AN: Okay, it's been forever, sorry! I've been really busy. Anyway, there's not much really happening in the way of plot in this chapter, because I kind of wanted to focus on character development and the relationships between the characters, but I like how it reads. There may be some grammatical errors, since I didn't really have the time to give it a proper proofreading because I wanted to go ahead and get it up. Anyway, I hope everyone enjoys it, and please do let me know what you think!
"God, is it ever going to stop raining?"
Ellie's voice was barely audible above the squelching of their boots in the mud, and the steady hiss of the downpour. Beside her, Riley shrugged, her face all but hidden under her hood.
"Probably when we get inside."
Behind them, Tess gave a snort of amusement.
Up until then, Joel and Tess had led them through tunnels and pathways, Joel at the front and Tess taking up the rear. Conversation had been minimal among the group, Tess and Joel occasionally exchanging comments about which routes to take ("No, I don't want to go through there. The place looked like it was about to collapse last time I was there." "You're the boss."), or asking the girls questions ("You sure you know how to use that gun?" "Yes, I'm pretty sure." "She's a good shot, Joel." "If you say so."), but otherwise remaining silent. Ellie and Riley had stuck close together, sometimes sharing annoyed glances when Joel became particularly aggravating.
Eventually, and by the time they were thoroughly soaked, they came across the trailer of a truck blocking their path, and Joel clambered inside.
"Come on, we'll cut through here."
The girls trailed after him, slowing their pace and enjoying the brief respite from the rain.
They watched Joel step out of the truck ahead of them, both startling when they saw a gun slam into the side of his head, knocking him forward.
Ellie cursed under her breath and Riley stepped in front of her and pulled her gun, blinking and shielding her eyes as a flashlight was pointed at her face, and a woman in soldiers' gear was revealed, her gun aimed at Riley's chest.
"Don't do anything stupid," the woman said flatly.
Riley glanced back at Tess, and found another soldier standing behind them.
"Drop your gun," Tess hissed, jabbing Riley with her elbow.
Riley complied warily, her gun thudding hollowly against the truck's floor. The three walked forward, and were directed by the woman to kneel on the ground in a line beside Joel, hands on their heads.
"You can scan 'em, I'll call it in," the woman told the other soldier, lifting her radio to her lips.
The male soldier took something from his belt and held it near Tess's head.
"Look the other way. We can make this worth your while," Tess offered, glancing up at the man with a slight smile playing on her lips.
"Shut up," he muttered. He then moved on to Joel, muttering to himself. "So tired of this shit."
Ellie and Riley looked at each other, eyes wide. Riley's hand went for her gun instinctually, its absence only kindling her fear. Swallowing a surge of panic, she held Ellie's gaze as the man scanned her head, and then muttered something and moved toward Ellie.
Ellie moved first, producing her blade from her pocket and mumbling a quick "sorry" as she turned and jammed it into the man's leg.
With a shout, the man knocked her to the ground and then went for his gun, Riley lunging up and grabbing the barrel, shoving it out of his hands before he could fire at Ellie. Snarling something indecipherable, he landed a kick in her ribs that sent her tumbling backward with a yelp.
He retrieved his gun from the mud, and before he could so much as point it at Riley a bullet from Tess's gun brought him down, a bullet lodged in his skull.
Joel shot the other soldier as she was aiming at Tess, and for a moment no one spoke. Ellie had backed herself against a crate, and was breathing heavily.
"Oh, fuck. I thought we were just going to slow them down or something."
Riley picked herself up off the ground with a groan and knelt down beside Ellie.
Riley nodded, touching her ribs gingerly. "That was lucky—"
"Oh, shit." Tess's voice brought their eyes to her, and they found her holding the soldier's scanner, expression incredulous.
"Joel, look at this."
Tess tossed him the scanner, and he peered down at it, eyes widening when he saw the flashing red light.
"Jesus Christ... Marlene set us up?"
