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"Uncertainty" Chapter 29: "Friends and Enemies" (29/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 29: "Friends and Enemies" (29/47)
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Pairings: Joel/Ellie
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 5850
Rating (for fic as a whole): R



Day 2



One thing they had this time around that they didn't on the first trip: hygiene products! Ellie had been afraid that Joel might argue this, so she had enlisted Sophie's help to gang up on him about the matter. But he was surprisingly amicable -- and that was even before he knew they'd be kissing and stuff. She knew she could live without these luxuries... that they could brush their teeth with twigs and let the rain wash their hair... but she'd become so accustomed to them. They didn't have the convenience of running water, so they were still kind of roughing it on the hygiene front.

They'd brought some nonperishables with them, but not a ton, because food was bulky and heavy. What they did bring would be rationed over many days. They would forage for food soon, or hunt game, which would slow their progress, but Joel had accounted for that when he'd worked out how long the trip would take. He also didn't want to push the horses too hard, given the loads they carried; there was no need to rush. At less than thirty miles per day, with some days sprinkled in here and there devoted to rest or hunting or 'something unforeseen,' he estimated they'd be there by early November. They'd be out of range before any hardcore snow would hit them. Joel said it pretty much never snows in California, especially on the beach. Even though he told her it would still be cold, Ellie couldn't help imagining a tropical paradise, like she'd seen in the movies. Laying out in the warm sun, Joel rubbing something wet on her back (some kind of oil?), the two of them splashing around in the water to cool off when they got a little toasty.

That's what she tried to imagine when the rain started pelting them, anyway. This time, they had something else they didn't have on their last trip: rain ponchos! They were light, not like real raincoats; Joel called them 'glorified trash bags.' He had advised the girls to put them on at their last break. The sun had still been shining intermittently, but the clouds were beginning to look ominously dark, and sure enough, they yielded rain before too long. Gentle at first, but now it was starting to really give them a beating.

Sophie said she wanted to stop, and Joel gave her a stern look. "We talked about this. If we stop every time it--"

"Not to wait it out -- I just wanna wash my hair! What if it doesn't rain again for a while?" And she slid off of Poppy to rummage in her backpack. "Ellie, you want to do yours too?"

So Joel had to stop, and Ellie had to stifle a giggle at how annoyed he was. She gave his shoulders a squeeze of apology, hopped off of Spirit, and yanked the elastic off her ponytail. "Okay!"

"Didn' you jus' wash it yesterday?" Joel protested to Ellie, frowning as Sophie thrust her cowboy hat at him for safekeeping.

"Yeah, yesterday. Not today." Ellie held out her hand for Sophie to squirt a dollop of shampoo. "Just a little bit. This has to last us a while."

"You only wash it two days in a row when you work at the farm!" he continued to complain. He had to raise his voice a little to make himself heard over the rain, and the louder volume made it seem like he was angrier than he was... or probably was. Ellie thought it was a pretty dumb thing to get angry about, so he was probably just irritated that she was siding with Sophie.

The girls started lathering up their heads as best they could while the rain kept beating down. "Dangit!" exclaimed Sophie. "This would be easier if we had some cover!"

The trees around them currently were either too small or too skinny to offer much protection. "Joel, you should come and... hold one of the blankets over us or something!" Ellie called to him.

"So it gets nice'n'wet for when we gotta sleep on it later? I don' think so!"

"The ponchos, then? If we take them off..." He wasn't even looking at her now. Nope, he's not going to lift one finger to help us out!

"He's so grumpy," Sophie observed, bending over and trying to use Poppy's head as a (not very effective) shield. Spirit would probably nip her just for acting so weird, but Poppy's personality was much more mellow.

"Get used to it." Ellie giggled. "Maybe he feels left out. JOEL! YOU CAN DO IT TOO IF YOU WANT!"

He didn't answer. Not with words, anyway; his expression, however, spoke volumes!

