The world was sweltering.
Late summer sunbeams beat downward, simmering blurrily in the heat of the arid atmosphere. To a beholder's eye, they were beautiful. Golden spears of light cascading from the heavens. To anyone who happened to be standing beneath them, however, they were white hot irons, and, as Ellie put it-
"Fuck it's hot!" the girl muttered, wiping her brow with the back of her sleeve. The piece of cloth came back soaked, dripping in salty perspiration. It was times like this that she hated wearing almost exclusively long sleeved shirts. Her legs were left only half covered by a pair of cargo shorts that left the lowest section of her thigh exposed, but her arms and torso were wrapped in an all covering cotton shirt.
Hot as fuck, even with lightest and thinnest material possible. Then again, it couldn't be helped.
She couldn't exactly just leave her bite mark out for the world to see, especially out in town where anyone could see it, sound the alarm, and have her shot dead within thirty or so seconds. Bandages were a temporary solution, but were far to suspicious for a long period of time.
"Any chance we could fit in another swimming lesson today?" she called to Joel ten yards in front of her.
The pair were making the long, arduous trek across a sea of asphalt. Brown, scrubby plants had forced their way through the cracks in the aged black ground of what had once been a parking lot. Tangled vines had twisted their way around nearby metal poles and had completely encased a nearby stand of shopping carts. Rusted out cards filled a couple of the parking spaces, either filled with shrubbery or various bits of worthless junk in cardboard boxes that had long since been picked clean by scavengers.
Surrounding the lot were the splintered remains of an old strip mall. Large department stores with walls missing and shattered windows formed makeshift wall-like barriers around them, with small sandwich shops and dollar stores dotted around their mighty feet.
And, fifty yards further down the way was the mother of them all, Wal-Mart, recognizable only by the blue color scheme and the half missing letters remaining of the enormous sign emblazoned across the buildings upper lip.
Joel chuckled, peering back over his shoulder as he walked. Sweat dripping periodically from his beard.
"Oh, so now you want another lesson," a rare smile, however small, graced the grizzled veteran's face. "Two days ago ya wouldn't stop complainin' about how cold the water was."
Ellie scowled, a bad decision considering it sent a torrent of sweat dribbling right into her eyes. Swimming sucked runner dick!
"That before my skin was melting off!" she replied after a series of sting induced curses. "Cold sounds great right about now!"
"It sure does," Joel agreed, though in a mumble, scratching briefly at his chin.
"Can't we just go find a stream or something?" Ellie didn't really like how whiny her voice sounded, but given the heat and the sunburn she could feel forming on the back of her neck, she stopped caring all but immediately. If it cooled her down she'd go to whiny bitch mode in an instant. Anything if it meant washing her sweat drenched bones clean.
Joel honestly seemed to consider it for a moment. He was probably even hotter than he was in jeans and facial hair.
"Let's get the meds first, 'kay?" he sounded reluctant, like he'd much rather be swimming. But he was taking the practical option when it came down to it. If they waited much longer to find what they were looking for, night would fall and it would be another day before they could make it back to Jackson. A waste of time and rescources. Such was the nature of long distance supply runs.
"This fuckin' sucks!" Joel laughed.
"You're the one who insisted on comin', baby girl."
That she had. Jackson, as self sufficient and peaceful a place it was, had no way of manufacturing new antibiotics, pills or other medical needs. Being the most hardened and gifted survivor in town, Joel had been elected to go out and gather said needs. And, naturally, Ellie had at once demanded that she go along. There was no way in hell she was getting left behind, and she knew what kind of things would happened if Joel didn't have her to watch his ass.
Jackson was great all in all. Decent enough people, no cannibals, and a chance to sleep without being awakened to the sounds of gunfire or the sounds of approaching Clickers ringing through the darkness. But when it came down to it, it was too peaceful. Boring, almost. And she'd much rather be in danger of dying with someone she trusted, the only person she really trusted, than with a bunch of almost strangers in a place where the most exciting regular occurrence was patching the outer walls.
Subconsciously, she felt a bit of heat rise in her cheeks and an uncomfortable flutter in her stomach, the last word of his sentence still ringing long after it had been spoken.
Though she'd never admit it aloud, and had only barely admitted it to herself, she undoubtedly loved it when he called her that. It was a term of affection so foreign, yet so, so welcome, that each time it was said, she as reminded just how much she cared about the old bastard.
Not that that stopped her from correcting the rest of Jackson when they called him her father, or referred to her as "Joel's kid". Those weren't exactly false titles, but still. Though Joel's perceived paternity did come in handy when she was approached by the boys her age.
One glance too long at her chest or ass, and they found themselves with a Texan shadow looming over them. It was pretty hilarious watching them almost shit themselves as they cowered in fear before the town leaders crazy older brother. Would have been even more hilarious if she didn't though there was a more than distinct possibility that he'd actually end up killing one of them.
