Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 36: "Gut Feelings" (36/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 36: "Gut Feelings" (36/47)
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: 9163
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

Day 41

Sometimes, Joel had to wonder what the hell he'd been thinking when he set out on a long, arduous journey with two females.

Yes, Ellie, I'm sexist. But there were certain things that just weren't an issue with dudes: unnecessary drama, and 'female troubles.' It definitely could have been worse, though. Most of the time, the ladies were pleasant enough; they didn't whine and bitch, even when the circumstances might warrant a little whining and bitching. The two of them got along pretty well with each other, despite Joel's misgivings about that early on. It wasn't in Ellie's nature to be constantly hateful ('tough kid' or not), and it helped that Sophie wasn't trying to seduce him at every turn. Or at all, actually. She may have flirted a little in the beginning (Ellie thought so, although some of what she counted as flirting, Joel considered ordinary friendliness), but more often than not, Sophie made remarks in line with Joel and Ellie being a couple. He even wondered if maybe she suspected... but if she did, wouldn't she have said something by now?

He didn't need to be privy to Sophie's menstrual cycles, but she seemed to think the knowledge was prudent for trip purposes. Joel figured she and Ellie could compare notes, or whatever -- just leave me out of it, was his attitude. Whatever physical discomfort Sophie had, she endured quietly. She warned them that she might get cranky and weepy beforehand. There was one night in particular that stood out in Joel's memory, when they were all preparing dinner together. Sophie was having trouble working the can opener, which she'd done successfully in the past, but the thing could be a little tricky... she'd gotten so frustrated that she chucked it as far as she could and promptly burst into tears. Joel and Ellie had looked at each other, each of them sporting identical "what do we do now?" expressions.

Joel's solution was to just amble after the offending can opener, maybe pretend he couldn't find it for an extra minute or so, and give Sophie a chance to collect herself... although, that did leave Ellie there to deal with her -- and he caught the sarcastic "thanks a lot" look she shot him before he left. Ellie just went ahead and talked to her.

He had allowed them to talk for a few minutes before wandering back within earshot:

"That totally helps, though, Soph! If me and Joel had to worry about the horses running off every time we had to fight--"

"It's not the same as-- I mean, you can just stick them in the nearest house and go fight when you have to. Just like I do!"

"Yeah, well, then we'd have to take the time to do that-- and last time, when you came back--"

"Joel yelled at me for that."

"...Well, he does that. For stupid reasons sometimes. You DIDN'T leave the horses unsecured, though, and just saying 'BEHIND YOU' and stuff like that... it's helpful. That's actually all I did at first, leaving Boston."

"Yeah, but only because Joel didn't know you could shoot just as good as him. Right? I'm more of a liability than an asset. Remember how I couldn't even remember exactly WHERE I'd stashed the horses?"

"Those houses all looked alike. And we found them."


"Oh, come on, that was kind of funny."

"Joel wasn't laughing."

"So what? I think that made it funnier, actually."

"To YOU... I actually don't happen to LIKE pissing him off!"

"Don't you? You should. It's pretty fun. Anyway, you're doing fine... and YOU hired US, remember? We're supposed to do all the hard stuff."

"I don't think 'hired' is the right word when you're doing it for free. More like TRICKED. Played on your sympathies. Took advantage of your generosity."

"Pffffff. Joel and I WANTED to leave. We're getting a beach vacation out of this! Isn't that right, Joel? Yeah, I know you can hear us way over there..."

That incident aside, Sophie's mood and behavior hadn't changed noticeably during That Time. Ellie, on the other hand...

She'd gotten her period the day after his birthday. In the days leading up to it, she'd acted a little peculiar at times (whether he could blame any of it on PMS, though, he couldn't say for sure), including the day of his birthday... she'd been a little moodier. Oversensitive. Several weeks had passed since then, so he figured it was time again. This past week, she'd been quicker to anger, sometimes looking to pick fights, it seemed... she was overly emotional when she apologized later... if she apologized; Joel truly thought she was unaware of the difference in her behavior some of the time.

He wasn't allowed to tease her about it -- not until afterwards. Next week, it would be fair game. Now, it only irritated her. Even when Joel innocently asked her what day it was (since she was the only one of them keeping track), she snapped at him for implying that she was being extra bitchy... which, of course, she was, and which, of course, was indeed the reason he was curious about the date (Ellie’s cycles were pretty regular now), but for all she knew, it could've been random curiosity.

The three of them spending pretty much every waking moment together only exacerbated the strain... and maybe it was wishful thinking on Joel's part, but the bright side of Ellie not trying to be ~perfect~ all the time was that it meant she felt safer with him now -- definitely more so than their first trip. Not physically safer, but safer in the knowledge that Joel loved her for who she was, as a person in her own right and not just someone who did things that pleased him. And maybe it was because he loved her so much... but Joel didn't find her intolerable. In fact, except maybe for when he was drop-dead tired, her irritation amused him more often than not -- and, naturally, if he didn't hide that from her, it only served to irritate her further.

