Lumy (luminations) wrote,
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"Uncertainty" Chapter 32: "Trouble Will Find Me" (32/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 32: "Trouble Will Find Me" (32/47)
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: 6293
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

A/N: Chapter title from the National's album.


Day 6



The incident with the old man had shaken Joel up a bit. Things had turned out all right in the end, of course, but it had been pretty goddamn stupid of him to let Ellie persuade him to remove his gun just because it rendered him a little less snuggly -- and he could have just as easily set it behind him, within reach, instead of on the ground. He just plain wasn't thinking. Hell, even before that, why hadn't he checked the farmhouse to make sure it was unoccupied? Ron must have been watching them from there. And, even after their visit with the old man, Joel had let Sophie go outside alone. The chances of anyone lurking outside were slim, but still -- wasn't he always preaching that anything could happen at any time out there? What the hell was wrong with him that he couldn't even follow his own advice?

He had to keep reminding the girls to stay vigilant. Maybe not Ellie, so much (she always claimed to be completely on guard out there, although Joel had his doubts)... but Sophie sometimes seemed to be a little too comfortable for Joel's liking. Ellie's take on it was that Sophie liked to make Joel worry a little sometimes. Staying out of sight a little too long, taking longer-than-necessary bathroom breaks, shit like that. She even called Sophie out on it once, and Sophie, of course, denied it. Joel didn't see what good either of them might possibly think it could do to make him worry any more than he already did by default. It was like some kind of bizarre female need... to invent drama where there was none (and yes, he included Ellie in that, despite her insistence to the contrary).

It almost made Joel wish they would run into some real trouble. Almost.

It had taken them four days to even encounter any Infected, and Joel wasn't so sure he would even count that first time. They'd found a nice little spot to break -- a campsite, complete with a fire pit and a camper. The girls had wanted to eat inside the camper, and Joel went to check it out while they picketed the horses nearby. Cautious though he was, he'd still been surprised to find a Runner inside, in what he called 'sleep mode' -- just standing there, its back toward Joel. He hadn't seen any outside (live ones, anyway… there was one corpse), but then he had to do another check, walking completely around the camper and looking in all directions, before going back inside to dispose of the lone creature. No need to waste ammo -- he just strangled the fucker. Then he found another down at the other end, on its knees, leaning over a little fold-out bed... it almost looked like the thing was praying. It was definitely infected; Joel could see it shaking, and as he approached, he heard some very soft moans. It sounded female, although in Joel's mind, they became sexless things once the virus robbed them of their humanity. The creaking camper betrayed his steps, and this one rose up before he could get behind it to strangle it. So he threw a few punches, slammed its head into the wall, and that was that.

Ellie was annoyed that Joel had killed them without summoning her over to help, and Sophie was disappointed that she'd missed watching Joel kill them -- since Ellie had regaled her with tale after tale of the gruesome deaths she'd witnessed at Joel's hands, which had piqued Sophie's interest.

He didn't even have to kill them. He could have just said they had to find another spot -- one not so in the open, or whatever shit came to mind -- and left the Runners there. If they'd been regular sleeping humans, he could leave them be. But there was no reason to let those things live, especially if all it cost him was a little effort. They might breathe and move around and make noise, but 'life' as such... wasn't life.

And they had indeed avoided some non-infected humans along the way: two small groups, in much the same manner as they'd started to avoid the Jacksonites they'd met the second day. Sophie had made some joke about Joel not being the killing machine he'd been advertised to be, and when Joel didn't laugh, she'd practically fallen all over herself apologizing... not unlike Ellie did at times. The two seemed to be picking up some habits from each other already (and more than once, he'd found a very furtive-looking Ellie talking to her; Joel assumed it had to do with mysterious female shit, of which he'd gladly remain ignorant).

Ellie had explained to Sophie the trouble with killing people -- that when they were part of a community, their buddies would then come after you, so you'd have to kill more, and then even more would be after you, and so on and so forth... which was true enough, although in the rural areas they'd traveled through so far, they hadn't come across anything resembling an actual 'community'... not like that piece of shit David had had in Colorado, anyway. No soldiers were after them for killing their comrades. No Fireflies out for... either revenge, or to force Ellie to help them with their mythical vaccine. Joel certainly hadn't ruled out those possibilities; he intended to keep a low profile by steering clear of any groups of humans whatsoever.

