving a shrug. He glanced around the room to figure out where the three had stashed the weapons overnight, noticing them set up beside the coffee table that still blocked the door. He headed for them, noting Ellis trudging up to follow at his heels.

"You get pretty cautious of luck when you depend on it." was his vaguely-phrased response, drawing a hum of thought from the kid behind him. Nick dropped down to a crouch to pull his machine gun from the wall, checking it over cautiously.

"What'chya mean by that, Nick? I guess my buddy Keith is real lucky, what with how many times he coulda gone 'n killed himself doin' crazy shit, but yuh don't seem like.. uhh.. well, that probably ain't how yuh meant it."

Ellis stood just by his elbow, tagging close like an awestruck puppy. Nick was beginning to wish he'd been crueler that morning, though maybe he was screwed either way - if he chased him off, he'd just pull some more breakfast-in-bed bullshit.. if he gave up, he'd think they were buddies.

Of course, Nick also hadn't really tried to break him yet. He'd practically been nice to the hick from the start. It was a thought - but Nick put it off, aware the responding rage from Rochelle and Coach (who both seemed instantly fond of Ellis) would make the rest of their time together a living hell.

"You ever gamble, hayseed?" Nick tossed the shoulderstrap of his gun over his arm, noticing that his Magnum had actually been stuffed against the wall behind the butt of the machine gun, still in its sheath. He'd left it in the bathroom...

Goddamn thing is pretty much empty, but.. eh.

Ellis instantly brightened, much like his 'oh I just thought of a story' face, pouncing on the perceived chance to connect with the conman. "Oh, yeah, man!" Nick was a little intrigued, although held silent to see where he was going before making any assumptions, shifting in his crouch to pick up his Magnum and strap it back on to his thigh. "Me'n Keith would go tuh the gas station every Wednesday. Never really won nothin', but man, it was fun!"

Brows raised suspiciously, Nick withheld a sigh and pushed up to stand, rubbing a knuckle across the bridge of his nose. "Gas station?" he echoed, feeling his jaw twitch with an impending smirk. He already figured where this was going.

"Yeah! We bought a buncha those scratch lottery tickets, used our birthdays.. guess we didn't have all that lucky of births!" Nick smacked his forehead into his palm lightly - the kid laughed obliviously, grabbing hold of the bill of his cap and tipping it down to hide his eyes like his joke embarrassed him.

"You play Bingo on Fridays, too..?" the conman asked dryly, smirking with a mean edge to it. His jibe, however, went over Ellis' head, who scrunched his brow slightly in incomprehension and drawled;

"Bingo ain't really gamblin', Nick..."

Nick was about to outright laugh in the Georgian's face when the kitchen door swung open, Coach's heavy frame traipsing through with Rochelle behind him. Judging by the plump shape of the backpack Coach was carrying, they'd found food to take with them.

"He's bullyin' you, son." the big man informed him sympathetically, locking gazes with Nick for a moment in challenge. Not that, nor Rochelle's accompanying hands-on-the-hips, seemed to even make a dent in Nick's humor. He cuffed his knuckles on his chin in a threatening motion, smirking all the while.

"Awwh, naaw. We're just playin', Coach, I don't mind it none." The youth grinned bashfully at the big man, utterly missing the silent threats ping-ponging over his head. "Keith makes fun'a me all the time, too. H-"

Nick smoothly overrode him at that first sign of an impending ramble, hooking an arm casually over one of the outstretched legs of their door-blocking table and letting his body settle into a lazy curl. "What, I don't get any of this mommy-and-daddy routine? I'm hurt, really. I'm delicate and vulnerable too, you know."

His tone was condescending and mocking, instantly getting a rise out of Rochelle. She cocked a hip, incredulously spouting back, "How's he supposed to know you're mocking him? You're just being cruel."

Ellis stood where he was a bit hesitantly, half-spinning back and forth to look at both of them, grabbing onto his cap with both hands. "Uh.. hey, guys.."

"Sure." Nick murmured as a response, easily ignoring the hick's attempt to cut in. His lounge slackened, and green eyes locked salaciously with Rochelle's, narrowing as he lent a light mocking sarcasm to his voice. "But I'm not the only one doing that, am I?"

The hick hadn't given up yet, raising hands as he turned directly to Nick. His tone was practically pleading. "Nick, just drop it, huh? We -"

Rather than vocally interrupt him, the conman just swiped a hand up to snatch his cap right off his head and chuck it coolly across the room. As expected, Ellis yipped a bit in protest and darted after it, unwilling to risk losing it.

With the distance between them now clear, the tension jumped a notch - though Nick's frame lounged as casually as if he'd been sprawled in a hot tub, his eyes and mean smirk holding his hostility instead.

"Nick," Coach started, his scruffy, round jawline taut as he adopted a harsh but diplomatic tone, wide frame shifting. "bein' at odds ain't gonna do nothin' but cause us trouble down the road. You need to quit this shit and move on. None of us need yo' shit."

"My shit?" the conman echoed mockingly, smirk thinning into a sly curl. He lowered his voice to a cold hum, Ellis too far to hear as he dusted off his cap affectionately across the room. "I like your bait-and-switch there, Coach. Very nice. You skipped the part where you sent him out to do laundry because you couldn't stand him."

Coach stiffened up there, a motion that made Nick instantly snort in derision, lazily tossing a limp wrist in his direction that dismissed the argument. He'd won, not that that stopped them from protesting.

"That isn't fair, Nick.." Rochelle muttered, crossing her arms over her chest and letting her draping fingers pluck at the pink Depeche Mode shirt she wore. "We didn't insult him to his face and laugh because he's too sweet to realize it. We just -"

"Nope." Nick agreed, his tone uninterested and scathing as he pushed away from the table. His correction came with a heavy dose of distaste. "You did it behind his back."

It wasn't like Nick really cared. Mostly, he knew it was the easiest way to get under their skin. At least he could say he had been honest about how irritating the kid was. It wasn't his fault that Ellis didn't listen.

There was just enough of a beat of silence, both of the other two seeming frustrated but not retorting, to make Nick move on. He called over, bored, to Ellis, "Come on, Overalls, you're holding us up." and turned to get a grip on one of the table's legs.

The thing was heavy, but pushing it was easier than getting it set up, and he only gave a small grunt as he moved it away from the door. Coach made no motion that even suggested he might help, just eyeing the conman and eventually shaking his head.

There was a strange silence as Nick stepped out the door and looked around to get a quick grasp on the street and the zombie situation. There were a few too close for comfort, but he waited, just watching them while he waited impatiently beside the doorway for the other three to get out.

"Coach'n'I can probably get us outta town alright... I dunno, we might need a map or somethin' after that..."

Of course Ellis tried to prompt conversation, although it was at least on topic. Nick noticed that no one responded to him, and when the kid suddenly stepped through the doorway, tossing his shotgun onto his shoulder, the conman heard him sigh faintly.

It irritated him. The kid's head was down a little, and the guilty disappointment in his expression pissed Nick off. I wasn't even being that much of an asshole. If they'd just kept their noses out of it, it would've been fine, damnit.

That and it was a bit his fault, too. He could imagine a few scenarios where he pulled the argument off without involving Ellis at all. It was too late now, though, and Nick read Ellis like a book: he figured he was to blame for the friction.

Sulking Ellis would be no better than happy Ellis, Nick was pretty sure, so he threw him a bone. Reluctantly.

"Hey, stupid." Nick said sharply, watching the Georgian turn about to blink at him, eyes almost hidden underneath the bill of his cap. He had this leery, uncertain expression on, unsure of Nick's intentions, particularly considering his harsh tone.

"You're losing the contest."

Chapter Text

Ellis bounced around like a brain-damaged chihuahua as the four survivors made their way down the street. He had his shotgun up and primed, taking absolutely every shot he could and giddily belting off his count - adding a rough estimate of what he figured he'd already gotten, which, although Nick found to be a bullshit high number, the conman didn't argue against.. particularly since he didn't care.

The friction, the guilt, the worry - it'd just popped like some fragile bubble on the wind, gone in an instant and with such a lack of fanfare that it was hard to even recall correctly. Had he really looked as upset as Nick's memory painted him? Even more importantly, did that mean Nick's attempt to push him out of it had been... unnecessary?

Considering it had bordered on self-sacrificial, giving the kid a reason to probably think them 'buddies,' the thought... pissed him off.

It didn't matter, though, and he told himself as much. At least the kid isn't whining anymore. he noted inwardly, sidling up to Rochelle and bending his head in toward her ear. She obviously hadn't expected it because she jumped at the first warm, tickling breath of his words on her ear, barely audible under the blasting of Ellis' shotgun.

"I don't see any sign of CEDA, do you?"

Recovering quickly, Rochelle avoided looking at his smug and vaguely suggestive smirk, focusing instead on inspecting the street and the sky, hoping for some sign of a flare or helicopter. There was nothing; just smoke from still-burning housefires. The Vannah hotel was visible down the street, and it had burned so fiercely all night that a good portion of the top had just collapsed into blackened wreckage that was still smoking.

She felt Coach's gaze on her and Nick, being a few feet away, but she passed him a smile to try and ease his obvious distrust. His scruffy, aged features didn't lose their judging edge, but he looked forward anyway.

"No, but let's do a circle around the hotel first... we have to at least try before we go off on our own."

The conman forced a sigh after he'd pulled his head back a little, rubbing a knuckle over the bridge of his nose and giving her a disparaging look that wiped away any hint of flirtation. "They've come through for us so much already, of course they'll just be right around the corner. Maybe with presents!"

Rochelle just shook her head at him, speeding up to walk next to Coach and get away from the gambler's insulting tone. With a smirk, Nick eased back, dropping one hand into his pocket and flexing his fingers on the still-cool metal of his machine gun's trigger.

The other three could've just stood there and traipsed on like they were taking a midday stroll with Ellis taking the zombies and them looking for any sign of their would-be rescuers. However, the moment Ellis realized Nick was relaxing into the concept of not doing anything, he loped back and, voice accusatorial, yelped: "Nick, you ain't even TRYIN'!"

Despite himself, the gambler bristled at the jeer, jabbing up his machine gun in a threatening manner, even if his finger was safely off the trigger.

"Hey, kiddo, I can shoot better than you in my sleep. I'm sure Pappy was proud when you finally got that beer-bottle on the farm fence, but us cityfolk have higher standards." His mocking Southern accent dripped off his words almost nasally, not mixing well with his sarcastic, clipped syntax.

It made Ellis break into laughter, clearly entertained and not taking Nick's insults seriously in the slightest. "C'mon, man, quit makin' excuses.. here, I'll make it easier on yuh... Fresh start, so's I ain't winnin' anymore." His grin widened, utterly amused.

Nick nearly blew a gasket at that. All Coach and Rochelle could do was stay back a few feet, watching with slightly uncertain attention.

"Fine, you sheep-humping redneck, you watch me kick your ass!" Jamming his machine gun into his shoulder and prying his previously pocketed hand up to steady it, he gave Ellis an absolutely venomous look - to which the Georgian whooped with glee. The kid turned back around and resumed his bouncing lope up the road, angling himself for a bunched up group of zombies that spun to attack him at the sound of his heavy footsteps.

He got one shot in, catching a zombie in the head just as they'd started to clamber over one of the parked cars that separated them… but right as he got his shotgun reloaded, Nick rammed his shoulder against Ellis'. He nearly bowled the slightly shorter man over, sending his aim wide and making him stumble.

"N-Nick!" he instantly complained, whipping around the moment he got his balance, watching with some disbelief as the conman pegged the other three with rapid spits of his machine gun.

"Three to one." Nick stated matter-of-factly, half-turning on his heel and giving Ellis an utterly deadpan brow-raise. He didn't look playful... not in the least. If anything, his expression was the seething surface of a pot of water just about to boil over.

"You fight dirty!" was the hick's response, still looking shocked, like he couldn't really believe what he'd seen. Nick simply narrowed his eyes at him, using the heel of one hand to wipe sweat off his brow.

"Yeah. Name's Nick. Nice to meet ya. Fight dirtier or go home."

The conman hadn't even had the chance to turn around and resume the path down the street before he felt Ellis whip past him, determined to get a head start. Unfortunately for him, Nick's reflexes were good, and he snapped out a foot to trip him.

As his workboot collided with Nick's heel and his momentum sent him tipping forward, Ellis managed to grip the conman's sleeve. With a growl of fury, Nick had to actually help him stop his fall and re-catch his balance just to avoid being dragged down himself. Ellis had just prepared a 'hah-hah' grin of triumph when his cap was smacked soundly from his head.

The kid had to scramble after it, and his distraction gave Nick the chance to take down the zombies they'd attracted in their scuffling. There were plenty crowding the hotel's surrounding roadway - the place must've been packed.

"Five to one. You're depressing me, Overalls!"

Rochelle found herself gawking as the two men practically wrestled their way down the street. Sure, Nick's expression was about two inches away from murderous - but they were fighting like schoolboys, tripping and shoving, only stopping to shoot down zombies as they reached them. They kept up a surprising pace considering their constant struggling, darting across the street as they reached the corner of the Vannah.

Still not a sign of rescue... Aside from the hotel crumbling in on itself, so utterly ruined compared to the sparsely burning buildings that surrounded them, Rochelle couldn't help but wonder how it had started burning at all.

On purpose, maybe? Cutting their losses and trying to kill what zombies they could?

Ellis had just belted out a triumphant, "Eight tuh yer nine, I'm catchin' up!" when she felt Coach take her by the elbow with his large hand. She glanced up, smiling just a little. Ever since they'd crossed paths fleeing from the zombies, she'd seen more and more of her father in him, and she couldn't help but enjoy his presence. He didn't seem to mind.

"Nick was right, baby girl." he said to her in that gentle gruff he had, matter-of-fact and serious in its simplicity. He didn't need to say more; they'd both been stewing on the same thing.

"Yeah…" she agreed, eyes lighting up slightly as a heavy smattering of machine gun fire announced a hostile "Eight to my twelve, assclown." and frustrated "Hogwash!" from an Ellis who'd been completely prostrated by a particularly ruthless shove from the gambler.

A laugh escaped her as she watched Nick scoot quickly ahead while Ellis was still scrambling up from the asphalt, stifled by a tightened jaw, and she shook her head. "If I didn't know better, I'd almost say he was having fun... Ellis is really good with people, isn't he?"

"Ha! Thirteen, man!" "Fourteen, stupid." "GOSH DARNIT!"

Coach gave a small snort, squeezing her elbow before releasing it. "Anyone who can get through that Nick's thick head's got a real talent, fo' sho'." His eyes narrowed on a stray zombie - it had bolted out from an alley, but gotten up behind the other two and dodged their attention.

For whatever illness-twisted reason, it had instead wheeled about with a gargling snarl toward Coach and Rochelle.

The big man had his shotgun already primed, though, and the thing didn't get more than a few steps toward them before a blast to the abdomen sent it careening to the ground, cracking its head open and falling silent quickly, though it still twitched.

Hearing the shot, both Nick and Ellis twisted around to see, startled. Ellis had this concerned look, but Nick looked almost irritated. Both were panting heavily, exerted from their struggling, and in the moment of pause, Nick left himself think.

His adrenaline was too high, his pride too inflamed in the struggle to win the stupid contest he'd re-initiated. Nick hadn't meant to let the kid get him riled, but at least it was a distraction. And at least he was angry, instead of aroused. He turned to glance around them, getting his bearings.

Nick realized belatedly he hadn't kept track at all of where they'd been going. The idea that Ellis had been leading them... did not please him. Coach and Rochelle caught up to them, and the gambler noticed that both of them looked to have regained some humor. Coach caught his eye in that instant, and the big man gave him a curt nod.

It felt like an apology, or something, but Coach didn't look long enough to even give Nick the option of returning or not returning it. He looked away too fast. Nick just smirked.

"Sorry, we goin' too fast, guys? We kinda.. got intuh it." Ellis apologized, pawing off his cap to fan at his face with it.

Rolling his eyes slightly, Nick swiped his hand over his mouth and carefully forced his breath into a normal pace, lungs stinging slightly as he tried to look more composed than the younger man. "You wouldn't stop goddamn running. What was I supposed to do? Stand there with my thumb up my ass?"

"It's fine, boys," Rochelle interjected quickly, expression breaking into a grin despite herself. "it's fine. Let's just focus on looking around until we know for sure there's nobody nearby, though, okay? It's not looking promising so far but.. let's try. Who's winning?"

"Me." they both said in unison, instantly whipping around to eye each other - as was turning out to be usual for them, Nick with irritation and Ellis with a growing grin. Rochelle was already breaking down into laughter again before they even started.

"I got one more after my last call, that makes fifteen." Nick pointed out severely, shoulders raising like the hackles of a cat.. although something about the game he was participating in made it.. hard to take his hostility seriously.

Judging by the way he shot a glare at Rochelle - and then Coach, who was giving a gruff chuckle of his own - Nick didn't appreciate that concept.

"Yeah, I got two after that, so I'm at fifteen too. Look'it that!" Ellis outright laughed, smacking his thigh and then tipping his hat in appreciation. "We tied. How cool!"

He'd just gotten the words out when a high pitched squealing noise, like the gurgled scream of a baby, suddenly cut through the air. It was hair-raisingly uncomfortable to listen to, hitting just the right note to hurt the ear. All four of them shot straight where they stood, darting looks between the others.

Nick half-jokingly asserted, "That sure as fuck wasn't me." Ellis laughed rather nervously at the statement, tipping his cap back on his head to peer around the street and subconsciously sidestepping so he was back-to-back - a few feet between them - with the conman.

Nick didn't argue.

It happened again, higher-pitched and more desperate.. and closer, if Nick wasn't going mad.

Coach wrapped his arm around Rochelle's shoulder, pulling her a bit close in a protective motion, but also so he could catch her attention. "Baby girl," he waited for her to look up, bangled earrings swinging with the quick motion. "You got anything on this?"

Nick didn't miss the question, twisting his head to eye the two suspiciously. "What?"

Rochelle bit her lower lip in thought, letting her head roll back and trying to think. "Uh... if.. it's making that kind of sound, I think.. I'm sorry, it's been like two days.."

The conman's voice rose and got irritated, starting to ask it again, "Wh-", but another one of those squeals shut him up for a moment before he shifted into a growled, "...fucking creepy. Can we get off the shitting middle of the street?"

"Yeeah, uhh.." Ellis started... but he didn't finish his sentence before Rochelle blurted frantically, "Spitter! It's a spitter, they spew some kind of acid, and -"

As if on cue, something gave a throaty, snorting gurgle, like a sick person readying to hack up phlegm. Something blindingly green flashed in a window of the building just beside them, making Ellis yipe as he was the first to see it. Coach, in that instinctive bark of decision that made his name appropriate, shouted, "GET OUT THE WAY!" and just dragged Rochelle toward the sidewalk under his arm like she were no heavier than a football.

Something flew out of the window, too fast to really track with his eyes, and Nick saw a sudden splash of this acridly bright green, watery substance hit the ground just a bare foot away. It splattered, spreading, popping and bubbling like some living creature, and a hissing sizzle struck the air.

"Jesus Christ!" Nick snarled in disbelief, darting backward to get away from the rapidly spreading liquid. A gunshot rang out, and though he didn't catch what it was aiming for or who it came from, an eerie shrieking gargle made him wonder if one of the others had caught the 'Spitter' with a shot.

Drops had hit him from the impact, and though it didn't seem to do much to his clothes, he felt an agonizing burn on his hands, making him drop his gun to the asphalt as the sensation made his muscles jerk. It was like splatter from cooking bacon - only far more painful.

He knocked into Ellis, utterly having forgotten he was at his back, and before he could tell up from down, the kid grabbed his shoulders from behind. He was shoved in a spin and then pushed forward, feeling Ellis moving to follow after him in the scramble to get away from the acid.

Nick stumbled, though, wheeling forward with a staggering slant to the side, till he smashed right into the door of one of the cars parked messily alongside the road. It completely knocked the wind out of him, his knees crumpling underneath him and making him slide slightly into a half-crouch of pain.

And then the car alarm shrieked into life, and Nick decided he was going to kill Ellis.

Chapter Text

"WHAT THE SHIT DID YOU DO?" It was Coach who was shouting, and his commanding gruff had never sounded so frightening. Nick didn't even bother trying to respond, clenching his teeth against the ear-splitting sound of the car alarm going off just beside his ear, focusing on shoving himself away from it.

His ears were ringing so hard he could only hear the vague outlines of the other three's voices. His vision was even swimming as he forced his eyes open, pushing his hands against the asphalt to stand up with a stumble, shaking his head mightily and only managing to make himself dizzier.

Rochelle suddenly appearing in front of him, grabbing his face with either hand, made him snap to reality. He quickly shoved her hands away, forcing a growled "I'm fine" just before Ellis practically skated into them.

"Nick-" The hick's face scrunched up, looking less panicked and more breathlessly determined, groaning at the still-screaming alarm and suddenly shoving his shotgun into Nick's hands. "Take this - they're comin', I gotta shut it off.."

Nick's first instinct was to grab it and smack Ellis across the face with the butt of his own shotgun, but the mechanic was unfortunately right - his dizzied senses were recovering enough to hear that familiar howling, shouting clamor racing toward them. Goddamnit... goddamnit we're so fucked.

Coach came up to his side, one of those brawny football-player shoulders shoving Nick harshly to get him to face the opposite direction. Rochelle slipped into place between them, forming a tight triangle, and without a word they hunched in to get ready. His hands stung as the burnt droplets of acid sizzled out, leaving faded splotches on his skin, but the pain kept on.

The first wave of zombies roared into shooting distance when he heard the shatter of breaking glass behind them. The scream of zombies and shriek of the alarm making it almost impossible to even think. Though he tried not to notice, Nick felt himself struggling against the shotgun's harsh recoil, reloading as quick as he could manage.

It was terrifying, that blood-stained tsunami of clawing infected. It was worse than either horde he'd seen before, at the gas station or in the closet - they must've drawn every zombie within blocks. A small glance confirmed that it was just as bad for the other two, though somehow they were managing to keep a distance between them and the horde.

When Ellis' shotgun came up empty, Nick cursed harshly, twisting his grip to hold it like a bat. Fucking Christ, that idiot still has all the bullets, and I dropped my goddamn SMG! He darted a look toward the car, seeing that Ellis had gotten the car unlocked and flung himself into the front seat, bent over it to shove his torso under the wheel. Whatever he was doing, he was doing it frantically, shoulders working madly.

Nick saw the driver side window was broken, and there was blood on the glass, but he didn't have time to think much on it before the zombies overcame him. He used the metal muzzle of the shotgun to the most effect he could, swinging hard at the snarling heads that so madly jerked at him. The occasional gunshot would take one out for him, but Coach and Rochelle could spare only small instants without losing ground themselves.

Fingers kept finding purchase in Nick's clothes, threatening to tear, before he'd smack them away with violent curses and growls, smashing whatever body part he could get at. A few got him, feeling the splice of pain along his forearm as jagged nails dug straight through his clothes, and one leapt up and scored a claw at his cheek before Rochelle shot it down.

There wasn't any breath available to shout with, though he wanted nothing more than to do so. Not even the abrupt, pained chirrup and then complete silence from the car next to them gave Nick more than a small flicker of relief when compared to the zombies crawling over one another to get to him.

"This ain't no good!" Coach barked into the quieter air, drawing a livid NO SHIT! out of Nick's head. The conman scored a hard hit onto a zombie's outstretched neck, knocking the thing's head half-off its shoulders, and then he felt Ellis stumble next to him from the car.

"Bullets, dipshit!" Nick rasped demandingly, barely managing the words. The blood on the window was shortly explained; the kid had torn his elbow to shreds busting in the window, but even with the injury, he moved with immediate speed to pry up shotgun shells from his overalls' pocket.

Ellis fed them to the conman, darting in and out of the way when Nick was forced to shove back a zombie. They got just enough of a flow going to load the gun, though barely - and Nick nearly got a hard bite on his calf as a zombie slipped underneath his radar. Ellis caught it, however, and he kicked it roughly away with one of those heavy workboots he had on just as it had smashed up against Nick's leg and started to scrabble for purchase to sink its teeth in.

Rejuvenated with a new load of bullets, Nick aimed high, for necks and heads. The shots ripped through multiple zombies at once, sending these little crashing waves back in on the horde entity, and with Ellis kicking and shoving at any who got too close, they regained ground.

Only then, with the car alarm off, the zombies were ebbing. Almost instantly it had started to thin out, and Nick found himself starting to breathe easier. "You should know," he muttered sideways to the mechanic hovering at his elbow. "I'm going to kill you."

He heard Ellis cough slightly, but didn't get a chance to see the kid's expression as Rochelle suddenly fell hard against his shoulder. Shoving the shotgun back into Ellis' hands, the conman twisted around to grab hold of her elbow and hold her up, relaxing slightly when he realized that her side of the triangle was clear.

"They get you?" he questioned in a low growl, bending his head to get a look before she even answered. There was a claw mark on her arm and blood was seeping through a tear in her jeans, just on the side of her knee. It looked painful, but minor.

"Little.." she admitted, and Nick was impressed to watch her pull away and stand up on her own, though her weight was limped onto the other leg. Coach and Ellis gunned down what was left of the horde, the former moving over to lean hard against the car, huffing audibly. He'd avoided injury, it looked like, though the fight had clearly drained the anger from him.

"Think they're done..." Ellis pointed out a little breathlessly, piping up like he always did, stepping carefully over to check on Rochelle with a worried look.

It turned back around on him, though, a gasp leaving the woman as she grabbed onto his wrist and made him hold still to get a look at his bloody elbow. Nick heard the noise of surprise, but turned away rather than look. He was too goddamn pissed to feel any kind of pity. There was a hard knot in his stomach, and he knew himself well enough to hear the practically bomb-like ticking of that well of anger.

Ellis' fingers twitched every few seconds, blood dripping down his forearm in rivulets. The adrenaline had stopped blocking the pain halfway through tearing out the car's alarm. "I had tuh shut off the car, 'n it was locked.. ain't so bad, Ro', but yer leg don't look good." the kid explained defensively, dangling his gun at his thigh and trying to pull his arm free.

"Don't be silly, sweetie, we need to bandage this up.."

Nick didn't even bother checking himself over. He could feel where they'd clawed him through his sleeves, and the burn spots on his hands still stung. His whole spine felt like it was ready to lock up, his shoulder popping painfully when he shifted it. He must've made a noise or a face without realizing, because Coach's gruff voice suddenly spoke up.

"Seein' straight, boy?"

The conman actually smirked, though it was small, and he growled a low response, forcing himself to walk toward where he'd dropped his gun. "Just fine.. you?" The acid had stilled and darkened, a dank shade of green more like algae, but Nick was still leery to touch it. He used his heel to drag his machine gun toward him, losing his smirk and clenching his teeth as he was forced to drop to a crouch to get it, pain flashing up his spine.

He delicately touched it, ready to recoil if the liquid still lacing the machine gun's metal frame burned... but it didn't. It had a shelf life, apparently. Nick forced a sigh, picking it up by the muzzle and getting back to his feet, holding the gun between his fingers as lightly as he could and pausing a moment to try and stretch his spine, it crackling rather nastily. He growled faintly.

Coach huffed a tight chuckle and drew away from the car, pulling the backpack off his shoulder and reaching in to find the roll of gauze. He offered it to Rochelle, but Ellis snatched it out of the air and backed up slightly, giving them a quick smile and using his teeth to peel the strip up off the roll. He started to wrap it one-handed around his elbow, keeping his teeth clenched on the end to make it tight.

"Ah gawht eht." he assured them, carefully, hiding the little flinch that crossed the corners of his eyes as the gauze rubbed over the worst of the slices. Rochelle reluctantly backed off, sighing a bit as she placed a hand over the wound on her knee and looked up to glance over the bloody mess they'd made of the street.

"I guess it's pretty safe to say nobody's around... anyone looking would've come at that." she said softly, prompting Coach to settle his arm over her shoulders again. She glanced up at him, frowning subtly. "You come out of it okay, Coach?"

"Mmhm." he said very simply, looking around the zombie-scattered street and scrunching his nose slightly against the dull stench in the air. His frame twitched a bit with a sigh, scratching once at his belly and shaking his head. "Guess we better work on how we're gonna get our asses outta here."

Wiping his mouth carefully with his wrist, Nick trudged up to join them, expression unreadable as he hooked his arm into his machine gun's arm strap. There was a buzzing in his ear that blocked out any thought, this almost single-minded ferocity. Rochelle turned her head to glance at him, but he was staring Ellis down darkly, watching the hick tear his bandage free from the roll and then tuck it under itself to hold it on.

Handing it back to Rochelle with a quiet 'thanks,' Ellis noticed Nick and quickly turned to face him, holding his injured arm at a careful angle to his side. "Nick... man, I'm real sorry, I was tryin' tuh-"

Then it just… happened; the conman backhanded him hard, knocking Ellis a few steps back and making him stumble down to his ass on the asphalt. He caught himself on his palms, quickly raising his good arm to cup his cheek in his palm, this dumb look of surprise on his reddening face.

"Don't fucking do that again." Nick stated simply and venomously, pulling his hand back to curl his fingers. His expression was deadpanned, not giving a single hint at the thought that actually crossed his mind.

...fuck, I actually.. don't know why I did that.. I'm not - Am I that pissed at him?

They were all silent, no one entirely certain about breaking the silence, until Ellis gave a quiet 'heh' and one-sided grin. Carefully rolling his jaw to pop it, the hick glanced up at Nick under the bill of his cap, miraculously still on his head, not losing his quirked grin even when Nick didn't budge an inch.

"Fergive me now?" Ellis questioned, and for some mind-boggling reason he sounded calm when he said it, like he hadn't just gotten smacked to the floor. His lower lip started bleeding, just a little prickle of red down the slope of soft flesh. One of Nick's rings must've clipped his mouth.

I'm not stupid, he was trying to help... I was just going to yell at him.. fuck.

But all three of them were staring at him, and he was taking too long to respond. He just scowled hard at the kid and stepped forward, grabbing hold of his shirt collar and yanking him up to his feet.

"You're a goddamn idiot, Ellis." he growled at him in non-answer, shoving him a little just to make him stumble before the conman turned and shoved his hands into his slacks' pockets, biting his tongue against the sharp feeling of nausea that rose up his throat.

I'm agitated, that's it, and he deserved it. Nick glanced down at his clothes, finally letting himself catalogue the new damages to his once-pristine suit, mostly to distract himself. The buzzing sound was gone - but that clammy feeling was back. When did I get this hair-trigger?

He heard Ellis chuckling behind him, and his acceptance of the punishment boggled them all. Coach started to say something, but the hick simply shrugged his uninjured shoulder with an easy smile, prompting up with a, "So whut're we gonna do?"

Rochelle sighed slightly at that, reaching up to squeeze gently on Coach's forearm before she broke away from him and took a limped step to the side, rubbing gently at her temples with her fingertips. "I guess we need to start heading out of town... maybe we can find a map, if we can get into a store nearby? I'd like to plan a little more, if.." Her lips downcurled a bit, giving a helpless gesture around them with her voice gaining a tautness to it. "we can't get a few blocks and not have that kind of shit happen."

Coach chuffed out a thoughtful noise, nodding. His head turned to eye Ellis, the kid perking up a little at the glance, keeping himself from hunching any over his injured arm. "C'mon, son, we gotta go find us a store.. Gonna hafta break in. Don't do it wit' yo' arm again - you're lucky you ain't hurt worse."

Ellis laughed, adjusting his grip on his shotgun and stepping up toward Coach, shaking his head dismissively like there wasn't drying blood dribbled down the whole length of his forearm. He found a story as the big man started to lead them toward the sidewalk, Nick reluctantly trailing after them though he had half a mind to just sit for a minute, feeling out of sorts and aching. "I ever tell you 'bout the time muh buddy Keith -"

Very quietly, Nick said "Don't start." His tone was so flat it made Rochelle glance over her shoulder at him, but the conman's face was covered with a simple scowl and she got nothing.

Ellis gawped forward for just a moment, then flashed to a grin without even looking behind himself and whispered so just Rochelle and Coach could hear him, gesturing to his roughly bandaged and bloody elbow with his shotgun; "...well, this ain't nothin' is all I'm sayin'."

Nick realized he'd have preferred it if the hick had started crying at the backhand, or punched him in return. At least then it would've been a reasonable reaction... as it was he just felt like a jackass, and coupled with the fact he hadn't actually meant to hit Ellis - that it rang like a 'mistake' - it all left him feeling very odd and tense.

Was he feverish again, or was it just his imagination? He felt like something was going on beyond his control, against his will, and it chafed him in all the wrong ways.

He dug for a cigarette and match.

Chapter Text

They took the road more carefully now, walking in a loose line down the sidewalk.

With Nick deathly silent at the back and offering a fierce poker face while he smoked his cigarette down, puffing like a chimney, Ellis had pushed himself closer to Rochelle and Coach The kid trotted along with his shotgun dangled in his right hand while his injured left arm was held gingerly at his side. Considering both Rochelle and Ellis were hurt, Coach kept in front, his bulky frame arranged like a shield to the two behind him.

Rochelle still couldn't pick out any kind of brooding on the kid's face, but it was hard to think he'd taken the conman's strike that well. Harder, even, to gauge her own feelings about it when the attacked party had so easily dismissed it.

Boys. I'll never understand.

Testingly, she lifted her head, flashing a smile and prompting, "That was pretty smooth, turning off that alarm.. you're not Nick's type. Guess it's that autoshop experience?"

She felt a little heat on the back of her skull and figured Nick had turned his currently lazered gaze onto her, but she kept focused on Ellis, watching him break into a bashful grin and try to adjust his cap with his thumb, fighting the weight of his shotgun.

"Awh, shucks.. just a little wire work, that's all.. The alarm system's right under the steerin' wheel. But, thanks Ro'. I looove cars... always have. Can't say I took it up plannin' fer zombies, but, uhh.. I ain't complainin'. Been tinkerin' with 'em since I could work a jack."

Nick found himself tightening his lips on his cigarette, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. At the same time the hick's response brought back a vivid recollection of his totaled Barchetta, it struck him with the thought of Ellis - lean, flush body shirtless and toiling over the hood of a car...

Coach's shotgun blasting off as their presence attracted a group of zombies distracted him enough to dissipate the image, but he could feel it humming in the back of his head. Simmering together with his anger with Ellis and the fog over his brain, Nick's frustrated sex drive revved up to a dangerous level.

Maybe scaring him off is the way to go, after all.

The gambler lifted his machine gun and picked off a few zombies with short squeezes of his trigger, rolling his shoulder as he eyed the kid's back between shots. Would get him to leave me the fuck alone at least... it's a thought. Bad one, maybe...

"I guess the hat and jumpsuit should've tipped me off. Maybe when this is all over, you can tell me why my air conditioning is always rattling." She grinned at him, and though she noticed Coach shaking his head minutely and knew he had half a mind to chide her for pretending things would return to that kind of normality, the big man didn't actually vocalize it.

Ellis snorted a laugh, spinning his shotgun in half-circles with his hand and cocking his head. He adjusted his hurt arm slightly, the bandages itching and dried blood feeling tacky on his skin.

"'Course! Hell, we get outta here, I'll get'ch'ya a whole new car."

Rochelle shook her head in amusement, resting her palm on her hip as she let her limp exaggerate slightly to take weight off her hurt leg. Ellis must've noticed, because he instantly trapped his shotgun gingerly under the armpit of his bandaged arm, stepping to the other side of Rochelle so he could offer his good arm for support. The gesture freshly charmed her, bringing a smile to her lips, but she rejected it with a gentle shake of her head.

He retreated easily, rubbing the back of his hand against his nose and risking a glance over his shoulder to check on Nick. He caught the gambler with a strange expression on his face, and he swore Nick had been staring at him, but it switched to a challenging scowl so fast he couldn't get a read on it.

Pulling in a breath, Ellis half-awkwardly turned back and scratched behind an ear as he considered trying to prompt a conversation with the lagging conman. He felt guilty about his screw-up earlier, regardless of the punishment Nick had meted out, and eagerly perked up when Rochelle nudged him. Her voice was thoughtfully and cautiously toned. "So, Ellis... this Keith.. why aren't you with him?"

Chuckling quietly and prying his shotgun from under his arm, Ellis swung it to his shoulder and gave a shrugging gesture with his head. "I was a ways outta town is all, when the evacs started. He rang me up though, just a'fore he got on one of them whirlybirds."

A loud, sarcastic snort from behind them made them jump a little, and Nick quietly muttered, "'Whirlybirds'..." with that mocking Southern twang that would've otherwise made Ellis laugh. This time, though, he didn't say anything at all, scratching his neck and forcing a blank look like he hadn't even heard it.

Maybe the mocking was a good sign... he could only hope the conman was getting over what happened, however slowly. Ellis decided he'd find another time to apologize again, relaxing with the idea of having a plan.

Rochelle cleared her throat slightly, reaching up a hand to tug on one of her hoop earrings and raising her voice in a dogged attempt to continue distracting Ellis - and, subtly, chide Nick for his snarking. "What, he just left? Didn't think he should wait for you?"

Ellis laughed at that, nudging his chin down to shade his eyes slightly under the bill of his cap.

"Naw, nothin' like that... He didn't want tuh go on till I got there, but he was with our mamas. Told him to go with 'em. Anyway, looks like them CEDA folk weren't real keen on hangin' 'round any... don't reckon I blame 'em none, either."

"I do." Coach interjected easily, chuckling afterward and pulling them to a stop just before a zombie-clogged T-intersection. They were swarming sluggishly over the remnants of a bloody crash, clawing at the uninfected bodies crushed between the conjoined frames of cars.

He gauged their surroundings for a moment with a heavy sigh - up till then, the blocks had been either purely housing or businesses obviously destroyed beyond salvaging. He noticed a sign for a gas station down the right, glancing over his shoulder and gesturing Nick toward him.

The conman scowled at being ordered forward but acquiesced, jaw flexing as he kept his teeth from chomping down on his cigarette. His eyes focused solidly forward as he strode around Ellis and Rochelle, lifting a brow at Coach and setting his machine gun against his sore shoulder. "Got a game plan, Coach?" he offered mockingly, shifting his torso and tilting his head to aim down the sights morosely at the intersection.

"Gas station down the street." the big man answered simply, cracking his neck with an easy roll of his bald head. He reloaded his shotgun quietly, speaking up again when Rochelle and Ellis stopped behind them. "Ro', Ellis - stick close. We gonna have to get through that shit. Nick an' I'll handle it, a'ight?"

For the first time since they'd met, Rochelle argued. She pulled her pistol free from her belt, shifting her weight slightly as she checked the clip defiantly. "We all have guns, Coach, we'll help.. don't be like that."

Ellis agreed quickly, flashing a lopsided grin as he lifted his shotgun up and forced his bandaged elbow into a twist so he could grip the reload pump. "I'm with Ro', Coach. Them zombies ain't got nothin' on us if we stick tuhgether, and anyways, I can only take so much hidin' at the back... got zombies tuh kill, man."

Coach eyed them carefully for an instant, giving in almost instantly with a nod. In retrospect, it was a respectable decision - he knew better than to fight them. The all-knowing leader type didn't sit well with Nick, but seeing he'd shut up when shutting up was appropriate lowered his distaste a few notches. "Yeah, sho'. Let's do this shit."

Nick found himself gritting his teeth in agitation as Ellis whooped "Yeah!" out loud without thinking, like the moment was too exciting for him to handle. The gleeful sound snapped heads toward them, and within an instant the zombies were throwing themselves away from the car in a mad dash toward them.

"Ellis..." Rochelle chided quickly, swinging herself to the side to get a good shot around Nick. She got the first shot in, the gambler following with Coach close behind, taking the infected down quickly with their firm front. Ellis hesitated, more embarrassed than anything else, but as the first few zombies went down to blaring, varied gunfire he couldn't stand back.

"Sorry!" he managed as he joined the impromptu line, quickly aiming for the closest infected. He heard Coach chuckle under the loud blast of the kid's shotgun. The reaction easily reassured him, a grin flashing over his face, goofy and unfading even when reloading made his arm twitch with pain - and when Nick snapped loudly over the gunfire.

"You couldn't cause more goddamn problems if you tried, Overalls."

Chuckling as one of his shots caught a zombie in the shoulder and spun it around in a bleeding circle, Ellis retorted - and he did it sweetly, voice devoid of sarcasm. "Well, Nick, at least you admit I ain't tryin'..."

The oddly apt response made Nick grunt noncommittally, barely audible under the gunfire that announced the squalling deaths of the next couple zombies. One managed to dodge getting hit, scrambling into a leap to try and claw its way to Coach. Nick quickly shifted his fire, catching it in the side and blowing it open like a split pig, but the sudden twist of his waist made his frame seize up slightly and his cigarette got flung free from his lips in a small huff.

Fuck… Something was wrong. Maybe he'd bashed his head harder on the car than he thought - but as nausea flooded him, he wasn't so sure.

None of the others noticed it, it seemed. Coach nodded an acknowledgement and returned to shooting, the last few stragglers going down easy. Nick stepped back a bit from the other three to check his ammo and take a few breaths, tipping the gun to the side and snapping the clip out with a quick motion of his palm.

Replacing it after confirming that he was running low, Nick released a lengthy sigh. Licking his lips in a regretful motion at the loss of his cigarette (even though it had almost been burnt to a stub anyway), the conman cleared his throat once, quietly, and tipped his head to look over his suit and wipe at a few of the worst spots with his knuckles.

Nobody was looking his way, and he took advantage of the moment to press a knuckle to his forehead.

He was scalding.

The realization made his heart skip a beat, a shallow clench of his chest. Why…?

"Hey, we made it out of that one alright.." Rochelle noted suddenly, discarding her empty pistol clip and prying a new one from the stash of a couple she'd tucked under her belt in a few places. She laughed slightly, turning her head to flash a smile at Ellis. He adjusted his cap with the wrist of his gun-holding hand, hiding a chagrined look.

"I'd'uv felt awful if someone'd gotten hurt... well, again.."

Coach reached out to pat him between the shoulderblades, glancing down the road to try and see the gas station they were hoping for. "Don’t worry, son. Ain't the last time someone's gonna do somethin' stupid. No sense mopin'." He squinted slightly, noting the broken shape of a dead gas sign sticking out over the sidewalk several blocks down.

Ellis nodded gratefully under the quiet, stifled sound of Nick coughing. He carefully reloaded his shotgun, cringing a little more visibly as he noticed he'd started to bleed through his elbow's bandages.

Rochelle noticed too, giving him a dubious look sideways. "Honey, you should've sat that one out. What'm I gonna do with you, huh?" But she smiled gently, offering her hand out to take a look at it as another unintelligibly muffled cough came from behind them.

Ellis shook his head with a grin, tucking his shotgun under his armpit and letting his bandaged arm dangle at his side. "Naw, Ro', we can deal with it at the gas station.. ain't nothin' what can't wait a few minutes. Keith tore his whole arm up once workin' on a car, 'cause the engine -"

When a third cough sounded faintly, Rochelle couldn't help but turn around, cocking her hip slightly, both in bewilderment and to keep her weight off her pained knee.

"Nick, hun, you alright?"

The conman lifted his head, lifting a brow in a motion that betrayed he hadn't been paying a speck of attention to them. His face was defensively blank, burying the worry etched into the downward curl of his mouth - but there was nothing breathless about him like someone would be fighting a cough. Even as he clearly registered her question, he didn't seem to understand the context.

"They didn't even come close. Worried about me, doll? I'm -" Her reaction shut him up, head tilting.

Lifting a hand quickly to her mouth, Rochelle drew her brows together and started to dart her gaze over their surroundings, clearly looking for something. "Oh, shit, that wasn't you…" When another cough sounded, it was closer but still muffled - and Nick heard it this time.

An acrid stench drifted over. The remnants of Nick's cigarette's smell masked it at first, but as it became stronger, it became… thicker. Harsher. And stank, more like decomposition than tobacco.

Ellis caught on first, jumping slightly and getting his shotgun up, swinging it as he followed Rochelle's lead. He took half-steps backward as he turned, ending up starting a small circle. He looked nervous - reasonably so, though there was also a tint of his undauntable excitement, like he were narrating a horror movie. "Oh gawd, it's that chokin' thing again!"

Nick and Coach just had the time to understand and start to lift their guns when the cough came out loud and clear, crying out in a hacking yell. Rochelle gave a sudden, pained "AH!", and the whoosh of air was almost audible as she was ripped off her feet by her knee. The tongue shot up her thigh in a curl, quick to get a better grip even before she started falling.

In a lucky grab, she flung out her hand and got Nick's sleeve - and he let his machine gun flap wildly from its shoulderstrap in favor of grabbing her elbow in return. He could hear Ellis and Coach shouting, but within an instant he was being yanked to the asphalt with Rochelle. They collided hard, rolling and skidding as the tongue dragged them easily toward an open doorway, even with Nick added on.

More reflex than conscious thought, the conman used his weight and his grip on Rochelle's arm to force her against his chest, wrapping around her as the tongue jerked them harshly. The world was just blurs, in the small blinks he managed to get, trying to keep his mind functioning.

"Help, assh-!" Nick got out right before they bounced up and then struck the sidewalk again, a cry harsh in his ear from the tangled woman, though it was more fear than pain as he took the brunt of it. The wind was knocked out of him.

They were yanked through the doorway, tumbling straight into what felt like a table. It crumpled beneath them with a loud breaking noise, but they were almost instantly pulled deeper. Nick felt them crash right into the zombie's waiting frame, and a clawed hand grabbed onto the side of his head, digging nails into his cheek and pulling his head back.

It was smart enough to know Nick wasn't nearly as immobilized as Rochelle was, so it grabbed for him, fingertips seeking purchase on his face to claw. He fought it, reaching up a hand to try and punch at where he swore the thing's head must have been.

He hit shoulder; he'd forgotten how unnaturally tall it was, and it earned him nothing but a stinging hand and pain as the hacking infected grabbed at him harder. It was just pissed, now.

He could hear Rochelle's voice suddenly turn frantic, and the tongue - now entirely coiled around her - flexed to start the same strangulation he'd seen Ellis fall prey to. The hunting tentacle had found Nick's other arm, trapping it against Rochelle's side, and he felt it tightening on his forearm with a crushing weight.

His SMG was trapped underneath. He was fucked.

Before he could prepare a better aimed punch, it struck him: he had another gun.

Curling his body as much as he could, fueled by Rochelle's desperate voice as it started to cut in and out as she lost her breath, Nick scrabbled for the holster on his thigh. By some miracle, he swore, his Magnum had actually stayed in, even as they'd been dragged across the road.

Yanking it free, Nick cocked it with his thumb and blindly rammed it up till the muzzle hit something above his head. He bit his tongue hard as he pulled the trigger - and with a relieving bang, it fired.

The zombie exploded with a raspy noise, smoke suddenly drowning the air. The blast was enough to knock Nick to the floor, and Rochelle came with him in a tumbling motion.

They both broke into nearly death-rattle coughs, huddling down against the ground to try and get out of the smoke. Nick tried to hold his breath and tugged on his trapped arm, prying the tongue carefully away from Rochelle and then making to uncoil the rest of the now-limp (but still twitching) appendage from her frame.

"N-Nick.." she coughed into the darkness, making him halt. "..quit copping a feel.."

He instantly smirked, losing it when his lungs quivered in protest of holding in that smoke-stained air, falling to coughs and muttering a sarcastic, "Your voice says no, but..." between them. The tongue slipped free from its last few coils, and he just rolled himself one time to the side, tossing an arm limply over his face, letting the coughs wrack him unabated.

He couldn't move. His brain was fuzzy from the lack of oxygen; who even knew what the sickly smoke was made up of.

As he expected, he heard the loud arrival of Coach and Ellis, crowding into the house and starting up coughs of their own. "Nick! Ro'!" Ellis' voice chirruped urgently. Nick felt them stumble onto him and Rochelle, and somebody grabbed onto his suit to start dragging him out of the house. He didn't even bother trying to help, quickly registering that it was Ellis because there was only one hand pulling on him.

Oh, great. He can drag me with one hand. he morosely noted, throwing his arm off his face and taking in a rattling breath as they cleared the door and got into fresh air. He tried to sit up there, but Ellis didn't let go - he was tugged to the wall of the building and Ellis crouched down close to him, trying to push him to lean against it.

His hands were touching the conman too much, expression nakedly concerned, and Nick felt a hot feeling start burning up his spine - not his fever, he was sure - with irritation coming second. He was completely confused on why Ellis was so damn interested in him.

"Nick.." the kid spoke up, unaware he was agitating the gambler. "You okay, man? That was real -"

Seeing Coach duck out of the doorway right afterward, carrying Rochelle in his arms, Nick growled and shoved Ellis' hands away, snapping out in an irritated rush, "Fuck off - can you -" There he coughed, but recovered. "- give me five goddamn inches of breathing space?"

Ellis blinked twice, scooting back in his crouch and stopping a few steps away. He rested his injured arm on his thigh and dropped his other hand to fiddle with the toe of his right boot, watching the conman. Nick breathed hard, scowling, trying to glare him into moving away.

After a few beats, Nick just gave up and let his chin drop slowly, replacing his Magnum into the holster at his thigh and checking himself over with probing fingertips.

"Coach… I'm okay, let me down."

Rochelle did look surprisingly well from her place in Coach's arms, limbs tucked into a curl and held easily by the big ex-football player. Her eyes were red from coughing and she was holding onto a spot on her side, but was otherwise okay. "You sho', baby girl?" he questioned anyway, dubiously, giving her a tired look that clearly expressed his concern.

She smiled gently, and that was apparently answer enough, because the big man tipped her down to the sidewalk carefully. She eased onto her feet, Ellis glancing up toward her from his squat and looking relieved to see her standing. "Yuh scared me, you two..." he muttered, fingers tugging at the seam between the sole and nose of his dirty workboots.

He flashed a grin right after, stupidly pleased, even though Nick did little more than grunt.

"Awh, we're fine, sweetie.." Rochelle reassured him, limping to get next to the crouched hick and rub at the back of his neck comfortingly. Her gaze moved up to Nick, gently biting her lower lip. Her expression was almost surprised. "..Thanks, Nick. That was -"

It was the same thing Ellis had been planning to say. 'That was really nice of you, Nick.' The conman could already hear it and it grated on his nerves like sandpaper - SHE grabbed ME. It's not like I jumped into a damn burning building for her.

Which, of course, wasn't entirely true. He could have shaken off her hand… but he didn't. He reached out to grab her back. That knowledge agitated him. He started to arrange his legs to get up, a hand bracing himself on the side of the building, shaking his head harshly.

"Thank me by getting a move-the-fuck on... I didn't donate a goddamn organ to you or something, just forget it. We are actually trying to get somewhere, right?"

Ellis jumped to his feet, grinning undaunted. "I told y'all we'd be fine iffin we worked as a team." he stated, offering a hand down to Nick to help him up. Nick all but slapped it away, giving him a dull stare before shoving himself up to his feet on his own.

The kid was unperturbed, simply stepping away from him and traipsing to the edge of the sidewalk to look down the road. Coach moved to join him, bending his head to say something to the younger Georgian.

Ellis seemed uncertain at it, expression scrunching up in that confused look he did best, a headtilt away from being puppylike. The big man didn't elaborate any, just turned away with a pat to Ellis' back.

Nick eyed them, then fussily straightened his clothing, brushed himself off, and put his hands into the pockets of his slacks. Rochelle was still looking at him, so he muttered at her, flexing fingers slowly. The expression he was being given made him uncomfortable. "Look, you're welcome. 'Kay?"

"Nice to know you're not a total asshole." She cracked a grin at him, carefully limping toward Coach and Ellis and gesturing down the sidewalk. "Looks pretty clear. Let's book it to the gas station while we can... I need to sit down pretty soon."

Nick gladly aimed to take up the rear, both to distance himself again and so he could let himself favor his weight as his abused body demanded. He expected Ellis to try to slow his steps and walk next to him - he didn't. The gambler found himself eyeing the mechanic's back, like he could read him, wondering what Coach had said to him.

Not knowing rapidly began to irk him.

Chapter Text

"I don't think pulling harder is going to convince it to unlock, Coach."

The conman's mocking observation was mostly ignored. Coach tugged again on the handle of the gas station door, rewarded only with the same jarring jerk as it refused to open. The big man finally took a step back from the door and sighed, hitching his slacks up by the belt.

"Well, shit."

The small gas station was tightly locked up. Though there were big windows on either side of the door and the door itself was mostly glass, the whole expanse of it was barred up by subtle steel blinds. Someone before them had tried to break in, the glass just above the handle shattered, but the blinds were too close together. There was blood on the edges that betrayed the person's attempt to reach in and open the door, but all they'd done was cut their hand trying to worm it through the glass.

Inside was a tempting sight; more than enough light was filtering in through the windows to see that the aisles were stocked and the place was undisturbed. "Think there's another door?" Ellis piped up hopefully, rubbing at the back of his head and scratching fingertips up under his cap. "Don't much look like we're gettin' in through this, unless y'all wanna shoot in all this glass."

Rochelle sighed, limping forward to lean her hip against the ice vending machine that sat dead a few feet to the side of the door. Water was steadily spilling in rivulets out from the fridge-like door in the front, melted ice completely overflowing, but Rochelle was too busy eyeing the gas station over her shoulder to notice her boots getting a little wet.

Nick rolled light, masked green eyes subtly, releasing a sigh like his time was being wasted waiting in a line. He reached down into his pocket and pulled his cigarette pack out, tipping it back and forth in his fingers. I still can't believe they thought I was that goddamn choker zombie... maybe you should cut back, Nicolas. You'll end up turning into one at this rate.

That thought wasn't pleasant. Especially not when his skin was crawling with a fever he couldn't quite explain.

He was sore and aching, like he'd gone on a drinking binge and then gotten his ass kicked in the same night. So, he weighed his over-consumption during the last day or two with the numbing influence.

... it wasn't a huge surprise when he popped a cigarette free and slipped it between his lips. "How about you two - " The conman nodded toward Coach and Ellis, without actually looking at either of them. " - go check on that like good little boyscouts? Ro' and I'll watch the road."

Nick ignored the slightly startled glance Rochelle gave him and switched the cigarette pack for his matches, boredly tearing one out to strike it against the book.

Ellis nudged his cap down a little, shading his eyes and clearing his throat. He adjusted his one-handed grip on his shotgun, having long since tucked his left hand into the knot of his overalls to rest his injured arm along the curve of his waist. "Uh, sure." He gave a quick grin and took a step back, glancing up at Coach.

The big man clapped a hand over the hick's shoulders, urging him to start to turn around. "C'mon, son. We get lucky, maybe we find a door out back 'n' get us somethin' sweet in there. I got a cravin' fit to maul somebody."

That made Ellis laugh, quickening his pace with a ripening enthusiasm. "Hoh man, I'm totally addicted to them squiggly worm things... y'know, the gummy ones? Yeeeah, 'cept them sour ones. I mean I like 'em, but they make me scrunch up, y'know..?"

"Chocolate, son. Chocolate."

Their voices faded as they turned around the corner of the building, a few gunshots the evidence of their progress and apparent run-in with a few alleyway zombies. Nick was unconcerned as he lit his cigarette, taking in a breath and leaning his head back to exhale it straight upward.

Rochelle eyed him dubiously, chin lowered and thoughtful. In most circumstances, Nick would usually just ignore her until she broke down and prompted a conversation, but he didn't bother this time, appreciatively pulling his cigarette from his lips and glancing at her. "What?"

She shrugged her shoulders, reaching up to work her hoop earrings out of her ears. She hooked them together and then examined them, like she might just throw them away. "Don't have something on your mind?"

Nick smirked, quickly, replacing the cigarette and cocking his head. He dropped his voice to a taunting, elaborate tone. "That kinda question is generally better asked of the person asking it."

Rolling soft chocolate eyes at the salacious twirk to his brows, Rochelle straightened up and settled a hand on her hip. "Look, Nick. If you're being nice, then consider me the first to say thank God. But I'm just getting the feeling you're having… ideas, and you're a bit of a sleaze. I have a guy back in Ohio and-"

Even though Nick wasn't really surprised, he lifted up hands to interrupt her, shaking his head so she'd stop. Letting a smoky breath roil from his nostrils, he spoke up dryly; "Sorry, cupcake. You're a little too straight-edge for me. Try ten years younger and a third of the clothing and I might say different."

Her relief was quickly overshadowed by offense. Damn women. Always wanting the answer that pisses them off. "Excuse me? Too straight-edge? Not boozed up enough for you?"

The gambler laughed, watching her irked expression fade as he nonchalantly took a pull off his cigarette and shrugged a shoulder. "I said sorry. Can't help my tastes. I can always fake it if you'd feel better."

None of which, of course, was really true. He may have had a 'type,' but that was just a preference. His standards, on the other hand, were pretty much limited to whether or not the other party had a pulse.

That, and the likelihood of catching something.

Rochelle crossed her arms over her chest, returning to a lean against the ice machine and drawing her healthy, plump lips into almost a pout. He couldn't quite decide exactly how much was playful at that point, though her initial offense had certainly faded. "A little, yeah."

Nick snorted faintly, catching his cigarette between his teeth and holding it still. He talked past it easily, white teeth flashing between his lips. "Got any hairpins in?" He held his hand out, palm up.

She was reasonably confused at the abrupt question, both brows lifting and head tilting a little as she twirled her hoop earrings between her fingers. "Ehm.. what does that have to do with -?"

Rolling his eyes as a few more gunshots rang out behind the gas station, Nick moved his fingers to repeat his question silently. "We can keep fucking talking about that if you want, or we can get in the gas station."

Sighing faintly with a shake of her head, Rochelle bent her head to the side and lifted one hand to work the two black bobbypins that held a few stray braids and unkempt frizz into place behind her ear free. She dropped them into the conman's palm, expectantly watching him.

He shrugged his machine gun strap further onto his shoulder, plucking up the pins and starting to force them halfway unbent as he stepped over to the door. Rochelle realized his intentions about there, sounding exasperated and lifting her hand to set her chin on her palm, fingers working her earrings around them. "Oh hell, suit... are you serious?"

"You people keep acting like I ever pretended to be a goddamn saint." Nick grunted with a tint of humor, taking a pull of his cigarette as he dropped down into a crouch and nestled his hands around the lock. Working the pins inside, he coolly twisted and turned them bare centimeters at a time. Going by touch, his eyes wandered, and he inspected the rounded, red burn spots on his hands.

"What are you, then?"

Nick could hear the disapproval and noticed he genuinely didn't give a shit. He glanced at her, pausing a moment just as he felt his makeshift lockpick catch onto a tumbler and go slightly stiff. Giving her a scathing look, he glanced back and torqued the pins carefully. "Like I said.. you are just too straight-edge for me."

A loud click made him smirk, and Nick straightened up, pulling the handle. Sure enough, it swung open, a few shards of glass tumbling down from the broken spot. He set his foot just in front of the door, holding it open and gesturing his arm in a half-flourish in front of his chest.

He smirked easily into her small, only moderately serious glare as she straightened up and limped past him, glancing around the small store. She ran her hand over the shelves as she passed them, touching the strange normality of the neatly stocked aisles like it might crumble under her fingertips.

"You don't think anyone's here, do you? Did they lock it and leave, or lock it and hide?"

Nick pulled his gun off his shoulder, hooking the strap on the door handle and letting the door settle half-shut with the gun stuck in the doorway. He put his hands into his pockets, stowing the bobbypins away, and strolled toward the store counter. "Guess we'll find out." he responded nonchalantly, stepping around the counter and pulling open the drawer beneath the register.

"..Were you planning on letting the boys know we got in?" She didn't seem to see what he was doing, pulling a small can of chips off one of the shelves and popping the plastic top off. The paper seal underneath seemed to intimidate her, however, as she fiddled with the tab without opening it.

"Eh, they'll figure it out eventually." He wasn't really paying attention, plucking a key from the drawer and glancing it over in the dim light. Flicking his gaze up to the register, he found the lock on one corner and inserted it, turning it as he blew out a long stream of smoke.

Much to his pleasure, the register popped open, a loud ching betraying him to the woman two chest-high aisles over. She glanced over at him, giving him a long, dry look. He didn't even bother looking up, opening his suit to reach into an inner breast pocket and pull out his wallet.

He was halfway through stowing the largest bills in his wallet when the door opened up, the machine gun clattering a little as it swung. Coach, leading the way, pulled it free and glanced over at Nick. He didn't say a word; he merely held onto the gun for the moment and moved to join Rochelle.

"How the hell'd you two get in here, baby girl?"

Ellis trudged in after him, glancing curiously around the store and tipping his cap back on his head. He walked over to the counter, leaning his good elbow against it and hunching down. He didn't look at Nick, focusing toward the other two - and the conman gave him the same treatment, finally stowing his wallet back into his jacket. It sat a bit heavier on his chest, now.

"Nick picked the lock, the shady jerk... if I'd've known he was planning that I'd have stopped you, sorry." Rochelle popped the chip can open, finally, taking one and biting into it with a kind of finality.

Coach chuckled gruffly, shaking his head in a motion that clearly indicated it wasn't her fault. He tucked an arm over her shoulder after freeing himself from the burden of both his and Nick's guns, as well as his backpack, stowing it all on top of the shelf next to them. "C'mon, let's find us a map or an atlas in here.. gotta be makin' a few choices here."

Ellis shifted where he stood, seeming uncomfortable. The motion made Nick glance up, pulling his cigarette from his lips and rolling it slowly between his fingertips. It was bothering him even more now, how the kid was acting.

Eyeing his expression sideways, he almost looked guilty.

It had to have been what Coach said to him out of earshot, but for the life of him Nick couldn't decide what that could've been. Why do I even care? What, he has to leave me alone on my terms? Now I'm acting like Ro'.

Frustrated, Nick stepped back from the register and stalked out from behind the counter. He stepped around Ellis, ignoring the younger man's slight jump at the sudden movement, and made his way to the back of the store to find Coach and Rochelle.

They'd found a small book atlas among a rack of postcards against the far wall, and Rochelle was holding it up as they glanced over the road map inside. Coach prodded on the page, trailing his fingertip along the line of a highway. "What I was talkin' 'bout. Highway 80, straight on through... Get us right to the port."

Rochelle nodded slowly, not noticing Nick stop behind them and tip his head to eye the atlas over her shoulder. "Yeah, I see.. shit, if we could get a car somehow, we could drive right on." She popped another chip into her mouth from the can she had tucked between her elbow and her waist, chewing thoughtfully.

"Hope it's that easy, baby girl." Coach chuckled gruffly, setting a hand on the shelf next to him and resting his weight on it. He glanced at Nick, then past him at Ellis. "We get to the port, we take some R&R on the beach till CEDA notices us. Sounds good to me."

Nick smirked slightly, curling his lips around his cigarette and blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth, directing it away from the two. "Oh yeah. Just like a vacation. Dream come true. Too bad all the hot beach babes are dead or dying."

Ellis' voice abruptly announced that he'd crept up behind the three of them, standing a little askew and not looking completely sure of himself. "Keith'n I used tuh go tuh the beach all the time, when we was in high school. He tans like a baked 'tater. I do okay, but muh nose burns." He rubbed a fingertip against his rounded nose, both bashfully and to emphasize his point.

Rochelle turned around, blinking just an instant at the hick before suddenly half-shutting the atlas, handing it to Coach. "Oh, Ellis, I forgot your arm, sorry... mind handing me the pack, Coach? He bled through his bandages pretty bad."

The big man nodded obligingly, picking his backpack up and offering it to Rochelle. He pointed toward the restroom door tucked in the back of the gas station, gesturing Ellis on as Rochelle already started walking toward it. "Go on, Ellis. Don't pull that self-reliant shit 'gain, either."

The kid grinned slightly, dropping his chin to shade his eyes under the bill of his cap. "Naww.." He tagged after Rochelle, holding his injured arm up a little and looking at it sideways. As the two of them got out of earshot, Nick glanced at Coach, getting a slight jut to his jaw. He took advantage of the chance to get Coach alone.

"You mind telling me what you told Overalls earlier? He's been acting more… stupid than usual."

The ex-football player chuckled slightly, leaning against the shelf a little more. "Tryin' to save us all some pain, boy. Just pointed out he's makin' more trouble than he's fixin', tryin' to be yo' friend."

Nick grunted disinterestedly, grinding his cigarette out on the shelf beside him. "Ain't that the truth." It felt forced, and Nick couldn't determine exactly why. Ellis was making trouble, in ways far beyond the big man's understanding. So why did the words leave him irritated?

A shriek from across the gas station made both of them startle. Rochelle and Ellis stood in front of the just-opened restroom, the hick quickly grabbing hold of Rochelle and backing up just a step. Horror was clear in their postures, and Rochelle's outburst turned into a weirdly choked "Oh my God.."

Nick quickly darted through the aisle, hearing Coach behind him as he ran to them. "What?!" he demanded, grabbing for his shoulder before he remembered he didn't have his SMG with him. He started to go for his Magnum instead.

In the end it wasn't necessary.

The dim restroom was lit up by a dying flashlight, left face-up in the sink. Slumped against the porcelain toilet just in front of them was the corpse of an elderly man, the shaft of a knife jutting out from the side of his throat. Blood drenched the whole of his neck and torso, dribbled down in a river from the wound. His right hand was collapsed onto his chest at such an angle, elbow twisted, as to make it painfully clear he'd inflicted it on himself.

Poor bastard... people just can't take disaster, can they?

There was writing on the sink-side mirror a few feet away, scrawled in black marker but not quite readable in the lacking light. Feeling his whole gut go to stone at the intense scent of copper, Nick silently stepped into the bathroom, skirting around the corpse. He heard scuffling behind him, aware of Coach coming up and pulling both Ellis and Rochelle against him protectively.

Grabbing hold of the flashlight set in the sink, Nick tightened his jaw and flicked it up to the mirror, shining what little light its dying batteries were still giving off carefully over the message written there.

'JAMES 1:2-3'

Nick dropped his chin slightly, slowly clicking the flashlight entirely off and replacing it in the sink. He didn't know what he'd expected to read, but somehow he just felt disappointed. He retraced his steps, reaching for the knob to shut the door again.

Rochelle suddenly spoke up, head turned away from Coach's chest, staring at Nick as he closed the door. "What're you doing?"

The conman looked back over his shoulder, expression hard and unmoving. His tone, though, had a defensive note to it. "Would you rather we left the goddamn door open? Or maybe dragged him out and found a nice piece of broken asphalt to bury him under?"

Her eyes dropped slightly, some sobriety creeping onto her expression. She shook her head just once, turning her hand to hold onto Coach's forearm for a moment. "...no. I'm sorry, Nick."

The gambler didn't respond to the apology.

Ellis wrangled himself out from under Coach's arm. He pulled his cap respectfully off his head, setting it against his chest solemnly and speaking up with a small frown. "There ain't nothin' we can do, Ro'.."

Coach let Rochelle go, too, when she leaned away. The woman wrapped her arms around herself and took in a breath. "I know, honey... but why'd he - I mean, he could've lived for weeks in here."

Nick slipped past them as Coach responded to that, getting distance between him and the other three. He ran his hands through his hair, breathing slow. The adrenaline was still pumping, and the deadened mask on the old man's bloodless face had rattled him.

"Baby girl, listen... you already said you ain't a woman fo' the Bible, 'n that's a'ight.. but that passage he wrote's about endurin' through trials. He couldn't, but we gotta take it like a last wish an' go on stronger. We gotta keep goin', Rochelle. S'the only way all this shit ain't in vain."

None of them spoke for a few moments. Nick felt a gaze on his back but kept himself turned the other way, leaning against a set of shelves, intent on un-involving himself even though he was unable to escape the situation entirely.

Quietly, Rochelle nodded her head, pushing a firm look onto her expression after a sharp intake of breath. "... Okay. Ellis?"

"Yeah?" The kid smiled gently at her, reassuringly, replacing his cap onto his head.

"Let's clean your arm.. and then you're finding us a car."

Chapter Text

The hard look on Nick's face solidly suggested Coach was insane. "No."

Coach sighed wearily, leaning back even more against the shelf he'd sat himself beside. He took a bite of the chocolate bar held protectively in one hand. "Boy, we ain't got time fo' this shit... we only got four people, a'ight? You're gonna have to work wit' that."

Their back-and-forth was in hushed tones even though Ellis and Rochelle were outside, taking advantage of the water-filled icebox to clean up the hick's arm. "For fuck's sake, Coach, why can't you or Rochelle babysit him?"

"She's still shaken up, Nick, 'n no offense but you ain't the one I'd pick to stay wit' her." Peeling the wrapper down further and frowning for a moment, Coach shook his head. "Just keep him from gettin' killed while he hunts down a workin' car outside, that's all I'm askin'."

Frustrated, Nick crossed his arms tightly and bent his torso forward, digging his fingers into his biceps. Maybe you should've thought about that before you got involved instead of just letting me handle it. "Fine. But it's your goddamn fault if I end up shooting him." he muttered, turning around and walking away.

He stopped next to the store counter, where their guns had ended up - all except for his Magnum and Rochelle's Glock. Reaching up hands, the conman pulled his suit jacket off, stripping his torso down to the blue dress shirt underneath. He folded it up and set it next to the register.

"Jus' keep him from doin' somethin' stupid, boy." Coach grunted quietly, closing his eyes as he busied himself with his chocolate bar tiredly. "Hell if we're losin' one of our own, 'n' he's already hurt."

Snorting, Nick undid the cuffs of his shirt and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows. Once they were settled, he picked his machine gun up and worked the strap over his shoulder. "By his own stupidity."

It seemed like Coach might not respond, cleaning his fingertips of melted chocolate, but just as Nick reached the door, he prompted, "Nick." The conman barely turned around in time to catch what the big man threw at him; pulling his head back, he eyed the plastic package of gummy worms in his hand with some bewilderment.

"He did hurt himself savin' our asses, boy. Tell him it's from me if you don't want him thinkin' you're doin' him a favor."

Nick broke into a smirk much despite himself, recalling Ellis' enthusiastic confession before they'd gotten inside, unable to resist it. It was almost ridiculous; break into a gas station, and the sweets were the first to go. "I guess candy is the new drug in the apocalypse."

"Don't touch my chocolate."

It was so gruff Nick had to glance up at the big man, but there was a grin on his scruffy face. The conman shook his head, smirking, and pushed the door open. The bright sun outside instantly made him squint, having swung up to high noon. His decision to strip down a little pleased him, the heat and humidity quickly prickling on his frame.

"...Yeah, 'cept whut Keith didn't know was that his pa had left his beer in the back, so when the coppers pulled him over... I mean he hadn't drunk none, but dayum, they was pissed anyway.."

Unsurprised to hear another story spilling from the mechanic, Nick glanced to the side, arching a brow at the two sitting close together on the asphalt just to the left.

Rochelle was just pressing her fingertip along the last piece of medical tape to hold Ellis' new bandages down, eyes glancing up at his face and expression soft. She seemed fascinated with him, staring at his oblivious expression as he rambled and shook his head along with his story.

Nick could understand her enthrallment. Like nothing even happened... can't tell if this kid is insane or just... blind. Damnit, Ellis... why couldn't you just be boring?

"How's the village idiot doing, 'Chelle?" Nick interrupted, expression blank, tearing open the bag of gummy worms he still had a grip on. "If we can't save the arm, I say we just dump him."

Ellis twisted at the waist, blinking at Nick in momentary surprise. His hat was in his lap, leaving his face wide open and unshaded, and he couldn't even try to hide the way his eyes locked onto the bag of candy. He didn't even defend himself, hopefully eyeing the package.

This time, though, he didn't have that stupefied look of cautious guilt that had been plaguing him every time he'd looked at the conman.

"Hey, suit.. he's just fine. It stopped bleeding after he stopped being stupid and stressing it." She batted at Ellis' head gently, but when he flashed his bashful smile sideways, he didn't even rip his gaze away from the bag in Nick's hands.

... Heh.

Not that he showed an ounce of his sadistic amusement. Not even looking at Ellis, he twitched his wrist to shake the bag open slightly, then pulled out a worm and tossed it into his mouth. He swallowed it practically without chewing - especially considering he didn't actually like them all that much.

It was too sweet and too heavy, and his stomach roiled in protest. Not that it stopped him.

"Good. Coach wants me to follow him around to try and hook us up with a ride. You up for it, Overalls, or do I have to drag you?" Nick turned scathing green eyes on the kid, pulling out another worm with a little jerk and biting its head clean off. Ellis' riveted gaze on it as it reached his mouth sent an unwelcome thrill up Nick's spine, despite the knowledge it was the worm Ellis was watching.

"I'm fine, Nick, like Ro' told'ya... but, uh -" There it was again, a little hesitation, and he gently ghosted his hand over his bandaged elbow, glancing down toward it like he still had a cap-bill to hide underneath. " - Why'd yuh agree? I can go on my own or somethin', you don't -"

Nick rolled his eyes, ignoring Rochelle's slight frown in his direction and snapping dully at the mechanic. "No, hayseed, I'm not goddamn enthused. If I could stay here, I would. Unfortunately, we both know that's not an option. So you're going to find a car, you're going to fix it, I'm going to keep you from getting killed, and you're going to stay as silent as you can the whole time."

Rochelle didn't look pleased with him, but she just grabbed up the backpack beside her hip and carefully stood up, reaching down to tickle her knuckles against Ellis' cheek reassuringly. He smiled at her.

"Don't fight, boys..." she mumbled quietly, feeling it was futile. Nick flashed her a smirk as she slipped by him, stepping into the gas station with a shake of her head.

Ellis blinked up at Nick for a few moments, slowly grabbing and replacing his cap on his head. Withholding a sigh, the mechanic tossed himself up to his feet with a sway of his weight, nodding quickly. "Alrighty, Nick. I'll leave yuh alone." He turned around, stepping off the small cement platform infront of the gas station door, trudging across the parking lot.

Smirking subtly as he did, Nick slipped a hand to get a hold on his gun's grip, finger settled on the trigger. He followed after Ellis, glancing around them as they got to the streetside. "What, no argument?"

The hick's shoulders shrugged, stepping off the sidewalk and onto the road, dodging a zombie corpse at the last minute with his boot. "I'm just troublin' you, right? You can say yeah."

Quickly moving to catch up with him, Nick pulled his gun up and leaned forward, gunning for a few zombies to the right. With the bullet spray, two of them survived at first, but they only made it a few snarling feet before a second squeeze of the trigger brought them down. He sighed just the tiniest bit, likely unnoticeable as he leaned back and let go of the gun to dangle at his hip.

"Yeah." he responded simply, plucking another worm from the bag in his free hand and snapping it down like a shark catching a fish. Ellis hesitated as he snuck another struggling glance at the candy bag, forcing himself to turn his head back around as Nick's answer registered.

He squinted blue eyes up and down the street. Most of the cars were crushed or collided into one another, bullets riddling vital areas; a first glance didn't bode well for finding an undamaged one. Reluctantly, Ellis scratched at the back of his neck, nodding once. "Might be tough findin' a workin' car. Zombies ain't been kind tuh 'em."

Nick eyed him sideways, inhaling carefully. What the hell do I care if he gets his feelings hurt? He tucked the candy bag into his slacks' pocket, gripping his gun with both hands. "So start looking."

The silence as Ellis trudged down the street was stifling, broken only by gunshots as Nick protected the unarmed mechanic from the zombies staggering around the street. Ellis would say a 'thanks' every few minutes, but Nick didn't respond, just leaning to get an eye on the next infected.

It didn't bother Nick as much as he could tell it did Ellis, the hick biting back a frown as he stopped next to a seemingly intact grey van half-parked on the sidewalk. The windows were unbroken, tinted to block any peek inside, and the only damage at first glance was a few bullets in the door and a long scrape along its side.

"This'un might work..." the hick muttered to himself, skittering around to the front to pop the hood up. He didn't even struggle to hold it up one handed, fingers spread carefully, leaning forward and glancing over the engine parts inside.

Nick walked up to settle his hip against the van's headlights, leaning forward slightly. The clank of the hood snapping open alerted a few zombies who came stumbling out of an alley off to the right, and the conman pulled his gun up to his shoulder to aim more carefully as he picked them off.

"Huuhh.." the mechanic uttered, bending in under the hood. He kept it up with his good arm, reaching in carefully with his other hand to touch onto a few pieces. "Bullet hole by this here oil pump... man, I think I see a leak."

Straightening slightly and letting his gun fall slack against his hip, Nick glanced at Ellis sideways without initially saying anything. He noticed quickly that his shirt was riding up as he stretched, pulling away from the untanned curve of his lower back. No amount of annoyance or frustration could change Nick's - body's mind, anyway.

If anything, Ellis actually being quiet and focused made him miles more appealing.

"Do you?" the conman asked innocuously, clamping his teeth gently on his tongue to stifle his sigh as he shut one eye, watching Ellis' hips shift. He found his mouth screwing into a slight frown at how utterly entrapped he was, leaning a little back but unable to entirely tear his gaze away.

"Mm, yeah. Can't tell fer sure, hold on.." Ellis pulled back, letting the hood drop down once he was out from under it and giving it a pat with the heel of his hand. He stepped around Nick, dropping down to a crouch by the side of the van and curling down to peer underneath it.

Nick stayed where he was, just listening, scratching one of his bare, crisply haired forearms. Ellis hummed something incoherent, hunching under the car and reaching his good arm under it, feeling at something.

"Eehh.. Nick?" He sounded uncertain, and when the conman glanced down, Ellis half-crawled back a bit and held up his hand. His fingertips were gleaming lightly with tacky, rainbow-colored oil, but that wasn't it - he was pointing at the bottom seam of the car door.

There was something sludgy starting to leak out from the crack. It had dripped a little onto the back of Ellis' neck, which he was quickly wiping off with his wrist. It was green and thick. Chunky, even. When Nick screwed his brow up and shifted off the car, moving a little closer, the smell of vomit hit him.

Much like the tongue-zombie's cigarette smell was rotten and garish, somehow this smell was just wretched. Less like vomit and more like the contents of a year-old garbage bag.

Giving a disgusted, "Eugh..", the conman retreated a few steps and stared the van down suspiciously. His nose crinkled subconsciously, placing his wrist over his mouth. "You do notice the windows are blacked out, right?"

Ellis struggled to his feet, though he didn't back up, eyeing the car door curiously. "Yuh think there's somethin' in there?" He reached up and tapped the window with a knuckle, watching it intently.

"If there is, it's pretty quiet..." Noting the curious knock and Ellis' gaze flickering to the door handle, Nick warned harshly, "Hey, don't get any fuckin' ideas, assclown..."

Too late, though - Ellis gave a reassuring, "Just wanna..." that he didn't finish and suddenly opened the car door, leaning to the side to peek in. There was a huge shape just inside the van's back compartment, this bloated, garish bubble of skin only vaguely contained by what looked like the remnants of a shirt. The stench was enough to make anyone retch, but somehow Ellis was too fascinated to do much more than stare, mouth half-open.

The thing moved, squirming like some overgrown tick, and a bloated head twisted into view, yellow eyes locking onto the men. Its jaw went slack, the whole inside of its mouth a disturbing shade of green, and a loud hoarking noise emitted from it.

Ellis jumped right out of his skin when the door slammed shut in front of him, his view of the mutated thing switched with a view of a particularly frustrated-looking Nick kicking the door shut. For just a moment, the stifled sound of heavy splattering against the door was the only thing they could hear, followed by gut-turning retches and - slowly - a dribbling noise as it leaked through the door's edges.

"...hoo-lee sheeit, Nick! That was -"

"Fucking moronic? Good job." The conman felt irked, although he told himself it was mostly because Ellis had made him act by standing there like an idiot. The hick's excitement just worsened it. He was fascinated, practically excited. His obliviousness was just ridiculous - like he didn't even realize that thing had been a split-second from getting him.

Not that that's - why I'm pissed. Fuck.

The hick huffed slightly in consternation, shaking his head and pointing enthusiastically at the car. The van was creaking back and forth slightly now, like they'd disturbed an animal. He looked practically overjoyed with disgust. "That was so gross, man! Did'yuh see that thing?! It was like, pukin'. Why would it do that…?"

Snarling quietly with a short huff from his nostrils, Nick reached up and grabbed the back of Ellis' neck, dragging him from the door and giving him a shove down the street. Ellis stumbled a bit, but caught himself, looking slightly disappointed. He busied himself with eyeing the other cars nearby, quickly getting his attention caught by a small pickup truck.

He spoke a little quietly as he walked up to the truck, rubbing his capped head with a hand and starting to make a small circle around the car. "..Sorry, Nick. I just wanted tuh see what it was."