Sophie didn't have that bond with Ellie. Ellie could be real sweet when she wanted to be, but when she was upset... a little vitriol could negate all the former sweetness in a hurry. The "of course you're helping" turned into "you always fuck everything up," and the like -- and the girls did get into it a few times. Especially after Spirit disappeared.

That had happened a little over a week ago. Sophie had been the one who picketed the horses that night, and she swore she'd done it the same way as always, but Ellie said obviously not, since he'd gone some time during the night. Both horses had wandered a bit from time to time when not picketed, and one time, they'd gotten out of a yard with a dodgy gate -- but someone had always been near enough that they didn't actually lose the horses. This time, it had been overnight. Sophie said someone must have stolen Spirit, and someone very well could have. They'd never know. Although if that was the case, why wouldn't they also have taken Poppy? Even a solo thief could have handled two horses with lead ropes. A horse was a valuable commodity that could be used for trade, if not for work or transportation -- or, if someone didn't want to look after it, it could even serve as food. Joel didn't want to speculate, but he thought Ellie was probably right. He wouldn't come out and say so, though, which Ellie interpreted as him not being on her 'side.'

She'd been so heartbroken that day... they'd spent a great deal of time combing the area, calling to the horse like he was a lost dog who would just come running when he heard his name. Ellie insisted that he wouldn't leave her on purpose, that he loved her... and Joel thought that was probably true to a certain extent. But he was still a horse -- a horse who wanted to be free. Hell, maybe he wanted to go home to Jackson... or was it just dogs who went on journeys like that to get home? Anyway, he was gone, and they couldn't find him, and waiting around in that region for him to return was not an option Joel was willing to entertain for long. Ellie managed to get him to wait a little longer than he intended, but not much; there was just no guarantee that it wasn't a big old waste of time. She'd wanted to take his saddle, but the thing was too clunky, so Joel promised her they could go back for it if they found him soon. If they found him later, they could try riding bareback until they could scavenge another saddle.

It did break his heart a little to see her steel herself... to hear the bitter mutterings of how everyone always leaves her eventually anyway. She didn't seem to want any comfort from him, either, which made him feel even more powerless to help her. He hated seeing her like that.

Having only one horse didn't slow them down too badly, but it did tire Joel out more. 'Sexist pig' that he was, he refused to ride while one of the girls walked, and all three of them couldn't ride at the same time, especially with all their gear. Joel carried extra himself. The girls took turns walking, too, some of the time. They both rode together for at least half of the day... most days (if Ellie was particularly annoyed with Sophie, she would walk rather than ride with her). Ellie was always on the alert for Spirit, and every time she thought she saw or heard something that might be him, she ended up disappointed.

They had encountered some more Infected... and some regular humans... nothing they couldn't handle. Joel would err on the side of caution with survivors, but the majority of the people hadn't needed to be killed. Most could be avoided with a slight change in course. Of those who couldn't, some had been content to go on by in peace. Some wanted to trade, but those negotiations didn't result in much; Joel and company didn't have much they were willing to give up, and the other party didn't have much that would serve their immediate needs. Some just flat out wanted to rob them -- and those were the ones who got killed. That tended to happen more at night, when thieves got bolder. Hell, that's when he and Ellie had done their best thieving -- on the first trip, when they'd had next to no provisions to start with. People did get distracted at night; they would let their guard down, either from exhaustion or from a false sense of security.

And then there were the two guys that Joel shot 'for no reason' (according to Ellie). Except he did have a reason: his gut didn't like them. It especially didn't like the way they were looking at the girls. He'd sized them up, decided they'd be no loss to humanity, and that was that. Sophie had been surprised... Ellie, not so much. At least that was one thing that hadn't irritated her...

Apparently, the cold weather was Joel's fault. It had been a little drier lately, which Joel welcomed, but there was a chill in the air that comes with fall. Ellie had expected it to be warmer. It seemed that she felt as soon as they crossed into California, they should have been warm -- never mind that it was late October now. Joel's attempts to explain the difference between northern California and southern California fell on deaf ears, and he couldn't do it very well without referencing temperatures, which meant next to nothing to Ellie. She'd been taught the concept in school, and some people in Jackson had thermometers, but without the numbers seeping into their heads repeatedly via daily weather reports from the old days, the measurement was too abstract to have any meaning for her. Sophie had pointed out that the state they'd just come from, Nevada, was actually warmer than California, but Ellie had already gotten it into her head that there'd be nothing but endless sunshine warming them from here on out, and that was that. There was indeed some sunshine, perhaps more than they'd seen thus far, but the air was still chilly at times, especially when it was windy. This was Joel's fault, because he'd said their winter would definitely be warmer than Jackson's -- a true statement. How this translated to 'you'll never be cold again,' Joel wasn't sure, but he was sure that now wasn't the time to try to reason with her.

He and Ellie had all but stopped the 'quality time with nature' shenanigans. They only did it when one of them really did need to go (they had to keep up the 'buddy system' charade for Sophie's sake anyhow), and it was usually just a fairly quick embrace... only a few kisses. Joel had noticed a significant drop in his sex drive of late... and Ellie had noticed it, too, when the little fooling around they did engage in failed to produce the usual results. And although she'd always seemed to take that in stride in the past, now she'd decided to take it personally:

"Joel... are you okay? What's wrong?"

