Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 5197
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: This trip isn't going exactly the way Ellie hoped it would.
Ellie was starting to get really tired of her stupid, stubborn brain: she could not stop thinking about Joel. It wasn’t Max’s fault that he wasn’t Joel -- in fact, the distinction was quite welcome -- and she needed to quit wishing Joel were here for her to share stupid shit with. Like how the cloud at the two o’clock position in the sky resembled that Doc guy from Back to the Future. To which Joel would likely reply, good-naturedly, that it didn’t look anything like that and where does she get these bizarre ideas from?
Or maybe this would be one of those rare times he looked up and saw exactly the same thing she did.
She would never know. And it doesn’t fucking matter. When are you going to GET it, Ellie? You and Joel are two separate people on two separate paths now.
She considered sharing her cloud observation with Max… and decided against it. She didn’t even know if he’d seen that movie. And maybe it was childish, looking for shapes in the clouds. Wasn’t she supposed to be scouting for danger instead? Hadn’t she promised not to be annoying?
Max wasn’t nearly as snarly as Joel had been in the beginning, last summer -- a lifetime ago. If Ellie did speak, he conversed with her politely. Didn’t tell her to shut up or anything. But he didn’t initiate conversation, either, and she got the feeling he’d rather enjoy the silence. Which was what she should have been doing. She was supposed to be clearing her head, getting a fresh perspective…
Letting go of Joel.
Right. Just like that. Because it should be so fucking easy to do. Well, it was early yet. They’d only been out a few hours. And it wasn’t like she had the luxury of disappearing completely into her thoughts; they were back in the real world, where lack of observation could get you killed.
So… why exactly did she think this trip would be a good way to sort out her thoughts?!
Max’s voice saved her from having to figure that one out. “Hey, sunshine -- you hungry yet? I been through here before and that there camper” –- he gestured to a vehicle parked in front of a body of water on their left -- “is a sweet little spot to take a break. Clemmy should be thirsty.”
“Yeah, okay, I could eat. Let’s go!”
Max directed the horse that way at a trot and they reached the water in about fifteen seconds. Ellie idly wondered how many yards it was off the road. Joel had been trying to teach her to estimate distance measurements the way he did -- in football fields. Yards and feet. It didn’t come easily to her, though, and it felt way more natural to apply time measurements to it. “X is a 10-second run away from Y.” Not as accurate as some kind of universal unit of measure that didn’t need to fluctuate based on varied speeds, but really, all of it was just guesswork, so what did it matter?
With Clementine tethered near the water and the camper deemed clear of hostiles, they sat in the little booth inside to eat their roast elk sandwiches (the blackberry jam sandwiches Ellie had contributed would keep longer). She and Joel had eaten in campers like this before. Or more like, Ellie had eaten inside while Joel kept watch outside; he didn’t like being cooped up with limited vision. Then Ellie would pretend she was at a restaurant, and call for Joel-the-waiter to fetch her random things she’d heard of but never tried, like cocktail sauce (which sounded totally gross to Ellie, even though Joel assured her it actually had nothing to do with cocks or tails… or Molotovs!). Joel didn’t play along, and sometimes he seemed annoyed, but more than once she’d caught him trying to hide a smile beneath the scowl. He could be so adorable when he—
Stop it, Ellie. “Should one of us maybe eat outside?” she asked tentatively. “It’s kinda… I dunno… boxed-in-like in here?”
“Naw, we won’t be in here long. I look that way, you look this way, Clementine there will make a fuss if something’s coming anyhow. You can sit out there if you want, though. You claustrophobic, or…?” Something about the way he said that, or maybe the way he looked at her when he said it… does he think I’m afraid of him or something? Pfffff.
She emphatically shook her head. “I’m okay. Not like we’ve seen shit today for Infected or other people.”
“We’re at least an hour or two away from the bandits I was telling you about. Hunters…whatever you wanna call ‘em. If they’re even still there.”
“Did you watch football as a kid?” she blurted out.
“Football? Not much. I was more into baseball. Why?”
“You think of things as hours or seconds away and not like, football fields, then.” Although even Joel probably wouldn’t think of several miles or further in those terms.
