Everything Will Be Fine
Ellis didn't like her.
Kris was cold and harsh and came across as positively loathing Dal. And it wasn't necessarily that Ellis required someone to like Dal in order to be friends with him. He didn't like her, he didn't particularly trust her, and he had begun to like her even less since finding out who she was. Dal was afraid of this woman who claimed to be his mother. The kid definitely took after Kris, but it took more than blood for someone to call a child their own.
Megan had finished her book and gotten up to go and find something else to do. Ellis had procured a one thousand piece puzzle and he and Nick were working on it with vigor. He had gotten about sixteen pieces down when Nick had moved over to him, having spotted a piece that fit near one of the others that Ellis had put together. Once the piece was placed, Nick was suddenly very involved in the puzzle.
"You've been kind of quiet lately," Nick suddenly said, frowning deeply at the piece of sky he had picked up. "Are you as stressed as I am?"
Ellis blinked and looked up at him. He hadn't known Nick to be thoughtful towards him. Then again, it was possible that Nick was just curious. He seemed like the kind of person who could sound thoughtful when he just wanted to know something. Ellis looked down at the rose petal he had been trying to fit on his already-completed rosebush.
"Are you stressed?" He asked, dodging the question. Ellis was, in fact, a little stressed. He wasn't sure why, but he was. He wasn't stressed because of Kris and Megan - their presence didn't bother him the way he was sure it probably bothered Nick. After all, it had taken two days and fighting for their lives for Nick to start warming up to Ellis, Coach, and Rochelle.
His stomach knotted just a little. Maybe that was why he was stressed. He hadn't given it much conscious thought, but he wished he could find out what had become of Rochelle and Coach. He had sent them away thoughtlessly, and hadn't allowed himself to give them much more thought since then. He shouldn't have been so quick to throw them under the bus. Certainly, they had been doing the same thing to Nick and Dal, but two wrongs didn't make a right. He should've tried harder to convince them, rather than sending them packing.
He sighed softly, glancing up at Nick, who had yet to answer his question. To his surprise, the man was openly staring at him.
"What?" Ellis asked, confused.
"You just dodged a question," Nick said, looking suspicious as he blindly reached for another piece, having given up on his little bit of sky. "I'm not going to tell you what's bothering me until you tell me what's bothering you."
Ellis smiled a little. Nick was promising, in his own words, to tell him something that he hadn't expected to be told. That was a nice change of pace. Megan returned at that moment, sitting down and opening one of the thicker Harry Potter books. He thought he saw her glance their way, but he didn't look over to her.
"I 'unno, really," he finally answered, frowning a little. "I think maybe I'm regrettin' kickin' Rochelle 'n Coach off th' island so quickly. Didn' even really give 'em a chance to be convinced."
Nick snorted, "They weren't going to be convinced, El. I would've thought you had realized that, and that was why you told them to hit the road."
Ellis felt his shoulders sink forward, finally locating the spot where his stupid rose petal was supposed to go. He set the piece carefully, sadness finding him. He had liked Rochelle and Coach, when they hadn't been being unreasonable. He was sure Nick didn't quite understand, because Nick hadn't liked them in the first place. Nick didn't seem to like anyone very much, except Dal.
"I do know that... s'just... I 'unno. What if they're dead?" He replied, his voice going quiet, "What if they're dead 'n they wouldn't be if we'd been there t' help?"
Nick looked up at him again, his face set in a scowl, "So what if they are, Ellis?" Ellis raised his head again, looking alarmed. "What if your family's dead? What if your friends are dead? What if that stupid old bat down the road is dead?" His stomach twisted at the thought and he ducked his head down again, wishing he'd been wearing his hat.
"Thinking about what might be happening out there where you're not isn't going to save anyone or fix anything," Nick said it like it was the most obvious thing in the universe, "So don't bother even thinking about it."
"S'not tha' simple," Ellis grumbled. "S'easy fer you t' cut your losses. I gather ya've done it before."
Ellis regretted what he said almost as soon as he'd said it. That had been incredibly thoughtless. He didn't know when he'd become so moody and inconsiderate. He supposed it might've been a result of being stressed. He hadn't really had to deal with it before, so he wasn't used to the crushing pressure of his thoughts and their negative leanings.