"Nothin'... that jus' happens sometimes."

"Is it me?"


"It HAS to be..."

"No, Ellie--"

"You're not attracted to me anymore."

"No, it's got nothin' to do with that."

"Well, it's not like it's getting worn out... I mean, we haven't... since your birthday..."

"Maybe IT'S not, but the rest of me is."

"Really? That would affect it, you think?"

"It did on the trip from Boston."

"What?! But you... we weren't together then."

"Right. I wasn' thinkin' of you that way. Just... uh... in general... I think I was so focused on survival that I jus' didn'... have those urges. Not that I would've anyway, towards you..."

"Why not? Not like anyone else was there... you know. After."

"I wasn't in love with you. You were jus' some bratty kid I had to--"

"I wasn't bratty!"

"Yep, jus' some snot-nosed kid barely out of diapers... ow!"

"I'll hit you harder if you don't admit you wanted me from the very beginning."

"You want me to lie?"

"Okay, whatever -- you wouldn't admit it to yourself for a long time, so I guess that's why you can't admit it now. But--"

"Ellie, I really did think of you as a daughter. For a long time. You know that. That's why this was... confusin', at first. Still is, sometimes."

"Okay, but... now that you DO have those feelings... or you used to--"

"I still do."

"Then why can't... even when we're safe, like this? And Sophie's not around..."

"We ain't all that safe. And I really think it's a biological thing. Bein' in survival mode. We're eatin' less than before, yet we're physically active most of the day... gotta be on high alert most of the time... not gettin' good sleep... it's drainin'."

"So when we get to the beach and relax a little, it'll come back?"

"I think so."

"What if it doesn't?"

"It will, eventually. Jus' don' know when."

"So I just... wait."

"You don' got much choice. Not like we were havin' sex anyway... maybe my body figured that out an' thought it was a waste of time to get... ready."

"Ha! Well, I'VE been ready. And waiting forever."

"You'll jus' have to wait a little longer. If you really can't wait, well... I s'pose there's Sophie..."
"Fuck you! Why would you say that?!"

"...Ellie, I'm jus' teasin.' "

"Well, it's not funny."

"All right, I'm sorry."

"I don't LIKE her like that. Why would you think--"

"I was kiddin', kiddo -- relax!"

She got a little weird about Sophie sometimes.

By now, Ellie seemed to have lost some interest in fooling around as well. Whether it was for the reasons he suspected for himself, or just a reaction to his own apathy, he couldn't say. He still enjoyed kissing her... holding her... but more and more, it felt like an unnecessary risk. They still had the bedtime snuggling, at least. Joel would have thought that the more exhausted he was, the better he'd sleep, but that didn't seem to be the case. Truth be told, he didn't really want to sleep that well -- his brain was rewired enough by now to operate in the proverbial 'one eye open' state. He could function fairly well on night after night of this. He slept a little more when they took an occasional day off from traveling. 'Mental health days,' Sophie called them. On those days, he did take short naps during the daytime, because Ellie promised to wake him at any sign of trouble. He trusted her judgment on that. And yes, he also allowed her to stand guard while he read his birthday book, but only for brief periods; he couldn’t focus well enough on the words to really get into the story, and figured it might be better to save it for when they returned to Jackson… or wherever they ended up.

Injury-wise, they'd been fortunate. Ellie's hand had healed pretty nicely, and the worst wound Joel had suffered so far was a bullet grazing his arm. They still had the penicillin should they need it down the road, and he was glad he hadn't jumped the gun by using it for Ellie's hand. Once she regained full use of it, she'd started giving him shoulder or back massages every night. This came about after Sophie had caught him stretching one night... she'd made a comment about how his back must be killing him, and offered to help him out. He reckoned she must've known Ellie would never allow that -- and then Ellie had felt guilty for not thinking of it herself. But then, why would she when she was so young, unburdened by the aches and pains of middle age? Even so, he did return the favor sometimes... but only when Sophie was in her tent. Not that it was a sexual thing... but it did feel more intimate than typical father-daughter relations. And if it was completely innocent, then he should do it for Sophie, too. HA! Nope, best to just leave her out of things. Ellie did offer her services to Sophie a couple times, but Joel got the feeling it was more of a perfunctory thing -- and perhaps Sophie did too, as she would decline, and then Ellie stopped asking.

Sophie hadn't been harmed by either Infected or survivors, but the woman seemed to be her own worst enemy. She'd been stung by a wasp. Nearly attacked by a bear, which Joel managed to shoot between the eyes in time (and it was confirmed that he still did not care for bear meat, even after burning the shit out of it). She'd wiped her ass with poison ivy -- and they'd only reverted to using foliage for that after she'd managed to drop the second roll of toilet paper in a horse trough when trying to put it away. She'd spilled her entire dinner in the dirt. Gotten so turned around when going tinkle in the woods that she had to yell for them upon realizing she was lost. Cut herself with the hunting knife, deep enough to need stitches. She'd managed to lose her gun somewhere... and apparently, she'd noticed that two days before Joel even noticed it wasn't in her holster -- she'd just figured it was already too late to do anything about it, so why mention it. Joel couldn't pretend he wasn't seriously irritated with her for that one; if she'd spoken up, they might have been able to retrace their steps and locate it. They had enough weapons that it wasn't exactly a crisis, though, and he wasn't looking to kill the next person they happened upon who had a pistol -- that would likely happen organically soon enough.

