Peripeteia - Chapter 3 - Hiding_Reader (2024)

Chapter Text

Ellie’s not waking up.

At first, Joel was keen to let her get as much rest as she needed, let her body go into whatever healing coma it needed to begin the recovery process. He sits and watches her breathe for about an hour, like she asked, scrutinizing the rise and fall of her chest. The longer she keeps breathing, the more his anxiety starts to fizzle away, the more he can believe that she can pull through this after all.

Eventually he decides she’s out of the danger zone for now and deeply-enough sleep that she won’t notice if he’s gone for a little while. He searches the house one more time before it gets completely dark. This time his requirements are a lot less specific, now he’s just looking for whatever might be useful.

Upstairs, Joel checks the closet in the kid’s bedroom, dragging over an old wooden toybox to reach the top shelves that are just out of his reach. He has another amazing stroke of luck and finds a blanket folded up there, tucked into a corner, partially obscured behind the doorframe. It’s woolen, green-and-cream check, and when he shakes it out, it isn’t moth-eaten or soiled. Perfect. He takes it down to the basem*nt immediately and tucks it around Ellie’s body – she needs to be kept as warm as possible. Then he retakes his spot on the floor next to her mattress and chews on some jerky when his appetite finally stirs again after hours of feeling positively sick from stress.

He feels guilty, eating when Ellie can’t, knowing her stomach will be equally as empty as his at this point, but he’s worried that she’s got a hole in her intestine and that giving her anything to eat will cause even more damage. His mind creates a lovely picture of half-digested food leaking out of her wound that almost makes him throw his meager dinner back up. No. He’ll wait till morning. She’s busy sleeping anyway, he doesn’t want to wake her up and prod her into eating when food might do more harm than good at this moment.

Then night falls, the basem*nt is plunged into darkness and all Joel can do is wait it out until dawn while Ellie continues to sleep. The silence is oppressive, amplifies the volume of the thoughts inside his head. He misses the sound of her voice, but he keeps telling himself that all this rest is good for her, is what she needs. His eyes aren’t what they used to be, he’s struggling to see more than two feet in front of him. There must be cloud cover tonight, as there’s no moonlight coming in through the window that might allow him to see a little more clearly. He can just about make out the pale shape of Ellie’s face in the darkness, so he shuffles closer to the mattress, tilting his good ear towards her and just listening to the soft sound of her breathing. In and out. In and out.

But then (at least by his crude estimates) six hours tick by. Then eight. Ten, and Joel’s previous feeling of relief starts to fade and concern begins to build in its place. How long is she going to be unconscious?

He tries to think back on all the times he’s ever been injured or ill, trying to recall how long he’d passed out for after catching the flu or that time when he’d taken a 2x4 to the head and it had left a large splinter in his scalp that Tess had to dig out. He was usually out for a good long while, so there’s nothing to be worried about, right? It’s fine, it’s normal. For Christ’s sake, Ellie’s trying to recuperate from a stab wound, something like that warrants this kind of complete blackout. She’s fine, as long as she’s still breathing. She’ll wake up eventually. And she didn’t hit her head, it’s not as if she’s actually slipped into a coma. He’s just being neurotic.

But Joel still finds himself fidgeting with impatience for the moment when she begins to stir. He feels pathetic for it, but loneliness begins to creep into him. For all that people think he’s well suited to being a lone wolf, he’s never actually been any good at being alone. He’s always had somebody – Sarah, Tommy, Tess, and now Ellie. And he needed each and every one of them more than he could ever say.

Quit your whining, his mind snaps at him. It’s a two-way street. You’re supposed to be looking out for her right now, not the other way around. What does it matter if she’s sleeping so long? She’s alive, isn’t she? What more do you want? Just let her do what she needs to do.

With no other options, Joel keeps on waiting, waits until he’s sure it must be the small hours of the morning, when she’s been asleep for almost twelve hours. He knows that when she does wake, she’ll be by no means vastly improved but perhaps she might be at least energized enough to maybe lie awake and chat for an hour or two. About what, Joel doesn’t know – whatever the f*ck she wants. Every word she might say is one that he can store in his mental ledger of “signs she’s going to be okay”; every comment or opinion or observation she makes is one he can use to fire up his resolve and chase away his fears and power them both through until they get back to Jackson. He’ll even do a top ten best Will Livingston jokes with her if she’ll just wake up.

But she doesn’t.

He stays awake that entire night. He folds his arms against the cold and slaps himself when he feels his eyelids drooping, constantly getting up and walking loops around the dark basem*nt so he won’t pass out. Though, maybe he doesn’t have to worry about that happening – his body is thrumming with too much adrenaline and anxiety over Ellie’s condition to sleep. It’s made him as jittery as if he’d drank six shots of espresso.

In the darkness of night, the basem*nt turns into an ice box. The puddle of Ellie’s vomit freezes solid on the concrete floor. Joel shivers his way through it, his limbs stiff and painful with cold – his joints are going to be murder come morning. He makes a mental note to check in the morning if there’s any vents that might be letting in cold air – maybe he can find something to block them up.

Despite her blanket, he can tell Ellie’s feeling the cold too. She’s shivering a bit, he can hear it in the cadence of her breath, the quiver that enters it a couple of hours after sundown. When he reaches for her hands, they’re cold as ice and bone-white – all the blood in her body seems to have fled from her extremities. Joel does his best to warm them up a bit, holding them between his own hands, rubbing her fingers between his palms to try and get the blood circulating again, holding them up to his lips and blowing hot breath on to them.

He keeps lifting her sweater to check the wound and the stitches, squinting into the darkness to try and parse its condition. It’s still an awful sight to behold even in the low light, but the blood has stopped flowing from it, is starting to dry in a reddish-black crust between the stitches, the skin around it flushed an almost luminous red. He repeats this action obsessively, doing it almost every quarter of an hour, like he expects there to be drastic change each time. One time, when he lifts the sweater, the blood has clotted to the fabric and the stitches snag momentarily before tugging free, which makes Ellie flinch and whimper in her sleep and Joel whisper a frantic apology. He wipes away the fresh droplets of blood that well up, wine-dark. It’s after this that he decides to leave it open to the air for a little while. But Ellie’s shivers increase and he has to tuck the blanket back over her again before she gets too cold.

Just before dawn, after going to take a sip from his canteen, Joel decides to give her some water. She’s got to be thirsty. He lifts her head up off the mattress a little bit and Ellie obediently slurps down some water when he offers it to her. He thinks he sees her eyes crack open a slit, but when he lays her back down, she’s out like a light again in seconds. Or maybe she didn’t wake at all, did it unconsciously.

Come on, Ellie. Wake up, he thinks helplessly. Prove to me you’re okay.

The sun begins to come up, warm honey-gold light seeping in gradually through the basem*nt windows, and Ellie still doesn’t wake, but she suddenly grows more restless with the breaking of day. She wriggles underneath the blanket and makes small, muttering sounds, half-formed words. Joel isn’t sure what the reason behind it is – maybe she’s just having particularly active dreams. She’s been like that before sometimes, on the road, flailing around in her sleep and occasionally devolving into full-blown sleep-talking (one memorable time, when he’d been in the midst of second watch, he’d heard her say, clear as day, “Get the f*cking jetpacks ready” and he’d had to bite down on his knuckle so as not to laugh) so he rationalizes it away as just being that. He wonders if she might be having a nightmare about getting stabbed, if her fidgeting is a result of trying to fight off that raider in her dreams. He’s done that before, sometimes woken up swinging his fists after dreaming about a trade-off gone wrong.

It’s fine. It’s normal. She’s fine.

He waits for her dreams to run their course and for her to either jerk awake or settle down again. But it doesn’t happen. She tosses and turns her head from side-to-side so much that her ponytail ends up coming loose. Joel doesn’t think he’s ever seen her with her hair down before. He rescues her hair tie and fastens it around her wrist for her.

“Hope you remembered to put a comb in that backpack,” he tells her as he watches Ellie’s hair get more and more snarled. He wonders if she’ll be able to raise her arms above her head enough to brush her hair or if it’ll hurt too much. He remembers Tess cornering him with a comb when he had broken ribs and was neglecting to brush his own hair for that very reason, remembers her telling him he looked like if Heat Miser had been dragged backwards through a gorse patch.

A stab wound is probably ten times the pain that broken ribs are. But if Ellie needs his help, he’ll give it to her. Her hair is different from Sarah’s, but it’s not his first rodeo with combing hair.

The sun climbs higher in the sky and Ellie keeps on mumbling and squirming. A couple of times Joel thinks she’s about to wake, sees her eyelids twitching and her brow furrowing, but then she lets out a little moan and sinks back into slumber, back to murmuring gibberish. Joel can’t really make out what she’s trying to say, it’s too incoherent. At one point, he thinks she’s counting (she doesn’t get past four) and then another time she slurs out a name that might be Marlene’s.

He should really try and find something else to do. Sitting still and doing nothing only allows his mind to keep going around in useless, fretful circles. If he gets up and occupies himself with a task, it’ll kill some time and prevent him from retreating into a futile loop of what-ifs and if-onlys.

Joel pushes himself to his feet, feels a chorus of bones cracking in his knees and back. He has to stretch his arms above his head, groaning out loud, to get the blood flowing through his limbs again. He doesn’t disturb Ellie’s sleep with his old-man noises – part of him kind of hoped it would, that she’d be unable to resist the opportunity to tease him for it.

“Don’t you go anywhere now,” he murmurs to her and then immediately rolls his eyes at himself. Yeah, like she can physically get up and go anywhere. But he thinks she’ll know what he really means. She can be an argumentative kid, but if he gives her an order she almost always follows it. He hopes the same holds true when he’s not even sure if she can hear him.

Upstairs, Joel gets another fire going in the garden, using the last of the papers and envelopes from the living room cabinet, melts enough snow to refill his and Ellie’s water bottles. The morning sky is a pale, eggshell-blue, the sun a piercing white light low on the horizon, barely scraping the tops of the trees. It’s so bright that he has to screw up his eyes against it – they’re aching with tiredness and his head is pounding a bit from his sleepless night, but it doesn’t matter. He’s got enough in reserve to get them back on the road. He lets himself daydream about finding a cave or something tonight, where he and Ellie can burrow up safe and sleep like a pair of hibernating bears.

Better check it doesn’t have a real f*cking bear in it first, he can imagine Ellie saying and a smile twitches at the corner of his mouth.

Couple of weeks of in Jackson with the best care the apocalypse can provide and she’ll be back to her old wise-cracking self, he knows it. He imagines Ellie pulling up her shirt to show off her scar to impress people in town and making horrifically tasteless jokes about the whole situation. He’ll probably end up telling her off for it, but part of him also really wants to be far enough removed from this experience to do something as inappropriate as laughing.

Back in the kitchen, on his way back downstairs, Joel glances up and sees a small flap of fabric hanging off the top of the cabinets. He reaches up on tiptoe and pulls down an old dishtowel. It’s accumulated a fuzzy gray coat of dust from being up there twenty years, so it’s probably shot the moon hygiene-wise but Joel shakes it out anyway, figuring he can probably find a use for it some point down the line.

His heart sinks when he descends the stairs and he looks down at Ellie. She looks worse in the bright light of morning. Her face doesn’t seem to have regained much color, there’s grayish-blue shadows underneath her eyes and he notices that there’s a thin sheen of sweat on her forehead now.

Joel chews on his lip. His heart is starting to thud again and there’s a rushing sensation in his head, unnervingly similar to yesterday, when he was in the middle of putting pressure on Ellie’s wound and suddenly lurched backwards into the past, forgot where he was, confused her with Sarah. It’s his body giving him a warning sign – he’s wobbling on that ledge where one false step can lead him to plummet into that state where his throat jams shut and his heart is paralyzed.

In a flash, he decides he’s waited long enough and needs to try wake her up deliberately, even if just for a moment. It reminds him of when he used to hover worriedly over Sarah’s crib at night, petrified about SIDS, and he’d poke her awake from time to time to make sure she was still breathing. He has to know that Ellie’s still able to be woken, he’ll take whatever curse words or grumpiness she throws at him.

He reaches forward and gives her shoulder a little shake.

“Ellie, can you hear me?” he says softly.

She doesn’t answer. Joel takes her hand in his, curls his fingers around hers. They’re clammy and cold.

“Ellie, squeeze my hand if you can hear me,” Joel says, a little louder.

Nothing happens. But then Joel feels the slightest pressure around his fingers. His heart rate steadies again.

“Okay,” he sighs. “Okay, baby. That’s good.”

She’s okay. Hovering somewhere just below the surface of consciousness, but not so far gone that she can’t hear him anymore. She’s just exhausted and with good reason. In a few days, a licensed doctor is going to provide perfectly logical, medically-sound explanations for all of this and he’s going to feel so f*cking stupid.

He thinks bizarrely of a character in a fairytale, like the kind he used to read to Sarah before bed, of princesses stuck in an enchanted sleep.

His life is no fairytale, but Joel can’t help but picture an ending as simplistic as that: Ellie just quickly and easily coming out of her sleep like a curse broken. He tries to hold on to that image even as it slips between his fingers like sand. He imagines himself confessing to her how worried he’d been and how he’s stayed up all night and can vividly see her smiling mischievously at him and saying, “Boy, so I guess now you’re so tired you have no choice but to let me take both watches tonight, huh?”

Okay, he’s being a fanciful idiot now. Improvement to that degree isn’t going to happen today. It’s still too soon after the injury for that. But just…a little change for the better. Soon.

She’ll be fine, he tells himself. Over and over, like a record skipping on the needle. A platitude he’d repeat out loud until his tongue went numb if it would make it be so.

She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.

/////

The morning drags on.

Joel tries to find things to occupy himself with. He makes sure his and Ellie’s bags are packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, with nothing important left behind. He checks the amount of bullets they have for all their guns, his revolver, Ellie’s pistol and Tommy’s rifle, makes sure they’re all fully loaded and safety switched on.

He thinks of a use for that dishtowel, rolling it up and placing it underneath Ellie’s head, like a pillow. He thinks you’re supposed to elevate an injured person’s head anyway.

At the motion, Ellie suddenly groans quietly and opens her eyes, her lashes parting as if in surprise. Joel’s heart stutters at the sight and a rush of relief melts through his bones like ice liquifying under the warm light of sunrise.

Thank God.

Ellie stares up at the ceiling, blinking hazily in the daylight like a mole emerging from underground, her eyebrows scrunching together as her brain reboots from sleep and catches back up to the events of yesterday.

“Hey,” he whispers, and Ellie turns her gaze towards him. “There you are.”

“Hi,” she rasps after a moment. Her voice is a thready little thing.

Joel holds up his water canteen. “You want somethin’ to drink?”

Ellie nods, her tongue poking out and licking her dry lips. Her eyes look a little dull as Joel elevates her head again so she won’t choke, holding the canteen up to her lips. She chugs a couple of swallows, a trickle running down her chin. Joel absent-mindedly wipes it away with the edge of the blanket. She pulls a face at how cold the water must be on her teeth.

“Time’s it?” she mumbles when she’s done.

“Don’t know,” Joel shrugs. “Mornin’ still, I think.”

Ellie glances around the basem*nt, as if she’s looking for dramatic changes in their surroundings, squinting against the sunbeam that glares through the window.

“Like…the next day?” she says in a slightly puzzled-sounding voice.

Joel frowns. Wow, she must’ve been dead to the world if she thinks only a couple of hours have passed and has lost track of time entirely.

“Yeah. You’ve been asleep a long while,” he supplies. “Maybe…fourteen hours?”

“Oh.” Ellie reacts as if he’d just told her something mundane, like it might snow later on. Something twitches in the back of Joel’s mind. Ellie would usually have something more to say about that. Express satisfaction at a surplus of sleep banked away for her energy reserves. Or amazement at her body’s ability to crash like that. Or complain about how the day’s gotten away from her now. Something a bit more detailed than just “oh.” She seems a bit more out-of-it than she did yesterday, blinking heavily and speaking in a slow, muzzy tone of voice, her mind dimmed down from its usual high-wattage velocity.

“How’s your stomach feel?” he asks, for something to say.

“f*ckin’…hurts,” Ellie says, giving him a weary side-eye, as if there was gonna be any other answer.

“Yeah, I’ll bet it does,” Joel says with a sigh. “You’re gonna have to be careful for a while, till it closes up properly.” Not like Ellie’s in any fit state to be running and jumping around like she usually does, but even the act of her sitting up or walking could risk her stitches splitting.

Ellie lets out a hiss of breath and glowers around the room. “It’s freezing in here…” she grumbles. She’s still shivering.

Joel can’t stop a small chuff of bitter amusem*nt. His joints certainly agree with that sentiment.

“It’s winter, kiddo. Can’t do much about it.”

“Light a fire, then…” she huffs.

“Can’t in here. I’ll do one tonight. Promise.”

It depends. If he finds a cave or a house with a viable fireplace, then yes. If not, then he’s not lighting any fires until they’re over a day away from those raiders – not a chance he’s doing anything that’ll give away their position. And if Ellie gets cold, well…she can have his sleeping bag too. He’ll risk the frostbite if it means she’s comfortable.

“Did the…did the raiders get…?” Ellie says haltingly. She trails off and doesn’t finish the sentence, like she’s waiting for Joel to finish it for her. He frowns, trying to figure out what she’s trying to say. Did the raiders get what? Get away? Get what they wanted? Get what was coming to them? Well, one did, he can’t vouch for the rest of them.

“I don’t know, Ellie,” he sighs, with a shrug. “They ain’t here, I know that much.”

His mind chooses that moment to poke him with the thought of them stepping out of the woods and on to the street at this exact moment, licking their dry lips against the cold, fingers wrapping tighter around their baseball bats and pipe wrenches, nudging each other and pointing at a hoofprint or blood spot in the snow that he missed yesterday. Joel kicks the image away irritably, like punting a football down the field.

“They were looking…” Ellie says softly, not really looking at him, her brow furrowing. He can see her trying to mentally find the word she wants. He tries to help her out, see if he can’t help her shake off this brain fog.

“Lookin’ for somethin’, yeah,” Joel agrees. “Food, probably.”

“No…me,” Ellie says with sudden conviction, turning to look Joel in the eye. “They were…looking for me.”

He blinks, taken aback. The raiders were looking for her? What does she mean by that, where did this train of thought come from?

“Why were they lookin’ for you?” Joel says, trying not to let bewilderment bleed into his voice. “They didn’t even know we were there until –”

“The Fireflies…” Ellie interrupts, her eyes alight with something that looks slightly manic. “They found us…”

Joel just stares at her for a moment, any words he has caught in his throat. What does she mean, the Fireflies? They weren’t even there, they had nothing to do with…and then he realizes. She’s got them mixed up, the raiders and the Fireflies.

“Ellie, we were talkin’ about the raiders…” he says slowly, and he watches the clarification sink in, watches the fire in Ellie’s eyes fizzle away and suddenly she looks so tired again.

“Oh…” she says quietly, almost sounding disappointed. “Right.”

Unease settles in Joel’s belly like he’s swallowed a chunk of ice. What’s going on here? Why did she get her wires crossed and think they were attacked by the Fireflies? Maybe she’s still half in a dream and her brain added together “Fireflies were supposed to be at the university” and “There were intruders at the university” and that’s what it came up with. But it’s still f*cking weird. And not like Ellie at all. She’s not a morning person, sure, but she doesn’t get…muddled like this.

Something stirs in his mind, his inner voice whispering to him – this doesn’t feel right. And, again, Joel swats the thought away like he would swat away mosquitos in the evening before winter set in. You’re doing it again, he scolds himself. When it comes to strangers on the road or trading deals or whether it was just the creak of a house or the click of an Infected then yeah, he trusts his own instincts. He doesn’t trust those instincts when it’s just him and his own anxiety, like a dog with a bone – then he just falls into the traps of overthinking, catastrophizing and obsessing.

She’s tired, he thinks frustratedly. She overslept because she got f*cking stabbed yesterday, if she’s a little disoriented then it only makes sense. There’s nothing sinister going on here, stop f*cking looking for more excuses to worry. You’ve got more than enough already.

Ellie looks up at him, suddenly with more focus in her eyes.

“They hurt me,” she says, slowly, soberly.

“Yeah, they did,” Joel says quietly, feeling his jaw tighten at the memory of turning around and seeing Ellie standing there with her hands covered in blood and that terrified expression on her face. He glances at the blanket, at where her stomach is covered, thinking of the fragile stitches underneath it, holding together the rupture in her flesh. He can still hear her screams in his ears as he dug that needle through her skin over and over.

Suddenly, he can’t help himself, can’t take the not-knowing, and he pulls the blanket back and starts to tug up Ellie’s bloodstained sweater again. It was too dark through the night to be able to examine it properly, it’s been a few hours since he’s been able to get a good look.

“What are you…?” Ellie mumbles, shifting her head upright a little.

“Sorry. Just have to check…” Joel mutters. He gets Ellie’s sweater up, holding his breath as he stares at the wound, daylight illuminating its every detail.

Stitches still in place. Dried blood caked between them. Skin a hot pinkish-red color. Same at last night

Joel lets out his breath.

See? It’s not got any worse. Can you relax now?

“You fixed it. Right?” Ellie asks, still trying to look down at herself.

“I did,” Joel says, voice hoarse. “You don’t need to worry about it, Ellie.”

He meets her eyes again, looks at her in a way that he hopes is encouraging. Then she nods.

“Okay…” she murmurs.

She’s starting to blink drowsily again – it looks like just this short conversation has taken it out of her, Joel realizes with a sinking heart.

Well, he got what he wanted, didn’t he? She woke and they spoke. Maybe it wasn’t the most coherent conversation they’ve ever had, but they still spoke. It’s the reassurance he’d been yearning for all night. And she’s not here to distract and appease him, he reminds himself sharply. She’s not a f*cking jester, she’s a kid, and a severely injured one at that, and he’s meant to be looking after her. And if that means she sleeps for hours, then she sleeps for hours. He won’t make her fight it and stay awake just for his own peace of mind. Now he knows she’s not comatose, he can allow himself to focus on planning ahead for the day, for the trip back to Jackson.

Joel’s stomach gurgles with hunger. It’s always been a habit of his, even before Outbreak Day, forgetting to eat. He digs about in his backpack until he finds the little paper parcel of jerky. He unfolds it and bites his lip apprehensively at how much they’ve got left. Enough for today and maybe tomorrow if he stretches it out, but he’s going to have to find something else to supplement their rations before they head back out on the road. Maybe there might be some cans still scattered around this neighborhood, but it depends on what state they’re in, if they’re fit to bursting or pitted with dents. Botulism is the last thing they need.

