Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 12,082 for both parts (yeah, cozy up with the cat and some popcorn...)
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Joel kicks ass... for a while. ...and that's all the summary I'm giving, lol. I actually don't know why I've bothered doing summaries for LJ when on FFN/AO3 I didn't bother!
BAH -- I wanted this to be all in one post but it was too big for LJ to handle. Never had that happen to me before!
Joel hadn’t expected to run into Infected in Swan Valley; Tommy had warned him about a band of hunters. Detouring through the evergreens to the north, with a pond acting as a natural barrier, had appeared to be the best way to avoid confrontation, just as Tommy had predicted… although Joel hadn’t seen shit along the highway. Maybe Tommy’s intel was outdated, or just plain wrong. Or maybe the motherfuckers were holed up in one of the houses out of sight. Yeah, that was probably it. If they were in the woods, he’d likely see or hear them in time to turn back if needed. Spirit was probably too high-strung to let him get a good shot off.
And he did see the Runner in plenty of time… but so did Spirit, and the horse promptly freaked the fuck out. Joel would wager that Spirit had encountered Infected before and knew how dangerous they were. He pulled hard on the reins -- enough to pull Spirit’s head back and prevent a buck –- and managed to turn him around. Unfortunately, the squeals of alarm had alerted the Runner to their presence… and in his experience, where there was one Runner, there were likely to be more nearby.
Not necessarily a problem -- the horse was fast. But without knowing what he’d be riding into, it seemed safer to circle back through the sleepy, abandoned farmhouses that peppered the landscape along the highway. He’d be damned if he was going to head straight back to where they came from. Which, of course, is what Spirit wanted to do; he tried to throw Joel again, repeatedly, and though logically he understood that the horse was acting on instinct, he didn’t have time for this shit, and in frustration, he unleashed a string of insults and obscenities on Spirit (as if that might ‘scare him straight’?!), which quite possibly aggravated the horse all the more.
Still, they did get on track, and if Spirit wanted to gallop through what passed for a town, so much the better, as far as catching up to Ellie. But almost as soon as he’d had the thought, Spirit slammed on the brakes –- Infected in front of them! After another bucking attempt, Spirit whipped around, only to find that the lone Runner behind them had a few buddies now as well. Joel wished he could gauge how deep the water was in the pond. Do Infected remember how to swim, if they knew as humans? How do I not know this? He couldn’t recall ever seeing Infected swim, but he could say the same of Spirit. South seemed the safer bet, with more farmhouses and open fields…and possibly more Infected. He had to risk it. Spirit could dodge the bastards, if Joel could just convince him not to run in the complete opposite direction.
And there were indeed more Infected to the south –- after they crossed the highway and swung around behind the houses along it, Joel saw two heading their way -- but it didn’t matter: he finally failed to prevent Spirit from bucking and rearing. Although Joel endured a round of that, Spirit managed to free himself of his pesky rider with a sharp turn and a well-timed buck that toppled him off. At least the horse had been considerate enough to do it in the fucking grass.
It hurt, but didn’t quite knock the wind out of him, which he hoped meant nothing was broken. His gear was thrown with him, naturally, and the backpack, while not exactly a pillow to land on, had cushioned his fall somewhat. His guns were still holstered, and he still had the spiked pipe. Several Runners started chasing Spirit, leaving seven or eight in Joel’s vicinity that needed to be dealt with.
He quickly set and chucked the lone nail bomb he had preassembled –- that took care of only two of the motherfuckers, and now there were more of them clambering off the back porch of the nearest house, about two hundred feet away. The Runners pouring out of that house called to mind, quite uncomically, an image of clowns emerging from a clown car. Shit! There’s gotta be at least twenty of ‘em now! He would cut them off with a Molotov cocktail if he could dispose of the ones closest to him in time to light one. He didn’t want to start swinging the pipe until he’d thinned out the mini-crowd a little… ideally just enough that none of them could jump him as he did so. He whipped out the Shorty and fired hastily at Runners on two sides… three shots, two more Infected down.