He was about ready to mutter an apology when Nick finally responded, "What you consider a loss is not the same as what I consider a loss." He said, his voice sounding only a little hostile, "For the most part, I only count it as a loss if I get seriously injured or lose out on something really big."
Ellis took a moment to digest that. He was always surprised when Nick's highly self-centered part showed itself. The conman could be incredibly thoughtful sometimes, so when that piece of him appeared in some subtle way, Ellis was never prepared for it. It wasn't necessarily that he liked to think of Nick as something that he wasn't, but rather that Nick had warmed up to him a lot since he'd met Dal and thus didn't present the uglier sides of himself as often.
Ellis wanted to know Nick better. He had overheard a great deal of Megan's interrogation, but those were just facts of Nick's life. They didn't really tell Ellis anything about the man himself. Circumstances didn't define a person. A person's history was a large part of their identity, but that didn't define a person either. "People define themselves" was what his mother always told him. Ellis firmly agreed with her.
He missed her.
"Would you count Dal, if he were injured or something? Would that be a loss?" Ellis asked, his brain already asking the rest of him why he had asked. Nick's hand froze, hovering a few inches over the puzzle where he had been about to place a piece. Ellis looked up at him, confused by his stillness. Nick looked bewildered, almost. His eyes were wider, brow furrowed, lips slightly parted. It was as if he had just realized something very important. For all Ellis knew, he had.
Nick closed his mouth and returned his attention to the puzzle, his lips pursed.
Ellis smiled. He couldn't help himself, "Guess that's a yes, huh?" The look he then received from the conman made him laugh out loud. He grabbed a piece of cloud and started searching for it's proper spot. They were making pretty good time on this puzzle.
"S'what're you stressin' 'bout, Nick?"
Nick, who seemed happy enough for the change of subject, sighed heavily. "New company."
To Ellis, that didn't make much sense. Kris and Megan had already proven themselves non-threatening. He was sure Nick had very good reasons for not trusting them, or whatever his problem was, but Ellis couldn't see the logic in it. He personally didn't like Kris very much, and he could sort of see why someone wouldn't be keen to trust her, but she had saved Dal. Even if she had shown signs of not really wanting to, and had been rather aggressive about it.
"S'hard to tell when you're stressed, Nick," Ellis remarked, "Ya' do tha' poker face real good."
Nick snorted, "I've had practice."
When he slowly swam back to consciousness, the first thing he noticed was how comfortable he felt. He hadn't been this comfortable in a long time. His body felt... right, somehow. His skin felt cooler than it had been, his headache was completely gone for the first time in nearly a week, and nothing hurt. He'd been dealing with a slight ache in every bone and muscle in his body for all that time, and now it was gone. He was so comfortable, he didn't want to get up. He didn't want to move. He just wanted to relish in the comfort of his own skin.
Just as he was thinking he was going to nod off, his stomach clenched tightly and growled, alerting him to the fact that he was starving. Slowly, he opened his eyes, blinking in the light. How long had he been asleep? He felt like it'd been weeks since he'd passed out. He was burrowed under what felt like several blankets, and it was so comfortable. Despite the fact that he was completely starving to death, he didn't want to get up.
But, he decided wistfully, I need to eat before I die.
Slowly, he rolled onto his back, sighing as he forced himself to sit up. His stomach clenched harder and he made a quiet sound of discontentment. He looked up and around - Megan was reading, but she had diverted her attention away from her book to study him carefully. Nick and Ellis too, had looked up from what looked like a puzzle.
"How do you feel?" Nick asked long before Megan could. Dal smiled slightly, and managed to give him a thumbs up. It took him a moment of maneuvering his hands, and it was quite frustrating. He hoped that Megan would get him started on his rehab as soon as they got to... wherever they were going. He didn't remember.
Nick smiled back at him, his eyes softening just slightly.
"You look a lot better too," Megan remarked, "Your face isn't as pale."
He nodded at her, before spotting the boxes of granola bars - some opened some not. He glanced down at his hand - the chances of him being able to open one of those was pretty slim. He grabbed a box anyway and tore it open. Before he could grab one of the bars out of the box, however, Nick appeared at his side. The older man took the box out of his hands, and pulled out one of the bars, opening it for him and then handing it over.