Prairie, Joel thinks with some small sense of solace as he chews on a piece of tough, dried meat. They’ll be back out there soon and he’s still got a decent amount of bullets for Tommy’s rifle. He and Ellie had seen all kinds of small game animals as they’d crossed the grasslands on their way to the university. Rabbits, quail, grouse, pheasants, all of them good eating. He can take care of the food issue once they’re up and on their way.

Joel glances down at Ellie as he swallows his portion. Maybe he should give her some too. He’d been reticent last night but she’d just been a few hours removed from the initial injury, then, and her system probably still too in shock to deal with any food. But it’s been well over twelve hours now, it should be safe. And it’s five days till they can get to Jackson and the doctors close it up properly, he can’t expect to not eat anything that whole time. Just one little sliver of jerky – if it goes down without any trouble, maybe then he can try her with a little more later on.

“Here, Ellie,” Joel says, tearing off a piece about the size of a large splinter. He gets his hand underneath Ellie’s head and lifts it up a little, which causes her to rouse again. The back of her head feels sweaty, hair damp between his fingers.

“What…?” she moans, eyes swiveling around until they find Joel. He holds up the scrap of jerky so she can see it.

“You gotta eat something, honey.”

Ellie gets a perplexed look on her face, as if she’s never heard of the notion of eating. She closes her eyes again, scrunching them tight and shakes her head as much as she can manage.

“No…” she mumbles.

“You haven’t eaten since yesterday.” Joel tries his best to sound patient. “And you threw up, remember? Your stomach’s empty.”

“No, I don’t…feel good…Still hurts…” she groans, her hand shifting around underneath the blanket, reaching towards her stomach, where it’s probably still throbbing, like she wants to rub away the tummy ache. It probably hurts so much that eating is the last thing on her mind. Joel places his other hand over hers before she can get too close to the wound. He can feel the vibrations of her shivers through the fabric.

“I know, baby. It’s just a little piece,” he coaxes. “Come on. For me.”

Ellie opens her eyes again, grudgingly, and opens her mouth, allowing Joel to place the piece of jerky on her outstretched tongue. It takes her about five minutes of queasy-faced chewing before she can finally bring herself to swallow it.

“Okay, kiddo. Good job,” Joel murmurs, placing her head back down. She nestles against her makeshift pillow with a small sigh, her movements languid. He figures he should tell Ellie of his plans before she passes out again.

“Hey, Ellie,” he says, and she glances back up at him, brown eyes glazed over and gummy with sleep. “We’re gonna get back out on the road in a little bit, okay? You don’t have to do anythin’ – I’ll carry you back upstairs and hold on to you when we get on the horse, alright?”

He sees Ellie processing this information. She hasn’t forgotten about that too, has she?

“Jackson?” she says eventually, voice thick with fatigue and pain.

Joel huffs out a small sigh, feels a smile of relief flicker briefly across his face. “Yeah, baby. We’re goin’ home.”

He waits to see any signs of reluctance or resistance, but Ellie’s face is impassive. Guess their talk yesterday has shattered any illusions she might have of this working out any other way. Maybe in the moment she’d been operating on some misguided belief that Joel needed to save himself, but he has his suspicions, especially now that she’s just name-dropped them, that she also doesn’t want to give up on their Firefly quest, that she sees this injury as just a minor setback rather than the life-threatening emergency it is.

Well, tough sh*t. The Fireflies will just have to wait a little longer.

Joel stares up at the basem*nt window, starts thinking about the logistics of the journey. It seems like a clear day out there, so they should be able to make good pace without being hindered by bad weather. Once he finds the I-25, it’ll be a straight shot back to Jackson. But they’d fled in such a panic yesterday that he’s not entirely sure as to where it is they’ve ended up. And he doesn’t want to have to circle back towards the university in order to get his bearings. They can’t be more than five miles out from it. He’ll have to consult the map, but he’s sure he can get them reoriented.

And then there’s getting Ellie back up there and on the horse. It’ll be a delicate operation. Distantly, he recalls something about it being a bad idea to move injured patients. But it can’t be helped – evacuation by horseback is her only hope. He’ll just have to be very, very careful. She won’t be sitting at his back like she did on the journey here, he’ll have to sit her in front, across his knees. It won’t be a pleasant trip for her – all that rocking movement will probably be uncomfortable on her wound and the colder outside temperatures will give her the shivers worse. He should probably let her get some more rest, while she still can. Now that his worries about Ellie plunging into an unwakeable days-long sleep have been assuaged, he feels okay with it.

“You go on back to sleep for a little longer,” Joel tells her. “I’ll wake you when it’s time to go.”

Ellie doesn’t need to be told twice – she promptly closes her eyes and she’s asleep again in less than two minutes.

Silence slinks back into the basem*nt and the back of Joel’s neck prickles with unease again. Yeah, she was awake and talking to him and the wound looks fine, but…she still seems kind of groggy and weak. Surely she shouldn’t be this listless after over twelve hours of sleep?

Blood loss, he tells himself firmly. That’s all it is. All of these strange behaviors can be explained by the fact that she lost a lot of f*cking blood yesterday, way too much for a young girl like her, and this is just her body trying to compensate. That might be why she still looks a little sweaty, maybe her blood pressure hasn’t levelled back out yet, is still too low. Plus, he can only compare Ellie’s current condition to the condition of grown men he’s seen trying to recover from a hemorrhage on the same scale as hers. And if he recalls correctly, they were woozy and weak for days afterwards. He can hardly expect a girl of Ellie’s size to bounce back as fast as they did.

She just needs another day or two. She’ll rally round.

It’s Ellie. Nothing can keep her down for very long. Not even this.

Hang tight, kiddo. We’ll be out of this mess soon.

/////

Joel digs his map out of his backpack, lays it on the floor and sits cross-legged in front of it, tracing his fingertip over long-derelict freeways, contour lines of mountains and blue threads of rivers. Somewhere in this labyrinth of geographic features is their way out of this lonely corner of Colorado. He’s been sat here for almost an hour, mulling it over.

But he’s struggling to concentrate. His eyes keep flicking back up to Ellie, asleep and trembling on her mattress.

It’s coming up on twenty-four hours since she was stabbed. Joel knows he should be pleased about that – don’t they say that the first twenty-four hours after a serious injury are the most critical? But he isn’t. Partly because he’s still heartsick over the fact that it ever happened at all and partly because, looking at Ellie right now, he still just has this sense that something is amiss (well, asides from the gigantic f*cking hole in her stomach) but he can’t put his finger on what exactly. It won’t go away, no matter how much he tries to ignore it or think about something else. Again, he tries to tell himself that he’s getting worked up over nothing, that he’s looking for a problem that isn’t there, just out of habit.

(The “dad” part of his DNA, that’s what Tommy used to call it. That persistent, primeval state of being that he can’t do anything about, an element of himself that he can’t change any more than he can change the color of his eyes).

But more than any of his worries, Joel just finds himself chomping at the bit to get the hell out of here, start making their way back to Jackson. It’s not just his desperate desire to get Ellie into the hands of people who actually know what to do after a stabbing, it’s that he also can’t stop thinking about those raiders. They’ll be back on the prowl with the breaking of day and enough time has passed that they might be getting close to the area, might be circling this town and closing in on their location…

Joel shakes that thought out of his head and firmly tells himself to focus on something more pragmatic instead – like figuring out that reroute back to the I-25. He’s got the location of the university marked and they’d fled westward, so he can make an educated guess as to their current position. Joel tries to parse out a route that can get them back towards the I-25 while giving the university as wide a berth as possible and keeping them in cover, away from the open exposure of those plains they crossed yesterday.

If he’s got it right, they can keep heading deeper into the woods, heading in a northerly direction, circle around the shore of a lake called Silver Lake, keep following the foot of the mountain range until they make it out of the forest. That should deposit them back on the I-25 about ten miles from where they’d split off from it yesterday to start heading in the direction of the university. It’ll take a few hours longer than it would if they just go back the way they came, but as far as Joel’s concerned, those raiders have claimed the university as part of their territory since the Fireflies left, so he’s going to keep well out of their way.

Joel is startled out of his thoughts when he suddenly hears a loud neigh echoing through the house.

Oh, yeah, that’s right. He’s got somebody else to look after as well as Ellie.

Joel sighs heavily. It can’t be helped and he reminds himself that they still need Callus to get back home, but he still feels reluctant to leave Ellie’s side for the amount of time it’ll take to make sure all of the horse’s needs are seen to.

No. It’s fine. She’s been in a stable condition for hours now, doing nothing but sleeping. She should probably be okay. She won’t even notice he’s gone. She didn’t earlier on.

Even so, he wants to make sure she’s okay with it first. He taps Ellie on the shoulder.

“Ellie,” he murmurs. “Wake up, kiddo.”

Her lashes flutter and she stares up at him blearily through half-lidded eyes.

“I gotta go check on the horse,” Joel says. “You gonna be okay if I go upstairs for a little while?”

Ellie makes an indistinct humming sound that might be a “Mm-hmm.”

He’s not sure if she’s too lethargic to understand what he just said, but Joel just nods, taking what he can get, and teases a lock of her hair back from her forehead.

“Okay, honey. I won’t be long.”

He goes upstairs, heads towards the garage. He can already hear fussy hoofbeats clacking against concrete and Callus whickering from inside. The poor animal’s been locked in there for almost a whole day now and been ignored for practically all of it, no wonder he’s starting to get a bit testy. If he’s left alone in that cramped space for too long without food, he could probably start getting destructive and cause a racket and that’s the last thing they need.

Joel opens the garage door to find Callus pawing at the floor with his front hoof, tail swishing. Then the scent of horsesh*t hits Joel’s nostrils and he sees a pile of fresh road apples sitting steaming on the floor.

“sh*t…” Joel mutters, unable to even find amusem*nt at just how literal that statement is. It’s just one more thing for him to take care of. He tries not to hold it against Callus (everybody’s gotta go sometime) and goes over to him, grabs the reins, patting him along the muzzle. The horse starts snuffling at Joel’s coat pockets, looking for titbits he doesn’t have.

“You must be hungry, huh?” Joel commiserates. “Come on, then.”

With some struggle, Joel gets the garage door back open again, leads the horse out into the street. Out of habit, he pulls his revolver out and points it directly ahead. He doesn’t like being out here, he’s already feeling too exposed, his heart starting to pound faster as he scans the houses and the trees, eyes sharply alert for any flicker of movement, any rangy faces ducking out of sight behind fences or cars. He strains his ears to listen for anything that sounds like human activity, but all he finds is birdsong and the rustle of the trees in the wind.

Callus lets out a snort behind him and Joel shakes his head, tries to set his mind back on horse food. His mind hits a blank as he stares around at all the snow. Out on the road they didn’t have to worry about this, they were able to frequently find lower ground where the snow hadn’t fallen as thickly and let Callus graze on the grass. Meanwhile, the only green thing that’s growing in abundance here is pine needles, but they’re toxic to horses. The snow is lying about two feet deep, so Joel does his best to kick it away, ends up having to get on his hands and knees to scoop it away so Callus can get to the brown, patchy tufts of grass underneath that probably haven’t seen the sun in months. A pretty pathetic meal and hardly nutritious, but it’s all that’s on offer.

“Sorry, buddy,” Joel says, patting Callus’s mane apologetically. “Few days and you’ll be back in Jackson, you can go back to eatin’ the good stuff. We all can.”

Normally he wouldn’t be this talkative with an animal, but Ellie’s convalescence has left him feeling a big silent gap where there should be a chattering little voice. He feels a bit silly for it but bouncing words off Callus helps fill that void, just a tiny bit.

Leaving the horse to munch on grass and snow, Joel goes and sits on an overturned metal bucket lying near the front door, continuing to observe their surroundings. His hand is still aching from that dumbass wall punch yesterday, so he sinks his fist into a snow drift that’s heaped up against exterior walls. Probably several hours too late for icing it to have any effect, but it’ll numb the pain for a little while at least. He keeps it buried until his skin is burning from cold.

Across the road, Joel spots a shovel leaning against the wall of a house and goes over to retrieve it, wishing he’d spotted it earlier – would’ve been much easier to get snow out of the way for Callus’s grass with that than with his bare hands. The grip handle is snapped off, leaving behind a jagged shard that reminds Joel unsettlingly of that bloodied wooden shard from yesterday, but the blade is intact. He scrapes up Callus’s sh*t from the garage and dumps it underneath a little blue spruce before retaking his spot on the bucket.

After what feels like an hour (or at least, as long as he’s comfortable leaving Ellie alone), he gets up and starts to lead the horse back inside. He feels guilty that he can’t take Callus out for a proper run to stretch his legs, but the last thing he wants to do is leave a bunch of obvious hoofprints around the neighborhood, especially when he’s still feeling this paranoid about those raiders hunting him and Ellie down like a pack of bloodhounds. If it were any other season, sure, but all this f*cking snow is too much of a hindrance. Snow has never been a concern for practically his whole life, having spent most of it either in Texas (where it never snowed) or in Boston (where the high foot traffic quickly turned it to slush, so it would’ve been impossible to track footprints even if you wanted to) so he’s just now appreciating its uniquely irritating aspects.

The snow makes Joel’s thoughts turn to the possibility of those raiders following his and Ellie’s trail after they leave and make their way through the woods and around that lake. Maybe if he had some rope, he could tie a tree bough to Callus’s tail to smooth away any evidence of their trail as they walk. But that would just leave equally conspicuous drag marks behind and it might annoy the horse or slow him down. Plus, he doesn’t have any rope, so there’s that.

Just full of bright ideas, aren’t you, Joel?

Guess they’ll just have to outrun them and hope that they just get fed up with chasing after them and give up. It happens all the time in this world now – without the FBI or CCTV or private detectives or paper trails, people can simply just disappear over the horizon and you have no hope of ever being able to track them down again. Joel’s been in that position before and knows that sometimes it’s better to just cut your losses.

Callus lets out an irritated nicker as they head back into the garage.

“Yeah, I know, sorry,” Joel says over his shoulder to the horse as he pulls the garage door back down again. “We’ll be headin’ back out soon, though. You’ll get a good long walk today.”

They’ll have to get going soon, while it’s still light. The sun will start setting around five pm. Joel weighs up in his head whether it would be a good idea to maybe have Callus ride through the night and cut down their travel time. Maybe there’s a chance they can make it back up to Jackson in four days, even three.

Or maybe there’s a chance he walks them straight over the edge of a ravine because he can’t see sh*t in the dark.

Joel is still grinding his teeth together in annoyance at himself as he heads back down into the basem*nt. Ellie’s kicked off her blanket a little bit, exposing her leg. Joel tugs it back over her, tucking it in against her body. He frowns, taking her in. He kneels beside her again and calls her name quietly.

“Ellie?”

She doesn’t answer, instead flinching at the sound of his voice and turning her face away from him. It’s pinched in pain, brow furrowed in a tense, worried expression. Her arms and legs are still twitching and fidgeting underneath her blanket, now in a more fitful manner.

He’s abruptly struck with the memory of Sarah as a toddler, huddled in a ball in her crib, clutching her Glo Worm toy to her chest, shivers racing through her body, sweat soaking through her hair.

The creeping dread that’s been lapping at him all day suddenly looms back up like a tidal wave and a single, inescapable thought punches all the air out of Joel’s stomach.

Something’s wrong.

He’s been trying to kick it out of his thoughts all night and all morning, but it’s still buzzing in the back of his mind, like an angry insect caught in a jar, and it’s telling him. Something is very wrong with Ellie. This isn’t anything to do with the stab wound or blood loss, this is something else. She’s still shivering, but her face is even sweatier than it was this morning, and her cheeks are now flushed as red as her wound site. But even with midday sunlight pouring in through the windows, the basem*nt hasn’t gotten any warmer. So why is she –

And then the signs become chillingly, stupidly obvious.

Restless. Shivering. Sweating. Red flush. Confusion.

Joel suddenly realizes what it is he’s been overlooking, and his hand practically shoots out to press against Ellie’s forehead.

Christ, she’s burning up. He cups her cheeks in his hands, panic suddenly clawing its way up his throat. Her whole head feels like it’s on fire.

And you don’t get a fever without infection…

Joel all but whips back the blanket and tugs up Ellie’s sweater to get a look at the wound. No, no, no, it can’t be, he only checked it a couple of hours ago, it was fine, it was clean…

Please don’t be

His heart drops when he sees it.

Pus. Oozing up, whitish-yellow, between the stiches, collecting in suppurating little pockets along the entire length of the wound, scales of dried blood still glistening around the black thread. The skin surrounding the wound is bright-red and weepy, tight with inflammation. Joel leans closer and sniffs and a foul stink burns in his nostrils, the reek of festering flesh. He palpates the wound gently with his fingertips and feels hard, swollen lymph underneath the skin.

For a moment, all Joel can feel is a numb pall of shock.

And then fury at himself explodes through his head like a reactor going off.

f*ck!

Of course it’s f*cking infected, what did he expect, using a dirty, crusty needle and grimy thread, whiskey being a piss-poor substitute for disinfectant. And that shard of wood must’ve been crawling with bacteria. Why the f*ck didn’t he think to flush out her wound first before suturing it shut? There must’ve been tiny splinters left behind. And now he’s sewn them up inside of her and allowed them to fester and add infection to the list of things her body’s having to fight against, on top of blood loss and internal injuries.

You stupid f*cking bastard, you did this. You’ve f*cking killed her.

Joel buries his head in his hands, fists gripping at his hair, feeling the blood pounding at his temples. He’s frozen in place, just staring down at Ellie, unable to think or breathe, trying to swallow back the scream that wants to explode out of his throat.

Well, sh*t. What now? What the f*ck does he do now?

This changes everything. Twelve hours ago he’d been hoping that Ellie would have recovered enough strength to be able to withstand the five-day journey back to Jackson. It’s what he’d been banking on all night. Obviously she’d still be in pain and fatigued from blood loss, there’s not a lot he can do about that, and there was no way he’d be making her walk (during the journey to the university, they’d occasionally gotten off Callus and walked for a few miles to let him take the weight off his back). But she’d seemed lucid enough when they were talking yesterday afternoon, so he’d hoped she’d have just enough in the tank that he could feel confident about her chances out there. To gradually be able to stay awake for longer periods, stay upright in Callus’ saddle, be able to hold on to him, but more importantly, be able to keep her wits about her, to listen to whatever instructions he gave her and be able rough it in the wild until they could get her to a real doctor.

But now there’s no chance of that happening. He knows how debilitating a fever is. She’ll be weak and foggy, scarcely conscious, only growing more so the longer the infection is allowed to fester, unable to do anything without his assistance. And there’s so many dangers out there. Their relatively undisturbed journey from Jackson had given Joel a false sense of security but Tommy had called it “severely f*cked up” for a reason and he’d turned out to be right in the end. What if they run into those raiders again? Or another hostile group? Or Infected? If he’s carrying her in his arms and he runs out of bullets, he won’t have time to put her down in order to reload and they’ll both get ripped to shreds. She won’t be able to run, she won’t be able to commandeer Callus and ride away on her own if he gets overwhelmed or killed, won’t be able to find her way back to Jackson. And even assuming their journey back to Jackson is as quiet as their journey from it was, what if the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse and they’re caught in a blizzard, out in the open? Just an hour ago he was willing to risk it, but not now. Sick people don’t last long when exposed to the elements.

No. No, he can’t take her back out into the wilds, not like this. It’s – it would kill her for sure.

The realization settles into Joel like ice water shooting through his veins.

They’re stuck here.

All his thoughts about making it back to Jackson, delivering Ellie into the hands of their doctors, dissolve like salt in water. And there’s no help coming, the only people who know they’re out here are those f*cking raiders, who would sooner finish Ellie off while she’s too sick and weak to fight back than get her help.

Joel’s head starts to spin with all the possibilities of what could happen next – premonitions that all end with Ellie as gray-faced and glazed-eyed and motionless as Sarah had been. He feels as helpless as if a hurricane were bearing down on him at breakneck speed, on an unstoppable trajectory. There’s only one thought in his mind, frightened and childlike and playing on repeat:

What do I do now?

For one mad moment he entertains Ellie’s idea of riding for Jackson himself and returning with help, but he dismisses it almost as quickly as he did yesterday. No f*cking way. If he leaves Ellie, then she dies. And that’s not happening.

But what then? He can’t take her on the road and it’ll take too long to go for him to go and get help, so…what’s f*cking left?

Joel, you have to think of something.

Joel puts his head in his folded arms. He can’t f*cking think. His anxiety has transformed into full-blooded fear. It's alive and growing inside him, choking off any concrete thoughts before they can even begin. He can feel it starting in his stomach, in the deep, dark space where he keeps all his unwanted, unproductive feelings, feels it spreading outwards through his body, trying to ensnare his breath and clutch his heart and cloud his brain until he just becomes animalistic with panic –

Don’t. Don’t go there now. Just focus. Breathe.

Joel clenches his eyes shut until the only thing he can see is his own blood pumping in red flashes behind his eyelids. He presses his forehead against his knees, almost huddling in the fetal position, buries his face in the dark cocoon of himself and sucks warm air into his lungs. And again and again until the sense that his blood is vibrating stops and he no longer feels like he can feel the thick, sharp pulse of his heart at the back of his throat.

Ellie’s depending on him not to fall apart. She needs him now, more than ever.

Work the f*cking problem.

Okay. Jackson’s out. For now. The scales have tipped out of their favor. So he’s gotta tip them back. He’s survived twenty years in the apocalypse, he’s been in bad situations like this before, where it looked like this could be it, where his fight-or-flight instinct felt more like a kill switch, and somehow he’s always found a hail Mary. He’s thought and fought and bled his way out before, he can do it again. He has to. He’s got to go back and use every bit of experience and knowledge he’s accumulated in the time since Outbreak Day and put it to use now.

Joel takes a couple of minutes to mentally work his way down the decision tree and finds that there’s only one real option. He’s going to have to go out scavenging, see if he can find any medicine. Paracetamol would help bring her fever down and might make a dent in her pain. Ibuprofen might not treat the infection outright, but it could help reduce the inflammation in the wound.

But what he really needs are antibiotics. He’s learned to read pill bottles over the years, knows all the magic words to look out for: amoxicillin, flucloxacillin, doxycycline, levofloxacin, ampicillin, penicillin…any of those could work.

But the chances of finding them are close to non-existent. After Outbreak Day, every Walgreens and CVS nationwide was ransacked within a week. The only places still making new antibiotics are the pharmaceutical manufacturing plants in QZs still controlled by FEDRA, mainly Atlanta and San Jose. It was difficult enough to get hold of them back in Boston, so it’s virtually impossible that the supply has circulated out into the barren wildlands.