He had reminded Ellie that they also just plain weren't out there to kill people. Joel reckoned that on that cross-country trip, he'd probably been a little more prone toward killing, even when it was murder and not strictly self-defense (that was a rather fine line these days anyhow). He'd been apathetic about life in general back then, and when he wasn't apathetic, he was angry. In grieving for Tess, he'd been especially angry. That wound was too raw, the pain too fresh. He didn't really give a damn who he killed. That attitude had always served him well. Getting to know Ellie, getting close to her -- letting her in -- had sparked some things, though... had changed him, profoundly. He would never be altruistic enough to give more than half a shit about a stranger, never blind enough to trust that meeting someone on the road would not necessarily lead straight to danger... but he was decidedly more live-and-let-live now.

And yet... the kill-or-be-killed was still there as well, the two mindsets battling for dominance. He would never regret killing a hospital full of Fireflies to save just one life -- not when that life was Ellie's. If the people they were trying to avoid on this trip were to notice them, and try to kill them? He might still try to flee, if it was practical -- they were ahorse, after all -- but if not, or if the threat were too immediate, he would kill everyone present and not think twice about it. When they got out of the countryside and more into a city environment, chances were they'd run into more problems. That was what Joel was assuming. Even though the cities weren't like cities of old in terms of population, he figured large groups of people were more likely to choose sheltered areas to congregate. And where there were people, there were people at risk of getting infected -- some of whom inevitably would become infected, and go on to infect others.

Earlier today, they'd followed a bend in the road, and Joel had seen movement in the trees ahead... before Ellie could even identify it with the binoculars, a band of Runners had started advancing toward them. Spirit had reared up -- in fear more than an attempt to toss them, Joel felt -- and any thought of trying to fight them vanished. There was no directing the horse when he got spooked like that. Spirit wanted to flee in the exact opposite direction -- which at least wasn't exactly where they'd just come from, thanks to the bend, but it was definitely backtracking. Joel couldn't fault him for a display of common sense (though he did wonder sometimes if the decision to take Spirit on this journey perhaps hadn't been the wisest). Poppy may have been fairly freaked as well, but she wasn't nearly as fast as Spirit. Joel kept having to look over his shoulder to make sure they were still following, and that the Infected were left in the dust. He estimated there were ten or twelve of them in the woods there. If it weren't for the horses, Joel probably would have fought them. Now they would have to cut through the forest and try to hook up with the highway again after circling around, and then get far enough away from that area that he'd feel comfortable stopping for the night. It wasn't the worst place to veer off-course, at least, as there were no mountain ranges to contend with.

Ellie had been business-as-usual after that; Sophie had seemed a little rattled. He noticed she seemed to be more alert than usual, her eyes scanning the landscape more... she was reluctant to get off her horse for even a bathroom break... and although Joel had intended to have some private time with Ellie today, Sophie begged them not to leave her alone, and that idea was shot. Even if he'd been of a mind to go ahead and do it anyway, she might have been scared enough to come looking for them, and he was still very protective of their secret. Anyhow, Sophie's fear was a good reminder that what they were doing was stupid and risky. He could justify it all he wanted, saying that Ellie needed that time with him (his needs alone weren't enough justification)... but the truth was that Ellie needed to be alive. And if anything happened to Sophie while they were off playing, the guilt would eat up both of them.

At least they were all on guard now. On guard, and a bit on edge. Maybe we don't need to find any real trouble after all...

But trouble did seem to have a way of finding him.

Joel had given up on the day as far as making much more headway on the mileage front, but backtracking and then going through the countryside wasn't a total loss -- Ellie was able to shoot a rabbit and a squirrel for dinner. Plus, they hadn't been rained on, all day long. The sun was dipping into the horizon now, a good cue to find a suitable place to make camp for the night, but Joel still felt apprehensive and unwilling to stop.

"I'd feel better if we could find a house to hide in," he told the girls. "Even if it ain't a real secure one."