"Okay, maybe not," said Ellie, as if she hadn't already known better. "Oops, I need a little more..." The first tiny bit had run off before it actually washed anything. She found where Sophie had set the bottle and helped herself to another dollop. She knew better than to try the same thing twice -- her hands just couldn't work faster than that rain.

Sophie was now trying to wash her hair with one hand while the other one sort of held the hood of the poncho over it. "Try it this way!"

One-handed washing would be annoyingly slow. "I got a better idea!" She was young and nimble... Maybe I can sort of like... if I lean forward, I could use my own body as a rain shield while I... "Motherfucker!"

She'd leaned so far over that she ended up doing an accidental somersault -- right smack into the mud.

That made Sophie crack up. Embarrassing as that was, Ellie couldn't help laughing a little herself at the absurdity of it as she sat up. Her poncho had ridden up some when she leaned forward, so she also had mud on her jeans. She glanced at Joel. He still looked annoyed, but she could detect a smile lurking beneath that. He tried to conceal it with his trademark scowl, but it was there!

Sophie offered her hand to Ellie. "Girl! You okay?"

Ellie took it and stood up. "No -- I got mud in my hair, now it's dirtier than it was before! And is it just me, or is it raining a little less hard now?!" She quickly turned her face up to the sky and started slicking the water through her hair.

"It'd serve you right if it stopped rainin' right this second!" Joel smirked down at her.

Ellie ignored him. "I think I got it all out..."

Sophie retrieved the shampoo. "I can wash it for you real quick? It's still raining enough... I think..."

The rain was definitely easing up. "No, it's okay -- oh, but my butt's all muddy, too!" She hiked the poncho back up and presented her ass -- well, her jeans -- to the sky to wash off the mud.

"Ellie!" Joel chastised her. "The whole point of the poncho is to help you not get wet... ?"

She swatted at her bottom a few times before standing upright and smoothing the poncho back down. She glared at him. Is he trying not to laugh? Now I can't even tell. "Mud is wet, too! And anyways my legs got wet before cuz this isn't long enough -- maybe if you hadn't gotten me a child size..."

"It fits you fine," said Sophie, who was now brushing out her own hair. "It's just kinda hard to cover everything when you're riding a horse."

Ellie watched the woman pull the brush through her long honey-blond hair. It didn't look so blond now since the water had darkened it. "Oh man, my hair's gonna be a tangled mess," she lamented. "I better get my--"

"Here, let me." Sophie came over and started tugging the brush through Ellie's hair. "It's not that bad. Could use some detangler, though... hang on a sec..."

"What, now you gotta do each other's hair?" Joel scoffed. "Jesus Christ."

"Hey, if your hair was like ten times longer, it would get all tangled up too, and you'd have to brush it," Ellie retorted, wondering if Joel thought sharing a hair brush was gross (since he thought sharing a toothbrush was -- even when he was sharing with her, of all people!). She was pleased to note that Spirit had his nose in a small puddle; she knew this water was fresh. Poppy apparently wasn't very thirsty. And the rain was now reduced to just a drizzle, so she was glad she hadn't attempted another hairwash. She tried to stay perfectly still while Sophie spritzed something on her hair and worked the brush through it -- rather easily now. "Wow, that stuff is like magic!"

"Isn't it? And it's not even full-strength -- I diluted it to make it last longer."

Joel frowned down at them. "Shampoo is one thing... soap... I get it. But you brought a bottle of... what, somethin' that saves you a minute of--"

"Just one little bottle, jeez!" Ellie said defensively. Her first instinct had been the same as Joel's, though: she'd told Sophie she didn't need to bring it. In fact, now that she thought about it, Ellie didn't remember Sophie arguing the point until she got her way -- as she'd done with other stuff. She wasn't certain, but she had a feeling Sophie had packed the bottle anyway. Which... should have been annoying, but now... that's totally something I would have done. Ha! She could throw Sophie under the bus, as the dumb saying went, and tell Joel she'd told her not to bring it. For some reason, she didn't feel like doing that. Maybe because it's more fun to piss him off than to tell him he's right?

"Where's your hair band?" Sophie asked. "I'll put it up for you."