The conman tried to tune him out, focusing on not losing his temper completely. Raising his hands, he rubbed at his temples slowly, forcing a sigh. His skin was still hot; hotter than it should have been, even considering the warm Georgia mid-day.

The putrid smell in the air was grating at his nerves, and his own doubt about the root of his anger was just frustrating him more.

The kid's "Was kinda cool.." went utterly ignored.

Nick lifted his head just in time to notice an unpleasantly familiar noise rising subtly in the distance - a din of roars, shrill but guttural all at once. His lips parted, spinning slightly on his heels to try and listen closer, sure he was imagining it - but no.

Wait, what in the hell? We didn't - there's always been something to attract them! Car alarm, radio - We didn't fucking do anything!

Try as he might, nothing could argue with the rising cries. With his mouth turning to cotton with messily veiled panic, Nick very coolly demanded, "Get in the car."

He was not going to die like this.

Ellis lifted his head, blinking at the older man with no small confusion. He didn't have the chance to respond, however, because right as he did he noticed the sound... and Nick repeated himself harshly, leaving no room for argument. "Get in the fucking car."

He bolted around to the other side as Ellis darted to the passenger side door and clambered inside. He heard the hick muttering something to himself, but paid it no mind, throwing open the car door and hooking a knee on the floorboard, half in and half out.

Ducking under the steering wheel and tearing off the cover panel up underneath it, the conman got his hands on the coiled stretch of wires hidden above the pedals. He cursed sharply to himself, having nothing sharp nearby, and shoved himself down further.

"Nick, I see 'em!" the hick warned, even though the conman could hear the shrieking getting louder and knew full-well they were on the way.

He tugged the pair of power wires free, biting hard on their ends and stripping the plastic off with his teeth. He twisted the underlying copper wire together with his fingernails, giving a slight start as Ellis whooped. "Lights on!"

Scowling just barely and spitting tiny chips of plastic out of the corner of his mouth, Nick grabbed the starter wire and made to strip it the same way. While he managed that without getting a shock from the live wire, the moment he went to grab hold of it and spark it against the other two, pain shot up his arm and he gave a hiss, startled.

Cringing through it, he tried again. The copper sparked with a flicker of flame, and with a triumphant rattle, the truck came alive. Nick didn't even register Ellis' cheering, dragging himself backwards and struggling up onto the seat.

The moment he got himself oriented, the conman grabbed hold of the steering wheel and cranked it violently. There was a snapping sound as the steering lock broke, and Nick floored it, tires squealing against the asphalt. The open driver's door slammed shut next to him with the jolt, barely a second from crushing his left leg as he tucked it in, and Ellis had to grab at the dashboard to keep seated.

The nose of the truck collided hard with the oncoming horde, only a few yards away by the time Nick had finished. He grabbed the steering wheel, right arm moving even though it felt a little numb from the shock, jerking it a little from side to side to mow through the flock with maximum impact.

Zombies were rolled over the car like bowling pins, leaving ugly smudges of red and black as they smashed against the metal. The car jolted and bumped both with the collisions and as it rolled over just as many.

Squinting through the blurry panic of the zombies obscuring his view, the gambler stomped on the brakes and cranked the wheel to spin them around, skidding on pulverized infected and sending the truck into a precarious rock. It managed, somehow, crashing back onto all four wheel and roaring over the massacre they'd made of the street.

"Whooo-lordy, Nick! You knocked the piss outta them! Lookit that! And yuh hotwired it, too... I ain't never seen someone do it that fast before!"

Nick didn't say a word. He was almost smirking, just barely, undeniably thrilled with the success, but Ellis' voice brought his anger back. Gripping the wheel hard, the conman steered around a crushed car in the center of the road and guided the truck into the gas station parking lot.

Pulling up next to one of the pumps, he threw it into park and turned on the Georgian. He just lost it, growling angrily, yanking the bag of gummy worms out of his pocket and throwing it at Ellis.

"You are an absolute idiot. Did you even fucking think before you did that? That it might be dangerous? That maybe you shouldn't open the GODDAMN DOOR? You wonder why you could possibly be causing me trouble. You act all fucking surprised. Slink around all victimized all goddamn day and drive me nuts. Now you know, kid. We can't go thirty minutes without you doing something stupid. You ARE nothing but trouble."

Ellis looked on, a slightly hurt but mostly confused frown starting on his features, as Nick shoved the door open and stormed to the gas station in a rage, fingers flexing needily as he grasped for a suit pocket that wasn't there.

"... we're never gonna get on." the kid mumbled to himself, hunching slowly down in his seat and plucking a gummy worm from the bag to nibble softly on. That wasn't a thought that sat very well with Ellis.

It occurred to him that he still had yet to really, thoroughly apologize to the older man.

Chapter Text

Tipping back his fifth bottle of beer with one hand while his other pulled his suit jacket tighter around his curled knees, Nick settled in cozily against the rooftop's few-feet-tall bordering wall. He'd eased into a comfortable drunkenness, mind a bit distanced from his body and cushioned by raw warmth.

None of them wanted to stay overnight in the gas station, the closed bathroom door enough to set anyone on edge. Unfortunately, it was instantly clear that the truck had suffered with Nick's rough handling and the collisions with the horde. Ellis was confident he could fix it with a few tools.

Nick was almost sure that the other three had slipped out at some point to track what he needed down in nearby buildings, but the conman honestly hadn't paid much attention to anything past the knowledge they'd be staying through the night.

He hadn't spent more than a few minutes lingering after his fit at Ellis before he'd grabbed his things, a six-pack of (lukewarm) beer from a dead refrigerator in the corner, and a can of microwaveable beef stew from one of the aisles.

A set of enclosed stairs in the back alley led up to the roof, and he'd retreated up there, leaving Rochelle and Coach with little more than a curt, "Later."

He figured a zombie wouldn't climb up the side of the building. Maybe a Hunter would, but at this point, Nick might just welcome a claw to the throat. If nothing else, he'd get some rest.

Nothing soothed a guilty conscience like alcohol in the bloodstream - and though he hated to admit it… the more time he had to hear his own words to Ellis reverberate back to himself in his head, the more he disliked how unreasonably he'd lost his temper.

He hadn't stuck around to see Ellis' reaction. He still didn't completely know how the kid had taken it. The idea of him being hurt seemed far-fetched, especially considering how he'd shrugged off an actual blow from Nick.

Nick tried to work out if he wanted Ellis to be okay, and that was when he'd broken out the beer.

Much to his relief, none of the others tried to bother him on the roof. He heard them talking now and then, but he'd ignored it, maintaining a steady, rhythmic sipping of beer. It should've taken him longer to get drunk, but an empty stomach combined with the fact the gas station booze wasn't nearly as watered down as he'd expected had him soused quick.

Nick tried to wipe sweat from his forehead with his wrist, only to realize his wrist was sweaty, too. His fever had spread to a full-body sensation, and the alcohol only seemed to worsen it, going flush and breath a little reedy. Damnit…

Was he sick? Surely not sick. Like Rochelle had said; if they were going to get infected, they would have already. He gave a musing squint downward where the bandage on his neck was still clinging on.

The gambler ripped it off, and although he could only see some of the wound past his chin - it was better. Clean. Bruised around the edges, but not angry and swollen anymore.

You'd know if you were turning, Nick. soothed a remarkably sensible voice in the back of his head. Cool it. You're just hungry and worked up.

Stretching his legs out before him and slumping his lower back a bit more against the squat wall behind him, Nick tipped his head back and closed his eyes into the late evening breeze. It was foul, stained with smoke and something acrid, but the wind was pleasant against his face and the smell was no worse than the taste of the beer he'd been downing.

He half-dozed and half-relaxed. The mix of warm fever, warm buzz, and exhaustion overwhelmed him, and he swore he must've drifted to sleep for a bit.

That didn't last, an abrupt knocking from the closed stairwell door startling him to straighten him up. Blinking and passing his palm over his face shortly, the conman realized he was suddenly cold. There was still sweat at the shallows of his cheeks, but it was chill and tacky. He tugged his jacket off his lap to push his arms into the sleeves, shivering a little.

Glancing up at the sky without bothering to move, Nick reached his hand out to curl his fingers around the half-empty beer bottle he'd abandoned next to his hip, shaking it a bit before taking a sip. The (ghastly) flavor cleared just enough of his drowsiness to get his bearings.

The knocking sounded again, a little louder.

"What?" he finally half-shouted, raising a hand to scratch fingertips through his regrettably un-gelled hair and sighing. The gambler was hungry, but not enough to convince himself into drinking a can of cold stew, not even drunk.

"It alright if I talk with yuh, Nick?" Ellis' voice made Nick blink, stiffening up where he sat. That sane part of him was displeased; the drunk part of him, on the other hand…

Huh.. and I was wondering if he'd talk to me at all.. persistent, … annoying…

Admittedly, about twenty different words cropped up in his head to describe the mechanic. He judged and rejected all of them, settling for a defiant:

Dumbass.

He couldn't decide if he was irritated or not. His mind was so loose with the buzz of alcohol - and maybe fever - the gambler was finding it hard to notice too much of anything. He felt more curious than anything else; why did Ellis even want to talk to him? Was he really that difficult to warn off?

"Dunno. Do I care about what you're gonna say?" he retorted, a little plainly, though he didn't slur half as much as he expected. Setting the beer bottle in his hand down, the gambler rested his elbows back against the ledge behind him.

"… mind if I open the door, Nick?"

Nick laughed outright, abandoning his comfortable positioning to force himself to his feet with his elbows. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket, tucking it tight around himself to ward off the chill, and walked over to the door slowly. "You can talk through it fine." he challenged sarcastically, leaning his shoulder against the wall just beside the doorframe.

Close now, he heard the hick sigh through the thin door, though it sounded more readying than exasperated. After just a few moments, Nick waiting with an odd patience and a quickly-spreading smirk he didn't even completely understand himself, Ellis spoke up warily.

"I know whut you said earlier, but I can't just say nothin', man! I like you, Nick! Yer a real neat guy, 'n anyway we've gotta work together if we're gonna make it through. I ain't tryin' tuh bother you none, but I don't want us tuh be fightin' fer no reason... I'm just lookin' tuh be friends with you, Nick."

Inhaling a bit and tipping his head on the doorframe, Nick let his eyes half-shut and retorted soon after. "And what makes you think I wanna be yours? You don't think I meant what I said?" His tone, for all the implications of his words, was oddly nonchalant there at the beginning.

Something about the conman's words made Ellis' voice abruptly firmer, confidently shooting back and unperturbed by the door between them. "Nuh-uh, I don't.. you've been nice tuh me - 'n I'm purty good with readin' folks."

Nick snorted slightly, dropping his chin and turning his slowly-stubbling cheek against his shoulder. The practically bristling irony didn't escape him. "Are you?" he prompted in a low murmur, something Ellis might almost have missed -but a response came a few beats after, tone forcedly firm like the hick knew he was treading treacherous territory.

"I bet'chya just don't know how tuh let yerself be friendly, so yer freakin' out instead. I don't mind, but I ain't backin' off neither."

That struck a flash of irritation through Nick's mind, focusing on the door and twitching a brow. He recognized a defensive curl to his own fingers, distantly examining the motion. There were too many tiny kernels of truth in everything Ellis said - and the hick was oblivious to the ones that mattered, it seemed. "'Freakin' out'? You're kidding, right?"

"I ain't! You can't tell me you weren't bein' nice when we ate breakfast this mornin'. Yuh just don't wanna admit it." Ellis sounded even more confident that time, and Nick felt a jab of discomfort, wondering if something in his pliable voice had made the hick think he was winning. He didn't usually get this readable, not even drunk - It's him fucking with my head again... why did I get drunk?! The fuck was I thinking... Drinking in the goddamn apocalypse. Stupid. Stupid.

Nick pulled off the wall, crossing his arms tightly and gnawing on his lower lip in subconscious agitation, feeling dizzy as he struggled to hold onto it past a drunk sense of confliction. He didn't like this confrontation, not when he couldn't quite control his own voice. "Yeah, and then you nearly got me fuckin' killed twice.. look, I blew my top, sure.. but that was your fault, and I told you, kid. You're trouble, and not my kind."

Ellis' voice turned almost desperate, pleadingly apologetic. "And I wanna say sorry fer that! I didn't mean tuh upset you or get yuh hurt, it all just happened real fast. I'da done different if I could'uv."

Nick rolled his eyes upward, fighting his tone as it threatened into and out of outright slurred, though coherent, hostility. "Upset me? I'm not upset and I'm not 'freaking out.' Stop makin' excuses, kid... Maybe I just don't like uppity little hicks... you thought about that? That you might just be better off givin' up? That I was being fuckin' serious when I said I didn't want to deal with you?"

Ellis was quiet for just a beat, but he hadn't been defeated quite yet. There was a little tone of hurt to his voice when he finally retorted, "Yeah, that's whut Coach said.. 'n' I think it's bullshit. You ran right up here after yellin' at me and closed yerself off all evenin' tuh get drunk alone - you think 'bout that before yuh tell me you meant what you said!"

Nick didn't want to talk about this anymore, suddenly... he was too drunk for it, and the words were striking him strangely, pushing him into a corner. Exasperated, the conman shifted in front of the door and growled straight at it, "What the fuck, Ellis? Why are you talkin' to me right now?"

"We're a team, Nick." Ellis' voice fell suddenly gentle. Too gentle. "You're muh buddy now. I want you to explain tuh me why I'm upsettin' you so much when I ain't meanin' to, so's I can fix it."

Nick froze up, jaw tensing as alcohol-soaked adrenaline abruptly swept through his muscles. He wasn't sure if it was the words or his inebriation or the pleading tone Ellis said it with - or the fact the kid was, literally, asking for it... but with a strong wobble as he uncrossed his arms, the gambler yanked the door open.

Ellis startled and tried to back up, but Nick grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him through the doorway onto the roof. The younger man didn't even resist, although his cap-shaded blue eyes revealed a shining surprise that might have just left him too caught off-guard to think to, stumbling the few steps forward with a worried "Nick?!" that got no answer.

The moment they cleared the threshold, the conman shoved the door shut again with one momentarily-straying hand and then thrust Ellis flat against it with his palms, knocking the wind out of him. Nick halted with just a foot of distance between them, both his hands retreating to plant themselves on the door on either side of Ellis' capped head and hold himself up.

He knew he was panting, subtly, but there was very little conscious thought lingering as Ellis caught his breath and cautiously blinked up at the taller man from under the bill of his cap.

"Nick?" the mechanic warily repeated, holding very still under the harsh surveying of those palely fascinating green eyes and the soft pulse of boozed breath settling against his face as the conman exhaled.

So Nick responded, teeth trapped in a grit as his whole frame tingled with a mindless exhilaration, a breathless feeling he couldn't begin to explain - like the dangerous thrill he felt at the sound of a whole stack of chips sliding across the green fabric of a card table.

But this time he was merely stroking their edges, pondering... somehow holding himself back, just barely, even though every instinct said otherwise.

"You don't even get half the trouble you're causing..."

Hesitantly, Ellis gave a very slow nod of his head, eyes riveted on the face before his.

Nick could tell - staring at that all-too-pretty face of Ellis' - he didn't understand... the kid was tensed and nervous, and it was written all over his expression that he thought he was going to be roughed up. He was waiting for a punch or a kick, body prepared to take the blow - a far too innocent kind of fear compared to the rising lust pulsing through the conman that only worsened as he stared him down.

God… you fucked up, Nick.

"It's all your goddamn fault... I told ya.. over and over, leave me alone." There was no stopping it, and his slur was unrestrained as he growled lightly into the mechanic's face. His gaze flickered over Ellis' features, and he curled his fingers into fists on the door and leaned in an extra inch.

Ellis sunk slightly against the door to match him, fingers gripping on the draping folds of his coveralls. If Nick wasn't crazy, there was a flush of colour in his cheeks. That face looked guilty, a regretful frown trying to win over his expression.. and he tried to apologize, even as Nick was hovering over him dangerously.

"I'm sorry, N-"

"Shut it." It was a short sound, and coupled perfectly with one of Nick's hands shifting over in a flash and clamping over the Georgian's mouth, forcing him into silence. "Has nothing to do with it. You're wastin' your goddamn breath.."

His tone flickered in and out of humor, watching intently as Ellis listened oddly closely to him, utterly still. "You want to know so bad why you make me so upset - ask me one more fuckin' time. One more time, Ellis. Or get the fuck out."

The gambler's hand eased away slightly, lingering imperceptibly on the soft lips that had been pressed so innocently against his palm. Nick couldn't stop his gaze from flickering down to them, and with a strike of tension, their closeness became ever more apparent to him. His spine tingled violently when Ellis chose that moment to curl them inward and lick them indelicately, obviously preparing to speak.

Nick should've known Ellis wouldn't think twice, stupidly oblivious... or maybe he did know, and that was why he gave Ellis an option. Rigged dice - of course he'd ask.

"Why, Nick? I wanna know.."

There was just one beat of silence, one single, boozed breath panted against his face that was fit to make his eyes water, before Ellis got an answer. It was so harsh and strange at the same instant he almost thought he'd misheard, or Nick had misspoken -

because Nick growled,

"… I want you."

The last syllable hadn't left Nick's lips before his right hand suddenly darted down. It hooked under Ellis' closest knee, fingers getting a tight grip on the baggy fabric of his coveralls. The older man yanked his leg into a bend, thigh rubbing up to align with the conman's hip. Ellis froze up instantly, a ragged noise of shock leaving him as he was forced into a vulnerable one-legged collapse against the wall.

Nick's grip was uncompromising, pinning Ellis on one foot and holding his leg where it was with an almost-too-tight clench. The instant the shocked kid was in place, Nick used his leverage with the Georgian's knee to rock his hips into the spread niche of Ellis' crotch, thrusting him lightly against the door.

The harsh wave of lust that instantly shot through the conman nearly deafened him to Ellis ... and it took all his effort not to crumple at the friction and the incredible sensation of finally even the smallest feel of the kid's body...

…or, honestly, anyone's…

…but a horrified "Wh-wha-!" reached him just faintly, striking at the very small percentage of his attention that wasn't distracted.

That sensible part of him said, Stop.

He wanted it so very badly, whole body demanding it with almost painful clenches and waves as he pressed against the Georgian. He needed the lean body stretched and straining between him and the door, needed the heat and the friction... Drunk off beer and lust and drowning in both, he couldn't not say it to himself; I fuckin' need this...

His whole body was buzzing, pulse humming throughout him and mouth going dry as cotton. He refused to let his eyes shut even as they threatened to, twisting his head slightly to press his forehead against the kid's shoulder. He was so real, so sturdy… unmoving.

Ellis wasn't saying anything. He wasn't trying to get away, or shake Nick off. Maybe Ellis wasn't against it.

Maybe -

But the voice was back. Nick. Stop. That's enough. This isn't you.

In defiance of it, Nick's head shifted - his mouth latched onto Ellis' neck, just under his jaw, with a sudden wetness. Ellis tasted heady.. something smoky, maybe a little dirty. It tasted… masculine, and the alcohol that tingled on his skin as Nick's saliva brought it did nothing to dampen it.

Nick laved the flat of his tongue against the skin there, feeling the rushing pulse of the mechanic's jugular and shuddering once as the motion made Ellis' body jerk.

Driven by the feeling, the kid shook free of his shock. He released a strangled sound somewhere between a whimper and a yelp and shot up his arms, getting his forearms - even his bandaged one - up to shove at Nick's shoulders, trying to push him away.

Away. Ellis was trying to use what little leverage he had to get out from under Nick. He was fighting, and it wasn't a pleasant wrestle.

The kid was scared.

It was the realization of that panic that suddenly made Nick jerk his mouth away. He felt like he was going to catch fire as he let go of Ellis' knee and abruptly turned the knob of the stairwell door, pulling it open.

It only took a vague step to the side, and a hard shove, to get Ellis around the door and into the stairwell. He didn't watch as Ellis tumbled away from him, going down hard on the floor on the other side of the door. He definitely didn't look at the kid's face, or the stupid, reddened gawp on his face as his body crumpled there, unable to get his bearings.

Nick felt so ill and drunk and full of raging, uncontrollable desire that his features flung themselves into a burning scowl, his breathing ragged and quick. He didn't wait to see Ellis scramble up and flee down the staircase - he just shut the door, staggering backward several steps and then quickly retreating for the very corner of the rooftop.

He skidded down to the ground, curling up tight against the roof's bordering wall and crossing his forearms harshly over his crotch, folding in around his erection and huffing painfully like he'd taken a swift kick there. He closed his eyes tightly, trying not to think at all as he let himself slip down and burrow tightly into the corner and his jacket, pulling it tight around himself.

But the thoughts came anyway, fractured with his struggling to keep himself calmed as his drunkenness left him unable to cope. He felt like he was suffocating, and the mindless lust that pulsed in his every fiber was demanding release he just couldn't give it, pain settling in slowly.

He'd never meant to take it that far. It was the fever, or the beer; anything other than his free will. He didn't want this. "Fuck. Fuck!"

...you're fine, Nicolas. You're fine. Everything's fine.

It was a lie, and all the repetition of the thought did was lull him into such a silent, huffing, drunken froth that he slipped down a little where he was and passed out in the cold.

Chapter Text

A blistering headache greeted Nick the moment his eyes opened. His whole head felt like it might split, making him groan and roll blindly to try and bury his face in the pillow that should've been clutched tight to his body - of course, the only thing beneath him was the cement of the porch-like rooftop, and he got a rough scrape of his nose against it for his trouble.

Groggily recoiling from the hard surface, the conman pushed up to sit on his knees and bent forward to rub at his eyes with his wrists, squinting hard. His stomach revolted against the sudden shift of orientation, sending a shudder up his spine and a strong blanch over his face.

"Awgh.. fuck beer.." he complained throatily as he settled his palms flat over his eyes, mouth having the consistency of so much sand. He tried to draw up some kind of saliva to wet his lips, but he was so dehydrated, he thought he'd wither.

"...If you puke, I'm leaving."

The gambler would've jumped clear out of his skin if he hadn't been so focused on not moving. Rochelle's voice struck his brain a little too loudly, echoing, like his ears were waterlogged. Peeling his hands reluctantly from his eyes, Nick glanced sideways from his slumped kneeling position, eyeing the woman crouched just a few feet to his left.

She smiled at him rather unsympathetically, but with a slight shift of her weight to flatten her feet rather than balance up on her toes, she stuck out her right hand - offering him the capped end of a bottle of water. "Smooth move there, slick. What about 'zombie apocalypse' says 'get drunk' to you, anyway?"

Nick snorted only faintly, shifting his weight to drop down onto his rear and settle into a hunched sit up against the wall. He snatched the bottle from her, opening it up as he retorted dryly, "The 'zombie apocalypse' part.."

Tossing the cap blindly over his shoulder, the conman shut his eyes and quickly chugged a few mouthfuls of water, letting it sit just a moment behind tightly pursed lips before he swallowed. The sudden influx agitated his stomach, but the wetting of his dry mouth was more than enough relief and he let himself sit for a moment and breathe deep before trying again.

He was slow, and tired, but not too slow or too tired to drum up some sarcasm. "Besides, what happened to miss 'They're just sick'? She didn't last long."

Rochelle laughed faintly under her breath, crossing her arms on top of her knees so she could toy with her bangles, dropping her chin to eye Nick cautiously, visibly unconvinced he wasn't going to retch. She looked surprisingly well-rested, wide awake even though the still-dim sky betrayed that it was early in the morning.

"If I had to choose between zombies, and killing a bunch of sick people, I guess I'd rather be fighting zombies. Conscience, you know? That and it gets pretty hard pretty fast to pretend they're not... well, monsters."

Nick took another sip of water, swirling it around like mouthwash before turning his head and spitting it out over the edge of the roof, glad to clear some of the stale beer taste from his tongue. Wiping his mouth with his wrist, he glanced back groggily to see Rochelle giving him a smile despite a fair crinkle of distaste to her nose.

It struck him, then, although his hungover brain was slow to process everything and seemed intent on working backwards. She seems normal. Guess Overalls didn't say anything to anyone... huh.

"Why did you sleep up here, anyway? You're lucky nothing got up here in the middle of the night - it's not like we were in a position to rush up here. We don't need to lose one of our guns." She was chiding him, almost instantly earning herself a backseat in his attention span. The gambler focused on taking a sip of water and trying to arrange his thoughts.

Then again, isn't a real surprise, is it... probably scared the shit out of him.

The thought, though, made him shift in sudden discomfort where he sat, tongue curling on the mouth of his water bottle. Sure, I'd thought about it earlier... just giving up and telling him, scare him, make him back off - but... I don't know... That wasn't -

Wasn't how he imagined it going? Wasn't what he wanted? Wasn't what he meant to do?

Wasn't like him?

"Better up here than bunking with you three idiots..." he muttered as he released his almost biting grip on the soft plastic bottle, drawing a laugh from Rochelle. He lifted a hand to massage his forehead and then tried to push his hair into its usual slicked back position, groaning near-silently at his headache.

"Jackass.." she told him simply, pushing on her thighs with her forearms to stand up. He glanced at her, but the sudden difference in their heights gave him a flutter of vertigo and he quickly closed his eyes. "Are you going to go and slink off to your own corner every time we find a place to sleep?"

"Probably... how did you three sleep?" Closing his eyes, the gambler smoothed his expression to an unreadable sort of half-smirk, a little mocking, just enough to imply he didn't care - and mostly he didn't.. but any hint of Ellis' behaviour before he actually ran into him was worth an inane question.

Rochelle gave a small shake of her head, wrapping her hand around her elbow and settling her weight onto her heels. "Coach planned to have us all - well, minus you, you jerk - take turns keeping watch, just in case something happened, but Ellis took first watch and then never traded. We're well-rested... Poor boy's sweet, but honestly. Saving us the trouble wasn't worth it. He's gonna be useless today."

Pressing his thumb into the side of the bottle so it crinkled inward slightly, Nick took a large gulp of water. Up all night? Great... "Least you got your beauty sleep. Last thing we need is a woman in a bad mood." the conman muttered just under his breath, subtly shaking his head and shifting to force himself up to his feet. He noticed Rochelle had picked up his machine gun; it was slung over her back.

Giving him a slightly disapproving look, Rochelle reached down to get a grip on his sleeve and help him up. In any other situation, he'd have rejected it, but his head swam as he straightened up, and Nick didn't exactly trust the thigh-high wall that rimmed the rooftop to catch him if he fell.

"You're not exactly going to be a load of help, Mr. Morning After." she retorted, letting go of his sleeve once he'd proven himself sturdy enough to stand. "I don't know if I want you to have a gun."

"I'm perfectly fine." Nick snapped suddenly, jaw flexing into an irritated clench, losing his patience with the disapproval. "Ten minutes and I'll be good as new, alright? I know my goddamn limits." That was a blatant lie, naturally. All that really did was irk him a little more, slugging back a mouthful of water and gesturing her toward the stairwell door with his elbow.

She rolled her eyes lightly, relenting with a sigh and turning to lead him to the door, hands tucking into her back pockets. "Course you do, honey.." She felt his glare on her back, smiling faintly in self-amusement but dropping the subject as they ducked into the stairwell.

Nick agitatedly resigned to silence, trying to keep his vision from blurring and slowly moving after her. He wasn't looking forward to going down with the other two - booze-slurred recollections of the night before made him grit his teeth a little.

Half of him couldn't believe what had happened - and the other half just wanted to forget it had. No matter how it'd gone, the result would've been the same: tension and discomfort, and the previously emphatically-intent-on-befriending-him Ellis would likely be terrified of him.

But that hot friction... the way his neck had tasted... it made him shudder just to think about it. Conversely, the thought that Ellis had been unable to sleep because of it brought different memories trickling into the back of his mind.

He'd been tortuously unable to sleep the first time, too. Just a kid struggling with feelings he didn't understand. He wasn't sure how he felt about inflicting the same feelings on someone else, although if the small knot in his already queasy stomach said anything, it wasn't good.

Damnit.

He hated feeling guilty. Despised the sensation.

At least it had a sobering influence.

"We got the truck all ready, by the way." Rochelle spoke up as she nudged the exit at the base of the short staircase open and held the door for him. "Ransacked a garage across the road for tools... you know, when I agreed to do a firsthand account of the disaster, I didn't really think it'd involve looting. Or illegal weapons. Or… well… any of this."

Nick gave a noncommittal sound under his breath, downing the last chug of water and tossing the bottle away as he stepped into the alleyway, brow knotting painfully after the darkness of the stairwell. "Excuse me if I don't really give a shit about laws right now."

Aware that he'd have little luck eating with the lingering symptoms of his hangover, he was quick to dig a cigarette out of his pocket and work on lighting it. Nicotine tended to numb his appetite, and he had hopes the smoke would burn some of his nausea away.

That thought stopped him, and he took stock of himself a moment. He felt ill, sure, but that was the hangover. He raised a hand to touch his face, disguising the moment as a simple scratch with his pinky, only to realize there was no roasting heat or clammy chill to his skin.

The fever had passed.

Rochelle snorted slightly, prodding his shoulder with a fingertip as she got ahead of him again, circling the gas station with some amount of haste. "You saying you usually do..?"

The conman let his eyes slip half-closed, not bothering to even fake a smirk. He gave a shrug of a jacketed shoulder, bending forward to hunch over his cigarette and return to lighting it. He cupped his hands over it as its tip flickered to a soft orange, and took a puff. "Not all of us have the cushy lifestyle that they're built for, that's all."

Rochelle didn't respond, though her head dropped a bit like she might start laughing at him. Nick couldn't really tell how much of her behaviour was some kind of nonchalant passive-aggressive attempt to shame him - all it really did was give him a sense of boredom.

She didn't even know anything about him except for what she'd 'discerned,' and whatever he'd vaguely implied - and honestly, he was fine with it if her opinions didn't match the truth. Maybe he was worse. Maybe he was better.

It didn't matter to him.

"See?" Rochelle said instead.

He glanced up to see her gesturing as they rounded to the front of the gas station. The truck was parked up close to one of the gas pumps, grill plastered in dried blood and greenish-black muck. It was a chubby white Chevy, probably as old as Ellis himself, heavily treaded wheels a little too big for the rest of the car.

"Yeah, yeah. I remember what it looks like. We get to ride in typical Southern style." Nick scoffed quietly, barely even stopping on his way to the gas station door. He pulled his cigarette from his lips, tapping ash out on the sidewalk before he pushed the door open and stepped inside.

He distinctly heard Rochelle laugh out a quiet, "Jerk..." behind him, ignoring it. Coach was pawing through the gas station aisles, looking all the stocked items over and seeming in deliberation about what they'd take with them. Nick felt his chest tighten a little with something a lot like anticipation, quickly setting a hard poker face over his expression and taking a pull from his cigarette.

He didn't see Ellis.

"Coach. You n-" His jaw clamped shut around his fairly loud voice when Coach twisted his head and gave him a fierce 'shush' motion. Brows lifted on the gambler's face, and he had to work to resist a rising agitation at the command. Inhaling a quick breath to calm himself, he merely cocked his head in question.

The big man turned back to pick up a few boxes from the shelf in front of him, wrapping one thick arm around them in a cradle and turning to walk over. He used his free hand to point at the store counter, pushing out the door without a word, though Nick stole a glance at his expression and saw nothing aggressive.

Somewhat bemused and noticing that Rochelle hadn't followed him inside, the gambler let his tongue curl against the filtered tip of his cigarette, slowly pushing his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket. He strode over quietly to the counter, bending in to crane his head over the edge and glance down at the stretch of tile floor behind the register.

Sprawled on his back with Coach's backpack tucked under his head and his arms crossed on his chest, cap sitting on top of his upturned face and shading it all the way to his chin, Ellis was dead asleep.

Someone (likely Rochelle) had untied his wound-up coveralls and pulled them up over his torso to act as a bit of a blanket, though he'd pushed them down a little in his sleep to get his arms free. The fingers of his right hand had curled a bit on the bandage that tightly looped around his left elbow, like it had been bothering him in his sleep.

There was a huge amount of little squares of paper littered around him like confetti. On further inspection they turned out to be lottery scratch cards Ellis must have broken out of the rack behind the counter. Each one of them had one circle marked off, messy scratches peeling away the metallic layer - and just by his twisted elbow, there was a small and very neatly arranged pile of cards that'd revealed a 'Winner.'

Nick felt strange looking down on him. The scene prompted an all-too-vivid mental image of the kid sitting up alone all night, unable to sleep, quietly scratching off lottery cards like the repetitious motion might distract him. Now the mechanic was exhausted, though the cap covering his face made it hard to see how deep-set it was.

Why do I feel so goddamn guilty about this? It was his fault... and what, I'm supposed to just tiptoe around him when he can't do a single thing I ask? …goddamnit!

"...you stupid hick. You had to make me do that..." Nick muttered quietly down at him, gritting his teeth against an urge to punch the counter. He felt irritated, shoulders tensing up and rising defensively, and he swiftly twisted around and walked away before he discovered any different urges rising up.

Like waking him up and apologizing.

Or maybe just leaving and never coming back.

It can't be that hard to survive solo in the apocalypse.

Storming quickly through the door, Nick nearly bowled over Rochelle as they both reached it at the same instant. He recoiled to do a short spin around her, dodging contact, and snapped an irate, "Watch it!" even as she narrowly kept her balance. She could do little but blink after him in confusion, patting her sides a little to calm the startle it'd given her.

She watched as he fumed off to lean against the far edge of the truck's bed, not saying a word to Coach who was up inside it, arranging what he was taking from the gas station into piles.

"...You're the one who needs beauty sleep... prick." she hummed just faintly under her breath, although even the insult held a fairly unaggressive kind of resignation. Rochelle was giving up trying to fight him, coming to terms with - well, him, and trying not to get riled up.

Noticing Coach send her a small shrug from the truck, apparently not having missed the little fit, Rochelle sighed and walked over to the car. She crossed her arms on the rump of the truckbed, cocking her hip and letting her boot scuffle at the asphalt in a loose swing. "How're we going to do this, you guys think? We could let Ellis sleep in the back - poor thing needs it."

Smoke rolled up from the conman's face as he exhaled a long breath, but he made no motion to contribute to the conversation - and after a beat of silence, Coach spoke up with a gruff rumble, turning around to carefully maneuver down from the truck, rocking it significantly. "Gotta have a gun guardin' him. Nick 'n me'll drive, you stick wit' Ellis." He said it matter-of-factly, obviously having thought it through before - and Nick instantly drew a brow into a slight twitch, turning his head.

"Are you really asking to be stuck in a car with me, Coach?" The choice of him over Rochelle reasonably confused the gambler - overlooking for a moment that the alternative was him guarding Ellis, considering Coach was the only one familiar enough with the city to trust to drive the car, maps or no. "You don't exactly like me."

Coach flickered a short, serious look at him, hitching his pants up with one hand and sighing. "Let's be adults, Nick. We ain't got time. We can get along fo' the time bein', if you ain't gonna be stubborn."

Eyeing him for just a minute, pulling slowly on his cigarette, Nick begrudgingly decided not to make trouble. He'd skated by on dodging being in the same part of the car with Ellis... no sense endangering his chances. He nodded simply, looking away again and exhaling through his nostrils, smoke curling back up to brush warmly against his face.

The big man seemed content with that response, just turning and trudging back toward the gas station door, talking over his shoulder. He let a hand raise up and wipe his forehead. "We get lucky, we'll be on the road fo' a while today. Gotta make as much ground as we can. These pumps are dead an' we ain't got a full tank - didn't find no cans lyin' 'round, neither."

"At least we know where we're going." Rochelle pointed out easily, turning slightly and pushing off the truck to catch up with him, flexing her finger slightly at her sides and rolling her shoulder to adjust the machine gun sitting heavy on her back. She ducked into the gas station when Coach held the door for her, dropping her voice to keep from disturbing the out-cold hick behind the counter.

"Straight shot for the beach you said, right? Down that highway."

Coach sighed slightly, touching her shoulder and pointing toward a pile of supplies stacked up in one of the aisles. It was small, the most pertinent and easily prepareable food and drink in the place - though she did notice a supply of sweets stowed away in a paper bag he'd gotten from beside the register, not that she blamed him. "Hope so, baby girl. Won't know till we get goin'."

He started to turn toward the counter, but she grabbed onto his sleeve at the last second and he glanced back, deep eyes a little morose as he looked expectantly at her, expression softened to that affectionate gruff he had with her. "...Why the move with Nick?" Rochelle's brows were pinched slightly, hand dropping with a soft jingle of her bangles.

Coach chuckled only barely, shaking his head and rubbing his bald head with his wrist. "Bein' honest? I got some questions on my mind, baby girl. Good time fo' askin' him... 'n anyway, ain't gettin' nobody nowhere if I'm stuck hatin' the guy. Gonna give him a chance." He gave her a reassuring nod, continuing on toward the counter the moment she'd given one back.

"As long as you aren't gonna kill him."

Coach smiled at that.

The big man rounded the store counter as cautiously as he could, stepping to Ellis' side and dropping slowly to a crouch, though his bad knee popped loudly in protest. Reaching down to lift the cap from the Ellis' face and reveal both his sleeping face and the tousled brown curls of his hair, he gently shook him by the shoulder.

"Son, we're movin'... you jus' get in the car an' you can go back to sleep." Coach tried, unwilling to be too rough. His tone was as gentle as his naturally gruff baritone could manage, though he was left sitting there when Ellis' only reaction was the smallest of mumbles and a twitch of his nose.

Shaking him again, Coach chuckled sympathetically. "Ellis.. ain't no time fo' bein' a kid... c'mon now, boy." Waiting with a small countdown in the back of his mind, the ex-football player gave up. Resigned, he bent in and got thick arms around the lean mechanic's shoulder and under his arm, hoisting him up into an easy fireman's carry, Ellis buckled over his neck and supported by Coach's broad frame.

Straightening up with the smallest twinges of discomfort at the stress it put on his bad knee, Coach turned to carry the hick back outside the gas station. Ellis barely even stirred, and the odd angle his body was at turned his breaths into hiccupping snores… not that it seemed to bother his deep sleep.

Judging by the freshly stamped-out cigarette and the half-open door, Nick had already retreated into the truck, though his haste went unnoticed. Coach was gently depositing Ellis in the truck bed, leaning in and arranging him to nestle into the rubber lining, when he noticed the very light scent of beer.

Cocking his head in slight confusion, Coach eyed the sleeping kid for just a moment before slowly settling his cap against his hands. Ellis' fingers instantly twitched to grab hold of it, nestling it close to his chin and then stilling again, curling just a little bit.

The big man, however, had only a very short period of time to wonder why the mechanic smelled like alcohol before Rochelle came out of the gas station, arms loaded with supplies. He backtracked to meet her halfway, taking some of it from her and carrying it back to load up the truck around the unconscious mechanic.

"Ain't had breakfast, but we can eat on the road." Coach commented in a grunt, offering a hand to hoist Rochelle up into the truck bed. She flashed him a short smile as she took his offer, hopping up and walking gingerly over the bed to settle down beside Ellis. She draped an affectionate hand over his back.

Coach eyed them for just a moment, then pulled back and gently shut the truck's tailgate. He stood there for a moment, taking a mental checklist, his fingers flexing - it felt like the morning had gone too fast, too smoothly. He had a bad feeling and it stuck to him like so much fog.

But everything was in order and they were loaded up. He reached over the tailgate to snatch his shotgun from where Rochelle had set it down, carrying it with him as he pulled away. With no small grunt, the big man circled the truck and tossed open the door, hauling himself up into the driver's seat. "You know how to turn this shit on, Nick?" he questioned as he settled his hands on the wheel, letting the door shut behind him.

Nick gave a small glance sideways at the prompt, sighing faintly and hooking one hand in his half-open door's handle. He shut it carefully, then bent over the truck's bulky gearshift to reach the wires underneath the wheel.

Glad to see the wires had been disconnected delicately, it was a simple matter of readjusting them and restarting the connection, and within a few breaths the truck sparked to life and Nick could recoil from the slightly odd posture he'd been forced into.

"There." he said very simply, leaning far back in his seat and coolly getting his feet up to nestle them on the dashboard, draping his head against the knuckles of an upraised hand. "We're just lucky it's an old truck. That shit doesn’t work on most cars."

He could see Coach giving him a slightly dull sideways look, unimpressed with his sprawling, but the football coach didn't say anything, just reached to the control panel on the door. The truck was old enough to have window cranks, and Coach lowered the window with a few creaky rotations.

"Maybe this'll go smooth.." the big man gruffed quietly, adjusting the rear-view mirror and squinting out to the street. "Looks kinda calm."

The conman rolled his eyes subtly, leaning his head back and tensing his lips as his gaze flickered up toward the rear-view mirror. He squinted just slightly at what he could see of Rochelle's head just outside the back window. She had her head turned slightly, glancing down toward the snoozing Ellis, and Nick found his gaze sliding to follow hers even though he couldn't actually see.

Agitation, real and harsh, flared in his voice as he muttered, "Say that and everything will go to shit."

Chapter Text

The truck maneuvered easily around the abandoned cars and broken street that mottled the Savannah blocks. Coach barely paid any attention to the zombies they drove by, focusing mainly on his driving - and on not getting the truck trapped on the clogged streets.

Nick's discomfort with his swerving and reactive driving was evident from the way his right hand had a knuckle-white grip on the armrest of his chair, even though his posture remained a lounging sprawl worthy of an uncaring teenager.

Hidden more effectively was the swaying nausea that struck him with every jerk of the wheel, minor but tangible. He struggled on and off with a slight twinge of a headache, each time making him regret his drinking a little bit more. Better in a few minutes. he thought, defensively.

One hand of Coach's was only half on the wheel, its thumb and forefinger pulled away to grip onto the plastic package of a roll of powdered donuts. Rochelle had passed them up through the side window, and Nick had one as well - though it was untouched, resting on the coiled dip of his stomach. He wasn't interested in eating, and even less in eating those.

Oddly, as Coach revved the engine to plow through a few infected who had brainlessly sprinted out into the street in an attempt to attack the vehicle, Nick was the first to prompt conversation. His tone was a little taut, expressing his displeasure easily. "I'll make the leap of logic that you'd bite my head off if I smoked."

Coach snorted, more a grunt than anything else, humored like Nick was making a joke. Deciding to just take that as a 'yes,' the conman gave a small sigh and rolled his head into his hand, scratching at his scalp in a slow motion.

"Ain't good fo' you, y'know." the big man commented suddenly, cranking the wheel to drive them halfway up onto the sidewalk to get around a clog of cars in the middle of the road.

Nick squinted slightly, leaning back reflexively as a zombie was crushed up against the nose of the truck and rolled up onto his door for a moment, but snarked off a short response. "Neither are the fucking zombies." Coach didn't immediately respond, so Nick shrugged a shoulder and tacked on with a slightly less hostile tone, "I don't usually hit it half this hard. You blame me?"

The big man chuckled, silently staring forward at the road as he took a turn around a corner. He pried the last doughnut of the roll free from its package, biting in clear in half with his first mouthful and chewing slowly, wrist wiping powder from his mouth. Nick bit his teeth together subtly, giving an annoyed roll of his eyes and turning his head to glance out the back window.

Judging by Rochelle's posture and how she was looking out from the truck bed, Ellis was still asleep - somehow. The fact they hadn't actually had to fire off any shots yet that morning gave him the excuse of at least not sleeping through gunfire, but Nick still felt himself scoffing in half-frustration.

He must've 'tch'ed softly under his breath, because Coach sent him a sideways look.

Shrugging it off, Nick glanced out through the windshield and watched with a slight blink as they suddenly bounced up over a pole lying across the road, hurrying through a turn immediately afterward.

"I can't tell what kinda guy you are, Nick."

The gambler curled his tongue and sighed, pulling his crossed legs down off the dashboard and sitting up in the car seat. He swiped the donuts off his lap with a soft brush of his knuckles, not bothering to see where they ended up. He retorted, of course, although his tone was still fairly cool. "This again, really? How many times are you and Rochelle going to bother me about this shi-"

"Now don't get yo' hackles up," Coach quickly interrupted, brows furrowing up wearily and fingers flexing on the steering wheel as he guided the truck down the road. "You blame me fo' wantin' to know a little about someone I'll be trustin' my life with - sooner than later?"

Nick snorted quietly, settling back in the seat just a slight bit. He shrugged a shoulder, relenting only a little, even if he had no plans to really answer any questions. "What exactly are you expecting? Ten to one, you'd hate whatever I tell you."

The big man seemed to think, some of the tension leaving his brow. He leaned back in his seat, sliding his fingers down to grip the wheel at a more slack angle. He apparently threw caution to the wind and just asked it.

"You married?"

Nick felt himself blinking a bit, lifting a brow and a hand to cuff at his chin. He couldn't fight an inner sense of bewilderment, trying to figure out how they'd skipped the topics he'd braced for. Like, any other topic at all. "Where the hell did that come from?"

Coach chuckled slightly, shrugging his shoulder and focusing for a moment as the Chevy was forced to weave carefully through the wreckage of what looked to have once been a wire barricade between two buildings, now crushed under some kind of collision. It'd completely buckled inward... Coach seemed to give it a look, frowning vaguely, but said nothing about it.

The cityscape was starting to change - the blocks were more spacious, road a little wider...they were starting to pull away from the center of Savannah.

"Ro' noticed a tanline yesterday.. Figured you were missin' a weddin' ring, but it ain't like she'd ask."

Nick snorted instantly, crossing his arms loosely over his chest and curling his fingers in his sleeves. The smallest glance confirmed, though he already knew: his left ring finger was bare, unlike the three other rings that bedecked his knuckles on various fingers, and the last knuckle was encircled by a slightly pale circle.

It was only a shade or two... but it still hadn't been long enough since he'd shed the ring for it to catch up.

And she was acting like I was coming onto HER.. checking for tanlines? Really? "Funny how you're all up in arms about my secrets while I don't even know your fuckin' name. And it's happily divorced, thanks." he snapped defensively, inhaling a sharp breath and scratching his bicep in an agitated motion.

Coach lifted a few of his fingers from the steering wheel in a half-dismissive and half-calming motion, shaking his head slightly. "We got half that in common, ain't no reason to get mad." He took in a breath, then added, "An' if it bugs you that much, it's Samuel Garrett.. but keep wit' Coach. Simpler."

Curiously, Nick loosened his grip on his biceps. He eyed Coach - no, 'Samuel' wasn't going to stick anytime soon, that was for sure - sideways a little more, not looking up when the truck jolted abruptly, running over something. I didn't even read him as a married man... divorced, though?

"Who left who?" he prompted rather callously, decidedly not commenting on the introduction, but Coach didn't seem offended. There was a slight downturn to the wrinkled edges of the man's deep-set eyes that betrayed his answer before he gave it, and Nick glanced away again once he spoke up.

"You tell me if I tell you, boy?" Coach joked rather seriously, pressing a little harder on the pedal to drive them well out of the clutches of a small milling cluster of zombies that lunged at the truck.

The conman smirked vaguely, resting his mouth against his knuckles and offering a, "Sure." Judging by Coach's sideglance, the big man didn't believe him in the slightest, but with a loud and breezy inhale, he responded anyway.

"She found someone else... happens, Nick. I ain't begrudgin' her happiness, even if it's wit' another man." He said it resignedly, the words pulsing with a long-since earned sense of justification. Nick read it gradually, tipping his head against his hand and musing as he listened. He was rather pleased he'd not only wormed out of talking, but gotten Coach to fall victim to his own trap.

"My coachin' at a high-school wasn't ever a real point of pride fo' her, anyway. Didn't make too much on it, either. Don't blame her fo' gettin' tired of it - I been doin' the same job since I got outta college." He let a calmed sigh pass through his wide nostrils, flaring them, and shook his head.

"Been years since she left, though. Old news... you?"

Nick didn't let him slip by, though - he felt like the older man was trying to pull something on him. There was an edge to his reaction that didn't match up - his words were honest, but there was something missing that echoed in the frown on his face and the odd weight in his eyes.

"What're you cutting out, Sam?" he challenged - but Coach didn't stand the callousness (nor the mocking use of his name) as well the second time around, drawing an obviously disapproving breath and raising a hand to scratch at the heavy scruff of his rounded cheek before he replaced his hand on the wheel.

"... You're cuttin' out everything. Don't pull that shit on me, boy."

"Lead by example, Coach. You should know that, of any of us." Nick smirked at him, holding utterly still as he waited in cool and rather smug expectation. He let his fingers adjust his suit over his frame, reaching up to straighten his collar against his neck. Belatedly and subconsciously, his fingertip brushed against the scab along his neck.

It had looked so infected that first day, but now it felt like nothing more than a cat scratch. Between that and his fever disappearing overnight, Nick felt… better. Good, even.

He felt confident, now, in saying it hadn't been signs of the Green Flu, but it wasn't like they had time to get sick otherwise - even regular sick.

Drawing his focus again, Coach sighed wearily. The older Georgian shook his head in disapproval before somewhat reluctantly lifting a bulky shoulder. His voice was uncertain of its phrasing for what had to have been the first time since Nick met him. "..It- .. she got our daughter, that's all."

Nick arched a brow slightly, but said nothing, simply curling his tongue behind his teeth.

"Momma with a step-dad was better fo' her than a single dad. I ain't spitin' or nothin' - it was all civil."

The conman barely gave a response, turning his head slightly and glancing out the window. He doubted both parts of that last statement, though he was well aware of his own cynicism. "Maybe you should." He said it with rare tact, hostility held behind pursed lips.

Coach laughed gruffly, shaking his head and rubbing at the wheel with his palms. "Nah.. ain't worth it, boy. If you're spitin' your ex still, you're wastin' yo' time.. we still get along. I see my li'l baby girl 'cause of it. Don't much like her new man, but it still ain't worth it. We're all adults."

Biting back a small laugh, Nick didn't miss the use of 'baby girl' and how the big man called Rochelle the same thing. It wasn't particularly new that Coach treated her a little paternally, though the new tidbits Nick was ascertaining seemed to solidify it to a more serious fact. He wondered if Rochelle knew, or if he was the first to be told.

"Women are greedy bitches." he muttered simply, the decision firm though he flashed a smirk like he was simply fishing for a reaction when Coach gave him a slightly wide look of distaste. "You'd be surprised what you end up learning about them, if you let yourself look."

Coach sighed just a little, apparently deciding to skim over the gambler's derisive phrasing rather than arguing. He let his shoulders roll back and pop, questioning, "Guess that means you gave her the boot?"

Nick was quiet, lips parted, just long enough to count as a hesitation. His fingers started to seek purchase in the fabric of his jacket, but before either of them could say anything, there was a rap on the back window.

The distraction was more than welcome.

Turning with a lifted brow, Nick found Rochelle crouching up where she was nestled against the back of the cab, a frown on her face. She was in the process of shaking Ellis awake. To Nick's displeasure, the kid was slowly starting to stir, sleepily rubbing at his face and leaning against her to fight the shift and shake of the moving truck.

Rochelle beckoned with her free hand, rubbing Ellis' shoulder with the other. She said something, but it was too muffled by the thick back window to hear. As they'd done to get breakfast up into the front, Nick reached to the small crank below the passenger-side window to roll it down, grunting a little as he twisted and slipped his head out of the car, scowling heavily.

"What?" he called back to Rochelle, lifting brows as she leaned over the side of the truck bed to meet his advance.

"I might be crazy, but I keep hearing something... can you get Coach to pull over?"

Sighing slightly but giving a confirming nod, Nick drew back all the way into the truck, gesturing with one hand toward the side of the road. He used the other to readjust his wind-blown hair, grumbling. "Stop the car."

He kept quiet as Coach obeyed after a moment, merely watching as the big man quickly tossed it into park and shoved the door open. Coach dragged up his shotgun from the floorboard, leaning out into the street and quickly scanning for infected.

There were still a few stragglers chasing after them up the road, but it was a simple matter of gunning them down from a distance. The shotgun blast may have been inaccurate, but it only took a few pellets straight to the face to down the infected. By the time Coach lowered the gun, Nick had gotten out to lean up against the side of the truck and focus on Rochelle, expectantly.

Ellis was sitting up on his own now against the back end of the truck bed, cap lowered to shade his eyes and most of his mouth - though not all of it. Were Nick to let himself look over, he'd have seen the smallest signs of a frown. It took effort not to glance, but the gambler wasn't interested in fighting that battle just then.

"What's wrong, baby girl?" Coach prompted as he rested an elbow on the edge of the truckbed, curiously inspecting the woman's slightly nervous grip on her pistol.

"I think it's that thing again, that chased us off-track from the hotel..." she responded, frowning and shaking her head a little. She crawled up to the side of the bed, carefully hitching up a leg to slip over it, Coach reaching up to help her down. "I could've been hearing things, but..."

"Whut thing?" It was Ellis who asked it, even though Nick was primed to, and the kid quietly raised up his chin to glance at Coach and Rochelle, turning his body away from the conman. Nick simmered silently with his weight shifting from foot to foot.

The cold shoulder? Really?

That was going to get insufferable, fast.

Rochelle sighed as she settled on the asphalt, taking a few steps away from the truck and lifting her chin to listen to a loud, heavy crashing noise some small distance away. "Big guy... really, really big. Really, really, really big and not at all what I want to meet again... CEDA calls them Tanks."

"It was flingin' cars like toys." the big man grunted in agreement, making Nick straighten with a bit of a blink. Two memories shot up to the forefront of his mind - the cars implanted in the sides of buildings like bugs squashed into the wall, and his own car, shoved off the highway going full speed.

But he didn't mention either.

"Whut, it's like the Hulk?" The hick lifted his hands to rub his head through his cap. It was a touch startling how unexcited he seemed with the concept. Ellis' voice was just… flat, relative to his normal chipper behaviour, although maybe it was exhaustion. He forced himself up, reaching down to pick up his shotgun from where it had been lodged against their cache of supplies.

Hooking it under his bandaged arm, he rolled himself over the truck's tailgate and stood up against the back bumper. Ellis stretched as much as he could with a heavy yawn, the action overtaking him the instant he was vertical.

"... or, the actual question of the moment," Nick muttered hostilely before he could stop himself, turning his head away and moving to reach into the truckbed and bend himself over the rim. He retrieved his machine gun - just in case. "How the hell do we kill it?"

Nick didn't miss the glance Ellis shot at him, nor the retreat he made for Coach's side. The kid was fingering the grip of his pump-shotgun. "Yuh wanna suggest somethin' helpful, N-" he shot back with an impulsive, discomfited tone, starting the conman's name before he was interrupted.

They were all silent a moment as the loud sound of crushing metal preceded a thunderous rumble. It was guttural, and loud, and couldn't have been further from human-sounding. Nick felt it against the flats of his dress shoes, making him knot his brow.

Maybe under different circumstances, more attention would have been paid to the kid's behaviour. Now, Coach just gripped Ellis' shoulder reassuringly, and not much more was said.

"Who votes we get back in the goddamn car and keep driving?" he suggested coldly, shooting a glare at Ellis from across the truckbed. The kid didn't meet his gaze despite clearly noticing it, curling his free hand into a bit of a fist. If Nick wasn't seeing things, the bridge of his nose grew a slash of red as his face flushed.

Don't know if you wanna be pissed or scared, do ya, kiddo... Nick didn’t have time to feel guilty. Preferably, he'd avoid it entirely, if he could. He quickly shook the thoughts away and jammed a thumb at the truck. "Well?!"

"I'm wit' Nick on this one. We ain't-"

But Coach didn't get to explain his agreement. Something - a very suddenly close, very suddenly loud something - roared out an aggressive call, echoing on the air, and a huge shape came thundering out onto their street from an intersection back behind them.

It must've been the size of a small elephant. Pure, raw muscle rippled on every inch of its deformed frame, skin stretched so tight over the unnatural bundles of muscle packed onto it that it almost seemed ready to split. Its arms were gigantic and meaty, and they dragged its whole torso down, putting its weight mostly on its knuckles as it lunged out from between two buildings. One hand landed on the rear end of a car, crushing the vehicle instantly into the ground in a shower of glass and bits of chassis.

Its head was sunken into the middle of bulging shoulders, seeming almost consumed by its own ballooning brawn, but there was no mistaking its focus on the survivors - and the enraged roar that sounded like half-formed words and growled gargles made it painfully clear they had no options.

Coach thundered back to the front seat, jumping in and slamming the door, and without a thought Nick vaulted up onto the trunkbed as Rochelle and Ellis did the same. He thrust himself up against the wall of it, jamming his body tightly and hooking an arm in a strap clearly meant for holding down cargo. Grabbing hold of Rochelle's arm, Nick urged her over to hook elbows with him, bracing both of them down.

"Ellis." he demanded shortly, tone leaving absolutely no room for argument. There wasn't any, anyway, as the brawny monstrosity swung into a thundering run down the road toward them, cracking asphalt with every step.

With a visibly uneasy expression but little choice, the younger man scrambled over and got an arm around Rochelle, locking into the neat huddle they had down in the truckbed. The moment they were settled, Nick slammed the butt of his SMG against the truck, signaling Coach.

And Coach floored it. Tires squealed with burning rubber as the Chevy protested it, but even so it went, rollicking like a train gone wild and jolting its passengers like so much loose change.

Aiming was a pipe-dream, but Nick did his best to brace his gun against the side of the tailgate. The gambler fired in sporadic bursts - unfortunately realizing very quickly that the bullets weren't so much as giving the thing pause. The pure power behind its vaulting strides was letting it keep up with the truck a little too easily.

For just a split second, Nick thought he saw the thing start to stop - only to watch with some amount of disbelief as the thing scooped up a van crashed into a lightpole and heaved it over its head, roaring as it braced to throw the thing.

"TITS!" he shouted reflexively, trying to shoot more accurately and hit something vital to halt the thing's throw. Both Rochelle and Ellis tried to shoot, too, but Coach drove them squealing around a corner and all three of them had to grab onto the truck and each other to keep from tumbling over.

There was an instant there where a weightless feeling enveloped Nick's gut, before the Chevy steadied its balance and peeled off down the new street.

"Jesus!" Rochelle gasped, very clearly shaken as the van they'd nearly had thrown at them went skidding across the asphalt behind them, rolling along with terrible noises of broken glass and metal.

That, however, was nothing compared to the enraged and guttural roaring that echoed soon after, and the tremendous noise of the Tank's revived chase despite the ground it'd lost. Nick couldn't deny it was terrifying as shit.

And the fact he could feel Ellis cringe away every single time their arms, both looped around Rochelle, touched, was just the cherry on top.

Chapter Text

"Ain't givin' up!" Ellis' voice cracked down the middle as he shouted it, crouched body flinching back as the lumbering thing chasing them crashed sideways into the face of a building. Bits of house went flying in all directions, but the thing barely slowed, one meaty hand grabbing hold of a chunk of framework and chucking it toward them.

Coach swerved them to dodge it, rocking the truck violently, and clipped a parked car with the very nose of it. A shout was drawn from the big man as his mistake earned a long scrape along the side of their car, and Rochelle cursed sharply, clinging to the men on either side of her.

She grabbed hard at Nick's sleeve, balking his gunfire suddenly and crying out over the roar of the Tank and the truck's engine: "We have to kill it! Coach and I only escaped because it didn't actually spot us - we can't lose this thing!"

The gambler took one look at her frightened expression and leaned in to hiss at her, "You know things about these asshats, how do we kill it?!" When Rochelle hesitated, terror heightening in the taut distress of her pupils, he repeated it, furiously, "How?!"

She broke, shaking her head quickly and averting her gaze. "I-I don't know! They never-"

Nick silenced her with a growl, shaking her hand away and quickly getting his machine gun up again to try and aim for the monstrous thing's comparatively underdeveloped lower body. If they could cripple its legs, maybe they could do harm - as it was, bullets were definitely not doing much against the flexing mass of muscle that slathered its torso.

Ellis noticed Nick's switch of focus, but he hesitated on joining in, glancing sideways at the conman. A weighty tremble touched the mechanic's jaw as a fierce jolt of the truck made them all bounce. Struggling to find a way to whisper it to Rochelle while speaking over the ruckus all around them, the kid managed, "S'alright, Ro'..." and then straightened up in his crouch.

Ellis grabbed hold of the top of the tailgate with one hand, leaning back and trying to look around at the buildings speeding past them, squinting through his lashes as the wind made his eyes water.

Something must've clicked in his head, because suddenly he broke away from Rochelle and darted across the truck bed with his shotgun thrust under his arm, clamping hands on the back of the cab as he reached it. Ellis leaned over the side, dangerously thrusting his torso around the edge of the truckbed, and shouted into the window at Coach: "TURN LEFT, MAN!"

Sure enough, the big man obeyed without a question, and the truck veered suddenly off the main street and went barreling around a corner. Ellis lost his balance and flailed back to land sprawled in the truck bed, looking startled, but he quickly started picking himself back up.

"Are you okay, honey?" Rochelle immediately questioned, almost pulling away from Nick to crawl over to him - but the gambler interjected before she could, making her stop and glare back at him.

"What the fuck are you doing, Overalls?" Nick yelled back at him, lowering his gun as they separated from the Tank for just a few precious moments. The conman felt a pang in his gut immediately afterward, noticing how the kid shrunk away at the harsh wording before regaining his feet. Rochelle's glare burned a little more after that.

Ellis stubbornly darted back to thrust down to his knees at the tailgate, replacing his shotgun against his shoulder but turning his head back to squint ahead of them. He gestured with the tip of his hat, screwed so tight onto his head the wind couldn't wrest it free. "Got an idea! Muh buddy Keith told me 'bout this once! They do it in all the movies. We jus' gotta lead him up here!"

Uncomprehending, Nick lifted his head and tried to look in the direction Ellis was - and, finding themselves drawn to the protruding sign for a gas station just a minute down the street, light-flecked green eyes blinked wider as he struck the same train of thought the kid had found.

"Holy shit, you're insane!" he blurted, and for just an instant, thought he saw a smile flicker over Ellis' face, though it disappeared as the Tank came blundering around the corner and thrust itself with its knuckles into the street after them, roaring a thunderous noise upon spotting them. "We can't blow a fucking gas station!"

"A-Are you joking?!" Rochelle looked like she might be ill and outraged at the same instant. When Nick noticed she was staring at him, he quickly thrust his elbow at Ellis with a defensive expression, as if to shove the blame toward the younger man.

"Yuh got any better ideas?" Ellis challenged, although with a surprising lack of confidence and a visible downturn to his chin. There was, however, a spark of something in the clear blues of his eyes that Nick hadn't seen yet: a certain gleeful excitement.

Neither of them did, or at least couldn't scrabble for a response fast enough, and with a short roll of his shoulder, Ellis dug in deep where he kneeled. He aimed his shotgun at the side of the road where the gas station would flash into existence as they passed it.

Snarling a relenting, "Tits...", Nick pushed Rochelle gently to switch places with him, doing an awkward spin in his crouch. She fumbled a bit as he did, seeming flustered, but he did little but give her a severe look. Dropping to his knees next to Ellis, Nick made a concerted effort not to notice when the hick tensed up and gripped his shotgun a little harder.

"I hope you two know what you're doing!" Rochelle gasped warily, wrapping her arms around the truck's rim and ducking her head down slightly, covering her face with a forearm.

Not a fuckin' chance...

Nick pulled up his machinegun to mirror Ellis, close enough that their elbows touched - up till Ellis shuffled over an inch, that was. That snapped Nick's attempt to ignore it, and with a very tight jaw, he uttered, "Hate me later.. shoot now."

Nick noticed Ellis glance at him, a weird flicker of something hesitant darting over his expression. It almost looked like surprise, and a slight flush followed suit across the bridge of his nose. Before Nick could really think on it much, the truck roared past the gas station.

Both of them aimed sharply at the gas pumps rising up in gaudy red pillars, the noses of their guns snapping up.. They ticked along to try and follow as they got further away - and it was Ellis who blurted, "NOW!" when the Tank flung itself out onto the stretch of road just in front of the building.

The blast of their guns was, for just a beat of time, fruitless. Bullets visibly flashed on the asphalt around the pumps still rapidly moving away from them. Rochelle joined in from nowhere, Glock snarling in her hands - and then they struck home. A soft flame thrust up in the wake of the copper shell, lone and dim for just a split second... and as gas leaked from the pump, it all caught fire.

The chain reaction happened all in a blink, as the first pump went up in flames and exploded, so went the other three lined up. Red-hot fire burst like so much pouring water from the mouth of a hose, crawling along with the liquid gasoline.

It didn't explode so much as it burst, and the wave of fire engulfed the monstrous Tank and sent it staggering sideways into a building on the other side of the street. The noise was deafening and the sight blinding, though somewhere Nick was aware of a scream from his left and a shout from his right, and the truck swerving violently as Coach sent them into a violent skid, brakes squealing.

Nick found himself quickly falling back onto the bottom of the truck bed, struggling to find purchase in something. The rubber padding spared him any pain, though his head spun and his eyes were stinging. The heat had reached them, like a flat wall of heavy, burning air.

"-OO-LEE SHEEE-IT WE DID IT!" Ellis' voice buzzed into his consciousness a little delayed and half-echoed. The conman blinked his eyes open, lifting his head and trying to get his elbows underneath him, feeling the truck stabilizing and starting to slow underneath him. "HOLY SHIT WE KILLED IT!"

Dragging up to a sitting position, Nick quickly noticed Rochelle staring gape-mouthed down the street. He followed her gaze, ignoring Ellis and his arms-in-the-air hooting for just a moment, and surveyed the destruction they'd caused.

"OH MAH GAWD WE DID IT! WHOOOOO! THAT WAS SO COOL! DID YUH SEE THAT?!"

Flames were chewing on every inch they could reach, spread across the street and up the faces of the buildings on each side of the ruined gas station. Through the growing haze of heat and smoke Nick could see the immobile form of the Tank. The smoke was turning black as it ate away at the now-dead monstrosity, and the mix of burning gasoline and burning flesh was cloying.

They'd attracted some attention with that, but none of the zombies seemed smart enough to avoid the fire. They ran straight into it, gasoline fire catching on their legs and sending them staggering, stumbling, and screaming to the ground.

"No, I fucking didn't." Nick muttered sarcastically, abandoning his gun beside himself and raising both hands to rake through his hair in a rather stressed motion. "Better do that again."

"Oh mah sweet Lord!" The hick was absolutely beside himself, cheeks flushed and eyes wide, clapping on the top of his cap with his free palm and standing up as the truck rolled to a stop. "Man I ain't never SEEN nothin' like that! Slap a saddle on me 'n call me a horse! I can't wait tuh see the look on Keith's face when I tell'im - oh mah GAWD!"

"I-I can't.. I can't believe we actually did that.." Rochelle muttered under her breath, setting a hand on her forehead and turning her gaze toward Nick, completely frazzled. "I can't believe that actually happened. Aren't they supposed to have… safety features.. or - or something?!"

For some reason, the conman drudged up a smirk to give her, watching her sense wilt a little further at the expression. "Sorry. Let's remember to call OSHA when we get out of here." She rubbed her face outright with her palm, sighing heavily, and Nick offered quietly, "... Killed it, didn't we?"

The truck door swung open, and with a slight shift of the vehicle's weight, Coach clambered out. He didn't go far, just standing there in the open space between the door and the cabin, slowly lifting a hand to rub at his head.

With a slow, relenting sigh, he gruffed, "... Ellis, son... yo' head ain't on right. What if we'da gotten hit by that?" The big man's tone was noticeably un-chastising, and he eyed the mess behind them with an air of resignation.

Ellis seemed to lose just a little bit of his high, gritting out a slightly grimaced smile in an attempt to look abashed when he really couldn't pull it off. "Didn't have no other choice, Coach. I had tuh think quick!"

Coach sighed indelicately, leaning his head around the truck to eye Nick and Rochelle. "You two a'ight? Nobody hurt?"

"All good..." Nick uttered with prompt sarcasm, starting to shift to his feet so he could stand on the truckbed and crack his knuckles, pressing them into the opposite palm. "I think Ro' might have grown a few grey hairs in the middle of all that, though."

She couldn't even muster up a response beyond a short 'hrmpfh,' leaning heavily against the truck's tailgate and turning her head to give the burning scene behind them another disbelieving once-over.

"She ain't the only one." Coach grunted for just a moment, then set his hand against the side of the truck and let his shoulders drop a little. "Bit risky, but good thinkin', son. Can't complain much, since that shit's dead."

Ellis flushed slightly, jabbing a thumb urgently over his shoulder. With Coach seemingly on his side, he tried to push it: "Yuh gotta admit, that shit.. was.. cooool.."

..but got nowhere, getting a small taut-jawed look of warning from the ex-football player. He shut up obediently, lifting a hand to scratch at the back of his head through his cap and glance down at his feet.

Rochelle recovered enough to speak up, reaching out to gesture back down the street with a sigh. "I.. I gotta say, it's nice to see that thing dead. I'd take a horde over that thing chasing after us..." A thought seemed to strike her mid-sentence, and with a wary pause, she prompted, "You guys don't think there's more of them, do you?"

Nobody spoke for just a breath - nobody knew, in the end, though even Ellis had a slightly drawn lower lip that suggested he hoped not. The question was an uncomfortable one, hanging heavy.

"Least we know how tuh kill it." the kid pointed out rather optimistically, gripping both hands onto his shotgun and twisting it a little. Rochelle promptly laughed, dubiously inspecting him from where she sat.

"What, blow up another fueling station..? There's gotta be something else... it's just CEDA barely even mentioned them at all. Honestly I thought they might be a rumor, until... we saw the first one."

Coach shrugged heavily, rubbing his rounded and stubbled chin with his wrist. "Rather go off the 'ssumption we ain't gonna meet another one of those motherfuckers."

Nick prompted to change the subject before they continued, grabbing hold of the tailgate to hoist up to his feet and wipe the front of his jacket slightly. It was a mindless self-soothing gesture. "Fighting it made a lot of fucking noise, and I'm coming to understand that's not a goddamn good thing. We should probably get out of here before we get jumped by something. We can mope about our impending doom when we get someplace safe again."

Coach nodded where he stood, exhaling a heavy grunt and turning back to get into the car. "We ain't much off track. Should be on the highway in half an hour.. maybe an hour." he assured them over his shoulder, sounding rather weary. "Nick... you stayin' up here wit' me?"

The conman quickly confirmed that with a short "Yeah.", noting instantly Ellis had started to glance toward him. Nick found himself gritting his teeth to see that edgy discomfort start to creep back into Ellis, who had been previously distracted by the explosion.

Aware Rochelle was watching, Nick felt like he was toeing a very thin line. At the same time he struggled to stand what he'd burdened the Georgian with, he struggled to discern why not giving a shit was so difficult for him this time. He just wanted to not care.

Instead, he got that enraging voice in the back of his head that said, Fffuucckk, Nicolas, you are a grade A asshole... He could say something nice, for once. The Georgian had just pretty much single-handedly delivered them from being a bunch of splattered stains on the ground.

So he tried: "Hey, Ov-"

"Don't."

It happened so quickly Nick was left rather tongue-tied. The mechanic's voice quavered, and the tone that should've been disgusted or offended was dropped to a plea. Ellis flushed sharply along his cheeks, and Nick couldn't help but stare in disconcertion as the kid lifted a hand to quickly lower his cap down over his eyes and step away from him, crossing the truckbed to drop down to sit against one of the corners.

Feeling a twisting sensation, a stabbing ache of guilt, Nick tossed out the only reaction he had: he turned about with a moody growl under his breath and climbed down from the truck, stalking to the passenger side door. He threw it open blindly and climbed in, snorting out a bull-like breath as he shut it and settled down in the seat.

"You a'ight, Nick?" the big man asked, generally gruff tone sounding a little surprised at the sudden change he'd clearly missed, and turned his head to eye the gambler.

Nick didn't even bother finding an excuse. He just responded blandly, "Fine, thanks." and arched his back so he could drag his suit jacket off his shoulders and fold it in his lap, still hot from the blast.

Coach pushed the truck into drive and gently eased it to a roll, definitely unconvinced. He sped the Chevy up once he'd comforted himself that it hadn't suffered any real damage during the chase and the blast, and once he hit a good speed he tried just once more. "Somethin' happen?"

The conman shifted a glance up into the rearview mirror, staring a moment at the back of Ellis' downturned head - Rochelle hadn't moved. She was still looking back at the wreckage, turned around at the waist... keeping her distance, or maybe oblivious. Nick couldn't tell.

Nick saw Ellis' head start to turn just a little, and he risked continuing to watch through the mirror. The kid looked over his shoulder, lower lip bitten heavily between his teeth in a worried gesture, redness only just starting to drain from his face.

Another thing Nick couldn't tell: what that face meant. Ellis was so hard to read in that moment, despite being such an open book in any other situation. Confusion? Anger? Fear? None of them fit, but hell if Nick knew what did. And he definitely didn't know what the hell to make of that red colour that had been burning on his face.

"I dunno, Samuel. You tell me."

The nonsensical, mocking response did exactly what Nick wanted and nothing more: Coach let him be, gruffly and quietly falling to silence. For once, the conman was glad for the big man's complaints with his cigarettes. The itch to pull one out was a good distraction, although it did worsen his irritation as he sat rather still, and actually smoking him would've been a better one.

The drive to reach the highway (however winding, considering they had to go around the wreckage they'd caused, and a detour didn't immediately make itself known) was, in comparison, almost uneventful. Though no one in their right mind would complain in light of the near-death experience the Tank encounter had been, Nick found himself very close to doing so. At least it'd be better than just sitting around.

He had trouble finding anything interesting enough to overtake the constant echo of Ellis' pleading 'Don't' reverberating in his head, and the relentless musing his brain was doing on trying to figure out why the tone Ellis had said it in had been so goddamn painful to listen to.

Chapter Text

The sky was already dim by the time the truck's dashboard clock hit a solid '4:30,' green numbers flashing on a dusty orange backlight. Nick noticed the sun was still fairly high above their heads, but the air was full of smoke and ash as the wind blew it in swirls from the wrecked Savannah.

Coach had discovered that the back window popped up by way of a lever near his shoulder, and Rochelle and Ellis were both settled close to the now-open gateway. They'd eaten lunch like that, Coach producing a pocket knife from his backpack to allow Rochelle to crack open a few cans of cold spaghetti rings.

Nick's expression had been one of complete disgust at the concept, and he'd very nearly shuddered when Rochelle had cracked open the first one. The meal was suspect in a normal situation, but unheated and straight from the can - there wasn't a word for it. The likely-mostly artificial tomato sauce had separated into a slightly orange foam along the edge of the can, and the pasta was clumped in very questionably circular shapes.

She hadn't exactly looked enthused at the time, either, and with a disgusted wrinkle to her nose, Rochelle had stirred the contents mercilessly with the slim pocketknife. It had looked a little more normal after that, and she had the presence of mind to shake the next one before opening it.

Coach and Ellis had taken a can each without a word of complaint, and Nick had found himself looking on with a level of horror, like an outsider peering in on some cultish and alien ritual, as the two men had risked the first few awkward sips.

If he hadn't been so impossibly, gut-achingly, tear-jerkingly starving at the time, he would've probably thrown himself from the truck rather than take the meticulously-shaken can Rochelle handed to him a few moments later. Unfortunately, that had been exactly what he was, and with a curse and a sharp look of displeasure, he'd endured a mental battle for a straight five minutes before taking a sip.

It wasn't awful, but it was close to the worst thing he'd ever eaten. He only kept going by virtue of pure, iron will - and hunger.

Now, well after they'd finished up and settled back into watching the city peter out as they drove along, Nick found he'd never regretted something so much. His stomach was flipflopping with tiny gurgles under his blue dress shirt (suit jacket tucked between him and the door like a pillow), and he felt a constant pressure at the back of his throat, making him feel like he was gulping back a retch every time he swallowed.

"I can't believe you asshats fucking made me eat that." he growled under his breath for the tenth time, reaching over to roll down the window and lean his head into the wind. He breathed deep through his nostrils, annoyed to hear the same response he'd gotten just about every other time:

"Could've starved." It was a half-amused Coach who said it, the humor apparently not doused by the repetition. "Say somethin' if you want us t'pull over.. sure the zombies'll respect a man's privacy."

Nick gave him a scathing look sideways, grumbling quietly and crooking his arm outside the window. "I'll keep in here, thanks." He let his chin settle on his elbow, curling up a little, not entirely aware of how the position looked rather sulky.

"Keith got hisself sick eatin' canned stuff once, but that was 'cause it had a bunch'uh bug bits in it. I don't think them pasta cans had any of that, Nick." The comment was only marginally more interesting than the fact Ellis had actually said something directed at the conman for the first time since they'd started driving again. The kid's voice was slightly unsure, and he kept his gaze focused down at his forearms, but all the same...

He'd spoken before, seeming at least normal enough for the other two not to get alarmed, but not once had he done more than glance momentarily at Nick before quickly averting his gaze with something a lot like embarrassment. The conman had gladly returned the favor, completely ignoring him and not even bothering to try and decipher his reaction.

The decision had felt almost tacitly agreed upon. Now, suddenly, Ellis was breaking it?

Drawing his jaw taut, Nick pushed himself into responding. His tone came out rather sharply, and he found himself reluctantly sanding it to a softer edge as the words came. "I'm not sure I trust anything that comes out of Georgia, but sure, Overalls. I'll make the fucking wary assumption that there aren't bugs in my pasta."

Giving a small, hiccup-like chuckle and leaning in a little bit through the window, Ellis stretched his arm in toward the dashboard radio. He could just barely reach the knobs, turning the radio on and listening to the heavy static for a moment. "Wasn't so bad.. Maybe we can get some kind'uh heat next time we eat."

Nick found he didn't mind the small-talk just then, settling more against his crooked arm and pulling in a long breath through his nostrils. Ignoring the matter entirely was so much more preferable to Ellis' injured behaviour. Green eyes flicked sideways to watch the mechanic's fingers twitch softly, clicking the radio through each channel, with the smallest of pauses as the static wavered in and out.

"I doubt heating that shit up would help much."

Rochelle injected into the conversation there, lifting up her hands slightly and waving them. "Wait, wait, back up.. what's this about Keith eating bugs?"

Nick snorted slightly at the question, flexing his fingers and resting his knuckles against his mouth as a small - but thankfully benign - 'urp' caught him offguard, tasting unpleasantly metallic.

"Well," Ellis started, nestling down against the bottom of the open windowframe. He set his left hand against his chin while the other kept turning the knob, flexing his elbow a little bit against the bandages that were starting to loosen. "He met this guy, who was sellin' shit on the side'uh the road. Y'know, like a yard sale, 'cept… well. In the back'uh some guy's truck. So -"

"-̧leas҉e̴ ͢f͟ol͘lo͟w all͡ ͏s̢a͘f̷ety ̧p̕r͟oc̴edure͏s a͢s ̨rel͝a҉yed ̨b͏y CEḐA̢ of̛fici͠a̧l͟s ̶an̴d po̸sters."̨ All of them went silent. The man's voice was monotone and crackling softly as he relayed the words like so much regurgitated plastic. "Barr̴icad͝e y̢o҉u͞rs͘e̴l̕f͘ ͏iņ the͏ n͏ȩar̷est def̷ens̵i̶ble ̷bui̛ldin҉g͠ an͏d w̨ait f͠or f͠urth͘er i̶ns̡t̵r̴uct͜ions.͞ Evacua̧t͡ion ͢can ̷only҉ happe̵n i͝f e̴v͟er̢yo̕ne ҉rema̵i̧n̵s͏ c͡ąlm.͏"

There was a soft click, and it began again. "P̴lease͏ ̵f͠ol͞l̨ow a͜l̨l ̢sa͘fe̸ty̵ proc̶e͝d̢u͞re҉s̸ as ͏r͢ela͢yed̷ b̛y͟ CE͘DA ̢o̵f̧ficia͠l͟s and̕ ̶post͜ers. B̸arr͠-" Ellis changed the channel there, sighing a bit with pursed lips, bringing back the cloying static that suddenly seemed so much nicer.

"Bullshit." Coach gruffed quietly, sighing as he let one hand slip off the wheel and rest on his lap. The truck rumbled along under a wide blue sign, proclaiming an oddly clean 'I-80.' The sign was good news, and as the road peeled out from the last vestiges of the city, they were drawn into a widening highway.

"Why are those assclowns still spreading that? They were on the radio when I got here, too." Nick muttered against his wrist, moodily. "This place is a fucking wreck and they're not here anymore... hell, nobody's here anymore."

Rochelle slumped just slightly with a shrug, rubbing her fingertips against the bridge of her nose. "I had to memorize all their instructions. It's all just white noise now, isn't it... about as useful as being told to play dead - holding back mass panic by trying to stay reasonable, I guess, but.. I really thought they'd get it under control. Maybe they were just putting up a front."