So they rode on.

They switched their flashlights on when it got dark enough to warrant it, and rode on some more. There were just no goddamn houses out here. Joel hoped that didn't mean there'd be wildlife to worry about... bears, maybe?... but he didn't voice that concern, as it wasn't entirely rational; the lack of civilization in general meant that the animals could roam anywhere, and were just as likely to reside in what passed for a town out here than in the more woodsy areas. Some of the scouts had mapped out fenced areas in this region, but Joel was pretty sure those were a little north of their current location. Fences that protected them were fine; fences they'd have to scale with horses in order to continue on their route could pose a bit of a problem, depending on their make and height. This wasn't an area that Joel was concerned about running into any natural barriers, like rivers or mountains, but the fences were kind of a crapshoot. The chainlink ones were virtually indestructible, if they'd been installed correctly.

It was too dark to get a decent look around now, but Joel thought they might be in an area that had once been scorched by wildfire. Perhaps many years ago, as there were small spruce trees sprouting up amongst the tall, stick-like, dead (or half dead) ones. Ellie said she liked the 'baby trees.' Joel liked them well enough, but preferred to stick to more open areas, where possible... the clear patches of land that didn't have so many logs or trees littering the ground, threatening to trip up the horses in the darkness.

"Joel, can we just stop?" Ellie pleaded after an hour or so of that. "I'm starving, and those Infected aren't anywhere near us. Sophie, you wanna stop too, right?" Ellie liked to recruit Sophie to her cause when it suited her. The rule was, as far as Joel could tell, that the two of them could gang up on him, or he and Ellie could gang up on Sophie, but he'd better not ever take Sophie's side about anything, if he knew what was good for him.

"I guess?" Sophie answered, turning to look at Joel. "There's no houses out here... but what if we keep going and the horses keel over?"

"They ain't gonna keel over." Joel sighed. "All right, we can stop, but we keep them saddled up ready to go while we're eatin'. Then we can decide if we should keep goin' or not."

"You mean you can decide," Ellie said sourly.

"We'll take a vote." He tried not to act like commander in chief all the time... but he couldn't help it. He felt like he was in command. That ultimately, the girls were his responsibility. He was the oldest and most experienced. He felt protective of them. Even though Ellie could take care of herself, he worried. If anything happened to her, he couldn't take it.

But he wasn't always right. And there wasn't always just one right answer to any given dilemma. For the most part, though, both girls seemed willing to follow his lead... Sophie with either blind trust or apathy, Ellie with the knowledge that he always put her own well-being above all else.

The horses did seem more interested in snoozing than grazing. Even in snooze mode, they were ready to flee at a moment's notice, as they never laid down. Joel couldn't remember ever seeing either of them lay down, though Ellie claimed Spirit would do it at home once in a while, that she'd seen.

They grilled their meat over a merrily crackling fire, and the three of them ate with gusto... albeit it silent gusto. Joel was still listening, not certain they'd left trouble behind them -- because he knew they hadn't literally left it behind them. More like, to the side... If they could have fled the scene in a more forward motion, he'd feel more at ease now. They had no way of knowing what direction the herd of Infected was headed once they'd stopped chasing the horses, and he was sure they hadn't made up enough ground on their circuitous route to discount the threat. I should've sent Ellie and Sophie off and then killed the fuckers...

But it was no use indulging such speculation. The horses weren't trained for battle, and it would be impossible to fight from the saddle. No matter what he told her to do, Ellie would probably insist on fighting with him, and join him on the ground; she would undoubtedly be a great help, but then they might never see Spirit again, as he was sure the horse would run like the dickens and never look back. They would use up valuable ammo and supplies, perhaps putting them in a bind later when they didn't have the option of running away. And, of course, there was the risk of getting hurt... or worse. Thus, Joel didn't actually regret the decision to flee. His conscience couldn't be troubled with the thought of those Infected going on to infect or kill other people; he could only worry about his own. He could quite easily leave the greater good crap to the Fireflies.