Dal took it gratefully, devouring it like a starving puppy. He hadn't been this hungry since he turned. In fact, he hadn't eaten much at all since he'd turned because he just hadn't been hungry. Thinking about it now, he had probably lost a lot of weight because of his poor nutrition. He hadn't given any thought to his eating habits, especially after meeting Nick.
Nick handed him another granola bar just as he was finishing his first, and he devoured that one too. It went on like that until he'd eaten the whole box, but he was still famished. He looked at Nick, hoping that his expression was giving away what he was thinking.
"Geez, you're still hungry?" Nick asked, looking a little startled. Dal nodded enthusiastically in reply. "Well, c'mon. Let's see what else we can find for you."
The two of them stood up in unison. Ellis had re-engrossed himself into his puzzle, and Megan had returned to her book. Dal glanced over at Kris briefly, pausing briefly in his steps as Nick continued forward. She was staring at him, her expression still as stone and her eyes burning a hole into his soul. His heart dropped into his stomach as anxiety stole through him. She was angry with him. He had done something wrong. What? Was it because he'd gotten himself sick? But why would that upset her? Because he had draw attention to himself? No, she didn't recognize him... right?
"Dallas," Kris said, and his heart may as well have stopped.
She recognized him. She recognized him. She recognized him.
His heart rate skyrocketed, a tremor moving through him. He knew before he felt it that he was panicking. What now? Was she going to have to punish him somehow for drawing attention to himself? For causing trouble for everyone? His stomach knotted, and he immediately started regretting sitting outside in the rain like he had. He should've just come inside when it started drizzling instead of sitting out there for hours while his bones froze to ice. Now he was in trouble with his mother again, something he had thought he'd escaped. What would she do to him? Was she actually going to get violent? Nick would step in and stop her, but the thought of it made him sick. If he'd done something wrong, he should be punished for it. That was how it was supposed to be.
That didn't make him any less afraid, though. He was aware that he was physically shaking, his eyes trained on the ground in front of him. He tried to prepare himself for the worst, but he couldn't really, because he didn't know what the worst was. Just knowing that his mother was angry with him was enough to make him want to cry out of terror.
"Don't ever do something that stupid again," her voice was quiet, low, venomous. "You should know by now how I feel about your idiotic stunts. If you get sick like that because of some stupid stunt, I'm going to just let you die."
Dal's stomach twisted again. He felt sick. He felt Nick shift beside him, and he took in a shuddering breath. She was so angry with him. He hadn't seen her this mad since the day he got into that horrific motorcycle accident. He hadn't had so much as a permit. He'd just bought himself a motorcycle and drove it around for six hours before crashing off a highway. He was sure that he'd nearly died, and his parents had been so angry, they'd locked him in his room for six days, leaving him to his squirreled away snacks and drinks. He would've died of dehydration, and they hadn't known about the food and water he kept in his room. His mother had looked more furious that he was still alive than she had when she'd seen him in the hospital.
"Am I making myself clear?" Kris asked, her scowl darkening. Dal nodded quickly, eyes widening slightly at the fury in her expression. He shuddered visibly as she turned her attention back to her book. He turned back around, spotting Nick a couple of paces away, staring at Kris like he wanted to eviscerate her. Dal could feel that he was close to tears. He clenched his fists and swallowed down his emotions, stepping up beside Nick and waiting expectantly for him to lead the way to wherever there would be good, filling food. At the very least, it would help push down his need to cry.
"You know," Nick said, his voice laced with venom, "No one's forcing you to associate with him. It might even improve your shitty attitude if you didn't."
Kris's grip on his book stiffed, and Dal froze, thinking that she was going to get up. But she didn't. She was very, very still for a long moment. Dal's throat constricted, making it hard to breathe as she slowly turned her attention to Nick.
"He's my son," she stated icily. Ellis and Megan had looked up from their respective tasks long ago, watching attentively. Megan looked worried, but curious. She didn't know how dangerous Nick could be when his temper was tested. Ellis, on the other hand, knew exactly how dangerous Nick's temper was and his paling face gave away his nervousness. Dal felt terrible - this wasn't supposed to be happening. Nick standing up for him made sense because Nick always seemed to stand up for him, but... this was his mother. If she was angry with him, clearly he had done something wrong. She didn't get angry with him otherwise.
"That means absolutely nothing to me," Nick returned stonily. "And I can tell that it doesn't mean anything to you, either."