So what does that mean for their current situation? It’s an isolated residential neighborhood at the foot of the mountains, no shops or drugstores or doctors’ offices to be seen. The chances that someone was hoarding antibiotics out here are slim to none. Is he going to have to take the horse out, go further afield, see if he can find a proper town where he would be more likely to find what he needs? It’s a risky move – those raiders are most likely still in the area and not in the mood to hear a sad story about a sick, injured little girl.

Plus, the thought of leaving Ellie alone and undefended while he pisses off to places unknown, even if it’s in her best interests, makes everything in his being scream, “What the f*ck is wrong with you?”

But just thinking about going around in circles around this small town is already filling him with frustration, already making him feel like it’ll be a pointless endeavor.

Come on. You found that needle and thread and you didn’t think you would. You don’t know for sure until you go looking.

Joel lifts his head. Exhales long and slow.

He’ll make a start in this neighborhood. Yeah, it might all turn out to be a wasted effort but he’s gotta start somewhere.

But he’s got to clean the pus out of Ellie’s wound first. If he leaves it in, the bacteria could get into her bloodstream and spread further through her body, causing sepsis, a common and painful killer in the Boston QZ.

Fresh out of towel scraps, Joel digs his spare undershirt out of his backpack and tears it into pieces. He tugs Ellie’s sweater back up and gives the edge of the wound a gentle pinch between his fingers, terrified of tearing the stitches. His stomach roils when pus pops out from between the stitches. He delicately squeezes along the length of the wound, fingers shaking, and more blobs of thick, poisonous-smelling discharge, streaked through with fresh blood, break through. Thankfully it doesn’t require much pressure to get it to come out, but Ellie still jerks and whimpers at the contact, her eyelids flickering.

“I know, baby, sorry,” Joel whispers, dabbing away the disgusting yellow gunk with a piece of torn fabric. “But I’ve gotta clean that sh*t out.”

He keeps wiping until no more pus is coming out, then sponges down the wound with some more water from his canteen. Then he wets one of the cloth pieces and places it over Ellie’s forehead, in the hopes that that’ll cool the fever. He rests his hand over her head a second longer, guilt gnawing at his gut and anger seething in his veins.

He can’t f*cking believe it’s taken him till now to notice that she was getting feverish. How could he have missed this? Still feeling weak after over twelve hours of sleep, speaking in mumbled half-sentences, confusing the raiders with the Fireflies…those were obvious warning signs, he should’ve known something was seriously up then. And didn’t she say to him earlier, that she wasn’t feeling good? Why hadn’t he listened to her? He’d been so busy trying to assuage his own doubts and fears that he’d taken his eye off the ball and forgot to be vigilant for signs of infection, something that any competent survivor would know to be wary of after a deep wound like this.

If she makes it through this, you’d better spend every waking minute of your life making it up to her.

“I gotta go back out for a bit, okay?” Joel tells her softly. “We gotta get you some medicine. You’ll be alright. I’m sorry, you…you were tryin’ to tell me earlier, weren’t you? I should’ve noticed sooner. I know you’re feelin’ real sh*tty right now, baby, but you’re gonna be fine. I’m gonna find you somethin’ that’ll make you feel better.”

And he will. He’s not about to promise her all this with no intention of following through.

Failure is not an option, he thinks suddenly and almost scoffs out loud at himself for how absurd a thought that was. Like he’s an action hero in a movie, a good guy who always wins the day. Dream on, you dipsh*t.

He hasn’t watched Apollo 13 (or any movie for that matter) in two decades, so he’s not sure why he’s thinking about that quote now. Maybe because Ellie would probably f*cking adore it. She would be telling him all the ways in which it’s accurate to the real Apollo 13 mission and where they took artistic license, would be spouting that damn phrase just as much as she says, “Endure and survive.” She’d told him, during one of their many conversations on the way to the university, that she’d watched a movie in the main Jackson mess hall, projected on a screen (she confessed that she hadn’t really been paying much attention, but proclaimed what little she could remember of the movie to be “boring as sh*t” and the main character to be “such a f*cking dork, man”). Joel wonders if they have a copy of Apollo 13 stashed away in their collection.

Suddenly, more than anything else in the world, he wants to sit down beside her and watch her watching it, imagines her with a wide-eyed look of wonder and mouthing, “Holy sh*t.” He wants to reclaim her childhood for her, wants to give her a life without armed raiders and blood-drenched clothes and the weight of humanity’s expectations on her shoulders. Joel wants all of those little moments, like he used to have with Sarah – Ellie turning up in the kitchen, bleary-eyed and tousle-headed, for breakfast; Ellie complaining that math homework is “too f*cking hard”; Ellie pleading with him to be allowed to stay up past her bedtime so she can finish the latest chapter of a book; Ellie cackling with a group of kids her own age after she tells them that “The cross-eyed teacher had trouble controlling his pupils”; Ellie getting flour all over the place as she learns how to make a cake; Ellie sitting on a porch at night with a blanket round her shoulders and a tea mug clasped between her hands, hunting for Orion’s Belt and Cassiopeia and Andromeda in the sky.

The particles of this potential future seem to swirl together in his head, the normality of it all as glittering and alluring as gold in a riverbed. They dance before his eyes in beautiful, kaleidoscopic fragments and he wants it, so badly that he feels it physically in his gut, like a hunger pang.

Joel sinks his teeth into his lip, his throat clenching tight against a wave of sorrow.

He’s let her down. Again. Maybe she’s too sick right now to know it, but he knows it. The least he can do is choose to do something about it rather than wallow in his failure.

He knows how Ellie be reacting to all of this, if the situation were reversed and he was in desperate need of antibiotics. She wouldn’t waste time wallowing, she wouldn’t allow herself to be consumed with failure. She’d pull herself up and say, “f*ck it” and allow sheer stubbornness and angry defiance at the odds to drive her out there and find the impossible thing, because she hates believing that anything’s impossible. And if Joel were to tell that sometimes that’s just the way it is, she’d say, “f*ck you, man. I’ll find a way, you’ll see.”

Okay. f*ck everything. He’ll find a way.

Joel brushes back a limp strand of hair from Ellie’s damp forehead.

“Be back soon.”

/////

Let’s try this again, Joel thinks wearily, as he gears up to search through it one more time, feeling like he’s already combed every f*cking inch of this house.

The bathrooms are both useless, the only things left being makeup and grooming equipment, vanity-pleasing things that are redundant in the apocalypse. Nothing in the kitchen either. In the master bedroom, he finds some old paperback novels tucked away in the nightstand – mostly romance sh*t that neither he nor Ellie would ever read: The Bridges of Madison County, Flowers from the Storm, Dreaming of You, Wildest Hearts, The Notebook. The pages are crinkled and browned from exposure to sunlight but still relatively dry. Into his next fire they go, then.

In the child’s bedroom, always the least likely room to yield anything along the lines of pills or bottles, Joel’s eyes fall again on the little Star Wars figurines on the shelf. He picks up Jango Fett, turning it over ruefully in his fingers. It looks a bit like a spaceman. Without really knowing why, he pockets it.

Well, that’s it then. This house has relinquished all the resources it has to give. He tries not to let it get him down. He’s already been through this house like three times now and he’d lowered his expectations accordingly.

On to the next one.

Joel keeps his revolver at the ready as he heads outside. But there’s nobody else around, still just him and the birds. And his complete f*cking asshole of a mind, trying to bully him and let him know every five seconds that it’s all his fault that Ellie’s wound has got infected.

You knew something was wrong with Ellie, it hisses. And you chose to ignore it because you were too scared to face the facts, because you couldn’t take one more thing going wrong. That would be bad enough, but you sewed all that sh*t inside her in the first place, why didn’t you stop to think –

Well, what else was I supposed to do? Just let her bleed to death? he thinks back angrily, wishing his inner voice was a physical person standing next to him so he could punch its lights out.

No. There’s a lot of things he’s done wrong in the last day, but he won’t allow himself to feel guilty about putting dirty stitches in. They had no other choice. It was the lesser of two evils.

Still. Doesn’t mean he’s happy about it, doesn’t make him any less seething with rage over this setback, this latest stroke of bad luck that Ellie’s had to suffer.

But, like yesterday, he grabs hold of that rage and holds it tight, till it burns. Only this time, instead of using it as a distraction against his inner demons, he’s decided to be like Ellie and make anger his best motivator. Anger is going to keep him going long after anyone else would’ve called it quits. Anger is going to propel him in the right direction and help him find medicine for Ellie.

Joel stands at the top of the street, taking in the houses. On this street alone, he counts at least twenty of them.

Please, let somebody who lived here have had strep throat right before Outbreak Day, he thinks.

There’s an RV near the top of the main road. Might as well start there.

He sees the bodies almost as soon as he steps inside. Two of them, mostly covered under a moth-eaten blanket, just the bones of their feet visible, poking out from underneath. One set of bones looks smaller, more delicate than the other pair. Joel swallows. A cursory glance around the space tells him all he needs to know about who those tiny bones belong to – the sight of a teddy bear, its pink fur turned a grubby gray; a crayon drawing on the tabletop, of a squiggly orange cat wearing a crown and a red cape; a photograph tacked to one of the cabinets, a little blond girl dressed in a stripy green tank top, grinning into the camera with her top two teeth missing.

How did she die? Not Cordyceps, there’d be fungus sprouting all over the place. Hypothermia? Starvation? Or was she poisoned to spare her from a cruel, painful end at the hands of FEDRA soldiers or the jaws of the Infected? A lot of parents started doing that, when word started getting out that you couldn’t trust FEDRA when they said they were taking you to a QZ.

Is that her mother's or father’s arms she’s cradled in underneath that blanket?

Joel forces himself to look away. The littlest bodies are always the hardest. Whenever he sees one, it drags his mind down an unbearable path, all the way back to a shallow grave in a Texas ditch.

Only now it’s trying to drag his mind to a fresh grave dug in amongst the pines, up in the surrounding mountains, a grave that doesn’t exist yet, but might be in his near future –

Focus.

Joel picks his way carefully around the bodies, trying not to disturb them, opening cabinets and drawers, kicking aside debris on the floor. Nothing useful. Guilt needles him as he leaves, fleetingly wishing he could give that little girl a more fitting resting place, someplace where she might be surrounded by wildflowers and butterflies come springtime. But he can’t. He’s got a living, flesh-and-blood girl counting on him. There’s nothing he can do for bones.

At the very least, this little girl will always be in the arms of someone who loved her. It’s better than what a lot of others got.

I hope it’s peaceful, wherever you are now.

Joel lets his mind drift into autopilot as he heads back out into the street, working his way up and down it. He forces open every mailbox still standing, hoping for mail-order prescriptions never collected. He smashes the windows of every car he finds with the butt of the rifle, reaching inside to check the glove compartments, wrenching open any doors that aren’t frozen or rusted shut to look underneath the seats. He finds plenty of useless paraphernalia from before Outbreak Day – empty beer cans, paper drinking cups and candy wrappers, discarded chewing gum petrified into rock, crumpled tissues, drivers’ licenses, a pair of sunglasses with a missing lens, scratched CDs fallen out of their cases, desiccated Little Tree air fresheners, one of those bobble-headed dog ornaments for your dashboard, an empty bottle of antifreeze, an ice scraper –

But no medicine. Not one single measly pill.

What he wouldn’t give for a military vehicle right now. FEDRA had spread out to every corner of America in the days after Outbreak Day and plenty of their trucks had gotten caught up in the madness, overwhelmed by Infected or desperate civilians looking for supplies. That or their engines would crap out. Now they just lay abandoned in streets or parking lots or on the sides of highways and finding one could potentially be a goldmine, even after twenty years – food rations, ammo, medical kits. He and Tommy had found them to be extremely helpful on the journey north from Texas – one time they’d even raided a crashed FEDRA helicopter in a field in Georgia. And he and Ellie had come across a few whenever they passed through towns on their trek up through Kansas and Nebraska to Wyoming, helping themselves to codeine pills and waterproof matches and rifle cartridges and flashlight batteries.

But there’s nothing of that sort in this tiny town. FEDRA probably never even made it up here. The people who used to live here might have been spared firing squads and mass graves, but being left to fend for themselves obviously didn’t work out any better either.

Joel circles around on the spot, looking up and down the street. It’s starting to feel like one of the most edge-of-civilization places he’s ever been.

Yesterday he’d almost cried at the sight of this small settlement. Now he feels like he’d willingly walk into the ruins of Denver or Aurora or Colorado Springs and battle the Infected, FEDRA, Fireflies and rebel militias alike, if it would increase his chances of finding medicine for Ellie…

Don’t panic. Just move on. Houses next.

Joel spends the better part of the afternoon working his way through the houses on the main street. Thankfully he finds no Infected, but he does come across a few more bodies – one lying in a bed, black mummified skin stretched taut over the shape of its skull; one still sitting upright in an armchair, wisps of blond hair still clinging to its scalp. In one house, he finds a skeleton slumped against the wall, pistol still clutched in between bony fingers (bullets incompatible with his revolver), a spray of ancient brownish-black blood on the wall behind it, exploded all around the head like a starburst. Joel glances at the craggy hole in the back of the skull and shivers, thinking of how close he’d come to the same end.

He goes through what feels like an endless array of cabinets, wardrobes, drawers, trunks, chests and boxes. He digs behind sofa cushions and in the pockets of any trousers or coats he finds, rummages in handbags and backpacks, turning them upside down and dumping their detritus on to the floor, gets on his hands and knees to sweep underneath beds and dressers. And every time, he comes up with nothing. He despises the little bubble of hope that rises up inside him whenever he starts fresh in a new house or spots a cupboard that might be promising, only for it to be in vain, over and over.

Joel loses track of time as he goes through house after house after house, feeling like he’s caught in a time-loop of living-room-kitchen-bathroom-bedrooms. Each one feels indistinguishable from the last, noteworthy only in the sense that they all fail to deliver what he’s looking for. He walks past dozens of family portraits and stuffed animals and dog food bowls and notes pinned to fridges with magnets and all the other little relics of the lives once lived in these houses. All these nameless, numerous people with their hopes and worries and shortcomings and secrets all faded away to time, their ultimate fates now just a guessing game for survivors passing through, like him.

Over the course of his search, the sight of mundane things like books and jewelry and ceramic mugs and calendars and wind chimes and board games come to fill Joel with anger. Stupid, useless sh*t that can’t help Ellie. All of it just feels so f*cking disposable and frivolous, consumerist kitsch that meant nothing in the end. Why did people waste their time with stuff like this? Why has he found like five different copies of that Hootie & the Blowfish album, but he can’t find a single bottle of Tylenol or blister pack of Advil or box that reads “Levaquin” or “Augmentin”?

Yesterday, Joel had had his suspicions that he and Ellie might not have been the first people to stumble upon this town – somebody before them had dragged that mattress down into the basem*nt, after all. Now that suspicion is calcifying into dread. What if other survivors have already long ago plundered this place of any remaining drugs or medication?

Come on. Just give me something.

In a purple-painted teenage girl’s bedroom he does find some clean clothes that might be a good replacement for Ellie’s blood-soaked garments – a dark-blue woolen sweater and a pink t-shirt. It’s one of those Happy Bunny ones that were all the rage in the early 2000s. He knows Ellie would turn her nose up at the color pink, but he likes to think she’d get a kick out of the design – a grinning white rabbit holding a bunch of yellow lemons with the slogan “When life gives you lemons, squirt the juice into the eyes of your enemies.”

But what use is clean clothes if Ellie never gets well enough to wear them?

Keep going. Don’t give up yet.

That illogical voice in his head keeps driving him onwards, keeps telling him just one more. One more house, one more room, one more pocket. It tells him that if he just searches meticulously enough and checks all the unusual places that nobody else would think to look then he’ll discover something they overlooked. It tells him that if he stops now then he might be stopping just short of achieving his goal. Even as his sleepless night begins to catch up with him and he grows exhausted, he keeps going. Ever since Ellie was stabbed, he’s already gotten far luckier than he ever could’ve hoped for – finding this neighborhood, the needle and thread, the chiminea, the blanket. He tells himself he can get lucky again, tries to believe it in his bones.

But luck always runs out eventually. Ever since Outbreak Day, that’s what he’s always told himself and anyone willing to listen to him, whenever they got too co*cky or too optimistic and needed a harsh reminder of the way things were.

Maybe this time, his luck has dried up…

Eventually, as the sun begins to slant in the sky again and he exits what he thinks might be house number fifteen, Joel has to admit defeat. For now, at least. He takes out his frustration on an old trashcan by kicking it over, sending twenty-year-old garbage tumbling over into the snow. For a moment he just stands there, clenching and unclenching his fists, breathing hard, his nose running in the cold air.

He tells himself that he’s not done here, that there’s still a couple more streets to check out and, at first light, he’ll be back out and can resume the search. But it doesn’t make him feel any better. He stands and stares at the sun dropping, trying to swallow back his sense of despair, trepidation worming its way through him over what the night ahead might bring and how the hell they’re going to make it through till sunrise.

The longer the infection’s allowed to fester, the further it can spread into Ellie’s body, the harder it makes it to treat. If he doesn’t find any medicine by the end of tomorrow, things could start to look pretty f*cking bad. Maybe even before that point.

“f*ck…” Joel mutters to himself, because what else is there to say?

Once again, he’s failed.

He sucks in a breath and holds it, clenches his fists till he can feel his nails digging grooves into his palms, then slowly blows the air back out of his lungs. No. It’s not over yet. It’s only over when he’s combed every inch of this place. Then he can freak out about what to do next. But giving in to these defeatist impulses isn’t going to make a difference right now. Right now, he’s got to keep it together. In the meantime, Ellie’s just going to have to outlast the dark and make it till dawn. He can help make sure of that. He’s already squeezed the pus out of the wound, that might have bought her more time. And he can poke and prod and shake her whenever it seems like she’s inching closer to some kind of coma. He can call her name relentlessly and speak loudly to her and annoy her to keep her awake, if he has to. And yeah, he’ll stay up for another whole night and count her every breath and heartbeat, if that’s what it takes.

You’ve done all you can for now. Now go get ready for the night shift.

Not wanting to go back to Ellie completely empty-handed, Joel tears off a bunch of pine needles from a tree and gets some snow melting in the chiminea again, makes some pine needle tea. It’ll help keep her hydrated and it’s a good source of vitamin C – hardly a miracle cure, but it’s got to help in some way, right?

Joel waits for it to boil and steep, pacing back and forth across the patio, grinding his teeth as anxiety starts to squeeze at his chest again. He rests his hand over his heart, rubbing in slow circles, like he’s trying to soothe an agitated animal. It doesn’t work. He swears he can actually feel it squirming and fluttering behind his ribcage – palpitations. sh*t. He knows what that’s a harbinger of.

You can’t do that. Not now, not here. You can’t let that happen.

Joel sits down, makes himself breathe until that fluttering feeling begins to abate, forces himself to concentrate only on the sound of the water bubbling in the pot. But even still, he can’t stop from thinking…

What’ll he do if there is no medicine left in this place? It’s looking more and more likely that that’s going to be the case, that his instinct that searching this town was a waste of precious time was correct. So, what then? He’s forbidden himself from panicking about it, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be thinking ahead, preparing for the possibility.

Maybe…maybe he could try heading back to the university. It’s not that far away. If he takes Callus, he could be there and back in a couple of hours. He remembers seeing boxes of expired medication lying around, maybe some of them were antibiotics.

But then his mind comes up with a whole laundry list of reasons as to why that would be a very bad idea:

The Fireflies would probably have taken all that stuff with them. Even if at first glance it appeared that their moving day had been a frenetic one, he remembers their packing lists and he’s pretty sure they didn’t forget to include the crucial drugs, pretty sure he saw words like “amoxicillin” and “tetracycline” underlined for emphasis.

Those raiders could be lying in wait, betting correctly that he needs the medical supplies and might show his face again, walking directly into a trap.

And, with a stab of resignation, he knows the panic would strike him, probably right out in the middle of those plains, and compel him to turn right back around and ride back to Ellie.

Joel rakes a hand through his hair, resisting the urge to yank it out.

Something deep inside of him suddenly aches for Tess – if she were here, things would be a lot easier. He knows she would help him keep Ellie safe. He’d still be frightened, still roiling with all this anxiety, but at least he’d have someone to confide in, someone to take some of the weight off his shoulders, someone to wait out the long, lonely hours with him. They could’ve taken watches, ensuring Ellie always had someone keeping an eye on her, instead of Joel having to forego sleep and leave her for extended periods while he tends to the horse, searches the houses, sweeps the perimeter.

And he knows their current predicament wouldn’t be so dire if Tess was here, that Ellie’s idea of someone going back to Jackson for aid might actually work if there were three of them. He knows he could’ve left Ellie in Tess’s capable hands while he went back to Jackson for help. Or her brilliant brain would’ve come up with some solution that he would never think of, because Tess was a natural-born problem-solver, with the unique ability to make all of his worrying sound like the trivial bullsh*t it was and to cut through his pessimistic crap with calm, incisive logic.

Oh, Tess. If only you had my back now…

Joel stares out at the garden, missing his partner, watching as the shadows of the trees stretch like fingers across the ground and the sun becomes an orange fireball as it dips towards the horizon, bathing his surroundings in a hellish glow. Already he can feel the temperature beginning to plunge as the light dims further down.

A pathetic part of him hopes that maybe Tommy might come to the rescue, might get some brotherly sixth sense that they’re in trouble, might still be worried enough about Joel’s mental state to want to come out and search for them.

But that’s pie-in-the-sky thinking. Tommy’s not going to be coming. If he and Ellie disappear for months, then Tommy’s got reason to believe that it’s because they found the Fireflies and are in the process of making a cure, not because Joel was just as much of a failure as he’d insisted he was and gotten Ellie gravely injured.

Help’s not coming, Joel. Deal with it. You’ve wasted enough time out here having a pity party. Go back to Ellie.

Still simmering with self-contempt, Joel extinguishes the fire, takes the tea back inside the house, checks the barricades and Callus one final time, and heads back down into the basem*nt.

Ellie doesn’t look any better. Her expression is still twisted in discomfort, hands and feet shuffling underneath the blanket, cheeks bright red, her breath quivering in between chattering teeth. When Joel kneels beside her and places his hand on her forehead, she still feels sizzling, trembling underneath his touch. Guilt shreds through him like he’s swallowed a sharp object.

Tomorrow. He’ll do better tomorrow. But for now, she has his undivided attention.