Naturally, he didn't hear anything of note while they were eating or having the final discussion on whether to stay or not -- or while unpacking their sleeping gear from the horses after deciding to stay. Nope, that would have been too easy. But as soon as he strayed far enough away from the camp to take a leak... he thought he heard something, and had to venture out farther to make sure it was just the wind, or crickets chirping, or whatever the hell.

And then he heard it for sure: Click... cliiiiiick... clickkk-click...

Shit! Joel immediately sprinted back toward the camp. With any luck, it was too far away to--

But then he saw Spirit start making a big fuss, neighing his displeasure loudly, pulling on his lead rope as he darted around in a mad circle; he'd either heard them or smelled them. Joel had wondered before if Spirit had had a catastrophic run-in with Infected in a former life that caused such freakouts, or if it was just his personality... or if maybe it was too much to expect a horse to remain calm and collected when faced with those monsters. It was a fairly open area they'd camped in, with only Ellie's baby trees and the dead stalks dotting the land: nowhere to hide. ...and, to Joel's dismay, Spirit's saddle was off, along with the assorted saddlebags. Even though he had said they needed to leave the horses tacked up for the night.

The girls couldn't see him in the darkness, but Joel could see them by the light of the fire. They'd been fiddling with Sophie's little tent (determined to erect it without Joel's help) when he left, but now both of them were looking around and calling his name... furtively, not loudly. Like a hushed yell, if there was such a thing. The clicking noises were getting louder, but even if they hadn't heard them yet, Spirit's behavior was enough to alert them to trouble. He came rushing in from the dark, scaring them for a moment, but the fear turned to relief the moment they saw it was him.

"Ellie! I told you to--"

"I know I know! I was just looking for-- I was going to put it back on when we--"

"All right, just-- can you calm him down an' get it back on him?" The goddamn horse was loud enough to draw any nearby Infected to them. Poppy was a little agitated, possibly on account of her companion's extreme reaction, but relatively quiet. Joel started gathering the gear he wasn't willing to ditch, like their weapons; luckily, most of their shit was still packed up with Poppy. He grabbed Ellie's holster belt off the ground, filing away another lecture he'd need to give her later on being too quick to take it off (sometimes he thought he should've just let her keep tucking it into her jeans). Of course, it would help if I set a better example... but he had been, since that night.

Joel saw that Sophie was frantically trying to pack up her tent. "Sophie -- forget the tent, just get on your horse," he urged. "Well, unpicket her first. Ellie--"

"Fuck! Spirit!" The horse had escaped from either the picket line or from Ellie, and was galloping the hell outta Dodge. Ellie looked helplessly from Spirit to Joel and back again.

"Here!" Joel hurried over to Ellie to hand off her holster, then tossed what remained of the kindling they'd gathered into the fire. "Sophie!" he called as he pulled out the shotgun. "Go after Spirit! Now!"

The light of the fire prevented them from seeing the creatures in the darkness, but they were advancing quickly; the clucking of the Clickers and moaning of the Runners was getting louder. There were no Clickers on the highway earlier... This must be a different group, unless the group was larger than what we could see... Joel switched on his flashlight and found them with the beam. Five or six... nothing they couldn't handle.

Sophie was reluctant to leave them. "But what--"

"Go! Don't lose him! Go straight-- we'll meet up later!" At least Spirit would be in view longer here than he would've been in a healthier forest area -- and Sophie did have her flashlight... though it would still be difficult in the dark. He was out of time to convince her to go -- he had to turn his attention to the Infected and start shooting.

He shot and killed two of the approaching Runners, and an explosion presumably took out some more... Ellie must have thrown a nail bomb from his backpack. Now there was a third Runner right in his face -- he whacked it with the shotgun to stun it, then pitched it into the campfire. He glanced at Ellie for a second; she was firing her pistol, and he knew it could take a few shots each to kill them with that thing. The smaller guns were more suited for her frame, and she preferred them, but Joel did wonder from time to time if he ought to get her to trade at least one of them for something more powerful. Joel shot the Runner behind the one that was closest to Ellie, hoping that--

"Joel! Behind you!" Ellie screamed.