They turned to the girls, who had frozen where they were. Riley glanced toward the fallen soldier's gun, leaning over to pick it up discreetly.
"Why are we smuggling an infected girl?" Joel demanded.
Ellie and Riley spoke simultaneously. "I'm not infected!" "She's not!"
"No?" Joel stepped forward and pitched the scanner at them. "This lying?"
"I can explain-" Ellie started.
"You better explain fast," Tess snapped, stepping toward them, gun in hand.
Riley jumped to her feet, eyes darting between Tess and Joel. Unconsciously, she put herself between them and Ellie, her eyes lingering on Tess's gun. "Back off, and listen to her."
Ellie pulled her sleeve up as she stood, holding her arm out toward Tess and Joel. "Look at this!"
Joel rolled his eyes, starting to turn away. "I don't care how you got infected."
"Would you just fucking listen to her?" Riley snarled, earning a warning look from Joel.
"You knew about this?" Tess asked her, eyes hard.
Riley only nodded.
"Look," Ellie tried again, "this is over three weeks old."
"No, everyone turns within two days, so you stop bullshitting," Tess said, taking another step forward. She looked at Riley, who was holding the soldier's gun, not quite aiming it, but making its presence known.
"Put that down," Joel growled, coming to stand beside Tess.
Riley took a step back, taking a short, nervous breath. "Not until you hear her out."
"It's three weeks, I swear," Ellie pleaded. "Why would Marlene set you up?"
Tess and Joel exchanged glances, and Joel was starting to speak when the sound of approaching tires caught their attention. A military vehicle's headlights came into view, glaring eyes in the dark.
"Oh, shit. Tess, run!" Joel shouted, grabbing her elbow to pull her into action.
Tess looked at him and then at the girls, torn. After a moment, she grabbed Ellie's arm and pulled her forward.
"Come on, go! Now!"
The girls followed Joel and Tess off the edge of a drop and down into the shadows, water soaking the legs of their jeans. Above them, flashlights' beams scanned, jumping around sporadically as soldiers' voices drifted through the rain ("We've got two dead uniforms." "Search the area.").
Joel led them forward, stopping to lean around corners before signaling for them to move out. Tess kept to the rear as she had before, her gun at the ready.
They cut through pipes and tunnels quickly and carefully, Tess or Joel throwing bottles and bricks and chucks of debris to draw attention away from them as needed.
Eventually, when they were exhausted and their clothing was past the point of being soaked, Tess unlocked and pushed aside the door of the drainpipe they were traveling through and climbed out, scanning the area before giving Joel and the girls the go-ahead. Joel clambered out and then walked a few strides away, hand rubbing over his brow, as Ellie and Riley collapsed side by side, both their pulses still pounding.
Ellie rested her arms on her knees. "Shit, that was intense."
"Yeah. I think we're in the clear for now, though," Riley replied, running her hand over her newly acquired weapon.
Tess looked down at them for a moment and then knelt to their level.
"Look – Let's say we get you to the Fireflies? What then?"
Ellie shrugged. "Marlene… she said they have their own little quarantine zone, with doctors there still trying to find a cure."
Joel gave a sardonic chuckle. "We've heard that one before, huh, Tess?"
Riley shot him a look before addressing Tess. "Marlene says they can run more tests on Ellie there than they can here. More supplies and equipment or whatever."
"Yeah. They think whatever happened to me is the cure to finding a vaccine," Ellie added.
Joel shook his head. "Oh, Jesus…"
Ellie stood up suddenly, earning looks of surprise from Tess and Riley. "Hey, fuck you, man. I didn't ask for this—"
Riley placed a hand on her arm, shaking her head, and Ellie sat back down reluctantly.
"Just ignore him, Ellie," Riley said, casting Joel another dark glance.
Joel turned around as Tess stood up. "What are we doing here, Tess?"
"What if it's true?" she asked, holding his gaze.