Max chuckled. “Right? Homeruns got measured in feet but I was too little to pay much mind to all that. I just wanted to play. I was only six at the end so I never made it to Little League.” He took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully… like he was chewing on the past. Ellie had seen Joel look like that before, sort of wistful…not exactly sad. Max swallowed before he spoke and then it was like he’d never ‘left.’ “You know Buster? Did you know he was actually named after a baseball player?”
“Yep!” Ellie chirped. “Except his real name is Chad, just no one ever calls him that. Joel thought it sounded like a dog’s name and he like, made fun of it, until we found out, and then when Buster said the baseball guy’s name he was like ‘OHHHH YEAHHHH, that guy!’ -- Joel actually saw the baseball one play. Buster…Posse? Something like that?”
“Posey,” Max corrected, laughing at her guess. “I used to know who played on what team and all that, but that stuff… gone. Too young.”
“Joel says he’s too old to remember it all. It’s in there, though, if you say the right thing to trigger it or whatever.” Ellie snorted. “I talk about Joel too much, huh. Sorry.”
“S’alright, hon, he’s a big part of your life.”
“Was.” Ellie felt her chest tightening. No no no FUCK that. I’m NOT going to get emotional. “I’m with you now. I mean… er… not like… you know. With you-with you, like I’m your problem now or something, just… right now.” If her face got any hotter they could probably use it to heat up their meat.
Max didn’t tease her, at least. “I know what you mean. And you ain’t no problem. For anyone.”
Ellie took a gigantic bite of sandwich so she wouldn’t have to speak right away. I AM, though… for Joel.
“I like having you along,” Max continued, possibly misinterpreting her silence. “You're not annoying, like some people. Most people, even. And you’re no trouble. At all. Don’t know why you keep thinking you are.”
Ellie frowned. She was pretty sure Joel would disagree with that. Not because she was helpless or anything. More like… she made him worry.
What the fuck am I even doing out here?
Max didn’t get it, of course –- how could he? “What is it?” he asked her when she kept frowning instead of talking.
She shook the sour expression off her face and commanded herself once again to fucking quit thinking about Joel. “Nothing. So maybe… this will be good for you, in a way. Me being here, with you, and not getting killed.”
“Well, sure, not getting killed is a good goal,” he quipped.
“I mean like… the outcome will be different so you can… well… feel better… about stuff?”
“I feel all right…?”
“Maybe it can be like a Silence of the Lambs thing,” she added with sudden inspiration.
“Quiet lambs? What?” He gave her a quizzical look.
“No, it’s a movie. A pretty fucked-up movie about this cannibal guy that I thought might give me nightmares…” -or even a panic attack, but I talked to Joel about it afterwards and I was fine. He held me and petted my hair and made me feel safe... stuff that doesn’t happen anymore. “…but, um… it didn’t. Anyway, the lady tried to save a lamb from being slaughtered when she was a little girl -- she tried to save all of them, actually, but it didn’t work and she could only take one and run away with it. But she didn’t get very far, they caught up to her and the lamb got killed with all the rest. There was nothing she could do about it, it wasn’t her fault, but she felt bad. Guilty.”
“No wait, there’s more to it! So, as a grown-up, she’s trying to catch a serial killer with the help of this other really creepy serial killer, the cannibal dude -- she talks to him in this room they locked him in and tells him about how she still hears the lambs screaming at night… it like, haunts her.”
“Why would she tell him that?”
“She had a good reason –- it doesn’t matter! So, she has a chance to save this one girl who hasn’t died yet. Just one. And somehow she knows that if she can save her... if she can do that, then the lambs will stop screaming.”
His what-the-fuck expression finally gone -- replaced by one too neutral for Ellie to read -- Max was quiet a few beats. “I get what you’re sayin’. I don’t hear no lambs screaming, though. Seriously. I sleep just fine.” He washed the last of his sandwich down with a big gulp of water and scooted out of the booth. “You relax in here a bit longer, I’m gonna go take a look around and answer nature’s call.”