Joel pours some of the tea into her drinking mug, blows on it to cool it. While he’s rummaging about in Ellie’s backpack to find the mug, he suddenly remembers Jango Fett in his pocket and digs it out. It’s the sort of curio that Ellie would like. That’s probably why he picked it up without thinking – it’s a dad thing. He tucks it inside her backpack, hiding it in between her spare socks and flashlight, and cautiously hoping for a time, maybe in a few days’ time or a week, when Ellie’s recovered and she’ll be rifling through her backpack and she’ll come across it and be all excited. He remembers doing the same thing with Sarah. If he was wandering around 99-cents stores during his lunch break looking for hardware items, he’d pick up some cheap knickknack to surprise her with when he got home from work. Bobby pins with little glittery butterflies. Sheets of stickers to decorate her bedroom mirror. Novelty gel pens with fluffy tops. Just something that he knew would make her smile.

Tea and a toy. Creature comforts, remnants of a kinder, simpler world. It’s the best he can offer Ellie right now.

Ellie’s still all wet with sweat and her head is floppy when he lifts it up to drink.

“Ffff…” she slurs out. Joel supposes she’s trying to say, “f*ck off.” It makes him smirk a little – his girl’s still got some of her fire, even in the ravages of fever.

“Here, Ellie, drink this.” He holds the rim of the cup to her lips, trickles a little of the liquid in. Some of it goes down her chin, but the warm temperature captures her attention and (by limp-with-fever standards, anyway) invigorates her a little. He feeds it to her in slow sips. Halfway through the tea, Ellie opens her eyes, glazed and unfocused as a newborn baby’s, and looks up at him.

“Hey, kiddo,” Joel whispers. “You sleep okay?”

“Joel?” Ellie croaks.

“Yeah, it’s me. I’m here.”

“Joel, I…feelin’ sick,” she moans.

“I know, baby. You’ve got a fever. But you’ll be alright. This’ll help,” Joel lies, proffering the rim of the cup again. “Here, drink up.”

She manages about three more swallows before she starts screwing up her face and turning her head away from the cup when he offers it to her, in a way painfully reminiscent of a certain baby who’d let him know she was over this bottle-feeding lark by doing the same thing, over thirty-four years ago now. Joel lays her head back down, wipes her chin with his jacket sleeve and gulps down the last dregs of tea in one swallow. It has a kind of citrusy flavor, almost like oranges.

Then he huffs out a breath, steeling himself, and pulls back the blanket, lifts Ellie’s sweater to check the condition of the wound.

Oh no…

It’s filled with pus again. Oozy and stinking and yellow, as if he’d never drained it in the first place. Joel just stares at it, working his jaw in equal parts frustration and worry.

Goddammit.

This isn’t good. The infection must be in there deep, if all it took was about three hours for the pus to build back up again. And her fever doesn’t feel like it’s decreased any since he left earlier this afternoon. In fact, it feels like it’s going nowhere but up.

A frisson of fear bristles through him and his heart palpitates in his chest again. Joel shakes his head roughly and thumps against his chest with his fist, as if he’s trying to physically knock the fear out of his body.

Alright, well. You know what to do. So do it.

He coats his hands in a thin layer of alcohol (his hipflask is beginning to run low), washing away any bits of dirt and grime that he’s accumulated through his day of searching and goes to squeeze the wound clean again. It must be more tender and painful than earlier on because Ellie shows less tolerance for it this time, whimpering out her discomfort and trying to wriggle away from him. Joel just about manages to get all the pus out and strokes Ellie’s hot, sweaty cheek in apology until she settles, slipping back into listlessness.

Joel sits back on his heels, his hands fidgeting like they always do when he’s feeling on edge, unsure if he’s doing the right thing here or not. Biology was never his strong suit back in high school, but isn’t pus just made up of dead white blood cells? So does that not mean that it’s just part of the healing process, her body fighting back against the infection? Is he making it worse by draining it out? He has no idea.

How long does it take for an infection to progress to full-blown sepsis, anyway? More than a day?

Joel remembers a time in the year after Outbreak Day, when Tommy had kept quiet about an infection for nearly five days, a knife slash on his arm that had gone oozy and inflamed. He’d insisted he was fine, but it wasn’t until he’d puked over the side of a bridge that Joel noticed how pale he was, how the sweat was rolling off his face, how much he was trembling, and he’d forced him to roll up his sleeve so he could take a look at it. By that point, there’d been red streaks spidering across his skin, outwards from the wound site, a clear sign that it was progressing towards blood poisoning. Joel had spent half an hour chewing him out (the idiot claimed that he hadn’t wanted to waste their precious antibiotics, was adamant that they should just let his immune system do all the work) before getting some penicillin into him. It took about five more days, but Tommy had recovered. The f*cking dumbass had been lucky not to lose his goddamn arm after that little stunt.

He doesn’t think Ellie’s as bad as that yet. Okay, she has the disadvantages of her wound being much, much deeper than Tommy’s and being short about a liter of blood, but she’s also young. And strong. And stubborn as a goddamn mule. And there’s no little streaks on her skin like Tommy’d had, so she must still have time. Maybe she can still fight this thing on her own, without any antibiotics, and win. Maybe there’s something unique about her, Cordyceps wasn’t able to take hold, so maybe – okay, now he’s just being f*cking stupid.

Just wait and see. You don’t know anything for sure yet.

Joel tucks Ellie back in and tosses the pus-covered rag into the corner of the room, lets out a long sigh.

It’s too damn quiet. Just the sounds of Ellie’s breathing and the creak of the water tank as the metal contracts from the cooling temperature. It’s a sound that Ellie likes. She told him that when they were sheltering for the night inside an old Ford Taurus, in Nebraska, about a month ago. She said she liked to pretend it’s the hull of a spaceship.

Huh. That gives him an idea…

Joel drags over Ellie’s backpack, digs out her comic book, that Savage Starlight thing. It’s an issue called “Accretion.” Joel can’t really make heads or tails of the plot, given that this is apparently number six in the series and he doesn’t have any context as to the events that led to the two main characters, Dr Daniela Star and Captain James Ryan, being forced to fight to the death in an arena by a group of slave master aliens called the Travelers. But he figures Ellie will have the prerequisite story knowledge to enjoy it and reads it aloud to her. Even does some of the sound effects for her amusem*nt. He used to do the same for Sarah, but he also remembers doing it for his mom, towards the end. The doctor encouraged him and Tommy to read aloud to her, from her favorite novels to passages from the Bible to Soap Opera Digest, because even though she so doped up on morphine she was practically orbiting the moon, she would still be able to hear them. Because her brain would still subconsciously comprehend that they were talking to her and would be comforted by it.

So that’s what he decides to do now, with Ellie. It’s his fault she’s so sick, so he can try to make amends by soothing her with stories of spaceships and light-speed travel and alien planets. Who knows, maybe it’ll give her something to unconsciously cling on to through the hours of the night, listening to the sound of his voice.

When he reaches the end of the comic, Joel switches it out for No Pun Intended. He flicks through it, recognizing some of the greatest hits of the last three months. There’s that “algae-bra” one that Ellie told him outside the gas station. And the one about being addicted to soap that had given her the first hint of a snicker after Henry and Sam. And, of course, the classic “diarrhea is hereditary” one that had had him shaking with a fit of childish laughter in the tower block in Kansas City. In retrospect, that stupid joke feels like the first little crack that would eventually send the walls around his heart crumbling down and start letting sunlight back into his soul.

Joel figures Ellie probably knows them all by heart, but he tries looking for ones he hasn’t heard yet, if only so he can bug her by beating her to the punch. An irritated Ellie is an alive Ellie, after all. There’s a whole chapter of entirely food-based puns that he skips because they make him too hungry (he’s trying to put off having to eat more of the jerky for as long as he can), but there’s still plenty of others to choose from.

“I got stuck with a taser once,” Joel recites aloud, glancing at Ellie and pausing, the way she would do, for dramatic effect. “It was a stunnin’ experience.”

He waits, studying her face for a lip twitch or anything that might indicate he’s managed to pierce through the senseless, aguey stupor she’s floating in. Predictably, nothing happens.

“That one’s actually kinda funny. Seven outta ten,” he decides, even though he knows from experience that there’s nothing remotely funny about tasers.

If Ellie were awake, maybe he’d tell her the story, about the time a riot broke out in the hanging square back in Boston. 2008, he thinks. They were executing some alleged Fireflies, the crowd was already pretty edgy and wound-up, someone had lobbed a brick at the FEDRA hangman and it all escalated from there. Joel hadn’t even joined in, he’d just been hanging around on the periphery, killing time before he had to go meet some little sh*t called Dwayne to trade cigarettes for bullets, but things had quickly spiraled out of control and he’d been trying to get away when some overzealous FEDRA rookie, desperate to prove himself, had jabbed him in the side with one of the stun guns they sometimes used for crowd control and zapped him with what felt like ten thousand volts. Joel had let out a bellow because, tough son-of-a-bitch or not, that sh*t hurt, and his legs had locked up and he’d gone crashing straight to the ground and, most humiliatingly, pissed himself a little. It’s that particular aspect that he knows Ellie would find hysterical. If he tells her, she’ll be calling him Pissy-Pants Joel till the end of time. He doesn’t care.

Let me get to tell her this story. Let me get to make her laugh again.

“Okay, how ‘bout this one? It’s right up your street,” Joel says, “Why shouldn’t you argue with a dinosaur?”

I don’t know, why? he imagines Ellie replying.

“You’ll get jurasskicked.” He shakes his head. “Awful. Negative four.”

Ellie doesn’t respond. Joel flips the page with a sigh.

Just keep it up.

“What do sweet potatoes wear to bed? Yammies.”

“Wanna hear a joke about paper? Never mind, it’s tearable.”

“I used to be afraid of hurdles, but I got over it.”

He hopes that somewhere in Ellie’s mind, currently submerged underneath the fever haze, she’s laughing her heart out.

If he closes his eyes, he can almost hear it.

/////

He keeps on reading puns until he’s straining his eyes to see in the low light and he’s wondering if Will Livingston, whoever he was, was blazed out of his mind when he wrote this book. When Tommy got high as a teenager, he’d find the most stupid sh*t funny – Joel remembers him, stinking of weed and red-eyed, laughing hysterically at Care Bears like it was Robin Williams stand-up.

He puts the book away again and it’s back to crushing silence. Night falls and he loses himself to an endless cycle of checking Ellie’s pulse, pressing his hand against her forehead to gauge her fever, mopping her brow with the wet cloth and getting more water into her. He tries shaking her gently by the shoulder and she does wake, but only for about a minute at a time. During these moments of consciousness he tries to get her to drink from his water canteen, which, to his alarm, she shows less and less interest in doing, going from sucking the water down like a baby with a bottle this morning to now reluctantly sipping a single swallow before turning her head away, like it tastes bad.

At some point, his mind tells him You’ve got to eat and Joel chokes down more jerky, barely tasting it. He doesn’t dare eat any more than one piece, not now that they’re trapped here indefinitely and he found no food today and has no idea where the next meal is going to come from. He doesn’t try to give Ellie any more either – he’s not sure he could get her to eat it, not when she’s showing an aversion to drinking.

Joel is trying not to let his bitterness over his failure to find antibiotics and his terror over her sudden distaste for water become apparent to Ellie (not that she can really sense anything right now, she’s too deep in her feverish stupor to know what’s going on) but in the cell of his mind, it demands to be thought about, like a prisoner dragging a tin cup across metal bars.

She has to keep her fluids up. Dehydration could kill her as easily as the infection could. But short of forcing water down her throat, was else can he do?

If they were in the old world, she’d be in a hospital, hooked up to an IV which could give her all the fluids she needs, to machines that could accurately monitor her heart rate, her blood pressure, temperature. She’d have a crack surgeon and knowledgeable nurses able to tend to her every need and watch her around the clock. But instead, by virtue of this f*cked-up world she was born into, she’s stuck in a frigid basem*nt on a filthy mattress, with only useless old him.

And then, just when he thinks it can’t get worse, Ellie starts to mumble again.

She’s half-conscious, eyes still closed but not completely awake either. It begins with quiet little moans, her lips mouthing incomplete words, but graduates towards spoken fragmented sentences, her tone shifting from petulant to puzzled to fearful:

“Let me out…let me…out…”

“What does…who’s…”

“Where did you go…Come back…”

Joel doesn’t know what to make of these vague clues to her dreamscape. He tries not to think too much about it (ruminating on the sad circ*mstances of Ellie’s life that might lead to her having distressing dreams is an extra layer of torment that he does not need right now) and just shushes her instead, even if she can’t hear him.

“You’re okay, baby. It’s just a bad dream,” he whispers.

It does nothing to soothe her. She twists around on her mattress as much as she’s physically able to, her hair a dark, tangled nest against her makeshift pillow, moaning jumbled nonsense.

Her semi-intelligible muttering is putting him uneasily in mind of that time when his mom had been in between chemo treatments and had picked up an infection that had swept through her immunosuppressed body like wildfire and he’d had to rush her to the ER while Tommy stayed at home with Sarah. Mom been in a similar state to Ellie right now, feverish and glassy-eyed and mumbling half-nonsense words. She’d been swiftly moved into an isolation room and had antibiotics practically force-fed through her IV. She’d pulled through, but only lived for about five more months.

What if Ellie can’t even make it five more hours?

It could just be that he's letting his guard down and anxiety’s starting to get its claws into him again, but Joel’s suddenly not sure how much more of the infection’s assault her small, injured body can take. Monitoring Ellie’s condition just keeps giving him mixed signals. Every time he puts his fingers to the side of her throat, he can feel her heart racing like a train but when he puts his good ear to her mouth and listens to her breathing, it sounds clear enough – not rattling like a broken radiator, means the infection hasn’t moved into her lungs yet. She’s been sweating buckets, her shirt is starting to stick to her chest and she hasn’t asked to get up to pee, so she must be starting to get dehydrated, but she’s at least keeping down any water he gives her. When his thoughts begin swerving anxiously towards complications of infections, like meningitis or sepsis, he thinks about waking Ellie up to check if she can still move her neck or if it’s gotten stiff and painful. He even takes her boots and socks off and inspects her toes, along with her fingers, to see if they’re turning swollen and purple (they’re not, still clammy white and cold to the touch). He checks her skin for rashes, even dashes upstairs to the kitchen to grab a drinking glass from the cabinet, in case he discovers any discolorations and has to do that glass-on-skin test that he used to do on Sarah whenever she got a suspicious-looking rash.

So far he's not finding anything that's pointing him in a conclusive direction, good or bad.

He's not sure which side of himself to believe right now – the paranoid side that sometimes turns out to be right but sometimes turns out to be overreacting or the logical side that sometimes successfully talks him down from doing something stupid but also allowed him to blind himself to Ellie’s fever earlier today.

Joel gets up and starts walking circuits around the basem*nt again. His body is churring with too much nervous energy, he’s got to do something to work it out of his system. He feels lightheaded and wobbly, attributes it to fatigue. A part of him recognizes that the more tired he gets, the less rational he’ll be, the more vulnerable he’ll be to making hasty decisions.

You should get some sleep, the voice in his head tells him, sounding soft and compassionate for once. You won’t be of any use to Ellie if you collapse from exhaustion.

f*ck that, Joel thinks back. I’m not drifting off only to wake up and find she’s

He won’t allow himself to finish that thought.

An hour. Just sleep for an hour, the voice cajoles. It won’t do her any harm.

Piss off. Joel nearly snarls it out loud.

You’re not going to find any antibiotics, you know. The sweetness is gone and now the voice is back to dripping with derision. You couldn’t even find a f*cking Tylenol. And the longer you leave it, the worse it’ll get.

Joel’s hand tightens into a fist, aches to hit something. He’d love to rip the place apart, actually, but what good would that do?

No. We’ve still got time, he argues back.

It’ll happen then, you know. If it doesn’t happen tonight, it’ll happen while you’re out there looking for something that doesn’t exist. She’ll be alone down here and she’ll just slip away while no-one’s watching

Joel presses the heels of his palms against his eyes, lets out a noise halfway between a groan and a scream.

Stop and take a breath, he can almost hear Tess saying. He breathes through clenched teeth until his head feels empty again.

Jesus f*cking Christ, this isn’t going to accomplish anything, going around in circles like this. What’s something can he do, here, right now?

He returns to kneeling by Ellie. Check the wound, check her pulse, another sip of water. Those are the only things he can do for her tonight.

Yet, it can't help but feel like a capitulation on his part.

Joel is wearily thinking about the earth’s axis as he absent-mindedly tugs back Ellie’s blanket, thinking about why it takes twelve whole-ass hours for it to rotate back towards facing the sun, thinking randomly of the 70s Superman movie where he spins the earth backwards at the end, rewinding time, only Joel would like to do the opposite, spin it forwards and speed up time and bring on the morning in a matter of moments, he’d like to be able to reach out and spin the earth around like he used to spin the model globe in his father’s study as a child –

All of his thoughts come to a crashing halt as soon as he lifts Ellie’s sweater up.

Goddammit, it’s back again. The wound is full to bursting with pus, straining against the stitches, widening the crevice in Ellie’s flesh.

Dismay pierces through Joel as swiftly and violently as a bullet. Three times. Three times it’s come back now and each time it seems more brimming with the stuff than the last time. It’s like the pus has a mind of its own, like it’s determined to come back out of spite each time he tries to lance it.

He knows infections can move fast, but this one feels especially virulent, sweeping through Ellie’s system in just under twenty-four hours and rendering her a comatose, febrile wreck. A chill sweeps through Joel as he thinks of the superbugs that used to plague hospitals before Outbreak Day, of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and strains of MRSA. Is that what they’re dealing with here? He’s not an expert, but his experiences with infection in the past tell him that the quicker a fever sets in, the poorer the prognosis. Especially if, like now, you don’t have antibiotics to counteract it. It almost reminds him of how Cordyceps can turn a person from a healthy and cognizant human to a rabid, snarling monster in just under twelve hours. Tess had already had the shakes just an hour after being bitten. He's seen with his own eyes, far too many times, the speed with which it destroys.

Except, Cordyceps can’t be cured. The cure supposedly lies in Ellie’s blood but she won’t get the chance to find out because she’s sick with something that can be f*cking cured, it’s a simple, stupid f*cking organism, it used to be cured all the f*cking time, it was so f*cking easy and he just doesn’t have the f*cking stuff to –

Joel boils over with frustration and he’s reaching for another clean rag even as his mind tells him It’s obviously not working, and leaning forward again, placing his fingertips on either side of Ellie’s festering wound. It feels hot as a coal to the touch. He’s never been exactly what you’d call a squeamish person but he still swallows back a gag as he gives it a delicate pinch and globs of pus spring up out of the wound, seeping down the side of Ellie’s waist while he wipes it away in disgust.

This time Ellie doesn’t slowly become aware of the pain while continuing to drift in a torpor. This time her eyes pop open at once, suddenly keenly alert, and her body tenses up, her hands scrabbling to cling to something.

“Ow!” she yelps. Her eyes swivel around until they find Joel’s. “Don’t!” she moans accusingly.

“I’m sorry, baby, I’ve got to,” Joel says remorsefully, squeezing the wound again, trying to put only lightest pressure on it, but Ellie still lets out a sharp cry.

“Stop it! Ow!”

She tries to blindly reach out and slap at him with her hand. Joel catches it and tucks it back by her side but she’s unable to keep still, she’s squirming underneath his grip, making it harder for him to get the job done.

“It’s infected, Ellie,” he tries to explain, but he can feel the frustration that was fueling him begin to dissolve, feels his resolve faltering, feels guilt eating at his heart as Ellie’s fever-glazed eyes stare up at him with what feels like betrayal.

You’re making it worse…

Joel bites down hard on his lip and pinches the wound again. Ellie cries out again, this time almost sounding in anguish, and jerks against him. Her hand finds his wrist, just like it did when he was applying pressure to the wound yesterday, and tries to shove him away, but her grip is terrifyingly weak compared to yesterday.

“Don’t, you’re – you’re hurting me,” she whimpers and, just like that, Joel feels all the determination inside him suddenly die, smothered like a fire under a wet blanket. f*ck. What the hell is he doing? He can’t keep doing this to her, it’s not gonna help, it’s just going to keep coming back regardless and he’s putting her through pain for nothing. He withdraws his hands from Ellie’s wound, like he’s been burned, leaving behind pus to fester inside, drops the rag and pulls her sweater back down, takes her hand in his.

“Okay, baby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he whispers, squeezing her hand tight and stroking his free hand up and down her arm. “I – I won’t do it again. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.”

A few moments pass and, as the pain fades again, Ellie’s eyes start to droop once more. Joel just sits there, his hand trembling around Ellie’s, his limbs shaking, fear crackling under his skin like static electricity, his heart thudding sickeningly in his throat as a cold, indisputable truth becomes clear.

You can’t win this one. Not on your own. You need help.

Joel lets out a shaky breath. Okay. This has gone far enough. She’s getting worse, he’s done everything he possibly can for her here and he’s out of options. Ellie doesn’t need him to be cautious and careful and weighing up the risks right now, she needs him to take a huge gamble and make it work. In fact, he knows that’s what Ellie would be saying if she had the power to advocate for herself right now: “Screw it, man, we need to go back to Jackson, if we stay here, I’m f*cked.”

Yes, Joel thinks, scarcely noticing that his breathing is starting to come a little more wildly. This is what he should’ve done all along. He just let his fearful self, his worst self, sway him. If he’d just put Ellie on the horse earlier today, as soon as he’d noticed she’d spiked a fever, they’d already be well on their way towards Jackson. But instead he just kicked the can down the road, took a “wait and see” approach and thought he could deal with it on his own. He really thought he was going to just stumble upon a treasure trove of supplies and be able to nurse her back to health here, in the middle of f*cking nowhere.

And what has his caution achieved? Nothing, except to allow Ellie to badly deteriorate.

Reality is crashing down on him like a shower of bricks. She needs real medicine that he’s never, ever going to find out here. She needs real fluids; feeble sips of water aren’t going to cut it. She needs real help, from people who know how to give it. She needs these things because if she doesn’t get them, she’ll die. And Joel refuses to have Ellie become another one of those dead kids gruesomely festooning the post-apocalyptic landscape. He refuses to have her become like that little girl’s skeleton in the RV, where, another twenty years from now, a survivor might wander down into this basem*nt and wonder whose bones those are on this mattress…

Just go. Now. Get her on the horse. Ride non-stop until you get to Jackson. There’s still time.

In a flash, Joel’s mind is made up. If there’s raiders out there, he’s just going to have to kill them. If there’s a snowfall, he’ll just have to find cover and hold Ellie close to him to keep the cold at bay. And if there’s Infected, he’s just going to have to keep as quiet and still as if he were one of those dead ones that the fungus has fused to wall.

Time melts into a blur as he gets up, shoving his arms through the straps of his backpack, grabbing Ellie’s and marching up the basem*nt stairs, every step letting out a resounding creak underneath his boots. He barges into the garage, Callus letting out a stomp and whinny of surprise at his unexpected entrance. Joel attaches Ellie’s backpack to the saddlebag. As he’s fiddling with the straps, he feels a tentative flicker in the back of his mind.

