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Old Dogs

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With a grunt, Desmond pushes his loaded up bike to the cover of some bushes before leaning back, rubbing at his lower back. It had been an uphill battle for a bit now – literal up-the-hill, pushing his bike up the side of an actual mountain, after what felt like several other mountains. "Really start to feel that after a while."

The path he'd been following had withered down to near nothing halfway through, too. The only reason he even knows there's a path there at all is because he still can just about see it with Eagle Vision, and even then it's barely a glimmer. It must've split somewhere into separate paths, into less used ones, which had worn down the barely visible traces down to nothing.

Even Ezio doesn't seem to be spotting anything, sitting on a patch of dried up grass slightly ahead of him, waiting.

"Nothing, huh?" Desmond asks, reaching for his water bottle and taking a sip. There's a breeze going, which is already cooling the sweat on his brow, making it colder. No way he can stay the night up here. "Alright, let's see if we can find a viewpoint, yeah?"

Ezio moves to follow him to a nearby climbable looking spot of rocks. There's some traces there too, even fainter ones – someone else has used the outcropping of more or less flat rocks to look around, it seems. Makes sense, a good sniper spot up there. A bit of a climb though - and after hours of uphill pushing, Desmond spends most of it listening to his back and joints crack.

"Ugh, you'd think after all this I'd be in better shape, huh?" Desmond asks Ezio, who's swiftly going ahead, showing off his much better agility. "If you fall, I'm not coming after you, you hear? You go down a ravine, you're on your own." He gets barely a huff in answer. "Yeah, laugh it up."

It's one hell of a view, once they find the highest spot, Ezio laying down a patch of grass while Desmond stretches, his shoulders feeling a little better. Up the side of the mountain he can see where the roads used to be – down ground level he lost the track a while ago, someone had gone through some trouble to break the road up and cover it with new growth, but up here you can't hide the snakey shape of where trees are younger. There are even sections further up ahead where there's some actual road left.

"See there?" Desmond points. "Someone bombed out the pass there – a decade ago, maybe? Looks like there was a bridge over there that's long gone, and – oh hoh hoh, that does look like a house. I think we're getting close to civilization. Or what used to be civilization."

Ezio huffs a breath at him, tail wagging lazily against the grass.

"Yeah, maybe we'll find a house to sleep in for the night. Might even be able to get some scavenging in. Find some water, get a fire going, cook some gruel, maybe even clean up a little… live like people for a bit," Desmond murmurs, crouching down beside his companion. "Yeah. Could be a good night."

They sit there for a moment, Desmond catching his breath and rolling his shoulders to loosen some off the stiffness, while Ezio sniffs at the air beside him. Desmond can tell the moment he picks up something – the dog's ears come up and he goes quietly on alert, standing up. Eying Ezio's body language, Desmond looks around and then concentrates.

Nothing he can see – not yet.

"Okay," Desmond says, and quickly checks his knives. "Let's go, boy. Let's go check it out."

Together they head down, Ezio leading the way with easy grace, and Desmond following as quickly as he can. The dog isn't on full alert yet, so Desmond dares to go back to his bike, and begins pushing it forth, following his companion's lead as Ezio points him into the forest, towards whatever he's smelling.

When the dog starts sticking closer to him, that's when Desmond knows they're getting closer. "Okay," he murmurs, propping his bike quietly against a tree and crouching down to give Ezio a good scratch. "Low, boy, low and quiet. Easy does it."

There's a little valley – a ditch, really. Hard to say if it's natural formation, or if someone bombed the place here, creating the hole – either way, there are some infected that have congregated down there. It's not an impossible climb for them, just a sort of niche in the side, surrounded by rocks and trees, so they could've gotten out if they had incentive, but… judging by the way they're just milling down there, they haven't. Probably stragglers from a passing horde, who'd tripped into the hole and then… hung around. No ground growths though – that's something.

Desmond presses his hand on Ezio's upstanding ruff, pressing him quietly to the ground until the dog settles down on his belly, a silent command to stay. Once he's sure the dog would actually stay and not get in the harm's way, Desmond takes his bow. Five infected, two of them clickers – better make his shots quick and quiet.

Setting his arrows on the ground so they're easy to pick up, Desmond nocks the first one, breathes in, then out, and then takes aim.

He has the runners down before the clickers notice the noise – the thuds and croaks of the falling runners have them alert and jerkily moving around. Desmond blows out a slow breath, aiming carefully – the arrow he lets fly misses, but the noise of it hitting the rocks distracts the clickers enough that he can put another arrow through one of their heads, right through the growth plates – the last clicker then turns to face him, creaking at him like a broken door.

"Yeah, come on," Desmond murmurs, and picks up another arrow. "I'm right here…"

The clicker begins jerkily making its way towards him, and as it starts struggling with the side of the ditch they'd gotten trapped in, Desmond puts the last arrow through what was once the thing's heart.

It takes a moment, during which the infected spasms and croaks on the ground viscerally, but finally… it's quiet.

Desmond takes a moment to make sure and then glances at Ezio. "Ezio, perimeter, go."

Ezio perks up and then immediately sets forth, swift and quiet in the undergrowth, going around the ditch with the infected and sniffing at the ground and the air, looking for more spores. While the dog scents around, Desmond slides down to the ditch to collect his arrows and check the bodies, picking their pockets for anything. One of them has a wallet, the other a set of keys, the rest got nothing – and even the wallet is too rotten for any sort of ID.

"Aw, man," Desmond mutters and gives the bodies a sad look before taking out his notebook, to jot down the encounter. "Five anons it is. Requiescat in pace, my nameless friends."

Ezio returns to the edge of the ditch and gives a little woof – no other tracks near, then. That's good. Desmond releases a breath and then considers the bodies. "What do you think – does it get cold enough to kill the mycelium here? Should we burn 'em?"

Ezio doesn't answer, just watches him with all the patience of a dog used to him chattering on, and with a sigh Desmond begins pulling the bodies out of the ditch. It takes him some half an hour to get them out and into the open, onto a patch of old street where they're far enough away from any trees or dry growth so that he can safely burn them. It cuts into the time he could be spending finding shelter for the night, but…

Better than leaving the bodies out to infect the area with spores. Even if it's probably already infected anyway.

"I mean, it might not be. We're pretty high up," Desmond muses, while piling some dry branches on the bodies and dousing the whole mess with accelerant. "What was it that Rebecca said – about a kilometre above sea level, something about the air pressure? Plus it gotta be pretty cold around here during winter. Might be safe."

Ezio scratches at his collar with a hind leg and shakes himself.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees, making a little trail of the accelerant and then crouching down with his flint and tinder. "Better safe than sorry."

The accelerant catches on the second strike, and Desmond watches for a moment, to make sure the fire wouldn't spread beyond the pile he made – he's not into starting any forest fires here. Once he's sure, he nods to Ezio and puts his fire-making tools away. "Right-o. With our luck someone might see that, so. Let's get going. Bike, then house, then probably more zombies, what do you say?"

Ezio barks at him quietly, and then takes point, half disappearing into the tall grass. Shaking his head amusedly, Desmond jogs after him to fetch his bike.

It's about fifteen minutes, and maybe a hundred meters through the forest, that he feels the other people in the forest. The forest's temperament changes – already disturbed after his little bonfire, it goes on alert, and there's that feeling of you're not alone anymore tickling in the back of Desmond's neck.

"Yep, definitely lived in, this area," Desmond murmurs to Ezio, easing his bike into some bushes and then crouching low, patting the ground at his feet. "Ezio, down low."

The dog comes near him, crawling on his belly into cover, and together they listen to the forest. It takes a moment, but – there. Huh. Horse hooves? Interesting.

Hand on Ezio's head to keep the dog down and quiet, Desmond looks into the forest, trying to see. It's pretty full grown, thick with bushes and young trees, but – there, he just about spots someone. A horse and a rider make a pretty big shape even in this much of cover, and the horse's hooves make a very distinctive noise on the broken asphalt – the horse's got shoes.

A horse is already a big deal – you need to keep horses, feed them, and for the horses to be rideable, they would need to be broken in and trained. That's already a lot. But horseshoes, that's something else though. That's metalwork, that's a smithy, that's a farrier. That's good three, four people potentially concentrated on tasks other than scavenging or collecting food, or farming – people who would still need to be fed.

There's definitely a town here, then.

Question is, where on the fucked-up-o-meter is this town? Good honest folk, bandits, tyrannical assholes, cannibals, what?

"You see anything?" a male voice calls in the forest, a little too close for comfort, and Desmond bows his head a little, to make himself smaller.

"I think it was further up ahead," another voice answers. "I can see the smoke from here. I think there's a path through here."

"Right," the man nearby says, and there's the noise of horse hooves again. "I'll go around the other side, holler if you spot anything."

"Be careful – the ground here's uneven!"

The guy nearby heads off, horse hooves thundering on the ground, sound growing more distant. Desmond listens for a moment longer, until he's sure the riders have gone, and then scratches Ezio's ruff soothingly, considering his options.

"Too early to tell," he decides, looking at his companion. "Even cannibals can have horses, yeah? What say you we spy a little?"

Ezio huffs at his face and then licks a wet swipe over his scarred lips.

"Bleh. Yeah," Desmond agrees and pats his flank. "Come boy, low, low," he says quickly, when the dog almost bounces up. "Shh, boy, low. Were sneaking, okay? Sneaky, Ezio, sneaky. Yeah, that's it."

Together they crawl after the riders, keeping to the bushes and the tallest patches of grass, backtracking their way to the scene of their impromptu zombie extermination. Quietly patting himself on the back for choosing his bonfire spot well, Desmond settles down into the shadows to watch – the area he left the burning corpses on is so nicely open and brightly lit by the evening sun, that it leaves the riders inspecting the place completely out in the open.

Two men, both in their late forties, early fifties maybe, one blond, the other salt and pepper. They're dressed in old clothes, jeans and flannels and jackets, with rifles and revolvers. Just a Stetson short of cowboys, really. The horses both look in good shape – young mare and slightly older steed, they are both trained well enough that the fire or the infected doesn't spook them, and when the riders jump down, the horses stick close without needing to be tied – they even follow their riders a bit. Definitely they got a dedicated horse trainer, wherever they are from.

The horses have been branded too, with the letter J inside a horseshoe. These guys, they don't just have horses – they might actually sell them. You don't brand your horses unless your brand means something. Damn.

"I bet they come when you whistle, too," Desmond whispers to Ezio. "All the best horses come when you whistle."

Ezio huffs at him, poking him on the cheek with his cold snout in quiet agitation, so Desmond shuts up to listen.

The blond man is poking at the pile. "Looks like there's about five – two of 'em clickers," he says. "Can't tell how they were taken down, but it doesn't look like bullet wounds, or blunt force – their heads look more or less intact."

"Arrows maybe?" Salt-and-pepper asks, peering around the area, eyes narrowed and revolver in hand. "You can take a clicker with an arrow, if you got a powerful enough bow."

"Could be," the first man says and crouches down at the edge of the fire. "Burning them, though, hm. That's…"

"Do you think it might be a friendly? Someone from Idaho Falls maybe?"

"They wouldn't have taken this pass."

Desmond scratches at his beard idly, listening to the two pondering on who it might be. They have friends somewhere near then, and enough stability wherever they come from to have friendlies … which implies there are probably unfriendlies, too. Yeah, definitely a well established settlement.

"Should we look for 'em?" Salt-and-pepper asks, glancing at the blond man. "This was recent, they couldn't have gotten far."

"Well," the other man answers. "It's getting late, and they did us a favour of burning the bodies, so… I'm inclined not to. If they're on their way to Jackson, I reckon we'll run into them later. If not… then we'll probably run into them later anyway. No way through here, except past Jackson."

Salt-and-pepper doesn't look convinced, but after another close sweeping look around the area, he puts his gun away. "You're the boss," he says.

"We'll log it down at the lookout, and get Maria on the horn to give heads up to the other lookouts," blond says, turning to his horse. "If they're looking for trouble, we'll be ready for 'em."

"Alright," Salt-and-pepper agrees and also mounts his horse. Without another word between them, they turn their horses around and head back more or less the way they came from, the blond man leading Salt-and-pepper on.

Desmond cranes his head enough to see that they're going nowhere near his bike and then blows out a breath. "Okay," he says. "That's a yep on the civilisation, then," he muses and pats Ezio's side before standing up. "Question now is, how, if at all, shall we engage the said civilisation. Hm? What do you think?"

Ezio doesn't care at all, and trots back to the bodies, tail wagging as he sniffs around the tracks left behind by the men and their horses. Desmond snorts after him. "I guess we can deal with it tomorrow," he muses and waits until the dog's gotten his fill of the scents before heading back towards his bike. It's sitting undisturbed where he left it, all its packs where they should be. Somehow it looks even heavier, after the break he'd taken from pushing it.

"I don't suppose you'd be interested in pitching in?" Desmond asks, looking down at Ezio. "How about it – I bet you'd make an excellent sledge dog."

Ezio snorts at him, and heads on, taking point again, tail wagging as he half disappears into the undergrowth.

"Oh well," Desmond sighs and puts his hands on the handlebars, to push the thing off the bushes. "Onward, noble steed."

He's lucky – after another five hundred meters of wild forest and broken asphalt almost completely covered in bushes and young trees, they finally come to an actual road, open and almost entirely whole – twenty year old potholes aside. While Ezio trots ahead, Desmond peers around just in case he can spot any of the lookouts the blond mentioned, but… there's not much to see. Just trees and more trees on each side, with a hint of a brook down beside the road. No sign of riders or patrols.

It's risky, but… well, they didn't seem like cannibals, and Desmond's really getting sick of pushing his bike through the forest.

"Okay, here goes nothing," Desmond says, mounting his bike with a relieved sigh, and with Ezio running beside him, they begin making a slightly faster pace down the road.

It's not smooth sailing, exactly. The river has broken through the road in several places, there are signs of intentional demolition here and there – and there are makeshift roadblocks every so often. They're mostly just old cars, dragged onto the road to hinder anyone's passage, and he can easily get around them on his bike, but it's still a bit annoying and slows him down enough that soon, the sky above begins growing dark. These people clearly don't want visitors.

No sign of the horses, though – either they headed back at speed, or their lookout spot was probably somewhere along the way and he didn't see it. Which is slightly worrisome, but oh well.

 "Nice, not nice, nice, not nice," Desmond's murmurs while standing up on the pedals to see ahead. "Which one is it? A-ha, I spy with my little eye a house."

Some kind of lodge, or maybe a former business with a lodge-like aesthetic. Diner pitstop place. Hmm. "I would kill some zombies for some waffles, huh, Ezio? With some jam and ice-cream and…"

The lodge turns out to indeed be a former diner - and as such is not the most secure building ever, with big windows and glass doors. Still, it's a roof over their heads and a place to hide in, and the parking lot is concrete, so they're not leaving tracks on their way there. Desmond could look for something better, but… gift horses and mouths. With his luck he'd just end up looking all night and in the end this one turned out to be the best place anyway.

"Ezio, perimeter," Desmond orders, and the dog puts his nose to work once more, sniffing around the entrance and then around the whole building before coming back to him, tail wagging. "All good? Excellent."

It's the usual scene, inside. Broken windows, looted shelves, general mess. Desmond does a quick looting round, checks the exits, making sure he has at least two quick ways out, before pushing his bike inside and starting to settle down for the night, behind the shop counter, setting up his mirrors in corners and bringing out his little hobo stove. While it's heating up, Ezio gets his dinner of leftovers from the last spot of hunting they'd done, and Desmond gets out his maps and compass, checking where they are.

"Made better time than I thought," Desmond comments, following an old road in the map and checking the coordinates. "I think we're - here. Which means the window will be in roughly, uh… six hours and forty five minutes. Whether we can get a signal in this ravine is another thing. Might have to hike up a mountain. What do you think, Ezio, you up for, ugh, 4 a.m. mountain hike?"

Gnawing on some rabbit bones, Ezio doesn't seem to care all that much, barely flicking an ear to his direction. Desmond gives him a look and hums. "Yeah, we'll leave the bike here, do a spot of hunting and gathering, see if we can track down those lookouts, find out if these people are murderous assholes, see whether or not we should kill them all in their sleep. Yeah. It'll be great."

 

Chapter Text

"Ahh, that early morning mountain breeze. Bracing," Desmond says, while Ezio slips past him towards the stream. It's still dim and quiet, even birds aren't up yet – it's just them, and the mountain wind and the rippling brook. It's nice, in that weirdly scary apocalyptic sort of way that wilderness is nice these days. Sort of full of potential – for both good and bad things. Been a while since he's been up on the mountains too – mostly because mountains are a bitch to travel these days. Never know what you're going to find.

"Right now, I wanna find a clear view up to… thataway direction," Desmond murmurs, pointing southwards, trying to estimate the angle. "Yeah that mountain is in my way. And I don't think it's gonna move, huh, boy?"

Ezio is ankle deep in water, drinking, ignoring him entirely.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees and peers up at the mountain opposite to the one in his way. Well, it's a hill. Hilly, foresty side of a mountain. Whichever. There's no path up there he can tell, but he can see sort of clearings up there, spots where there are less trees and more rock, which could work. "Hmm… Guess there's nothing to it but head up there," he decides and stretches. "Ezio, come along, boy. I'm not fishing you out of there if you decide to go on a swim."

Ezio barks at him and then trots after him, as Desmond turns towards his target. Soon the dog is running ahead of him, navigating the underbrush without trouble, scenting everything in his way, while Desmond struggles to keep up. Thankfully the hill isn't at an impossible incline, and after a few false starts Desmond gets into the rhythm of the climb, following Ezio from little ledge to ledge, until the valley is more below than behind them, until he starts seeing a little bit over the mountains around them.

"Phew, what a view," Desmond says, after some twenty minutes of climbing, taking a break on a patch of dirt hard packed with roots. "Ain't that just the loveliest, hm? Makes me miss a camera. I used to have a camera, you know, an instant one. Can't get film for those things anymore though, more's the pity..."

Ezio ignores him, sniffing around the path they're taking and giving him some impatient looks, finally barking until Desmond sighs and gets up again. "Yeah, yeah. We're not in that much of a hurry, you know, still got a bit until the window. Hold your horses."

It's a little further ways up the mountain until it eases onto a near flat on the top and Desmond finds almost a clear view of the southern sky. While Ezio investigates everything, tail wagging and posture at ease, Desmond digs through his pockets first for his notebook, then for the phone. It takes a moment for the old thing to power up – after which it complains about GPS error and how its battery is low, of course.

"Time for a charge, hm? Should be good for a bit still, though…." Desmond muses while typing in the pass code to unlock the thing, and then opening the connection panel, which needs its own code. No Signal Detected. "Right, guess we're waiting," he says and sits down on a piece of rock to go through his notes for what little he has to report. It's really not much since the last call in, so, shrugging, he takes out his binoculars instead and kills time by spying on the surroundings.

It's mostly wild forest and mountains as far as the eye can see. Definitely an upgrade after the plains – after a few days of nothing but flat dry grasslands, the mountains had been a damn relief. At least, they'd been when he still had proper roads to follow. Now…

"If I were a secret mountain lookout spot, where would I be hiding…?" Desmond murmurs, peering at the hilltops and trying to find any guard towers. Nothing. They're probably hidden, or… not where he can see them. He can see something that looks like old tracks, and there's a mountain cabin across the valley, with what looks like a dead infected hanging off its fence, so, there's that, but….

"Hmm," Desmond hums and looks down at Ezio, who's returned to his side and laid down on his foot, panting quietly as he too takes in the surroundings. "What, now you're tired?" Desmond asks, scratching his ruff. "When we're not even moving? So exhausting, sitting still, however will you handle –"

The phone in his lap lets out a merry little sequence of beeps, and Desmond sets the binoculars down, picking the phone up again. Connection with Clay-16 established the phone informs him, just before the phone tells him that he has two new voice mails.

Desmond considers opening them and then selects through the contacts and hits the call button instead, bringing the phone to his ear. There's a connection signal, and then Rebecca's cheerful voice says in his ear, "You're good to go, buddy! Shoot your shot!" It always makes Desmond smile, hearing it.

"Hey, guys," he says, running his free hand along Ezio's back. "I don't know how much signal I got here, got mountains all around me, so didn't listen to your messages yet – if there's something there, I'll get back to you about it next window. Hope you're doing well. Got nothing major to report – I'm up on the mountains now, as… I just said. Um. Passed through a couple of little places yesterday, Thayne and Freedom and – forgot what the other one was called. All completely dead from what I could tell. Took down some infected there, burned down a couple overrun houses, nothing too exciting."

Desmond blows out a breath. It's easier to make reports when he has something to report, really, but it's been mostly quiet since Denver. Oh, right. "Spotted some people yesterday, a couple of old cowboy-types. Think there's something to the rumour about the town up here, think I might be getting close to it. Actually they even mentioned it, now that I think about it – Jackson. If it's the same Jackson as on the road map, I should make it there today. They've got horses. Jury's still out on whether they're assholes though. The people in Jackson, I mean, not the horses."

He takes a moment to think about what else to say, but… yeah, it's been a quiet few days. "I guess that's about everything. Got food, got water, got arrows, and Ezio's doing great. Guess I can't ask for better than that, huh? I'll call you next window, okay? Maybe I'll actually have something interesting to report then. Yeah. Talk to you later, guys."

He ends the call with Rebecca's voice informing him, "I gotcha – your message will be delivered next available window. Keep fighting the good fight out there!"

Desmond smiles. "Will do, Becs, will do," he says, and as the message is sent and stored on the satellite above until it gets near enough to a recipient to pass it on, he looks over the voice messages.

First one is from Shaun. 

"Nothing to report from here at this time," he starts. "Aside from all the shipboard gossip, but Rebecca can fill you in on that, should she feel like it, for I haven't the patience or brain power to even care anymore. We're still docked, doing some final preparations, loading the last goods, getting our final bottles of whiskey and getting absolutely drunk before setting out. Should be within a day or two now. We'll be keeping to the old routes at least in the beginning, so we should be able to still get in touch, but there might be more delay, so be aware of that."

There's a moment of silence, with some background noise, voices distorted too badly to be recognizable. Then Shaun continues. " Well, that's about it from my end, really. Nothing much has happened here, just waiting for me mostly. Maybe you will have some good news for us by now. We're all awaiting with bated breaths here, Desmond. Don't die out there."

"Cheers, Shaun," Desmond murmurs, as the message runs out and the phone goes quiet. Shaking his head, he plays the next message. It's from Rebecca.

"Hey, Desmond! Hope you're doing well out there – don't let the zombies get to you! I got some good news – there's been some talk about a new low earth orbit satellite we might be able to hijack! We just got word of it – it's still up there, still online, but rogue. Kathryn, from you know where, identified it for us, and there's a good chance we might be able to get in touch with it – but first we have to get to Hawaii, get to the right station and so on and so on… could be tricky, but worth it! Its orbit is nowhere near useful for northern-hemisphere operations, mind you, but it might give us a window to South America, finally. Would be something, to see how Ground Zero is doing these days, yeah?"

Desmond listens to Rebecca go on a little more about the potential new satellite, smiling all the while. "… listen to me go on," Rebecca then cuts herself off with a laugh. "Anyway, all's good here, few unfortunate incidents with too many cocktails aside. Nothing worrisome, everyone's all doing well, hangovers and embarrassing morning afters aside. Kids, am I right? Really missing your cocktails, by the way, what we made did not compare. Anyway, I gotta go – we're adding a new antenna, just in case. Hope you're doing well! Stay strong out there! "

The message clicks off just as the phone loses contact with the satellite, leaving behind a sudden silence, now interspersed with birdsong in the distance. Desmond listens to the silence for a moment and then lowers the phone, sighing while Ezio peers up at him soulfully.

"I hate living on board a ship," Desmond says to him, in lieu of explanation, and scratches the dog's ears. "Always get cabin fever. Never enough space. All the – the kids, underfoot. You know. All that. It's better out here, seriously, much better."

But man if he doesn't miss them like lost limbs.

"Well," he sighs and turns the phone off, shoving it back to his pocket. "That's that. What say you, we head down from here, make some lunch, and then set out to see if we can find Jackson, huh?"

Ezio's tail begins to wag and he stands up, eager to get to move again. Desmond smiles and ruffles his fur. "Right. Let's get going, boy."

They're half way down the mountainside, when he hears the gunshot.

It's just the one at first, powerful ringing pop echoing between the mountains. It puts both him and Ezio on high alert and they both duck for cover, Ezio crawling on his belly like Desmond trained him to. For a moment all is quiet as they listen, even the birds are silent – then there's another gunshot, and another. Nothing close by – no pings, no twangs, nothing hitting the ground or the trees anywhere near.

The shots aren't coming at them – they're not being sniped… but someone is shooting at something, somewhere not too far away.

"Our good old cowboys from yesterday, do you think?" Desmond murmurs to Ezio, who lets out a quiet whine, nudging at his bent knee anxiously. Desmond puts his hand on the dog's head and listens. Another distant pop. "Yeah, sounds like they're getting into a whole thing down there, somewhere. Now I'm curious. Shall we go see what's up, boy?"

Ezio's ears perk up a little.

Yes, they shall.


It's infected, surprise surprise.

Not far from the lodge where Desmond had parked his bike and hidden for the night, the road bends, and behind it there's a town. Or a village. A pit stop really – few houses, few old shops, a whole load of abandoned cars, couple of trucks – and a whole crowd of infected, milling around an old gas station. They're breaking windows and banging on a closed garage door, and while Desmond and Ezio hide behind a car and some bushes, they can hear more gunshots – coming from the inside.

Desmond keeps a hand on Ezio's ruff, pressing the dog down. "Stay, boy," he murmurs and then peers around the car, counting heads. Eight outside, three of them clickers, the rest runners. More inside. Their traces make the scene a mess – the infected always do, leaving behind all kinds of nasty residue. But he can see traces of people, living people – and the horses. There are blood splatters on the ground. Someone is bleeding.

"Right," Desmond murmurs, narrowing his eyes, trying to figure out what happened here.

The infected had come from the forest, probably – or somewhere, who knows. Somewhere nearby anyway, a small wandering horde. The riders had been going down the road, maybe, when the infected had stumbled upon them, gotten a lucky hit in maybe – either on the people or the horses, hard to tell at this distance. The riders had ended up taking shelter in the garage, where the metal doors would keep the infected at bay. Smart, except now they're surrounded. And there's a lot more infected inside the gas station.

"Well… that's a few," Desmond murmurs. "But these guys have actual guns and bullets, judging by the sound of it. They've probably dealt with this before. You think they can take them on their own?"

Ezio's ears slant back as his gaze flickers urgently between Desmond and the infected.

Desmond sighs. "Yeah, you're right," he mutters and pats him. "You're a good boy, Ezio. Let's see…"

Taking this many infected on their level is not his favourite idea – it's always better to get slightly higher up, and preferably down wind. There are some cars nearby, but those aren't tall enough, the infected could just run up to him if he got up on them. The truck maybe? It's a bit taller, but… no.

Desmond looks between the nearby trees, selects his favourite, and then looks at Ezio. "Come boy – low, quiet, sneaky."

Staying low with Ezio close to his heels, Desmond hurries over to the pine tree. It's a bit on the tall side, but… they've made harder jumps. "Okay. Ezio, up," Desmond says and then leans his hands against the tree, patting his shoulder. "Up, up."

The dog doesn't need to be told twice. He barely even takes a running start before launching himself onto Desmond's shoulders and then with a powerful leap reaching for the lowest branch, kicking off the tree trunk on his way up. He makes enough scraping noise, nails on dry bark, that one of the clickers notices, but that's whatever – Ezio makes it to the branch and he stays up there, safely out of reach.

Quickly, Desmond scrambles up after him. "Good boy, very, very good boy," he says quietly, giving slightly shaking Ezio a quick scratch. "That was so well done. Now hold on," he says, and grabs for his bow to put down the approaching clicker before it could alert the others. "I got this," Desmond says, breathes in and out, and nocks an arrow… and lets it fly.

The clicker takes two arrows to put down, moving just as the first arrow is about to hit enough that it only grazes the face plates. The second goes right into the centre, right into the core of its head, or what remains of its head, anyway. Ugh. Not getting that arrow back, Desmond thinks with a grimace, and grabs another arrow, turning his eyes to the runners.

The first runner goes down without issues, arrow right through a rotten spot in its head, but the second arrow misses, hitting the infected on the cheek, not a killing blow – Desmond ends up having to put another arrow into the guy, through the chest. That takes it down, though not gracefully – it goes down croaking and flailing. The nearest clicker takes note of it, jerkily moving towards the still twitching second runner, while other runners react with sudden, agitated steps back and forth, obviously aware something's happening, but not sure where.

Desmond's plan of taking out the runners first goes out of the window, they're too damn difficult to hit when they're on alert, so he aims for the clicker instead before letting another arrow fly. It's a near miss, knocking one of the face plates right off the thing's head – and in that moment, something goes off.

Inside the gas station there's an explosion, a great bang that makes the whole structure shake and shatters what windows are left before smoke pillows right out of them. A grenade maybe, or a pipe bomb, or –

Whatever it was, it was obviously to clear the way, and it did. A split of a second after, a horse gallops right out through the broken glass doors, two riders on its back – they go right over one of the infected, shooting another on their way, and then they're out on the street and just booking it.

Pressing low and putting a hand on Ezio to keep him quiet and still, Desmond watches as the infected stream out after the riders – five more, maybe six, jerking and flailing as they rush forward, far too slow to keep up, but going after them anyway. The zombies still left on the outside hurry after them, drawn by the noise, a stream of infected rushing out to the road, leaving Desmond and Ezio staring after them.

A minute later, the gas station is completely vacant, aside from the dead zombies – and what Desmond now suspects is one injured horse.

"…Okay then," he murmurs, while Ezio presses against his side, growling quietly. "That happened."

Getting down from the tree is harder than getting up there had been, for Ezio – he might be a bit of an assassin dog, but he's still a dog, and Desmond isn't about to risk him breaking bones, jumping all the way down. He ends up carrying Ezio down on his shoulders – something the dog isn't too sure about, but resigns himself to it at the promise of treats. Once they're both down – and Ezio has gotten what little jerky Desmond has left to soothe his wound up nerves – they head forth to inspect the gas station.

And damn, there'd been a lot of the infected inside. The cowboys had taken out a lot of them, and the explosion – some sort of shrapnel bomb, nice – had taken out a whole lot more. The place is a bit of a splatter house, in the wake of it all.

"Gross," Desmond murmurs, taking out his knife and making sure they're all down. Then he turns his attention to the garage part of the gas station. Blond and Salt-and-pepper had locked the doors, both the big door outside and the one leading from the garage to the backroom of the station… but it's nothing a bit of lock picking can't fix.

The horse inside is still alive – wounded, tied to a pillar, but alive. The cowboys had tied her injury, though pretty hastily, judging by the looks of it.

"Hey, hey, shh, girl, it's okay, it's okay," Desmond murmurs, approaching the mare and checking the bindings. A torn shirt, it looks like – it's already soaked through. Something had cut her back leg, pretty badly – claw marks, ow. Clicker fingers, looks like. "Oh you poor girl, it's okay, it's okay," Desmond murmurs, checking the wound while the horse whinnies nervously at Ezio sniffing around her. "It's okay, you're going to be okay…"

It's not fatal – or crippling. Flesh wound, probably painful, and she wouldn't be going fast anytime soon, but she'd live. Given a chance to heal, and maybe a spot of tender loving care, too. The wound needs stitching, if nothing else. Hmm. Probably better he doesn't try that without some sort of analgesic, it'd just get him a hoof to the head, probably, no matter how well trained the horse is.

"Question is, did your masters leave you here to be bait, or so that they could come back for you later, once they'd drawn the infected away?" Desmond asks, patting the horse's flank soothingly while rummaging through his waist pouches with his other hand. He doesn't have a bandage long or big enough to bind a horse's leg, but he does have a bit of rope and some duct tape and he could do a better job than torn shirt sleeves. "What do you think, Ezio?"

Ezio sniffs at the horse's hooves and then dances back as the mare stomps her foot down in warning. Quickly Ezio backs away to a safe distance and woofs at Desmond, sounding almost affronted.

Desmond looks between them. "Yeah, sounds about right," he agrees and begins binding the horse's leg.

Chapter Text

Desmond waits. He sits on the roof of the gas station and waits. He goes back to the lodge to get his bike, feeds Ezio, goes back, sets his bike beside the nameless mare, and waits. He collects her some grass from the side of the road to feed her, digs around until he finds a bucket to water her, and he waits.

"I'm thinking the good old cowboys aren't coming back," he muses to Ezio, as they sit on the rooftop, Ezio lounging in the late evening sun while Desmond hangs his feet over the edge of the roof, scanning the area for the infected. There'd been a few more stragglers, but nothing that could be called a horde – just one with a broken ankle, one with a piece of chain link stuck to its foot slowing it down, and a… smaller infected that couldn't move too fast. Desmond had taken them all out, added them to the burn pile, and then he'd waited.

All quiet on the eastern front. Or, was it western? Whatever it was – southern here, compared to Jackson, which should be slightly further to the north from here. Either way, it's been quiet since then, and as it seems to be getting dark now…

"Hmm, well. This is a pickle. A moral quandary, a – dilemma," Desmond hums, scratching Ezio's ruff. He'd meant to wait just long enough to see that the horse would be alright, then be off, maybe without even showing himself to her owners just yet. But it'd been most of a day now, and he's thinking the horse wasn't a priority for the guys. Either that, or they ran into more trouble. By now, if Desmond hadn't been there, the poor girl would've been without water for a good long while, would've been until next day too, maybe for longer, who knows, and Desmond might not be much of a horse guy, but… everything needs water.

"What do you think, boy?" Desmond asks. "Shall we call dibs? Finders keepers? Not that I exactly want a horse, but, hey, animal rescue. We like animals, don't we? To eat, usually, granted, but… no looking gift horse in the mouth, right? Or, rescue horse."

Ezio looks at him quizzically, tongue hanging out and tail wagging lazily.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees and stands up with a stretch. "Man, I made jack-all distance today, huh – we went from just over there to just over here, like… not even half a mile. Lame. What say you we don't tell folks back home about this? They'd never let me live down…"

Shaking his head, Desmond heads back to where he'd climbed up, dropping over the edge and down on a trash bin against the back of the gas station. Ezio follows quickly, tail wagging, and jumps down after him, shaking himself as they hit the floor.

"Still got light, and it's gotten quiet," Desmond muses, looking around and then down at Ezio. "And we're outta meat. How about a bit of hunting, boy? Would you like that, a bit of hunting? Bit o' rabbit, or a bird, or… whatever we happen to come across. You wanna hunt, Ezio?"

Ezio perks up at that visibly, going on alert, tail wagging like mad.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees and checks his arrows and his bow. "Let's go find some food, Ezio. Let's go hunt."

By the time they come back, two hares and a grouse richer, there's still no sign of the cowboys and it's getting dark enough that he doubts they'd be travelling anymore on horseback. "I'm calling it," Desmond decides, while easing the garage open and making his way inside. "We are horse owners now, Ezio, isn't that neat?"

The said horse is dozing off – or was dozing off, before the grinding of the garage door. She flicks her ears at them, shifting only a little as Desmond quickly checks the wound – no longer bleeding, and the flesh around it doesn't feel too hot to the touch. She's a good looking horse too, young and strong and well trained. Valuable animal.

"Yeah," Desmond says, nodding with satisfaction. "I have no idea what to do with you."

From the noise she makes at him, the feeling is mutual.


The next morning, Desmond sets the zombies on fire and sets out towards what he hopes will be Jackson. He probably makes a bit of a ridiculous watching, riding on a bike with a horse in tow and dog running ahead of him – but, well, it's not like Ezio could drive a bicycle. Or a horse, for that matter. Shifting his stuff from the bike to the horse would be a hassle anyway, and honestly, with how loaded his packs are… Desmond's not sure he'd like to put the horse under that much weight.

"See, that's the thing about wheels," Desmond says to the horse, who is slowly limping after his bike. "All sorts of load bearing and balancing possibilities. Tough when you're going uphill, mind you, but still, so much easier to move a bunch of stuff around when you got some well-oiled wheels under it. Guess that's why carriages are becoming a thing again, in our new, mostly gasless era. Bicycle, though, you can get a bicycle through a forest. A bit harder to do that with something wide and four-wheeled. Though I guess you horses have the easiest time of it, huh?"

The mare appreciates his chatter about as much as Ezio does, but she brings new noises and new interesting challenges to the travel, which is fun. It's slow going – with her wound she can't go too fast, and Desmond gives her as many opportunities to eat and rest as he can, making sure not to overwork her. Wouldn't do to run his new horse to the ground before he even got the chance to ride her.

Ezio, already bored with the pace, goes back and forth between them and the road ahead, stopping every now and then to watch Desmond slowly and painfully inching his way forward, before diving into the bushes to investigate the surroundings. Apparently now that there's another animal around, he doesn't feel the need to stick so closely to Desmond – though every now and then, he jumps up from the tallest grass, just to check on them.

"Show off," Desmond calls after him, spotting the dog jumping around in the bushes in mad leaps. "Just because we got company, that doesn't mean you don't need to do your job!" Ezio ignores him entirely, and Desmond sighs. "I don't know what's come over him. I think he's jealous," he tells the horse. "Don't take it personally."

Aside from that, it's easy going for the most part. The road is still intermittently broken or blocked, but not enough that Desmond can't get around the obstacles. The horse perks up a little as they go, dragging her feet less and looking ahead more – even getting little spurts of energy every now and then and pressing forward eagerly. She knows where they're going.

It is starting to look more and more like civilization, up ahead. There are more and more houses, and there are side roads, starting to break off from the main road. According to the old maps, there'd been a couple little villages in the valley near Jackson, even a little ski resort across from the river that ran through the valley – a quaint area, before the apocalypse. It makes Desmond more than a little nervous though – as the houses start climbing higher and higher on the mountain slopes on each side of the road, the more and more it starts feeling like he's being watched.

And sure, he did kind of intend to check Jackson out, but… he'd meant to do it sneaky like, at first – duck into the woods, spy as much as he could. Going out in the open like this is not his style.

"Starting to look familiar around here, huh?" Desmond asks, as the horse comes to trot beside his bike, limping slightly less now. "Heading homewards, huh? Hey, you wouldn't happen to know if your owners snack on people? I really would hate to pop in to your home town, only to find that your people are – "

He pauses as Ezio comes dashing back to him, ears slanted back. Ezio gives a single warning bark, and Desmond knows he doesn't have long to weigh his options – hide or not.

Except… there's isn't much of a place to hide. Sure, there are some trees, some bushes, but the area around the street is more open than that, more grassy than with trees that had been cut around the street. The people who lived here kept the area open – probably for sniping purposes. He definitely wouldn't be able to hide with a horse anywhere near here. Shit.

"Shit," Desmond says out loud, takes a deep breath and then sighs. Fuck it. "Minerva, be on my side today," he says, and pulls out a leash from his pocket. "Ezio, come here, boy."

Ezio hesitates, ears slanting back and body language going all do not want.

"Ezio, we do not want to give the impression of a bitey wild dog, do we?" Desmond says and shakes the leash a little. "Come here and pretend to be civilized."

He gets Ezio safely on a leash just as the riders round a corner, four of them this time – all with guns and unhappy, tight expressions. Blond guy from yesterday is ahead of them along with three other men – all of them rugged and obviously well prepared for trouble.

"Whoa, whoa," the blond guy in front says, pulling his horse's reins, while behind him the others grab for revolvers or rifles. "Hey there, stranger – hands where I can see them."

Desmond looks between them quickly. Salt-and-pepper is there, and aiming a rifle with a scope at him. The other two are on the older side of forty too – actually the one in the back looks closer to seventy, with about twenty years of beard growth… and a flame thrower attached to his backpack. Damn. Desmond can see, just at a glance, eight guns between the four of them, and he's pretty sure those are maybe throwing knives on Salt-and-pepper's belt.

Putting up his hands, Desmond wiggles his fingers to show he's holding nothing but Ezio's leash. "Friendly, friendly," he assures them, a little nervously. Four gunmen already taking aim – not the odds he's particularly positive about. "No ill intentions upon your fine personages, I promise."

"That's our horse you got there," blond says pointedly.

"And I was bringing her back to you?" Desmond says slowly. "I swear?"

"Uh-huh," the blond says, dubious. "Send her over, will ya?"

