The cheesy, eighties movie line had escaped Clementine's mouth before she could stop it, and even then it took a moment for it to sink in. Two bullets more than she needed? Had she really said that out loud? Granted, the cheese factor didn't make the statement any less true. She had three bullets. She'd need one to take out the old guy, because as apt as she was in a fight, he was obviously physically stronger than she was.
Bullets wouldn't be necessary to off the girl, if it came to that. Ellie had proven herself more than adequate in a tense situation, even in the scant ten minutes Clementine had known her. But one quick thump to the temple with her guns handle and bam, dead.
Kevin wouldn't like it of course. He didn't like killing people. Then again, neither did Clementine. Necessary evils were still evils, such as taking the lives of those who would do them harm. And if the last four months had taught the pair anything, anyone who knew of the fading bite mark hidden beneath the leg brace was a danger to their safety.
Colonel Volgin's harshly drawn, stone hewn face filled her minds eye. Dark ambitions hiding behind duty and a well pressed military uniform.
Oh Lee, she thought into the void of her mind, feeling the purple strip of cloth on her arm. You'd know what to do here. You'd figure something out…
You will too, Sweetpea, a warm voice answered her thoughts. Just keep your head, and do what you have to do.
The voice in her head was always comforting. Giving advice, much needed reassurance, and a reminder of the man who had once been her whole world. The ramifications of such a delusion were irrelevant. She needed it.
"Now," Clementine told her hostages, who still stood ramrod stiff in place. She could see Ellie's hand twitch with a desire to reach for her weapon, and the muscles lining Joel's jaw tense with suppressed fury. "Here's how this is gonna go. I don't want to shoot either of you. Keep in mind, I'll probably have to, but I won't enjoy it."
"Thanks," Ellie said in a tone half between a deadpan and an aggravated huff. "That makes us feel much better."
Clementine almost smiled. The girl definitely had spunk. Helpful in a pinch, but liable to piss of any groups of pillaging marauders she happened upon.
"Kevin, search them." She extended a hand to him, and he handed over his own pistol. A .33 model, less powerful than the standard nine millimeter. Anything stronger might break his wrist.
Two weapons in hand, Clementine now had both of them at gunpoint. No breaking free now. Unless they had a wish to end up like half dozen Runner's she'd offed in the Wal-Mart, with exploded skulls.
Nodding, Kevin approached the pair with a timid step. Hands shaking, he began stripping Ellie and Joel of their weapons, pilling them a few feet away. The man alone had enough to arm a group of five or six people, and though Ellie had far fewer weapons, she was still more than well armed.
Ellie winced as tiny fingers probed at the fabric of her pants, paying special attention to the inside of her calves and the lining of her ankle cuffs. This was just fan-fucking-tastic. Not only were they probably going to die, but her last earthly memory would be being felt up by a kid. Just fabulous.
A few minutes later Kevin looked up from emptying Joel's backpack. All the pockets were pulled out, leaving their contents strewn about the grass of the median.
"They don't have a picture, Clem. Not like the others."
Clementine's grip tightened on her guns. The skin of her knuckles progressed from mocha to pale white. This just made things all the worse. All of the agents the good Colonel had sent in their pursuit had had a polaroid picture of them, with in depth descriptions written in miniscule print on the back.
"So Volgin didn't send you," she said quietly. "…..Shit."
Kevin's eyebrows shot up like rockets. Clementine very, very rarely ever swore.
"This…well this makes things…awkward. You aren't who I assumed you were. But the fact remains, anyone who knows about that bite is a threat to us. We leave you, you could go running straight to the military. Or the Fireflies. Can't say which would be worse. So, I'm sorry for this. I really am."
Kevin looked away as his guardian leveled her guns.
"Wait!" Ellie shouted, tugging desperately at the sleeve of her shirt.
"Whadaya think you're doing!" Joel demanded, looking stricken yet unable to do anything while under the barrel.
"I have to, Joel," Ellie said, meeting his gaze. "If I don't, we're both fuckin' dead." With that, she pulled her sleeve the last few inches upward.
Clementine and Kevin stared, mouths open, at the fading bite mark lined with clumps of fungus just below the teenagers elbow.
"See?" Ellie panted, face growing red with the stress and damp with sweat. "I'm immune too, kid. You're secret's safe."
An incredibly long silence passed before, finally, Clementine lowered her guns. She blinked.
"Well, holy fucking shit." This was a day for swearing apparently. "I knew there were other…there had to be, that's just basic genetics, but dear god, I never thought we'd actually run into one."