"Thanks!" Ellie cheerfully handed it to her. She couldn't remember the last time anyone else had done her ponytail. Joel knew how to do it, from a lifetime ago with Sarah, but his thing was more taking her hair down, not putting it up. He did like to brush it for her, sometimes... and sometimes he'd kiss her neck or her ear while he did it... Sophie's hands on her head didn't elicit quite the same reaction in her that Joel's did!

"There." Sophie stepped back and resumed brushing her own hair.

Ellie could tell she'd put the ponytail up a little higher than she normally did herself, so some of the locks on the bottom would likely be falling out before the day's end, but she didn't complain. "Want me to do something with yours?"

"Eh, I'm gonna leave it how it is. Thanks, though. Not sure that was worth all the effort... washing in the rain is for the birds." She walked over to Joel to retrieve her hat. "Thanks for stopping!"

As if he had a choice! Ellie snickered to herself.

"Can we get a move on now?" Joel still sounded cranky, but at least he held his hand out for Ellie to climb back up on the horse. "Your ponytail looks..."

"High," Ellie supplied. "You like it?"

"Makes you look younger, I think."

"Really? Huh." Maybe Sophie did it on purpose...

Ellie couldn't quite make up her mind about Sophie. One minute she hated her because it felt like she was trying to take Joel from her (even though that was impossible, of course), and the next, she thought it was kind of fun having another girl around.

The day before, Sophie had tried to have a fresh start talk with her, wherein she expressed her gratitude and how she and Ellie had started off on the wrong foot but she wanted to correct that, blah blah, but Ellie had shut her up with "it's okay" and quickly changed the subject. She had seemed sincere, and Ellie believed in second chances in general, but... Sophie was still the enemy in one sense. Not one she wanted to kill -- she even wanted to help reunite her with her brother, for fuck's sake -- but one she had to keep an eye on. Ellie couldn't just forget that she'd tried to fuck Joel.

That was a bit of a gray area, though, too. On the one hand, well... could Ellie really blame her? Joel was the most fuckable guy in Jackson. The whole world, even. On the other hand, trying to steal her man was unforgivable. ...Even if Sophie hadn't exactly realized she was a thief.

"No more bathroom breaks today," the fuckable Joel declared.

"That wasn't even a bathroom break, though!" Ellie protested. If Sophie minded, she didn't say so. Maybe because if she decides to stop, we're stopping, no matter what Joel says?

"Well, we're gonna make up for the lost time," Joel said, as if that justified it.

"Joel! That was hardly any time. And what's the rush?" Ellie was sure he was just being petty to get back at them for annoying him. He'd said right from the start that they weren't going to push too hard, and she fully intended to throw that in his face whenever it applied. We haven't even had our pseudo-shit break yet... "Well, what if you have to... you know," she asked softly.

"I won't."

"You won't?" Ellie tried not to sound as disappointed as she felt. "How do you know that?"

"Jus' do." He turned his head enough to smirk at her. "But the horses could prob'ly use some rest later so maybe we'll jus' have dinner on the early side."

"So... maybe then."

"Maybe then."

Ellie could handle waiting a while. If he would have been willing to skip their alone time altogether for such a stupid reason, she'd probably have had to give him the silent treatment the rest of the day. Not that he'd notice it much, since they weren't at home where she talked kind of a lot, thus rendering it far more effective. ...and not like I can ever do that very long anyway! Either Joel would act sweet so she couldn't stay mad at him, or he'd be indifferent, which was way worse. Ellie didn't like it when he was upset with her, but she really couldn't stand when he acted like he didn't give a shit what she did. Which he must have figured out about her, because just a short dose of that and she was falling all over herself apologizing to him. To his credit, he was always gracious... he could be a dick when he wanted to be, but he really didn't act like that with her. At least, not anymore.

His backpack made it difficult to hug him properly now, but she tried to squeeze him as best she could. "Thank you," she said softly. What she'd really wanted to say was "I love you," but that was off limits for the time being; even though people did say it to each other platonically, Joel had forbidden it for the trip -- when Sophie was around, at least.