"I can't believe-"
"What if it is, Joel? We've come this far. Let's just finish it."
Joel shook his head, taking her arm and pulling her off to the side.
"Do I need to remind you what is out there?" he snarled, gesturing toward the wreckage of the city.
"I get it," Tess said flatly. She then turned to the girls and waved them up. "Come on, let's get going."
Ellie and Riley exchanged glances and then complied. Joel looked between them and Tess incredulously, and then eventually just sighed and muttered under his breath.
Tess led them forward, navigating her way through the wreckage with the ease that comes with practice. Ellie and Riley kept close, looking up at the slanting skyscrapers and their shattered windows as they walked.
It was when they had reached a drop off, pausing to peer down at the protruding rubble below, that they heard the screech, guttural and far from human, raising gooseflesh on their arms. Riley wrapped her fingers around the handle of her gun, looking at Tess questioningly.
"It's far away," Tess said, leading them away from the drop off. "But there are probably more."
"That's comforting," Ellie mumbled, climbing over a broken wall, the grass squelching under her feet as she landed.
"Wasn't supposed to be comforting," Joel said flatly.
They ducked out of the rain through a door and into the hallway of a building, standing aside as Joel pried a door open with a shiv. Around them, the building creaked and groaned, like some great dying beast. Riley glanced down at the floor and toward its missing sections that seemed to lead to empty air, and wondered how stable the place was, startling when Ellie pressed a hand on her shoulder to move her forward into the room.
They stood awkwardly to the side as Joel opened drawers and peered onto shelves, occasionally removing things and stowing them in his backpack.
"Need some help?" Ellie offered.
"No. Just… stay put."
Ellie and Riley exchanged glances, and Riley rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at Joel's back, earning a giggle from Ellie. Joel looked back at them with narrowed eyes and got only innocent expressions before returning to his scavenging.
Room thoroughly picked over, they made their way up a staircase, halting when they found a soldier's corpse slumped against the wall, a field log written on bloody paper at his side.
"Fuck," Ellie breathed as Joel walked over and retrieved the log, reading it over with a shake of his head and then taking the soldier's ammunition.
"Infected, I guess?" Riley asked, eyeing the shreds of the soldier's throat and the dried blood that surrounded him.
"According to his notes, there are plenty more in the area," Joel said, continuing up the stairs.
"Keep your eyes peeled," Tess told them as they followed him.
They opened another door into another hall, all pausing when they saw the body slumped against the wall, cordyceps encasing it, their colors vibrant against the gray of the worn metal.
"Goddammit," Joel groused.
"Uh, I'm assuming that's not good," Ellie said, eyeing the corpse uncomfortably.
"It means they're close, and probably upper stages," Tess said.
Riley stared at the body for a moment and then looked at Tess. "We should probably get going then, right?"
"That'd probably be a good idea," Joel muttered cynically.
"Sorry? I couldn't hear you over the sarcasm," Riley said. Joel turned to stare at her, and then at Tess.
"Let's get a move on," Tess sighed.
Ellie fell in step with Riley, snickering quietly.
They kept traveling forward, Joel boosting Tess over ledges and then boosting the girls up after her, keeping their voices low and their steps soft. Joel and Tess would stop often to check for supplies while the girls stood and watched, eyeing the shadows around them warily, the blue-gray light that filtered through the holes in the ceiling giving everything an eerie, surreal feeling.
"How much longer until we get out of here?" Ellie asked Tess as Joel shoved against a jammed door.
"It could be a while. We'll cut through here and then wherever else we need to until we reach the Capitol Building. You'll just have to get used to places like this."
A small groan was Ellie's only response. A moment later, and with an obnoxiously loud crack, the door swung open, and Joel tumbled forward with it. Riley was just about to follow him through when something lunged past her and into Joel with a screech. It knocked him to the ground, and he held it at arms length as it gnashed its teeth and strained toward his neck.