"Uh, sure – how?" Desmond asks, glancing at the horse – who is, admittedly, leaning forward in a way that kind of implies she's already set to go.

"Just – let her loose and give her a smack," the blond says with a snort, and with a dubious look of his own, Desmond slowly loosens the mare's reins from his bike rack, and then, awkwardly, gives her a nudge forward. She snorts on her way past him and even takes a few rather optimistic running steps towards the other horses, before resorting back to limping. Definitely familiar people to her, these ones – and she likes them better than she does him and Ezio.

And after they'd been so nice to her, too.

Blond inspects the horse, craning his head to look at her leg. "You bound up her wound?" he then asks, a little surprised.

"Yeah. Not to insult your first aid or anything, but the binding was slipping, and she was bleeding," Desmond agrees and sets his hands on the handlebars of his bike, still showing that he's got nothing in them. "Didn't look like it got infected – at least not yet. Probably needs some cleaning though – maybe stitches."

"Uh-huh," the blond says again and then looks him over, looking down at Ezio, and then taking in Desmond's bike. "What's your business in these parts?"

Judging by the welcome, he's got no business being there. "Passing through, probably?" Desmond offers and shrugs. "We're a bit of a wandering sorts, me and Ezio here, we just – move around. Do a spot of trading, exchange news, gossip, whatnot – do an odd job or two if I can to trade for supplies, and move on. That's me, in a nutshell."

None of them look terribly convinced. "What's your name?" the blond asks.

Now, that is the question, isn't it? Would these guys know him, and would they care…? Brotherhood doesn't have too many enemies, and as far as he knows none of his creed has come through here since before the apocalypse, if even then. But you never know, really. It's usually the sons of bitches who survive the longest, after all.

Ah, well. "Desmond Miles, and this here is my partner, Ezio," Desmond says, motioning to the dog. "And you?"

"Desmond Miles – wait, you're from the Brotherhood?" the blond asks, surprised, leaning his elbow on his knee and looking at Desmond more closely.

Aw… shit. "Um," Desmond says, his blood running a little colder. Shit, shit. Fuck, it would be nice if Eagle Vision still worked properly, he could avoid situations like this, if he could've just seen – "Uh, maybe? Depends on who's asking?"

"The Brotherhood?" Salt-and-pepper asks, while behind him the oldest guy in the group pushes his horse forward, also looking at Desmond like he's trying to recognize him. Shit, shit, shit – maybe he could throw a smoke bomb at them, or –

The blond guy is nodding. "Yeah – yeah, they're this group, one of the older ones," he says, sounding kind of amazed. "More hands-off sort, bunch of spies and smugglers and such like. Back when Fireflies were just getting started, they got some leg up from 'em. Intel and stuff, mostly – and I remember the name, Desmond Miles. You're one of their information brokers, right?"

"Oh, shit – you're Fireflies?" Desmond asks slowly, looking between them. None of them have patches or tags that he can see. There is no way. Is there? Did he really get this lucky? What are the fucking odds? "Fancy seeing you guys here. Been having some tough luck lately, from what I've heard."

"What's the Brotherhood's business here?" the blond asks.

"Honestly, no business here specifically," Desmond admits, which is true enough – his business isn't where, but a who. "I'm just passing through – my final destination is on the west coast."

The blond nods, but doesn't look any less suspicious. "You're going the wrong way, Desmond, if you're heading for the coast."

Desmond shrugs ruefully. "I'm not exactly in a hurry, and I'm mapping out sections no one's got intel on, while at it." he admits, which is also true, in a way, if not the whole truth. "There were rumours of functional towns in the area, so… I'm taking a detour to check it out. That's… kind of my deal. I move around and I check things out."

"That ain't a good idea," Salt-and-pepper mutters to the blond in warning. "Being put on a map is already the last thing Jackson needs, but being mapped by a spy?"

"Hmm," the blond answers, more agreeing than not, but he's looking at Desmond like he's got an idea. "You got intel, right? From the outside world? That was your group's deal, way back when, right? Your people knew what was going on, out there."

"It's one of our deals, yeah," Desmond agrees and leans back a little, glancing at Salt-and-pepper. "And, for your information, mapping the area isn't the same as spreading those maps around. We aren't the sort of group that puts others in danger, that isn't our thing. We know a lot of people, a lot of settlements, like their privacy."

"Oh really? And what kind of intel did you share with the Fireflies?" Salt-and-pepper asks suspiciously. "Wouldn't happen to have anything to do with them terror attacks and whatnot, the strikes against the military, all that?"

Desmond clears his throat, considering. Most of that was old news, these days, it didn't amount to much at the time, really, but… "We shared what we shared with anyone. What we thought would help," he says slowly. "The early FEDRA leaks, that was us. We warned people about upcoming martial law acts, the steps government people were taking, the stuff some companies were doing. The Infection Blitzes, the bombings – we let people know ahead of time when we could. Honestly, there was a bunch of stuff."

"Not all of it good stuff, I bet," Salt-and-pepper guesses, eyes narrowed.

"Wasn't really a good time, was it?" Desmond agrees, eying him, considering. Gotta love a skeptic. "We did what we could, trying to keep human rights going. We didn't always succeed."

"You don't say."

The blond guy turns to look at Salt-and-pepper. "Remember when they began bombing Boston?" he says to the guy. "They tried to set Fireflies up in that – tried to get us on site so they could take us out along with the infected horde. Only heads up from the Brotherhood kept us intact – I would've died in those bombings too, without the warning."

"Aw, damn, you were there?" Desmond says and winces. It'd been a bad time in the East coast "Sorry, man."

"Well, didn't get killed, so there's that," the blond says and nods to him. "It was a long time ago. We ain't members, anyway. I left years ago – me and Eugene here, we're just former Fireflies, doing our own thing these days," he motions to the oldest in the group, who waves a hand in lazy greeting. "How's the Brotherhood doing?"

Fucking loaded question, that one. "Depends on how you mean," Desmond answers and motions at himself, at Ezio. "Personally, I'm doing just fine. We're still around, I guess – a bit more scattered than we were. Still trying to fight the good fight, our own way."

"Tell me about it," the blond says with a snort, and after a moment slides off the saddle. He checks the horse Desmond had tended to again and then turns to Desmond. "Tell me the truth, were you going to keep the horse?"

"Honest to god, I've been travelling on bicycle for the better part of a decade – I have no idea what I would've done with her," Desmond admits with a snort and pats his bicycle's handlebars. "So probably not. I prefer this kinda ride."

The blond man snorts and then offers him a hand. "Tommy," he introduces himself. "If you're still in the information brokering business, it would be nice to hear some news from the outside world, could even trade some supplies for it… but," he glances at Salt-and-pepper. "But I'm not sure I can let you into our town. You are a spy after all."

"I guess I can understand that," Desmond sighs, even while shaking the man's hand. "Good to meet you, Tommy. Thank you for not shooting me. Or my dog."

"He's well behaved," Tommy comments, looking down at Ezio.

Desmond smiles, glancing down at Ezio, who's a little more relaxed now, tail even wagging a little. "He's playing nice for new people," Desmond says, shaking his head. "Give it a moment and he'll be jumping off the walls."

Tommy snorts and then looks back to his men – Salt-and-pepper still doesn't look happy, but he's got his gun up and isn't aiming the barrel at Desmond's head anymore, which he takes as a win. Everyone's a little more relaxed, a little more at ease – old Eugene is even putting his gun away. Definitely a step in the right direction.

"There's a lodge up ahead which we've secured," Tommy says, a little warmer now. "An old hotel of sorts where we have some trade goods and whatnot. Clean sheets, warm food... You're welcome to stay a while, granted that you have good intentions."

"Best intentions only," Desmond promises and lets out a sigh of relief. "That sounds pretty good, actually. You wouldn't happen to have clean water?"

"I can do you one better," Tommy grins, a little smug. "We got electricity and functional boilers."

Chapter Text

Eight people in total – two of the four that had met him up on the road and six more at their trading station. All heavily armed and confident enough in the way they carry their guns that Desmond has no issues believing they can shoot accurately too. Plus, the trading station is within the view of what looks very much like a sniper tower, and Desmond might not have clear enough vision to tell whether the sniper up there wants him dead or not, but he can tell that there is someone up there and they're well armed too.

They're not exactly good odds, if things go south here. The ground is flat and cleared of most bushes, there's nowhere to hide either, nowhere to run – getting out of here without getting a bullet in his ass would be pretty much impossible. But at the same time, these folks have a high enough advantage over him that maybe they wouldn't outright shoot him, if they decided he wasn't worth their time?

"Nice place you got there," Desmond comments, nodding to the trading station itself. Most of the small walled communities like Jackson have one – a little removed spot just outside their place, for welcoming visitors they might want to do business with but don't want to let into their town properly. This one is a nice three storey building with that mountain lodge aesthetic, fortified and in good shape, with a well reinforced chain link fence around it. And armed guards, can't forget about those.

"It's nice and secure," Tommy agrees, hopping down from his horse's back to walk it and the wounded horse through the gate. "Come on right through – you got guns on you?"

"Just my bow," Desmond answers, easing off his bike, Ezio's leash in one hand. "You want me to leave it here?" He nods to the locker they have set up at the gates – looks like something scavenged from a mall.

"If you wouldn't mind," Tommy agrees, smiling amiably despite the underlying truth that Desmond doesn't exactly have a choice.

Beside him, the still unnamed Salt-and-pepper gives Desmond's belt a considering look. "You got bombs on you, too," the man says. "And throwing knives. Put them in, too."

"Sure thing," Desmond says agreeably. "You want me to put in my sword too? Not sure it will fit though."

"Your – what?" Incredulous, Salt-and-pepper looks him over and then spots the sheath – attached to the bike frame just under a long, narrow pack. "You have a sword."

"I have a sword, yes. Don't really use it much, mind you – I'll put it in too," Desmond says and unlatches the sheathe and goes to divest his weapons into the locker, making a bit of show of fitting them all in one. It works – while Salt-and-pepper gives Tommy an arched look of disbelief, neither of them comment about his dagger… and no one asks about the bracers. Small victories.

Ezio watches form the side, ears perked up and tail low – just a little bit anxious and on edge. Desmond glances between him and the building and, after stowing his sword in, closes the locker and takes the key. "Do you mind if I run Ezio through his paces?" he then asks. "Don't want to give him mixed signals. I promise, he's mostly harmless."

"Run through his paces, how?" Tommy asks, more curious than suspicious.

"He's trained to spot spores – and if I suddenly start going to buildings without him checking them out first, it'll confuse him," Desmond explains. "No offence to your security, I'm sure the building is fine – I just don't want to undermine his training."

Tommy and Salt-and-pepper share a look. "This I wanna see," Tommy says then and folds his arms, looking interested. "Sure thing, go ahead."

Desmond crouches by Ezio, and while the dog wags his tail expectantly, he unclips the leash. Desmond gives him a quick scratch for being a good boy and then looks ahead. "Ezio, perimeter, go," he then orders, motioning to the house, and the dog quickly goes to work, quietly but swiftly heading towards the lodge, sniffing the stairs, the ground, the walls, the windows…

"That's something common in your group, trained spore-sniffing dogs?" Salt-and-pepper asks, as Ezio disappears around the building.

"Not exactly common, but we use them, yeah," Desmond agrees. "Ezio can sniff an infected a mile away, and if a house has any ground growth, he can tell at the first sniff. I'd be dead dozen times over, without him."

"We tried to train some dogs to do it early on, but eventually decided it was too risky, what with you needing an infected around for the dogs to sniff, and all," Tommy muses. "How'd you train them?"

"With great care," Desmond admits ruefully.

"Infected in cages?" Salt-and-pepper guesses knowingly.

"Something like that," Desmond agrees and then shrugs. "There's a little island with an infected population that's under control and has enough infected and uninfected houses for training. Still risky – but worth it."

Ezio bounds back, tail wagging and tongue hanging out. "All clear, huh? Good boy, good job," Desmond says and rewards Ezio with a scratch and a bit of hare.

"Right, well – let's head in and see what we can do for you," Tommy says, more at ease. "You hungry, Desmond?"

"I could eat, yeah."

The inside of the trade station is pretty nice – a big but pretty cosy restaurant, turned into a sort of store. There's a locked up section with a chain link wall and door, behind them shelves filled with stuff like tanned hides and obviously handmade leather goods, some stuff made from animal bones, sacks of what looks like dried food stuff… 

"That's a lot of salt, huh," Desmond comments. There are sacks and sacks of salt, just sitting there.

"We got an old warehouse full of the stuff, yeah – from before. Winter stores for salting the roads. Don't need nearly as much of the stuff these days," Tommy says ruefully, shaking his head. "With some processing, it's good for cooking, though we have separate stores for cooking salt."

"Nice, I could use some. You got any other spices?" Desmond asks, facing the stores while looking around. Two of the gate guards are oh so casually slipping in, taking stations near the exits. These guys are pretty well organised.

"Mostly just herbs we can grow locally, some dry chili," Tommy says while motioning him to a nearby table. "Take a seat. You want something to drink?"

"Water's fine, thank you – actually, you got electricity. You got a kettle here? Hot water would be great," Desmond says, setting down his bike bags calling Ezio to his side with a whistle before taking a seat. 

"Should do, I'll have a look, see what we got," Tommy agrees and gives Ezio a look. "I'll get a water bowl for the dog."

"That'd be great, thank you."

"Hot water?" Salt-and-pepper asks while sitting across from him. He's not so surreptitiously keeps one hand off the table, out of sight – and poetically close to a gun. Suspicious guy. 

"Yeah – found something nice in the last place I stopped – or the place before last place, uh. It was a little village called Freedom," Desmond says and reaches for his bags, telegraphing his move carefully. "It's old, tastes terrible, but…"

Salt-and-pepper arches brows as Desmond puts down a faded plastic packet of instant coffee. "Well, now," the man says, sounding begrudgingly interested. "Ain't that a find."

"Ain't it just," Desmond agrees, grinning. "A rare treat." Beside him, Ezio gives a sneeze at his direction and Desmond scoffs at him. "Well, you're not getting any, anyway, so don't start with me."

Salt-and-pepper snorts at him, and leans back as they wait for Tommy to come back. Desmond is a little tempted to ask for the guy's name – but in his experience, if someone doesn't give you their name head on, they probably wouldn't do it at the asking, either. Everyone's got a past, these days.

Most everyone glows red with the kills they've made.

"You get a lot of visitors here?" he asks instead curiously, looking around. Salt-and-pepper narrows his eyes, and Desmond motions around them. "I mean just – you've got a really nice trade station. It works as an inn too, I bet?"

"That it does," Salt-and-pepper says, still suspicious, but he answers anyway. "We get some traders from nearby settlements who visit – Idaho Falls, and such. And some random people passing through every now and then. It's safer going this way than through the plains, even though it's harder."

"Yeah, it beats the wandering hordes," Desmond nods in agreement and grimaces.

"You ran into any out there?"

"I've seen a few," Desmond agrees. "Last one was a few weeks back – dunno if it was the really big one, but… it was in Kansas, and it was huge," he says and thinks back to it – just a sea of slowly shifting bodies, like a biblical plague, slowly drifting northwards. It took them nearly a week to pass him by. "Damn sobering sight, every time. You don't get them up here, at all?"

Salt-and-pepper hums. "We get some. Nothing as bad as the big hordes out on the Great Plains, but the mountains kind of funnel some of the migrating hordes up here, around spring. Always leave behind stragglers."

"Yeah. Those infected yesterday, were they stragglers or do you still have holdouts here?"

They talk a bit about the local zombie situation – which is enviously good, really. Aside from the yearly migrations wandering off the beaten path and the fact that the local geography kind of worked against Jackson, they had the situation more or less under control. Local infected had been cleared, they were mostly done boarding up abandoned houses to keep infected from settling in them. It helped, of course, that the location hadn't exactly been populous, before the contagion began.

It's a damn good place to have a settlement, really, aside from the geographical funnel effect. They'd have no fear about being raided here, with all the roads blocked and broken – the only way in is on foot, bicycle like Desmond, or horseback. No war parties here.

"War parties?" Salt-and-pepper asks wryly.

"Oh, it happens. You build a good big settlement with walls and resources and promise of safety, and you always get people who figure it's easiest to use force to get in and take over," Desmond says with a shake of his head. "Seen a lot of setups like these just fold over because some asshole thinks it's all up for grabs for anyone with a bigger gun."

"Uh-huh," the guy says, and there's that distrust again, lovely. "Your people take part in that?"

"My people move around, the only settlements we have are on empty islands," Desmond says and looks up. "Safer that way."

Salt-and-pepper makes a thoughtful sound at that, while Tommy comes back with a tray, on top of which sits an electric kettle, cups, a water bowl, some other stuff – and a plate that's obviously fresh from a functional microwave. It's steaming with heat. "Little something to tide us over until proper dinner," he says with a smile and sets the tray down, giving Ezio his water while Desmond looks at the tray and arches his brows.

It's bread – freshly heated, relatively fresh looking little buns of white bread. There are also cuts of some kind of smoked meat, a small block of cheese, eggs, and butter. Oh wow, they're showing off. These guys have a whole agricultural system going, and they're showing it off with this little display. Nice.

"Go on – it's on the house," Tommy says, sitting down and motioning him to take some. "Try some – is that coffee?"

"Instant, I'm afraid, but still caffeinated," Desmond says while tentatively reaching for the bread. God, it feels delicious just to touch, with a nice crisp surface, and it smells divine. And breaking it open – "Damn," Desmond murmurs, trying to not let it get to him, but – it totally gets to him. 

Tommy looks a little smug at the reaction, folding his arms over the table. "So you have coffee, that's one hell of a start. You got enough that you might be interested in trading for it?"

"Maybe," Desmond says, while trying very hard not to sniff at the bread like a crazy person. It's not that he hasn't seen bread before, but – it's been a while. And the stuff tends to be expensive. Most people go for preservatives, or dry stuff – hardtack and crackers. White fluffy bread like this doesn't exactly keep. 

God, it's warm enough for the butter to melt on it – these guys aren't playing fair at all.

"What else you got to trade with?" Salt-and-pepper asks, rubbing a hand over his mouth, trying to cover up his smirk at Desmond's reaction. It's not very successful.

"Little bit of this and that," Desmond says and after a moment of savouring the smell takes a slow, tentative bite. Ngh. "Most valuable stuff would be info, I guess. I got a whole collection of instructions for how to do things, like how to make painkillers, grow penicillin, so on – first aid info tends to be worth something."

"We're good on that score – we have a good doctor in town, who works as our pharmacist," Tommy says. "What else have you got?"

Desmond glances towards their stockpile of trade goods. They probably have the basics of survival down here. "Well. Instructions for homemade biodiesel are always a hit," he comments. "Got wind generator patterns, though those are only good if you got batteries. I'm guessing that's not what you're after, though."

"We might be interested in the biodiesel, but no," Tommy agrees, glancing at Salt-and-pepper and then looking at Desmond again. "You got recent kind of news? Like, say, from the east coast?"

Desmond breaks off a piece of the bread, thinking. "Ezio, sit, boy," he says and offers the piece to the dog while thinking it over. "I got some, yeah. What have you got in mind?"

"Last I saw the Fireflies was years ago," Tommy says, and the tone of nonchalance is only slightly forced, but Desmond can hear the undercurrent of tension there. "We got some word, about the military wiping them out in Boston? You know anything about that?"

"Ah. Yeah," Desmond says and gives the last bit of bread to Ezio, before reaching for his bags. "Lemme get my notebook, I'll give you the rundown."

"And what you want in return?" Salt-and-pepper asks, watching him closely.

"It's a bit of old news at this point, and most everyone in those circles knows, so let's say it's on the house," Desmond says and takes out one of his bigger notebooks, spreading it out on the table. "Boston, Boston… yeah. So, background info – Boston has a food shortage, it's been going on for a bit. There's been fighting over their farms and there's a fertilizer shortage, so they knew it was going to be a rough winter. They began a concentrated effort against the Fireflies about a year ago, to distract people from the fact that rations were being shortened…"

It was an old tale, really. Something goes wrong with the supply chain, stuff starts looking dicey so to keep people from rioting FEDRA or whatever military group happened to be in charge put on a show of force, to disabuse people off the notion of rising up. If they happened to kill some of their citizens in the meanwhile and cull the population down, all the better. It's inhuman, it's cruel… it's a fact of life for most military settlements.

Food is hard to come by – especially when you're feeding a population of thousands, and no one wants to work the fields out there, where the zombies live.

"It was a cover-up for ration shortage?" Salt-and-pepper asks with disbelief.

"That and your usual people are getting uppity, better shut them up thing," Desmond agrees.

"You'd think they could cover some of the loss with fishing," Tommy mutters. "They had boats, right?"

Desmond glances up. "Oh, you don't know? Two years ago, FEDRA lost Port Arthur," he says, and when the pair just give him a confused look, continues, "Their last holdout in Texas – the main oil refinery. It was blown up – a local anti-FEDRA group sabotaged it and managed to get big enough explosives near enough the tanks and…" he makes an explosive motion with his hands. "The whole refinery went up."

"Shit – they're running out of gas?" Tommy asks, surprised.

"Yep. They got some operations trying to get hold of other refineries, but they're not having an easy time of it. The few that are left tend to be pretty closely guarded," Desmond says. "It affects all FEDRA factions, everywhere. Less gas for movement, for work – with it goes fishing and industrialised farming, too. They're trying to set up some biodiesel factories, but…"

Salt-and-pepper leans back, looking vaguely disturbed. "Do people know about this?" he asks. "We've heard nothing about it."

"Well, FEDRA isn't exactly advertising the loss, shall we say," Desmond muses and turns a page. "But it's not secret, most of the bigger factions know – Fireflies wasn't the only group FEDRA went on all out offensive on as a cover up for their supply line issues. It hasn't affected anything too badly yet, but it's obvious they're preparing – pulling their people back into the biggest Quarantine Zones, gathering resources."

"That's going to blow up in people's faces," Salt-and-pepper mutters.

"Yep, probably – which is why most factions have started heading out of Quarantine Zones, like the Fireflies," Desmond continues, running a dinger down the page. "FEDRA did a number on them a year ago, but they didn't manage to wipe all of them out. Was a close thing, though."

Salt-and-pepper shares a look with Tommy, who cranes his head to see Desmond's notes. He makes a face "What's that?" he asks, confused.

"Hm? Oh, the writing? It's Arabic," Desmond says and looks at him. "Coded Arabic. I wouldn't be much of an information broker if I kept my notes in writing just anyone could read, would I?"

"Ah, guess that makes sense," Tommy says and runs a hand down his bearded face. "So the Fireflies are still around?"

"They're pretty scattered, but yeah. Several smaller hideouts is the name of the game these days, as opposed to big, concentrated faction bases," Desmond says. "I can send a message to them, if that's something that interests you, but I won't be telling any locations... since you're former Fireflies, and all."

A moment of rather interesting silence. "Nah, it's just… old nostalgia," Tommy says and leans back with a sigh. "It's good to know they're still around."

"What are they doing these days?" Salt-and-pepper asks, not quite casually. "The last I heard they were collecting guns for their last hurrah in Boston – what do Fireflies actually do, if they aren't fighting FEDRA?"

Desmond hums. Well, well, isn't that a telling question, mister knows things about Boston and Fireflies but isn't and wasn't a member… "Rallying, recruiting, re-establishing, from what I know," he says, turning a page on his notes and peering at the writing. "Licking their wounds. Searching for a new leader."

"A new leader, huh? What happened to Marlene?"

Desmond glances at him. "What happens to most famous leaders these days. She got shot."

Chapter Text

Desmond figures he's balancing on a tightrope when Salt-and-pepper pulls Tommy aside for a talk, and Tommy suggests Desmond spreads out his trade goods, for them to, you know, peruse. You don't even need Eagle Vision to see the suspicion there, to sense the tension in the air – to know the distraction tactic when you see it. Spread out your stuff, so that if it comes down to a gunfight, you have that much harder time running for it.

Desmond thinks they're aware that he's aware – it's not very subtle, all in all. Armed guards covering the exits, Salt-and-pepper who has parked his ass so firmly on the edge that if he got any more jumpy he'd be fucking bungee jumping into paranoia, and boy, that metaphor ran from Desmond right away. Still, it's pretty obvious.

"We're in for it now, huh, boy?" Desmond muses, scratching Ezio's ruff. Well, everyone's luck runs out eventually – and there's one thing on his side. They haven't killed him yet, no matter whatever they think he is, whatever they fear he's after, whatever they suspect he knows. They haven't put a bullet in him yet.

And as far as traps go, obvious ones are his favourite ones.

Humming while mentally mapping out the restaurant, Desmond begins opening his packs and taking out the bits and bobs he's collected throughout his travels for trade. Bits of jewellery, various instruction leaflets produced back in the home base about survival skills, packets of medicine, needles, tobacco, tea, weed – still got half a pound of heroin left, which has been worth its weight in gold and more. After a moment of thinking, he also brings out the seed packets he found in a gardening store a few months back – they're pretty commonplace, various salad greens and whatnot, but these guys have agriculture going on so, who knows. Might be a market for them.

"Jesus Christ, is that smack?" one of the guards asks as Desmond lays his stuff out. "Hey, dude, where the hell did you find that?"

"A derelict police station evidence lockup, five years ago," Desmond answers, glancing at the guy. "All kinds of fun goodies, in evidence lockup. Made for good trading goods, lemme tell you."

"I bet. Damn," the guard mutters and gives him a sort of suspicious are you kidding me kind of look. "Not sure we want drugs in Jackson."

Desmond shrugs. "To each his own," he says, not really caring. "Though, it is one hell of a pain medicine too. For, you know, surgeries and such." Which is mainly what he pretends people buy the stuff for. If not, though, if it's for recreational use, well… the world is full of so many worse things, that if someone chose to block it all out by a drug-fuelled haze then, hell, he couldn't really blame them. He's entertained his own share of indulgences, in the last twenty years.

He makes a show of considering his stuff while reaching out with his senses, as much as he can. They've made the mistake of not having music or radio or anything on to drown out voices – and Tommy and Salt-and-pepper didn't go far enough, just outside the lodge, just to the front. They're talking in hushed, tense voices, he can't quite hear all the words, but he can hear some.

Of course… most people wouldn't be able to hear much of anything.

"… know, hell, for all we know he's been to Salt Lake City already," Salt-and-pepper is saying. "Maybe he came right through."

"Maybe," Tommy agrees and mumbles something Desmond can't quite catch – the dude has a sort of soft voice, it doesn't carry enough, damn it. "… to do with him, though… know something – "

"The guy is a fucking spy, Tommy, an information broker. Running with Fireflies, you should know what that means," Salt-and-pepper snarls back, much clearer. Gotta love baritone voices. "He gets one inkling of valuable information, he will sell it to the highest bidder, if not worse – "

"The Brotherhood wasn't like that –"

"It's been years since you ran with Fireflies, you don't know how they might've changed. Going by the sound of it, things are getting worse everywhere – FEDRA supply chains affect everyone. Things definitely changed for the Fireflies, didn't they? Ain't that why you left?"

Desmond scratches at his temple and then picks through his packs some more, listening. It could still be that the issue is something totally unrelated, he muses. Maybe Salt-and-pepper had some other completely separate grudge with Fireflies, maybe they had a hit on him, maybe he stole something from them, who knows. Shit happens. Might have nothing to do with why he's actually here

 Hm, wonder if these guys are interested in trading porn. Porn tends to be highly sought after in closed up communities… even if no one ever admits it out loud…

More mumbling, and then Tommy's voice grows clearer. "… I say we wait, wait and see. He's just one guy on a fucking bicycle," he says. "And I know enough about his people to know that they don't…" Desmond can't hear what his people don't, which is a little frustrating. Tommy raises his voice a little more, a moment later. "The guy has stuff to trade, and information we can probably verify through other means. I say we see what he has to offer, before jumpin' to conclusions here."

Desmond smiles and takes out a walkman, setting it on the table. "Should be worth something, huh, boy?" he murmurs to Ezio, who's lying on his foot, not quite dozing.

"Fine," Salt-and-pepper says outside. "But I'm stayin' here on watch while the guy's here."

"We have guards stationed at the trading station," Tommy answers. "They got it covered."

"Yeah. Guards you haven't had to deal with this shit in years."

"Psh. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Joel, really warms my heart, that."

Desmond licks his lips, not letting anything onto his face. Joel.

Tommy and Joel bicker a little more outside, and with his stuff laid out Desmond finally turns to the tray Tommy brought earlier, with its offerings of food, cups and hot water. He pours himself some and spoons in a serving of the instant coffee – the water's gone a little cold by now, but it still dissolves in, and the smell is almost like coffee. A stale, sort of faded coffee with the only taste being vaguely bitter, but… it's still coffee, though.

He's helping himself to some of the bread, meat and cheese, when Tommy and Joel finally come back, Tommy looking a little rueful while Joel glances around and then over Desmond's trade goods.

"Well now, that's some stuff," Tommy comments and, like the guard, his eyes are drawn to the packet of white powder. "… I'm guessing that's not sugar."

"Heroin," Desmond agrees somewhat apologetically and holds out his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Not looking to be a drug dealer here or anything, but I found some, and most people are out of morphine, so… it's a trade commodity."

Joel snorts. "And the weed?" he asks while stepping forward to examine the display. "That's a painkiller too?"

"… Yes?" Desmond offers mildly and grins a little. "I mean, it works for some people. Good for some chronic pain. And it has antidepressant and anti-anxiety qualities and such. Very multipurpose. And just to put it out there in the name of honesty, I also have some seeds for the stuff."

Tommy snorts. "Keep them to yourself, unless I tell you otherwise. We do not want a drug problem in our town," he says and looks over the goods for a moment before nodding. "Not a bad spread. I'm gonna head back, confer with people back home, see if there's interest in your stuff – or your intel."

"Sure," Desmond agrees. "I'll just wait here, yeah?"

"You can have a room upstairs – he can show you," Tommy motions to Joel, who sits across Desmond with grunt. "It might take a while on my end – maybe you'd like to freshen up in the meantime. Must've been a while since you've had a shower."

"Wait – you have running water here?" Desmond asks, surprised.

Tommy grins, rocking back and forth on his heels. "Yup," he says. "It's drinkable too. And like I said, functional boilers."

The disbelief must've shown on Desmond's face, because Joel snorts at him. "The lodge has its own well," he explains, shaking his head.

And these guys have electricity and probably vested interest in keeping their guest house in tip top shape for showing off purposes. "Damn, you guys know how to treat guests," Desmond mutters, shaking his head. "Sure I don't have to pay for it?"

"Don't worry about it – the first day's free," Tommy says. "You decide to stick around, and then we might have to talk about it at length."

"Okay, I can work with that. Thanks, I think I'll take you up on it," Desmond agrees. It has been a damn long time since he had a warm shower. Not since Denver, really. "Appreciate it, I really do."

Tommy smiles and then nods to Joel. "Should be back before too long. Couple of hours maybe."

"I got it covered," Joel answers, shaking his head. "Give my best to Maria."

Tommy snorts, shaking his head, and turns to head off, leaving Desmond alone with Ezio, Joel – and the armed guards, keeping an eye on him. Desmond looks at the door he'd gone through, considers the guards – absently wondering if he could take them down before getting shot – and then turns to Joel, who's watching him.

"You treat all newcomers like this?" Desmond asks interestedly. "Baked goods, hot showers, free housing for the first day?"

"Jackson prides itself for its hospitality," Joel answers, wry – judging by his tone of voice, he too finds it a bit excessive. "Why, don't other settlements roll out the red carpet for you?"

"Usually no," Desmond admits. But then, usually he doesn't go through the front door. "It's nice, and this," he motions to the bread. "This is really damn good."

Joel hums in agreement and grabs a piece for himself, still tense but trying to pretend otherwise. "How's the coffee?" he asks, and the tone of jealousy isn't entirely faked.

"How does it go – like making love on a boat?" Desmond asks and nudges the packet towards him. "You want some?"

He doesn't intend it as a dare – but the look the guy gives him, the slightly narrowed eyes, the quick flicker of his eyes towards the container and back up to him, how damn intense the scrutiny gets… it was definitely taken for a dare. There's very controlled casualness in the way Joel turns, almost reaching for the packet, asking, "You sure?"

Okay then, Desmond muses to himself while lifting his own cup of really terrible instant coffee, some twenty years past its sell by date. "Always better in a company," he says, and smiles.

This whole damn mission is probably going to get him killed, Desmond thinks to himself while Joel examines the packet. Mr. tall, grey, and grumpy definitely doesn't trust him as far as he can throw him, and Desmond has a feeling once the guy's hackles go up, they don't come down easy. And the sheer, intense glow of red on the guy…

He'd be the first in line to shoot Desmond, if something tipped him off, and he wouldn't feel much about it afterwards.

"This will be interesting," Desmond muses and sets his coffee cup down.

"What will?" Joel asks.

Desmond dips his bread in the coffee and tries out, earning a rather dubious look from the guy. "Yeah," Desmond muses, chewing the soggy piece of bread. "That definitely didn't improve the flavour at all."

Joel snorts, and Desmond grins to himself.


 

After repacking his trade goods and settling Ezio in the room Joel showed him to, Desmond takes his time with the shower. Tommy wasn't kidding about the water – it's indeed running and it comes out indeed warm. Hot even, as he turns the dial and ends up almost burning himself.

"There are washing machines too," Joel informed him before leaving him to it, just throwing it out there, like it was nothing. "And detergent, 'course, though it's homemade. In case you'd be interested."

The simple luxuries these people have, seriously… Well, they're not so simple, these days. It's almost unreal to even think about it. It isn't completely unheard of – it isn't like the apocalypse suddenly made home appliances useless. A lot of the technology out there is just as good as it was twenty years ago, it's not like fungus breaks circuitry – problem is that most places didn't have the electricity to use them, and with stuff like running water you ran into issue of twenty years disuse in most places, and all the damage that brings. Rusting, rotting, pipes bursting during winters, and all that. Post-apocalypse is a hard time to find a repairman.

Places like Jackson exist, of course, places where by some miracle people managed to stay and keep civilization going and where there wasn't that damning period of abandonment that broke most amenities… but they tended to do it under the threat of disaster or attack. Or under pain of martial law. Or with a lot of very suspicious locals, weeding out all possible threats.

Jury was still out on where they sat on the fucked-up-o-meter – both Joel and Tommy were soaked with blood, and none of the guards showed as anything other than red. But for now, Desmond dared to err on the side of nay where cannibalism goes, at least. A group with functional wheat mills and chicken farms probably doesn't need to indulge in people-eating.

"What do you think?" Desmond asks Ezio, who is lounging on the – clean, freshly made, soft – double bed in his actual literal hotel room. "Shave or no shave?"

Ezio tilts his head like he's actually considering it – though it might be just that he's not used to seeing Desmond outta clothes. Still fresh from the shower, Desmond isn't too keen on pulling on his dirty clothes, though – and he's painfully aware that he has no clean ones left.

"It's gotten a bit scraggly, huh?" Desmond asks and scratches at the beard, peering his own reflection on the rare, clean full body mirror. There'd been a time where he'd hoped a beard might make him look a little more… something. A bit more like the original Ezio, or even Altaïr. No such luck – his beard refused to do anything as nice as looking refined – nah, it grew curly and uneven. There's a small window between five-o-clock shadow and about a week unshaven when he looked actually pretty good with it – and then he started to look like a crazed hobo.

Seeing himself under functional electric lights really doesn't do him any favours, either. Not that appearances really matter these days. Sometimes he goes months at a time without seeing a single human person… or a mirror. So it doesn't really matter, in the long run.

"Seeing some human people now, though," Desmond muses and drops his hand to scratch at the mottled scars on his belly. Running water, electric lights, clean mirror, soap… would be a shame to waste it. "Yeah, might as well."

Humming he fetches his razor, luxuriating in the handmade soap that had been left in the bathroom. It takes a couple of passes to achieve a clean shave, and the tan lines it leaves aren't exactly the most aesthetically pleasing thing he's ever seen on his face, but – yeah. Clean shave is definitely a better look on him. Even if it reveals new lines previously hidden.

"Well, it's not like I'm here to win any beauty competitions," Desmond comments to Ezio, who's by now asleep on the bed and not listening to him at all. "But damn, I am getting old, huh? Who would've thought."

Rubbing his face clean with a towel, Desmond considers his reflection for a moment, how the guy in it looks less and less like himself as the years go by – and more and more like some mixture of his ancestors. "Guess we all look a little like our forefathers, one way or the other," he mutters and shakes his head.

Then he checks his watch. It's been less than half an hour since Joel left him. Tommy probably wouldn't be back for another hour at least. He's got some time to kill. Hmm.

"Yeah," he says. "Fuck it."

Then he goes to take another, hotter shower, just for the fucking pleasure of it.


 

He makes use of the offered washing machines, because, well, why not. Either he gets out of here alive or he doesn't – it's no reason to not make at least an attempt of getting some clean clothing. Wearing the cleanest set he has – a pair of jeans and a button up shirt, which he rarely wears because jeans are terrible for bicycling and the shirt is just a little too small – he has Joel show him to the laundry.

"Everyone here enjoy the luxury of washing machines?" Desmond asks curiously while pulling stuff out of pockets. Mostly little notes, a set of keys to something he can't even remember, some plastic wrappers…

"Mm. Most houses don't have running water because the pipes are busted, but we've got a laundromat in the town everyone can use," Joel agrees, arms folded, leaning on the doorframe while watching Desmond shove his clothes into the washing machine. "The trade station is a bit of a special case."

"Yeah, I bet. Best foot forward for the visitors, huh?" Desmond asks and glances at the man. "I bet you have many repeat customers."

"Some," Joel agrees, considering him. "The better ones even get in town."

"Sounds nice," Desmond hums, a little amused by the insinuations. Better ones – unlike him. Then he spots a rip in the seam of one of his better trousers and sighs. "Aw, shit," he mutters, pulling it back out of the washing machine. "Should sew this up before washing it. Don't suppose there's needle and thread I could use here – or do I need to fetch my own sewing kit?"

"There's one on the shelf there," Joel nods and with a hum of thanks Desmond goes to get it. There's even a couple different threads, nice. Joel watches him quietly as Desmond sits down to repair the rip and then hums. "So, what is the deal with the Brotherhood? I've never heard of you, but it sounds like you people are known in certain circles."

Desmond shrugs. "I think you got the gist of it. We find things out, we uncover stuff we've lost, we share information," he says while pulling the trousers inside out. "And we move around."

"Uh-huh," Joel answers, not sounding particularly impressed. "And what's your mandate, hm? Bringing back old forms of society, or what?"

Desmond glances at him and then looks back down. "Used to be we tried to keep things just going," he says while putting a knot on the string. "You know how many places have lost basic things people knew twenty years ago? There are settlements where literacy is at like five percent, if even that. Some places got functional radio stations and local news, other places people don't know what radio is."

"And you spy on people to spread the good word of technology?" Joel asks, wry.

"Anything for the betterment of humanity, and to keep an unbroken record of history," Desmond answers, which is a poetic way of putting it. "We collect knowledge – books, skills, sciences, anything that's on the brink of being forgotten. And yeah, we spy on people, and we sometimes warn people – because there are people out there doing their damndest to make those things disappear. Usually by killing people who are the last to know those things."

"Right, right," Joel answers, low, thoughtful. "And I'm sure nothing bad's ever come out of your people doing their thing."

Desmond hesitates a bit and begins sewing the ripped seam shut. "Can't say that," he admits quietly. "What we did for Fireflies and such, warning them of FEDRA operations… we don't do that as much anymore. Sometimes it saved people – sometimes it just made them hold their ground, or launch their own attacks. Sometimes it gets totally unrelated people involved."

Joel says nothing to that, frowning and watching him for a long moment. Then he hums, low in his throat, thoughtful.

"There was a settlement we warned of a migrating horde once," Desmond says quietly. "It was about a month out, they had all the time in the world to get out of its way, but because we warned them they figured they had time to prepare, to, you know… fight it. A little settlement of nine hundred people was gonna fight the wandering horde of fifteen thousand."

"I bet that went well," Joel rumbles.

"They set up land mines and traps – they shaved a good chunk off the horde before it swarmed the settlement and killed everyone in there," Desmond says and shakes his head. "People don't really get those numbers anymore, you know? How much fifteen thousand really is. How fucking much it is, compared to nine hundred."

There's a moment of silence before Joel speaks again. "Don't see how it would've been different, if you hadn't warned 'em. Sounds like the horde would've swarmed them either way."

