“Swear to me,” she says. “Swear to me that everything that you said about the Fireflies is true.”
She doesn’t know what she expects to see. Doubt, maybe. Hesitation. Guilt. But he matches her gaze and doesn’t waver, and no matter how hard she searches, there’s nothing but conviction in those eyes, and that, more than anything else, is what scares her.
In that instant, time stops. A beat, then two.
“Did Sarah ever read these, too?” she asks Joel one night. She’s perched on a stool next to his workbench, watching him clean and repair a pistol.
“What was that?” He twists the screwdriver too forcefully, and the screw pops out of its socket. “Damn!”
Ellie makes a grab for it before it rolls off the workbench. “I got it, I got it,” she says, dropping it back into Joel’s palm.
“Thanks.” He fumbles a little resetting the screw back in place.
Ellie feels a twinge of annoyance at his blunder. She knows she could learn to repair and upgrade weapons just as well as he does. Better, even. His fingers are large and clumsy, getting worse with age, and hers are small and nimble. Every time she asks, implores even, his expression stiffens. One day, he tells her. Later, when he’s not so busy, but he’s less unreadable than he likes to think he is.
She doesn’t get why he’s so uptight about it. She already knows how to do everything else you can do with a gun.
Joel acts differently towards her, now, ever since their return to Jackson. It’s as if he doesn’t remember the simple fact of Ellie’s competency. She had watched his back for a year, and his memory of it, asking her to cover him, trusting her to have his back, and the long weeks where it was just Ellie and Callus, and Joel was there but wasn’t at the same time…those memories seems to have vanished into thin air.
To be fair, Ellie doesn’t want to remember that winter ever again, too.
“I’m talking about these,” Ellie waves issue twelve of Savage Starlight in the air. “Comics. From the letters in the back, seemed to be really popular with people my age. Your age too, actually, which, no offense. Sorta weird.”
Joel furrows his eyebrows at the book for a moment before waving a dismissive hand and returning to his repairs. “No, no, never those. Sorry to burst your bubble, but they were kind of a nerd thing. Movies were alright, though.” He begins tightening another screw. “Sarah was more into edgy, darker stuff. Rock. Even had this embarrassing punk phase. Or was it goth? Could never get them straight.”
It’s a playful comment, but Ellie’s earlier annoyance turns into a familiar sense of resentment, and Ellie doesn’t know who it’s directed at. She tries for a different angle.
“Alright, I’m not going to pretend I know about this punk or whatever, but this series is crazy edgy. Like, there’s this gruesome death scene of one of the top members of the Watch in the middle here.” Ellie flips through the issue, corners worn from countless rereads, and holds up the double page spread of the mutilated body. Joel doesn’t bother looking up.
“Oh fine. You’ve seen worse, anyways. But just hear me out. So there’s this alien race called the Travelers. Kind of like lizard men, with super advanced tech. And you know what they do? They slaughter most of the human race, and enslave the rest. Cut to the chase, if Daniela, that’s the main girl, here, on the cover, doesn’t succeed in annihilating their home planet, that signals the end of the entire free universe. Does that not sound dark to yo-hey, what was that!? Don’t laugh!”
Her protest doesn’t stop Joel from scoffing again, but his huff is affectionate. “Don’t matter the stakes. Your Captain whatzit will be the big damn hero and save the world anyways. She one of them superheroes?”
“Superhero?” Ellie frowns in confusion. “Nah, she’s a scientist.”
Joel shrugs, exchanging his screwdriver for a pair of pliers. “Well, Sarah brought home enough superhero rentals from Blockbuster so I know the drill. Your scientist lady, or her boyfriend on the cover there, might die saving the day, but that doesn’t matter. You can’t kill off them for real. They’ll just come back a few years later when the company decides they need to bring their cash cow back home to milk.”
Joel rubs his forehead with the back of his hand, and Ellie’s frown becomes more pronounced the more he speaks. “There’re never any real consequences in comics. Good guys win. Bad guys lose. Would explain the age thing. Kids like you believe the world’s so black and white.” He pauses for a moment, then grins, but his amusement seems meant to be a private matter. “And people my age want to lie to themselves about it.”
Ellie takes the screwdriver he set down and rolls it between her fingers, watches the way it reflects the dim light of the fluorescent bulb dangling above the workbench. The silence that hangs over them is contemplative. Joel hums softly, and Ellie doesn’t know if he even realizes he’s doing it.
“Who knows? Maybe we want to lie to ourselves, too,” she muses under her breath.
“Hm? Did you say something?”