"What? Putting up a front for cameras? Don't be fucking ridiculous, Ro'. This was apparently their best effort, and they fucked up." the conman sniped without raising his head, earning a disapproving look from Coach. He ignored it. "It's better off like this. You see how fucked the Vannah was? As if I'd give myself up to a group who can't keep a goddamn hotel from burning down."

Ellis fiddled with the knob a little bit more, rolling it less with intent and more with idleness. He drew his lips into a weird kind of curl, thinking a moment before he prompted, "Y'know, we are headin' to meet up with CEDA, Nick.."

Nick snorted quietly, eyes narrowing a little as he moved a hand to settle on his stomach. "Yeah, and I have a fucking problem or two with that, but what exactly else is there to do? Go find a nice deserted island to wait the apocalypse out on? Fuck that. Besides, surely the military got called in by now. At least they have guns. And tanks. And helicopters."

Coach grunted, eyes flashing between the road and the gas gauge as he shifted his weight on his seat. "Either way, they ain't gonna just leave us, boy. We'll find 'em, 'n they'll have a plan. I got mo' confidence than you."

Rochelle nodded from where she was, upturning her palms quietly. "It'll work out.. and Nick is right in one way - there's nothing else to do even if we doubted them... We can't survive out here on our own. We have to find somebody."

Suddenly, Ellis jolted a little straighter, turning the radio off entirely. It startled all three of them. "Is that-? … It is! Nick!" His hand flung forward like a kid spotting candy, and pointed furiously downward. Nick couldn't do much else other than look where he was gesturing.

Bolted to the floorboard was a box, maybe the size and shape of a hardcover book. It looked to Nick's eye like some kind of squad car radio, with a few knobs and a squat readout that was currently unlit. A hand-held mouthpiece was latched onto the side. "The hell?"

"What is it, son?" Coach questioned, not able to spare much more than a few staggered glances, lest he lose track of his path on the highway.

"That's a C-B!" the mechanic chirped excitedly. He was back in full-force now, seeming thrilled with his discovery - and almost exasperated when the rest of the team didn't share in his enthusiasm. "C'mon, guys, y'know? Them radios truckers use tuh talk back'n'forth. Keith'n'I got one each so's we could talk all the time. We were gonna -"

"Isn't that what phones are for?" Her voice was a little incredulous and a little teasing when Rochelle interjected.

Not one to let the wind be taken out of his sails, Ellis laughed. It was more real this time, and Nick fell to a side-eye on the kid's face. He seemed okay, relatively… or maybe just distracted. "Naw. It's way cooler. C'mon, man, turn it on! Maybe there's someone out there."

Ellis almost met his gaze… and then didn't. Nick watched him start to deflate. He imagined it would look like a hole being poked in one of those inflatable tube men, slowly collapsing and falling in on itself, all that joy turning into discomfort and self-conscious energy -

Not okay. And not, apparently, distracted enough.

So, instead, the gambler reached down between his knees and flicked what looked like a power knob. When the readout stuttered to life, showing a faded green 01, Ellis whooped in interest. He held his hand out, eagerly, and it was only with a roll of his eyes that Nick unlatched and dropped the mic into his hand.

The CB radio must have been hooked up to the car, because when Nick leaned down to turn the volume up, static rose in the speakers again. "I'm starting to hate Keith more than usual." he muttered, and started to slump back down in his seat.

Unfortunately for him, that wasn't it. Ellis pointed urgently at the radio. He was so excited he seemed liable to crawl into the truck cab himself if he wasn't humored. "C'mon, Nick, scan through the channels. These usually have loads of -"

Nick reached the end of his patience. In one swift motion, he raised his foot and braced the heel of his shoe against the edge of the CB. It was bracketed to the floor, but he could tell at a glance the connection was flimsy. How fortunate for it.

One good application of force later, the CB was pried from its bracket with a rather unpleasant crack. There was a definite amount of damage to the case, but Nick wasn't much concerned as he boredly grabbed the thing and dragged it over to Ellis. It yanked some cabling along with it, but there was enough give to get it in Ellis' hands.

"Damn, Nick." the kid uttered, eyes a little wide until he got a look over the thing and ensured it was, in fact, still functional. "Could'uv just said you didn't want to." His voice was a little chiding, but he was mostly focused on the CB now.

Rochelle swooped in to grab and hold the radio, giving Nick a dirty look. The gambler gave her an utterly caustic smile before regaining his slump against the truck door, closing his eyes into the wind.

Looking toward Rochelle now, Ellis held the handheld mic near his mouth, thumb on the trigger. "We used tuh practice all the lingo and everything. They ain't got a real huge range, but who knows." The reporter didn't seem totally convinced, but nodded along anyway.

Unable to resist a grin, Ellis cleared his throat and pressed the trigger. He dropped his voice a few octaves, trying to sound gruff and serious when he spoke into the microphone, uttering; "Breaker, breaker. Anyone got their ears on?"

Rochelle couldn't resist laughter, even as she tried to stifle it with the hand that wasn't holding up the radio. Considering Ellis grinned back, it was clear he wasn't really trying to sound intimidating.

Silence reigned, though. There was no response, and Ellis seemed a little disappointed, scratching at his nose with his pinky. He hummed, and Rochelle shifted her hips to settle a bit more comfortably against the back of the truckbed.

"Well, maybe another channel." She suggested, smiling. "Not like we have anything better to do, and we're annoying Nick. So there's that!" He nodded, although not as enthusiastically as she expected. He spared the smallest glance toward the gambler, but Nick didn't so much as stir. He may as well have been asleep against the car door.

She gave him a reassuring smile that seemed to shake him out of it. He pointed toward the radio and instructed, "Well, try uh…" A moment of scrunched thought resulted in a quick, "Oh, 9 'n' 19. They're special channels, I remember."

A touch bemused, Rochelle nodded and peered at the face of the radio. Finding the knob labeled CHANNEL, she turned it experimentally. A click announced 01 changing to 02, and she twisted it a few times until the number read 09.

It was quiet, like the signal was almost out of range, but if they listened carefully -

"…f͞oļl̕o͟w a̸l҉l̡ ̡s̛af͠ety̶ p̸r̸oce͞d̷ųres̕ as̶ re͢layed ҉b̛y -"

"Oh for fuck's sake." Nick wasn't, in fact, asleep, nor did he appreciate hearing the CEDA announcement again. Grouchily, he sighed, waving a hand in dismissal over his shoulder and speaking easily over the CB's utterances. "Not that shit again. Are they broadcasting on everything?"

Coach supplied helpfully, unperturbed as he maneuvered the car around a large crack in the highway. "'Pparently."

Wincing a little, Ellis scratched at the back of his head. "That.. may be the 'mergency channel. My bad. Ro', try 19...?" He watched with piqued interest as Rochelle twisted the knob, both of them listening curiously as the clicks slowly sounded, shifting through various layers of static.

When the readout finally showed 19, it happened. A voice cut through, freezing all four of them in their seats. Even Nick stiffened, although he didn't move at first. Someone struggled to speak over the radio waves, female and sounding miserable; the sound was almost pathetic as she obviously held back tears.

"- hel̶p..̡ ̧plea͏se͞, I'͞m ͢a͠t Riverview Road̵, outs҉ide͞ ͞o͞f͏ Savanna̕h̷. Plȩase,̛ if̷ a̡nyon̛e̴ ̶- ̵ug̨h, God.̕.." Her voice softened, maybe rolling away from whatever it was she was talking into. "...I ca̵n'̢t ͢ke̶e͢p ̷d͘oi͠n͡g this̕... it's͘ ju̧sţ ̷m̕a̶k͞i͘n̛g m̧e͢ up̡set҉.̧. ͘G-God̶,̨ ͞Ca̢rmine.̕. dǫn̷'t cr҉y̢.. d̨o̴n'͟t c̸r͠y̛.͞ I'll b̕e͡ fi̸n͡e.͞.͞"

For just a moment, they were all uncomfortably staring at the radio, disbelief stinging the air. Ellis was the first to blurt out, "Thank the Lord, someone's alive out there! We gotta go help her!"

His concern was audible past his clear excitement, but still - Nick sensed the same brashly optimistic reaction as he'd given upon hearing Rochelle and Coach's first gunshots. They were going to tear off on some wild chase again if he didn't step in.

Ellis was just about to press the trigger and speak to the girl when Nick surged up, grabbing the cable and tearing it from his hands. The coiled wire that connected it to the CB strained at its limits, but it reached with only a slight jerk of the radio that Rochelle held in her hands.

The kid looked shocked, staring from his empty hand to Nick's irked expression. If Ellis hadn't been afraid of him, he might have fought to get it back. Clenching his teeth on his lower lip, Nick argued very coolly, "How much time do we have to waste running after every single little noise we hear? How much gas, even? How many bullets?"

Ellis blinked slightly, raising one hand to rub slowly at the back of his head. Struggling to look at Nick without looking at him, he started to respond - but Rochelle ran him over. Ellis leaned back slightly and shut his mouth.

She lashed out at Nick, and it was harsher than usual. Crossing her arms carefully, she inspected him challengingly over the chair's shoulder. "That wasn't a 'little noise,' Nick! Are you saying you'd rather ignore that? Ignore somebody who needs help? What if you ignored us, back in Savannah - or we'd turned you away? Do you really think we'd all be alive right now, without each other?"

Nick drew closer to the door with a very low groan, still holding the microphone. He closed his eyes and shook his head. "Christ, Ro'... all I'm saying is maybe we should keep the radio off, unless we want to play musical chairs all the way to the beach." He muttered, copping out a little from giving a real answer. He wasn't interested in this battle.

"Nick, we ain't got the right tuh make this choice…" Ellis pointed out a little cautiously, cocking his head and very gently moving to take his hat off. He scruffled his hair with his fingertips, worry chewing at his expression again. "We -"

Nick spoke with venom before he could stop himself. So much for not fighting.

"You 'ain't got' shit, kiddo. I don't give a damn about some woman I don't know, okay? How do we know she's not infected, or that she won't be dead by the time we waste gas getting over there? Can we afford to feed her? Will she even be any help to us? Can she shoot a gun? Get off my back and start thinking like we're in an apocalypse - because we are. Right isn't right and wrong isn't wrong anymore. Accept that or just leave me the fuck alone."

Nick jerked his chin to inspect the road outside his window. He felt like Ellis was staring at him, but after a moment the burning sensation of eyes on him disappeared, and Rochelle's voice prompted him.

"Nick, we're going to talk to her, okay?"

Her tone was suddenly gentler - soothing. It only raised his hackles more, but hell if he was interested in continuing this battle. Instead, he grunted a very noncommittal, "Fine." and practically threw the CB microphone at the woman. "It's your goddamn choice, I'm just not taking the blame when you regret it."

Rochelle managed to catch it, glancing nervously at the hunk of plastic. She let her shoulder nudge Ellis, who'd retreated a little bit back out of the cab, staring down at the cap in his hands with a screwed up brow and a twisting motion of his fingers. He didn't respond much more than a slight shake of his head.

"Okay…" she muttered, mostly to herself, and somewhat cautiously got her hand around the microphone in order to center her thumb on the trigger. She pressed it, and huffed once before trying a firm, "Hello?" It was probably close to the voice she used on TV; neat and serious.

There was no response, so she tried again, a little gentler but no less composed. "Hello? It's Carmine, right? Are you there?"

Silence.

Ellis lifted his head and glanced at the radio with an almost imperceptible frown. He wrung his cap in his hands for a moment before replacing it on his head, screwing it down solidly. "Maybe she left."

"Damnit, Nick." Rochelle shot an accusatory look toward the gambler, and it was clear enough what she meant. If Nick hadn't held them up, they might have made contact. She handed the radio and the microphone to Ellis, and leaned in to place her hand on Coach's shoulder.

"The place she mentioned. Riverview. Can you get us there, Coach?" she prompted hopefully, squeezing a little bit at the shirt under her fingers.

The big man grunted very simply in negation. Without taking his eyes off the road, he reached toward the floorboard near his calf and pulled up the atlas they'd taken from the gas station. He offered it to her, and she unfolded it, eyes going a bit wide as she tried to pinpoint where they were.

In rare consideration, Coach shrugged up a shoulder toward Nick and commented, "Boy, in all fairness.. we're gonna have to find a place to sleep tonight anyways. Ain't smart sleepin' in a truck."

The gambler would've produced a spot of sarcasm in response to that, but he was far out-numbered at this point, and his alternative was another long walk on the side of the road. So, he just snarled airlessly and shoved his arms into a cross over his chest.

He wasn't feeling petulant at all.

Chapter Text

Ellis had been humming a song for the last few minutes as they drove down a rather heavily tree-skirted roadway. The frustrating part for Nick wasn't that he was doing it, it was that he was doing it pretty well. His hum was a rather delicate, honeyed tenor, whatever song he apparently had in his head accented by the drum-like tapping of his wrists against his sprawled knees, and audible over the rushing wind that trickled around the sides of the car.

It was an odd diversion from everything else, and there seemed a breath held between all three of the others, like they were all wary of a bubble just a few inches away from them. 'Calm' wasn't the word for it - but it was something very close.

Coach was the one to finally speak up, his gruff bass a startling interruption. "Ya'll better hope we find gas or a new car, or we gonna be walkin'."

Nick grunted, moving his hand up to rest his palm against the warm car window, rings clinking softly with the motion. He'd rolled it up as they slowed down; strangely, the encroaching evening felt even warmer than the earlier hours, and it was cooler in the car. "Told you we shouldn't be wasting time chasing after pretty voices. If we lose our transport because of this.. I'll seriously be fuckin' pissed."

"Oh hush, Nick... how would you like it if you were trapped somewhere and the only person who might be able to go find you said 'oh well, sucks for you, my gas is too important'?" Rochelle chided him, leaning her cheek against her wrist and reaching around the car seat's headrest to try and pinch the gambler's ear.

He swatted her away quickly, shooting a dark look over his shoulder to express his displeasure. She pulled that shit with Ellis; not him. "'Oh well, I deserve to die because I'm a whiny bitch.' would be my response in her situation, thanks.."

Not exactly the way to get her off his back. She gasped slightly and gave a, "Nick!", lifting up a little to stick her arm through the window and smack him soundly on the shoulder.

"Y'know he don't mean it, Ro'.. bet'ch'ya he'd be jus' as bad off as that lady is if he was in her place." Ellis piped up with an entertained tone. He was grinning a little underneath his cap, and Rochelle gave a mirthful sound of half-shock at the concept.

Nick, conversely, went deadpan and lost all sense of humor. His voice got cold, his eyes a little colder. When he glanced back, Ellis met his gaze this time - even if Nick could tell it took effort. "As if. You're the goddamn kid here, Overalls."

Something about those harsh green eyes cowed Ellis, like they used to be unable to do - and where he'd originally responded to such looks with an entertained and unflappable grin, he suddenly grew a slow and subtle blush over the bridge of his scarred nose and spoke with a struggling tone. "I-I'm twenty-three, man!"

Nick noticed - and so did Rochelle, but where it made the gambler's deadpan twitch into the smallest of severe frowns, she laughed obliviously behind a hand. "Really? Could've fooled me." the conman muttered irately, looking away with a tight set to his jaw. There was an uncomfortable spark traveling up his spine - Goddamnit, Overalls... - and he wasn't enjoying it.

It was a restrained feeling, tempered by strange sensations roiling in his stomach with the same ill gurgle as his meal. Jumping him was supposed to put an end to this. He can't even be angry at me right. After all, it wasn't like the kid was blushing at him. Ellis was uncomfortable, and trapped with Nick now - and Nick was trapped with him.

Rochelle stifled her laughter and rested back against their pile of supplies, strapped tight by a bungee cord to the truck bed. "God, you two... it's like watching cats and dogs go at it with you."

Coach gave a loud gruff of humor at the comment, his generally detached expression shifting into a wordless grin. Nick couldn't help but feel a little victimized under their entertainment, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ellis hiding tightly under his cap, embarrassed.

It was true, though - they were such opposites.

"Glad we could give you some kicks, not that it's hard with dumbshit back there." he responded in a fair monotone, glancing up through the windshield and scanning the road. The right roadside was starting to look a little swampy, trees skirted by vines and sunken down into a dipping, damp landscape. The air that breezed in from behind them was humid and dank.

"How haven't you lost it on this jerk, Ellis, honey?" Rochelle reached over to tug on the hick's cap bill, smiling at him under it. "Are you just that sweet?"

He didn't seem to know how to respond, gawping an instant and shooting Nick a glance like he were floundering - not that the gambler said a single word to help him. They weren't 'in this' together. "Uh- Well.. I mean.. he ain't.. it... -"

It was Coach who came to his rescue, interrupting the fumbling that was quickly leaving a bewildered look on Rochelle's face (and making Nick close his eyes with a pained exhale as he was forced to legitimately reconsider his apathy). "There it is."

On the left, there was a road cut into the treeline, marked by a green 'Riverview Road' sign. The gravel and dusty stone road angled up a fair hillside, lifting up from what was becoming a rather unpleasantly sticky swampland.

The moment Coach turned the Chevy into the road with a sharp turn, the truck went from smoothly rumbling along to a jarring vibration as the wheels ground and tumbled over uneven and loose gravel, and bounced into a few dips. Ellis, relieved by the distraction, was the only one who didn't stiffen up against the rough motions - in fact he shot into blabbering as the other three grabbed hold of nearby things.

"Man, you guys should see muh buddy Keith's driveway! This ain't nothin' compared tuh that... he was always wreckin' it up 'cause he kept drivin' the lawnmower over it. I told him not to, but he don't listen... this one time, he tried tuh walk his dog, Dusty, while he was mowin' the lawn. I mean nothin' bad happened tuh the dog, I'm just sayin'-"

"Son, you mind?"

The hick quickly nodded, catching the bill of his cap between two knuckles and slipping it up a little to see more clearly, not nearly as embarrassed by Coach's gruff shoot-down. They bounced along, vision obscured by the tight clothing of tree branches on either side of the road, for a suddenly tense few moments as none of them spoke.

The Chevy rattled between the broken remnants of what had once been a squat, blocking gate, and as they passed it, the road started to split off into small driveways. Their mouths were bedecked with neat, wooden mailboxes and tiny houses could be seen through the trees a few feet down each gravel stretch - and Nick was a breath from commenting wryly how eerily normal the area looked when a flicker of movement caught his eye ahead of them.

"Awh, shit yeah! Zombies!" Ellis hooted, apparently seeing it at the same time.

Sure enough, the road funneled straight into the driveway of another house, and there were all-too-familiar, sluggishly wandering shapes scattered on the front porch. They stumbled like sleepwalkers, hands dusting over injuries that cut through their bloody clothes, and raising up to cover their eyes like not even the canopy above was enough to shade their eyes from the lowering sun -

Then they noticed the crackle of tire on gravel, and every single head whipped around violently.

"Tits," Nick muttered irately, quickly leaning down to drag his machine gun up from the floorboard. He tossed his already shed suit jacket over the shoulder of his seat, shrugging his shoulders quickly to try and loosen up a little. The moment Coach hit the brakes, Nick was pushing the door open and darting out, quickly doing a semi-circle to hop up smoothly onto the edge of the truck bed.

He sat on the rim and rested his weight against the cab. If he needed to, he could slip back and escape into the truck bed. As it was, he leaned in and got a bead on the approaching zombies, feeling his chest stiffen up a little as he focused.

"Ellis, Ro'," Coach ordered in his calm bass, as he clambered out of the truck and cocked his shotgun, moving toward the front of the truck before he took a stand. "Watch the back."

Obediently, the hick snatched up his pump-shotgun from beside him and scrambled to sit on the tailgate, patting the space beside him to invite Rochelle up. She obliged, but not without a dubious glance back toward the front of the truck.

It was a good move - though Coach seemed pretty apt at those - because as Nick gave in and started squeezing the trigger to speckle the zombies with bullets, he heard a shot behind him. A glance over his shoulder confirmed it; there were a few infected who must've been at other houses, and were now attracted to the commotion.

Rochelle pulled her handgun from the holster at her thigh, though, and Nick returned his gaze forward as the two of them looked to have a handle on it. He leaned a little out to the side, letting his cheek slip close to the side of his gun as he picked zombies off.

Two of them, though blood was pouring like so much rain from several wounds, scrambled under the worst of his fire and lunged for his legs. The conman quickly snapped his knees up to dodge it, nearly overbalancing backwards, and soundly swung the butt of his gun at their heads.

One of them got hit, staggering into the other one and going down with a loud, shrieking noise into the gravel. The manic infected seemed to struggle for a moment between attacking each other and getting back up, but Nick silenced the floundering with a merciless squeeze of the trigger that riddled their torsos with bullets.

Forcing a loud snort and rolling his legs into the truck bed, Nick took a moment to confirm that Rochelle and Ellis were still breathing. They were. The conman crossed the truck's width in two strides and took a standing aim over the truck cab to check on Coach.

The big man, however, was perfectly fine on his own. Nick watched as a particularly brutal shot of his gun blasted a pelleted hole right through two zombies in a row, sending them flailing in staggering motions before they crumpled to the road, gargling and twitching as their deaths splattered red over the dusty gravel.

Nick nearly spoke up when a few more infected came barreling out from the treeline, clawing aside branches - and behind their snarling, a soft, doglike growl that echoed a little bit disorientingly around the glen-like piece of road.

Both he and Coach quickly swiveled to face them, but Nick recalled that growl a little too clearly and didn't waste time calling out, "Watch it, assclowns! I hear one of those fuckin' pouncing candyasses."

The truck rocked under his feet, disturbing his aim and making him scowl slightly, as Ellis and Rochelle jumped up in unison to scramble over and join him. "Ah, shit, like we need another one of those.." Rochelle muttered quietly under her breath as she crossed her wrists to brace her handgun on the flat of her palm.

Coach backed up slightly against the truck as the new wave tried to pin him against it, but reinforced with the other three survivors, they barely got hands on him. He had to shake off a little blowback that sprayed him, rather stoic when that included some suspicious chunks of what might have been shattered bone and bits of organ.

"Why're some'uh them different than the other ones?" Ellis piped up curiously, minding his bandaged arm as he swung down a leg to straddle the truckbed, scanning the area with his shotgun primed like he were playing a skeet-shooting game and just had to figure out where the next one would come from. "Why don't any of the ones we jus' killed have big tongues, or acid-spittin'?"

Another growl echoed out, too soft to pinpoint the direction. A sudden trio of infected came bolting from the treeline, thrusting themselves toward the truck in an attempt to climb it and get at the three in the back. "I dunno, Ellis - I think the disease mutates sometimes." Rochelle answered carefully, steadying herself on Nick's sleeve and kicking a zombie right in the face with the heel of her boot. It went down so hard, Nick had to doubletake.

"Damn, Rochelle. Y-"

They all spun around to aim in a different direction as the growl warped into a scream, what they'd already noted as the warning call before it jumped. They all, however, spun in the wrong direction - and with a very loud shout of something half-surprised and half-pained, Coach was struck hard by a pouncing shape - that came directly from above his head, crashing down on his shoulders.

Leaves and bark came with it, revealing that it had been up in a tree. Coach collapsed to a knee, trying to hunch away from it, but the thing was swiping claws at whatever it could reach of him. They scored lines along his back, tearing through the purple stretch of his shirt.

His shout quickly turned to pain, crumpling further, and the collapse of his sturdy body made Rochelle shriek "NO!" at the top of her lungs. It was her, then, that vaulted forward to jump down from the truck first. She grabbed hold of the thing's lithe torso and yanked back with all her weight and a fierce surge of adrenaline.

It howled like a rabid dog as it was disengaged from its target, bloodied claws swiping the air as its fairly light frame was hauled away. She struggled with it, simultaneously trying to keep it from getting at Coach or switching to swipe at her.

Nick and Ellis scrambled to jump down after the woman, the conman grabbing hold of Ellis' arm and shoving him upright when he nearly lost his balance with clumsy over-energy.

They were both prepared to attack, but before they could, Rochelle jammed her pistol against the back of the Hunter's neck and pulled the trigger, Glock torqued upward in case the bullet penetrated. She let go immediately afterward, fleeing the spray of blood and pausing to catch her breath only momentarily before rushing to Coach.

"Coach! Coach, are you alright?!" she pleaded in a rush, dropping down to the gravel and hovering her hands over the half-kneeling ex-football player. The scores up his back had torn through his shirt like so much wet paper, and there was blood welling up in mercifully thin lines along the broad expanse of his back. He groaned a little, roughly, but indelicately reached to set a big hand on her knee, expression unflinching though the motion must've hurt.

"Fine, baby girl… I'm alright."

Ellis quickly joined Rochelle in crouching next to Coach, though he didn't go quite as low. "Man, that don't look good!" he whimpered gently, and for some inexplicable reason, twisted a look over his shoulder at Nick like the conman knew what to do. Nick stood there a moment, rolling his jaw with no small amount of wariness, before stepping forward and setting his machine gun against his hip.

"You two stay here with him. He'll be alright, but we should find this girl and get him inside somewhere so we can get something on that. I'll check the houses."

Ellis nodded obediently, swiping his cap off and shuffling forward. He settled his palms against the worst of the cuts, pressuring it gently even as the tacky, hot blood trickled slowly against his fingers. Coach didn't say a word, seeming completely focused on Rochelle as she worriedly studied his injuries.

Nick felt his gaze drift over the football coach's wounds. He mulled over saying something like "I told ya so," or "Serves you right", or maybe "See, if you had listened to Nick, we would be on our way toward the shore, safe and sound. Honestly, let's just always listen to Nick. Nick is smart. Go Nick. Hoo-ray."

Instead, he turned away and walked at a quick jog down the road. The concentration of zombies around the house at the end of the road both improved the chances for the girl to be there - and improved the chances of her being dead. Nick wasn't really sure which one he was betting on more, but as he took the porch stairs two at a time and twisted at the waist to shoot at a zombie who'd somehow kept out of the fight, he felt just a little tense.

Stepping to the front door after replacing his gun on his shoulder, Nick settled his weight on the skewed welcome mat. His shoes settled oddly on its surface - it was rubber, with a multitude of tiny ribs covering it, making him shift slightly and feel unsteady. He sighed, wearily, before trying the doorknob.

It was locked - another good sign. There were claw marks and blood smudges on the face of the door, but it was a hard and thick kind of wood and the zombies had been unable to really make a dent. There were two windows on the front of the house, one of them broken but blocked with some kind of dresser. The conman moved over to the unbroken window and leaned in to squint through it. Closed curtains obscured his vision, and it seemed dark inside.

Grunting a little, uncertainly, the conman stepped back to the door and rapped his knuckles against it. There was a doorbell beside the doorframe, but he wasn't going to risk making noises that might attract more zombies. He leaned in and tried to call in a strained, half-quieted voice, "Hello? Anyone in there?"

The first sign of life inside was a small thud - the noise set him on edge, and he kept his machine gun close at hand just in case. However, there was utter silence afterwards… stifling silence… and if it had been a zombie, it wouldn't have shut up in panic. Humans did that.

"Hello?" he repeated, losing a bit of his monotone politeness and adding, "Zombies don't talk. Open the goddamn door."

That got more results, and he heard movement quickly hurrying to the door. A familiar voice spoke against the wood, hopefully, "A-Are you sure you're not, like… sick..?" She sounded somewhat near tears, and behind the manipulative smoothness that slipped into Nick's voice, he was frustrated.

He hadn't realized till now how generally lucky he was to have gotten saddled with the three that he was - they were strong, comparatively. He'd never handled weak personalities well, in any context. Even in his amorous exploits, he preferred at least a degree of fire.

"Carmine? Name's Nick. We got your message, and yeah, we're all healthy. Don't worry. One of us is hurt, though, so I really need you to open the door and let us in. We can take you with us afterwards."

There was a moment of hesitance, but his words were so thorough and so guidingly worded, there was no argument to make. There was a click, and suddenly the door opened. With little warning, a woman came rushing out.

She thrust herself into Nick's arms and up against his thinly shirted torso, like she were fleeing something, her very warm body plastered against his in a motion that brought back entirely too many memories. He was struck instantly by how incredibly good she smelled, like cream and chocolate, this terribly over-perfumed scent that burned his nostrils and he loved it.

He probably smelled awful, but she didn't, apparently, care.

His arms automatically lifted to grip onto her shoulders, and he had never been so glad in his life to silently accept an embrace from someone. Her hair was a flecked, curly (dyed) auburn and was in the middle of trying to smother him, as the top of her head aligned with his nose.

"Oh, thank God.. I thought .. I thought everyone was dead. Like, I've been waiting for CEDA - but the radio, it's just.. the same thing, over and over.." Carmine breathed against his chest, hands clutching onto the fabric of his dress shirt. He could feel her nails, let alone the whole press of her torso. Slanting a glance down as she pulled her head away just a little, rubbing a knuckle under one tearful blue eye, he struggled not to sigh.

At least she's not Southern.. bah, bullshit. Of all the times for me to be covered in zombie guts.

"Doll, I know, but we have someone hurt..." He was aware of a shortness that resurfaced in his tone, puffed against her forehead - and Carmine seemed to start, looking up toward his face. Instantly, red filtered up over her own and she pulled away, covering her cheeks with her hands.

"O-oh, God, I'm sorry.. tossing myself at strangers.. go, get your friends.. I just thought, like, no one - uh, anyway.." Nick could see the signs of an interested woman in a split second, all his instincts and radars ringing off - but for once he tried to ignore it all, reminding himself there were priorities. ... Unfortunately..

He let his lips form the coyest of smirks and latched gazes with her for just a split second - just short enough to leave her unsure if it'd actually happened. It was surely so ragingly inappropriate to even pull any of this in the midst of what was going on, but honestly, with the very straight adrenaline surging up his spine and her obvious flustering at seeing his face, Nick didn't give a single fuck.

Feeling suddenly in an unbelievably good mood, the conman turned and darted down the stairs, strolling back down the road at a quick pace.

"Overalls! Ro'! She's here, let's get Coach inside. Ro', can you pull the truck up and park it?"

He could feel suspicious eyes on him from all three of them. They must've noticed - but fortunately, Coach was still their focus, and he managed to go without explaining. Rochelle backed up reluctantly with an agreeing nod as Ellis and Nick crouched down to get one of Coach's arms over their respective shoulders, though the big man tried to argue.

"Boys, I don't need no human crutches, y'all -"

Ellis shushed him rather confidently, ducking into the supporting hold he and Nick had and starting to walk them back toward the house, slowed to match the hurt man's pace. Struggling not to touch the man's injuries, it was an awkward shuffle, and Nick could see Coach's displeasure with their determination all over his gruff expression.

"Quit griping. I'm the one who has your sweaty ass leaning against me right now." the conman chided him rather pleasantly, ignoring the gruff, noncommittal snort he earned himself.

Ellis snuck a glance at Nick by tilting his head down, curling his fingers a little on his cap in confusion. He seemed primed to speak, but thought better of it hesitantly and looked forward. "It'll be a'ight, Coach... we'll get'cha fixed up'n you'll be back tuh orderin' us around." he promised, unfazed when he didn't get any better of a response than Nick had.

They carefully guided him up the porch steps, and as their footsteps rang out and they heard the truck rumble up after them, Carmine leaned out from the doorway, in the middle of rather nervously pulling her hair into a frizzy ponytail. Her blue tank-top let slip a few inches of her pale midriff, and the dark slacks that draped down her legs touched onto the tops of bare feet.

Ellis blinked once, quickly trying to tip his cap at her with his free hand. "Hey, miss! Sorry fer the rush, s'just Coach here.." he rushed as fast as he could, looking a little embarrassed.

She only gave them a cursory glance, backing up to open the door and gesture them in quickly. Her eyes flicked around the area, obviously anxious about having the door open. "It's… fine.. I-I guess it's bad out there, then?"

They shuffled sideways through the door, and to their immense relief, there was a lamp lit across the room, on a table beside a couch, that gloriously announced that the house had electricity.

"Yeah, miss.. it ain't real safe, but we can keep you outta trouble. We're gettin' real good at it!" Ellis chirped gently, lowering his chin and grinning lightly. Nick detached from Coach and let Ellis guide him over to the couch alone, helping him very slowly ease down to sit.

Carmine had this uncertain look on her face, hands finding their way to her hips, staring after them before shifting her gaze up toward the conman. Her eyes were slightly tearful again, probably at the sight of the blood on his back. "Nick, you said..?"

He was almost certain she didn't really need to ask him again, but God he didn't care. He well and truly did not care. "Right." he agreed, lowering his chin to meet her gaze shamelessly and adjust his dress shirt over his torso with his fingertips. He was going to play this for what it was worth. "Feeling any better, doll?"

Carmine nodded, face darkening, for just a moment. "I.. I guess. God, it's just so scary. I wasn't even supposed to be here - I'm house-sitting for my mom. She's on vacation, it was just supposed to be for, like, a week..." She slipped over a step toward him, crossing her arms cautiously over her stomach in a self-hug. "I never thought zombies were real... aren't you scared?"

Nick smirked subtly, glancing up to check on Coach and Ellis. The big man had gotten settled on his stomach, somewhat uncomfortably, and Ellis was crouched next to him, inspecting his back.

The conman caught Ellis sneaking a glance back toward him over his shoulder. It struck Nick when he thought about it - and suddenly he wondered what exactly was going through Ellis' head. Just what was he thinking, seeing Nick flirting?

"So he does like girls"? Or something else? ... wait, fuck. No, I need to get goddamn over this. I'm going to be fucking miserable if I don't just forget about it. Awkward enough that we can't get away from each other. Focus, Nick. Focus.

He didn't realize he'd taken long to respond, but he felt Carmine gently slip a hand onto his bicep. A very warm, very soft hand... he focused his mind, rolling his head a bit on his neck and slanting a smirk at her. In his repertoire of smirks, he aimed squarely between 'sexy' and 'confident.'

He knew his game was off when he wasn't certain if he nailed it.

"I'm pretty hard to scare, doll... just stay by me."

She took him quite literally, leaning against him and resting her head on his shoulder, taking advantage of the way he shifted his weight in reaction to slip her arm around his. If it didn't feel so wonderful in that instant, he would've probably found it irritating.

It was as she did so that Rochelle came up the stairs a little hurriedly, backpack strapped onto one shoulder. She ducked into the house, halting a moment to blink at Nick and Carmine with a very slow look of disbelief. It was with a tremendous smoothness that she transitioned into a calm, "... Hi. Name's Rochelle."

Carmine blinked back at her with a little flash of her eyes. There was something - something very distinct and inconceivable that passed through that look, and Nick felt it dribble past him like so much molasses. It was enough to make him shiver.

"Carmine."

"Yeah, I heard."

Rochelle moved on, walking quickly across the carpet to drop to her knees in front of the couch and survey Coach with a small frown, pulling the backpack to her lap. "Coach, honey, what are we gonna do with you?"

He chuckled suddenly, muffled into the couch. His response was too quiet for Nick to hear, but he wasn't even trying to listen.

Considering the two girls had looked at each other for all of five seconds before separating.. he felt like some colossal war had just occurred in front of him, and he felt a little warm. Nuclear fallout, maybe? We already have zombies.

"I'll go get some water or something, you guys, like, look thirsty..." Carmine pulled away from Nick and walked quickly across the room, moving through an open doorway, the soft and dull sound of her bare feet audible on the wood.

Nick found himself smirking, walking to shut the front door and stand next to it, slowly rolling his dress shirt sleeves up to his elbows with slow motions of his fingers.

"Can't wait till she finds out you're an asshole..." Rochelle tossed over her shoulder, sounding irritated as she dug through the backpack. "Can't believe you're doing this right now." Ellis hunched down a bit where he sat, gnawing his lower lip and raising his brows under his cap.

"Hiss hiss." Nick coolly shot back, lifting his chin and closing his eyes with a pleased smirk.

Everyone was very quiet as Rochelle pulled a few large alcohol swabs from the backpack, packed in little sealed paper squares. The look on her face promised retribution, even if she didn't say a single word.

Leave it to Ellis to find a way to be the first one to talk again. "So, uh, man. Coach, this reminds me - I ever tell you guys 'bout the time muh buddy Keith tripped while he was usin' one'uv those spinny-string grass cuttin' things? See, he -"

"Son, do I look like I wanna hear 'bout that shit right now?" Coach gruffed very lowly against the couch cushion, silencing the hick soundly.

Nick didn't like how much effort it took not to glance over and eye the mechanic, giving in after a few moments and inspecting the slightly embarrassed look that was plastered on that face. Ellis must've seen his head turn - his eyes flicked over, and hesitant blue met stern green with a blink.

His expression filled slowly with pink, breaking off their gazes way too late. His hand rose up and he adjusted his cap, struggling with visible discomfort and lifting his shoulders. The conman's fingers curled on his forearms, re-closing his eyes... and then he pushed off the wall, walking across the room toward the door Carmine had disappeared into.

Fuck this.

Chapter Text

"Baby- hnf.. Baby girl, watch yo'self! You ain't helpin'!"

Rochelle seemed surprised to notice how hard she'd been treating his back. After they'd gotten his shirt peeled off (which was a little unpleasant for more than a few reasons, although Nick would've been the only one with the guts to actually say anything and he was still in the other room.)

"Sorry, Coach.." she apologized, lightening her touch with the alcohol swabs as she cleaned the long gouges criss-crossing his flesh. "I'm just.. irritated."

The big man turned his head on the couch, squinting at her sideways with a gruff sigh. He didn't say anything, though, eyes flinching shut as little white, sizzling bubbles announced the alcohol's work.

Ellis slowly pulled his cap off his head, setting it beside him on the floor and rubbing his fingers through his brunette curls. He felt strange - but he'd been feeling strange all day. Every time he looked at Nick it came swirling back to him, and every time he looked away he swore Nick was looking at him.

He couldn't stop the blushing. He tried, but that had only made it worse, like trying to stop hiccups. Ellis just didn't know what to do besides try to forget about it, and the conman was making that impossible... the kid had this feeling about him. He could sense some kind of guilt, and it made Ellis want to forgive him, even though he had no reason to.

Fact was, they hadn't had a minute alone, not that Ellis was sure he'd be able to handle it if they had. He was frightened of what he'd say to Nick - he didn't even know what to say to himself. Particularly not now, when he'd caught himself listening to that suave, smug tone Nick had spoken to Carmine with and trying to reconcile it with the angry, growled one he'd heard on the rooftop.

He didn't know what it meant. He didn't know what any of it meant, really.

Realizing his face was getting hot again, Ellis tried to distract himself, turning his head toward Rochelle and replacing his cap on his head. "Yuh ain't.. really jealous, are you, Ro'?" he asked meekly, gnawing on the tip of his tongue as he tried to glance over her face sideways.

She rolled her eyes gently, freeing a hand to reach over and prod the tip of his nose with a fingertip. "Of course not, sweetie. I just don't get how he can't be civil to us for five seconds, but some - gah.. forget it.. I'll just annoy myself even more if I talk about it." Sighing, she returned both her hands to Coach, shaking her head.

"I'm just getting tired of his attitude. Every time I think I get him, he proves me wrong."

Like it was planned just to piss her off, there was a chime of a giggle from the other room, and - Ellis swore to God - one of the sultriest chuckles he'd ever heard in his life. It stiffened his spine and widened his eyes a little, leaning slightly back as a pang struck his chest.

It was like... pain. But worse. Like he couldn't breathe, and he felt dizzy, and he wanted to hide but all he had was the bill of his cap and that just wasn't enough. It scared him, a little.

"I'm going to, like, wring her neck." Rochelle muttered sarcastically, rather loudly tearing open a gauze packet. There went not talking about it.

But Ellis couldn't focus, and with a slight fumble, he pushed up to his feet and quickly grabbed onto the bill of his cap, tightening his jaw carefully. "I-I'm gonna go.. get stuff from the car." he blurted out, backing up and crossing the room quickly.

He got the door open and rushed outside at the same instant Nick strolled back into the front room, Carmine tight on his heels. The conman glanced at the shutting door, one brow lifting, but he didn't slow his steps. He didn't make anything of it, not just then.

"Oh great.. Coach is shirtless." he tossed up absently, taking a drink from the bottle of water he held in his right hand. He dropped himself down into a lounge on the smaller sofa up against the wall, letting his left arm drape up over the back of it, inviting Carmine into the space it enclosed without bothering to look at her.

"Boy.. you watch it." the big man grunted quietly against the sofa, fisting his gloved hands a little as Rochelle gently bandaged his back. "I ain't in no mood.."

Nick spread the fingers of his free hand, waving him off, closing his eyes as Carmine settled down on the couch next to him. She was impressively good at arranging herself in a curl there to lean up against him. Man, you're a glutton for punishment, Nicolas... but she's completely your type, isn't she? Hot and bound to drive you completely fucking nuts within five minutes.

"So, where are you guys planning to … like… go? I mean, Nick said you had a plan." she prompted, lifting a hand to tighten her ponytail a little nervously. "CEDA hasn't -"

"CEDA is fucked." Rochelle snapped hostilely, cutting Carmine off and putting a rather sour expression on her face. "They pulled out. We're driving to the coast to get someone's attention. CEDA, or the military, or somebody, I don't care. Savannah is wrecked and the only way we're gonna find help is if we chase it down."

Carmine huffed the smallest breath, glancing up at Nick like she expected him to stand up for her. He sipped from his water, rather expertly pretending like he didn't notice. He wasn't particularly interested in stepping in the middle of anything.

"C'mon, baby girl.." Coach muttered quietly against the couch, drawing a sigh from her. She stewed just a beat, then glanced over her shoulder as she arranged the bandages on the big man's back.

"Sorry, it's been a long day. Ignore me." The apology was hollow and forced, but Carmine accepted it with a smug little nod of her head, settling into the crook of Nick's arm. He couldn't fight a smirk, meeting Rochelle's gaze when she glanced at him and giving her a little taunting bite of his lower lip.

Rochelle looked fit to stand up and deck him.

The victory - if he could call it that - was a little shortlived when Carmine spoke up, voice fairly sincere. "I'd be, like, crazy scared if I was out there in all that. You guys are really brave." Rochelle returned focus to her, and was surprised to find Carmine looking her square in the face, rather than swooning up at Nick.

"Oh." she uttered at first, startled out of a coherent response, guard broken by an actual compliment. She fumbled, and had to remind herself to continue smoothing a strip of bandage over Coach's  back. "Well.. Thanks. We didn't really have a choice. Things just kind of happened. You just… survive, y'know? Do what you have to."

The girl reached up to fiddle with the curly end of her ponytail, seeming to think on that. Nick looked between the women with something that might've been confusion stewing behind his eyes. Damn. No catfight…?

Carmine settled on a demure smile, cocking her head conversationally. "I got, like, lucky this house had a generator. My mom's paranoia pays off; I'd never have made it out there."

"Yeah… well." Rochelle seemed a bit more settled now, and there was a tint of a more genuine apology when she added, "Hope your mom's okay." After Carmine nodded, eyes threatening to water a little, Rochelle returned her attention to her hands as she laid down the last of the bandages on Coach's injuries.

They both sighed at the job's completion, and Rochelle leaned back to pick up the bloody, torn shirt that lay on the ground, holding it up in front of herself and eyeing the rips.

"Dunno what to tell you, Coach... this is pretty bad." she sighed, lowering it a little. She seemed disappointed, looking over his bandaged back with a very tired brand of despair. "I wonder if we can find you a new shirt..."

Carmine straightened up a little from Nick, rubbing a fingertip over one eyebrow. "You know, I totally can fix that up for you.. I mean, it'll look awful, but that's better than being, like... shirtless, right?"

Rochelle looked over slowly, unsure, like she wasn't sold on any piece of good news right now. Her expression was kind of strained, but her voice was kind enough as she responded, "Yeah? That'd be great."

Brightening, the redhead jumped up to her feet and walked over to pluck it out of her hands with careful fingertips. "See? Aren't you guys, like, totally glad you ran across me?"

Rochelle just stood there silently as the woman left the room, heading up a staircase with the bloody shirt gripped in one hand. She waited until she was completely sure Carmine was out of earshot to plead in a slight sigh, "... Nick, please explain this one to me."

The gambler chuckled darkly, sipping from his bottle of water and shrugging a shoulder leisurely. "Just think really hard about railing her. It makes it pretty easy to handle anyone."

Coach and Rochelle were both silent for a moment after that particular comment. Nick thrusted up his free hand, rolling green eyes and sighing. "You're the ones who demanded we come pick her up. I would've just kept going, but y'know what? Changed my mind now - thanks. You might just have gotten me in the pants of the only bangable girl left alive in the world."

"Oh for Christ's sake, Nick! I..." Rochelle couldn't even figure out what to say, lifting her hands to rub her temples. Coach sympathetically reached over to pat her shoulder, wearily letting his head slacken against the couch. "She's … okay, she's not insufferable, but..."

She didn't really know what she was planning to add after that. Between the valleygirl aesthetic and the damsel-in-distress act, Rochelle just balked, waving her hands in this vague gesture like that was enough. Nick didn't need her to elaborate; he just leaned forward, crossing his legs with an ankle settled on his knee.

"Quick view into the mind of a man, honey.. I don't really care."

She stared him down for a moment, then just gave up, sighing and standing up, wiping her forehead with a wrist. "...Ellis is taking a while, I'm going to go check on him." Nobody argued as she walked to the door, adjusting the bangles on her forearm with a sigh.

Nick looked after her, though. He wondered, teeth catching onto the rim of his waterbottle and suddenly nibbling at it.

The dim light inside made Rochelle squint as she opened the door, Savannah's burnt atmosphere swirling in against the pleasant air-conditioned environment inside the house. She closed it behind herself lightly, stepping down the porch stairs and glancing over toward the parked truck.

Ellis was perched on the opened tailgate, one leg dangling off while the other was curled tight to his chest. He was in the middle of hugging it with both his arms, cap tipped low over his face, and Rochelle's brows quirked in confusion at the posture.

She slowly crossed the grass toward the truck, noticing he hadn't heard the door shut. Not wanting to sneak up on him, she called cautiously, "Ellis, sweetie? Are you alright?"

He stiffened but didn't look back, a hand quickly disengaging to grab onto the end of his cap bill and lower it a little more. She heard his throat clear, and he managed, "Uh... yeah, sorry.. just thinkin'.."

Walking up to him, Rochelle tipped her head to see under the shade of his cap and reached up a hand to touch his cheek affectionately. At first she'd had some scatter-shot worry that he was crying, but his blue eyes were clear and his cheeks were dry. "About what, hun?"

Ellis shook his head, but didn't try to push her hand away. In fact he leaned against it a little, and that motion set off an alarm in the back of Rochelle's head. She stepped closer and looped an arm around his shoulders, frowning. "What is it, sweetie?"

"I'm ... s'just.. awhh, Ro'.. I can't tell yuh.." He wanted to, mostly because he felt like she might know what to do. But he couldn't. Even if he overcame his embarrassment long enough to tell her what happened, he was afraid to talk it out. He didn't really know what he'd say. Instead, he sighed and rolled his head against her shoulder, his cap clipping her neck in the motion and popping off his head to land behind him.

"Can yuh just sit here a minute..?" he mumbled a little sadly.

Rochelle instantly nodded, shifting just enough to sit next to him on the tailgate without breaking the embrace they had going. She gently petted his head, resting her cheek against the top of it, and spoke softly to him. All he could really do was be glad she didn't push him, and listen.

"I'm not feeling too great either, honey. I forget it when we're on the move... but it's hard to sit down and absorb everything. Now we're going to have to deal with another person on top of it all? I'm wondering how we're gonna handle this... I'd never say we should've just kept moving, but.. Nick isn't making this easy, -"

Rochelle was paying close attention to him, even if she'd started talking alone, and she felt him stiffen up and shift oddly. She held her breath momentarily, trying to work out if she wanted to bring it up... Was he upset with Nick? Had Nick done something?

She wanted to think Ellis wasn't jealous of Nick with Carmine, but he was a young guy, and she wasn't inclined to dismiss the possibility.

She didn't say anything, just sighing. "Anyway, I guess all we can do is try to get along.. We'll work it out. You know you can talk to me, right, Ellis? You're a real sweetheart, and I don't want you to feel alone."

Ellis nodded gently, sighing. He frowned down at his lap for a moment, wishing that her words made him feel any better. He felt this weight burning in his chest, like humiliation and uncertainty all coiled up in this tight knot.

He just wanted to talk about something else. "Th.. Thanks, Ro'... Is Coach doin' okay?"

She smiled down at him, tickling his ear and making him shy away with one of those grins he couldn't stop. "Yeah, sweetie. He's a tough guy, he just needs a little time to recuperate."

He nodded his head, turning it a little to reach his hand behind himself and find his cap, slipping it on. He rubbed his nose with his wrist carefully. "I wish he hadn't gotten hurt - it ain't right.."

Rochelle nodded in immediate agreement, leaning in to land a kiss on the top of his capped head. "We'll all end up hurt, I'm sure. Here, let me check your elbow, and then we'll go back inside together." Her hands slipped to pull his left arm toward her, and he obliged her with a slightly bashful smile.

Peeling back the tape and bandage, Rochelle unwrapped the bandage from his elbow, being gentle as it pulled away from the actual wounds underneath. It looked good, and she nodded as she turned his arm a bit and touched gently on the closed, scabbed cuts. "I don't think we need to keep the bandages on it anymore, do you?"

Ellis shook his head, smiling even though it was still a little tender. "Naww.. S'fine now."

She gently plucked at his nose with a knuckle, then hopped off the tailgate and beckoned him. She smiled at him reassuringly, and he started to forget about that pain in his chest. "Come on, sweetie. How's about we find some paper and pens and play tic-tac-toe? We'll send that smelly suit out to see if there's some gas around here later."

Ellis tagged close at her heels as they walked back to the door, and, smiling a bit down at his boots, Ellis thought he could handle this. Just move on, forget about it - he'd just stop thinking about Nick entirely.

It was easier that way, anyway, instead of trying to sift through what.. he was starting to think might be.. feelings, or something so close he couldn't figure it out. Particularly not when all he had was the single advance of a very drunk Nick to use as reference. He'd never felt this way about a guy, but the thought only scared him by virtue of its unknowns.

He didn't even know what 'this way' was. It was just a bundle of confused reactions, intimations, suggestions: the way his face wouldn't stop lighting up; how his heart leapt up his throat; how he just couldn't make himself afraid of Nick, even though he felt like he should have been...

He pushed it away. It didn't matter.

Or he told himself that, until Rochelle reopened the door.

Nick was up on his feet, Carmine standing in front of him with a box of what looked like sewing materials at her feet and her hands freed to coyly inspect the little claw-slices in the fabric of his sleeves that he'd earned fighting zombies. She was in the middle of saying something along the lines of, "I can, like, sew this up too, if you want."

That pain came shooting back, forcing Ellis to drop his gaze, hands in tight fists. Rochelle muttered something to him - but he didn't hear it, blindly following her as she lead him across the room and started digging through a set of couch-side drawers.

He couldn't deny it.

It didn't matter that Nick had looked surprisingly unimpressed, visibly not liking having the state of his clothes pointed out.. and it didn't matter that they hadn't even once talked about what happened on the roof -

Ellis hurt, and he didn't know if it was jealousy or something else, but he just… hurt.

Chapter Text

There'd been a very strange silence about the house for the past few hours.

It was strange mostly because they did talk, but only amongst two groups; Rochelle and Ellis - and Nick and Carmine. The space between was so tangible it felt like a chasm. Any time an offhand question dared to cross the distance, it was notably awkward.

Coach was asleep, his body shifting slightly underneath the blanket Rochelle had found to drape over him, moving in time to his heavy snores. He was exhausted - maybe a little more than he should've been, but they'd already accepted they should stay the night. The fact Carmine's house still had electricity and running, hot water made them all glad to be there, considering they hadn't even been able to step into the bathroom in the gas station the night before.

They woke him up to eat supper, which had consisted of sandwiches, and he'd fallen back asleep shortly afterward. Ellis envied him - even though Rochelle stayed close at his side and entertained him to the best of her ability, he was still stuck with a full view of the other side of that chasm.

Carmine had started calling him "Nicky" halfway through the evening.

Rochelle and he were in the middle of trying to make an origami swan with a sheet of paper (neither of them had any idea how to) when he heard it the first time, this sticky-sweet giggle preceding it.

Ellis lowered his hands a little, calloused fingertips stilling on the paper for a moment. His brows furrowed, struggling not to let any more of a reaction slip. He wrestled with the weird knot of feelings, sighing silently. It was just as confusing as it'd been from the start.

Rochelle lightly snapped under his nose, startling him back into focus. She gently surveyed his expression, one brow lifted sympathetically, and he cleared his throat with a quick dart of his gaze back toward the paper, trying to remember what he'd had planned with the folds.

"How'll the sleeping arrangements be? Looks like Coach is melted to that couch, but there's still four of us to take care of." Nick questioned with a very distinct smirk, slowly rubbing his hand over his jaw while the other toyed with the fabric of Carmine's capris flirtatiously.

Nick was a master of the expressionless eyeroll, face tensing in discomfort. Please don't say it again...

Carmine pulled her leg away with a ticklish jerk, giggling as she worked her needle along a jagged tear in the shirt on her lap, stitching the purple-and-yellow fabric of Coach's emblazoned shirt back together. "Oh, we'll figure it out, Nicky... I have a guest bedroom and, like, a bunch of blankets somewhere, too."

Oh, God. ... 'Nicky.' I really wish my standards were higher than this. Though, it's not really about standards, is it? He felt his gaze drag over toward Ellis and Rochelle, curled up and facing each other on the other couch, paper wadded up around them.

Nick had a perfect view underneath the bill of Ellis' cap. The kid's expression was struggling between emotions, and in an instant Nick felt trapped into staring at it, trying to read it - Damn, is he... upset?

No way.

"Where's your head, Nicky?"

His gaze snapped back to her at the rather coy question, a brow lifting subtly. "Just thinking. How'd you manage to keep safe since the outbreak? Seems most people didn't." he lied effortlessly, focusing her on herself rather than him, though he reflected that it would likely circle back to him after she answered.

She giggled and returned her attention to her stitching, pleased. "Oh, I just stayed inside. It was quiet for, like, a while, but when I turned on the generator I guess it sort of… attracted them. I blocked up the doors and they couldn't get in. My mom had a radio up in the attic, so I started, like, calling for help. I don't know what I'd have done if you guys hadn't showed up." She frowned slightly, snipping the thread and shifting her hands to start on another tear. "You know, my mom's dog was here, but - well it was, like, totally the weirdest thing… She just ran away the day before CEDA starting making announcements."

"Animals sense disasters. Maybe they knew before we did." Rochelle offered up quietly, grinning slightly as Ellis crushed up what must've been their tenth attempt at a swan and just shook his head. She reached out and pulled his cap down over his face, startling him.

"Maybe." Carmine agreed distantly, glancing over at the two on the couch before returning her gaze to Nick. She rolled her eyes gently, then focused back on stitching up Coach's shirt.

...or, it can NOT circle back to me, that's fine too. he noted, almost smirking. He stretched carefully, feeling his shoulders pop in their sockets and sighing a bit, silently. He could've used a smoke... and, patting his thin dress shirt, he realized they were in his jacket. Which was in the truck.

Rolling up to his feet, the conman tossed up absently, "Left my jacket in the car, I should get it."

Carmine gave him a rather winning smile as she tugged her needle taut. Rochelle glanced up at him in the same instant, but without the slightest bit of similar friendliness. "Take a gun." she ordered coldly, distracted only a moment when Ellis frowned and she traded a glance with him.

Nick snorted, reaching to the holster on his thigh and pulling his Magnum free, cocking back the hammer to make his point. They cleared out the forest on the way here; he didn't imagine his remaining three bullets would be necessary, anyway. "The concern is flattering, really."

He didn't wait for her to make another gripe, crossing the room for the door, but she grumbled after him anyway. "More worried the zombies might get sick if they eat you."

Nick didn't waste any time getting out to the truck. It was dark, light pouring from the front door behind him in a very meager rectangle. Whatever he'd said, he wasn't eager to be out in the open for very long. Dropping down the steps two at a time, Nick jogged across the grass toward the parked truck.

"'Zombies might get sick'... hrmmpfh. Bitch." he muttered quietly to himself, shaking his head. "Not sure what stick got up her ass."

He was just opening the door and leaning in to paw around for his suit jacket when he heard this breathless, quick laugh, manic and broken with exertion. It sent a chill darting up his spine, and he slowly curled his fingers on the fabric of his jacket, pulling back out from the car.

Green eyes darted around the area, warily, and he turned to slowly sidestep away from the truck. He pushed the door closed with his hip, wincing at the loud sound, and held his breath for a moment.

... nothing. Total silence, without so much as a rustle of the trees in the still night air.

I'm not crazy, am I?

Nick very slowly eased himself away from the truck, moving across the grassy lawn one step at a time. There was no way he'd imagined that - not laughter, and certainly not psychotic, reedy laughter.

His shoe settled on the first step up to the porch, and that soft thud of the hard sole preceded another break of laughter, choked and panted giggles that came out high-strung and burst forth like it were mocking him.

Nick froze again, and, turning to face the darkness that surrounded the house, called warily over his shoulder to the open front door. He was pretty sure that it was nerves that inclined him to a sarcastic intonation. "Ro'? Let's say you told a zombie a joke."

Her voice called back, bewildered. "...what?"

"What happens when you tell a zombie a joke?"

There was a pause, and Nick tensed cautiously, gun twitching to bear on perceived flashes of movement in the dark. "What the hell, Nick?" Rochelle asked again, shortly reinforced by Carmine, sweetly.

"Nicky, are you alright?"

The gambler spat it with distinct enunciation, tone irritated and a little urgent. It was just hard enough to see that even the trees swaying made him jump, aiming down the sights and twisting at the waist to re-focus himself at every stimulus. "Do. Zombies. Laugh?"

Rochelle never got the chance to give an answer to that particular question, though, and she must've heard something Nick didn't. Her voice shot to panic, and he heard fumbling as she - and, he thought, Ellis - struggled up to run to the door. "Nick, it's on the roof! Get in here!"

Though he knew it was entirely not the right reaction, reflexes jerked his head up to look at the house's roof.

The face that suddenly thrust into his vision over the edge of the roof was the stuff of nightmares, framed by broken-looking shoulders that jammed up in bony protrusions as it grasped onto the roof's edge. Waxy, plastic skin was stretched over the gaunt bones of a thin head, and its eyes were round and bloodshot bulbs popping and rolling wildly in shallow sockets.

Its mouth was stripped of all lip and its gums were bleeding like it had torn at them, hysteric breaths screeching through the fence of gnashing, glistening teeth that made up most of its visage, bared in a bloody grin three sizes too big. Tears and blood streamed from its eyes in rivulets, and Nick got a gust of fetid breath as it shrieked an agonized, gleeful burst of giggles and jumped.

"JESUS ASS CHRIST!"

It grabbed hold of his hair in great fistfuls with knobbed fingers, and he shouted as the thing used its grip to thrust scrawny, lean legs around his neck possessively, perched on one shoulder. He was blinded immediately as a clammy thigh clamped over his eyes, gripping on like a monkey.

The sudden weight made him stagger, and he felt fingers yank on his hair mercilessly and legs tighten as the thing leaned wildly forward. He just barely made it up the last few steps, wheeling about blindly.

He tried to flail out his arms to catch his balance, realizing too late that he had his Magnum in his right hand - one of the zombie's hands released his hair, and those fingers were suddenly digging into his gun-toting hand's wrist, yanking his arm behind himself like he were being arrested to smartly immobilize it.

Pain jolted through his arm, spasming his fingers and sending his Magnum clattering to the porch. His jacket went with it, thrust away in favour of trying to grab for the zombie and peel it off his face. It was too heavy, and all he managed to do was score lines on its back with his nails - an act that horrified him about as much as the slick and bony thigh pressed against his face.

The thing cackled hysterically between broken gasps of air as it thrust itself against his center of balance, forcing him into movement. He staggered, so busy trying not to fall over he couldn't even start resisting the pull of the thing's weight and manipulative fingers - and then he felt his hip collide with the waist-high railing that bordered the porch.

Choking a gasp that tasted like sweat and dirt, Nick tried to shift his weight and shove against the riding zombie, but he was already toppling over. Between his weight and the zombie's, there was nothing to do but brace himself for the fall.

He heard someone yell and, beneath the screaming cackles above his head, loud footsteps on the porch. Nick hit the ground hard, the wind rushing out of him as the impact trapped him under the clinging weight of the hobbled little zombie.

It had only been six or seven feet, but it hurt, and Nick struggled to breathe as the creature jumped hyperactively onto his chest and shoved his torso into the ground like it was trying to smother him, unable to get him up. Its heels dug into his ribs, and the air was compressed out of him by force.

Then, the weight was tossed off him in a sudden shove, pain stinging in his eyes as the zombie scrabbled to try and fight it. The thing shrieked madly with these terrified giggles, and Nick was aware of it running away as someone dropped to their knees beside him.

"Nick - man, are you alright..?"

Ellis.. of course, it's Ellis...

Shoving up from the grass, Nick spat and gave a cough. There was blood in the back of his throat - he'd bitten his tongue, and the note of copper sang out far louder than the dirt and rancid sweat he was smelling.

"Yeah." he muttered, surprised in the next moment to feel Ellis slipping hands under his elbows and trying to help him up. Nick immediately shoved him away, frustrated, and hauled himself up to his feet alone. He was breathing hard, and his nostrils flared as Ellis slowly stood up, too, his expression in a discomfited look of slight hurt.

"I said, yeah." he repeated with a swipe of his hand through his mussed hair, irked, and Ellis recoiled a step back. "Why didn't you kill it, for chrissakes? Now it's running around."

"..s-sorry..." the Georgian managed, and what had been blooming hurt became full-blown pain. Nick swore the kid was close to tears, and suddenly, found himself speechless.

He was hurt. Really, actually, honestly hurt, and the conman was silent with the realization as Ellis turned away and just... walked back to the house, his workboots loud on the porch and face shaded under his cap.

Nick stared after him without a sound, aware of Rochelle standing on the porch and looking uncomprehendingly between Nick and the door, his dropped jacket in one hand and his Magnum in the other.

"Are you okay?" Nick almost didn't register it at first, but he realized with a straightening of his spine that Rochelle was talking to him. He jerked a nod quickly, dismissively, smacking palms against his clothes to pat off the grass and dirt he'd gotten on them.

"Perfectly. You know what that was? It was... psycho.. and I'm pretty sure it was humping my head."

She hesitated for a few beats, tapping her fingers on the articles she held, but took his cue to avoid the subject. Nick had no idea why she'd decided to stay instead of chasing Ellis down, nor why she was suddenly being nice to him, but he decided against arguing.

He felt a little shell-shocked. That.. hurt. It was nothing like fear or discomfort - it was outright pain, and Nick couldn't wrap his head around it.

"Yeah. They got called 'Jockeys' because they ride people like that.. when the CEDA post I was going to interview at fell apart, I didn't see much in the rush to get away, but - I saw one of those things ride a guy into a window so hard it shattered, and.. you know."

Nick nodded, allowing himself a small groan as he lifted his hands and wiped at his neck with his wrists, sighing irately against the dirty sensation that crawled all over him. "So they hump you into danger.. great. That's just fuckin' exactly what this apocalypse needed.."

Rochelle gave the smallest of laughs, shaking her head and watching as he walked over to step up the staircase and hold up his hands to take his jacket and gun from her. "The laughter is just eerie, isn't it? I don't like them laughing."

She crossed her arms behind her back, and they were both silent as Nick tossed the jacket over his shoulder and reholstered his Magnum. He was just about to get free from her, turning toward the still-open door, when she murmured,

"What's going on, Nicolas..?"

Re-settling green eyes on her face, Nick narrowed them subtly. He stood for a moment, askance, before shrugging a shoulder and retorting effortlessly, "How should I know?" But it wasn't enough. There was still the admittance that something WAS going on, although Nick had the feeling Ellis had already given that away.

Rochelle sighed at him, jamming a hand in the pocket of her jeans and cocking a hip. "Will you suck it up for five seconds and talk to him? He's really upset, and he won't talk to me about it."

Nick thought of a few things to retort with... but for some reason, all that came out was a spat, "I planned on it.", as he twisted on his heel and stalked into the house. He was almost instantly stopped by Carmine, looking a little desperate and reaching out to grab his arms.

"Oh, Nick, are you like, okay? What was -"

The conman stuck up a hand to halt her, rejecting her embrace so suddenly she clasped her hands on her chest, startled and quickly looking disappointed. "Doll, I'm dirty and sore.." he enunciated carefully, waiting just long enough to get a nod before stepping around her and crossing the room. The kitchen door was open, so there he went, pushing it open with his palm and steeling his lips tight.

The room was only half-lit by a small under-cabinet light in the far corner. The off-yellow glint struck the tile surfaces harshly, and through the haze, Nick eyed Ellis. The kid stood just in front of the kitchen sink, his head bowed and his hands curled into fists on the edge of the counter. His cap was set off to the side, tussled and curly brunette locks freed.

Nick very slowly drew the door shut behind him. For a beat, they were silent.

"Care to tell me what the fuck that was, Overalls?"

Not exactly how he'd intended to start the conversation, but he made no motion to take it back either. Nick stood there at the door, one hand still lingering on the doorknob and slowly clinking one of his rings against the metal, before advancing just a few steps in light of Ellis' silence.

"... Overalls." It was quieter that time. He didn't mean it to, but his voice lost its edge with the second repetition, and with it, Ellis turned his head slightly. His gaze flicked up to Nick, blue unsure.

"I dunno, Nick." Tired resignation lied in the words, and at the same time, Ellis re-averted his gaze with a slight downturn of his lips. The conman hunted green eyes over his expression, waiting for some kind of elaboration, tongue curling against the roof of his mouth.

Ellis swallowed, tasting the words before he spoke them. No amount of preparation helped, though, and he fumbled through it with a growing look of uncertainty and a heavy lining of insinuation. "Why'd yuh go on 'n' do that? 'N why couldn't you.. why'd yuh just .. Why, Nick?"

Nick was silent for a short but heavy moment, lifting a hand to slowly rub his thumb over his lips. He could just imagine that was a question Ellis had been asking himself incessantly... now there it was, directed at him. He had no good way to answer it.

Tensely, he reached out and set a hand against the countertop beside him, maintaining a good distance from the kid. "I was drunk, kid. You've got a right to be upset." It wasn't an apology, but it was the closest Nick could get himself to go.

Ellis hesitated to respond to that, dropping his gaze down low to inspect the grout of the counter. Was he upset? Or just confused? .. what would happen if Nick leaned in right then and touched him?

"If it helps any... I wouldn't have done that otherwise."

Ellis' head lifted up quickly, though something kept his gaze rooted to the counter. He was silent, teeth moving to bite at his lower lip. With an indelicate inhale, Ellis lifted a shoulder and turned his cheek. "... whut's that mean?"

"It means what I said."

The hick flicked up his gaze, staring a moment at Nick and clenching his fingers slightly. He wanted to demand an answer.. prod further. He wanted to know if Nick meant he wouldn't have done anything at all.. or forced anything. He wanted to get a long look at those unreadable green eyes and see if there was some glimmer that said something else. Most of all, he wanted to ask Nick for advice, for help, for something.

What he said instead was this: "So you'd.. be okay if we.. pretended it never happened.. 'n' I fergave you?"

It hurt to say, and that winding pain suddenly re-knotted itself in his chest. Did he really want to do that? He had so many questions, but there was a sense of futility as he watched something in Nick's posture change. Something dissipated in that moment, and though he first thought it was a kind of relief, Ellis felt himself floundering when he glanced up and found Nick's green eyes distant.

Did Nick look... disappointed? Or was it a trick of the light over that pale color?

"That's fine with me." the conman responded, pulling his hand away from the counter and straightening his clothing simply. His face was so impassive, it was like nothing had changed at all, and Ellis' lips fell into a silent gawp open and closed. In an instant, it was like they'd signed a deal, and all Ellis could do was struggle to register his words.

"I'll leave you alone, you leave me alone... try and get Rochelle to calm down, too. She's gone all big sister on you, and it's getting annoying."

"O-Okay, Nick..." the mechanic managed very quietly, letting his weight rest against the counter as a slight chill worked up his spine. No... he didn't want to agree to this, but he was only really realized that as it slipped out of his control.

Nick reached to pull his jacket from where it lay over his forearm and instead tossed it up over his shoulder, turning away and walking to the door. "I'm taking a shower. See you in the morning, Overalls." His voice was flat... his gaze flatter and he didn't wait for a response before he opened up the door and left.

Ellis didn't give one until he was gone, anyway. He turned away slightly, leaning over the sink and staring down into the drain, his fingers gripping on the counter tightly.

"...okay, Nick."

Chapter Text

Ellis didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he woke up. A tiny clock hanging from the wall opposite him just barely glinted with enough moonlight from the window behind their couch to tell him it was a drowsy 1 A.M., almost three (very quiet) hours since he'd last heard from Nick.

Lifting his head a few inches, tired and disoriented, he noticed he was curled up against Rochelle's lap where they'd been sitting together on the loveseat. She had an arm over his shoulder, fingers curled gently on his bicep, twitching faintly in her sleep.

He blinked slowly, freeing a hand from the blanket draped over his sprawled form to rub the drowsiness from his eyes, trying to focus. He felt guilty now that sleep had taken some of the edge off his emotional turmoil - he'd been silent, unresponsive and brooding, even though Rochelle was clearly worried for him.

What could he have said?

Sighing softly, Ellis gently guided her arm off him and shifted to sit up, curling his bare toes against the living room carpet as he swung his legs off the edge. His hat and his boots and socks were all off, leaving him feeling a little bare.

Coach was awake, he realized, as he pawed a hand against his bare scalp - awake and looking at him from the couch across the living room. "You a'ight, son?" The big man was still on his belly, but he had his head braced on a wrist to lift it up a little. His gruff voice was gentled and curious, and his care put a small smile on Ellis' face.

"Yeah, Coach." he lied, feeling a small pang in his chest. "I need tuh use the bathroom, is all."

The big man simply grunted in acceptance, re-closing his eyes and turning his chin away. Ellis' smile widened for a split second before he gently sighed it flat, pushing up onto his feet before he could second-guess himself.

He didn't, but he was stuck in his lie now.

Padding across the carpet quietly on his bare feet, Ellis watched his own steps. He scratched at his stomach, itching up his shirt to get at an irritated scuff on one of his ribs, and somewhat reluctantly started up the stairs.

Nick and Carmine weren't downstairs and hadn't been since he'd finally left the kitchen, so he figured they'd gone upstairs together. The thought made him frown, telling himself that maybe Nick had taken the guest room and Carmine hers... but that wasn't likely.

He didn't want to run into them, let alone Nick. Not right now. That in mind, the hick started to tiptoe as he reached the top of the stairs, intent on getting into and out of the bathroom without getting caught.

There were a few shut doors along the hallway and, with a small squint, Ellis noticed that there was a soft light glowing out from the edges of one, betraying their location and making him relax as much as the sight downcast his gaze. The bathroom door hung open, fortunately.

Cautiously, Ellis slipped up to the bathroom threshold and stepped inside the dark, tiled room, his feet immediately chilled by the bare floor in a rather calming shiver.

Relaxing somewhat and figuring he'd just stay there a few moments and then go back downstairs, Ellis started to reach up to the light switch and flick it on. He froze when he heard a door open down the hall, however, and never completed the motion.

Quickly, the hick turned to press himself against the wall just inside the bathroom, holding his breath and jamming his back against the lightswitch painfully. There were voices, but Ellis couldn't make them out clearly, even though he strained to.

Leaning just slightly, he poked his head through the doorway, peeking down the hallway as subtly as he could. Carmine was hanging out of an open door, her eyes intent on Nick's face, standing in front of her in the hall.

As Ellis watched, he leaned in, catching her cheek under a thumb and bending his mouth to hers - and it was a deep kiss.

Ellis couldn't watch, his heart sinking to his gut and body reflexively recoiling back to hide in the bathroom like it could spare him the sight. He slowly slipped over to the sink and counter, leaning his weight heavily against it and bending forward. He rubbed his face into his palms, sighing.

Why should it be a shock..? Why did it even matter? Ellis had told him he hadn't wanted to accept that what happened had happened... He'd forgiven him (supposedly) so they could move on (supposedly)... Ellis shouldn't be surprised that Nick had gone on unfazed.

Maybe he'd wanted to see if Nick would argue.. maybe he didn't really think Nick would've given up as easily as he did - but Ellis had messed it all up and Nick had let him. Maybe that disappointment Ellis had seen had been imagined. Nick must've meant what he'd said - if not for the alcohol, he'd never have done that, anyway.

"...it ain't fair." Ellis mumbled very quietly, sighing in frustration and leaning forward until his forehead hit the bathroom mirror. "I think I might like yuh, Nick..."

Because suddenly all he could think about was how Nick had half-carried him after the Smoker had nearly killed him. Or how Nick had bent and let him in to eat breakfast with him. Or how they'd wrestled down the street and Ellis had caught him with a laugh glinting in his eyes.

Even the moments before or after the gambler yelled at him - like the flicker of regret after Nick had backhanded him. Or the fitful guilt tensing his shoulders as he'd stalked away on several occasions... or how one of his rants had been punctuated with a certain level of 'you could have gotten hurt'...

Ellis didn't think he was imagining it. Maybe he was being stupid, but all he had was his gut, and his gut liked being around Nick. Even if he was a jerk sometimes.

But it didn't matter. Nick had clearly slept with Carmine - why not, anyway? Nick didn't have any obligations or reasons not to. Ellis had told him to forget what happened.

If only logic made his chest stop hurting.

Slowly pushing away from the counter, Ellis drooped his head and chewed on his lip to keep it from trembling. He shouldn't have expected Nick to care at all, but it still hurt. Like he'd finally come to some kind of turning point, this new feeling struggle to breathe, and when he actually looked up he was alone.

Careful steps led him back to the doorway, and he looked out into the dark hallway, his gaze latching onto the line of light that shone out from under one of the other doors where it hadn't before.

As it suddenly hit him that Nick was in that room, alone, his whole spine stiffened in a surge of confidence. Nick had said it: Ellis had a right to be upset.

He'd be upset - he'd tell Nick just exactly how frustrated he was, and he'd let out these crippling emotions, and he'd inform him just how much it hurt to think Nick had turned right around and just jumped a girl he didn't even seem to like.

Ellis would've been okay, but that thought had just pushed something too far. He wanted an apology, and even if Nick didn't give him one, he was sure as hell going to ask for one.

Like closure.

Straightening out his clothes and the knot of his overalls, Ellis set his jaw and tried to draw himself up to some kind of height. He inhaled quickly and started moving before he could second-guess himself, lightening his steps as he passed by the room Nick had left and pausing in front of the lit door Nick was behind.

... should he knock?

Decisively shaking his head, Ellis just reached out and got hold of the knob, twisting it and thrusting the door open with a quick step to follow it as it opened.

Nick turned around almost instantly, his shower-clean but still unshaven face in a look of rather drawn interest, one brow raising. He'd been in the middle of undoing the last button of his dress shirt, suit jacket already tossed to the messily-made bed that protruded out into the middle of the room. His torso warmly filled the now loosely draping blue fabric, dark hair dusting his chest and disappearing into the shadow a bedside lamp cast across his stomach.

As his green eyes ticked onto Ellis, his lips gained a minute quirk downward, and he slowly let his fingertip twitch that last button free before he crossed his arms over his chest tightly. The motion did pull some of his shirt back into place, trapping it there.

"Something wrong, hayseed?" That was all he asked. As Ellis stood there in the doorway, gripping onto the knob and not quite inside, the conman's green gaze burned a hole straight through him. It was so fierce, Ellis couldn't get himself to meet it long enough to try and understand it, but somehow his resolve was unflagging.

He stepped in and shut the door.

"Yeah, Nick. Look," Ellis took in a breath, jutting his fisted hands carefully against his thighs. "You don't wanna hear this, but - I-I'm gonna say it anyway, 'cause you owe me a chance tuh at least say it."

Nick seemed wary, gradually and tensely curling his fingers in his sleeves before he gave a silent nod of agreement.

So Ellis lifted his hands to lightly scratch his fingertips into his loose curls, averting his gaze to the carpet between them. He felt his face warm, but did his absolute best to ignore it. "I'm - real mad, Nick. It ain't fair, pullin' whut you did 'n' then .. not even havin' the guts to say a real 'sorry'."

The conman inhaled quickly through his nose, slowly moving his legs to cross idly at the knees where he stood, his weight falling to the right. His voice was even - non-confrontational. A little strange, actually. "You said you forgave me. Didn't we move on?"

Ellis pushed his fingers a little tighter into their curls, shaking his head slightly and biting onto his tongue for a moment. "I.. it ain't that simple. Yuh never even tried to talk tuh me all day! You were just actin' like nothin' happened... don't I get some kind'uh 'splanation? Or an apology?"

"I gave you an explanation, Overalls... I was drunk. Everyone's done something stupid when they were drunk, this one just included you." That struck Ellis a little. Nick was still calm, though Ellis felt like something else was teetering on an edge in his voice. Those green eyes sat on him, musing.

"Why didn't you try tuh apologize?" he repeated. Ellis realized his voice was strained... more pleading than he meant. He couldn't help it. He also noticed abruptly that Nick's shoulders twitched down at his question, just slightly.

His voice was quieter than before when he responded, though his tone was harsher. "I didn't make a calm pass at you, Overalls. I don't know if you noticed, but what happened wasn't exactly 'oh hey, I'm drunk and you look good today.' 'Sorry' is supposed to make you feel better? Because I'll say it, but somehow I doubt it'd do any actual goddamn good like you think."

"Ain't that my decision..?" Ellis only barely got it out, Nick's blunt retort choking him up slightly. His brows furrowed tightly, and for a moment, the two men were silent.

"... What do you want from me, exactly, Overalls? I can't believe you really barged into my room in the middle of the night because you wanted a 'sorry.'" Nick's arms crossed tighter, and he turned around to face the bed, suddenly freeing Ellis from the burning strength of his gaze. He didn't, in fact, apologize - and Ellis didn't miss that.

Ellis took a slow breath, fisting his hands tighter, and then cuffed one up in the air to point at him with it in a small gesture. He forced himself to say it. He had to know.. "... Would you've done that iffin you weren't drunk?"

The conman's head turned where the rest of his body stayed solid, staring a moment across the room at the mechanic before rolling his brows together slowly. "What in the hell kind of question is that, anyway?"

Ellis stubbornly kept rooted. His whole spine felt weak, though, teeth gritted together subtly in the back as he worked the words out from a tight throat. "... I'm askin' 'cause I - 'cause - Hogwash, Nick! I think I like you... 'n I been feelin' more'n more confused 'cause I don't know whut to do 'n' -"

He lost his composure with a fierce flushing across the bridge of his nose, voice going to a very quiet tone as he couldn't bear to look toward Nick's face. "...but it don't - matter, so.. I just want a sorry, Nick. I ain't causin' any fuss, 'cause I know yuh slept with Carmine 'n' I ain't gonna say nothin' tuh nobody.. 'n'... I'll be okay if you can just give me a real sorry."

The silence for a moment afterward was completely deafening. He felt the weight of the air around him beating at his frame, determined to break him. When Nick's voice broke through, very evenly, it made him stiffen to imagine the things he'd say...

And all he said at first was "Overalls."

Realizing he wouldn't continue until Ellis gave him some kind of response, Ellis very slowly forced his gaze to rise, blue eyes uncertainly vulnerable without the comforting shade of his hat. He knew his expression was bright red, knew he must look humiliated... and it was some kindness that Nick took the lifting of his head as enough instead of making him talk.

"You're wrong." Ellis' knees started the subtlest of shakes, and he realized with a small, nervous rise to his pulse that Nick was smirking just faintly - sadly, even. All Ellis could do was give a small 'huh?'.

Nick stepped forward, silently crossing the room and letting his arms drop to his sides. He halted just barely in front of Ellis, cool gaze scanning over that expression, now drawn with anxiety and trembling with the beat of his heart. They were so damn close. "I didn't do anything with her."

Ellis felt his heart come to a very clamoring halt. He knew it showed on his face - he watched Nick read it and watched his smirk gain some more weight.

"I turned her down. And I wasn't in the mood to mess around with some two-bit Cali exile. I wasn't happy, either, you know. It's not like I wanted to do -" He did stop a bit there, chewing at his tongue to muse at wording before he amended, "I didn't like what happened."

Ellis struggled, his whole body feeling like lead as he tried so hard to absorb the words he was hearing, to listen to the low, sincere tone Nick spoke them with. Was that an apology for what happened on the roof, or downstairs? Ellis wasn't sure. He also wasn't sure how much the difference mattered.