"Imagine if you spotted a horde of that size coming for Jackson – you have lookouts, right? You'd spot it at least a little ahead of the time," Desmond says and loo ks up at the man. "Would you stay and fight?"

Joel hums. "No, we'd move up to high ground, wait until most of it passed."

"Exactly. Give you a warning of a month, and you might think differently and suffer the consequences," Desmond says and turns back to the trousers, putting in a few more stitches.

Joel is quiet for a long moment, watching him and thinking – glancing at him from the corner of his eye, Desmond isn't sure but something about the line of his shoulders is a little less tense, maybe. "How many people do you think there are left?" Joel then asks. "What's the world population?"

Desmond hesitates. "You want an honest answer?" he asks then, lowering the needle for a moment. "It's not a particularly comforting one."

"What, you actually know?"

"It's one of the things we do – why our people wander," Desmond shrugs. "And why we find settlements – to keep count of how many people there are left – and lemme tell you… it's not much. We don't know for sure, of course, no one can know for sure anymore, but… you wanna know the current estimate?"

Joel swallows, his cheek flexing. "Yeah," he then says. "Tell me."

"Five million and four hundred thousand. Or thereabouts," Desmond says.

It's a moment before the other man answers, blowing out a breath. "Shit, that's…"

"Not even tenth of a percentage of the pre-outbreak population, yeah," Desmond agrees quietly. "The biggest settlement in the world is in Tibet, by the way – a settlement of almost twenty thousand people up in the mountains, kinda like here."

"Hmm," Joel answers, shaking his head and looking away. "Five million. Jesus."

"Yep," Desmond says and looks back down. He puts in the final stitches, checks the seam and ties the string off, before putting the sewing stuff away and turning to the washing machine. "In slightly more comforting news," he comments. "In China, they're on their way to figuring out an anti-Cordyceps fungicide, which kills ground growth. So, there's that."

He doesn't quite have an angle on Joel's face as he says it, but he can see the guy in the corner of his eye and can see how still he goes, how his hands suddenly clench. Desmond shoves the trousers into the washer and then turns to the box of laundry detergent, hiding his own expression.

Yeah, he's sure now. This one is the right Joel, alright.

Chapter Text

Well. Whatever the spy is after, he cleans up nice. Joel knows better than to let stuff like that actually affect his perception of a person – he's seen it swing both ways, the unspeakable monsters well-groomed people can be, the soft-hearted good Samaritans looking like bloodthirsty vagabonds… and vice versa. Outlooks don't mean much, these days, and if he's frank about it, they probably never have.

Still, seeing Desmond go from a wild wanderer with scraggly beard and blood on his clothes to a clean-shaven and clean-washed guy in jeans and a button up shirt, it does tap into that old sense of well-groomed being well to do, and all that. Still the same guy underneath, but – one that tries to look his best among people. That's something. A tactic to curry good faith with them, maybe, make him seem more reasonable… or maybe just someone with less chances to groom, taking advantage of a rare opportunity.

Joel knows better than to read into it any deeper. Even if the guy is hell of a lot skinnier than he first realised.

"So," Desmond Miles says, after his laundry is done and they're still waiting on Tommy. "What's fun around here?"

Joel has dealt with spy-types before, though admittedly not that often. His company had always been rougher, less subtle sort, the kind that had neither the charisma or interest to play games. As a smuggler he'd come closest to Desmond's type, but mostly he left the sneaking to Tess, she was better at it, knew the right people for it. Back in Boston, it was mainly people connected to Fireflies, who hung around certain places with binoculars, keeping watch on the soldiers, getting paid a ration card or two for their intel.

But then there'd been the other type, the FEDRA spies, the ones trained to the art. The ones who came with backstories and easy smiles, and made themselves liked, or at least tolerated, the ones who passed for your usual average guy and made you trust them before they stabbed you in the back. It came in different forms, but… he knows this. The awkward, casual conversation, just shooting the shit, making small talk, getting people to talk.

What's fun around here, indeed.

"Huntin'," Joel says, just to see if the guy reacts to it. "Hunting's what's fun around here."

Desmond glances at him and then looks out to the window. "Yeah, I bet there's loads of game here. Me and Ezio caught a few hares and a grouse – I bet there's a bunch of birds here," he muses, with a little bit of longing. "Which reminds me actually, if we stay here, I'm probably gonna have to hunt some more. For the dog, I mean."

"We have dog food you can trade for," Joel says, wondering if the guy is intentionally misunderstanding, or…

"Wild game's free," Desmond shrugs. "And he's not really used to dry food, or anything like that. It's been a fresh diet for him all his life."

There are things people who want you to like them do, which Joel has long since learned to figure out. Desmond can't do the whole saying your name bit, because he shouldn't even know Joel's name – and the fact that he's not asked is a thing Joel's noticed, too. He's not doing the other tricks too – there's not much in a way of eye contact from the guy, and he doesn't mimic Joel's posture at all, sitting more hunched and lazy. Murder on the back, that, too. Still, no subconscious tactics that he can see.

It almost annoys him, that the spy isn't trying them. At least they'd made sense, and Joel knows to be on guard for them. He's not that savvy with this shit, not enough to be really confident about catching everything, and the idea that the guy might have other, subtler ways of ingratiating himself with targets… he doesn't like it.

Desmond glances at him and smiles wryly, like he knows, like it amuses him. "Maybe, if I stay a while, you could show me good hunting places. Or not," he amends, smiling a little wider while Joel scoffs at him. "I just figure you wouldn't want strangers wandering around your woods without guard."

"We wouldn't," Joel agrees and folds his arms, looking away. "We'll see what Tommy thinks, once he comes back."

"Taking his time," Desmond comments and checks his watch. "Been almost two hours already."

"Mmh," Joel agrees. It is a bit of a special case. Information is hard to come by, and there's a chance Tommy and Maria are going to try and verify the news about Port Arthur and the FEDRA situation, before deciding on their approach with the guy. If Desmond's intel is good, there's a good chance he might have other, more valuable news to share, and living in as secluded a place as they do… And a guy who can, just casually, find a pound of heroin, might very well be a kind of trader they might want to cultivate a good relationship with.

Desmond fiddles with his fingers for a moment, rubbing at his knuckles, eying the taxidermy animals that decorate the rafters of the restaurant. "Has Jackson been occupied since the outbreak?" he asks after a while.

Joel's first instinct is not to answer – but it's not exactly a secret, and if the guy continues from here to the west coast, he'd probably take the route by Idaho Falls, hear the story from people there. Whatever. "More or less," he says. "Started out with just a few surviving families – the infection hit this place as hard as any other. But more people have come since then, settled in."

"So you take in refugees."

"If they're decent people," Joel says and casts a glance at him. Desmond looks thoughtful, idly scratching at his freshly shaved chin. "If they prove themselves decent people."

That brings a brief, wry smile to the guy's lips, and he shakes his head. "Sounds nice," Desmond says and then admits, "We take in people too, but… decent people are hard to come by. Same as decent places."

Ain't that the god's honest fucking truth. "And how'd you define decent, in a group of spies?"

A slightly wider smile this time – the guy is amused by his suspicion. "We like survivors with chips on their shoulders," Desmond says and leans back, looking at him more fully. "People who can pull their weight, and have something to prove. How about you?"

"… like I said. Decent people. Honest folk," Joel says, ignoring the hypocrisy of it – it's Maria's mandate, not his. "People we can count on."

"Tall order," Desmond comments.

Joel snorts in agreement. "It's worked so far."

"Mm-hmm, I bet," Desmond agrees, and to his credit he doesn't sound sarcastic. "It's a special thing, to be able to pick and choose, and to find those good people. You guys are… I wouldn't say lucky, I can see it took work, but… privileged."

"That we are," Joel agrees, flat. "And we ain't ashamed of it."

Another wry smile, this one more understanding. "Yeah," Desmond says, with the weight of personal experience, and nothing else.

Joel wonders idly what kind of sacrifices the Brotherhood must've made over the years, if they really are as old as Tommy said. Towns lost to infected hordes aside, there must've been scores of people they ignored, turned down, turned away – probably even killed. You don't really get to be a group, an established and well known group at that, without spilling some innocent blood as payment. You either do that – or end up being the innocent blood spilt, and that's that.

… and look at him, already on his way to sympathise with this guy. Fuck, if it's a tactic…

"You always travel alone, Desmond?" Joel asks, wondering if it goes both ways – if he could get something out of the guy in turn.

"Mostly, yeah. Easier and safer that way," Desmond admits, looking at him and then away. "I used to have companions, but they weren't the survivalist type, you know. Too slow, too noisy, too – yeah."

"They die?"

"Nah – back at the base, safe and sound," Desmond says and then adds, with a rueful tilt to his head, "Base being on board a ship."

"And you've got fuel for that, even with what happened with Port Arthur?" Joel asks, wondering.

"The ship's got sails – it's got engines too, but it can do without." Desmond says and then rummages through his pockets. "Actually, I've got a picture of it… hold on a moment."

He brings out what Joel assumes at first is a wallet, it's about the same size, but turns out to be a little photobook, with polaroids filling each plastic pouch. Desmond flips through the polaroids and then shows Joel one of them – the picture is small and not the best in quality, but it shows what Joel suspects is a multimillion luxury sailing yacht, with five sails and what Joel assumes is multiple decks. He's never been much of a ship guy, but this one looks like a bit of a beast.

There are people on the deck, waving at the photographer, almost near enough to make their features discernible, but not quite. Black haired woman and a lighter haired man in glasses, maybe. Joel considers them and hums. It has to be a blending-in tactic. Showing something personal to garner sympathy, to build up background. Why else would the guy be carrying the thing around in his damn back pocket?

Desmond is watching him expectantly, so Joel clears his throat. "Right," he says. "How many people can you fit on that?"

"Comfortably about twenty  – uncomfortably some forty, maybe fifty," Desmond says and shrugs. "She's sailing on the Pacific currently – we've got a… I wouldn't call it a fleet, but we got a few ships going around. Mostly sailing yachts and stuff like that – civilian crafts with sails. Safest way to travel, these days."

Joel looks between the picture and Desmond. Military's got ships, and there are still some merchant vessels doing trading runs between port towns – and Joel thinks that on the west coast they got something going on too. But no one's got a fleet anymore.

"That's sure something," he muses, not sure if he believes a word of it. It could happen, sure, but… "Why are you here if your people have a fleet of safe ships?"

Desmond flips the photo booklet shut and puts it back into his trouser pocket. "Because I get cabin fever," he says and shrugs, looking away. "And ocean sickness."

"Uh-huh." Joel snorts. Sure the guy does.

He gets another quirk of the man's lips in answer, like the scepticism amuses Desmond. "Someone has to do the runs inland, anyway – how else are we going to keep track of things?" the guy says. "I like travelling, seeing new things, meeting new people, all that. It's not that complicated."

"Right," Joel mutters, shaking his head, and then looks up as there's a sound of metal banging against metal – the security fence being opened and closed. "Sounds like Tommy's back."

"Great," Desmond says. "Should I get my stuff?"

"Might as well," Joel says and stands up with a stretch to go and welcome his brother. "Maybe we'll get some trading done."

Desmond nods and stands up as well and after checking for Joel's reaction heads up stairs to get his stuff. Joel considers following, but then nods to one of the guards by the fireplace to keep an eye on the guy. Eddie nods to him and then quickly goes to shadow their guest, while Joel heads for the door.

Tommy is back with company – he's got Maria with him, and judging by the looks of it they'd packed for the road. Both their saddlebags are stuffed.

"Is it the heroin?" Joel asks, wry, as they detach the said saddlebags.

"Yep," Tommy sighs. "Doc said we need it – the clinic's running low, and it's one of the reasons she's been putting off Bobby's surgery – and it's getting critical. The sooner we get something that lets her do her thing, the better for Bobby."

"Damn," Joel says and looks at Maria. "You confirm the guy's news about Port Arthur?"

She nods, sliding down from the saddle. "We did, though it took some doing – folks in Idaho Falls hadn't heard about it either, but they put in a call down the grapevine, until they got to someone who managed to substantiate the news," Maria says and shakes her head. "Though they weren't a hundred percent sure it wasn't just hearsay. Still. It's enough to have me interested."

"You got anything else outta him?" Tommy asks under his breath.

"This and that," Joel says and looks at him. "He cleaned up all pretty and washed his clothes, we talked a bit about this and that. When you knew his people, this Brotherhood… how'd they get around?"

"By ship mostly, from what I heard," Tommy muses. "S'why I figure the Fireflies in Boston dealt with them the most. Never did business with them in person myself, mind you, but I think one of their ships masqueraded as a trade ship – wasn't as big as Robert's trade ships, though, just this little sailboat."

"Right, right," Joel says, frowning. So there might be truth to it, after all. "Supposedly they have a bunch of them now – the guy even showed me a picture of one, a luxury yacht. Says it's in the Pacific."

"It would make sense," Tommy muses. "How else are they getting news from all around the world?"

"If that's the case, I'm just wondering how they keep in touch," Joel mutters. "And how up to date their intel can really be, with travel distances that encompass the world."

"Radio, maybe, like we do?" Maria suggests. "There's a way to keep in touch."

"Around the Pacific?" Joel asks, shaking his head. "Something's off about it."

"Whatever it is, we'll figure it out," Tommy says and pats his shoulder. "You wanna head back to Jackson while we take it over here? Ellie was asking for you. Almost managed to talk me into letting her come with."

Joel blows out a breath. Good thing for Tommy he hadn't. "You gonna let the guy stay the night?" he asks, aiming the question at Maria.

"Yeah," she agrees, lifting the saddlebags over her shoulder and shrugging. "For now. We might stay the night too, actually. Will have to see how the trading goes first and how well we like the guy." By which she means they're probably going to get the guy fed, drunk and cosy and see how that affected things. Killing them with kindness, the Jackson way.

Tommy looks at Joel and gives him a crooked smile at his expression. "You can take over in the morning and grill the guy some more," he says and pats his shoulder. "If that will set your mind at ease."

"… yeah," Joel says, sighing. They want him out of the way. "Don't do anything stupid. The guy has a way of getting under your skin."

Tommy does a double take and then lets out a snort. "Does he now? Well, ain't that something," he says, grinning, and Joel gives him a glare, daring him to say anything. Tommy shakes his head, amused. "We got it covered, Joel. Go see your kid. She heard about the horde and she's worried."

Joel blows out a breath. He can't say no to that. "Yeah, okay. Have a good night, y'all."

"Safe riding, Joel."


Ellie isn't quite at the gates waiting for him, but she's hanging around the stable, making friendly with the mare she's been hoping would get assigned to her, once she started doing patrols – five years old, not yet saddle broken, but promising on the count of not being easily spooked. Ellie is still at least a couple years away from being able to go on patrols, of course, but that's not stopping her any.

"Joel, come look!" Ellie calls, spotting him walking his horse in. "She comes when I whistle."

"All the horses come when you whistle, they think you got them treats," Joel says, but walks over to her to see. Ellie whistles out a calling note, something she's been practicing to the point of making it ear-splitting, and obediently the young mare gallops over, ears perked up and already snuffling for treats. And of course Ellie has a bit of apple at the ready.

"You're gonna spoil her," Joel comments.

"She's going to be a hardworking horse, she deserves it – that's a good Shimmer, well done," Ellie croons as the mare eats from her hand. "They're going to start working on her soon, you know. You think I could take part?"

"Well, they're not gonna turn down a free stablehand. Someone's got to shovel manure," Joel mused, amused, and Ellie scoffs.

"I've done worse. Beats hell out of farm rotation," she says and then looks at him more closely. "I heard about the horde – and that Tommy's horse got injured."

"It wasn't a big horde, and the injury wasn't bad, just a flesh wound," Joel says reassuringly. "We managed to outrun them, and the horse's gonna be fine."

"Yeah, but – what happened? There was a trader too, or something?"

"Just one guy on a bicycle, nothing exciting," Joel says and then considers. "He did have a walkman, though, for trade."

"A what?" Ellie asks sharply.

"It's, uh – it plays music. Cassette tapes," Joel explains – of course she's never heard of 'em, they'd barely even been a thing in his time. "It's like little handheld thing with earbuds or headphones –"

"I know what a walkman is, Joel, I used to have one," Ellie says and latches onto his arm. "Did it work – did you check if it worked?"

Joel blinks with some surprise. "No, kiddo, sorry, I didn't. Do you – want it?"

Ellie makes a face and blows out a breath. "It's probably expensive," she says and shakes her head. "Never mind, it's just – nostalgia."

Sure, nostalgia from a fifteen year old kid. She hadn't had a cassette player during their travels, so… it'd probably been left behind in Boston. Hm. "Well," Joel says, making a mental note of it, and then takes his horse by the reins. "You wanna help me brush her down and get her settled?"

"Hell yeah," Ellie says and almost bounces after him as he walks the horse to the stables, waving in greeting to the workers there before taking the horse to the grooming spot, Ellie heading off to find their bucket of brushes. "Did you see anything interesting while out there, aside from the bicycle dude?"

"Not really, just some infected. Didn't have a chance to do any looting," Joel admits, tying the horse up and easing the saddle off. "The bicycle guy was pretty much the most interesting thing we saw. Anything happen here, while we were out?"

"Eh," Ellie says dismissively – and then immediately launches into whatever she's gotten into, while Joel had been on patrol. Lessons, some mess she's gotten in with Kat, Jesse, who tried to show her some knife throwing again… normal stuff mostly. Joel listens to it with a smile while accepting a brush from her, and together they brush his horse down.

"Soo…" Ellie says eventually. "You think they're going to let the bicycle dude in?"

"Probably not, but who knows," Joel says. "Didn't seem the type to stick around."

"Ah," Ellie answers and then considers it and makes a face. "I'm only asking because Dina is gonna want to know – how old is he?"

Joel makes a face. "Way too old for either of you," he says firmly. "Pushing fifty, easy."

"Gotcha," Ellie nods and then shrugs, not really caring. "Whatever. You think we could cook, like, actual food today?" she then asks. "Not canned stuff, I mean, but something from the market? Something fresh, you know?"

"Yeah, I think we can work something out."

They finish up with the horse, and after getting her some food and water, Joel leaves her in the capable hands of the stable staff. Checking up on the patrol rotations, he and Tommy have already been replaced for their next patrol by another pair – Tommy being busy working as a leader, and Joel having given himself self-designated guard duty, they wouldn't be able to run their routes for the next day or two.

"Are Eugene and Greg back already?" he asks from one of the stablehands. "Any word on the cleanup?"

"Yeah, said it was already done when they got there – the wanderer dealt with the stragglers by the gas station, burned them too. Apparently it was a neat job."

"Hm. Thanks," Joel nods and turns to follow Ellie. That explains it – it must've been Desmond on the road, who killed and burned the infected. The guy is thorough. Joel can respect that, at least.

But right now he's home with the kid, and he's not going to be thinking about it. "Thought of a song you might like," Joel says while following Ellie towards their house. "Pretty easy, good for beginners."

"Oh really? What's it about?"

"Travelling, mostly. It's called a Horse With No Name – it's a pretty old song, been a while since I last played it," Joel mused. "Might've forgotten most of the words, too, but there's probably a note book with it in the library that we can check out."

"Sweet," Ellie says. "Hey. Joel? Do you think there are people making any new music out there?"

"I don't know, kiddo. I hope so," Joel says. "Whether they're recording it is a different question."

"Uh-huh," she hums and then her expression brightens. "You know, I like how you still buy records, from travelling merchants and like. You know why?"

Recognising the time of voice, Joel smothers a sigh. "Oh yeah? Why?"

"Records are a sound purchase," Ellie says solemnly.

Joel snorts. "How long have you been holding that one in?"

"Eh," Ellie says and shrugs. "Actually, I think your records fell over before and one of them bent. It happened on its own, I swear, I had nothing to do with it."

Joel glances at her sharply, but she still has that look on her face. "Really," he says flatly. "Nothing to do with you, huh?"

"Nope, but I thought I should set the record straight."

"Okay, Ellie, okay."

Ellie's grin widens and Joel knows he's in for a long one. "And just for the record…" she starts, and Joel groans and gives her a gentle shove – and the sound of her cackling makes him forget all about Desmond Miles.

Chapter Text

"You're kidding me," Joel says flatly. "Knowing what you know about the guy, you let him in here?"

"Not my call," Tommy says, shaking his head, while they watch Desmond Miles wheel his bike into the town, with the dog trotting on a short leash beside him. "Maria made the call."

"Jesus, Tommy," Joel mutters. "What'd he say to get her on his side? Or what did he give?"

"Nothing too alarming," Tommy promises. "Offered fair prices for his goods and his intel – he's going to be drawing us some maps, too, with known faction territories, and he's going to fill us in on what's been going on out there, in the rest of the world. Did you know they're figuring out a fungicide in China?"

Joel scoffs. "He mentioned it, yeah," he agrees and folds his arms.

Desmond is talking with Maria, who's walking beside him, leading her horse by the reins – she's motioning around, obviously telling what's where, pointing towards the church, the town centre, the community centre... Desmond looks around with open interest, but not unguardedly – the way he holds his dog's leash is white-knuckled and there's tightness around his shoulders, a slight slouch.

Not used to people, Joel thinks – to being this surrounded. Still. Joel doesn't like it one bit – Tommy should've damn well known better than to allow it.

"We've taken people in before – and he ain't staying for long. Few days, maybe a week," Tommy says.

"A week," Joel repeats incredulously. "A week is more than enough for him to count all our fighters and guns and figure out where we store our winter goods. Hell, in a week he can figure out the weaknesses in our defences and make holes in our fucking walls."

"He's going to be watched, the same as everyone else new – yourself not included," Tommy says, shaking his head. "And he offered to hand his weapons over for the duration. He's going to be completely surrounded – what do you think he can really do? It's just one guy."

"One guy who, despite all your reservations and my warnings, managed to make you warm up to him enough for you to let him right in," Joel says flatly. "Seriously, Tommy – what did he do to win you over?"

"Relax, Joel. Wasn't any particular thing – just. He seems like a decent enough guy," Tommy says. "Definitely not the worst we've dealt with – nor the worse we've let in. 'Cos that would be you."

"Funny," Joel mutters and glares at Desmond – who's just spotted him. The guy offers him a cheeky wave. "Tch."

Tommy claps him on the shoulder. "I can suggest to Maria to assign you as his personal tour guide and guard," he offers, grinning. "He actually asked after you – I think he was disappointed you didn't join us in the drinking yesterday."

"You got drunk with the guy?"

"Yeah – he made us cocktails, it was great."

Joel blows out a breath. "I can't believe this," he mutters and then says, under his breath. "He's a fucking spy, Tommy, a confirmed spy. If he finds out about – "

"Won't from me," Tommy assures firmly. "Doubt he will from you. Will she say anything?"

No, Ellie is smarter than that. "I still don't like it," Joel mutters and then lifts his chin as Maria lets the stablehands take her horse and then leads Desmond towards them. "Maria," Joel says in greeting. "Desmond."

"Joel," Maria greets him and then nods at his kit. "Were you just about to head out?"

"I was intendin' to relieve you at the trade station, but I guess it won't be necessary," Joel says, his eyes not leaving Desmond. There's no reaction from the man to his name, he doesn't so much as blink. "Sounds like you had a nice night."

"Pity you couldn't stay," Desmond says, smiling.

Tommy looks between them and then, very poorly, covers his grin with a cough and turns to Maria. "I was just suggestin' to Joel here that, since he and Desmond already got to know each other and all, Joel might be interested in showing him around. We setting him up in the guesthouse?"

"I thought so, yes," Maria says, her brows arching a little as she too looks between them – and god damn, Joel doesn't even want to know what kind of conclusions are being drawn here. "If you wouldn't mind, Joel, it would be a great help – I need to get this stuff to the clinic," she says, patting her saddlebags. "We'll see you later at the community centre, for lunch?"

"Sounds great," Joel says, through somewhat gritted teeth. Maria and Tommy share a look, amused, and Desmond keeps smiling at him, and Joel… just feels tired of all of them.

"Well then," Desmond says and the corners of his eyes crinkle with mirth. "Lead the way, Joel."

Joel looks at him, at the dog sitting at the guy's feet, at the loaded up bicycle and then sighs. "Right. To the guesthouse first, then? Figure you wanna drop off your stuff."

"I would appreciate it, yeah," Desmond agrees, and with a nod Joel motions him to follow, waving at Tommy and Maria as they turn to head the other way, talking quietly as they go.

The silence that follows as they walk past the stables and pastures is tense, barely lightened by the general midmorning chatter of Jackson citizens and the general noises of the town. Somehow it grates – how quiet Desmond is, how quiet his bicycle is, how quiet his damn dog is, in comparison to the innocent noises of Jackson. It makes it plainly obvious how well suited the guy is to sneaking around.

And how carefree and vulnerable Jackson can really be.

"So," Desmond says eventually and there's a fucking twinkle in his eye. "Jackson, huh. What's fun around here?"

Joel scoffs and says nothing – and going by the chuckle that earns him, Desmond expected as much. "I know you won't trust me at my word," the spy says. "But I seriously have no ill intentions here. I just want to do my thing and move on."

"And what's your thing here, exactly?" Joel asks, casting him a look. "And don't tell me it's tradin', because you ain't a trader."

"I have trade goods. I'm doing trading. I have done trading," Desmond assures him, innocently, and Joel narrows his eyes. It just makes the guy laugh. "No, I guess not – but it's a way to keep stocked. Travelling is a hungry business, and you can only patch up your underwear so many times before they fall apart. We all need stuff."

"Uh-huh. I'm noticing you not answering my question. What is your thing, Desmond?"

"Now that just sounds suggestive," Desmond says and grins as Joel lets loose an exasperated sigh. "Knowledge is my thing – I'm an information broker! I'm here to sell what I know and maybe learn a thing or two in return. You know that already."

"Yeah. It's the thing or two you're here to learn that worries me," Joel mutters. "Location and details on the town like Jackson might fetch a pretty price, when sold to the right people."

Desmond's grin slips a little. "I don't trade that kind of information," he says, slightly cooler.

Joel shakes his head. "So you say," he says. And he can say it a million times more – Joel is not going to believe it any more the millionth time than he did the first. Morals mean shit, these days – and he sure as hell isn't going to be trusting the morals of a spy. If giving someone else up would keep you and yours fed, safe and kicking…

Joel looks firmly ahead, feeling Desmond eyeing him for a moment before his eyes turn away, drawn automatically to the colourful drawings on the front walls of the daycare centre. Joel glances at him, just in case he can catch an expression – and he can. Desmond's cheek flexes and he looks away, down to the ground and then ahead again. It could mean a lot of things.

But Joel knows regret when he sees it.


 

The guesthouse is in truth a hotel – one of many hotels in Jackson, really, but the only one that still somewhat serves its old purpose. The others have been converted into communal housing, storage, and whatever else Jackson needed. It wasn't as if they had tourists to serve, anymore.

"This used to be a tourist town?" Desmond asks interestedly as they come to the hotel – a two story building, trying to pass for a timber lodge, but not quite managing.

"Used to be good for skiing – there's a village just across the valley, Teton Village, that had ski slopes and such, you can still see some of them," Joel agrees, considering Desmond's bike – and dog. "I figure you want a room from the lower floor?"

"That would be great, yeah – can I store my bike inside?"

"Don't see why not."

Joel fetches the keys from the office, checking the guest house's security quickly, before heading back to Desmond and pointing him to the room. "One bed, bathroom. No running water, and the toilet obviously doesn't work, but the drain does – don't piss down it, though – there's an outhouse in the back. I'll show you where."

"Appreciate it," Desmond nods with an amused snort, and after Joel opens the door for him, he pushes his bike inside, to rest against the wall. The room isn't big, but it's relatively luxurious, even by Jackson's standards, with clean linens, towels, even a bathrobe, and a full water barrel in the bathroom along with an electrical cooking plate for heating water and cooking.

Joel has much the same in his and Ellie's house, and more – and it still feels luxurious, to look at it all.

"Oh, a bathtub, awesome. I got electricity? Nice," Desmond says, and tests it by flipping a light switch – and giving a grin when it works.

"Don't use it up," Joel scoffs and looks at Desmond's dog as the animal goes about sniffing the entire room. "Not running him through his paces here?"

"There are people around," Desmond says with a shrug, while quickly taking off the jacket he's wearing, revealing a rather threadbare sweater underneath. "Enough people and he knows it's safe – we're indoors, as it were. Plus, if I set him checking the perimeter here, he'd check every house, and I figure you wouldn't be up for that."

"Mmh."

"Should I leave him here?" Desmond asks, crouching down to scratch the dog. "I should get him some water, if so… hey, boy, you like our new digs? Nice comfy bed we got, huh…"

Joel folds his arms, leaning his shoulder to the doorframe while watching the spy fetch the water for his dog, taking off Ezio's leash while at it. The bond the guy has with the animal isn't faked, Joel muses – humans can fake that kind of closeness, but animals can't. Joel has seen enough abused animals in his time to know that this one is well cared for and well loved. The trust there is implicit, and there is no move from Desmond that makes the dog flinch.

With a thoughtful hum, Joel backs out of the room, looking outside. He's not going to let the whole dog thing make him any softer on the guy, but it's… a point in Desmond's favour. It's also a potential point of weakness, if it comes to it – a kind of weakness you wouldn't think a spy would allow himself to have.

"Stay, Ezio, stay. There's a good boy," Desmond says and after another good scratch leaves the dog behind, joining Joel outside. "Can I have the key, or are you going to be my doorman too?"

Snorting, Joel hands him the room key. "Don't lose it," he says, and Desmond nods amiably, pushing the key into the pocket of his jeans. The guy is still far from at ease – he's still hunching, and his shoulders are still tense. The way he's looking around is openly curious, and the way he pushes his hands into his pockets is almost unassuming… but he's still wary.

"So, you wanna show me the sights?" Desmond asks.

"There's a lot of sights here – what do you want to see first?" Joel asks, while turning to lead him back to the street.

Desmond considers it for a moment. "Well, I don't know what's here to see," he says slowly. "I guess a marketplace, if you have one?"

"Right this way, then."

It's not much of a tour. Though Jackson has some sights, most of the points of interest are all around the town centre – all the shops, the bars, the library, the town hall, everything else. Though Desmond looks into all of them with great interest, the only thing he stops at is the library, eyeing its façade with obvious interest.

"You gotta have books in your group," Joel comments.

"We do. But by our estimation, humanity lost a little over forty percent of accumulated human knowledge after the outbreak," Desmond says quietly, glancing at him. "Libraries are damn easy things to lose, it turns out. Fire, water, rot, mould, infection – people… when there's no one to take care of them, big stacks of books become a target for a lot of things. So, I always like to check if collections I come across have anything we've thought we lost."

"What, you got a list of all the books in the world?"

"Sadly no," Desmond admits. "But I got a list of subjects we got books on, and in some of those subjects our collection is a little sparse."

Joel hums. "Well, you can take a look at it, I suppose – there's a librarian, Eshter, you will have to check with her."

"Will do," Desmond agrees, craning his neck to look ahead. His expression brightens a little at the sight of a hair salon –  which is still running, even if only one day a week. "Later. I wanna see more."

Of course he does.

Though Joel keeps a close eye on the guy as they walk and talk… nothing about Desmond's behaviour indicates that he's looking for anything specific. He's curious and interested, he leans in to check the hardware and leather goods on display, he pauses briefly in front of the butcher's shop and asks if they have bones for a dog, but aside from that he pays little special attention to anything. He looks a lot like every other visitor, a little overwhelmed and slightly awed.

"It's a nice town," Desmond says with a feeling, his posture slightly easier now.

"Uh-huh," Joel says. "Not many like it, huh?"

"There are a few, but – they're getting rarer," Desmond admits, looking up and down the street. "I'm more used to settlements like these on the islands – where they can control all of the environment, you know, and can fish for food. Managing all this, and in place like this, inland… it's impressive."

"It's the result of hard work," Joel says, gruff. None of it is his, of course, he and Ellie are recent additions. But Tommy's worked for the town for years, and Joel can see his handiwork. The patrols, the guards at the wall, other security measures – those were all Tommy. It's thanks to him that all the good lookout spots are also perfect sniper spots.

"I bet the location helps. Location, location, location," Desmond muses and peers up at the mountains, flanking Jackson on both sides. "This high up, you must not get much ground growth."

"Nah, it's too cold during the winter," Joel agrees, following his gaze. Even during summer like now, there's snow on the mountains. "Ground frost kills all of it – or has, so far. Something about the altitude helps, too, and the humidity. The summers are pretty dry up here."

Desmond nods. "Yea, I figured," he agrees and shakes his head, looking back down. "You're damn lucky. I've seen places where the growths have taken over whole streets, growing between buildings. Humid, warm regions are the worst for it. A cold, high place like this – probably the best you can ask for, short of some really far up north places."

Joel hums, looking at him. "You've seen fungal growth outside?"

The guy hums in agreement. "New Orleans," he says quietly. "I – went sort of past it, two years back. You can't really even get into the city anymore."

"… shit. Is it as bad as they say?"

"Worse, probably," Desmond admits and shakes his head, looking away. "When the mycelium gets into the ground properly, it's damn hard to kill, so… places like these, they're going to get harder and harder to find."

"Unless the Chinese figure out a cure," Joel snorts, watching him as he says it.

Desmond's cheek flexes and the smile that comes to his face is wry and a little pained. "Wouldn't that be something," he mutters and shakes his head, looking away. "Not that people haven't tried. Oh, boy, have they tried."

Joel narrows his eyes and flexes his hands. It's a telling tone of voice, a worrying one – makes him want to get the guy alone in a closed room to ask him about it with a bit more detail than he can on an open, occupied street like this. Maria ain't too fond of his methods of information gathering, his or Tommy's, sadly. Maybe –

"Joel! Hey, I thought you were heading out – did something happen?"

Joel's heart clenches, and his blood runs a little colder. Ellie. She's jogging towards him with a backpack hanging on one shoulder, a smudge of dirt on her cheek – coming from the stables, it looks like. And Desmond is looking right at her.

Shit. "Nothing bad – Tommy and Maria came back before I could head out, I was put on another duty," Joel says, and steps between Desmond and Ellie, stopping her with a hand before she can get closer. "Where are you off to?"

"To wash – I was mucking the stables," Ellie says, a little confusedly, craning her neck to look past Joel at Desmond. "Then lunch at the town hall. You coming? Who's that?"

In the corner of his eye, Joel can see Desmond waving. "Hi! I'm –"

"A guest," Joel says, and before either of the two can do or say anything more, he takes Ellie by the shoulders, turns her around, and gives her a light push in the direction of their house. "If you're heading off, then off you go, kiddo. I'm busy – I got tour duty. I'll catch up with you later, okay?"

"Hey, what – " Ellie starts to complain, before catching his eye over her shoulder and going serious. Her shoulders tighten a little and then her back straightens – something about his expression must be warning her off. "Alright – I'm going, I'm going. Geez."

She throws him a curious, worried look, but at his look says nothing more, shouldering her backpack and running along. Joel glances away from her to Desmond – but the guy isn't looking after her, he's looking at him, brows arched.

"Am I really that scary?" he asks, his tone a little strange.

"However long you are here, you will stay away from that girl," Joel says slowly, dangerously. "Or you will answer to me."

"I already seem to be answering to you," Desmond comments and leans back a little, glancing after Ellie. There's something in his eyes, something Joel doesn't manage to catch before the man shakes his head and looks away. "Fuck," he mutters. "Okay, I guess that's enough of playing the tourist. Mind showing me to where I can find Maria and Tommy? There were some maps they wanted me to look over and update, might as well get to it."

Joel eyes him closely for a moment, trying to see his expression, but Desmond's looking away. "This way," he mutters, motioning towards the town hall.

Whatever the man's hiding, it's not making Joel any more sympathetic towards him, that's for fucking sure.

Chapter Text

Intellectually you know the world is still out there – it's fucked beyond recognition, but it never went anywhere. Some people had more warning than others on the Outbreak Day, some had time to get prepared, some of which were better than others, and amidst the failures there were success stories, some of them heartwarming, some less so.

Watching Desmond draw it all on the maps is a sobering sight. None of it is precisely new. Here, the government declared martial law and the military took over; here local people pulled together and set up defences; here the local militia took over; here organised crime conquered the whole city; here it's been four types of government, and now it's ruled by bandits.

"Abandoned, as far as we know," Desmond says and switches markers, marking it with grey before grabbing a black marker. "And here there be a whole lot of infected…"

Orange for openly hostile factions dangerous to visitors, green for more friendly ones. Grey for known abandoned cities, black for areas completely overtaken by the infected. And red…

"Horde migration routes," Desmond says, drawing several red dotted lines up and down the continents, consulting his notebook in between drawings. "I'll – I'll put in thicker lines for mega hordes."

There's an alarming number of those.

"Jesus," Tommy murmurs while Maria covers her mouth with a hand and Joel tries to figure out the distance between Jackson and the migration routes of the North American megahordes. "No damn wonder they never seem to end, huh? Your people know how many infected there are, in total?"

"Millions in North America – hundreds of millions to a couple of billions around the world. It's hard to say," Desmond admits. "Governments really exaggerated the numbers of the infected they took out early on.Together they took out millions, sure, but with hundreds of millions still left to be infected, the early bombings weren't nearly as effective as people thought they would be."

"Well, we know that, everyone knows that," Joel says, still seeing the migration lines. His eyes are drawn away from them by Desmond reaching for another marker – an eye-searingly yellow one. "What's that one for?"

"Radioactive areas," Desmond says grimly, and begins putting down the map markers – little mushroom clouds for where local governments dropped bombs, and nuclear symbols for where a power plant had containment failure. Depending on the scale of the map it might be nothing more than a yellow dot – or a whole region, crossed out in yellow.

Maria shakes her head and sighs, eyeing the red and black marked areas. "I can't believe there's still so many, after all this time. In the beginning, yes, but... You'd think that they would've started decaying and dying by now."

"We got unlucky as far as the potential zombie apocalypse goes," Desmond says, still making marks. "Unless mortally wounded, they don't decay – they just get more infected and stronger with age. You wanna know some gruesome facts we've figured out that I don't think many people know?"

"Not particularly, but tell me anyway."

"Ever seen a child-sized clicker?"

Joel shares a look with Tommy while Maria makes a face. "I can't say I have – why? Children don't become clickers?"

"No – children keep growing even when infected, just as uninfected kids do," Desmond says. "They stay runners and stalkers for longer – by the time clicker stage starts, they've had the time to grow into adulthood."

Maria shakes her head. "Well, it makes sense, but..." she trails off into a sigh.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees. "What's more worrying is that we haven't so far found any evidence of an infected dying of old age. And there were elderly people who got infected – especially early on. We probably won't know for sure until a few more decades have passed, but – yeah."

Which means, if the infected don't get old and don't drop dead in time… there will always be hundreds of millions of them, until something kills them. And when something kills them, they just infect the ground with mycelium, causing ground growth.

Joel runs a hand over his face and looks away, wishing he could apply some healthy scepticism to this too – but sadly, of all the things Desmond had said so far, this is the most believable. Joel had seen it for himself, time and time again, and while he'd still thought that one day the oldest infected might drop down and just die… yeah. He's not particularly surprised that ain't the case.

It's not going to end. It's never going to end. Even if there was a cure, even if someone did figure out a vaccine, the existing infected wouldn't be going anywhere, not until something killed them – and even immunity wouldn't protect people from being torn apart by them. It's never going to end.

"Shit," Tommy says and leans back from the table, looking away from the maps Desmond is still filling out. He looks towards Maria. "This won't make for a particularly cheerful news meeting."

"No, not really," Maria sighs, clasping her hands together on top of the conference table. "Though it's nice to know there are settlements still hanging on around the world, and the news of the fungicide is something… I don't suppose you have anything more… hopeful? Are there still people out there looking for a cure, or anything?"

Desmond glances up at that while Joel clenches his teeth and Tommy very carefully doesn't look his way. They haven't told Maria yet – and if Joel had his way, they never would. He still doesn't know Maria that well, but going by what kind of person he thinks she is, having built a safe community and trying to always do right by hey people…  Yeah. She might harbor some of the same notions as the Fireflies. If she learns about Ellie and has to weigh her against Jackson and everyone in it…?

Still, it was always coming, that question, it's always somewhere in the background, every time they hear news from the outside world. It's there still hope – is anyone still trying to save the world?

