Part of Joel had always known this was going to happen.
Even as he drove away from St. Mary's hospital more than a dozen years ago with a sleeping Ellie in the backseat and the blood of an army's worth of Fireflies still speckling his shirt and skin, he'd known that it would all come down to this. The two of them, and a choice.
Screams echoed throughout the wooded hills that surrounded the burgeoning settlement. Burning fires cast a glowing orange veil over the scene, combining with the mostly set sun to cover the oncoming infected in an ominous layer of light. Gurgles escaped infected lips as they gnashed their teeth at the fleeing citizens. Clicks echoed in the darkest alleyways.
Here and there groups of militiamen could be seen trying to get a handle on the situation. Tommy and Maria ran between them, shouting orders, taking shots, and lobbing hunks of explosives, all to know avail.
The hunters that wandered the nearby wilderness had grown tired of their skirmishes that always failed to reward them with any land or any further chance at taking the dam for their own. So they'd gathered an army of monsters, and led them here to do it for them.
Hell had come for them at last, shattering the peace that all of them had to know was too good to be true.
Ellie stood on one such hilltop, her weapons and pack long since forgotten, the firelight shimmering in her chestnut hair.
Not ten feet behind her was Joel, wracked with soul crunching agony that threatened to destroy him from within. This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't.
"You know I have to do this, Joel" she said just loud enough to be heard above the sounds of war that filled the valley. He could see her glance back at him over her shoulder, determined and unwavering.
At her feet enormous fungi sprouted forth from the earth in a bloom of sickly yellows grays and greens. The fungus crisscrossed the ground like the ugly stroke of a paintbrush, twisting in great patterns and arches along the hills before coming together at a single point at the zenith.
A tree so thoroughly armored in fungus that looking at it you'd be hard pressed to find a single patch of unblemished bark. Ellie contemplated it intensely, clenching and unclenching her hands with the careful consideration of a military strategist. She knew what she had to do. In that moment it was perfectly clear. Prickles of pain shot down her arms, intensifying around her old bites wound.
The sensation of seeing through a million eyes, of feeling the ripple of sound escaping a Clickers mouth came rushing back to her. She shuddered, knees quaking.
It had never been this intense before.
"Please, Ellie" he croaked from a leathery dry throat. "Please."
She turned to face him fully, bottle green eyes lighting up like beacons in the dark.
Time had changed them both. What little color that had remained in his hair and beard had faded into a silvery, irony grayish white. His clothes hung loosely on his frame. His bone showed prominently at his joints. Age caught up with everyone eventually.
Ellie's hair had grown longer, though she still wore it in a functional tail hair on her head. She'd grown taller, though not by much, and her chest had swelled with the weight of breast milk. She'd been rather vocal in her complaints about said milk, how none of her shirts fit anymore, and how every time she pull back her bowstring they got in the way and she lost her balance. Inevitably sending whatever prey she was hunting sprawling into the trees.
Their eyes met, and the intensity faded somewhat from her gaze. She gave a sad sigh. A dejected puff of tired breath. Though only twenty seven, her face was ancient and etched with a thousand years of pain and loss.
"This is my choice, Joel" she said. "Please, this time, let me make it myself."
A familiar twinge of guilt flashed through the aged survivor. This time, the two word barb that was the greatest strain their relationship had ever faced.
She hadn't believed his lies all those years ago. Not really. Bits of it were true of course, but even as an adolescent girl she could tell when he was lying. She knew him too well not to. Yet for the time being she had let the lie slide. Things had been almost normal for a time, with the lie slowly gnawing away at both of their hearts and minds.
The lie had hurt her deeply, and not for the obvious reason that he may have doomed the human race by saving her life.
What hurt was that he didn't give her an option. Neither had Marleen. She'd had her strapped to an operating table with lethal intent before she'd even regained consciousness in the slim hope that the fungi-like tumors that littered the center of her brain could create a viable vaccines. And thus Joel had slaughtered them all to save her life, whether she wanted it or not.
He couldn't let her go. That was why. He'd lost one daughter to the supposed 'greater good'. He wasn't going to lose another.
It had been an act of incredible selfishness, saving her. Yet it was an act so undeniably human that Ellie couldn't altogether hate him for it.
The birth of her own child many years later had cemented for her.
She would've done exactly the same thing.
But the fact remained. He hadn't let her decide, and that was his greatest slight against her. Because as much as he loved her, and she loved him back, it was her life. Her decision. And her decision would've been to give her life to the Fireflies. End one life to save the rest.
"It's your choice Ellie," Joel said, taking a half step forward, knee creaking. "I'm just asking you to make a different one. There has to be another way." The words rang hollow in his ears.
She smiled, approaching him and taking his slightly wrinkled hands between her heavily calloused fingers.
"You know there isn't one Joel" she whispered. "Only I can end this. Once and for all. Would you really let the world die, just to save me?" It wasn't the first time she'd asked this question. This time, he answered just as honestly.
"Yes." A world without her wasn't one worth living in. Her smile didn't waver, though her gaze fell to the fungal covered grass between their feet.
"That's not your call. I…I know you don't like it. And I can't say it's my first choice either, but it's what I have to do."
Several dozen yards down the hill, a pack of runners had caught their scent and had begun sprinting in their direction, infection run limbs stumbling on stones and lumps of fungus as they went. Three clickers followed behind them, and though they couldn't see it from this high on the hill, Ellie knew a Bloater wasn't far behind.
She could feel it.
Without even looking she raised a hand casually in their direction. More pinpricks shot up her fingers, shocks of barely tangible pain echoing across her brain.