His voice stumbled when he whispered up at the gambler, "Yuh.. I thought.. You didn't - sleep with her?" It was so obvious now. Why else would Nick still be so shower-fresh? Why else would they be so quiet saying goodnight in the hall? Why else would Nick be sleeping in another room?

Ellis felt like an idiot.

Nick was leaned in now, though, his arms uncrossed to bare the only sparingly covered expanse of his torso. "I didn't fuckin' want her." There was emphasis there on that last word, so subtle Ellis almost doubted if he'd really heard it. His expression was serious, eyes half-lidded, and Ellis felt himself immobilized underneath the soft smoulder of those focused and cold eyes.

"And kid?" Ellis could only barely nod his head, feeling like his heart and his head might explode with the blush rushing in quick, frantic little pants through his veins. His chest was pounding. "... if I hadn't been drunk, that would've never happened."

Dizzy, those words didn't completely sink into his brain before Nick was adding, voice intensely quiet and rough, "This would've."

Ellis felt the fingertips grip him first, their warm, blunt pads dotting a line along his jaw to hold his head in place with a firm touch. Anchored there, Nick leaned in further, and both their eyes shut in the same motion as the conman eased their lips together.

They both tensed. It was there in their shoulders and the way their bodies linked through that one motion and sparked in the contact - this taut sense of energy, anxious.

A small whimper, one of some subtle uncertainty, escaped Ellis and the shiver of every muscle in his form betrayed the waves of warmth that spiraled from the touch of lip on his. When he felt the subtle part of the conman's lips, the sudden and intense smell of soap, cigarettes, and something a little heavier swirling across his senses -

Ellis didn't pull away.

Chapter Text

Nick had never been easily swayed by kisses, not in any meaningful way. They were a means to an end; a method to lay out his intentions as bluntly as possible.

Just then, though, he could feel Ellis trembling under his fingertips. His mouth was soft and unsure, afraid to move. That tangible shock changed something in it for the gambler. He didn't mind as much that their bodies kept a good few inches of distance between each other, or that the kiss was so achingly tentative.

Then again - he wasn't usually one for slow kisses, either.

His fingertips sunk along Ellis' jaw as the kid failed to push him off, curling up his cheeks and tracing past his ears into the bare locks usually hidden under his cap. Nick let his fingers twine in the soft mop, using it as a light hold to anchor Ellis to him in the same moment that he simply felt at the strands between his knuckles.

Nick's tongue pressed gently past the part to his own lips, wetting over the hick's and encouraging him to open his own. He could feel Ellis' warm breath fanning over his face as the kid panted through his nose, and it sped up at Nick's advance.

The moment Ellis submitted to it, leaning his weight against the fingers in his hair, Nick stole the smallest taste of the kid's mouth with a feather-light intrusion of the tip of his tongue. He pulled away there, releasing him, more than aware of how Ellis gasped at the sudden connection between their mouths.

Nick's fingers spread and then curled in Ellis' hair, and he opened his eyes to scan over the younger man's expression slowly, a smirk touching his own lips. Ellis was red-faced, jaw softly slack as he hadn't quite recovered from the kiss. It was… nice-looking.

When he managed to regain some amount of self-awareness, his mouth quickly shut, wetting his lips with the tip of his tongue self-consciously. A flustered "U-uh.." was all Ellis could really pull off at first, color deepening as Nick didn't waver in his focus.

God, that felt good... really fucking insanely good. "Not what you expected, Overalls?" he murmured, his voice sultry and a little smooth with want. Nick could see it set the kid on edge. He enjoyed it.

The use of Ellis' nickname was almost ridiculous in that moment. It felt like a joke, even to Nick, and Ellis struggled for composure as he breathed in and out a bit quickly. "Uh.. I dunno... yer bein' - ... gentle, I uh - I didn't expect that, I.. guess..."

One of the conman's hands remained curled in Ellis' hair, but the other eased free and slipped down the Georgian's spine, working its way down the dip in the center of Ellis' back with his fingertips. Ellis noticed, reddening heavily over the bridge of his nose, his weight and hips shifting in slight uncertainty. "You prefer what I did on the roof?" he asked in a low murmur, rather intently maintaining his green gaze on Ellis'.

He was curious what kind of response he'd get.

There was a certain exhilaration flitting through Nick's veins he couldn't deny. He felt his heart beating uncharacteristically hard beneath his ribs. Maybe it was just the build-up to it all - he finally had the frustratingly attractive Georgian within his grasp, he was actually sober, and Ellis was actually willing.

Willing, but looking immensely uncertain and quiet. Nick merely watched him and stopped his fingers just at the bunched line of Ellis' overalls, pressed against his skin through his t-shirt. He had to remind himself to slow down; that Ellis wasn't one of his usual targets, and didn't know what he was doing.

Nick wasn't very good at slow.

"N-no..." was Ellis' eventual, weakly mumbled response, gaze flicking between Nick's eyes and his mouth.

He knew that look.

Widening his smirk slightly, Nick suddenly purred, "Come here..." in a low voice, curling his arm and his fingers into Ellis' back to draw him forward and lean their bodies close together. Ellis immediately inhaled a sharp breath and darted eyes down as the motion pulled him tight against a very warm, bare chest.

Nick's arm tightly enveloped around his side and his other one released its grip on his curls to join the first. It pushed him to stumble his bare foot one step forward, and Ellis panicked slightly, although it was mostly in his expression and voice. "N-Nick.. I ain't.. sure, uh.."

Their hips were pinned close together now. Ellis didn't try to struggle away, even as his eyes went darting wide. Nick might've thought he was looking for the door, had Ellis' gaze not found its way back to his face, uncertainly.

His eyes were warm, stony blue, and searched Nick's for answers.

The gambler chuckled low, dropping his head to push a second kiss on him instead, tongue exploring the Georgian's mouth a little hungrily. Ellis' knees went weak, leaning forward into it even as the motion stretched his lean body flat against Nick's.

The conman lifted his brows against a surge of desire at the sensation coupled with the slow, tentative nibble of Ellis' teeth on his tongue. Shit. He growled a little in the back of his throat, and Ellis must've thought he'd done something wrong because he jumped slightly at the noise, breaking their kiss with a small gasp of air - but Nick didn't let him move away more than that, shifting his hands to grip onto the mechanic's slim hips.

"There's a whole lot I want to do to you."

There that tone was again - gravelly and dark, ragged with something lustful. Ellis shivered rather harshly as the words settled, trying to stifle the motion. He lifted his hands up to grip onto Nick's shoulders, bracing himself, and whimpered a question very quietly, "Yuh.. uh.. still do like.. girls, though.. right?"

For some reason, all the question did was make Nick smirk. He bent his head to the side, nipping lightly at the top of Ellis' ear, his stubbled cheek scuffing against the hick's. This is a new conversation...

Any other time, he would've found the question vexing. But, throwing the kid a lifeline was, he decided reluctantly, the least he could do. His voice was a rough approximation of sympathetic as he whispered against that ear. "Insecure, kiddo? Never looked twice at a guy before?"

Slowly, whining in a soft exhale at the ministrations to his ear, Ellis managed a shake of his head, visibly struggling to stand up straight and not tremble.

"If it makes you feel better," And God it felt strange to admit, considering he'd only once so much as discussed the topic with someone else. Fact was, Nick had made Ellis struggle with too much already, and he felt very distinctly that he had earned a small sacrifice. Just a small admittance that he wasn't completely alone in his discomfort.

"I hate it a little."

Ellis blinked softly over Nick's shoulder, those blue eyes tipping to the side... but Nick didn't pull away from his ear, and before Ellis could respond, the conman tightened his fingers on his hips and curled his tongue against the kid's earlobe.

"A-ah!" Ellis yipped in a sudden fluster, startled, fingers clutching onto the older man's shirt. The open dress shirt bunched up with the motion, slipping a few inches off his shoulders, and Nick chuckled warmly against Ellis' ear as he rolled his torso a bit to the side.

Ellis quickly let go of the shirt, realizing what Nick was doing - and his breath caught as the conman wormed his dress shirt down to his bent elbows, baring his torso. With some reluctance, Nick let go of Ellis long enough to toss back his arms and ditch it entirely to the floor.

He grabbed hold of Ellis' wrist, loosely pulling him forward as he strolled backwards. Green eyes burned lightly as he smirked, Ellis staring - flustered - at his stomach as the Georgian stumbled on clumsy bare feet, following the pull. The kid was lost.

You're not good at slow, Nicolas, but no reason to push him into it, either... God, this is not going to be easy.

Nick stopped when his calves hit the edge of the bed, dropping down to sit and spread his legs. Before Ellis could react, Nick tugged him forward to stand in the space between his thighs, slipping his hands up to curl on the back of Ellis' head and coax him into a bend for a third kiss.

Ellis quickly closed his eyes and leaned down into the kiss, one of his hands dropping to brace himself and landing just an inch to the side of Nick's thigh. He was warming up, Nick thought, so he pushed deep into it, slowly retracting one of his hands while he distracted the younger man with slow strokes of his tongue, enjoying the heavy trembles he got out of Ellis for his trouble.

Nick curled his elbow to get his hand on Ellis' stomach, hooking fingertips in his yellow T-shirt and pulling suddenly upwards. He chuckled in the back of his throat as his knuckles brushed up the Georgian's smooth stomach and Ellis froze up -

But the conman was shortly surprised, as the hick straightened up in a sudden surge and tugged his shirt up over his head. Nick's mouth went incredibly dry as the hick's torso flexed in his squirm to be rid of it, a soft flush settled all over his lean skin and accenting the slopes of his frame.

He wasn't built, exactly; it was more like a smooth layer of muscle that had developed from constant activity. He was solid, on the cusp of growing out of the last shaky remnants of 'young adult'.

Whatever it was, Nick liked it.

"Jesus shit." he muttered, very simply and a little roughly, reaching up his hands to curl them behind the kid's thighs and grip at the baggy fabric of his overalls. He could tell Ellis was uncertain, standing there, without even looking at his face.

Dragging Ellis a step further and sliding his hands up till he was almost cupping his rear, Nick leaned in and nipped harshly just at the kid's stomach. Ellis jumped slightly, his arms lifting up to loop around Nick's shoulders and grip his fingers against the conman's back.

His voice whimpered slightly above Nick's head, but the gambler was too focused to respond, trailing teeth and lips along the panting lines of the younger man's ribs. He was aware his stubble was scratching along Ellis' skin, more because the mechanic kept gasping and shifting as he traveled along with a hungry pace, maybe tickled.

Nick flattened his tongue against Ellis' skin as he reached the gentle slope of his pec, spine shuddering a little at the rather distinct taste that had slowly been creeping into his senses. Nick shut his eyes and brushed his mouth over the pink bud of Ellis' left nipple before flicking the tip of his tongue against it, enjoying the sudden clutch it caused fingers to take on his back and the tremble it sent down Ellis' stomach.

Noticing the lack of sounds, though, he reopened his eyes and flickered his gaze up. Ellis had his curly-locked head twisted to the side, jaw slack but mouth buried in the swell of his tattooed shoulder, and eyes squeezed shut against the hot flush that covered his face.

The expression was so clearly struggling with arousal that Nick couldn't help himself. Raising his hands to grip onto the back of Ellis' bundled-up overalls, he urged the hick forward with a demanding push, ending up tripping Ellis forward into himself.

Ellis quickly tried to regain his balance, his hips having sprawled intimately into the niche of Nick's - but Nick merely growled softly, using both his grip on Ellis' overalls and the leverage he now had with his thighs to thrust them into a half-roll, trapping Ellis under himself against the bed.

Blue eyes quickly widened, Ellis panting heavily and stretching out his hands to grip onto the bed-sheets a little urgently. "N-Nick.." he huffed anxiously, body squirming slightly. "Whut're you -"

That made Nick take a breath, the oxygen welcome to an otherwise starved brain. Ellis gave this small whimper as Nick settled into a straddle on his thighs, watching with parted lips as the conman's hands coiled on his thighs with burgeoning energy.

Nick met his gaze, forcefully. "Kid." When Ellis tried to look away, the gambler reached out and braced his palm against his jawline, forcing his face back forward. Their eyes locked in the dim light, and Ellis chewed his lower lip. "I don't play hard to get. You want this?"

The Georgian seemed to waver a moment, the chewing increasing. Nick actually felt he might reconsider for a beat of time - and then Ellis' head nodded, minutely, his breath held and his words a little stuttered with their proximity. "Y-yeah… S'just… I ain't real sure…"

Nick's expression must've given his thoughts away, because Ellis' rate of speech suddenly ratcheted up. If his face could've gotten any redder, it did just then. "I ain't a virgin or nothin', I just don't… I ain't done nothin' like this before, is all, 'n' -"

That made Nick laugh. It was low in his throat and rough with tension, and the younger man's face drew into something a lot like a pout. "Relax, Ellis. You're thinking too hard."

Ellis seemed unsure at first, so Nick drew back an extra inch and let out a sigh. If it had been anyone else, he might've lost patience. If he'd been a better man, Nick might've stopped and talked to him.

Instead, he just said, "Trust me, okay?" -

and thought, Except I'm the last person you should trust, kiddo.

He wasn't surprised when that worked, even if he got the distinct feeling that he'd taken advantage of the kid as Ellis' eyes softened a little. He nodded his head more seriously, voice just as soft. "'Course…"

Nick didn't waste a moment, leaning down to close his mouth over Ellis'. He locked lips tightly and mercilessly deep, shutting him up and drawing an appreciative moan from the younger man. The nervous energy drained out of the mechanic, and Ellis tentatively reached up hands to touch at Nick's biceps.

His fingertips were calloused and warm, and Nick wished he could smooth out the goosebumps that raised in their presence.

Keeping that kiss held tightly and shifting his weight onto his knees, Nick worked Ellis' hips free of his overalls - he pushed them just halfway down his thighs, just enough. Nervous noises mumbled into the kiss with every movement, but Ellis' hips hitched up off the bed, as if to help.

That made Nick smirk, and his fingertips played for a moment over the soft inner thigh bared between the bottom edge of Ellis' boxers and his now lowered coveralls - then slowly slid up to the hick's underwear and gripped onto the fabric.

He broke the kiss as he stripped those boxers down, leaning back for a moment to glance down. Ellis was gorgeously laid out for him then, body sprawled out just enough to be vulnerable and a little clumsy. Where his arms and shoulders were crisply tanned, his abdomen and thighs were a little paler from remaining covered, lean but soft-looking.

And Nick's gaze found - now freed from his boxers and exposed to both the air and Nick's mercy - Ellis' cock arching up from short brunette curls. It made the gambler's spine straighten up, a sudden aching awareness of his own, constrained in now-too-tight slacks.

Lifting his left hand up to spit into his palm, Nick flicked his gaze toward Ellis' face, inspecting the struggle of arousal and embarrassment spread across those surprisingly attractive features. The gambler leaned forward on his knees, settling his mouth close to Ellis' ear as he just let his palm and then fingers trail along the other man's erection at first.

Ellis immediately hitched up his spine, knees trying to push up but unable to with Nick's weight on them. "N-Nick!" wobbled past his lips in a moan, blue eyes fluttering shut as the sensation set in, the cool touch of Nick's two rings making it all the worse.

"You can say stop..." he purred against the whorls of Ellis' right ear, almost tauntingly, letting his breath fan out in the quick pants it was escaping him. His grip on the kid became a little tighter as saliva slickened the motion, and he felt the tension underneath him rising as Ellis got harder.

"But I don't think you want to.."

The Georgian didn't even respond, whimpering and gasping as his fingers gripped on the sheets tightly. The anxiety was dissipating from Ellis as pleasure overtook it, Nick twisting his strokes at just the right point to draw a little extra jolt from it. The gambler couldn't help but draw back slightly to get a glance over his slackened expression.. shortly taking advantage of the lost look with a nip and lick of his silky-soft lower lip.

That brought Ellis a little out of his rut, mumbling in a soft whimper that didn't seem entirely thought out as another shudder wormed up his spine, "Y-yeah.."

Sitting there was getting uncomfortable, his abdomen tight and warm as his slacks seemed to just get tighter. Being shirtless helped, cool air brushing up along his back, but there was an undeniable heat that was building all over his front and the stroking motion of his own hand was arousing in far too many ways.

Effortlessly maintaining the tempo of his left hand, Nick moved his right to unbuckle his belt, flicking it apart with his pinky. The clink of metal drew Ellis' scattered attention, and he rolled his chin a little to glance down through foggy blue eyes, uncertainly trying to focus through a wave of pleasure Nick quite intentionally squeezed out of him just then.

Nick slipped his hand into his slacks, sighing faintly as he curled his fingers around his own length and pulled himself free, not near as carefully as he'd done with Ellis. He felt too urgent now, desire pressing into his stomach harshly, and he let his weight settle onto his knees in a quick motion to get a better angle and push his slacks a little more out of the way.

But - he only got a few strokes, synchronized with the ones he was giving Ellis that hadn't yet stopped, before he noticed Ellis suddenly unclench his hands from the sheets. Nick eyed him uncomprehendingly with burning green irises, panting harshly through flared nostrils, but Ellis didn't freeze up.

He was burning up with a blush from both arousal and embarrassment, but his jaw was steeled and he didn't falter.

That flat stomach flexed to bring Ellis to his elbows, slumping backward on one in a small arch, and bringing his other arm up to reach down and push his fingers to usurp Nick's on the gambler's dick.

"Ove-"

Nick let out a genuine, throaty moan of pleasure as those calloused pads snuck around him. He'd marvel at how arousing the forwardness on Ellis' part was later - for a moment, he lost all sense, manipulating the kid with his agile fingers with the same rhythm he rutted his hips lightly against Ellis' hand. It all got lost and mixed up, pulsing pleasure turning indistinct and vague, the rustle of clothing distracting and disorienting.

He heard Ellis give a choked whimper of an "Oh gawd," and the younger man's hips bucked up against Nick's hand to ride out his climax, spilling up onto the curled stretch of his abdomen. He came in waves as the gambler slowed his motions and soothed fingers in a drag up and down the hick's length.

It was difficult focusing, his brain swimming, and the gambler shifted his free hand to wrap his fingers around Ellis' and tighten them. His hips settled into fierce and shallow movements, driving the rhythm greedily.

Nick bent down to bury his face against Ellis' neck, breathing in sharply when his orgasm hit. He didn't have much control over his body then, hips jamming against both their hands with one final thrust and stilling as he growled fiercely.

He nipped a little at the crook of Ellis' neck and enjoyed the utterly exhausted little whimpers he got for it, not paying any mind to the fact he'd only added to the mess Ellis had made of his stomach.

The exhaustion that struck was so severe, Nick's legs wobbled as he rolled sideways off of Ellis, barely catching himself on a palm. He let out a shaky exhale and slid his legs off the edge of the bed, body slanted toward the mechanic as he fell to an elbow and relaxed. The conman rolled his head back and closed his eyes, a smirk etching itself easily across his lips.

The soft shifting of the bed announced Ellis readjusting his clothing a little before scooting toward him, and he felt the Georgian settle slowly, and just barely, against his now-sprawled front. Ellis' shoulder was just pressed against his pec, but it was enough.

One green eye flicked open, glancing at the body next to his... the slick stomach, the untied coveralls and bunched boxers that he'd just barely gotten modestly back up around his hips... the bare chest, the reddened cheeks..

Lastly, Nick's gaze ended up shifting to meet Ellis'. He didn't look so nervous now - in fact there was an edge of happiness to the brilliantly exhausted blue of his eyes, this smile risking at his lips that was... cute.

"Thank'yuh, Nick..."

The gambler almost wanted to laugh. Being outright thanked, like I did the kid a favour… but the closest he came to laughter was a twitch wider of his smirk. He settled it soon after, and with a very weighty inhale that summoned what strength he had, Nick pushed on his elbows to roll to his feet.

"That's a first..." he muttered quietly.

The conman was unsteady on his feet, but he managed, leaning over the bed to pick up one of the two pillows stuffed against the headboard. He dropped it to the ground, glancing up as Ellis lost a bit of that smile. Not all of it, but enough. The kid spoke up as Nick walked over toward the door to pick up his shirt, slowly putting it back on without buttoning it. "What'cha doin'..?"

Nick realized then that the loss of some of that smile was because of his actions, glancing down at the pillow on the floor. He lifted up his hands and tiredly rubbed at the expanse of his chest, each motion feeling heavier and heavier the longer he was awake. "I can make you go back downstairs if you'd rather, kiddo. It's that or the floor."

Ellis didn't answer at first, forcing himself up to his bare feet and taking a few steps to the side, getting out of Nick's way as he took the comforter off the bed, dropping it down next to the pillow and starting to pull up the thinner bedsheet left behind so he could collapse back onto the bed and slip under it.

"Naw... not really.." Suddenly Ellis smiled again, visibly dismissing whatever it was that'd given him pause. He gently stepped over to lean in and wrap his arms momentarily around Nick from behind, catching the conman just before he'd turned to actually slide under the sheets.

Nick didn't have the time to prepare a response more detailed than stiffening a little in surprise and turning his head to eye him. The younger man retreated back and dropped down to arrange the makeshift bed, using one edge of the comforter to clean his stomach a little before he settled down to wrap himself in it and sprawl across the carpet.

Nick knew it. He'd dealt with it enough to know.

He wanted to sleep with me.

He shouldn't have been surprised, but he supposed he was, a little. The gambler pulled the sheets over his frame, groaning a little as he settled down on the bed and pushed his head against the one pillow left there, starting to close his eyes.

Lifting an arm, Nick reached over to click off the bedside lamp, darkness thrusting up over the room in a sudden motion. He hadn't even relaxed before Ellis, shifting audibly under the sheets, tried to speak to him. "Hey, Nick..?"

A hush spilled out from Nick's lips reflexively, but rather unenthusiastically; "We'll talk tomorrow. Go to sleep, Overalls." He was too tired to handle conversation - he imagined the questions Ellis had. I should've just kicked him out...

A little too gently, Ellis' voice responded from the floor, "Okay. G'night, Nick." He didn't try again... and they both fell asleep quickly and deeply, unmoving.

Along the course of the night, Nick's pillow ended up wrapped in his arms.

Chapter Text

Nick felt his shoulder being shaken gently, and as he stirred, his body groaned a complaint. He could sense a few bruises over his body the Jockey had caused him, and the lazy pain left him unwilling to get up and break the pocket of warmth wrapped around him.

Wrapping his arms tighter around the pillow held to his chest, the conman growled a "What...?" under his breath without opening his eyes. He even buried his face against it, hoping the disruption would simply go away. He mulled over, distantly, if his Magnum was in arms-reach.

As consciousness settled more fully over his brain, however, his memory cleared and what was a foul mood trickled into a rather pleasant one. Recalling the previous night set all his nerves at ease, and the lean contentment that settled into his muscles softened the harsh grip he had on his pillow.

Goddamn, last night was good... never been happier to've ruined my chances with a girl.

What hit him strangely about that, though, was that in no way had he been thinking what happened would've been the result of him rejecting Carmine. He'd stalked to the other room resigned to a cold, empty night and self-frustration.

But nothing, he decided, could ruin his good mood today.

"Sorry, Nick..." Ellis' voice made him pull his head away from the pillow, blinking flecked green eyes for a moment at the clothed mechanic kneeling beside his bed.

Ellis gave a slightly bashful smile there, adjusting the cap on his head slowly and shifting on his knees. "Ro came in 'n woke me up a few minutes ago. Carmine's real upset this mornin', we want you tuh try'n talk to her."

The pleasure drained instantly at the mention of - well, reality. Confirming the room was empty and the door at least mostly shut with a glance, Nick shifted his weight to roll to a seated position on the mattress. He let his arms cross, but didn't keep the sheets from sliding down to his lap.

Casually, eyes on the almost-shut door, Nick reached out and tucked a knuckle under Ellis' chin. He forced his face up so he could lean in a bit, dangerously close, like he might kiss him. He thoroughly enjoyed the embarrassment that flooded the other man's face. "What'd you tell Rochelle?"

"I, I uh.." Ellis, not exactly trying to get away even as his hands clamped over the edge of the bed like he might either push to his feet or fall over, stammered a little. He was blushing, the color spilling over the bridge of his scarred nose.  "I told her we talked it out..."

Nick smirked neatly at the Georgian, stopping short before his predatory instinct escalated the situation.

"Give it away with that blush, dumbshit." He said it like he hadn't just been intentionally taunting the blush out of him. Ellis glanced up at the term, and even though he couldn't pick out a gentling that indicated it wasn't meant harshly, Nick clearly wasn't angry. "And what was 'it'?"

Keeping his head precisely where it was, Ellis downcast his gaze and cleared his throat uncomfortably. His voice lowered a little, and he seemed guilty. "...She sorta already had an idea... thought I was, uh.. jealous of Carmine likin' you an' we was fightin' over her.."

Nick immediately saw the irony, cracking a dark chuckle and releasing Ellis. He pushed his pillow back up to the top of the bed, then thrust the light sheets off his frame and made to stand up, buttoning his shirt slowly. The gambler noticed Ellis watching him sideways, still blushing, but feigned obliviousness.

"Pretty close." he commented lowly.

Ellis shifted to haul up to his feet, crossing his arms behind his back. He quirked his mouth a little, embarrassed, and dropped his chin to hide his eyes under his cap. "I-I wasn't jealous."

The conman smirked, straightening his dress shirt and tucking it into his slacks. He stretched his arms out, elbows popping pleasantly with the motion, then relaxed them to try to rearrange his hair into the cool slicked back look he preferred. It was getting hard without an actual gel, but he was making do.

"Then what were you?"

Ellis didn't answer at first, hooking his thumbs into the bunch of his overalls and biting onto his lower lip. A moment later, he managed, "I'unno.."

Nick tugged his suit jacket free from where it laid on the end of the bed, pausing just a moment as he was spreading it open to try and gauge Ellis' meaning. Shrugging the jacket on, he reached over and grasped Ellis' elbow, gentle on the scarring wounds there. Sighing just a little and turning the Georgian to push him toward the door, he prompted, "I'm not her fuckin' keeper, but where is she?"

"Ain't come outta her room all mornin'... Other reason Ro' told me tuh wake you up, 'cause she said you could go'n'get the door open." Ellis smiled under his cap at the touch to his arm, glancing over his shoulder at Nick a little brightly as he walked to the door.

The smile caught him off-guard. It was sweet. That bothered him.

Nick snorted, following after him, releasing Ellis' elbow and turning his own hand up to inspect it, feeling the warmth left over from their contact. He felt a strike of annoyance at his own discomfort - he didn't like being at a loss.

The hell do I do now?

The pleasant mood was gone, quickly as it had come.

Refocusing as Ellis stepped up beside Carmine's bedroom and leaned his shoulder against the wall just next to the door, Nick grumbled a wordless complaint and arranged himself in front of it.

"Carmine? You okay, doll?"

Noticing a slight fisting of Ellis' hands out of the corner of his eye, Nick smirked smugly. Not jealous my ass... Not hearing anything immediately, the conman leaned his head in and set his ear against the door, lifting his gaze a little and repeating, "Doll?" He tried the knob, softly, but it was locked.

The soft, sobbing sound of Carmine's voice filtered through the door, making Nick groan and pinch the bridge of his nose. He whispered just loud enough for Ellis to hear, utterly frustrated; "Oh, you have got to be kidding me... she's crying?"

The Georgian gave a weak grin, and slight guilt filtered into his features. "Well, yuh did turn her down, Nick..."

Nick flicked a narrowed look at him, snorting in displeasure. "Women..." Returning his voice to its louder call, his tone gentled to this strained pleasantry that actually made Ellis have to hide a laugh behind his wrist. "Carmine, doll, open the door and let me talk to you.. I thought you were okay."

His expression was drawn with irritation, and it only worsened when Carmine didn't respond to him, her crying voice getting softer like she was hiding behind or under something.

".. we talked about this. It wasn't you.." Nothing. Mouthing something foul, Nick dug his hand beneath his jacket and pried his wallet from the inner pocket tucked away there.

Flipping it open and snatching out a credit card from one of the folds, Nick took a step to center himself before the knob and gently work the card into the crack of the doorframe beside it. He tossed the wallet to Ellis so he could grip onto the knob with his other hand, glancing up at the door.

"Doll, I'm coming in... - ...Overalls, fuck off my stuff.." Caught, Ellis shut the wallet back up before he really got anything from it beyond the fact Nick looked oddly angry in his driver's license photo, a plain grey shirt where his suit should have been. He tucked it into his pocket instead, looking a little abashed.

Jiggling the credit card against the lock forcefully, Nick felt it shove between tumbler and doorframe, a satisfying click as the simplistic lock mechanism reversed. Tossing the card at Ellis, too, with a limp motion for him to return it to the wallet, Nick gently opened the door.

At first, the room was pitch black. His eyes didn't adjust very quickly, leaving him uncertain for a moment, faced with a dark room and the soft, emotional sobs of a distraught Carmine. As he blinked them into focus and felt Ellis step up by his elbow, he started to notice something -

A red hue seemed to glitter on the very air itself, this directionless, reflecting light. It struck shadows at all angles, tainted with a foggy red glow.

"Fucking hell..?" He searched a little too long to find the source of the light, and even after he saw the glowing nightlight jutting out of an outlet on the far wall, he remained disturbed. With a nervous chill up his spine, Nick slowly stepped forward to turn his gaze toward where he swore the tearful weeping was coming from.

Half-hidden on the floor at the end of the bed, he made out Carmine's sitting form. She had her arms tightly wrapped around her legs, drawn to her chest to bury her face between them.

Her body was angular - emaciated, chillingly enhanced by the red glow that filled the room and reflected shadows over the jutting bones of her body. Clothes that once fit her hung, draping, like a blanket over her skeleton. They were torn and shredded, like she'd tried to get them off.

Her auburn hair hung down over her weeping shoulders and around her downcast head, the only thing even remotely familiar to him. Slowly, as a sob made her body crumple forward slightly like a scarecrow jerking at the wind on its pole, her arms slipped away from her knees to try and cover her face.

Spearlike fingers - if fingers they could even still be called - tapered to wicked points, clacking together like scissors as she tried to settle them over her eyes to stifle a wrenching sob.

"H-Ho-ly shit! Car-" Ellis blurted from Nick's elbow, startled, and too quick for Nick to react in time. Grabbing an arm forcefully around the younger man's neck, he plastered him against his chest and clamped the other hand over his mouth, silencing him.

"Shut.. up.." Nick hissed into his ear, starting to slide his foot back and drag Ellis with him. Ellis grabbed onto the forearm that held a hand over his mouth, but didn't fight, stumbling a little to follow after the gambler backwards.

With a harsh sinking sensation in his gut, Nick saw Carmine's head jerk up a little. She's.. fuck's sake, she's infected.. She was fine last night - I fucking kissed her last night!

She growled, just subtly, and with the almost visible twist and torque of bones underneath greying and dead skin, her head turned to focus glowing red eyes on the two men, face oily and glistening with tears. The growling rose, and like some shambling animal, her limbs shuddered her up toward her feet, turning around.

Nick pulled Ellis back through the doorway just as a sudden scream tore from her, high-pitched and bloodcurdling. With an audible scrape and swish her arms went akimbo, splaying knived fingers to either side as reddened air sent jagged shadows down her front.

Ellis was the one who caught the doorknob and slammed it shut in front of them, not too late to see she was stepping forward to race at them. Releasing Ellis' mouth and neck in favor of snagging his collar and dragging him with, Nick tore away to run down the hall toward the stairs, a mantra of "Shitshitshitshitshit!" spilling from his lips.

The Georgian quickly adjusted, catching up after a stumble to sprint beside him, shooting a glance over his shoulder. Shocked, Ellis heard a loud crash as Carmine collided with the door - and then two of those spearing fingers burst through the wood, jabbing at the air and squirming as they tried to break more of it down.

Jerking his head back forward as Rochelle shouted, "What the hell?!" from downstairs, the two men quite nearly fell over each other getting down the steps. They barely stayed standing, and Nick grabbed Ellis' tattooed bicep to drag him along as he quickly made for Coach. The big man was sitting up on the couch, alert, shirt stitched back together with visible black thread.

"Wh-" Coach started.

"She's a zombie, get the fuck out!" Nick ordered urgently, more at Rochelle, dropping down to reach out and offer his shoulder to Coach. Ellis took his lead, and the two men helped Coach up to his feet, supporting him and quickly starting toward the door.

Rochelle didn't seem interested in obeying - she grabbed up the weapons they'd stored against the wall, darting over to push Ellis and Nick's guns into the Ellis' free arm but keeping Coach's shotgun. The mechanic tried to shoot her a concerned look, but she was already stepping away, a serious grit to her jaw.

Coach's voice was not happy in the slightest, even though he couldn't really stop - Nick was forcefully striding forward, like he might drag both of the other men if he had to. "Baby girl, what the shit are you doin'?!"

"Picking up the rear." she snapped with a strange tone, angry and upset at the same moment, aiming down the sights carefully at the staircase as another scream from upstairs announced the door breaking down. She backed up to follow the three men toward the door.

They were just starting down the steps - Rochelle just in the doorway - when Carmine came sprinting down the staircase, her claws dragging along the wall and scraping paint off it like wet paper. She growled, red eyes flashing madly at Rochelle in the depths of a sunken face, and then let out a scream as she bolted toward the door, reaching her claws out in front of her.

It didn't seem like Carmine was aiming for Rochelle. It more seemed like she would go through her if necessary.

Rochelle aimed low, body going stiff and weight rolling back onto her heels to try and stabilize herself against the oncoming recoil, and cried, "I'm sorry - but FUCK OFF, BITCH!"

The shotgun blasted off with a crack, and the bony remnants of who Carmine was shrieked a pained noise and stumbled, the shot pulverizing her hip as it passed through. She staggered and fell, her foot-long claws slicing into the carpet as she crumpled, screaming in rage.

Shoving the front door shut with a trembling hand, Rochelle turned and raced down the stairs and across the lawn, catching up to the three men as they were helping to shove Coach up onto the truckbed.

"I'll drive!" Ellis shouted, pausing just a moment to make sure the injured man had cleared the tailgate before bolting around the truck, skidding a little as he scrambled to get to the driver's side door and yank it open.

Rochelle jumped in after Coach, immediately dropping down to brace herself and grab onto the big man's arm. He wrapped his other arm around her head, pulling her into a hug and whispering something to her, expression stoic and morose.

Nick slammed the tailgate shut and sprinted to the passenger side, vaulting up into the truck as Ellis re-hooked the startup wires underneath the steering wheel and straightened up, the car purring to a rattled start.

The conman yanked his seatbelt on even though Ellis didn't bother, and as he screeched the truck into reverse and cranked the wheel to rip it over the lawn in a tight half-circle, reorienting it toward the road, Nick shot a glance toward the house's front door.

Those inhuman claws jutted out from the wooden barricade, jerking about as Carmine tried to break through again - but the truck was already peeling off onto the gravel driveway, Nick grabbing reflexively onto the edge of his seat even with being strapped in.

"...Fucking Christ." the conman muttered almost inaudibly, muffled further by the whistling of the wind as it blew over the still-open back window. Ellis heard him, though, and Nick's jaw twitched a little as the hick softly prompted, slowing down just a little to swerve the truck down the winding gravel road toward the highway;

"..you okay, Nick?"

The gambler didn't answer for a moment, his own heartbeat rushing in his ears and drying out his mouth as he stared at the passing trees, nerves only slowly settling. ...I could've fuckin' slept in there. With her. It. Fuck.

When he did answer, it was a solid and forced "Yeah." If Ellis' slow nod and drifting of his gaze toward the conman before re-focusing forward said anything, Ellis might've been thinking something similar.

Turning in his seat, Nick threw an arm over the back of his chair and glanced into the truckbed through the still-open rear window. Rochelle was curled tightly against Coach, the big man resting his chin against the top of her head with half-closed eyes. He was clearly uncomfortable, his injured back pressed against the side to support her, but he didn't move.

She was biting onto a fingertip hard and clearly, however successfully, fighting tears.

He could hear her voice, just loud enough for Nick to catch it over the crunch of gravel. "... She came down in the middle of the night, Coach... she was sweating - but she wasn't hot, was she.. she had a fever... I should've realized..."

Nick's urge to ask a harsh 'Does that one have a CEDA-approved name, too?' faded into the back of his mind, and he drew his arm back toward himself and faced forward without uttering it.

He found he couldn't stop touching his mouth and glancing over his fingertips.

Chapter Text

The Chevy sputtered, drowning, as its engine huffed the last fumes of gasoline.

"Jesus. Fucking. Goddamn. Christ!" Nick growled furiously, slamming his hand on the dashboard to underscore every word. "The one goddamn truck we pick and it doesn't have enough juice to get us more than halfway!?"

Coach sighed wearily as he pushed himself away from the side of the truckbed, turning his head to survey the sky and thick river they were currently guttering their way past.

The highway they drove on had funneled them quickly through the dead, burning, and zombie-infected remnants of what had been outlying suburbs on the edge of Savannah, and they'd just been going over a wide bridge when their vehicle had given its first cough. The truck was rolling to a chugging stop in the middle, Ellis trying to pump the pedal with no success.

He gave in reluctantly and pushed it into park, breaking the hotwire job with a careful tug and letting the truck die with a heavy rattle.

"Boy, calm yo' ass... ain't helpin' nothin'.."

"Oh yeah?" Nick was furious. "Well I'm glad you're here to set me straight. Please, Coach, share your wisdom - how the fuck are we going to carry your ass and all our supplies? Hm? Hitch Ellis up to a cart and wagon?"

Coach sighed again, pointing to the backpack stuffed into one of the corners of the truckbed. "Baby girl, get that?... Don't need no carryin', boy, an' we'll make do. Longer we bicker, longer we take to get our asses outta here."

Nick fumed as Rochelle retrieved the pack and Coach dug through it carefully, pawing through the stash there and giving their rather low ammo stocks a dubious glance-over.

"Nick..." Ellis whispered, catching Nick's gaze. The Georgian reached under the sight of the window to touch his sleeve, but before his fingertips so much as grazed the fabric, Nick snapped his arm away.

"What, Overalls?! Are you excited to be on foot for who the fuck knows how many miles? Keith do it once?" he retorted vehemently, feeling a very tactile awareness of the empty spot where Ellis' hand would have settled.

Those blue eyes flashed to uncertainty, brows scrunching over them in confusion as he retracted his hand like Nick had bitten it. The conman could just read Ellis' doubt at the rejection, even if the kid tried to bounce back with a hesitant cock of his head. It shouldn't have bothered Nick - it didn't bother him. "... naw, Nick. Can't help it, though.. ain't got no gas. May as well make the best'uv it.."

Nick gritted his teeth a little, lifting a hand to slowly pinch down the features of his face in a self-distracting motion. Goddamnit, I should've stopped this at the beginning. Now he'll get clingy. Fuck.

I don't need this right now…

"Aren't you just a bottle of sunshine." Taking a breath and leaning down, he pulled his machine gun from the floorboard and tossed the strap over his shoulder, opening the door of the stalled truck and stepping out.

It felt far too much like running away.

Rochelle glanced up at him as he came around the side of the truck, seeming too distracted with their situation to much notice anything awry. She gestured to Coach, now inspecting the laminated map they'd brought with them. "We don't have much ammo, Nick... not for any of the weapons. And it's a long walk down the highway."

Nick crossed his arms tightly, sighing in frustration. "When the hell did we use all our bullets? You two had a stash and a fuckin' half when we met you."

"The Tank." Coach closed up the map and tucked it into the backpack, shaking his head. "Y'all wasted a lot of ammo tryin' to kill that thing."

The conman's hackles rose a little, jaw setting. Though Coach's comment had been practically innocuous, it pissed Nick off instantly, fingers clenching on his own sleeves. "And what were we supposed to do, exactly? Ask it nicely to shoo?"

Coach eyed him, unimpressed, but his voice was fairly calm when he returned, "Boy, I ain't pickin' no fight, I'm sayin'..."

Nick paused a moment, curling his tongue against his teeth... then shrugged, forcing his mouth into a flat line. There was no sense in needlessly fighting amongst themselves, even Nick knew that. Mostly. "Fair enough."

He could tell the ex-football player relaxed as he backed off. Coach glanced over the supplies they'd stashed in the truck, sighing weightily. "Can't take this shit... won't have no real meals, 'n not much ammo... betta be hopin' we don't run into much."

Ellis popped out around the cab of the truck, leaning against the side of the bed and resting his cheek against the butt of his shotgun. He was quiet, and Nick could feel the mechanic's gaze flickering on and off him worriedly, the whole length of the truck between them, in an attempt at subtlety.

Rochelle hopped up onto her knees and crawled over to break into a pack of waterbottles in the depths of the truckbed. "We grabbed some bottled water from the gas station back when. Let's take one each, and I'll try to stick at least a meal into the backpack somewhere.. something light."

Nick grunted without paying attention, turning a hand to inspect his ringed fingers. Why was I so goddamned nice to him? This is gonna bite me in the ass. He lifted his head up as a bottle suddenly thrust into his vision and, glancing up, found Rochelle offering him a smile. "It'll be alright, sweetie. We're close to home free."

He snatched it from her lightly, but it was tucked into one of his jacket pockets while his cigarette pack and matches were pulled out instead. He tried not to register the fact he was down to two cigarettes.

Carefully lighting up, he sighed sarcastically, "Oh, good, you're not bitching at me anymore, either?"

Rochelle's smile fell slightly - but it collapsed into something a little sympathetic. She reached out to set a hand on his shoulder, gripping the fabric lightly. "I am sorry about what happened Carmine, by the way… We're all just stressed.. and we were taking it out on each other."

Pulling on his cigarette, Nick sighed out a smoke-stained breath and, begrudgingly, nodded once.

"I know it's different when it's someone you know who turns. You get kind of numb to all this death, but.. watching someone go, someone you cared about, it's - " Rochelle winced, glancing down toward her feet. Nick had to remind himself that she'd said her cameraman had turned in front of her during the outbreak.

Whatever he'd felt or not felt for the girl, her emaciated frame and pinprick red eyes would haunt him. So, he took the olive branch offered even though he felt it grate at him a little.

"I was being sort of an ass."

She grinned at him, returning her attention to the pack of bottles, and her expression was pleasantly gratified. "Wasn't your fault... it's your default setting. I should know by now."

Scoffing quietly under his breath, but feeling loose, Nick stretched his shoulders out and rolled them carefully in their sockets. Ellis was still eyeing him, and he knew the kid wanted some reassurance, some kind of answer, that gave an explanation for his rejection.

Did you really think this was going to be a hit-and-run, Nick? You're stuck with him. You've gotta deal with this.

Glancing up and latching gazes for a moment, Nick mouthed a small and unemotional, 'Later.' To his relief, Ellis nodded firmly and lifted a hand to rub at his cap, looking away with an appeased settle of his expression.

"Oh!" the youngest startled a little when he found Rochelle leaning over to stick a waterbottle toward him, quickly taking it up to bounce it in one hand and flashing her a grin. "Thanks, Ro..."

"Might wanna come up wit' other weapons soon's we can." Coach commented, scratching lightly at his gut with a sigh. He pushed the tailgate down with a shove of his elbow, and eased himself to the edge to cautiously get his feet on the hard cement of the bridge.

All three of the others watched him a moment, but he seemed steady. The black stitching that crisscrossed his back was a cruel reminder of both his injury and the now absent Carmine.

"Like them zombie movies? Nail planks'n shit?" Ellis offered enthusiastically, stepping back to swing his shotgun pointedly through the air with a grin and tip of his head.

"Yeah, son, sure... like them movies." The big man reached into the backpack still gripped in one of his hands, and he pulled out the ammo they had left, sliding a thick machine gun clip toward Nick across the truck bed and offering out the box of shotgun shells to Ellis.

They both loaded their guns as Rochelle dug a few cans out of their supplies, Nick very intentionally avoiding checking what exactly it was. Coach dragged his own shotgun out from where it had settled in the truckbed, checking it over indelicately.

"Man, s'too bad we gotta leave this truck.. Y'know, I ever tell you guys 'bout the time Keith's car broke down on a bridge..? It would'uv been fine, 'cept, as he found out, the bridge was one'uh them bridges whut fold up when ships go by. So it starts openin', 'n'Keith -"

"Son, you mind..?" Coach interrupted, closing up his shotgun cartridge and gripping it up close to his chest. When Ellis ducked his chin and nodded obediently with a short "Okay." - looking slightly disappointed - the big man turned away from the truck and pointed down the bridged highway.

"We should get goin'. If I got where we are a'ight, 'bout two miles down is another river. After that we won't have no cities 'til Tybee Island 'n the coast, so we best be movin' quick, 'less y'all wanna get caught in the middle of nowhere wit' no cover at night."

Nick snorted, pulling his cigarette into the corner of his mouth and swiping a hand through his hair to slick it back a little neater. He muttered under his breath, "I'm sure zombies do great sleepovers. Manipedis anyone?"

They'd been able to just speed quickly past the zombies before then, but now they were on foot - there was a distinct tension as they started to walk away from the Chevy, Coach and Rochelle leading with Nick falling behind... and Ellis trying very hard to match his pace and get beside him.

The air was unpleasant with a humid heat, sticky air bubbling up from the somewhat green river beneath the cemented bridge and settling around them with only slight wind giving it some movement. It made Nick sigh, and he complained in a displeased voice.

"Goddamnit, I walked to get into Savannah... now I'm walking to get out... Ellis' fucking mystical hick friend is lounging in some military post and I'm slogging down a highway like a bum.. and you know what? I haven't heard any fucking helicopters around here, have you three?"

Unsurprisingly, he received very little response. He dropped down into a low mutter, swinging his arms slightly to get some air movement and a little relief from the humidity. "Well that's just great. Looking forward to getting abandoned at the coast just like we did at the hotel."

Ellis tipped his head a little, squinting out from under the bill of his cap to eye Nick carefully. The conman ignored him for the longest time, wordlessly walking on after Rochelle and Coach down the quiet decline of the bridge's end.

As the highway flattened out, Ellis tried to slow his steps and lengthen the distance between them and the other two - Nick noticed, and though he obliged and slowed too, he was frustrated by the gesture.

It made the conman snap, irritated, "What?"

The mechanic didn't recoil that time, scratching under his chin slowly and seeming a little hesitant when he answered, "..well, yuh did say 'later'..."

Nick immediately sighed, clenching up his jaw tiredly and pulling his machine gun into his hands to work and squeeze at the grip. He'd been expecting the kid to pry, but that didn't mean he'd prepared a response - it was easy to reject and easier not to, but harder when he wanted to walk the thin line between answers.

"Look, El. You didn't do anything, alright?"

Ellis gnawed on that for a moment, trudging on carefully. Something seemed to relax in his shoulders, although when he prompted Nick with a concerned tone of voice, his gaze shifted with sudden uncertainty between the concrete highway and Nick's face. "Whut's wrong, then?"

The conman glanced upward, eyeing the abandoned suburbs that skirted the grassy expanse on either side of the highway. Trees were scattered between houses and buildings, a thick and heavy bramble growing untamed.

There were zombies ahead, stumbling over the highway and along the curling sideroads that linked the highway up with the adjoining houses. It made them all walk a little quicker, weapons ready and nervously, incredibly aware of their flagging ammo supply.

"Is me being irritable news to you? What, am I supposed to be sweet to you now? Hold your hand?" He spoke under his breath, annoyed and laced with sarcasm. He found himself very distinctly avoiding looking over at Ellis, jaw set.

Ellis quickly bit his tongue at both the tone and the implication, fisting his hands around his shotgun protectively. There was something in the way he mumbled that sounded a little exasperated, a rare emotion from the kid. "That ain't whut I'm sayin', Nick.. but you ain't got a reason to be pissed with me, either.."

"I'm not pissed at you." the gambler hissed as quietly as he could, palming the side of his face carefully.

Unfortunately for him, Ellis was quick on the return, immediately shaking his head and shrugging his shotgun onto his shoulder. "..ain't real happy with me, neither. Just 'cause I tried tuh touch you…? It wasn't like I was tryin' tuh -"

"The fuck do you want from me, El?"

Ellis sighed in sudden disappointment, kicking his heel hard against the concrete in the middle of a step and dropping his chin to shade his eyes under his cap. "I dunno, tuh talk to you nicely fer a minute..? I'm still kinda... I dunno, we didn't even work out what happened, I.. was sorta hopin' we could talk -"

But Nick interrupted him, turning slightly at the waist to twist his gaze directly toward the Georgian's face severely. The words left him choppily, but emphatically, leaving no room for confusion. It was all he could do to keep his voice at a level that wouldn't carry, and he ended up hissing past his teeth.

"We got off. That's what happened. If you want to do it again, fine. If not, fine. Okay?"

Ellis wilted like he'd just been crushed, brows twisting over his eyes and weight shifting. He didn't even respond, just cleared his throat awkwardly and glanced to the side, scratching the back of his head through his cap.

Nick quickly found his frustration leaking out to nothing when the kid failed to speak up, a certain numb discomfort edging in in its place. He wasn't sure he'd meant it as harshly unemotional as it had come off.

When he spoke again, more a mutter this time, he found his words attaining a sticky layer of sympathy. "Look, I've never so much as talked to the guys I've screwed in the past once it was over. You're already strange for me, but don't expect… something. I'm not that kinda guy."

Ellis was quiet again at first, but his gaze moved a little back toward Nick as the conman softened to him, however slightly. He risked the question: "... Whut're you sayin'?"

Releasing an exhale through his nostrils, Nick shrugged a shoulder. "Just making it clear that touchy shit isn't flying with me. Nothing's changed, El. Get over it."

They were both very quiet, neither actually looking at the other. When the scattered zombies ahead took notice of their presence and started to wheel around to scramble toward them, Ellis muttered:

"Well, yuh really suck at tellin' when things change, Nick."

The tone was so vastly different all of a sudden, almost huffy with a sense of confidence. Nick straightened slightly, distracted from running forward to join the other two and help with the zombies. Shooting a glance at Ellis' face, perturbed, Nick shot back, "What?"

Ellis cocked his shotgun and tossed up his chin, reaching out to shove at Nick's bicep and stagger him, almost playfully. He didn't flinch under the instant glare the motion earned him - he grinned a little, actually, though it was small.

"Yer callin' me El all'uv'a sudden."

Nick balked as the younger man sprinted off, one hand clamping his hat to his head as he high-stepped it to catch up to Rochelle and Coach just in time to beat back the first zombies that caught up to them. Apparently keeping in mind their dwindling ammo, the mechanic swung his shotgun like a bat and kicked with those thickly soled workboots.

Nick felt like so much cotton as he stood there, uncomfortably aware of the curl to his own tongue around the almost tactile sense he had of the nickname he hadn't even noticed starting to slip out of him. ... I guess I am...

"Nick, you enjoying yourself!?" Rochelle hollered at him over her shoulder in frustration, snapping him straight out of it. The three were slogging forward, gaining ground between little pauses to take out close zombies.

He scoffed hostilely, darting into a jog quickly and hauling up his gun to join them, forced to skid around a few mostly-incapacitated zombies on the ground that tried to grab him as he vaulted past them.

"Can't get clogged up fightin' this shit," Coach grunted, visibly struggling with his injured back as he shoved a zombie away with a hand to shoot it straight in the face. "Keep movin', y'all..."

He'd barely even finished the sentence before a familiar, wet shriek cut into the air. Without even looking, Rochelle and Nick shouted it at the same instant: "Spitter!"

Shoving through the infected in front of them, the four darted down the road with a slightly unorganized sprint, ignoring the angry screams of the zombies behind them. Nick stole a glance to either side, spotting a flash of green off to the right. A lanky, impossibly stretched figure staggered around the corner of a building, almost boneless limbs flailing eerily with its motion.

Electric green spewed down from what looked like the remnants of a mouth, though it was more like a massive hole that had melted away its jaw and bared the veiny remnants of its throat. A wet squeal preceded the shudder of the thing's frame, a hacking motion, and Ellis shouted a little to Nick's left as splattering green came shooting through the air to splash in front of them.

Forced to skid to a stop and struggle to get around the sprawling puddle of popping, hissing acid, the four quite nearly plowed into it. Flecks of acid threatened to catch them as it spat and sizzled, and judging by a short yelp from Rochelle, succeeded a little. "I'm fine!" she quickly added.

Twisting back once they were around the slowly calming puddle, Nick sniped the zombies behind them with careful gunfire, jogging half-backwards. Rochelle mimicked him, turning at the shoulders to shoot behind herself with her handgun.

"I'm getting incredibly fucking weirded out by this fucking disease perfectly designed to fucking kill us all." Nick shouted over the ruckus, irritated.

"Keep movin'!" Coach repeated, gruffly but not annoyed, and they darted along the roadway as more zombies got attracted from the treeline and the roadside houses by the sound of gunfire.

Nick noticed Ellis whip around with his shotgun to offer a few blasts, one tearing through several zombies in a row as they happened to stagger into a haphazard line just in time. Not missing the move, the conman muttered a short, "Nice shot, Overalls."

Ellis tipped his chin to nod with his hat, flashing a too-confident, stupid grin before twisting back to continue running along the concrete. Nick resigned to just shutting his mouth entirely as they sprinted to escape what had been a tidy suburb and had become a nest of infected.

Damnit.

Chapter Text

The light drizzle that had started to drool from the sky quickly became a secondary concern compared to the sight that faced them.

The bridge ahead, spanning across a quick-moving river yards thick, was blown to chunks and bits of concrete. Wide slabs protruded up from the greyed water, frothing as it swirled around them, and there were burn marks on the ground on either, now separated, side.

It was still smoking gently, just wisps that quickly dissipated in the mist of the river. Rochelle crouched next to the broken mouth of the bridge, in shocked silence, touching fingertips onto the concrete and reading over the scrawls that marred its surface.

What happened THIS IS THE ONLY BRIDGE

Get swimming, bitch.

Did CEDA do this?? military??

WE CAN'T TRUST THEM! joshua, cindy and i are safe! head for brunswick!

"At least we're not alone." she murmured with flagging confidence, staring at the words as Coach came up behind her. He gently pulled the backpack off of her shoulders, opening it quietly and prying the laminated map out from within. He scanned the surface, shaking it slowly to stir droplets of rain off it.

"We gonna have to find another way..." he gruffed quietly, almost forced.

Nick just dug his fingers deep into his hair and breathed out hard, feeling the rain splatter onto his shoulders slowly, nerves fraying. He felt Ellis step up near him and hover there, but didn't touch him.

I can't fucking believe it. I absolutely cannot goddamn believe it. They blew the fucking bridge. First the hotel, now this. I fucking knew it.

"...Man..." Ellis muttered, lowly. "I ain't never seen somethin' blown up that bad... well, 'cept fer when Keith blew up an engine in the shop.. he didn't notice the fuel leakin', 'n' it blew up in his face. Now, he don't -"

"Overalls, do you realize we might be fucked here? Seriously goddamn screwed?!" He more groaned it than anything else, exasperated and tired. All it did was make Ellis hesitate and glance at him, concerned.

The Georgian tipped his chin down, wiping a droplet of rain from the tip of his hat. "Coach'll find us a way 'round it... s'just a big river. Could always swim."

He said it so seriously, Nick laughed outright before he could check himself, quickly dropping it to a small groan as he slid his arms down to his sides. He lowered his voice, eyeing the mechanic sideways. "..don't even suggest that, dipshit. Bad enough it's raining..."

Quickly seeing Ellis wasn't taking him seriously in the slightest, those blue eyes flickering with humor and lips making for a stupid grin, Nick reached up and shoved his cap down over his face with a grunt. "Go check on Rochelle.. I'll talk to Coach."

The other man struggled not to laugh, fixing his cap quickly with both hands. He nodded in confirmation, turning around to trot across the few feet of road and drop down to crouch next to Rochelle, slipping an arm around her back. Nick looked after him for a moment, shaking himself a little to scatter stray droplets of rain, and sighed.

He's not scared at all, is he? Reluctantly rubbing his palm over his face and blinking through water in his eyes, the conman shook the thought from his head and turned his gaze toward Coach. He approached the big man, curling his fingers on his jacket.

"What's the game plan, Coach?"

Coach quickly sighed and turned the map toward him, drifting a large finger over the swathe of blue that marked the river's path across Savannah's outskirts.

"There ain't no way over but this damn bridge... We go down, we get to the coast a'ight -" He gestured down to the empty plains of ground that followed the river's edge downward. "- through miles of flat land, anyway, and to the section that ain't developed.. if we even make it wit'out starvin'."

Biting back frustration, Nick nodded, inspecting the wide river that separated them from the other side and flicking his gaze between the real thing and the map's interpretation. "What about up, then? Looks like we can loop up around to the end of it and meet back up with the highway."

Coach immediately glanced up at him, rather dubiously inspecting him before looking back down to the wet sprawl, filled with tiny, off-shooting streams, that made up the area north of them. "You really wit' the idea of us goin' through swamps?"

"Do you see another option?" Nick snapped defensively, swiping fingers through his hair to keep water out of his face. "Of course I don't like it, I like it as much as I do being stuck with you three at all, or as much as walking our way toward the massive fuck-up that is CEDA, but what else can we do? Turn back?"

"It's a thought." Rochelle suddenly pointed out from her place by the bridge, leaning her head against Ellis'. "They had more centers elsewhere, maybe in Florida.. we could set up a better ride, scavenge gas and really set up for a trip.. catch up with them somewhere else. These people are going to Brunswick…"

Nick crossed his arms, snorting, and stepped toward the bridge to jab a finger in the air toward it. "Look, I don't want to be the one to say this, but that was blown up. As in, cutting one area off from the rest. Half of me really wants to turn the fuck around and leave, but if they're marking lines in the sand I would reeeally like us to be on the other side of that line, late or not."

Ellis scratched his head under his cap, fingers digging into mostly dry curls. His expression scrunched in confusion, suddenly seeming to inspect the bridge with new eyes. "Why would they wanna do somethin' like that? There was still people here."

He pointed to the graffiti done in crude knifemarks and marker on the concrete, decorating the surface of what remained of the bridge.

It was Coach who spoke up, sighing wearily. The football coach didn't look pleased with his words, but he said them anyway, blunt and honest. "Retreatin', son... they can't control Savannah so they're pullin' out 'n cuttin' off."

Rochelle frowned, pinching down the bridge of her nose slowly, bangles clattering at her wrists. "I can't believe that.. what about all these people left behind? What about us?"

Nick answered that, crossing his arms tightly over his chest and shrugging. "It's what they do, Ro'. They fuck up and then cut their losses. Right now, we're their losses, and if we don't get goddamn out of here pretty soon, bridges might not be the only thing blowing up."

There was silence for just a few moments, the conman's cynicism hanging heavy in the wet air.

Coach broke it with a small grunt. "Nick's right here. Much as it's a risk, we gotta get 'round this river some way." He gestured downriver with one hand. "'Less we find somethin' to cross wit', it'll be a real big damn detour.."

Rochelle groaned a little and settled her head in her hands, massaging her temples softly. "We didn't plan for this at all.. we don't have the food for this, and definitely not the weapons.. should we backtrack..?"

But Coach shook his head after momentary deliberation, folding the map up along the creases. "There'll be more houses near the river if we keep goin'. People live up there, even if there ain't no real towns. Lotta old land, houses from some generations ago."

"Yuh think there's anyone still around?" Ellis questioned, still staring down at the graffiti with a scrunch to his expression. He looked up as Rochelle gently grasped his bicep, and the two slowly stood up.

"Hope not." Nick grunted simply, turning his chin up to eye the grey sky as the drizzle started to calm slightly, just lightly splatting against his skin. "I think I'm done with meeting people."

Coach zipped up the backpack carefully after replacing the map inside, holding it out toward Ellis with a grunt. Although Coach had generally taken control of it, its weight on his back was painful with the wounds from his Hunter engagement. "Were you ever not, boy?" he questioned with light humor.

Nick smirked, adjusting the strap of his machine gun carefully. "We can pretend."

With Ellis taking on the backpack, they set off perpendicular to the road, tromping along the coast of the river. The dirt was a sandy grey and moist from the rain, and Nick found himself cringing a little as it squished under his shoes, reluctantly continuing on despite it.

Hardly surprising, Ellis slipped back to walk next to him within a few moments, although this time Rochelle took notice. She turned her head slightly, lifting a brow at Nick. It was an innocuous look, and he mostly got the sense she was silently urging him to be nice.

He shot her an annoyed look until she turned away, grumbling under his breath and scratching at the nape of his neck.

"'Ey Nick," Ellis prompted, tucking his gun under his armpit to reach into his pocket. Nick glanced at him, arching a brow expectantly. He did relax a little when the kid wasn't whispering this time, clearly unafraid of the rest of the team hearing them. Nick wasn't sure he could stand another 'conversation.' "Yuh left this..."

The mechanic pulled Nick's wallet free from the pocket of his jumpsuit, offering it out. The sight startled Nick, and he quickly snatched it out of Ellis' hands, realizing he'd never taken it back after throwing it to Ellis earlier in the day. "Jesus, Overalls. You could've given this back a while ago." he muttered, protectively flicking the thing open to check over its contents.

"S'just a wallet, Nick... it ain't like we need money now anyhow - 'n you forgot too. I kept it safe'n I didn't look at nothin'." Despite the gambler's reaction, Ellis was smiling, adjusting his cap with one hand and dropping his chin a little.

Nick's fingers slowed on the wallet's folds for a moment, flecked green eyes raising and slanting to glance at Ellis a moment, the edges of his mouth softening. An urge struck him, much despite himself, and with a resigned sigh he stuck the wallet under the Ellis' nose.

"Here. Happy? Christ, you're like a five year old."

Straightening excitedly, Ellis quickly plucked it out of Nick's fingers and opened it with a look of fascination. Nick noticed the incredibly delicate way he cradled the thing, looking away with a small smirk.

Prying the leather apart and hunching over it to protect it from the rain with his head, Ellis practically swayed with the focus he had on the wallet. The ID tucked into the front pocket was this almost alien sight, too normal.

The angry expression on Nick's face in the square photo in the corner, seething as he composed it just slightly for the picture, was probably the only normal thing there. The bland grey shirt he was wearing stretched tightly over his shoulders, and Ellis realized too late he'd started staring, blinking his attention quickly elsewhere.

The name 'Nicolas D. Tobias' emblazoned the middle of the ID as well as the credit card tucked into the opposite fold, and Ellis stared at it for a long moment, curious. An apartment address was listed below and a birthday that Ellis realized - after a moment of obliviousness - was just a day after Christmas.

"Whoa, you were almost a Christmas baby.." Ellis pointed out, showing it to Nick like he didn't know. The conman smirked slightly despite himself, dipping his hands into his pockets to shield them from the drizzling.

"Only good part about that is it's an excuse not to celebrate your birthday."

Ellis flicked a curious glance at him, then back down to the wallet, rubbing a fingertip slowly against the raised text of Nick's ID. "I love birthdays. Presents 'n shit, 'n' I got tuh hang out with Keith tuh celebrate… we'd drink beer 'n' set off some fireworks. Always got in trouble."

Nick snorted a little, crossing his arms loosely and inspecting the river that flowed alongside them. Everything was so eerily quiet, not a bird in the sky. His gaze was inexorably drawn back toward the exploded bridge.

The kid's over-excitable interest was… odd, Nick stuck between humor and a dissociative kind of numbness. It was weird, talking about life before. All Nick found himself thinking was how terrible an idea fireworks were. They'd attract zombies like flies.

"Like that's a shock, El. Doesn't sound like you are ever not hanging out with him.. I've seen girls less attached to their best friends."

The kid grinned a bit at that, though when Nick noticed the particular size of that one he realized he'd slipped again - El. It just rolled so smoothly, he didn't even notice before he'd already said it. He needed to stop. "I've known him ferever, I can't help it.. whut, you ain't never had someone you liked that much?"

"The hell do you think?" Nick asked dryly, tipping his gaze to slant it sarcastically at the other man. Ellis laughed, dropping his chin and turning the wallet between his fingers slowly, much like he wrung out his hat.

"Guess you ain't worryin' about nobody, then?"

The gambler eyed him, judgingly, noticing the slight downturn of his voice. He shrugged, and comfort - molten with sarcasm and condescension - squeezed into his words. "Don't tell me you're wasting time thinking about your stupid friend? He's probably chugging beer and blowing something up in a bunker somewhere."

Ellis laughed again, starting to offer the wallet back slowly. "Yeah, yer right... oh man, I can't wait fer you guys tuh meet him.. he'll be so damn jealous we fought zombies 'n' he - didn't..." The last word was distracted, and what had been a relinquishing motion stopped.

The wallet had a side pocket, likely for change - of which Nick had none -, and inside it was a visible circle, pressing up against the leather till it left a soft outline. Curiously reaching a fingertip into the pocket, Ellis found himself touching the smooth shape of a ring. He'd just started to lever it out with his finger when Nick pulled the wallet out of his hand, quick but gentle.

Ah, damnit.. I forgot that was in there..

"Whut, Nick..?" Ellis questioned, the soft way Nick had stolen it from him leaving the mechanic unconcerned but curious, lowering his hands. Blue eyes blinked, from Nick's face to the wallet as he tucked it back into his inner jacket pocket. "That special or somethin'?"

"Sort of.." Nick muttered evasively, taking a moment to wipe his wrist over his forehead for a beat before glancing at Ellis. "It's a long story… maybe later, kiddo."

Ellis' brows promptly scrunched up over his eyes, sighing and adjusting his cap to shade them slightly. If Nick wasn't mistaken, he almost looked irked. "We got a long walk... ain't got nothin' better tuh talk about."

Nick's jaw set a little, voice gaining an edge of warning and quieting as he repeated himself, not wanting in the slightest to get into another argument when Rochelle and Coach were so likely to hear. "I said, later."

Ellis shook his head, glancing up under the bill of his cap and frowning very explicitly at Nick - definitely frustrated, though it was hurt that fueled his retort, and Nick realized they hadn't really moved on from anything. "'Later' so you can get mad at me when I bring it up again?"

Before Nick could formulate a response, feeling his spine prickling with hostility, Ellis started to turn away and catch up to Rochelle and Coach. Before he escaped arm's length, Nick reached out and grabbed ahold of his elbow. The motion was unchecked, and it left him feeling stupid and wanting to let go.

"Kid, c'mon, stop..." he hissed harshly, "I'm -"

Rochelle chose that moment to turn her head and glance back, and Nick's hand released Ellis' elbow and dropped to his side in a smooth motion, gaze swerving to the side as stoically as he could. Ellis must've smiled at her, because she simply looked back forward with a small return of the expression.

Ellis glanced back at Nick after that, looking over his shoulder with a small frown. The kid wasn't going to let him off easy, and his voice was firm when he prompted quietly, "You're whut?"

Sighing through his nostrils, Nick ground his teeth gently together, flexing his fingers. It took every ounce of self-control not to roll his eyes as he reluctantly finished, "Sorry, I guess." He straightened his arms to pull at his jacket slowly. "... I really meant later, alright? Christ. Fucking aggravating."

Ellis looked at him a moment, hesitating.. and then broke into a small smile and slowed down to slip back next to him. Nick couldn't quite explain it, but he felt a vague sense of relief, even as he jerked his chin away to distinctly not look at Ellis. That was as close as he was coming to a meaningful apology.

"Thank yuh, Nick. I mean it." he murmured sideways, nudging the conman with his elbow gently. The smile lingered, and Nick didn't miss the light red that flushed over the bridge of his nose.

Sighing slightly, Nick curled his fingers in his pockets. He felt at the pack of cigarettes in his grasp - two left. Two too few. "Yeah, well, I don't want to deal with your fuckin' whining all day." he muttered quietly, shaking his head.

Ellis smiled blithely, trotting on at his elbow as they walked through the drizzling rain. He stayed rather close, even when it turned out there were zombies by the river's shore and they were forced to adopt a run along the wet grass, the rain picking up as they went.

Nick found himself not minding - even when Ellis tried to chatter amidst all the rain and fighting. Something made Nick think Rochelle and Coach didn't mind, either. It soothed something in the air, something that had been stirred up by the ruined bridge and settled uneasily on their minds.

Maybe fear.

Chapter Text

The final straw that made it clear they needed to stop was when Coach suddenly stumbled to a knee in the muddy grass. He'd been so stoically plowing on, hardly speaking, that the abrupt collapse made everyone halt in shock.

Ellis was first to hurry forward, bending down and dropping to a crouch to grab onto his arm. He spoke loudly over the rain, concerned. "'Ey, Coach, man.. you alright?"

The big man tried to pull out of his grip, but to no avail, not quite having the momentum to win out against the younger man's surprisingly firm grip. "I'm jus' fine, son, jus'-" But he choked up a little, a shudder wracking his rain-drenched back.

Rochelle skidded up, biting her lower lip and shielding her eyes from the rain with a hand. "You're bleeding, Coach..." she pointed out, eyes latched worriedly to rivulets of pink that dripped from his shirt with the rain.

"Gotta say, runnin' on empty here, baby girl... damn rain." the big man admitted wearily, only slowly pushing himself up from the ground with Ellis' support. His whole body shook, bad knee crumpling slightly and shoulders drooped.

Nick hung back, hands deep in the pockets of his suit jacket to try to keep it wrapped close to him and body shivering with the wet cold sinking into his bones. He eyed the ex-football player at a distance, noticing how weak he seemed just then.

Green eyes flicked up, blinking past rain, and squinted to pick out shapes in the woods they'd only just been skirting up till then, following the river's edge. They weren't quite in the marshes yet, but the line was growing blurred as the ground grew waterlogged under their feet. He wasn't sure how much of that was oncoming swamp, and how much of it was flooding from the rain.

Sheets of it tumbled in haphazard lines from the canopy above, gathering in pools and dips as it streaked down tree trunks. A faint mist was gathering in the air, and with the sky darkening for evening and all surfaces glittering and sparkling, it was growing eerie to look at.

What Nick did notice was the harsh outline of a structure, standing thickly against the rain and trees. It made him squint for a moment, then he simply sighed and drew his shoulders inward. "I think there's a building up ahead we can break into." he suggested, gesturing with his chin. "Coach was right about that, at least."

Ellis kept himself next to Coach, supporting him loyally even as the eldest seemed to dislike leaning on him. They turned slightly, agreeing with small nods and gently starting into a hobbled walk.

Rochelle frowned at them, then pulled her handgun from her holster in a swift tug and lifted it up, shaking her head. "Nick and I'll go check it out. You two take it slow while we do that, okay?"

Coach grunted a reluctant affirmation, then warned, "Be careful, baby girl.." Ellis mimicked him in a smaller voice, but his eyes were on Nick, stony blues just barely visible under the edge of his cap. The conman met his gaze for just a beat, his rain-drenched poker face giving nothing away.

They parted quickly, Nick and Rochelle at a jog along the grass. The gambler complained bitterly as Rochelle dodged ahead and started to shove through the foliage with much less hesitancy than he did. "Leave it to me to wear a goddamn suit when this shit happens..."

He shook his frame slightly, scowling at the way the wet fabric stuck to his skin and hearing Rochelle snort softly. "I'm in jeans, honey... I'll smell like wet dog and be damp for days."

The conman wrinkled the bridge of his nose at the comment and muttered sarcastically, pulling his sub-machine gun from his shoulder and holding it loose with one hand. "There goes fantasizing about getting into your pants."

She glanced back at him over her shoulder, brows lifted like she might hit him, but her voice twanged with a kind of humor. "Watch it, suit, 'cause I can really easily trip you right now..."

Nick's expression moved to a threatening 'don't you dare,' at about the same instant his foot landed in a deep puddle hidden in the crawling fog with a splash up his shin. He immediately swore, "Tits!" and reached out his arms to regain his balance, prying his foot from the water with a sour expression.

Rochelle laughed at him, shaking her head and refocusing forward as they had to edge around a thick patch of bramble. The 'building,' as they came closer to it and the mist dissipated just enough to see, turned out to be two mobile homes parked tightly one behind the other, windows blacked out and nailed over.

"Oh hurray, redneck nests.. just what I always wanted." Nick muttered nastily as he pinched water off his face, making Rochelle laugh again, gentler that time.

"Be nice, Nick." she chided him, jogging along the grass toward them with her handgun still out at her side. There was fog clinging tightly to the ground at their feet, and both of them were blind - distracted by looking around themselves - to the sprawled zombie corpses they repeatedly just missed stepping on.

"I'm just saying. Why the fuck couldn't this have happened in, I dunno, civilization? Instead I'm stuck in goddamn Georgia." Nick complained, just as bitterly, as he lowered his machine gun slightly and stepped around Rochelle. He scaled the small set of rickety plastic stairs in front of the closer mobile home's door, dress shoes squishing a little unpleasantly with water.

She stopped just beside the stairs, crossing her arms slightly and smiling a little, her gaze drifting back to worriedly pick out Coach and Ellis' hunched forms as they slowly made their way to follow. "Bitching doesn't help, Nick."

Nick snorted dismissively, reaching to grasp the trailer door's handle.

It slammed open before his fingertips touched it, clipping him in the face and sending him sprawling down to the ground with a splash and shout of pain, hands immediately clamping over his nose to staunch the fast bleed that started. He barely had time to wonder what happened.

Rochelle shouted in alarm, jumping back frantically and throwing up her hands, nearly losing her handgun. "Ni- oh God, don't shoot!"

Squinting past the pain and the stars in his vision, Nick quickly looked up toward the open trailer door, eyes going narrowed over his knuckles as he found his gaze drawn to the barrel of a shotgun currently pointed at him. His heart beat a calm pace in his ears, gaze hardening to a dull threat.

A beat of silence ticked by. His eyes lifted up, and locked with the steely silvers of a man who must've been in his sixties or seventies, gripping that gun with an utterly unshakable confidence. His frame was wiry under a loose lumberjack's plaid jacket and thick jeans. They traded hard glares there, rain dribbling down onto Nick's prone frame and tracing along his face, mixing with the blood leaking between his knuckles.

"Y'all don't try nuthin', now." the older man warned, suspiciously glancing at Rochelle and then darting his gaze up toward the shape of Coach and Ellis in the fog, shotgun wavering from its focus on Nick.

The conman didn't quite trust the opening enough to try and get up, though. There was no way he could get on his feet and take the man's gun before he got a hole punched in his gut for his trouble.

Ellis and Coach had halted, obviously realizing the situation even from a distance, and Nick found himself silently willing them to stay where they were.

"We're all friends here." Rochelle quickly managed, voice adopting a very cautious kind of reassurance even as her eyes were anxiously wide. "And we're all healthy... just.. don't shoot.."

The man gave a judging stare between them through the pattering rain, cocking his shotgun with a loud rattle of metal. "'Eard that afore. But I don't plan on shootin' you. 'Less you make me." he spat indelicately, gesturing with a nobbled chin toward the ground behind them.

Turning his head just slightly, Nick froze up a bit to find his gaze piercing the ground-level fog, finally seeing the still corpses plastered here and there against the wet grass. The only reassurance he felt came with the obvious signs of illness that marked them as infected and not innocent victims.

"Mind if I get up then?" the conman wheedled as coolly as he could manage, voice coaxing away from his anger. He was almost sure he'd avoided landing in outright mud, but the grass was soaking up into his clothing and making him all the more drenched.

A gesture wasted, it turned out, as the old man jabbed the shotgun toward him in the air and snapped, "Shut ch'yer mouth, ya damn Yankee slick."

Nick's frustration only mounted as Ellis' voice suddenly came from behind him. He must've left Coach, because his workboots could be heard in their loud - and wet - tromp as he jogged toward them. The conman growled, pulling his hand away from his bleeding nose for just a moment as the younger man blurted; "Hey, hey, whut the hell's goin' on?"

The old man hoisted his shotgun up to ward Ellis off, narrowing steeled eyes threateningly. "I don't abide no trepassin'. Y'all're damn stupid, sneakin' on a man's prop-er-ty like that. Could'a blown yer damn heads off, like all them walkin' dead."

Ellis slowed but didn't stop, unconcerned with the gun pointed at him and still stepping toward the prone conman with a glance toward Rochelle. If he was afraid, he didn't show it. "You should really work on yer Southern hospitality, man... we're all in the same boat here. Alright?"

It seemed he'd called the old man's bluff, as the stranger ticked his shotgun to follow the mechanic, but didn't shoot.

Dropping down slowly to a crouch next to Nick, Ellis offered a hand blindly, eyes on the other Georgian. The steely-eyed redneck merely watched them as Nick begrudgingly took the help, standing slowly and letting Ellis' hand remain on his elbow. The conman wiped his bloody upper lip clean with his bare wrist and sloughed the blood off with a shake in the rain.

"Hmphf." was uttered after a moment, and with some reluctance, the old man lowered his shotgun. He kept it in his hands and didn't budge from the mobile home door, though. "Why're y'all 'round here? Ain't naught for ya."

Relaxing with the immediate threat now faded, Rochelle broke off to quickly step over to Coach, wearily leaned against a tree at the edge of the muddy clearing. She protectively wrapped arms around one of his, both turning their gazes back to the scene in front of the mobile home.

"Tryin' tuh get to the other side of the river, man.. why ain't you?" Ellis questioned hesitantly, looking straight forward even as his fingers clenched a little on the soaked fabric of Nick's sleeve. The conman ignored him, panting through his mouth as blood leaked down the back of his throat and trickled down his lip, and focused on glaring up at the old man, annoyed.

The plaid-wearing man scoffed at that, rapping a hand on the side of his mobile home. He retorted very tersely, visibly eager to get them to leave. "Don't need no fancy 'C-E-D-A' pretendin' they gots a plan. Makin' it jus' fine on my own. Y'all'll be movin' on, then. There's some docks down yonder. Few miles, maybe more, less. Should be a boat - iffin I recall."

Nick snapped then, spitting sideways on the grass and curling his lips unpleasantly. "Look, you redneck asshole, we're-"

"I ain't talkin' t'you, Yank!" he warned hostilely. The subsequent lift of his shotgun was much more effective in shutting Nick up than his words were, and with a heavy grit to his teeth, the conman silently resigned to shooting icy daggers at him with his glare.

Ellis gently tried to step in front of him, fingers releasing his sleeve as he moved, and pulled his cap off to reveal the soaked, curly mess of his hair. He held it at his chest, wringing it slowly. His voice hit a sweet pleading note that could've charmed the sap out of a tree.

"Sir, we got a hurt man, 'n' we can't keep goin' in this rain. Yuh got two trailers. You think we could rest awhile here? We won't be no trouble, 'n' it'd be mighty appreciated."

The old man eyed him, slightly nobbled jaw jutting forward as his expression went stony in a begrudging look. Still heavily suspicious, he kept his gun brandished, but grunted indelicately, "Trailer's empty. Y'all keep quiet 'n' scoot off by mornin', fine. Any funny tricks, 'n' I'll shoot. And don't be expectin' no help from me if them dead'uns show up."

Ellis opened his mouth to thank him, hands gripping onto his cap - and got the trailer door slammed in his face, plastic rattling all over the vehicle. He blinked in slight confusion, recoiling back at the abrupt noise, then turned slowly to scan Nick's face and the blood still trickling from his nose.

"Man, you okay, Nick? That door sure hit hard..." His voice was concerned, replacing his cap on his head and scuffing his own nose with his wrist slowly.

Nick grunted noncommittally, lifting his hands to gently touch onto his nose, flinching as it hurt. It wasn't broken, but it sure wasn't feeling great, either. "Yeah... I'm fine. At least that psycho got talked down. Guess it takes a hick to talk to a hick."

Ellis smiled subtly, like Nick had said 'good job' instead. He tightened his wet cap on his scalp, then turned to jog over toward Rochelle and Coach, gently gesturing over his shoulder.

"C'mon, Coach, let's get you inside 'n' layin' down on someth- OW!"

Nick quickly turned on instinct, hand going for his gun, until he realized with a growing smirk that Rochelle had socked Ellis on the side of the head with a flat hand. He held his ear with a look of shock, less hurt than surprised. Even Coach looked surprised, deepset eyes a little wide, however tired he was.

"Don't just run into situations like that, Ellis! He could've shot you!" she chided, nostrils flared and hip cocked with her frustration, quickly losing steam as Ellis hunkered forward a little and dropped his chin.

"..aww, Ro', 'm sorry... s'just Nick was down 'n' I didn't know whut was goin' on.." he whimpered, slowly righting his cap on his head with a frown.

She instantly sighed, pulling away from Coach and bending in to gently push his cap up and kiss his soaked forehead. Ellis squinted up a little hesitantly, starting to smile. "You did good. Just be more careful." Rochelle reassured him with a soft shake of her head, replacing his cap and pulling away.