He whirled around and found himself face to face with a Clicker -- and luckily, he always had a shiv clipped to his belt. He'd learned long ago that you can't kill them with your bare hands (back in the day, several of his allies had lost their lives, learning that the hard way), no matter how strong you thought you were. But a shiv to the jugular? That worked every time -- and unlike knives, shivs were conveniently disposable; Joel only used a blade when he was out of shivs. As the Clicker fell to the ground, Joel looked for Ellie again -- she had killed the one closest to her and was now firing at another. He turned back to... shit, how did I misjudge that so bad? There's clearly more than half a dozen -- There were at least that many still coming toward them. Some of them must've been lagging behind...

As a general rule of thumb, he never liked to position Ellie closer to the Infected than he was himself, but if he could get them close to the fire... without catching fire himself, of course... he got one of the dumbasses to lunge at him -- straight into the flames, when he stepped aside at the last split second -- but those following went around, on either side. All Runners. He fired at the ones to the right (the side Ellie was on), killing two, merely wounding another as a Runner grabbed him and fucked up his aim. He grappled with it for a few moments before managing to launch the fucker into the fire, which was spreading a bit thanks to all the fleshy fuel expanding its base well beyond the confines of the 'pit.'

Where's Ellie-- he found her backing away and... he wasn't sure what she was trying to do. Maybe switch guns. A Runner -- possibly the one he'd wounded -- was headed straight for her... shit! He got a shot off -- his last one, and no chance at the moment to reload -- but damnit! It missed the mark, as he hadn't turned back to the other Runner coming for him in time to avoid getting grabbed again --

--and tussling with this one landed Joel in the fire. Not smack in the middle, though, and he remained on his feet, with one foot in the flame for a quick moment as he tried to regain his balance. He blindly jumped backwards to get himself out of it completely before it could do more than singe him a little.

Righting himself, he looked in Ellie's direction-- I better help her with that one! She could knife the fuckers when they were on her, but it didn't appear she'd been able to whip out her knife in time. Joel lunged at the Runner and ripped it off of her. He started beating it to death, aware that Ellie was screaming his name, and something about fire... a blanket... she was right there... trying to hug his leg or something? It was more than a little distracting, as he had to fight the urge to shake her off, and it left him pretty much grounded. Still, he'd landed a couple decent blows, and the Runner was reeling unsteadily in front of him... wounded, but in need of a finishing blow. Joel threw all his weight into stomping the creature's head into the ground -- with the non-Ellie leg, although the act still dislodged her.

"Ellie, what the--" Now Ellie was beating their blanket into the ground -- he noticed it had somehow caught fire, possibly from the burning corpse of an Infected a couple feet away. But he didn't really have time to process that with three Runners closing in. Ellie ditched the blanket to shoot at the one closest to her, leaving Joel free to deal with the one about to attack him... he decked the thing and pitched it into the fire -- a veritable bonfire, by this point. Better than using up the flamethrower canisters. Ellie... where'd she go... then he heard another two gunshots in rapid succession -- Ellie was pointing her gun at what appeared to be the last of them as it toppled to the ground.

It was eerily silent now, and the stench of burning flesh assailed him. After gathering his wits for a moment, he hurried over to where Ellie was standing, quietly watching one of the little trees burn. It was nearly as tall as she was. He put his hand on her shoulder. "You okay, kiddo?"

"I didn't mean to get the tree," she said quietly. "It's too big to smother with the blanket, right?"

"I think so." Possibly not, but there was no point; it was toast. It was just a tree, only one of thousands they'd seen... it was touching to see her look so sad about it. "Jus' let it burn out -- nothin's close enough for it to jump to..."

She turned to him. "Are you okay? Your leg?" She squatted to look at his jeans, and ran her hand over his calf.

"There was never anythin' wrong with it, Ellie."

"Uh, yeah there was -- didn't you notice your pants were on fire?!"

Joel had noticed no such thing. He looked at the part of his jeans Ellie was inspecting. "What are you talkin' about?"

"Huh... it didn't even burn a hole! Look, it's just all black right here."

"I did wonder what the hell you were doin'," he said with a chuckle, looking at the scorched denim. Clearly she wasn't just... being fanciful. "I swear I didn' even feel it. Thank you."

She stood up and flung her arms around his neck. "You're the one who killed, like... all of them."