"Oh, shit—" Riley's gun was out before she had even fully registered what she was seeing. She ran forward and slammed her boot into the clicker's ribs, knocking it off of Joel and turning its attention toward her. Hands steady on her gun, she fired two rounds into its head, sending blood and chunks of cordyceps spraying into the air.
She remained where she was, her gun still raised as Ellie and Tess ran into the hall, their weapons at the ready.
"Shit. You guys okay?" Ellie asked, her voice shaky.
"Yeah. Just—yeah, we're good," Riley breathed, returning her gun to her belt.
Joel climbed to his feet, wiping away a few stray drops of blood that had landed on his cheek. "Kid, why didn't you just stay the hell back?"
Riley gawked at him. "Are you serious? I just saved you—"
Joel shook his head. "You should have just let Tess handle it."
"Tess was back there. How 'bout a bit of fucking gratitude instead of acting like such an ass—"
Joel snarled something indecipherable and then stalked down the hall, leaving Tess and the girls staring after him. Riley shook her head incredulously.
"What the fuck—"
"Just let it go," Tess said, walking after him.
"So, what – are we just not allowed to help or something?" Ellie asked, shaking her head.
"You shouldn't need to," Tess replied matter-of-factly.
She rested a hand against the beam Joel was preparing to lift, helping him shoulder the weight as he shifted it, producing a chorus of protesting groans from the rubble around them.
Joel waved her forward with his free hand. "I got it, go ahead."
Tess crouched and disappeared into the wreckage, calling the girls after her a moment later.
"It's all clear over here."
Ellie went in next, Riley following after her, their flashlights illuminating shards of wood and concrete, shattered glass glimmering like diamonds among the wreck.
Tess was waiting for them on the other side, leaning against a desk, her gun in hand and resting against her thigh. The trio waited until Joel had emerged before walking on, Tess taking the lead.
"Now listen," Joel began, Ellie and Riley both stifling sighs, "you two are going to hang back from here on out. Got that?"
"Loud and clear," Riley said flatly.
It wasn't long before the order was tested.
"Well, that sounds wonderful," Tess commented as the group crouched on a ledge, clicks and vaguely-human moans drifting up from the dark below them, and the smell of death hanging in the air like fog. Perhaps it was a deep, instinctual fear, something rooted within in the subconscious as a sort of pre-installed self-defense, but the noises created the same sort of feeling one gets when hearing something dragged across a chalkboard: full body shivers, gooseflesh erupting with a vengeance up your arms. A truly unpleasant sort of feeling, to say the least.
A few feet behind them lay the body of yet another soldier, the corpse torn and shredded.
"I'll handle it," Joel said, loading bullets into the magazine of his gun. He glanced down at the drop off and then back at Tess. "I'll call you if I get into trouble, but otherwise just… keep them from doing anything stupid."
Riley gave Ellie the "can-you-seriously-believe-this-total-flaming-asshole?" look that had pretty much settled on her face over the course of the evening.
Ellie just shrugged wonderingly. "Anything we can do to help, Joel?"
They watched him jump down, the dust he disturbed when landing billowing up around him and catching the flashlight's beam.
"Can he seriously do this by himself?" Riley asked under her breath. "There's gotta be at least five or six down there."
"He's good, don't worry," Tess said firmly, though her hands fidgeted on her gun in a way that she would've denied was nervous.
They listened in uneasy silence as the number of infected screeching decreased, some cutting off sharply and in a way that was a special sort of unnerving.
It wasn't until they could only hear the sounds of one clicker and at least another runner when something sounded off. There was a crash of glass, and then a clicker's shriek, this one of alarm, mingled with the sound of boots pounding across the floor.
"Shit," Tess hissed, rocking forward on her feet. "Look, if I need to go down there I want you to stay right here. Got it?"
The girls nodded in affirmation, both flinching as gunfire rang out below them.
"Fuck it, I'm going," Tess said, before being swallowed by the shadows.