"For what?"

"...Nothing." She could've picked any number of things to be thankful for in that moment, but...

"You're welcome."

He couldn't possibly have read her mind, yet Ellie was sure she'd heard a "Love you, too" in his reply.

* * * * * *

The first time Ellie felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle in trepidation was later that afternoon: she heard what was unmistakably a gunshot, followed by two more, coming from the direction they were headed. I almost forgot we're not alone out here! she thought -- stupidly.

"Um... was that maybe... thunder?" Sophie asked tentatively.

" 'fraid not," Joel answered. "Sounds a bit far away, though..."

"How far?" both girls asked at once.

"Well... I don' know. Couple miles maybe?"

"Which is how far?" Ellie pressed. Joel had taught her about mile markers on the highways, but she still didn't have a good sense of the distance -- in her mind, she measured distance in increments of time. Still an estimate, as none of them had a timepiece; Joel's broken watch from Sarah didn't count. "So if we keep going at this same speed... like twenty minutes? Thirty?"

"If they ain't movin'? Yeah, maybe somewhere around there."

"So... less if they are moving."

"If they're movin' towards us. An' I could be wrong about how far off that was. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes."

There was a big difference between ten minutes and thirty. He doesn't know? Ellie knew that Joel didn't know everything, but... she still found it disconcerting when he didn't know everything!

"So what do we do?" Sophie asked, guiding Poppy closer to Spirit. Closer, and a few steps behind. Neither horse seemed to care about the shots, at least. They'd apparently heard enough of them around Jackson -- distant ones, at least -- and not found them to be a cause for alarm.

"Nothin'. We keep goin'. Ellie, keep the binoculars handy... if we get to one o' them wide open stretches, maybe we'll hang back. We got plenty of cover in this area so far. Lots of big rock formations. An' there's a town or somethin' comin' up -- plenty of cover there." Joel didn't sound worried. Ellie never knew how much of that was an act put on for her benefit (and now Sophie's as well); she used to think Joel never got scared of anything, but eventually, when they'd gotten closer, she'd learned that he did sometimes. That he was not, in fact, superhuman.

Another two shots rang out.

Joel may not have sounded scared, but Sophie sure did. "You guys can just shoot them, right? You killed hundreds of people on the way here from back east."

Ellie snorted. "I don't know about hundreds. We killed when we had to." Which... had somehow managed to be almost every time they'd come across other humans out in the open. Or Infected, of course, but that was a no-brainer. She and Joel seemed to have this way of pissing off all these groups of people... kill one, and naturally, their clan wants revenge. Soldiers, other survivors... somehow Ellie and Joel's descriptions would get around, and everyone wanted them dead. But that was a long time ago, and not in this area. They had a clean slate now, according to Joel... although Ellie wasn't sure if he was bullshitting on that or not. "We met some cool people along the way though, too," she added. And then they died.

"They're shooting guns. How cool can they be?" Sophie fretted.

"We have guns too, you know," Ellie pointed out. "And we're super--"

"Both of you, shush," said Joel. "An' stay alert. Which you should be anyway -- we could come across anyone at any time... people who ain't givin' away their whereabouts by firin' rounds."

Ellie wanted to object. To tell him she was alert, always... but she knew it would just sound defensively whiny to Joel's stubborn-ass ears, so she kept her mouth shut. It was a little hard to tell what time it was with all the cloud cover today, but she could tell that it wasn't starting to get dark yet. That was a plus. The dark intensified the scariness -- and the danger, too, since it drastically decreased visibility. They would need to use flashlights, drawing attention to their well-lit selves from anyone who might be lurking in the landscape. She was glad Joel didn't want to push the horses too hard by traveling at night.

Soon, they passed a different kind of marker on the highway: a "Welcome to Star Valley Ranch" sign. Population: 1,490. Ellie used to marvel at these signs, imagining someone having to go update it every time someone moved in or out, died, or was born. She wondered how they could possibly keep the number accurate. But Joel had explained the methods used to estimate population and that no, some guy didn't have to go out there and update the sign constantly.