Hopefully it wouldn't come to that. Maybe she might actually like one of the little dickheads someday. Maybe
Idly she began picking at her bowstring as she walked, mimicking the movements of the guitar chords she really wished she could be practicing right now. Unfortunately instruments weren't really great to pack on a multi-mile expedition.
"So," she said as they approached the store entrance, the top of the building finally casting it's cool shadow over them. "People used to get food here?" It was a kind of redundant question. Of course she'd encountered the burnt out shells of Wal-marts before. They were everywhere. Yet still the concept of the place baffled her, even now.
"Yup," Joel answered. He was now examining an old sign that stood next to the broken sliding doors that had apparently opened by themselves. Sweet, magic doors. "Lot's of other crap too. Shopped here a bit myself. Was always cheap here….Didn't have much back then." Ellie nodded.
She'd managed to wheedle bits and pieces of the past out of him. She knew he'd been a carpenter, that his wife had walked out on him when Sarah was four and he was just in his early twenties, and a variety of random facts about the first to bear the title "baby girl". That was a paramount achievement, according to Tommy. His brother had never spoken of Sarah to anyone in great detail, preffering to keep the tragedy of his past locked away as deep as humanly possible.
It made her glad to see him open up, even if it brought with it the irrational feeling of jealousy she felt towards someone who had been dead for two decades.
"Any idea where the pharmacy might be?" the last two places they'd hit, two CVS stores, had been completely picked clean.
"Probably somewhere in the back. Places like that were always built against the walls. Got everythin' ready?"
Reaching for the strap of her backpack Ellie flipped on her flashlight in preparation for venturing into the dark. In a single smooth motion she knocked an arrow into place. A nine millimeter pistol hung heavily at her hip beside her switchblade, but that would be best as a last resort. Arrows were silently, and anyplace that might have lurking infected was best dealt with silently if at all possible.
"Roger dodger," she replied, smiling. He smiled back, flipping on his own flashlight.
"Let's get in and out, then we can go get you that swimming lesson. I gonna have to throw you in again?"
"Fuck you, Joel."
The Wal-mart's interior was dark and foreboding. Oblong shadows cast sparse traces of light throughout the derelict building, nothing that would help them see any better, but enough to provide tiny sparkles of gold here and there that added a fraction to their flashlight beams.
Like most of the buildings they'd scavenged through, the place was for all intents and purposes picked clean. Most of the shelving units that had formed a labrynth of different products had been shoved over in frantic searches for food. Gargantuan cobwebs had grown up in large masses beneath the shelves, tangling upwards against the walls surrounding the entrance. They probably reached as high as the rafters. Twenty years of scant use provided plenty of time for arachnids to do their work.
"This place is huge," Ellie whispered, gazing around in wonderment. It was as big as any of the warehouses she'd seen back in the quarantine zones. And considering she'd been looked after by the head of the Fireflies, she'd seen plenty of warehouses.
"Yup," Joel agreed quietly. Shifting his shoulders, he angled his flashlight to point upwards slightly, peering far into the depths of the store. "That's where we're headed." He pointed with a knife-full hand. Though it was all but invisible in the dim light, the pharmacy sign, still suspended by a single metal cable, could be seen hanging in the distance.
Without another word they started off. Within a couple feet they had to climb over a mangled check out line, a ripped apart cash register strewn about the floor.
For Ellie, each step was an exercise in balancing controlled breathing with her morbid curiosity. Every chance she had, she took sweeping glances about herself, taking in the ruined knickknacks left over from before the apocalypse. Old toys. Crumpled soup cans, shredded potato chip bags and plastic toys. It was all so cool to look at. If only she had the time to stop and check it out more closely.
To get to the back wall they had to climb over a makeshift barricade of shelves. Each layer of shelves served as another rung in the ladder, and with a bit of help from each other, the pair had made it over in no time at all.
In retrospect, it would;ve been better if they'd walked around on foot.
Somehow, the moans and grumbles associated with the Infected, hadn't drifted to the store's front. Nor had the fungus they spread like the plague wherever they walked grown anywhere near the entrance. Here however, it sprouted like mushrooms, surrounding the outside of the pharmacy.
Sickly green spores poured from within, clouds of sickness that seethed outward like green claws.
Amongst the claws seven infected wandered, babbling and gurgling their blood crazed nonsense. Well, seven that could be seen.
Joel slipped on his gas mask, the clasp giving off an audible click. Ellie pulled the arrow as far back as her elbow. He reached over and flipped off both flashlights. Their gazes met, and they shared a nod.
She went one way, and he went another.
They didn't have to use words to know what the other would do. This was a dance they'd danced a hundred times over.