None of these sorts of things happened to Joel or Ellie, but Sophie seemed to have a knack for it. The latest was... not exactly a fall -- more of a misstep -- off the horse, resulting in a fucked-up ankle. Joel was pretty sure it wasn't broken, but whether it was sprained or twisted or whatever-the-fuck, he couldn't say. This was the second day, and Sophie still couldn't put any weight on it, so they had to help her walk. As annoyed as Ellie was about this, she was eager to be the one to serve as her crutch. It didn't take a genius to figure out why. And though it wasn't like the poor woman had fallen on purpose, it was hard not to resent her for it, at least a little. Ellie's doing enough resenting for the both of us...

It was late afternoon, a bit early for them to stop... although the sun kept setting earlier and earlier, shortening their days if they let it. But they were in Sacramento now, and Joel wanted to take advantage of being in a big city -- by scavenging the shit out of it. You would think that after twenty-one years, all the good stuff would be gone, but as they'd learned last year, there was plenty that either got overlooked or re-abandoned by its previous owner. They'd run out of Esther's amazing beef jerky by now, and they were doing half rations on what was left of the bread (the PB2 was, unfortunately for Ellie, all used up). They were finding plenty of fresh fruit along the way. Since they couldn't bring a lot of canned food with them to begin with, finding some cans was always a major score... along with ammo and batteries... and Joel really hoped to find more bandages. They'd gone through a lot of them for Ellie's hand. And now they'd come to a cluster of medical facilities... or what remained of them.

The place -- the entire city, actually, or at least what they'd seen so far -- looked like an earthquake had hit it. Joel figured if it wasn't that, it was major saturation bombing. To wipe out such a large area seemed excessive, but it wasn't unfathomable. There were more corpses here than anywhere else on the trip so far, but no more than, say, Pittsburgh. Joel remembered, back in the early days after the outbreak, when the bodies would get removed from such scenes... when attempts were made to identify them and notify their families, and give them proper burials. Back when people still had hope that things would return to normal. Time and unrelenting turmoil had eventually extinguished that hope, and people stopped giving a fuck. Dead bodies littering the streets became accepted as normal.

Presently, the girls were ahorse and Joel was afoot. He surveyed the ten-story building in front of them; it was tilted at about a 60-degree angle, with several of the lower floors quite flattened. As long as he could find a way up, that place was ripe for scavenging: lots of search area condensed into a fairly small space. And the leaning made it seem unlikely to be inhabited… unless that’s exactly why someone WOULD choose to stay there, and be overlooked… He scanned all the windows for signs of movement, as was customary with all the buildings they encountered. Most of the windows on this one were broken, so sound would carry better... no Infected.

Ellie didn't like it. "I dunno... I know we've gone through crooked buildings before, but... that one's huge. And how's Sophie gonna get up there? Even if you find some unblocked stairs--"

"Well, I was thinkin' you could take Poppy over to that park across the street. She hasn' had much to eat today." They'd been on pavement most of the day, and her only sustenance had been the 'fruit cocktail' they'd made for her at lunchtime. "At least one of those floors has gotta have bandages an' gauze an' maybe some other first aid type shit." Or so he hoped; medical buildings didn't necessarily house medical supplies anymore.

"Okay." She twisted around to look at her passenger. "Think you can handle taking her over there yourself? If you just slide off on your right side, you prob'ly don't need help--"

Joel cut in. "Whoa whoa whoa -- no, Ellie, I meant for both of you to go."

"What? And let you go in there by yourself?!"

"It's got a solid foundation of... fucked-up floors. It's tall, but it ain't all that big, lengthwise. We've been through worse. It'll be fine. If not, how would you be able to do anythin' about it if you were with me?"

"By dragging your ass out of there, that's how!"

"I'll be all right. I'll go with you to the park first an' check that out..."

Ellie regarded her passenger again. "Sophie, do you think he should go in there?"

Sophie seemed reluctant to answer. "I think... you guys should work this out on your own. Or... I'm cool with babysitting Pops alone, if, um... if you think it's safe."

"No," said Joel, knowing full well she didn't want to be alone. "Ellie will stay with you, don' worry."

Ellie snorted. "Yeah. Sophie, you know that 'work it out on your own' means we do whatever Joel wants. Thanks a lot."

Joel sighed. "It jus' makes more sense. She can't go up there, an' the horse needs to eat. An' we shouldn' leave her alone out here."

"She does have my gun, Joel," Ellie said sullenly.

"For emergencies, yeah. She ain't comfortable usin' it, like we are." After Sophie had lost hers, Ellie had given her the 9-millimeter. Sophie had tried to refuse it -- "you guys would get more use out of it" -- but Joel insisted she had to carry a gun. Ellie still had her revolver.