"Not all. Maybe half." He hugged her close. "Did you manage to save the blanket?"

"Mostly, yeah."

"Did it catch fire off my pants?"

"No... it was only like one little flame on you... I'm sorry I wasn't more help. Fighting."

"What do you mean? You held your own jus' fine. Killed plenty. An' puttin' out fires is pretty damn helpful -- especially when it's on me." It wasn't like her to be so... well, he wasn't sure what. Ashamed? That don't make sense. He kissed the side of her head and then extracted himself from her embrace. "Let me look at you... you ain't hurt?"

"Not really. So your leg really doesn't hurt?" She lifted a hand to caress his cheek.

"It's fine. I s'pose I felt the heat of it... an' just assumed it was from the big fire we got goin' here?" He turned and kissed her palm. "We need to go find Sophie."

Ellie snorted. "Just when we're finally alone..."

He brushed his lips over hers in the briefest of kisses. "C'mon. Get your shit -- I'll search the bodies. The ones not burnin' up, that is."

Ellie helped him with that, and he did do just a cursory check of the burning bodies as well, as best he could. The search paid them back a little for some of the ammo they'd just used. Infected didn't have enough brainpower to use weapons against them, but some of the fuckers still carried bullets around from their former lives.

"Look," Ellie called to him. She was holding up a photograph, shining her light on it for him. "Want it?"

It was a wedding photo, and if Joel had to guess, the hair and clothing styles dated it back to the 80s. An odd thing to be carrying around... maybe it was a picture of the person's grandparents. "Nah... let 'em keep it."

"You're getting less sentimental about that stuff, huh?" Ellie commented as she went to return the photo to the pocket of its dead owner.

Was he? Maybe somewhat. He was more into looking to the future than remembering the past, at least. Joel started gathering the rest of his own gear. He could roll up the blanket, and... "Shit. The tent. We better take it... no sense tryin' to find this spot again."

"Good thing we didn't get it put together, huh?"

Joel snorted. "They're a hell of a lot easier to take down than put up anyhow."

Ellie draped the blanket over herself like a cape and watched him pack up the tent. "So... is it a good thing or a bad thing that we left the food on Poppy?"

Joel slung the little tent bag over his shoulder, and started retrieving Spirit's bags. "Good thing," he decided. " 'Cause we're gonna find them quick enough, an' now we don' have to carry all that extra." Spirit had been carrying a lighter load to compensate for the extra rider.

"How are we gonna find them? Spirit's fast," Ellie lamented. She took one of Spirit's bags before Joel got to it.

"We'll find 'em." Joel aimed his flashlight up at the sky and switched it on and off five times. "Think she'll remember when we talked about this? I don' know... might be too much moonlight for it to be effective." The moon was half full... it had seemed quite dark earlier, but for some reason the sky seemed brighter, now that he was trying to signal. "We could fire a few rounds, but that'll jus' sound like more fightin', if she hears 'em now, an' she might not realize it's safe to come back our way yet. Maybe later. Let's jus' start walkin' that direction and call out her name."

Ellie picked up Spirit's saddle and tried to tuck it under her arm. "You don't think more Infected'll come if they hear us?"

Joel watched with mild amusement as she struggled with the saddle. "I think they all came runnin' from all the ruckus we already made. But stay alert... there could always be more out there. Let's try to watch the sky for her signal, too. You wanna gimme that?"

"It'd be fine if I didn't have my backpack and the other bag and this gun here..." She made the most adorable little frustrated groan sounds. The blanket kept slipping off her shoulder, too, thanks to her efforts to manage the saddle.

"Give it to me."

"I got it! Let's just go." He had to snatch it from her, and still she protested. "No! It's my fault we have to carry it in the first place."

"What, so you wanna punish yourself? There's no need for that." Joel couldn't find a comfortable place to tuck it against himself, either, but he would've felt like an ass letting Ellie carry it.

They started walking, and he reached for her hand. As soon as their fingers touched, she pulled away, which surprised Joel a bit. She hardly ever rejected affection like that. ...more self-punishment?

"Should we start yelling for her, or...?" she asked.