Wait a minute. Are you sure this is a good idea?

It’s that other voice, the cooler and calmer one that surfaces sometimes instead of the screeching, self-blaming one that’s usually there. The one that he let take charge while he picked Ellie up off the plains yesterday and rode into the mountains. The one that’s been continually talking him down from a panic attack all day.

“Yup, pretty sure,” Joel mutters under his breath. Great. Now he’s officially talking to himself. Crazy bastard.

You’ve had good reasons to stay right where you are, you know.

He knows. Of course he f*cking knows. It’s just that all those things he was frightened about earlier today, raiders and Infected and bad weather, are starting to pale in comparison to his fear of Ellie’s fever and Ellie’s pustulent wound and Ellie’s potential death.

I don’t care about any of those things. I can deal with them. I need to get Ellie out of here.

You’re not thinking straight right now. You’re scared. You could take her out there and walk straight into trouble.

I’m not gonna let that happen, Joel thinks fiercely, and he almost believes it.

The voice suddenly changes tactics.

It’s a clear night. Others won’t be taking shelter, they’ll be out and about out there. You were a hunter. You know how these people operate. They like to do their hunting at night. Don’t you remember?

He does. Memories pulse through his head, of himself walking through dark woods, holding a shotgun. Following a trail of blood drops and broken undergrowth. One of his companions up ahead, a man with a sharp, angular face, scraggly blond beard and rotten teeth, holding a burning torch aloft and letting out a sharp whistle. Got ‘em.

You really want those people to find Ellie?

Joel shakes it off, shakes off the memory of Tommy saying the words “severely f*cked up” and instead focuses on the part where he said, “Dangerous, but nothin’ you can’t handle.” He and Ellie didn’t meet a single person until yesterday. They just need to get away from this area, this is those f*ckers’ territory. Once they’re far away enough from the university and its surrounding areas, they’ll be fine.

He finishes securing Ellie’s backpack and turns to head back into the main house. The voice, inescapable, blurts out:

Would you stop and just think this through?

Joel slams the garage door behind him, hard enough to make an old picture frame on the hallway wall slip from its hook and fall off.

I’m done listening to you.

None of the voices in his head are helpful anymore – the panicky one is too hysterical to come up with anything solid and spends most of its time deflecting to self-recriminations instead, while the cold, logical one keeps trying to spook him out of meaningful action. Too much f*cking thinking, that’s what’s caused this whole mess. He’s going to have to cast realism and fear aside if he wants Ellie to live. He doesn’t know anything for sure about what could be waiting for them out there, all he knows is what he can see right in front of him, with his own eyes. She’s just been getting sicker and sicker and she’s not drinking and she’s in increasing amounts of pain and if they stay down here, in the cold and the dark, then he’s as good as just waiting for her to die –

Joel stomps back down into the basem*nt, goes to Ellie’s bedside. He balances on one knee, leaning forward to get his arms underneath Ellie’s back and knees.

“C’mon, baby, we’ve gotta go,” he whispers urgently.

Her body is floppy and heavy. At the movement, Ellie’s head lolls back towards him, eyes opening again.

“W-what are you…?”

“Shh, you’re alright. It’s just me.” He gently jostles Ellie into his arms and gets ready to lift her up, blanket and all.

Careful now, careful.

Joel starts to stand up – and instantly it’s a mistake. Ellie’s body folds up in his arms, bending at her abdomen, and she suddenly lets out a sharp cry of “Stop!”, and he freezes.

Be careful, you idiot!

He tries to level out her body in his arms, but she’s fully conscious now and already slipping out of his grasp, her body tense and unwieldy, and he only gets her a couple of inches off the mattress before he has to put her back down again. She groans in pain, his arms still crushed underneath her.

“Sorry…sorry…” Joel says shakily. sh*t. He knew it would be unpleasant for her, being moved, but he hadn’t been prepared for the pain to be so bad that it would immediately slice right through her fever fugue and bring her the closest to sensate she’s been in over a day. The frayed edges of his mind snag on the memory of Outbreak Day, his instinctive impulse to lift Sarah after seeing just how large the bloodstain on her body was and how she’d immediately shrieked, just like Ellie did now. He shakes himself and tries again. He at least gives her the courtesy of a warning this time, makes sure she’s looking at him when he does.

“I gotta get you up, Ellie. Okay? You ready? One, two, three…”

He raises her body up, trying his best to keep her stabilized and not put any stress on the stitches, but Ellie’s breathing immediately sharpens with pain and she’s tensing up, making it harder to lift her. Her fingers clench around the fabric of his coat sleeve, pinching the skin underneath.

“No, wait…!” she cries out, eyes wide and wild. “It hurts, it hurts!”

Joel curses and he lays her back down again. He and Ellie stare at each other as she pants for breath, caught at an impasse.

Okay. This isn’t gonna f*cking work. Not this way, anyway.

But he has to get her out of here. He’s got to try and push past Ellie’s cries of pain and her protests, tries to tell himself that any physical discomfort will be temporary and is in aid of a greater goal. And if he has to be a bit of a bully about it, then so be it. He has to summon up that same icy-cold determination he had yesterday that made him able to tune out her screams while he stitched her up.

Maybe…maybe she can walk. Maybe standing her upright will be less aggravation on the wound site than carrying her would be. If he helps her, maybe they can make it upstairs, if they take it very slowly. He recalls being nine years old, the day after his appendix was removed, the doctor making him get up and walk around the room, hanging on to his mother’s elbow while he limped up and down the pediatric ward until the doctor was satisfied.

You’re really gonna make a little girl who was stabbed yesterday walk?

Yes, he is. He has to try, anyway. What’s the alternative?

Joel takes Ellie’s hand in his, squeezes it until she looks at him.

“Ellie…I’m gonna stand you up now, okay? We’re gonna walk up the stairs and get on the horse, alright?”

“I can’t…” Ellie groans.

“Yes, you can,” Joel says as encouragingly as he can, trying to hide his dismay that this might be the first time he’s ever heard Ellie say “I can’t” to anything. “You can. Alright? We’ll do it together.”

Ellie doesn’t answer him. Joel moves around so he’s standing behind her head and bends to get his hands underneath her armpits.

“Okay, ready?” he mutters. “Nice and easy, now…”

Then he’s slowly, slowly dragging Ellie upright, stepping backwards and straightening up so he can ease her on to her feet. He slides her head and shoulders up off the mattress easily enough but once again, they hit trouble as soon as her torso gets jostled. Ellie stiffens up with pain again, lets out a loud moan that twists into a scream, and her legs, splayed out on the mattress, start to curl up and kick. She makes a horrible, harsh panting noise, like an injured animal, and it sends a sudden shiver down Joel’s spine and, for a split-second, he forgets if he’s here in this basem*nt or if he’s lying on dry Texas grass, his ribs burning from the gunshot graze and hearing Sarah make that same injured-animal noise just behind him –

“f*ck!” Ellie cries out between ragged breaths, squirming to get loose. “Let go!”

He doesn’t. He can’t. Joel grits his teeth and gets his arms around Ellie’s chest, heaving her up, his back aching from the effort and finally, he gets her upright, but it only lasts about two seconds before she’s starting to slither back to the floor. Joel holds on to her with every ounce of strength he’s got but it quickly becomes clear that he’s the only thing keeping her from crumpling to the floor in a heap – she’s got no strength of her own left, the fever and infection coupled with the blood loss the day before has sapped it out of her.

“Come on, baby, you can do it, I got you,” Joel urges, trying not to sound desperate. “Put your arm around me, come on –”

He tries to get her arm around his neck, slipping one of his own arms around her waist, hoisting her up a little further and Ellie screams, a strangled, guttural, ear-piercing sound that nearly gives him a heart attack. Her legs wobble and buckle underneath her, sinking to the floor while Joel hangs on to her by her armpits, desperately trying to keep her upright, but she keeps sliding closer and closer to the floor, all while she’s looking up at him with a terrified look in her cloudy, too-bright eyes.

Put her down, you stupid asshole! You’re hurting her!

“sh*t…alright, alright, hang on,” Joel grinds out, stepping forward and lowering her gently back on the mattress. As soon as she’s flat, he can tell the relief is instantaneous. Ellie’s breathing evens out again and he sees her trembling with the release from pain. All while Joel just stands there, paralyzed and ears ringing, the window of escape in his mind growing smaller with every passing second.

There’s no way she’s going to be able to stand under her own power. No way.

But he needs to get her out of here.

But he can’t get her out of here.

His mind just goes like that for several seconds, back and forth between the two, in a vicious circle, trapping him between these two unavoidable facts.

Only one of them can come to fruition.

Joel kneels down again and leans over Ellie, shakes her until she looks at him. He tries to explain, a pleading tone edging into his voice.

“Ellie…we’ve gotta get you out of here. Please, baby, you’re really sick, we need to get you help.”

He’s praying that he can get through to her, that he can convey to her the gravity of the situation, that she’ll understand that they have to do this, that she’ll power through the pain for him, if he asks her to.

But he can tell it’s not working. The look in Ellie’s eyes is scared and exhausted and far beyond caring about things like that. He’s never seen this look on her face before.

“No…Just…” She trails off and just shakes her head.

Leave me here? Never.

He refuses to accept that this is what’s happening, that there’s no way out of this mess. Ellie doesn’t do lying down and giving up. There’s nothing she can’t do. If she’s so far gone with pain and fever that she can’t see that right now, he’s just going to have to help her remember.

She doesn’t want to die. He knows she doesn’t. She wants to live, she wants to find the Fireflies and help them find a cure and he’s going to make sure that she does.

He told her she was gonna be okay and he’ll be damned if he goes back on that promise.

Joel takes a deep breath, bracing himself, and tries again, one more time, to haul her up. This time he actually manages to get himself onto his feet, but Ellie’s screaming this horrible, sobbing scream, right in his ear, and she’s flailing and fighting against him and her voice is high-pitched and clearer than it’s been in hours and she doesn’t even understand what’s going on or why he’s doing this to her and she’s in pain and it’s breaking his f*cking heart and he almost wishes she would pass out, just so she wouldn’t have to feel anything –

“Put me down!” Ellie shrieks. “Put me down, you f*cker! Ah!”

“I know, baby, I know, I know, I know…” Joel is aware that his own voice is starting to rise in panic too, that they’re both starting to lose it, but he has to do this, the only other option is to f*cking drag her and he’s not doing that, he’s not gonna drag her up that flight of stairs, that won’t work, it’s not working, none of this is working –

Ellie’s kicking now, writhing, has her hands pressed against Joel’s shoulder, shoving against him, trying in vain to wriggle herself out of his arms because she just wants the pain to stop, her cries are starting to mingle with the memory of Sarah’s cries in his mind until they sound exactly the same, he can feel his grip slipping –

“f*ck!” The word rips out of his throat in a shout, raw and furious and helpless and afraid.

Before she can fall, Joel lets his knees slam hard to the concrete floor, taking the brunt of the impact. Ellie’s weight in his arms makes him fall forward, Ellie thudding on to the mattress, Joel bent over her body. The two of them just stay like that for a minute, trying to catch their breath, before one of Ellie’s gasps turns into retch.

Oh sh*t.

Joel sits up and quickly rolls her on to her side, pulling her towards him this time, sparing pressure on the wound. Ellie’s body convulses and then she vomits up a jet of watery bile. He feels a warm gush of the stuff hit his knee, soaking through the fabric of his jeans. Some of it splashes on the mattress, right by Ellie’s head. Some of it goes in her hair.

Joel watches it happen in numb, wordless shock.

Great, the voice seethes. Well f*cking done. Now she’s thrown up any water she had left.

Joel just sits there, holding her in place, too stricken to move. Eventually, he rests a trembling hand between Ellie’s quaking shoulder blades, rubs in slow circles, waiting for her to puke herself empty.

“It’s alright, you’re alright,” he whispers, shame searing through him. “You’re okay, baby girl.”

When she’s done, he slowly tips her on to her back again. Ellie’s eyes are wide and gleaming with tears as she stares up at him and he swallows painfully, wishing she would curse him out, yell at him, punch him in the face. It’s the least he deserves, for trying to force her through the pain barrier and overtaxing her injured body.

He glances at her sweater and that’s when he notices a thin sheen of scarlet glistening through the rust-brown bloodstained fabric.

Oh, God…

Joel rips back her sweater and, to his horror, there’s a trickle of blood oozing out from between the stitches.

Jesus Christ, Joel, what did you just do?

He doesn’t bother reaching for a rag, just pulls the sleeve of his jacket over his hand and tries to wipe away the blood with that, gently touching the wound with a fingertip, trying to feel for any ripped stitches. By some f*cking miracle he doesn’t feel any, but he must have done something, if the wound has started bleeding again, he must have bumped something fragile inside of her that’s now torn back open and he’s silently begging for it not to turn into a full-blown hemorrhage that’ll require him to clamp down on it again with rags. He’s already put her through so much pain tonight and it was all for nothing and he can’t do it again.

Something inside him tried to warn him that it was a bad f*cking idea to move her and it was right all along.

Joel feels the window of escape in his mind slam shut and everything hopeful and angry and resolute inside him withers like a dead flower, the chill of fear settling into his bones like a winter frost.

Ellie can’t and won’t be moved. Not tonight. If he does, she might start bleeding out again and die long before they can ever reach Jackson. And even if that wasn’t an issue, there’s just the simple fact that he can’t f*cking do it.

No matter how much he tries, no matter how much he begs her to understand the urgency of her condition, no matter how much he tries to muscle through her screaming and crying and struggling, no matter how scared he is of the specter of death hanging over her, he can’t do it to her. He won’t. Even if this is their best chance slipping away, he can’t inflict any more suffering on her. He can’t make himself be the undaunted, stoic man she needs him to be right now. And he can’t be the man who she believes him to be either, the man who pulls a miracle solution out of thin air, the man who does whatever it takes to save her life.

He’s too weak-willed to be any of those things.

It’s not gonna happen. Forget it. It’s over.

Ellie’s agony must ebb because her breathing starts to slow and he can see the exhaustion of the last five minutes starting to tug her under again, sweeping her back into a dark world of fever dreams.

Joel’s hands are shaking like mad. He clasps them together, feeling the shivers rattle up through his arms and down through his whole body. A toxic combination of adrenaline and anxiety makes him want to vomit too. He feels a threatening burn in his eyes and blinks rapidly against it.

He didn't want any of this. He didn't want her to get hurt. He doesn’t want to be the one to hurt her. He doesn’t want to exacerbate her condition, he just wants to make her better, he just wants to fix this because he’s the one who got her into this predicament in the first place and he has to get her out of it. It's the silent oath he swore when he decided to give her the choice of who she wanted to escort her to the university - that he'd protect her, no matter what. She trusts him to always know what to do, how to fix things. She believes they're gonna get through this, because that's what he told her. But he let panic grab him by the throat and, in trying to fix it, he’s just made it so, so much worse.

Your fault, your fault, it's all your f*cking fault…

Joel stares down at Ellie, the sour tang of stomach acid leaching into the air, guilt sloshing in the hollow of his heart.

She’s not the girl he imagined just minutes ago. Not the girl he imagined agreeing with him about this last throw of the dice, pushing him to be bold and reckless, reminding him of what’s at stake here. He’s struggling to even remember the girl she was just a couple of days ago, the girl who knows obscure facts about the Mercury program and wants to know what the big deal about the Super Bowl was anyway and flips her knife one-handed when she thinks he’s not looking. Right now she just looks battered and broken, almost unrecognizable. Equally at the mercy of his f*ck-ups and bad decisions as she was at the mercy of that raider’s shiv.

I’m sorry, Ellie. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to fix this...

/////

After that, Joel just shuts down.

He kind of has to. He feels unable to function if he lets himself think too much, if he lets the voices whisper away uncontrollably. He now sees the damage they can do when that happens. It used to be that he achieved this kind of blackout through pills and booze, but he guesses that this time stress has done the job for him, pulled some kind of emergency brake in his brain, has seen that Joel is not fit to take charge right now.

He doesn’t really feel like he’s in his body. Not completely, anyway, he can still register some of his own bodily discomforts (his knees are throbbing from that hard landing earlier on. He suspects they’re both bruised underneath his jeans), but the lights aren’t all on, either, as Tommy would say.

It’s safest this way – he’s backed into a corner and afraid he’ll react in some unpredictable, dangerous way, like a cornered animal does. It's not giving up, not really, it's just...putting himself on a leash for a little while.

The thin dribble out blood that was coming out of the wound ultimately comes to nothing, dries up fast. Small mercies. Doesn’t make him feel any better, doesn’t mean the timbre of Ellie’s screams isn’t still resonating in his ears.

With evacuation now unequivocally out of the question, it’s back to the inertia of waiting, watching and hoping, even though it makes him want to scream from how impotent it makes him feel.

But better that than panic. No more panic. Panic can go f*ck it itself, panic is the reason for the fresh blood and Ellie’s screams and them being stuck in this bind and reduced to this wretched routine.

Waiting. Watching. Hoping.

Joel does the few things he can do, operating almost in a daze. He does his best to dry the bile out of Ellie’s hair so it won’t be too damp, but it still feels sticky and clumpy afterwards, and stinks too. The whole basem*nt stinks of pus and blood and vomit and sweat.

Her fever only seems to grow higher, her immune system kicking into overdrive, trying to burn her body clean of infection. Every time Joel places his hand against her cheek, her skin is scorching hot. Her heartrate refuses to slow down.

He remembers another late-night dash to the ER, this time for Tommy, when he’d been three. He’d spiked a fever so high that he’d started fitting and, because their useless sh*tbag of a dad had been out at a bar somewhere, his mom had had to get their neighbor to drive them to the ER. Joel had been nine years old at the time and terrified his baby brother was going to die. He recalls struggling with all his might not to cry because he knew that would just freak Tommy out more and his mom hardly needed two crying kids to comfort. By the time they got to the hospital, Tommy had stopped convulsing, but he’d pissed his pants and was screaming his head off, sick and exhausted. The doctor had stuck a thermometer in Tommy’s ear, prescribed him a diazepam, which made him sleepy, and told them to keep him hydrated and give him Tylenol, but otherwise deemed him safe to take back home. Joel still remembers asking the guy if the seizure had hurt Tommy’s brain.

“No, no. He just got a little too warm for a moment, but he’ll be fine now,” the doctor had said with a kind smile. “And he’s got his big brother to look after him, so I’m not worried.”

Joel wonders now if Ellie’s going to start shaking and twitching violently, if this fever’s going to start cooking her brain inside her skull. A shudder runs through him at that mental image. He keeps mopping her brow with the wet cloth, in the hopes that it’ll prevent that from happening.

Water is the most important of all. It’s his fault she threw up, so he has to try and get her to drink as much as she can.

Joel retrieves his canteen again, holding Ellie’s head up so she can swallow. When he tries to pour some into her mouth, she coughs, eyelids flickering. Water dribbles out of the side of her mouth, running down to her earlobe. This would be so much easier if he had a straw.

“Come on, baby, you have to drink,” he urges. “You gotta get some water in you.”

Ellie’s eyelids flutter again, allowing him to see a sliver of her brown eyes. Does she even understand what he’s saying anymore? Joel ignores that thought, tries again, holding the rim of the canteen to her mouth, tipping a couple of drops on to her lips. When the pink point of her tongue reflexively pokes out and licks them up, he swallows hard against the emotion and trickles a little more water into her mouth. He could cry with relief when he sees her throat move, swallowing a small amount.

“That’s it. Good girl.”

And then back to waiting. Watching. Hoping.

The night stretches on, like a never-ending tunnel. Joel has no idea what time it is. It must be well after midnight. Maybe two in the morning, or three. Moonlight glows through the windows, allowing him to see a little better than the previous night. He feels shaky with exhaustion, his brain begging him for sleep, his body aching to just lie down for a little bit, but he doesn’t dare. He can’t allow himself to fall asleep, not even for a second, he has to keep watch on Ellie, count her breaths, check her pulse. Who knows when she might need him to leap into action?

Although, what can he possibly do? He can attempt mouth-to-mouth if she stops breathing or CPR if her heart stops beating. But what good is that? Those are supposed to be life-preserving methods, meant to buy time until real medical professionals arrive on the scene and take over with mechanical ventilators and defibrillators. And that’s not something that’s going to happen.

If Ellie’s heart stops, Joel can pound on it till his arms break, but he won’t be able to shock it back to life.

His own heart taunts him, beating so fast he can feel it in the back of his throat.

Oh no. You have to live with your failures, remember?

Joel buries his face in his hands, lets out a low moan.

Oh my God, shut up, he thinks furiously. Just shut the f*ck up, you stupid, f*cking, good-for-nothing -

He isn’t expecting Ellie to be awake, so when she suddenly croaks out in the silence of the basem*nt, he jumps.

“Riley?” Her voice sounds cracked and painful, throat audibly dry.

It’s the first word she’s said since his failed attempt to decamp from this basem*nt. Joel leans over her and sees that her eyes are open again, staring over at the corner of the room – but they’re glassy and too bright, glittering in the dark like some nocturnal creature. Her cheeks are scarlet and sweat is glistening around her temples and in the hollow of her throat.

“Riley?” she whispers again.

Joel just blinks in confusion. Who is Riley?

“Ellie?” he says uncertainly.

Ellie flinches, like she’s been broken out of some trance, and her eyes flick to him.

“Where’d she go…?”

Joel shakes his head, at a loss. “I don’t know, baby.”

“She was right there,” Ellie says, voice thick and raspy.

Joel glances over to the corner of the room where she was staring, as if he’s expecting some phantom figure to be hunching there, Stalker-like, in the shadows. But there’s nothing and, paradoxically, it makes his fear increase. This is bad – her fever’s got high enough that she’s starting to hallucinate.

Ellie fidgets restlessly under the blanket, staring up at him with a punch-drunk look.

“Who…?”

He thinks she’s trying to say Who’s there? Maybe she can’t see too well in the dark. Reminding her can’t hurt.

“It’s me. It’s Joel. You’re with me.”

But Ellie doesn’t get a look of recognition or acknowledge him by name. She just stares at him blankly, brow furrowed, uncertainty glimmering in her eyes and the realization hits Joel like he’s been socked in the gut. sh*t, she doesn’t recognize me. No wonder she’s looking confused and a little bit alarmed – as far as she knows, she’s woken up in a dark, enclosed space with a strange man.

“You remember what happened?” he tries. “Back at the university?”

“No…” Ellie says slowly, like she isn’t sure of the right answer.