"Let's jus' keep quiet so that fool don't have no reason to get mad, a'ight?" Coach grunted quietly, hobbling forward through the drizzling rain toward the second trailer. Rochelle and Ellis quickly ducked to help him along, and as they passed, Nick quietly stepped into line behind them.

"I will shoot him if he pulls something." the gambler muttered hostilely as he moodily touched his nose, suspiciously eyeing the silent, blacked-out trailer as they walked around it. "I don't trust him for shit."

Rochelle snorted a little, gently reaching up to open the trailer door. Both she and Ellis backed away a little, letting Coach trudge up the short set of stairs and achingly lean into the mobile home, looking around for a moment before clambering inside. "Don't cause trouble, honey.. at least Ellis got him to let us stay. Let's just keep our distance."

Nick held back, crinkling his nose heavily at the large camper. The thing was a shade of crisp white, but rusted at the edges and it creaked as Coach slowly moved inside. It was all the gambler could do not to outright gag. If the apocalypse wasn't a nightmare of mine, this sure is.

Squinting slightly, he did notice an awning extending out from the back. The rain pattered along its surface, draining out of the edges, and from what he could tell it looked rather dry underneath. The arm of a chair poked into view and, weighing being outside against crawling into some redneck's mobile home, Nick trudged over.

He ducked through the sheet of water that came down particularly thickly from the edge of the awning, pleased to find himself dry a moment later. He shook himself carefully, wringing his palms through his hair to slough off some of the water soaking the strands, and set to peeling off his jacket.

A small table and three foldable chairs, all pasty tan wood and surprisingly clean, were nestled up against the back end of the trailer like a porch. He laid the jacket over the back of one of the chairs, spreading it neatly to let it drip, and reached into the inner pocket to pull out his wallet.

With considerable relief, he found the lining of the pocket had saved it from the worst of the damage, though the bills he'd stowed inside his wallet were clearly damp. Resigning to not even thinking about it, he moodily set it and his machine gun down on the table and achingly seated himself on a different chair. It creaked a little under him.

Nick leaned forward, setting his elbows on his knees and closing his eyes as he cradled his nose in his fingertips. He was cold and drenched, but being out of the direct rain made him feel inexpressibly better, and for the moment he didn't care.

"Ugh... fuck that hurts..." he griped quietly, feeling along the bridge of his nose and only slightly reassured with the fact it was straight and not popping, though it hurt all the same. Even the slight pressure he put on was enough to start it bleeding again, and he quickly rubbed over his upper lip with a knuckle, grimacing.

He could hear the camper groaning behind him with the movement inside, and he quieted to listen, though any chance of hearing words was out the window with the pattering of rain above his head.

They could only hope the old man hadn't been lying about the docks ahead - Coach would trudge himself ragged it seemed, injuries or not, but considering they'd barely even hit the marshes yet, they didn't have the time nor the energy to last if the weather was going to be so harshly against them.

Sighing, Nick leaned further into his hands, forcing his eyes open and staring out into the rain for the longest time. His gaze unfocused, and his mind reluctantly wandered toward the wallet sitting, lonesome, on the table beside him.

It took effort to force it back away.

...I'll go mad before we get out of here. I don't even like goddamn parks. This? .. is going to be hell.

Everything turned a little colder with his own observation, and it was with a sour disinterest that he listened to the shuddering creak of the trailer door opening again. His gaze only barely lifted at the sound of footsteps, although he wondered why he felt so surprised to see Ellis come skidding around the corner of the trailer, quickly dodging under the awning to get out of the rain.

Nick's eyes latched onto the quirky smile offered to him, breathless and hesitant. There was a very effortless shine to Ellis' expressions, every single one - the kid just glowed, and it wasn't just the wet gleam that the rain left his skin with.

Ellis had a beer bottle in either hand, and he offered one out to Nick carefully before the conman could say a word. "Ro' is lookin' at Coach's back.. 'n lookit whut we found inside.. could probably use it, eh, Nick?"

Flickering his gaze from Ellis' face to the bottle, Nick slowly straightened an arm to pull the offered beer from the hick's fingers. As he turned it to eye the label, with some suspicion, he offered simply, "Thanks, Ace. … Too bad the guy doesn't have moonshine, though. Not like I'm gonna need my liver when I'm dead."

Hooking the toe of his wet dress shoe behind the leg of the wooden chair beside his, Nick kicked it just an inch to turn the seat to face Ellis. His expression was nigh unreadable, eyes not even lifting, but the motion left no room for argument.

Ellis sat down in it even as a slow pink fluttered over the bridge of his nose, sprawling his knees into a half-cross. He kept his gaze just barely slanted under the bill of his cap, and slowly worked his calloused fingertips against the lukewarm glass of his bottle.

Nick cracked his open, taking a long sip and letting his gaze settle on Ellis. Even though Ellis was looking at the ground, he must've felt the weight of Nick's eyes, because his head bobbed subtly like someone stirring from a doze.

"... y'know, this one time, Keith'n I were out campin' by a river 'n it started rainin' like this - 'n li'l did we know that rivers swell up when it rains. Our tent just up'n floated away.. with us in it, too. Keith tried tuh use a flashlight as a paddle, but -"

In his silence, listening to the kid's voice ramble with a small smirk alighted on his lips, the gambler couldn't entirely pick out why... but he didn't completely hate it.

Chapter Text

"A hacksaw? Really?"

Nick lifted his brows in disbelief, squeezing his fingers slightly down the length of his current beer bottle. It was his third and the last of the sixpack - Ellis had been far too eager to get the whole carton when Nick had complained at finishing his first - and he was feeling the buzz. Ellis had barely shut up enough to drink, but kept up, and their table was lined with the bottles.

"Yup. He should'uh just waited 'n' bought a new can-opener, but man.. he wanted them peaches.. 'Bout cut his fingers off gettin' the damn tin open."

Nick snorted, lips curled in a grin as he took a sip of beer. The sour taste had faded well before then, and the warm buzz was more than worth it. He had the itching feeling he should blame it for being entertained by Ellis' rambling - after all, that was better than admitting he was enjoying it for any other reason...

…like how much the kid was smiling as he talked…

Or, that the stories were actually fairly funny when he paid attention.

"How has he not killed himself yet?"

Ellis chuckled, glancing up at him and resting his forearms against his thighs in a lazy gesture. "Came pretty close a few times... He's real lucky. Or not, dependin' on how yuh look at it, I guess."

Nick encircled his fingers around his beer bottle, closing his eyes slowly. His drenched state had settled to a clingy, warm bubble of heat. His clothes stuck to his skin, but not unpleasantly so - and he'd noticed Ellis' were doing the same, and that was far from unpleasant.

The rain had almost stopped, just dripping down quietly now, but the sun was already falling and it left everything in a humid, moist limbo. There hadn't been so much as a zombie in sight, and the smell from the dead ones that permeated the air was so muted by rain they barely noticed it.

"You talk about him a hell of a lot, Overalls..." he commented with a smirking tone, reopening his eyes and flashing his gaze up toward Ellis.

The mechanic grinned, shrugging slowly and adjusting his cap with his wrist in an idle scratching gesture. He seemed a little embarrassed, and shook his head. "Sorry.. don't mean tuh be annoyin' 'bout it, he's just muh best bud..."

Nick shrugged carefully, flicking his thumb against the edge of his beer bottle and lowering his chin.

"Oh, you're annoying as hell, but I doubt you could help it if you tried."

Ellis grinned a little more, squirming his back away from the chair and pulling at his shirt indelicately to try and loosen the tight, wet clutch it had on his skin. The motion made Nick's gaze rivet painfully on the other man's torso as the yellow fabric shifted, fascinated. "Well, that'n he's got funny stories. Guess I'm kinda borin' otherwise."

Had Nick not had a perfect mental image - taste, even, - of what Ellis' leanly worked body was like under his clothes, it might not have been quite so enthralling... and had alcohol not wormed its way into the equation. As it was, he watched the Georgian's shirt slide wetly over his slumped midsection, drawing ragged attention to every slope and divot.

"Uh.. Nick?"

Blinking green eyes up in a short motion, Nick realized Ellis had watched him staring. Although his instinctive reaction to being caught was to shake it off and maybe even cover his tracks with sarcasm, drunk him merely smirked and cocked his head to one side coolly. "Yeah?"

Quickly dropping his chin to avoid the gambler's gaze, Ellis struggled for a response that didn't potentially embarrass him. He apparently wasn't having much luck, judging by the flush creeping across his scarred nose, but Nick waited patiently without moving.

"...Wh.. uhh.. nothin'..."

Nick chuckled under his breath, lowering his chin and closing his eyes as the mechanic finally just gave up, sinking a few inches in his seat. Nick wanted to taunt him further, but instead crossed his legs, fingers adjusting the tight hold his damp slacks had on his knees.

Ellis worked his tongue between his teeth, warily, slowly tipping the beer bottle between his fingers back and forth. His face was an open book for his thoughts (if not their content), and Nick could practically trace the wheels turning behind his eyes. He seemed unsure, though Nick wasn't sure where that whirring thought was aimed until the other man reached out a hand to scoop up his lonesome wallet.

Nick merely watched, raising a hand to rub fingertips along his hairline tiredly, as Ellis drew out the dull, scraped golden ring from the inside pocket. He slowly rotated it in his fingers, blue eyes alive with curiousity as he inspected the soft gold surface.

The gambler's expression was drawn in this look of disdain, lips thinned tight to each other. He leaned in to set his bottle on the table, losing interest in finishing the last few swallows, and turned his gaze away to squint toward the foggy treeline.

He'd known it was coming. Expected it. Ellis wasn't one for patience, as he'd rapidly discovered.

It wasn't that he wanted Ellis to hear the story behind his ring, but… they were going to die, Nick was sure. Maybe tomorrow, or maybe the next day. Nick didn't like talking about himself, let alone his past. But did it really matter, if their lives were on a timer? Maybe getting it off his chest wouldn't be the worst thing he could do.

Guess impending death and dismemberment changes things. What do I have to lose, anyway?

"This's a weddin' ring?" Ellis questioned slowly, almost breathlessly, gaze unmoving from the circle grazed in careful motions by his fingertips. His brows were gently coaxing together, scrunching up as he inspected the ring.

Nick sighed indelicately, shifting in his seat to brace his ankle over his knee in a sprawled motion, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. "Yeah." He could hear the annoyance in his own voice, deepened by his buzz.

He felt Ellis' gaze jump up toward his face, uncertainly trying to mask the motion under the bill of his cap, and it took Nick a moment to realize why.

Almost laughing, brows going up slightly and a certain entertainment creeping into his expression suddenly, Nick clarified mercifully, "Divorced, you dumbshit." Though somewhere he knew he should've been alarmed by the concept that that might matter to Ellis - like it was his business… his beer-addled mind decided against worrying about it.

He just smirked, rubbing at his temple and watching Ellis with an upturned, narrowed gaze.

Ellis settled the ring in the palm of his hand with a small twist of his wrist, cocking his head very slowly and pushing at it gently with the tip of his thumb. "Wow, Nick... you were married?"

The conman half-snorted, instantly regretting the choice when his nose gave a distinct pang and he tasted tacky blood. "...fuckin' door..." He slid his hand over to gently soothe it with a light fingertip brushed along the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, I guess, though honestly it was a big sham from the goddamn start."

He was suddenly glad to be drunk, the words emotionlessly tumbling from him, tinged only with an uncaring spite. Not even Ellis' gaze, those stone-blue eyes up and intent on his face as he spoke, could ruin the distance he had from his words just then.

"Pretty brunette I met at a casino. Angelica, which is some funny shit if you like your irony hot off the pan. Angel Palomo. She liked money. I do too, I guess, but that's a shitty foundation for anything past a fuck or two."

Ellis screwed up his brows tightly there, fingering the ring slower at Nick's explanation and tone. It had looked so well worn, like something lovingly used and carried everywhere, but he suddenly wondered if that wasn't from careless handling instead.

The scratches seemed sadder, after that.

"Why'd yuh get married?" Ellis' expression hesitated a moment, shifting slightly and starting to add, "... I mean..."

Nick sighed slightly, lifting one hand to wave him off. "I know what you mean." He twined his fingers together, turning his eyes down to examine his muddy dress shoes. Alcohol made his brain tick slowly, and he sighed. "This is much easier if I just start from the beginning, okay?"

If he was going to do this, tell this story, he needed to do it on his terms. Organize it. Chop it up and lay it out where it couldn't touch him.

The Georgian nodded slowly, leaning down in his chair and watching Nick's expression with reflective blue eyes. His weight shifted again, and the ring was cradled in a palm against his thigh, fingers curling around it.

Nick locked his gaze on his own hands, steepling them over his knee and drawing his brows into a tight look of distaste. It took effort to un-jumble the words in his head, and even more to remember those important details he'd tried to forget.

"...I got in a high-stakes poker game maybe four years back. I was running ragged, had a few debts, and I needed the money.. and goddamn, the adrenaline. All the small players had been weeded out, and by the end, it was just me, some lowlife, and this British whale. I thought for goddamn sure -"

"Whale?" Ellis interrupted, brows screwed up in confusion. He was so intent on the story he didn't seem to notice his own outburst, focused on Nick's expression and slowly cocking his head.

Nick burst out a small laugh, giving the Georgian's bemused look a hard once-over. "It's a term, kiddo. You call guys with way too much money to gamble away whales. Most of them are just rich idiots who buy their way in, but you get psycho mock-mob boss types too. They don't like losing."

Turning a little red, Ellis nodded in understanding, quieting for Nick to keep going.

"Angelica was on his arm, like a good little cheerleader. He'd pass her money for drinks, she'd massage his shoulders and - shit... she was hot. Gorgeous, y'know? I nearly lost my focus a few times trying to catch hers, but she was so goddamn uninterested. Like I was nobody."

The conman sighed, turning his face to settle half of it against an uplifted palm, closing his eyes. A smirk started to grow behind the heel of his hand, body relaxing subtly. The fingers of his other hand twitched, and he could practically feel the cards under his palm.

"It went back and forth - I could never tell who was winning.. then, fuck if I know how, but I caught him in a bluff. He went all in on the last round, and I just risked it. Something in his face told me to do it. I had a straight flush, and I was sure he couldn't have gotten better."

Aware of Ellis straightening in his seat, leaning forward slightly, Nick rubbed at his cheek with some amusement. "Should've seen his face when I went in for it and he had to turn up three-pair. I thought he'd reach over the table and strangle me on the spot. Left that table with ten grand in chips."

Ellis whistled low, eyes riveted on Nick's face even as some of the nuances of the story went over his head. The conman's inebriated and unusually open expressions were elaboration enough to follow. "Bet he was pissed..."

"You're telling me. Not as pissed as Angel was, apparently, because next time I saw him she was gone. I stuck around in the casino, just to wait it out where there were cameras in case the guy wanted to try something - and yeah, I celebrated. I was halfway through a bottle of ... I don't even remember, totally drunk off my ass, when she showed up."

The hick scrunched his brows slightly, tipping his head. "Whut? Why?"

Nick almost wanted to say something sarcastic, but ended up just shrugging his shoulders. "She jumped ship when I beat her old guy. I guess he'd been losing his shine, and that had been the last straw. Maybe he'd taken it out on her, I dunno. Maybe I just looked like a new chance for more money. Fuck if I cared about that when she was practically dragging me to a hotel room."

"Don't sound much like the start to a weddin', Nick..." the mechanic prompted gently, expression struggling not to let slip his sympathy, wary… not that it worked, as Ellis was about as easy to read as a picture book.

Laughing harshly, Nick shrugged a shoulder and scanned the darkened treeline. "Don't be stupid, Overalls. Do I look like a romantic to you?" There hadn't been a peep from either trailer, and he didn't expect any. He'd already told Rochelle he'd get her when they wanted to change watch. The last thing he needed was the whole team getting in on his misery.

"Anyway, she stuck around. I don't know what it was, but I've never won so many goddamn bets in a row in my life. The winnings just piled up, like she was some goddamn lucky charm, and I couldn't have gotten rid of her if I'd tried... I guess she turned into a girlfriend somewhere. We fucked other people, don't get me wrong, but we were just… together. Every time we split, we'd get back together. That was how it was. She was just… a fixture."

Nick shook his head, and repeated, "We couldn't get rid of each other. So we got married."

Lifting his hands slowly, Ellis waved them back and forth in a gentle 'wait' motion, shaking his head. His tone was a little plaintive as he insisted, "But Nick, gettin' married is like.. a big deal... yuh don't just.. 'get married'! Yuh gotta.. love someone, 'n cherish 'em, 'n shit.."

Nick lowered his chin, distastefully glancing the hick over and sighing, letting his arms cross over the gentle curl of his own stomach. Leave it to him.. "Overalls... marriage is worth shit. You want to know what our marriage was like?"

Ellis hesitated a beat, adjusting his cap with a knuckle, then nodded slowly. He seemed unsure if he should regret it, as Nick leaned forward and gestured blandly with his thumb.

"Las Vegas has little back alley churches, and they pass out services for maybe a hundred bucks. We were both wasted when it happened. Angel dragged me to this jewelry store and picked out her ring - which was the only expensive thing of the night - and we got hitched in rented knock-off wedding getups."

Ellis was frowning, leaning back a little with this sympathetic, strange sadness. He felt bad for the older man, those deeply intuitive blue eyes seeming to pierce right through the careless humor. It unsettled the gambler, and his mouth started to lose its grip on his own words.

"We woke up in a hotel halfway across town the next day.. almost didn't even remember what had happened. I'd already nearly lost the ring, not that I blame myself for wanting to take it off."

"Whut'd you do..? Did you love her?"

Suddenly Nick was sighing, and he rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead in frustration at the question. "Shit, kid.. I hated so much about her - her stupid texting, her bitchy girlfriends I didn't really know.. she'd grab onto my arm when she saw anything she wanted, like some spoiled teenager. The only times we were together was gambling, shopping, and at night in bed."

He suddenly fell silent. They both sat there for a few moments, Nick's eyes caught on the still shapes of trees around them, and Ellis watched him. It was clear he wasn't done, so Ellis just waited quietly. When it seemed like Nick might be stuck for good, he leaned forward.

Those calloused fingertips touched down on the table just beside Nick, spreading, and the ring was settled down with a soft clink. He pulled away, leaving it there as Nick glanced down.

The conman picked it up with nowhere near the same delicacy, almost snatching it from the table, staring it down between his fingertips with a stewing frustration. "... I'd wake up sometimes, before she did, and I wouldn't want to move. She'd be up against my chest and I'd just lay there."

The oiling of alcohol didn't help the admission. It stuck to his teeth, and he had to grit his jaw to fight the sour taste. Nick half expected Ellis to laugh, or say something stupid like 'Wow, Nick, you got a soft side, too?'

When he glanced up, scowling, to find Ellis silently returning his gaze with a softened and attentive expression, he felt more of it build up in his throat and slowly let it escape like so much air. Ellis was just accepting it, and it caught him off-guard.

"I made breakfast once, thinking she'd stick around to eat it, y'know? I couldn't say 'Hey, why don't you just hang around this morning'... too stupid, I'd never say that... She just took it to the couch to watch TV and looked at me like I'd grown a second head when I tried to sit next to her. I gave up trying after that. Wish I'd caught on and just left her then. Saved myself some pain."

Ellis' brows began their slow scrunch again, softly, above his eyes. "Somethin' happened?" he prompted gently, letting his gaze lift as his chin lowered, braced just beneath the bill of his cap.

Talking grew difficult. His vision felt unfocused, and Nick riveted his gaze on the ground, letting his hands lower to his lap. He wanted to blame it on the alcohol, but just then, he wasn't sure.

".. We needed a new car. She'd been using mine, but she wanted her own.. problem was, I was running out of money, and she didn't know. I had to get some fast, had to find a new gamble - a new bet... fuck if I was going to be the next guy she tossed aside. So I... went back to an old buddy."

Ellis frowned slightly, obviously not following, forcing Nick to exhale and shrug a shoulder, elaborating. "Sort of.. a gang thing. I stole for him a few times. Little things, when I was younger and needed the money. Broke into a house once.. it was a goddamn stupid choice, but when you need cash, you need it."

Blinking in clear surprise but slowly nodding, understanding, the Georgian drew his boots back under his chair and leaned forward, glancing over Nick's face. "What happened?"

"He got me into a game of blackjack. Wasn't interested in loaning me anything.. he needed a player to fill a chair and I was good - so he'd give me the startup money to join. If I won for him, he'd help me out from there. I thought I could do it, really did. It was just a gamble on a gamble."

The conman deflated slightly, shaking his head once and gripping hard on the ring in his palm. "I lost. I lost it so fuckin' bad... I was in debt up to my eyes, and when he found out how hopeless me paying it back was, he went after me at home."

He didn't look up as Ellis' expression grew rapidly concerned; he didn't really want to see it.

"They stole my old car for collateral and beat the ever-loving-shit out of me. Random guy drove me to the hospital.. I don't even know where Angel was. I remember trying like hell to get a nurse to call my house, to see where she was. I think I thought they'd attacked her too."

Nick felt, out of nowhere, the tip of Ellis' boot touch down on the tip of his. His gaze latched onto it, that odd little connection between them, like some poorly disguised offer of comfort. "Was she okay...?"

Nick laughed, spitefully and shortly, in the same moment he nodded. The words were just forced out of him then, he felt his jaw threatening to shut but stuttering open as he had to keep on. "She showed up the next day. Tossed a bunch of papers onto my chest -"

And he could remember how much that had stung, long after the spastic pain from a broken rib had ended.

"- and just looked at me.. like she couldn't pick between being mad or just.. pitying me. Then she left. I didn't look for the longest time - but I knew, y'know..? Bitch threw divorce papers at me. She'd gotten a card turned down, found out about the debts, who even knows... the well ran dry and she was gone, not a word... I really picked a girl for me. Heartless, greedy bitch, just like me."

Nick bent forward, straightening his legs and bracing his elbows on his knees so he could curl his head between his hands. He dug fingers into his hair, closing his eyes, fighting off the sudden feeling like he might retch. He was shuddering, and he didn't know why, his whole frame unsteady like so many rickety blocks stacked together - he muttered to try and excuse it, blood rushing in his ears.

"... I shouldn't've... Too much beer, not enough food. I can't ... just give me a second. I'm - dizzy. You -"

His voice halted in his throat as hands suddenly settled, unimaginably warm, on his shoulders. Heat sunk into the muscles tensed up there through the fabric of his dress shirt, and his eyes opened in a flash.

Ellis stood just in front of him, leaning forward just enough to touch his hands down on those trembling shoulders, a concerned frown drawing his features down. His voice crooned very softly in understanding. "'Ey, Nick, it's alright.. yer allowed tuh be upset, s'okay."

Those fingers curled, rubbing in open comfort, and Nick's whole mind went to something like the low whine of feedback from half-plugged speakers. When Ellis lowered his voice and offered, "I'll go get Ro', 'n' we can switch the watch up.. yuh just need some sleep.. okay?" all he heard was 'I'll go.'

Nick stood up so suddenly that Ellis jumped, mouth open to utter something startled, right as Nick's came down hard to silence him. The conman stepped forward to snatch his arms around the mechanic's torso, pinning him with a tight grip to his T-shirt.

He felt a sharp exhale flutter against his mouth as he did, tensing himself for rejection - but Ellis' fingers curled on the back of his neck to lean into the kiss instead.

Their bodies struggled against one another, neither completely steady, and as Nick caught the kid's lower lip in a scraping bite, they staggered to hit the edge of the table nearby. Nick hit first, twisting to pull Ellis tight against him as he bent backward slightly over the table.

The kiss broke with a breath, Nick shuddering and his eyes slipping half-shut as the tight contact between them sent heat thrumming through his skin. He eyed Ellis' expression, watching the blush over the bridge of his nose and the huffing embarrassment over his face.

"…Don't move, dumbshit." Nick whispered, intently.

It wasn't a need for contact. It wasn't a need to feel connected. It wasn't a need to feel less alone. It wasn't any of those things.

It was just sex.

He was sure.

Ellis' fingers slid down just slightly to get a better grip on the back of Nick's neck, body anxiously shifting. His mouth gawped just twice, trying to find words, before he slowly lifted a hand to pull his own cap off of his head, throwing it to the seat of Nick's chair.

"Okay." Ellis carefully whispered back, managing to slowly give him a smile. It was that smile that made Nick kiss him again, slower than the first one, but no less demanding. Fierce. The fingers of one of Nick's hands gripped into his hair, flexing, and a soft shudder passed between them.

Things like 'we're outside,' 'there's a large chance we'd get caught,' and 'a redneck with a shotgun is two trailers away' left his buzzed consciousness as quick as they came as Nick slowly crawled the dragging fingertips of his free hand down Ellis' lean back, hooking onto the bound-up top of his coveralls.

"Say no, kid." It was all Nick could do not to laugh, harsh and quiet. "Before I do something stupid."

His whole body flinched with lust, and he found himself dragging in breaths through a smarting nose to try and slow his heartrate. He knew it was a terrible idea. Knew they shouldn't. Knew, most of all, that Ellis would probably do whatever he said, and he wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

And then Ellis whimpered something that alarmed Nick to a dead stop in the same instant it threatened to melt every last inch of hesitation:

"I trust yuh, Nick."

He turned the tide, flipping them around to pin Ellis suddenly to the edge of the table. He didn't care - barely noticed - as the motion rolled several discarded beer bottles right off and onto the grass with soft thunks.

All he could say as he pushed the hick's torso down flat on the surface, hitching Ellis' hips up to make it easier and loosen the scrabbled grip the other man had on the collar of his dress shirt, was a low, "You shouldn't."

Chapter Text

Nick didn't know what it was - maybe it was just drunken lust, built up frustration. He'd have preferred that.

What he felt, though, as he dug his fingers into the bunched up fabric that swathed Ellis' hips, was need. Raw and brutal, tightening his chest till it was hard to breathe. He curled forward over the younger man, hovering their faces too close and not close enough. Their lower bodies had only the barest distance between them, just brushing.

"Why not, Nick..?" It sounded so innocent coming from those lips, gasped open a little as Ellis' breath came in tiny huffs. He just didn't understand.

It took all his strength not to just steal those lips, but Nick waited, breath catching harshly behind his teeth. His eyes burned down on the younger man, green roving uncontrollably, drinking up every little inch they could like that might help him keep still.

Ellis' face was flushed, but his gaze held strong against embarrassment, darting between Nick's mouth and his eyes like he could discern some kind of hint on what Nick wanted. He lifted his chin, feeling a shudder pass through the man on top of him as he slowly leaned closer.

Nick muttered roughly and almost thoughtlessly, his voice dark with restraint and eyes sliding half-shut. "... Because I'm going to fuck you, if you don't get the fuck out."

He waited, just long enough, for the words to sink in.

Then he dropped his head and captured the kid's mouth. Their lips locked, the taste of alcohol heavy between them. Nick heard himself moan, and Ellis wrapped his arms around the gambler's torso, fingers clutching in his shirt to try and close the distance between them.

Nick growled slightly at the sensation, tightening his grip on the younger man's bunched coveralls and curling himself forward. As he leaned into a drifting grind on Ellis' pelvis, he let his hands slip down and grab his thighs. He dragged the Georgian's legs up off the ground and to either side of him, holding them there.

Ellis took the hint, uncertainly hooking his knees around Nick's waist, gasping a soft uncertain noise when it occurred to him he was, however sideways, planted firmly in Nick's lap. The sudden squeeze of thighs rattled the gambler's focus, and Ellis barely caught a flustered cry behind clamped teeth when the conman thrusted hungrily, and a little drunkenly, up against him.

Nick forced himself to a grating halt as he heard the sound, shuddering at the friction every single twitch caused between them. His fingers clutched and gripped at Ellis' hips, mouth going dry with the desire to hear that noise unstifled.

A sticky-sweet Southern drawl belting out his name, quavering.. losing control.. the flex of that incredible body under his grasp.. those blue eyes fogging over.. he hadn't gotten nearly enough of the kid.

"Goddamnit, El.." Nick cursed in frustration, voice ragged. He didn't know what was worse - how much he wanted Ellis, or how much he knew they shouldn't. Not only were they both having trouble stifling their voices so far, but the table was barely an inch away from clanging against the back of the metal trailer.

Ellis panted carefully, cheeks burning with something between embarrassment and arousal. He slowly pulled a hand away from Nick's back, reaching up to touch his fingertips to the conman's cheek. Calloused tips stroked stubble, and Nick stiffened under them, tensing up at the unexpected affection.

The mechanic whimpered up at him, quietly, blue eyes widened as they flickered over the conman's face. Anxiety was apparent in his reddened features, much as he tried to stifle it, and Nick could hear the little hitch to his breath.

Nick groaned through gritted teeth, recovering quickly and biting at Ellis' fingers with a dangerous smirk. "Picked a horrible fuckin' place to get me drunk, kiddo." He moved his hands to grab onto the edge of the table, digging in his heels to drag it and its cargo back an extra foot from the trailer.

Ellis quickly gripped onto the front of Nick's dress shirt, and as Nick released the table and leaned forward to brace one hand on the wooden surface just beside Ellis' waist, he felt the Georgian's strong grasp drag his dress shirt up. The blue garment slipped free from its tuck beneath his belted slacks, baring his stomach.

Nick dragged his teeth along the other man's neck, treating it equally with nips and flickers of his tongue. His free hand curled underneath Ellis' lower back, encouraging his hips a few inches up off the table and supporting him. The huffs his actions drew from Ellis were quiet and pattered right against Nick's ear, those full lips parted in arousal.

The conman's spine arched with a growl when rough fingertips flirted against his bare stomach, diving underneath the shirt they'd been working up. Ellis spread his fingers against the hair-dusted abdomen at his mercy, two warm hands slowly exploring up to the gambler's gently heaving chest.

Nick couldn't stifle it, those calloused fingertips burning against the sensitive skin of his torso and putting a wanting gravel into the edge of his voice. "Hn.. Overalls.."

An irritating chuckle tickled against his ear, slight relief leaking into Ellis' anxious tone as the hick gained a little power over the gambler - however short-lived. With a very low, "Shut it." Nick jammed his hips shamelessly against the mechanic's pelvis, enjoying the way it jolted Ellis into a vulnerable curl at the stomach and the strained yip that escaped him.

Ellis quickly clamped his teeth together, trembling a little with the effort it took to keep his mouth shut as Nick rolled his hips lustily up against him, smirking darkly into the other man's neck. Parting his lips to lick flat along Ellis' heated jugular, Nick sunk the ringed fingers of his supporting hand into his bunched coveralls and peeled it away slowly.

The fabric dragged across skin, taking the briefs underneath with it, inch by inch baring more of Ellis' rump to the humid air. Nick could feel him tensing up, gasping past gritted teeth, clutching his fingers against the warm skin of Nick's chest and struggling not to protest. With the conman firmly planted between his thighs, all it did was bunch up just at his crotch, not that Nick minded.

"You said you trusted me..." he murmured down to the Georgian, focusing flecked, pale green eyes intently on Ellis' blue ones. He'd reached a calm focus, a sober determination - and his lips were curled up at the edges. His smirk made Ellis swallow, before giving a careful nod.

"Y-yeah.." Hesitantly, Ellis tried to glean his meaning from those stubbled features, fingers creeping slowly to curl around the gambler's sides and get a better grip. "I mean - I ain't done it before, but… Yeah."

Nick simply purred, "Good.", right before he pulled his hand from the table and clamped it over Ellis' mouth. His blue eyes instantly widened a little over flushed cheeks, uncertainly turning his chin slightly, only to find Nick's hand smoothly following the motion.

"Nhk?" he barely managed to say in a muffled voice, slow, uncomprehending confusion flattering on his face.

His breath puffed hot against Nick's palm, the conman chuckling lowly and bending forward to brush his lips against the scarred bridge of Ellis' nose. He explained lowly, tone gaining a gentler lull. "... It might hurt a little, so tell me if it does."

Those blue eyes blinked once, and Ellis slowly nodded in understanding without wresting Nick's hand from its place over his mouth, though his brows adopted a small knot between them. Nick straightened just slightly at the confirmation, drawing his other hand back up and closing his mouth around his ringless index and middle fingers.

He didn't give Ellis time to remain uncertain while he wetted his left hand's fingers - the gambler leaned his hips forward, pleasantly grinding up into the warm niche of his pelvis and holding a pressure there. It forced Ellis to curl up a little more, knees still hooked around Nick's waist, trapped underneath him and so perfectly balanced on the barely-large-enough table.

Ellis whimpered near-silently behind the stifling palm on his lips, pulling his arms out of the warm confines of Nick's shirt and retracting his hands with a shiver. One hand gripped onto Nick's blue-cuffed wrist just below where it had a hold over his mouth, just holding onto it rather than trying to pull it away. The other slipped to get his fingers curled on the edge of the table like he didn't trust his balance.

Bending down as he popped his fingers free from his mouth, Nick used his grip on Ellis' jaw to turn his chin to the side and up a little. He bit onto the other man's ear, teething along the delicate flesh and distracting him while his hand slipped underneath his hoisted-up lower body.

The sudden, full-body shiver that jumped Ellis' frame up against Nick when the conman's warm fingertip pressed suddenly against his entrance was electric. His breath huffed against Nick's palm in a harsh exhale, blush deepening rapidly until he was practically cherry red.

The tightness he felt there made Nick groan slightly, pulling his teeth away from Ellis' ear for fear of biting down in reflex. "Relax." he purred against the warm shell, letting his hips rock against the hick's slowly, the gentle friction steady and soothing.

Ellis' hand squeezed on Nick's wrist, tension focusing there as he tried to relax his spine. He visibly struggled with the sensation, eyes shut tight and face flushed attractively - despite his best attempt, Nick couldn't deny that his gaze riveted on the Georgian's features, narrowing.

Gritting his teeth slightly to distract himself from the waves of lust threatening to drip down his spine, Nick dared to press the tip of his finger inside. Just that, and no more, though he let his knuckle bend to circle it faintly against the worst of the tightness.

He didn't miss the flickers of discomfort over those scrunched brows, nor the little pained 'hn's and 'ah's just barely audible between his muffling fingers. The slow rock of the conman's hips filled the spaces between with flutters of pleasure, but they were there all the same.

Nick tipped his head to murmur to Ellis, peeling away his thumb from Ellis' mouth to allow him to talk. "Okay, Ace?"

It bothered him how much hinged on the response, how much attention he paid to listening for it. His finger curled in little strokes, pushing sideways against the muscles that constrained around it, not stopping even if it made it harder for Ellis to talk - not sure if he could stand being still.

Ellis huffed out a breath loudly past his lips, struggling not to lose it with his mouth freed. He nodded quickly, the motion half a nuzzle to the fingers still laced on his cheek. "Nnhh.. y-yeah, Nick.. it just feels funny."

The conman smirked slightly, shifting his thumb to tease it over the hick's soft lower lip. It took effort not to lean in and kiss him, but Nick resisted it. He focused on straightening his wrist and pressing his finger a little deeper, circling.

Nick felt his whole spine go utterly stiff when Ellis lifted his chin up and pressed his mouth almost absent-mindedly to the tip of his thumb, whimpering a little against it. The brush of those lips around his digit was painfully arousing, bringing forth a deluge of mental images he found a little hard to shake.

He growled quietly, gaze narrowing on the Ellis' lips and jaw setting as he added a second finger to the effort of readying Ellis. The stifled yelp he got for his trouble made him smirk, particularly because of the fact that Ellis' hips gave a gentle rock against his digits that seemed reflexive - and welcoming.

"Better?" he grated quietly, bending down so he could trace his tongue along the whorl of Ellis' left ear, enjoying the shivers he could feel underneath him. The younger man nodded, vaguely.

It was easier to move now, and Nick took advantage of it, digits dragging and pressing against the taut muscles surrounding them. He surged them a little deeper, patience flagging as the Georgian whined something, unintelligible, his knees shifting against the conman's waist. It sounded wanting, if tense.

Nick tried to think logically. He honestly did.

But he'd tortured himself long enough. Nick withdrew his fingers slowly and bent down a little. He worked to undo his belt onehanded, and Ellis must've heard the clink of the metal, because reflective, misty blue eyes suddenly blinked open.

The hand around Nick's wrist let go, suddenly grasping at the back of his neck. Ellis thrusted his weight in half a pull and half a lean, pushing their lips together. His stomach trembled with the effort of holding himself in enough of a crunch to manage it, and Nick withdrew his thumb from the Georgian's lips just before their mouths met.

He muttered "..quit doing that, goddamnit.." out of the corner of his mouth, more in sarcasm than anything else, before shoving his tongue to deepen the kiss with a hard edge of chiding hunger. His fingers resumed their motion, and he rocked his hips a little, jostling his slacks open just enough to push his boxers aside and free his erection with a weighted, hot sigh into the kiss.

But he broke away then, startling Ellis at first. He leaned back just far enough to separate them and spat heavily into his palm, mouth wet with saliva from their kiss. He used it to slick up his cock, huffing quietly.

Nick then slipped both of his hands to Ellis' thighs, short-trimmed nails digging a little into the skin bared up around his hips, scraping slowly to get his fingertips underneath the younger man's coveralls. He pushed at the same instant, hoisting Ellis into a tighter curl and getting his knees closer to his chest.

Sliding his coveralls higher, Nick bit back a small groan as the smooth and warm flesh of Ellis' rump brushed against the sensitive skin of his hard-on. He dropped down to an elbow on the table, weight pushing Ellis' knees even further to his chest as his abdomen pressed down on the entrapping bundle of coveralls between his thighs.

He re-linked their kiss, just in time; Ellis whined against his mouth, blush so severe Nick swore he felt it just through the kiss, but his fingers clenched on the back of Nick's neck and his body trembled with a light flush. They were past the point of hesitancy.

Nick's free hand gripped his hard-on just below the head, slitting his gaze carefully and firmly locking their lips, determined to keep Ellis quiet. He let his hips press forward, a heavy shudder wracking him at that feeling of resistance, rocking his weight to work himself just an inch in.

Ellis' voice quickly grew urgent in its stifled noises, head jolting up to press deep into the kiss, expression scrunching up tightly. His arms wound over Nick's neck, fingers curling into fists, and there was a small whine as his body tensed up against the intruding length.

The clench sent Nick's eyes rolling up with a moan of raw pleasure, though he tried quickly to both silence himself and focus on holding still a moment, letting his hand settle into a bracing grip on Ellis' hip. It was only when Ellis' tension dissipated that he moved again, hips circling subtly.

The kid was so unbelievably tight, Nick honestly wasn't sure how he was fitting so far. His knees went weak and his whole brain swam with dizziness - he was lucky he had the table to lean his weight against.

He felt Ellis squirm, but he had him trapped and there was little room to move. Tightening his grip on the warm skin filling his palm, he worked his hips up at a slight angle to try and hit that sweet spot. Each movement was still a struggle against tense muscles, and Ellis' fingers dug into the flesh of his back, groaning against his lips.

Nick knew the moment he'd hit gold, because on the top of a shallow thrust, Ellis suddenly jerked with a surprised mumble, body giving an aroused shudder and muscles tightening around him in something a lot less protesting and a lot more appreciative.

The gambler broke the kiss the moment Ellis' outburst halted, leaving his lips parted to harshly force breaths in and out, staying close just in case. "Goddamnit.. you're.. tight as shit.." he muttered, gaze roving fiercely over the reddened face below his, those damp silky lips.

Ellis turned a shade darker, spluttering something at first before squeezing his fingers and curling them in the conman's shirt. "N-Nick - quit -" he muttered, almost pleading, like the gambler were mocking him.

Nick smirked, bending his head to tip his mouth into the crook of Ellis' neck, pressing him just a little harder into the table. His lips traced the line of a tendon down from his partner's jaw, voice a little oily with a taunt. "... Quit what? Quit fucking you..?"

The younger man's eyes went wide at the suggestion, and he shook his head almost too quickly, starting to blurt out, "No -"

But Nick didn't give him a chance, drawing his hips back and stroking them forward in a smooth motion. The angle was slack enough to brush against his prostate again, stirring up pleasure, and Ellis barely kept his mouth shut without anything to muffle it in.

It suddenly became a risky game, and Nick used his hand to keep Ellis' hips solidly where he wanted them, adopting a slowly rocking rhythm as he found the resistance of Ellis' clenching insides loosening to a bearable grip.

Aware of the danger, Nick gave him no help to keep quiet, finding a heat crawling its way up his spine. He found himself enjoying the way the hick clamped his jaw shut and curled his head to the side, whimpering urgently to the slide of the conman's grating strokes. His gaze was riveted sideways, watching, hips hungrily pushing deeper every few moments.

Nick dragged his lips along the skin underneath them, shifting his weight subtly to widen the position of his shoes on the grass. The table made a soft click of protesting joints as he reached the crux of a rock forward, and he rose to the challenge offered, suddenly lengthening each penetration to draw out the same little noise.

"I'd say.. you're enjoying this, El.." he purred against the hick's neck, tone raw gravel and hunger. "Hmm..?"

The sound he got in response was a wary 'uuh-hhuh', cut off by a gasp and small grinded whimper. Ellis didn't notice till too late that Nick had freed his hand and crept it to burrow suddenly under the bunched coveralls in his lap. The gambler's ringed fingers wrapped around the erection otherwise ignored, teasing against the damp tip and stroking it slowly.

Ellis whimpered desperately, spine twisting and twitching as every motion dragged pleasure out of both sides. His expression struggled, eyes blinking quickly and head trying to tip a little to press his mouth against Nick's before he got too loud.

Nick denied him, letting him squirm, rutting his hips in deep and slow and just rocking his weight up against the hick's rump. He smirked, lips parted to pant, enjoying the practically begging whines it drew out of Ellis as he tried to shut himself up with bitten lips. "What?"

His vision was blurring, and he wanted nothing more than to close his eyes, but Nick resisted. He pivoted his hips, grunting a little himself as something clenched around his length and rewarding the younger man with a long stroke of his palm. "Want -" Nick growled quietly, nipping teeth against skin between the two words. "- something?"

Ellis' fingers dug into his back, tightening, a low whine spilling from his lips as he squirmed, curling his head further to the side. "N-n-nah.." he lied through gritted teeth, gasping them apart with one eye closing in a little flinch of arousal.

Pulling back slowly till his shaft nearly freed itself, watching each little flicker of pleasure as the motion rolled back, Nick let himself sit there a moment. The lust was building up as pure heat in his abdomen, body wonderfully loose as he skirted the edge of climax.. and he thrusted forward in a sudden motion, rutting into the hick's warm body, burying himself deep.

"Sure?" he whispered in a practical snarl, spine shuddering even more as the hick jolted up with his thrust, a unintelligible cry narrowly stifled with an almost dangerously bitten tongue. Nick was almost certain, had it gotten out, it would've been his name.

Its halt suddenly disappointed him.

Trembling under and around him, Ellis barely caught his breath enough to respond, voice shaking with a certain urgency, focus fluttering mistily. His voice was flecked with something like frustration when he muttered, "Please - "

Nick gave in without a word, snagging Ellis' lips with a small groan and arching up his back so he could thrust into the kid with sudden fervor. Ellis whimpered against his lips, blue eyes shutting and arms sliding up to wrap tightly around his neck, fingers clutching at the air.

The gambler's spine straightened out with a heavy shudder as the muscles around his length clenched down, Ellis biting onto Nick's lower lip with a stifled cry and clutch of his fingers as his climax sent shudders racing along his limbs. Nick pumped his fingers to egg it on, not caring as it got on the other man's shirt, rutting his hips up against the flexing muscles a few last times with a groan.

He pulled out suddenly and lifted his weight, letting Ellis' legs relax down some from their curl as the kid huffed desperately, bright red and breathless. The conman switched hands, narrowing his gaze down on the body slumped underneath him, tugging his own orgasm to completion.

He bit along Ellis' jaw, growling tightly with each motion as he rolled his hips slowly against his own palm to ride out the drugging pleasure that buzzed along his nerves, semen spilling down toward the ground in careless drips between his knuckles.

"...Fuck." was all he said, stilling just at Ellis' earlobe and releasing a shaky breath. He regretted their surroundings, wanting nothing more than to just collapse for a little while.. but he had to steel himself.

The conman slowly shook his hand off, leaning up to stand with only the slightest hunch forward. He grew a smirk as he slowly settled his slacks back into place, using both hands to re-belt it, noticing Ellis' eyes blink open slowly, panting as he shifted his gaze toward Nick.

It only took a few gulps of air for Ellis to whimper out a shaky response, slowly lifting a hand to run it through his curly-locked hair, palm catching the sweat along his forehead. "M-man... I can't.. feel muh legs.." He laughed a little, slowly.

Nick's eyes rolled subtly, leaning forward to survey the mess Ellis had made of the bottom few inches of his T-shirt as he let a hand trail along the smooth curve of the hick's bared upper thigh. His fingers caught on the top edge of his coveralls, tugging idly.

"I'm not carryin' you, if that's what you mean. Lucky we didn't get caught in the first place." he muttered quietly, grabbing onto the coveralls with both hands and bending forward as he shoved the Georgian's boxers and pants back on a little roughly, making him squirm and dusting a nip on his lower lip in the same motion.

Their eyes met, for just a moment, and Nick let his eyes slit.

Disoriented under his gaze, Ellis' blush flickered harshly over the bridge of his nose and he shook his head slowly. "D.. did it make yuh feel any better..?"

Nick suddenly stilled, staring down at him with something a lot like surprise, one brow raised. He slowly ground his teeth back and forth, trying to get a grip on how to respond to that. ".. I don't think I need to tell you yes to that, Ace.. came as hard as you did."

Adding the mocking tail-end to his response succeeded in that calculated way his jibes generally did; Ellis flushed, darting his gaze away as he adjusted to the brash statement, tipping his chin down a little bit like he thought his hat was there to shade his eyes.

"Uh.. guess you did.."

Nick knew what he'd meant, of course - emotionally. Had 'it' made him feel emotionally better. And that question was a problem all on its own.

"C'mon, El." he growled a little, voice full of a smirk, reaching out to tuck a knuckle under Ellis' chin and urge him slowly to sitting by the tug of his digit. "That table's gonna break."

Ellis chuckled a little, distracted from his mostly unanswered question, slipping to his feet and around Nick to recover his hat from the seat of the chair nearby. "S'.. hardly muh fault, Nick.." he mumbled, glancing sideways toward the conman.

Nick smirked, watching him with a slightly tilted head, not missing the slight bow to his legs and limp to his gait as he nursed the unfamiliar stretched and empty sensations after their screw. The conman picked up his jacket from the other chair, slipping his arms into it slowly, then retrieved his wallet and replaced it in the inner pocket of his suit.

The glint of his wedding ring caught his eye, abandoned where it was on the seat of the lawn chair, and he was just an instant away from convincing himself to just leave it.. when something possessed him to snatch it up, shoving it into a pocket with a mental curse.

He turned back around, relieved to see that Ellis hadn't noticed his dilemma - the kid was facing away from him, head ducked with embarrassment as he wiped his stomach clean with the unused sleeve of his coveralls.

Nick stepped forward, pushing Ellis with his shoulder slightly to get him moving. "Let's just get inside, killer. There's nothing out here anyway."

Ellis grinned sideways at him, bashfully, replacing his cap on his head and shoving his hands into the pockets of his coveralls as he slowly walked around the trailer for the door. "Wore me the hell out, Nick..."

Nick tailed after him, closely, gaze unfocused as he made his tired body keep moving despite the heavy urge to sit down. It was a pleasurable kind of laziness, joints loose and full of cotton, spine relaxed. "Good." he muttered tauntingly, falling silent as Ellis stepped up the three stairs to the rickety trailer, pulling open the door.

The mobile home was fairly thin, messy and dingy inside, and Nick did his best not to inspect it too hard as he stepped lightly after Ellis. He zeroed in on a small, dark red leather, armless couch planted up against the wall halfway through, barely outside what qualified as the 'kitchen.'

The last third of the trailer was a closed room - a bedroom, Nick figured. He gestured limp-wristed at it as he tiredly stepped over to the couch and sat down with a pleased rumble. He shifted himself around to find a comfortable sitting position and curled his arm on the back, settling his head against it like a makeshift pillow. "Go tell Ro' we're going to sleep."

He saw Ellis nod at him, standing a few feet away, before he shut his eyes, melting easily into his less-than-optimum sleeping posture. He listened without opening his eyes as Ellis padded across the trailer toward the door. The whole structure shifted with his weight.

Nick may have even dozed in the time it took Ellis to stir Rochelle and pass the watch on. All he knew was he jolted a little when the trailer shifted again, and Ellis' footsteps found their way back to him.

"'Kay… She's gettin' up."

Nick nodded his head mutely, but noticed Ellis was frozen where he was. It occurred to him, even exhausted, pretty quick; there was no other place to sleep, other than on the bare floor. He didn't bother to open his eyes, merely sighed slightly and shrugged his shoulder to indicate the space on the couch next to him.

"May as well just get comfortable here, Overalls. Nothing else to do."

Ellis laughed quietly, scratching under his hat slowly and approaching to drop himself onto the other half of the couch. "Wasn't sure if.. well, anyway." He bent forward to pull his boots off, wiggling his toes in a stretch.

The kid drew a knee up to his chest, giving a slight huff as he did like the gesture ached a little. He wrapped his arms around his knee, using it and his biceps like a pillow.

His shoulder rested against Nick's, forced to by the fairly short couch they had to work with, but the conman said nothing but a "Night, kid." He didn't mind as much as he'd thought he would - just a little contact, enough to warm the left side of his body.

Ellis obliged him, the short and gentle quality of his response making the conman furrow his brows a little. He wouldn't be kept up by stories, at least - though he felt like he could've slept through it anyway. "G'night, Nick."

The problem was, he had felt better.

Chapter Text

Nick's first instinct upon waking up was to nestle his face further against his pillow. A pleased smile filtered up onto his features as he pulled it closer, letting himself stew a moment in the pleasant recollections of the previous night.

He should've felt more conflicted - he never wanted to be that vulnerable, not to anyone, and his acute awareness of his own need was alarming. He didn't consider how recent the divorce was to be a good enough excuse to forgive himself for it.

There was nothing really to be done, though... and somewhere he was surprised by how easy Ellis had made it. No hard questions, no judgement. Just sympathy and acceptance. He hadn't had that kind of experience in years... maybe a decade.

He hated that it had worked on him.

Sighing just a little and feeling his good mood slipping away from him, Nick burrowed his face further down into the fabric pressed to his cheek, letting his arms move to clutch harder on his pillow. His nose gave a loud sting of pain as the motion jostled it, but he ignored it.

It wasn't supposed to turn into some 'thing' - he hadn't even expected or wanted to get any sympathy, let alone end up screwing the kid.

But it had, and as sure as Nick was that Ellis' unerring determination to inject emotions into it, and friendship, was to blame, he had trouble relaxing with the knowledge how much he'd wanted the badly planned and badly timed intimacy.

Needed.

He hated need.

He wanted to convince himself it had just been raging lust finally snapping free in his mind, but he knew better. Nick had broken down last night, and God, that infuriated him. You don't need anything from anyone, least of all from some twenty-three year-old Georgia redneck. He had to keep it together.

I dunno who messed with your head more, Nicolas.. your ex or the kid.

For some reason, shoving the two into the same corner of his mind made him relax. As his fingers tightened, trying to adjust his pillow into a more comfortable clutch against his body, he heard a little hiccup of air just a few centimeters from his face.

And then it hit him.

He didn't have a pillow.

Nick immediately recoiled his head up, startled, eyes shooting open to view with some shock the position he'd rolled himself into. Ellis was dead asleep, his back nestled up against Nick's chest and his arms draped loosely down over the gambler's where they were laced over the younger man's abdomen.

Nick had even turned on the couch, one leg curling underneath him loosely, so he could draw Ellis into his lap and align them closer together. Nick's head had gotten nestled into the crook of Ellis' neck, face turned into the soft fabric of his T-shirt. They were cuddled so tightly, bodies warm and familiar against one another, that it was painfully obvious they'd been settled like that a while.

"What the hell!" Nick blurted reflexively, trying to shove Ellis away from himself and off the couch. The jostle woke Ellis halfway up, making him gurgle slightly in confusion and grab onto the nearest thing - that being Nick's forearms, dragging him with.

The two tumbled off the couch and onto the dingy trailer's carpet in an undignified pile, rolling a little, Nick landing underneath Ellis' startled weight. He immediately growled, trying to wrest Ellis from his form and nearly getting an accidental elbow to the face for his trouble.

Ellis scrambled like an overturned turtle on Nick's torso, disoriented and struggling into awareness. "Wh-whut happened?! Where's muh -" One of his hands clamped onto his head, finding the cloth of his cap tightly settled on his head, and calmed down considerably to try and regain his senses.

Blue eyes blinked, head turning to look over his shoulder at the scowling conman he was laying on top of. "Nick? Whut the..?"

"Get off!" Nick growled in a low tone, shoving again until Ellis clambered off him. The conman quickly hauled up to his feet the moment Ellis' weight was off, turning his body away and adjusting his clothes snappily.

His gaze confirmed with some anxiety that the trailer's bedroom door was still closed, and they were alone. This trailer's windows weren't boarded up like the first one, though they were shuttered closed, and the dim golden light of morning filtered in in soft slashes.

Huffing a sigh deeply, Nick focused on straightening his lapels, moodily rooting himself where he stood. He kept his voice down, irritated. "Remind me not to sleep near you anytime soon... I'm not a goddamn stuffed animal.."

Because it definitely hadn't been his arms wrapped around Ellis.

When he didn't get a response, he tipped his head, glancing over his shoulder. Ellis had hunched down against the front of the couch, body curled at a weird angle and hands laced over his thighs, pain dousing his features.

Nick blinked slightly, coolly dropping his hands and half-turning around as his brows moved into a vague lift. ".. What?"

Ellis merely shook his head in silence.  He tried to adjust his weight and roll over, ducking his chin to hide underneath the bill of his cap rather than look at Nick, but didn't manage. He slid back down to a crouch.

Nick didn't let up, turning entirely and approaching a step. "What?" he repeated.

"I-I'm fine, Nick, jus'- ow.." He sounded embarrassed and a little humiliated, distinctly avoiding looking at the gambler and slipping his arms to wrap instead around his waist.

Nick realized what was going on with a sudden halt, breaking into an abrupt smirk before he stifled it. He tugged his slacks up an inch or two by the thighs and crouched down, resting his elbows on his knees. He kept his voice low, murmuring to him, "Sore, kiddo..? Sorta forgot to warn you."

The Georgian nodded quickly, once, lifting a hand to tip the bill of his cap up slightly. He whimpered it, even quieter than Nick, and the conman felt a little tug of guilt. "Y-yeah. It s'posed tuh hurt?.."

Nick chewed on that for a moment, then gave a shrug, lowering his head so he could scratch at the back of it with his pinky and ring finger. "Under better circumstances, no. Spit doesn't do much."

Ellis whined a little, pushing his weight off his rump with a wince, bending himself oddly. He braced his hands on the floor to lift up a little, slumping on the sturdy muscles of his shoulders. "Man.. I'm gonna have tuh walk 'n shit.."

The gambler smirked again, leaning in to get hands under Ellis' arms. He hoisted upward, intent on pulling Ellis to sit back down on the couch. "Up, Overalls... just rest a minute. And let me know if you start regretting it."

Ellis turned a startled glance up toward his face, quickly grabbing Nick's elbows and pushing his heels against the carpet to help. "U-uh.. I didn't mean it like that.." Nick's knowing, dark look of humor shut him up, and the moment he settled down on the couch his expression screwed up in discomfort.

"G-gaahh, man, that don't help none -!"

Nick rolled his eyes, standing up and reaching up a hand to push at the side of Ellis' head with his palm. He toppled the Georgian to his side like a bowling pin, landing with a soft 'oomf' on the leather cushions. "Like that, dipshit.."

"Hey, you ain't the one in pain. Be nice." Ellis chirped back defensively, grinning a little as he lifted his head slightly from the couch and adjusted his cap. At least his humor's intact. Goody-goody.

Nick rolled his eyes, turning away and buttoning together the middle of his suit jacket. "I'm in a different kind of pain, kiddo. It's called dealing-with-you pain."

Ellis curled an arm underneath his head and settled down a bit against the couch cushions, watching Nick fret his clothing into order. "Yuh ain't a barrel'uv laughs either, man." Ellis teased.

The conman snorted a little, relaxing his arms to a loose cross over his stomach. "Ha-ha.. Shush. I'm going to go check on the other two so we can get moving. Try not to complain too much, will ya..? I don't have a good excuse for you."

Ellis scratched at his cap, grinning a little and closing his eyes. "Alright. See 'bout food, too.. I'm starvin' fit tuh kill."

Nick rolled his eyes again, shooting a dull look over at Ellis and stepping toward the bedroom door with a small grumble. "It'll be shit again.." The gambler opened the door with a slight caution, leaning in to scan the small, dark excuse for a bedroom.

Rochelle was sprawled out under a blanket on the floor, her legs gently crossed under the fabric and her arms settled in a drape over her waist. Coach took up most of the bed, settled on his stomach. At first Nick thought him asleep - and he prepared his mocking 'so much for keeping watch' speech - but the door opening made Coach's head lift.

The gambler didn't acknowledge him, just stepped in and halted by Rochelle's feet, nudging her calf with the toe of his dress shoe until she stirred. "Hey."

Her weight lazily shifted, stretching her spine up off the ground and giving a yawn. Brown eyes flickered open, wandering a moment before they latched onto Nick. A smile flashed over her features, making him raise a brow, and she sat up carefully.

"Oh, hey, Nick." He swore there was something coy in how she said it, and it made his brow twitch suspiciously. He never liked that tone, not from anyone. "What time is it..?"

Nick snorted, jostling up an arm and glancing at his bare wrist. "I dunno. Let me check my watch.." He turned around, raising his hand so it sat between his eyes and the squat window inlaid into the wall, barely spilling the dark gold of the swampy morning. "Just about exactly morningish."

Rochelle rolled her eyes from where she sat, stretching her arms over her head before she started to push her blanket off and stand. She rather dryly prodded him as she reached to find her boots and slide them onto socked feet. "You're cranky.. wake up on the wrong side of the couch this morning?"

Nick stiffened up, hackles rising as the phrase struck him. That couldn't have been a coincidence - as much as he desperately wanted it to be. Tightening his jaw, Nick turned around, gaze turning scathing as his heart skipped a few beats.

But she wasn't even looking at him, tightening the straps of her boots with delicate tugs. Her expression was settled in this half-entertained smile. Nick hadn't inhaled a breath to snap at her before Coach interrupted gruffly.

"Cut the boy a break, babygirl... I ain't in a good mood either." He slowly started pushing himself up, chuckling a little as he rolled toward the edge of the bed. "Mornin', Nick."

Nick gave a monotone grunt as a response, eyeing Rochelle and her smile with a sense of restlessness. What if she'd seen them sleeping - that ridiculous spooning he'd somehow initiated in the middle of the night? How could he deal with them finding out?

Rochelle stood up with another yawn, stepping over to the edge of the bed. "How're you doing, Coach? You seemed pretty okay by the time I fell asleep."

"Fine, babygirl." Coach affirmed, sitting up on the edge of the bed and reaching a hand over his shoulder to touch onto his back. "Ain't hurtin' no mo', jus' a little stiff."

She gently leaned around him, looking over his back and tenderly peeling his shirt up to look at his bandages. "We should probably head out as soon as we can. I don't want to push you too hard, but we're so off-track, you know?"

Nick crossed his arms tightly, feeling a frown entrenching on his features. Rochelle's normality eased some of his worry, but he still felt... awkward. A little angry. He sighed weightily, rolling from heel to heel. "We'll walk slow. If we're going through goddamn marshes, we're going to want to stick close to each other, anyway."

Coach snorted a bit, bending to pick up their backpack from the ground just beside the bed. He pulled it into his lap, minding not to bump Rochelle as she worried over his back, and dug into the main pocket. "Crazy man mentioned a dock, didn't he? Maybe we'll be a'ight."

"As if." Rochelle teased with a laugh, settling his shirt back down with a small sigh. Her brows fretted into a small knot as she stepped back, crossing her arms. "Looks pretty good. Those things are vicious, huh.."

"Bit.." the big man agreed a bit wearily, giving up his digging in the backpack as he pulled out a plastic-wrapped cinnamon roll. "Here." He tossed one toward Nick, barely glancing over as the conman caught it with a slight crinkle of his nose.

Nick tucked it into a pocket, the plastic crinkling under his fingers, then held his hand up again.

"Something for Overalls, too."

As Coach obliged, tossing a second one over, Rochelle moved to sit next to him on the edge of the bed. "You and Ellis should look around for some weapons we can keep with us. We're going to be out of bullets pretty soon... there's got to be tools around here or something." Rochelle offered up, simply, taking one of the packages from Coach and starting to tear it open. "We'll check around in here to see if there's anything useful."

Nick sighed slightly, grating his teeth together subtly. He shrugged, backing up a few steps toward the door. "Fine, fine... but hurry up."

They didn't argue as he left, shutting the door behind himself, and he turned around to face Ellis. He tossed the bun unceremoniously at the kid, hitting him in the shoulder and startling a "Nnghn whu-" out of him before he shifted enough from his slight doze to comprehend.

Digging it out from behind himself, Ellis flashed the conman an oblivious smile. "Oh.. thanks, Nick.." He bit onto a corner, twisting his head to tear into the plastic and happily peel it away from the pastry.

Nick shrugged, raking fingers through his hair. He felt rushed, wanting to get out of the trailer and alone. The idea of being found out fucking Ellis was bad enough - but then having to be around those people constantly, the knowledge floating around like some kind of contagion?

He'd rather have shot himself.

"Sure." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks and turned to cross the cramped trailer, irately chewing his lower lip, only to hear Ellis' chirruped voice call after him.

"Where yuh goin', Nick? Ain't ya gonna eat somethin'?"

Nick didn't even look back, glancing upward as a plea to somebody to let him get away successfully as he carefully enunciated, "I'm going to go take a look around for some weapons. Hick's gotta have something dangerous lying around."

There was a pause where Nick thought he could slip away. Unfortunately, he'd just gotten a hand on the doorknob when he heard the leather couch creaking as Ellis shifted to get up. "You shouldn't go on yer own, 'specially if yer gonna be pokin' around that guy's stuff."

Nick half-turned, scowling, as he watched Ellis flinch his way up to his feet. He shoved his cinnamon bun between his teeth, the heavily processed pastry dangling from his lips, and gingerly stepped across the trailer toward Nick.

"I can handle it fine, and it's not like you're loads of help right now." Nick scathingly pointed out, feeling his fingers clutch and relax slowly. He was trying excruciatingly hard not to lash out, knowing full well the kid would just get sulky again.

Ellis shook his head dismissively, freeing the bun from the clench of his teeth with one hand and chewing on the little nibble he'd torn off accidentally. "Naw, I just gotta walk it out, is all. Company's good, anyhow."

"I don't want company." Nick growled stubbornly, feeling his irritation mounting.

"Sure yuh do." was Ellis' cheerful retort, catching up and gesturing Nick to continue through the doorway with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Overalls," the gambler snapped, leaning toward him to growl quieter, startling the mechanic a little. There went not lashing out. "I said no. Go sit the fuck d-"

The bedroom door across the trailer opened up, Coach trudging out with a little creak of the mobile home as he moved across it. He glanced up at the two men by the door, deepset eyes uninterested and a brow rising quizzically.

Nick opened the door, grabbed Ellis' sleeve, and shoved him down the stairs all in the same motion. He didn't look back as he followed after, growling quietly to himself and slamming the door slightly. The gambler stood with a tight scowl as Ellis caught his balance and gingerly winced, turning toward him.

"Jeez, Nick.. whut's up with you today..?" The Georgian had a slight scrunch to his brows, uncertain and edging into frustration. He tore a piece of his breakfast roll off, popping it into his mouth with a slight noise of appreciation.

The conman rolled his shoulders in their sockets, giving a sigh. Some of the immediate hurry dissipated with being out of the trailer, but having Ellis there hadn't been his preference. "Bad mood."

Nick turned away from him, scanning the dusty-gold morning and the foggy clearing around them. A broken-down truck, wheels long gone and chassis overtaken by creeping weeds, and a small shack against the treeline seemed the best options for hunting weapons.

He stiffened when he felt a hand touch his elbow, gripping his sleeve. He looked over his shoulder, slowly, to find Ellis frowning at him. That pretty face was drawn with enough concern to overwhelm his discomfort, gaze hesitant. "Nick, did I screw somethin' up..?"

Nick could've groaned, trapped under that look. He shifted his weight, feeling a strangled sense of frustration and sighing at it. "You.. didn't. Look, we can both agree neither of us wants Ro' and Coach finding out about last night, right?"

The mention of it made Ellis blink, hand releasing Nick's sleeve as he took a half-step back and turned a little red. He scratched at the back of his neck bashfully, swallowing slowly. "Uh..."

"Yeah, no. So I'm on edge... I don't want to deal with that bullshit, not one goddamn bit, and you acting clingy isn't helping."

Ellis kept scratching, slower, focusing his gaze on his breakfast roll as he tried to stifle his embarrassment. "I just didn't want you walkin' around alone, Nick - I ain't tryin' tuh cause you trouble."

Nick dug his hands deeper into his pockets, inhaling through his nostrils slowly. "Just watch it, Ace. If they find out... that's not what I want to be dealing with while I fight for my life through a swamp."

Ellis nodded, carefully, and reached up to adjust his cap. "Sorry, Nick.." He bit his tongue momentarily, then glanced up out from under the bill of his cap and risked; ".. you asked me if I regretted it.. You don't, do yuh?"

That made Nick smirk suddenly, even if there was some exasperation there. The conman, confident with the door being shut behind them, leaned forward to grab Ellis' jaw and tip his face up. He licked a fleck of cinnamon from the kid's lower lip, startling him into a gasp.

"Dipshit." he informed him simply, releasing him with a small push just to make him stumble.

It was .. a non-answer. He couldn't say he regretted it, but the question didn't sit well with him, either. He couldn't very well say 'no, not at all, in fact I needed it pretty badly' as was the truth, but he didn't want to say yes, either.

How could he manage to reassure the kid without encouraging the very clinginess that was making him so anxious? There was no good answer, and it was all complicated further by the fact that he was starting to like the younger man's company.

So he didn't really say anything.

Nick saw the little pained wince as Ellis re-caught his balance, pressing his wrist to his mouth in a quick motion to wipe his lips clean, and shook his head. "I told you to stay lying down. It's going to be miserable enough dealing with your whining the whole way, without you making it worse."

Ellis brushed his clothes flat with his palms, lifting his chin a little with something like defiance. There was a smile in his eyes, kept low. "I ain't gonna whine; Coach was walkin' with his back cut up 'n' he didn't say a damn thing."

Nick snorted, reaching up to rake his fingers through his hair again. "We'll see."

The conman felt Ellis walking close at his elbow as he turned to walk toward the shack he'd seen. It looked like it might be a toolshed - they could only hope. "So we're lookin' fer weapons?" Ellis prompted, past his chewing on another mouthful of cinnamon roll, cocking his cap up on his head with a nudge of his wrist.

"'Nail planks'n'shit', yeah." the gambler mocked lowly, quoting the mechanic's words back at him. Ellis laughed, clearly catching on, and he rolled his eyes. "We're so close to being out of ammo, this might be our last chance to find some good stuff. And hell, if anyone can find something dangerous in a shed, it's you, right?"

"Heh." Ellis scratched at the back of his head, squinting one eye. He stepped around Nick, limping a little to trudge up to the shed and peer at it before trying the rickety-looking door to see if it was locked.

The dingy wood swung open with a small unpleasant noise of crunching hinges, spilling light in on the shelves and boxes inside. Ellis was just about to make a comment, releasing the door handle, when something in the hinges suddenly snapped outright and the door came tipping over like an over-sized domino.

"Mother Mary!" Ellis yelped, tossing up his hands to catch it and doing an odd shuffle backwards as the weight was a little too much to hold up at first. Nick broke into a laugh at the sight, a brow cocked and expression trapped in a smirk, but he did step forward and grip onto the edge of the door to help lower it to the ground as Ellis crawled out from under it.

"And that's why I make you go first." he taunted dryly as they both straightened, turning his hands over in suspicion of splinters.

Ellis stuck his tongue out with a shake of his head, straightening his cap and sighing in disappointment as he realized he'd dropped the last few bites of his roll in the scuffle. "I was gonna say them hinges didn't sound good... dammit."

Nick snorted, curling his fingers in his lapels and gesturing at the shed. "Anything in there?" he prompted, encouraging Ellis to check it out in his place. He could see the spiderwebs from there. Ellis 'hmm'ed, stepping over the fallen door with those heavy workboots tromping loudly. He ducked into the shed and started to dig through the shelves curiously.

"Few things." Nick could hear the clanging of metal against metal as Ellis poked around, not quite successful in doing it quietly. He wasn't too worried considering their distance from the first trailer. "There's a shovel in here... couple saws - that'd be pretty damn messy, heh.. Oooh, an axe!"

He wasn't sure he liked the excitement in that last exclamation. Sighing a bit and pinching a brow, Nick rolled his neck. He noticed that the Georgian had himself bent at a weird angle to lean into the shed, and it left his rear in plain view. It wasn't a bad distraction. "Shovel sounds good, and the axe. Else?"

Nick had to jump when a shovel suddenly tossed itself out of the shed and landed by his foot, startling a "Sh- Ellis! That nearly hit me!" out of him.

"U-uh, sorry! I thought you were payin' attention!" Ellis did sound chagrined, leaning back to squint over his shoulder to make sure it really had been 'nearly.'

Nick grunted irately, bending down to somewhat unpleasantly grab hold of the shovel's grip and heft it, finding it a little lighter than he'd expected. The metal shaft must've been hollow. "Just pass the axe back, will you? I like my limbs where they are."

Ellis nodded in quick obedience, fighting a laugh and pinching his lips together, before he bent in again to work the axe out of wherever it was. He held it back out behind himself, waiting for Nick to drop the shovel and take it from him.

Ellis dug back in once his hands were free, something falling over and clattering softly. "Umm, rake ain't much use.. hedgeclippers?"

Nick curled his lips in disgust at the concept, rolling his eyes and swinging the axe loosely. The effort behind meticulously snipping off zombie limbs was not a pleasant thought. "Should see if there's something in the truck. Wrench or something."

"Yeah, I don't see nothin' else real useful in here fer zombie killin'.." Ellis agreed, voice muffled as he leaned in to dig into a box. "Yuh wanna go look?"

Nick shrugged a little bit, moodily straightening his jacket and tossing the axe up to rest against his shoulder as he moved to walk toward the broken down truck. "If that guy shoots us for messing with his stuff, I'm ducking behind you..."

Ellis laughed after him, audibly. "He has a shotgun, man. It'd go right through both'uv us."

Crinkling his nose heavily, Nick shook his head. "Sick." He smirked a little anyway, somewhat unhappily pushing through higher grass as he waded up toward the truck. He grasped onto the edge of the truck bed, hoisting up a bit to look inside. There was a tool chest up against the carriage, and he reached over to drag it toward himself and pop it open.

Digging through screwdrivers and hammers of various sizes in the unorganized container, he was at first disappointed to find mostly small tools and nails. It took getting down pretty close to the bottom for him to see the slim edge of something long - drawing it out, he was pleased to find himself wielding the wicked coil of a crowbar.

He hefted it, leaning back out of the truck and stepping away. The quirked tip was sharp and the whole thing sturdy steel, and he was rather content with it. "Hey, kiddo. Look what I f-"

He stopped, blinking, as he turned his head to find Ellis standing a few feet from the shed, mouth caught open in awe. Clutched in his hands was the rusty red shape of a chainsaw, serrated teeth jutting out along the blade.

"Ohh maah gaaawd.." he heard from afar, like the kid had just found Jesus.

Nick quickly palmed over his forehead, exasperated, and tucked his crowbar underneath his belt to let the hooked tip catch on it. He jogged back toward the other man, gesturing at the machinery with a look of disbelief. "I leave you alone for five seconds and you find a fucking chainsaw?!"

Ellis held it up in awe, grinning hugely. "Look, man! It's gaawrgeous! Aw, you CAN'T say this ain't awesome!"

The conman put his hands to his hips, forcing out a sigh. "I'm saying it. This ain't awesome. This ain't awesome at all. You'll have to carry that thing, and it'll just be more of a burden than anything else."

Ellis wasn't daunted in the slightest, lovingly inspecting the chainsaw's handle and mouth, wielding the thing with far too much enthusiasm. "I can carry it fine! It's AMAZIN', man! Killin' zombies with a chainsaw! That's like a dream come true! Man, I can't wait tuh brag tuh Keith about this!"

The trailer door (theirs, fortunately) opened with a small creak, and Coach trundled down the stairs with a hand up to rub at his forehead. He spotted the two after a moment, but stayed near the trailer, leaning up against it with a brow lifting. He called out, "What you two arguin' 'bout? Any luck?"

Nick gestured to Ellis in disbelief, calling back exasperatedly. "The dipshit wants to take a chainsaw with us, like it's not a heavy, loud, near useless piece of junk. Talk some sense into him, please, Coach?"

The big man looked between the two (Ellis still enthralled with the chainsaw) dubiously for a moment, then broke into a weighty chuckle and shrugged a shoulder. "Let 'im take it if he wants to. Can always drop it if we need."

Nick stared him down, certain the man was just agreeing with Ellis to be contrary, and gave a frustrated pinch of his nose as Ellis whooped cheerily and darted back toward the shed to dig inside and - Nick could only guess - find a strap for the thing to lash it to his back.

The conman just shook his head and walked moodily toward the trailer, stopping to pick up the shovel and axe in either hand. "We found a few things - y'know, other than a fucking chainsaw..."

Coach chuckled again as Nick walked up. His general sense of weariness still lingered, like he'd seen all this before and was just repeating the motions, but he looked considerably improved. "Mm-hm. Babygirl found something too."

Nick lifted a brow, holding the shovel out in offering. Coach accepted it, inspecting it a moment before just lowering it by his waist. "Yeah?"

The trailer door swung open again, and Rochelle stepped out with a cast-iron frying pan balanced on her shoulder. Nick looked at her with one of the dullest stares he'd managed all morning. She flashed him a bit of a grin. "Hey, worked for Frank West..."

The conman just shook his head in disbelief, rubbing at his face in exasperation. "Chainsaw, shovel, crowbar, and frying pan. That's just wonderful. We're a real superhero team now."

Rochelle hopped down the stairs laughing, patting his shoulder with her free hand and leaning out to wave over at Ellis. "We're not quite out of bullets yet; you'll have a little more time with your precious machine gun... Ellis, sweetie, are you about done?"

The kid tramped up to his feet proudly, so excited he'd apparently forgotten about his sore rump (for the moment at least), and hoisted up the chainsaw to throw his arm through his makeshift strap, a tied-up piece of leather that looked like he'd torn it off something. The strap was tight, holding the chainsaw firmly to his back, and he loped back toward them joyously.

"This is so cool, Ro'!"

Rochelle giggled a bit, shaking her head, and reached up to tickle his cheek when he got close enough. "Take that axe from Nick, honey. That thing's gas-run, yeah? Won't be any more reliable than our truck."

He obediently turned around and held out a hand to Nick, grinning. Nick gave him an unimpressed shake of his head, sighing, as he handed the hick the axe and crossed his arms, glad to be rid of the weight.

"Okay, folks." Coach gruffly interrupted, straightening up and adjusting the backpack slung over his arm. "'Nough time wastin'. We got places to be 'n marshes to cross - y'all ready?"

"Yeah, yeah, just hold on." Nick grumbled moodily, turning to jog back to the 'porch' at the rear of the trailer. He found himself smirking as he picked up his machine gun, throwing its strap over a shoulder, and Ellis' shotgun, carrying it with. His gaze lingered on the table, amusement and an odd sense of warmth trickling down his spine.

It may have been stupid - but worth it.

Nick returned to the group, tossing Ellis his shotgun and swiftly starting across the clearing. The others followed his cue, and they aimed themselves back toward the river they'd been following before.

"Least it ain't rainin' no more." Coach pointed out with rare, blatant optimism, swinging his shovel idly to loosen up his shoulders as they walked.

Ellis laughed gently, walking in Nick's footsteps with his free hand up to grip onto his chainsaw's strap, swinging his weight a bit gleefully. He was utterly tickled with himself, and it didn't seem much could dampen his joy. "I thought the rain was nice. Cleansin' 'n whutnot."

Nick snorted with a glance over his shoulder, dryly. "You'd be the one to find a silver lining in being trapped in a goddamn rainstorm.. I for one, did not fuckin' enjoy getting soaked."

Rochelle rolled her eyes slightly and glanced down at her boots with some kind of inward humor as Ellis retorted, grin widening. "Least it didn't happen while we were really IN the swamp! Yuh'd really be mad then. Get all muddy."

The conman narrowed his gaze a little. He couldn't even smirk at that, shivering at the mere suggestion. "Madder than I'll be at going through a swamp at all?"

Ellis was just about to start considering that when, as the four tromped past it, the redneck's trailer door suddenly swung open a few inches. It gave a horrendous screech as it did, like it had rusted just overnight.

"HEY!" the old man hissed loudly, and Nick stiffened up, going for his machinegun reflexively. Rochelle jolted to grab his arm and stop him, giving him a 'don't' look. She very gingerly turned to peer toward the door and the two, gleaming steel eyes inspecting them from afar.

"Sir, we just took a few of your things. We need them pretty badly.. if you want something in return, we-"

"They're crazy. ALL of 'em."

There was an awkward silence after the eerie, paranoid little snarl she got in response. The four traded glances delicately, Nick making a very concerted effort not to say a word, considering how much the old man had made it clear he hated him.

"...What do you mean?" Rochelle prompted with the gentlest tone she could manage, nervous.

"They'll kill ya… They don't care. They want you dead." Nick felt weirdly nervous after the man's muttering... he swore those steel, fierce eyes were pointed directly at him - but the words weren't threatening. They were warning.

Ellis adjusted his cap carefully, squinting slightly, and frowned a bit. "They're zombies, man... we been fightin' 'em, we'll be alright.. you just keep safe in here, huh, man? We-"

The man suddenly swept the door all the way open, shouting furiously as he leaned out, his wiry torso trembling with the effort. "Git outta here!" The trailer door slammed shut violently, and something clicked, leaving only silence as the man locked himself in.

Rochelle slowly glanced between the other three, nervously scratching the back of her head.

"...anyone else want to go?"

They didn't even nod, just all slowly moved to continue out of the clearing, maybe a little faster after that.

Chapter Text

Nothing could dampen Ellis' determination. He was bursting with energy, like the weight of the chainsaw lashed to his back lightened him, and he confidently slogged forward at the head of the group as what had been fairly flat ground began to melt into soggy, dipping marshes. The fog thickened, making it harder to see and disguising puddles that he tromped through without a care.

He trooped through the pain that every step sent stabbing up his spine, thinking it'd get easier if he just pushed through it - and it did, a little, as his adrenaline peaked and numbed some of it.

The zombies had started appearing in the misty swamps the moment they left the redneck's clearing. Ellis knew he still had a stash of bullets for his shotgun in the pockets of his coveralls, but he let the thing stay strapped to his shoulder and stuck underneath the bulk of his chainsaw, using his axe instead.

The four scrambled through a patch of thick shrubs, on alert. It was hard to see the infected before they attacked, the mist obscuring their slumped and sometimes sitting forms within bramble and emaciated trees, and it lent a very claustrophobic sense to their surroundings. It took a lot of effort to keep track of where they were, following parallel to the river as it dipped and curled.

The air was humid and unpleasant, making them all huff, and Nick scowled as a mosquito smacked straight into his cheek. He wiped it off with a grunt, jogging swiftly just behind Coach and Rochelle. Ellis swore the conman's gaze kept slanting up toward him.

Ellis grinned, feeling that little jump of his heartbeat he'd started to experience under the survey of those green eyes, and looked forward again to watch his steps over the musky ground.

It made him move a little faster, determined not to give into the pain threatening up his spine with each step. Looking weak in front of Nick was a secondary concern only to this loyal sense that he had a responsibility now to keep what was between them - whatever that was - secret. Nick's stress that morning had solidified that much in his head; he wasn't about to give into the pain and make it worse.

"I told y'all this was just like them zombie movies!" Ellis called breathlessly over his shoulder, grinning, oblivious as usual. "Can't believe we're in a swamp! If them zombies don't get us, the blood farmers will, man.."