The tell tale sound of a lobbed brick cracking against the floor broke the silence. As predicted, the infected moaned in reaction, turning their attention in that direction. All of them were Runners, these were recent infected, and their lopsided sprinting brought them together in a small crowd, back turned to the lurking predators.
Ellie loosed her arrow, taking the rear most Runner in the base of the skull. It collapsed in a moaning heap. One down, six to go.
Strong arms wrapping around the small Infected frame, Joel's knife plunged downward into a jugular. So recent was the infection that some still red blood dribbled out amongst the puss. Two down.
Shoulder her bow Ellie drew her switchblade. This was a piece of cake, just slice dice and cut their way through to their goal. Well, that's how it should be. But this was them, so of course some sort of complication had to add itself to the equation.
Just as Ellie passed directly in front of the doors into the pharmacy, a new moan echoed out of the shadowed door. Methodical clicking began, and a face coated in a layer of armored fungus emerged, gazing sightlessly at the adolescent girl crouching with deadly intent behind it's brethren.
She took in a sharp, reckless breath entirely on instinct, and that was enough.
The Clickers head swung towards her, and stepped forward.
It didn't get far however.
A slender arm suddenly reached out from the cloud of spores and wrapped itself around the fungal throat. Silvery steel flashed, and a knife cut through the Clicker's throat in a fluid, visceral motion. The arm's owner slowly lowered the body to the floor before looking up.
Only their eyes were visible above the gasmask. Short, slightly frizzy hair was tucked behind a pair ears. Probably a woman, though the clothing was enough to make their body androgynous in this lighting.
The newcomer lifted a finger to her mask covered lips. "Shush," the gesture said.
Despite being surrounded entirely on one side, Ellie peered back at Joel, who'd of course taken notice. His jaw was set in a taut line. He nodded his approval. Good enough for her. Working with strangers was risky, they knew that from experience. But for now it was necessary. If it came down to shooting this bitch later when it turns out she was psycho, then so be it.
Lunging back into her work, Ellie took another Runner by the throat. Joel did the same, as did the newcomer.
Yep, it was definitely a woman. From this new angle Ellie could clearly see the slight curve of the chest beneath their jacket. Either she had tits or a really medical condition.
The Infected were down to two at this point, which should have been a dead giveaway that thing were getting way too easy to be believable.
Of the three of them, Joel was the furthest down the clearing in front of the pharmacy. It he who offed the last Runner, and it was his scent that caught the attention of the innumerable horde that had been dwelling just behind the shelf barrier. A shirek like roar sounded.
"Shit!" Joel cursed, leap-stepping back from the shelf wall and drawing his gun. "How didn't we see any of these before?!"
"They probably came from the tunnels," said their new friend in a distinctly female voice. "They connect the stores underground. Guess they wandered upstairs. Kevin!" she called over her shoulder. "You done in there!"
A moment passed before a squeaky, childish voice replied from within the spore smothered pharmacy.
"You're friend better move fast," said Joel, holstering his pistol and replacing it with the saw-off tucked behind his waist.
"The fucker'll be on us in seconds!" Ellie agreed. She shouldered her bow and readied her gun. No time for archery, only old fashioned gunpowder would do now.
"Get a move on, Kevin!" the gasmask wearer called in a surprisingly patient voice edge with only a tad of stress.. Her own gun was aimed steadily in the direction of the groans. A finger twitched on the trigger.
Out of the pharmacy a little boy no older than ten came dragging a bulging duffle bag easily twice the size of his body. He wore a baseball cap with age subdued colors, notable only for the capital D above the bill. He was bone thin beneath baggy clothing, with a complexion as pale as milk. A bulky plastic brace was fastened around his right shin.
"Good work," his older partner praised, taking the bag and passing him a second small pistol she'd had tucked into her boot. She looked to Joel. "You carry this? We're gonna have to make a break for it."
Joel nodded. There was no way they'd make it out if anyone but he carried it. He had to give the kid credit. He'd gotten one hell of a haul out of that store, a truckload worth of pills.
He fought down the niggling part of his brain that knew he'd end up having to blow the kids brains out, if the woman couldn't or wouldn't.
The boy wore no mask, and that room had enough spores to take out the whole of Jackson.
Ellie had come to the same realization, and though she said nothing, her face was grim. Someone always had to die, it seemed.
They started running at the same time with Joel hefting the medicine bag over one shoulder, not looking back as the wall holding back the horde inevitably shattered in an explosion of breaking wood and plastic. As they went they leapt over the obstacle course littering the space between them and the exit. Groans and clawing hands chased them, hungry teeth gnashing with the intent to bit, kill, and infect.
Luck seemed to have granted them a reprieve of sorts, as they made it as far as the front doors without any Runners catching up to them. Light hit them in a blinding dazzle. Here they'd have to take a stand. With a large group of infected in an open area like the parking lot outside, there was no escaping them. You either killed them all or get killed.