Desmond marks another area on the map and slowly puts a cap on the yellow marker. He doesn't answer for a long while. "Yes," he says slowly. "There are still people working on it. Hundreds of people, dozens of laboratories around the world doing research, running experiments, trials, some less humane than the others."

The time of his voice is pretty bleak.

Maria shifts where she's sitting, unclasping her hands and then clasping them again. "No luck so far?" she asks quietly.

Desmond sighs, looks down and then shakes his head. "Not so far," he says and then forces a smile – and he's not looking at Joel, but somehow he feels the man's attention on him, either way. "But there's always a chance, right? The chance of Cordyceps appearing was almost impossible, one in a billion. The chance of us finding a solution for it is probably higher than it happening in the first place."

Joel scoffs at that. "Right," he says to cover his unease, his suspicion. He doesn't like the way the guy said it – there's too damn much Desmond is leaving unsaid. "We'll just wait for someone to make a vaccine, shall we?"

Desmond looks at him, head on. He looks like he wants to say something, badly – the way he bites his tongue on it so obviously that it makes Joel want to shake it out of him. "No, probably not," is what he ends up saying, looking away. "Better not."

Maria calls a break after that gloomy thought and invites Desmond to join them at the town hall for a communal meal.

"We serve two meals a day for everyone who can't make food at home or who's working," she tells Desmond while leading him away. "Trying to make sure everyone in Jackson has access to a balanced, healthy diet…"

Joel and Tommy stay behind in the meeting room, Tommy eying the maps while Joel paces.

"I have a feeling he knows something he ain't saying," Tommy comments. "A lot of somethings, really – but specifically about…"

"Yeah," Joel agrees, grimacing and running a hand over his beard. "And you let him in here," he adds with a shake of his head.

Tommy sighs. "Whatever he's after, his knowledge is still valuable – and here he's under control. It's he knows something… it's easier to handle him here, rather than having to potentially chase him down out there."

"You think Maria would be up for it?"

Tommy snorts. "No," he says darkly and looks at him. "But that's why I handle security, not her. You think the guy knows about Ellie?"

"I think he knows about the Fireflies – maybe he's even been to Salt Lake City. That's bad enough."

Tommy hums in agreement. "He's shown no bad intentions so far," he murmurs. "Gave up his weapons easy enough – been playing real nice overall. Maybe –"

"Maybe it's just so that he can get an angle to get Ellie, kidnap her, chop her head off and shove it into a bag," Joel snarls. "We don't know, Tommy."

"No, we don't," Tommy agrees, a little firmer. "And being paranoid about things we don't know isn't the way to deal with it, either – the guy is here now at Maria's invitation. As such he's allowed some assurances of his continued safety – no, I know that look and I know you, Joel. Don't."

"Tch. So what then, huh? Wait and see what he does?"

"Yes, we'll wait and see," Tommy says, standing up.

"How long until that comes to bite us in the ass?" Joel demands. "Comes to bite Ellie, hm? If you think that –"

"What I think it's that we will keep watch on the guy. We keep Ellie safe and sound. We don't risk doing anything drastic or stupid – like angering one of the oldest fucking factions out there by killing one of their most well known members!" Tommy snaps. "Think, Joel, think what it even means that the guy is here. That he can be here, knowing all this," he motions to the map.

Joel scowls at that, clenching his hands. "What?"

"People with ships and resources to go around the world," Tommy says. "You think people haven't gone after them? You don't think they're somebody's target too? Of course they are, probably more so than the Fireflies ever were. These guys existed before the Outbreak, Joel, and they didn't fold. That means something. You think I want to risk getting on the bad side of that?"

"Now who's being paranoid," Joel mutters, but quieter, thinking. "You think they care for one man?"

Tommy scoffs. "We don't know – no more than we know if he's here for Ellie, or even knows about her. What I know is that we have time to do this right – to watch, to learn, not shoot first and ask questions never. We watch the guy, figure out what his deal is, and yes, Joel, if he turns out to be a piece of shit, we deal with him. But not on fucking gut feeling alone."

"My fucking gut feeling kept us alive, Tommy," Joel growls, pushing at him

"Your fucking gut feeling left a lot of dead bodies in the ground, Joel," Tommy snarls back and pushed back, harder. "You ain't turning Jackson into a graveyard."

Joel looks away, breathing in and out harshly and saying nothing.

Tommy nods, but still watches him closely. "Now, you can keep watching the guy. Be as fucking paranoid as you like. But you don't hurt him until you have a reasonable damn cause," Tommy says and tugs at Joel's shirt lapels. "We have an understanding, Joel?"

"Fine," Joel says. "But if anything happens to Ellie –"

"I'll never forgive myself, and I'll help you get the guy, hundred percent," Tommy says and shakes his head. "But don't start going down that road ahead of time, or you will never run out of people to kill just in case."


 

Joel asks around and is immensely relieved to learn that Ellie isn't having her lunch at the town hall – like most kids and teenagers in Jackson, she prefers eating communally at the community centre instead, in a much younger crowd, while the adults use the town hall. So, no chance of Desmond running into Ellie there.

The guy is still making an impact – talking to the curious locals, who've filled his table in search of news of the outside world. Desmond is sharing some, judging by the way he's taking, but nothing big, nothing valuable – the same stuff he told for free before. Of course Joel can't tell for sure – he couldn't get a seat near enough – but Maria's expression is telling.

Joel's sitting with some other patrol members instead, eating in grim silence while they talk shop. "... Cleared the warehouse again. There's got to be some kind of opening we're missing, since they keep getting inside…"

"... do a proper sweep in the area, taking our time sealing the buildings. You think Maria would authorise…."

"... more rabbits – might do a spot of hunting next time I'm out, see if I can bring some back…"

"You know, there were some rumours about the Brotherhood – about what they did during the initial Outbreak."

Joel drags his eyes away from Desmond and up to see Eugene sitting across from him, tray loaded with food in hand – and a distinctive weed smell having about him. "You know about them?"

"Even met one, in my time – this techie, Rebecca. Fireflies hired her to set them up with some communications and whatnot, brilliant woman, made the best edibles I ever had –"

Joel arches a brow at that. Of course Eugene would find the one pothead in another faction.

"She told me about some of their early operations and what it was like, in their circles, when the Outbreak happened – and there were rumours afterwards. A lot of thievery – a lot of assassinations."

Joel lowers his spoon. "Assassinations."

"Yup. You know how people took advantage of martial law, how many swung to this weird anti-sick fascism? There were groups doing really inhumane crap, trying to figure the infection out – really, really sick shit. Like, you know, the shit Abstergo got to. You remember that?"

"Vaguely," Joel grunts. Back when people were still horrified by stuff like other people in cages, Abstergo Pharmaceuticals made news with their medical trials. They looked a lot like living dissections. These days, they wouldn't even make people blink, but back then, seeing a runner strapped down, still conscious while doctors in hazmat operated on his brain…

"Yeah," Eugene agrees. "Pretty sure the Brotherhood were the ones who blew up that building. Fireflies wasn't even a glimpse in Marlene's eye yet, back then. There was other stuff too, before they got fully in the information business – some corrupt government people turning up dead, few generals, people who were taking advantage of the situation to push whatever fucked up agenda they had, so on. Killing people was what the Brotherhood was known for, back in the day – there was even a rumor that they might actually be the Brotherhood."

Joel makes a face at that. "What's the Brotherhood in this situation?" he asks dubiously, glancing towards Desmond again. The guy is eating his soup, listening to something Eshter is explaining to the whole table, while Maria gets up to talk with Tommy away from the table.

"The big one, the old one – you know," Eugene says and makes a motion with his spoon, like any of this makes sense. "The Assassin Brotherhood."

Joel snorts.

"Yeah – I figure they're just copycats. Still. There are rumours," Eugene concludes.

"Any rumours about what's their mandate? What do they do – what do they want?"

"Something, something freedom for all mankind," Eugene says, making a sort of yapping motion with his hand. "Human rights maybe. Preserving history and knowledge. I don't know. Guess they are trying to keep humanity human."

Joel hums at that, not quite able to fault it. It sounds about as reasonable as Fireflies' early attempts to bring back old democracy and representative government, but… keeping humanity human. Joel isn't sure if it's a completely lost cause at this point – or if after everything it's the last bit of the rope left. Just enough rope to hang yourself on.

"Right," Joel says and turns his attention to the food. "How were things at the gas station?"

"Tidy enough. Our guest dispatched the mess you guys left behind and burned the bodies," Eugene says. "Nothing much left for us to do, except secure the garage. The shop section is a lost cause. You guys blew the door, and it's just the sort of place for the infected to wander in. It will need to be swept on patrols from here on."

"We'll add it to the rotation," Joel agrees and stills as he sees Tommy coming towards him with an obvious intent. "What now?"

"Just letting you know, I had a chat with Maria. I'll take over tour guide duty for the rest of the day," Tommy says, hand resting on Joel's shoulder for a bit. "Take the evening off, Joel, okay? Tomorrow too, maybe."

"Tommy," Joel says, tight.

"It ain't a request – take a break," Tommy says and walks away before Joel can argue. Shit.

Eugene watches Joel with arched brows, glazing towards Desmond and then back. "Huh," he hums and then wiggles his brow. "You need a lil something-something to wind down with? Got a new batch, came out pretty good too. I'll give you a decent deal on it…"

"I don't want your weed, Eugene," Joel mutters and glances towards Desmond again – just in time to catch the man's eyes before he turns away. "Tch."

"I got other ways to help a guy wind down, and you, my man, seem to need it more than most," Eugene offers, with obvious sympathy. "I'm sure I can find you something. I got everything from magazines to pills – what's your poison, Joel?"

Joel sighs. "A nice bottle of whiskey and a bit of peace of mind?"

"Dunno about the peace of mind, but the whiskey I can do," Eugene says, stroking his beard. "Tell you what, I'll throw in a magazine, get yourself a nice night in. There's no better way to relax, after all –"

"I don't want it –"

"And I can get you a nice bottle of lu-"

Joel throws a balled up napkin at the man, and while Eugene laughs into his soup-stained beard, Joel turns back to his food and doesn't look at Desmond… not much, anyway.


 

"So… you wanna tell me what was up with that guy?" Ellie asks later, while Joel tries to concentrate onto a book and can't get past the first paragraph.

"He's an outsider, Tommy's and Maria's guest," Joel grunts. "And a spy, who will probably sell Jackson out in a heartbeat if he can profit from it."

"Oh," Ellie says and walks over to the couch where Joel's sitting. "Well, that's not… the best. He seemed nice. Tommy and Maria invited him in?"

"Yeah, the guy knows about the outside world," Joel mutters. "Gonna be a news meeting later, probably, to share what he knows."

"Uh-huh," Ellie answers and sits beside him, leaning in to see what he's reading. "So, uh. Are you going to be on tour guide watch duty for long?"

"Guess we'll see. Why?"

"You know the garage in the back? I was talking it over with Jesse, and you know how he weatherproofed their shed? He thinks it would be even easier to turn the garage into a room, insulate it and stuff. It already has working electricity – all it needs is a stove for heating, and voilà, a room!"

Joel frowns. "What's wrong with your room in the house?" 

"Nothing! Nothing – it's just –" Ellie shifts where she's sitting. "It would just be nice to have a, you know. A project."

"I thought you were going to help saddle-breaking Shimmer – isn't that project enough?"

"Um yeah. But maybe it could be like – like a craft room, for your woodworking and stuff? And maybe one day when I get tired of your grumpy face and you decide to be a normal human and want to bring someone over, it would be nice to have an alternative to the community centre. I thought that since you're staying in the town for a bit, maybe we could... look it over together?"

Joel lowers the book and looks at Ellie. She's not meeting his eye, and her hands are clasped together, like it's all she can do to keep herself from fiddling with them nervously.

He… has been away for a while, huh. There's been more infected coming in, with the changing seasons, and… yeah. "Tell you what, we'll look at it first thing in the morning, see what we can do," Joel says and she immediately brightens. "Don't get your hopes up, though – weatherproofing isn't a small thing. It's going to take a lot of work."

"Yeah, yeah, sure. Oh man, it's going to be awesome," Ellie says, bouncing a little. "I'm going to put up some posters – I found a really cool one in the community centre that the manager thought I could keep, and…"

Joel puts the book away and listens while Ellie paints a picture of what the garage would look like. It sounds a lot like she's already planning to move out to live in it, in her own space, which is… what it is. Not that she wouldn't be able to handle herself, but…

Joel isn't so sure he would like it as much. He'd picked this house of all available ones because it was big enough for them both, for Ellie to have her own room, her own space. He wanted to show her what it was like, living normally, in a normal house, in a normal home – in safety and comfort. That she already wants to get out, so soon after they'd just begun settling down…

Yeah, Joel thinks ruefully while smothering a sigh and faking some enthusiasm for Ellie's plans. That whiskey bottle is going to come in handy, after all.

Chapter Text

Joel's never been much for self-reflection. He knows himself well enough to know it ain't a path he enjoys going down – too many pitfalls, too many traps. He knows he ain't a good man, not a honest man, not… not any kind of decent person. Maybe he never was, maybe – maybe once upon a time he just pretended, back when pretending was cheap, and easy, and didn't feel like putting your head on a chopping block.

He hasn't had the wherewithal to pretend that way in a long time, nor the interest. Whatever integrity he'd had these long years was found mainly in the gutter, and it didn't help any to pretend otherwise. He'd never been like Tommy, in that sense. Once all the shit in the world got hold of his soul, it didn't wash off. Guess what, Joel, we're shitty people, it's been that way a long time.

Yeah.

For a while though, it felt like maybe… maybe he could… build something on that. Maybe he could grow something outta it. Shit makes good enough fertiliser, after all, and… and he had a reason to try again. In Ellie. For Ellie. For her he could, while maybe not pretend, but… he could do something for her, he could be something for her.  Fuck if he cares what happens to him, what becomes of him, he can be so much worm food in a day, a month, a year, he doesn't particularly care. So as long as she got a better chance for it.

Is that enough to make him decent, that wish? Probably not. Does knowing it make any difference? No. No, it doesn't make a damn difference. He'd still do anything, everything, to keep Ellie safe. Try and be decent enough to give her a good life… or, failing that, then do his damndest to keep her secure.

Joel runs a hand over his face and then looks up, at the former hotel looming ahead of him, lit with two lamps at the front, most of its windows dark. It looks almost intimidating, almost inviting. Only one has the light on, because they only have one guest currently.

He shouldn't be here. Tommy and Maria would probably kick his ass for this. And knowing that's probably not going to make any difference either, because the world is swaying dangerously around him, and Joel's blood is slowly simmering in his veins, and he's here for a reason.

Eugene's whiskey proved out to be not whiskey at all – it was like someone managed to fix up the taste of whiskey from stuff they found in the gutter, and then diluted it with a bucket of moonshine. It went to Joel's head after the first glass, and he's at – he's not even sure anymore how much he drank. It went down hard and was gone easy, and he lost track somewhere along the way.

Joel knows, in a sort of distant way he knows he's going to regret all of this in the morning, that it's making him braver, stupider, rash. Drinking always does, if it doesn't make him maudlin.

This is so damn stupid.

It doesn't stop him from swaying forward, towards the door, his vision tunnelling to it like he's trapped in a corridor and there's only one way forward, only one light at the end of a tunnel. It's like he's far away – and then the door is suddenly in front of him, and Joel grabs his gun, just in case. He listens, but there are no sounds coming from the inside. It's locked. Of course it's locked. Spies don't leave their doors open.

Joel imagines Ellie in her bed, still so vulnerable after all the shit the world threw at her, and with gritted teeth he turns to the guest house office – where he knows he can get the master key. He only needs to break in. It's not even hard. Inside the walls, Jackson's security is shit. They're all so soft, so used to being safe, even Tommy.

Stupid.

Joel gets the key, wincing at the state he leaves the door in – he will fix it in the morning, it's not irreparable. He'll fix it. He'll fucking fix it. Get to the bottom of it.

Joel goes back to the door beside the lit window, and listens some more. No sound, except for distant things coming from across the town, where someone is still awake and a dog barks. Nothing near, nothing here. He shuffles the keys, feeling their sharp edges against his softening fingers – he's already loosing some of his calluses. Not all, got new ones building. Guitar calluses, in places of shiv calluses. The keys feel alien against them – like things from another world and time, when security mattered and doors were locked more often than they were broken.

Then he has the door open. Inside there's light, there's warmth against the late evening chill – inside, there is nobody. Just the bike standing there, leaning against the wall. A bed, still made, but with indentations from where someone had sat there – the dog, or Desmond, whichever. The bathroom is empty.

The spy isn't there.

"Shit," Joel mutters, his shoulders slumping. "Of course he fucking isn't here."

Desmond is probably already sneaking around the town, jotting down everything he saw. Numbers, guard rotation, the layout of the streets, which buildings were occupied. Maybe he was breaking into the town hall, getting into Maria's files. She sure as hell didn't code hers against the prying eyes. They were so vulnerable. The whole town is against something like this.

Joel hesitates a moment between going after Desmond and using the opportunity and then begins rummaging through the room with clumsy fingers, looking for something that will – that will give the man away. There has to be something. A letter, a missive, a list of things, anything – something to prove to Tommy and Maria that the guy is bad news. Because he is. Has to be.

The things on the bike are mostly essentials. Clothing, hygiene stuff, tools for fixing the bike, a bedroll, a tent, food. There are blades there, hidden in the bike rack and in the packs, in easy to reach places when riding the thing. Desmond's not as unarmed as he made himself out to be – not even closely.

Nothing on the bike gives the man away, one way or the other. There's nothing useful there.

Joel looks around. There's the dog's bowl – useless. Notebooks by the bedside table – all written in Arabic, completely alien to him. A jacket hung by the door – a switchblade in the pocket, bike tire repair kit, tape, rags… no paper, nothing useful. A towel, still damp. Desmond had bathed.

At the end of his rope and getting increasingly frustrated, Joel looks into the bathroom and then pauses – there's a set of clothes slung over the toilet. Sweater and jeans. Desmond wore them that day. He'd had a wash, and he'd changed his clothes… maybe…

There it is – the little, wallet-sized photobook, in the back pocket of the jeans. Turning on the bathroom light, Joel flips the book open, starting from the first picture, quickly leafing through it.

The first picture is of much younger Desmond, along with three others – a black haired woman, a bespectacled man around the same age Desmond had been at the time, and an older man. It must have been taken before the Outbreak. The next pictures are close ups on the woman and the younger male, but neither is familiar to Joel, and the photographs say little – so he flips on. Random picture of a kitten, followed by a picture of a cave, lit by a distant blue light.

Then a photo of the older man from the first picture – his face is grim, reddened, sweaty, his eyes pale. He's showing his arm to the camera – on his arm, there's a bite mark, already infected, already gruesome-looking. On the white border of the polaroid is written William Miles – 1948-2013. Rest in peace, Dad, you stupid self-sacrificial asshole.

Scowling, Joel leafs through the pages. More pictures of the black haired woman and the man with glasses, taken in different places – one of them New York, before the bombings. Couple pictures of Desmond with them, taken selfie-style – apparently the scar on his lips is older than the Outbreak. Pictures of locations that say nothing to Joel. Nothing useful, nothing interesting.

Then Joel comes to the spread that breaks the trend of polaroids. On the right hand side of the spread there's a ripped up corner of a sheet of paper, with a passport-style photo printed on it. A kid, dark haired and expressionless, maybe ten years old. On the left page there's another polaroid, picture of the same kid on a hospital bed, with thick bandages around his now hairless head and a distant, blind sort of look in his eyes – and next to him sits Desmond, slightly older than in the first pictures, but nowhere as old as he is now. He's holding the kid's hand in his own, watching him.

Under it reads, Elijah 2005-2018, and nothing else.

Joel's head hurts, everything's spinning.

"You're something else, you are," an incredulous voice says by the bathroom door, and Joel almost jumps out of his fucking skin.

The only reason he doesn't reflectively shoot Desmond is because the man darts forward and grabs his gun before he can bring it to bear. There's a scuffle, Joel can't quite keep track of it – Desmond's hand, pressing the gun down, his other hand reaching for him – the fucking dog, barking. Impact against his wrist as Desmond blocks his punch and then everything goes sideways as Desmond pushes and pulls, and a hand at Joel's chest tugs him forward, to the side.

Joel misses hitting his head on the bathroom sink only by a hair's width.

He lets go of his gun to catch himself on the floor before he hits it head first – he can hear the revolver clattering to the floor and out of Desmond's hand. There's a weight on his back, Desmond trying to pin him – reflexively Joel throws his elbow at the man, hitting him across the cheek. It gets Desmond off him enough that Joel almost gets to his knees, before a hand grabs at his wrist and twists – pressing it to his back, pushing him face down and onto the floor.

"Son of a –"

"Jesus fucking –"

Joel scrambles on the floor, trying to push up – but the ceramic tiles are slippery, he can't get a knee under him. He tries to reach for something with his free hand, anything, but the only thing he can reach is the foot of the bathtub, and it's not enough to give him leverage – and then Desmond grabs that hand too and forces it to the small of Joel's back, to join the first one. Joel is pinned, with Desmond's hands on his wrists, keeping his hands twisted and immobile – and then the man sits over his thighs, keeping him from kicking. No matter how Joel tries, he can't move.

"Fuck," he spits and turns his head enough to see the man from the corner of one eye.

Desmond glares at him, shifting his grip before quickly reaching for the revolver that had fallen. Joel expects him to aim the barrel at his head, but he doesn't – after a quick glance over the gun, Desmond throws it out of the bathroom, where it clatters away, out of sight. Then he grips Joel's wrists with both hands again.

"Hi, Joel," the man says, flat, even as he rolls his jaw and winces. Already, his cheek is red – he'd have a bruise by morning. "Nice of you to come and visit. How's it going? How's the family?"

"You stay the fuck away from her!"

Desmond gives him an incredulous look and rubs his cheek against his shoulder, wincing. Then he looks away, to the dog who's growling in their direction. "It's okay, Ezio, at ease, boy. It's over, it's okay," he says. "It's okay. Go lay down. Down, Ezio, down."

Joel growls and tries to push himself up by his head alone, grinding his forehead against the floor tiles, and he gets his chest off the floor, just for a moment, before Desmond pushes him back down.

"You too," the man says dangerously. "Stay down."

Joel bites back a reply, struggling for a moment longer, but… there's nothing he can do. "Shit," he hisses and feels a terrible nausea welling up, which has nothing and everything to do with the drinking he's done. Fuck, this was stupid. This was so damn stupid. Of all the ways to go…

"Right," Desmond says, his fingers tightening on Joel's wrists. "Let's try this again. Hi, Joel. How's it going?"

"Just do it," Joel mutters, glaring at nothing, at everything. "Don't fucking rub it in."

"What, you expect me to kill you?" Desmond asks and lets out a laugh. "Yeah, no, you're not getting off that easy – we're having a chat now, we're going to bond over this. It's gonna be great. So. Hi, Joel," he says a bit more forcefully and puts more weight on Joel's back for emphasis. "How's it going?"

Joel releases a growl and puts up another token effort of struggle, which gets him about as far as the other attempts had gotten. His blood courses like a river in his ears and his throat burns. There's another warning twist by Desmond's hands, and with effort Joel grunts out an answer, "I've been better."

"Oh, I bet. Been drinking much?" Desmond asks, almost conversational despite the tone of his voice.

"Tch," Joel answers and closes his eyes, trying to think, but his stomach is complaining louder and louder and there's bile burning in the back of his throat. "F-fuck."

"How are you feeling, Joel? What's going on with you?" Desmond asks, his tone almost cutting. "Having some dark thoughts, hm? Feeling a bit paranoid?"

Joel groans, this time in actual discomfort. "I'm going to throw up –"

Desmond says something to that, but whatever he says, Joel can't hear it over the roaring in his ears – and the heaving of his stomach. He feels distantly the shifting of weight on his back, Desmond backing away – there's a hand on his shoulder, another on his waist, pulling him from the floor. For a moment, Joel's whole world condenses into nothing but vertigo and pure physical discomfort.

His throat burns and there's a terrible, foul smell right in front of him, when he finds himself on his hands and knees – free from the weight previously pinning him down.

"Jesus, you weren't kidding –" Desmond says, quietly alarmed, and everything goes blurry, distant, black.


 

The fact that Joel wakes up is something of a surprise to him, though he doesn't at first remember why. He's on a bed, pillow under his head, almost comfortable except for the fact that he's fully dressed, and too damn hot. His head is pounding, and even before he opens his eyes he knows the light is going to blind him.

His mouth tastes like death, and the pillow doesn't smell right.

"Good morning," a voice says immediately to the right of him, and Joel jolts up so fast that he almost blacks out again. Everything takes a moment to spin back into place, and still his vision swims a little as he struggles to find the speaker – a man sitting beside him on the bed, casually cleaning Joel's gun. Desmond.

"What the –" Joel says and then goes very still.

"You came here, drunk off your ass, you picked through my shit, we had a fight in the bathroom – or more of a… scuffle, actually. You threw up and passed out," Desmond says and considers the gun without looking at him, peering into the barrel. "Not the best surprise party I've ever gotten, but I can't say it wasn't exciting. It's about four a.m, right now, by the way – you were unconscious for about half an hour and then slept for five."

"Jesus," is all Joel can bring himself to say in answer.

"Mm-hmm," Desmond agrees, flipping the cylinder open. It doesn't have any bullets, and it looks almost polished. "This is one pretty gun," he comments, mildly and flips the cylinder shut with a click.

Joel tries to think of something to say, but his brain is coming up empty, just playing out the night's events on a broken reel, not quite clear. He'd drank, he'd gone on a walk to clear his head, he'd… Shit. Desmond hadn't killed him. Joel's not even bound up, his hands are free. He's just lying there, on top of the bedspreads – Desmond must've lifted him there. Taken off his shoes.

"You took off my shoes," Joel murmurs, more confused than anything.

Desmond finally looks at him, arching a brow. "You wear shoes on the bed?" he asks incredulously.

"No, you –" Joel starts and then stops, just looking at him. There's a reddish swelling around the man's jaw on one side – a bruise, still forming. Joel swallows. "I break into your room, I pick through your things, we fight, and… you put me in a bed?"

"… yeah?" Desmond agrees. "What, was I supposed to leave you on the bathroom floor, in the pool of your own sick? Seems a bit rude."

"I broke into your room."

"Eh," Desmond says and then, just making things worse, hands him the gun. "I figure you had a reason. Here."

Joel hesitates for a moment before accepting the revolver. It doesn't have bullets, maybe, but it's sturdy and heavy enough that he's beaten people to death with it, and… and Desmond is just handing it over to him, after Joel broke into his room. "The fuck is going on here?" The gun looks so clean too – it's been polished while he was out.

"You broke into my room," Desmond says, helpfully. "And passed out."

Sighing, Joel lets the gun drop beside him on the bed, running a hand over his face. What the hell.

"So, uh… did you have a reason for it?" the man beside him asks. "I mean. You did it. And you picked through my stuff. It kind of seemed like you had a reason. Like you were after something. Did you find it?"

Joel groans, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. His head is killing him. "Why didn't you just kill me in my sleep?"

"What would I have done with the body? You're not exactly small," Desmond comments, shrugging. "Getting you up on the bed was a hassle by itself – no way I could've gotten you out of here and hidden you without someone seeing. I figure it would've gone down pretty badly with the locals."

Joel peers at him around his hands, and Desmond smiles sunnily at him. "I would've," Joel says. "If it was you breaking into my house, I would've shot you dead."

"Well, this isn't my house – it's a hotel room. I got remarkably few sentiments for it," Desmond says and then rests his hands over his stomach, crossing one leg over the other. "Still curious about the reason though, Joel. What's up?"

Joel scoffs at him and slowly sits up, holding his head as he does. Ezio the dog is lying on the floor beside Joel's shoes – he lifts his furry head and his tail wags. The dog's tail wags at him. After he broke into Desmond's room. "You're a spy," Joel says slowly. "And I think you're after something."

"Well. You're not wrong," Desmond comments, bouncing his foot in the air idly. "I am, yes."

Swallowing, Joel waits until his vision is steady and his heart a little calmer. "And that is… what?" he demands. "What are you after? Why are you here?"

Desmond sighs in answer, peering up at the ceiling. "I'd tell you, I really would. But see, the thing is… you broke into my room," he says in a thoughtful sort of voice, bouncing his foot again. "And you picked through my shit. So I'm feeling a little underappreciated right now, a little bit mistreated. Trust goes both ways, and you've shown me none."

"You're a spy," Joel states again, pointedly.

"And you're… a stalker," Desmond says with a snort and sits up fast enough to make Joel feel a little sick to his stomach, even thinking of moving that fast, and then they're face to face. "A spy and a stalker. How about them black pots and kettles, hm?"

Joel reaches for the gun automatically, and Desmond glances down to it and then at him, arching his brows. Joel narrows his eyes and wraps his fingers around the grip, pulling the gun closer, just to be contrary.

For some fucking reason, it just makes the spy smile. "You know what," Desmond says. "I'll tell you. Yeah, I'll tell you exactly why I am here, what I know, what I'm after… on one condition."

"Which is?" Joel asks, wary, watching him closely.

"I want dinner," Desmond answers, his eyes intent, almost predatory. "At your house."

"Hell no," Joel says immediately.

"Then I won't tell you. You can try beating it out of me again, if that suits your fancy, but really, dinner is much easier," Desmond says lightly and stands up with a stretch. "It doesn't have to be now. Later is fine. Tomorrow is fine. I'm in no hurry. Are you?"

Joel clenches his hand around the gun and imagines himself beating Desmond over the head with it. The man glances at him over his shoulder, daring him to try, and Joel knows he wouldn't be able to make it in time before Desmond ducked, attacked, did something to counteract him. Maybe, if Joel was sober and everything wasn't spinning…

"Think about it," Desmond says, smiles, and turns towards the bathroom. "Also, this is your opportunity to slip out of the door with your dignity intact. I suggest you take it."

Joel draws a steadying breath, closing his eyes for a moment. Shit he thinks for what feels like a millionth time. This was such a stupid fucking idea.

Then he shoves the revolver under his belt, puts on his shoes and gets up. Taking support of the wall, Joel makes his way to the door, every step feeling like he's taking it on unsteady ground. Behind him he can hear Desmond humming a senseless tune while washing his hands, and it's almost enough to make Joel stop before opening the door. The blast of the cool early morning air sobers him up some, but not enough to stop his head from spinning – not enough to make the night make any more sense.

The worst thing is that he isn't sure if he fucked up or not.

And it's just his damned luck that there's a patrol of guards passing by just in time to see Joel exiting Desmond's room early in the morning with his clothes rumpled, his hair a mess – and a guilty look on his face for all the world to see.

Chapter Text

You'd think at his age, you'd be a bit beyond things like this.

That's the thought rattling around in Joel's brain as he tries to medicate his still ongoing headache with a cup of what passes for coffee in Jackson – herbal blend of mostly roasted dandelion roots, which, if you have a good imagination, tastes a little like coffee. It's not doing much to the headache, but at least it washes the taste from his mouth.

He is never accepting a bottle of anything from Eugene again. The man might be able to grow decent weed, according to many happy customers, but obviously he doesn't know how to operate a still.

"Good morning! Oh wow, you look rough," Ellie says, coming across him in the kitchen. "Are you getting sick, Joel?"

"Drank something bad," Joel grunts, rubbing at his forehead. The herbal blend is making his stomach roil, and with a sigh he pushes it away. "You want the rest of this?"

"Do I want your disgusting faux-coffee – no thanks," Ellie says, making a face. "I'll just have some granola, thanks. I'm – you still good for the garage thing?"

"What? Oh, yeah, that," Joel sighs and stands up. "Give me a bit, kiddo – think I'm going to run to the pharmacy and get something for my head."

Ellie bites her lip, looking disappointed. "We're still doing it, though, right?" she asks worriedly.

"I – yeah, yeah, 'course we will. At least, we'll look around, see what we got to work with there," Joel says and clasps his hand over her shoulder reassuringly for a moment. "I'll be right back, and we'll get to it. Eat your granola."

Ellie perks up noticeably and turns to fetch her breakfast while Joel braces himself for the outside. The sun is out now and blindingly bright – almost enough to make him regret not owning a good hat. Walking a bit and breathing the clean air helps some, though

Is it just his imagination or are people looking at him more than usual…?

Thankfully, the pharmacy is open – something that isn't guaranteed every day, seeing as the pharmacist is also their only doctor and can't always make it to the store. She's there now though, stocking the shelves with cans of various handmade pills.

"Good morning!" Doc Chaudhari calls before even looking at him. "Oh, Joel – this is a surprise. Ellie alright?"

"Fine," Joel grunts, a little uncomfortable. "You got any painkillers? For a headache."

"Sure I do," she says and looks at him. "Been drinking, mm? You know how Maria feels about excessive drinking around here."

"Didn't feel excessive at the time," Joel mutters. He'd checked the bottle later – he hadn't drank even half of the bottle in the end. "Eugene's whiskey packs one hell of a kick."

"Oh, damn," Chaudhari says, wincing while moving behind the counter. "I don't think anyone warned you – you should not drink anything that man makes. He uses the stuff he makes to clean engines – it's barely fit for human consumption."

"Well, I know that now," Joel groans and leans into her counter. "And believe me, I won't make the same mistake twice."

"Mm-hmm. Drink this – electrolytes," the Doc says, offering him a bottle. Joel doesn't even look at it before swigging it down. It tastes like berries and salt. "Good. Here – aspirin. You need something for your stomach too?"

"If it ain't too much trouble."

She offers him a flat white pill, saying, "Chew," which Joel does gratefully. It tastes like mint.

"So," Chaudhari comments, crossing her arms over the counter. "I don't think I need to do this with you, but… we're out of condoms, you know."

Joel blinks at that, taken back. "Excuse me?"

She shrugs. "I know the STD status of just about everyone in Jackson, and we've so far been lucky – but you never know with outsiders, what they might have. And we're out of condoms, obviously, so… you're talking all due care, I hope?"

Joel's brain takes a moment to process what this nearly eighty year old woman is actually saying to him. Even then it doesn't make sense. "I'm sorry?"

Chaudhari gives him a sympathetic look. "Joel, this is a small town. A mysterious visitor catching the eye of our new, enigmatic bachelor, it's big news around here. It was all anyone could talk about at breakfast. I'm afraid if you meant to keep it secret, well… that ship's sailed by now."

Joel blinks slowly at her.

Then he takes the bottle of handmade painkillers. "Thanks for this," he grunts and turns to go.

"If he has any noticeable lesions, any suspicious looking secretions –"

"Thank you, Doctor Chaudhari," Joel says, a little firmer. "Much obliged."

"Just be careful!" she calls after him as he hurries out of the pharmacy.

People are definitely staring at him as he heads back home, and they're talking, whispering as he walks past. He can almost imagine what they're saying, and he doesn't like it one bit.

Another thing you'd think you were beyond at his age – goddamn highschool gossip.


 

The hangover passes a little, thanks to the drink and the meds, though his head keeps feeling like it's been stuffed full of sawdust. Thankfully Ellie is too excited by the garage to really mind his mood, as they empty the building out of all the old things stored there – broken machinery and furniture, discarded clothing and mattresses… underneath it all it actually looks like viable enough space, with clean floor, solid walls.

"So, do you think we can do it?" Ellie asks, while Joel pulls up a broken chair to sit in and they consider the walls. "Can we insulate it?"

"I reckon we can," Joel muses. There's a warehouse in Jackson with a lot of reclaimed building material – including old isolation materials. Most of it is mineral wool, ripped from the walls of now demolished buildings, and from what Joel remembers, most of it had seen better days… but there should certainly be enough to isolate one little garage.

"Question is, what are we going to trade for materials?" Joel asks, scratching at his beard. He really needs a wash. "Building materials ain't free, except for emergencies. You gotta pay for them, somehow."

"I could… go hunting with you?" Ellie offers. "I'm pretty handy at hunting. I did pitch into the winter stores."

Joel hums. "Well, it's an idea." Or would be, if Maria approved people going outside the town walls for anything other than necessary things. She's especially leery about letting kids out, no matter how capable.

"If you came with me, I'm sure Maria wouldn't mind," Ellie says, obviously thinking along the same lines, giving him a hopeful look. "And you'll vouch for me, right? You know I can hunt."

"That I do," Joel agrees and sighs. "Guess it doesn't hurt to ask, anyway."

Ellie gives him a grin and Joel smiles back. "Now," he says. "What are we going to do with all this crap that was in here?"

"Recycle it, I suppose? There's a lawnmower – that has an engine, right? Maybe someone can use it."

"Guess we gotta pick through it all and see if it's worth anything. Might be some good tools in there somewhere, too" Joel says and gets up again with a grunt.

They've managed to make a small dent in the pile, separating the worthless the valuable, when Tommy comes knocking. "What y'all doing back there?"

"Recycling," Joel says and then sees his expression. "Oh, hell," he mutters. "Can we not?"

Tommy smiles wryly, leaning his shoulder against the garage, looking over the stuff across the overgrown lawn. "Cleaning out the garage, huh? Thinking of using it for something?"

"Yeah, we're going to make a room," Ellie says and, sharing her opportunity, pounces on it. "We're going to need some insulation, for winter and stuff, and we were just thinking that maybe we, Joel and me, could do some hunting for the winter stores, as an exchange for it? I'm sure we could take down a couple of deers and such."

"I have no doubt," Tommy says, smiling a bit. "How much insulation are we talking about?"

Ellie eagerly shows him the inside of the garage, pointing out the walls and the ceiling which would need to be insulated. Joel watches from the side, waiting for the shoe to fall – Tommy's smiling in that particular way he really doesn't like. It spells trouble.

"You're going to need a stove too," Tommy muses. "I think I saw one during patrol that would be about the right size for a little place like this, though transporting it will be a bitch. We're going to have to take a horse and buggy. Mm."

"So we can do it?" Ellie asks excitedly.

"I don't think it will be a problem – as long as you work for the materials. Hunting's a good enough start," Tommy says and looks at Joel. "Looks like you got some more cleaning to do, Ellie. Better get those nails off the walls too – and that shelf."

"Yeah, shit – Joel, where's the hammer?" Ellie asks.

"In the pack in the lobby – get the crowbar too, we're going to need it," Joel says and faces Tommy as she hurries away to fetch the tools. "Okay, Tommy, let's hear it."

His brother shakes his head. "The only reason is me and not Maria is because Desmond didn't actually say anything about whatever happened," he says. "But that was one hell of a bruise on him. What the hell happened?"

Joel considers lying and then shakes his head. "I got a bottle from Eugene, what he called whiskey. It made me... Yeah.."

Tommy eyes him incredulously. "Really? You got drunk. You're usually better with liquor than that. Dulls your senses, makes people do stupid shit and all that."

"It was stronger than I realised, alright?" Joel mutters. "Wasn't exactly intending to go anywhere, either – meant to just have a drink and go to bed. But then I – didn't."

"Uh-huh," Tommy says. "No one told you you shouldn't drink anything Eugene makes? You know, he cleans engines with that crap."

"So I've heard, yes, thank you Tommy," Joel sighs and sits down again. "I know I fucked up, you don't need to rub it in."

"No, as your brother I'm pretty sure I'm obliged to," Tommy snorts. "So you got drunk and decided to go make trouble with the guy. So far I'm following. Then what happened?"

Joel shakes his head, but there's no way he's getting out of this, and his head still hurts enough that he doesn't particularly feel like getting into a fight with Tommy. "I broke into his room, picked through his stuff and he found me. Then I – passed out."

Tommy snorts. "Shit, Joel."

Joel grunts in agreement. He passed out after snooping through Desmond's things, and the guy… didn't do anything to him. Took off his shoes and put him in bed. If it had been Joel in that situation, at the very least he would've tied the guy up, questioned him afterwards, or worse. Probably worse.

Running a hand over his neck, Joel looks away. He hates being wrong about people.

"Seeing as you're here and distinctively not dead, and you haven't gone after the guy with a machete yet… I'm thinking it didn't go as badly as it could've," Tommy says, watching him. "What'd he do?"

"... Nothing. He didn't do anything," Joel grunts. "Woke up five hours later, and he'd done nothing."

"... Huh."

"Yeah."

"... Well," Tommy says after a moment. "That's certainly something. Does it mean you will stop being such a hardass about the guy?"

Joel sighs, running a hand over his eyes.