It almost makes him want to cry, listening to her sound so unsure and hazy, when she’s normally so sharp and perceptive. Logically he knows that it’s just the fever speaking and what she’s experiencing are normal, common enough symptoms, the restlessness, the not-knowing where you are, confusing somebody for someone else (one time back in Boston, when he’d had a fever courtesy of a bout of flu that had swept through their tenement block, he’d mistaken Tess for his mother and called her Mami – he’s not sure he ever lived that one down) but he can’t get rid of that anxious knot in his stomach that keeps telling him this is a very bad sign, her infection progressing to a more dangerous phase. And he doesn’t want Ellie to be thinking that she’s trapped in an unfamiliar place, weak and in pain and at the mercy of stranger, not even for a second. He doesn’t want her to be any more scared than she already is.

Then his heart almost stops when Ellie tries to sit up and lets out a small cry as she tenses her abdomen and jars the wound. Joel immediately reaches out to push her back down on to the mattress by her shoulder, remembering only at the last minute to be gentle – he isn’t sure if Ellie’s already forgotten about it or not, but he does not want a repeat of earlier on, doesn't want to risk her popping the stitches wide open. And the sound of Ellie in pain or distress makes panic ignite inside him in a primal way that he’s given up on trying to control.

“No, no, no, don’t do that, baby, you can’t sit up. You gotta lie still for a bit.”

Ellie’s face crumples a little, in pain or confusion or frustration he can’t tell. His own stomach aches with sympathy – he’d be frustrated too if he felt like sh*t and had no idea why he couldn’t sit up without terrible pain and couldn’t figure out where he was and kept losing track of what he was thinking.

“Hurts…” she chokes out.

“I know. You’re okay. You’re gonna be fine.”

“My stomach…I’m bit.”

Joel blinks, disquieted at this sudden turn in the conversation. “You’re not bit, baby,” he says slowly. “You got stabbed.”

“No, but…Infected got me…came back…”

f*ck, is she thinking she’s back in that mall where she said she’d got bit the first time? What is her fever-addled brain telling her? Does she think she’s been attacked again, eviscerated this time? Or, sh*t, did him telling her the wound was infected earlier on make her believe this? Delirium must be muddling up her memories, past and present crashing together nonsensically and leaving her only with the bare bones that she has no idea where she is and that she’s in inexplicable pain. Maybe it’s no wonder she’s jumping to the only logical conclusions she knows.

Joel shakes his head. “There’s no Infected here. You’re safe.”

Rather than having the reassuring effect he wanted, Ellie’s face only grows more worried.

“I don’t…where…I don’t know where…” She sounds close to tears. Joel’s hand twitches with the pre-emptive urge to wipe away any that fall. He hates this, hates that he can’t help her, that he can’t come up with the right words to make it better.

“Ellie, baby –”

She cuts him off. “Is FEDRA gonna come?”

FEDRA? Well, that confirms it, she definitely thinks she’s still in the Boston QZ. What is she worrying about, that her old drill instructors are going to come looking for her? Take her to task for just up and vanishing one night? Subject her to some kind of awful punishment? He doesn’t exactly know the full details of the story, just that Ellie snuck into the abandoned mall and Marlene had found her after she was bitten, somehow not shooting her on sight and then keeping her locked up for an indeterminate amount of time while they kept testing her to make sure she wasn’t turning. If she thinks she’s still in the thick of all that then she’s got any number of reasons to be freaking out, even if she can’t understand right now that all of that is well and truly in the past.

“No, FEDRA’s not comin’.” Then, he hesitantly adds, “You’re not in Boston, Ellie. You’re in Colorado.”

That turns out to be the wrong thing to say. Ellie gets a baffled expression on her face that would be funny if it wasn’t for her eyes beginning to glisten more brightly with proper tears, that vacant look beginning to build towards something closer to panic.

“How’d – how’d I get here?”

Long f*cking story, Joel wants to say. Instead he says, “It’s okay, baby, you’re safe.”

His words have little effect. She’s starting to get worked up, the Colorado revelation making her thrash her head from side to side, as she’s if trying to find a visual clue to verify his answer or look for an escape route. Her expression starts to go fully frantic, her arms and legs shifting under the blanket. Joel imagines she’s considering attempting to drag herself out of her sickbed again and places his hand on her shoulder again before she can, keeping her flat. Her speech turns rambling and disjointed, rising in volume.

“Nonono…I can’t…Riley…where…I need to talk to her!”

“Shh, it’s okay. You’re okay,” he whispers, brushing his hand up and down her arm in an attempt to soothe her, unable to hug her, to lift her up and cradle her in his arms like he desperately wants to.

“Please,” Ellie moans. “Please, I just…she’s…I have to…Riley, please –”

Ellie,” Joel cuts in desperately. “Riley isn’t here, baby. I’m sorry, she’s…I don’t know where she is…”

He trails off pathetically, feeling like the most incompetent waste of space, and just stares at Ellie until his eyes are burning, silently begging her to understand, to resurface just enough from her feverish depths to remember where they are, what’s happened, who he is.

He watches as his words hit Ellie. He watches as her bewildered, frightened expression cracks and tightens into a look of painful realization, the wild and almost-hopeful light in her eyes snuffed out and replaced with something piercing and acute that Joel knows all too well – I’ve lost something. She sinks back into the mattress, seemingly in defeat, and starts to cry. Her face scrunches up and flushes redder, mouth twisted downward, eyes clenched shut while big fat tears ooze out, rolling down the sides of her face and soaking into the rolled-up dishtowel pillow. Each sob jerks her body, causes her to wince in pain, but she can’t seem to stop.

Joel can only watch in total dismay, sorrow sharp and splintery in his chest. You asshole, look what you did. He’s supposed to be looking after her and now he’s f*cked up again and made her cry.

It’s so different from the other times he’s seen her cry. In the aftermath of shooting that boy in Kansas City she was loathe to let him see her tears, looking away and swiping them roughly with her sleeves, like she was worried he’d be the kind of asshole who’d scold her for weakness. Either that or she was mad at herself for getting upset, given the tough exterior she liked to present – there’s a part of Joel that knows she would be humiliated right now if she were more fully aware that she was crying in front of him.

And then again, when Sam and Henry died – she’d been frozen in horror, silent after that one frightened little scream immediately after Henry pulled the trigger, her face a mask of wide-eyed shock as the tears welled and slipped down her cheeks without noise. But then she’d stopped and he could see her internally slamming the brake, taking the grief and crushing it down somewhere deep and dark inside of her where it couldn’t hurt. The whole time they’d been digging the graves, he could see a muscle twitching in her jaw from how tight she’d been clenching it. As soon it was done, she’d strode off, red-eyed.

She’d retreated from him for a few days after that, becoming sullen and guarded. No easy flow of chatter, no puns and few questions, asked in a dull, somber-faced monotone. When he’d tried to awkwardly broach the subject, she’d hissed “I don’t want to talk about it” and he’d duly shut up. He’d figured she needed time to decompress and reconcile her feelings and grieve before she came back to herself, before she was ready to let anything in again, including him. And she had, eventually, but the whole experience had left a tender mark that neither of them were keen to poke at.

But now, it’s like her heartache is so great and terrible that her body can’t physically contain it and she’s too listless to stop it all flooding out. Even her crying sounds like she wants to howl but can’t summon the strength to.

Joel doesn’t know what to do. His little girl is crying and scared and in pain and he doesn’t know what to f*cking do. This is supposed to be what he’s good at, what he was good at for fourteen years, but he’s scared too – scared of saying the wrong thing, scared of making it even worse, scared of crossing a line she wouldn’t want him to, a line she doesn’t know he’s already well and truly across, a line he can’t go back over again. His helplessness is only exacerbated by the fact that he has no idea who Riley is and he’s completely in the dark over what exactly it is that Ellie needs comforting about here. He can only guess that Riley is a source of great pain and bad memories for Ellie and right now she’s trapped there, all because he unwittingly dug it all up. Combined with mental confusion, an aching, infected wound and probably feeling the most sick she’s ever felt in her life, it’s no wonder she’s reached breaking point.

But she looks so far removed from the lively, effusive girl he knows that he feels tears of his own stinging at his eyes. She’s too young to sound this heartbroken.

He has to fix it – right now, she’s a lost, broken little girl who needs someone to love her. In the end, that’s what proves stronger than his fear and he puts his hand on her cheek, wiping away the tears.

“Don’t cry, baby,” he pleads, fighting to keep his voice steady. “It’s alright. I’m here. I’m right here, Ellie, okay?”

“Sorry – I – sorry…” she whimpers. Joel can’t tell if she’s apologizing to him or if she still thinks she’s talking to Riley.

“You don’t need to be sorry, Ellie. You didn’t do anythin’ wrong. Everything’s okay.”

“No, but I – it’s all my fault…” she sobs. Joel bites back a sob of his own – is she still thinking about that f*cking raider, wondering if he’s mad at her? He doesn’t know and the fact that he has no way of knowing is killing him. He shakes his head fiercely.

“It wasn’t your fault, Ellie. I promise, it wasn’t your fault.”

“It really hurts…” Ellie hiccups and, again, he can’t tell if she’s talking about the pain in her stomach or whatever pain is in her heart. He’s not sure which is worse and both at the same time is too unbearable to think about.

“I know, baby, I know,” Joel whispers. “You’re gonna be just fine. I promise.”

He doesn’t know how he can promise her that, given how dire her condition appears, but he’d rather die than let her feel a single moment of hopelessness.

They pass several heart-wrenching moments like this. Her body taut and trembling with pain and fever chills, miserable little sobs slipping out of her mouth. Him running one hand along her arm, thumbing away her tears with the other, shushing and whispering a repetitive stream of comforting, meaningless nonsense.

Eventually, the moment seems to pass. Her energy spike begins to fade fast, sobs growing weaker. She’ll probably pass out again soon. Joel can’t help but be relieved. This morning he’d been so desperate to have her come around and say something that might convince him she was recuperating, but this has been somehow worse, this whole night has been just one long goddamned nightmare and all he wants now is for her to just sleep again, to be able to just forget this is happening, pass it by in a painless daze.

Ellie stares at him with glassy eyes, sniffling only a little now. Her gaze fixates, blinking as if she’s trying to clear blurred vision. Her expression shifts imperceptibly, the anguish washing away for a heartbeat to give way to something a little more alert. Like something important has occurred to her.

“Joel…?” she whispers hoarsely.

Hearing her say his name makes Joel have to bite down hard on the inside of his cheek so he won’t break down crying himself, just out of sheer f*cking relief. You’re still in there. He presses his palm against her cheek, looks her deep in the eyes.

“Yeah, baby girl, it’s me. I’m right here.”

Ellie doesn’t say anything, just closes her eyes and leans into his palm, as if savoring the warmth. For a moment, she looks at peace, as if everything in the world is okay, so long as he’s there next to her.

Joel has an idea. Hesitantly, he takes his hand away from Ellie’s cheek and lays it on top of her head. When she doesn’t cringe away, he threads his fingers carefully through the greasy strands of her hair, combs through it in a slow, lulling motion.

This used to help Sarah when she was little and feeling sick. She’d get a stomach bug or strep throat and sometimes, like Ellie is now, her temperature would get high enough that she’d become tearful and disoriented. She’d have to stay home from school and Joel couldn’t always get the day off at the last-minute and he would resentfully show up to the work site, even though his little girl was bedridden and asking for him (God, but sometimes he’d hated being a contractor). On these occasions, his mom had looked after Sarah during the day and then, after she’d died when Sarah was seven, Mrs Adler or, more rarely, Tommy (also often trapped in contractor hell) would come over and sit with her until he got home.

But he’d be there in the evenings and through the night and however many days he could afford. They’d slump together on the couch, wrapped up in blankets, bucket within reach, a sports bottle of Pedialyte and a box of Kleenex on the coffee table and a movie of her choice on the TV. Her fever would spike and she’d cling to him, burying her hot face in his stomach and crying. So Joel would put his hand on top of her head and brush his fingers methodically through her hair. Her little body, tense with sickness, pain or fever, would loosen against him, go limp with exhaustion, drift away into sleep. And he’d keep it up, for hours even, till he had a cramp in his wrist, as if the repetitive motions of his fingers through her hair were a magic spell and if he stopped for a second, the spell would be broken and she’d wake abruptly, nausea and confusion returned full-force. It worked every time.

He hopes it’ll work on Ellie now. She’s a totally different kid from Sarah, but right now she’s very sick and very sad and he’ll try just about anything. Minutes pass, with him just gently stroking her hair. And then, it works. Slowly, but surely, her face starts going slack again, blinks growing heavier, her brief burst of wakefulness coming to an end. Joel feels the pressure in his chest begin to alleviate as she starts falling asleep. Stubborn kid that she is, he can tell she’s trying to fight it.

“It’s cold…” Ellie mumbles, eyelids fluttering, lashes still spiky from tears.

“I know,” he murmurs. “Just go back to sleep, baby. Close your eyes, that’s it.”

Another memory from long ago floats up into Joel’s mind – if the hair-stroking tactic didn’t work, there was one other thing that did the trick.

As a newborn, Sarah would get colic. It made her miserable, screaming her tiny little lungs out, spitting out her pacifier whenever it was offered to her, her face bright red and little fists flailing against him. Joel had been miserable too, and panicking that it was a sign that something was terribly wrong with her. The pediatrician had told him there wasn’t any real explanation for it and that it wasn’t because he was doing something wrong – sometimes it was digestion issues and sometimes it was just general crankiness from being overwhelmed by this big, new world. Joel would find himself walking the floors well after midnight, a squalling Sarah in his arms, cycling through different rounds of humming and bouncing and shushing and patting her back, sometimes with success and sometimes to no avail.

But then he hit on the tactic of singing quietly while swaying slowly from side to side, something his mom suggested because apparently he’d liked that as a baby, and his twenty-two-year-old self had almost started crying too when it worked. He’d sing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” or “Los Pollitos” or “Over the Rainbow” and his baby daughter’s wails would subside into gentle whimpering and she’d stop squirming so much (she’d been such a little wriggler, from the time she’d been in the womb to charging enthusiastically around the soccer field, all that pent-up energy needing an outlet) and finally relax, little cheek pressed against his chest, listening to the low rumble of his voice reverberating through his ribs, his heartbeat a bassline to the melody. Somehow that sound always lulled her to sleep, eventually.

As she grew from a screaming newborn to a chubby-cheeked, smiley infant, he’d accompany the singing with the guitar, settling her in her baby bouncer and immersing her in a jam session. He still remembers her big hazel eyes staring at him with fascination, her tiny mouth agape as if in wonder, rapt as he strummed and sang Neil Young or Johnny Cash or Gordon Lightfoot. And then again, on those feverish nights, after she’d finished puking her guts up at three in the morning, she’d burrow into him and ask for his acapella rendition of “You Are So Beautiful” or “Lean on Me” or “Dust in the Wind.” For her whole life long, singing was the thing Joel came back to whenever she was sad or sick.

Sometimes he wishes more than anything that he’d spent her last moments alive singing to her, rather than screaming in panic.

Ellie had wanted to hear him sing. Back at the university. Right before everything went to hell.

Well, you’re singing for me later. I’m gonna save the f*ckin’ world, man, that’s the least you can do for me.

Joel has a memory of one of those colic-afflicted nights with Sarah. He’d seen the movie Stand By Me a couple of years before she was born, was familiar with the titular song. She’d taken a particular liking to that one, as an infant, for reasons he didn’t know. Maybe it was the melody or the words. But he grew to know it off by heart.

He doesn’t think he’s sung in twenty years. There’s been no reason to – who would look at the state of the world now and want to f*cking sing? It’s just another part of himself that he’d laid to rest, a part that had no practical use in the apocalypse. Nobody was gonna trade batteries or shoelaces for a decent rendition of “Friends in Low Places.” But, he guesses, maybe sometimes, even with the way things are, there’s still situations that call for it.

His voice is husky from exhaustion and stress, not to mention twenty years out of practice. But somehow he’s able to reach through the decades, push past all the pain and the f*cked-up sh*t he’s done that’ve stacked on top of it, and connect to that bright, golden memory. The words come to him as easily as if he were still there. In a sense, he is – in the dark, exhausted and awake at 3am, singing his sick child to sleep, thirty years apart:

When the night has come, and the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we’ll see

No, I won’t be afraid, oh, I won’t be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me.

/////

Joel keeps up the singing. It seems to work because Ellie sleeps. She sweats and shivers, but she sleeps without any feverish muttering or jerking about underneath her blanket or crying or calling out for people from her past that he’s never met.

He cycles through all the songs he can still recall all the lyrics to, songs he’s sung with his mother or with Tommy or in the car or to Sarah – “Guitar Man” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Blackbird” and “Fire and Rain”, “Wonderwall” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” He even has a go at that Linda Ronstadt song they’d listened to in Bill’s truck, though he can’t remember all of the words and when he reaches the part in the chorus that goes “I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time” his voice stumbles and quivers, trailing off into the thick silence of the basem*nt.

It's not gonna be a long time.

Joel clenches his teeth together so hard he thinks they might shatter, slaps that voice down inside his head. But it just keeps rearing back up again, like a cobra, hissing in his ear, never staying down for long.

This is it. You can’t do anything. Ellie’s going to die.

Anger rises in Joel and he argues back. Tries to tell that voice that it’s talking a lot of sh*t, that’s it’s said that before and been wrong, that it’s just the vestiges of his anxiety trying drive him insane, that it doesn’t know a damn thing about Ellie.

But when he looks at Ellie, really looks at her, he can’t stop the thought. That with every passing hour, without any antibiotics to thwart it, the infection is running rampant through her body. It’s got to be, just look at the state of her, look at how much she’s deteriorated in just a day. It’s hitching a ride through her blood and making its way towards her other organs. Maybe it’s already reached them. Her heart has been beating too fast for too long, it could be causing irreparable damage. She hasn’t peed in over a day, her kidneys might be toast. She’s delirious, maybe her brain is starting to swell…

He can’t stop the thought that, by this point, this whole thing is starting to feel less like tending to the sick and more like…palliative care. And he would know.

Ellie’s earlier crying jag and calling out names has made him think of his mom again. Specifically, in the hours before her death, how she’d cried and begged and whimpered from the pain, not really awake but not really asleep either; how she didn’t really know where she was or what was happening, only that her body was in agony. Sometimes she would recognize Joel, sitting next to her, and other times she confused him for Tommy or for their father or her own father (before Outbreak Day and Sarah’s death, his worst memory was of his mother looking at him with vacant, half-crazed eyes and calling him Papito). He remembers how he’d begged a doctor to up her morphine and she’d sadly told him that she’d already exceeded the maximum dosage and he’d barely restrained himself from standing up and grabbing her by her white coat and screaming in her face like Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.

Now, in this basem*nt, it feels different, yet the same. Ellie’s not terminal, hasn’t had her fate spelled out to her in black-and-white terms by a doctor, but Joel can’t deny that now he’s not just keeping an eye on Ellie’s vital signs. He’s actively watching and waiting for signs of death and the realization of this makes him feel sick.

The majority of his experience in watching people die is seeing it happen quickly, usually from massive blood loss, like with Sarah, or from the quick snap of their necks at the end of the hangman’s rope in the QZ. Mom was the only person he watched die slowly, so that’s all he’s got to go on.

Here, there’s no machines to warn him if Ellie’s blood pressure’s dropped to dangerously low levels or if her heart rate is gradually bleeping slower and slower, closer to the very last one. In the darkness of the basem*nt, he can’t tell if her lips are turning blue or if her skin is starting to take on a mottled grayish hue. Her face feels burning hot but her hands are so cold. She’s so still, the sound of her quivering breath and the occasional tremble of her lower lip are the only visible signs of life.

Joel keeps his fingers pressed against the side of her neck, against the faint tempo of her heartbeat, willing it to keep going, just one more beat, then one more and one more after that, into infinity.

Hold on, Ellie. Just hold on, a little longer. Please, baby girl, hold on.

Hold on until what, though? What’s going to change by morning? If Ellie is still alive by daybreak, the only things he can do are the things he’s already been doing – water, keeping her warm, searching any remaining houses for supplies. And none of those things have made any real improvement or solved any problems. The only things that would actually help just aren’t available to him. He’s got no more cards left to play.

Well, if these are her last hours, the least you can do is make sure she’s comfortable.

Joel clenches his jaw till it’s sore and just holds tight to Ellie’s hand. As if holding on to her will keep her tethered to the world of the living.

That won’t work though. He’d held Sarah tight against his heart, that hadn’t stopped her soul from slipping out from between his arms in an irrevocable instant and taking flight to a place far beyond his reach.

It feels impossible to think about. That everything about Ellie could be…gone. Just like that. No more bright, sunny, motormouthed voice peppered with curse words. No more impish, sh*t-eating grins. No more wide-eyed gazes of wonder towards crumbling skyscrapers or gently dancing fireflies or the luminous green lights of the aurora borealis. No more bemusem*nt at the sight of things like ice cream trucks, movie posters or jukeboxes, archaeological sites frozen forever at 2003. No more “motherf*cker” as a term of endearment. No more loose curl of hair that she’s constantly, irritably tucking back behind her ear. No more small, ponytailed silhouette by his side, almost as indistinguishable as his own shadow, a presence that feels as integral as a vital organ now.

All of it, just…gone.

And the rest of the world just carrying on, no different for it, like she never existed at all.

No, something inside Joel desperately tries to argue. No, it can’t end like this.

But it can. Ellie’s given no indication of improvement, only decline. Death has never felt closer than it has right now. All his stupid little thoughts from yesterday come floating back up like pond scum, about how death had been circling Ellie like a shark in the water but it been scared off by his mere proximity, how it should’ve been more scared of him than he was of it.

What a f*cking joke. Now they feel like the foolish fantasies of a child, ridiculous and unfeasible. Joel sees those thoughts for what they really are now – a silly lie meant to soothe. The delusion of a desperate man who’s been trying to forget everything he knows about how death works. About how it does whatever it wants. How it has no intentions of passing over your loved ones just because they make amazing alfajores or they’ve saved many lives or they never let you sleep through your alarm or can think up a pun for just about any situation.

None of that stuff matters. The only thing that matters is that it comes for them all, whether you’re ready or not.

And Joel is really, really scared that it’s about to come for Ellie.

With that fear, his mind starts unravelling again. His thoughts steadily gather pace to become a tornado, crossing the landscape of his mind and obliterating everything strong and sturdy in its path. He rakes over everything he’s ever done wrong – standing frozen in the crosshairs of that soldier’s rifle with Sarah trembling in his arms; Tommy grating out “I can’t f*ckin’ do this anymore, Joel,” as he slammed the door of their Boston apartment for the last time; the look in Tess’s eyes when she said “I’ve never asked you for anything, not to feel the way I felt…”

All the memories are picked up like bits of jagged debris that swirl violently around, accumulating and crashing into each other until it’s all just broken pieces that he can’t piece together. Certain moments keep whirling past, again and again, all of his greatest sins in a maelstrom, but none more so than this offense:

You’re not my daughter and I sure as hell ain’t your dad.