"Okay, whatever," Ellie said in her eyeroll tone. "Get yourself killed in there if you want." She urged Poppy into a trot, because simply walking away from him wasn't fast enough.

"Wait!" he called after her. "I can still go with you to--"

"Don't bother!" she hollered back. "There's no one over there, see? I don't need you!"

It wasn't exactly right across the street; it was down the block a little, past a collapsed parking structure. But there didn't appear to be any immediate danger. Their shouting hadn't drawn any attention that he could note, be it human or Infected, from any direction. Besides, she was pissed at him -- which didn't much make him inclined to follow her. "All right... come get me if-- if you need to! I'm gonna check out that other building, after!" The oncology building. Since it was right there next to the hospital. He wasn't sure she'd heard him, as she didn't answer.

And since she was pissed, a little time apart might be a good thing. For her, anyway... the second she left his sight, the niggling worry awoke in his brain. The one with Ellie's name on it that was always lurking. It was different from the way he worried in the heat of the moment -- like during battle, when he had to constantly see how she was doing. That worry wasn't unfounded like the niggler was. The what ifs that played out in his head sometimes when they were apart... even when it was for a crazy-short time, like a pee break, or checking different areas of a building or house. Any time she was out of his sight. His gut would override his brain and tell him she was fine... but before too long, his brain would be telling him to worry again.

He knew there was something wrong with him, to worry that much. But what could he do? Other than acknowledge that he was insane, and try not to smother her too much. He didn't worry like that for Sophie. Not that he wouldn't be upset if something happened to her... he would. He did care about her. He'd definitely grown fonder of her over the course of the trip. Stronger than that, though, was the feeling that he was responsible for her. That she'd placed herself under his care. It would certainly rattle him if she came to any harm. Probably for a good long while.

But he could go on without her... whereas he knew he couldn't live without Ellie. Simple as that. And he'd always thought he could live with Ellie outgrowing him, as long as she was still alive. Still out there in the world. But unless she remained in the same town as him, he wouldn't know that she was, and he wasn't sure he could handle that.

Joel didn't exactly follow her... but he went far enough down the street to get a clear view of the park, and he didn't see anything to be concerned about. He turned around before she could turn around and yell at him for not trusting her or some shit.

He found a place around the corner where it was easy to climb up to the first un-crushed level -- the third floor. A little too easy... like maybe someone had positioned that dumpster just so beneath a fire escape that wasn't broken enough to be unusable. But that didn't necessarily mean that anyone was there currently. He didn't see or hear any signs of life on that floor.

He also didn't find anything useful.

Same with the next floor. On the third one up, which was actually the fifth floor of the building, his luck changed. Bandages, even a couple of first aid kits... cans of food... and in a corner room, a blanket over the examining table like it was being used as a bed, with a book, radio, and flashlight on the counter next to it. The flashlight had batteries in it, which Joel helped himself to. Someone clearly had lived here, if they didn't still. The bed had been positioned to compensate for the slant of the floor, so a person could sleep upright and not have all the blood rush to their head. He found some pills, which he examined, but with no way of knowing what they were (he didn't trust the labels on the bottles to be a true indicator -- although they were nearly impossible to read anyhow), he passed on those. Joel didn't even feel the slightest twinge of guilt at the thought that someone might still live here, and he was taking their shit. He needed it, too, after all. He was looking out for his own. The radio wasn't even a CD or cassette player, which made him wonder what the person was using it for. He thought about taking the blanket, because it wasn't like they couldn't use an extra, and this was a nice thick one, in pretty good shape... but it would be kind of bulky. And really, it wasn't so hard to find blankets, with the number of houses they could search in this urban area.

Did I tell Ellie to be alert? If he had, she'd probably scoffed at him, but he hoped she was paying attention to her surroundings. Should I just go back? I did get SOME stuff... best to not be here when these people come back...

He talked himself into trying one more floor. He found an unblocked stairwell, and when he cracked open the door to the sixth floor, he heard voices... shit! There ARE people here. The voices were male... and it sounded like just two of them, speaking softly enough that they were probably far enough away for Joel to still explore part of the floor... but now he didn't want to. This was a mistake... and Mistakes Can Kill You. There could be more people in the group, maybe some out and about, and he didn't want to risk anyone noticing the girls. He could surely find somewhere else to search that was unoccupied, far away from here. He retreated back down the stairs, but he could only go down to where he'd come from, as the way down farther was blocked; he had to cross the floor to get to another stairwell to return to the floor below. Sounded like those guys were on the opposite side of the building, away from the street we came from... they probably didn't hear us, so we can just move right along.

Joel was about twenty feet in front of the door he needed when it started to open. It was just around the corner from the elevators in front of him, but as a left-handed outswing door, it gave the person an immediate view of him. There was only one direction they could go from there. Unless they were just going to stand there in the doorway, there was no way the person wouldn't see him; there were no rooms close enough for him to duck into unseen. He could have tried to retreat to a reception type counter, but he didn't think he would get there in time, unless the person was looking completely the opposite direction -- so much so that his movement wouldn't catch their eye. All of that flashed through his mind in the half a second before the door opened, and all he could do was train the gun in his hand -- El Diablo -- squarely on that door. It started to hiss closed before the man even noticed Joel, but when he did, he gave a little start, cursed under his breath, and threw his hands up in the air.