Tommy watches him for a moment and then grins, his posture easing. "You know everyone in town knows that you guys spent a night together, right?" he says, his tone lighter. "You keep glaring at the guy the way you have been, and people are going to draw some conclusions."

"Tommy –"

"And so far the guy hasn't exactly denied anything – just smiles like a cat that got the cream when anyone asks about you, or the bruise."

Joel groans, wondering where Ellie is at.

"You might need careful with Seth – the guy's a bit old-fashioned, had some things to say –"

"Fuck it," Joel mutters and looks up. "Think you and Maria could entertain Ellie this evening? Maybe look over the building materials or something. Just, keep her occupied."

Tommy arches a brow, suspicious. "You know we'd love to spend time with her – why?"

Joel glares at the garage floor. "I gotta make dinner," he says through gritted teeth. Tommy just gives him an arched look in answer, so he adds, begrudgingly, "... it's for Desmond."

Tommy is still laughing at him when Ellie comes back with the hammer, complaining that she couldn't find the crowbar anywhere.


 

There's no way to catch Desmond alone – Joel's lucky enough he doesn't have to go to the town hall to find him, at least, but there's still entirely too many people around. And they're all too damn invested in what they think is going on, leaning in eagerly to watch as Joel awkwardly approaches the guy, like it's some goddamn soap opera that's going on.

On other hand maybe town hall would've been preferable to the hair salon, which is where Joel eventually finds Desmond, in the middle of getting a haircut. Feels like half of the women in town are present. And watching.

"Hey, Joel," Desmond says and smiles – it looks like it hurts, with the swelling in the side of his jaw. It's gone purplish red in the middle, and it's gotta hurt – and yet the corners of Desmond's eyes crinkle and the smile makes them look warm. "What's up?"

Joel tries to muster his previous hatred and suspicion for the guy, but it's not there. All he feels is annoyed and goddamn awkward and like he'd rather be anywhere else. "Seven okay?"

"What's that, Joel?"

This fucking man. "Dinner – is at seven okay?" Joel growls – and there are actual gasps from the peanut gallery.

Desmond looks like he's trying very hard not to laugh. "Seven sounds good. What are we having?"

"Venison, probably," he hasn't gone to the market yet, but there's always venison in his freezer.

"That's great," Desmond says, still smiling, always smiling. Asshole. He's enjoying this, he's obviously enjoying this, and it's almost enough to make Joel want to punch him again.

Joel dithers there for a moment, and then scowls and turns around to leave. There's a chorus of sighs and awws behind him as the women of the hair salon bemoan the loss of their drama.

"I can't believe he's actually so shy under all that beard! The effort that took for him! The poor man," one of the women exclaims, much to the amusement of the rest, and then there's Desmond's voice, unbearably smug.

"I don't know – I think he does just fine."


 

Of course Ellie has found out all about it by the time Joel heads home with stuff for the damned dinner.

"I know I said that it would be nice to have another place in case you brought someone over, but I didn't think it'd be this soon," she says, a little wider-eyed. "I mean – not that I'm complaining! I'm not! I think it's awesome that you've decided to be, like, normal. It's great!"

"Ellie," Joel sighs and carries the food to the kitchen.

"It's not like you shouldn't date, of course you should date, it's great – I was actually kinda worried that you were holding back or something, you know, because I'm always underfoot –"

"It ain't like that –"

"Of course not – it's just I know a lot of the women here were giving you the eye. I mean, I don't see the appeal personally, your grumpy ass ain't exactly my type, but some of those women are seriously hot, and I just wondered, is all, why you didn't –"

Joel lets out a sigh and begins putting what he doesn't need into the fridge.

"It's just, I mean… the guy is a spy – you said that," Ellie says, a bit leadingly.

"I did say that, yeah," Joel hums, gruff.

"And now you're having dinner with him," Ellie says. "Which makes sense. Except that it doesn't."

"It's – it's an apology dinner," Joel says awkwardly and puts the meat on the counter. "I sorta – hit him."

Ellie stares at him silently for a moment. "Okay, yeah that makes much more sense," she says then. "I can totally see you doing that."

Joel sighs again and shakes his head. "Yeah."

"Not that there's anything wrong with you dating the guy."

Ellie's tone is more questioning then stating, and Joel glances at the kid, to see her expression. She's staring at him intently. "Okay, what now?"

Ellie shifts her footing. "You probably wouldn't make an apology dinner if you hit, say, Eshter."

"If I hit Esther, half of the town would beat me up for it," Joel snorts.

"Yeah, but you wouldn't make her dinner, would you? You wouldn't bother."

"I doubt she'd even want to have dinner if I hit her."

"Yeah but if – wait," Ellie stops. "The spy-guy wanted you to make him dinner, even after you hit him? Oh wow, he must really like you."

Joel sighs. "For my fucking sins," he mutters and shakes his head, turning to peer into their spice cupboard to see what the have left.

"So… do you like him?"

"What?" Joel makes a face. "He's a spy."

"That's not an answer." Ellie tilts her head. "Huh. I thought you and Tess –"

"That's not –" Joel starts, draws a breath and then shakes his head. "Me and Tess were – complicated. I mean, there were times, but we weren't exactly like that. Probably would've killed each other in the long run, if we were like that."

"Uh-huh," Ellie answers, thoughtful. "Soo… were you and Bill ever...?

Joel sighs. "What do you want from me, kid?"

"Nothing, it's just – I thought you were one way, and you're another. It's cool, it's just –" Ellie chews her lower lip. "It's different."

"Doesn't change anything," Joel mutters and starts pulling down spices to season the venison with. "This thing with Desmond, it's just dinner – one time thing, and then it's over."

"Be fine if it wasn't."

Joel glances at the kid, and Ellie looks up, half seriously and half hesitant. "Okay, kiddo, what is it? What's chewing at you?"

"Uh," Ellie says, looks away and then back at him. "I'm gay?"

Joel blinks. It's said with an almost joking tone, but he knows Ellie's deflection when he sees it. "Okay."

"Okay?" Ellie asks, something vulnerable crossing over her face.

"Okay," Joel says a bit more firmly. Fuck, he's not equipped for this, but – for her, he'd try. Definitely he didn't think he'd ever be any kind of fucking role model for her, but… yeah. He has no idea what to say to her. "You wanna help me by peeling some potatoes?"

"What, when I won't even get to eat them? Hell no, dude, it's your apology date, not mine, you can do your own work," Ellie says quickly. "Besides you already arranged a goddamn babysitter for me, and Tommy and I are going to plan my garage build without you. So there."

"Harsh, kiddo, harsh," Joel says and turns to get the peeler.

Ellie hesitates by the door, in between leaving and not, still watching him like she's expecting something else.

Joel clears his throat. "It is okay, Ellie," he says. "Ain't nothing wrong with it."

"Course there isn't," she says and nods, her shoulders straightening a bit. "Of course not."

Joel watches as she leaves, listening to her footsteps, and then shakes his head. Shit. Okay. Time to start actually cooking dinner.

What he makes isn't overly complicated. Venison steaks and potatoes with some steamed vegetables on the side – it's basic fare around Jackson, really. Joel hesitates over getting a bottle to go with the dinner – there's no wine, and the whiskey is obviously a no-go, but he has some beer and cider…

He decides against it and puts up a pitcher of water instead, and with the food keeping warm in the oven, Joel heads to the bathroom, to freshen up. It might not be an actual date, but… fuck it. Might as well.

Wouldn't want to make a bad impression, right?

He's got a clean button up shirt and a neater pair of jeans on, when there's a knock on his front door. Desmond is exactly on time, and Joel is – not nervous, exactly, but…

Desmond has cleaned up too – white shirt, clean trousers, fresh shave. The haircut Joel isn't sure about – a close haircut makes sense for a wanderer who probably doesn't get that many chances to have his hair professionally cut, but… he looked good with longer hair too.

Joel blinks. The fuck is he even thinking right now…

"Hey," Desmond says, smiling, and lifts something he's holding. "Got something for you." For a split of a second Joel thinks it's a bouquet of flowers. Thank God it isn't – it's a bottle, wrapped in cloth to keep it safe.

"Where the hell did you find wine?" Joel asks with disbelief.

"I got my ways," Desmond says, grinning. "Can I come in?"

Joel glances away from him and to the guard, Ted, who had delivered Desmond to his door and is not so subtly watching them now. At his look, Ted waves a hand. "Alright, Joel?"

"I got it, Ted. Thanks."

"You have a nice night, now," Ted bids them and turns to head away, down the street.

Joel looks back at Desmond, who smiles. It reaches his eyes. "Shall we, Joel?" the spy asks, his voice warm.

"Yeah," Joel agrees, his tongue clumsy in his suddenly dry mouth. What the hell. "Yeah, come – come on in."

The sound of the door closing behind Desmond sounds like a point of no return.

Chapter Text

Though Desmond had hoped otherwise, he isn't surprised that the girl isn't there. Papa bear like Joel wouldn't do something as simple and easy as having her join them for dinner – no, she's probably on the other side of the town, behind armed guards, safe and sound. Desmond can't blame him one bit, he'd do the same thing in his shoes, probably.

There aren't that many signs of her in the house either. Pair of shoes, a jacket, a shirt thrown over a chair, that's about it. That's a little surprising, until Desmond realises that there aren't that many signs of Joel in the house, either. Same ones as the girl has, really – clothes hung up, a book on the living room table, that's about it. It makes sense. The house has a kind of picturesque fake quality to it, like it's a snapshot of the time gone by – because it is.

Joel and Ellie haven't lived in the house long enough to make it theirs, really – and what furniture and decorations there are, they all belong to whoever used to live there, twenty years ago, if not more. The only reason Desmond doesn't think he's been brought to the completely wrong house is the fact that the air inside is warm and fresh – there isn't that abandoned house smell to it.

"Nice place," he comments, and in a transient sort of way it is.

Joel grunts in reply, neither agreement nor disagreement. "Take off your shoes – dinner's this way."

Desmond smiles and toes off his boots, leaving them beside Joel's shoes and Ellie's sneakers. The dinner is indeed that way – with plates and cups laid out on a dining table, a pitcher of water, a basket of bread, a round little container of butter. Desmond's been in this place for a couple of days now, and still he keeps getting caught up at the fact that they have butter for every dinner. The bread, though not freshly baked, looks fresh enough, too.

One could really get used to living like this.

Desmond sets the bottle down on the dinner table and then looks at Joel, who's heading out of the dining room and into the kitchen. There's a food smell in the air, roast meat and spices, and despite everything Desmond can feel his mouth watering – the whole dinner thing was kind of a… dare, really, just to see what Joel would do with it, but now that he's here…

He isn't sure he actually expected Joel to cook for him. But Joel had. And it smells delicious.

"Do you have wine glasses?" Desmond asks, peeling the cloth wrapping from around the bottle.

"Yeah, I'll bring 'em," Joel says. There's the sound of something opening and closing – an oven, judging by the burst of heat and fresh food smell that follows.

Electric oven, huh. Nice.

"Can I help?" Desmond asks, as Joel carries in a cast iron skillet, with sizzling steaks and some mixed vegetables on it.

Joel glances at him, makes a face. "Fine, grab the potatoes from the oven – careful with the mitts, they've got some thin spots in 'em."

"Got it," Desmond says, moving to the kitchen and looking around curiously. It too has that other people made this quality to it, but it's definitely more lived in than the living room. There are cups in the sink that have been used, a small table by a window, which obviously sees more use than the dining room table. On the counters there are some containers that belong to this time, rather than time decades ago – glass jars with writing on them, telling what they are. Beans, seeds, granola…

Desmond grabs the oven mitts and then peers into the oven. There's a glass pan inside, with potatoes in it, cooked golden brown. They, too, smell delicious.

Now Desmond just kinda feels bad about the whole thing – Joel obviously actually went through some effort here.

Some of it might show on his face – Joel casts him a narrow look as Desmond walks past him with the pan on his way to the dining room. He doesn't say anything though, grabbing the wine glasses and following close behind. There's a short, awkward moment as they stand there, the dinner table between them, everything ready.

"This is it," Joel then says, gruff – everything he says is a bit on the gruff side. "If you're expecting something more – "

"No, no, this looks amazing," Desmond says, perfectly honest. "And it smells incredible."

The face Joel makes at him is half disbelieving and half awkward, before the man pulls up a chair and sits down. "Well, it was made to be eaten, so…" he says. "Don't waste it."

"I won't, promise," Desmond assures and sits across from him, where the utensils and a plate were laid out for him. It's still a bit awkward, as Joel hesitates a moment, looking between him and the food before grabbing for food first, while Desmond watches.

"It ain't poisoned," the man mutters, loading up his own plate with food.

"I didn't think it would be," Desmond says, a little wistful. Damn, he's going to miss eating like this once he leaves this place. You can get meat anywhere if you're a good enough hunter, and potatoes you might be able to find growing wild around old farm houses – but cooking like this, it takes a kitchen.

He's going to savour the hell out of this meal. Especially since there's a very good chance that Joel might want to shoot him, after it. Desmond hadn't exactly missed the fact that the guy was armed.

Another moment of awkward hesitation before the first bite – then a prolonged silence as Desmond cuts into the steak, and – of course it's cooked to perfection, juicy and well seasoned and nicely crisp on top. If this is how Joel treats his enemies, Desmond is really jealous for his actual dates. Jesus.

There's butter on the potatoes. Desmond is going to die happy.

"So," Joel says, breaking Desmond reverie. "Think you made a promise of telling me something."

"I did, yeah," Desmond says, cutting another piece of the steak. The second piece is no worse than the first. "Can't it wait until we've eaten? Be a waste to ruin the dinner with shop talk."

"Talk anyway," Joel says, his voice near a growl. "Why are you here?"

Desmond sighs dejectedly. It would be easy to prolong this, he supposes. Circle around it, deflect, insinuate, ask Joel leading questions and give him answers that will frustrate and satisfy but won't be what he is actually looking for. The guy is rough – not one for subtleties. Desmond could probably talk circles around him, if he wanted to.

He just… doesn't really want to anymore.

The potatoes are too damn good.

"Okay," he says and takes a moment to pop a potato wedge into his mouth, savour it, and then says, "The truth, then. I'm here to confirm a report from the Fireflies, see where it leads – and it led me here."

Joel's utensils cease in the middle of the steak, just for the moment, and his eyes are hard enough to almost cut as he stares at Desmond. Desmond, in answer, pierces a perfectly steamed little mini tomato with his fork, and plops it into his mouth. Finally, Joel says, "You came through Salt Lake City, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Desmond agrees. "I did. Not much left there, mind you, but before leaving the Fireflies left some notes, some letters – enough to tell to whoever came after them what happened. Not that it was hard to figure it out. The bloodstains were kind of obvious."

Joel swallows, his hands white knuckled on the utensils. There's a twitch, and Desmond puts up his hands, to show that the only things he's holding are the fork and knife, that he's not doing anything threatening. Joel narrows his eyes and relaxes slightly. "How much do you know?" the man demands.

"I know that someone in the parking garage wrote Joel onto the floor with their blood," Desmond says, and once he's sure Joel isn't about to reach for his gun, turns his attention to the food again. "And I know someone young, roughly 14 years of age, had their brain scanned. Some of the scans were still there. Guess they didn't think they were useful, without the actual subject… and I'm guessing that subject's Ellie."

Joel's inhale is loud and his exhale is slow. "You're after her."

"I am here to confirm their report," Desmond says. "I promise I have no ill intentions towards your girl."

"Tch," Joel says and leans back – and the gun is on the table a little too fast to be anything but unnerving, aimed with unerring accuracy at Desmond's head.

Desmond looks down at it, blows out a breath, and lifts another piece of steak to his lips. "Imagine the mess if you shot me now," he says conversationally around the bite. "Besides, you can't kill me until I tell you what else I know. And I know some things you might be interested in. Just, hint-hint."

"Okay," Joel says flatly. "What else do you know? And who have you told about her?"

Desmond smiles wryly. "My last line of defence, hm? Who did I tell?" he asks and shakes his head. "Here's what I know. She was probably bitten on her arm, that's why she wears the bandage. It's not just a bite mark, it's got some growth around it, doesn't it? She's not immune – she's still infected, but the fungus mutated. It was months ago now, almost a year, right? And she's still had no adverse effects."

Joel's eyes narrow and his hand stays steady on the revolver, finger on the trigger.

"Here's what I don't know – can she breathe spores?" Desmond asks, and when Joel gives precisely no reaction to it, he nods slowly. "She can, can't she? She can breathe in spores and they do nothing to her."

"You already know she's immune, why's that important?" Joel demands.

"Because it means that the thing in her brain must also be in her lungs," Desmond explains and piles a bit of potato and a bit of stake onto his fork. "Otherwise breathing spores should still choke her out. It doesn't, does it? I bet she doesn't even cough in spores."

"Again, not seeing the importance," Joel growls. "What about it?"

Because until now they weren't sure. "Before the growth inside a person reaches outwards and begins producing spores, how does the infection spread between people?" Desmond says. "Through bites. If she can breathe spores, it means that whatever kind of Cordyceps fungus she got, it's in her lungs, in her soft tissue, in her mucus membranes – it might even be in her blood, in her saliva."

Joel shakes slowly. "Didn't the Fireflies test for that?" he asks, irritated.

"I don't know if they did – all I found was the brain scan. If they performed any kind of blood or saliva analysis, I couldn't find any files about it," Desmond says and takes another bite, watching Joel as the man scowls at him, increasingly irritated in his confusion.

"So… what you're saying is that Ellie might be able to infect others with her version of Cordyceps?" Joel says slowly. "That she could spread her immunity by biting someone. That's insane."

Desmond looks up at the man, arching his brows. "Has she ever bitten anyone, to the point of drawing blood?"

"No one that lived to tell the tale."

Desmond smiles and shakes his head. Figures. "If you can infect one person with a benign version of the fungus, then… why not another?" he asks and shrugs. "If she can breathe spores in and live to tell the tale, then the way it must work in her is that it's basically blocking out the more common variety, keeping it from attaching to her cells – because all the receptors that your usual Cordyceps uses, they're already occupied. Knowing that, isn't it worth looking into?"

Joel's hand shifts on the gun, as he corrects his aim on Desmond. "You are not taking her. Nor are you taking her brain."

Desmond hesitates at that, lowering his utensils. "I don't – what? I don't want her brain. Her brain is the most valuable thing on earth, why would I – what?"

Joel lets loose a growl and lifts the gun threateningly.

Arching his brows, Desmond sets the utensils and holds his hands up. "Is – that why you killed the Fireflies? Because they wanted to take her brain out?" he asks slowly.

"I didn't let them, and sure as hell won't let you, either," Joel growls. "I don't give a shit about the cure, you aren't touching a single fucking hair on that girl's head."

"… okay," Desmond says slowly. "I – wasn't going to. I wasn't," he says. "Can you please let me explain, before you shoot me? And can I show you something?"

"You have a minute," Joel says and pulls the hammer back. "Make it count."

"Can I take my photobook out? It's in my back pocket."

"No," Joel says. "You got fifty seconds."

Desmond draws a slow breath and then releases it slower. Okay, thin ice. Very, very thin ice. Maybe he should've opened with the photobook, before Joel pulled out the gun. "Okay. I'm going to stand up, okay? I'll do it slowly. Don't shoot me, I just want to show you something."

Joel narrows his eyes, and Desmond pushes himself up from the table and stands up. Then, feeling the ghost of a target right in the middle of his forehead, Desmond lowers one hand enough to tug his shirt up, to show the skin of his belly.

Joel looks up, and the non-reaction he has to the scars is marked. "… what?" he says, flat, inflectionless.

Desmond looks down and motions at it. "I mean – it's kind of self-explanatory?"

There are no wounds quite like Cordyceps infection wounds, after all – there's probably not a person on Earth who can't recognize them. It's the worst rash you can really have, a motley cluster of cysts and growths on stretched, still red skin – at least his doesn't ooze puss, which happens with some infected, before they enter the growth stage.

Joel stares at the motley scars for a long moment. "You're – like her," he says then, very slow.

"No. I'm not immune," Desmond says, looking down at the scars and making a face. "But I was a trial case for – for an attempt to spread a benign version of the fungus. Guess you could call it the worst vaccination trial ever. It failed – the fungus lived in me long enough to leave some very inconvenient marks, and then it just… died. See, here and here – puncture marks – it's where they, uh. Inserted the fungal samples."

Joel stares for a moment longer and then looks up at him. "I've never heard of the infection dying in someone," he says slowly.

Desmond shrugs. "The mycelium was already breaking down by the time we tried it, and it didn't spread right. It's why it was injected in my stomach – the idea was that it would have an ideal growth medium around my gut as compared to, say, a shoulder, but… it just didn't take."

For a long moment Joel looks between his face and the scars. Then, letting out an incredulous sound, he finally lowers the gun. "What the fuck," he says slowly, shaking his head.

Desmond looks at him hopefully. "Can I show you my photobook now?"

"… yeah, fine," Joel says and runs a hand over his face, still watching him like he's not sure Desmond's for real, like he's not sure if he should shoot Desmond or not.

Before he can make up his mind, Desmond quickly takes out his photobook and sits back down, flipping through the pages until he gets to Elijah. "Here," he says, and shows the pictures to Joel. "This is Elijah. He was the first person we know who had a mutated strain – bitten in 2015, he lived until 2018."

Joel's cheek flexes as he swallows and finally sets the gun down, leaning in. "How'd he die?" he asks quietly.

"Brain damage – related and unrelated to the infection," Desmond says and grimaces, holding the photobook out for Joel to examine. "Too many brain biopsies without enough care taken in between. He was the unwilling guest of a pharmaceutical company, and they really wanted to be the ones to figure out the cure – they failed, and in doing that, they… killed him. We, the Brotherhood, we found out about it just in time to get him out, and… to see him die of the damage done to him."

Joel accepts the book, eying the two pictures. "Why doesn't anyone know about this?"

"Because they didn't want you to know, and neither did we," Desmond shrugs and leans in, eyeing Elijah's picture sadly. "We knew there was a chance of another one like him popping up, and we knew that the moment someone did there was a chance of what happened to him would happen to them. There's been a few times we thought we found another like him, but… they have a terrible habit of vanishing."

"Until Ellie," Joel mutters and looks up at him. "And now you want her. To make the cure out of her."

Desmond blows out a breath and holds his hands up again. "I won't deny that it was a… factor in me coming after you," he says slowly, carefully. "But I have no intention of taking her, or her brain, from you… or from her. As far as I can choose, her brain should stay in her head, and she should live as long a life as humanly possible."

Joel gives him a warning look.

"Killing her will only kill the fungus inside her, render the whole thing useless," Desmond explains. "Trust me, I know. As such, I am very invested in her living. Relatively speaking. I haven't actually met her properly, but in general."

Joel scoffs. "Okay – and then what? You want to take her back to the Brotherhood?" he demands and rests his hand on the gun. "That ain't going to happen."

Desmond shrugs, glancing down at the gun and then back at Joel. "Yeah, I figured," he says ruefully. "I'm not going to try and take her from you. I promise. But uh… I would like a sample of the fungus."

"I just said – "

"A blood sample, Joel – I want a blood sample," Desmond says. "Blood sample, saliva sample, maybe tissue sample if you're feeling generous. Something like that – a living form of her strain of the fungus."

"And how are you going to get it back to your people without it dying along the way?" Joel asks suspiciously. "It's weeks, if not months, from here to the coast."

"… that is true," Desmond admits and leans back, sighing. "To be honest, I never thought I'd get this far – and if I did, then… you know. I figured it would go the way you obviously don't want it to go. Don't shoot me," he says. "I'm not going to try and take her. Geez, you're like a dog with a bone."

"Then come up with something actually convincing," Joel says dangerously. "Because I am very close to putting a bullet in your head."

Desmond gives him a rueful look, smiling a little. "You are a tough cookie to crack," he says. "Don't you want a cure?"

"Not at the cost of her," Joel growls. "'Sides, cure will do fuck all for the world now. It won't get rid of the infected, and you yourself said there are hundreds of millions of them. Cure won't get rid of ground growth. This shit isn't going anywhere, no matter if you make people immune now, or not. The infected are still going to be here, and we're still going to be fucked. The most a cure will do is give one faction – your faction, I'm guessing – an enormous advantage over the others, and that's a slippery fucking slope."

Desmond arches his brows at that. All fair points, but… "How many people do you know who committed suicide at the first bite?" he asks. "Because I've seen hundreds."

Joel grits his teeth. "The fact remains."

"It does, and I can't argue it," Desmond agrees. "But think of all the people who killed themselves rather than turn, or who got bitten and then were shot, or who just… got infected and turned. A cure would make a difference to them."

"Make a big difference to any group with a monopoly over it, too," Joel mutters sarcastically and reaches forward – but not for the gun, this time. Instead he's going for the wine bottle Desmond had brought.

Desmond watches, tilting his head, as Joel uses his stake knife to dig the cork out. Now that's a party trick. "Imagine a cure that is spread like the infection itself – imagine if Ellie's bite managed to make someone immune, just like her – and then their bite did the same thing," he says while the cork goes flying across the room. "You think anyone could control that?"

"I think people would try," Joel says and pours himself a glass. "If it spreads by bite, why didn't you have Elijah bite you?"

Desmond sighs and leans back. "Because by the time we thought of it, he was already dying – and so was the fungus inside him," he says. "That's the thing about the benign strain – it's symbiotic. It doesn't feed on dead tissue, only living one. Once the host dies…" There's a moment of silence and Desmond looks down to the photobook. "Or at least that's how it was with his strain," he murmurs. "Ellie's might be different."

Joel watches him over the wine glass and then takes a long drink. He's quiet for a long time after, rolling the taste in his mouth. "You really think her bite's enough?" he asks, still disbelieving,

"God, I hope so… but I don't know," Desmond admits and arches his brows, imploring. "Don't you want to find out?"

Joel scoffs, and tosses the glass back, and says nothing.

Chapter Text

They finish the dinner in silence, Joel not tasting one bit of the food while they do. Desmond does, that's obvious on the guy's face, the way he savours every bit, and Joel can't even muster up annoyance for it. He's too busy thinking, too busy feeling scared out of his fucking mind.

He still dreams of that day, waking up with Marlene sitting over him, telling him they managed to save Ellie in time and that they intended to immediately kill her. Because it wasn't about them, or her, but the world and it was the right thing to do. Joel never had qualms about it, he doesn't second guess it, he doesn't… he won't ever have regrets about it. he did the right thing, the only right thing left to do, and the Fireflies could go fuck themselves for ever thinking they had the right.

But… there was that niggling… doubt. It was easy to pile up justifications on it, he'd even looked into literature about things like vaccinations, how they used to get developed, he'd looked into magazines and newspapers, into the reports of the early failed vaccination trials from when there'd still been enough government left to run things like that… The way the Fireflies went about it was fucking stupid, in comparison. Ellie was their only source of the mutated strain, and their answer to it was to take the thing out?

There'd always been rumours of cure, of course. People had used them to gather support, to build up their own factions – join us, we're developing a vaccine, a cure, we have anti-fungal treatment that works, come to us and work in our factories and mines and fields and labour camps, and we'll save you. All of them were proven bullshit before long, of course. But there were always rumours and there were always people desperate to believe them. They usually used the old medical trial setups to perpetuate the act – saying they were running tests, that they were conducting trials, that it would take time, would take months, years.

Fireflies had Ellie for a few hours – and without a second thought they took her to the surgery, like the outbreak hadn't been running for years, like there wasn't any time, like… like they couldn't wait to get to it.

Joel doesn't regret what happened, but fuck if he understands it either. He's no doctor, his understanding of medicine comes from what he's read and heard, most of it bullshit probably, not from any kind of experience. Desmond sounds like he knows more than that – Jesus, the guy was part of the vaccination trial, and lived. That's… that's already a lot.

Joel's plate is empty, and so is his glass. Desmond is still polishing his plate – literally polishing, using a piece of white bread to mop up the residue and humming with quiet pleasure at the taste of it. He's more at ease now, in the silence, looking at the empty glass pan and the skillet, like he's seriously thinking of scraping the crumbs from there too.

"Good?" Joel asks, rough, and it almost makes the guy jump.

"Mh? Oh, yeah, this is so good. Compliments to the chef," Desmond says with heartfelt sincerity, and Joel snorts, reaching for the gun on the table. Desmond glances down and releases a breath as Joel shoves the gun back into its holster. "You know, I was mostly joking about the dinner," the guy says, sheepishly. "Just to mess with you. Definitely don't regret it now, though."

Joel shakes his head and stands up, gathering the plates. "Gonna put these to soak," he says.

"Lemme help – least I can do."

Joel considers him and then sighs and nods. While Desmond deals with the plates and the pan, Joel tends to the skillet, brushing it clean and recoating it with some oil, still thinking.

"Did the Fireflies really intend to just… cut her brain out?" Desmond asks while drying his hands on the kitchen towel.

"Mm," Joel agrees with a hum. "Said it was the only way to make a vaccine."

"… okay," the man mutters, shaking his head. "Maybe they knew more than we did. But that kind of sounds like…" he makes a face.

"Tch," Joel says. "Tell me about it – what you did with Elijah."

Desmond draws a breath through his nose and lets it out through his lips. "Not much, to be honest – we were busy trying to keep him alive. He had intracranial haemorrhage by the time we got him to the boat. He didn't live for long," he says quietly and looks away. "We know what Abstergo did, though. They kept taking out bits and pieces of the growth around his brain, trying to culture it, trying to – you know, speedrun the vaccination creation process. Towards the end they were biopsying bits out of him and putting them into not so willing subjects – trying to spread the benign virus."

"Did it work?" Joel asks.

Desmond shakes his head and looks at him. "Not as far as we know. Most of the subjects in those trials died of complications from their own immunity responses. Our theory is that there was no proper incubation period, no germination – no time for the body or the fungus to acclimate."

Joel hums and sets the skillet to the stove, turning it on for a moment to make sure there's no moisture left in it, and that the oil ingrates in. "And with a bite it would be different."

"That's the hope," Desmond says. "You know how people bitten differ from people who got infected by spores?"

Joel makes a face. "Seems mostly the same to me. Same incubation time, right?"

"People infected with spores turn into stalkers, they don't really have a runner period, or if they do, it's a lot shorter," Desmond says, lifting his hands, measuring time between them. "When you're bitten, your progress from human to a full blown bloater is longer – takes around ten years, right? If you breathe in spores, you skip the years as a runner, and you turn into a bloater in about eight years. It's not a big difference, in the long run – but it is one, and it means something."

Joel frowns, leaning back from the counter. "Huh," he mutters. "Didn't know that."

"Not many do – the difference isn't that noticeable when you're running for your life," Desmond shrugs and folds his arms. "Also where you're bitten matters. Outer extremity bite takes longer to turn you, than one, say, on your neck. Might've been a factor with Ellie's mutation, that she was bitten on the arm."

Joel grimaces. "Yeah, I – that one I know about. Shortly after we met Ellie, my… partner was bitten on the neck. Inside an hour it was already… bad."

"Yeah," Desmond agrees and gives him a sympathetic look.

Shaking his head, Joel moves past him, back to the dining room. It's getting dark outside, and the dining room doesn't have a functional ceiling light, so Joel grabs a lighter to light the candles set around the room, to give the place some light.

"That's nice," Desmond comments, smiling, as he sits back down and reaches for the wine bottle, "Almost romantic."

"Uh-huh," Joel says dryly, grabbing a candelabra from the cupboard and carrying it to the table. "You said there were others. Other immune folks."

"Just rumours and urban legends," Desmond admits, pouring wine for them both. "A kid in Honduras who supposedly was bitten and didn't turn – by the time we got there, he was already dead, hanged. Then there was a story we heard off the coast of Shanghai about a woman who got stuck in a building full of spores and survived… things like that. Just stories. It's hard to say if they are true or not."

"But you think some are?" Joel asks, watching him. "You think there are other people who developed a benign strain."

Desmond shrugs. "Yeah, I do. Viruses and fungi mutate all the time – hell, the cordyceps we have is a mutation of a fungus that originally started by infecting ants, before moving to other bugs. The fact it hasn't infected other mammals is damn lucky."

"Hmm," Joel hums, reaching for his glass, swirling the wine in it. "If it's that common, why haven't any popped up?"

"I wouldn't say common, it's still probably really rare, one in a million rare," Desmond muses and sighs. "But, well… what's the usual reaction to being bitten?"

Right. Joel takes a sip and they're quiet for a moment. "When we were travelling," he then breaks the silence. "Ellie and I, looking for the Fireflies, there was another place we went to first, in Colorado. There used to be a Firefly lab there, where they ran their drug trials initially. They infected some monkeys."

"Huh," Desmond says. "That's interesting. Did it work?"

Joel nods, trying to remember. There were audio records he'd found and listened with Ellie. "From the sound of it, the infection took hold of 'em, didn't turn 'em, but their bite was infectious. One of the doctors got bit, I think, ended up shooting himself before turning."

"Huh," Desmond says, making a face, thoughtful. "Okay, that's something. I know people tried early on, but the success there was spotty. Still, interesting that they got that far – just to rush the whole process in the end. Where was that – the place might have useful intelligence. If you don't mind sharing..."

"University of Eastern Colorado," Joel sighs and looks at him. "So, you've been looking into this stuff for years, huh, chasing rumours?"

"Pretty much," Desmond agrees and takes a sip of the wine before reaching for the photobook, flipping to the image of the dying kid. "The Brotherhood does other things on the side, obviously, but ever since Elijah it's been kind of my main thing," he says, running a thumb over the name on the bottom. "We learned a lot from him. I didn't wanna… didn't want to let his death be in vain."

Joel looks down at the picture, at the way Desmond's looking at him and then turns his eyes to the wine glass. "Ellie ain't a replacement."

"No," Desmond says and leans his chin to his knuckles, not taking his eyes off the picture. "No one ever will be. But… but if we can take what we learned from Elijah and use it, if Ellie would like to, you know… save what's left of humanity? That would be pretty cool."

"Tch," Joel answers and takes another drink. The wine isn't strong enough to get to his head, but it's softening the edges a little, enough that he can admit, "Ellie doesn't know."

Desmond looks up.

"What happened in Salt Lake City – she doesn't know," Joel admits and blows out a breath. "She was outta it the whole time. We got there, barely alive – she got knocked out in a flooded subway, I got knocked out by the barrel of a gun. By the time I woke up… they were prepping her for surgery. She was still out of it when I got her out of there."

And most of the Fireflies weren't alive.

Desmond looks at him silently for a moment, and the understanding in his eyes makes Joel grimace. The guy smiles at him. "And you never told her."

"I told her there were others, and that Fireflies had given up on the cure," Joel mutters. "Anything to keep her from going after them. She wanted – she wanted to make the cure, she wanted it to be worth something. But I…"

The silence that stretches after is long and telling. Desmond looks at him quietly for a while and then looks down, at the picture of Elijah.

"I still dream of finding out about Elijah earlier," he admits quietly. "We knew Abstergo was up to something. We had something of a…. a feud. So we were keeping an eye on them, and we knew they had something, but we didn't know about Elijah, not until it was too late. I still dream of what might've happened, if we'd learned early on, before the surgeries took their toll on him. What I'd have done, to save him."

Joel looks up, taking in the painfully wistful expression. "Didn't you blow up that place?"

"Oh yeah," Desmond agrees with a snort and looks away. "Fat load of good that did, in the end."

Joel hums and leans back in his chair, still watching him while taking another sip of wine. It's running out fast and there's not much left in the bottom of the bottle. "I don't want her to know."

"Mm-hmm," Desmond agrees and takes a drink himself, draining his glass. "I get that. I'm trying hard not to judge the Fireflies for their choices, still don't have all the facts, maybe they knew something we don't, but… to be honest, what they did does kind of sound like bullshit. They didn't even take a biopsy?"

"Didn't you just tell me they killed Elijah with those things?"

"Abstergo performed dozens of biopsies on the kid, they were bound to fuck up sooner or later," Desmond says darkly. "And Fireflies didn't do a single one. Somehow, you'd think there'd be, like… happy middle ground somewhere between, you know?"

Joel reaches for the wine bottle and pours the rest of it in Desmond's empty glass. "You wanna biopsy Ellie's brain?" he asks, watching the man closely for his expression.

Desmond snorts. "I'm not a doctor, probably better not," he says and looks at him. "I'm thinking more like… maybe a bit of saliva, a bit of blood, maybe a tissue sample from the point of infection – I try to take them back to my people, we see what we can learn, and we see where we go from there? She stays here with you, she stays safe. I mean, this place…" he looks away and shakes his head in wonder. "A bit more security, and you couldn't ask for better."

"A bit more security?" Joel asks wryly. "What, don't our measures satisfy?"

"Your people let me in," Desmond comments with a teasing sort of smile. "It's kinda a point against them. Imagine I was an assassin coming after you."

"Are you?"

Desmond smiles wider and takes a drink.

Shaking his head, Joel drains his glass and sets it down. "Beer?" he offers.

Desmond hesitates, lowering his glass. "… you have beer?"

Joel smiles, standing up. "We have a brewery in town."

"Shut up," Desmond says, sitting up straighter. "Fresh bread, butter, now beer? How is any of this fair? Next you're going to tell me you still have barbecues and your bars serve burgers and fries."

Joel laughs under his breath, heading for the kitchen.

"You do, don't you?" Desmond calls after him. "Oh, that is so unfair."

"It ain't unfair, we work hard to make it possible. And you know, beer is just liquid bread," Joel says, opening the fringe to grab a couple of bottles. "Or so they tell me."

"Yeah, no, it still seems a bit unfair," Desmond says, leaning his elbow to the backrest of his chair, craning his neck to see. "You recycle the bottles, huh?"

"Some use kegs because it's easier, but with a teenager in the house that's just asking for trouble. Not that Ellie really cares – she hates the taste," Joel says, offering him one of the bottles and sitting down. "Still, better safe than sorry."

"I bet, yeah," Desmond says, examining the bottle with interest, reading the label. "Aww, it even has info on it. That's so nice, that you can do stuff like this. Print lapels for beer bottles. I miss stuff like this."

Joel hums in agreement, opening the bottle. "I miss coffee, more than anything," he admits, and takes a drink. "Fresh coffee, freshly roasted beans – even if you find a bag these days, they don't smell right, being so old."

"Yeah," Desmond agrees with a feeling, and opens his bottle. "Fast food, fast coffee, fast everything," he murmurs, holding the bottle up to his nose, taking a whiff of it. "You really don't know what you have before you lose it, huh? Now everything takes so much effort – for bread you have to grow grain first, and mill it, and… it just makes you really appreciate the little things, how they aren't so little."

"Mm," Joel agrees, watching him, considering. It's obvious the guy really doesn't get to enjoy the benefits of society often. Joel's barely used to them himself, but the near hedonistic pleasure the guy takes in just the smell of beer, it's… kinda endearing. "What were you, before the Outbreak?" he asks impulsively.

Desmond grins. "Bartender," he says. "I lived in New York, worked in this sorta shady, sorta fancy bar. You?"

"Construction," Joel says. "Repair work mostly, fixing up people's roofs and whatnot."

"You know, I can see it," Desmond says, smiling. "You've got a very capable look about you. Very handyman."

"Oh, really?"

Something in Desmond's eyes sharpens, darkens, and Joel takes a quick drink of his beer, to cover how much that affects him. Clearing his throat he looks away. "So, 'bout Ellie," Joel says. "I still don't want you going near her."

"I get that," Desmond says, mild. "But…?"

"But – I'll…  I'll think about it. Talk to her, maybe, I don't know yet," Joel says. "If you swear no harm's gonna come to her – "

"I swear," Desmond says. "On the threat of you putting a bullet in my head, I swear."

Joel nods, and he thinks he believes the guy. He'd still bear watching, and Joel would damn well be there every step of the way, but… for now, the guy has the benefit of the doubt. "Okay," he says. "I'll think about it, anyway. I'm making no promises, but… maybe."

"Maybe's good. All I can ask," Desmond says with a relieved sigh and leans back a little. "And hey, even if you go for no this time, maybe… I mean. I travel a lot, maybe I can get some info back to you, about what we learned from Elijah, and you can go from there."

"Maybe," Joel says again, rolling the beer bottle between his hands. "How long are you stayin' for?"

"At this point, as long as people can stand to have me here, I guess?" Desmond says and shrugs with a rueful smile. "I like this place a lot. And, don't take this the wrong way, but everything I've been looking for is here. I'm really in no hurry to leave."

"Right," Joel says, casting him a narrow look. Desmond lifts his hands up reassuringly and Joel snorts at him. "Am I going to regret not shooting you?" he wonders, taking another drink of his beer.

