A/N: Well. Here we are: the final chapter in Aftermath: Part I. This has been an incredibly enjoyable experience for me, and I'm thankful for this phenomenal game that got me writing again for the first time since high school. I wanted to extend a thank you to anyone who has ever read even a chapter of this story or offered their kind words to me. You guys sure know how to make someone feel good about themselves. As it happens, today is my birthday, so here is my gift to you all, the final chapter in the story that has become the piece of literature I'm most proud of writing. Please enjoy it! Once again, thank you, seriously! I'll be starting Aftermath: Part II in the coming days, so be on the lookout for that! I'm extremely eager to get started on it, got a lot of good ideas!
DISCLAIMER/LEGAL MUMBO-JUMBO: I do not own The Last of Us, it is Naughty Dog's property.
A deep ache in the pit of her stomach pulled Ellie out of a rare instance of dreamless sleep. Slowly, she sat up on the old, dusty couch and rubbed her midsection. As it turned out, following up a meal of brined and pickled foods with an overdose of chocolate syrup doesn't bode well for your stomach. Her insides churned within her and she felt she was on the verge of throwing up. She swung her legs off the edge of the couch and steadied herself, not eager to lose her dinner all over her sleeping quarters. She looked over at Joel, lying on his side on the hardwood floor. A long snore indicated that he was still out, and she didn't want to wake him over something as minor as an upset stomach, so she picked up her backpack, quietly crept her way to the front door and slipped out onto the porch.
The sky was still dark, but a hint of light was beginning to arise from the direction they had entered the city. Evanston was still and silent in the predawn hours, like nearly every other town they had been through. She hadn't been in anything remotely resembling a bustling city since Boston's QZ, and she didn't miss it. The tranquility was comforting, the peace only being broken by the occasional call of an early-risen bird.
Ellie took a seat on the rickety deck chair and pulled her knees up to her chest, waiting for the upset stomach to subside. She looked up and down the street, trying to imagine this place before the outbreak using snippets of what Joel had told her: white picket fences, people rising early, drinking the bitter concoction known as coffee, cooking breakfast and greeting the day before heading to work. A paperboy riding a bicycle down the street, tossing newspapers onto doorsteps. It all seemed so... unbelievable. So carefree. She couldn't fathom rising in the morning without having to worry about Infected having stumbled across her position, or walking outside without being anxious about being gunned down and robbed, or worse, by a pack of hunters. She couldn't even imagine having fully-stocked cupboards, a refrigerator to preserve your food and have cold drinks at your fingertips, and a freezer, filled with ice cream in her imagination. How she longed for just a small taste of the stuff.
Could that all be attainable again someday? If mankind got the vaccine, could life ever be that sort of normal again? Ellie looked down and realized she was absently tracing the scar on her right forearm. What made her so special? Why did she get to live when Riley suffered such a horrible end? She looked to the western sky, still veiled in darkness. Somewhere over that horizon was Salt Lake City and, within it, the Fireflies. She hoped. She fished through her pack and found the treasured Firefly pendant she had kept close ever since that fateful night, and rubbed her thumb over the stamped letters. RILEY ABEL.
"I miss you," Ellie whispered, wishing that somehow her friend could hear her.
She replaced the pendant, and in the process her fingers brushed against the smooth, colorful plastic of the toy robot. Sam. She felt an ache of sadness and guilt engulf her. That last conversation ran through her mind once again. Sam knew he was going to either lose himself or die, and she had provided no comfort. Probably the opposite, actually. Sure, she couldn't have known what was going on, but that fact didn't make her feel any better about it. What if he was still lucid when he attacked her? What if he had to watch himself trying to tear apart his own friend, powerless to stop it? A shiver coursed through Ellie's body and she futilely tried to clear the thoughts out of her mind, wiping away a fugitive tear that was fleeing down her cheek.
She drew a deep breath and tried to exhale evenly, pushing the emotions down. She crossed her arms over her knees and rested her chin upon them. Turning her eyes upward, she gazed at the slowly fading plethora of stars, more numerous in a world devoid of light pollution. She felt so small, so insignificant, in light of the universe. And yet, she was supposed to be the cure for mankind. Do you even realize what your life means? Joel's words echoed through her mind. That conversation was one she didn't enjoy reminiscing about, and she shook it away. She hadn't asked for any of this, and this burden was proving too heavy for her young shoulders. She had been too strong for too long, and the cracks were starting to show.
Her thoughts turned to her snoring companion. Thinking about Joel had always pulled her out of funks like this. They had been through so much together, and the bond they had formed was like none she had ever experienced. Most relationships she had been a part of were short-lived or distant. Her friendships with Riley and Sam were cut tragically short. She had had a bit of a connection with Tess, but that relationship didn't even last a day. She had told Joel that Marlene was a friend, but she honestly barely knew her. She had been with Joel for nearly a year, and and the depth of their relationship had only grown. He had seen her at her most vulnerable and didn't abandon her. On the contrary, that's when he had drawn closest. That day at the university when he was impaled was the most terrified she had ever been in her life, including the day she was bitten. She would have died along with him if he hadn't-
Ellie jumped. She had been so consumed in thought that she hadn't heard him join her on the porch. "Oh shit, you scared me."
He smirked proudly. "I'm sneaky when I wanna be. Whatcha doin' out here at this hour?"
"I couldn't sleep. Upse-" she paused, not wanting to admit that Joel had been right about pacing herself with the chocolate syrup. She cleared her throat, "Bad dream."