Joel shakes his head, pressing his forehead against his clenched fists, so tightly wound in on himself that he feels like he might burst, splattering violently against the walls of the basem*nt. He tries to beat it back, kick that memory in the teeth, but it won’t stop, it’s like a strobe light in a KGB torture chamber.

He wishes he’d never said it. Why did he f*cking say it? He’d give anything to travel back to that moment and punch his past self in the head, gather Ellie into a hug instead and tell her all the secrets he’s been keeping cooped up inside his heart, about how he’ll stay with her always if that’s what she wants, about how she doesn’t need to make a cure to be the most important person in the world to him, about how she was right, she is his –

Too late now. Too late for any of it.

Joel gnaws on his lip until he tastes blood. He feels his regrets about Ellie starting to curdle together with all the regrets he has about Sarah’s life. All those hours he spent away from her, working and contracting, scrimping and saving for a future that was never going to be. All those movie nights he was late for; all the soccer matches or recitals he missed because the plumber or bricklayer was holding things up; all the bad days he wasn’t there when she needed him, after an argument with a friend or getting an F on her science test or the school princess making a catty comment about her hair or her clothes.

He missed out on so much. The magnitude of it almost stops his heart, the grief of it as fresh as it was in the fallout of Outbreak Day. So many moments, lost because of bullsh*t that was insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

What was the f*cking point of any of it?

And now, he asks himself the same thing. What was the point in obsessing about a boundary he should be keeping between himself and Ellie? What’s the point when Ellie could be dead soon and all he’ll ever be able to think about is how much time he wasted keeping her at arm’s length. All the things he wanted to say to her but didn’t because he was too much of a f*cking coward. Too shackled to his own grief to dare to try again, to see this second chance that had been given to him when he wasn’t worthy of it. Too broken to just let himself be the person she needed and deserved, to be something that used to come as easily to him as breathing.

You’re not my daughter, his mind jeers again, rubbing salt in the wound. And I sure as hell ain’t your –

Joel muffles a furious, frustrated growl in his hands, self-hatred burning in his throat like a caustic substance.

Why hadn’t he just apologized? It’s just two f*cking words – I’m sorry. Why couldn’t he just say them? It’s not as if he’s never said them to Ellie – he’d managed it after she’d shot that kid in Kansas City to save him, had offered it stiffly after they’d walked away from Sam and Henry’s graves. Hell, he’s said them several times in just the last two days, apologizing profusely every time he’s put her through physical pain, the pressure on the wound, the stitches, the debacle of trying to pick her up earlier tonight. So why the f*ck couldn’t he tackle her hurt feelings head-on after that night?

True to form, he'd been a coward and hoped that just showing up at the stables was enough for them to be able to move past it. He’s always been an “actions speak louder than words” kind of guy, anyway. He’d always shown his apologies through things like stealing a cookie from the jar for Tommy when they were kids after he’d said something mean or letting Sarah choose one of those crappy Disney Channel movies to watch after he’d been snappy on the school run because they were running late or taking the couch and letting Tess have the bed to herself if he’d screwed up a deal by butting into her negotiations when she was handling it fine on her own.

Then he’d done the same thing with Ellie, showing her how to shoot the rifle and hoping that he could put all the words he couldn’t say into that, hoping that by doing something nice for her he could prove that he was sorry and was going to do better by her. And Ellie hadn’t confronted him, hadn’t pushed him into a proper, more verbal apology, had just let his cutting remarks slide and was back to her old, cheerful, chatty self by sundown on that first day out of Jackson.

He hadn’t deserved that from her. Joel wishes she’d done something. Shoulder-checked him on the way out of the stables or refused to say anything to him or given him the stink eye or called him an asshole at the very least.

But no. She’d just been happy and content and now Joel is obsessively wondering if Ellie actually had forgiven him or if she was just putting on a very good show of letting bygones be bygones. Is she like him, a person who puts greater stock in a well done than a well-said, or has a lifetime in the cold, unloving environment of a FEDRA orphanage meant she’s just better at hiding her heartbreak?

He obsesses over it because he knows now that those five blessed days they’d had between Jackson and the university hadn’t been enough to make up for it. They couldn’t make up for those words he’d spat at her and the look in her eyes that told him he’d just broken something inside her. He needs to know, he needs to believe that she isn’t still quietly nursing that heartache, that he’s not manifesting in her fever-heightened nightmares as a monstrous version of himself who snarls cruel abuse at her and mocks her for ever thinking she mattered that much to him and then abandons her, leaving her alone to cry in a cold, dark, empty void.

She’s going to die with that thought in her head. She’s never going to know what she really means to you. She’s going to die thinking you only took her out of pity, and not because you –

Tears bite at Joel’s eyes and his heart lurches in his throat, leaving him feeling sick and disoriented, almost choking on his own remorse.

This can’t be happening. This is just too impossible, too unfair, it can’t end like this, Ellie’s life can’t end this way…

The bones of that little girl from earlier today suddenly materialize in Joel’s mind again. All the bodies he saw today start flicking through his mind like some ghastly slideshow.

Bodies don’t bother him so much, normally, so he doesn’t know why they’re suddenly haunting him like this. They’re a dime a dozen in the apocalypse, stop being shocking after a while. His heart had hardened into stone after Sarah’s death and on his and Tommy’s long journey north to Boston the number of bodies they’d seen had been so overwhelming that eventually Joel stopped caring. To the point where, on body-burning duty back in the QZ, he could be reliably called upon to dispose of children’s bodies, where some men would step aside, all the color drained from their faces, and some women would walk away to weep by themselves.

Maybe all the bodies he saw today were meant to be a sign or something. Something to make him understand that this small settlement is a place of death, that he’s brought Ellie to a place where people go to die…

Oh, don’t be so f*cking stupid. There’s dead bodies everywhere now, it doesn’t mean anything!

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Joel is thinking about Humberto, of all f*cking things…

His mom had had a pet cat once. A crotchety old thing with grubby black-and-white fur called Humberto that used to live on the streets and that she’d enticed into the house with tuna and slivers of chicken. Joel had always kind of avoided him, he wasn’t really a pet person, and Humberto had never made any overtures of affection towards him either, always jumping up on to a high shelf and regarding Joel with a disdainful, yellow-eyed glower.

But he was grateful to the creature anyway – he’d given his mom comfort and companionship after Joel had moved into a cramped apartment with Sarah after she was born and while Tommy was overseas in Iraq.

But then, one day, Humberto hadn’t come home. He’d never quite shed his alley cat ways and preferred the outdoors to the indoors, but a full three days went by with no sign. Joel remembers his mom standing at the back porch and shaking the box of Friskies, calling out and praying that he’d come scampering out from under the bushes, having just been away on a feline adventure, getting into scraps with other cats, conning other soft-hearted neighbors into feeding him and generally living his best tomcat life. Joel hadn’t had the heart to tell her that Humberto had probably met with an unfortunate fate involving the wheels of a car. He’d let her live in hope.

But then another couple of days had passed and Joel had been looking in his mom’s garden shed for a nail gun he’d been storing in there and that’s when he’d found Humberto. Sandwiched into a tight gap between an old dresser that Joel had been meaning to donate to goodwill and a chafed leather trunk where his mom stored clothes and heirlooms belonging to her own mother.

The cat had been stiffer than Abe Lincoln by this point but at least he could give his mom some closure. Joel had been the one to prise the body out from its very-uncomfortable-looking final resting place, dig a small hole underneath the lime tree in the garden and bury it. He’d even taken the time to fashion a little grave marker out of some leftover plywood and carved Humberto’s name on to it.

When she’d wiped away the last of her tears (and after he’d got done explaining to a three-year-old Sarah that Humberto had gone to Kitty Heaven), his mother had mused aloud that perhaps Humberto had had some kind of sixth sense that humans didn’t possess. That he’d been an old cat and had instinctively known the end was drawing near, so he’d sought out a quiet, dark, cramped place to die.

At the time, Joel had thought that he couldn’t imagine anything worse, finding the most awkward, hard-to-reach place possible and then just slipping away unceremoniously, where nobody could find you unless they just happened to stumble upon you. Nobody to comfort you in your final hours or remember who you’d been. Then he’d told himself that it was pointless to get upset over what animals saw fit to do when they died.

But then Outbreak Day came and went and he saw that it didn’t just happen with animals.

Decomposing skeletons in bathtubs, lying in a black soup of their own putrefied remains, their only company the swarms of flies their decaying flesh had attracted. Bloated, blue-faced corpses, swaying gently from ropes looped around their necks and attached to rafters. Even Cordyceps, eventually, forces its hosts to crawl to a dark, damp corner in some derelict, stinking, forgotten structure and sag against a wall where the fungus can grow and thrive even after the flesh it consumed and puppeteered has rotted away. In abandoned building after abandoned building, he would find them, their stories a mystery to him, having to guess what it was that had led them to these places.

It was a difficult thought to not be shaken by, much as he tried (and eventually somewhat succeeded in, after twenty years). All of them, so many of them, sensing the life leaving them by degrees, whether by infection or mortal wound or starvation or just the death of all hope, drawn to these shadowy, desolate, lonely places, curling up and hoping that it’ll be just like going to sleep, to just become bones for someone else to stumble upon and nothing more.

Joel can’t help but wonder if that’s what he’s subconsciously done now, with Ellie. Found a cold, dark, cramped place, far away from any prying eyes because…what? She’s running out of time and he knows it? Because that’s what his instincts are telling him?

Well, those are instincts that he doesn’t want to f*cking listen to. Those are voices that he’s been trying to beat into submission for days now, from the moment he turned around and saw the blood pouring from between her fingers, from when she started falling from the horse, from when he first detected her fever and found the pus in her wound.

But now he holds Ellie’s hand in his, tracing his fingertip over the lines of her palm, running his thumb over the ridges of her knuckles and he listens to her breaths, waiting in agony for anything that sounds like the beginnings of a death rattle.

And all he can hear is Ellie’s voice in his head. Asking him. Over and over again.

Joel, do you think I’m gonna die?

He’s thought so many times about how Ellie could die: a stray bullet flying through her chest; an Infected’s teeth tearing out her throat; a hunter’s thumbs pressing down on her windpipe. But never once had he imagined that it would be like this. That it would be happening so fast yet be agonizingly protracted at the same time, with him sitting on the side-lines, only making it worse every time he tries to help her, unable to do anything except be tortured with thoughts of when it’s going to happen, of what it’ll be like to hear her last breath, to feel her heart slowly flutter to a stop.

Bones, he thinks frantically. That’s all she’ll be. Her eyes will be gone, her smile gone, all of it gone, rotted away, she’ll just be bones, just like Sarah, Sarah’s just bones now and Ellie’s going to be bones too…

Joel chokes back a gag at that revolting mental image, tastes bitterness in the back of his throat.

God, why did he tell Ellie she was going to be okay? It was a lie, just like he lied to Sarah, that she was gonna be fine, even while blood was gushing out of her too fast for him to stop it. Both times he’d done it without thinking, but the alternative was for his girls to be aware of their impending deaths and their final thoughts being of terror and he could never do that to them.

But what if Ellie actually believed him? What if she’s sleeping peacefully, safe in the belief that Joel will be there to fix it, that he won’t let her die?

But he can’t fix it. Not this time.

Joel’s thoughts back him into a corner, snarling and vicious as a pack of Infected.

You can hope all you want, but it won’t change anything. Hope is meaningless, you know it is. She’s sick and you have jack-sh*t to treat her. You know what comes next. There’s nothing you can do now. It’s just a matter of time.

“No, no, no…” Joel whispers under his breath, burying his head in his hands, not even sure who it is he’s speaking to.

I can’t lose her too. I love her.

But what was it he’d thought that day, back with Tommy, in the medical camp? About how all the love in the world won’t stop a bullet? Well, the same’s true now – all the love in the world won’t stop tiny bacteria from flooding through Ellie’s entire system, crossing the blood-brain barrier and allowing the infection to fry her organs one-by-one. Where Sarah slipped away from him in the blink of an eye, in a wailing, painful mess of blood, Ellie will slip away from him quietly and slowly, her blood turning to poison in her veins.

Will this blanket she’s tucked up under be the blanket he wraps her up to bury her in?

Joel’s throat goes thick and tight and painful. His eyes are burning, brimming, and when he blinks he feels tears running down his cheeks. He clamps his hands over his mouth before any sounds can come out, as if he can physically stuff the sobs back down his throat. His whole body is starting to shake, and not from cold.

Suddenly, he can picture himself as he was the day after Outbreak Day, in the hours after Sarah’s death. He remembers that inherent feeling of wrongness of still being alive after Sarah was dead, his entire being screaming with it. And when he looks at Ellie now, he realizes that that feeling is back, just lying in wait, hovering over his shoulder.

And he knows.

If she dies, then he dies too. It’s over. He’s done. He knows it in his bones this time. There’s no voices in his head that might be Sarah, trying to argue back. No instincts urging him in the opposite direction. He knows that if he’s blown this second chance with Ellie, then he’s not going to try to keep going or find something new to fight for. There’s a full chamber in his revolver. He only needs the one.

And this time, he won’t flinch.

To his conscience’s credit, it does bleat out But what about Tommy? Just like it did twenty years ago, the last time he’d tried to end it. But even that argument’s lost its power in light of the things Joel’s learned in the last week. Tommy’s as safe as he’s ever going to be. He’s got his new life, his new town, his new wife, his new baby – he doesn’t need his big brother anymore. He’ll be alright.

Of course, Joel knows he’ll be waiting and waiting for him to return, but eventually even his wide-eyed, optimistic, never-say-never brother will have to give up and assume, correctly, that the worst has happened. It’s just how it’ll have to be because Joel flat-out refuses to let Ellie go into the darkness alone. She needs him more.

If he fails her in life, he won’t fail her in death.

Of course, he knows Ellie would be f*cking pissed if she died this way. If they came all this way only for her to die of a staph infection, taking all hope of humanity’s cure with her.

Joel doesn’t give a f*ck about the rest of humanity’s hopes. She never owned them a damn thing anyway. But for Ellie’s hopes to crash and burn and come to this, dying in a cold, dark basem*nt…he doesn’t think he can stand it, to have let her down so unforgivably.

It’s a guilt he doesn’t think he can survive a second time.

I’m sorry, baby girl. I tried…I really tried…

A muffled sob bursts out of him. And another. Another. He doesn’t even know why he’s trying to keep quiet, it’s not like it’s going to wake Ellie up. It feels like nothing can.

He tries to breathe, tries to get a hold of himself, but he can’t hold it back, can’t stop the tears, can’t stop himself from shaking with the effort of keeping silent. If Ellie reached her own breaking point earlier, it seems he’s reached his.

Joel stares down at Ellie, her face blurred and fragmented through watery eyes.

He doesn’t think there’s anything else left that he can do here that’ll help…

Which just leaves Ellie’s own will to survive.

He has to believe that somewhere, deep down inside her, she’s raging against this, that she’s got more fight left in her than it would appear at first glance, that she’s fueling her own heartbeat through sheer spite.

It’s the only hope he’s got left…

“Ellie…” Joel can barely choke out her name. She doesn’t answer him, too weak to do anything but tremble, looking for all the world like a flame flickering on the edge of oblivion, about to go out.

“Ellie, c’mon,” he tries again, trying to put a little force into his voice, but it just comes out cracked and wobbly. He hates how wretched and pathetic he sounds. “You have to fight, okay? Please, baby, you have to try.”

Ellie gives no indication that she can hear him, doesn’t furrow her brow or crack her eyes open a slit or anything. Is she too far gone to even hear him now? Joel glances down at her stomach, where that festering wound is, the root of all her suffering, and doesn’t think he’s ever hated anything so much in his whole life.

“Ellie…” he pleads, feeling like he’s screaming into an abyss. “I – I know it hurts, but you…you can’t give up. Okay?”

Nothing. If it wasn’t for the faint wheeze of her breath, Joel could think she’s already gone.

Is she?

“Don’t go, baby…please…”

He’s crying in earnest now, but he can’t stop himself. He can’t believe this is going to happen again, that it’s possible for him to lose his little girl all over again.

She doesn’t deserve to be dead because of him. She doesn’t deserve to be dead at all.

All of this is your fault. Your fault because you were too weak to leave her and too weak and stupid and old to protect her and now she’s the one paying for it. Both of them always pay for your f*ck-ups.

You should be the one that’s dead, not them.

He’d do it right now. No questions asked, Joel would let himself die if Sarah and Ellie could be alive and safe and happy. He pictures his two girls together, running, dancing, laughing. He knows Sarah would’ve liked Ellie a lot.

They would’ve been good friends.

Sisters, Joel thinks before he can stop himself and the thought guts him wide open, flays him to the bone and makes him have to slap a hand across his mouth again because he thinks might actually wail.

He should hold her, he suddenly thinks. That little girl, in the RV, she was still being held by someone, long after her death.

If Ellie’s going to die, she should die being held by someone who loves her.

His memory of trying to lift her earlier, of Ellie crying out in pain, dissuades him from actually gathering her up in his arms, so Joel ends up crouching on the edge of the mattress, leaning next to Ellie’s head and pressing his own forehead to hers, holding on tight to her hand with one of his and cupping the back of her head with the other, stroking trembling fingers through her hair. Her forehead is warm and damp against his and his tears are coming thick and fast, dripping down to land on her cheeks, catching in her eyelashes.

He has to say it now. He doesn’t even know if she can hear him, but this might be his last chance. He needs her to know how much he regrets that night in Jackson, how precious she is to him, how he will never be the same again once she’s gone.

“I’m sorry…” Joel whispers brokenly. “I’m sorry that this happened to you. It was my fault, I should’ve…”

He shakes his head at himself. No time for would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. Just spit it out.

“I’m sorry I said those things to you, I didn’t – I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry, Ellie.” He’s properly sobbing now. “I’m – I’m sorry I – that I never gave you all of me. I’m sorry I couldn’t be – I – I –”

He can’t catch his breath, can’t get the words to come out properly, the way he wants them to. His sobs begin to distort into short, sharp little gasps. The silent basem*nt slowly fills with a ringing sound, like a fire bell. It takes Joel a moment to place the sound as coming from his own ears and when he glances up and sees the basem*nt beginning to shudder at the edges of his vision, he realizes what’s happening.

Oh f*ck…No, no, please, not now…

Joel drops Ellie’s hand in horror and backs away rapidly from her, as if his panic is a contagious thing, hunching on his knees on the concrete floor, his hand reaching up to clutch at his chest where grief and terror are coiling together to form a red-hot pain behind his ribs. He can’t breathe – it feels like an invisible hand has reached inside him and snatched hold of his diaphragm, pulling it taut and twisting it.

He’s been clinging to the edge of this all day, he’s been fighting off mini-episodes and ignoring the signs of its approach, but now it’s here and he can already sense that it’s gonna be a big one.

No, please, I don’t – I can’t –

Joel tries desperately nip it in the bud, like he did earlier, tries to slow down his breathing, but his chest has already seized up and his throat feels like it’s shrinking to the width of a straw, every breath shallower than the last. The walls of the basem*nt feel like they’re closing in around him. His blood is beating so hard in his head that it feels like it might burst open, pounding so hard that he can’t even see, his vision blotting out. He looks down at Ellie and her face seems to be receding away from him, slipping away into oblivion and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe

Suddenly, like someone’s stuck him with a cattle prod, Joel is on his feet, turning around and running away, clambering up the basem*nt stairs, leaving Ellie to languish on her mattress. Panic invades his entire body like a violent spirit, snarls tight around his throat like a vine. His thoughts swoop scattershot around in his mind like harpies. He feels a hot, cramping ache in his stomach and thinks he might throw up. His breaths come ragged and loud and it doesn’t feel like he’s running, feels more like he’s zooming up through a dark tunnel at high speed, destination unknown.

He’s on the first floor, in the hallway, running past the hole he punched in the wall yesterday, fleeing into the living room. He’s headed towards the front door, but the old piano’s in the way, because he put it there earlier, to stop others from getting in, and now he can’t get out. He’s outside of his own body again. It feels he’s floating somewhere above himself, watching a stranger who grabs hold of the piano and starts wrenching it aside, away from the door.

Somewhere inside him, a voice is shouting What are you doing? Where are you going? Go back to her! But it sounds muffled and far away, like it’s screaming from behind glass, unable to make itself heard.

He couldn’t give it an answer even if he wanted to – he doesn’t know what he’s doing or where he’s going or even why he’s doing this, only that something primal inside of him just activated, urged him into motion, sensed danger and screeched at him to hightail it out of there.

Joel shoves the piano aside, hears it make a discordant sound as the wires inside are jostled, and throws the door open so hard it bangs against the wall and then he’s outside, cold winter air blasting him in the face. He’s staggering down the front path of the house like a drunk, stumbling right out into the middle of the street.

Where are you going – you can’t run away from this – nowhere to go – no escape –

His legs turn to jelly and buckle beneath him and Joel lands on his knees on the snow. He buries his hands in the snow, trying to find something tactile to hold on to, but it feels like the whole world is slipping away from him, reality disintegrating around him. He’s trying so hard to just f*cking breathe but the air seems to have turned thick as soup and nothing is working and his heart is going crazy, beating so ragingly fast that he wonders if it’ll kill him.

But he can’t die yet. He can’t die first. If he dies right here and right now, has a heart attack and keels over in the snow, then Ellie will die alone and unloved on that mattress, there’ll be no-one to bury her, she’ll become bones, nobody to mourn her, remember her –

Please – please stop – just let me –

But it has no intentions of letting him go just yet.

Joel hyperventilates uncontrollably, the icy air sharp and painful in his lungs, his throat burning like someone shoved a hot poker down it. His eyes are streaming and he’s not sure if it’s just from the cold air or if he’s started crying again. His breaths have the same rough, choppy sound as sobbing but he doesn’t feel sorrow right now, just raw jolts of intense, stomach-twisting terror. It’s not any particularly specific threat that he’s feeling terrified of. It’s more like some dark cloud of doom that’s enveloped him completely, blacking out the rest of the world, pressing in on all sides till he wants to scream from the claustrophobia, and it tells him only one thing, loud as a thunderclap – that he’s gonna die, right now, right now, and Ellie’s alone somewhere, she’s alone and dying, they’ll both be dead by dawn, dead, dead, dead

I don’t want her to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want us to die…

Joel finds grass beneath the snow and clenches it in his fists, like the earth itself is shattering apart and holding on tight is the only thing that’ll prevent him from being blown away into nothingness. The hyperventilating gives way to retching, Joel choking on his own terror. He tastes acid, sour in the back of his throat. His ears roar like an ocean.