Then he heard that dreaded click-click-click echolocation sound that never failed to make his skin crawl. Two Clickers coming from the house, headed towards the noise but who perhaps hadn’t ‘seen’ him yet, judging by their slow movements. They must have travelled a long way to get out in the boonies like this. Paradoxically, he wished Ellie were here to help him fight, yet he was thankful that she wasn’t, that she was safe… as far as he knew. Do I have time to light a Molotov now… No! He cursed his momentary indecision as the Runners closed the gap. Fuck it-- He lunged at the nearest one and split its head open with the spiked end of the pipe. The blade was probably good for at least one more kill, maybe two… but there were too many of them, he had to get out of this clusterfuck—
Too late -- one grabbed him from behind before he could wrench the pipe out of the skull he’d just whacked with it. He struggled to free himself while simultaneously kicking at three others to keep them at bay. Whatever amount of pain these monsters experienced, it never seemed to deter them from their maniacal attack; the miserable shits had no self-preservation instinct. Once he broke the Runner’s grip, he slammed the thing on the ground and stomped on its face, then retrieved the pipe and dealt two more lethal blows to the others before the blade broke away from it, diminishing its value. It would still do more damage than his bare fists, though. He bludgeoned the survivor of that little quartet with it, only enough to buy him time to get the fuck away from that spot. The Clickers were definitely targeting him now. He hoped like hell there were no more of them.
Joel sprinted away from the pack, somehow managing to grab the shotgun mid-stride, and turned around, firing almost blindly at the group –- it didn’t take much skill to shoot a bullet into a moving wall, after all. He got a few shots off before it was time to sprint again; there were still too fucking many of them. And he needed to take out those goddamn Clickers. He could probably handle it if a Clicker and Runner got to him at the same time, but he couldn’t count on being able to fight off two Clickers at once. They were too lethal, too strong, too quick to move in for the kill.
If he took the time to shoot any more, some of them would overtake him. If he kept heading south and managed to make it to the next band of trees, that would give him some cover… but he’d have to run through a pretty large clearing to get there, followed by a rather steep hill, and if there were more up there, he’d be fucked, flanked by a mountain on one side and Infected on all others. Better to try to dodge them by darting around buildings… dead cars… argh, there just wasn’t enough of that shit around in this tiny so-called town! If he could escape some of them and find Spirit… what if he’s long gone? How will I ever catch up to Ellie in time?!
Joel couldn’t worry about that right now. If he died here, it was a moot point.
For now, at least, he ran faster than they did. Changing direction made him lose a little ground, but he maintained a fairly solid lead on the front of the pack. He managed to confuse some of the fuckers by ducking into a farmhouse and pitching a lamp out of a broken window, shattering it on the front porch. The ones that weren’t right on his ass went to investigate the noise, and the ones that were got slowed down at least a tad by the natural obstacles in the house. Shooting them would, of course, re-attract the attention he’d just diverted, so he bolted up the stairs and took cover in a random bedroom where he could catch his breath, if nothing else. Hopefully he could silently strangle a couple of them already in the house, then stealthily creep out of town before the others rediscovered him. He could save his Molotov… maybe craft one more, he should have enough of the necessary supplies in his backpack. First things first: he reloaded.
Ellie and Max must have already passed through here. He hadn’t seen any dead bodies in the street… he should probably go check the forest to the north, he could regroup there… and he could not think about finding Ellie dead –- he willed that image away before it could take full form as a Runner strolled past his doorway. His arm was around its neck before it could utter so much as a squeak, and he dragged it into the bedroom as he slowly squeezed the breath out of it. Joel was glad he’d kept up his physical strength with all the manual labor he’d been doing in Jackson.
But he didn’t get to strangle the next one –- it had a buddy, one who wasn’t far enough behind. Joel settled for bashing its face into the wall with enough force to split its head open, and whacking the life out of the second Runner with the pipe. He could hear more Infected roaming the bottom floor… and now he didn’t like the idea of being trapped up here. He ducked into another bedroom and looked out the window. Where are all these fuckers coming from?!