"I hope not?" Desmond offers and smiles a little wider at the look Joel gives him. "I'll be nice, I promise. I'm thinking of asking if there are some jobs I can pitch in with, to earn my keep with more than just info. Something I can contribute to your lovely town. I figure you guys probably wouldn't let me work in the town, but… me and Ezio, we're damn good at clearing out the infected."

"I bet," Joel muses. "Our patrols caught the aftermath of you doing that. You always burn the bodies?"

"When we can, yeah," Desmond agrees. "You leave them, and they just become ground infections."

"Hmm," Joel hums. There are some sections in the surrounding places, the abandoned little towns and buildings, which he's not terribly happy about – they patrol the area, sure, but they can't cover every place. "Your dog, how good is he?"

"Ezio's the best trained spore dog we have," Desmond says with perfect confidence. "I think he's had two misses, and one of them was because the infected were shut in a freezer, the other they were trapped in a cellar. He's saved my life more times than I care to count."

"He trained to fight the infected?" Joel asks interestedly. Back in Boston, the military sometimes used dogs for that, for taking out the infected without risking people.

"No," Desmond shakes his head. "He's too valuable for that, so he's trained to stay quiet and keep his distance, always."

Joel nods thoughtfully. Maybe he'll talk to Tommy about it – about bringing Desmond and his dog along for their patrol, as a trial run. Maybe. Might not feel like such a good idea once the morning dawns and the alcohol is fully outta his system, but… it'd be a shame to waste using the dog, if the dog worked. And seeing Desmond in action against the infected might be valuable in its own right.

"Right, well," Joel says and takes another drink. "That's something to think about, too."

"That's great," Desmond answers, grinning delightedly. "I do love making people think. Can we think of having another dinner, too, sometime?"

Joel arches his brows at the man. "Are you for real?"

"Oh yeah," Desmond says, nodding. "This was the best dinner I've had in… at least two years."

"Did someone pull a gun on you that time too?" Joel asks with a snort.

Desmond thinks about it. "I think maybe, yeah. Actually, it might've been a sword," he muses and shrugs, offering him a rueful smile. "So. Another date?" he asks hopefully. "How about it?"

Joel shakes his head, not sure if to be amused or worried. "This wasn't a date," he says firmly, taking another drink and sitting up. "And even if it was, not sure another one would be a good idea, all things considered. You're still a fucking spy."

"Aww, and here I was hoping you'd warmed up to me." Desmond says, disappointed, and straightens up as well, likely sensing his upcoming dismissal. "Oh well, you might be right. The dinner was still really good anyway, the potatoes were so delicious. So, you know. Thank you for having me."

"… You're welcome," Joel says, begrudgingly pleased, and then shakes his head. "Now finish your beer and get out." Before he actually starts to like the guy, God forbid.

"Still so grumpy," Desmond murmurs under his breath and drains his beer in one go, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand once done. "Okay, all done. Thanks again."

"Out."

"I'm going, I'm going," Desmond says, holding his hands up amusedly and heading to the hall, Joel following him closely after, to see him off. "You know, I think my previous guard assumed I'd stay the night," Desmond comments lightly while pulling his shoes on. "I'm not supposed to be going around unescorted, security reasons and all. So… are you going to walk me to my hotel room?"

"… shit, forgot about that," Joel mutters, running a hand over his face as the guy grins at him. That is not going to do any favours to the rumours, huh. "Screw it, okay, hang on a moment…"

After blowing out the candles and a quick check to make sure the stove isn't on and everything is as it should be, Joel grabs a jacket and his shoes, and then follows still grinning Desmond out, giving him a sideways glare. "Don't even."

"I didn't say anything," Desmond says, his smile widening, his eyes bright. "I was just thinking it's a nice night out. Romantic. Perfect for a walk."

Joel smothers a sigh. "Let's just go."

It really is, too, damn it all.

Chapter Text

Ten years on foot. Though, really, it had been longer than that – it wasn't like the Brotherhood took immediately to the sea, and even after they did, they didn't spend all the time there. Living on boats still took docking, took gathering resources. Try and live only on a boat, and that's scurvy, sooner or later. Living in cramped quarters, it wasn't really for Desmond anyway. So, it was closer to… probably eighteen years on foot, with some smattering of weeks and months spent at sea.

After you've been moving for so long, sitting still isn't easy. Even when he finds a nice safe place to kick back and relax in for a while, the itch to keep on going eventually comes back. It's almost a survival instinct at this point. Desmond's seen so many settlements, so many safehouses, so many bunkers and guard outposts, so many safe little hidey holes… all of them raided, or flooded with infected, or otherwise dead. There are some that are still there and doing well, but most of them…?

Stationary living has so many points of failure, and all it takes is one mistake, and that's it. You let in someone you shouldn't, or your defences fail, or… or some system you're reliant on fails, air conditioning, running water, a random little brook that runs through your place. Doesn't really matter what it is – something happens that you can't counteract, and that's that. There are so many places where something happened and there's only the evidence left – no people, just signs of failure.

Moving around has one point of failure. You stop moving fast enough.

Not that Desmond thinks it's better, necessarily, or that he's that invested in figuring out the best form of survival. God knows he's not come out of his years of near isolation unaffected. Hell, he's attracted to Joel Miller, and the guy broke into his stuff and held him at gunpoint.

"What do you think, boy?" Desmond asks, while Ezio noses around a patch of long grass for scents, enjoying the chance of being just a dog for once, smelling the territory marks of other dogs. "On a scale of one to ten, how dumb am I?"

The dog doesn't answer, pulling the leash in between nearly taut to get the full width of the smells that has him engaged, and Desmond sighs.

He's not feeling the pull to the road, right now. It's been three nights now, or thereabouts. One night in the trade station, enjoying the luxury of hot, running water, and two nights in the hotel-guest-house, where he had to fetch his water from a well, and heat it in a kettle. Still luxury, but harder won luxury. Usually at this point he'd be thinking about what is behind that next ridge and what he might see over there – usually at this point he was already getting restless.

But he isn't. He just sort of wonders what Joel is doing now. Probably having some excellent breakfast. With bacon.

"I'm so dumb," Desmond admits, as Ezio finally finishes his all-important sniffing and begins looking hopefully forward. Sighing, Desmond follows, ignoring the guard loitering some ways behind him, how they move to follow. That Desmond isn't so sanguine about, the armed guard on him – a bit harder to get used to, but… he can handle it.

They continue their walk, Ezio doing his business eventually on the lawn of an abandoned house with a caved in ceiling and broken windows, marking just about every bush and fencepost along the way. With him done, Desmond turns back towards the hotel, intending on leaving his poor dog inside for the day again, the way he has been in the last couple of days – and the moment Ezio realises that, he starts fighting against the leash and whining.

"I'm sorry, buddy," Desmond sighs. "Wish I could bring you with me too, but we're amongst people and I don't trust them enough to not feed you rat poison. Remember that time in Detroit? We do not want a repeat of Detroit."

"Rat poison?" a voice ahead says, and Desmond looks up to see Tommy, hanging about the front of the guest house. "Someone tried to feed your dog rat poison?"

"Dunno if it was intentional." Desmond admits. "The area had a wild dog problem."

"Huh. Well, no one in Jackson will do anything like that – we have few enough animals as it is," Tommy assures. He's got a backpack on, and a rifle with a scope slung over one shoulder. "So you don't need to worry about that."

"That's good to hear, I guess. So, what's up?" Desmond asks, curious. "Heading out on patrol?"

"Yeah, me and Joel are setting out, a day shift – it's a twenty mile circuit, or thereabouts," Tommy says, rocking back and forth on his heels, smiling. "And Joel suggested we invite you along – said you were interested in doing your part for the community, and that your dog's nose might be invaluable."

Desmond blinks and arches brows and doesn't even bother to hide how warm the words make him feel. "Joel said that?" he asks, and Tommy grins a little wider. "Well, shoot, okay. I'd love to come – there's just one problem. Ezio isn't really used to horses."

"Yeah, we thought so – figured we'd take a footpath route, go take a look at the houses on the hills," Tommy says, motioning to the mountains around them. "They're harder to get to on a horse, and no one likes doing them, but they gotta be cleared out every now and then, too. How does your dog do on mountains?"

"He'll do alright," Desmond says, modestly – Ezio's a better climber than most people. "We going now?"

"Unless you got places to be."

"No, no, just – lemme get my stuff, won't take long."

Tommy waits outside, talking to Desmond's guard while Desmond quickly gets his coat, his bracers, his gloves – wrapping up enough to be at least a bit bite-proof. He gets a water skin and some snacks for Ezio and him both, before packing the few knives he has.

The guard is gone by the time Desmond goes out again, Ezio eagerly tugging on his leash to go and sniff at Tommy.

"Any chance I can bring at least my bow?" Desmond asks.

"Yeah, of course," Tommy says, holding his hand out for Ezio to sniff. "We'll pick your stuff up at the gates – come on. Joel's probably waiting for us already. Heard you guys had a nice night."

"Um," Desmond answers and then realises – right, family member. Shit, are shovel talks still a thing? Would Joel have told this guy – does he know or…? "We – did. Yeah. It was very... informative?"

"Uh-huh," Tommy says, smiling. "Certainly seemed to have given him a thing or two to think of. What'd you guys talk about?"

"Uh, this and that? A bit about what we did before the Outbreak. Your usual stuff, I think?" Desmond offers. "You'll have to ask him, sorry."

Now that he thinks about it, this might be a not so convoluted way of getting him out of town so that Joel can shoot him and claim it was the infected, or an accident. Hm. It's definitely a better plan than the guy shooting Desmond in his hotel room, or in Joel's and Ellie's house. Would be a pity if it turned out to be what the guy was planning, though.

Tommy hums, amused. "I did ask him – and he suggested bringing you on our patrol. It's enough to make a guy curious, is all," he says and chuckles. "He's got a hard outer layer, Joel, but on the inside he's as soft as they come. A die-hard romantic – not that you could tell by the look of him."

Joel's been nothing but a hardass ever since they met and the guy's reputation doesn't paint him in any kinder light. But, yeah, that's an intriguing statement. "It was a pretty nice night, yeah," Desmond muses. Aside from the whole gun pointing. He'll remember the potatoes until he dies, anyway.

"I'm glad. He needs it – he's been needing some normalcy, really. It's nice to see him putting himself out there again."

Yeah, sure, if that's what you want to call it, when a guy breaks into someone's room. Joel definitely put himself out there, alright.

There's some commotion at the town gates – other patrols setting out, judging by the groupings. Desmond's had enough time to watch the place to know that their patrols always move at least in twos, that there are two shifts – day and night – and that there's at least six common routes they take. So, at least twenty four patrol members, probably few more considering that Joel hasn't been going out every day. Likely it's a shifting schedule, with people in reserve to give others a break when they need it – and to have enough people always stationed at home.

The place is well defended, and their patrols are pretty well laid out. There are still gaps and they really could do with some actual watch towers near the town, in Desmond's opinion, but as far as big town defences go, he's seen worse.

Joel is there, talking with two other patrols, who are about to head out on horseback. Spotting Tommy and Desmond, he waves a hand and breaks away from the others – and Desmond sees that the guy is holding his stuff, both his bow and his sword. "Here," he says, handing them over while behind him just about every other patrol member leans in to watch. "Fetched 'em for you."

"Appreciated," Desmond says, smiling, accepting them gladly while Ezio sniffs at Joel's knee curiously. "Good morning, Joel," Desmond adds, warmer, not bothering to hide his appreciation. Joel's not exactly dressed for the occasion, but damn, he's certainly armed for it. He's got Molotovs.

Gotta love a well prepared man.

Joel clears his throat, glancing back at the horse patrols and then giving Desmond a warning look. "Yeah, mornin'."

Tommy grins, looking between them. "We all set, then? I packed lunch for us all," he adds. "And the mid-point lookout should have enough dry stuff stored to make a dinner, if needed."

"I'm all set," Joel says, resting a hand on his revolver, while Desmond straps the sword to his side, his quiver to his back.

"The dog need anything before we go?" Tommy asks.

"There was a brook on the way, right? Then he's good – he can drink as we go, and I have food for him," Desmond says. "We're all good."

"Great, let's head out, then," Tommy says and nods to the patrols on horses, quickly pretend they weren't watching as closely as they were. "Right. Take care out there, people – let's move out."

The gates are opened, and Desmond tries not to look at their mechanisms too obviously. Looks like they're designed so that no one person can open them – you need at least four, pulling chains and keeping stoppers from stalling the process, and even then it takes effort. Clever.

The horse patrols take off first, kicking their heels and setting off at easy gallop, while Tommy and Joel lead Desmond out with brisk but much slower pace. The gates immediately begin closing after them, sealing the town shut.

"Tell me," Joel says, looking back at the gates. "Could you get through that on your own?" he's looking at Desmond, and there's something challenging in his eyes. "If you wanted to get in?"

"Hm?" Desmond asks, meeting his eyes and then looking back. A dare, is it? Hm. Well. "The gates? Probably, but not without being noticed. Your wall's less defended on the sides, and there's shade spots that would offer better cover – and you've left a few trees too close to the wall here and there. And old cars." He motions to the said cars.

Tommy blinks, looking between them confusedly and then looking where Desmond's pointing. "Thought we cleared the area around the wall pretty well, myself. No infected's ever gotten through. And… you mean you could get up those gates? No way."

"Infected don't generally parkour," Desmond says, glancing at Joel. "You want me to show you? I can do that but maybe tell your guards not to shoot me – I'm gonna run at the gate."

Tommy and Joel share a look and then nod. "Yeah," Tommy says and calls to the gates. "Stand down for a bit – our guest's gonna show us something."

"Ezio, stay, boy, stay," Desmond says, and once Ezio has sat down to watch, Desmond eases his backpack off his shoulder and then considers the gate. They're gates from an old warehouse, it looks like, painted metal. By themselves they'd be hard to climb – but there's just a slight opening between them and there are bolts on the metal, from where some supports were screwed in on the other side – and bits of metal which looked like cut off parts of old locking mechanisms.

It's pretty smooth – but not smooth enough. Just the gap between the doors would've been enough.

Desmond tightens his gloves and then takes the gate at a run, kicking off the metal as far as he can go before having to grab a hold in the crack between the gates. His boots find enough grip in the bolts, and between his fingers grabbing the gap between the gates and the bolts catching on the tread of his boots… he can climb the thing.

"Holy shit, man," someone on the watch post at the gate says as he reaches the top.

"Hiya," Desmond answers, getting an arm across the top but not quite perching on it. "Just displaying a weakness. How you fellas doing?"

"Never better," one of the guards says, peering down. "How are you going to get down from there?"

In answer, Desmond drops, bending his knees just enough to mitigate the damage. "Like that," he says and turns to Joel and Tommy. "But like I said, I wouldn't try to get though here. I'd find a shadowy spot along the wall, then get a tree branch or something, and climb over that way."

"Told you," Joel says, looking at Tommy. "It still needs work – there are other openings too, openings a smuggler could use. Or a thief. Or anyone."

"Don't have too many smugglers here, but I hear you," Tommy says, scratching at his beard while Desmond picks up his backpack. "Some barbed wire, maybe?"

"If you want to make it easier, sure," Desmond says, shouldering his backpack again, shrugging to settle the weight. "Barbwire is just an angry rope, when you get down to it. All you need is cutters, a good pair of gloves and a blanket, and it's not an issue.

"Okay – what should we do about the gate, then?"

Desmond considers the gate. "Not much you can do, really, not unless you want to file those bits off, and do something about the bolts – and there's still that gap. And even after that, someone might just get a rope with a hook. Like I said, the blindspots along the walls are your biggest issue, not the climbable but well guarded gate. I'd figure those out first. You mind if I let Ezio loose now?"

"Yeah, sure, go ahead," Tommy says, still peering at the wall thoughtfully. "So, what would you do about the wall?"

Desmond releases Ezio's leash, giving the dog a scratch. "Stay close, boy," he says, and then lets him loose – immediately he sets out sniffing around, getting to know the area. "Well. You've done good opening the area around the gate, and I can see you've done some of the same around the rest of the wall, but there's a few points you can probably cross over if you've got a plank, or a long ladder…"

Still talking about it, they set out along the path, Ezio leading the way, as per usual.


 

"Ezio, perimeter, go," Desmond says while he, Joel and Tommy hide crouched behind a broken, rusting car. Ezio sniffs at the ground, at the air, and then sets forth to circle around the mountain cabin, scenting as he goes, soon disappearing behind it. When he comes back, his ears are laid down, his tail is near between his legs, and he immediately presses his whole weight against Desmond's side.

"That's a different reaction," Joel comments quietly, watching the dog with a frown. They've already done it four times with four other houses - all of them empty. "I'm guessing it's not clear?"

"Yeah, there are probably infected inside," Desmond says, patting Ezio's side reassuringly. "And they're moving around too, since he's on edge. Good boy, Ezio, it's okay…"

"Right," Tommy says in a low voice, checking his rifle and then gripping it more securely. "Let's see about clearing them out, then. Joel, you want to take point?"

"Let our guest do it," Joel says, another not so subtle challenge, and nods at Desmond. "I wanna see how you handle that bow."

"Oh, I bet you do," Desmond murmurs with a smile and gives Ezio a scratch. "Stay here, Ezio, stay. Down low. That's a good boy."

Ezio lays down on the grass on his belly, and setting an arrow on his bow's string, Desmond sets forward. It's a pretty small cabin, only one floor with no fence, not much security – but the door and windows have been blocked from the inside, which is telling. Probably a survivor or several, who tried hiding there and got turned one way or the other. It's the usual, sad, story.

Desmond checks to see where they might've gotten in and finds a broken window with loose boards blocking it, which he can ease open with minimal noise, prying the rotted wood off its rusted nails. Then he concentrates on the area inside, trying to figure what he's up against.

"There are two inside," he murmurs to Joel, who's following close behind.

"Yeah, I hear 'em," Joel agrees and Desmond casts him an curious look. He can hear them? Interesting. He's going to have to poke that statement with a stick, later.

Desmond tries to see inside through the gaps in the boards, but it's dark. Oh well, it's just two, and they don't sound like clickers. "Shouldn't take long," he says, and without further ado eases through the window, and inside the small cabin.

The infected are only a few months old, at most – still in the early runner stage. Both of them are in the same room, a kitchen-living room setup, the two parts separated from one another by a kitchen island. One of the infected is in stupor, just standing beside a broken living room table, hanging their head and saving energy  as the fungus works through their brain. The other is taking jerky steps back and forth in the kitchen portion, letting off quiet snarls.

Desmond pulls his bow string back, aims, and takes the infected in the kitchen out first, shooting the arrow through a pale, bleeding eye. The zombie goes down with chattering, inhuman-sounding croak, and without waiting Desmond turns to the other infected, still standing near motionless, and pulls out his sword.

One swing, and it's over.

Still, just in case, Desmond crouches low and listens for more. Nothing.

"All clear. I'll get the door open, hang on," he calls, and sets his sword down on the couch before doing just that, pulling the dresser that was blocking the door out of the way, and kicking the door open. "There you go, gentlemen."

"Just the two of them?" Tommy asks, as he and Joel come in to check.

"Mm-hmm," Desmond says and picks up his sword again, taking out a bottle of alcohol to clean it. "We can have Ezio check for mycelium and spores once we have the bodies out. Both look pretty fresh though."

"You do that every time?" Tommy asks, crouching by the nearest body, now headless on the floor. "Check for ground growth?"

"If I can, yeah. I like being thorough," Desmond agrees, and once he's sure his sword isn't infectious he pushes it back in its sheath. "These two anyone you know?"

"No, we're not missing anyone from the town, and people we know would know better than get this far off the beaten path," Tommy says, but picks through their pockets, finding a letter. "In case I turn up infected," he reads. "Aw, I hate these ones."

"Got one here too," Joel reports from the other infected, taking out a similar letter.

Desmond looks between them. "You hate people leaving behind final messages?" he asks dubiously.

"Kinda, if they come with final wishes," Tommy agrees, opening the letter. "Anette Mell," he reads.

"Jackie Mell," Joel calls, opening the other letter. "This one wanted to be buried."

"Yeah, that ain't happening," Tommy says, reading the rest of the letter and sighing. "I ain't got nothing against people wanting to be still thought of as people after infection, but the world's hard enough without you making yourself a burden to the livin'," he says, glancing up at Desmond. "Think we got enough on our plates without taking up quests to scatter people's ashes in the ocean, or taking their remains back home to be buried, or some shit like that. People should know better than ask to be buried anyway."

"Ah, yeah, that I get," Desmond agrees. "They say where they're from?"

"Here," Tommy says and hands the letter over. "Joel, let's get these bodies out so we can burn em."

"Got it," Joel agrees, and begins dragging the body back by its legs – handing Desmond the other letter and his arrow back as he goes. "Good shot," he comments.

"Pity you didn't see it in action," Desmond smiles, and looks through the letters. They were just kids, the pair – Anette was eighteen and Jackie twenty. Both from a FEDRA farm – so probably indentured servants, or whatever FEDRA calls it these days. "Poor kids," he murmurs, and puts both letters in his pocket. "You get wanderers like these often?"

"Yeah. People know that the infected can die in the cold," Tommy says. "So they think heading north will be safer. Either they're aiming for the mountains or they're trying  to cross through here, and get caught up. It happens – though usually more around winter."

"Rough," Desmond comments and then whistles out to Ezio, who's still waiting by the car like the good boy he is. "Ezio, come in boy, let's check for spores."

With the bodies out and Tommy and Joel setting out to burn them, Ezio joins Desmond inside, sniffing and sniffing. He finds the spots where the infected had been standing and moving, but after a while of checking, his tail gives a sort of half-assed wag. "That's a good boy, Ezio. I think it's a treat time. Wanna treat? Of course you want a treat," Desmond murmurs, giving him a scratch.

"No spores?" Joel asks, coming back inside.

"No spores, but if I were you I'd let this place freeze over winter, just in case. It's too warm and humid inside for my liking," Desmond says, crouching down to feed Ezio a bit of jerky he'd gotten at Jackson.

"Agreed," Joel says, and then goes around rummaging in the cupboards, the bathroom, and the single bedroom, picking up everything useful. "I think that's everything here," he calls out to Tommy, who's just setting the bodies on fire outside the cabin, and then looks at Desmond, who's giving Ezio another scratch just because he can.

"What?" Desmond asks. "You wanna pet him too? I bet he'd like that. Come here."

Joel scoffs lightly. "No," he says.

"Oh, come on – he did a good job, come give him a scratch."

Joel rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "Let's move on," he says, gruff, and heads out again. "There are still ways to go until midpoint."

Desmond snorts after him and gives Ezio another pat. "He likes us, really, he's just emotionally constipated," he says. "We'll win him over, won't we, boy? Yeah, we will."

Chapter Text

During their trip to the midpoint lookout, they clear out in total six infected – two at the mountain cabin, and four stragglers in the forest. They probably would've been fine without Desmond and his dog there – but the only reason they even spotted the infected in the forest is because the dog caught a scent on them, so… Joel has to hand it to them. The dog is capable. And so is Desmond. Killing a clicker with an arrow, while definitely possible, isn't always a sure bet, but the guy made his shots count.

Six infected, no injuries, no issues. Not a bad haul for the first half of the patrol.

"So, this is the midpoint lookout?" Desmond asks, looking curiously around in the ranger cabin. "How does it work – do you stay here, or…"

"It depends, really. This route isn't part of our usual patrol routes – we only have someone go over it once every month or two, depending on the weather," Tommy says while jotting down their names and the infected they took down in the log book. "Infected rarely come to the hills like this, they tend to follow the valleys. We're not really on a schedule here, no one's going to be taking over for us once we finish. So, no need to hurry."

"If the weather's bad, you might stay here, wait it out, maybe even over the night if you have no patrol next day," Joel muses. "But usually we just have lunch here and then keep at it, finish before the evening."

"Nice," Desmond says. "So, time for food?"

"Yeah," Tommy agrees. "Do you mind starting up a fire in the fireplace over there? This place ain't wired with electricity, we haven't bothered with it there, since it's used so rarely. We'll cook by fire."

"Got it."

While Desmond goes to fiddle with the fire, Joel picks up the binoculars sitting on the cabin table before moving to the back of the cabin, pushing the door open to step outside to the veranda. There's not much you can see from this particular lookout, but it does have a view on some of the footpaths, and sometimes you can spot deer and such from here. And, sometimes, the deer attract the infected.

Something brushes against Joel's leg, and he looks down to see Ezio, pushing past him to investigate the veranda too. "Your dog's escaping," Joel calls into the cabin. "He falls from here, he's going to break a leg, and then some."

"He's fine," Desmond calls back. "It's his job - just let him do his thing."

"His thing is falling and breaking a leg?"

Desmond laughs. "You know what I mean."

Joel shakes his head and watches the dog sniff around the veranda, checking the corners. Then Ezio turns to him, ears perking and tail wagging hopefully. Joel makes a face and then glaces to the door, just to make sure Desmond doesn't have an angle on him.

Then he gives the dog a quick scratch, murmuring, "Good boy, Ezio. Well done." The dog did do a good job, after all. Isn't his fault his master is constantly toeing the line of infuriating.

Ezio's tail wags harder as he noses at Joel's hand trustingly and then Desmond calls, "Ezio, boy, come back inside. It's time for food!" The dog's ears perk up, and with a definite bounce to his steps he heads back inside while Joel straightens up, schooling his expression. The dog definitely doesn't know to be scared of people, huh? 

Joel thinks idly of a place in the east where the food situation got so bad that people ended up hunting wild dogs and cats, and – yeah. Definitely too trusting. Though, the fact that Desmond had let such a valuable animal remain so trusting, that he could afford it… it could mean many things.

Tommy slips onto the balcony and comes to stand beside him, a slight smile on his lips. "Not feeling particularly lovey-dovey, huh?"

"Ugh. Do we have to?" Joel answers, looking away.

"You know, I can clear out for a bit if you wanna, you know. Talk. There's a spot down there good for sniping across the valley, and I just bet there are some stragglers by the Nelson house again," Tommy says and nudges him with an elbow. "Should probably check it out, might take me an hour or two."

Joel looks at him, not sure how serious he's being. "That's not necessary."

"Hey, you're the one who suggested inviting him," Tommy points out, amused. "Figure it was for a reason – and yet here you're acting like you can barely stand the guy. Reckon he's feeling a little dejected right now. Might want to rectify that."

"Are you kidding me?" Joel asks, incredulously.

Tommy shrugs, giving him a sort of half suggestive, half knowing smile and pats him on the back. "You ain't getting any younger, Joel," he says. "And pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but your choices ain't getting any wider. Might want to pick up the pace, while the chance's there."

"Oh, God," Joel mutters, while Tommy heads back inside, already telling Desmond he'd be gone for a bit. Joel takes a moment to roll his eyes at the sky before lowering the binoculars and heading back inside as well. Tommy is already heading out of the door, rifle slung over one shoulder.

Desmond looks just mostly amused. "What was that about?"

"Tommy's idea of being courteous," Joel says, glancing at the fire. It'd be a while until the wood burned down enough for a cooking fire. "He thinks we're going to… hook up."

"Uh-huh," Desmond says, smiling a little wider, before tuning back to his task, of pouring various bits of food for his dog. He'd gotten chicken feet and pig ears and such from Jackson, it looks like, which Ezio tucks into with gusto. "Any actual hope of that?"

Joel gives him a sideways look, sitting down by the lone table. "Getting your hopes up?" he asks, leaning back to watch him. He doesn't mean to – but the words come out like a dare.

"Well, I mean…" Desmond says, standing up with a stretch. "There are two ways this goes down, which are interesting. And one of them involves you shooting me and leaving me in a ditch somewhere in here. So if there's anything else on the table, well. I'd be more receptive."

"Uh-huh," Joel answers, flat, watching him, wondering about his aim here. "Show it to me again – the scars. I wanna see 'em again."

Desmond hesitates, glancing towards the window and squinting until he's sure they're alone. There's a swing to his steps that's definitely suggestive as he turns to Joel in full, coming closer – opening his jacket and lifting his sweater up as he comes. It's an act, a literal act – but damn if the man doesn't put intent in his movement, as he bares his midriff.

"Just as pretty in the light of day, huh?" Desmond asks, his voice low, stopping close enough for their legs to almost touch. "Go on, check – it's not fake."

It had crossed Joel's mind that it might be. It has an… unreal look to it, is all. Shiny skin, slightly misshapen where there'd been some swelling, with a motley cluster of cysts and what looks almost like warts…  yeah. Ellie's scar kind of looks like something out of a bad horror movie, sort of practical effect prosthetic, too, but Joel knows it's real.

This one feels real, too. Like living skin, albeit little misshapen with weird blemishes. The cysts are full of fluid, or something – they're hard to the touch, like zits. This close up Joel can see the puncture wounds of the injections, stretched like old pockmarks. It looks like Desmond had had a bad time of it, there's even a hint of a stretch mark.  

Joel runs a pad of his thumb down a cluster, and despite how gruesome it looks, they feel clean, not wet, or too dry, not leaky, nothing. Just scarred skin. Under it, he can feel muscles, tightening reflexively.

"Nice, isn't it?" Desmond asks, grinning.

"The nicest," Joel says, sarcastic. "You've had it for over ten years? Wonder people haven't tried to kill you for being infected."

Desmond shrugs. "I have almost gotten shot for it a couple of times, so… I tend to keep it to myself," he admits. "Makes dating a bit awkward, but then again, so does not being generally around people."

"Hm," Joel hums, and by themselves his fingers wander to unblemished skin. Desmond's a little dehydrated – where the scars don't hide it, he's got that wiry musculature of the poorly hydrated and underfed to him.

"Um, wandering off to the sexy touch there," Desmond comments. "By all means, keep going."

Joel scoffs and looks up at him. "How much of that is you trying to make me like you?"

"All of this is me trying to make you like me," Desmond says, giving him an incredulous look. "What do you think I'm doing?"

"I'm thinking you're trying to influence me so that you can get at Ellie," Joel points out.

Desmond stops at that, draws a breath and then sighs. "I wish, Joel, I wish that it wasn't a factor, I do. I wish I could just go after you like a dog in heat and that'd be all there was to any of this," he says. "But life's complicated, and your girl is the only person with a benign fungus we've found since Elijah. I'm sorry that it remains slightly important to me."

Joel scoffs at that and then leans back while Desmond lets his sweater drop back down to cover the scars. They look at each other silently for a moment, teetering on the edge of something, and Joel isn't sure how good it is that it makes his heart beat a little faster.

"If it was Elijah, wouldn't you be a bit suspicious?" he asks.

"Fuck, a bit, he says," Desmond sighs and lowers his chin, looking down at the floor between them before lifting his head. "Yeah, I'd probably do the same. Worse."

"Hm," Joel answers, wondering. The picture of him with the kid, the quiver to Desmond's voice every time he said the name… the fact that he's spent fifteen years searching for another. Hell, the fact that the guy was a subject of the trial, in the first place…

"How do you keep in touch with your people?" Joel asks, looking away. "You gotta be doing it somehow, for this travellin' business to even work for your group. You have some means of communicating globally. Network of radio stations?"

"Some places, yeah. This far inland it tends to get a bit spotty, and you never know when you're about to lose an important link in the chain," Desmond says. "So we use satellite phones."

Joel frowns at that, looking up at his face. "You have functional satellite phones? Haven't all the satellites drifted off their orbits already?"

"Great big honking majority of them – but not all of them," Desmond shrugs. "We have three we can control, somewhat – it's not enough for phone calls, but voice messages work, and we can send some small files, occasionally. We call out to the satellite, it stores the message until someone's on the other end, ready to receive it."

"… goddamn," Joel says, flat, a little bit incredulous. Not because he doesn't believe the guy – hell, it makes as much sense as his botched up infection trial. But that Desmond just told him that. The guy has a satellite phone – a functional satellite phone, with which he can actually make calls, send messages. "You have any idea how fucking valuable that is?"

"Oh yeah. FEDRA has satellite communication still, too," Desmond informs him. "Which honestly makes it all the more sad how badly they're messing it up, really. Ours are mostly commercial satellites we managed to hijack – they still have military satellites up and running on their old courses, the smug bastards."

Joel snorts. Jesus – what kind of world do you live in where you have not just the ability but the reason to be jealous of military satellites. "You have the phone?"

"It's useless until two days from now," Desmond says and takes it out from his pocket, right there and there. It's small, the size of old pre-smartphone-era cell phones, really. "The satellite that goes over this region is on irregular orbit – it's only about once in a week where it's near enough to this location to catch a signal."

Joel eyes the phone for a moment, wondering. It's obviously a show of trust. Maybe a tactic to make him trust Desmond more. Look at me, I am showing you this valuable secret, don't you trust me more now? Christ. "Okay," Joel sighs and runs a hand over his face. Fuck this shit. "Okay, put it away."

"Okey-dokey," Desmond says amiably and slips the satellite phone back into his pocket. "Not the reaction I was expecting, but alright. So… now what?"

"Now we make food, wait for Tommy and then continue on the patrol."

The look Desmond gives him is full of disappointment. "Joel," he sighs, almost admonishing in his tone.

Joel stares back, expressionless. "Desmond." And again it sounds like a challenge, damnit.

The spy tilts his head to the side and then leans down a little. "You know, at the risk of fucking up this whole cure business and everything," he says. "I'm going to kiss you. You have two seconds to shove me back and then we'll never go there again. Okay? Okay. Gonna kiss you now."

Joel thinks about shoving him away for about a second.

He ends up leaning up instead, and meets Desmond's mouth halfway.

Joel tells himself it ain't anything special. Kiss is a kiss, and he's had enough of 'em during his life to know that most of 'em ain't nothing to write home about. Just a weird messy physical affair. It's nothing you can't live without, and therefore not really all that important.

The way Desmond wastes no time sliding to sit astride his lap does feel more than a little special. He's heavy, for all that he's thin, and solid all throughout – not as many sharp angles as you'd expect, more hard plains. Strong, but Joel knew that, just watching him climb a fifteen foot gate showed that. He smells like sweat and smoke and dust, not particularly appealing. The way he moves, though...

"Fuck," Joel murmurs between kisses, as one hand cards through his hair, nails scraping along his scalp, and another cradles his jaw. His own hands have found a natural, comfortable position at Desmond's hips, and it's easy, sliding them forward to grip his ass, his fingers accidentally sliding into back pockets before he catches them. The guy's got a solid, fleshy ass – all that walking and moving and bike riding having left their mark.

"Don't suppose there's time for that?" Desmond breathes out, and without letting Joel answer tilts his head back to another kiss, deep and wet and no-nonsense – there's not a shy fucking bone in this guy's body.

Joel bites his tongue before he can try and stick it into Desmond's mouth and leans back. "Handjob?" he suggests. "Think I got a rag in my pocket…"

"Fuck, you are a romantic," Desmond says, and without further ado, without a shred of grace, they tackle the issue of buttons and zippers. Desmond's fingers are cold, his fingertips dry, calloused – judging by the way the guy's hips jump as Joel winds his fingers around him, he's not sure about the feel of it either. Doesn't stop either of them.

Fuck, it's – nice. To feel another's hand on him, other than just his own. Been a fucking long time since Joel's bothered, anyway – what with Ellie –

"Yeah," Desmond breathes, pushing into his grip. The grind of it is a little too tight, a little too awkward – there's a seam digging into Joel's balls, which is the furthest from comfortable, but he's already hard, and he ain't stopping this now. "F- fuck yeah."

Joel puts his mouth on Desmond's throat and almost regrets it the moment he does it – there's a layer of dry sweat on the guy's skin – but the way it makes Desmond thrust against him is nice from start to end. With a hand on the guy's ass, Joel urges him to do it again, and soon they're grinding together messily, panting into each other's space, Joel nibbling on the guy's neck enough to leave marks – and likely give him a beard burn while at it.

"Rag," Desmond pants against his ear, his fingers clenched into Joel's hair, and a hot shudder runs through Joel, enough that he's just for a split of a moment tempted to just lean back and watch. He gets the rag out instead and gives Desmond one rough stroke with it, which finishes him off. It's not graceful or particularly pretty – but damn, if it doesn't look satisfying.

While Desmond leans back, gasping for breath, Joel clasps his hand over Desmond's, tightening his grip enough to finish in a few more tight pulls into the self same rag.

"Ah, that was gross," Desmond says, half laughing, and kisses him again before Joel can find the wherewithal to complain. It's less hurried, less desperate this time – and a lot less comfortable. 

"You're heavy," Joel grumbles against his mouth. "My leg's going asleep. Get off."

"The romance's gone already, huh? Okay, okay, getting up," Desmond answers while clumsily tucking himself back in before standing up with a stretch, rubbing at his lower back. "Fuck, stuff like this was way more fun twenty years ago. God, I hate growing old…"

Joel clears his throat, not sure what to say, if there's anything to say, really. After straightening up his clothes, he considers the rag and then just throws it in the fire – and only then remembers the fucking dog.

"Did we just – with your god damn dog watching us?" he demands.

"Oh, like he cares – he's done worse things with me watching," Desmond snorts and gives the dog an amused look. "Yeah, you don't give a shit, do you, Ezio? You don't care at all, no, you don't. You want a treat, boy?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Joel groans and almost runs a hand over his face, before making a face. "There's – there should be water in the bathroom. I'm gonna wash my fucking hands." …of this whole thing, hopefully.

Desmond laughs at him, and before Joel can duck out of the room, the guy grabs him by the shoulder and turns him around. "Oh, come now," Desmond says and presses a kiss to the side of Joel's mouth. "It was nice – in a sort of… mountain hobo kind of way – don't frown at me, Joel, I just gave you a handjob," he chuckles and presses another kiss to Joel's lips. "And it was nice. Yeah?"

"This is such a stupid damn mistake," Joel mutters and kisses him back despite himself. "Going to make everything so awkward."

"Oh yeah, it's going to be great," Desmond agrees with a laugh. "Now, if you break into my hotel room and we get into a fight, we can deal with a nice bout of –"

"Don't you even – shut up. I'm not going to break into your hotel room again," Joel grumbles, grimacing at him, at the way he can feel himself go red.

"Maybe I'll break into your house instead. Change it up a little, to keep things fresh."

"I will shoot you –"

With a grin Desmond silences him with his lips, and for a moment they sway and end up leaning against a wall just beside the bathroom, Joel pressed up against it with Desmond pinning him down, and he seriously should mind more than he does. Or at all. But he doesn't. Instead he clutches onto Desmond's hips and wonders what it would be like to have the man in his bed, all bare, scars and awkward bullshit and all.

"This doesn't change anything," Joel growls, even while hauling him closer. "You will still stay away from Ellie until I tell you otherwise."

"Yes, yes," Desmond agrees, still grinning, eagerly pushing closer, his eyes bright, almost honey-hued now. "Can you go again?"

"No," Joel answers incredulously and tugs him into a kiss just to shut him up before he can continue spouting nonsense.

They're more or less respectable by the time Tommy comes back, though obviously not enough for Tommy to not know exactly what happened. The bastard sends Joel such a knowing look that Joel honestly considers throwing an empty bottle at his head, just to see what'll happen.

"Well now," Tommy says, grinning. "Glad to see you managed to cook in my absence."

"See anything out there?" Joel asks, refusing to engage.

"A little this and that. Nothing much, really, no infected. I'm sure the sights up here were much more interesting," Tommy comments, wiggling his brows.

"It's been lovely, thanks," Desmond says while doing a damn bad job not looking like the smug shit. He's tending to the food, and as he looks up there's an unholy glint in his eyes. "The food is about ready. The sausage looks great."

Tommy snorts. "Oh, I bet."

Joel closes his eyes and tells himself he can't push either one of them off a cliff.

Chapter Text

After the patrol Desmond doesn't see Joel for the rest of that day – or the day after. He tries not to be disappointed, but – it sorta makes sense. In a juvenile sort of way. The guy needs space, too many revelations happening, too many new things, new threats. Desmond also probably would've wanted some space to think things through. It's just… disappointing.

He really thought he was getting somewhere. It also feels a little like he might be running out of excuses. Running out of things to trade too. Maria and Tommy have bought all the intel they think is important to Jackson, the rest Desmond can't in good conscience even sell – things like locations of other safe small settlements. Jackson is on the bigger side of the average, and if they decided they needed those farmlands or that farm machinery more than that certain family of thirteen, then – yeah. Desmond doesn't want to be the impetus for it.

