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The Remnants of Now

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"I was naive and hopeful and lost. Now I'm aware and trapped in my thoughts."

Joel nods to a room on the right of this empty house’s hallway. Ellie sighs dramatically in relief and lets her backpack fall off her shoulders, land on the wooden floor with a thud. She rolls her shoulders and relishes in her joints popping like fireworks in the silence. Stepping over it, she surveys the room, its sci-fi posters worn and faded and a fish tank left uncleaned. Clearly, a boy lived in this room with the baseball cards scattered on the ground, Ellie grows familiar with the area. Vents and pipes are checked. The bed is searched and cleared for a nap.

“Ellie, what did I tell you about leaving your backpack in the middle of the floor?” Joel says, leaning on the door frame. Silence is echoed back at him. His right hand subconsciously on his pistol as Joel rounds the corner. A smile graces his lips as Ellie is curled up on a blue bed.

“Well, so much for eating together.” Joel laughs and his daughter lightly snores.

Ellie paced nervously as Marlene came into view. “It’ll be fine, kid. Just a bunkmate.” She said, a ghost of a smile flickering in her face for a split second before going back to natural unreadable expression. Ellie said nothing in return and just fiddled with her necklace. The metal of the rusted butterfly, its blue long rubbed off, slid smoothly under her fingers like water. They walked in relative peace through the hallways, which never seem to end, the steady beat of feet of stained wood echoing around them. But Ellie’s mind was racing, so much so that she couldn’t keep her thoughts straight.

Ellie swore she still felt the flickering heat of her last hideout. She had nearly gotten away with running away. The only thing that stopped her was the sense of wrong, of guilt, clinging to her like ivy all over the building. It had been hours after curfew and search helicopters everywhere (it had been a good time for Fireflies) as Ellie ran all the way back on the rooftops because they were the quickest route and, unfortunately, the riskiest.

But right now, she wondered if she made the right choice. Marlene stopped her and pointed to the right at a door numbered 5b with an R scratched on the wood. There was movement behind the door as she knocked. There was a loud crash and the door opened eagerly. And Ellie was greeted by the sight of a girl. Her dark skin was littered with bruises and her brown eyes seem to light up. Her black hair was free and framed her face like a halo. She grinned and let them in.

Her room looks like it had been full of stuff, so most of it was pushed to one side of the room. The bunk bed was recently cleaned and made. Too clean. “Hi, I’m Riley.” The girl said, jutting out a hand so hard Ellie swore she heard a distinct pop. She surveyed the hand, with a diagonal scar on the back of it, and shook it. She raised her head up and met brown eyes.

“I’m Ellie.”

Her world flashes black and Riley is looking at her with such sadness as she raises her palm, exposing an ugly bite. Ellie’s arm sting and burns like there's something festering and spreading under her skin. As she slowly surrenders to the feeling, Ellie wakes up gasping and slicing the air with her switch.

Joel sips his water as he reads some shitty book Ellie snatched from an abandoned store. The book itself has a black background and some type of golden pin printed across the middle and the writing in it ain’t so bad. He’s halfway through a good fight scene when a whimper breaks his concentration. He looks up at the sleeping figure of Ellie, his surrogate daughter, bunched up in covers and a hoodie, and sighs. Joel briefly wonders which nightmare is this one going to be. Ellie scrunches herself up into a tighter ball and her face bunches up.

Ever since Joel took that fall, Ellie’s been jumpier. The chair beneath him creaks as he pulls it closer to her. Ellie’s been through shit and most of it is left untouched, not from Joel’s lack of trying, a silent question and concern left unsaid. He knows that prying can only work if he can push all her buttons and make her explode, that was his method with Tess and Tommy, but Ellie is slow to anger with Joel, frustrated, yes but never angry.

She’s never pulled a loaded gun on him even in training exercises. The only thing he can think of that is close was when a scavenger had at gunpoint and Ellie had to shoot that bastard point blank and after that, she rushed to see if she hurt him.

He quickly sits up and pulls Ellie down. She shouts something incomprehensible and struggles. “Ellie. Hey! Hey, baby girl. It’s okay.” He hushes her.

The fight in her eyes goes out and Ellie bursts into sobs, clinging to him like a lifeline.

Strong hands hold her down and she screams, kicking and scratching and clawing. ‘It’s David’ is running through her head. ‘It’s David. It’s David. you have to get away, you have to fight.” Her eyes are screwed shut until a familiar voice murmurs something stern. Her eyes fly open.

“Joel?” She whimpers and relaxes. There are red marks running up his arms, the skin already beginning to raise up. Guilt hits her like a tidal wave. Ellie makes the mistake of gluing her eyes to the floor and Joel forces her to look at him. She can tell he's not mad, but scared and concerned. Ellie keeps silent and buries her face into his chest, letting the emotions wash over her. She doesn't realize she's crying until he hushes her.

Ellie knows she won't tell him and a piece of her hates herself for it. It's supposed to get easier, isn't it? Then why does she feels like every day her heart is so tightly strung that she fears it might snap? She pulls away from his embrace.

“Please, Ellie, you have to tell me what wrong. I can’t fix what I don’t know.” He says, pushing a strand of hair behind her hair. Ellie shook her head but Joel had enough. “Kid, I won’t hurt or push you away I swear.” he tries again.
“Riley.”

“What?” Joel says, the pit in his stomach lessening. Finally. Ellie sucks in a shuddering breath and looks up, staring into Joel’s eyes.

“Her name was Riley. And I loved her.” She starts.

"Oh."