"I don' want no trouble," Joel told him. He took note of the pistol on the guy's hip. The dude was short and stocky, probably at least a decade younger than Joel. "Jus' let me on by an' I'll leave you alone. Move away from the door. Towards me. Slowly." He'd have to at least knock the guy out, so as not to risk him telling his buddies before Joel and the girls could get out of there. A swift blow to the head with this gun ought to do it... might kill him, but might not... and that pistol of his would be good for Sophie...

He waited for the man to take a few steps. The guy started slowly lowering his hands -- but Joel didn't get a chance to tell him to raise them again, because just then, a gunshot rang out from somewhere below. In the split second the dude's right hand began to reach for his pistol, Joel shot him. He had no choice. At least it was a good, clean shot to the head that delivered instant death.

Not bothering to loot the body even for the desired pistol, Joel ducked into the stairwell. The guys upstairs certainly must have heard his shot, if nothing else, so the clock was ticking now. He heard more gunfire... it was definitely coming from inside the building, probably the third floor, since he had just descended to the fourth and the sound came from below. What the hell are they shooting for? Ellie, you better not have followed me in here... Joel cautiously nudged the stairwell door open; this section of the fourth floor was clear. He had climbed up and entered the building on the third floor... if he remembered correctly, that fire escape led soundly up to the fourth floor as well. If the fourth floor was still deserted, he could just--

No, that's where they'll be coming from... Maybe he could find another place where he could drop down... dropping was easier than climbing... although breaking my legs would be inconvenient. He had to get back to the girls and the horse and get them all the hell out of there. But is Ellie in here with me? Who else would they be shooting at? Shit...

He could hear someone clambering up the fire escape, as it wasn't that far from the east stairwell he'd just used -- but just as he'd decided to brave the third floor, he heard that stairwell door creaking open below him. He didn't want to give away his position if he could help it; he didn't especially want to get into a firefight with these people. Better hang out on the fourth floor for a minute... This time, he was in a position where he could duck into a room to avoid each of these potential threats. It sounded like the fire escape person had continued on up, past this floor. The stairwell guy had come out on this floor, shouting a couple of names... and he was definitely heading down the far corridor, away from Joel.

Good -- if they ain't looking for me, they won't be searching room by room. I'll just wait half a minute for him to get farther away, and then take-- hmm, which stairs would be better... Joel worked a lone piece of glass free from the bottom of the broken window in his little hideout anyway, ready to use it like a shiv if anyone came near him. He couldn't carry the glass around forever, but it would conserve a real shiv for future use, and he'd learned not to leave such potential weapons intact -- he'd killed plenty of men by impaling them on broken glass like that, and survived some attempts by others to do the same to him. Unfortunately, he gripped the thing hard enough to cut his palm, so he just dropped it. Just a scrape... and it reminded him of the time Ellie had dug glass out of his foot. The Ellie in his head scoffed at his stupidity (she would also scoff at him for preferring shivs to knives in the first place), but she did so with affection.

At least the gunshots had ceased. If Ellie was indeed looking for him, he hoped she'd killed anyone who had seen her -- that he could just find her down there and get the hell out. It occurred to him that it could've been her on that fire escape, going up... but it didn't SOUND like her... the steps sounded heavier... don't I know what Ellie-steps sound like? He wasn't so sure that he did. At least not in this instance. Joel took advantage of his current location to cautiously look out the window, and was glad to find nothing going on in the street below... At least, I THINK I'm glad... seeing Ellie down there moving away from the building would be a good thing, but would she-- oh shit--

He'd just seen that there were people in the oncology building directly across from him; one person on the second floor had gone and practically stuck his head out of a broken window over there, looking below. How many of these fuckers are there that I didn't see?

Joel was just about to venture out to the fire escape when his attention was arrested by voices coming from the pavilion below, near the oncology building's entrance. He took a peek out... three guys over there... actually, on second look, one appeared to be a woman... they were being joined by a fourth person, who was coming from Joel's building. The person who fired those shots, maybe? Joel tried to eavesdrop on the conversation, and he could hear that fourth guy clear as day as he approached the others: "It's a fucking little GIRL! She killed Steve!"

Joel immediately changed his mind about trying to do nothing more than escape. The girl had to be Ellie -- where is she now?! It looked like the guy was recruiting his buddies to come help him hunt her down... Joel quickly set his backpack down and withdrew a nail bomb from it. He could get all four of them right now, before they could enter one of the buildings or disperse or whatever they were going to do... he could kill them all with a well-placed lob... he registered the sound of the stairwell door opening and closing, but he had to worry about these people first--

His aim was damn near perfect. He could feel the vibrations of the explosion reverberating through the pavement, even from several stories above it, and the radius of it was larger than he expected. Holy shit, the height must've-- no, the bomb simply wasn't that powerful. At least one of those motherfuckers must've been carrying explosives. Three were undoubtedly dead, but the fourth survived -- the guy who was the closest to Joel's building; Joel had noticed him retreating while the bomb sailed down there. Was he coming back in here to go after Ellie? Or to fetch the guys upstairs? Joel was in a pretty decent sniping spot here. He whipped out the rifle and shot the guy in the pavilion as he moved toward the wreckage. And now, if there are others around, they might have an idea where I'm at... let them come for me instead of Ellie... wherever she is. He didn't see any movement in the upper stories of the oncology building across the way, where the three had come from, but it was a big fucking building and he couldn't look everywhere at once; someone may have spotted him at the window.