"Doesn't the comedic relief always die early on in movies?" Nick shot back, grunting as he ignored the latter part of Ellis' comment. He was keeping surprisingly close to the group compared to his usual tendency to hang back, Ellis noticed - he cracked a bit of a smile at the observation.

'He's warming up' was nicer to think than just 'he doesn't want to get lost in the swamp,' even if Ellis knew better.

Rochelle snorted as she high-stepped it over a particularly deep-looking puddle in the grass with a small hand from the ever-watchful Coach. "Erm.. Blood farmers, sweetie?"

"Yeah, Ro'. That crazy guy back there was just the start. We ain't hit real swamp country yet! They eat people 'n shit out here."

He heard Coach snort behind him, the big man sounding a little disbelieving. He was using his shovel as idle support, like a walking stick, the sharp-edged scoop digging into the ground with every other step. "Son, you ain't right in the head.."

Ellis shook his head, turning about on the thick heels of his workboots to walk backwards and illustrate the words pointedly with the head of his axe. "Naaww, man! Muh buddy Keith met some once! See, he was tryin' tuh -"

His story cut itself off at a sharp "Overalls, look out!" from Nick. The Georgian twisted around with a slightly burdened wobble under the load of his chainsaw coupled with the rigidity of his pained lower body, startled to see -

nothing.

He scrunched his brows slightly, turning his head a bit to squint in either direction into the marshy surroundings, wielding his axe with flexing fingers. Ellis gave in as Rochelle started to laugh, rotating his head and pushing out his lower lip in a confused expression at the conman.

Nick was smirking for the first time in a half hour, swinging his crowbar in idle circles with an expertly turning wrist. "Keep focused on the whole 'walking' thing or you will get jumped, Ay-lus."

Ellis felt a warmth dart over the bridge of his nose as he realized he was being made fun of, re-facing forward with a quick tightening of his fingers on his axe. "I-I was payin' attention! Just warnin' y'all..."

The Southern drawl Nick mocked him with was a strange mix of hilarious and embarrassing, and there was an intensity behind it that made Ellis' face heat up. He felt like there was something past the bluster of the insult, like it might've been affectionate at the source.

He felt that often.

"This swamp is creeping me out." Rochelle admitted in a low tone, adjusting her grip on her skillet. "I hope you guys are sure about this whole thing... I still think we might've been better off turning around.."

Nick scoffed, shaking his head solidly as he avoided some knee-high brambles, grousing wordlessly under his breath. "Toward what, Ro'? You think it would've gotten better going backwards?"

She shrugged her shoulders, glancing back at him with a small frown. "I didn't argue, did I? I just can't help but wonder if we're making a mistake... what if they had more evacs set up and we went the wrong way?"

Coach sighed lightly, shaking his head and speaking up before the visibly riled Nick could retort. "We had to make a choice, baby girl." The conman just glanced off to the side, unbothered to be pushed out of the argument.

Ellis grinned a little as his boots sloshed through a puddle, something distinctly squishing underfoot, glancing over his shoulder again and piping up optimistically. "We'll make it fine, Ro'! 'N we're goin' tuh the beach. Ain't that neat?"

She smiled at him, laughing with a shake of her head as she lifted up a hand to wipe over her forehead. A heavy sigh passed her lips, gesturing her frying pan around to their surroundings. "Ellis, you are crazy ... how can you think about the beach right now? I think I'm growing moss in my lungs.."

He chuckled a bit, hearing a snarl a few feet to the side and turning to face it, axe going up defensively. His voice kept a ramble even as he hacked clumsily at the onrushing zombie, catching it right in the shoulder and nearly lopping off a good portion of its neck. His breath huffed a little around his words, the pain stinging along his pelvis making it a little hard to start back walking after the zombie was dead.

"It ain't that hard. I ever tell y'all 'bout the time muh buddy Keith stuck himself in a freezer fer like an hour? He spent the whole time thinkin' of fires'n'shit tuh try and warm up. 'Pparently it really helped! ... 'course, now that I'm thinkin' 'bout it, that might'uh been the hy-po-thermia.. man, cold burns over ninety five percent of his body. Would'uv lost fingers iffin he hadn't'uh curled up around his hands!"

"You're both total nutcases." Nick muttered as he smacked a branch away from his face, unpleasantly cringing his brows as the slimy feel of waterlogged wood clung to his skin. Ellis was startled by the next phrase - sure, the conman had humored him last night when they were alone, feeding into his stories and honestly listening.. but he hadn't expected it to continue.

"Why the hell was he even in a freezer?"

Ellis felt his face light up, adjusting his cap carefully and raising his voice with a hitch of laughter, grinning. "He wanted tuh figure out if he could live in Alaska. It was one'uh them - uh - trial runs."

Rochelle released a loud laugh, almost startled, shaking her head in disbelief.

Coach grunted a bit, scruffled features drawing into a slight grin even as he pushed forward into the swamp. His bum knee gave him some difficulty on the rough terrain, but the eldest was never one to give in to difficulty. "Gotta give him credit... he's darin'."

"That's a.. nice way to put it." Nick snorted slightly, making Ellis laugh.

He stepped up to a fallen log crossing over their path, gingerly climbing over it with a wince stifled into his shoulder. It honestly did hurt, and having to bend up to clamber over it knocked the wind out of him.

He stumbled getting off, and he thought Nick noticed. He felt that little prickle of awareness as a gaze locked onto him, but there wasn't time to get questioned. As his boots settled down in the sagging ground on the other side, a strained "uurrrhbbh" groaned a few feet to the side.

Ellis quickly moved to get his footing, bracing himself with one hand on the log and the other lifting his axe up.

Stumbling out from the enshrouding mist around them was the bloated, almost bubbly shape of a zombie Ellis immediately recognized from the inside of the van he'd cracked open in Savannah. It staggered through the water on wobbly legs, stubby arms swinging to keep up momentum, the putrid skin of its frame stretched over billowing lard.

"Awwh, gross!" he complained with a slight edge of giddiness, backing up and straightening his cap as the thing moaned with a burp and seemed to eye him, its already questionable gait slowed by the swamp it was mired in. "It's that thing again, Nick.."

He was quickly joined by the other three, vaulting over the log, Coach only with some difficulty. Less, Ellis swore, than he had. "Egh.." the conman muttered with a crinkled nose, looking ill as he inspected the thing's unhurried staggering. "Someone want to shoot it?"

Rochelle started to pull out her pistol from the holster at her hip, brows lifting as she moved to aim at it. She found herself laughing just a little, hesitating. "You don't want to give it a little hug, Nick?"

The conman rolled his eyes, firmly asserting as he took a few steps back, "No way I am getting near that fat-ass... no offense, Coach.."

The big man started to turn his head toward Nick, expression scrunching into a look of dry unamusement. "Boy, watch yo'se-"

That was precisely when the zombie decided to vomit, whole body shuddering with the effort to throw forward its head and spray over what must've been feet of distance. All four of them shouted out in one horrified sound, and they scattered to try and get away from the fluid.

"Oh, fucking tits!" was Nick's utterly disgusted outburst as he got his feet under himself and desperately checked himself for splatter. He looked about ready to burst something, flushing with agitation. "Of all the goddamn zombies -!"

Coach shook a chunky mess off his arm, looking sickened before glancing up to see that the zombie had disappeared into the mists when they'd jumped away. He took in a heavy breath and shook his head, disgusted at the stench. "That is so damn nasty..."

"Oooh, why didn't we shoot faster.." Rochelle whined a little, shaking her hands squeamishly even though they'd all pretty much escaped the vomit - or the worst of it, at least. "I don't even remember CEDA talking about a puke zombie."

Ellis chuckled, pulling at his shirt to shake off a bit of blowback that had struck the fabric, wrinkling his nose at the steaming green mess that was splattered on the grass and the smell it was letting off. "At least we're already gross, huh?..."

"Getting puked on by a goddamn zombie is not my idea of a good time... what the fuck kind of defense is that?!" Nick fumed, fanning his face to try and flush some of the stench from his still-bruised nose. He backed away from the vomit-stained ground, growling, "Goddamnit.. let's just.. keep going."

He halted to the suddenly piercing sound of approaching shrieks, rising up in a directionless echo that seemed to come from all sides - or maybe it did.

"Uhh.." Ellis started, tensing up as he lifted his head to look around. The sound was quickly growing louder, reverberating off each other above their heads like conflicting waves meeting in frothing crashes. "That kind..?"

"Shit." Rochelle cursed loudly, grabbing tight to her frying pan in one hand and her pistol in the other. She set off at a sprint, vaulting this way and that to make it over the uneven, marshy ground. "Run!"

Ellis could tell right off the bat it was a bad idea - the pain of running that hard rose up in gnawing, straining flickers, faster than the adrenaline could. His vision threatened to blur, forcing him to focus on the colors and shapes of the other three and chase after them.

The horde came like a flood of hungry wolves, sprinting out from the mist and skidding to sprint in their footsteps. Ellis knew he was lagging behind, whimpering as he forced himself to turn, hacking behind himself with the axe. He felt it connect with something with a squelch, quickly returning his focus to not tripping.

"Is runnin' really a good choice?!" Coach shouted, voice gruff and severe, the collision of his shovel with a zombie's body audible as it crushed bones.

"I'm sure as fuck not stopping!" was Nick's yelled response. "There's too fucking many!" Ellis tried to work up the breath to say something - but he didn't have any, this numbness settling in under the pain the work was putting into his body. His eyes were tearing up, weight flinging into each step just to manage.

A hand clawed at his shoulder, stumbling him, and he barely swiped his axe back in time to split the hunting arm from its body before its sharp fingers dug in. For the first time he regretted dragging the chainsaw with - it made everything harder, and the weight of it was jamming into the dip of his lower back and grinding in the pain.

His workboots sailed over puddles and rocks, catching here and there and threatening repeatedly to trip him up as the discomfort left him breathless.

When something grabbed hold of his shirt, clawing into the flesh of his back and tugging, he just collapsed forward into the ground, hitting hands and knees hard. The zombie bowled over him, scratching for his face, but the bulk of his chainsaw kept it almost at arms' length.

Ellis tried to shake it off, pushing with his shoulders, but all that did was make it claw harder. Another one joined it with a thud that nearly prostrated him, and Ellis felt like he was going to be dogpiled and devoured within moments.

White suddenly flashed into his field of vision, so startling and abrupt he thought he was passing out... but no, it was that warmly familiar, dirty white that made up Nick's slacks, sprinting closer and just barely skidding to a halt before him.

Something cracked overhead as metal crowbar met flesh, the weight of the zombies trying to climb on top of him suddenly flinging off and blood dusting his cheek from the impact. Nick straightened from the swinging of his crowbar, dropping down quickly to a crouch.

Ellis' whole spine spasmed painfully as he dropped to a hunched sit and his weight collapsed onto his rump. He tried to push against the ground and stand up, but his body was too numb, adrenaline exhausted.

Nick's face materialized in front of his, leaning, with a fierce scowl and intensely focused gaze. "Fuck, Ellis!" It was half a question and half a statement, and Ellis was suddenly aware of the tears streaming down his cheeks. He tried to choke something out, but Nick was already leaning over him, dragging the chainsaw off of his back with oddly gentle yanks.

The moment it was free and in his hands, the conman stood up, stepping over Ellis with one leg to stand with the younger man's curled form straddled by his calves. Ellis tried to move again, feeling his wet face heat up and throat close with humiliation as he shook his head to try and clear the tears from his eyes. A sharp "Stay!" from Nick made him freeze, twisting his head in time to see Nick yank the ripchord with a growl.

The chainsaw roared to life in his hands, chugging audibly on gasoline, blade just spinning up as the first wave of zombies hit them.

Nick braced it against a cocked hip, shoving the spinning teeth to catch the attacking bodies that vaulted toward them before they made it. The spray was awful, gore and separated limbs going every which way as the blade mowed through flesh and bone.

The conman laughed slightly, sounding practically bewildered - like he couldn't believe what he was doing - as his arms vibrated to the violent roaring of the saw. He hacked it in a half-circle to hold back a pressing wave, cringing under the splatter of blood.

They came in throes, knocked aside just as quickly. They didn't seem to have any kind of survival instinct, carelessly running at him, life extinguished instantly as the chainsaw hacked through vitals.

He chucked the thing away when the horde died out. The chainsaw's roar turned into a splattering squelch as it buried into the wet ground, spinning a little and digging down further before stalling into silence.

Nick crouched back down in front of Ellis, sighing harshly as his gaze ticked over the kid's expression, reading the pain in more places than just the tears. "Okay, you win, the chainsaw was a good idea."

Ellis gave a little hiccupped chuckle, glancing up through wet lashes and breaking into a frown soon after as he tried to push up to standing again, faltering with a tremble. Humiliation burned on his cheeks, and he shook his head. "I can't..."

"I know." Nick interrupted, brows twisting into a scowl as he heard Rochelle and Coach start to get themselves together and retrace their steps toward them. "It's my fault." He gave a deep inhale, frustrated, and moved.

Ellis found his throat closing up as Nick turned around in his crouch, reaching back his arms in offer. The gesture was clear; Nick was going to carry him on his back. "Nick.." Ellis barely managed, unsure and protesting, but the conman berated him quietly.

"Just get up, Overalls, and don't ... say anything. We have to go. Now. I'll come up with something."

Ellis carefully crawled forward, feeling his face heat up fiercely as he gripped onto Nick's shoulders tightly and curled against his back. He didn't want to, but he wasn't confident he could walk just then.

Nick gripped under Ellis' knees to brace him and pull his thighs against his waist, shoving up to stand with a firm grunt. The motion startled Ellis into jolting his arms around the conman's neck, hands clutching onto his own elbows, and he hid his face under the shadow of his cap.

"What happened? Ellis sweetie, are you okay?" Rochelle was immediately concerned, footsteps hurrying to rush back toward them, but Nick had already started walking and he didn't stop even as she reached him.

Nick's voice was terse when he responded, still supporting Ellis' knees with cupped hands. "He's fine. The dipshit took too much with him. Tripped and hurt himself. That horde nearly had him - go get his axe, Ro'."

Rochelle nodded, too visibly worried to mock the conman for his care just then. She ran back to find Ellis' abandoned axe, leaving Coach to eye the two with some disbelief. "Guess you were right, Nick." he admitted, pulling his gaze away to glance around them gaugingly.

Ellis felt his frown worsen, embarrassed, and he lifted his head a little from Nick's shoulder. Half of him tried to keep in mind the chainsaw hadn't actually been the problem - Nick's admittance echoing a little in his head - but he felt the guilt anyway. "'M sorry, guys..."

Nick's gaze flicked to the corner of his eyes, narrowing vaguely before he merely shook his head. The conman didn't seem troubled by the younger man's weight, but weighing him down was just another reason for Ellis to feel guilty.

He started to continue, squirming his weight, "I just dunno if I can -"

"Will you shut up, Overalls..?" Nick practically demanded, gritting his teeth. Ellis heard it in his voice as much as he felt it in the tension of his back: frustration, but not at him. "Christ."

"Better listen, son, if you're really hurtin'." Coach agreed, wearily turning to start moving when Rochelle caught back up, the two flanking Nick on either side as the conman trudged carefully forward. "Piss him off 'n' you're walkin'."

Rochelle sympathetically reached up to rub Ellis' shoulder, casting him a gentle smile sideways. "You'll be okay, honey. That really was a little much to sprint with."

Ellis wanted just a little to defend himself, but he merely nodded his head, tightening his arms around Nick's neck. Even like that, he hurt, but he simply bit his lower lip to stifle it. It was better, however stinging.

He felt embarrassed, humiliated, but when Nick's fingers squeezed onto his knees in a silent gesture - he felt a little better.

It started to drizzle again as they kept walking through the swamp, puddles swelling up and grass turning to almost mush underfoot. Nick immediately snarled a long series of complaints that continued on as they walked.

It took Ellis a while to realize it was never specifically about having to carry him through it.

Chapter Text

"Keith broke both his legs once... 'cept I didn't have tuh carry him or nothin' - he had tuh be like, in bed, fer weeks, 'cause the hospital was all smart on him 'n wouldn't give him no wheelchair. See, last one they gave him, he hooked it up tuh these fireworks tuh try'n make a rocket chair... damn thing caught on fire, 'n then his pants were burnin' too, 'n his cast - man, that shit was funny. Well, it wasn't real funny when he was tryin' tuh roll around with this huge cast on, like a beached whale on fire or somethin' - but when he put it out, it got funny again."

Nick's skin tingled with every word warmly ghosted against the shell of his ear. He swore he must've been deluded, but something about the Southern tone rambling on was pleasant. It lulled him through the sputtering rain and unpleasant stench of the swamp, like the humming the kid had done in the back of the truck they used to have.

Like white noise while trying to fall asleep.

Ellis spoke lowly, aware of how close his mouth was to Nick's ear, but almost thoughtlessly. His voice had a sweet hint of amusement to it, absent-minded. Coach had tried a few times to get the kid to hush, but especially with neither Nick nor Rochelle backing him up, Ellis would just start up again a few moments later.

"Hell, they didn't even give him crutches or nothin'. Didn't even think they could do that."

Rochelle laughed gently, stepping over a puddle and shaking her head. She was using her frying pan like an umbrella from the spastic rain only barely making it through the tight swamp canopy overhead. Ellis' axe was hooked in the back of her belt, his shotgun tossed over a shoulder by the strap. "Poor guy. He doesn't seem like he'd take bed rest very well."

Ellis shook his head, grinning just a bit and flexing his fingers slightly, turning his wrists to grip onto Nick's lapels. "He was sooo antsy, man... I tried tuh cheer him up, though."

"I'd love bed rest right now." Nick said simply, adjusting his grip on the hick's knees for the twentieth time. He was starting to get sore carrying Ellis, and his arms had long since gone fairly numb, needles crawling up his biceps when he moved them.

Not that he said a word - he still couldn't believe how much pain the guy had been in, and it knotted something strange in his gut. He should've been more careful. It wasn't like he hadn't known - he just hadn't thought. And he'd wanted it so bad.

Leave it to you to ruin the kid's first time, Nicolas, you idiot.

A sigh passed his lips, noticing that Ellis' arms had tightened around his neck again, those fit biceps hot against his neck. He shot a critical look sideways at the Georgian but said nothing, glad to notice Rochelle and Coach weren't focusing much on them.

He let his footsteps slow to put some distance between them, focusing on picking his way over the ground and sliding in line with Coach to let the bigger man plow a path through encroaching bramble.

"How're you doing, Fireball?" he uttered quietly once he'd lagged enough to feel comfortable, turning his head to eye the mechanic's expression as Ellis cocked his head onto the conman's shoulder.

Ellis fumbled slightly, rapidly turning embarrassed, unable to hide under the bill of his cap from Nick's level gaze. "Uh... you don't gotta keep carryin' me, man."

Nick snorted slightly, glancing forward and squinting into the swamp carefully. "Not what I asked, dipshit.." That quieted the kid, and Ellis only hesitantly adjusted his grip on the conman's neck, biting onto his lower lip. "...I'll take that as a 'still hurts.' You're kinda light, y'know, kiddo." Nick chuckled sardonically, a smirk settling onto his lips.

Ellis' brow scrunched up defensively, shaking his head quickly and nearly clocking Nick in the side of the face with his capbill. "Nuh-uh!"

"Yeah-huh."

"That's just mean, Nick..."

The conman broke into a dark chuckle, enjoying the huff of embarrassed breath against his ear. There was something ... very comfortable in Ellis' closeness. His body hummed lightly in appreciation of the warm press against his back. Any sense of their respective filth was numbed by the resigned awareness that they were both equally dirty and it probably wasn't going to change anytime soon.

"Hey.." Ellis gently prompted, turning his head again and actually hitting Nick that time. The tip of his cap bill nearly jabbed Nick in the eye, catching his temple, but he was talking before the conman could complain. "Thanks, though, Nick. I mean it."

Those arms tightened around his neck, and Nick smirked despite himself, shrugging his head to push them away with an air of play. "Why?" he returned under his breath. "I'm the one who hurt you in the first place."

Ellis' face lit up, turning slightly down into his bicep in embarrassment. "I sorta pushed you intuh it, though. It wasn't yer .. fault I got hurt, or nothin'.." he bravely challenged, head shaking. "I wanted tuh do it, too.."

Sure it wasn't, you dumbshit. Nick exhaled silently, jumping his weight mid-step to stabilize his balance with Ellis' added weight. He spoke in a low tone, a brow cocking and gaze focusing ahead.

"Don't mention it, kiddo... I'm in shape enough to drag your lazy hick ass a little. Not, however, up to saving it again when you screw yourself up worse being a dumbshit. It's this fucking swamp that's going to drive me nuts."

The Georgian grinned slightly, lifting his chin. His voice relaxed slowly, even gaining a bit of a confident taunt to it. "Yeah.. Yer suit ain't lookin' too good, man.."

Nick smirked, turning his head to narrow eyes at the other man's face, dangerously.

"I will drop you."

Both their heads lifted sharply when Coach's voice gruffly barked from ahead. "There's the river, y'all."

They'd gotten slightly disoriented when the horde had struck, and lost sight of the river's edge for some time. The fog, only barely lit by shattered, rain-damp afternoon light, hadn't helped their sense of direction at all.

Nick sped his footsteps up slightly, catching back up to Rochelle and Coach as smoothly as possible without being too obvious about it. Rochelle glanced back at him anyway, and he ignored it with a strong deadpan of faint irritation.

"And look," she prompted, lifting up a hand to point before rubbing her arms in a cold motion. The swamp trees broke open into the bank, morosely spewing fog down onto the surface of the fairly quickly-flowing river. "that guy actually told the truth. I can see a boathouse."

Ellis craned his head around Nick's, excitedly, as the conman pushed lightly around Rochelle to squint down the river with a sigh of relief. The dark shapes and angles of a dock jutting out into the water was topped by those of a building.

"Do we know where we are well enough to get around?" Nick risked somewhat dubiously, falling to light pants as he inspected the opposite shore.

It looked... basically identical to their side.

"Think so." Coach affirmed simply, rubbing the back of his head. "The highway's just a few miles off. 'Bout parallel to the river. We cross, we should hit it pretty quick just walkin' straight through the swamp."

"...Oh my God, it's Christmas - more shit water. Just what I always wanted."

Rochelle - ignoring the conman's gripes - nodded quickly at Coach, exhaling and turning to flash a confident smile. "We save a lot of time crossing the river instead of going all the way around it.. We should probably rest and eat there before we cross. Beyond that, though, we're going to have to hope we make it to town, because we didn't bring much more food."

A small groan from Coach made Nick smirk, and he sniped at the bigger man as they all turned carefully to start moving down the riverbank again. "Zombie apocalypse diet not working for you, Coach?"

The big man turned an unamused look toward him, shaking his head. "No man deserves to eat like this. Shit, I was too hurt to enjoy those damn sandwiches we had earlier."

Nick snorted, stepping over a puddle with a slight jump. Ellis spoke in friendly offer at his ear, and Nick felt him start fidgeting against his back. "You can have my part'uh lunch, Coach, if yuh want."

Coach laughed gruffly, shaking his head and adjusting his grip on his shovel. "Nah, son. I'm kiddin' around. You keep yo' lunch. I'll live 'till we find a city an' some real food."

"I'm hungry as shit." Nick complained in a low grumble, frustrated. "Ran out of smokes last night. They would make this whole episode a little less fucking insufferable."

"Yuh shouldn't smoke, Nick." Ellis informed him matter-of-factly, turning his head onto his shoulder and nodding. "It's bad fer yuh! Muh dad passed away smokin' too much. Lung cancer."

Nick's brow cocked, focusing forward. His immediate urge to smack the kid for chiding him was doused by that particular tidbit, and the conman was silent as he chewed on it without being certain of how to react. Ellis certainly didn't seem fazed by it.

Rochelle, on the other hand, immediately cooed, turning around to look back at him as she walked with a frown. "Aw, sweetie… I never knew that, I'm sorry!"

Ellis unwound one arm from Nick's neck, quickly scratching at his cap bashfully. "Naw, Ro', I wasn't even born when it happened. Still had muh mama." He flashed a smile, that idiotic grin, unflappable.

Nick retained his silence.

Rochelle shook her head lightly, palming a tree carefully for balance as she circled around it. A sigh left her lightly as she did so, boots sliding a little on a patch of mud. "Must've been hard, for both of you."

Ellis chuckled, licking his lips cautiously. "Sorta. S'why she spent so much time with Keith's mama 'n' pa, 'cause she needed some help while I was still a li'l guy. But Keith'n'I caused so much trouble, I dunno if she was better off!" He laughed louder, head tipping, a little chagrined.

"You're a good kid, son. 'Course she was." Coach injected, in that gruffly unquestionable tone he had a tendency to speak with. Rochelle nodded in rapt agreement, laughing gently.

Ellis smiled, burying his face against his bicep slightly and looking away with a blush filtering up over the bridge of his scarred nose. That seemed to end it - Nick filed the fact away in the back of his head, only then noticing he never really had mentioned a father.

There was a slight upward slope they had to scale to get to the small boathouse, the fog melting around them and clearing to allow a better view of it and the docks. There were two gas-powered boats hitched up to the dock by rotting rope, rust lacing their sides - Nick gave them a cursory inspection as he forced himself to carry Ellis up the hill, dubious.

"We'll check to see if those boats work.." Rochelle offered as she cocked a hip tiredly. Nick spared her a glance, and it was all the gambler could do not to frown. "You two check that boathouse out and see if there's anything in there."

Am I crazy, or does she keep putting us together all of a sudden? … No, I'm just being paranoid.

The conman didn't question her, though, merely nodding and shrugging his grip on Ellis' knees a little sturdier. "River's pretty fast. Don't know if we can paddle them over, if the engines don't work."

Coach shrugged at that, sighing a bit wearily. "We'll see." he gruffed simply, stepping past them and leading the way toward the dock, Rochelle moving forward after him.

Nick exhaled simply, walking toward the slightly run-down building with an interested gaze. Ellis held tight to his neck, looking around, adjusting his cap with a carefully lifted shoulder. "We ain't doin' too bad, eh, Nick? 'Specially considerin' the whole bridge-blown-up thing!"

The gambler snorted a bit, stepping up to the building's door and rolling back his weight onto his heels. "Careful, kiddo, I'd keep from saying too many things like that... karma, I told you before.." He gently pushed on the hick's knees, letting him down slowly.

Ellis cautiously climbed down from Nick's back, a slight flush darting over the bridge of his nose. He very gingerly settled onto his feet, standing with a slight wariness and delicacy. He flashed a smile when Nick cocked a brow at him. "'M fine."

Nodding simply, Nick turned back to the door and tried the handle. A displeased noise left him when it failed to turn, the door refusing to budge. He gave it a few extra yanks, aware of Ellis' gaze on him, then snapped a simple, "Goddamn door."

A hand swiped his crowbar from its safe holster under his belt, twirling the thing once before jamming its end between the door and the threshold. He smirked over his shoulder at Ellis. "Told you this would be handy."

The kid grinned and scratched at his head through his cap, watching a little curiously as Nick thrust his weight into the crowbar, cracking the door open with a loud snap as the doorjam that was holding it shut broke easily.

It nearly broke its hinges, too, and Nick reflexively darted a little to the side, clearly expecting it to collapse atop him just like the shed had done to Ellis. It simply sagged to one side, though, retaining its place in the threshold.

Ellis burst into a loud guffaw, covering his mouth with a wrist to try and stifle it. "Karma." he teased sweetly.

Nick's eyes rolled, darting a severe glare at him even as his mouth twitched into a smirk. "Smartass." he grunted, shoving the Georgian's cap down on his face before stepping through the door, ignoring the startled laughter he left in his wake.

It turned out to be more a shack than a boathouse, though the darkened and cramped space was devoid of any life. There was a dingy cot against one wall, a few shelves stuffed with trinkets, books, and fishing equipment, a single-chair, a lonely table - and, to Nick's extreme pleasure, what looked like an old gas stove in the middle. He strode quickly to it, bending forward to examine the knobs uncomprehendingly.

Nick spoke over his shoulder without looking, examining the coil in the center of the metal stove. There was a propane tank hooked up to the side, and the used his foot to kick it a little, hearing it slosh. It wasn't empty. "This might actually work. Oh Christ, I could really go for a hot meal right now... oh, something hot at ALL.. I do not fucking enjoy this 'roughing it' shit."

He heard Ellis chuckle gently behind him, not paying attention as he found a dial on the back. Twisting it, he could hear the soft hiss of gas escaping, but when he looked for a starter, there was nothing.

"Damnit. I think this is old-fashioned or something.. there's no flame. If I hadn't used up all my matches…"

Admittedly losing some of his enthusiasm under the new obstacle, Nick grunted, reaching out to shut off the gas rather than waste it. He straightened and turned around, scowl starting up - turning straight into Ellis.

The Georgian had tipped his hat far back on his head so the bill stuck up, and Nick's already started half-step settled their faces so close their noses brushed. The conman was startled, quickly settling and narrowing his eyes slightly in examination on Ellis' wide blue ones.

Ellis was red in the face before he'd even turned around, Nick could see it in the light drifting in from the doorway - and the kid didn't step back, just lifted his shoulders a little.

It hadn't been an accident.

Smirking lightly and slowly putting his hands back onto the front edge of the stove without moving his face, Nick lowered his voice to a ghosting whisper. "... you're awful forward for a good little Southern boy."

The word barely finished themselves on his lips before Ellis leaned himself forward, eyes shutting as he nestled his mouth to Nick's and bravely kissed him. The soft and yielding plush of his lips set a strong contrast to the stubble that scraped pleasantly against Nick's skin as the conman let Ellis do it, feeling the anxious shudder of warm breath dust against his cheek as the younger man's air escaped him.

Nick turned his head a few inches after a moment to break the kiss. He hummed simply in expectation and gazed half-lidded toward the doorway.

Ellis spoke up quickly, visibly embarrassed but oddly determined. He took a few steps back and dropped his chin to inspect his feet as he pulled his lips in to lick them. "Thanks fer savin' me back there..."

Nick wanted to smirk and scowl all at once. Ellis was clouding his judgement with those blue eyes and drawled voice - he was like this spot of warmth, and Nick was cold and sore. The intimacy pushed him so out of himself. How long had it been since he'd flirted like this...

And with a man, no less - that outright alarmed him.

"Sure, kiddo." he returned, turning away from him and kneeling in front of the cast-iron stove. He examined it, but didn't really look at it. He just knew he didn't want to look at Ellis, let alone meet his gaze. "It's not the first time."

Ellis smiled, with that warm blush and tipping his head in slight defiance, even where Nick couldn't see it. His tone went cocky, squinting faintly. "'Ey, I saved yers a few times, too..."

Nick stifled a laugh, turning his head to examine his surroundings instead, mulling over how to get a spark on the pilot. "You generally got me in trouble in the first place, too, kiddo." His wandering attention let him catch a sideglance at the younger man.

The smile on Ellis' face was glowing - stupidly pleased. He tugged his cap back into place, bashfully straightening his shirt, and shrugged up a shoulder against his jaw. "Let's see if we can find some way tuh start the stove up, Nick... I'd like somethin' hot, too."

The gambler nodded in agreement, smirking as he stepped away from the stove to kneel down in front of one of the couple shelves and start digging through it. Ellis hovered a little behind him, wary of kneeling or crouching. Every time Nick glanced at him, that stupid smile was still lingering.

Chapter Text

The smell of warming stew that started to encroach over the inside of the shack was one of the most wonderful things Nick had smelled in his entire life. Any other day, he would've looked at the contents - beef and potatoes, he thought, or at least some attempt to mimic them - with nothing but disgust.

That day, however, he couldn't have begun to care.

Not only had they managed to light the stove (Ellis found a metal file, and striking it with his axe had shot enough sparks to do the job) which he stood in front of now, stirring the four simultaneously heating cans of stew one by one with a pen they'd also found rummaging around… but Coach and Rochelle had walked back in with even better news: one of the boats was working.

"I want a shower." Rochelle complained lightly, gently beating her boots against the corner of the open door to try and shake muck free, seated just inside the shack. Coach was relaxing on the cot in the corner, Ellis having found a careful perch on the edge of the table nearby, swinging his boots slowly.

The shack was a little cramped, but they arranged themselves quickly. No one really argued when Nick grabbed the cans from the backpack and started to cut them open somewhat messily with the sharper end of his crowbar. His hunger was visible enough in the determined force of his motions that it seemed smart just to stay back.

"You could go take a dip in the river, Ro'." Ellis suggested cheerily, playing affectionately with his cap and twirling it a bit on a finger. He spun it, over and over, catching it every time it wobbled and nearly fell.

She snorted lightly, shaking her head and putting down her boots in favor of gently rubbing at her socked, wet feet, sighing. "..You're welcome to it, sweetie."

"Even I'm not that desperate." Nick stated simply with a small half-laugh, leaning forward to hover his face over the cans with a hungry sigh as his stomach gave a tense grumble. The ineffective, slow heat of the old stove was only starting to curl up through the tin.

Ellis noticed, resting his cheek against his shoulder and watching the gambler's impatient shifting. "Jeez, Nick. You usually snub yer nose at everythin' we've been eatin'."

"He likes complainin', that's all, son. Finally got too hungry to bother." Coach commented with a chuckle from his relaxed recline on the cot, hands settled on the bulge of his gut.

The kid opened his mouth, looking a little defensive, but Nick spoke first in annoyance and overrode him. He could tell Ellis was going to stand up for him - and that was not something he needed. "I can bitch if you want, Coach. I got plenty in reserve."

The big man cracked an eye open, glancing at him in consideration. After a moment, he chuckled again, settling his eyes back closed. "I take yo' point." Battle avoided, Nick leaned down and dipped a fingertip to the surface to one of the stew cans, popping it into his mouth with an almost lusty eye-roll.

It honestly didn't taste that bad.

"So, Rochelle." the conman prompted without turning around, casually cocking his hip to settle his weight into a slight lean. She looked up at him curiously and a little warily, not completely certain of his intent. Nick didn't make small talk - that was supposed to be Ellis' job. "Been meaning to ask you about something."

Turning around in her sit and resting her back against the threshold of the door, Rochelle pulled her legs into a crossed position and returned to rubbing her feet. Her brows lifted just a bit, interested. "Uhm, okay."

Smirking slightly and turning his head to glance at her over his shoulder, Nick lifted a brow.

"Boyfriend?"

Rochelle immediately lowered her head, more startled than embarrassed, straightening her spine a little and lifting hands to adjust her hairtie. "Jeez, suit... I didn't even really think you'd paid any attention when I mentioned it before."

"I pay attention when women turn me down. Ego."

Ellis perked up curiously, unable to stifle himself - though Coach didn't even open his eyes. It obviously wasn't news to him, Nick noted. "Oah, you got a boyfriend, Ro'? Man, how come yuh never mentioned that none?"

She laughed gently and shrugged, gaze softening on her knees. "It's not really a good time to be thinking about that kind of stuff, sweetie. I don't even know if he's… okay. Although I'd like to think if I can make it, he could too."

The mechanic seemed to think on that, head gently lowering to scratch at his head in consideration. He responded in somewhat chagrined apology. "I guess I don't got nobody tuh be real worried about. Whut with Keith gettin' my mama 'n' himself tuh the evac. Y'all do."

Rochelle waved him off quickly, shaking her head with a smile. "I'm glad you don't, sweetie. Don't feel bad, okay? We have other things to be thinking about."

Deciding the soup was hot enough, Nick circled a hand over a can with either one and picked them up somewhat carefully. The bottoms were hot, so he held them tenderly by the very top rim, avoiding cutting himself on the ragged opening. He turned on a heel, stepping over to lean down next to Rochelle and offer it down in front of her face.

"Not right now we don't." he pointed out, smirking.

She rolled her eyes gently and took the can from him, sniffing at it with a small smile before her gaze moved back up. "Do you actually care, or are you just trying to bother me?"

"Bother you? When have I ever done that?" Not even bothering to mask his smirk, Nick hoisted up a shoulder and turned to start walking over toward the reclined Coach, offering out the other stew can. Ellis had gotten up behind him and gone to get his own, rather quiet. "I'm a goddamn saint."

The big man accepted the can with a gruff nod, though no words passed between them. He sat slightly up, adjusting on the creaking cot, and resigned to sipping from the stew can with a fairly morose expression. Nick rolled his eyes silently, annoyed, but merely turned away to sit himself on the table's edge that Ellis had abandoned.

"Alright, alright." Rochelle acquiesced with a shake of her head, laughing faintly and turning herself to relax more against the threshold of the door. Ellis trodded back across the shack with his can. When he saw Nick had taken his spot, he squinted a little - to which Nick didn't do more than raise a brow in challenge.

Ellis relented, though, hitching up his coveralls carefully and scooching down against the wall to sit right next to Rochelle.

"His name is Jacob. We've dated on and off since college."

Hungrily taking a large swallow straight from his can, a little disoriented by the thick and vaguely tinny broth, Nick boredly watched her from a distance. He only fractionally paid attention, more interested in sipping without slicing his lips on the rim.

"On'n off?" Ellis prompted, far more curious. Blue eyes blinked raptly at Rochelle underneath his cap, blindly taking a swig from his can and swiping his mouth with a wrist as he chewed obliviously.

Rochelle lifted her shoulders in a gentle motion as she flexed her toes in their bootless freedom. She seemed slightly conflicted, some kind of dilemma reading in the depths of her tone. "I, um.. I struggled a lot with getting a job and trying to make my way into a news station. I had to put it before him a lot."

Nick snorted slightly, chewing on a small piece of chewy beef and eyeing the can as he judged it at least edible. He sniped sarcastically, "Ooh, jealous house-husband. The drama."

Glancing at him like she might throw one of her boots, Rochelle rolled her eyes. "He wasn't 'jealous'... I did put him second a lot. Missed dates, long nights... he never really got used to it, and it frustrated him sometimes."

"Yer still together, though, right? Yuh must like each other a whole lot." Ellis - stupidly optimistic as always - pointed out, grinning goofily under his cap. Rochelle couldn't help but laugh at him, charmed all over again, reaching out to gently poke the tip of his nose.

"Mhm. He's a really sweet guy. Sorta serious, unlike you, but he stands up for me. Plus, he's got a cute butt."

Nick interrupted with a mocking grate to his voice, entertained, the warmth spreading through his core making him feel inexpressibly better. He forgot how good it felt to eat a cooked meal, even if this barely qualified. "How's Jakey-boy feel about you rushing away to say hello to the nice zombies all alone?"

Rochelle began to sigh slightly, expression raw with the nerve Nick struck so unerringly well. Ellis squinted at her, head tilting, and she let a hand set on his knee. "Not too good... and he just thought it was a flu. He didn't want me to go at all, but.. the opportunity was just too good, at the time. I thought it was gonna be my big break. Sure wish he'd tied me down or something."

"He's gotta be worried sick thinkin' about'ch'ya!" Ellis scratched at his head, scrunching up his nose in a bothered look.

She started to frown gently, pushing it away with an exhale. "Aren't we all.." She flashed him a smile instead, rubbing the knee under her palm and leaning back to take a long sip. "You have any girlfriends, sweetie?"

Ellis almost immediately laughed, Nick fighting a smirk as he muffled it against his can. The conman noticed those blue eyes darting toward him but shying away from actually meeting gazes. He looked nervous.

The concept Ellis thought he'd care was a little.. disarming, but Nick dismissed it as best he could.

"Um.. a few, but nothin' too big.." A blush settled across the bridge of his nose, gently embarrassed. He scratched it with a fingertip. "Muh buddy Keith was always real big on tryin' tuh get me datin', so he'd set me up. Never turned out good."

Rochelle's smile turned to a little bit of a grin, leaning in teasingly. "Blind dates? Got plenty of those from my old girlfriends. Cute boy like you, I'm shocked they let you go.."

Quietly, swirling his stew can with a sated lick of his lips, Nick quipped, "He must have picky cousins."

Coach snorted in disapproval from the cot, a gruff sound. The gambler didn't even bother to look, smirking as Ellis' blush darkened and he quickly uttered in his own defense, "That ain't even cool, man... I just didn't like it much, that's all... wanted tuh meet a girl on muh own, y'know? Fall in love or - or somethin'."

Nick glanced away. His smirk remained, but something dissatisfied settled in the back of his head. He couldn't quite pick it apart, and he didn't try too hard, settling for annoyance. The words came out rather critical. "Hrmpf. The dream of every prepubescent girl." It made Ellis duck his head, hiding under the bill of his cap.

Rochelle cocked a brow in his direction, disapprovingly, shaking her head. "Be nice, suit. It's sweet, you jackass." She turned to pat Ellis' knee gently, affectionately reassuring the youngest of them; "Ignore him, sweetheart. He's just a cranky old bat."

"S'okay, Ro'." Ellis flashed her a smile underneath his cap, confidently. She blinked, getting the distinct feeling she'd missed something - Ellis had this knowing look on his face, embarrassed but unbothered. It made her smile back, hesitantly.

Ellis shuffled himself against the wall, carefully adjusting to stand up. "Y'all done eatin'?" he questioned pleasantly, leaving his stew can behind on the ground. "Day's'a wastin'."

Coach grunted wearily as he heard that, rolling his weight to get feet on the ground. He tossed his empty can to the floor, rubbing the back of his bald head carefully. "Mmhm, son. Sounds like a damn good idea 'bout now."

"Restless, Coach?" Nick muttered somewhat abrasively, setting down his can and sliding to his feet. "Figured you'd be the one to vote we rest longer, old man."

Oddly, all the ex-football player did was chuckle. The lack of reciprocation made Nick drop to a simmer, silent as they somewhat reluctantly gathered together their weapons from where they'd laid them around the shack.

Rochelle spoke up as she spun her frying pan in a hand, watching Ellis affectionately shrug his shotgun onto a shoulder, checking the gun over. He seemed well enough. "I'm a little worried about this whole boat thing. Have any of you actually worked one before?"

Coach and Ellis both nodded in unison. It made her relax, her eyes rolling slightly in relief. "Oh, good. I thought we were just jumping on it and jabbing at buttons."

"That sounds exactly like us." Nick muttered sardonically, sighing slightly as he spun his crowbar like a cane just at his hip, stepping out of the shack and stretching. The canopy ended just above them, pleasantly letting sunlight in from the late afternoon sky and dripping heat down on an otherwise cold landscape. The fog had melted somewhat, though it still clung to the river's surface here and there.

"Har har." Ellis retorted as he rested his axe on his shoulder, tromping close after the conman. The kid almost excitedly started toward the docks, not waiting for Rochelle and Coach to get out. Nick eyed him, considering following, but let it be after a moment.

Turning and waiting for them, Nick sarcastically lifted a brow. He spoke as the two filed out of the shack, still toying with his crowbar. He still had the burden of his near-useless submachine gun just as Coach had his shotgun - maybe they'd find more ammo.

"Over the river and through the shithole swamp - or something like that."

"Woods, honey. It's woods." Rochelle sighed a bit, though she was smiling, her head turning when she noticed Ellis was already down at the docks. She jogged down the slope, boots slipping a little on the perpetually soggy ground. Nick and Coach walked after her, and as they gingerly stepped onto the rickety dock built out over the water, it creaked tiny complaints.

Ellis hopped off the edge of the dock with a soft 'hup,' landing with a bit of a wobble in the base of one of the motorboats. It bobbed on the water unsteadily, hitched to the dock by a gritty rope, but he balanced on it as he dropped down to a crouch and inspected the engine.

"I really don't want to get on that." Nick muttered, halting a few feet back from the edge of the dock and staring mistrustfully at the motorboat. Coach snorted as he walked ahead of him, walking close and sighing down at the boat.

"Rather swim?" the big man retorted, glancing as Rochelle stepped carefully off the dock to join Ellis on the boat with a little more hesitancy. She turned back to hold her hands out to him, offering help onto it.

Nick didn't utter a word in response, moodily side-stepping to stare with disdain as Coach made the step to get on the boat. It certainly rocked the boat more than Rochelle or Ellis had - the mechanic gave a little 'whoa' before he caught himself as it wobbled, and he looked terribly chagrined when Coach gave him a dry look.

The conman couldn't drudge up the humor to laugh at the scene, irately examining the boat as it continued to wobble while Coach got seated down on one of the plank seats, looking disgruntled.

"Someone tell me why we're doing this again?"

Rochelle broke into a slight laugh, settling down next to Coach and watching Ellis fiddle with the engine, turning a few knobs and adjusting the throttle. "Good lord, suit, just get in already."

He scowled at her, scoffing a frustrated noise before clenching his fists and jumping the short distance onto the boat. His footing slipped slightly as he landed a little short, heel half landing on the rim of the boat.

Fingers clutched the knee of his slacks - a strong grip, steadying him firmly. Ellis', of course, and when he glanced down, the kid grinned just a little up at him underneath his cap.

Nick smacked him on the top of the head just enough to make him duck slightly away from it, grumbling, "Watch it."

Ellis chuckled quietly to himself, releasing the conman's slacks, and Nick found himself struggling not to go for a second thwap. He resisted the urge, just shaking his head and shoving himself down to sit on the edge of the boat, locking his grip tight on the rim and leaning forward.

"This baby needs a name!" the excitable Southerner chirped, patting the boat's motor and standing up. He jumped back off the boat, crouching down to uncoil the rope from one of the dock posts, grinning a bit at the other three as he held the rope with a waggle. "Whut y'all think?"

Coach was not wholly entertained. His reaction made Ellis squirm just a little, guiltily. "I think you should get'chyo ass back in here an' fire it up is what I think.."

"..awwh, Coach, m'just sayin' - baby needs a name if we're gonna be ridin' it!"

The big man sighed, seeing Ellis was stilling with a slight pout out of his lower lip. "Son, we're ditchin' it the moment we get to the other shore. What's it matter?"

Nick interrupted before Ellis could respond, rubbing his forehead with a sigh and leaning down into the boat's bottom. He looked like he was getting a headache, a slightly unsettled scowl on his face. "Oh let the dumbass name it, goddamn..."

Rochelle giggled faintly despite herself, crossing her arms with a slight shiver. She prompted, "How about Lucky?"

Ellis slapped his chest pleasantly, tossing the rope free with a smile half-shaded underneath the bill of his cap. "Fits 'bout right! A'ight, Lucky it is. Lucky, thank you fer yer service!" He jumped back onto the boat, pressing and twisting a few switches on the engine and grabbing hold of the ripchord. He yanked hard, flinching a bit as the engine sputtered and then kicked, rutting loudly into life.

"Loud bitch." Nick muttered quietly, lowering down in the boat and eyeing Ellis suspiciously as the mechanic settled down, grabbing hold of the throttle. The boat had already started to drift on the flowing river, threatening to get swept away.

Loud enough to catch attention, and a few straggling zombies floundered into view, scattered up and down the shore. They didn't seem to understand how to reach them, and one or two simply fell into the river.

They never surfaced.

Ellis twisted, easing the boat into a shuddering first few rollicks forward as the engine kicked up a notch. With Ellis turning the throttle carefully, the boat rotated slowly to face the opposite shore. Cranking up the engine and twisting the motor into gear, 'Lucky' broke forward through the river's flow to skate forward with a rumbling rattle of gas.

Smoke drifted out from the rivets of the engine, but Ellis seemed unconcerned. Nick forced himself to ignore it, though it unsettled him plenty, sighing heavily as he shifted somewhat uncomfortably on the edge of the boat.

Water speckled up as the boat skated gently through it, wet droplets hitting Nick's back. He looked over his shoulder, staring irately at the water like he could threaten it into stopping.

"See? Not half bad. Good job, Ellis." Rochelle commented, pleased, turning her head to look toward the other, approaching shore.

"If only Lucky were a yacht." Nick grumbled, earning a laugh from both Rochelle and Ellis.

Ellis tsked, though, grinning gently at Nick. "Careful, man - second strike. Don't go insultin' a lady's honor. S'my job tuh protect it - gentleman 'n' all."

Nick snorted, starting to roll his eyes though a smirk risked at his features. He'd just relaxed his fingers from their whitening grip on the edge of the boat when the aged motor gave a sudden sputter, the whole length of the boat bouncing slightly with the kick.

"Fu-"

His center of balance went completely askew, and before he could scrabble for a grip, he lost his tremulous seat on the edge of the motorboat. The conman went backwards into the river, tipping with a heavy snarl, and though he felt Rochelle grab for his arm, her fingers slipped.

He hit the water with a flat splash, the cold sending a shock up his spine, and the liquid seemed to open up to try and swallow him. He quickly kicked out cloth-swathed limbs in reflex, bobbing straight to tread water, and he heard three voices laughing hysterically over his head.

"Oh mah gawd, that is the funniest shit," he could hear Ellis' stupid voice, cracking with his laughter. "Man - I'm sorry -"

He took a deep gasp as his mouth bobbed above the water - and then he lost a few inches, water swirling up over his face and making him shut his eyes and clamp his jaw shut. The water had no surfaces, no handholds - he couldn't reach the boat, either, fingertips snatching at nothing.

There was a startling clarity to his thought just before the water snapped shut over his face and he sunk, blindly grasping and clawing hands doing nothing at all.

All the things I know how to do, and swimming isn't one of them. My fucking luck.

He could feel himself sinking, no particular sense of how fast or which direction as the muggy water darkened his surroundings. The water suctioned around his ears, silencing all noise but a constant, brutal pulsing against his eardrums.

Every limb hunted for some sense of a solid surface, mind calm as he focused on holding his breath and not daring to let a single gasp threaten his sealed lips. Surely they'd notice - eventually - that he wasn't coming up. He clamped a hand over his nose, feeling like the curling motion made him spin.

Or maybe it didn't. He couldn't even tell, dizziness disorienting everything but the instinct to paddle blindly, not even certain of the direction he was facing - or if it was working.

The sudden grasp of something on his ankle made him seize, feeling a violent drag upward - or he figured upward. He scrabbled toward it, grabbing at his own body to try and push against the weight of the water toward the force.

The grip switched as he got closer, and an arm wrapped around his torso, a body suddenly shoving up against his. There was nothing to be done but grab onto it in return, spitting out a bubbled breath and feeling his chest compress tightly.

He felt legs kicking and the other arm swiping through the water next to him, and the dragging thrust pulled them both up. They hit the surface with a splash, two voices gasping, and Nick wasn't surprised in the slightest to find himself clutching onto Ellis.

The gambler's ears were still full of water, but even as he hacked for air, he could hear voices. They were unintelligible, and he ignored them, blinking his eyes and gripping tightly into Ellis' shirt as the kid dragged him through the water.

They bumped against the boat, and three pairs of hands were suddenly on him, all yanking and gripping, pulling him up into the boat. He felt the rim of the boat jam against his stomach, scrambling at it and rolling unceremoniously into the bottom.

His ears crackled as they drained of water, the voices coming clearer to him as he shoved his elbows against the bottom of the boat and sat up, shaking his head out furiously and touching hands onto his drenched body uselessly. "Christ, are you okay, Nick honey?"

Rochelle dropped down to crouch almost on his knees, bending in and reaching to cup his cheek worriedly. He immediately recoiled, spitting sideways as he tasted something gritty. "Fine!" was all he could really manage before he coughed again, crawling slightly backwards to escape her as he noticed Ellis hauling himself up into the boat.

"Man, I feel so bad!" Ellis was already apologizing, scrambling up over the rim and plopping down with a wet slap, shivering a little. He'd ditched his hat before jumping in after Nick, so his curls draped freely about his ears and forehead, soaked through. "I - didn't.. - You - .. Man! I was laughin'.."

Nick groaned slightly, sinking down and squeezing his hand over his scalp to try and stop the droplets trying to roll down his features. He didn't even want to listen to it, let alone encourage the conversation. "El.. shut up."

Coach's voice came from behind him - chuckling. "Can't swim, eh, Nick?"

The temptation to turn around and punch him was astounding. He decided against it. Only, as Nick reached to paw at himself, realizing that his submachine gone was gone but his crowbar was still solid in his belt and his Magnum was still strapped to his thigh, the unexpected happened:

Rochelle defended him.

"Coach, don't you dare, or I'll throw you over the edge!"

The big man was soundly silenced. Nick was sure it was the water in his brain, but he felt like turning around and sticking out his tongue. Instead he just collapsed, resting against the side of the boat and blearily coughing a few times.

Ellis crouched to where he could reach the throttle, gently pushing the boat to rumble into a forward motion again from its idle. The river had been pushing them downstream with every moment they spent still. He leaned in toward Nick, frowning hugely as he inspected the half-drowned conman. The younger man was just as drenched as Nick was - and they'd just started to dry from the rain, too. "Man, are you okay?"

"There.. aren't any.. goddamn rivers.. in the city." the conman muttered out, defensively. For some ungodly reason, Ellis burst out laughing.

Even worse, Nick heard a chuckle spill out of himself in response. He went limp in defeat, and when he rolled his head, he found his forehead resting on Rochelle's bicep. He didn't even fight it, just relaxed there for a few beats.

She stayed still - like someone greeting an unfamiliar, suspicious cat.

"I guess you ended up taking a dip, Nick... how'd you like your shower?.." she questioned gently down to him. All he could do was shake his head, wanting to snap and lacking the will.

'Lucky' bumped the shore of the river with a resounding thud, engine growling as she hit resistance. Had Nick looked up and seen the comforting towers of a cityscape, or even just a regular house - or at that point, anything dry and not green - he might've not whined.

Pulling away from Rochelle's arm to see nothing but more swamp, however, made him give a sharp, "Fuck me."

Chapter Text

Nick was blisteringly silent as the four slogged through the new swamplands. These were darker and wetter than the other side of the river - where there had been light foliage, there was now wicked bramble that caught on their clothes and scored irritated lines over exposed skin.

His sarcastic, caustic griping was far better to Ellis than his current unyielding silence. Silent thought froze his expression into a deadpanned look of seething frustration, and though Ellis walked close behind him, the conman paid him absolutely no attention.

He didn't, on the other hand, chase Ellis off.

Ellis took some comfort from that, biting onto his lips in attempts to keep himself quiet as he struggled to figure out what to say. Ellis was sure Nick's fall - and now his foul mood - had been his fault, and he whimpered ever-so-quietly with guilt every few steps, watching the conman intently.

The swamp was miserable, even Ellis had to admit it, upper bodies threatened by the razor-sharp limbs of thickets and lower bodies struggling through ankle-high and deeper muck. Nick's clothes had gotten thoroughly soaked by the drop in the river, but now his already wet slacks were gaining a fast-growing shade of green as they soaked up algae and swamp-water.

Ellis felt a little hitch of hope, watching Nick use his crowbar to push away an arm of bramble. He noticed that he held it a little longer than necessary - without looking back, or even pausing in his steps - so the branch broke and flopped limply instead of snapping back in his wake, potentially to smack in Ellis' face.

It couldn't have been on accident - maybe Nick wasn't mad at him.

So he tried.

"'Ey, Nick... y'know, it don't look like there're any zombies over here. There was some back on the other side, but I ain't seen hide nor hair so far."

The Northerner didn't say a word, pushing forward silently and giving a soft hiss as a bramble caught him in the cheek, drawing a small cut along his cheekbone. He ducked away from it, continuing onward.

Ellis fidgeted his hands a bit on the shaft of his axe, adjusting his weight and using the red metal head of it to push away a branch so he could slip past. He cleared his throat gently, trying again. "Yuh think them blowin' the bridge worked? Maybe we'll have an easy go of it, if they cut 'em off..."

Even throwing in a risky optimistic statement Nick always seemed to bite his head off at - 'karma' and 'tempting fate' and all that - didn't prompt a response. The conman just kept on moving forward, taking little spurts of unvoiced frustration out on brambles that snagged at his clothing.

Less worried and more perturbed now, Ellis scratched at his waist, plucking out a piece of branch that had literally stuck to his shirt as he passed it. He held his breath for a few beats, watching Nick, then felt more words escape him like so much air from a speared balloon.

"... Not that I'd mind zombies or nothin'. I mean, yuh gotta admit, it's cool how good we are. Zombie killin' badasses."

Nothing. Not even a glance.

"I can't wait tuh tell Keith all these stories. He'll be so damn jealous, y'know?"

Silence.

"'Cept fer the couple times we been hurt, we've been doin' damn awesome."

He couldn't even rile Nick into responding. Ellis could practically hear his retort - "Yes, Overalls, because nearly getting your spine fucking ripped out or getting crushed into a pile of mush by a truck-throwing zombie is just goddamn awesome." Strange how clearly he could imagine the conman's voice.

And then reminding himself that Nick was still utterly silent made him sigh.

The breath left him loudly and frustrated, though he hadn't meant to do so audibly. It just slipped out, and his gaze dropped to inspect the ground and find his footing a little better.

Getting his head bitten off would've definitely been better than silence. He thought Nick must've been fuming about the dive he'd taken - or embarrassed, even. He wanted to distract the gambler from thinking about it, but he couldn't very well do that if he was getting the cold shoulder.

It was a few steps later, stumbling gently over a stone buried in the ground, that Ellis raised his head again. He nearly tripped over himself when he found Nick's head turned, green eyes absolutely lazered onto his face.

"What?"

The Georgian gawped, brows darting up and weight wobbling as he caught himself. "Uh, what?" he reflexively blurted back, startled. If Nick was annoyed by the repetition, he didn't let on, merely glancing ahead and stepping around a stump in the flooded ground.

"You sighed."

It was flat in its delivery, nothing like the fuming tone Ellis imagined in his head. Nick stated it like he were describing the color of the sky - so matter-of-fact and dull his voice suggested he shouldn't have even had to say it at all. His brow cocked up, expectantly, and Ellis fumbled.

"..uh.. well, yeah. Sorta. Sorry?"

Green eyes rolled slightly, vaguely annoyed. When the conman turned back forward to watch his own advance, Ellis started to deflate a little, thinking he'd be ignored again and he'd lost his chance. Nick talked again, though, a moment later. "And why? Did you get a leak in that airhead of yours or something?"

Furrowing his brows a little, Ellis let out a chuckle, more relieved than offended. "Yuh weren't sayin' anything. I thought you were angry at me again." He hurried his steps slightly, catching up a bit.

Ellis didn't notice when the quickened slosh of his boots splashed the back of Nick's leg with swamp-water, and the conman's shoulders stiffened up. Nick sighed slightly, voice taut but still only superficially annoyed, leaving Ellis still a little bemused by his lack of hostility. 

"Since when do you need input from anyone else to talk? Last I checked you were perfectly fine on your own."

The Southerner chuckled again, louder and a little more relaxed this time. He shrugged his shoulders, and pointed out bashfully but with a distinct honesty, "Well, yeah, sure.. when I ain't tryin' tuh get you tuh talk to me.."

Nick glanced back at him, brow cocked, examining him for a lengthy moment as he slogged on. Ellis felt that jump in his pulse at those green eyes and their pierce, aware of a heavy swallow bobbing his head. Turning back before he walked into something, Nick gave a sigh that lilted into a tired half-chuckle at the end.

"Touché."

Biting back a smile, Ellis stomped on a swinging branch before his foot, crushing it into the muck. "So yuh aren't? Mad at me, I mean.."

Nick kept his attention forward, voice absent and matter-of-fact. "You didn't make it happen, it just did. I'm soaked and cold, and not all of us have a compulsive desire to talk constantly."

The kid couldn't help but probe, voice gently interested. He felt a little proud that he'd gotten Nick to talk again, even if the conman had up a wall, and he didn't want to let it slip. "...Thinkin' 'bout somethin'?"

Ellis felt a smile flash over his face when Nick responded with an admitting, "Yes." under the loud crashing of Coach breaking through a thick bramble ahead of them with his shovel.

"What?" he risked, almost excitedly.

Nick didn't respond at first, suddenly lost in the effort of gingerly stepping through an area of swampland that threatened, in places, to drop all the way to knee-height. Only dark spots in the muck warned of the sinkholes, and it took focus to edge around them while not, in the same moment, walking facefirst into a branch.

The ground leveled out after a few minutes, the swamp water shallowing. As he relaxed, giving a slightly frustrated shake of his head as he caught a glance of his own state, Nick did give a response.

"Hawaii."

Ellis wasn't sure if he was deflecting or just messing with him, but he didn't argue. Nick didn't want to talk about it, he guessed, and that was okay. Instead, he snorted, adjusting his cap on his head with a wrist. "So long as yuh ain't angry. I was just worried is all."

The conman scoffed faintly, sending a dubious look behind himself and shaking his head. "I'm about as fine as anyone else in a swamp, during the apocalypse, freshly near-drowned. ... Ooohh-fucking-wait..."

Ellis couldn't help but laugh, grin lopsided. There was that scathing tone he'd imagined, and oddly, he felt relieved to be at the mocking other end of it. Before he even knew what was happening, their voices started a soft, tumbling back-and-forth. Subtle amusement laced the faux-argument, even in Nick's mocking.

"'Ey, I'm wet'n'shit, too."

Ellis could see Nick's eyes roll by the toss of his head. "Oh, please. You practically enjoy being dirty, you redneck."

"I don't enjoy it, I just don't mind."

"Hmpf. You act like there's a difference."

"Yer just too uptight, yuh Northern slick."

Nick outright laughed, pushing away a branch with his forearm as he walked past. This time, he did let it go. It whipped Ellis in the face, but there were no brambles, so it was just a dull smack that made him blink a few times, startled. "I'm not going to apologize for being tidy."

Ellis snorted lightly back at him. "It ain't 'tidy'... it's 'O-C-D.'"

The conman wasn't amused in the slightest, shaking his head. "As if. If I were that bad I'd be hyperventilating in this shithole. It just pisses me off."

"Uh-huh." Ellis dubiously shot back, grinning at the back of Nick's head. "Bet if you got yer hands on a bar of soap right now, you'd try'n make love tuh it."

"Don't be so dirty, Overalls." Nick scathingly chided him, a smirk sneaking into his voice when he tacked on; "I'd marry it first."

Ellis broke into laughter, shaking his head with a disbelieving edge. It almost surprised him that Nick would make a joke like that. He stumbled slightly over a rock hidden under the surface of the muck, catching his balance with a lifted hand and careful step. "Woo-ee, yuh really are crazy, man."

Nick smirked more, shrugging up a shoulder as he touched a fingertip gently onto the slice across his cheek. It came away with a little line of blood, but he just flicked his hand away. "Says the hick who's goddamn enjoying the apocalypse."

Ellis paused for a moment at that, thinking, before his response escaped him in a gentle mumble. He felt a little stupid, bashfully scritching at the back of his neck. "... I'm really only enjoyin' it 'cause I've met y'all. We're like a family or somethin'."

He felt himself shrink a little when Nick laughed sharply, shaking his head. "Aww, just because you met us? How adorable."

Shifting his fingers on the shaft of his axe, Ellis somewhat pointedly responded, "... well, whut're the chances you'd ever'uv lasted this long around me otherwise?"

There was silence for a too-long moment as they trudged forward through the swamp. Ellis felt, at first, a sense of pleasure at winning an argument and shutting the older man up. However - the longer the silence crept on, the more Ellis had to consider his own words.

They were true, weren't they? Without the apocalypse to force them together, Nick probably wouldn't have hung out with Ellis. Let alone become his friend. Let alone … whatever they were now. He wasn't sure if it bothered him or not.

Fate was funny, anyway - there would always be 'what if's.

Ellis might've mused on it awhile, but his head bounced up when the conman hissed out a short, "Overalls, hurry up." He'd lagged behind in his thought. A flickered blush darted over his nose, lowering his cap slightly and hitching his axe onto his shoulder to high-step it to catch up.

All three of them had stopped, watching him jog closer. He screwed his brows up a little in confusion as he looked between Nick, Rochelle, and Coach, surprised they'd halted for him.

Only they hadn't.

Nick was the one to bring it to his attention, gesturing forward without looking directly at him. His tone was scathing, but quietly so. "Good job, Ace. You tempted fate yet again and it bit us in the ass."

Sure enough, the swamp ahead of them was spattered with zombies that hadn't quite yet noticed them. They were black with muck and blood, crawling and struggling around like dogs, snarling and clawing at one another with more hostility than usual.

Rochelle sighed, exhausted as she tossed her frying pan slightly between her hands and wiped sweat off her brow from the muggy swamp air. "... maybe we can go quietly and avoid some of them?" she pointed out hopefully, craning her head to try and get a grip on how many there were.

Nick's sigh spoke for itself, not that the conman could resist a cynical elucidation.

"As. Fuckin'. If."

Chapter Text

Crowbar met flesh with a sickening crack, and the snarled recess of the male zombie's eager mouth tore open into a wide gash as its face split in half. Nick swept past the falling corpse, quick to reorient himself as another one flung itself through the muck toward him.

"We'll just sneak past them, she says." Nick growled loudly, catching sight of his three companions fighting out of the corners of his eyes.

The conman had to jump back slightly when the zombie leapt at him, jamming his crowbar straight into its neck as it practically tried to tackle him. They both stumbled, Nick shoving its weight to the side as fast as he could before it landed on him. "Quiet as a mouse, she says."

Jerking his weapon free from the dying thing with a shudder, he returned to slogging forward, jaw tight. "Avoid them, she says."

"Nick, will you hush and keep moving?" Rochelle pleaded, smashing her frying pan into the outstretched arms of an attacking zombie, breaking them both at the elbows. A second hit to the face, when it failed to stop coming, halted it for good.

"Oh, sure," the gambler scoffed harshly, hearing a bloody squelch behind him and glancing back to see Ellis taking the head clean off a nearby infected with his axe. It went flying then landed somewhere in the muck, joined shortly by its body. "If we all just hush, they'll go away. Because they're blind. And stupid. Congratulations, you've uncovered the secret to surviving the apocalypse. Everyone's saved."

Nick never ran out of energy for sarcasm.

They ran in unsteady zig-zags, no longer having the luxury of picking their way through the swamp brush with the slim but constant flow of zombies their presence was attracting. They had to power through it, and it wasn't easy going.

Nick balked in the middle of pushing through a small wall of vines when Rochelle suddenly gave a loud, "SHIT! Augh!" He struggled to turn around, catching himself on a branch and having to jerk against it to just break it off.

The woman's pink shirt made her immediately visible, muck or not. Nick's brow cocked to see her hunched forward, clawing at her face with one hand while blindly swinging her frying pan with the other. Mud was splattered over her face, completely obscuring her vision.

Agilely skittering around her in the mud was a zombie, completely slathered in the stuff until its slick - and seemingly naked - body had a greenish-brown, almost alien quality. Its yellow eyes shone like lamps out of the dripping plane of its flattened face.

All the other three had time to do was shout before it leapt at her, latching onto her shoulder with hands and curling in to snap down jaws on her arm.

Her scream was an awful and pained sound as the thing bit straight into her tricep, and she jerked a step to the side, stumbling through the muck. There was a hoarse shouting from all three of them, leaping toward her to help.

Nick got halfway when she twisted her weight in a violent, mud-blind jerk, slamming her frying pan into the thing's head with a *SPANG!* that knocked it clear off her upper arm.

It went flying to the ground, landing with a splash in the muck and shrieking a weird, keening growl before suddenly prostrating itself. There was a bubbling squelch as it sunk beneath the surface of what had to be just barely two-foot-deep swampwater, the muck pooling up over its skin, and it disappeared.

Rochelle stumbled to the side, blindly backing away from the subtle bubbling and spilt blood that marked the settling water it had sunk under. Her sloshing footsteps shuddered waves around, and as the other three staggered to stops next to her, the splashes of their passage only made it worse. The disturbance made it hard to see where the creature went.

"Ohhh, fuck.." Rochelle cursed in a groan, nearly dropping her skillet as she tried to wipe her face with that wrist. Her attacked arm stayed limp - the bite was deep, straight into muscle, and blood was already streaking down toward her elbow. "Th-that thing.."

Ellis grabbed her around the waist with one arm, pulling her back more and jamming his axeblade into the ground with a splash of water. He used his hand to help her wipe the mud off her face, Coach and Nick circling them with eyes on the water and a few zombies that had come running at Rochelle's shout.

"Damn thing disappeared!" The big man sounded disbelieving, swiping his shovel through the water testingly after soundly crushing one of the straggling infected with its blade. "Hell's bells.."

Rochelle blinked rapidly as Ellis gingerly wiped her eyes, pulling her face away slightly as her vision cleared, though her eyes still stung furiously. "I'm fine, sweetie.. I'm fine..." She tried to reassure him, turning herself a little against his chest and moving her shoulder a little to blearily get a look at her bite wound.

"It threw mud at me... like it blinded me on purpose. What the hell.."

"We've got to move." Nick stated bluntly, though only after glancing and seeing that the wound was minor. The mudman's disappearance had him nervous, fingers twitching on his crowbar. It wasn't that he didn't see she was injured - but hanging around like sitting ducks for a bite made him antsy.

Ellis shifted uncomfortably on his feet, shaking his head as he gestured to the bruising bite on her arm. The thing had nearly bitten straight through her skin. "She's bleedin', Nick."

Coach, at the same time, started to pull his backpack off his shoulder, reaching for the front pocket. "We'll wrap it quick."

Rocelle started to protest, pulling gently out of Ellis' grip, when Nick's growled voice shut them all down. "We're all bleeding! If we stop everytime one of us gets hurt we'll get shit-all accomplished - this isn't a fucking day hike. We need to keep moving."

She agreed as fast as she could before Coach got angry, nodding her head quickly. "He's right, boys. I'm fine - I'm a woman, not a girl, huh?.. just hand me the pack and I'll wrap it while we walk."

Reluctantly, Coach gave her a stiff nod, adjusting his grip on his shovel and handing the backpack over to her. She tucked her skillet under her good arm, carefully starting to dig through the pack as Nick gestured them on impatiently.

"If yer sure." Ellis agreed gently while he yanked his axe out of the ground, stepping just ahead of her to guide her on as she focused on digging out a bandage roll and wrapping her arm lightly.

Whether they acquiesced to continuing or not, their pace decidedly slowed. Nick didn't seem to have a problem with that, at least, maintaining footsteps that kept him ahead but didn't leave the other three behind, Coach and Ellis sticking close to Rochelle.

"I think it really did that on purpose." she murmured faintly, brows furrowing slightly as she tucked the bandages in on themselves. The bleeding stopped against the gauze, though she held her arm carefully at her side as she packed the roll back up.

Ellis blinked back at her attentively under the bill of his cap, adjusting it momentarily. "What'cha mean, Ro'?"

The kid's voice did what it always seemed to do; brought a gentle, sisterly smile to her face and made her shake off whatever topic she'd had an instant before. She shook her head subtly and tossed the backpack to Coach. "Nothing, sweetie, forget it... keep an eye on the water, will you? That thing makes me nervous."

Coach hmmphfed quietly, slogging forward with his shovel raised and deepset eyes scanning their surroundings slowly. "Thing disappeared in foot-deep water. You ain't the only one nervous. Hope it gets Nick."

"I'm right fuckin' here." the conman injected from his place only feet away, wielding his crowbar at the sounds of light sloshing ahead that didn't quite match up with their footsteps.

"I know." the big man challenged easily.

Nick rolled his eyes vaguely as he darted around a blocking tree, the thick trunk splattered with moss that dissuaded him from laying a hand on it to balance himself. He nearly stepped right onto the lap of a zombie sitting down on the ground and leaning up against the tree trunk, scraggly and torn clothing tinted green with muck.

It startled him so badly he reflexively slashed his crowbar straight across the thing's face, even after his mind tried to note that the zombie wasn't moving. It flopped limply to the side, neck cracking unenthusiastically as it landed, and a flood of flies swarmed up from the now-uncovered gore that was its back - stripped down to the gleaming white of spine and ribs.

"Jesus..." escaped him, jerking his chin away and forcibly scanning the swamp around them. He cleared his throat slightly, slinging his crowbar vaguely through the air to shake off some blood from the metal. He hoisted it as zombies came springing from the muck further ahead.

He heard footsteps joining him, splashing through the water, and as he slashed at a charging zombie with the curled end of his crowbar, a shovel violently smashed another into the muck beside him. The zombie practically crumpled like a crushed can, and had it not sprinkled him with blood, he'd have found it comical.

"Hoo-eee, them zombies don't got no chance 'gainst us.." Ellis whistled lowly, readying his axe as an infected tried to flank them when they advanced forward through the muck. He took off an arm with a swift swish through the air, but the thing kept coming, snarling as blood gushed down its side from a stumped shoulder.

Rochelle wasn't out of the game, sure enough, because before he could get his axe up again to get a better hit on it as it launched toward him, she smacked it straight on the ear with a *SPANG!* and it went down like a load of rocks.

Ellis gave her a sideways look of admiration, shaking his head. "Damn, Ro'. You got my 'pology fer worryin' bout you, ha-!"

"-ehehehe!"

They all froze up at the intruding cackle. Nick instantly felt his chest tighten, the clammy feel of almost skeletal thighs on the sides of his head all too fresh on his mind.

"Shit." Rochelle quickly cursed, half-spinning as she tried to pinpoint the thing.

Squeaky pants, practically hyperventilating, came in disorienting spurts from all directions. Nick didn't stop walking, forging through the swampwater with a heavy scowl on his features, and the other three followed his lead.

Coach grunted to all of them as he wielded his shovel up, rounded jaw flinching a bit; "Stay close. It gets someone, you get that shit so fast... yo' own head better be spinnin'."

"It can hump someone else's face for once." Nick growled through gritted teeth, shooting a glance as he swore he heard something splash off to his right after a restrained, sobbing hiccup of glee echoed through the swamp. He had - but it was a normal zombie, catching their presence and starting to struggle toward them with a shriek.

Ellis caught that one too, jumping to the side to intercept it before it got to the other three and slamming his axe straight into its chest. He had to kick it off the blade, the zombie struggling as it collapsed to the ground, snapping at the air.

It was underneath the splashing of its flailing limbs that Nick distinctly heard a hacking cough trickling through the foliage. His eyes narrowed slightly, whole spine straightening in alarm. Oh this isn't good.. Rochelle had only enough time to blink at him before an incoherent and gruff bark of a shout startled her out of words.

Whipping around, they saw the considerable bulk of Coach going down fast. He hit the ground with a splash, swinging his shovel wildly in the air as he rolled slightly onto his back, spluttering. The fleshy tongue that was quickly advancing up his leg, twining into the fabric of his pants, went violently taut and started dragging him through the water at an unbelievable pace.

"Tits!" Nick shouted, joined by a "Coach!" from Rochelle, an "Oh mah gawd!" from Ellis, and a suddenly manic fit of laughter from the Jockey still yet hidden. It wouldn't stop, growing louder, absolutely shrieking with agonized hilarity that seemed eerily mocking as all three of them bolted after Coach.

They were losing ground - fast. Within moments, them slowed by the muck and clutter of trees, he was almost yards distanced from them.

The big man grunted in pain as he was slammed over a rock, skidding across the muck effortlessly. He tried to jam his shovel into the ground and stop himself, but all it did was tear the weapon from his fingers. "GET THIS DAMN TONGUE OFF-!" he shouted, enraged even more by the constant chittering glee of the skulking Jockey, only to break off as he saw where the tongue was dragging him.

Nick saw it, too. It was leading him toward - and up - a tree. The probing tip was quickly making its way up the big man's torso, and fast making for his neck. It was going to try and hang him.

That was when Ellis decided to yelp, the sound mixing in with a sudden terrified squeal from the Jockey. Nick heard the thud of weight against weight, and he spun around mid-step, eyes darting narrow.

Ellis was pin-wheeling his arms, losing all momentum as the skeletal creature currently clinging to the back of his head leaned back hard, dragging nails against his jaw to tip his head back.

"Git- GITTIT-! GITTIT OFF ME!" Ellis yelped in a strangled tone past the bony fingers clutching at his mouth, nearly stumbling but just barely catching his balance. He didn't have the balance or the sight to shove the thing off, if he even could. Nick felt an instant of floating indecision.

And then he twisted, skidding in the water, and bolted back towards Ellis with a shouted, "Crush that fuckin' tongue!" at Rochelle.

"Get Ellis!" was her immediate response, their separating instantaneously agreed upon as they broke off to run their separate directions. Nick could still hear the big man's weight splashing around as he tried to slow his passage, but he narrowed his eyes on Ellis as the kid was wheeled to a near-stop.

Suddenly, that Jockey's terrified, whitened eyes lit up with a bloody glee, and its sobbing, lipless mouth snapped grinning teeth shut with a yellow sparkle. Blood spilled down its chin when its warped jaw made its lower teeth jam right into the upper palate of its mouth, and with a strained 'eeeeeee' of absolute bliss, the thing jerked its weight to yank Ellis into movement to the side.

"Ggyaah!" the hick burbled, stumbling into an almost jog as he tried desperately to keep upright against the tipping force. The thing shrieked a laugh as it hunched forward over his face, bending its head down toward his, and he felt blood dribble onto his features past the hands it had clamped over his eyes to blind him.

"Overalls!" Nick shouted after him in frustration, catching up but not quite fast enough as the hick picked up speed. "El, just stop moving!"

He watched the mechanic wobble his arms, startled, and with a violent shove, the Georgian tried to stop. Nick felt a chill jump up his spine when the zombie suddenly shoved against his head, twisting and clawing with giggled frustration as he tried to fight it.

The shift of weight sent Ellis falling forward, unable to stop himself, and the Jockey grabbed onto his head, fingers curling against his neck. It violently jumped its weight onto the backs of his falling shoulders, riding him to the ground.

Ellis' head went underneath the maybe foot-deep swamp water, the zombie jamming its weight directly onto the back of his head. He immediately panicked, gooey bubbles exploding around the barely-visible circle of his head as he tried to shout, and his arms struggled up to try and shove at the Jockey's cackling frame.

Nick skidded up with his crowbar already raised like a sword with both hands, tensing up his shoulders and giving a snarled, "You creepy asshole!" just before he went to stab the wicked end of crowbar straight down into the skeletal, fleshy thing's heaving back.

It jumped off Ellis like a flash of lightning.

The conman could hear its laughter rising to an ear-splitting screech, scrambling in the water nearby, as he felt his whole weight behind that crowbar aimed directly to impale Ellis straight into the ground.

Pure reflex and adrenaline suddenly shot his elbows straight, and with a gut-sinking squelch of the crowbar and his knees hitting the water, his weapon stabbed down in the muck bare inches from Ellis' prostrated frame. Nick felt his whole spine go stiff, bile burning hot at the back of his throat as he recoiled his hands from the crowbar.

Jesus fucking ass Christ it nearly made me - Jesus!

Ellis jerked up out of the muck just then, gasping for air with a slack jaw as he spat and hacked swampwater. He shoved to hands and knees, struggling to get his breath as he was clearly disoriented.

Darting his gaze up, Nick saw the hunched and broken-spined creature grinning at him furiously. He locked eyes with it, though its eyes were bloodshot and bulging so far out of its head they were cross-eyed. Barely a beat later, it leapt, aiming straight for his face with a cackle.

It didn't get a foot before Ellis suddenly moved, tearing the crowbar from the ground with a swift yank and hoisting it up into the thing's path. Already in flight, the Jockey landed gut-first into the end of the weapon, crumpling around it. Ellis couldn't hold it up when it gave a scream of genuine pain, and he had to fling the Jockey away with a shove.

It landed back in the water a few feet in front of them, nearly submerged in muck, and started to giggle incessantly as bruises flooded its torso like quick-spreading paint. The pink flesh turned purpled, and it must've snapped its spine like that because it failed to even move beyond the rolling of its head as it tittered away softly.

Ellis slumped a little out of breathlessness, staring at the zombie for a moment before looking over his shoulder at Nick. The conman arranged his features in a stiff expression, clamping his teeth together.

They were both silent for just a beat, just long enough to take a breath. The conman's heart was racing in his chest, lungs burning with the desire to just rest, and he still tasted bile on the back of his tongue.

Twisting his head, Nick averted his gaze from the situation and strained to see through the trees. He could only barely make out slivers of dirty pink and purple, Rochelle and Coach's clothing vaguely visible, and they both were alive and on their feet. Rochelle must have gotten to him in time.

"You okay, Fireball?" Nick indelicately asked, adjusting his weight to push to stand in the muck, disgusted. "It.." He didn't finish the sentence, instead reaching down a hand to offer Ellis help up.

Their hands met with a sudden warmth. It was the only point of warmth in Nick's entire body, those rough and muddy fingers settling into the grip of his. The thought of what the Jockey - so … intelligently - had nearly tricked him into doing...

Nick let go of Ellis' hand the moment he was steady, gripping at the air with his tingling fingers, and the kid smiled weakly but widely at him. "'M alright. Thing done nearly drowned me.. man, that shit - you saved me again, Nick. Ain't never gonna get'cha tuh owe ME nothin', this rate - Shit!"