Ellie and Riley stayed stooped together, bated breath and fingers wrapped around their respective weapons.
"I wonder why Marlene wanted us with them," Ellie muttered, glancing back over her shoulder as the building gave another dying groan.
"I guess she trusts them," Riley replied, noting the sudden absence of noise from the infected.
"You think we can trust them?"
Riley considered this for a moment, scanning her light along the floor below them. "I don't think we have a choice."
"Alright, c'mon down, girls," Tess called out from somewhere in the dark, interrupting their musing.
Riley hopped down, waiting until Ellie had landed beside her to jog after Tess, who was waiting for them at the end of the hall. No one spoke much as Joel and Tess worked open the next door. There were infected bodies strewn about the room they were leaving, and both Joel and Tess's faces were streaked with blood and grit, their hands looking no better. They managed to pry the door open and then, after checking the area, beckoned the girls after them.
"If you wanna help us, you can search for supplies around here," Tess told them, pulling a rag from Joel's backpack and wiping her face with it.
"Sure you can trust us?" Ellie asked, receiving an irritated look from Joel, and one akin to amusement from Tess.
Ellie glanced at Riley, who only shrugged.
They did as asked, turning up with scissors, a bottle, and some chords, all of which Tess piled into her backpack, giving them a grateful nod.
They worked their way through the rest of the building in uneasy silence, glancing around every corner, pausing at every noise, painfully aware of the sounds of their own breaths, and of the building's noises. They came across a lone clicker before finally emerging into the night, distracting it with a bottle and then making their escape.
The rain had finally stopped, leaving in its wake the damp, aggravating sort of fog that plasters clothing to your skin, and your hair to your head. Clouds still drifted in front of the moon, casting a dull, murky sort of tint to the night.
"Well, at least we're out of there," Ellie commented, shooing away a mosquito and wondering why the chorus of frogs that were singing to the night weren't making themselves useful and eating the mosquitoes.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Joel said, pushing a dumpster up against the trailer of a truck that had, long ago, crashed into the side of a building, and was now blocking their path.
He clambered up, and then Tess and the girls followed, all pausing to take in their surroundings.
"Where now?" Ellie asked.
He said nothing more a moment, eyeing each building along the road. "Capitol Building's that way," he gestured to the left, though only the faces of the street's buildings could be seen, "so we'll just cut through one of these places."
Joel led them from the truck and down the street, stopping at a large metal door, wrapping his hand around the rusted and age-worn chain beside it and giving it a forceful tug.
After a moment's hesitation, the door began to budge, groaning loudly in protest.
Riley was leaning against the wall, arms crossed loosely over her chest, toying with the string of her hoodie, when she first noticed the shrieks in the distance.
Tess followed her gaze, brow furrowed, and then spat a curse under her breath.
"Oh, shit. Joel, hurry up."
Not questioning Tess's order, Joel began hauling on the chain more forcefully, as the sound of footsteps became increasingly apparent, accompanied by screams.
"Oh, fuckfuckfuckfuck," Ellie hissed, fumbling her switchblade from her pocket. Riley was beside her, aiming her gun in the direction of the sounds.
"They're coming over the truck—"
"C'mon, c'mon," Joel growled, wrenching the chain down. Enough of a gap opened for Tess to slide through, she dove under it, holding the door while Joel and the girls slid in.
By the time they'd dropped the door, the first infected had reach it, its arm being severed as it lunged for them. The group stared down at the arm for a moment.
"Wow," Ellie breathed, nudging it aside with her foot. "Gross."
Joel made another one of his gruff, grumbling noises under his breath, and then turned his flashlight on the room they'd escaped into (crates lying haphazardly about, their wood broken; yet another large truck; tarps and more boxes. It was a garage, and a storage room).
Joel took the lead, pulling open a door that led up a small flight of stairs, and to a room with rotting wood flooring, glass cases against the walls, some with glass long since shattered, others with dust and debris like snow on their surfaces.