The comment startles Ellie (damn it, did she say that out loud?) and she fumbles for the screwdriver as it drops from her hand and rolls on the floor. “Nothing! It was nothing!” She dives for the tool and sets it hurriedly back on the bench, then smacks her hands together to free them of the dust clinging to them. She’s surprised she even notices; living in an actual community as opposed to backpacking across the entire country really raises your cleanliness standards.
Ellie stands next to her stool, and comes to the realization that she doesn’t want to sit back down. The thought of continuing their conversation seems almost asinine now. “Sorry about bothering you. I’m going to-uh, I’ll just go see what Maria’s up to, actually.”
Joel quirks an eyebrow in response. “She’s a busy woman, you know.”
“I know, I know!” Ellie rolls her eyes. “But don’t worry, even if I can’t bug her, I’m sure I can find something better to occupy myself than hanging out with you.”
Ellie sticks a tongue out as she leaves the room, but she still hears Joel’s snort before closing the door behind her.
Good guys, bad guys…who even gets to decide that, anyways? Who’s the person on a high enough horse that they get to judge anyone else’s actions?
(There’s only one person who can do that, and Ellie is damn confident he doesn’t exist. At least, not here, not in this life.)
That man would have killed her. Not easily either - probably limb from limb, prolonging the dismemberment until Ellie begged for her death. He was sick like that.
That man was the worst fucking person Ellie had ever met.
But…how many of his men did she slay with her bow and arrow? How many of their throats had she slit?
(The only number she knows for certain is how many faces she had bashed in with a blunt knife.)
And she’d watched Joel kill a hundred times that amount. Seen men shredded apart by a cleverly placed nail bomb, flesh left raw and gaping; burned alive by a Molotov cocktail, their screams a cacophony of pain and suffering, and in the end, nothing left of their bodies except a smoldering, charred heap and the smell forced Ellie to blink back burning tears. Seen Joel creep up behind countless unsuspecting men and crush their windpipes, the black and blue bruising a stark contrast to the paleness of their faces.
That man had butchered men, but there was some semblance of justification, an inkling of practicality in treating human beings as livestock. As feed.
Joel and Ellie? They kill purely for themselves.
Endure and survive.
She sees their faces in her dreams, still. The others had relatively quick deaths; a perfectly aimed shot between the eyes, the sheer force of a shotgun blast. But the ones strangled to death, she can still see. How the blood forces itself into their bug eyes, popped out from fear, and how their mouths hang gaping wide, dribbling drool in their desperation for air. How they kick and struggle and clutch onto their swiftly dwindling life as breath and life is squeezed from their bodies.
They all look the same, next to death, slaves to death. That’s the only constant in this life.
Endure and survive. Endure and survive. That’s all that matters. There’s nothing else to think about.
Freedom. Morality. What bullshit.
If there’s anything Ellie knows about this world, it’s that everyone loses in the end.
“It’s going flat because you’re leaning your fingers on the other strings. That’ll kill the sound.”
“Right, right.” Ellie curves her fingers wide again and it still looks ridiculous. It’s a strain to keep only the tips of her fingers pressed firmly on the strings.
She scolds herself for the whining – it’s because she couldn’t stand the pain that she keeps slipping out of the proper posture.
“Okay, try that chord again,” Joel encourages her, and nods approvingly when she strums the guitar. “That’s much better, sounds much clearer now.”
“Hah! Am I awesome or what!?” Ellie raises a palm and Joel shakes his head fondly, laughing before he gives her the high five. Ellie seizes this chance and grabs Joel’s hand, lifting the guitar with her other hand and landing it on his lap.
“It’s your turn,” she teases in a particularly sing-song tone. That always drives Joel crazy.
Joel groans. “We’ve barely started. You’ll never improve at this rate.”
“I won’t even bother getting better if I lose all my motivation,” Ellie retorts. “You’ve got to give me some encouragement here. You’ll see, one day, I’ll get so good, I’ll be your guitar accompaniment around the campfire. But I’m not there yet, so I’ll let you have the solo act. For now.” She tilts her head and gives Joel her most convincing pleading look.
Joel avoids her eyes. “Fine, fine. Just one song, though.” He tucks the guitar in and plucks at a few of its strings, grunting in approval at some of the sounds, and frowning at some of the others. It’s kind of amusing, how he treats the guitar as carefully as he does his firearms.
“Alright!” Ellie sits back on her haunches and rocks back and forth with accomplishment as she watches Joel meticulously tune the guitar.
“We’re making up for this time with extra swimming lessons later.”
“Ugh, have a heart, Joel. The water’s gonna be fucking freezing!” Ellie mock shivers for emphasis. No matter how many times Joel assures her how fun swimming while not under the threat of death is, when your first experiences with water involve losing consciousness by being slammed into rocks and getting shoved underwater, it’s hard to warm up to the idea.