"Neither did we," Ellie exchanged a look with Joel. He, unlike her, seemed much less calm. They weren't being threatened anymore, but nowadays having a gun pointed at you near universally ended with someone being shot in the face. Or in the leg. Or in a dozen other unpleasant places and being left to bleed out.
"How is old is your bite?" Kevin asked curiously, taking a cautious step forward to get a closer look.
"About a year and a half," Ellie answered. "Got cornered by a runner. You?"
"Pretty much the same. If it hadn't been for Clementine, they'd've shot me on sight. She got me out of the Charlotte Zone."
There conversation probably would've gone further right then and there, had it not been for the proverbial stare down their older guardians were having. Joel's face was a blank slate, revealing neither anger nor emotion in general. Just resolve.
"Joel, calm do-" Ellie tried to tell him, knowing what this expression could mean. He silenced her with a simple wave of the hand that said 'not now, baby girl.' The black woman's face was in a similar state. Perhaps it was a little different, a little warmer. But that could be ignored seeing as her personality was generally warmer than her counterpart's.
"….We good, Joel?" she asked.
"I'm not right sure," said Joel carefully. "Can't say I'm glad to have me and my girl threatened like that." Clementine snorted.
"Obviously. Can't say I'd have liked it either. And forgive me for saying so, but if things had been reversed, you'd have shot us both without asking a thing." Joel didn't reply, so she looked to Ellie. She shrugged.
"Yeah, probably," she admitted. "Wouldn't have liked it, never killed a kid before. But, yeah…." She trailed off, not wanting to elaborate any further.
Clem turned back to Joel.
Joel shook his head. Though true, it wasn't quite enough for him yet.
"Fair enough. But what's to say you two won't go hollerin to the military later? They'd pay handsomely for someone immune."
"It'd be stupid," said Kevin. All faces turned to him, and he shrunk down shyly. Nonetheless, he continued. "They scan everyone civilian they run into. We go to turn you in, they'll scan us and blow my head off. Then Clem's too just to be safe."
Clementine nodded in satisfaction. The kid was a lot brighter than his tiny physique and shy nature gave him credit for.
"That enough for you?"
Eyes closing, Joel nodded.
Oblong shadows were starting to fall across his face, shrouding his bear in in four different shades of black and gray. Above them the sun was starting to set, reduced to a crimson sunburst sinking below the horizon. Night would fall completely within the hour.
"Guess we should make a camp then," he said quietly. Turning, he moved to retrieve his equipment. "We can divvy up the meds tonight and be on our way in the morning. Sound good?" there was still an angry pulse behind his voice.
Clementine nodded. That would have to do for now.
Dusky scents of smoke wafted upward from the makeshift fire pit. Ellie inhaled deeply, letting the rich fumes fill her lungs before exhaling with just a few hints of coughing. She liked the way it smelled, tasted, it was a calming balm to her senses even know she knew from boarding school that it wasn't exactly good for her. But ah, fuck it.
Of all the crazy shit in the world, lung cancer wasn't going to be the thing to kill her.
Not ten feet away Joel lay snoring rhythmically. According to him, he didn't snore. That was bullshit of course, but his throat noises had long since stop bothering her. They were even comforting. A constant reminder of his presence.
A sudden cracking sent her jerking to the right, gun drawn.
"Hey, hey , hey!" Kevin yelped, dropping the small armful of firewood he'd collected tumble to the ground. "It's just me!"
Inhaling with relief, Ellie set the weapon down beside her.
"Sorry kid. Can't be too careful."
"No big deal," Kevin scooped up the branches and stacked them neatly beside the pit. "I'd've done the same….he still asleep?" he gestured to Joel. Ellie glanced down. A single open eye stared back up at her from above a scarred nose. With a grunt he turned rolled over to face away from the fire and the chatting kids. He only had an hour or two before it was his turn to stand watch, and he intended to take advantage of every minute.
"Sorry I woke you," Kevin whispered only a little bit afraid. Ellie waved him off, smiling.
"Don't worry about the old man. He'll be fine. He likes to stay on his toes anyway."
Joel grunted, either in agreement or in derision at his sleep being disturbed further. Ellie rolled her eyes.
She picked up a stick and poked at the glowing embers releasing more pungent smoke upwards. It smelled wonderful, if a bit harsh. Glancing up, she examined the kid, who'd slumped against his pile of firewood, eyes closing partially in an obvious expression of his fatigue. The plastic of his leg brace shimmered slightly in the light. It had been bugging her ever since she'd seen what lay beneath it. No better time to ask than now.