“Okay.” Ellie wondered if Max was trying to be a tough guy –- like Joel –- or if he truly was at peace with his past. It occurred to her that she really didn’t know him that well, and that she made a lot of assumptions from very few words actually spoken by him. Assumptions based on… her experiences with Joel, maybe? He’s not Joel, though. The only person who’s Joel is Joel. Pretty basic concept… pretty hard to grasp at times, for some reason.
Still… he’d made some remark about things being strained between him and G ever since Zoe died. Or… strained in general? Maybe since before she died. It made sense to Ellie that her death would cause a rift there, or heighten any existing tensions. Ellie hadn’t been there, she couldn’t say for sure what had transpired… but even if Max had made some mistakes, it wasn’t fair to hang that on him. That’s just the way life was. She and Riley had both been bitten, but only Riley had died. Then Tess got infected. Sam got infected. If Ellie could rewind time and change something about those encounters to bring about a different outcome, she would. She wasn’t sure what she could have done for Tess and Sam, but Riley was easy -- they could have just stayed in her fucking room that morning. Then I never would have met Joel, though… Even with all the grief he’d given her, she couldn’t wish that away. It wasn’t like choosing him over Riley, because there was no actual decision to be made. It is what it is… (dumb expression though that was -- how could something be what it wasn’t?) Life seemed pretty random at times, but some things felt fated. Meeting Joel was fate. One way or another, she’d be dead now if it wasn’t for him. If Marlene had been the one to deliver her to the Fireflies, or even Tommy… dead. If she even made it there. On her own, she probably wouldn’t have made it out of Boston. With someone else, maybe a little further than that. But Joel… he was so strong that even the injury that should have killed him didn’t stop him. If meeting Joel was fate, then getting herself bitten must have been fate, too.
Ellie wished like crazy that she could share these thoughts with Joel, because she knew it would make him happy to hear that she was coming to terms (or at least starting to?) with what they called ‘survivor’s guilt.’ But Joel wasn’t here. Anger flared up inside her. Before she could start commiserating with herself about how ‘this is all his fault,’ she realized how irrational that thought was. Joel had made it very clear he wanted her with him. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit he hadn’t done anything to make her feel humiliated or ashamed in what little interaction they’d had since that disastrous night she’d made a fool of herself. Even with good reason to, like when she’d acted sort of slutty that night she’d been drunk…
She didn’t have time to dwell on any of it for long, because as soon as she and Max set out again, she flipped the switch in her brain back over to hyper-alert mode. Just because they hadn’t run into trouble yet didn’t mean the whole trip would be a breeze. It was a relief, in a way -- if Ellie had any regrets about leaving, there was nothing she could do about it now, so why torture herself? It was too late to turn around. When they got back, she could apologize to Joel if her leaving upset him, maybe try to explain how she thought this would help her… he’d understand.
Max cautioned her as they got closer to ‘Hunter Valley’ (Swan Valley, actually, but Ellie renamed it in anticipation of seeing more hunters than swans) that there could be men roaming the areas nearby, hunting or foraging or whatever they did to survive. Supposedly the motherfuckers liked to pretend it was a toll road –- a road you had to pay to use –- and they were the ones who collected the toll, a fee of whatever the fuck they felt like taking. Ellie kept the rifle handy; Max apparently shared Joel’s kill-or-be-killed philosophy when it came to other survivors, but would rather avoid them altogether –- less risk, less ammo used up. Ellie wondered how Tommy and Maria had managed to bring so many people inside Jackson’s walls. According to Max, he’d never ‘picked up any strays’ from any of his excursions.
But there weren’t any other people around that they could see. When the town finally came into sight on the horizon, Ellie scanned the streets with the binoculars they’d brought. Not like you could even call it a town… all she saw was farmhouses dotted very sparsely along the road. Still no people. Max directed the horse to go north -- away from the highway, around another body of water, through a forest of pine trees.
“Are you sure we really need to go through the woods here? There’s like, no one.”
“Maybe they’re hiding in the houses all sniper-like,” Max speculated, keeping their course.
“What if they’re hiding in the trees instead?”
“Lot harder to hit us in there with all that cover, if they are. But why would they be? Most people passing through will follow the highway.”
Just as Ellie was about to swing the binoculars toward their new destination, she saw something that made her gasp. “Wait! Wait! I think there’s Infected down there -- look! Behind the second house, on this side… reddish house…” She thrust the binoculars at Max and he pulled the horse to a stop. “See it? I think it’s a Runner.”