Taking the time to craft another Molotov cocktail gave him a few moments to think. There was a football-sized vase laying on its side on the floor by the nightstand, cracked but in one piece. He grabbed it and hurled it out the open window to the ground below, where it shattered spectacularly, a siren call to every Infected in earshot. Joel quickly lit the Molotov and waited for them to converge below.
Of course, the motherfuckers didn’t make it too easy for him –- they didn’t climb all over each other and make him a neat little pile to light up. He waited… he could catch five or six of them now but the Clickers weren’t in there yet… he waited… Shit! The group was starting to disperse itself, so it was now or never. He lobbed the Molotov into their midst and didn’t wait to find out how many it caught; he needed to get the fuck out of the house.
Or do I? The houses were so far apart, he’d never make it to the next one without being spotted. Maybe he could use this one to play a sort of cat-and-mouse game with the remaining Infected. It’s not like there were hundreds of them; he could wait them out, bow-and-arrow some of them stealthily… no I can’t! Ellie must have the bow, it wasn’t at the house. Still… I got this.
And he had another Molotov, ideally a fail-safe only, as it was the last he could make with what he’d brought. He didn’t like being on the second story now; he needed the option of being able to climb out the windows (or the holes meant for windows) if they started closing in. Joel crept quietly down the stairs while the dumb fucks were out front either getting fried or watching their brethren get fried. He couldn’t hear the Clickers anymore. The house seemed to be deserted, although… shit, he did detect some faint noises in the kitchen, which was unfortunate because that’s where the back door was. If there was only one, though, he could strangle it. A Runner wandering through the front door foiled that plan, unless he wanted to burst into the kitchen and risk making the thing shriek, which it surely would if it was facing his direction. He swiftly took cover in an empty nook under the staircase. It wasn’t ideal, being quite small, door-less, and corner-y, but with no one following him, there was a chance he could remain here undetected a little while. If he could get all of them to come inside the house, maybe he could set the whole damn thing on fire… but they wouldn’t be trapped, so unless they stayed in there long enough for the roof to cave in on them or something, it wouldn’t do much good, and he’d lose the use of the house himself. Besides, herding Infected was, he imagined, like herding cats; he could round up one group of them only to have it scatter before he got the next.
He quietly crafted another nail bomb while he waited. Maybe not quietly enough; he had only just returned the completed bomb to his belt when a Runner discovered him –- and it shrieked, of course. He quickly drew the Shorty and shot that one in the face (a bit more efficient than beating it to death, and he needed to get out of there now), and when the kitchen Runner came charging at him, he dispatched it in the same manner. Now if he could just run out the back door before they all traced the source of the noise and swarmed him…
But three more of them ran through that door. He returned to the living room, which was oddly clear. How many DID that Molotov get?! Not enough; through the open door and the two windows facing the street, he could see a handful of Infected. The side of the house, however, looked safe… or relatively safe… he climbed out the side window –- no Infected. At least one or two of the three on his tail would have seen him climb out; the others that had been milling about were likely following the gunshots. Okay, so, three… I can handle that without more gunfire. He waited for the first one to start climbing through –- and whump! There went the last of the pipe. It didn’t kill the Runner, but it stunned it enough to allow him to deal with the second one. When it was halfway out the window, Joel clubbed its head with the stock of the shotgun, causing it to tumble to the ground. If the third one was smart, it would stay away from the window now… but of course, these creatures were dumb as rocks. He grabbed each of the two fallen Runners by the scruff of the neck and rammed their heads together, followed by several hard blows each to finish them off. He decked the third as it approached him, then turned it around to wrap his arm around its neck and strangle it quietly (which gave his bleeding knuckles a break).
Now if he could stay in line with the house as he headed west, he could possibly sneak away, even through this wide open space, and get out of their weak sight range…
Of course, that would have been too easy.