"How'd you get bit?" she asked. He sat up straight, eyes opening.
"Huh?" he asked, dazed.
"How'd you get bit?" she repeated. "I mean, if you're immune, you had to 've gotten bit, right?"
"Oh yeah, that," he tapped at the brace with a knuckle. "I…I got cornered just outside the Charlotte Quarantine Zone. One of 'em grabbed me when I tried to run," there was a pause, a shiver running down his spine at the memory. "That was how I met Clementine. She found me the next day…I should've turned by then, so she locked me in a closet for three days, waiting outside with her gun…." another shiver.
"When I didn't turn, she tried to take me to some doctors she knew. Maybe they could find a cure…..That didn't work out…"
"What happened?" Ellie asked, maybe a little too eagerly. The situation just mirrored hers so, so much. Kevin shook his head.
"The military found us….I don't wanna talk about it, sorry." Ellie nodded, disappointed, but understanding. Anything involving the military couldn't be pretty. Those fascists usually shot first, threw explosives second, and asked questions roughly seventeenth. Actually, now that she thought about it, what would the military do with an immune person? Try to manufacture a cure….or something way more sinister?
The kids fell into a long silence. Kevin slumped back once more, willing sleep to take him.
"Where is Clementine, anyway?" Ellie asked. The woman had disappeared a few hours ago presumably to take a piss or something. She hadn't returned. Not looking up, Kevin gestured to the left. Following his arm, Ellie caught sight of a silhouetted figure on a nearby hilltop where the trees broke apart, letting the moonlight flood in like a ghostly ocean.
Despite the distance, the muffled noises of speech could be heard above the crackling of the fire. If Ellie squinted, she could see mouth movements. Clementine was…..talking to someone.
"Who the hell's she talking to?" There was no one there.
"Lee," was Kevin's answer. He was getting irritated. The little guy was really tired now.
"Lee?" Kevin hesitated.
"….You should ask her about that….I don't know all that much."
She wanted to, but she was supposed to be keeping watch.
"I can't just leave you guys-"
"Go already, baby girl," Joel grunted, not turning over. "We'll be right as rain. Just stop you're damn talking."
Kevin made a noise approximating agreement. Ellie laughed, getting to her feet. Well alright then.
The walk up the hill was a bit longer than it had looked at first. Dew was beginning to form on the grass in preparation for the morning, sparkling to match the stars high above. In a nearby tree an owl hooted pensively. A late family of possums scattered beneath a large stand of bushes. Night was a time for nature to be alive.
As Ellie got closer, she could hear Clementine's speech grow increasingly louder, and her moon draped form came fully into view.
She was sitting cross-legged on the ground with her gun in one hand, speaking to a patch of empty air. It was like she was talking to an invisible person sitting beside her. Cautiously, Ellie stepped even closer.
"-he's getting stronger. Shot's improving too. Maybe soon he'll graduate from bottles and start in on the Infected." There was a pause, a wait for a reply. Clementine laughed. "I wasn't that bad a shot. And besides, the gun nearly broke my hand from the kick back. I was tiny back then."
"Clementine?" Ellie said.
The woman snapped from her sitting position, raising her gun. It was lowered half a moment later when she saw who it was.
"Oh, it's you," she said with relief, sitting back down. A sideways glance was shot at the empty space in the air. Her gaze lowered, looking distraught.
"Are you…talking to yourself?"
Ellie talked to herself plenty. Especially when she was alone doing watch patrol on Jackson's walls. It was an easy way to amuse herself, to contemplate the world and life and all that stuff. Only, she never paused to let someone else get a word in. the only people who did that were…well, unhinged. Quarantine zones had a handful of people like that. Those who just couldn't take life as it was.
Clementine didn't fit the profile at all though.
"Sort of," said Clementine. Again her eyes moved, this time to something clenched between the fingers of her free hand.
"…Lee?" Ellie pushed, moving to sit beside the woman. "Kevin said you were talking to someone named Lee."
"I am," she nodded. "But I'm not." Her head fell forward with a sigh. "I don't talk about this much. Not even to Kevin, but….you may get it better than he does. You're older, and, well, you and I have a bit in common, Ellie."
Ellie felt her pressed a thin, aged scrap of paper into her palm. What she'd been holding between her fingers.
Straining in the pale light, she examined the scrap. It was an old piece of photograph, at least a decade old, maybe more. The material was nearly waxy in it's texture. Too much pressure on it would tear it like tissue. Time had long since faded the coloring of the partial image, but still, it was visible.