Ellis looked like he was about ready to leap to his feet, but Nick didn't force him to. The conman turned away from Kris, one hand seeking out Dal's back to guide him into following. The youngest of their group was happy for the direction, distracting himself from his anxiety by concentrating hard on placing his feet correctly. He could hear his heart hammering in his eardrums, he could practically feel the blood pulsing through his veins.
He hadn't stopped shaking, either. Nick's brisk, angry pace slowed down significantly once they had cleared the apparel section. He let out an irritated sigh, glancing down at Dal briefly, "You alright? You're shaking."
Dal made a thin sound that he was relatively sure was an almost-sob. Nick came to an abrupt stop, turning to face him. Two strong hands fell on his shoulders, persuading Dal to raise his head and look up at Nick. He was surprised to find that tears were beginning to spill out of his eyes. That had been the scariest thing he'd ever had to deal with. His mother had never spoken to him when she was angry before. Ever. She would punish him in complete silence, dragging him upstairs and leaving him locked in his bedroom until the next time she recalled that she had a child. He'd never heard her speak to anyone like that, let alone himself. A choked sound came out of his throat before he could stop it, and he bowed his head pressing a hand to his mouth.
The tremors moving through Dal were powerful and they wracked his whole body. Tears slid down his cheeks, and Nick looked like he was at a loss. He was beginning to feel bad for starting to cry, for having a panic attack, for being such a baby. He shouldn't have been as frightened as he had been. His mother had scolded him - she hadn't beat him with a cane or slapped him or even raised her voice. He had no business being so scared. He had no reason to be crying.
He choked on another sob, digging his nails into his cheeks as he practically jack-knifed into himself. He was trying extremely hard to control himself, but it seemed like it was getting more and more difficult. He wanted to curl up in a hole and die. He wanted to lay down in a soft bed and sob for hours. He wanted his mother to hold him and tell him everything would be fine. He wanted Nick to hold him and tell him everything would be fine. He wanted to find a place he could call home. He wanted to go home. He wanted to sleep.
It was like every bit of stress that had been accumulating since he was six suddenly came spilling out like water from a burst dam.
"Dal, hey," Nick was trying to force him to straighten up - which Dal cooperated with - and then he was trying to pull Dal's hands away from his mouth. He resisted with the full sway of his nearly super-human strength, and eventually Nick gave up. The conman placed hands on his wet cheeks, tilting his head up to look at him.
"Dal," Nick spoke gently, but his voice was firm at the same time. "You don't have to be scared. I'm looking out for you. Got it?"
Dal's hands fell away from his mouth slowly, his eyes widened, tears still spilling forth. His now free hand gripped at the front of his shirt. It felt like his heart would burst. He sobbed again, quieter this time, and bowed his head again. His chest felt tight and his throat was constricting around every breath.
He nodded shakily, still trembling all over. He wondered when the shaking would stop. He wondered when his heart would settle and his mind would calm. It didn't really matter. Nick wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pulled him close, turning them both and leading him to the non-perishable aisles of the grocery section. He followed along mutely, occasionally hiccuping around almost-sobs.
He was, in a sense, in awe. Nick had never been that raw and open with him. He knew that they didn't really know each other that well, because that was impossible without communication. He knew that Nick thought he knew Dal pretty well. He knew that Nick saw Dal as a reflection of himself. He knew that Nick sometimes looked at him like he was a cat or a dog, a beloved pet, or something like that.
In a sense, he knew that their relationship wasn't... real? Wasn't right? He didn't know what the right word was to describe it. What he knew was that Nick didn't really know him. Nick couldn't really know him. Not with their huge language barrier. Not with his inability to communicate his emotions, his feelings, his thoughts. There was too much missing in their interactions with one another for it to be called a healthy relationship of any kind.
And yet, Nick knew him so well. It was as awe inspiring as it was agonizing. He wondered if he really was a spitting image of Nick in his mid-teens. He wondered if there was enough similarity between them to explain why Nick always knew what to do and say, even when he wasn't entirely comfortable with it. He wondered if maybe Nick was attentive enough to see him for who he was. Perhaps they knew more about each other than Dal had perceived. Perhaps Nick could see him the way he needed to be seen.