Two Runners that had wandered out to the back porch screeched an alert to the others and began to chase him. Joel was confident he could outrun them to the nearest house across the street, some hundred yards down… but halfway there, he stopped dead in his tracks: more Infected in the street ahead! Possibly the Runners that had chased Spirit? Or were there just endless garrisons of the fuckers in this piss-ant town?! The Shorty made quick work of four of them with the four bullets left in its chamber, but it didn’t clear his path, and now there were about ten more coming up behind him.
Better use the Molotov… there were more behind him than ahead, but maybe he could fry the ones in front of him and lure the ones on his tail into the fire. He fumbled with the lighting of it, which cost him another couple seconds, but his running throw was accurate; he veered to his right to avoid running straight into the flames, and a couple of the idiots did run directly into them as he’d hoped. However, the others were too close now, they were surrounding him, they were all over him –- fuck fuck FUCK! They’d knocked him to the ground; he couldn’t even manage to unholster the shotgun. Now what –- He was in total defense mode, hitting and shoving and kicking and whatever he could to keep them off of him. At least they were dumber than humans in that they didn’t coordinate their efforts to subdue him… but sooner or later his strength would give out, he had to get the upper hand here… he kept looking for an opportunity to get up and run, not finding one -- I WILL, though –- I have to get to Ellie –- if I can just break free from this death circle--
A sudden burst of light and heat to his right startled everyone –- how did my Molotov jump over there? he thought nonsensically. No matter –- one of the Clickers was getting barbecued in the flames, along with several Runners. He was close enough to it -- if he could just push the fuckers off of him into the fire before it burned itself out on infected flesh, and avoid toppling into it with them… he heard gunshots, shitloads of them -– what the fuck?!?! -- then a Runner came flying out of the fire, knocking him down on the pavement before he could dodge it. The world turned orange, then a searing hot white as the pain took on a new dimension. Jesus fucking Christ, what next--
A girl’s cry pierced the air. “JOEL!”
Ellie! Ellie was here! But it wasn’t Ellie who pulled the burning Runner off of him, or blew the brains out of the other Clicker. Granted a few seconds to go on the offensive, Joel rolled over a couple times and smothered the small flame licking his upper arm and shoulder, hopped up and quickly fired the shotgun at the closest Runners, using up five bullets to kill them… then he had enough of a breather to scan the landscape for Ellie. She was knifing a Runner, about a hundred feet away. One of the fuckers was making a beeline for her –- Joel fired and it toppled to the ground. No others in her immediate vicinity.
There were three others left –- and there was Max, who had saved Joel from the blazing Runner… and was now grappling with another Runner. The fire had nearly extinguished itself.
Confident in Ellie’s ability to kill her Runner (he couldn’t risk a shot that close to her anyhow), Joel fired the last round at the Runner directly in front of him, blowing its brains out in spectacular fashion. Two left, no time to reload. Go for the one dealing damage -- instinctively, he ripped Max’s attacker away from him, pummeling the Runner with strength that was pure adrenaline by this point, finished it off by smashing its ugly face into the ground and crushing its head with his boot heel. Max had engaged the last Runner, and only then did it occur to Joel that he could have just let Max take his chances… that it made no sense to prevent a person you wanted to kill from getting killed by other means. Especially when Max getting killed by Infected (or Max becoming infected himself) would keep his own hands clean… in Ellie’s eyes, at least. He turned in Ellie’s direction to see if she needed him –- she was running towards him now, no enemies in sight –- then back to Max, just in time to see him shoving a hunting knife through the last Runner’s guts.
Ellie stopped short before she reached them, breathlessly asking, “Are you guys okay?!” Her gaze darted back and forth between him and Max, but lingered on Joel, questioning and uncertain.
Joel didn’t answer. Aside from still needing to catch his breath, the physically overwhelming shit was over, but somehow Joel still felt… well, overwhelmed. He took another look around… no Infected, but no horses, either. Ellie’s here and she’s okay! And Max… I could kill him -- but why didn’t I?!
Max wiped his knife off on his victim and sheathed it, breathing hard. He was the one who finally answered Ellie’s question. “Yeah, think so. Good job –- your fire bomb killed like three or four of ‘em in one go. How ‘bout you? You okay?”
