Sorry this took so long guys. Been swamped with school, and couldn't really find much motivation to write. So, belated at it is, here it is.
The old apartment was drab and dark, and held the scent of mildew.
Time had decayed the once high class leather furniture to a husk of its former luster. The sofa legs had nearly been worn through completely, and the chair by the window was standing lopsided. Streamers of light poured in through the glass, provided only by the streetlamps down on the military occupied street below and the sliver of moon nestled between the stars.
At the room's center, another dull light flashed momentarily.
A puff of cigarette smoke drifted upward to mix with the mildew.
Taking a final drag, the man seated on the sofa stood up, snuffing out the cigarette with the heel of his boots.
It had been years since he'd allowed himself the luxury of smoking. His younger years had been filled with the stuff. Back then, there was nothing better than the smooth taste of tobacco to ease his nerves. And his nerves had always been on edge, he'd been a contractor for god's sake.
But nowadays cigarettes were hard to come by. Not many were made anymore, and the few that were went to higher ranking military officers or the slum lords they elected to rule over districts within the QZ's. Adding in the detrimental effect to the lungs, and smoking just wasn't practical for someone of his profession.
Today though, he needed it. It was all that was keeping his blood from boiling over and detonating beneath his skin.
The sound of a resigned bullet tearing it's way through Tess' skull, ricocheting off the nearby wall as bits of skull fell to the floor. These sounds rang in his ears. All there was to do was to forget and move on. Just like always.
On his wrist, the broken memento of a watch grew heavier.
Joel's ears pricked as the sound of approaching footfalls out in the hallway grew louder. It was about fucking time they got here. And if it wasn't them, well, that's what the sawed-off was for. He levelled the weapon as he turned and paced towards the door.
Seven full seconds passed before a knock came at the door. Three knocks, a pause, then two more.
"'Darkness has fallen,'" he recited the bullshit Firefly code to ask for a password.
"'And the light has come to fill it,'" replied woman's voice that sounded equally irritated to be using such theatrical phrases. Gun still raised, Joel took a single step forward and unlatched the door's lock, letting it slip open with a creak.
A slender black woman with a gun of her own stepped inside, followed closely by two shorter figures. All three were draped in military rain slickers, still soaked and shiny from the rain.
"Joel Miller? Texas?" the woman queried. Joel grunted, nodding. No one ever really used his last name anymore. He'd all but forgotten it.
"Clementine?" he asked back. She nodded. Through his line of work, Joel had of course heard of the somewhat illusive woman. She wasn't a smuggler really, but she did run in certain circles tied to the black market. An ex-firefly, always on the move from QZ to QZ.
"That's me." Lowering her hood, Clementine revealed short frizzy hair concealed beneath an old ball cap. In the light, her eyes glistened like freshly formed amber, her pupils insects ensnared in its grasp. Leaning forward, she examined the man with the gun. "Wow, you really are Tommy's brother. Got the same chin, you got better hair though."
Joel ignored her comments, instead glancing at the two silent girls.
"Why's there two of 'em?" he asked. The two exchanged nervous glances. "Deal with Marlene was one girl. Who's the other?" Was just like Marlene to pull shit like this. Entitled little bitch.
"Get those coats off girls," Clementine ordered. "We'll be heading out soon. May as well get dry while you can." She turned back to Joel. "Ellie, the shorter one, she's the cargo. Riley, she's with me. Her coming was part of my payment. Don't worry about her, she's not your responsibility."
"Damn right she ain't," Joel muttered.
He was a goddamned moron for taking this job. Tess' idea, of course. She'd picked most of the jobs. Guns were the payment, but he couldn't care less. All he wanted was to get out, and this was the easiest way to do it. Now all he had to do was avoid even looking at these girls. Every glance sent a pinprick shooting through his chest, and added more and more weight to his broken watch.
"I'm not that short," grumbled the girl apparently named Ellie, the cargo. Her hair was somewhere between auburn and brown, her face flushed and dotted sparsely with light freckles.
"Sure you are," said the other girl, Riley, dark skin damp. One of her hands was missing too, so the end of her jacket sleep folded over slightly when it fell across her stump. Probably the result of a freak accident, or a bite. "You didn't even have to duck to get through that crawlspace."
"At least she didn't trip on a leaf," Clementine interjected with a smirk.
"HA!" Ellie barked in laughter, pointing. "So fuck you!"
They shared a quick laugh, though it subsided quickly. As if someone Joel's presence alone put them on edge. Smart kids, Joe thought distantly. Trust someone to quickly and you'll end up with a bullet in your shoulder and a shiv in your throat.