"Big town," she murmured. Except right now, it's Population: 0. We hope.

"Half a million people," Joel replied, citing the former population of Boston, as he was wont to do every time she said something like that (once he knew she wasn't actually being sarcastic that first time).

"Over six hundred thousand," Ellie corrected him. She'd looked it up at the library one day, gleeful as always to tell Joel when he was wrong about something, and he'd asked her what year that data came from. It was some year like 2010 or 2011, and he declared it was outdated -- that it hadn't accounted for the masses of people who had moved away in the following years. She could tell he was just messing with her, but she had meant to try to find 2012 or 2013 statistics somewhere to throw it in his face anyway. She'd just never gotten around to it. And now it's too late, she thought sadly. No... we'll go back, someday. She was surprised to feel sentimental about Jackson already; she'd been pretty eager to leave, not too long ago. That party the other night, though... that was so fun! If every day could be like that last one, Ellie never would've wanted to leave.

Fifteen hundred... five hundred thousand... they might as well be the same number. Even Jackson felt big to her, and it was just a little over two hundred -- probably less than their QZ had, but she’d mostly been stuck with the same group of idiots there in her school. When we go home, I'm going to get Joel to put up one of those signs by one of our gates, with the exact number of people. Maybe a wooden one, and he can carve some numbers to hang on it, and it will be exact because I'll update it all the time. For every single soul there. They all count. Even her enemies, because she could be professional about such things -- and because she wasn't always sure where to draw that line. She would've counted Christine as a friend, only three months ago.

Right now, they were only concerned with a handful of people. Or possibly just one. Whoever had been firing those shots... they'd stopped, but they were presumably still out there. Unless it was two parties and they'd all killed each other, which seemed unlikely. Maybe we'll come across some freshly-dead bodies with recently-fired weapons... how cheery.

Ellie held the binoculars up to her face almost nonstop after what felt like five minutes had passed, to be on the safe side... but then it felt like she was doing that for another hour. Finally, it paid off: she saw something besides evergreens, rocks, and shrubs. "Joel! I see them! Or, someone, anyway! On the road, so... one o' clock..."

Sophie gasped. "What do we do?"

Joel was still calm. "Can you see how many?"

"I see... horses... two... two horses so two people, I think... no one walking with them or anything... er... there's this blurry thing--"

"Let's head up that hill an' let 'em pass. Quick, before they get close enough to spot us." Joel gestured to Sophie and started to turn to their left, but Ellie stopped him.

"Wait wait wait! Um... holy shit, I think-- I think that's Jules and Alaska!"

"Who?"

"Jules and Alaska," she repeated, even though she knew Joel wasn't asking because he hadn't heard her. You'd think he would remember unique names like those! Sophie was already halfway up the hill, but Joel held Spirit back per Ellie's request. "They like to go together. I'll know for sure in a sec... yeah yeah-- see the patch around his left eye? That's an unusual marking. Oh yeah, you can't see them real good yet, huh."

"...Jackson horses."

"Yeah!"

"Can you make out the riders..."

"Not yet... two guys maybe?... hey wait! Just gimme another-- Wait!"

Joel had just directed Spirit to gallop up the hill, where Sophie had gone. "We can watch 'em just as easy from up there."

"But obviously they're from Jackson!"

"I'm bein' cautious. Jus' 'cause they're ridin' those horses don' mean they're our people."

"Well, they probably are."

"I told you, I'm bein' cautious. Humor me." He parked Spirit amongst some evergreens... or tried to. Spirit was pawing at the ground, kind of turning in antsy circles. Joel guided him back in farther... far enough to be out of sight of the highway. "Here, gimme those."

But Ellie was already clambering off Spirit to the ground. Being the eyes was her job, after all! "I'll hide right over there. They won't even see me. Even if they did, who are they more likely to shoot without thinking about it twice: you, or me?" she said cheekily. It was one of her favorite arguments when the topic arose -- because Joel couldn't argue it.

Joel frowned. "Jus' come on back if you don' recognize 'em, all right? They mos' likely ain't gonna come up here."