Joel's demeanor shifted to concern. "Go on, tell me about it."
Ellie looked up at him and, seeing his genuine solicitude, felt a bit guilty. "I dreamt that I ate too much chocolate syrup and got a stomach ache… and then I woke up and realized it wasn't a dream," she said bashfully.
Joel gave her a look and then chuckled as he took a seat next to her. "Told you so."
They sat together quietly, marveling as the sun peered over the horizon, bathing the porch in a warm glow.
"Welcome to Utah," Ellie heard Joel read off the sign at the side of I-80. She looked up at the sign, seeing the depiction of a skier plunging through deep powder below the words Joel had read. "Home stretch, Ellie. Few more days of walkin' and we'll be there." She nodded in response.
The sun was high overhead, but it was a relatively cool day. Ellie had buttoned the red striped shirt over the thermal to keep herself warm. So far, Utah was undecipherable from Wyoming, but Joel had assured her they would have to climb mountains before reaching Salt Lake City. He told her that it was the biggest range in the US, and she was actually quite eager to see mountains of that size. The ascension would be exhausting, but it was the shortest route to the city.
Joel was in a rather good mood today, or so Ellie thought. He was basking in the sun and would even hum from time to time as they walked. That morning's ruminations were still weighing heavy on Ellie's mind, and she found it difficult to replicate his cheery attitude. She hadn't realized that she was lagging a few steps behind.
"Hey, c'mon kiddo, keep up," Joel instructed.
Ellie snapped out of it and trotted up to his side. "Sorry."
Joel studied her countenance. "Somethin' on your mind today?"
"You could say that."
"Well… what is it?"
Ellie paused and considered. "Eh... I don't really feel like talking about it."
"You sure?" Joel asked, his concern not going unnoticed by Ellie.
She scrunched her face as she thought about it. "Yeah. It's nothing, I'm fine."
Joel paused. "Ellie, I know you well enough to tell when you're lying."
"I just- I don't want to talk about it, okay?" a hint of irritation snuck out with the words.
Joel backed off, figuring he had pushed a bit too far. "Okay. That's fine. I ain't tryin' to... interrogate you or anything. Just a bit worried, is all."
Ellie felt a bit of remorse for snapping at him. "I know, I know," she sighed. "I'm sorry. Thanks for caring, really. It's just... it's my problem to deal with. I don't want to put that burden on you."
Joel stopped walking and grabbed her by the shoulder, turning her to face him. "Ellie, don't ever let the feeling that you might be a burden stop you from confidin' in me, okay?"
"Okay," she replied meekly.
"We've been through... well, through hell together. Please don't keep somethin' to yourself if I could help you deal with it."
"I don't think you can in this case. It's... ugh... it's just something I have to deal with, okay?"
Joel's eyes scoured hers, and after some time, he replied, "Okay."
The outskirts of Salt Lake City emerged on the far side of the mountains. Their goal was finally in sight. Nearly a year on the hardest road and Ellie's chance for redemption finally met her eyes.
"Well, look at that," Joel said, looking over the city. "Salt Lake City. We made it, kiddo."
"Yeah," Ellie replied, a hint of a smile crossing her face.
They continued walking into the city. Her mind wandered back to everything that had brought them to this point. Boston, Lincoln, Pittsburgh, Jackson, Fort Collins... her mind trailed off, not wanting to dwell on the winter experience again. She could hardly believe they had done it. That afternoon when she had met Joel felt like years ago. She never expected to grow so close to someone she had such a negative first impression of. She looked up at him and smiled to herself.
Now that their mission was coming to a close, fear started creeping in. She didn't know what would happen after she saw the doctors. Would Joel stick around? Would he head back to Boston, and if so, would he bring her along?
She looked to him for reassurance. "Joel... When we're done... what happens then?"
"I reckon we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he replied. She wasn't satisfied with his answer, but something on the edge of the highway caught her eye. It was an engraving on the wall. She ambled over to it.
She felt ice creeping into her veins. It was an engraving of a deer, adorned with antlers. It was the symbol of the onset of the most traumatizing period in her life. The very symbol of despair. The warmth of the spring breeze gave way to a biting winter wind. Salt Lake City disappeared, and suddenly she was hundreds of miles away, deep in a thick forest. Snow-laden trees materialized to surround her. Snow had gathered around her ankles. Flakes settled onto her red ponytail. She was rooted in place as her mind plunged her back into that frozen hell. The stag turned its head to face her.
She had been doing everything she could to erase these memories, but in an instant, they had sprung to the surface. She felt everything. Joel was nowhere to be seen, and loneliness consumed her. The stag was lying on the ground, lifeless, an arrow protruding from its shoulder. David appeared from behind a tree. The feeling of dread manifested in the pit of her stomach. She was standing in the cage, with her hands on the bars. David placed his hand on hers. She shuddered. Everything went white, as she stood in the blizzard, eyes darting around, aimlessly seeking a way out. She couldn't shut her eyes, as they fixed on the engraving. Smoke stung her lungs as she scampered through the burning restaurant, fleeing from the vindictive taunts of her pursuer. Suddenly, there was a weight on her chest, and she felt pinned. She felt the coarse plastic of the machete handle on her palm.
A distant voice was calling her name, but she didn't hear it. She was alone.
THIS CONCLUDES AFTERMATH: PART I
STAY TUNED FOR THE FIRST CHAPTER OF PART II