“I think you’re right,” Max muttered. “Wonder how many there are. If there ain’t that many, this is a good thing. We can outrun them on a horse if we’re spotted and they won’t be shooting after us like humans would.”
“So… hooray for the hunters getting infected?”
“Better them than us.”
A year ago, Ellie would have thought that was a shitty thing to say. Now she understood. If it was shitty, it was only because the way of the world, of survival, was shitty. Joel would have said the same thing… not that Joel was exactly a great moral compass. But still. “Maybe they left. Like the Infected came along and drove them out.”
“Maybe. It ain’t our problem.” Max handed the binoculars back to her and urged Clementine towards the trees again. “We can tell the outpost soldiers and let them deal with it as they see fit. Some of ‘em love hunting down Infected.”
“Even if there’s only like, two or three of them over there? We could totally take them out.”
“You got a way to count that don’t involve traipsing our asses through there?” he asked mildly.
“All right, fine,” Ellie conceded. “We should save our ammo anyway.”
Another thing Joel might have said. She wished she could tell Max to cut it out, but how? He was just saying stuff that people say, not purposely imitating Joel. If he calls me ‘baby girl,’ though…
A figure moving amongst the trees arrested her thoughts. “Max –- eleven o’clock, see it? Another Runner, looks like.” She scanned the area surrounding it through the binoculars. “I’m looking… looking… I don’t see any others with him. Want me to shoot him? With an arrow, I mean. Quietly. If I miss then you can try?”
“Go for it.” When they got within range, Max brought them to a stop again, with Clementine turned to give Ellie a good angle, and leaned forward, hugging the horse’s neck, to give Ellie more maneuverability and a better shot. Unlike Spirit, Clementine was pretty good at standing still.
The thing was moving slowly enough that Ellie felt confident she could nail it. It hadn’t been that long since she’d done this –- she couldn’t be rusty yet, could she? She drew the arrow back in the bowstring… resisted the urge to hold her breath (because she could hear Joel lecturing her in her head)… concentrate… aim… focus on the target… the arrow zinged through the air.
It hit the target, but not fatally. The Runner yelped and spun around wildly.
“Shit shit shit!” Ellie hissed.
“One more, one more -- hurry,” Max urged, trying to keep the horse still, cooing to her calmly. “Don’t worry, girl, Ellie’s got this one.”
She loaded the arrow quickly. As the Runner spied them and started charging in their direction, screaming its head off, she let it fly. This time, even with the horse fidgeting, the arrow hit him squarely in the face, and he toppled over. “Yes!”
“Nice shot!” They galloped over to the twitching body and Max handed the reins to Ellie as he smoothly slid off the horse. “Stay there. Gotta make this quick.”
“You think he was loud enough that the ones on the highway heard?”
“Or more in the woods here maybe.” Max retrieved both arrows as well as two small boxes of ammunition from the thing’s pockets, which he waggled at Ellie. “Bet this one was a hunter.”
He was on the ground for less than fifteen seconds. Just as he remounted the horse, taking the reins back from Ellie and swinging his leg over –- he hadn’t even quite plunked his ass down in the saddle yet -- Clementine squealed and took off, clearly spooked. Two more Infected had burst out from nowhere… well, from somewhere in the trees to their right. They gave chase, moaning and yelling, summoning who knows how many more of their kind behind them. The trees were dense enough that Clementine couldn’t gallop away full speed ahead, but sparse enough that she could navigate a path through.
The horse stayed ahead of the Infected, but only just. Ellie didn’t relax until they reached a clearing and Clementine was able to gallop forth like the wind. Holding tight to Max, Ellie turned her head and watched the Infected grow smaller and smaller. A memory flashed through her mind… her and Joel and Bill, in that truck they’d driven out of Bill’s town, a much larger horde of Infected than this tailing them. She had felt quite proud of herself for actually being a help to Joel then, not just dead weight cargo… and she thought he was proud of her, too, although he’d never admit it in those days. They’d come such a long way since then -- literally, but also in terms of their relationship.