… but sadly it also means he's kind of out of things to excuse his prolonged stay with.

"We do take people in every so often," Maria comments to him, after they've spent some time detailing important events around the world from the last ten years or so – none of which will probably ever affect Jackson, but are good to know in general and in terms of the future world history. "Granted, most of those aren't part of other factions, such as your Brotherhood."

"Yeah," Desmond says, wistfully, looking out of the meeting room window and to the main street of the town. There's a farm tractor driving down it, with a cargo load of a lot of felled tree trunks on it – another thing for winter storage, from what he understands. Most of the city is heated by fireplaces and ovens, after all. They need hell of a lot of firewood, in winter.

Wonder if these people know about coppicing. They have a lot of wood around their town, the mountains are full of them – but give it another ten years, and they'd be going further and further away for their firewood…

Maria watches him thoughtfully. "Tommy tells me your dog is an excellent spore sniffer – that you found a handful of infected you might've otherwise missed. You know, we used to try to train our dogs to do it, to sniffing spores."

"I heard, yeah – figured it was too risky, right?"

"We did," Maria agrees. "And we don't have suitable breeds for it. The couple of dog breeds we have, they're either for herding or they're bay dogs. Your is – I'm not actually sure. Some sort of pointer, I think?"

"Malinois-Pointer crossbreed," Desmond says thoughtfully. "You know, bay dogs can be trained to lead the infected on, even into traps – we've had some success with it, though it tends to be pretty dangerous for the dogs, since some infected can actually outrun them."

"Your people really use dogs enough to have things like that figured out?" Maria wonders.

"It wasn't we who started it – there was another faction who started the breeding program just a few years after the infection, but they had a bad time of it," Desmond admits. "FEDRA almost wiped them out. We sort of just picked up from where they left off – picked up their dogs and their training methods and moved them all to a safer location we could control."

"Do you think there'd be a way to set up a training program like that here?" Maria asks thoughtfully.

Desmond scratches at his scalp, wondering. There's been people who have tried to buy Ezio from him, or steal him, or just trick him away. Few have even asked to use Ezio for breeding. No one's ever suggested hiring Desmond as a dog trainer, though – that's a new one. "I don't see why not, if you were okay setting up a territory for it," he muses. "You'd need to capture some infected though, and let a couple of buildings develop ground growth and spores, which is it's own problem – it's why we do it on an island."

"We're fortunate here in that the winter frost kills the mycelium, so if there was a call for it, we could probably safely set something like that up," Maria muses and looks at him. "If there was a call for it."

Desmond looks away. Hint hint, huh. "Would need suitable dogs for breeding, though," he says. "Some herding dogs can be trained to it, but pointer mixes are the best. Natural instincts work better with the training, and they don't bark."

"We have some trading partners who I know still have dogs. We could ask around for it, maybe get some," Maria says and looks away. "I think I'd do just about anything, to make our patrols even a little bit safer. If I could give every patrol pair a dog to warn them of the upcoming infected…"

Desmond nods slowly. Tommy is her husband, so it makes sense. Dog training is really not what Desmond expected for himself, and – fuck. He meant to leave anyway. Sort of. Eventually. If he got the samples off Ellie, it'd be a race to the coastline to get them on the boat, to a lab, to get them verified, and then…

And then there's Joel. Fuck, Desmond really likes Joel. He definitely wouldn't mind spending some time figuring that glorious mess out.

It's gotten complicated fast, hasn't it?

Desmond sighs. "You know, I can't – can't make promises, I have some previous engagements elsewhere, but I'm not exactly in a hurry, either. I could help you set up the beginnings of a training program for the dogs," he offers. "It takes some work and care to make the range, sure, but after you got it down, all you need is the dogs and time to train them and run them through their paces."

Maria looks at him and then smiles. "I'd like that," she says and her smile turns into a grin. "And I'm sure Joel would too."

Desmond snorts. Yeah, Tommy had totally told her. "I can only hope," he murmurs, looking away. "I can sketch out the basic layout of the ranges we use on the island, it's not that complicated – two infected houses, three uninfected, and five actual infected hidden out of sight."

"I'll get our local maps, see if we have a suitable area for it," Maria nods, and they get to work.

The rest of the day is spent figuring out the ins and outs of the dog training program – which, really, is a full time job for someone, but that's something Jackson can easily support, all things considered. Maria's not so subtly suggesting it could be a job for him, in the future, if he wanted it.

Damn if it isn't tempting.


 

It's two nights after the patrol that Desmond sees Joel again. He's walking Ezio around the church grounds, feeling a little nostalgic – church and Ezio in the same place kind of always invokes that, even if his Ezio isn't that Ezio. It's so weird, how life turned out, after those hectic months before the end of the world.

"… just climb all the way up there and jump down to the nearest hay pile," he murmurs while Ezio sniffs around some overgrown bushes. "Damn, life was weird back then. Not that it's gotten any better, huh? Still weird, just, in a wildly different way. Not that you'd know, huh, boy? Always been like this to you."

He hears the steps coming towards him and glances at the red-hued silhouette with Eagle Vision before shaking his head – everyone's red. Joel's pretty vividly so, though, enough that under Eagle Vision he almost works as his own light source in a weird way. Enough death clinging to him that it resonates.

"Hi, Joel," Desmond comments, not getting up from where he's crouched on the side of the road. "What's up?"

"Desmond," Joel says, his voice level, a little too level. "You said today's the day you get a signal."

Oh. Right, yeah, that. Desmond checks his watch and then looks up. "It's in eight hours and twenty four minutes," he says and looks upwards, to the sky. "I think I can get a signal from here, though the mountains might get in the way. I'd prefer getting higher up, really."

Joel frowns a little, walking closer. "Are you going to tell your people about Ellie?"

Desmond sighs and looks away. Joel's going to ask him not to. "Okay, Joel. What do you want me to do? My people know about Salt Lake City, and they know I was tracking you. They know what I'm after."

"And if you don't call them, they're going to think something's up?" Again, with that level voice.

"Eh," Desmond shrugs. "Probably not. I miss calls every now and then, and it hasn't been a big deal so far. I figure they'll think I'm just lost somewhere in the mountains and can't get a signal. Besides, it's not like they can come here – my people are probably halfway across the Pacific by this point. They were headed to Hawaii, according to the last messages I got."

"Right," Joel says slowly, opening and closing his fists.

Desmond stands up with a stretch and gives Ezio a little tug with the leash. "Come here, boy," he murmurs and then turns to face Joel. "I've given you all I can, Joel. If that's not enough to get you to trust me, then – shit. I'm out of things to give. So. How do you want to do this? You wanna take my phone and smash it?"

Joel sighs, looks down at Ezio who's stepping up to greet him. "Shit," he mutters and looks away. He's quiet for a moment before shaking his head. "I've tried to figure out how to handle you."

"Okay," Desmond says slowly, giving Ezio a pet while watching Joel's body language. It's not hostile. It's actually kinda open for all that the man is very tense. "Great. And…?"

"Been – working with Ellie, she's got a project. Wants to turn a garage into her private nook, get away from my ugly face. Especially now that I'm – " Joel stops and clears his throat. "She's just a kid. Why does this have to be on her?"

Desmond looks down and sighs, reaching over to touch Joel's hand, testing. "The world's messed up?" he offers. "I'm sorry. But – if we manage to spread her version, then it doesn't have to be on her. It can be on the next one with her strain – or the one after that. Maybe it can just… happen."

"Still have to tell her," Joel mutters, shaking his head and almost shaking Desmond's hand off, too. He doesn't, and for a moment they just look down at their hands, Desmond now feeling a little giddy. Joel draws a breath. "If you – if I at any point feel like she's in danger – "

"You'll put a bullet in me?" Desmond asks, smiling. "Yeah, I got that. You're such a papa bear, it's adorable, in a sort of… vicious way."

Joel scoffs at him and then grips Desmond's hand in his. "Come over tonight – before the call," he says, and grimaces again. "Sit down with me and Ellie and we'll… talk about it."

Desmond grips his hand in turn, trying to cover the sudden, almost painful jolt his heart makes. "Sure," he says. "We can do that. Absolutely."

"I don't want her to know about Salt Lake City," Joel says quickly, dangerously. "I didn't tell her – I told her there were others with immunity, and the Fireflies failed. You're someone new, doing something different – we'll spin it that way. Completely unrelated to the Fireflies' research."

"You want me to lie to the kid?" Desmond asks, arching his brows.

"I don't want her to know," Joel says levelly.

Desmond blows out a breath. He's not too sure about that, but – it's not like he hasn't lied to people before, and for worse reasons. It just hits a bit closer to home, in this case. "Something this big – Joel, the kid is going to find out eventually."

Joel's eyes harden at that. "Not from you."

Right. Right. "As someone who'd rather see you happy, and as someone with some experience with lying parents, don't do that, Joel," Desmond says quietly. "This is how you lose your kid. Trust me – I was the kid that ran away. I know what lies like these feel like."

Joel's grip tightens on his to a painful extent, and then he releases it, stepping back. "We'll have dinner at five," he says. "And you better be on your best behaviour."

Desmond sighs and drops his hand. "I will be," he promises and offers a slight smile. "See you then, Joel."


 

Desmond can't think of what to bring to the dinner, so he does the best he can – he gets a slightly dry apple pie from the bakery – paying for it with mostly gossip and vague insinuations about Joel and him – and packs away the last bit of trade goods he has left, to be gifted to Ellie. Whether she'd like it or not, who knows – but it's something, and it's worth something. It even has a rechargeable battery, thanks to a tech guy back in Detroit. So if she doesn't like it, then she can just… trade it away.

He kind of wishes he could've brought Ezio too, for moral support.

It's lighter out when he heads for Joel's house, and there are more people still out and about when he makes it across the town – enough that people notice him. Desmond hasn't paid that much attention to how the locals react to the whole thing, the relationship that might or might not be building, but definitely is making some rumours. Some people seem to approve in the sense of poor lonely single father Joel needs some action in his life, and others… not so much. Thankfully so far no one's said anything, but… yeah.

There's a current of interesting tension in air – like Desmond is beginning to tap into the sense of community he, as an outsider, hadn't been keyed into at first. Like maybe, if this lasted for longer, maybe…

Pushing that thought aside, Desmond makes his way up to Joel's lawn and then to his door, and knocks. Inside, there's a thunder of footsteps as someone comes bounding in to open the door.

Desmond has seen Ellie before – though only in passing. Joel's done a damn thorough job, keeping the kid away from him and him from the kid. It had been enough to see the red on her, though. A lot of red on her. Like with most kids these days, her life hasn't been easy, huh?

 "Hi," Desmond says, smiling. "I'm Desmond – you're Ellie, right?"

"That I am," she says, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet while sizing him up. "You're the guy who's making Joel act almost like a normal person."

Desmond snorts. "I think that's giving me a little too much credit," he says. "And I'm really not, going by the way things have gone so far."

"Ellie," Joel's voice comes from the house, and then he pulls the kid away, giving Desmond a glare over her head. "You're early, food's not done yet."

"I am actually exactly on time," Desmond says, checking his watch. "Also I got an apple pie, so – forgive me?"

Joel tsk's at him, takes the pie. "Come in and take off your shoes," he says. "Ellie, into the kitchen."

"You go into the kitchen," Ellie says, making a face at him, and casts a look at Desmond. "I'm sorry about him, he's not domesticated properly."

Desmond snorts. "I kinda like that about him," he admits, and eases his shoes off. "Also, I got something for you, Ellie."

Joel stops from where he was heading to the dining room. "Now, hold on a moment – "

Ignoring him, Desmond produces the Walkman from his pocket, along with four random mix tapes he'd found and kept. "No idea if they're at all to your tastes, but – it's some tunes, anyway," he says and offers them to Ellie. "Here. Every kid needs something to block out the voice of their folks, yeah?"

"Oh, man," Ellie says, her eyes widening, lighting up. "Oh man, Joel mentioned you had one, I completely forgot – are you sure? I mean – I can have it?"

"Yeah, that's why I brought it," while Joel runs a hand down his face, Desmond hands it over. "You know how to use it? Be careful with the battery, though – it's kind of jury-rigged in," he says. "Definitely don't get it wet, okay?"

"I won't," Ellie promises, easing one of the earbuds into her left ear and listening for a moment. "Man. This thing's gotta be valuable – you sure I can have it?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's yours," Desmond smiles and then looks up at Joel, who groans, shakes his head and heads to the dining room. Score, Desmond thinks and grins a little wider. "Now that I have secured some goodwill by this great bribe," he says to Ellie under his breath. "Was Joel at all nervous about the dinner?"

Ellie snorts. "Like a teenage girl," she says and turns the walkman off, shoving it into her hoodie pocket. "He's set the table twice, and we spent almost an hour deciding what to cook. It's pasta, by the way."

Desmond grins back. "Excellent."

Together they head into the dining room, to see Joel carrying a big pot of pasta onto the dining room table, followed by a skillet of sauce with ground meat – and this time, the bread looks freshly baked. Is it freshly baked? Did Joel bake him bread?

Be still, his beating heart.

"It looks great," Desmond says earnestly.

"You think all food looks great," Joel says, obviously trying to not look too pleased.

"All food usually does around here," Desmond admits and glances at Ellie. "You know how hard it is to not fall all over this like a ravenous dog? The restraint I'm showing, really, people would be amazed."

"Oh man, I know, right? First week here, I don't think I did anything but eat," Ellie says with a feeling. "I used to steal bread from dinner so that I could eat later, and they banned me from the jerky stores pretty much immediately. I still get the urge to stuff some down my shirt."

"And you're still too skinny," Joel says, carrying in a plate of cheese and salami. "I told you, you can get food from the kitchen any time you want – it's your house too."

"Yeah, yeah – it just, it takes a while getting used to, okay? I'll get the drinks…"

Ellie ducks out of the dining room and into the kitchen, leaving Desmond facing Joel alone for a moment.

"Behave," Joel says warningly.

"I will, I will," Desmond promises and looks down. "Did you bake the bread? God, I think I love you."

Joel scoffs at him, and if Desmond didn't know better, he'd say the guy was blushing. "Just – sit down," he says, gruff, and turns away so hide it. "We'll eat first, and then we'll talk."

Guess they'd learned something from the first dinner, after all.

Chapter Text

The dinner has gone well – it's gone… amazingly well.

Desmond is almost too good with Ellie, telling her stories of the things he'd seen in his travels, some of them so far that it takes a several, "That's bullshit – you've been there? No way – really? How?!" before she actually lets him talk. Stories of the Horn of Africa and the coast of China, Russia – he's been to the Mediterranean, to Scandinavia… and the stories are endless.

"… they have these artificial islands, basically just ramshackle huts built on struts over the coastline," Desmond is telling between bites. "Just wet wood as far as the eye can see – it was amazing. The smell, not so much – it takes very special circumstances for wood to handle that kind of humidity – remind me to tell you about Venice sometime…"

Ellie hangs on his every word, eagerly listening to the stories of people figuring out how to survive – and from the sound of it, people have figured things out. Villages built in trees, built on mountaintops, on islands, on struts, taking advantage of the things the infected can't do – mainly, handle freezing temperatures, zero humidity and salt water. Some of it is news to Joel – though he knew that the infected couldn't swim, he hadn't known they actually could drown. And according to Desmond, salt water actually sterilised them – killed the fungus. Learn something new every day.

"Yeah, yeah – the fungus still works on basic rules of, you know, chemistry. Salt water is not the best for keeping bodies safely hydrated," Desmond agrees with a grin, and then continues explaining about the people living somewhere in Indonesia, how they were dealing with their local infected populations.

"Aw, man, I wanna hear more about that later," Ellie says, leaning in. "But what do you mean, fireworks? You mean they use fireworks to draw out the infected?"

Ellie likes the guy, Joel can tell. She's not as suspicious as Joel is, she's quicker to trust – but she really likes Desmond in a way Joel's not sure he's seen her like anyone since Henry and Sam. There's a sense of tentative expectation there, of a later, of a tomorrow. She's already treating the whole thing as not a one time thing, but like she's fully confident that she'd get to talk to Desmond later, to ask him more questions, like it's a given that he'd be sticking around.

"Man," Ellie sighs. "Why didn't we hear about these places back in Boston? Didn't the soldiers know that there are other people out there – wouldn't it have made news?"

"Why would it – doesn't affect anyone in Boston what people on the other side of the globe are doing. Doesn't help the soldiers none, either," Joel muses. "The only thing that made news back there was what served their agenda – makes for a pretty narrow worldview."

"That sucks," Ellie says with a feeling. "Back there it's like – you have two choices. Either you become a soldier, or you work for FEDRA – or you're scum of the earth –"

Joel snorts at that. "Thanks, kiddo – "

"You know what I mean," Ellie says, waving a hand. "It's like there isn't anything else out there! Do you think they know about this stuff, and are keeping it from people?"

Joel arches brows at her and wipes his plate clean with a piece of bread before catching himself – damn it, he'd watched Desmond do it once, and… "Why do you think people had to be smuggled out of the city?" Joel asks and throws the piece of bread into his mouth. "The less people knew about the outside world, the less of a reason they had to leave. Or rebel."

"Huh. I guess that's why there are groups like the Fireflies, huh? Because FEDRA is… like that," Ellie says, making a face.

Joel meets Desmond's eyes while she reaches for another piece of bread. Desmond arches his brows and makes a sort of nod towards her, though what it's meant to indicate, Joel isn't entirely sure. Probably to get a move on, or whatever.

Well… the dinner is mostly over – just a bit of pasta and a couple pieces of bread left, and between Desmond and Ellie, those would be gone in just a minute.

"Right," Joel says and pushes his plate aside, reaching for his glass instead – it's just water, but it's something to occupy his hands with. "About that, Kiddo. About the… Fireflies," he starts, and it feels like he's botching it up again. "You recall what I told you about Desmond, about what he does?"

"That he's a spy? Yeah, I remember," Ellie says and gives him a look. "Something-something, stay away from him for your own protection, he's bad news... wasn't it? Changed your tune about that real quick, huh, Joel?"

Her tone's teasing, but she's not wrong. Joel clears his throat and glares at Desmond before he can say anything – the guy is grinning at him. "Yeah, well. Learned some things about him since then – about his faction, the Brotherhood. Turns out they had some… run-ins with the Fireflies. And they were doing some of the same stuff."

Ellie blinks at that and her back straightens a bit as she becomes more alert. Sharp as a whistle, she jumps immediately to the right conclusion. "Trying to save the world?" she asks, casting a sidelong look at Desmond, a little more suspicious now.

Desmond smiles and also pushes his plate away, folding his arms on top of the table. "We're doing what we can," he agrees. "Our methods are different from the ones the Fireflies use, but we've worked together on occasion, sharing information, that sort of thing."

"Okay…" Ellie says, slow, looking between them and putting down the bread she'd grabbed. "Okay, so… what's up? Joel?" Now her tone is pointed, and her expression is closing up a little in that I know something's been happening behind my back and I don't like it way. Already suspecting it.

Joel gives her a rueful smile and then sighs, looking at Desmond. "Might be fastest just to show her."

Desmond makes a face. "Starting to feel like a one-trick pony here," he mutters and then stands up. "It is pretty gross, fair warning for that," he says, and tugs his button up shirt out of his jeans before tugging the hem out of the way, to show the scars, the cysts, the stretch marks.

"Oh. Ohh, that's grody," Ellie says, her eyes wide as she takes the wounds in. "You're – you're like –"

"No, sorry kid," Desmond says and lets the hem of his shirt drop. "I was part of an infection trial of a strain like yours – a benign, mutated Cordyceps like what you got. We were trying to induce it to spread in me, but it didn't go anywhere. Left me with some spiffy scars, though."

"Wait – there was an attempt to make a cure – and it failed?" Ellie asks, looking between them.

Joel gives Desmond a sharp-eyed look and Desmond coughs. "Yeah, it failed," he says and sits back down. "We now know more about how the version of Cordyceps you have works, though. Not necessarily enough to promise an instant cure, these things, they take time," he says slowly. "But what I'm getting to is that we're still trying, and – ah, well." He motions at Ellie. "You know."

"I got the thing in my head?" Ellie asks, still a little wide-eyed.

"Yep," Desmond says, glancing at Joel and looking back at Ellie. "Um…"

Joel blows out a breath, as Ellie's eyes nail him down, Desmond's hesitation making her instantly keen. "Thing is, kid," Joel says and then doesn't know how to continue. "The Fireflies, they – the way they were going to go about it, it was – "

"It wouldn't have worked," Desmond says, and Joel could punch him for it. "Even in the old world you couldn't make a vaccine for a fungus – people tried, and they failed. And there is no way to do it now. The best we can do is… is hope that there is a way of spreading what you have, instead. You know how your immunity works?"

"I – I think it's something like… I don't know," Ellie says, frowning now, looking confused and a little withdrawn. "Something happened to the fungus, the infection, it – it just stopped?"

"It didn't stop – you are infected," Desmond says gently. "But you're infected with a mutated version of the Cordyceps fungus – a benign version, you know, how there are benign tumours? You got the fungus inside you, but it's just sort of… chilling."

"Chilling," Ellie repeats, but it's obvious she's not really listening anymore. She's looking at Joel. "Joel – what happened with the Fireflies?"

Joel clasps his hands together and tries to meet her eyes as levelly as he can. "Did Marlene ever tell you what they were going to do, to try and make the cure?"

"No – what happened with the Fireflies, Joel?" Ellie asks, her expression hardening. "Why'd you pull me out of there while I was still unconscious, why – what happened?"

Joel looks down, wishing he had something stronger than water in his glass. Desmond draws a breath to speak, but stops at Joel's glare – and for once it's enough to shut him up. "It was like I told you," he says roughly. "We found the Fireflies –"

"Joel," Ellie says, insistent and stands up, leaning her hands on the table between them. The silence stretches, with Desmond looking between them, but, thank god, keeping his peace. Ellie slaps her hands against the table, desperate. "Tell me what happened – all of it. I wanna know."

Joel sighs. "Okay. We found the Fireflies – or rather, they found us," he mutters bitterly, "after we'd nearly drowned in that subway. I dragged you outta the water, I was giving you CPR, trying to get you breathin' – and a Firefly knocked me out with the butt of his rifle. When I woke up, Marlene was there, telling me that… that they'd saved you. And that you were on your way to the surgery."

Ellie's fingers curl on the table and when Joel looks up her eyes are bright, her lower lip quivering. "Surgery," she repeats.

"They'd done a scan on your head, figured what happened – that the growth had become benign, that it was there and that wasn't killing you," Joel says. "They were going to cut it out. And your brain with it."

Ellie draws a shaking breath and pushes away from the table. "You stopped them," she guesses.

Joel draws a breath, quick and harsh. "They weren't even going to let me see you – they didn't even ask –"

"Well, neither did you!" Ellie says and drags a hand through her hair. "What did you do to them? Joel, what did you do?"

"They weren't going to stop, Ellie – they weren't going to let me see you, talk to you, nothin'," Joel says and stands up too. "They had a gun to my head, and a scalpel to yours – that seems like the MO of the good guys to you? Because to me it just seemed like fucking desperation. You saw how badly they fucked up at Colorado –"

"You killed them, didn't you?" Ellie asks, and the tone of her voice stops him on his tracks, it's so small. "Did you kill Marlene?"

"There was no way she would've let us go, no way she wouldn't have come after us. After you," Joel says and Ellie lets out a sharp, wounded noise. "Kiddo, I'm sorry – but she wanted to kill you, she signed off on it, it was her call – and it shouldn't have been –"

"So it was yours instead, huh, is that it?!" Ellie demands, shaking with emotion. "Joel – you killed them? All of them? What about – what about – everything we went through, it was all for –"

"It would've been for fucking nothing if Marlene had gotten her way, because her way was bullshit, Ellie," Joel says harshly and motions at Desmond. "It wouldn't have worked, because people already tried that. And it failed."

"What?" Ellie stops and looks at Desmond – who's looking between them with slightly wide eyes and an incredibly awkward expression. "Oh – right. Fuck. What?"

"Tell her about Elijah," Joel demands, glaring at Desmond.

"Right, um. Yeah," Desmond says, shifting in his seat. "So, um. Obviously my whole thing, it started from somewhere, and… yeah, it was another one a bit like you, Ellie – his name was Elijah, and he had what you got. The fungus, but mutated."

Ellie's eyes widen and then narrow as she reaches for the photobook. "And you cut out his brain?"

Desmond shifts, pulling out the photobook and showing it to her. "A pharmaceutical company cut out bits and pieces of it, trying to do what the Fireflies meant to – reverse engineer a vaccine," he says, while laying the photobook out on Elijah's spread, showing the passport photo, and the Polaroid of a dying kid, with younger Desmond sitting beside him. "They worked on him for a long time, cutting bits and pieces out of his brain – and they failed. My group, the Brotherhood, we saved him – but what had already been done to him was too much. He died from the brain damage."

Ellie stares at the picture. "A – a pharmaceutical company, those – those were big, right?" she asks quietly.

"The biggest there ever was – Abstergo Pharmaceutical Company," Desmond agrees grimly, folding his arms and leaning back. "The richest company there ever was, the best equipped to figure it out. It was after Outbreak, mind you, but pretty early still. They had all the incentive and all the resources in the world –"

"And they failed at what the Fireflies were trying to do on a shoestring budget," Joel says severely. "Marlene would've killed you for nothing."

Ellie opens her mouth to argue and then releases a frustrated sigh. "You didn't know that, though," she says then, grimacing. "And you don't know it now, either. You can't know, because you –"

"What I know is that you're alive, and as long as you're alive, there's some hope – if they'd killed you, that would've been it," Joel says harshly and points at Desmond. "And I know I like his way hell of a lot more than I like what the Fireflies were up to. They had you for a few hours, Ellie, and they'd made up their minds to sacrifice you for something they had no assurances would ever even work. At least he has a fucking process planned."

Ellie shakes her head, still looking confused and hurt and frustrated. She looks at the photo of Elijah, and then makes a face before taking the polaroid out of its sleeve to look at it without the thin sheet of scratched plastic in the way. As she does, Joel can see there's something written behind it… and how Desmond covers his eyes with a hand, sighing.

"Elijah, 2005 to 2018," Ellie reads quietly and then flips the picture around. "Don't let him feel guilty, it wasn't his fault, he didn't know. And tell him I think I would've liked to have him for a dad. Elijah, 15th of May, 2018."

Joel frowns and turns to look at Desmond, who draws a rattling breath and looks firmly away, his lips a thin line, his eyes not meeting Joel's.

The silence that follows is long and raw, like an open wound.

"… so," Ellie says, putting the photo carefully back into its pouch. "What – what is the better process then?"

"I'll –" Desmond stops to clear his throat and then continues, his voice a little stronger. "I'll collect samples from you – blood, saliva, tissue, that sort of thing. The idea is that – that way this might work is if we can infect someone with your version of Cordyceps. Since you can breathe in the spores, the Cordyceps is in your lungs, so it might be that it's in your saliva too, and if it is, then…"

"Then I can spread it by biting?" Ellie asks, sounding just as incredulous as Joel felt, hearing it for the first time. "That's nuts."

"According to Joel, you've never bitten someone who lived to tell the tale," Desmond says and grabs the photo book in a quick motion, shoving it into his pocket and forcing a smile. "I mean, far be it for me to encourage you to bite people, but… you know."

Ellie lets out an incredulous laugh, and with a sigh Joel sits back down, some of the painful tension eased off the air in between. Ellie looks at him and then down and mutters again, "That's nuts." She's quiet for a moment and then shakes her head. "Blood and saliva, huh? And a tissue sample – from my, uh… my brain?" she asks, wincing.

"The infection point," Desmond says, motioning to her arm. "Joel would literally kill me if I asked for anything more."

Ellie snorts at that, and Joel grimaces. "Yeah, no kidding," she murmurs and looks down, fiddling with her fingers a bit, picking at a cuticle as she thinks. "Can I – think about it? This is a lot," she says. "And I really kinda want to punch both of you, and – I just gotta think for a bit."

"Of course, kiddo, take as long as you'd like," Joel says, quiet.

She nods shakily and turns to leave, before hesitating at the door. "It – it really wouldn't have worked?" she asks then, looking at Desmond. "What the Fireflies wanted to do, it would've been for nothing?"

Desmond glances at Joel and then turns to face Ellie, leaning an elbow on the backrest of his chair. "At least with Elijah the benign version didn't spread like the common variety. Like with you, it protected him from being infected again, but it was a lot more fragile in comparison to the regular version, so… after the host died, it died," he says. "If yours is similar then maybe with good culture procedures the Fireflies might've kept the fungus alive for three weeks, maybe a month… after that, the sample would've been useless."

"Maybe they could've figured it out in three weeks?" Ellie murmurs. "Maybe it isn't similar."

"Maybe. But, Ellie, my group has known about the possibility of mutated strains for fifteen years," Desmond says quietly. "And we haven't figured it out. Things like these take time – usually years."

Ellie swallows and then, with a shaky nod, she turns to the door and slips out.

Joel's shoulders slump and he sighs. "Shit."

Desmond turns to face him, sympathetic. "Trust me, this is better. Ripping off the band-aid. Doesn't feel like it now, but – imagine you took years to tell her the truth? This is much better."

"Oh, shut up," Joel groans and runs both hands over his face, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes for a moment, until red spots dance before his eyes and he's sure he's not going to cry. "Fuck. Right. You want a drink?"

"God, yes," Desmond sighs with a feeling. "You want a hug?"

Joel scoffs at him and stands up to stumble to the kitchen, to grab something stronger than water – stronger than beer. It's probably a bad sign that the bottle of Eugene's killer moonshine is looking fairly tempting right now. Maybe he could mix it with something, and then it wouldn't be quite so lethal.

Damn it, he shouldn't have told her. Ellie's never going to want to talk to him again – she's never going to trust him again. What if she runs off again, what if she – last time he went behind her back she almost got herself killed, what if – what if she took off again, and this time he wouldn't be able to find her in time, or at all, or…

Joel leans against the kitchen counter and tries to breathe through the strangling sensation that's threatening to rob him of his air.  

"Hey," there's a hand on his back, and Joel almost elbows Desmond on the face again, before managing to stop himself. "Hey," Desmond says again, softer, and then wraps an arm around his shoulder from behind. "It's gonna be okay."

"You don't know," Joel growls at him. "You don't know shit about us, about me, about her."

"I think I know enough to know that you love that girl more than anything," Desmond says, almost conversationally. "And I know she looks up to you. And I think families fuck up all the time, and hurt each other, and sure, sometimes it goes tits up, but… a lot of hurts can be mended."

Joel shakes his head, trying to shake him off, but Desmond latches on like a barnacle, and Joel's attempts are shaky and half-assed at best.

Desmond leans his chin to Joel's shoulder and just holds him for a long time. By the time he speaks, Joel's almost ready to listen.

"You told her what you did," Desmond says quietly, both arms around Joel now, "but not why. An advice from a son wounded by a stupid asshole of a father… and from a father, who never got the chance. Stop fucking around and tell your kid you love her – before you lose the opportunity. You never know, it might be all she really wants to hear, anyway."

Joel doesn't shake him off in the end.

Chapter Text

 "… been rough sailing these last couple of days, got hit by a storm not much after we set out, and, you know. Nothing much to do but wait it out," Rebecca says in her message. "Lucky for us, we're not exactly on schedule here – few days later Hawaii is still going to be there. I mean. Fingers crossed, right, you never know these days."

Desmond has already listened to the message once, with Joel standing beside him as he connected to the satellite whizzing by somewhere above head. There hadn't really been time to appreciate a familiar voice, though – especially since there was only the one message.

"… Shaun's laid low, he got caught out in the rain and got a cold for it, the poor bastard – and of course he refuses to take it easy. He's giving history lessons from his bed, bossing the kids around to fetch for him. Swore he was going to catch the window, but – he's asleep, and with all the coughing I don't want to wake him up, especially since there's nothing much in a way of news. Same old, same old. He's going to be fine, really, Chewy's positive it's not that bad – but with his asthma, you know. Every cold hits Shaun hard."

Desmond smiles a little, resting the phone against his temple. He can imagine it, Shaun bitching up a storm between bemoaning and teaching. Rebecca sounds a little worried, the same way you always sound worried when someone you love gets sick, but not too worried, so when she says Shaun's gonna be fine, Desmond believes her. They should have antibiotics on the boat anyway, even if it took a turn for the worse.

"… anyway," Rebecca continues. "Unless you've fallen into a ravine and broken a leg or something, you should've come to Jackson by now, right? Is it as great as they say? Hope you have some good news by now – always a good time for good news, after all. If not, then, well. I'll take you being fine too. I hope you haven't actually broken a leg. That would suck."

Ezio is pacing in front of him restlessly, wanting to keep going with the walk. Desmond scratches his ruff quickly and listens to the rest of the message, to Rebecca's forcibly cheerful but sincere, "Well, I guess that's about all of it from our end! Until next window then! Stay safe out there, man."

She'd made her message extra long on the count of Shaun not making one, Desmond muses – makes him feel a bit guilty about how curt his message had been in turn. Joel… hadn't wanted him to say much, and Desmond hadn't wanted to push it, so it was a very basic, "I'm alright, everything is alright, made it to Jackson, did a bit of trading, things are still developing, I'll keep you posted," kind of message. Not that there was much else he could even say, anyway.

Who knows how things would develop, in another week. Geez.

Ezio licks at his hand urgently, and with a sigh Desmond check's the battery on the phone and then turns the it off. "Alright, alright," he says and pushes himself up to his feet, storing the phone back in his pocket. Maybe he could recharge it back at the guest house. "Let's keep going then. Still got many fence posts and bushes to sniff and mark, and all that. You'd think you'd be getting bored of the same smells by now, huh?"

Ezio obviously isn't bored, eagerly tugging on the leash until Desmond follows and they continue along the street near the edge, where the dog could investigate the side of it. It's almost pitch black already, nearly midnight, and the street lamps are pretty sparse, for all that their light is bright and warm – there's a lot of shadows around, they're obviously making Ezio nervous.

Desmond feels a little restless himself. The whole dinner with Joel and Ellie was – it sure was something. Poor kid. Poor Joel. Desmond probably could've contributed more, could've said something, could've maybe… maybe made it better somehow, but…

"Family drama," Desmond murmurs while giving Ezio's leash a gentle tug, to turn them back towards the guest house. "Definitely doesn't get any easier in the zombie apocalypse, huh, boy? Did I ever tell you the meaning of the word, apocalypse? It comes from Greek, from apokálypsis. Shaun taught me that. Means uncovering, actually, not the end. Which is fitting, when you think about it. Uncovered a lot of underlying faults, didn't it? In pretty much everyone… and everything…"

Ezio looks up at him, confused, but so concerned in that dog way where he can sense something's wrong and wants to help, but, being a dog, has no goddamn clue how. The best he can do is nudge his nose against Desmond's hand and ask for pets, because he knows pets make him feel better when he's anxious. They make Desmond feel better too.

"Aww, man," Desmond sighs and crouches beside him, sinking his fingers into the dog's ruff while Ezio sits down, so attentive in his complete bafflement. "You are the best, you know that? Yeah, you know that, you are the best boy. Things are easier on the road, huh? No people to deal with."

There's not much he can do for Joel and Ellie, really, is there, other than offer assurances that there's a better way, which probably sound pretty hollow at this point. Their mess isn't really his mess, he had nothing to do with what Joel had done, it wasn't his place to feel sad about it – but he does anyway. He feels so damn sad for the whole thing.

Maybe tomorrow he could see if Joel wanted to talk about it, maybe talk him through the whole process they had planned, for if they ever found another immune person – it might give him something to tell Ellie, smooth some things over.

God, the kid had gone to sleep in a garage after. Not that she probably hadn't slept worse before, not that Desmond is in a place to judge, but still. The way Joel had looked when she'd picked up her bedding and walked out, just…

For a moment Desmond buries his face in Ezio's fur, before pushing himself up to his feet. "I need some sleep," he mutters. "And maybe a beer or several. Come on, boy, let's head back."

The street light by the guest house flickers a little, and for a moment Desmond is distracted by it enough to miss that it's not just his usual guard hanging around. There's someone hanging by his door, just out of the light, leaning against the wall beside the window.

Ellie, who's picking under her nails with a switchblade, her face in shadow.

"Evening," Desmond greets her quietly. "You're out and about late."

Ellie looks up, her face set but her eyes nervous. "Joel doesn't know I'm here."

"Yeah, I figured," Desmond says, holding Ezio back from going to sniff her. "He definitely wouldn't approve. What's up, kid?"

She doesn't answer immediately, looking down at Ezio and then up at him. "I wanted to talk – I want to –" she stops and flips the switchblade shut, shoving it into her pocket. "I want to know everything. Can I come in?"

"Nope," Desmond says, and lets out a sigh at her wince, at how her face closes up. "Ellie, you're a fourteen year old girl, and I'm still a strange man in this town – you are not hanging around in my hotel room alone with me. I'll put Ezio inside and then we can talk out here, in the open, where my guard can keep an eye on you."

Ellie makes a face. "What – like a chaperone? Jesus, man. I don't need one."

"Well, tough. I don't want to give Joel a reason to be mad at me, or anyone else, for that matter," Desmond says and digs out his key. "Hang on a moment, I'll put Ezio inside."

Ellie shifts where she stands and then looks at Ezio. "He doesn't look like he wants to go inside."

Ezio is digging his heels in – after so many days spent stuck indoors, he's started to recognize the pattern, and he doesn't like it. Desmond sighs agreement. "He's going to have to suck it up, isn't he, Ezio? Come on now, boy, in you go…"

"It's okay – I mean. You don't have to put him inside, it's okay if he hangs around," Ellie says, looking at the floor, at Ezio, then at Desmond. "Does he like being petted?"

"Yeah, he does," Desmond says and then shrugs. Okay then, Ezio can play the part of the emotional support animal. "Alright, let's sit down, shall we?"

They take a seat on the garden bench set in front of the guest house, just near enough to the streetlamp that the bored looking guard hanging by the office can see them, but far enough away that the guy shouldn't be able to hear them. Ellie immediately beckons Ezio over to her, and in no time at all he's resting his head on her knee, soulfully looking up at her as she gives him scratches.

"How old is he?" Ellie asks, while Ezio sits down at her feet, almost on top of her shoes.

"About six, I think? Maybe seven," Desmond says, leaning back to consider the girl. "We've been travelling together for almost four years now."

"I heard Maria and Tommy talking about it – he's like a special sniffer dog, right? Can spot spores. And the infected."

Desmond looks at the girl. Her tone is loaded, and he can't help but notice how close she's holding her arm to the dog – the wounded, bitten arm. "Yeah," Desmond agrees slowly. "He can. You don't produce spores, though."

"How do you know?" Ellie asks, glancing at him, frowning.

"Well, for one, your house doesn't smell like mould," Desmond says and shrugs. "It lingers. And I think by this point both you and Joel would have noticed. Either way, if you did, Ezio would've picked it up already. And he hasn't."

Ellie is quiet for a moment, looking at Ezio, still scratching him. "So, um," she says finally, tentatively. "About, uh… about Elijah. Can I ask, or…?"

There it is. "You can ask. You wanna know about him?"

"Was he –" Ellie starts to ask and then stops. "When did he get bitten?"

"We're not sure. Sometime in 2015, maybe 2016. Abstergo got him in 2016, anyway, and by then he was bitten," Desmond says and looks away. "I think he was bitten while he and his mom were trying to escape New York – before they started blitzing the neighborhood where they lived."

"Oh man. That was the thing, the – they lured the infected away from Manhattan, right? Like, hundreds of thousands of them, right, and then…" Ellie trails away. "I heard that there were still people left in those neighbourhoods, weren't there?"

Desmond shrugs, resting his elbow on the backrest of the bench. "Most got enough warning to get out, but… yeah, I guess so. It was pretty bad, back then. You lived in Boston, right? A lot of New York looks like that, too, these days – except no functional Quarantine Zone, not anymore."

"Yeah, I remember when there was talk of trying to re-establish. They even made like… recruitment stuff, in Boston, with the idea of reclaiming New York Quarantine Zone," Ellie muses. "Bunch of bullshit, if you ask me."