Trailing behind him, Tess looked at Ellie thoughtfully.
"So, how did you get bit?" she asked. "I mean, you had to have been somewhere you weren't supposed to be to find infected in the zone."
"We… weren't in the zone."
"Yeah. Uh…" Ellie trailed off, glancing at Riley, who only shrugged in response.
"We went off on our own for a while," Riley said after a minute, lifting her eyes from the strange arrangement of bones she'd found in one of the glass cases.
"You do realize that was really, really fucking stupid?" Joel asked from across the room.
"We figured that out, thanks," Ellie shot back before Riley could respond.
"How long did you wait before you realized you were," Tess paused, and made a vague gesture, "…immune, or whatever."
"Day or two," Ellie mumbled, watching Joel's flashlight bob in front of them, illuminating grimy patches of their walkway. They'd crossed into another room, this one with taxidermy animals on the walls; birds, foxes, and other animals that neither of the girls recognized.
"You just got bit and then decided to… what? Wait to turn?"
Ellie glanced at Riley, who was looking adamantly at a lifeless songbird on the wall, her posture stiff.
"Sort of. Look, it doesn't really matter."
"I guess not," Tess conceded.
A rhythm had formed within in the group; brief, odd conversations, followed by periods of silence. Said periods of silence could be slight unnerving, with nothing but their breaths (rapid enough to make the wariness among them clear) and footsteps (scuffing the floor, unsettling pieces of glass and brick) to be heard, though they were better than forced conversation. There were sudden pauses when one of them thought they heard something (breaths held and feet stilled, sometimes the click of a gun being cocked, a knife being unsheathed), and the creaks and groans of doors, the metallic scraping of shelves and desks being moved, the light thuds as they descended from ledges or hopped over rubble and fallen displays. The noises were their own sort of comfort, a steady background to their actions, grounding them.
Some noises were less pleasant, however. Like the crack of snapping boards, and the crash of falling rubble, for instance.
They'd come across a part of the building that had collapsed, leaving the only visible way through to be a path that was barely large enough to crawl, and blocked by a beam. Joel had lifted the beam and shooed Tess forward, supporting the beam as she and Riley crawled past. He had shifted his hold on the wood as Ellie had prepared to follow them, feeling the beam crack before he had even been aware of what was happening. His grip had faltered, and he'd shoved Ellie back as, with boom like a crack of thunder, something above them yielded, and their pathway was closed off, their vision clouded by the plumes of dust that erupted from the falling wood.
Four voices called out at once, overlapping one another ("Shit! Riley!" "Are you guys alright?" "Ellie, you okay?" "Goddammit.")
"Well, this is wonderful," Ellie muttered, pressing a hand against the wall of debris.
"Fucking fantastic," Riley agreed, her voice sounding from the other side of the block.
Tess's voice followed. "Joel, can you guys find another way around?"
Joel, who was busy rubbing the dust from his eyes and nose, nodded. "Yeah, we'll figure it out. Ellie, you alright?"
Ellie coughed, and then shrugged. "I'm fine."
"Oh, shit, Riley, get down!"
Ellie and Joel both froze at the sound of Tess's shout, the clicks that followed it freezing their blood in their veins.
"Fuck, Riley—" Ellie nearly shouted, jumping when Joel grabbed her arm and started to pull her along.
"She'll be fine, come on," he growled, guiding them down another leg of the narrow pathway, stopping as they came upon an exit, both freezing in place as a clicker shuffled by, emitting its popping, screeching call.
"Alright, I want you to stay here while I deal with this, alright?" Joel's voice was final, commanding, and Ellie only stared at him disbelievingly.
"Why don't you just let me help or something? Riley and I used to—"
"I don't care."
They stared at each other for a minute, and then Ellie shook her head.
"Just… stay back. This'll only take a minute."
Without another word, Joel crept out from under the cover, shiv in hand. Ellie listened to his footsteps fade, sweat beading on her neck.