He wondered if, after all of this was over, if Nick would let him stay. If Nick would take him in. Tears prickled at the corners of his eye again, but he pushed it back down.
It felt like his stomach had ceased to exist and his muscles and bones regained their bone-deep ache. It was painful at first, but it faded into the background and he found the strength to ignore it. His body felt warm and his chest tightened again. He was tired, but at the same time wide awake.
His eyes burned and he blinked rapidly in an effort to moisturize them. It didn't work, and the dim light in the store seemed blinding for a moment. His head felt like it was full of air, and he vaguely recognized the sensation. It was similar to the experience he'd had before he'd blacked out after being bitten.
I wonder if Nick would let me stay... Everything was sort of hazy for a few moments, but then it all faded into the background and his head cleared. The pain in his joints was barely noticeable, and his chest relaxed some. He still felt a little warm, and at the same time quite chilled, but he was fine. He was fine.
Nick would let me stay.
The sound was muffled by flesh and it sounded awful. Like a rolling joint, like... like bone cracking and grinding against itself. Megan's heart dropped into her stomach and a pit of nausea formed in her gut. There was as dull thud as the body hit the floor, a pale, ghost of a child. Nick stood over the child, his chest heaving only slightly, his expression set in a cold scowl. Kris' arm was still outstretched, blocking Megan from moving forward. Ellis' fingers were still wrapped around her wrist to hold her back from rushing towards Nick and the child. Dal stood beside the dark-haired murderer, his expression forlorn.
Nick raised his gaze from the corpse lying on the ground, his gray-green eyes finding Megan's brown ones. She stared at him with wide eyes, unable to process what had just happened.
The doors were locked, as expected of Megan's mildly paranoid sister. They went around to the back door, which had small glass windows all over it. Easy to break into. Megan grabbed a rock on her way around the house, using it to break the glass. Her hand slipped into the small square of space she had made, wincing slightly when a shard of glass cut into her underarm. She ignored the pain and groped around for the doorknob. It didn't take long for her to unlock it and within moments they had walked into the house.
"Y-you..." Megan could hardly speak. Her stomach was rolling and her heart was hammering in her throat. Nick expression wasn't of sorrow, or regret. It was apologetic.
"I-...." He started, but Ellis cut him off, slowly releasing Megan's elbow. Kris arm dropped as well.
"He had to, Meg," Ellis spoke quietly, as if he was afraid of disturbing some wild animal. Megan couldn't move. She couldn't speak.
"He..." She swallowed down the bile in her throat and tried again, "You killed... Jake..."
"He had to, Meg." Kris repeated after Ellis, her tone icy and calm, as it always was. "That kid was infected. He wasn't gonna recognize you."
"That's... my..." She choked on the words, on the vomit that rushed up into her mouth, and she ran out of the house, doubling over in the yard and vomiting up everything she'd eaten in the past twenty-four hours. Her throat burned from the acid. She sobbed heavily, tears suddenly flowing down her cheeks.
"Jake..." she whispered around the lump in her throat.
They walked into the house and were immediately hit with the rotten stench of death. Megan turned to her right to glance into the nearby kitchen, and spotted a body leaned up against the door. Throat ripped out, dried, rotting blood congealed all over his face, his clothes, the floor between his legs.
That was James, Megan's sister's husband. She stepped further into the house, trying hard to block out the visual of James' body. Where was her sister? Was she dead as well?
A noise startled her, and Nick stepped forward, Dal by his side. They walked past her, looking around suspiciously. Nick cleared his throat loudly, knocking on the nearest wall as hard as he dared. Megan watched, mesmerized, wondering what it was they were doing, wondering what they were thinking, noting their unanimous movements.
"J-Jake... Jake is... Oh god..." She wrapped her hands around her middle, eyes wide as she struggled to process what she'd just seen. Everything was turning into a blur of movement and colors. She could practically feel her brain blocking out the memories, covering it all up, trying to find something else to concentrate on. Her throat hurt, and her chest felt tight with nausea and contained agony.
Something stumbled from around a staircase. A young child, face gray with illness, scars lining his thin arms, a snarl on his face, his eyes wide and staring. He rushed forward, and Megan lurched towards him, feeling the moment when Ellis' hand closed around her wrist, seeing Kris throw an arm out to stop her. Nick dodged the charge, stepping around the 12 year-old and grabbing him by the chin and the top of his head, and Megan knew what he was going to do.