"So you're Joel?" Ellie said, stepping forward. "Ellie. Nice to meet you."
She offered her hand, which Joel ignored. Instead he holstered the sawed-off and stepped over to the doorway carved into the wall. The lift down to the buildings subterranean levels stood a few feet away, powered by a hand pulled generator.
"Dick," both girls said in unison.
"Where is it we're goin', exactly?" Joel asked Clementine, opting to ignore the teenaged bullshit. "Marlene didn't give too many details on this Firefly hideout, or on why the girl needs to be taken in the first place. She a big chees fly's daughter?"
"Eh, something like that. Kind of a long story," Clementine answered. "Destination's in Colorado, a university. I have a route in mind, but we should probably wait to talk about that when we get out of Boston. Army patrols switch in half an hour, so our window is closing."
"Right," Joel agreed. Smart woman, this Clementine. She was a lot scrawnier looking in terms of stature than he'd thought she'd be, a lot shorter, but there was an air of competence around her that most people just didn't have. Tess had had it until her luck ran out, Bill had it, and Joel supposed he had it too. Until aforementioned luck finally gave out. "Let's get going then."
The three females made their way to towards the door, which is when Joel noticed the pistols on each of the girl's hips, leather holsters worn and shit brown in color.
"Hold up," he stopped Clementine by shoulder. "You gave these two weapons?"
The question felt both entirely stupid and entirely honest on his lips. Logic said that these two should be armed. Everyone should be, really, especially considering where they were headed. Yet there was a part of him that couldn't help but picture a blonde haired, blue eyed angel awkwardly holding a revolver the size of her arm. Violence and that angel didn't mix. Never again.
"Of course I did," was Clementine's irritated reply. She glanced back at them. "Why wouldn't I? Tunnels are crawling with Infected. That's where the military funnels all of them with the flow of the pipes. They need guns. That a problem for you."
Joel said nothing, just grumbled an incomprehensible noise.
"We can help, man," said Riley. Her good hand fingered the gun's handle. "They taught us to shoot in school."
"That thing's gonna break your other hand off with the kickback," Joel shot back.
"No it won't," said Ellie. "It's a .33, a pea shooter."
"Look," Clementine said in resignation, putting her own hand on the gruff survivor's shoulder. "First time I picked up a gun was when I was nine. Killed my first man two days later. A gun is just a thing. It can't hurt anything unless you want it to. Now let's go."
With that, she paced to the generator and gave the string a mighty tug. Joel followed as the electricity whirred into life. No real point in arguing. The kids needed guns whether he wanted them to need them or not.
Ellie decided, as she slogged waist deep through the putrescent waters of the drainage pipe, that if swimming was anything like this, then she'd rather just not learn at all. Bits of old trash added more than you'd think to the already terrible smell of waster and dirty water. Her jeans would need a good wash after this, wet denim was a huge pain to move around in.
She'd need a good was too, for that matter. Not that she expected there be anything close to a shower once they finally got out of the zone.
Leaving the confines of the walls was something that filled her both with euphoric hope, and a niggling sense of uncertainty. All her life had been spent inside the zones, unknowingly being looked after by an unseen Marlene, pulling strings and keeping tabs. All she'd seen of the outside was on the cramped bus rides between different QZ's, which had slits for windows to protect against any possible raids.
Now she was going outside for real. And it was amazing.
Riley, who walked equally soaked just a pace away, obviously felt the same way. Her face said it all. The way her almond eyes widened as she took in the tunnel around them, from the moss covered walls dripping from both the rain that trickled from the sky and the water flowing through the pipes, to the iron grates that appeared now and then on the ceilings to indicate maintenance shafts. Her good hand was always moving in jittery excitement, and even her hook of a hand swayed from side to side.
She was a free spirit, Riley, hokey as that sounded. That was what had drawn her to the Fireflies, being free from the monotony of the military driven lifestyle. That spirit was part of the reason she loved her. Even with a missing hand, she could smash some heads in with ease. She proved that on the first day they'd met, beating the ever living crap out of the crew who'd decided to make her first day in Boston suck.
Their hands brushed together, fingers half entwining before breaking part. Both of them flushed red.
The worst part about finally getting out was that it meant that had basically no time alone. Clementine was awesome, and Joel was okay, she supposed, no more of an asshole than the head of their boarding school, but that didn't mean they wanted to put their relationship on display for either of them.