In an instant she could feel the Runners, the Clickers, even the Bloater. They were a part of her, and she of them. Her nerves lit up with the sensations of their shuffling feet, with the snapping of jaws and clawing of hands.
She twitched a finger, and the infected stopped dead in their tracks.
Then, turning around on the spot, the horde departed in the opposite direction, lumbering towards the far edge of the dam where they'd be swept away by the current, destroyed before they could do any real damage.
Joel watched them go.
"That tricks of yours still freaks me the hell out" he told her, ghost of a chuckle escaping. Ellie returned it.
"It freaks you out? How do you think I feel? Believe it or not having an army of infected groupies isn't nearly as awesome as it sounds. They'd have been useful if Jimmy and I had ever gotten that band off the ground." Her thoughts drifted fondly to her husband of a year, with whom she'd spent hours playing the guitar Joel had taught her to play.
It was during these times of bliss, holding hands and stealing kisses in the untamed woods that they'd discovered her 'trick' as Joel called it. They'd been sitting on a log beside a stream, passing the guitar back and forth, when they'd been set upon by runners. The situation had been so similar to the day when she'd been bitten, when she'd lost Riley and her life had changed forever, that it haunted her endlessly.
A Runner had had him by the throat, poised to bite, and time slowed down as she threw a hand forward, desperation flaring like the sun.
What most people didn't know about the infected was that they were connected, not physically, but by the sporous pollen that carried it's code. There was an unseen network of fungus and death linking them together, and though immune, the mutated infection resting inside Ellie's brain had become a sort of transceiver. In small groups, she could control them, and they would obey.
Jimmy was back in town now, huddling in the bunker beneath the common house with their daughter nestled safely in his arms.
Ellie felt a wayward tear dribble down her cheek at the realization that she would never see either of them again.
She had dealt with loss before. Had been raised on it just like the rest of the generation born into the ruins of civilization. But even so, the cold reality of this ending hit her harder than she'd of ever thought.
A rough thumb wiped away the tear.
"Stop it" he told her gruffly. "Stop it. You're coming back with me." She shook her head, more tears falling with the movement.
"I'm not. Joel-" she said, interrupting him as he was about to retort. She gazed back at the tree, a place where so many infected had crossed, that it had become a sort of singularity. A focal point through which she reach out and touch the swarms invading their home. But it would come with a price. Just as she felt the infected in her skin, so would she feel their collective demise. "Just listen."
"If I do this, I can touch all of them. Don't you see? I can destroy them. All of them! I can end it….I have to do it Joel, it's my responsibility….it's what's right." As she spoke she felt the tree pulse. To her eyes, and her eyes alone, an enormous web of green light shot upward from it, a line connecting to each of the infected. The infected, and her.
Joel's face was a crumpled ruin. Despair speaking lengths from every wrinkle and curve of his facial features.
"What about Riley then?" he asked. "She needs you, El. She needs her mom."
Her daughters swaddling form, forever branded into her mind, came swimming up to the surface. Gingerish hair and bright green eyes. Her tears intensified.
"I'm doing this for her, Joel. So she can live in a world where she doesn't have survive, where she can live….She'll understand why I did it someday. But until then she has her daddy," her hands found their way to his cheeks. "And she has her grandpa. To look out for her."
Joel's heart stood still.
"Back when we first met" Ellie said in a whisper, her face just inches from his. " You said that I wasn't your daughter, and you weren't my dad. But can't you see? You are my dad, Joel. In every way that matters. What you did to keep me alive was horrible and wrong….But I see now that there isn't a parent alive who wouldn't do what you did. You saw me as your reason to live, and you'd keep me alive, whether it was right or not."
Her laugh was shrill and awash with sadness.
"Ellie" Joel began, wanting to say a million and one things at once. She stopped him.
"I didn't think it would be this hard to say" she choked. "But here it is. I love you, you selfish asshole…I love you, dad, but you have to let me go."
And suddenly her face was buried in his chest, his arms were wrapped around her petite form, and his hand brushed through her hair.
"I love you too" he breathed back.
It seemed an eternity they spent locked in that embrace, yet even eternities end.
Slwoly, Ellie broke away, and turned back towards the tree.
She looked back over her shoulder one last time.
"Promise me you'll look out for Riley."
"I swear." He replied, and this time, he meant it.
"Gwandpa?" a small girl of four lisped up at the grizzled old man seated in the moldy armchair that had been retrieved from a nearby library.
"Hmm?" Joel replied, not opening his eyes, listening to the whirr of heavy clean up trucks trekking down the street, filled with the latest haul of dead fungul material that was still being scraped from the innards of buildings and sewer tunnels. And bodies. Lots and lots of bodies, that had fallen dead where they stood, suddenly, and all at once.
"You taught mama to play music, dint you?" she asked, plucking at the strings of a dented FisherPrice toy guitar that lay across her lap.
"I did" he answered, opening a single eye and peering down at the ginger haired girl with eyes that sent shivers of grief melting down his decrepit spine. "I taught her lots of things." He hesitated. "But not nearly as much as she taught me."
The childs eyes widened in surprise.
"What did she teach you gwandpa?"
Straightening in his chair, Joel looked up at the hilltop where a single shredded tree stood completely bear of leaves or bark or even fungus. The image of Ellie's form being absorbed into the wood brought a tear that wetted his steadily whitening beard.
"I taught her how to survive, kiddo" he ruffled the girls hair. "She taught me how to live. And that living's worth it."