She let out a cry, "WAIT!"
"Megan?" She choked on her throat again, stumbling back from the puddle of her vomit, and turned to face whoever was talking to her. Her eyes were wild with fear and misery and horror and she saw the way Ellis' eyes widened, saw the way he flinched back. She let out a shaky sob, wanting to scream wordlessly and beat her fists against a wall. She wanted to hit Nick, but she knew that was unreasonable.
"I-I... I-... Fuck," she sobbed, "I know, I kn-know, I j-just.... he wa-was my neph... nephew. I c-can't.... I d-don't blame him, I s-swear, I just, I... I can't..." She cried, unable to string a sentence together. She wrapped her arms a little tighter around herself, hunching forward and shaking all over. She felt like she would be sick again but she couldn't because there was nothing left to come up.
She felt arms wrap around her tentatively. Strong, comforting arms, and she thought her knees would buckle from her sudden weakness. She choked yet again, snaking her arms around him and hugging him back, crying harder than she'd cried since this whole mess had started. She didn't know if her sister was alive, if her mother was alive, or her brothers, or her neices, or anyone. She didn't know if her friends had made it out, she didn't know if any one of them were alive or dead. She didn't know anything and it was so painful because she had been steadily ignoring the idea that maybe some of them were dead, but now... now she knew. For sure. One of her closest family members was dead, killed right in front of her and there was nothing she could've done to stop it, or to help him.
She had loved Jake like he was her own child. She had babysat him so many time. She had helped care for him since he was a newborn. She had always been there for him, and now he was gone. Megan couldn't have children. Her ability to have children had been taken from her years ago. Jake was the only child in her life that she could almost call hers.
And now he was gone. She had done nothing to save him. He was gone.
Jake's neck broke so easily. It was like there had been nothing in there but paper maché.
"God, I... I'm sorry, I..." She mumbled, "I'm sorry... I sh-shouldn't..."
"S'okay," Ellis replied softly, "I don' mind."
She sniffled, squeezing him harder. He returned the gesture, tightening his grip just a bit. She could hardly breathe past her hysterics. She knew that she had no right to be angry with Nick. She knew that she had no right to be angry at all. But the sadness, the rawness, the pain was awful. She wanted to be mad at him. She wanted to hate him for killing her nephew. She wanted to hate him for being so cold, for ignoring her plea.
But she couldn't do it. She couldn't be angry at him unjustly.
"Looks like I'm stuck wit' damage control," Ellis said heavily. He sounded... older, somehow. World-weary. Like an aged traveler. They pulled apart, Ellis allowing a hand to linger on her shoulder for just a moment.
"Are ya' okay?" He asked right away, and Megan couldn't lie. She shook her head, shrugged, and turned her attention to the ground.
"Well, d'ya' think you'll be okay in th' future?" To that, she nodded slowly. Ellis nodded, rubbing her shoulder briefly. The back door opened and Kris, Dal, and Nick walked out. Nick looked up at her, his gaze solemn, for only a moment before he directed his attention towards the gates they had come through.
"We should find another house to stay at. There's no way we can salvage this one," Nick decreed. Ellis nodded in agreement, as did Dal. Kris turned her attention towards the gates and started heading out. Nick and Dal followed her silently. It was like a funeral procession.
"Nick," Megan called before she knew what was happening. The man froze, shoulders stiffening, before he slowly turned to face her. He looked haunted, his eyes hollowed out with exhaustion and weariness.
"I'm not angry, I s-swear," she said, starting towards him. Ellis followed closely after her, "I swear it. I just..." A small sob escaped from her throat, and she swallowed hard to contain her tears, "I loved him so much. I'm... sorry."
Nick stared at her, forlorn, for a moment before he spoke. His words were quiet, carefully chosen. "You're not the one who should be apologizing, Megan."
He didn't say another word. Didn't offer the apology that she knew he ought to say. That they both knew he ought to say. She swallowed hard and followed after them, heading back to the car. They'd find another house, get situated. She would break out the box of things she had gotten for Dal's rehab and get him started on that. Then she would go and get that speech board from her office and bring it back to their new house. They would get busy gathering things to help them survive until the infection ended. Hopefully, that would be soon.
Everything would be fine.
Everything was fine.