It struck him, features startling into a half-gasp. "Coach!"

And he was gone, sprinting through the muck like nothing had happened. Like he hadn't just nearly drowned - like Nick hadn't nearly killed him with a crowbar. And like the skeletal creature lying, silent then, hadn't even existed. Everything just flashed to concern for their teammate.

"I fuckin' envy you." Nick muttered under his breath, spitting at the Jockey's corpse before jogging after Ellis. He felt his hands trembling at his sides, fingers shivering till the two of his rings right next to each other clinked a few times.

I need a smoke...

Chapter Text

Slimy yards of coiled tongue was tossed about in what must've been a frantic struggle to get it all undone from Coach's frame, and as Nick stepped up, Rochelle and Ellis were circled around him, fretting and worrying over him.

Nick inspected him carefully from a distance, tightening his grip on his crowbar to keep his hands from shaking. They were all covered in mud and slime, Coach and Ellis the worst of it. They looked so bedraggled at that point, they barely stood out against the zombies.

He offered a light - not kind, but innocuous - "You alright, big man?" as the ex-football player got steady on his feet, hands wiping some of the mud off his face and grimacing.

"Only got a short ways before Ro' broke the tongue." Coach answered simply, landing a hand on Ellis' shoulder in something like reassurance. There were messy, dark lines of bruising skin at the base of his neck where the tongue had started to constrict.

"It was up in the tree - it got away," Rochelle admitted, rubbing her forehead with a wrist tiredly and looking around. "I'm not sure where, but I don't hear it anymore."

"Couldn't care less, long as it ain't here." Coach grumbled roughly under his breath, stepping away from them and looking around carefully. "Just y'all keep an eye out, case it comes back. Ain't lookin' to get dragged off again."

Ellis reached up to gently adjust the hat on his head, worriedly examining everyone from top-to-bottom. The blue cap was as muddy as the rest of him, making Nick's nose crinkle subtly. "So everyone's alright?"

The conman glanced down at his own hands, inspecting his fingers and their white-knuckled grip on his crowbar. Try as he might, he just couldn't shake that image of what damage he could've inflicted on the kid had he not reacted fast enough - death, probably. His body weight would have pushed the crowbar straight through his ribcage.

It was so bracingly different from the carnage of killing zombies - and not just that.. he'd killed a guy before - before the apocalypse. This was different.

He didn't know what was more disturbing: almost killing Ellis, or the fact that the Jockey had intentionally driven him to it.

"Nick?"

He hadn't realized Ellis had been waiting on a response from him. When he looked up he found himself the focus of all three, and it was enough of a shock to knock him clear out of his reverie. Annoyance firmed his expression, and he glared quickly. "What?"

Coach shook his head faintly in distaste, quick to turn away and gesture on into the swamp. "Only good thing 'bout that was it took us forward. Don't think we're off-track much.. I'll admit, I'm turned 'round, but it should be that-a-way."

Ellis wasn't so quick to get distracted, his concern pinpointed toward Nick. He only half turned to look ahead through the trees, raising his hand to rub at the sore places on the back of his head and his shoulders where the Jockey had jammed elbows and knees against him. "You lost yer shovel 'n' I lost muh axe, man... we gotta find 'em before we go..."

Rochelle nodded in agreement, gently inspecting her bandaged arm and the bitemark-shaped blood stain in the gauze. "Definitely can't leave those.. you guys think we're close to the highway?"

"Should be." was Coach's simple response.

Nick didn't wait more than a few beats before he turned around and started to backtrack, gaze scanning the ground. There was a distinct trough in the ground where Coach had been violently dragged along, and he stuck close to that at a quick pace.

"'Ey, 'ey, Mr. Gamblin' Man, hold yer horses.."

He heard Ellis hurrying up behind him, and he let out a vicious sigh, speeding up his footsteps through the swampwater. "What? Let's just find these fucking weapons.."

"Nick, jeez, slow down - whut's up?"

When Nick didn't answer, the kid made a grab for his sleeve. The conman snapped his arm free and turned at the waist to glance back at him, continuing a few steps even as he responded angrily, "Take your goddamn pick."

Ellis' blue eyes blinked alertly, and Nick realized too late he shouldn't have bared his face. He felt his expression being pierced straight through - it was like he was trying to protect himself from a flame with a chunk of ice.

Rather than say anything, Ellis deliberately stepped around Nick and continued forward along the path they'd torn through the swamp. He merely canted his head toward the older man, silently waiting for an explanation.

The gambler flexed his fingers on the metal of his crowbar, letting out a calming sigh. "You're still not really catching onto the whole, 'Nick's in a bad mood all the time!' thing, are you?"

Ellis hopped over the remnants of a log Coach had likely only narrowly missed, turning his head slightly to squint back at Nick with a good-natured grin that said 'no.' Staring slightly at the Georgian's dirty and lively face, jaw setting, Nick felt his resolve dim.

Oh, it's no big deal, kiddo. Just almost killed you.

"It's .. nothing important. I just really hate those jumper things, and now we're all fucking covered in mud. It smells like a fucking sewer out here. I've never, and never wanted to, see this much green and brown in my life."

"I've been dirtier." the Southerner corrected cheerily, glancing down at the layer of mud that was caked onto pretty much his whole front. "You should'uh seen muh buddy Keith after he tried fightin' a gator. He was tryin' tuh tame it 'n' shit.. - Shovel!"

Ellis suddenly interrupted himself, reaching down to dig into the muck carefully and pry Coach's shovel up. He shook it off, half-turning and squinting past Nick. He wagged it a bit in the air, clearly gesturing their success to Coach and Rochelle.

The conman inspected him in silence, seeing the stupid grin threatening on Ellis' face. It made his brows furrow, feeling like he'd never get used to the persistently good mood Ellis was maintaining. Nick pointed out, "Still need your axe."

Ellis glanced at him, grinning lightly and reaching the shovel out to prod toward Nick's chest. The gambler stepped away from it with a slight flinch, like the muddy handle could actually still make him dirtier. "Yup. Not too far."

Nick shook his head, grumbling quietly, and turned to continue along the swampground. Stepping around a tree, he could already see the handle of the axe sticking out of the muck ahead and lifted an arm to point toward it. "Go fetch, ya damn chihuahua."

"Sure." Ellis agreed, two seconds before he loped past Nick toward the weapon - tossing the shovel at the conman as he did.

Nick caught it out of utter reflex, immediately stiffening at the squishing feel of the mud that covered the thing's handle. He cringed tightly, missing out on his chance to glare at Ellis as the younger man bolted to go get his axe.

Sighing and shifting his grip on it, resigned to his mud-covered misery, Nick turned around and started to backtrack again. He went slowly so Ellis could catch back up. He hooked his crowbar on his belt to free his other hand, turning it palm-up so he could stare at his fingers.

They were still shaking.

Damnit. C'mon, Nicolas, get your head on straight. Taking a deep inhale, Nick let his eyes fall half-closed. It took all his focus, all his attention, but with one smooth exhale… they stilled. He felt the cold pressure in his throat of a bluff -

The kind of bluff he made with a 7-2 off.

"Y'know whut I just noticed?"

Ellis bounced into place next to Nick like he'd teleported, hoisting his muddy axe up onto his shoulder. He grinned sideways, brightly and stupidly, shaking his head even when Nick didn't respond past a small, cool glance.

"There ain't no frogs in this swamp. Man, last time I was in a swamp I was campin' with Keith, 'n we must'uh camped on like a nest or somethin' - well, frogs don't make nests, but y'know what I mean."

Nick let himself sigh a little, cocking a brow sideways at Ellis silently and staring. The Georgian wasn't looking at him anymore, blue eyes gazing forward, but Nick could tell he wasn't oblivious. Shaking his head and looking back forward, he retained his silence for a few moments - noticing that Ellis suddenly did, too.

It didn't matter. They were both fine. Nothing happened. There was no reason to give it another thought.

Then: "You know, it really is shit-all quiet in this place." left him in a quiet hiss as they walked on, gaze darting around a moment before refocusing as Rochelle and Coach came into view ahead, waiting for them expectantly.

Ellis' head bobbed, adjusting his muddy cap with an equally muddy knuckle. "No birds or animals or nothin'... kinda creepy." The mechanic hoisted his axe a bit more, showing it to the other two as they approached.

"Oh, thank God." Rochelle sighed a little, slumping her shoulders and resting her skillet against her hip. "I was worried we'd lost weapons."

Nick chucked the shovel at Coach lightly, the big man catching it with a hard edge to his gaze. "Try not to get dragged off on us again, eh, Coach?" the conman taunted, a smirk stiffly risking on his features.

The football coach was not impressed in the slightest. He jammed it lightly into the ground, resting his weight on it momentarily, and shook his head. "I didn't see yo' ass helpin' me."

Tension sparked, Nick annoyed to find their careful balance of dislike against necessary cooperation faltering again. He reached down to draw his crowbar, cocking his weight slightly. "No? That probably has something to do with the fact I was helping Fireball over here. Sorry, I forgot your fat ass needs two people to drag it around."

"Nick! Out of line!" Rochelle took the step between her and the conman, threateningly, earning herself a tight glance of those green eyes. "We split up, Coach.. Ellis got jumped by a Jockey. Had to." she added, glancing at the ex-football player and his tightly set jaw. She seemed on the verge of a sigh, exhausted with the two men's arguing.

The big man just shook his head, turning and walking harshly away with his shoes making wide splashes in the muck at his passage. For once, Rochelle didn't chase after him, standing there for a moment before sighing for real.

"Sorry, Ro'." Ellis piped up, chagrined, and she quickly looked over at him.

"For what, sweetie? It's not your fault - and it wouldn't be yours, if you didn't get all bitchy, suit." Her dark eyes gaze Nick a pointed glance, smiling very faintly. She was trying to read him, and he offered nothing but a cocked brow. "He's just tired... we're all tired."

Nick crossed his arms over his chest, breaking into a stiff scowl and shaking his head. "And muddy, and cold, and sore. Boo hoo. I'm not fucking impressed."

He was almost completely sure that Coach could still hear him - and he didn't care. In fact, part of him wanted the big man to wheel around and come back to start a fight. He was practically itching for it.

Rochelle sighed, softly, glancing up at Ellis with the gently conspiratorial smile. He gave her an almost curious look, and looked startled when she suddenly stepped between the two men.

Her frying pan was tucked beneath an arm neatly, and she slipped her left hand into Ellis' and her right hand into Nick's - prying the latter so forcefully out of his crossed position that he didn't have time to argue.

The conman practically gaped right out of his scowl when he realized what had just happened, Rochelle's fingers twining with his till she had a tight grip. Smiling between them, she took a step forward to pull them both into movement. Ellis followed along eagerly, grinning bashfully, but the still-horrified Nick she had to drag.

And she did.

"Come on, boys. Look at the swamp! It's getting shallower as we go. Soon enough we'll be out of here, and we'll find a nice place to sleep tonight so we can rest and get cleaned up.."

Ellis leapt full-force into the optimism, drawl sweet as honey as he cooed, "Oah, 'n' we'll get somethin' real tuh eat tonight. Real big dinner, just like before the zombies. And cake! Man… I miss cake."

Nick awkwardly tried to adjust his fingers in Ro's grip as he stopped digging in his heels. He didn't like holding hands - it was childish and stupid and intimate. It didn't even make him feel angry, just uncomfortable. And there was, of course, the fact that their hands were covered in mud, blood, slime, and who knew what else.

"Mhm!" Rochelle cheerfully agreed, brightening even further to see Coach halt ahead and glance back at them, the big man waiting for them to catch up with a stern but calmer expression. "Maybe we'll find one of those cute 'Kiss The Cook' aprons and stick Nick in it."

"Hey!" the conman protested in a monosyllabic, agitated outburst, subtly glancing toward Ellis to see the Georgian swinging Rochelle's gripped hand lightly like a skipping six year old girl. He almost laughed - it was so ridiculous.

He realized, too late, that Rochelle's scheme to make them brighten up had worked, much to his chagrin. He felt awkward and out of place, but not on the verge of explosion like a few moments before.

"Yer the one who claimed the oven back at the boathouse, man.." Ellis laughed, instantly catching on and grinning with a drop of his chin to hide underneath the dirty bill of his cap.

Nick felt tension flicker across his brow, wanting to be annoyed but at the same time too tired. He shook his head, giving a flare of his nostrils as he sighed, trying to pull against Rochelle's grip again. They walked up to and passed Coach, the ex-football player walking behind them.

"See? We're all fine. Right, Coach?"

The big man gave a sigh and then a light grunt of agreement, deepset eyes downcasting as he trudged on. Giving in to Ro', like always.

Nick would've found it funny, had he not been too busy trying to find an angle that would let him escape Rochelle's iron grip on his hand. The third or fourth attempt in, Rochelle finally let their hands go. It probably had more to do with her injury and wanting to let her arm lay slack, but Nick couldn't care less - he snatched his hand away and curled his fingers into a fist quickly, relieved.

The intimacy was unwelcome.

"Hey! Look!" It was Ellis who blurted it suddenly, pointing up through the trees. There was just a beat of silence before the other three caught on, and with a sudden flood of overbearing relief, Nick saw the subtle grey curve of a roadway through the thinning trees ahead.

"Lord Almighty…" Coach swore with a quick palm of his forehead. "Is that shit what I think it is?"

"Sweet Christ I hope so..." Nick practically whispered, raw, gesturing just vaguely before snapping his fingers tight onto his crowbar and bolting forward into a jog, darting over the ground and through creeping trees.

He heard the other three join after him but he didn't look back, determined on that bouncing strip of grey like it was a mirage that might disappear if he so much as blinked.

"Hooo-eee, home stretch, y'all! Are we pumped or what?!" He talked like he was trying to get a crowd excited. The kid always had that sense of firm joy in his voice, though. Unbreakable. Like nothing could ever go wrong.

Rochelle giggled gently to Ellis' excitement, her shaking head audible in her lightly huffing voice as the four ran along with increasing energy. Where they pulled it from, sore and muddy, who knew. They just did.

Nick broke through the treeline with a shudder as the full existence of the highway in front of him settled in, not even sparing a glance around himself. He vaulted the roadside railing with a swift motion, one palm to the top of it pushing his body into a curling leap, and the moment his feet touched down on asphalt he just dropped into a crouch.

His palms settled down on the hot surface, hungrily leeching at the sun-baked warmth. A heavy sigh escaped him, almost groaning, closing his eyes and relaxing for a moment.

Footsteps and shuffling announced the other three clambering over the railing after him, and he was aware of Ellis and Rochelle snickering quietly. He didn't even care, and he basically said so: "I could seriously just kiss all of you right now. I have never in my life been so glad to see a road."

"Jeez, Nick. I thought you were gonna marry soap, not a darn highway." Ellis laughed gently, standing a bit tiredly next to the blissful, crouched gambler.

Nick smirked faintly. He tipped his chin up to absorb the sunlight flickering down from a brazen sun, unburdened by a dank swamp canopy. He didn't enjoy being outside… but just then, he loved the open sky. "What can I say... there's a lot of me to go around."

Rochelle snorted in relieved humor, stretching with her good arm and flinching a little bit as she did. "There's a word for that, honey."

Cracking open an eye, Nick glanced at her, smirking a little wider. He was tempted to make her elaborate, but as he turned his gaze, he noticed something down the road. Maybe half a mile, if that.

It was a cluster of buildings, a little pit stop that had formed along the highway. The unbearable relief it sunk into Nick's brain was far too much when compared to the fairly boring couple blocks of white-washed buildings, decorated with an unlit, gaudily signed fast-food restaurant and a yellow-roofed gas station.

Not even the zombies wandering around as little hazy shapes across the road could ruin the view.

"Well. I don't know about anyone else, but I am staying the night there."

Coach's hand extended into his vision, and Nick followed it up to the eldest survivor's face. The ex-football player wasn't really looking at him, but his expression was almost sedate as he offered the gambler a hand up from the ground.

Nick examined it. He was tempted to reject it, but escaping the swamp was reason enough to celebrate. So he took the help.

Just this once.

Chapter Text

There was a static electricity in the air as they cleared their way toward the dull, extinguished spire that had once been a Burgertank sign.

The thing wheedled back and forth on a spindly base, vaguely twitching on dead and loosened gears meant to rotate it in circles. As run-down as it and most of the other buildings in the area looked, the stark contrast against the swamp they'd been mired in for hours made it practically heaven.

Not to mention, securing food was primary on their list, even compared to finding where they'd sleep and get cleaned up that night. The stew had been warming and much appreciated, but it hadn't exactly been filling, and Ellis' suggestion of a big meal struck so many nerves in Nick's brain that he wondered why he'd even gotten excited at their lunch.

The screeching, gurgling noise of a Spitter nearby would have normally made Nick's spine stiffen - some mix of a demented toddler and a drowning cat - but, compared to the Jockey's tear-struck psychosis, it was almost unimpressive.

"Acid thing." Coach warned unnecessarily, punctuated by the very wet noise of his shovel's edge sticking in the torso of a zombie when he struck it. He had to shake it off slightly, grunting as the dying thing tried to claw at him even as dragging itself forward just shoved the blade deeper into its torso.

Nick glanced over his shoulder, green eyes flicking to check that they were all together. A short, "Keep up, Ace." was muttered back to Ellis when he lagged behind a little. The kid's face lit up underneath caked-on mud, speeding up to get in line with the gambler.

"Oh hurray," Rochelle grumbled slightly with a rare cynicism, swinging her frying pan into a zombie's forehead and knocking the thing straight to the ground, her energy faltering as every hit hurt her arm. "Let's all get our faces melted off."

Nick found himself snorting as he jogged on, head shaking, and he retorted sardonically when the flow of zombies had broken and the four of them took the chance to bolt along the road, "But that's my second best feature."

Despite knowing better, the woman cocked a brow at him sideways and questioned, "Second?" Sure enough, Nick took a precious second to raise a brow at her lecherously, his smirk deeply and brazenly suggestive. She groaned at him, fighting a guilty laugh, and slipped behind Coach so she could hold her arm gently.

"Whut?" Ellis questioned, glancing around beneath the bill of his cap, clearly missing the joke. Rochelle shook her head at him quickly, unwilling to explain it and sighing.

"Let's just get in the stupid Burgertank before that Spitter gets a shot in..."

Nick couldn't help but feel slightly mortified that he was really praying that the fast food place was still stocked - maybe being picky was ridiculous in a zombie outbreak, but honestly, he was struggling to forgive his stomach for growling. Add on not having a smoke in a while, and his appetite was revved up.

Which brought up a good point.

"Anyone else a little freaked out that we're still hungry for meat when we've been slicing and dicing countless sick people for a few days now?"

The silence he got in return was answer enough, a mix of 'no' and the begrudging admittance that he was probably right. Normality was questionable anyway - maybe they'd all gone nuts already. They hopped the sidewalk, just two blocks from the Burgertank's parking lot.

The violent slurp that rang out announced the projectile spat suddenly at them - it came so suddenly, splattering just behind them, that Nick couldn't catch precisely where it had come from. He shoved Ellis forward with a palm to the shoulder with the same motion that he leapt forward to get out of the way

As it turned out, the latter wasn't fast enough, because Nick felt a heavy splash against the back of his extended left calf as some of the fluid struck it.

It didn't burn the fabric - just leaked through like water… and then before he knew it, his calf lit up in pain. The stuff burned like his leg was on fire, and an unrestrained shout broke out from his lips as the stuff sizzled audibly. "Ah, tits! S-stupid shit-!"

He was the only one, apparently, because concern instantly swiveled to him as his leg gave a shudder under the bubbling, agonizing sensation, and he stumbled.

"Y'kay, Nick?" Ellis quickly chirped, taking the shaft of his axe to the face of a zombie that bolted out from one of the buildings next to them. He cocked a quick look toward Nick, concerned, brows all furrowed up as he did. The conman didn't respond immediately, struggling instead to not make a sound as his agonized leg twitched wildly in protest.

He managed to keep moving, using the momentum of his stumbling to push himself on as he limped painfully. The acid bit angrily from his knee to his ankle, popping and snapping, every second exponentially increasing the pain. When Nick glimpsed back over his shoulder, he saw that the whole back of his slacks was stained a deep shade of red, like the skin of his calf had just… melted.

"F-fuck." he muttered, disgusted and a little in shock.

As best he could, he ran at an angle, avoiding sharing the injury. This instinctual need to hide it kicked in, primal and deep-set. Like a wounded animal. "I'm fine!" Nick was sure adrenaline was the only thing keeping him from realizing the full breadth of his agony. The acid only slowly started to quiet down its mad sizzling and gnawing on his calf.

They made it across the parking lot quickly with a growing crowd of zombies at their heels, shadowed by the towering sign, running toward the plaster-and-glass Burgertank building. Rochelle reached the Burgertank's glass-paned door first to throw it open. The inside was empty of zombies, something that gave them no small relief.

With little hesitation, the four piled in, slamming the doors shut behind themselves and turning the fat lock in the center of the door's handle to close it tightly. Zombies, maybe ten or so, slammed into the glass behind them, beating on the door with fists and their faces. Red and black liquid of indeterminate source smeared on the surface in faint highlights of their assault.

There was a moment where the four survivors stood there, staring at the temporarily useless pounding of the infected. They were panting, and muddy, and took a good few seconds to really came to terms that they genuinely were standing in the tan-tiled, fairly clean innards of a fast food place.

Ellis broke the moment - valiant, as always, reaching to take his cap gently off. "Man... last time I ate here was when I was waitin' fer Keith tuh get outta the hospital.. he'd done broke his knee, snapped it like'uh twig I tell you, tryin' tuh -"

What came as a surprise was that Ellis interrupted his own story, suddenly staring in shock at Nick. The conman, flinching past his pain, spat through gritted teeth, "What?" He glanced down belatedly, and he realized that the blood from his leg was starting to drip down to the tile in a fast-spreading puddle around the heel of his shoe.

Seeing it crystallized its presence in his mind.

And it hurt.

He cursed violently, stumbling sideways until his knee hit one of the small tableside benches that edged the restaurant. He dropped down to it with a gasp at the sensations that flooded his system, whole leg seizing up stiffly as agony wrenched his head downward.

Coach was the first to his side, already pulling their pack off his shoulder and wearily dropping to a knee. Nick glared at him, trying to recoil uncooperatively, but the big man grabbed his leg just above his knee and gave him a severe look.

Gruffly ordering, "Hold still.", Coach gave no ground. Nick just had to suffer through it.

Ellis anxiously stood just behind the ex-football player, wringing his cap in his hands as he glanced between Nick and the clamoring infected outside. Rochelle stepped up beside the bench, reaching out to try and gently settle a hand on Nick's cheek calmingly. He shrugged her off instantly with a grated sound.

Coach started to peel Nick's pantleg up off the profusely bleeding calf it was stuck to, gentle inch by gentle inch - the eldest was surprisingly careful, though he could've easily done otherwise. Nick bit furiously at the air, because gentle or not, he could feel every seize of pain as the fabric of his slacks pulled away from - and with - melted skin.

"C-chn..?" he barely managed, voice strangled with pain - more than anything wanting to know why Coach, of all of them, was trying to help. The man stopped for a beat when he glanced up, seeming to recognize and understand the question on his face.

Deepset eyes flicked up at him, serious and unwavering. There was no begrudging displeasure, no badly-hidden vexation... maybe not concern, either, but Nick could live with that. "Gotta get it bandaged, Nick. Don't argue wit' me - I ain't gonna let yo' ass get hurt."

The two headstrong men stared each other down for a moment, unblinking with only the banging of infected on the glass and the pattering of blood hitting tile to break the silence in the room. Then, slowly but with ferocity, Nick reached down to undo his belt.

He yanked the leather strip free from his slacks' loops, and as he did so, Nick caught his breath enough to speak.

"... Go quick."

Acquiescing instantly, Coach returned his attention to the gambler's leg. Nick raised his belt to his lips and grabbed hold of it between his teeth. He clenched down hard into the leather until he felt it denting slightly around his canines.

The slacks came away with no small agony as Coach folded them up cautiously, fabric tearing at the mess the acid had made of his calf. Blotches of skin had been eaten away, and Nick just turned his face to avoid seeing it as he grinded his jaw hard against the belt.

His vision went dim more than once. It felt like Coach was peeling his very skin away, instead of his pantleg, and it was all he could do not to kick his leg away. He knew it was tremoring, could feel his muscles giving throbs and twitches all of their own volition, and hated it.

Rochelle's hand settled on his cheek, and this time Nick was far too stiff with pain to shake her off. She held his stubble-lined jaw carefully, fingertips moving in the smallest of strokes. Faint strangled noises grated past his teeth, though the leather belt tightly held in his jaws did wonders for keeping him quiet and funneling his frustration.

Ellis' voice gently chirped from somewhere close, though Nick's grip on his surroundings was dull as Coach tucked his slacks at the bend of his knee and started to dig for bandages in their pack. "I gotta take care'uh them zombies outside... okay? .. don't let Nick fight yuh or nothin'."

Rochelle tried to protest quickly, but she'd glued herself to Nick's side and could only watch with a distressed set to her jaw as the Georgian turned and scampered into the Burgertank's kitchen, just exactly what he intended to do unknown. "Damnit, sweetie." Sighing quickly, she bent down to settle her elbow on the back of the bench and rest her cheek against the side of Nick's twisted head. "How's it look, Coach?"

"Not good." he gruffly responded, staring at Nick's leg for a moment before reaching back into the pack. He drew out a waterbottle, twisting it open. "Ain't much we can do. We need alcohol, antibiotics, somethin'. Lost a lot of skin."

Nick started to let out a scoffing sound past his impromptu muffler, but when Coach grabbed his foot by cupping the front of his ankle and twisted it a little to get the wound facing upward, his scoffing sound turned into an elongated growl of pain.

"Damnit." Rochelle repeated, glancing at Nick's expression sympathetically as the conman's brow beaded with sweat under the struggle to stay still. She pet his jaw carefully, fingertips catching on stubble, and commented with soothing humor, "Least it wasn't either of your best features."

A near-silent "k'uh" announced Nick's gritted snort in response to the observation.

Coach glanced up at him, warning, "Gotta rinse it off." Nick merely twitched his head in acquiescence. He braced himself for the pain long before Coach grabbed the waterbottle and tipped it over his leg.

Water poured out in a small trickle, and it may as well have been more acid for how badly it hurt. Nick lurched before he could stop himself, body surging away from the sensation - but Coach merely gripped his knee like a vice and continued. The water sloughed off red and splattered onto the tile, revealing the ruddy flesh underneath.

His skin was burnt away in patches down to the muscle, a kind of pungent smell tainting the air. Nick might've been frightened by the sight, had the pain wracking his body not made a nice distraction.

As fast as the blood rinsed off, the skin welled up and leaked more. The only real improvement was washing off the sticky remnants of the deactivated acid, and the algae and mud from the swamp. Coach seemed to recognize the futility, giving one more splash of water against the flesh before reaching for the bandages.

Nick closed his eyes, the urge to vomit surging as Coach started to wrap his calf. He started around the ankle, winding the bandage over itself to layer it as much as possible. Coach moved quickly, but the burning agony caused as it made Nick flinch traumatized leg muscles made the whole thing seem endless.

The pain was plateauing as his nerves overloaded. His whole leg was too inflamed to really tell when Coach was done and when he removed his hands, only realizing it was over when the big man actually leaned back. Nick honestly couldn't discern the difference - the pain continued unabated. Blood covered his hands from the job, and the ex-football player looked disgruntled as he set his palms to his thighs.

"Done, Nick." he reluctantly stated, reaching into the backpack by his knee again once the worst of the blood was wiped onto his pants. He pulled a small pill bottle out, cracking the top off and rattling out two tablets onto his palm and offering them out to Nick.

"Old knee pills. Take'em."

Eyeing them with a breathless whinge past his still-clenched teeth, Nick blindly spat his belt onto his lap and grabbed for the water bottle. He pulled his head away from Rochelle's hand, chugging a mouthful of water before he took the pills. He couldn't identify them at a glance, but Coach's explanation was enough.

He was vaguely surprised at the idea that Coach's knee was bad enough to need painkillers, but just then, he could only be grateful.

They went down hard, sticking in his throat and leaving a strange, chalky taste that stung at his eyes. Gritting past it with another swallow of water, he muttered a flat and still-pained, "Thanks." There'd be time later to be a jackass.

After a moment, the conman shifted to lay on his side and hunch his torso down against the bench. He crossed his arms over his head and shuddered down to try and hold as still as he could with his leg stuck awkwardly sideways.

He swore it was on fire, and the bandages sat like sandpaper on his tortured calf. He wasn't sure he could walk on it, not without a lot of agony.

Rochelle gently touched a hand between his shoulderblades, glancing toward Coach with an immensely grateful look. He shrugged back at her, wearily getting to his feet, and wiped his hands against one another. "Was hopin' we weren't gonna figure out what that shit could do."

Alternating between fingertips and nails up the back of Nick's neck, taking advantage of his silence and stillness to try and soothe him, Rochelle rolled her head back slightly and sighed. "And where the hell is Ellis? Didn't he say he was -"

The sudden splatter of something against glass made all three of them flinch. Rochelle and Coach twisted to look toward the glass-paned front of the Burgertank, and Nick's head lifted just a bare inch to glance past his shoulder.

The cluster of zombies that had been beating uselessly at thick glass door all suddenly pulled away, stumbling a little back as what looked like grease and lard dripped their torsos. It was heavy and chunky, somewhere between yellow and brown, and covered them in liberal splatters.

For just a moment, the three stared with uncomprehending hesitance - and then a soft flicker of orange dropped down, like a falling star, and hit one of the zombies' shoulders.

Fire caught over the grease on its frame in ripples, burning blue and red, and the flailing cluster of zombies quickly spread it. Within instants, they were all caught up in flames, and their angered clawing turned into something a lot like panic as they scrambled at each other. The fire ate away at them.

There was a kind of shocked silence in the Burgertank as the zombies outside fell like flies, reduced to a burning mess in front of the door as the grease fire refused to be beaten out. Silence, anyway, until Ellis' voice flooded from the kitchen and he skidded, bouncing excitedly, right after it.

"Hoh mah LORD, that was AWE-SOOOME! Y'all see that?! Tell me y'all saw that!! If y'all didn't see that we are FINDIN' more zombies 'n' I AM doin' that again!"

Nick was the first one to start laughing.

Faint, pained huffs of laughter or not, the moment that happened, Rochelle and Coach were doomed to follow. Ellis stopped where he was, a bashful edge to his unerringly proud grin, looking between the three slowly. It took him a moment, adjusting his muddy cap, but he apparently decided the laughter was a good thing and edged over toward Nick.

The conman quieted much sooner than Rochelle and Coach managed to, the two holding their heads slightly as the big man's gruff chuckling mixed with Rochelle's lighter giggling. Green eyes slipped to the barest slant as he glanced up at the kid.

"Y'kay?" Ellis mumbled down to him, somehow going from excitement and pride to concern all in the space of a second.

"Fine." He wasn't. "Painkillers are kickin' in already." They weren't. "What did you do, anyway?"

Clear blue eyes flickered over what Ellis could see of his face, and Nick felt a sense of futility as he knew full well the other man could read he was lying. Ellis smiled gently at him anyway, curling his fingers carefully at his sides as he resisted the urge to reach out toward him. "Fast-food greasetraps'n'fire don't mix none..."

Coming down from her laughter, Rochelle breathed a little gasp and shook her head, bewildered. "You come up with the weirdest ideas, sweetie."

Grinning gently, Ellis glanced back at her and cocked his head slightly. "I got another one if y'all are interested any." Nick took advantage of his distraction to drop his head again, burying his head against his shoulder painfully.

"It involve food?" Coach questioned, demure, and quick to remind them all of just why they'd even come here.

The Georgian nodded quickly. "Yep. Think I saw a breakerbox up on the roof. 'N' since the sign outside is still movin', I figure there's still power. Bet'cha we can get the kitchen workin' just like new. How's some steamin' Burgertank burgers sound?"

Nick's voice drifted up from his hunched and unmoving posture on the bench. It gained some straining edge of sarcasm, something that relieved Ellis to no end - even if Nick's shoulders were still stiff with pain.

"Hurts me to say... but fucking amazing."

Ellis practically tripped over himself to twist around and scurry back toward the kitchen to fulfill the promise like he'd been commanded. Rochelle chased after him to help, and in the quiet, Coach settled down on the bench across from Nick.

He eyed the conman in silence. Nick closed his eyes and focused on breathing.

Clattering from the kitchens, interspersed between giggles and soft voices, brought the whole moment to a strange calm. If he weren't busy praying for any vague sign that the painkillers were starting to kick in to take the edge off the pain flowing up his leg… Nick might've dozed.

Or maybe that was just the shock.

Chapter Text

The lingering smell of greasy meat made it hard to consider leaving the Burgertank. It was warm and comforting, a little piece of pre-infection life, even to Nick's mind.

Of course, the medication lightly fuzzing his thought process helped that sensation along, too.

They'd gotten tremendously lucky. Although the power to the building had been interrupted, all it took was resetting the breaker to reinstate electricity. Perhaps more lucky was the fact that the meatlocker had enough insulation to keep the supplies cold. It must've only been a day or two since the power was interrupted.

The last thing they needed was food poisoning. There was no time to be sick.

Or hurt. Nick mused, glancing at his leg.

"Do you think there's a house nearby?" Rochelle was murmuring to Coach by the kitchen doorway, turned away from Nick and Ellis. The kid had sprawled on the bench opposite Nick's, head nestled against the wall and chin tucked to his chest, cap dropped low over his face.

Ellis wasn't asleep, fingers tapping out a little rhythm against his own happily plump stomach, but mowing down four cheeseburgers - only beaten out by Coach - had made him visibly sluggish. Nick kept his focus on the conversation going on as he buried his face into his crossed arms, nose just brushing the table he'd dragged over to himself and slumped onto.

It took more effort than it should have to keep from closing his eyes. He felt full and a little sick, although the burgers had been cooked far more lovingly than they would've been had the Burgertank been really running, and the painkillers were doing a number on his focus.

Leg still hurts like a bitch, though.

"Can't know till we look." The big man responded in a low voice, still cleaning a few fingers off with the slow introspection of a prisoner prodding his last meal. "We ain't sleepin' here, an' if Nick don't get cleaned up 'n' rested his leg ain't gonna heal."

She nodded vaguely, resting her forehead tiredly against the steel doorframe. She turned her body slightly to inspect her bandaged arm and dirtied clothes, exhaling. "Any of us go much longer without really getting cleaned up and I think we'll go nuts. We need laundry, showers, the whole shebang... I still feel like I'm in the swamp."

Wiping his hands on the sides of his shirt, Coach sighed weightily and let his shoulders shrug up. "Yep. Problem is gettin' to it. We gonna carry him? Might get in trouble on the way."

Rochelle half-nodded even as she argued slightly, pushing her fingers into the tight pockets of her jeans. "We'll deal with that when we get there I guess... we did clear out most of the infected, right?"

"At best there's a Spitter out there." Coach grunted simply, crossing his arms. He glanced up toward the windows that made the front of the Burgertank, looking out into the street. Electricity was still flowing, as they'd already found out, and some abandoned mechanism tried to turn on broken streetlamps as best it could. They flickered madly, almost strobelike as they cast wild shadows on the dark evening.

"Worst, whole horde's waitin' to catch our asses."

She laughed lightly, glancing down to the toes of her boots before shifting to rest her head on his shoulder. Her eyes closed, face turning away, and he let the greying, stubble-cloaked swell of his cheek set against her forehead.

Ellis softly spoke up from the bench, apparently having been listening to the not-so-private conversation from his sleepy position there. His chin lifted just slightly, enough to slant shaded blue eyes under his capbill. "Ain't like we ain't fought 'em before, right?"

Coach glanced up toward the younger Georgian and his softly twitching fingers. "Didn't like it those times, either." he noted in a low voice, reluctant.

"Awh, c'mon, Coach." the kid tossed back, shifting his weight to push an elbow against the cushion of the bench. His head lifted a little more and he flashed a grin, goofy and confident. "Y'all take this too serious! We're badasses."

Nick felt his chest compress slightly with a silent sigh. He forced his shoulders to tense up, finally hauling his torso straight to pull his head off his forearms and sit up. All three gazes instantly twitched toward him, alertly, and he felt like swearing.

"You don't take this serious enough, moron... but we're goin' anyway."

Rolling his shoulder to get a hand against the top of the table, Nick pushed himself up off the bench to his feet. His weight started wholly on his good leg, other lifted into a soft curl at the knee to just barely brush the toe of his dress shoe to the tile.

He took a step before anyone could argue, and the moment his weight shifted to his other leg, his whole frame shuddered in pain. Even the faintest attempt to flex his calf muscle sent such pain through him, he felt a little like those zombies outside - flames seething over his skin.

An inhale turned into a whining exhale.

"Nick! Don't be stupid, let one of us -" Rochelle didn't get any further than that, the conman firmly shutting her down with a glare as his balance shifted back to his good leg.

"What? Carry me?" His expression was defensive, fingers in a half-curl at his sides, and his nerves were practically visible. That animal instinct came back; hide it. Camouflage it. Run, even. "We need everyone with free hands to fight."

Ellis crawled up out of the bench, one hand holding his cap to his head while the other grabbed onto the table to hoist himself out of his comfortable sprawl. He stood up with a jump, blinking, and his voice was argumentative when he stated, "... yer not in no shape to. You can't even walk."

Ignoring a gruff chuckle from Coach at the brave challenge, Nick turned his head with a tight frown. Ellis didn't so much as blink. "Y-" Frustrated at being so firmly disagreed with, he snapped fingers into fists and shifted the focus. "... that's not the point. You three still can. If you're holding me up, you can't fight."

Ellis rubbed at his cheek carefully and took a step forward, seeming unfazed by the conman's stubbornness and not giving up. He lifted up one of his arms to mime ducking underneath Nick's.

"Just lemme crutch you a li'l, man. Yer gonna be miserable if you try walkin'."

Sighing through taut lips, Nick eyed him. The kid was right, unfortunately, and just leaning against someone was at least less injurious to his pride than being carried. It was either take the compromise or walk alone - and his leg hurt like hell. The last thing he wanted was to trip and fall in the middle of a horde.

"Oh, give it up, suit." Rochelle chorused from across the room, laughing softly with her head shaking.

"For fuck's- fine." Nick snapped dully, reaching back to grab the pill bottle from the table. He rattled two more out into his palm, downing them dry. Too early from the last dose, probably, but overdosing on painkillers was the least of his concern. It made him cough just slightly, shaking his head, before he stuck out his arm blindly and tucked the bottle into his jacket pocket.

Ellis scooped up his weapons from beside the bench, his shotgun strap going over his shoulder and his axe held close to his hip. Nick eyed him as he scurried underneath his arm, settling strongly against his hip and gripping fingers in his suit jacket to support the gambler.

The mechanic was as sturdy as he was enthusiastic. Nick could already feel himself putting a lot of weight on the Georgian, gritting his jaw softly. It didn't really ease the pain, but at least it didn't get worse. "I hate you so much."

"Awwh.. yeah?" Ellis softly uttered up at him, and Nick's resolve flickered a little. He let out a sigh, hearing that plaintive note just at the edge of the Georgian's tone, and relented.

The conman just uttered a vague, "Your shotgun's in my side..." It was, the very butt of it nudging into his rib, but not nearly enough to actually bother him. Ellis' immediate and half-panicked shifting to adjust the gun made Nick smirk. He must've seen it and realized he was being made fun of, because he bashfully re-settled himself.

"Okay," Rochelle affirmed, pulling her frying pan from its place on a nearby table and walking over toward the door. She looked out into the street, leaning against the glass of the door as Coach stepped after her, retrieving his shovel from beside the booth. "If Ellis can keep Nick up then Coach and I'll handle the fighting. I'm thinking I saw a house or two behind the stores while we were coming in."

She stepped to hold the door open with her hip, nose wrinkling slightly at the cooked zombie corpses still sprawled in a ring just in front of the doorway. She stayed there to keep it open, gaze starting to scan for danger.

"Smells like ham." Nick snorted morosely as the stench wafted in on a chill night breeze, breaching what had been a pleasant interior. Ellis burst into a stifled laugh, slightly confused, gently grasping onto Nick's wrist as it dangled off his shoulder.

"That ain't nice tuh pigs, Nick."

Even though it amounted to Ellis supporting Nick as the conman swung his weight gently in a one-footed hop, their footsteps synchronized as they walked through the doorway and gently walked down onto the Burgertank parking lot. Nick snorted slightly at the mechanic's words, though he realized a beat later that Ellis said it with a little too much sincerity.

"You're such a dumbshit." he chided in a sidelong mutter, using his shoulder to push Ellis' head. There must've been a smirk in his voice to match the teasing shove, because Ellis gave a blithe smile.

If there was a smirk, it quickly disappeared under the soft and stifled noise of laughter over their shoulder. Nick registered with no small alarm that Rochelle must've been paying attention to them, and agitation flickered in a slightly panicked rush.

Oh damnit-

Letting go of Ellis wasn't exactly an option, so Nick was forced to just stare on ahead and pretend he hadn't heard a thing. In retrospect, he chastised himself; for all his efforts to dissuade Ellis from acting close to him, he seemed to be having more trouble with himself. Damnit, Nick.

"Zombies." Ellis' voice warned in a chirp, fingers suddenly gripping harder onto Nick's wrist. His hip checked the conman's, like he was half ready to pick him right up off the ground and run.

The blinking streetlights made it hard to really see, and the sight they did allow wasn't comforting in the slightest. Infected were already starting to catch sight of them, scrambling up from the highway and store-front sidewalks toward them. If not for the bodies still left behind from the four's run through several hours ago, there would've been little evidence they'd already come through.

"Cleared out, my ass." Nick grumbled.

"On it." Coach announced from behind, his loud footsteps striking hard on the parking lot as he circled to get ahead of Nick and Ellis. The big man swung his shovel perfectly in time to collide with the first zombie to approach, a bone-crushing thud sending the infected woman straight to the ground.

Rochelle quickly joined him ahead of the other two, and they cleared the way at a professional pace. Nick kept staring at her back as she jogged forward and took the occasional swing at a zombie, and his mind tried to float a moment in paranoia.

There's no way she knows. You're being stupid.

The distraction made him lose the careful rhythm he and Ellis had in their walk, and the younger man had to catch him with a sturdy grasp when he stumbled. "Watch yer footin', Mr. Gamblin' Man. I got'cha."

Nick wanted to wrench away. Instead, he just muttered a sardonic, "Oh, good."

Ellis picked the worst of times to be so implacably gentle, but all the gambler could do was tighten his arm around Ellis' neck and shudder faintly as reflex had made him put down far too much weight on his injured leg. There was no time to recover, so he grinded his teeth against the pain and put most of his weight on the younger man as they crossed the highway.

Rochelle got a swift hit to an infected's shoulder with the edge of her frying pan, though the thing kept coming even as its arm cracked painfully back. It lashed out at her face with its other arm, and she had to jerk back to avoid grasping digits that had rotted into claws.

The woman shoved it away with an elbow to the jaw, narrowly recoiling before it snapped at her arm, but she took advantage of her lean backwards to give it a hard kick in the knee. "Will you bastards quit trying to bite me?!"

Decaying bone snapped with nauseating ease, toppling the thing over, and Rochelle circled past it quickly to keep moving with a glance back to make sure Ellis and Nick were still safe.

The four jumped the sidewalk on the other side of the street, seeing that the gas station ahead made for an easy exit away from the highway with the open pavement ringing it. The windows of the gas station were broken open, and even from that distance, Nick could see blood scrabbled all over. He definitely wasn't going to be the one that suggested they check it out - their goal was something more sheltered, anyway.

As they dodged forward onto the parking lot, surroundings lit up by more reliable lamps set into the gas station's flat awning, Coach lifted up a hand to trace the sharpened shadow of a rooftop up against the treeline ahead and out of the lamps' reach. "That look like a house to y'all?"

One of Coach's shoes hit hard down on a drainage grate in the parking lot. The metal clanked against the concrete softly, shifting underfoot. Despite the fact it couldn't have fallen through the hole, it being smaller than the grate's width, the feeling still made him step off quickly.

"Contrary to what you might think..." Nick muttered irately, curling into a slightly useless fist the fingers of the hand Ellis had gripped by its wrist. "...saying 'yes' to that doesn't actually make it any more or less likely.. so let's just shut the fuck up and check it out."

Coach did not look amused when he glanced over his shoulder.

"Don't bitch or anything, honey." Rochelle laughed gently behind herself, jumping over the grate entirely. She eyed the gas station, humor draining out of her posture steadily as she inspected the bloody handprints scrabbled all over the edges of the broken windows.

As Ellis' heavy workboot gave a loud thunk when it landed on the drainage grate, Nick lost it slightly, yanking his weight forward with a low growl to snap in obvious irritation,

"Swear to God, if I hear one more goddamn word about my 'attitude' I will strangle-"

Ellis suddenly staggered, and after that first wobble, went down completely to a knee and an outthrusted hand. Nick felt an unintelligible shout tear from his own lips as he slipped down with the Georgian, landing hard on the asphalt parking lot - and his wounded leg.

His vision blacked out for just a split second, but the feeling held on like hooks all along his skin.

Pain and immediate anger both had to be put on hold when Ellis let off a panicked, "Oaaahhh- Oh Lordy, somethin's got me!" The kid was twisting backward, grabbing onto his own coveralls and trying to yank his leg toward himself like it was caught. It wasn't a Smoker - he wasn't being pulled away.

Nick grabbed Ellis' shoulders tightly, using the leverage to twist himself upright without budging his leg, both looking for the problem and making absolutely sure Ellis didn't go anywhere.

A pale, gnarled hand had its fingers jammed through the grate, visibly wet and emaciated around brittle bones, tightly wound in the loose jean material of Ellis' coveralls and jerking down like it could pull him through the metal grating.

Anger flaring up more than anything else, Nick practically snarled as he ripped his crowbar out from under his belt. He distantly recognized his own voice, just exploding out like so much compressed air.

"LEAVE IT TO YOU -" Gripping the crowbar tightly, he jammed it straight through the grating and into the back of the grabbing hand, though the thing barely even reacted. Those fingers just curled tighter in Ellis' pantleg, squeezing even as the crowbar made a hole in its flesh.

"TO FUCKING PICK -" Nick was pretty sure all three of the others were frozen up in favor of staring at him. He couldn't rein himself in just then, tearing the crowbar free to attack at it again, hacking through the thick metal lattice. This time the hand started to falter, the damage crippling the thing's delicate wrist.

"THE ONE PERSON -" When Nick twisted the crowbar to one side in a jerk, there was a sudden gory snap, and the clutching hand snapped off its forearm in a sprinkle of red. There was a thud and splash underneath them as something fell into water, though it was impossible to begin to see what it was through the barely platter-sized grate.

Nick grabbed onto Ellis' shin, ferociously shoving him away from the grate so his coveralls tore away from the frigid hand's grip.

"KEEPING ME ON MY GODDAMN FEET, YOU ASSHOLE!"

With a small wobble, the half-curled, disembodied fingers lost their grip on the grating and they disappeared with - after a moment - a much softer 'sploosh' in what must've been the drainage pipes underneath.

Panting heavily, Nick stared down at the asphalt, energy quickly flagging as the stress-fueled rage that had floated him just a moment before drained out of him. He slowly dragged the crowbar back under his belt, slumping. Ellis was panting, too, as he slowly moved to his feet, and three sets of eyes blinked on the gambler's hunched form.

Coach's hand offered down in front of Nick's face. He glanced up through a stray strand of dark hair that traced down his forehead, green eyes tired but expression aflame with stubborn cynicism. He was sweating - too much, and he knew then that he'd overdone it with the painkillers.

"Let's get yo' ass back up, Nick."

Hesitating for just a moment, the gambler shifted his weight to reach up and grasp Coach's hand tightly. Ellis quickly grabbed onto his elbow, Rochelle supporting the other, and the conman was straightened up by their unified effort. He muttered a simple admittance; "... I feel like shit."

"We'll get you cleaned up." Rochelle sympathetically murmured, reaching up to pat his jaw (with stubble that was growing softer as it grew longer) just once before pulling away. He belatedly grunted at the show of affection, rolling his head away even when it was far too late.

Ellis ducked under Nick's arm again with the grip he had on his elbow, holding him up carefully. The kid nodded at Coach and Rochelle silently, urging them to get moving quickly as he got a good enough grasp on Nick's waist to push him into a step.

"Hey, thanks, man.." the Georgian spoke softly sideways to Nick, blue eyes flashing underneath the bill of his cap as he gazed toward his face. He paused - then prompted him, in a naively obvious attempt to distract Nick from the even more obvious pain he was in as he limped hard on his leg.

"Y'know, I ever tell you 'bout the time my buddy Keith got his whole damn lower body stuck in a street sewer-hole?"

Nick, tiredly, shook his head. He could see a huge smile blossom at the motion, just under Ellis' cap-bill. The lilting chirp of Ellis' voice played in his ear as they carefully picked around the massacre of a gas station, reaching an odd gravel road that trailed toward the roof-shaped shadow looming against the treeline ahead.

They drifted out of the grasp of the gas station's light, and everything seemed a little too still.

"Heh. This's a good one. See, he was sleepin' in the back of his truck 'cause it done ran outta gas. He was waitin' fer his pa tuh come 'n' get him - well, that's a whole other story in'uv itself, but I won't get intuh that none - but anyway, he's sprawled out under this tarp, 'cause it's rainin', right? Well turns out he done pulled over intuh a fire lane or somethin' - so this towtruck comes 'cause someone called the cops, and they start haulin' the car away! Well, when you add tippin' the front'uv the truck up to the acceleration, yuh get Keith rollin' straight outta the truckbed. Next thing he knows, he's scrabblin' -"

"Shush, son." Coach suddenly interrupted, wielding his shovel carefully as the evening's vague light started to make the house ahead more visible. It was two stories, a darkly painted wood paneled house with tightly curtained windows. The front door was broken forward off its hinges, lying at an angle on the steps, but there didn't seem to be any blood or signs of zombies around.

Ellis - unbothered by being shut down - piped up cheerfully as they approached, still alert. "Hey, maybe we got lucky 'n' it ain't infested or nothin' -" Nick 'shh'ed him sideways, sparing him a dull look that he knew Ellis understood.

Don't jinx it, Ace.

Stepping up to the stairs, Coach carefully bent down and got a hold on the fallen door. He grunted slightly as he picked it up, avoiding scraping it on the brick steps as he pushed it upright and gently set it against the face of the house.

"Let's all go in together - careful, a'ight?"

There was a soft nod to Coach's words, and gingerly, he stepped into the dark house first. Rochelle slipped back to let Ellis help Nick up the stairs, and with Nick relying mostly on Ellis to forcibly haul him onto each step, they got in quickly.

Coach held his breath slightly as his gaze roved blindly in the darkness of the house. He let one hand palm along the wall just next to the doorway, hunting for a lightswitch - when his fingertips brushed the plastic rectangle nailed into the wallpaper, he carefully flicked the switch.

A sudden, loud whirr startled all of them, Rochelle grabbing quickly at Ellis' back with a soft sound of alarm. It took a moment, but Coach chuckled suddenly, shifting his finger over just an inch to find the second switch on the panel and click it up.

The ceiling fan hanging down in the center of the room flicked on its flowered-glass lamp, and the slowly spinning blades above it gave a humming whirr as they started to pick up enough speed to give a subtle breeze.

Laughing, softly, and releasing the Ellis' shirt, Rochelle mumbled as she stepped forward and looked around the living room. "I'd like to point out we all just got scared by a ceiling fan. How screwed up is life right now?" Furniture was tossed gently, like someone had left in a rush and just dragged things out of various end tables and cabinets, but there was no sign of blood or infected - just panic.

Snorting, Coach turned toward Ellis and Nick. He eyed them a moment, then gestured with a shoulder. "C'mon, you two. Let's find a bathroom an' let Nick start cleanin' up while the rest of us handle things."

Ellis nodded obediently, glancing at Nick to make sure he was ready before taking a gentle step. The ex-football player turned to lead the way across the living room, edging for the hallway with his shovel still up.

Rochelle waved softly after them, wielding her frying pan and glancing around carefully. "I'll find the laundry room and see what we can do about getting our clothes cleaned u- oh, damnit." Her eyes suddenly rolled as her own words struck her, turning away. Her tone betrayed a smile, though. "The woman gets stuck with the laundry. How did I not expect that...?"

Chuckling softly, Coach forged forward into the hallway, flicking on the light in there with a knuckle. He looked up a staircase to his right, gaugingly, too distracted to interrupt Nick when the conman gave a sardonic smirk down at the floor and tossed back a loose retort.

"That's just wrong, babydoll... you shouldn't be doing laundry... you should be in the kitchen seeing about a snack." Dropping his head forward quickly to laugh, Nick didn't really pay attention as both Ellis and Rochelle gave him a long stare, the latter more disbelieving than offended.

"Ass." the woman ghosted on mouthing lips, shaking her head and turning away as Coach started to scale the carpeted staircase. The behaviour was ... little strange, but not completely outlandish. The gambler was definitely a little out of it.

"Are yuh feelin' alright, Nick?" Ellis questioned worriedly as he looped his arm tighter around the conman's torso and pushed a hand against the staircase's banister. The stairs were tough to maneuver, but at a slow pace, they followed in Coach's heavy footsteps.

The conman gave a subtle grunt, still smirking vaguely at his own wit. "It's .. I probably took one too many painkillers. Done it before, not serious, sport... just kinda a bad buzz... oh, and my goddamn leg still hurts."

Ellis instantly gave him a frown, fingers curling slightly in the fabric of his suit. He didn't speak in the end, focusing on getting up the stairs without tripping. It got dark as they scuffled over the small platform in the middle, the light from the hallway not reaching up into the second floor.

Coach carefully leaned into the new hallway, palming the walls again for a lightswitch. He found it with his thumb, and the lights flicked on, revealing a starkly empty hallway with a few doors.

Two of three laid open, along with a small stairway up to an attic, and the light was enough to see that the room directly on their right was a bathroom.

Stepping toward it, the big man nudged the door open all the way and carefully scanned a deep-set gaze over the room. "Looks clear. Gotta do somethin' 'bout the front door, but there ain't nothin' in the bathroom... Ellis, you got him, son?"

The youngest survivor nodded obediently, holding Nick like an over-inebriated friend - the conman didn't argue, gaze focused longingly on the bathroom in front of them. "Mhm. I'll keep muh eye on this city slicker."

Coach didn't wait for any more, putting his shovel over his shoulder and stepping around them to go back downstairs, his steps heavy on the carpet. His voice was audible when he reached the downstairs and spoke to Rochelle, heavy and gruff, though the words were unintelligible.

Ellis caught himself sighing gently, glancing at Nick's face under his cap bill. "Yer worryin' me, Nick." he mumbled softly. Green eyes flicked sideways toward him, breaking their wanting lock with the bathroom doorway, and the gambler's brow twitched up.

An honest response spilled out of his lips. "My leg's hurting like hell, my head's half full of cotton and half full of knives, and I feel like I slogged half the swamplands with me... ya ain't the only one, Ace."

Ellis chuckled good-naturedly, looking slightly relieved at the flash of brutal cynicism. "Really whaled on that zombie what had me in the gratin', Nick... thought you'd gone right off yer rocker." He pushed forward to help the limping gambler into the bathroom, free hand darting to switch on the light.

The white bulb flashed on, scattering gentle gleams all over the silvery, glazed tile bathroom - blue accents scattered here and there like warm brushstrokes - and revealing the dried streaks of dark red blood that were stained into the washbasin sink.

"... oh, yay." Nick mumbled, reluctantly pulling his arm off Ellis' shoulders. The other man didn't let go of him - he tagged after him, worried, fingers keeping a slight hold on his suit jacket. The contact felt .. good ... guiltily so, fuzzy brushes that made Nick want more far more than his broken frame should've let him.

The gambler limped toward the bath with a faint huff to his breath, turning around to slowly slide down to sit on the edge. Ellis was still grasping onto his jacket, unwilling to let him go like he might crumple at any moment. Sighing and half-annoyed, Nick grumbled, "Quit that, Ace, I've got it.."

"Sorry." Ellis quickly apologized, backing away, although only after Nick was settled. His gaze shifted down to get a look at the blood-stained leg of his slacks. After a beat, he turned to start digging through the bathroom cabinets, shuffling loudly. "Just worryin'."

Nick sighed again, quieter this time, bending forward to grasp onto his pantleg and gently work it up to his knee. He touched the edge of the bandages that wrapped, dark red, around his leg delicately with fingertips, feeling a flutter of apprehension threaten to rise bile up the back of his throat.

Despite Coach's efforts to clean it, the bandages were already soaked through. He'd get an infection for sure like this.

Softly, his deft and calloused hands pulling an entire drawer out of the cabinet, Ellis questioned, "Hey uh.. Nick? Mind a question?" He turned around, walking back to kneel in front of the gambler. The drawer had first aid supplies in it - just basic things, a tube of antibiotics and a lot of tiny bandaids that were utterly useless to their goal, but nearer the back was a few rolls of gauze.

The gauze had been bought long ago and abandoned there at the back, while the bandaids had clearly seen avid use. Open wrappers were spilt all over the bottom of the drawer. That was how it should've been - little cuts, papercuts and nicks, not melted skin and bleeding muscle. Nick almost forgot to answer, staring at that drawer with a distant gaze.

"What?" was his eventual utterance, starting to gently grip fingertips onto the top edge of his bandage to pull it free from its small knot and begin the unwrapping process. Ellis' hands suddenly dropped the drawer on his lap, and they brushed Nick's aside, stopping him. Their fingers touched, lingering too long and recoiling too quick all at once.

The gambler wanted to grab him, but he didn't, just... resigning himself. You want to kiss him, don't you, Nicolas... well get your.. fucking act together. Drop it. You don't need shit from him.

He hated needing others. Need was weak, and vulnerable.

"Lemme do this.." Ellis trailed, blue eyes glancing up out from under his cap just long enough to see that Nick wasn't going to argue. Noticing the stilling of Nick's shoulders, Ellis softly focused on pulling bandage away from skin, soft but steady, relenting when it pulled but not hesitating too much for fear of drawing the process out.

Nick's breath hissed, softly, though the pain was a little dull at this point. Ellis' constant progress made it more bearable, but only by a small degree. The gambler was aware his gaze was locked on Ellis' face. Mental peptalk.. is doin' greeaat so far. "What question?" he repeated.

Carefully, a small wince flickering over his features as more of the acid-burnt wound was revealed under his hands, Ellis dared his question. "...On the stairs.. you ..." He hesitated, paused. His jaw shifted on the words, catching Nick's eyes with an intent focus though the conman's expression was deadpanned in vague pain.

"Said yuh'd .. taken too many painkillers before -"

Something in Nick's mind was still working at full throttle, because he caught the kid's meaning there and shut him down with a simple, "No, it wasn't on purpose. Either time."

He heard the soft breath of a sigh, Ellis' fingers hesitating a moment before quickly starting back up. There was genuine relief in his voice when he spoke - real and vibrant, and Nick thought it was ... something. "Sorry, Nick.. I had tuh ask."

Sweet, maybe. But when wasn't he?

He always was, and that was the problem.

Frustrated, Nick glanced down at his knees. He wanted to not respond at all, but he couldn't bring himself to. Sardonic wit spilled out as a compromise. "Yeah, well... if my ex couldn't make me throw myself off something tall, nothing can. 'Cept maybe you, if you try hard enough."

With a gentle guffaw, Ellis smiled at him lightly, peeling the last few inches of bandage of Nick's calf. He eyed the leg for a careful moment, the skin agitated and inflamed, bubbling up in a few places. Blood trickled here and there over the dried layer of it that had collected heavily under the bandages, the flesh quick to split back open. "Don't look real good - uh… I ain't real sure whut to do, but let's clean it'uh little. Mind flickin' the bath on?"

Nick obeyed with a small exhale through his nostrils, twisting the nozzle above the bath faucet and then letting his fingers trail in the soft spray of water that rained down to follow. It was cold, but he didn't care much. Cold was numbing. He'd take numbing.

Ellis leaned back toward the cabinet, pulling open the swinging door underneath the sink's basin and pulling a washcloth out from the linens piled there. He got up on his knees as he faced forward, leaning in to stretch his hand underneath the faucet and get the cloth wet.

The Georgian talked softly as he shook the washcloth out and then returned to sit on his heels. Gently, cautiously, he started to clean the conman's leg with the wet, soft cloth, daubing away dried blood in thick splotches.

Skin came off, too, in sheets like cracked slate. It started bleeding again in more than one place, but the cold water had a soothing effect. "Reminds me of this one time when Keith done cracked a radiator in the shop on accident... heh, blasted boilin' hot coolant all over his hands... me'n his brother had tuh like, carry him, screamin' like a girl, to the hospital... they had tuh do this graft thing on his thumb 'cause it got burned so bad... guess where they done got it from?"

Nick didn't respond, watching Ellis with a downturned chin. Nerves flashed with each daub, but there was a cottony sensation between Nick and the pain. When Ellis had cleaned the worst of it, he grabbed the antibiotic tube and squirted a helping onto his thumb, leaning in to focus hard on daubing the gel onto the deepest parts of the burn. He was liberal, but with the burn taking up the entirety of Nick's calf, there was only so much the tiny tube could do.

"His butt, man. Like you can't tell or nothin', 'cause it healed up real nice, but he's gotta live knowin' his thumb was his butt once. That just ain't right." Nick watched the Georgian talk without listening - watched those lips move, those blue eyes flicker with emotion. Little blinks of sympathy as he worked.

The thought of getting lost in the kid again - those plaintive whimpers in his ear, that flushed face, the shudder and tremble of his body under Nick's hands... it was the only thing that made sense, the only thing his brain could grab onto. He'd only had him once and he wanted him again - no, needed him again.

The pain and the soreness and the exhaustion - they wouldn't matter after that... oh, he needed it. The pit in his stomach and the grinding pressure of his jaw made it very clear that it was far more than just base desire behind it all.

'Well, yuh really suck at tellin' when things change, Nick.'

Thinking about those words all over again panicked him. What if he needed Ellis too much? He couldn't stand that - he could stand anything but that. He'd rather battle the prospect of loneliness than accept the thought he might need Ellis for something deeper than gratification.

Anger streaked in just faintly, disorienting him as the thoughts came faster than he could process. You're such a weak dumbfuck, Nicolas. You should've just fucked Carmine and let Ellis stew himself into hating you.. Save yourself all this fucking trouble. Why did you walk away?!

But he had his own answer.

He'd even given it out loud to Ellis, back then - and boy, did he regret that now, its truth even more than its utterance at all. ... because you wanted him. Not her. Fuck that line! Fuck it!

As Ellis softly tucked the top of the bandage under itself, looking it over carefully before glancing up with a reassuring grin - that fullblown, idiot grin - and a soft, questioning twist of his head, Nick forced himself to breathe. He'd just take some time - he needed to sleep off the medication and heal up a little. Just a break, a night to himself. Clear his mind.

He could hold off for a night - or maybe two. Or maybe he'd just end it entirely. Besides, a deeper voice chimed in helpfully. Gotta back off a little, with Rochelle acting strange. It bolstered his resolve so it was a little less panic-fueled and a little calmer. Sensible. Logic helped settle his mind.

Silently turning away and reaching for the bathtub faucet was enough to give Ellis the hint that Nick was going to try to bathe. The Southerner got up and left carefully, lingering only a moment to give Nick a curious stare.

The sudden fluctuation in his behaviour didn't go unnoticed, but it was so quiet and subdued, where Nick's moods were usually so harsh and burning - Ellis didn't know what to think, and didn't have the time or the opening to investigate.

Something far more obvious became apparent a little under an hour afterward: Nick had left his muddied and bloodied clothes folded at the top of the stairs, retreated into one of the two upstairs bedrooms, and locked the door without so much as a word.

Ellis could hardly recall the last time he'd stood outside a door, so intimidated by the wooden barrier locked shut in front of him he couldn't get himself to knock on it. There wasn't a light on or even a scuffle from inside.

His hurt was only beaten out by his confusion.

Chapter Text

Ellis felt his brows fidget closer and closer together as he tried to focus on gently moving the wet clothes from the washing machine into the dryer. He couldn't shake the weird knot in the bottom of his throat, making his voice a little strained.

"I dunno. He just locked himself in, didn't even say nothin'."

Rochelle sighed softly from where she sat on the edge of the dryer, cleaning the dried mud off her boots with a damp towel. They'd raided the bedroom downstairs for extra clothes to sleep in while their clothes were in the wash, but it was full of women's clothes, much to Coach and Ellis' chagrin.

The big man had simply retreated into the other upstairs bedroom with a "goodnight," ditching his dirty clothes at the top of the stairs like Nick had. It was probably for the best - the thought of Coach trying to fit into anything they found was ... unpleasant. He'd helped barricade the door with a few pieces of furniture before he left, so they were safe, at least.

Ellis found himself a blue set of pajamas bottoms - which, had they not had a little bow below the navel and a sewn-in sheep just at his ankle, would've been pretty androgynous - and a plain white shirt. Both of them were a size or two too small, so the shirt clung softly to his shoulders and lifted an inch or two up his stomach whenever he moved, and the bottoms squeezed at his hips. The legs, at least, were loose, meant to be too long and flow freely - so for him they just about fit.

Fresh socks provided a warm, dry relief for feet that had spent entirely too long trapped in waterlogged, muddy boots - and his hat had been lovingly washed in the shower with him, so it sat proudly (and a little wetly) atop his drying curls.

"He's in a bad mood, you know that, sweetie." Rochelle comforted him gently, shaking her boot out slightly and giving it a look over. She'd found a pair of little red shorts and a black camisole, and her dark hair was out of its tie, falling in a loose wave of braids to her shoulders. The smell of soap from both of them was almost sticky in the air, mixed in with the deep smell of detergent from the clothes that Ellis chucked into the dryer.

He shut the door with a palm, sighing. "I... I guess." Ellis should've known better than to talk to Rochelle about Nick - the conman would've died (or killed him, or both) if he'd known that Ellis was even risking betraying them to her. He just felt too lonely and confused not to talk to somebody. "Just worried 'bout him is all.. his leg's bad enough, but with him actin' so weird... I dunno what tuh do."

Dropping her now cleaned boots to the ground with a soft thud, she reached behind herself to get Coach's shoes. Letting her shoulders relax as she settled into the rhythm of cleaning them with a balled-up edge of the wet towel, Rochelle smiled softly at him.

"You're a sweetheart, Ellis. He's just being.. Nick, and Nick's a little silly. You have to understand it's not you - you know he likes you. Even if he's a dick."

Quickly turning his head away, Ellis tried to focus his gaze on the wall to will away the beginnings of a blush over the bridge of his nose. Rochelle didn't mean it like that, but...

"I dunno, Ro'. He sure ain't actin' like it. S'just confusin' tryin' tuh be his friend, 'cause I know he's nice on the inside... maybe a li'l lonely, but then he pulls stuff like this... s'like we're back tuh square one, all at once." Sighing cautiously, Ellis turned the dryer's dial and listened for a moment as it started to whirr into action. The machine vibrated a little bit, a comfortingly familiar hum filling the air.

Rochelle curled her legs slightly, bracing her bare feet against the now-trembling door of the dryer. Turning the boots in her hands and clapping them together slightly out over the floor, she shook her head. "Why do you think he's lonely, h'uh?"

Ellis' blue eyes blinked softly, glancing up. "... 'cause he ain't had many friends?"

She laughed slightly, rubbing her forehead with a wrist. "Yeah, but that's not what I mean. He pushes people away - probably even more when they're good for him."

Scratching at his stomach carefully with a thoughtful look, Ellis rested his hip against the edge of the silent washing machine. "He wants tuh be alone?"

"Who wants to be, sweetie?" She paused in sympathy, setting Coach's shoes down beside herself on the dryer to reach over and stroke his bicep. "We don't always do the right thing for ourselves. You know you cheer him up, even if he wouldn't admit it."

"But .." The kid trailed off slightly, lowering his head with a shake of it. Pulling the too-small shirt back down over his tummy, he started to fiddle with the bow of his pajama bottoms.

Rochelle laughed gently under her breath, jumping softly down to her feet and walking the couple steps between them. She reached up to tickle at his chin, smiling as he scrunched up his nose.

"But what, sweetie?"

Scratching at his head through his slightly damp cap, Ellis gave a little pull downward of his lower lip. "Umh... well, I dunno. He's got the right tuh choose whut he does, but.. if he's tryin' tuh shut himself off... are we s'posed tuh et him?"

She didn't have an immediate response to that. Her gaze shifted slightly, and for a moment, Ellis thought he saw something a little worried flicker over her expression. She drew her smile back up with a breath, settling a hand on his cheek comfortingly.

"Good question, sweetheart. I don't really know for sure. You're gonna have to decide that, I think... you know him better than I do. Trust your gut, it's what my dad always said."

Ellis smiled. He couldn't help it, comforted by the palm cradling his cheek and feeling a strange flutter of pride at her words. To think he knew Nick better than the others... and the concept that he might just have a good instinct... he felt flattered. "Yuh think so?"

Nudging his cap up with her thumb, Rochelle leaned in to nuzzle his nose with hers playfully. He outright laughed at the gesture, blinking his eyes shut momentarily. "Yep. You're a pretty smart guy. Smarter than Nick is, I think."

A blush fluttered over Ellis' face, coloring the gently scarred bridge of his nose. He quickly pulled her into a hug to hide it, snuggling his face down against her shoulder. "Thanks, Ro'... I feel a lot better."

She got her arms around his torso to return the hug, tickling his ribs playfully while he couldn't get away. He immediately started to laugh, squirming away from her fingers. "We'll sneak out in the morning and go see if one of those stores has cigarettes. That'll cheer him up, even if they're nasty."

"Okay." he agreed with a smile, voice a little stifled with lingering laughter. Releasing her, he put his palms to the edge of the dryer and hopped up on it, kicking his feet softly as the thing chugged underneath him. "Hey, I'll stay up tuh watch the clothes, Ro'.. yuh look tired."

Judging by her pause, she definitely was, though hesitant to outright admit it. After a moment and a soft sigh, she cracked a light grin and nodded, patting him on the knee. "Actually.. that'd be sweet of you, honey. I'll grab the couch, you can have the extra room downstairs.."

"Nonono, no chance, Ro'." Grinning gently, Ellis leaned back until his shoulders hit the wall, chin nestling onto his chest. "I gotta be a gentleman somehow! Besides, I'd wake you up rustlin' with the clothes if you were just out in the livin' room."

Reluctantly rolling her eyes at first, Rochelle giggled softly and crossed her arms. "Oh alright. You're too sweet, y'know that?" Bending over his knees lightly, she lifted his cap and kissed him on the forehead before replacing it.

He smiled as she left the laundry room, calling a soft 'g'night' after her. The dryer whispered warmly and quietly underneath him, and for a moment, he looked distantly at the doorway. As her footsteps receded up the staircase, Ellis sighed, talking under his breath to the air, like she were still there.

"... maybe you're right, Ro'. I know somethin's wrong with him, 'n' he ain't tellin' me... it's this whole closed-up thing he's got goin' on. He's gotta be scared, but if I can help... don't that mean I should?"

He toyed with the bow at the waistband of his pants, gaze trailing down his legs and the soft blue fabric that draped over them. He let his eyes close, daydreaming in a soft doze.

There'd been a distinct tension under the surface in the bathroom. Nick had been staring... hotly. But everything else had been distant, like he'd been desperate to get Ellis to leave. Ellis barely knew how to navigate the situation as it was, but trying to decipher the older man's behaviour made his brain spin.

It just didn't make any sense.

"I think he likes me... I mean he don't not like me at least. He just ain't real good at sayin' it. Or even thinkin' it maybe... but what does that mean fer me..? Am I s'posed tuh push it or would that just make it worse?"

Trusting his instincts was a lot easier when he didn't feel so conflicted.

What if Nick was lonely up there? Regretful, as Ellis knew he could genuinely be - with a hurt leg, a fuzzy head, an empty room, and nobody there to distract him. Ellis felt his chest tighten slightly with worry just thinking about it.

Nick was too proud to look for help, or even admit he needed it. Ellis couldn't blame him for that - that was just Nick, and that was okay. But he couldn't sit by and let him hide, either, could he?

Rochelle was right. He had to follow his gut, and there was no way he could just go to sleep knowing Nick was upset. Not when he had the chance - the ability - to make him feel better.

"There's muh gut feelin'." he affirmed out loud with a soft pat on his thighs, smiling suddenly with his certainty. "I ain't gonna let him hang out tuh dry all alone… 'n' you can just deal with me, Nick!"

A sudden 'bzzzzt' sounded so abruptly - not even all that loudly - behind him that he yipped out of reflex, whole body pitching in a startled jump. He nearly fell straight off the dryer, barely stopping himself with a foot quickly thrust out to the floor.

After a moment of blinking, Ellis couldn't help but break into an embarrassed guffaw, gently standing up and turning around to crack open the dryer. He hadn't expected it to be done already - he must've been dazed out longer than he'd thought.

"Um.. after I fold the laundry, anyhow."

Gently pulling out the first handful of clothing, Ellis started to fold them. It was second nature after having to help his mother so often - which made it slightly less uncomfortable when he pulled out Rochelle's underwear. The warm cloth rustling around was almost relaxing. He was glad to notice Coach's shirt, stitched up the back with black thread, was still in one piece after the wash.

Not to mention, Coach's briefs were huge.

All their clothes looked so clean. It was strange. Admittedly, there were a few stains that hadn't come out - probably never would - but colors were suddenly brighter, less dreary. And they all smelled like... home.

Nick's suit was startling. Ellis froze up a little as he pulled the jacket out, holding it by the shoulders in front of himself. It was a stark shade of white now - fascinatingly so. Leaning forward softly before he really thought it through, Ellis risked a soft nuzzle along the jacket's lapels.

It smelled like detergent... but it.. felt like Nick. Wonderfully like him - like burying into his shoulder. He'd never met anyone who wore what Nick did. All the memories, all the sensations, just looking at it... it was all Nick and only Nick.

He felt so immediately guilty and embarrassed, he had to fumble to fold the jacket carefully. He knew that type of clothing should've been hung up, but there wasn't much of an option. He'd just fold it along the seams and hope for the best.

Quickly folding the slacks and blue dress shirt to join the rest, Ellis sighed slightly. Maybe Nick couldn't admit to having feelings, but he was starting to feel rather aware of his own. He'd had crushes before - on girls, maybe, but it sure felt the same. Feelings were feelings, and as terribly embarrassed and a little nervous as it made him to think...

Ellis felt for Nick. He liked being around him, liked his humor and his sarcasm, liked his friendship. He liked more than that, but Ellis shook the train of thought off before it got embarrassing.

He hoped, suddenly, his determination to keep Nick from shutting down wasn't selfish.. but he kept the thought away as best he could. After all, Rochelle had told him to trust his gut - and how could caring for him be selfish?

Piling the clothes up neatly, Ellis gave a firm nod and gathered them into his arms. Feeling better, he turned away and padded on his socked feet out of the laundry room, gently turning the light off with his elbow as he passed by.

He dumped his shirt, boxers, and coveralls carelessly onto the couch, figuring he'd change in the morning. The living room ceiling fan gave a soft breeze as he walked underneath it toward the hallway.

He settled Rochelle's clothes down in front of the bedroom door just beyond the staircase, giving a soft and grateful smile at the door's blank face. Tiptoeing so as to not wake her, he backed up and went up the stairs two at a time.

Ellis felt a little nervous as he walked over to the bedroom he knew Coach had taken. He felt like he was procrastinating... and Coach was the only thing left to handle. Setting his clothes down in front of the door, Ellis let out a sigh and pulled Nick's clothing to his chest thoughtfully.

He was definitely nervous, heart starting to threaten to beat faster in his chest.

What if Nick just yelled at him and kicked him out? ... he wasn't sure how he'd handle that, for all the confident build-up to it. Taking a steeling breath, Ellis tiptoed back up the hall and past the staircase... coming to a wary halt in front of the intimidating door separating him from Nick.

He inspected it for a moment, softly fiddling fingers on an edge of the blue shirt. There was, of course, the immediate obstacle of the thing being locked. He must've tried to convince himself to knock on it twenty times already - but he was determined now.

Leaning forward softly, he tried to whisper in a loud-enough but unobtrusive voice; "Nick..?" in case the conman was awake. Listening with a held breath, Ellis waited for what must've been a full minute.

Not a peep. It made him frown a little, hesitating. He had to find a way. Nick always did.

It struck him with all the force of a speeding train. Blue eyes blinked twice, then flickered down to the clothes he had cradled in his arms. Suddenly excited and inspired, he bent down to drop them next to the doorway, hurrying to the bathroom. Sure enough, Nick's wallet was on the edge of the bathroom counter, a little bundle of brown leather.

Scooping it up with a smile, Ellis flipped it open as he walked back to the doorway. Drawing Nick's credit card out of one of the slots and then tucking the wallet under his arm, he skittered up to the door and nestled against the side.

Feeling a certain thrill rising in his pulse, he held onto the knob with one hand while jimmying the credit card into the crack of the door. He felt sneaky. Twisting while he pushed, Ellis tried to mimic what he'd seen when Nick had performed this very act.

He could feel the edge of the card start to work between the doorjamb, gradually. Judging by the fact the light rattling and scuffling wasn't stirring any response from the conman, Nick wasn't conscious. That did make Ellis feel a little better about being ignored, though Nick had certainly locked him out to begin with.

Smiling when the lock suddenly gave way, clicking softly, Ellis very slowly turned the knob. His breath caught slightly as he opened it up, leaning his head in to nervously blink into the dark room.

Light fluttered in as beams from the hallway, illuminating the room in a thick streak as the door opened. Ellis' eyes immediately jumped to the bed, and a slow-spreading blush over his face was the only evidence that his heart hadn't completely stopped in his chest.

Nick was limply sprawled on his back, arms akimbo and fingers lightly curled in the sheets. The blanket had been wrestled somewhat from his naked frame in obvious agitation, twisted over his stomach and only barely wrapped around his legs. His injured leg had slipped free of them entirely, freshly bloodied bandages stark white-and-red against the sheets.

What Ellis immediately noticed was the soft tremors threatening along Nick's limbs. They were like shivers, but the house was warm enough and he shouldn't have been cold. When he blinked up toward Nick's upturned face, those severe brows were twitching in and out of a furrow.

There was no pillow on the bed - though that confused Ellis at first, he noticed it was lying a few feet away from the end of the bed, crumpled against a set of drawers like it'd been thrown there. Strange, and more evidence of agitated restlessness.

Unable to wrench his attention from the scene in front of him, Ellis carefully tiptoed forward. He gently set Nick's wallet and card down on the end table next to the bed, his fingers reaching up to click the bedside lamp there on.

Yellow light spilled over the shivering gambler, flecking shadows along the curves of his upper body. They danced as every tremble and breath made them flicker through the crisp hairs dusting Nick's chest and trailing down his stomach. Ellis' throat was wound tighter than a knot, intimidated equally by just how handsome Nick was lying there and his own worry at the tremoring.

He practically drifted backwards to close the door, heart fluttering in his chest. As it clicked shut, Nick's head rolled to one side, and Ellis froze where he stood, hand locked onto the doorknob.

A "fhh..." escaped those thinned lips, the sound crumbling as Nick only barely vocalized it. It was soft and gentle, too short to give any hint on what he might've been saying, though there was a tone to it... a certain desperation.

Ellis quickly crossed back to the bed, not tiptoeing so much anymore, for his concern. He softly bent down, gaze roving over Nick's face. The man had to be having a nightmare, and Ellis immediately wanted to comfort him out of it. He slipped a hand tremulously to touch the back of Nick's, warm fingertips touching sweat-slick skin, and he spread his fingers to clasp over the gambler's trembling fingers.

His lips were parted to speak the older man's name, but he never managed, startled into silence when Nick suddenly grasped his hand in return. Cold fingers twined messily with his, squeezing and grabbing before they stilled. Blue eyes blinked between their touching hands and Nick's face - he was still deep asleep.

Ellis' stomach knotted warmly, a blush spreading across the bridge of his nose. The gesture was unexpected… and nice.

"Whut're you dreamin' 'bout, Nick..? Gotta be somethin' bad." he mumbled, gently resting a knee up on the edge of the bed so he could lean down and get a better look over Nick's expression. Thoughts flickered indecipherably over those features and, watching the flood, Ellis felt a rising urge to wake him up or soothe him.