The two of them inched towards each other as Joel stood rooted to the spot. He was still assessing the situation, feeling utterly relieved that he’d found Ellie –- or rather, that Ellie had found him –- and that she appeared to be unscathed.
And she was smiling. “Yeah, I’m good. Really good.” She looked at Joel when she said it, but then her smile waned. “Joel, you’re so quiet… and you look… funny. You should be yelling at me by now. Are you okay?!”
Joel chuckled. “I’m fine. I don’ wanna yell at you.” He unfroze and moved towards Ellie at the same time she stepped towards him. He had thought she might hug him, but she made no move to. She did move, quite deliberately, between him and Max.
“You’re hurt!” she noted with alarm, sobering as she got a closer look at him.
“Tch. It's nothin'.” ‘Hurt’ was getting impaled on a rebar after falling a couple stories.
“I’m sooooo sorry,” Ellie said, stricken. Those big green eyes could melt the iciest of hearts, Joel was sure. “This was all my fault.”
Not all of it, Joel thought as he and Max eyed each other. The guy didn’t appear to be a threat –- it looked like Ellie was trying to protect Max from him, and seemed to think her mere presence would do it -- but Joel wasn’t ready to let his guard down. He kept an eye on him while reloading the shotgun.
Max retrieved his hat from the ground nearby and surveyed the carnage (amusingly, Ellie rotated herself to stay in line between them). “You held ‘em off for a good long while,” Max remarked to Joel, sounding genuinely impressed. “How many didja kill before we got here? A dozen? More?”
They couldn’t even see all the bodies from where they were standing in the street. Joel figured it was more like two dozen. “Somethin’ like that.”
It was a sloppy fight, not one Joel would be especially proud of, but Ellie was impressed, too. “That’s your Molotov burning out way back there, too, isn’t it, Joel? You were fighting them all over the place, huh. We killed some on the way back here, too… it’s crazy how many of them there were. And you didn’t even need our help.”
Joel liked to think he didn’t, that he had things under control and would have been just fine, but he really didn’t know. No one ever did. “Sure I did. You picked a good time to show up.” At least with Ellie standing between him and Max, he could pretty much look at both of them at the same time. He didn’t holster the freshly-loaded shotgun.
Ellie beamed at him. “I’ll go back home with you. Lemme just say goodbye to Max?”
Joel was ecstatic to hear that, of course… he didn’t even have to plead with her or anything, and she looked so happy… but he couldn’t let Max off the hook yet. Just because they’d helped each other out in battle -- just because Joel was fuzzy on whether he really wanted to kill him or not -- it didn’t mean everything was all hunky-dory now, that they could all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ Far from it. “Maybe the three of us should go have ourselves a chat first,” he growled.
Ellie shook her head. “I do want to talk to you, but Max has nothing to do with this. I’ve already delayed him enough.”
“Nothin’ to do with it, huh?” Joel scoffed. “Who fuckin’ conned you into leavin’ town with him, right after playin’ nice with me like he—“
“No he didn’t!” Ellie interrupted excitedly. “It was all me, Joel. He never asked me to come, I begged him to let me come. Then I realized I shouldn’t have, and I was gonna walk back home, but he wouldn’t let me go by myself, he was gonna take me all the way back even though we’re like halfway through the trip already. You can’t be mad at him, be mad at me!”
Joel was sure that Ellie believed it was all her idea, all her fault… but he was just as sure that Max had engineered things that way. Maybe he even knew that he’d get to play the big hero, escorting Ellie back to Jackson because she’d changed her mind. Joel wondered what had changed it. Wondered if she’d tell him. He could ask when they were alone.
“Ellie.” Ellie’s name rolling off Max’s tongue -- even though it was just to get her attention -- made Joel bristle. “You sure you wanna go home? You wanna talk to him an’ decide after?”
“She said she’s comin’ with me, it’s decided,” snarled Joel, already starting to reconsider the not-killing-him thing.