I hope he doesn't fucking die, she thought. Also, where the hell are Tess and Riley?
She'd find out soon enough, she supposed.
Pulse still pounding, Riley watched Tess wipe the blood from her knife, staining the leg of her pants with streaks of red.
They'd dealt with the clickers quickly, Tess having shoved a chunk of concrete into Riley's palm and then directed her to distract one clicker while Tess got the angle on the other. Both infected dispatched, they stood together amongst toppled shelves and tables, broken glass and chunks of brick and wood, and wondered what next.
"You guys ever been here before?" Riley asked, giving her flashlight a shake as the light faltered.
"So… you think they're going to be able to find us? Or is there some way we could find them, or somewhere they could meet us—"
"I don't know, Riley," Tess sighed, swiping a hand across her hair, tucking it back. "We'll figure something out."
"Yeah, everyone says that," Riley said flatly, earning a confused look from Tess, who then decided not to question it.
"Look, let's just find a way out. Chances are, Joel and Ellie'll meet us there. Come on."
Sliding her blade back into her pocket, Tess marched off, a gun taking the blade's place in her hand. Riley kept pace with her, deciding that she was glad that it was Tess she'd gotten stranded with. At least Tess took her seriously, and wasn't a grumbly asshole. Not that she was naming anyone in particular.
"So," Tess said suddenly, interrupting her thoughts, "Marlene said you're a Firefly?"
Riley shrugged. "Yeah?"
"Well, you should probably try not to be too loud about that. You'll end up shot."
"I already know what the soldiers do—"
"I'm sure you do, but there are people outside the military that have issues with Marlene's group. Better to just not bring them up."
"If you say so."
They fell silent again, heading up a staircase and pausing at a pair of large, oak double doors, glancing at each other as they listened to a chorus of shrieks and groans bounce off the walls within.
"You ready to do this?" Tess asked, pulling an unlit Molotov from her backpack, and a pack of matches from her jeans.
Riley nodded, cocking her gun. "I've got this."
Tess gave her a glimmer of a smile. "Alright. Let's go."
Striking the match against the door, Tess lit the end of the Molotov's wick, dropping the match to the floor and stomping it under her boot as she shouldered the door open.
There were runners. That was all that registered for either of them, a count out of the question. A shot in the dark guess would've been six or seven, but more could be heard, further in the building, running, shouting. Tess and Riley kept their backs to each other, Tess throwing the Molotov at a group of three coming from the corner, Riley firing at the two nearest runners, catching one in the chest and the other in the head. Tess had her own gun drawn a second later, joining Riley in taking out the runners that were pouring in through the door like wasps from a nest.
"Tess—" They could still hear more infected coming, and Riley was painfully aware that there were only two bullets left in her magazine.
"I know." Tess glanced around, biting her lip. "Fuck—shit, come on, Riley."
Tess grabbed her arm, directing her toward the nearest open door. Their footsteps thudded against the wooden floorboards as they ran, almost drowned by the sounds of the infected following them. They vaulted over tipped over tables and chairs, cutting left and right randomly through whatever door was available, sweaty palms still clutching their guns.
They skidded to a halt at a closed door, Tess landing a kick under the handle and then spitting out a curse when it didn't budge.
"Fuck, what now?" Riley asked, glancing back the way they'd come, her voice breathless and more panicked than she'd intended.
Tess took a deep breath, looking down at her gun. They could hear the infect drawing closer, footsteps and screams and the omnipresent smell of death increasing.
"Just stick to me. We're just going to have to muscle through."
Riley nodded, eyes searching the room for another exit. Tess pulled out her knife, and handed Riley another from her backpack, one with a short, sharp blade.
"You know how to take one out close range?" Tess asked.
"Good. Just in case."
They ran back toward the door, taking off down the hall in the opposite direction of where they'd come in, running blindly, flashlights' beams jumping erratically around on the walls and floor.