“You’re tougher than that. And I have sources that say you haven’t softened up since we got here.”
“Max and Tim are wimps. But at least wimps with eyes,” Ellie concedes. “Hey, you done?” she asks, noticing Joel adjusting the guitar into a more comfortable and secure position.
“I’m ready. Got any requests?”
“That one song from last time! Uh, the soft one. It’s kind of sad, but really pretty.”
“The ghost one? That’s a good one. Sarah liked it a lot too. One of the few bands we ever agreed on,” Joel smiles fondly. His eyes are trained on his fingers, but Ellie senses that what he is seeing is something completely different, and her heart lurches uncomfortably.
Until Joel finally moves and starts to play, and that’s a cue for Ellie to stop moving. Stop blinking, stop breathing, stop being. For that small moment in time, Ellie washes away everything in the world that’s not the sound of the guitar, or the rasp of Joel’s voice.
“You saw my pain, washed out in the rain...”
She and Joel had stayed in more abandoned houses than she can remember. They blur together in her mind now, carpet with linoleum with wood, curtains with blinds with shutters.
She’ll never forget this house, though. The window peering over the street, eerie and still after the shootout earlier that day. The toy robot lying on its side, thrown on the floor next to the table. It looks pathetic.
“You’re not Sam,” Ellie says.
“No, I’m not.” The moonlight reflects off the girl’s platinum-blonde hair and Ellie has to squint a little from the brightness.
“I know who you are, though.” How could she not? Joel never shows her the photograph; he keeps it tucked between the pages of a notebook stowed away underneath his mattress. But Ellie doesn’t need to sneak it away for furtive glances, anymore. She has long memorized the face of that Joel she has never known (never will know) and the face of a daughter as distant as the stars, yet whose memory weighs on her like a shackle in her every waking moment.
“I know you, too.” The girl shrugs and smiles, “but it’s not like we’re old friends or anything, Ellie,” and sticks out her arm.
Ellie can’t help but take the proffered hand, trying to shape her own hesitant smile into one as easy and bright as the one aimed at her.
“Sarah, it’s nice to finally meet you.”
It’s surreal, and Ellie knows that she must be staring, but she can’t stop herself from trying to take all of her in. Sarah shifts from foot to foot, but doesn’t seem abashed at the attention, as if she understands the thoughts and feelings racing through Ellie’s mind. She tugs absentmindedly on her sleeve, the bold 14 emblazoned on the front of her jersey, and Ellie seizes on that opportunity.
“I’ve always wanted to play,” she starts, “for real, I mean. I’ve kicked around a ball.” She waves around her hands for emphasis. “But being on a team, and everything, sounds wicked cool.”
“It would have been. I don’t think we could have played in the same league, though.” Ellie almost forgot, so familiar with how Sarah’s shadow fell and echoed over her life; when Sarah died, she was younger than Ellie is now.
“Oh. Right. Man, that sucks. We would have made one kick-ass team.”
Sarah laughs. “Sure, but that’s against the rules! I don’t think coaches are allowed to play for their team.”
Oh. Oh. Ellie starts laughing too, because Sarah’s reasons for “not being able to play together” are so unexpected and radically different from her own there’s nothing else to do. If Sarah were here today, not only could she be old enough to coach Ellie’s hypothetical soccer team, she could be old enough to be Ellie’s mother, and that idea makes the giggles even more uncontrollable.
“God.” Ellie covers her face with her hands. “Joel could practically be my grandfather.”
Does anyone even have grandparents, anymore? Having a parent alive is increasingly rare, and boy, are most of the kids at Jackson lucky little bastards for having both, but having a parent of a parent still around and kicking is practically unheard of.
Then again, Ellie has also never heard of any other pseudo-family-pair who stick together like glue, brought together by circumstance and desperate loneliness. So.
Sarah’s face wrinkles. “I can’t see that happening at all. Dad’s got an overprotective streak as big as Texas. It’s been twenty years and he still hasn’t gotten over the whole Papa Bear thing. I don’t know if that’s impressive or freaky.”
“Both, I’m pretty sure.” Ellie shrugs and grins. “But, what can I say? I’m happy for it.”
Ellie nudges the toy robot with the edge of her shoe. “He’s all I have.” It’s a simple truth, but it feels like a confession.
“And you’re all that he has. Believe me.” Sarah tries for a reassuring smile, but Ellie can see the melancholy and weariness in her expression, and wonders if her own face is but a simple reflection of that. “You two need each other.”