A black man with a dark goatee was smiling, putting his arm around the shoulder of someone whose body had been torn away with the rest of the picture. Ellie looked up questioningly.
"This is Lee?" Clementine nodded.
"I was eight when the outbreak hit. My parents were on vacation on the coast, and they left me with a babysitter, Sandra. When the virus spread, I hid in my tree house. Three days later, this guy," she jabs a finger at the picture. "Come's into my backyard, running from Infected on a wounded leg. He'd been unconscious after a car crash, didn't know what was going on. Then Sandra attacked him, she was a runner by then, and I handed him a hammer to off her." She trailed off for a second. It had been years since she'd told the story fully. Events from the first year of the apocalypse were things she really didn't like to dwell on.
"After that, we teamed up. If he hadn't found me, I'd probably have starved to death. He taught me how to shoot, how to stay safe, everything I needed to survive….Lee was like my dad, and we loved each other like family." Amber eyes met Ellie's green. "just like you and Joel."
Ellie's mouth opened reflexively to reply, but was cut short by a raised hand.
"Stop," said Clementine firmly. "I know what you're about to say. 'He's not my dad' or something like that. He is though, Ellie. In all the ways that matter. I see the way you look at each other. The way you interact. I'd recognize it anywhere. Family has nothing to do with blood, nothing at all. " She closed her eyes. "I didn't give birth to Kevin, but he's my son. And anyone who gets between me and him is gonna end up dead."
The last line was spoken with a quiet sort of ferocity that made Ellie tremble motionlessly where she sat.
What she said rang disturbingly true. She did love Joel like a dad, even if she denied it to anyone who asked, even to herself. Somehow, this woman she'd just met understood that better than anyone else she'd ever encountered.
Before her mouth could wobble wordlessly much longer, Ellie asked the harsh if obvious question.
"He's dead, then?" Another nod.
"And it's all my fault."
Ellie listened for the better part of an hour Clem recounted the six months she'd spent in Lee's company and the events that had ultimately led to his death.
Clementine told her everything. The Motor Inn and the days of dwindling supplies, the St. John's and their horrific dairy. This story brought a stricken look of familiarity to the young teens face. Apparently she'd had a run in with cannibals as well. Small world.
She told her about how Kenny'd killed the comatose Larry while his daughter and Lee tried to revive him, and the tense weeks that followed. Then came the inadvertent betrayal of Ben, which led to the bandit attack, the murder of Carley, the death of Duck, and Katjaa's suicide. That had been a bleak day among the bleakest of days, before any of the Quarantine zones had even arisen. None had been in that area though, Atlanata was lost completely from the beginning. Nowadays it was a breeding ground for Bloaters, ancient infected that dominated the region.
Then she told her about the secret conversations over her walkie-talkie to the Stranger.
From there everything spiraled downward, ending with Lee chained to a radiator.
"He walked through a whole street of Infected, thousands of them, with nothing but a cleaver and an amputated arm."
"He lost an arm?" Ellie asked.
"He cut it off," the girl's brows shot up. "To try and slow down the infection….it didn't work. "
She recounted what she'd heard from within the closet as Lee confronted her kidnapper. Every choice he'd made regurgitated at him, spoken with a venom that said "You are a monster." Yet, he wasn't a monster, and Clementine knew it even then. Murderer or not, he was still as good a man as you could find in the apocalypse.
"He was honest, and kind, and even when he found people who definitely deserved to die, he spared them. He showed mercy. He taught me everything I know, and that even in a world like this morals still matter. Then," Clementine concluded, "I had to shoot him. Right in the forehead." She sighed, feeling wayward tears crawling their way to her cheeks. "God damn it. I haven't cried about this in years."
Ellie said nothing.
This woman had lived her worst nightmare. She had had to kill the man that she'd come to love as a father, to put him down out of mercy. Being alone was what she called her greatest fear, yet losing Joel….that sounded far more hellish.
"That's why you talk to him," she said quietly. "Because you miss him."
"And because he talks back."
Ellie stared, and a bark like laugh escaped the recipient of her gaze.
"It's crazy, I know, but he does. I hear his voice in my head. I know it's not real, but…" she peered down at the scrap of picture. "But I need it to be. Hold onto that man, Ellie. Hold on as long as you can. I'd of given anything to stay with Lee just a little longer. Anything. Take my advice, and enjoy every moment of it."
Though she didn't say so, this was advice Ellie had every intention of following.
Was gonna end it here, but for all the stuff I want to happen, I'm gonna do one more chapter. A three shot. Enjoy, please review!