He knew he was clear to leave the room because he'd heard footsteps before that squeaky stairwell door opened, and none after; the guy who'd been looking for his friends had presumably gone back in there... to go up or down, Joel couldn't say, as his hearing wasn't that proficient. He noted that 'Steve' was not one of the names he'd called for, either. Was Steve the one I killed, and somehow they connected her to it? He holstered the rifle in favor of the smaller gun, then rounded the elevator/stairwell area and darted into a room down the south corridor, maybe six or seven rooms down, to perhaps buy himself a little time, in case one of the motherfuckers could pinpoint his gunshot to the far east side of the floor. He preferred quieter methods of killing where possible. I hope SHE killed Steve, because that could account for all or most of the gunshots I heard. There had to be at least two men heading his way soon, from up above; they would have to come down this hall to clear the floor (since the other hallway was blocked, as was at least the one stairwell), and he wanted to make sure he caught and killed anyone who tried to go down to where Ellie most likely was: the third floor.

The problem was if they didn't come looking for him here, they could bypass this floor altogether, and his little plan to lure them away from Ellie would have failed. Joel waited... but he wasn't going to wait for long. He felt a miniscule twinge of guilt about the woman he'd killed. He wasn't even sure she'd been armed. Maybe he could've gone about it another way... but, as always, when he reminded himself it was for Ellie's benefit, the kill was perfectly justified: any one of these hunters, as he would now classify them, was a person who could possibly encounter her before he did... a person who could hurt her.

The men upstairs didn't keep him waiting for long -- it was three men who came down his hallway, not two. Two went on past, and the third hung back to start checking the rooms in Joel's area. He couldn't have scripted it any better. When he heard the man enter the room right before his, he crept over there so he could grab him from behind, 'hugging' his neck until he'd squeezed the life out of him. If he could sneak up on the second one like that, he would simply shoot the third -- again, broadcasting his location in lieu of Ellie’s. That could possibly leave just the one across the street to dispose of.

It was a simple plan, and he executed it simply... but although he'd killed these three men, he hadn't yet seen the end of the fighting in this building.

He could have gone back upstairs to look for more people, but he was fairly certain it hadn't been Ellie ascending the fire escape. He was also fairly confident that Ellie hadn't somehow passed him and proceeded to the upper stories -- with very little ambient noise and the criss-crossing of floors that was required due to route blockages, surely he would've heard her somewhere, even if their paths hadn't exactly crossed. And it wasn't like Joel was being completely stealthy here; she could've heard him at some point. It was possible that she'd gone up there... but his gut told him she was still below.

Joel did a quick lap of the third and final floor, and the only person he came across (Steve?) was already dead. He called for Ellie upon completing the lap, just in case she was hiding and couldn't see that it was him moving around the floor. But calling out to her perhaps wasn't the smartest thing to do...

He had just rounded the last hallway, in plain view of the makeshift exit, when someone jumped him from behind and tried to strangle him with the same method Joel himself used. He was a strong motherfucker, too... but Joel was quick enough to wedge his hand between the threatening limb and his throat. He wasn't strong enough to push the man's arm away, but the resistance was enough to keep him from losing consciousness -- and to keep his wits about him enough to free his other arm and swing it backward. He buried the muzzle of the gun somewhere in the midsection of his attacker and fired.

The guy released him, stumbling backward with a groan. Joel spun around and shot him in the head. He must be half a foot taller than me, with at least fifty extra pounds -- all muscle. And he'd either been on this floor -- the lowest -- or come up from the ground... either of which had to be... where Ellie was before? Where the hell is she now? A sick feeling took root in his stomach at the thought... the thought of...

Stop it, asshole, he commanded himself. You don't have time to--

Dangerously unfocused after that attack, he hadn't even heard the men coming in from the fire escape -- not until just in time to dodge the first one's shot by leaping behind a counter, presumably where the big dude had been hiding. He could only use it for cover, since he'd clearly been spotted. There was at least one other guy right behind the first one; Joel heard them speaking softly to each other, planning to flank him. We'll see about that-- Joel popped up just long enough to get a shot off. He missed, but at least he'd given the fuckers pause. They had no cover, and nowhere to retreat to unless they went back down to the ground. Which... they appeared to be doing... until another man climbed up -- no, it's another woman -- and the two guys quickly apprised her of Joel's location.

To hell with this! He could waste precious minutes trying to pick them off, possibly letting them slip away back to the ground, or he could do it the easy way.

Joel hastily unzipped his backpack, retrieved and lit a Molotov cocktail, and pitched it toward the person in the middle... the female, but at least this one more clearly posed a threat -- armed with an assault rifle, of all things. He usually only used these on Infected, but he didn't have another nail bomb ready, and he wasn't sure he had all the right shit in his backpack to assemble another. He reloaded his gun with the screams of the three burning hunters ringing in his ears.