Ellie nodded and scampered over to crouch behind the bush she'd selected as a good stake-out spot. Joel was farther back than she was, but they were both pretty well camouflaged amongst the trees; he just didn't like that she was a little closer than he was. She had to admit, it was the right move not to assume they were friendly. And neither of them wanted to kill everyone they encountered. She was sure Joel would have no problem killing assholes, but you couldn't tell that about a person just from looking -- no matter what Joel said to the contrary (though even with that, he seemed to go by his gut more than his eyeballs). With that scowl he liked to wear, he could quite easily be mistaken for an asshole himself, after all... which did not ease Ellie's mind one bit out here.

There was something familiar about the riders, but the caps they wore cast shadows on their facial features, and she couldn't quite figure out who they reminded her of. She was already tired of waiting for the slowpokes to come back into view, and close enough to identify. "Well... I can't see them yet, from here. If I--"

"Will you jus' wait? Be patient. They're comin'."

Ellie noticed he had his rifle ready. Her own hands were too preoccupied with the binoculars to bother with pulling a gun when it wasn't even necessary. "I hate waiting," she grumbled -- loudly, so Joel was sure to hear.

But it did feel good to squat there, un-saddle-legged. It would feel even better if she were dry. It hadn't rained again, but her jeans would take forever to dry out. She wondered if Joel would allow her to sleep with him without her pants on... or would that be too tempting? Like maybe his hand would wander, and it would make him--

No... bad Ellie! she chastised herself on his behalf. Don't even think about that now. Wait and watch...

When her quarry finally came into view, Ellie trained the binoculars on them, shifting a little so she could see between some of the trees when applicable. Each horse was tugging a cart, and now she could see that one of them carried two riders. Oddly, there was also a goat trailing one of the carts. "Oh! Hey, it's okay! It's Peter and Lydia and i-Brian!" Not y-Bryan, the one who'd just gotten married.

"Now that you mention it... I think Tommy said the other day that they'd be scavengin' this area this week," Joel mused.

"What? You knew? You could've said so!" Ellie snarled at him.

"I didn' remember 'til you said it. An' we didn' know it was them -- still pays to be cautious, kiddo."

"Whatever -- I'm going down there!" She abandoned her cover and almost started running down the hill, but thought better of it -- even before Joel tried to call her back -- as she noticed all three of them now had their guns drawn. Of course -- they wouldn't be expecting me to be out here, and now they're so close they must've heard something when I yelled to Joel... She started waving her arms in surrender instead as she stepped into view. "Guys! It's me! ...Ellie!" she added, in case they couldn't recognize her yet.

All three of them relaxed their guns at once, and called out to her with merry greetings. "Joel's here, too! And Sophie!" she informed them. Now she could run down there freely. She trotted over to the group, slowing as she approached the horses. She hadn't ridden many of the horses in Jackson (she figured Spirit would get too jealous), but she was friendly with all of them, and they all knew her. She petted each horse's nose in turn, then smiled at their riders. "What are you guys doing out here?"

"Was just about to ask you that," said Peter with a chuckle. He and Lydia were in their sixties, and they still went on these scavenging trips. Joel referred to the couple as 'sprightly.' Which made her think of creepy fairies, so she tried not to associate that with them, as it certainly didn't seem to fit. Anyway, they were more than ten years older than Joel, who was already pretty old (even if Ellie didn't always like to admit it), and she was convinced that in like ten or fifteen years -- which was so far in the future that Ellie would even be kind of old herself! -- Joel would still be active like them. Nowhere near death's door.

Peter nodded toward the carts. "All the peaches and plums you can eat, back there. We're a little late getting out here, with all the deliveries to the new farm and whatnot."

"Luckily there were still a lot of good ones left!" Lydia chimed in. "Some clothes, too, if you want to shop before they hit the warehouse. And some other less-interesting stuff -- oh, and we rescued ourselves a goat!"