They cut through a room with walls lined with paintings and only a table as furniture, Riley taking the lead, Tess watching their backs. As she was running out the next door, she saw movement to her left, and then there was something grasping at her shoulders, her neck, causing her to drop her gun.
Tess, without a moment's hesitation, drove her blade into the runner's neck, sending blood spurting, droplets landing on both their faces.
She dropped the body to the floor, earning an impressed, but unsurprised, look from Riley.
"Thanks," she breathed, and Tess nodded, patting her on the shoulder.
"Come on, let's keep going."
They pushed open another door and then shoved it closed behind them, jamming a chair under the handle.
"That should hold them," Tess said. "At least for now."
Hearing more infected slamming against the door they'd closed, they jogged on, weapons at the ready.
"Joel! Did you hear that?"
The gunshots had rung out in the silence in a way that was almost insistent, desperate, like an alarm.
Joel nodded distractedly. "Let's go."
The shots had sounded close, only a few rooms away, and faint shouts, both human and infected, had followed them.
Joel cocked his gun, gesturing for Ellie to stay behind him as he kicked open the first door they came to, the frame shattering with a loud crack.
The closer they got to the noises, the more they could make out, voices and sometimes words distinguishable.
"Through here, come on!"
Joel ran through another doorway, Ellie on his heels, to find Tess shoved back against a shelf by a runner, Riley knocking another away with the butt of her gun. Joel jerked the one that was attacking Tess backward, driving a shiv into its throat and dropping the body to the floor, glancing up at Tess, who gave him an appreciative nod.
Riley had dealt with her runner with a knife to the gut, and another to the throat, and had already made her way to Ellie, who faltered awkwardly between hugging her and placing a hand on her shoulder, simply settling for grabbing her upper arms.
"Hey, you okay?" Riley's voice was breathless, and laced with concern.
Ellie couldn't tear her eyes away from the blood on Riley's face, her hands. After a moment, she was finally able to form an answer. "Yeah, I'm good. You look like hell."
"Heh, I guess so."
"Are you okay?"
Riley chuckled lowly, weakly. "Yeah. About to have a fucking heart attack, but I'm alright."
Their eyes met, the same poorly veiled fear and hesitant relief reflected in both their expressions, thoughts obviously the same: She's fine. She's okay.
"Girls, c'mon," Tess called, breaking their gazes from each other.
Riley gave Ellie a light pat on the shoulder, hands still smeared with blood. "Let's get the fuck out of this place."
"Thank God," Ellie agreed, staying in step with Riley as Tess led them out through a window and onto a fire escape, the wire rattling under their feet strangely after having run across wood and tile for so long.
The group made their way up to the nearest rooftop quickly, Ellie and Riley exchanging conversation quietly.
"How many do you think there were?" Ellie asked, offering Riley a rag from her backpack, and watching her wipe away the blood from her face and hands.
"I lost count after ten."
"You did a good job holding your own," Tess called back to Riley, who smirked when Joel looked skeptical.
"I told you I could."
"Hmph," was all Joel said, as he climbed the last few rungs of the ladder to the next roof, stepping aside and watching the girls follow after him. As Tess looked around for something to get them over to the next building, Ellie and Riley stopped at the edge of the roof's wall, looking out over the horizon, buildings sticking up like spines or thorns, little hills in the sprawling wilderness of the city, grimy and painted shades of purple and pink and blue in the rising sun.
"There's your Capitol Building," Joel said, waving toward a round building in the distance.
"Huh," Ellie murmured, resting her hands on the wall, breathing in deeply.
"Is that everything you were hoping for?" Joel asked them.
Ellie tilted her head, and gave a shrug.
"Jury's still out, but man… you can't deny that view," she admitted.
"We still have a hell of a way to go," Riley added, going to help Tess lift the board into place to cross the gap between the roofs.
Ellie was quiet for a moment, and then she nodded.
"Yeah, I guess we do."