Why the hell am I doing this? she thought yet again. She shoved the thought away, frustrated with herself.
When they’d gotten who knows how many of Joel’s football fields away (ha!), Max slowed the horse to a canter, so they were still moving pretty quickly, but she wouldn’t keel over from exhaustion. Neither of them could guess at what point the Infected stop chasing their prey. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’? No hearts growing fonder here so let’s go with that.
“You okay back there?” Max called over his shoulder.
“Me? Of course -- nothing even happened.”
“It was still scary, though.”
“I’ve seen worse. Me’n’Joel have fought through worse. That was nothing.”
“Good 'cause if the fright gave you a heart attack, we’re too far away from the hospital for them to help you. If they even have the means to.”
Ellie chuckled. “Guess it’s a good place to be going, on the Outside. If we get hurt, they can patch us up. Maybe. If your tip wasn’t bullshit.”
“I’d be surprised if it was complete bullshit, considerin' the source, but maybe the place ain’t all that special. Pretty sure if we get infected, we’re on our own.”
“Ya think?” Ellie snorted. Whatever. I’m already infected! Maybe they’ll have Firefly equivalents there working on a… OH MY GOD. “Wait! Stop! Stop the horse!”
Max slowed them to a walk. “Stop? Why?”
“I have to go back!”
“I shouldn’t have left. Joel’s gonna freak out if he thinks-- it might kill him.” She lunged sideways and tumbled off the horse before Max could stop her, curling her body up as it rolled. Jumping off a horse was much easier than falling off one.
“What are you doing?! You’re gonna hurt yourself.” He circled Clementine around behind her. “So, he freaks out. We talked about that, hon. Wasn’t pissing him off part of the appeal?”
Suddenly that sounded so juvenile. “Yeah, but… I wanted him pissed at me, for leaving, not… not like… shit, he’s so gonna freak out,” she repeated unhelpfully. She stood up and brushed herself off. “As soon as the guards tell Tommy, he’ll tell Joel. If they remember to tell him. Maybe… well, even if they don’t, I betcha anything Esther says something at dinner and Joel grills her and Annie about me, and if he can’t find me, maybe then he’ll ask Tommy about who all left today, and Tommy knows you’re going to a hospital, right?”
Max dismounted and stood before her. He seemed more confused than annoyed. “Yep, he knows. If your friend talks to his brother… and they ask whoever’s on duty now… most likely it was noted that you left. On the log they keep at each post. If you’re lucky, neither of ‘em remembered to log it. Why are you shitting bricks about it all of a sudden?”
Because I’m a horrible person. Because what if Joel assumes the worst -- that I broke my promise and left without telling him to try to help with a cure? What better place to go than a hospital that might have doctors and maybe even Fireflies? He knows I’ve been upset, sad… he might think I said ‘fuck it all’ and just… fucking LEFT. Which is kind of what I DID… I didn’t mean it like that, Joel! Oh God, what if it doesn’t kill him but he hates me for this? I can hear it now… “You know what, Ellie? Fuck you. I cared about you and all you did was punish me for it and dick me over. I am DONE. Go let them kill you for all I care. I never should have—“
“Hey!” Max’s voice silenced in-her-head Joel. He placed his hands on her shoulders (not unlike the way Joel used to sometimes when he wanted her to focus on him) and caught her eye. “What changed? You were fine with all this.”
“I can’t explain it, I just remembered something and I can’t... I can’t do this to Joel.” She swallowed a lump in her throat; tears were a nuisance she couldn’t afford right now. “And I can’t just talk to him in a couple days, I can’t stand it -- I have to go. I’m sorry. I know I’m a shit, I don’t mean to ditch you, it’s just… I have to. You’ll be okay, right? You like going Out by yourself?”
Max frowned. “So you aim to walk aaaaaalllll the way back to Jackson. Through Infectedville back there. Do you know how far we’ve come?”
“I know, we’ve been gone for ages, but I have no choice, Max! I need to get going.” She ducked away from his loose grip on his shoulders, but then he grabbed her arm.
“Hang on. Do you really think I could let you do that?”