"Whoa!" Ellie walked around back to inspect the carts a little closer. Each one was stacked high with crates, a tarp tied over them. By now, Joel and Sophie had ridden down to greet the familiar faces as well; hopefully Sophie hadn't heard that bit about the clothes. Ellie didn't know if Joel knew Lydia, but he must have known Peter and Brian from militia meetings, if nowhere else (even if he didn't remember their names). "Have you guys eaten yet? We should have dinner together!" Ellie suggested cheerfully.

"As a matter of fact," said Peter, "we just shot down some big ol' fat pheasants, if you wanna help us eat 'em?"

"Yes! Awesome!" That explained the gunfire. And flame-roasted game for dinner two nights in a row? I might get spoiled! ...Except it just occurred to her that they were only being polite. "Er... I mean, that's not cool of us, if we... you guys shot those, so..."

"Oh girl, we definitely have more than enough," said Lydia, whose short gray hair and cap gave her a rather boyish appearance (er... mannish?... boys don't have gray hair!)... and her facial features weren't the most feminine, either. "They're huuuuge. Show her, Brian."

"Seriously, we do -- see?" Brian pointed out two plump birds tied to the saddle, then pivoted Jules to show off a third on the other side. "It's like twice as much as we need. Besides, we're only two days away from home." Home, where they could eat their fill... or at least more than they ate on the road.

"Sounds good -- thanks, you guys!" said Sophie, walking Poppy up alongside them. "If we can find a cozy little place to cook these... up the hill, maybe? I'll tell you why the three of us are out here. I think I saw some houses down a ways..."

"No no no -- we know a good place," said Lydia. "If you don't mind backtracking slightly. We stayed there on the way here, and on our last trip, too. Great location, off the highway a bit. Tucked into the trees." She plucked at her husband's arm. "Hon, how far away would you say 'our house' is? Two miles?"

"Shoot, it's only... I'd say a mile, mile and a half? And you're free to stay the night there with us if you want."

"Oh, we're..." Ellie looked around for Joel, and shuffled over to him and Spirit. She'd been so excited to see people she knew -- and people who acted like they didn't believe the rumors -- that she'd sort of forgotten that maybe Joel wouldn't want to have dinner with them, and that she really shouldn't have just invited the group to form a little dinner party without even so much as a glance his way to gauge his feelings on the matter. Sophie had agreed to dinner as well, yes, but only after Ellie suggested it. "Can we eat with them?" Ellie asked him a bit sheepishly.

"Of course." The question seemed to amuse him, Ellie was glad to note.

"Then can we stay here? By the time we eat and everything..."

Joel nodded. "Sure. We could prob'ly ride another hour or so, but... if there's a nice place in here..."

"You won't find better," Peter assured them. "It has a water well."

"And apple trees," Brian added.

Then they all started rattling off amenities at once.

"A nice pasture--" "Blackberry bushes--" "Comfortable mattresses--" "A stocked spice rack--" "No broken windows--" "Dish soap--" "No spiders--"

"Okay, we're sold," said Joel. "Would've had me at 'no Infected and/or bandits.' "

'Bandits' was the word Jacksonites favored for what Joel liked to call hunters. Ellie preferred to call them assholes. "Let's go, then!" she urged as she climbed up behind Joel again. She grabbed his arms and shook him a little to convey her excitement. "Isn't this great? This trip is way easier than our last one. I'm so glad we did this."

He chuckled at her enthusiasm. "Not to rain on your parade, kiddo, but we're jus' gettin' started. I'm sure it will get rougher." He took position at the rear of the group.

"It's okay, we can handle it," Ellie said confidently. Maybe seeing familiar faces didn't mesh with the idea of starting over... going where no one knew them and they didn't have a black shit-cloud hovering over them... but they were still seeing new places together. It was beautiful out here. Not so unlike Jackson, except for the winding hills... the way the trees seemed to hug the houses... some of the foliage appeared to be a lighter shade of green to her, too. Might just be my imagination...

"Whatever you say, boss," Joel quipped.

Boss! I like that. "Yep. We can handle anything as long as we're together!"


~Continue to Chapter 30~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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