Just stop – come on – come on –

What’s that thing Tommy used to do, after coming back from Desert Storm? There was a thing that the veterans support group suggested Tommy should do, whenever he had those attacks of extreme fear, set off by nightmares or things like hearing a car backfiring outside, moments that wound up with him hiding underneath the bed, shaking and hyperventilating, just like Joel is now. There was something that would help Tommy, something that might help Joel now, what the f*ck was it, he should be able to remember, he went to enough of those damn group meetings with Tommy, what did they say to do – ?

Focus.

Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Find an object, focus on it. Some bullsh*t about concentrating on something external so you wouldn’t be thinking about the internal, like your heart racing or the terrifying thoughts in your head. He remembers sitting in the kitchen late at night with Tommy, after another nightmare, asking his brother to describe everything about the fridge, the humming noise it made, the silver plating flaking off the door handle, the ladybug magnet that Sarah had painted in kindergarten, her crayon drawing of Ariel from The Little Mermaid that Joel had pinned to the door, just anything that would get Tommy to slow down his breathing and stop shaking like a leaf.

Do that. Focus.

Joel drags his gaze upwards from the snow, gazing ahead towards the trees, but they seem to leer back at him, branches brushing against each other and sounding like they’re whispering. His blood is still pounding so fast that it makes bursts of light dance across his vision and for a split second, they look like lit torches, weaving between the trees, like the calling card of hunters –

sh*t…not that…something else…

Joel looks up, past them, towards the sky instead. He’s trying to look for stars, but instead finds the moon. It’s in waning gibbous, still casting enough light to illuminate the snow around him to an opalescent sheen, giving the ice-crusted branches of the trees an almost coral-like glow.

Ellie wants to go to the moon, he thinks randomly and then he suddenly feels something inside him start to judder to a halt.

There. That.

Joel fixates his gaze on the moon, stares up at it until his eyes are blurring, feels it holding him in its bright, singular spotlight. Even after twenty years of the world falling apart and all the worst possible sh*t happening to him, the moon is still there, hasn’t changed. He tries to make out its lunar craters, that ones that Ellie probably knows all the names to. He doesn’t know why that thought comforts him, when thinking of Ellie has been doing nothing but sending spikes of pain and sorrow into his heart all night, but he feels the painful tightness in his chest begin to loosen a bit, thinking about Ellie and the moon.

Okay, what else? His eyes rove over the dark patches, that Ellie told him are called “mares”, because old astronomers used to think the dark patches on the moon were seas. One of them is called the Sea of Tranquility and it’s where humans first landed on the moon, where Ellie says the landing module of Apollo 11 still is and where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footprints remain to this day.

As he recounts those bits of trivia, Joel feels the sensation of his heart in his throat begin to recede. The feeling that his lungs are on fire starts to fade away, just a bit.

That’s it, Joel. Come back.

He just sits there for a long time, buckled over in the snow, trying to find an anchor back into his body, shaking and dizzy and feeling sick and drooling from how hard he’s been breathing.

When his mind starts to feel like it’s no longer trying to eat itself and that siren inside him gradually stops screaming dying, dying, you’re dying, everybody’s dying, the first emotion that Joel is able to place is puzzlement.

How come he thought about Ellie wanting to the moon?

He’s not sure why that thought popped into his head, out of nowhere. Maybe it just goes hand-in-hand with these attacks – his thoughts are shuttling frantically through his brain like misfired signals until he can’t keep track of them or where they’re coming from, unrelated long-term memories blipping into his mind’s eye.

But then it occurs to Joel – Ellie never really answered the question that night by the campfire, of where she was going to go after the cure was complete. She’d been whimsical instead, talking about space and astronauts. It was such a kid answer, he thinks fondly. But, more importantly, she’d successfully evaded the topic by getting Joel engaged in something she loved, distracting him and making him forget the question completely. He hadn’t even noticed her doing it. It was as if she knew him well enough to know it would work. That or he’s as inept at the nuances of conversation as he’s always been.

But now he realizes that Ellie doesn’t think she has a place to go, to the extent that she can only take comfort in imagining herself adventuring in the isolated infinity of outer space, something that’s obviously never going to happen.

So…where is she going to go? Where does she belong?

The answer speeds into Joel’s head with no preamble or hesitation, a statement that bursts out of his heart like a bleed.

With me. She belongs with me.

Henry was the only one who seemed to get it. You might not be her father, but you were someone’s. Even though he’s failed at it in all the worst possible ways, it’s the only thing Joel knows how to be. It’s the only thing he’s ever wanted to be, but after he’d buried Sarah, he thought he couldn’t be, ever again.

And then Ellie had come in like a sun and her gravity had pulled Joel’s heart in close, into her orbit, and he’d slowly realized something – that all the love that he’d thought died inside him with Sarah had actually just become untethered, floating in the void. It had to go somewhere.

Out of the blue, Joel's suddenly thinking about that night in Jackson again, him and Ellie in that bedroom, finally having the no-holds barred confrontation that had been building between them for months. But he doesn’t flinch away from the memory of it, because this time it’s not his words that he’s thinking about. It’s Ellie’s.

Everybody I’ve cared for has either died or left me. Everybody, f*cking except for you!

Joel remembers, with a pall of shame, his immediate reaction of thinking she was just being dramatic because she was angry with him, embellishing her life story with some typical teenage exaggeration. But she’d been so obviously telling the truth – he can remember only too clearly how raw her voice had gotten when she’d shouted those words, how her eyes had been suddenly glistening with tears. And now her words are actually beginning to sink in and the devastating implication of such a declaration hits him full-force.

Everybody.

How could she have been left behind by so many people? Maybe the ones that died had an excuse, but what about the ones who might still be out there, still living their lives without Ellie, with no idea where she is or what became of her? What’s their excuse? Why didn’t they come back for her?

All the while, Ellie’s just been tossed from one person to the next, let down again and again by people who she’d let into her heart. People unable or, worse, unwilling to stay. Joel imagines her interacting with various people throughout her young life (FEDRA officers who maybe weren’t total assholes; fellow orphans she’d maybe struck up a tentative friendship with; the mysterious Riley, whoever she might be; even that f*cking Che Guevara-wannabe Marlene), getting her hopes up time and time again, only to be constantly let down and have her heart broken when nobody would fight for her or call her theirs.

Everybody except for you.

Joel suddenly wants to weep, thinking of Ellie, feeling so alone and unwanted, wondering if it was something she’d done wrong, coming to the irrational conclusion that there must be something bad about her that keeps driving people away, yet somehow holding on and refusing to allow all that disappointment and rejection to kill her inner light completely. And the fact that he made her feel that way too, even if it was just for a few hours, makes him want to knock his head against something until he draws blood. He wishes he could hold her face between his hands and look her in the eyes and tell her how wonderful she is, how she deserves the world, that she’s one of the best people he’s ever known, how she makes him proud every single day, that she’s so loved. And as for all those faceless figures of her past, those f*ckers continually writing her off or washing their hands of her or turning away without so much as a second glance…well, f*ck all of them.

Joel rips a small handful of dead grass out of the ground, feeling an intense wave of rage and disgust at these people, whoever they might be. Why did none of them see the amazing person Ellie is? Why did none of them see how their lives would’ve been so much better for having her be part of it?

Did any of those people even realize what they were missing?

Then a voice rings out sharply in Joel’s head.

But that’s what you’re doing, Joel. Right now. You’ve given up on her because you think she’s going to die. You’ve run away and left her. You can’t be just one more person that does that to her. She doesn’t deserve that.

Joel swallows hard against the burning pain in his throat, his heart sinking like a stone.

sh*t. He has. He’s done it again. After being unable to leave her behind in Jackson and vowing not to leave her again…what the hell is he doing, hiding out here? What has he been doing all night besides crying and giving in to his worst, most defeatist impulses and basically acting like the kind of weakling who gets himself and everyone around him killed?

You miserable, pathetic f*ck-up…

Something else tugs at Joel’s conscience too. Something from that night in Jackson that’s been bubbling away in the back of his mind, but he hasn’t quite been able to pin down. Not “not my daughter” or “sure as hell ain’t your dad.” Something else.

Everybody I’ve ever cared for…except for you…

The realization hits Joel like the sun has begun to rupture from the horizon, piercing through and burning away the dark of the night and allowing him to see, banishing the cold and filling him with warmth:

She cares about you too.

He knows that. Of course he knows that – even before that night in Jackson, on some level he’d known, but because he’s a stubborn, insensitive ass, he’d told himself that Ellie was just a kid and she’d get over it. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about it from her end, hadn’t concerned himself with the possibility that she might be getting just as attached to him as he was to her, hadn’t imagined that her feelings ran any deeper than Joel being a trusted figure who made her feel safe, wouldn’t have dreamed that he was included in that pantheon of “people Ellie loves.” Until she’d spoken those words that night. Maybe she hadn’t meant for it to slip out, maybe her guard had come down in a moment of high emotion, but it’s there now, hard proof, out in the open.

For a long time he’d been so sure that when they finally found the Fireflies, Ellie would be happy to move on to the next phase of her life and not be too torn-up about them going their separate ways, but…

Does she see their future as being the two of them, together for always, as well? Does she want it just as badly, that normal life in Jackson that Joel keeps daydreaming about? Is she too afraid to voice it out loud, in case that pushes Joel over the edge and he veers back into total rejection again?

Oh, Ellie…

Joel sighs quietly, his lungs scoured raw from hyperventilating. He feels himself drooping, like his bones have turned to lead and dismay sits in his stomach like rotten food.

You’ve gotta do better than this. You’ve gotta be better.

He’s all Ellie’s got right now. She’s looking to him to guide them through this mess. She needs him to step up and he hasn’t. Joel can’t forget the way she looked at him yesterday, when he held her hand before he stitched her up. It was a look that said “I know it’ll be okay. I know you’ll look after me. I know you won’t let me die.” It was the whole-hearted, unshakeable trust that a child places in a parent. It was the same way Sarah used to look at him. Even as she was dying, she still gazed up at him with that unwavering belief in him.

And he can’t back down from that. Ever. No matter how bad it looks, no matter how close to death Ellie is, he’s not allowed to give up. That’s not the deal. When you become a parent and the life of your child is in your hands, the deal is that the only thing that can prevent you from doing your duty is your own death.

He’s broken that deal once before. He won’t do it again.

That voice in his head speaks to him again. It’s not spiteful and terror-stricken, nor is it cold and unflinching. It sounds firm and solemn but also tender and encouraging, and it’s telling him things he badly needs to hear:

You’re not a failure, Joel. The only way you can be a failure is if you stop trying. That’s what you’re doing now. And you haven’t been trying, not really. You know you haven’t. So, try again.

Yes. That’s right. This isn’t over. It isn’t over until he’s moved heaven and earth, split seas, torn the sky open and rained fire in his pursuit of saving Ellie’s life. It isn’t over until he’s spilled blood, either another’s or his own. It isn’t over until he’s made a deal with the devil himself.

Deep stab wound. Infection, creeping closer and closer to septic shock. Middle of winter. Trapped in a remote area of rural, mountainous Colorado. Raiders lurking somewhere nearby. The only real help too-far a ride away. And no medicine.

The odds are sh*t.

Joel tightens his jaw, subconsciously reaches for his watch, rubbing his thumb over the cracked glass.

Well, f*ck the odds. f*ck improvised shivs and drafty basem*nts and sh*tty stitches and fevered blood and microscopic bacteria and troubled memories. They haven’t come up against the likes of Ellie Williams before.

She isn’t going to die because she’s escaped it before. She could’ve bled to death on that first day, but she didn’t. She could’ve died from shock while he was stitching her up, but she didn’t.

She was bitten and she should’ve turned, she should’ve died, but she hadn’t. She’s still here.

That’s what Ellie does. She survives against impossible odds.

Joel closes his eyes and drags a deep breath down into his lungs, slowly as he can. Good, cold, clean mountain air. He drinks it in, imagining it freezing the fear inside of him, and blows it back out in a gust. Does it again. Again.

He straightens up, sitting on his knees. His cheeks, wet from tears, sting in the cold air. He clenches his hands into tight fists until his fingers stop quivering, until he stops feeling tremors travelling through his muscles. He sits there so long he can feel the snow soaking into his jeans, but he doesn’t move until he feels the last of the panic attack melting away, until he feels like his chest has gone slack again and his heart is back to resting rate, until he feels he can trust himself to go back down into that basem*nt without falling apart again.

The voices of all his loved ones, lost and living, come into his head.

Get your ass back in there, Texas, Tess says.

She’s waiting on you, hermano, Tommy says

Go to her, Dad, Sarah says.

Joel pushes himself back to his feet, legs wobbly and unsteady. He wipes his snotty nose on the sleeve of his jacket, brushes the snow off his jeans, glances up at the moon one more time and goes back inside the house.

It takes a lot more effort to lug the piano back across the door than it did for him to remove it. His armpits are drenched in sweat and his back aches – he must’ve wrenched a muscle when he hauled the piano aside, his body flooded with so much adrenaline that he barely noticed the pain. Now it’s wearing off and he feels foggy and sluggish, the aftershock of his panic attack still shuddering through him. God, this is probably the worst one he’s ever had…

Dread pools in his stomach as he moves through the living room, back into the kitchen, open the basem*nt door and slowly descends the stairs. How long was he out there? Ten minutes? Fifteen?

What if Ellie – ?

Joel steps into the basem*nt, his heart at a standstill, feeling like he’s about to take a step off a cliff…

But there she is. Still here. Still alive. Of course she is. How could he have ever doubted her? An image comes into his head, of Ellie, switchblade in hand and a snarl on her face, staring down death in the face while he’d been preoccupied with not losing his mind for however long he was up there, and a fragile laugh almost escapes him.

Her face is turned towards the stairs, in his direction, face tensed and eyes closed, limbs squirming underneath her blanket. It reminds Joel so much of Sarah when she was a newborn, squiggling around in her blanket bundle and her little face creased-up and red, building towards a hearty cry, that it makes all the air leave his lungs in a rush, love flooding through every fiber of his heart. The urge to take his girl into his arms is as powerful now as it was on that warm July day in 1989. All he wants to do is tuck Ellie right next to his heart forever. It might be a broken and bruised heart but it’s hers, for as long as she wants and needs it.

Joel settles down next to her again, groaning as his joints crack in protest. Exhaustion throbs in every muscle in his body, seems to leach through every vein. It’s been a long, long night.

Ellie shuffles around on the mattress, makes a small, soft noise. She hasn’t been this unsettled in a couple of hours, since he started singing to her. Maybe somewhere in her subconscious she sensed his absence and felt a low hum of fear that’s made her more restless. He should remedy that.

“Hey, baby. It’s okay. I’m here. Sorry I left. I just got…” Joel swallows, embarrassment and anger crawling over him for having yet another panic attack. “But I’m here now, okay? I’m stayin’ right here.”

Her face seems washed of all color, bluish-gray shadows under her eyes, her lips tinged pale, sweat glimmering on her forehead and cheeks. Joel tucks back a loose curl of hair from her forehead.

He’s got to do something about this, got to try and approach this with a clearer mind. Ellie doesn’t need him blubbering and begging. She doesn’t need him being fixated on his past mistakes and mentally flogging himself for them. She doesn’t need him frantically swinging like a pendulum from “she’ll be okay” to “she’s gonna die” every thirty seconds. She doesn’t need him throwing in the towel when he hasn’t yet exhausted every possibility. What she needs is to know he’s not given up, that he’ll never give up on her.

“I know you’re in there. I know you can hear me,” Joel murmurs. “So, you gotta listen to me now, alright?”

He’s not sure where to start. Something better than falling apart and crying all over her. That sh*t’s hardly inspiring, hearing the adult who’s supposed to be in control and always know what to do crumble under the pressure and cry like a baby. If Ellie’s at all aware of what’s going on, that sort of talk would only freak her out and make her scared.

What would Ellie say? What would she be telling him to try and pull him back from the brink? What would she know to say that would be the thing to make him drag himself back to life? Probably stuff she’s already told him, something about how she’d be f*cked if he wasn’t there to protect her – that sh*t would have him rising like Lazarus.

Joel thinks. What’s most important to Ellie, right now? What would be her biggest regret upon leaving this world? Maybe if she’s able to understand, on some level, that she’s got unfinished business, then she won’t be pulled so easily in the arms of death.

Then it comes to him.

“You’re not done yet, Ellie. Remember? The Fireflies, they’re waitin’ on you,” Joel says with as much fervor as he can muster. “In Salt Lake. So you can make that cure. I know we don’t talk much about it, but…I know how bad you want it. I know you tried with…with Sam and it didn’t work, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s all the more reason to not give up, right? There’s still people countin’ on you.”

Joel’s gut twists a little at the emotionally manipulative angle he’s taking, particularly bringing up Sam when he knows it still pains Ellie, even if she won’t talk about it. And as if he could distill Ellie’s future down to just the Fireflies and the cure, when he knows it’s so much bigger and so much more than that. He wouldn’t normally talk about the cure like it’s a certainty because he doesn’t believe it himself. But he knows Ellie believes it, and if it jabs down deep enough into her subconscious and makes something inside her perk up and go, “Wait a minute, he’s right”, then he’s going to try it.

His mind flashes back, one last time, to his mother’s hospital room. When Joel relayed something to Tommy that the doctor had told him earlier, about how Mom might need to hear her sons say it was okay for her to go, for them to give her their permission. Tommy, so young and heartbroken and furious, had stormed out of the room in tears, saying something along the lines of, “I won’t do it. I won’t tell her it’s okay, cos it’s not. She’s not allowed to go.”

Joel swallows the ache in his throat at the memory. Giving Mom permission wouldn’t have changed anything back then. But it might now. Ellie might sometimes like to believe she calls the shots in their dynamic, takes smug pride in the fact that she can wear him down if she’s persistent, but when it comes down to matters of life and death, there’s no question that Joel has the final say and Ellie just has to go along with it, whether she likes it or not. Like when he told her get back behind the wall while he dispatched that kid in Kansas City or told her to stay low while he went to deal with the sniper.

And, perhaps, if he makes it clear that he forbids her to die, she might have no choice but to obey.

“You remember the rule?” Joel says quietly. “Hmm? “You do what I say when I say it.” Well, I’m tellin’ you now – you don’t quit. Cos I know you, Ellie. You don’t go quietly, not over anythin’. And not over this either.”

And she won’t. He knows she won’t. Her voice glints in the back of his mind, of what she said back in Bill and Frank’s house, cooperative in tone but with an undercurrent of sass: What you say goes.

“It’s just…” Joel tries to keep his tone firm, but he can feel a sliver of emotion creeping into his voice. “This ain’t right, baby. All this…it shouldn’t have happened. It ain’t fair. I know it and you know it. So, we’ve gotta do somethin’ about this. I’m gonna figure somethin’ out tomorrow and you’re gonna stick around and keep buggin’ the sh*t outta me. Alright?”

The words feel strange coming out of his mouth. It’s never been in Joel’s nature to be an optimist. Generally, whenever he’s been the one saying “Everything will be okay”, other people have usually taken that to mean Well, if Joel’s saying it’ll be okay, we’re well and truly f*cked.

But it’s different when it’s your kid. You make lies and nonsense sound real and possible. You never let them see under the mask. You almost brainwash yourself into believing that the most ludicrous sh*t, like spontaneous, drastic improvement from sepsis and finding antibiotics way out in the boondocks, can be attainable. So that’s what he’ll do.

“And…Marlene might come after me, if she finds out that I…” Joel trails off, not wanting to say the words I let you die out loud. He chuckles dryly, the notion of Marlene hunting him down giving him a flicker of amusem*nt rather than fear. “I reckon I could probably take her, but let’s not give her the excuse, hm?”

Ellie doesn’t stir at his attempt at humor. Her face just grimaces slightly, like she’s either thinking hard about something or is letting him know that his joke wasn’t very funny.

Mentioning Marlene makes Joel think of the Fireflies. For the first time he’s actually wondering why he ever thought Ellie would be going away with them after the cure was made. Sure, maybe in the beginning he’d thought that was the plan, when the journey was only supposed to last a couple of days tops. But now he finds the thought fills him with revulsion.

Ellie, handed off into Marlene’s care? f*ck no. Ellie might talk a lot about how Marlene knew her mom and knew Ellie when she was just a baby but Joel doesn’t trust that Marlene has a concrete plan for what happens to Ellie “after.” Hell, if she’s even given it any serious thought at all. If she was serious about taking on a parental role in Ellie’s life, she would’ve disbanded the Fireflies and never surrendered Ellie to a FEDRA orphanage fourteen years ago. She would’ve given up everything and put her life on hold to focus on giving Ellie everything she needed. But she didn’t. Blowing up FEDRA checkpoints and getting her teenaged recruits senselessly killed was obviously far more important.

And the fact that she’s only showing in interest in Ellie now, when she stands to gain something from her…no. It’s not gonna happen. It was stupid of him to ever think that Marlene and the Fireflies would be what Ellie would call home, that she could ever have any sort of life with them.

And he knows where she was always meant to go.

But he needs to tell her. He needs her to know that there’s an “after”, waiting for her, a person to call “home” long after the Fireflies are done with her. All those people who left her before…he’s not going to join that group. Wherever Ellie goes, whether it’s back to Jackson or setting up permanent residence in Salt Lake City or even becoming a nomad with the Fireflies, Joel will go too.

If anything can make her want to live, surely it’s got to be that.

So, tell her.

“I didn’t just come back for you because you deserved a choice,” Joel whispers to her, leaning in close and tenderly resting his hand on Ellie’s cheek. “It…I didn’t want to leave you. I couldn’t. And I’m not gonna. It’s…it’s “we”, Ellie. It’s us, you and me. And it’s always gonna be. I’m never gonna leave you again. I swear.”

Maybe he imagines it, but he thinks he sees the furrow in Ellie’s brow relax a little. Like she can hear him finally saying the thing she needs to hear from him.

You would never give up on me, he thinks. So I’m not giving up on you.

Joel touches his fingers to Ellie’s throat again. A thin smile twitches at his lips when he feels the pulse of her heart.

It feels defiant. Like a heated “f*ck you” hissed in an undertone. Like a whispered battle cry – endure and survive, if you will.

It feels like Ellie.

Joel closes his aching eyes, counting heartbeats. Takes sanctuary in the sensation of Ellie’s fierce life under the pads of his fingers, lets the sound of it wash over his head and drown out all the other voices.

Peripeteia - Chapter 3 - Hiding_Reader (2024)
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