"So," she drawled, trying to lighten the mood with a bit of conversation. "You guys spend a lot of time in the sewer?"
"More than I'd like," responded Joel. "Smells like shit, but it's a good way to get around unseen."
"To smuggle things?"
Joel was a bit of an enigma for the moment. Not a terrible guy, he had a sporadic sense of humor here and there. Occasionally she heard him chuckle beneath his beard at her and Riley's banter.
Obviously he was good at his job. Every step he took was a careful calculation, a spur of the moment plan honed by years of survival.
He could be trusted, yet Clementine had made it clear that she shouldn't mention her bite. They would tell him later, and Clementine would do all the talking. As such, her mark had been wrapped firmly with concealing gauze.
"This is only my second or third time," was Clementine's answer. Her hair was sagging across her brow with the weight of the rain, marred with sweat and various sewer fluids. Black stains mixed with the ancient blood mark across the brow of her ballcap. "Most of my jobs take me over the rooftops. Abandoned buildings, sealed off alleyways. Useful for everything except getting in and out of QZ's."
"What kind of jobs you do?" asked Riley. Ellie smiled. Double teaming them would get the most information….or just annoy the living fuck out of them. Or one then the other. "Marlene didn't really say what it was you did."
"Eh," Clementine hesitated. "Some smuggling. But I guess courier would be the better term for me. Run messages in and out of zones. Travel cross country. It's nice. When you're not on the run."
On the run.
Little comments like that did wonders to paint a picture of the outside world for a pair of girls who'd never really been beyond walls of steel.
"Running from what?"
"I'll make ya a list, kid. "
"How'd you end up with this job, anyway?" Joel asked. The first time he'd asked any sort of question. Mostly he'd been silent apart from grunts chuckles and loud stares. "You're an ex-firefly, and Marlene hired ya anyway. You said you knew Tommy?"
"Along time ago, yeah." Amber eyes drifted down to the oily surface of the water. "He was a good guy. Always an optimist, even when everything went to hell. Left the Fly's not long after I did. Last I heard, he was out in Wyoming somewhere. You seen him recently?
"Nah," Joel said, dejectedly, eyes drifting downwards as well. "Not for years."
"Sorry to hear that. As for the job, well," she gestured towards the girls. "These two got themselves in a whole heap of trouble a few days back. Owed Marlene a favor, so she asked me to track 'em down. Found in the old shopping mall. You know, the one east of the towers? Found 'em, but Riley got bit. So I had to take her hand."
"Well holy shit," he breathed. "And you actually made it, girl. Not many people can say they survived that."
"I know," Riley admitted sheepishly. "Got lucky."
As she said this, they quartet was approaching a cross-section of sewer where the path diverted in two directions. Water flowed from left to right, and enormous amounts of moonlight poured in through a central, circular grate high above them. They didn't notice any of this though, as their attention was focused on the swashes of fungus that covered the walls.
Spine shattering hisses drowned at the dripping sounds of the water as a pair of clickers came shambling into view.
Ellie felt the air leave her lungs in an audible gasp, like she was being winded of a years worth of oxygen in a single burst. Crawling feels made their way up her body, bite itching with familiarity, as if a hot iron had grazed her skin ever so slightly. Last time, they'd been bitten. Last time, they could do nothing to stop it apart from run with futility.
Before she knew it, Joel had grabbed her by the arm, and shoved her against the nearest wall.
A finger came up to his lips. Shush, it said.
Riley had been similarly pinned to the opposite side of the tunnel, and the two of them watched as their elders went into action so fluidly, that the only apt comparison was a waterfall tumbling across the rocks.
Drawing a large bowie knife, Clementine flanked to the left while Joel went right. He weighed a brick in his palm, before sending it flying into the dead end tunnel straight ahead. The two Infected spun around on a dime, bearing their teeth and lunging after the noise.
All according to plan.
As one, the veterans took hold of their pray around the neck, and plunged sharpened blades into waiting sheathes of fungus and flesh.
"That was awesome," Riley said as the lifeless bodies were lowered into the stagnant water.
Ellie was on the verge of agreeing, but stopped dead when Clementine took four steps towards the left tunnel, and pulled from beneath the water a clear fresh corpse wrapped in military garb. A bullet hole shone read at his temple, bite wound only half fungal at his bicep. Positioning the body, she removed a jet black armband from the other arm.
A half obscured symbol was stitched there.
"Fuck," Clementine said. "We have to go. Now."
With no further explanation, she began moving left, gesturing them to follow.