Ellie paces around the table and pulls out the chair, and pushes it back in, not particularly heeding her actions, barely feeling her own body move. “I don’t know if it’s really me he needs,” she blurts out, and wishes she hadn’t. Too late now, though. She grits her teeth, steeling herself. “He’d do anything for me. Already has. I know that. I know. But what I don’t know any more,” and the ice in her throat threatens to choke her breath away, “is if the person he’s trying to protect is Ellie.”
She can’t bring herself to look at Sarah.
You died before I was even born. But I feel like I’m always in some kind of competition with you. It’s unfair. How could I ever measure up to the real thing?
“It would be a lot easier if I were you,” she whispers.
Silence hangs between them. Sarah doesn’t answer.
Hah, what else did she expect?
If this Sarah is a figment of her subconscious, all this means that even in her darkest, most hidden depths, she doesn’t have an answer to this. Nothing to reassure her, nothing to ease her crippling fears.
Ellie shakes her head roughly and touches the base of her ponytail, fingering the rubber band there. “I’m not scared of dying. Half the people I know who’ve died, it was the best thing that could have happened to them. I’m…just scared of being alone when it’s my turn.”
She begins to roll up her right sleeve, meaning to show the other girl what lies underneath, and jumps at the sight. What’s in front of her isn’t the familiar faded mark, as much a part of her skin as her freckles or her faint scars riddled all over her body. The thing on her arm is gaping, wide and angry red, like it was when she first was bitten by a runner, shoved on the floor in that mall, Riley’s screams echoing in her ears. Panic sets in before the electric blankness of shock, and Ellie finds herself gasping, unwilling to touch, but unable to tear her eyes off the sight.
A hand rests on her shoulder and in an irrational flash, Ellie wants nothing to do to rip that arm off.
“You won’t be alone,” Sarah says softly. “Nothing you do will ever push him away.”
“Yeah.” Ellie’s voice sounds shaky and almost frantic, and she blinks rapidly to keep the burn out of her eyes. “Yeah. I know.”
I won’t let myself do anything that could make him leave. Not anymore. It’s too late for that.
“Hey.” Ellie can barely hear her own voice. “Do you know how to play guitar?” It’s a silly question, but for some reason, it doesn’t register as a non sequitur to her.
“Haha, you kidding me? I had all these dreams of being in a band. Lead guitarist plus vocals. Face plastered all over billboards and posters all over the country. I practically begged Dad to teach me how to do both.”
When Ellie wakes, she stares at the ceiling for a long, long time, the sound of Joel’s even breathing from the other end of the room as loud as the crashing of a waterfall.
“How is it you never get sick of that?” Joel juts his chin at the comic Ellie is flipping through absentmindedly. Fourteenth issue, Savage Starlight.
“I don’t really read it anymore. It’s to get me in the mood,” she answers.
They stay silent, then Joel shakes his head and sighs. “Are you really going to make me ask?” He brings up his hand to rub at a temple. “Fine. Mood for what?”
“Okay then.” Ellie opens up to the last page of the comic and holds it up. Daniela is alone and lying on the ground in a puddle of her own blood. Her eyes are closed and her face is deathly pale. “Look at this.” She points to the red box filled with bold white letters in the bottom right corner.
‘IS THIS THE MISSION THAT DANIELA WON’T SEE TO THE END? WILL THE UNIVERSE AS WE KNOW IT BE GONE FOREVER? FIND OUT NEXT TIME IN THE GRIPPING CONCLUSION TO THIS EPIC SAGA!’
“And seeing as we haven’t gone twenty miles out from this place since we came back, I’ll never find out the fucking ending.” Ellie groans and flops back onto her mattress. “It’s kind of a game at this point. How many different endings can I make up? Which one’s closest to the real one? We didn’t seen James, oh, that’s the guy with her on the cover, for a while. Maybe he’ll come find her, and try to save her. Or maybe she’ll be too long-gone at that point, so he tragically confesses his love to her, because dude’s a fucking sap. Who knows? Maybe she’ll bleed out alone.” She sighs. “I’d trade a week’s worth of rations just to know what happens. Fuck cliffhangers.”
Joel picks up the issue on the floor and pages through it. “Now what makes you so certain she won’t survive?”
“Foreshadowing, mostly. I’ve told you about the whole endure and survive thing going on in this series. It’s the natural order of things. See, she’s a scientist, but James is a soldier. Not the mindless military-type, either. He believes in justice and loyalty and all that idealistic shit.” Ellie snorts and puts her hands behind her head on the pillow.
“They have this banter going on about it. Whole theme about humans and whether they can transcend their biology and survival instinct. If they can sacrifice themselves for the greater good, whether it’s worthwhile or just bullshit. It’s great.” Ellie darts her eyes over to Joel, curious if she’s lost him.