He approached them slowly. ...yeah, they're all fucked. He strode past them toward the sunshine... then turned back and looked at them again. For some reason, Ellie burning her hand for his sake came to mind. He still couldn't quite believe she'd done that -- and then suffered the pain quietly, trying to hide it from him.

They would pass out soon, likely within a couple minutes, but a couple minutes of that kind of excruciating pain was an eternity. He shot each of them in the head, then kicked the gun out of the hand of one of them... another decent Ellie-sized replacement gun, he thought, but he could come back to pick the bodies clean later, once everything cooled off -- and after he'd found Ellie. After reloading, he proceeded to the 'exit,' taking a good look around before dropping down to the dumpster, then to the ground. It took him a moment to adjust to being on a level surface again.

Joel couldn't be sure he'd gotten them all... even if he scoured every floor of both buildings he couldn't be sure (and besides, that would take too damn long) because members of the group could be scattered anywhere nearby. In his gut, it felt like he'd gotten them all, and his gut tended to be right about shit like that, on the Outside. He couldn't explain it. Ellie had often marveled at it on their first trip; now she was used to it. He still couldn't completely lower his guard, of course, because a new threat could pop up that wasn't on the 'gut radar' yet -- or, he could be wrong. It had been known to happen (and contrary to what Ellie liked to say about him believing he was always right, he could own up to it when he wasn't). Anyhow, it was definitely high time to locate the girls. If Ellie had been on any of those floors where he was fighting, she would have come to his aid; he figured she may have seen the hunters on the ground blow up, deduced from that that Joel had the situation in hand, and then gone back to Sophie. That's what he wanted to think, anyway. She may have been torn about what to do... wanting to check on me and make sure I'm all right, but knowing she shouldn't leave Sophie... would she do the 'right thing' and protect Sophie? ...Probably not...

He willed the niggling voice to shut the hell up as he headed for the park. It was no surprise that he could see no trace of them from where he was. "Ellie! Sophie!" he bellowed.


It was Sophie's voice, coming from the pancaked parking structure... no, from the west side of it. He saw a delivery truck with the back door lifted and the ramp down, and inside it stood the horse, behind a couple crates that didn't quite camouflage her completely. Sophie's head popped up from behind a crate on the other side, a 'row' in front of Poppy. She stood up, both hands clutching her gun, which she at least had the sense to aim at the floor now instead of at Joel. "Are you all right?" he asked as he trotted towards her, and then, before she could even answer, he added, "Where's Ellie?"

Sophie hobbled forward, using the crates for support. "You didn't see her?"

He didn't like the alarm he detected in that question. "No. Where'd she go?" He stopped just short of the truck.

Sophie looked at him in wide-eyed disbelief. "She went after you! To warn you! Or... help you... or something. She didn't find you?"

"No. There were people in both of those buildings. Which one did she go in?"

"Same place you went, I guess? The hospital?"

"What do you mean, you 'guess'? Didn' she tell you-- didn' you see her go?"

"She saw someone... a couple of men, I think... and she led me and Poppy over here to try to hide. She said it was too open, where we were before."

"The men -- were they goin' into the hospital here, or the place across the way over there?"

"I didn't see them, and she didn't say... I didn't see exactly where she went! Just that-- she headed back towards the building you'd gone into. Sorry... I couldn't see, I couldn't see anything from in here. And she-- she told me to shoot anyone who got close. Well, you know -- anyone that wasn't her or you," she added, trying to smile.

She's really rattled. Joel noticed her hands were trembling. "You can put the gun away. I'm pretty sure I killed all of them. Maybe Ellie got some, too."

Sophie relaxed only slightly, taking a seat on a crate. "I wasn't really worried until I heard the gunshots. I thought maybe these people were friendly. Like a couple families holing up in there or something."

"They may have been a little friendlier before I started takin' 'em out." But he doubted it. Was Ellie there the whole time? It made more sense for her to go into the hospital to try to find him... to warn him or protect him... than to go into the oncology building, but then, why hadn't he seen her anywhere? "All right... she's prob'ly hidin' out somewhere, or lookin' for more of 'em. Maybe she saw the ones in that other buildin' an' decided to check it out. I'm sure she'll be back soon. You stay here... or take the horse back across the street, if you can manage it. Jus' don' go far, 'cause this is likely where Ellie'll be comin' back to."

Sophie looked at him, even wider-eyed than before. "Where are you going? You can't leave -- what if... don't you think maybe..."

"I'm gonna go find Ellie. You'll be fine, don' worry. We got 'em all." He made a half-assed attempt to sound reassuring... which was probably futile. "Ellie jus' might not realize it's safe to come back now." Or she might need my help... He didn't like this one bit. Paranoia was already setting in, even though he knew full well that the theory he'd pitched to Sophie was entirely possible. Likely, even.

But his gut wasn't trying to override his brain now. This time, it was telling him he had a legitimate reason to worry -- and this was another thing his gut tended to be right about.

~Continue to Chapter 37~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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