“I am! Chill!” she said to Joel before turning back to Max. “Go ahead. I’m not gonna change my mind, even if… um, I just won’t. Though I totally get why you don’t believe that, considering.” With a sheepish (and adorable) little chuckle.
Max probably found her adorable, too. He certainly didn’t seem pissed at her. “All right. Tell you what. I’ll check on the horses… guard that barn… keep watch over this area while you two talk. Take your time. If you change your mind, fine. If you don’t, then at least you’ll know no one stole your horse in the meantime.”
“Okay. Though I really don’t think Spirit would let anyone steal him,” she said with a laugh. Joel was relieved to hear she’d found the horse. “I don’t know how long it’ll be… if I take forever you can just leave, okay? Thank you. Thanks for everything, Max. I’m sorry I fucked things up.” And then she suddenly flung her arms around his neck, which seemed to surprise Max as much as it did Joel. It took a great deal of will power not to go pull her away from the asshole. Max would have to be a complete dumbass to do anything to harm Ellie now, with Joel right there, ready to pounce. Patience… she’s coming back with YOU, just keep cool... She was telling Max something… whispering it in his ear. Max said something Joel couldn’t make out, then stepped back, tousling Ellie’s hair, which was already somewhat of a tangled mess. Ellie was all smiles again. “See you in a little bit then. Maybe next time the three of us can go somewhere together!” she added brightly.
Right, and maybe I’ll make friends with some Infected while we’re at it, Joel thought darkly, and from the look on Max’s face, he was having a similar thought. Max nodded curtly at Joel before turning to leave. Joel was quite aware that Max had helped him out in the fight, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to thank the asshole. Besides, he wouldn’t be out here in the first place if it wasn’t for him. Not killing Max (at least for the time being) was thanks enough. It was kind of a shame, though –- it would have been so easy to make it look like an accident! Joel could have been attempting to shoot one of the Runners but whoops!, ended up shooting Max in the head by mistake… hell, even if he’d just risked reloading at the end there, Max could have been bitten in the meantime, and it wouldn’t have been Joel’s fault... Ellie, with that huge heart of hers, might be sad for a little while, but he’d help her get over it. Before long, she’d forget that Max ever existed. But things hadn’t gone down that way, so he tucked that little fantasy away for another time. Maybe Max would get killed before his trip was over. If not, Joel could deal with him back in Jackson.
It appeared they were out of danger now, but if he and Ellie were going to have a real talk, he’d rather be somewhere safer. He gestured to the little house he’d been running to earlier, and they headed towards it. In the corner of his eye, Max got smaller and smaller, and Joel finally holstered the shotgun. “We could talk some on the way back, you know,” he pointed out. “It’s a long ride.”
“No. Face to face,” Ellie insisted. “Joel, your shoulder… man. Does it hurt? Let me patch it up for you.”
“Nah, it ain’t as bad as it looks.” It would surely hurt more later on, when all the pain of the day caught up to him. Totally worth it to find Ellie, of course. His whole arm could have burned to bits and he wouldn’t have cared, as long as it led to seeing her again, safe and sound.
Joel had Ellie wait on the doorstep while he checked the house. When he deemed it clear, they sat on a lumpy couch in the living room… not unlike their couch at home. They angled themselves toward one another, Ellie sitting with one leg curled beneath her. He still had the itch to hold her, or maybe hold her hand, but he was getting used to the idea of not doing these things anymore. Maybe she was, too? He was glad Ellie had some idea of what she wanted to say, because he didn’t really know what to say to her… what could he say that wouldn’t piss her off or hurt her or make her want to leave again? He would have been content to just silently get them both back safely inside Jackson’s walls.
“I’m sorry about all this,” she began. “I realized I shouldn’t have left… that you might think… the wrong thing.”
“The wrong thing,” Joel repeated dumbly. Wrong about what? Max? The hospital? Just let her talk, he reminded himself. Don’t jump to any conclusions. Really LISTEN to her.
~Continued in Part Two~