She spun around and glared at him. “Let go of me! It’s my choice!” He’d always been cool about her doing whatever she wanted, so it was especially irritating to hear him sound even more like Joel –- in an authoritarian role this time. Only… there was something sinister about the way he said it. And he did look annoyed now. Ellie certainly couldn’t blame him for that. But she didn’t care -- Joel was more important.
Max did let go, at least. “You saw how many Infected there were in Swan Valley. And you think you can just waltz on through, slick as a whistle?”
“As a whistle? No, those are loud. I’ll be quiet. I can sneak right by them.”
“Say you manage to sneak by ten of ‘em and the eleventh one sees you, or hears you. They’ll swarm you.”
“Then I’ll kill them! Max, I have to go back.” Her tone was pleading now. It really wasn’t up to him, but if he physically wasn’t going to let her… I’ll have to hurt him, just a little. I’d rather not, but I will if I have to…
“Then I’ll take you back,” he said with a sigh.
Ellie blinked. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might offer to be her escort. That was crazy! “No way, it’s too far, you’d lose this whole day!”
Max shrugged. “Not like there’s a deadline. And if you’re that determined to go back…”
“Doesn’t mean you have to go! I’d feel really shitty if I messed up your trip. I’ll be okay.”
“Well, I’d feel shitty if I let you go by yourself and something happened. If that don’t matter to you, just think, how would your friend feel about it? He’d try to kill me if I let you go off on your own. Come on.” Max got back on the horse and held his hand out to her.
If anything happened to her, there’d be no ‘try’ about it. Even though it was her fault, her idea. Joel wouldn’t care. He was bound to be furious regardless, but Ellie felt confident in her ability to intervene on Max’s behalf, so as long as she survived, it would be fine... if he still cares. Maybe this is the last straw and he doesn’t give a shit anymore. Ellie didn’t know what straws had to do with anything, she just knew the last one was really bad… really final.
It didn’t matter which scenario applied here –- either way, she needed to go back and see Joel, make sure he was okay… apologize for her behavior… swallow her pride… try to be more the way he wanted her to be so he wouldn’t leave her.
“I won’t let him kill you.” Having this argument again would be a waste of time (plus she would lose) so she conceded the point. “But fine… um… maybe if we just go past where all the Infected were?” Ellie took his hand and clambered back up on the saddle.
“That’s a start. But just ‘cause we didn’t run into any trouble before, that don’t mean that you won’t on the way back.”
“Okay, okay, let’s just get going.” Wait, why am I even arguing with him?! If she let Max take her all the way home, obviously she’d get there way faster -- maybe before Joel even realized she was gone! She could find some way to make it up to Max later. No matter which choice she made here, she was a dick who was fucking someone over, and she’d rather be dickish in Joel’s favor.
The romance crap that bothered her so much –- she could get over it. The cuddling –- well, they’d been just fine before it started, the entire time they were on the road. It didn’t matter. Joel had loved her. And she loved him –- before she’d gotten any ideas in her head about them being more than friends, she’d loved him. It was the core of their bond. Surely she could just talk to him, tell him he was right about her being a dumb kid, about everything, and plead for another chance! The thoughts and feelings and words were tumbling through her head now, dizzying and exciting and maddening because she had to wait several long hours, if not more, to make amends. Everything she could say to Joel, every promise she could make -- whatever she had to do to make him love her again, she would do it.
And if he still didn’t want her around after this, she could handle it. He could hate her forever -- maybe that’s even what she deserved. She could handle anything, except for Joel being dead. A chill came over her as she recalled Tommy’s warning: ‘If you leave here… you’d not only be endin’ your own life, I’m damn well sure you’d be endin’ his too.’ Max had been wrong when he said Ellie didn’t owe Joel anything: she owed him her life. And right now, Joel was probably wondering why he went to such great lengths to save it.
Oh please please please let Joel not even know I’m gone yet! she pleaded with whatever gods or cosmic forces would grant her wish. “Can’t we go a little faster?” she pleaded with Max.
They’d only been backtracking for a couple of minutes when they met a strange sight –- a horse galloping in their direction at full speed. A tacked-up horse without a rider, even. A sliver of fear knifed through Ellie. What the fuck is Spirit doing out here?!
~Continue to Chapter 31~