The closer he got, the less his guilt about sneaking in mattered - the less anything mattered, really. The hurt at being shut out was fast becoming a vague memory. Carefully leaning closer with a distinctly fluttered thrill in his stomach, Ellis softly nuzzled his nose against the gambler's, whispering to him fervently.

"'Ey.. you ain't alone.. yer okay, Nick."

Turning his head slightly, he risked slipping a little further to brush his lips against Nick's, tightening his fingers on the cold hand they cradled. Nick let off a soft breath, the sound a gentle acknowledgement of the kiss. Ellis couldn't help but drown slightly in the feeling.

His other hand slipped up to settle on Nick's chest, fingers stroking along his skin and tracing the tremoring lines of his ribs. Ellis gently closed his lips around Nick's lower, leaning into the kiss with closed eyes when the gambler shivered his lips apart, reacting pliably to the soft warmth.

As his fingers played a calming path over skin only slightly warmer than the hand he held in his own, it struck him just how cold Nick was. He needed to warm him up.

Moving gently and slowly like he were trying to get close to a wild animal, Ellis shifted his weight to press himself against Nick. He put his front flush against the other man's side, tucking his shoulder against Nick's chest and using his grip on Nick's hand to wrap the older man's arm around himself.

As he gently settled up against the gambler, knee bent to keep from touching Nick's injured leg, he was startled by a sudden movement. It was just an idle shift, at first, and Ellis felt a flash of uncertainty as he thought Nick might awaken.

However, Nick was still fully unconscious as he swept his other arm through the air to circle abruptly behind Ellis' back. His fingers grasped in the younger man's shirt, drawing him tightly against his body, and it was all Ellis could do to keep from gasping as his head was pushed underneath Nick's jawline.

Nick held him. Tightly. Like they were falling together.

The gambler rolled, vaguely, in the motion. His body turned and the sheets twisted against his hip as he drew toward the heat source in his arms. Ellis had to reciprocate, reaching the arm that wasn't underneath him to cross over Nick's waist and clutch fingers against his back. "It's alright, Nick." he mumbled, chest clenching with sympathy.

It was the softest, neediest Ellis had ever seen him - his head went fuzzy with a certain breathless affection. Ellis tucked his cheek against the older man's neck, ear tickled by the facial hair creeping down from Nick's jaw. The gambler was still trembling… but softer now, and Ellis could feel his breathing had slowed.

"S'better," he whispered softly to Nick, smiling as the older man's arms tightened around him. "I ain't mad at'cha, Nick. I can't be mad with you bein' scared. Just wish you'd say it instead - I can't read minds or nothin', man…"

Leaning his head down, Ellis kissed tenderly at the crook of Nick's neck. It was just an affectionate gesture, soft and faint, but the reaction he received was far from it. A faint growl sounded against ear, rumbling in Nick's throat - and it startled him enough to make his head recoil.

Lifting his chin, Ellis risked a glance toward the other man's face. Nick's brows were wrought in some dim emotion, his lips parted faintly. Ellis' movement made Nick shift again, and his tighter grip pushed their bodies almost flush - close enough to press their groins together.

Ellis' borrowed pajama bottoms didn't offer much of a barrier and, underneath the thin sheets, Nick was stripped bare. It left nothing to the imagination, and Ellis tried to squirm backwards to no avail as the gambler's arms refused to let him go.

Stifling a gasp at the soft pressure, Ellis tried to draw his head back. He felt the moment slipping out of control, lip catching between his teeth. Nick's trembling disappeared entirely as his body was completely drawn out of whatever nightmare it'd been trapped in, in favor of paying far more attention to the other man.

He couldn't do anything but stiffen when Nick's hips shifted, drawing into a sleepy nudge forward. His movements were lazy and tired and intoxicating in their gentle friction, mindlessly seeking out the warmth and pressure of the other body.

"N-Nick -" he managed, urgently, a rising sense of insecurity overtaking any other feeling. It wasn't like he didn't want it… and he'd accomplished his goal of stopping the nightmare… but Nick was asleep, and this wasn't what he'd meant to happen.

He tried to snake his hand up to press his palm against the older man's waist, to shake him, but all he did was frustrate the sleeping gambler. If Nick stirred, it wasn't immediately apparent - he rolled harder, thigh searching suddenly forward to press into the niche of Ellis' legs. It rubbed, shifting with Nick's canting hips.

Ellis couldn't help it as his body reacted strongly to the pressure, shoulders trembling up and head tipping back slightly with a slipped moan of appreciation as his body responded.

In reply, a low purr slipped from the conman's mouth. The sound was tinged with a certain awareness. The pressure of Nick's lazily hardening erection up against his inner thigh made Ellis shudder abruptly, reflexively pressing into the contact and grunting, "A-ah - Lordy..."

As if the words registered - or maybe just the tone itself - Nick's fingers gripped tighter in their clutch against the younger man's back. The gambler might have rolled atop him entirely, but the shift of his leg must have pressed his wounded calf into the bed, because suddenly Nick was awake and swearing.

"Fuck-!" left him in a slur, barely coherent and taut with pain. Ellis had to lay there, eyes wide, as the gambler pulled away from him in a vague shove and blinked bleary eyes open to glance down at his leg where it lay against the mattress. He glared, as if it had insulted him directly. "Fuck."

For a moment, the older man flicked his gaze around the bedroom with slow thought. It seemed like he might relax back down and return to sleep - until he noticed Ellis.

Ellis could only freeze when Nick's attention ticked back toward him. It was a slow realization that passed over Nick's face, staring in sudden interest at the body in his arms. The bedside lamp gave illumination to every edge of rising confusion on his features as his gaze found Ellis held with such flushed, tense silence against his chest.

The conman's lips parted subtly, inhaling, but Ellis blurted out a stammered, "U-uh, I -" before he could speak. But Ellis had no explanation, no excuse. He hadn't even thought to prepare one, not thinking this was where he'd end up - and now that he was underneath those intense eyes, anything that could've sufficed as an explanation folded like a broken lawn chair.

"Um…"

They both blinked for a subtle moment, Nick's fingers twitching slightly on Ellis as if trying to comprehend how they'd gotten there. When his eyes had seemed to finally tick over every inch of the Georgian's flushed face and warm body, he stopped.

Of all the things Ellis anticipated, it wasn't what followed:

Nick smirked. "I was havin' the funniest dream, Fireball..."

Chapter Text

Nick's voice was almost flustered and slightly breathless, but so unexpected and flirtatious that Ellis' heart skipped a few beats. He was almost unable to focus when those lips purred out soft - yet so darkly intent - words.

"You broke into my bedroom and started trying to screw me while I was sleeping... that doesn't sound like you at all."

Immediately, Ellis turned a deep shade of red all across his face, trying to squirm away from the tight grip that had him around the waistline. He quickly removed his arm from around Nick and wormed away by an inch or two, fisting his hands awkwardly between their chests as the conman's smirk solidified even more.

"I-I'm sorry! I didn't think - I was - jus' - It just happened! I only meant tuh - And you were -"

Fumbling and visibly humiliated, Ellis tried to pull back and scramble away from him - but his whole body crumpled in simpering weakness when Nick's free hand slipped suddenly to dive between his thighs and stroke deft fingers against the bulge that betrayed Ellis' arousal.

It was one thing to rub against him - but to actually be touched by the conman was something entirely different. It shocked him into completely losing his breath, hands fumbling forward to grip onto Nick, one at his shoulder and one at the bicep of his questing hand as they lay face-to-face on the mattress.

Ellis could feel Nick's gaze on his face, though he tried to duck his head down as petting fingers drew a struggling whine out of him, choked a little. They mercilessly played with him through fabric that may as well not have been there, sending tremors through his body at maddening speeds. "Ch- chh, th-that - uh-..."

"Just couldn't leave it alone..." the conman murmured in a graveled tone that was almost introspective, reaching up his other hand to curl it behind Ellis' neck and scratch fingernails against the Georgian's delicate hairline. "... how'd you even get in here?"

Ellis couldn't begin to work together more than stammered sounds to respond with, arousal driving him out of his mind as Nick's fingers found the sensitive head of his dick through his pajamas and toyed with it lustfully. He felt like he was being tortured for information - and so well.

"I was trying - " Nick shifted his other hand up, gripping fingers in Ellis' brunette curls. He used the grip to pull Ellis' head back slightly, gazing over his helpless expression and the flush settled into his skin. Ellis couldn't even gather the effort to try and turn his face away, giving a pleading whimper. "- to avoid this.."

Ellis couldn't ignore that, though - he steeled what focus he could gather together and huffed a struggling breath. Focusing his gaze on Nick's, burning in embarrassment as the conman tightened his grip on the kid's hair subtly as if in chastisement, he forced a gradual, "Wh-why?"

Nick cocked a brow at him, quietly, both his hands going slightly still. He didn't seem about to respond, but it was clear enough that he was thinking. After a beat, he released the grip he had on the back of Ellis' head, letting his hand drop down to the Georgian's shoulder and trace down the length of his arm till it circled around his wrist.

"You should've left it alone." he stated, tone suddenly much more serious. Ellis felt a nervous blink flutter his lashes, some of the numbness leaving his limbs when Nick's hand stopped its cruelly, dazzlingly wonderful manipulation.

The only thing that gave him some hope, hanging on the silence, was that Nick's gaze etched out a small 'but' as it ticked over his face. Sure enough, with an exhale, the conman's words turned into a mutter.

"Even if I'm glad you didn't."

The words made Ellis' panting lips twitch into a smile, lowering his awkwardly fisted hands somewhat slowly until he could flatten his palms against Nick's stomach instead. Fumbling slightly with a very disarming awareness that they were both aroused, he mumbled hopefully, "Really? I thought... I thought you were mad.."

Nick snorted softly, shifting his weight to push his hip and an elbow against the mattress and lift his body up. He worked his way backwards, dragging himself toward the headboard of the bed. Ellis cautiously tried to help him move when a clear flush of pain threatened along the conman's face. His injured leg scraped along the bed as he moved, the muscles tightening reflexively.

That didn't stop a clear smirk from sprouting on his face. Turning onto his back and setting his shoulders against the headboard with his torso relaxed in a half-sitting position, Nick relaxed and gave a heavy exhale. He circled an arm around Ellis' waist and pulled him close, urging him into a straddle on his lap.

It didn't take much more to get Ellis to move. He kept his toes curled up, ensuring he didn't nudge Nick's legs in the motion, but followed the pull to slide up and settle himself into a seated position on the older man's thighs. He slid as close as he could, stopped only by his knees pressing into the bottom of the headboard.

Ellis' breath caught in his throat, almost a cough, when Nick's face ended up in a lustful gaze mere inches away from his. "But, you are gonna have to apologize for waking me up." he growled softly, still smirking, slipping a hand to tug one finger in the waistband of Ellis' pajama pants. "'Sorry' just isn't good enough... Ace."

The Georgian's chin lowered slightly, gingerly reaching down to grab onto the lower edge of his shirt. "You should uh... stay still, Nick... Yer hurt." he whimpered softly, pulling the shirt up over his head with a slight squirm as the tight material fought him.

He could feel his skin heat up under the lascivious gaze examining the flushed slopes of his torso, jumping nervously when softly-padded fingers suddenly traced a line around his navel while his gaze was obscured by the shirt.

Nick whispered to him in a low purr, stroking the delicate trickle of hair down the center of Ellis' stomach with the backs of his knuckles. "You make that really hard." To drive the innuendo home, Nick rolled his waist up a few inches, grinding against the vulnerable rump straddled over his lap.

It made Ellis shiver strongly, quickly embarrassed by the obvious enjoyment that played over his features and the tiny sound that squeaked out of him. He could feel the heat and hardness of the other man's interest, and it sent nervous arousal up his spine.

Nick gave a slight sigh, smirk hollowing almost imperceptibly, and slid his hand to settle flat on the inside of Ellis' thigh. Even that was distracting, the touch making the muscles under Nick's palm jump. "Where's my wallet?"

Ellis didn't have the will to even question 'why,' trembling a bit at the hand just subtly gripping at his leg. He quietly shucked his shirt over his shoulder, carefully stretching out to the side to reach his arm toward the bedside table. His fingertips just brushed the wallet lying behind the lamp, but enough that he could paw at the wallet and scoot it closer.

Nick's hand merely dragged along skin as Ellis moved, so when he reached the full length of his stretch, it was torturously close to his groin again. It took a lot of effort by Ellis not to intentionally lean forward a little more and push against those fingers - but more, unbeknownst to him, by Nick not to touch him.

The conman hummed a little bit as Ellis shifted back straight in his lap, and he plucked the wallet from the mechanic's fingers with a small smirk. "I'm surprised you're not asking me already."

Ellis fisted his hands lightly beside his own hips, gaze darting down to watch Nick's fingers as they toyed at his wallet. His mouth dried a little bit, making him lick his lips cautiously, but he managed to respond with some of the stimuli removed. "Ask whut..?"

"'Is it gonna hurt again.' Don't you care?"

The younger man hesitated. He curled his fingers a little tighter. Of course he did - he didn't want to collapse again, didn't want that humiliation a second time. Certainly didn't want to have to withstand Coach and Rochelle's confusion if they found out he somehow got hurt… again.

But ... enough to not do it at all?

Leaning forward slightly onto his knees, Ellis craned his neck slowly until his cheek touched one of Nick's wallet-holding hands. Maintaining the still, observant gambler's gaze up at a slant, he nuzzled his cheek against the back of Nick's hand and whimpered, "... No. I wanna… I want you."

If his goal was to startle Nick, it worked. Those green eyes flashed and then narrowed, fingers tightening. Nick clearly wasn't going to ask again, suddenly snapping his wallet all the way open and digging into the billfold.

Ellis noticed, it so close to his face, that there was no money in that billfold. He'd felt a certain weight when he'd picked it up so he hadn't thought anything was different, but that huge wad of mostly-stolen cash Nick had stowed away was gone.

Hidden in its place, Nick took out a little round tin that had just fit into the empty wallet folded up. Ellis instantly felt a little knot start in his throat as he read the 'petroleum jelly' label, realizing two things at once - Nick had thrown his money away to fit it, and he was going to use that. On him.

The former made his chest tighten up in half-guilt and half-affection, and the latter made his whole spine stiffen up. "You... -"

Nick stuck the tin between his teeth, holding it there with a slight bare of his teeth. He reached forward, grabbing fiercely onto the waistband of Ellis' pajamas at either hip. "Take 'em off, Ace, 'r I'll strip ya myself." he grated past the tin, tone incredibly serious.

Ellis quickly obeyed him, breath huffing as he forced himself to squirm his hips free of the tight pajamas. Though Nick spoke like he had an option, Nick didn't even let go of the waistband, ending up doing most of the tugging himself.

His gaze flickered vibrantly to watch every little wiggle back and forth, and as the other man crawled slightly off him to pull them entirely off his legs, he growled in annoyance. Ellis nearly apologized, but Nick just dragged him back into place the moment he was free of the pajamas. He slid deftly attentive hands along the bruised and scratched bare frame in front of him, conflicted arousal rising under the surface of his predatory determination.

Ellis blushed harshly, following Nick's hands as they pulled him forward into an upright kneel, stomach in line with Nick's face. He couldn't help but freeze up, aware of the fact that the embrace pressed his erection into Nick's midsection. The conman didn't seem to mind it in the slightest, ignoring his hesitation as he wrapped one arm around the Georgian's waist to hold him tight, cheek scraping against a rib.

He retrieved the tin from between his teeth with his free hand, popping the cap off with a thumb like he were flicking open a lighter. Ellis heard the little pop and jumped slightly, nervous much despite himself, making Nick chuckle deeply. The very noise turned Ellis' knees weak as it puffed against his side.

Agile fingers circled the tin with a thumb and middle finger, digging his index finger deeply in the thick gel puddled in the tin. It was probably supposed to be used as chapstick, but Nick had other intentions. "Trust me?" The question was punctuated with the soft lave of a wet tongue along Ellis' lowermost ribs, making him shiver even more when a stubbled lower lip followed in its path.

Ellis gnawed at his lower lip, cautiously raising his arms to grab onto the top of the headboard and stabilize himself. It put his arms curled next to Nick's face, and the conman tipped his head on a seeming whim. His gaze slanted out of the corner of his eyes to keep it on Ellis' face as he bit gently at the younger man's bicep. He teased skin with tight nips, putting a little bit of suction on it.

Feeling a fluster cloud his focus, Ellis tried to shrug his shoulders without displacing the gambler. Nick released him anyway, a healthy pink brought up to the skin where he'd sucked at it. Voice a careful echo of humor, he tried to tease, "Didn'tcha tell me not to last time..?"

Nick paused for a moment, breathing slightly heavily against the ribcage his face was curled toward. He pulled his chin back, glancing up at Ellis, expression unreadable with a twitching brow. He inhaled - then exhaled, shaking his head. "... Yeah, I did. And look who's here. Again... you dumbshit rednecks never learn."

He punctuated the statement by a small snort, tightening his arm around Ellis' waist and stroking fingertips along the swell of his hip. His tone changed suddenly - serious again, but honest.

"Deep breath. This'll be good. Promise."

Ellis nodded firmly, taking in a long breath and letting it settle in his lungs before exhaling. The motion sent a flutter of relaxation down his muscles, though Nick's subtle sincerity helped even more. His heart pounded in his ears, but he did everything to hold his composure as the conman advanced his free hand to ready him.

The first touch of Nick's jelled finger was enough to make Ellis jolt. It was - wet, and lukewarm in a strange way. That first sensation was intimidating, but Nick didn't waste time before he gently circled his fingertip, and strange wetness turned into a fascinating, tingling kind of slickness.

Ellis whimpered slightly without thinking, the sound coming out a little questioning. He fisted his hands, trying to turn his face away from Nick's gaze as he felt his own flushed skin. The conman humored him and didn't chase after him, instead leaning forward to gently press his mouth against Ellis' sternum and nip at the firm skin of his pecs.

Taking advantage of the Vaseline's slickness, Nick pushed him a little. He curled his finger to work it inside the other man, continuing a gentle circular motion to push against tight muscles. A small "Nhg..." escaped Nick, quickly stifled with a slightly wanting bite down on Ellis' chest.

The Georgian barely kept still, shivering with a helpless clenching of his hands as Nick only just controlled himself against leaving a mark. It all immediately felt so much better than the first time - and that had felt good, after and around the pain. This time, it was just a full and tingling sensation, rising into a pleasant pressure.

He knew his hard-on was pressing into Nick's stomach, and he would've given anything to shift his position and pull away. He just knew Nick could feel every little throb that shuddered through his body, and embarrassment flooded him every single time, distracting him self-consciously.

Ellis was just about to break and apologize when Nick suddenly pulled his mouth away and chuckled against his skin. Hot breath spilled over wet flesh, creating a tickling sensation that crawled over his chest. "... You sure help a guy's ego."

Mocked, Ellis quickly shook his head, embarrassment shifting to defense. "I-It ain't muh fault! Don't make fun'uh me.. I ain't really ... felt this before..."

Chuckling again, the tone dropping to a sultry gravel, Nick let his finger drift against the muscles surrounding them, stroking and pushing at them with a little bit of a curl. "I like it." He pushed hard, suddenly, working in all the way to his knuckle. The motion was so sudden Ellis pushed abruptly forward, a moan jerking out of him as the penetration slickly completed, pleasure pulsing through his limbs.

Nick enjoyed his moan, smirking faintly as he took advantage of the moment to squirm a second finger in place, stretching those muscles easily and watching the shudders travel up Ellis' body.

"Just like that."

The Georgian whimpered helplessly, pushing his hips back against the fingers with a suddenly much more desperate edge. The conman obliged him, the plea setting a thrill up Nick's spine he couldn't quite deny, curling and scissoring his fingers a bit. Ellis' whole body followed the motions in little shivers, head falling back slightly with a whine.

Nick murmured sideways to him, voice grating slightly - but with arousal, nothing else, the arm around Ellis' waist tightening with a subtle want. "Okay, kid? You're drivin' me crazy like this.."

"Mm-yeah," Ellis quickly confirmed in a tiny simper, trying to gasp himself back to breathing properly. "I-It just feels - ..." He flushed darkly before he could say it, but Nick certainly understood.

Leave it to him, though, to taunt as he gently retracted his fingers. "Feels?" With those hungry green eyes staring him down, smirk amused in the most predatory of quirks, Ellis quickly huffed into a hesitant, momentary silence.

"...G-Good." Floundering under Nick's continued smirk on his face, Ellis glanced down slightly, embarrassed out of any good sense. He felt empty now that Nick had pulled away, a vaguely uncomfortable feeling that made him want more.

The gambler pushed him slightly away, just a couple inches, so he could adjust his hips. Releasing Ellis' waist, Nick snatched up the tin from the mattress and dug with a fingertip again. He scraped out all that was left, unbothered as he tossed it across the room blindly and took his own erection in the palm of his hand.

Ellis couldn't stop himself from watching, a little shocked and fascinated all at once. Nick chuckled to see those blue eyes so wide on his hand as he lubed himself with a practiced squeeze and stroke, reaching up his free hand to a knuckle under Ellis' chin and tip his face up.

The kid blinked, not adjusting fast enough, startled when Nick suddenly kissed him. He melted into it, eyes drifting shut, submitting instantly when the conman's teeth nipped at his lips to demand they part.

Ellis murmured a softly nonsensical noise, deep tastes fluttering across his senses as their mouths locked momentarily, just softly, then broke apart. Nick eyed him with that knuckle still in place, hand having stilled on his hard - and now slick - length.

"... You're gonna have to help me here, El." There was that little pet name. This time it was special - soft to an impossible degree, the whole utterance holding that same kind of tone. Nick had to admit he couldn't manage with his bad leg, and Ellis fumbled quickly to shift his position.

"I-I can do it." he promised immediately, serious. He put one hand onto Nick's shoulder, fingers flexing on the smooth skin beneath them, noticing a certain flicker of emotion in the green eyes on his face. He couldn't quite work out what it was. "I didn't want tuh make you hurt yerself..."

Smirking faintly, Nick let his hands shift to set on Ellis' thighs. He squeezed at them subtly, gaze darting over Ellis' sincere, wildly blushing expression.

Ellis carefully edged himself forward, trying not to look Nick straight on as he adopted a sturdier straddle on the conman's lap, knees spread. He could feel his shoulders trembling, eager to move but hesitant all the same.

Those eyes just burned at him. He'd never get over them - not those pale, focused dishes that tore straight through his consciousness and examined every speck of emotion like so many cards in Nick's capable hands. Ellis had never looked at a man and thought he was beautiful, but he did now.

He lowered himself down on bending knees with a bitten tongue, aware of Nick's steadying hand bracing his dick, helping Ellis guide himself onto it. The first breach made Ellis shudder, almost startled with how easily he came down on it. The warm, velvety-slick shaft stretched him till he shivered, the smooth slide immensely different from the rough push of the first time - but the same, in a way, too.

Aware of Nick's suddenly very tight grip on his thighs, and how those eyes were slitted half-closed, Ellis used his grip on Nick's shoulder to support himself as an outright whimper just blurted straight out of him. He rocked his hips slightly to gain a few more inches downward, stars sparking behind his eyes as the motion sent pleasure shocking up his spine and muscles tightening around the intruding length.

"H-hn- Jesus tits, Ellis, just like that..."

Nick audibly wanted more control, a kind of frustrated uselessness chewing at his tone. He gripped at the Georgian's thighs, not happy at all with his position... but turned on all the same.

Ellis couldn't help but notice a faint flush to generally pallid, thin cheeks, shocked to see such a thing on the conman. It made him all the more determined to see it through, cocking his hips forward gently as he bore down tightly, coming closer and closer to Nick's lap. He had to stop just a moment as he breached about halfway, struggling to relax.

It was a different pain; gentler. Muscles vaguely protesting, instead of a burn that brought tears to his eyes. More than that, it was an ache, and not unpleasant.

Ellis couldn't even breathe beyond desperate pants that escaped him in quick huffs. He felt stretched to impossible limits, that shaft of warmth and an unforgiving stiffness filling him to the brim in a slick kind of unity. A hammering heart sent a quick pulse shooting across his skin and it melded with the heavy throb pressing urgently up into him through Nick's erection.

He wrapped his arms around Nick's neck, cradling the gambler's head on his forearms, and let his eyes drift shut with a slight shiver. He let his hips roll slightly forward and backward, just a few inches, giving a whimpered sound of pleasure as the motion strained against his tightened muscles and pushed Nick's length a spine-numbing inch deeper.

"You're killin' me, Ace... You gotta relax..." Nick grunted heavily, fingers sliding up Ellis' thighs in a scratching grasp. He gripped onto the other man's hips, stroking his palms in small circles. He practically vibrated with the urge to thrust upward, but a twitch of pain closed one eye when he shifted a leg in reflex to get leverage, bandaged calf grating against the mattress.

Ellis quickly tightened his arms, a biting moan fluttering out sharply at Nick's advance. He bent his head, stretching down to beg a kiss off the conman. They were both breathless, and the kiss got heavy fast, mutual noises stifled between their mouths.

Spreading his knees slightly in a forceful push against the mattress, Ellis worked his body down to take in all of the conman's hard erection, pushing down into his lap with a tight nestle. The conman's hands suddenly dug nails into his hips, and a shudder passed up Nick's body, punctuated by a frustrated utterance against Ellis' mouth.

It got easier with his body acclimated to the full width and length, tension relieved by the heavy kiss and the thrilling attentions Nick was lavishing to his lips and tongue. That was almost all Nick could control, unable to really move anything else, and he thrust full-force into it.

Ellis coaxed himself into a slow rise and fall without breaking their kiss, the motion eased by the slick lube. It was a wonderful feeling, sending shudders and shivers up his whole body. Every inch he lost by lifting up made him want it back desperately, but the absence made pushing back down again all the more incredible.

It was a torturous see-saw, and judging by the subtle prickling of sweat along Nick's brow, Ellis wasn't the only one suffering.

Groaning as he bit along Ellis' lower lip, Nick adjusted his arms to wrap fully around the kid's waist. Strong arms hugged around his hips to help him rock his weight up and down when the Georgian faltered. The added embrace - that bit of invaluable intimacy - made Ellis whimper, eagerly speeding up his motions to build up some friction.

He couldn't even feel his legs, the motion so driven by blind determination that he was barely cognizant of his own motions. He didn't really know what he was doing; he only knew that whatever it was, it felt good and he wanted more.

Pleasure shuddered up in crackling jolts, and though Nick didn't have enough control and Ellis didn't quite have the bravery to twist and search for that sweetspot Nick had discovered… but it didn't really matter - the movement felt wonderful all on its own.

"N-Nick -"

The gambler stifled him when he tried to break the kiss, re-capturing his lips with a firm nip of chastisement. He must've heard the desperation, though, because one arm slipped free from the embrace, and his hand snuck between their bodies to circle around Ellis' erection.

Toying deft fingers over that sensitive flesh was like flicking a switch, and suddenly Ellis was rocking his weight twice as hard and fast. He couldn't stay still, riding the older man with a certain level of desperation as the motions rubbed him against Nick's hand, too.

The bed below them threatened to bump back into the wall with each bounce. There was a few inches of space to use, freed so the lamp could plug into the wall, but it was close. Ellis didn't have the sense to stop himself, too enthralled in pleasure as he worked down onto Nick's lap and against his palm.

What Ellis didn't expect, struggling with the increasing tension building around his core and the unbearable stiffness that Nick's fingers only made worse, was for the conman to come first.

It happened suddenly, when his knees gave out a little and his body collapsed down to jam down fully to Nick's lap. He must've shuddered with the sudden penetration and tensed around Nick, because the gambler's hips bucked up harshly, the older man pulling his mouth free to tip his chin up and groan a deep-throated sound of pleasure.

Just a graveled purr, vibrant and rolling off his tongue like so much honey. His head hit back against the headboard of the bed, hot breath escaping him in a huff.

The rush of pulsing warmth that spread deep inside him made Ellis shudder, a startled exhalation escaping him as the position he was in let him feel every little twitch of the conman's climax. It felt strange.. and incredible... all at the same time, shock flowing up his spine, but it was so warmly intimate that Ellis just lost his composure, disoriented.

"O-oah Christ!" Ellis had no idea how loud he said it. It felt like it burst from him, hurried, but ... he really couldn't decide just how loud it'd really been. Nick crooned to him in lustful support, voice immediately sending him rocking into climax.

"That's it, Ace.."

The gambler's fingers stroked Ellis through his orgasm, digits squeezing up his hard-on to egg it on. His hips bucked up mindlessly a few times against Ellis, driving home the sensations, but he only had so much leverage without using his injured leg.

Ellis quickly wobbled to collapse against Nick's front, whimpering uselessly as his body buzzed and hummed, almost crippled. Nick soothingly gave one last stroke of his member and then stilled entirely, gently pulling his hand away to wipe it on the mattress without looking. He let his head tip against Ellis', mouth nestling against the other man's ear.

They breathed hard in the silence that settled in as they both calmed down, bodies plastered against each other in an intimate sprawl that was sweaty and hot and... wonderful. Nick's breathing was soothing in Ellis' ear, making his eyes slowly close as his cheek rested more fully against Nick's collarbone.

Ellis shifted to re-arrange himself gingerly, lifting up off the gambler's lap to disconnect them. He kept close, though, sliding into something like a sit next to Nick against the headboard, slumped down so he could stretch his legs out with a sigh. The gambler's good leg and his tangled lightly, both of them melting into place.

An arm slipped behind his shoulders, and Ellis felt a warmth spark in a place far deeper than his skin as Nick's forearm pulled him closer, face nuzzling to where he could press his mouth against the delicate ear near his lips.

The shiver the motion caused in Ellis was sedate, more a flutter than anything else. It made Ellis smile, not wanting to move from the embrace that so warmed him. Ellis nuzzled back against Nick's face, and though he felt a slight stiffening of the gambler's form, Nick didn't pull away.

Instead, Nick spoke, voice low and unobtrusive while a hand turned slightly to settle flat against Ellis' right bicep, fingertips tracing the curl of his tattoo. It tickled. "Didn't mean to finish in you. Sorry.. should've warned ya.."

It should've made Ellis blush, speaking so brazenly about it, but just then all he felt was warmth. Sticky warmth, maybe, but - more than that, too. "It's okay.. I kinda ... liked it. Felt real funny-like."

Nick chuckled lowly at that, and Ellis broke into an outright grin at the sound, hiding his face slightly against Nick's shoulder. The gambler always had this low, nasal snort to his laugh, like he was constantly mocking or sarcastic - but there was a honeyed layer it got sometimes that made him wonder. Ellis was sure he had a genuine laugh hidden somewhere, something wonderful and sweet, but stifled it.

Imagining it made him happy. But a little sad, too.

"How did you get in here, anyway..? Not that I'm angry, it's just - I did kinda lock the door." Nick shifted his weight, reaching one arm down to grab at his knee, eyes drifting to examine his bandaged calf. It had bled through again, but lessened, and there was some blood on the sheets.

"I uh... kinda used yer credit card. Like you did, back when...." Ellis didn't elaborate.

Nick blinked at him, pulling back to get a look at the Georgian's face. Breaking into a smirk, he shook his head, letting his head tip back against the headboard. One hand drifted to settle against the back of Ellis' neck, the other replacing itself around Ellis' torso. "You little thief in training.. I'm an awful influence, aren't I?"

"Maybe." Ellis smiled gently, slipping his hands to settle on Nick's sides, fingers curling a little. He didn't know what was going on, didn't know why Nick was allowing them to stay so close for so long… but he loved it. Thrived in it. "Ain't that my call, though?"

"No. You're the innocent, oblivious one." Nick snorted almost imperceptibly, green eyes half-closing. "You don't know what's good or bad for you."

Ellis thought on that for a moment, uncertainly, letting his face nuzzle slightly down. "Is that why yuh locked me out? 'Cause you thought you were a bad influence 'n' I couldn't… protect muhself from you or somethin'?"

Nick's fingers stilled for a moment - and then he let his nails stroke along the back of Ellis' neck, slowly. "Is that what you thought?"

Not really minding the dodgy response, Ellis relaxed a little more, the soft stroking on the sensitive back of his neck making his whole body tingle sleepily. "Naw. I kinda figured you were feelin' vulnerable... wanted tuh be alone..."

"Heh. So you broke in?" Nick wasn't really accusing. There was no serious emotion to be found anywhere in either of them, really - just calm words, soft tones. They were drained of any energy to do more than that.

Ellis couldn't help but smile gently, drowsily limpening his grip on Nick's torso. "I didn't want you tuh be alone up here."

Nick didn't respond. Those fingers softly scratched along his hairline, shifting up to pet through his hair, too. The motion was as calming to him as it was putting Ellis to sleep. He almost wanted to say something - but Ellis didn't seem to expect it.

It was nice... the silence. Nick didn't have to try and come up with something to explain away why he was being gentle, or second-guess himself. He stroked at the skin under his fingertips, feeling Ellis' breaths against his shoulder.

He could just relax for a moment, gather himself. Bask in the afterglow.

Nick wasn't sure how many breaths he'd taken, how long it had been, before he inhaled deeply and spoke. "Hey... El." Nick let himself pause a moment, settling his mouth against Ellis' hair, a soapy smell deeply swirling into his nostrils. "You don't have to break in next time. I won't lock you out."

When Ellis didn't respond, Nick lifted his head, turning it a little to glance at his face. A smile sprouted on his face, quickly stifled and drowned into an even line. Ellis was asleep against his shoulder.

Sighing carefully, Nick gently disentangled himself from the sleeping kid. He eased Ellis down with his hands, careful to let him down softly so as to not disturb him. The moment he settled down, Ellis made to curl up, pawing his hands limply on the mattress in search of Nick.

Seeing his restlessness, Nick let a hand drift to rustle the mechanic's curly hair. Just a soothing brush with the pads of his fingers over the brown locks, enough to ease him. Ellis immediately relaxed with a content sigh.

It was hard to roll out of bed for Nick, wincing as his injured leg throbbed painfully. Cautiously lowering his feet to the floor after sliding himself across the mattress, he sat on the edge for a moment, hanging his head with his elbows on his knees. His body slumped bonelessly.

He looked over his shoulder, feeling exhausted in all the right ways - and a few wrong ones. A smirk settled lightly onto his lips, turning into a smile a beat later. Sorry, kiddo... If it helps.. I actually do wish I could stay.

Then it died, withering on his lips, and he gazed uncertainly toward some distant point for just a moment.

He did. And it felt… unfamiliar.

Putting all his weight on his good leg, Nick stood up, keeping an arm softly extended to hold his balance. He let himself reach back to pull the blanket up and draw it carefully over Ellis' frame, tucking it around his shoulders.

His fingers trailed over Ellis' cheek as he pulled away. The contact tingled, but Nick straightened up and carefully turned away to walk toward the door. He picked up his wallet as he went, body shuddering with each step that put even the slightest weight on his hurt leg. He ended up limping, barely pressing down with the ball of his foot.

Nick would get cleaned up, get dressed, and carefully crash on the couch downstairs. Ellis could have the bed. If someone asked, he'd just say he'd offered to play guard and they'd traded.

No one'd be the wiser.

Fingering his wallet as he opened the door, flinching, Nick glanced at it. He'd hidden a few hundreds in an empty credit card slot. He was never one to pull all of the aces out of his sleeves.

Chapter Text

Consciousness didn't come gently for the conman - Nick must've been trying to roll over in his sleep, because suddenly he jolted awake with a flurry of pain, completely disoriented except for the knowledge that he was in agony.

"Sh-Shit! Fucking leg!"

Blurting it out, Nick forced himself to hold abruptly still, body completely rigid. Panting slightly, he kept completely immobile while the pain ebbed slowly. The needled sensations that had sprouted all along his bandaged calf started to calm.

Exhaling a deep breath as a numbness settled in behind the pain, Nick let himself move. His arms were crossed over his chest tightly, cradling something imaginary to his body. He eyed his own arms, turning his hands at the wrists to examine his palms. Did he wish he'd woken up with Ellis against his side? He wasn't sure anymore.

Rolling his eyes slightly, Nick exhaled calmly and craned his neck lightly to try and look around from where he was sprawled on the couch. It took a moment to re-organize his thoughts, feeling on edge. The front room was dark, lit only by the morning light streaming in from the windows and a light that was on in the hallway leading up to the second floor.

The house was quiet, only a constant buzz from the ceiling fan overhead that was lightly rotating. He tipped his head up into the breeze, sighing quietly.

Sleep had been easy. Certainly far easier than the first time he'd tried to go to sleep that night -Ellis had exhausted him, and it had been a deep sleep till he'd apparently tried to move.

Shifting his weight to carefully try and get his elbows back behind himself, moving to pull himself to sit up on the couch, Nick's shoulder brushed against something uneven and firm where his head had been resting on the cushion. Confused, he pawed back a hand to grab it, dragging it in front of himself.

Green eyes turned a bit shocked as he held Ellis' cap in front of his face.

What the hell? Ellis' hat? Why - what? He was confused out of his mind, probably worsened by only being freshly woken up. He turned the cap in his fingers with a bewildered attention, a thumb straightening it out from where it'd been folded a bit strangely under the weight of his head.

Had Ellis put it there? Like a pillow? He supposed that meant the others were already awake, although there was a heavy silence in the house that made him wonder.

Starting to put the hat down, Nick's brow rose in curiousity when a folded, torn bit of paper tumbled out from the inside onto his stomach. "Well, that's helpful." He snorted vaguely, holding onto the hat as he picked up the note and shook it open by an edge.

The handwriting was neat enough, a little curly with sharp angles. The words got smaller and more crammed together as it went, Ellis rambling hopelessly on a too-small piece of paper. He'd torn it off from a larger piece, apparently thinking he'd only take a few inches of paper.

As if.

'Mr. Gambling Man,

Running out to go check that gas station for supplies. I told Ro and Coach to let you sleep - but I didn't want you waking up and not knowing where we were. I think Coach is starting to like you more! He almost suggested we let you sleep before I did!'

"Hah. Yeah, that's what that means, dumbshit." Nick had to turn it over to read the rest, a little arrow pointing him on.

'Gonna try and get you some cigarettes while we're there. Wish I knew what kind of snack you like. But Ro says they'll just leave me if I don't get a move on. I'm leaving my hat with ya! We'll be back real shortly.'

Shaking his head, Nick tossed the note away with a sigh. He felt slightly amused, imagining Ellis scrambling to write the note up while Coach and Rochelle waited impatiently.

It was strange. He sat there for a moment, in silence, realizing slowly that he trusted them to come back. All three of them. He would've gladly put money on it. That security, that safety… had he ever known what it felt like?

Damn I hope they do find some smokes.. what I'd give. Christ.

Using a hand to grip onto the slacks of his injured leg, Nick carefully turned himself on the couch. Letting his feet settle on the carpet, he tested his footing as he straightened his somewhat messily dressed body. Straightening out his dress shirt and tucking it more neatly into his slacks, he sighed, rolling his weight onto his bad leg.

It distinctly hurt, pain making his brows twitch uncomfortably, but it didn't crumple like it had the day before. Inspired, Nick put his palms to the couch and gently pushed to stand up. He was still going to be limping, but hopefully less, today.

Hobbling carefully away from the couch with Ellis' hat left behind on the armrest, Nick advanced toward what looked like a small kitchen next to the laundry room. He needed a drink - water would do, though something alcoholic would've been even better.

Wincing slightly as he crossed from carpet to cold tile, Nick aimed for the sink. He flicked on the tap, running a fingertip through the stream that splashed out in an uneven pillar. It was... lukewarm, but his mouth was dry.

He reached up to open an overhead cabinet, hunting for a glass. A coffee mug came first to his fingers, and he turned it to glance inside. It seemed pretty clean, but not enough for him to quite trust it.

His mind inevitably drifted to the night before while he ran the mug underneath the tap, letting water gather up inside it and then pouring it out with a slight shake. He should've been the mature one - the confident one who knew what he was doing.

Instead, he was pretty sure Ellis was the one assured in his decisions.

Guy jumped me like a cheap whore. Jesus. Turned him gay quick, didn't you, Nicolas? Hah.

Unfortunately, blaming the situation on Ellis didn't work too well. Nick still had a lingering awareness of holding Ellis close, body warm and perfect against his chest. His brows furrowed, squeamishly yanking a paper towel off a roll attached to the bottom of a cabinet just beside his head to scrub at the mug with.

It had felt good. Right, even. He couldn't deny that - it just had.

Ellis did something to him. He saw through Nick's ploys and pokerfaces, even when the kid couldn't really understand why. Ellis played him without any kind of intent to, broke him down with bumbling skill. It scared him.

Maybe he's good for you.

Startled by the thought, Nick's fingers slipped on the slick mug and he dropped it into the sink with a loud clatter. Wincing quickly, he dived a hand to pick it back up, checking to see if he'd broken it.

Good for him - that was a strange thought. He didn't necessarily like it, either.

Sighing in annoyance, he let the mug fill up with water before shutting the tap off. Turning away, he used his free hand to push himself up, hopping onto the edge of the sink and forcing himself to relax now that he could dangle his bad leg.

Nick sipped from his mug with an expression about as pleased as a drenched cat.

He'd just take it simple. There was really no meaning behind his behaviour. They just laid close for a moment. It was natural after sex. He definitely shouldn't have felt uncomfortable about it - even if it had been intimate. Or touching Ellis soothingly afterward - even if he had felt his chest tighten. Or his own reluctance to leave - even if he had sincerely wanted to stay.

None of it meant anything, not really.

Simple fact was they had a good thing going, and Nick liked simplicity almost as much as he liked good things. There was no guilt in letting it happen - especially if it felt good. It's the fucking apocalypse. Can I just have this one goddamn thing?

Scrunching his nose at his mug, he grumbled a little. The water tasted tinny. He would've given anything for bottled water, but that wasn't much of an option. Not to mention, he didn't know how long the others had been gone and when they'd come back.

He felt a little useless. Bored, even. It grated at him that they'd 'let him sleep' like some cripple. He wasn't crippled, just wounded. Glaring at his bad leg only stirred a sense of resentment in his gut - but there was no one to yell at. He was alone.

Standing up with a slight 'umf' as he landed his weight entirely on his good foot, he restlessly looked around the kitchen. He had to do something while he was waiting.

Nick limped over to the fridge, opening it up and gazing inside as he took a swig of water. There wasn't much, mostly condiments and old Tupperware containers with questionable contents. At the very bottom of the fridge, though, was an empty bottle of beer tipped on its side.

He eyed it, head tipping in sudden interest as an idea struck him.

"Heh."

Bending down with a hand balancing himself on the fridge door, Nick picked up the bottle and tucked it into his suit pocket. The glass was cold from being in the fridge, and it chilled lightly at his hip. He abandoned his mug of water on one of the shelves in the fridge, leaving the door open carelessly.

He smirked, suddenly feeling in a good mood. He could still remember the night he'd learned how to make a Molotov Cocktail - sitting on a cold cement wall, fingers tight on his own knees, watching clear fuel chug into a bottle in fascination. He'd been a kid back then... learning how to rebel.

"Figured you'd take to a history lesson better if it was hands-on, Nick. You remember who used the first Molotovs?"

"They weren't called Molotovs when they were first used."

That laugh. The loud one that made Nick feel hilarious. "... Little smartass."

Nick hobbled slightly as he started pawing through cabinets. Ten to one there was hard alcohol somewhere in the house, stashed away. He just had to find it. "Let's see, booze, booze..."

He found a few bottles behind a bunch of cooking spices. Weak wines and a bottle of some chocolate cordial left him disappointed at first. A moment later, though, he spotted a clear plastic bottle nearer the back, quickly leaning in to drag it out. Much to his approval - it was actual vodka.

Shitty vodka, but high-proof. It'd be enough.

Grinning subtly, he set both the bottles he had on the counter. Uncapping the vodka, he carefully filled the beer bottle halfway, eyeing the subtle shadow of rising liquid through the brown glass.

"Fuel..."

Pleased, he put the vodka bottle down and hobbled over to the sink again with his half-made Molotov gripped tight in one hand. Picking up the bottle of dishwasher detergent just beside the sink and shaking it slightly, Nick snapped the cap open with one hand.

He poured it carefully into the bottle, adding a few inches of height to the mixture inside, shadow and light swirling perceptibly inside the bottle as the heavy detergent dribbled through the alcohol.

"Thickener..."

Replacing the detergent bottle back up against the wall, Nick went through the nearby drawers carefully until he found a washrag. Winding it up into a twist, he jammed one end into the mouth of the beer bottle, working it a few inches in.

Surveying his work with a content smirk, Nick set the thing down on the counter carefully.

Just needs a light and it's set to go. Damn, you're good, Nicolas.

He had to laugh. Getting something to focus on had definitely made him feel better, and now he felt like he'd actually done something useful with what could've been wasted time. "I should've done this earlier. Fuck zombies."

Digging through a few drawers, he found one full of various junk that had a few matchbooks inside. He stowed one in the hidden pocket on the inside of his suit, with his wallet.

Ellis was going to freak when he saw. He probably had a story about Keith burning himself alive with one of these. Rochelle would likely disapprove and give him one of those 'Where the hell did you learn that' looks... Coach, ten to one, would just shake his head and frown. That seemed to be his reaction to Nick.

Speaking of - where the hell are they?

He was fast getting tired of waiting. Who knew how long he'd been asleep - and add on the time he'd wasted screwing around... it wasn't his job to sit around and wait for them like a housewife. "Fuck this." Setting the bottle on the counter and abandoning it, he turned and hobbled carefully back out of the kitchen.

Circling the couch, Nick worked his black-socked feet into his shoes ditched just on the carpet. As he winced slightly, having to bend down to help his bad leg into the shoe and grab his crowbar settled nearby, he re-noticed Ellis' hat perched on the couch armrest.

Smirking lightly, he wormed his foot into his shoe and straightened back up. Nick tucked his crowbar underneath his arm and picked up the blue cap, eyeing it for a moment. He still couldn't believe Ellis had left it with him. He was tempted to pretend to lose it. Ellis would have an aneurysm.

Chuckling at the thought, Nick undid the width adjustment in the soft mesh back of the cap. He pulled his suit jacket up slightly, working the band through one of the belt loops above his backside. Snapping it closed, he let the hat dangle down from its makeshift hook. His jacket hid it pretty well when he snapped it back in place, though he could feel it.

He'd fuck with Ellis a little. Just a few minutes of terror - he mocked a Southern accent already, rolling his eyes in humor as he turned to limp toward the door. "Oh, yeah, Ay-lus. I ever tell you 'bout the time yer cap fell right outta my hands into that there sewer grate outside?"

Cracking himself up, Nick carefully pulled a light table set up on its side away from the doorway. They'd somewhat unbarricaded the door to get out, but replaced that to keep Nick safe. He admitted being a bit annoyed they didn't think one of three might be able to stay back with him, but he wasn't about to dwell on it.

I'll wait till I find them to bitch about that.

Stepping gladly through the doorway, Nick tipped his head up into the sunlight. It was maybe late morning, and the sky was clear to a wonderful degree. The sun warmed pleasantly at his skin, making him shake his head and run a hand through his hair.

Hobbling down the few steps leading onto the gravel road, Nick pulled his crowbar from under his arm and held it with an absent swing. He carefully walked down the road, leg not hurting too badly to manage.

His gaze wandered his surroundings as he walked at as fast a pace he could manage, slightly uncomfortable being alone and injured… though he wouldn't've admitted it aloud. He didn't see any zombies, just a few dead bodies that looked pretty fresh. The other three must've run into them on the way.

Nick relaxed a little with that thought, though he didn't lower his crowbar. He started to hum a flat tune, shoes crunching on uneven gravel as he approached the back of the gas station's parking lot.

He was glad to step onto asphalt as the gravel road turned into parking lot. It gave him much better footing and a smoother walk, lessening the pressure on his bad leg. Sighing in slight relief, Nick angled toward the gas station building with a smirk.

He had to step over a few infected bodies, glancing at them only momentarily before crinkling his nose and looking away. Tucking his crowbar into his belt, he stretched out his arms lightly.

If that dipshit tries to give me some of his candy I'll smack him... Chuckling absently as he limped along the wall, he gave a shake of his head. This was the gas station that had been broken and covered in blood, and all the windows busted. Light spilled out into the parking lot so they must've found a working light.

He was just two steps away from the corner of the building when he heard it.

"Ain't the zombies bad enough!?"

It was panicked and confused to a desperate point - Ellis' voice. There was a level of terror in his tone that set Nick's teeth on edge, his skin prickling sharply. He'd never heard that from the Georgian. Not once.

What the fuck?!

Immediately, Nick went flat against the wall, eyes narrowed. A cold sensation spilled down his spine, perking for the next sounds. They were in front of the gas station, not inside it.

"We can do this tuhgether! Yuh don't gotta -"

Ellis' yelp and a sharp smack, the familiar sound of metal against skin, made anger flare up so sharply in Nick he couldn't take it. Sliding his head to the side, he let his gaze slant to see around the corner just next to him without baring more than he had to of his face.

He saw Ellis stumbling into Coach and Rochelle's quickly grabbing arms, holding his cheek with a shocked look of pain as blood started to trickle from a split on his cheekbone.

Standing just a few feet away from them on the asphalt was a blonde woman, re-aiming the handgun that she'd clearly pistol-whipped Ellis with. All Nick could see of her features was the frizzy and dirty yellow hair falling around her shoulders, and the torn-up, bloodied, and darkly stained leather biker getup she was wearing.

"Shut up, pussy." she snapped, sounding practically amused with him. Jerking the handgun at Coach, she cocked a hip and ordered, "You, tubs. Take off the backpack."

He'd been on both ends of that gun before - but the fact the woman had hit Ellis... vibrant, flowing rage spilled into every single inch of the conman's skin. He was on fire - and then emotion drained from him as his heart adopted a steady thud in his chest.

Nick pulled back there, expression absolute stone as he reached down to pull his Magnum out of its thigh holster. He eased the ammo well open, softly, staring just an instant at the empty holes returning his gaze with blank faces. Had he really used his last bullets? The swamp had stolen so much from them… energy, time, supplies, ammo…

Pretending you had the upper hand was far harder than pretending you didn't.

Returning it into place with a snap, he looked up and let his fingers settle into a confident squeeze on the grip, finger on the trigger. There was a murderous steel to his expression, an unflinching grit to his jaw, he hadn't felt in years.

Stepping out past the corner of the building with a solid stance that didn't betray an inch of pain, Nick aimed his Magnum right at her back and spoke coolly.

"Bad move, bitch."

Chapter Text

The air might've cracked under the weight of the moment's tension.

The muzzle of Nick's Magnum glinted in the sunlight, aimed dangerously at the blonde's spine. She stiffened, holding utterly still but for the smallest turn of her head to gaze back at him. One muddy green eye sized him up past dirty strands of yellow-blonde hair, a metal stud protruding from her brow.

"Who the fuck are you?"

Ellis immediately tried to wrest out of Coach and Rochelle's grip, panicked, but they held him fast. "Nick! Nick, don't -!" There was something distinctly horrified in his expression, and Nick had a very strong feeling Ellis knew his gun had no ammo.

The last thing he needed was Ellis giving him away. Just looking at the kid made every cell in Nick's body tremble with anger - his cheekbone was bruising into a dark purple, blood reaching his jaw in that soft trickle.

I will fucking kill you, you bitch.

Rochelle silenced Ellis first with a careful squeeze, but the blonde tightened a dirty finger on the trigger of her pistol anyway, aimed unerringly towards the three. "Shut it, kid, before I shut it for you." she stated without looking away from Nick.

"Don't say a word, any of you." Nick snarled in a demand, tone so angrily severe that Ellis whimpered faintly, blue eyes nervously darting between the two guns being pointed around. Rochelle held tightly onto him, looking at Nick... confidently. She trusted him.

Coach - Nick couldn't tell. Maybe he was just resigned to trusting him.

Nick's gaze met the blonde's again, green boiling silently like acid as his stony expression and tone threatened all on their own. "Put. The gun. Down. Keep pointing it at them and I will fucking put a bullet in your spine."

She smirked carelessly, letting out a small laugh and jerking the nose of her pistol slightly. "I have your little friends under the knife right now, buddy. You want to try that again?"

There wasn't even a split second before he was retorting, pure anger rising insensibly deep beneath a cool expression of veneered hatred. He almost interrupted her entirely. "No, not really. Because I can blow your fucking head off before you even think about thinking about pulling that trigger, bitch."

The blonde didn't seem to soften in the slightest, gaze flickering now between Nick and the other three. Her weight adjusted on her boots, tongue slowly sliding over her lower lip. "I can take at least one out before you get me. Up to losing a friend, fuckface? Or are you gonna sidle over like a good boy and start emptying your pockets?"

Nick let his finger tighten subtly, wishing furiously that he had a loaded gun in his hand. This was too much of a gamble - too much at stake... God, he had to get that gun out of her hands.

But he didn't pause. Didn't let any time pass, to give away his insecurity.

"So? Shoot, bitch. I don't give a shit. We're all gonna die sometime." he questioned carelessly, not even drifting his gaze away from her face. His eyes narrowed further, and on a risk, he let some of the rage buried down slip into his voice. It grated, snarling, going deeper with anger. "No matter how this works out, you end up splattered on the ground for the zombies."

That seemed to give her pause, jaw grinding out to one side. Her weight shifted with a slight nervous motion, bringing a fast pulse to Nick's heartbeat. The very last thing he needed was for her to panic. If she tried anything… and he didn't shoot her immediately… she'd realize the con.

He growled darkly, a level of calm threat flattening his voice as he put it in simple terms: "Put the fucking gun down, and we can all walk away."

Adjusting her grip on her handgun, the blonde clamped green-brown eyes on his sharply, narrowing and furrowing her brows dangerously. "Looks like we've got a little stalemate here. One of us is going to have to bend over."

"No." he asserted, angrily, taking one strong step closer with a jerk of his pistol. Nick knew he was winning when she didn't risk trying to shift her aim to him in retaliation. "You are going to fucking drop the weapon because anything else will get you a fist-sized hole in your chest before you can say 'I'm Nick's bitch.'"

Darting her gaze subtly, she chewed on her tongue, visibly considering that statement. "...Fuck. It's not worth dying." Her expression hollowed slightly, lips going taut against one another. "This would've been a whole lot simpler without your pussy ass involved." she muttered, angrily, her wrist limping.

With a frustrated motion, she let her handgun fall from her fingers, it clattering away on the asphalt. Almost mockingly, she lifted up her hands like she were being held at gunpoint even when Nick let his attention shift away from his Magnum in favor of carefully advancing forward. He bent down to pick up her pistol, gripping it quickly in his left hand.

Letting his fingers roll on the pistol's grip, Nick felt a surge of anger burn up the length of his spine. It felt heavy in his hand - hot, and his fingertips dug into the rubber that coated its grip. Straightening cautiously, his gaze jerked up to the blonde's face. Underneath frustrated green eyes, she was smirking faintly.

Nick could only vaguely hear Rochelle's voice, oblivious to the anger coursing through the gambler. "Oh thank God... I thought someone was going to get killed... she jumped us in the gas station, Nick. I'm so glad you came and found us."

In a motion that seemed to just float with such enraged ease, Nick suddenly took the few steps between them and whipped her straight across the face with the butt of her own pistol.

It struck her mouth instead of her cheek, and she went down with a strong yelp of surprise, thudding flat on her back. One of her hands quickly went up to cup over her lips, blood trickling between her fingers. He might've broken a tooth. "You fucker!"

It wasn't revenge enough.

There was a distinct silence whirling around Nick's head as he aimed the loaded pistol straight down into her face. His whole body coiled behind it, feeling the hot steel stretch out over his fingers. His index finger toyed with the trigger underneath it, arm tight with tension.

Shoot, Nicolas. Pull the fucking trigger.

He was sure he heard voices, speaking to him softly, but he shut them out. He could imagine the other three telling him to calm down, put down the gun. That it was over. Getting increasingly panicked when he failed to respond, gun completely steady in his hand.

The blonde's green-brown eyes simmered up into his over the barrel of the gun, threatening. The bitch hit Ellis. She threatened to kill them. Are you just going to fucking let it go?!

Christ, he felt possessive. Over-protective - a deep offense boiling to acrid hate at the thought of anyone doing anything to Ellis. He should've been there to stop it... but this would have to do. Revenge served hot on the head of a bullet.

Do it. His finger tightened, feeling the steel trigger start to roll back on its joint, centimeter by centimeter growing closer to firing -

"Nick." Heavy with that Southern hum, the utterance of his name pierced his thoughts. His finger stilled, realizing Ellis had come to stand just beside him. The kid's presence suddenly broke his determination, and his body froze up.

He'd have done it.

Fingertips touched the back of his wrist, warm and gentle. Nick felt himself blink sharply, gaze darting down to the hand settling over his. It very gently pushed downward, and though his whole arm was stiff as iron, the pressure gradually lowered his gun until it pointed blankly down to the cement.

Jerked into clear thought like he'd been knocked free of a trance, Nick felt tension wring out of his muscles in a slow dribble. He turned his head, and his gaze met Ellis'. There was a certain understanding, a coaxing warmth, in those blue eyes. The younger man smiled at him soothingly, blood tracing down his dirty cheek. "Yer alright, Nick. Let it go."

Nick's breath left him in a slight huff. Glancing between the blonde and the man beside him, he slowly pulled his finger away from the trigger. The anger drained out of Nick slowly, suddenly completely loosening his tense arms. When it seemed sure he was back in control, Ellis let his fingers pull away, fisting that hand cautiously around the ghosted warmth of their contact.

There was nothing he could do but look away, frustrated. He didn't know what he felt. Was it guilt? He'd have killed her, he knew that. It wasn't the first time, but never like this. Like an execution. Self-defense went out the window the minute she lost her gun.

Rochelle seemed even more shaken now, giving him a distinct look of uncertainty.

Oddly, on the other hand, Coach was calm. He gave Nick a firm nod, assured, and deepset eyes seemed impressed. Nick wasn't sure why - it was Ellis he should've been impressed with... the kid was the only reason the thief wasn't dead.

"What's your name?" he spat down at the blonde, dangerously warning her with deeply twitching brows. He felt his anger flicker hotter when she gave him a smug narrow of her eyes, silent, but it was under control now. "Fine, bitch. Are you alone?"

Rochelle gently pulled away from Coach, walking forward to set her hand softly on Nick's arm. The blonde was clearly not interested in responding, gently soothing her bleeding mouth with her palm and downcasting her gaze defiantly.

"You 'xpect lootin', but can't say I thought folks'd turn to armed robbery." Coach quietly noted, crossing his arms carefully with a sigh. The blonde laughed sharply like she'd just heard something ridiculous.

"We can leave her at the house after we get all our stuff." Rochelle suggested quietly. "There's supplies and electricity there, so it wouldn't be cruel."

Nick was instantly incredulous, turning his head to give her a disbelieving look. He shook her hand off, his usual tone of general disagreement returning in place of genuine anger. "Cruel?! Not being cruel was not fucking shooting her in the head! Far as I'm concerned being kind is telling her to fuck off right now."

That riled a response out of the woman, blood speckling her front when she spat out, "Fuck you."

Ellis uncertainly scratched at his head, sighing softly. "I'unno, Ro'. I'm sorta with Nick on this one. She's dangerous." He didn't say it outright, but as he spoke, he lifted his hand and touched softly on his cheek, daubing away some blood with his fingertips. His expression was slightly hurt - he just wanted the woman away from them. No one could blame him.

Rochelle looked around for a moment, hesitant, but when she saw the sentiment worn into all three of her friends' faces, she gave in wearily with a sigh. "Alright, your call - majority rules and all that."

Immediately moving with the permission, Nick dropped to a bend at the waist in front of the blonde. He glared down at her severely, twisting his wrist to flip his Magnum around in his hand so he held the muzzle. He didn't care enough about the weapon to hang onto it when he had a perfectly fine pistol to replace it with now.

She didn't flinch when he suddenly stuck it out toward her face, but it took her a moment to understand he was offering it to her, not preparing to hit her again. "Get the fuck out of here, right now. I don't care where you were going, you go back down the highway like a good girl. If I see your goddamn face again, you will regret it. Capiche?"

"Aw. You're so sweet. Dick." she snarled through bloody teeth as she went to snatch the Magnum out of his hand. He jerked it slightly out of her reach just at the last second, giving her a long, dark warning stare.

"... you fucked up, blondie. Zombies are nothing compared to what I'd do to you if we were alone right now." Sliding the Magnum into her hand, he straightened up and crossed his arms easily. A smirk settled flat on his face, watching her as he felt the other three step up behind him.

The blonde shoved herself up with her palms, quickly getting the Magnum in her hand. She backed up, eyeing them carefully as her boots slowly rolled with each cautious step backward.

Nick wasn't surprised in the least when she got barely a few feet away and suddenly lifted up the Magnum to take aim right at his chest. Rochelle didn't have time to do more than jump in horror, and Coach's hand clapped on his shoulder like he were prepared to shove the conman to the ground, but it was too late.

Her finger pulled back on the trigger hard - and it clicked dully. Nick gave one little blink in reaction to it, smirk unwavering, as her spiteful grin turned into a faltering look of shock. The blonde pulled the trigger one more time, cursing ferociously under her breath.

"There's no fucking ammo in this thing?! You bullshitted me, you fucker!"

Feeling Coach's hand go slack on his sleeve, Nick coolly lifted up his gun-toting left hand, aiming neatly with a straight arm. He tipped his head so he could gaze straight down the length of black metal, feeling a smirk curl up his features.

"Run, bitch."

She did. It took her a moment, staring from the useless Magnum in her hand to Nick's loaded pistol, but as the repercussions of what she'd just tried to do fully sunk in, she bolted full-speed across the parking lot, scrambling to sprint down the sidewalk before he could shoot.

Coach actually laughed slightly, chuckling a bit gruffly as she disappeared around the edge of a building. Nick let his arm fall, smirking faintly, and the big man clapped him on the shoulder.

"You did good, Nick. Can't believe that gun wasn't loaded. Yo' gamblin' habit came in handy fo' once."

There was an honest compliment there. Nick overlooked the 'for once' - maybe Coach might actually start to get along with him. He inhaled cautiously, shrugging up a shoulder and glancing over it. He felt his gaze tug toward Ellis' bruised face. "It was messy. Too much risk."

Rochelle teased him lightly, but she seemed distracted. Her brows were furrowed a little - she didn't look to be recovering as quickly from the blonde's attempt at betrayal, gazing after her with a slightly tight stance. "Awwh. That's the sweetest thing you've ever said about us."

"Hah. Yeah... you guys... not me getting shot in the face or anything..." he quipped morosely, earning an elbow from the pink-shirted woman. He flashed her a small smirk, and she shook her head subtly.

"I'm just glad we're all okay, man... that was scary." Ellis sighed out, closing a hand over his pretty badly bleeding cheek. Nick suddenly felt a little disgusted holding the gun he was, and he jammed it in his thigh holster with a grunt.

"I doubt she'll be back." Rochelle suggested, sighing. "You're pretty scary when you want to be, Nick, sweetie. I'm not complaining, it's just..." She trailed off, shaking her head and giving a light smile.

Even though he was mumbling slightly, tone seeming a little forced, Ellis started in on a story; "Reminds me'uh this one time muh buddy Keith was tryin' tuh learn how tuh skateboard but he thought it was too borin', so he took these huge tin sheets 'n built-"

Coach interrupted him almost immediately, weary, rubbing the back of his bald head. "What in the hell does this have to do with what just happened, son?"

Ellis blinked slightly, chuckling lightly. "Oah, well the hobo whut started livin' underneath his ramps tried tuh mug him with a knife while he was skateboardin'. It wouldn't'uh been so funny if Keith hadn't'uh been unconscious at the time, what with him fallin' straight off the ramp ontuh his head. Ain't like Keith could have put up no fight. He took his wallet'n'cash'n'everythin'."

There was a silence, momentarily.

Nick chuckling faintly broke it, and with a tired noise of consternation, Coach reached into his backpack. He unzipped it without taking it off, blindly digging a hand into its contents. "We got some things before she jumped us, Nick."

A plastic pack of gummy worms was tossed at Ellis, a small box of cigarettes at Nick. There was a short whistle of glee from the mechanic, brightening visibly as he clutched the bag to his chest.

"Thankyuh, Coach!"

Nick didn't say a word, just nodding his head with unspoken and deep appreciation, breaking the pack open. He needed one just about then - for a few reasons. He let the filter nestle between his lips, reaching into his inner pocket to pry out the matchbook.

He lit it as Rochelle looped her arm in Coach's and pulled him gently to start walking back toward the house. Nick thought she did so rather suddenly, but he didn't argue. "Let's get everything we need from the house and get going. I don't really want to hang around here too much longer."

"Mm. Agreed." Nick quietly affirmed, shaking out his match as the tip of his cigarette caught dull fire. His free hand reached back to curl on Ellis' elbow, guiding the kid to walk next to him after seeing Ellis was so thoroughly distracted in trying to tear into the plastic bag in his hands.

Inhaling deeply, Nick let the smoke roil out of his nostrils, the burn distracting him as he started to limp lightly after them. The adrenaline was gone, and he realized he probably should've been more careful with his leg. It was fast starting to hurt fairly badly, the pain reminiscent of the skin of his calf splitting down the center.

Speaking far under his breath so the other two couldn't hear him, he caught his cigarette with his teeth and talked past it. "You okay, kiddo?"

"Yeah, I jus' can't get this dang thing open..." Ellis mumbled, deeply invested in his work trying to pluck at the sealed plastic and tear it as he tagged obediently along with Nick's gently pulling hand.

It made Nick snort, unable to stifle it. Snatching the bag out of his fingers, Nick tore the thing sharply at the top before replacing it in Ellis' hands. "Not that, dumbshit."

Ellis started to happily reach in and grab one of the shiny gummies piled up in the pack, but all of a sudden, Nick's hand slipped past his face and curled fingertips under his jaw.

Turning his head, Nick made the Georgian look up at him, touching his thumb gently under the bloody tear across his cheekbone. "This." Ellis' eyes winced softly, but a blush built up along the bridge of his nose, nearly stumbling from surprise as Nick tenderly examined the wound.

"U-uh -" the younger man uttered in a little breathless noise, lips parting softly. Nick could see his blue eyes flickering around his face. "I-It's okay.. hurts a li'l but it - it ain't like I ain't had way worse..."

Nick blew a smoky breath out to the side of his mouth, releasing Ellis' jaw before anyone could have spied the gesture. His gaze narrowed, fending off a building anger. He couldn't help but question himself - was he going to feel this incensed if Ellis got hurt by zombies, too...? Where is this even coming from… Stupid. You're being stupid.

"I think I'm the only one here who's been held at gunpoint before. You alright?"

"A-ahw.. yeah, Nick." the Georgian mumbled, dropping his chin subtly like he had a cap bill to hide underneath. He rubbed at his jaw, smoothing gently over the space where Nick had touched him. "'M fine... Just real glad she didn't call you out on the gun... that scared me more."

"Yeah, well... good move, stopping me back there, Ace. Been told I need reining in sometimes." Nick sighed deeply, looking forward. "We'll get a butterfly on it... I think I saw some in that bathroom."

"... Butterfly?" Ellis repeated vaguely, blush spreading even along his bruised cheek. Nick smirked softly, adjusting his cigarette with his fingertips at the question. The Georgian seemed disoriented, and he wasn't sure if it was lingering discomfort from the blow to the head. Or, maybe Ellis didn't know how to react to Nick being… kind.

That makes two of us.

"Bandage for deeper cuts. Works like a stitch."

Ellis didn't respond for a few moments, focusing suddenly on dragging out a gummy and biting down on it. He chewed ineffectually at it, the end dangling from his lips much like Nick's cigarette.

Nick felt protective. He didn't even know if he liked it, but the feeling was there. At least it fueled anger rather than any other emotion. He could take anger. Anger was easy, and smooth, and numbed him.

Pulling on his cigarette as he limped forward, he kept a glance going toward Ellis, curiously. The Georgian clearly had something to say, but he seemed to be mulling it over.

His stare must've urged the kid into talking, because - swallowing down his worm with a bit of a gulp - Ellis glanced up with those blue eyes and prompted in a whisper, "'Ey Nick - are you? Okay, I mean. I ain't seen you look so angry before, not even when I piss you off.."

Drawing a tight breath from his smoking cigarette, Nick furrowed his brows. He wasn't wholly sure how to answer that, and immediate instinct had him striving to avoid the conversation entirely.

The words just worked out of him, careless to a point. "I'm fine, sport. I had to do something to scare her into giving up - y'know, the whole, the gun was actually empty thing? Threats work pretty well."

Ellis nodded faintly as they approached the house. He didn't argue, but Nick had the feeling he'd been seen through anyway. It probably wasn't the last he'd hear of it, unless Ellis decided to be kind.

The Georgian certainly wasn't hurt by being avoided. Nick felt himself startle slightly when fingers brushed his, planting a gummy between his fingertips. The gambler couldn't even pretend to be agitated at the gesture - he just eyed the thing, twirling it between his fingertips for a minute. If he hadn't been so hungry, he wouldn't have eaten it.

What was Nick supposed to say - 'yeah, seeing you hurt just drove me absolutely fucking homicidal'? That didn't sound right in his head, let alone spoken aloud.

They fell silent on the topic anyway, the distance between them and the other two waning as they came up to their makeshift pit stop, immediately spreading out to give the house a final once-over for supplies. Nick's leg was growing insufferable quickly, and he kept it a secret when he slipped a dose of painkillers from Coach's pack. He'd sweat them out before it could give him more nightmares, anyway.

And if that didn't work, Ellis seemed to be a good enough remedy.

Chapter Text

"That has got to be the coolest shit I have ever seen! Man, I didn't know you could do that, Nick! Keith did once, but he didn't do it right 'cause it exploded when he mixed whutever it was he was tryin' to make it with - didn't even set no fires, just popped the bottle like a damn balloon! Man, he still ain't never told me whut went wrong... 'Course that might'uh been 'cause he don't remember it none. Glass shards went right intuh his head, man! Doctor said he hadn't never seen a thing like it. He was bald fer like months after 'cause they had tuh shave his head - Keith, not the doctor."

Nick couldn't help but laugh under his breath, resting his forearm against the kitchen's threshold and leaning his weight on the wood. Ellis was inspecting his Molotov like an over-excited kid, fingers rather delicate on the brown glass.

"You don't think that's a little dangerous?" Rochelle tried to gently suggest, scratching at the back of her neck with her pinky as she slightly dubiously watched Ellis' enthusiasm. "I don't know if doing what Keith does is a real smart thing..."

The conman smirked, letting his wounded leg curl up slightly onto its toes to relax it. "Good thing I know how to make it right, then, isn't it...? Dumbass hick probably fucked it up. Besides, Ro', it's just one and it's not like we're going to let Ellis use it."

"Whut?! Why not?!" Ellis immediately protested, spinning around and giving a frown as he held the softly sloshing bottle to his chest. "But it's so cool -!"

Laughing with a shake of her head, Rochelle reached out to gently pry the thing from his hands. He looked distinctly unhappy watching the bottle pull out of his grasp, practically pouting as he clutched after it.

"But -"

"Let it go, sweetie. Hate to say it, but I trust Nick more than you with this."

Pouting slightly, Ellis let his hands drop to curl on the looped fabric of his coveralls and sigh. He kicked the toe of his workboot lightly on the kitchen tile, resigning with a fair amount of reluctance. "I wanna at least see it go off..."

Nick snorted in amusement, gesturing with a pinky to Ro' that she should just set it back on the counter. She obliged him, flashing a soft grin of humor at Ellis' expense. "Dumbshit, of course you will - it's not like the four of us separate much. It'll just have someone with good aim throwing it."

Ellis' expression turned a little affronted, tone gaining a stubborn edge. He tried to paw at his hat, fingers sinking into bare curls when he forgot he still hadn't gotten it back. "'Ey, I got perfectly fine aim! Just's good as you!"

"What are y'all arguin' about?" Coach gruffly interjected from the front room. His tone was half-amused - he was busy going through the supplies they'd found around the house, organizing and picking. It was rather funny to Nick (and somewhat revealing) that, even to him, 'supplies' suddenly meant almost solely 'any fucking thing we can put on a wound.'

They were all getting injured so much, the space that they had in that backpack was wasted if not taken up by medicine. Even food was a hesitant afterthought when they could likely scavenge as necessity hit.

"Ellis wants to play with fire." Nick taunted over his shoulder with a deep pull from his cigarette, smirking as the youngest survivor shoved his hands into his pockets with a teasing sour look.

Coach chuckled, sounding more energetic than he'd been in days. The big man had always seemed on the edge of weariness, looking over things like he'd seen them a hundred times before and couldn't be surprised, but since they'd gotten back inside the house something had entered his voice.

Nick wanted to call it inspiration - it was odd.

"Ellis, quit that shit. Last thing we need is yo' ass wit' a firebottle."

Ellis jutted out his lower lip, bouncing on his heels discontentedly. He gave a heavy sigh and resigned to the ex-football player's decision, not looking very happy at all. He was like a kid refused candy - something rather funny to think when he promptly comforted himself by pulling his bag of candy out of his pocket and nibbling on one.

"Awh, shit. Alright, alright... man, I can't wait tuh tell Keith we fought zombies with a Mollie!"

Nick snorted with a shake of his head, turning away and limping softly out into the front room. "Come upstairs, Ace, and stop obsessing over the damn bomb... you need something on that cheek unless you want a scar on that dumbshit face of yours."

Whatever he said, Nick had to admit that Ellis' enthusiasm made him smile inwardly. He'd been proud enough of it himself, but Ellis' 'that is the coolest thing in the world' attitude was - flattering.

The conman crossed the living room to where the couch was, leaning his forearm on the top cushions. He stuck out a hand as he rolled his cigarette to the corner of his mouth, gesturing blankly for the backpack. "I think you guys stole most of the stash upstairs. You mind if I look in there real quick?"

Coach glanced back over his shoulder before hoisting the backpack up to where Nick could reach it. He held it there, rubbing his brow with the fingertips of his other hand. He questioned the gambler as he did, lightly. "Yo' leg lookin' better? You're walkin' on it okay, looks like."

Nick gave a small nod as he dug into the backpack, flicking through the arrangement of what medicinal supplies they did have in hunt of the little winged shape of the butterfly bandage he needed.

"Yeah. It still hurts like a fucking bitch, but I think last night did it good -" He meant that in a few ways, Nick reflected momentarily, fighting humor. "- and it's manageable. I'll be slow, though."

"Ain't no thing. We don't have any swamp to go through anyways." the big man responded gruffly, laying his arm over the back of the couch with a sigh. Those firm eyes flickered back, and he pressured, "Don't push it, Nick."

The gambler flashed him a smirk, pausing his search to let his forearms rest a bit on the couch. His head cocked at the implied concern for his safety, curiously. He had to question into the topic - his tone was non-confrontational but sarcastic, and he tore the issue straight open. "One minute we're okay, next minute we're at each other's throats. We're a weird duo, aren't we, Sam?"

Looking unamused at the use of his name, Coach resigned into a chuckle a moment later. All he said was "Yep.", turning his head back forward and looking away.

It was a strangely .. satisfying response, one that he could get behind. Nick liked it and its brazen simplicity. That was just the situation, and they both knew it. You know, if we both accept we're never going to get along, we might just get along.

Laughing under his breath, Nick tucked a wrapped butterfly bandage into his palm when he found it. He turned away from the couch to hobble toward the staircase to the second floor. He noticed Ellis was still in the kitchen and called out sharply over his shoulder, "Overalls! For fuck's sake, step away from the Molotov!"

The kid scampered out a few beats later like a dog who'd been swatted into motion, abashedly chasing after Nick with a piece of candy dangling from his lips. Nick swore there was a light flush over his face, and he felt himself smirk. "S-sorry Nick!"

"Whatever, sport, just c'mon." Nick shook his head, starting up the staircase with a slight wince. Scaling stairs was a lot different than walking on flat ground, and he felt himself slowing down to try and hop his weight as much as he could on his good leg.

The effort of hoisting up his body weight on every other stair sent jagged pain up the back of his calf, a weird stretch in the scabbing flesh making him flinch. It was not going to heal overnight, much as Nick wanted it to.

He felt frustration rising up his spine even though Ellis patiently and calmly followed a few steps behind him. The younger man may as well have started laughing at him for how much Nick started grinding his teeth.

As they reached the middle platform, Nick let out a little huff of pain. Ellis started to say something in reaction, but he didn't get further than the first, sweet 'N' sound of the conman's name before Nick blustered, "Shut up."

The Georgian relented, keeping quiet, just watching Nick struggle up the stairs with a renewed urgency now that he clearly felt rather defensive. He grumbled quietly as he reached the top, pulling himself up with a hard grip on the edge of the doorway. A soft shiver tremored up his spine, but it was more frustration than anything else.

Pushing the half-closed bathroom door open, Nick flicked on the light with a knuckle. He sighed through his nostrils, smoke flowing with the motion, and pried his cigarette from between his lips.

Flicking the dying thing into the toilet by his knee, Nick bent over the sink to turn on the tap with one hand while the other grabbed a hanging hand towel. Blood was dried into the porcelain, making Nick crinkle his nose slightly in uncertainty. Considering there was no signs of disturbance anywhere else in the house, it was strange.

"Think someone cut themselves shavin' or somethin'?" Ellis inquired from behind him, gently trotting into the bathroom as he shoved his pack of candy into his pocket. There wasn't a whole lot of room, so when he took a stance behind Nick, it was close to his elbow.

"Maybe if they were a hemophiliac." Nick retorted sardonically, rolling his sleeve up slightly so it didn't get wet when he cupped his hand under the pouring water. He adjusted the temperature just a little so it wasn't too cold, then soaked a handful of the towel he'd found.

"That's just silly, Nick. Whut're the chances'uh that?" the kid blinked dubiously, raising a hand to scratch at his forehead in uncertainty. Funny how he bent his hand a bit as if he had to avoid bumping a cap - Nick could see his curious eyes examining him through the bathroom mirror.

Nick didn't bother to laugh, too busy being impressed at Ellis' knowing the word to make fun of him for not getting the sarcasm. You're pretty smart, El, but holy shit, are you dumb... He felt a smirk tip up the side of his mouth. "I dunno, maybe someone died in here. You believe in ghosts?"

Ellis grinned lightly, shifting his weight a little. Their gazes met on the mirror, neither seeming to really notice the other was staring through the glass. "Didn't used tuh believe in zombies." he taunted, promptly chuckling.

The gambler rolled his eyes with a subtle grin, breaking the gaze as he straightened. He flicked off the tap and patted the bathroom counter. "Get up here, dumbshit. Let Dr. Nick fix ya up." Turning his head to watch as Ellis circled around him, Nick chuckled faintly.

He was blushing. Again.

"Shouldn't scar up, Ace." he added, closing the bathroom door quietly with his heel. He noticed Ellis sneak a glance over at the door as it shut, but he didn't actually comment on it. "Be a shame to mark up that pretty face of yours."

"'E-ey! Pretty nothin'..." Ellis protested slightly, hopping up with a little squirm to sit on the edge of the bathroom counter. He set his hands behind himself, fingertips tapping out a quiet tune on the glazed white tile. "Besides. I ain't gonna go through the dang apocalypse and not come out with some cool scars."

Nick snorted lightly, stepping over. He let his hips push between Ellis' knees, settling between his thighs with a dark smirk and a lowered chin. Ellis immediately slumped back a little, turning an interesting shade of red and squirming his knees just the tiniest bit. "Shouldn't be surprised you'd think that way. I'm not looking forward to my leg scarring up."

"Oh, uh… Didn't mean tuh -" He spoke like he'd affronted the older man, so Nick gave him a vague grimace that dissuaded him from apologizing. Instead, Ellis tried to bury his chin against his chest and hunch down from Nick's face. "… It'll be okay, though, man. I mean, gettin' splashed with acid is pretty badass."

"Is that what I felt? I thought it was searing pain." The conman leaned forward, feeling Ellis' knees rub against his hips as he did. Any other time, he might've taken advantage of the moment - but he focused, taking his weight off his bad leg and curling it a bit while he pulled the wet-edged handtowel up to clean up Ellis' bloody cheek. "Honestly, I'm shocked you aren't more scarred up. Having a friend like Keith."

It'd mostly clotted, but as he stroked the washcloth closer to the bruised cut itself, it threatened to bleed again. Nick let his other hand cradle Ellis' other cheek, lifting his head up to force the other man to stop hiding and to hold him still.

Ellis shut his eyes, but his lips curled up in a smile, chuckling even as a soft 'ow' whinged into his voice. "Well… yeah, I mean, Keith's got some cool ones. But he don't let me get hurt or nothin'. Actual