Joel lobbed the bag forward out the doors and turned on his heels, sawed-off raised.
The woman had already turned and fallen down on one knee, aiming posture, and raised her pistol.
She didn't wait for he, Ellie, or the boy Kevin to raise their own weapons to get started. She took aim, leveled the sights, and let out a string of five rapid shots.
Five malformed skulls exploded, splattering blood and puss in outward reaching arcs. They collapsed forward with their left over momentum, tumbling just three feet away from their human prey. The woman paused to check her gun.
"I still got half a clip," she told them. "What about you guys?"
"Four shots," said Joel, sounding only half as astounded as he was.
"Six," said Ellie, sounding impressed.
"Three," said Kevin.
"Save your ammo then," said the woman. "There aren't too many left."
There weren't. Several moments passed and two straggling runners came forward. Two bullets later, and they dropped like corpses.
Another few moments passed, the four survivors staring at the dead Infected laying before them.
"Let's get the fuck outta here," Ellie suggested. "If there's anymore, those shots'll bring em this way."
None of them had any reason to argue. Joel shouldered the bag once more, and they sprinted off across the parking lot towards any semblance of safety.
They stopped running about half a mile out from the Wal-mart on a grassy knoll that rose on an old median in the middle of a roadway.
"Holy shit," Ellie said, leaning forward on his knees, panting for breath. "That was intense. Fucking awesome shooting, man," she complimented. The woman laughed behind her mask.
"Thanks. I've had a lot of practice." She turned to Kevin, who looked the most exhausted out of all of them. His legs were by far the shortest after all. "You alright sweetheart? Have any trouble getting all the stuff?" Her voice was soft and motherly. The tone was enough to send a regretful stab of pain through Joel's guy. Cleary she was in denial if she sounded this cheerful. Some people just couldn't accept the doomed fate of their loved ones.
Kevin shook his head meekly.
"Nope. It wasn't too hard." He sounded proud of himself.
"Well way to go," she ruffled his white-blonde hair affectionately. Reaching back, she undid the clasp and let the mask fall away.
Her skin was the color of tanned mocha. Black, or maybe half black if you subtracted the sunbaked quality from her features. A purple ribbon of cloth, a very old one by the way it looked, was secured tightly around her elbow, contrasting starkly with the honeydew amber of her eyes.
"Thanks for the help back there," she said to Ellie and Joel. "We appreciate it. I'm Clementine, and this here's Kevin. Nice to meet you." She offered her hand to Ellie, though she didn't put down her gun. Ellie couldn't say she blamed her. Just a basic safety precaution for meeting new people, one she herself took by shooting a glance Joel's way as she accepted the hand.
"You too," she replied. "I'm Ellie. The old guy's Joel."
"Nice to meet you, Joel," Clementine offered her hand to him as well, which he hesitantly took. His eyes flickered to the boy. Clementine noticed this, but said nothing.
"You guys lookin' for meds too?" Ellie asked, sounding uneasy. The kid could turn within the hour, and it had to be dealt with, she knew it.
"Yup. We don't need that much for just the two of us. But we figured we'd grab whatever we could. Medical stuff always trades well," she ruffled the boys hair again. "Kev here's great with locks. His tiny fingers help out with that sorta thing."
"Look, lady," Joel interjected, eyes closed and voice more gruff than usual. "I dunno if you're in denial, or if ya just didn't see, but that kid of yours just breathed in a helluva lot of spores." His grip tightened on his gun. "So, much as I don't want to ask, are you gonna deal with this, or do I have to?"
Kevin took a frightened step back. Clementine didn't flinch, meeting Joel's gaze. She took a precautionary step forward, putting her body between the boy and the armed man.
"He'll be fine," she retorted, voice taking on the edge of ice tempered steel. Inwardly, Joel sighed. They always said that.
"We both know that ain't true," he said, stepping forward. Clementine's gun raised in an instant, aimed directly between the man's eyes. Ellie took a sharp breath.
The staring contest continued. Brown Texan eyes and the barrel of a gun.
"Kev," Clementine said in resignation. "Show him."
Kevin's face grew all the paler, his body shook in a nearly frantic panic.
"But Clem," he protested, trembling. "You said to never-"
"I know what I said," she cut him off sternly. "Just do it."
Petrified, the boy nodded, and, kneeling, he began to undo the straps of the brace on his leg. When it finally came off, Ellie thought she might faint from the familiarity.
A bite mark lined with fungus marred the side of his calf. There was none of the redness that usually began to spread outward from the sight of infection. None of the erratic sweating and pain that came with it. If anything, the bite looked nearly healed despite the scar.
"Like I said," Clementine began. "He'll be fine. That bite is nine months old. Kevin's immune. Now, I suggest you back away right now. I have three bullets left, which is two more than I'll need."