"Yeah, she may be closer than we think. We didn' exactly have a chance to make a plan." Joel bellowed her name at the top of his lungs.

Ellie followed suit, then they continued on in silence, just listening. Listening for horse sounds... Sophie... Infected... anything. They continued that way, calling her name at regular intervals, then returning to silence... listening hard, but only hearing their own footsteps.

"Joel..." Ellie broke the silence after a few rounds of that. Her voice sounded so small. "When I made that dumb remark before, I didn't mean it."

...Huh? "What dumb remark would that be?"

"About finally being alone. I don't want us to be alone like... this."

Joel smiled a little. "Oh baby girl, I know you don't. You were jus' jokin' around."

"Well, it was still stupid. Do you think she's all freaked out? Being alone out here? At night?! I would be."

"She ain't alone. She's got the horses... one of 'em, at least... hopefully both... an' she knows we're out here."

"Still. She gets lost just going pee. Maybe she got all turned around..."

"We'll find her, I promise." Joel should probably be a little more careful of making promises like that, but he felt certain they would find her and she'd be just fine. If she ran into any more Infected, she was ahorse -- she could outrun them. Humans would be a different story, but they were more likely to be an issue in the daytime. Joel reached for Ellie's hand again, and again she pulled away. He almost asked her what was wrong... but maybe now wasn't the time. He called Sophie's name again.

Ellie scooted over to his right side, where he was holding the saddle. She tried to take it from him, but he was holding it securely against his side. "Ellie, I got it, don't--"

"No, I know... can you just hold it on your other side?"

"What?"

"Switch sides."

Puzzled, Joel shifted the saddle over to his left hip... and then she took his hand. He chuckled. "Didn' know you had a preference."

"See, there's still stuff about me you don't know."

"I'm sure there's plenty about you I still don' know." And he still thought her reluctance to take his hand had more to it than preferring to be on his right side.

"Women are mysterious creatures," Ellie said sagely. It sounded like a quote, not something she would just spit out herself, although he couldn't place it.

"Yes they-- yes you are," Joel amended, letting go of her hand only momentarily to try flashing the light at the sky again.

"How long do you think it'll take to find her?"

"No idea. With Spirit runnin' free like that... who knows how far she had to go jus' to catch up to him." Hopefully she had caught up to him. And hopefully they didn't end up backtracking through the mountainous stretch behind them -- Joel had definitely wanted to stick to the highway there. On paper, the idea of everyone finding their way to the highway and eventually being able to find each other on it sounded good, but...

"Fuck, maybe we should've taken a different horse," said Ellie. "That's my fault, too."

"Ellie, stop. Shit happens. Nothin' ever goes perfectly accordin' to plan... this ain't that bad. Nobody's hurt. Jus' a minor setback."

She waited another minute or so before sharing another one of her Ellie-like thoughts. "It would be better if you and her were together, or me and her were together, and one of us was the one out here alone. You know?"

Joel sighed. "So now you wish it was her hand you were holdin'. Sorry, kiddo, you're stuck with me."

"Don't make fun of me... it's true. People would assume you and her are the parents and I'm the kid, but really it's me'n'you who are the parents and she's the kid."

"Maybe." Joel thought it was awfully sweet of her to worry about Sophie so much. And she was probably right. But he was far too selfish to wish for Ellie to be anywhere other than by his side. "I'm jus' glad you'n'me are together. Ain't you glad about that?"

"Well, yeah, of course--"

"All right then. Let's jus' keep at it." He squeezed her hand and gave it a little extra swing as they walked.

Ellie fell silent, content to let Joel do the Sophie-yelling. She had to be really tired by now, as they'd gone so late today that it was now long past the time they'd normally be going to sleep. Joel hoped she was too tired to ask him any more questions or initiate conversation, because he was pretty worn out himself, and it was challenge enough to not let his brain go slack. To be present and alert.

He didn't think Sophie was in any real danger yet, but he wasn't exactly not-worried, either. They only had a general sense of the direction she'd gone, and if she was trying to get back to them, going in yet another direction... a random one, given her lack of direction sense... He would just feel a hell of a lot better if they found her sooner rather than later.

~Continue to Chapter 33~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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