“Hm,” Joel grunts as he flips a page. The fact that Ellie still has his attention lights a unexpected spark of encouragement in her and she drives on.
“And even though she has a big head about the simplicity and frailty of humanity, she still takes on this whole savior role with this suicide mission to infiltrate one of the enemy key bases alone.” Ellie crosses her arms in front of her and nods triumphantly. “But hey, if there’s a good time to die, it’s definitely while saving humanity.”
Joel is very quiet, and Ellie wonders if he heard her. “Sounds like a downer ending to me,” he finally says.
“Really?” The feeling that creates in her is like a dam being broken. “It sounds pretty cool, being a martyr and restoring hope to the people. They keep going on and on about how things can’t ever be the same anyways, but if her sacrifice brings back a little of the old humanity, don’t you think it’s worth it?” Some part of Ellie, small and hidden enough to barely notice, recognizes her cruelty, but she can’t stop the words streaming out of her mouth. “It makes too much sense for her to die; if she survives I’ll feel gypped. You can’t just have a happy ending, no strings attached.”
Ellie lifts herself up into a cross-legged position and cocks her head at Joel. “Oh yeah, by the way, I talked to Tommy about it. Turns out you just read the shit comics. No one comes back to life in this series, let me tell you that. This is the good stuff. Real life consequences and everything, just like you like it.”
“Never said I liked sad endings,” Joel replies. Ellie glances over and he’s staring at the cover. He flips to the first page, scans it, and closes it again. “And that’s not realistic at all. One sacrifice won’t, can’t, save the entire human race.” His eyes are piercing into the book, and Ellie feels her body tense at the sight. She is used to his outraged anger, burning heat, but his ice-cold gaze, full of cruelty, makes her feel wary in a way unfamiliar, ever since they returned to Jackson months ago. He laughs, but it only raises the hairs on the back of Ellie’s neck further. “Trying to pass that romanticized idealistic crap as realistic? That’s the most boneheaded thing I’ve ever heard.”
Ellie blinks hard. Her mouth is dry.
“It’s not about salvation. It’s about hope, Joel.”
The stillness hangs over them such that a thought flashes through Ellie’s mind that the distinct noise of a clicker would be welcome at the moment.
A bark of shocked, disbelieving laughter shocks Ellie out of her stupor. “Joel?”
The comic in Joel’s hand is shaking, and it takes Ellie a moment before realizing he’s trembling. “Sorry, it’s just…says right here. June 2013.”
“June 2013.” Ellie repeats slowly, and she’s tense for a whole different reason now; she can’t deny the worry building up in her at the look on Joel’s face.
“June 2013. Month the outbreak started.” Joel laughs, but it’s a weak chuckle.
It registers in both their minds at once, and his laugh turns genuine and full. “Sorry, but I don’t think that ending of yours even exists.”
The tension in the air dissipates in the throes of Joel’s laughter and Ellie’s undignified squawk.
“Oh. Oh. Oh, you’re fucking shitting me!” Ellie reaches out and grabs the issue. Right on the cover: June 2013. “Shit! Oh my god, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” She wants to rip it, but that’s dumb, so she throws it against the wall instead and watches it slide pathetically down to the floor. “I can’t even fucking believe it. I’m being toyed right now, aren’t I?” Ellie looks up at the ceiling and makes an obscene hand gesture at it. Two obscene hand gestures, to be accurate. “Oh, fuck you, God. Jesus. Fuck! Not you too, Joel!”
Joel’s laughing, and part of Ellie wants to pick up the comic and throw it at his face instead. The other part of her wants to throw in a few extra fucks and shits, and that’s what does. Joel laughs even harder, and Ellie works to hide her elated grin at that.
“Henry says that. ‘They’ve moved on.’ That they’re with their families. Like in heaven. Do you think that’s true?”
“I go back and forth. I mean, I’d like to believe it.”
"But you don't."
In that instant, time stops. A beat, then two.
“I guess not.”
No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.
Daniela, Sarah, everyone else not in Ellie’s world (good for them - they don’t belong in such a cruel place). They fight for things that Ellie admires. Things she can’t see: the countless other lives that will never meet hers, the ideals of justice and hope and humanity that still manage to fill her with inexplicable pride.
Untouchable, beautiful things.
Ellie fights too, of course. But it’s no longer a fight to find something she’s missing, not anymore. She’s already found her answer.
Now, Ellie fights to protect what she already has in front of her. Too many times was everything lost, has everything left her.
Not this time, Ellie swears.
If the world is doomed, forced to ruins, then all Ellie needs for her happy ending is to not lose this.