"Yep," Desmond agrees with a snort and looks at her. "Elijah and his mom never lived in the Quarantine Zone, though. There were still a bunch of these little community areas people managed to set up – fencing off neighbourhoods, gating up apartment buildings, making little safe areas inside the cities. Easier living in those, people thought, rather than under military rule. But then the infected numbers started to really grow, around 2015, 2016…"

Ellie nods slowly, thoughtfully. She wouldn't have been alive back then, but coming from a quarantine zone, she probably knew something about the history of the Outbreak – they didn't stint on teaching about that, usually. "And then he got infected," she murmurs and looks at him. "How'd he end up with, um, what was it – Abstergo?"

Desmond grimaces. "He went to them. There were these –" he stops and tries another way. "Early on, people had a lot more hope about beating the infection. Back when medical companies were still around and people still tried to do the right thing. Abstergo had this program for newly infected – they asked and paid for people to come in and take part in drug trials. Some went out of, like, civic duty or whatever, others went because they got paid a little for it, and it was better than just dying in a ditch. Dying for a cause, maybe while earning a bit of food and resources to leave behind to your loved ones. That sort of thing."

"Elijah did that?" Ellie asks quietly.

"Not – not exactly. In 2016 the trials had already been proven useless – three years of experiments, and Abstergo still had nothing. They weren't really taking in people anymore, and people didn't bother – but they were still pretty known, there were still posters around, that sort of thing. And Elijah, when he got bitten, and then didn't turn…" Desmond swallows and looks away. "He thought… he thought it was the right thing to do."

"Aw, man," Ellie murmurs. "And they didn't even manage to make the cure. That sucks."

"They tried," Desmond sighs. "From the files we got, it was almost humane, at first – just tests and more tests, observing, trying to culture the strain he had in the lab, trying to develop a vaccine, an antifugal treatment, anything. They did a few brain biopsies, but… six months, they got nowhere. The bombings begun, the infected numbers started to swell, money stopped meaning anything, Abstergo started loosing influence and resources… they got more and more desperate."

"How long did it go on?" Ellie asks quietly, her eyes on Ezio.

"Almost two years," Desmond says and something in his throat aches. "We learned about it in – fuck. It was April, 2018? By then he'd gone blind, because – he had a haemorrhage at some point, it caused some damage…" his voice fails him there and he looks away, blinking rapidly and trying to breathe through it.

"… oh," Ellie murmurs, and they're quiet for a moment, listening to the electric hum of the street lamp, and the mountain wind, slowly blowing overhead.

"Didn't they ever try infecting others with his version?" Ellie asks eventually, glancing at him.

"They probably did, to no success."

"Never had the idea of making him bite someone, huh?"

Desmond smiles wryly and looks at him. "They probably tried it. They threw everything they thought would stick at the wall, and nothing did."

"But – if they failed, how can you be sure you'll do any better?" Ellie asks, frowning. "If Abstergo failed with all the stuff they had, then – then how is it supposed to be any different now?"

"I can't promise you it will be. We have no idea if we will have any better luck than they did. Maybe we won't," Desmond says honestly. "But we won't know until we do try – and Ellie? At least we know that killing you isn't the way to go. The longer you live the better for everyone. And I mean, literally, everyone. However this happens, if it happens, it has to be done carefully, ensuring your continued survival and safety all the way."

Ellie makes a noise at that, not quite agreeing, not quite disagreeing, and pulls her feet up, to hug her knees. "Not sure I like that any more than I like the idea of having my brain cut out," she mumbles into her knees. "You're making me sound like, I don't know. A princess that needs protecting."

"Well," Desmond muses. "There are worse analogies."

"I am not that," Ellie mutters. "That's not me. I'm just – a freak accident."

"Most of the best things are," Desmond says and looks down as Ezio, forsaken by Ellie, moves to him for more pets. "Glutton," Desmond murmurs to him and resumes the scratching.

There is another long moment of silence.

"So my bite probably won't make anyone immune," Ellie says after a while and lifts her head.

Desmond shrugs. "Who knows," he says. "We don't have all the data from Elijah, we don't know when they tried it – or if they even tried having him bite someone. Maybe they just put some of his saliva into a syringe or something. It might be that there's an incubation period, or like a very specific circumstance where it works, or… who knows. Maybe it only works one time out of ten, or twenty, or seventeen hundred. It would take testing. A lot and a lot of testing."

Ellie rests her chin on her knee and turns her eyes to him. "You came after Joel and me intending to take me away, right?"

"I just wanted to find out for sure," Desmond says, diplomatically, watching Ezio. "Then things got – complicated."

"Would you take me with you, if I said I'd go willingly?"

Desmond smiles a little at that. "Nope," he says and shakes his head. "Joel would hunt us down. Wouldn't do that to him anyway. Would you?"

Ellie lets out an angry huff through her nostrils. "He lied to me – he killed the Fireflies and he lied to me about it," she says.

"He did that, yeah," Desmond agrees mildly and glances at her. "For what it's worth, I agree that it sucks. But I also agree with what he did. Because if it had been my kid in that situation –"

"It wasn't, though. And I'm not his kid – Joel said it himself," Ellie grumbles, looking away. "I'm not his kid, and he sure as hell ain't my dad."

She even sounds a bit like Joel – probably quoting him. "When was that?" Desmond asks gently. "Before or after you almost drowned in a subway?"

"It was – last fall. Before," Ellie says. "When we were still looking for the Fireflies. We came here because of Tommy, because he was a Firefly once. Joel thought he'd know where to go, and I, uh… I kinda ran away? For a bit. And had a fight with Joel, because he wanted to get rid of me, send me off with Tommy, and then there were some bandits – it was a whole thing, okay?"

"I bet it was," Desmond says carefully, watching her. "Then what happened?"

Ellie mumbles something and then hides her face in her knees and sighs, heavy.

"Didn't quite catch that."

"Stuff. Stuff happened," Ellie mumbles, a little clearer, still hiding in her knees. "We went to Colorado, and there were some cannibals, and Joel got hurt and I almost got killed, and – and it doesn't matter."

"Kinda sounds like maybe it does, but okay," Desmond says and lets the kid sulk for a moment, wondering what to say to her. He's really not into the idea of driving any more wedges between her and Joel – or hell, between him and Joel, either. "Far it be for me to assume things, but I'm… kinda pretty damn sure he sees you as his kid these days," he says finally. "Been on and off on the receiving end of his protective parental instinct since I came here. It's been kinda… cute. And sorta terrifying. Like constantly being on the brink of being mauled by a protective bear."

Ellie snorts at that and lifts her head. "And you like him?" she asks incredulously. "After that, you still like him?"

Desmond shrugs, helpless. Can't exactly tell her that guys of Joel's type have a certain kind of, well… "I like capable men, what can I say," he mutters awkwardly, and grins at the quiet gross she lets out at that. "I don't wanna get on his bad side, anyway, after I've finally managed to make my way to his good side."

"Uh-huh," Ellie says, flat, and rolls her eyes. "I'm still pissed. I'm so pissed."

She sounds slightly less pissed, actually. "Well, you have the right to be," Desmond muses. "I'm not gonna be the asshole to tell you to just forgive him. But maybe… maybe try for a little understanding, yeah? He didn't do what he did outta malice, just to piss you off or to ruin everything. He had a reason, one that mattered to him. Maybe that matters to you, maybe not, but… it's something to consider, at least a little."

Ellie sighs and presses her lips together, looking mutinous for a moment. "You really would've done the same for your kid?" she asks then. "Even with everything on the line, not knowing if the cure was possible or not?"

Desmond smiles at that. "I pretty much already did," he admits ruefully. "There's a reason why you haven't heard of Abstergo, kid. Let's… let's leave it at that."

Chapter Text

It'd been a rough night. Not rough in the sense of – shit. Joel had had some sleepless nights in his time, more    than he has any time or interest in counting, but… it'd been a while since he'd been unable to sleep because his mind wouldn't shut up. Wouldn't stop replaying past discussions, deeds… mistakes.

One thing you either learned or… didn't… when trying to survive. Get some sleep whenever you can – whenever it's safe, whenever possible. Never know when you gotta go again, and who knows when it'd be the next time you could lay down safely, without needing to fear for your life. Joel had mastered the art of nodding off whenever he wanted to long ago, there weren't any dark thoughts worthy of losing precious sleep over, but…

"Shit," he murmurs, running a hand over his face and sitting up on his bed. The sheets are all messed from the many turns he'd taken over the night, trying to find a comfortable position, which ended up eluding him all the way to sunrise. At least he'd managed to lay down, which is better than nothing.

It'd been real tempting to go sit on the back porch, eyes on the garage, just in case.

Stupid. Jackson's safe, and Ellie is safe within it, and even if that wasn't the case… the kid's capable of taking care of herself, Joel knows that better than anyone. And she ain't stupid, she wouldn't put herself at risk unnecessarily anymore.

Right?

Joel glares at the floor, events from nearly a year ago replaying in his mind – when they came to the dam, when Ellie found out about his plans of having Tommy finish the journey with her, of… of Joel stepping back from the whole thing, washing his hands off her. There'd been some sticky spots during their travels, but that moment when Tommy ran to him, telling him that Ellie had ran off, stolen a horse, that she was on her own out there – God…

She'd done it once, when he let her down, and that was arguably nowhere near as bad as this, wasn't it. Back then, he'd just wanted to… Ellie would've been fine with Tommy, better than fine – Joel would've just gotten her traumatised, probably, if he hadn't already. It wasn't like he'd been about to abandon her…

Like he hadn't killed the one faction that was unarguably on her side, and the one adult Ellie called her friend. What a friend Marlene ended up turning into, too – not that it matters, at this point.

With a groan Joel stands up and heads to the bathroom, to get ready for the day – and again has to tell himself he doesn't need to go check up on Ellie. She'd probably throw something at him. She wanted space, he's going to give that to her. Once she wanted to talk, he'd… he'd talk. Tell her everything she wanted to know. Everything she needed to know.

It's eerily quiet in the house without her. It's not like Ellie usually makes much noise – she'd got a survivor's habits, doesn't make much noise even when she knows it's safe. Probably better that way – better for her to stay sharp where that goes. Especially since she wants to join the patrols one day. Keeping up with old habits would keep her safe.

Especially if she would never…

Joel grips the sink in his hands for a moment, until his knuckles go white and his fingertips lose sensation. Then, with a slow exhale, he lets go. He can wait. He can. He must.

He goes to the kitchen, to fix up some breakfast – making some extra in case she would want to join him. Some eggs and oats, good hearty breakfast, ready for her in case she comes in.

She doesn't.


 

Joel considers going out on patrol, though he's already covered his quota for the week – but it's a warm day, and all the day patrols are already booked, and he's not so sure about evening patrols yet, not knowing if Ellie would come around before the night. It leaves him a bit at loose ends, since he's pretty sure the garage project is on hold, and Ellie in general probably wants nothing to do with him, and…

"You're looking a little rough," Tommy's voice interrupts his glaring on the patrols. "Desmond put you on the couch already?"

"Tch," Joel answers, with precisely zero interest in engaging with that one. "You got jobs that need doing?"

Tommy's brows arch a little, and looks at the notice board and then back to him. "Well, Maria and I were about to head out to scout up an area for a potential future project of hers," he comments. "You could come with, I suppose, but it's mostly going to be just checking buildings and mapping out the layout."

"Another farm?" Joel asks.

"Nah – she got the details of how the Brotherhood trains their dogs from Desmond and is thinking of setting up a similar program," Tommy admits and motions him to follow him. "We might not have the right dogs for it, but after I told her how Ezio performed on the patrol, she got that glint in her eye, you know the one."

Joel hums, falling in step with his brother. He does know it – the it's for the good of the community and so it's going to get done look, which is why Maria is in charge and why no one has ever argued the fact. "How much did it cost you?" he asks, though half-heartedly. He doubts Desmond would've charged them too much for it, since dog training isn't exactly Earth-shaking news.

"Didn't," Tommy admits and shrugs when Joel gives him an arched brow. "From what I heard, Desmond asked nothing for it – he even sketched out how his people lay out their training grounds, drew some designs, explained how they captured and kept the infected for the training. Laid out the whole shebang, free of charge."

Judging by the look Tommy is giving Joel, he's supposedly the reason for it. "I had nothing to do with it," Joel mutters, looking away.

"Sure you didn't," Tommy says and nudges at him with his elbow. "And I'm sure Maria's offer to Desmond had nothing to do with it either. She thinks, at this point… he'd be a good addition to the town."

"Christ," Joel mutters and shakes his head. "He's still a spy."

"There are worse things," Tommy comments. "You can't still think that he's after Ellie."

"No – I know for sure now, he absolutely is," Joel mutters and Tommy's step slow in reaction. "Oh, never mind that, I'm not worried," Joel says and sighs. "I'll explain later."

"Okay – that's even more alarmin'," Tommy says, frowning. "What's going on, Joel? You seem – off. More than usual. Wanna go talk somewhere private?"

Joel really doesn't. But at the same time, maybe it would help. Damn it. "Okay, yeah," he sighs. "I'd appreciate that."

Tommy claps him on the shoulder and then leads him to the town hall and into its many empty offices, where people have set up couches and chairs in place of desks and computers. They sit down with a kettle of Jackson's god-awful dandelion brew, and Joel tries to think of how to put it.

"So… what's going on, big brother?" Tommy asks, sitting across from him. "Everything alright?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's just…" Joel hesitates and then takes a drink, trying to sort it out in his head. "Desmond, he – knows. About Ellie, and people like her. He was after her, is after her, but not – not precisely in a bad way. He investigated the mess I left behind in Salt Lake City, and figured somehow that we'd come this way, and – that's why he's here, to confirm Ellie is what he thinks he is."

"Shit, Joel," Tommy says quietly, worry and alarm and then steel in his eyes. "Fuck – where's the guy now?"

"Probably at the hotel – it's fine, Tommy, I've known for a few days now. Knew before the patrol, I'm not worried," Joel admits and shakes his head. "Turns out there was another kid like Ellie a decade and a half ago, who had immunity like her – a benign strain of the Cordyceps, Desmond calls it. The kid was – he was Desmond's son. It's a whole fucked up thing. The kid died back in 2018 – and from what I gathered, Desmond's been looking for others like him ever since."

Tommy sits back down, going from alarmed to mostly confused. "Okay, so… what's he after?" he asks. "If you don't think he's here to take Ellie away, then – what?"

"Fuck if I know anymore," Joel sighs and looks away, out of the window behind Tommy. "His people are still trying to figure out the cure – but not like the Fireflies. Desmond's kid died a pretty shitty death in the name of the cure, don't think he wants it to happen to anyone else. The most he wants from Ellie are some samples, blood and such, so that they can verify it, begin testing, something. We haven't really gone over it fully, yet."

Tommy shakes his head, leaning back a little. "Okay," he says faintly. "Okay, that's… shit, that's sure something. Guess you were right about him."

Joel lets out a mirthless laugh.

"But – hang on," Tommy says and then points a finger at him. "You knew before the patrol? And you still fucked the –" Joel glares at him and Tommy shakes his head with an incredulous snort. "Jesus, Joel."

"That ain't relevant," Joel says harshly.

"Honestly, it sounds very relevant to me," Tommy says, shaking his head. "Okay, so, Desmond knows. And wants to do something about it. And you ain't worried? At all?"

"Course I'm fucking worried, it's just – he's done a good job to assuage most of my concerns, I suppose," Joel admits and runs a hand over his beard, leaning back, almost collapsing against the backrest of the couch. "Something about him agreeing that the Fireflies were probably full of shit, maybe. I think he, at least, is interested in doing what's right by Ellie."

"Right, right," Tommy says and sips at his sludge. "So what are you gonna do? I mean, if Desmond's is onto something, and you think it might be safe then, shit. You know what the cure would mean, Joel.

Joel blows out a breath. "Yeah," he agrees. God, it had been years since just a rumour of someone trying to fix a cure made his heart leap with hope. There'd been so many hoaxes and failures and people taking advantage of the hopeful and the naïve. He'd learned his lessons… but some of that lingers, and he has irrefutable proof, in Ellie, that something might come out of it. And that maybe is more than anyone's had in years.

"I told her," Joel says quietly. "I told Ellie, yesterday. She – wasn't happy."

"… no, I don't imagine she would be," Tommy says, frowning.

"Went to sleep in the garage," Joel adds with a somewhat self-deprecating snort. "Said she needed to think. Also that she wanted to punch me. And Desmond."

"Desmond was there?"

"Yeah – we told her about his way… and about his kid."

Tommy blows out a breath, shaking his head. "Well," he says. "Damn. That explains some things."

"Like what?"

Tommy shrugs. "Greg was on the watch last night, keeping an eye on Desmond – and according to him, Ellie paid our guest a visit," he says, and Joel looks up so fast his neck cracks. Tommy snorts, lifting a soothing hand in a lazy wave. "Don't worry, they were in sight the whole time, nothing happened. They just talked. Greg saw Ellie home afterwards, and she said she was there just to see the dog."

Joel stares at him incredulously. "And you didn't think to open with that?" he asks.

Tommy hums. "I figured you would've known about it already. Like maybe it was like a… bonding thing. Since you and Desmond are – you know."

"Jesus, Tommy," Joel says and runs a hand through his hair. "I didn't even know she'd gone out. What did they talk about?"

"You know Greg, old fashioned courteous guy he is, he didn't wanna pry. So, no idea," Tommy admits and arches his brows. "Still not worried?"

Joel lets out a grunt and stands up. "Greg saw Ellie home afterwards?"

"It was pretty late, apparently."

He nods and looks away, thinking. God knows what they might've talked about. "Think I'm going to skip your little scouting mission," he decides. "I gotta talk to Desmond."

"Yeah, I figured," Tommy says and stands up too, picking both their cups as he does. "If you punch the guy, try to avoid permanent damage, just in case."

"No promises," Joel answers, and turns for the door.

He's intending to make his way out of the town hall and then make a beeline for the hotel with some hope the guy would still be there. Desmond had a tendency of wandering around during daytime, peering into shops and talking to people – gathering information and sharing some titbits of news in return. If he'd already left, tracking him down would be annoying – and annoyed is not a mindset he wants to have this talk with, not after how… how Desmond handled the whole thing, the day before.

Joel doesn't even make it out of the town hall before someone stops him.

"Hey – Joel. I was looking for you – you weren't at the house?"

"Ellie," Joel says, surprised. She looks a bit rough, her hair askew and shadows under her eyes. She's also pulled on one of her older coats – the one they picked up during their travels, which was threadbare at best, but she refused to get rid of because it was her comfort jacket. "No, I was – I figured – what's up, kiddo?"

She shrugs, looking awkward as she pushes her hands into her pockets. "I just – can we talk?" she asks and looks away. "Somewhere private? I – I wanna talk."

"Yeah – yeah, of course. Absolutely," Joel nods, a little too eagerly even for his own ears, and quickly clears his throat. "Come on, kiddo – we can talk in one of the offices – "

"No, no, let's just – let's just walk a bit, okay?" Ellie says, looking down. "I gotta go to the stables too, I've got work, so, um…"

"Right, of course."

They head out, with a lot of people hanging around the town hall entrance giving them some curious looks. Ellie keeps her peace until they're out of people's hearing range, and Joel is just about simmering with the need to hear her talk. Eventually, he can't take the silence anymore.

"Ellie," he begins. "I didn't – I'm sorry."

"No, you're not," she says, glancing at him and then looking firmly ahead. "Because if you were, then you – fuck. If you were sorry, you wouldn't have done it, and you would've told me."

"… okay, maybe," Joel admits, awkward. "But I'm still sorry you're hurt, kiddo. I didn't – want that."

Ellie says nothing to that, shrugging her shoulders and looking away. "Been trying to figure it out," she says. "Like… what I would do, if – if I was you, and I… I don't know. What I'd do if I was in your position. Or in Desmond's."

"Right," he says, not quite getting it. "And?"

"Tch," Ellie answers. "I don't know. I just – fuck. The fuck do I know about shit like this, anyway. Nothing." She shakes her head and then looks at him. "Tell me the truth – why did you do it? You had a reason that mattered to you more than what I wanted, or what the Fireflies meant to do – what was it?"

Joel draws breath and then releases it in an explosive sigh. "Because," he starts, and it gets caught in his throat. Stop fucking around, Joel. You might not get another shot at this. "Because… because you're more important than that. More than what they wanted, more than the cure," he says then, squeezing his hands into fists and then releasing. "And I couldn't – let that happen to you. And you're right – I ain't sorry for it, either."

Ellie stops in the middle of the street, staring at the ground, shifting her weight. "Fuck, Joel," she murmurs.

Joel hums in agreement. "Yeah," he agrees roughly.

"If – if Desmond hadn't shown up, would you have ever told me?"

Joel sighs and scratches at his hair and, fuck it. "No, probably not," he admits ruefully. "I figured there was nothing – that it wouldn't make things much better, for you to know. You'd be happier not knowing –"

Without any warning, Ellie kicks him in the leg. "You – damn it, Joel! You don't get to choose that!"

"Hey," he says, jumping back warily. It wasn't a hard kick for her, he knows she's able to kick way harder – but it's definitely hard enough to make his knee shake, and probably cause a bruise. "Ellie –"

"You don't get to choose what's gonna make me happy, I get to choose that. And I'm not going to be any happier not knowing stuff, especially when it has to do with me!" Ellie says and makes a wild motion. "Especially, especially not now, with the Fireflies and everything!"

Joel rubs at his shin, watching her warily as she begins pacing back and forth before him.

"I have the right to know this shit," Ellie says, frustration in every word, every step. "Don't tell me that after all we've been through and all we've seen I don't – or what, do you think I can't handle it? I've handled worse! And you know that – you were there!"

"I – yeah, Ellie, I do, but –"

"No, no buts!" Ellie shouts and stops. "And no more lies, okay? Promise me now, no more lies, ever. Because if – if you lie to me one more time, then – fuck, Joel. Then I'm gone."

Joel hesitates, lowering his foot back on the ground. Her face is pale and her eyes are red – but her expression is set. She means every word. "Okay," he says. There's nothing else he can say. "Okay, Ellie. I swear."

"You mean it this time, right?" she says, now with a little bit of hurt in her eyes. "Because you swore to me before, and you lied to my face, and – "

"I promise, Ellie," Joel says quieter, firmer. "I do. No more lies."

Ellie stares at him hard for a moment, breathing in and out heavily. Her shoulders drop after a moment, and she sighs. "Damn it," slips from her lips before she runs her hands over her face. "I can't even tell if you're lying, because, fuck, you're so good at lying."

Why that is the thing that hurts the most, Joel isn't sure, but damn, it does. "Ellie, kid," he says quietly. "On everything that's ever meant anything to me, I swear – no more lies."

Ellie presses her hands over her eyes for a moment, draws a shaky breath, and then drops her hands. "Swear on Sarah."

Joel swallows at that and then nods. "Okay. I swear on Sarah – no more lies," he says, his voice breaking a little. Ellie's shoulders shake a little, and Joel sighs. "Fuck, kid, you don't play fair," he mutters, and bends down to rub at his shin again. It's starting to throb.

"Yeah, well, neither do you," Ellie mutters and kicks at a pebble on the ground, casting a look at his leg and then making a mutinous face. "I'm not sorry for kicking you."

"I'm gonna have a bruise, you know," Joel mutters, shaking his head.

"Ha, you deserve it," Ellie says and then looks away. "I was actually thinking of biting you, but Desmond told me he isn't sure about what that'd do, yet. That it needs to be tested first. It would've been damn poetic, though."

Joel snorts and straightens his back. "Heard you went to see him, last night," he says, trying very hard not to sound disapproving, even though he really is. "What did you talk about?"

Ellie looks at him and then shrugs. "Wouldn't you like to know," she says.

"Ellie – "

"I'm still mad at you," she says, pointing a finger at him while backing away. "So you can just stew in it for a bit. I gotta go now – I'm already late, promised I'd help clean up the stables today."

Joel thinks about arguing, but… he's probably pushed his luck enough. "At least tell me you're not planning to run away with him," he mutters, only half joking.

Ellie throws him a grin over her shoulder. "I asked – he turned me down," she says. "God knows why, but for some reason he actually likes your grumpy ass."

Joel draws a breath to ask, but she takes off at a jog, and there's no way to call after her without half the street hearing him. So, sighing, he just watches as she goes, taking in the set of her shoulders, the tilt of her head. It's a little prouder, a little more confident. The whole thing still hurts, but… maybe it would be alright, eventually.

"I'll make it up to you, kiddo," he murmurs. "God knows how, but I'm gonna try."

But first he's going to find Desmond and find out what, exactly, did the two of them talk about.

Chapter Text

"Ezio, boy, stay," Desmond says. "Stay."

Obediently, Ezio sits down, tail wagging excitedly against the grass, eyes flicking eagerly between Desmond and the target, knowing what's about to come.

"Still, Ezio. Still," Desmond says, crouching down beside him, and Ezio's tail goes still right in the middle of a wag, and he looks directly ahead. Desmond waits a moment, just to prolong it, to see if restlessness would make Ezio break orders. It doesn't – the dog stays very still, very quiet, barely breathing – the only break is one of his ears, slowly slanting backwards.

Desmond smiles. "Okay, go."

Ezio's off like a shot – running across the yard like his life depends on it, his steps actually kicking up a bit of dust. Then he's jumping up, feet catching on the brick wall and kicking up. The height he makes is damn impressive, even if nowhere near Ezio's maximum – and a moment later, the dog is up and on the roof of the abandoned building, eagerly latching onto the toy waiting there.

Standing up, Desmond grins as Ezio victoriously shakes the bright red toy around, taking happy little bounces on the roof tiles. "Stay up there, boy – don't," Desmond calls firmly before the dog can even think of trying to jump down. "We do not want you breaking a leg, boy, just hang on. I'm gonna get you, just wait up there."

Walking up to the house, Desmond climbs up onto a metal trash bin and then holds out his arms. "Come here, Ezio – hug!" And, tail wagging, Ezio jumps down to his arms without a second of hesitation, front paws over one shoulder while his back legs kick into Desmond's belly. "Oof – fuck, you are heavy. Good boy. Okay, down we go."

Arms around his dog, Desmond jumps down, and that's how Joel finds him, carrying an over thirty kilogram dog like a baby.

"What the hell are you doing?" Joel asks, sounding amused.

"Playing?" Desmond offers and crouches down to let Ezio back on his feet. "He's got a lot of energy he's not using since we're not on the road, so – playing. Also works as training, since this is stuff he regularly needs to be able to do on the road. And he is such a good boy, that was so well done – sit, Ezio. You wanna treat, boy? Yeah, of course you want a treat…"

Joel says nothing for a moment, pushing his hands into his pockets, watching as Desmond rewards Ezio before taking the toy and backing away from the house to throw it. Then it's the same litany of sit, wait, still, go before Ezio goes flying, jumping off the wall, to the roof.

"Jesus," Joel comments, impressed.

"Yep," Desmond grins while heading forward to pick his dog up from the roof again. "He's something else, isn't he? It's the Malinois in him – they're just like that sometimes."

Joel shakes his head and walks closer as Desmond climbs the trash bin. "He can jump up all that way, but not down?"

"Very different forces in action, when jumping down. Ezio, come here, hug," Desmond shrugs and grunts as the dog trustingly drops into his arms. "Good boy, and ow, my stomach…"

"Mm. I heard from Tommy that you and Maria talked about setting up a training ground for dogs, getting us some spore sniffer dogs too," Joel comments conversationally and leans against the trash bin. "Insinuated that she invited you to stay, too."

"It was implied, yeah," Desmond agrees and drops back to the ground.

"Also heard you and Ellie had a chat last night," Joel adds, a little less conversational.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees, giving him a look before setting Ezio down. "She wanted to learn more about Elijah. Told her pretty much everything that happened. Except the actual gory medical details. Okay, Ezio, sit. Good boy…"

Joel hums. "You talk about anything else?"

Desmond glances at him and then looks back down at Ezio before crouching down to give him his treat and a good scratch. "She did vent a bit about you, but I figure it was mostly that she needed to get it out to someone, and I'm kind of a neutral, non-judgemental party in this," he comments. "Think I managed to convince her to think things through and not do anything rash."

Joel makes a noise at that, grumpy and suspicious, and Desmond grins. "She did suggest that if I wanted to steal her away, she might not be against it. But I think that was just, you know. Teenage rebellion with a heaping of honest hurt. Obviously I'm not gonna do it."

Joel sighs at that and with a shake of his head hops to sit on top of the trash bin. "Yeah," he says roughly. "She came to talk to me – so… whatever you said probably helped."

Well, well. Progress. "She seems like a smart, sensible kinda kid." Desmond comments. "Don't think she would've held a grudge for too long."

"Yeah," Joel snorts softly at that, looking away. "I can only hope."

He falls silent, thoughtful, and with a shrug Desmond stands up to throw Ezio's toy onto the roof again. He gets the dog down and then throws the toy again a couple more times, with Joel quietly watching, before the man speaks again – by then some of Ezio's energy has been expended enough that the urgency has gone out of his body language.

"I'm… I'm thinking of taking Ellie hunting," Joel says. "See if we can find something to add to the town's winter stores – as payment for building materials she needs to weatherproof our garage. You, ah… you wanted to take Ezio hunting too, before, right?"

"I… did, yes, but that was before I learned I could get waste bits for free at your butcher's… and how much Ezio likes chicken feet," Desmond comments, smiling, and looks at him. "I wouldn't mind it though. Ezio could obviously do with more exercise. Kinda feeling a little cooped up myself. And... I did hear hunting's what's fun here," he adds, smiling a little wider.

Joel clears his throat at that, running a palm over the back of his neck almost embarrassedly. "Yeah. I'm asking her tonight, and if she's amenable, we'll go tomorrow," he says. "That sound okay?"

"Sounds perfect, yeah," Desmond agrees, and then looks at him a bit closer. The sun's come out from behind the clouds, and the light's hitting Joel's face at a particular angle, which makes him look a bit like… death warmed over. "You okay? You look a bit, uh. Pale."

"Yeah, yeah, just didn't sleep much," Joel says and waves a hand before sighing and admitting ruefully, "this crap ain't something I thought I'd go through again. Teenage drama."

Again? "Well, Ellie seems to have a bit more cause than most," Desmond says as diplomatically as he can. "But I'm sure it will be fine. If you, you know… put in actual effort."

Joel snorts at that, looking away for a moment before casting him a thoughtful look. "You and Elijah – before everything went down, I mean. You, uh…"

Desmond half winces and half smiles at the awkward way of not asking, and with a shake of his head goes to pick Ezio up from the roof, where the dog is obediently waiting, toy limply hanging from his mouth. "I think this is it, buddy," Desmond says while getting Ezio down to the ground again. "Don't think my back can take any more of this. Time out. Yeah, you did good, boy, very impressive. Final treat…"

Joel watches him until Desmond is done praising his dog and then asks, quiet, "Too personal?"

"Kinda, but – eh," Desmond blows out a breath and shakes his head. "Mostly it's just awkward. I uh, I wasn't exactly part of Elijah's life until we found out about him being held by Abstergo. Didn't even know he existed."

"... Oh?"

"I was like eighteen when he was born," Desmond admits, looking away and at Ezio, who's investigating the yard. "Seventeen when he was conceived, and, uh. I guess his mother figured I wasn't good for much, 'cause she never even told me about him. By the time I learned he even existed, he was already…" he clears his throat and glances at Joel. "So, uh. Not much in the way of parenting experience. Sorry."

Joel runs a hand over his face and shakes his head. "I was – hm," he says, and the smile he forces is anything but happy. "I was eighteen too, when I had my kid. My actual biological kid, uh… Sarah. She died during the Outbreak – shot down by a soldier."

"Aww, shit, Joel."

"Yeah," Joel agrees, and they're quiet for a moment, neither knowing what to say, not quite looking at each other. Then Joel sighs and drops down from the trash bin. "Right, well. Guess I'll let you know about the hunting tomorrow, if it's gonna happen or not. Now, I'd invite you over for coffee, but… don't actually have any."

Desmond looks up. "It's that an euphemism, or are you hinting you want my coffee?" he asks, smiling a little.

"Well," Joel clears his throat and then lets out a heartfelt sigh. "I really could use a cup right about now," he admits, more to the sky than at him.

Desmond grins and then calls Ezio over, to put a leash on him. "We'll have to drop by the guesthouse," he says and nudges Joel with his elbow. "But yeah, I'd love to have some coffee with you."


 

There's a lot of talking about nothing happening, as they finish off the instant coffee. They tried to make it a bit more palatable by adding a bit of the local dandelion brew in it, but the flavour was more like… something pretending to be coffee, rather than actual coffee.

"One thing I miss about living on the boats," Desmond admits, peering at the rather suspicious looking mix. "Coffee was much easier to get hold of."

"Your people have access to fresh coffee beans?" Joel asks, stirring in a spoonful of some kind of dry herb into his cup. "Stevia?" he offers, holding the tin of the herb towards Desmond.

"Shit – really? You got stevia growing here?"

"There's one lady in town who grows it in her basement," Joel agrees. "The most expensive plant in town, easily. She makes extract from it, but dry leaves are cheaper. So, coffee beans?"

"Yeah – there are a few places out there that still grow stuff like that. Makes one hell of a luxury trade good. It's not exactly a priority, when doing trading, but yeah, we still occasionally enjoy the fresh stuff. Or they do, on the boats. Do occasional bit of trading in it, too – though it has to be mostly smuggled, since it's a Class A luxury good in FEDRA territories, heavily regulated."

"Yeah. Think I probably smuggled the stuff, once or twice, in my time," Joel muses, taking a slow sip of his brew and making only the slightest face. "Never know for sure, bad for business, peeking into what you're transporting, just gonna get yourself a poor reputation that way. You can rarely mask the smell, though."

"Yeah," Desmond agrees and gives his cup an experimental sniff. It doesn't smell anything like coffee. Mostly it just smells vaguely burnt and bitter. "So you really were a smuggler?"

Joel gives him a look. "You don't know?"

"I only know you transported Ellie a long way, and… you know. What happened in Salt Lake City," Desmond admits. "The only record they had of you was as the Smuggler, and you know, someone writing your name in blood on the garage floor."

"Yeah, that would've been Marlene, I bet, that's where I shot her," Joel muses and shakes his head at the look Desmond gives him. "I was a smuggler – me and my partner Tess, we ran mostly drugs and guns in and out of Boston. That's how we got involved with Ellie and the Fireflies – our shipment of guns got stolen, ended up with the Fireflies, and Marlene suggested a trade for it. Guns for transporting Ellie."

Desmond arches his brows at that. "Halfway through the country? Damn."

Joel snorts and shakes his head. "Nah, just outside the city," he says. "Wasn't meant to go further than that, but – the Fireflies we were meant to drop her off with had gotten shot by FEDRA soldiers, so that went nowhere, and…. and Tess was bitten along the way."

Desmond sighs, his shoulders slumping. "My condolences."

Joel nods and takes another drink. "Before getting herself killed by the soldiers, Tess told me to take Ellie to Tommy, as he, being a former Firefly, would know where to find the Fireflies' lab. And I did. Took us all summer to get there – it was autumn by the time we made it here."

"And then stuff happened – that's what Ellie said," Desmond clarifies. "Stuff happened."

"It sure did," Joel says and looks away. "I don't know when she became more than just a job, but… We went through that journey, thinking there was some light at the end of the tunnel. The things we went through, the shit she saw… just for her to go under the scalpel at the end of it?" he shakes his head. "I did the only thing I could."

He falls quiet, frowning at nothing, and Desmond reaches over to curl his fingers around Joel's wrist. The guy wears a broken watch, it's interesting - a very concrete evidence of an obviously painful sentiment. A sort of thing you don't ask about.

Desmond can't imagine what it might have been like for Joel, waking up in that hospital, Ellie gone. He can't. He won't 

The quiet stretches, and Joel takes a drink, glancing at him. So Desmond breaks the silence with a sigh. "Yeah."

Joel hums. "That's it?" he asks, mild. "Yeah?"

Desmond shrugs. "Not my place to judge," he says quietly, rubbing his fingers over Joel's outer wrist. "Whether it was right or wrong, I'm not gonna pretend it's as simple as that. It's all shades of muddy grey these days. But... I sure as hell understand." As much as he wishes he didn't. That neither of them did.

Joel hums quietly and looks down at their hands. "What you did with Abstergo…"

"Very similar, with added benefit of realising in hindsight that, oh shit, I might have just killed the world's last specialists." Desmond snorts and looks away. "I didn't, in the end, but ever since then I've spent a lot of nights wondering, if I had left them be, let them do their shit, would we already have a cure…?" he shakes his head. "So. Yeah."

"Yeah. Well," Joel says, turning his hand, curling their fingers together. "Quite the pair we make."

Desmond turns his eyes back at Joel. He looks a little better after the coffee-mix, and while Desmond wouldn't call the look on Joel's face soft, it's… something. 

"Yeah," Desmond says, brushing his thumb over the backs of Joel's fingers. He has scars there, small little imperfections that make his fingers feel rough. "So, uh… is this coffee, or is this coffee?"

"This?" Joel lifts his cup and takes a drink. "This is an abomination."

Desmond gives him a look. "You know what I mean. Joel, come on. Are you going to take me to bed?"

Joel's eyes darken further at that. "Well," he says against the cup's brim and takes another drink. He smiles – and it looks really, really good on him. "It's certainly a notion."

"Yeah – is it one you're considering doing anything with?" Desmond asks, tilting his head.

Joel releases a breath that's almost a laugh, and lets go of his hand in order to pull him closer by the neck instead.

The brew they'd been drinking definitely doesn't improve the sensual experience of kissing a man with as much facial hair as Joel – but damn if Desmond minds. There's something terribly tender about it, in a way, how slow Joel takes it as opposed to the time in the mountain lookout – and this time it's Joel that curls his fingers at Desmond's jaw, brushing his thumb along the line of his cheekbones, and damn, it's nice.

The low-throated rumble Joel makes is even nicer.

Joel leans back to look at him, taking a moment. "Yeah," he then says, his voice like gravel. "Yeah, I think I will take you to bed."

Desmond huffs out a laugh. "Well, guess I appreciate that it took some thinking, I'd hate to be bedded without all due consideration given to the decision," he says and stands up. "You maybe wanna get a move on?"

"Why, you in a rush?" Joel asks, amused, while tugging him back down with a hand on Desmond's shirt.

"To get you naked?" Desmond asks and gives him a look. The bit of skin showing past Joel's collar, the way he's got sleeves pulled up – it's distracting. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I could afford to rush things, to get you outta your clothes. Hope that's not something you're against, because I have been thinking about this, a lot. Or – fuck, don't tell me you're a tease."

Joel smiles at that, finishes his coffee, and then gets up. "Nah," he says. "Not a tease – but I ain't in a hurry, either. Got nowhere to go for the rest of the day. You?"

Damn, it's been a long time since anyone's made Desmond's knees feel a little wobbly, but that does it. "Nope," he says, a little higher pitched. "I mean, gotta feed Ezio at some point, and take him out before the night, otherwise there will be a mess, but – "

Joel kisses him, stifling Desmond babbling. "Good," he says, satisfied, and rough enough to make Desmond shudder. "There's no need to hurry, then. Can take our time."

Yeah, definitely wobbly at the knees, now. Wow. "Can we take our time in a bed?" Desmond asks, plaintively. "Naked, preferably?"

In answer, Joel leads him upstairs, and then he takes his damn time getting out of his clothes. Desmond would whine about it, except there's a delightful amount of kissing happening, and in the end it's just nicer to go with the flow. Joel turns out to be a surprisingly, delightfully thorough lover, taking his time exploring. Not that Desmond doesn't give as much as he receives.

Joel's a tapestry of scars, and Desmond tries to get to know each and every one of them.

"Jesus, this one is big – and it went through?" Desmond murmurs, brushing his lips over a long, jagged wound on Joel's side, unevenly stitched and ugly. "Fuck – this is still a bit inflamed."

"Fell on a bit of rebar," Joel rumbles against his hair, hands wandering over Desmond's bare shoulders. "Last fall. Closest to gone I ever got. Ellie saved my ass. Still acts up, every now and then."

"Damn," Desmond murmurs, pressing a kiss on it before kissing his way up Joel's hairy chest. There are other scars, bigger and smaller. Bullet wounds, burn marks, cuts and scrapes. Desmond kind of wants to learn how he got each one – though it's not exactly sexy bedroom talk.

Joel pulls him up, kissing his lips, then down his chest, his hands wandering. "Do these hurt?" he asks, fingers brushing over the marks on Desmond's belly.

"No, but they itch like hell," Desmond admits – and then realises his mistake. "Don't you fucking dare –"

Joel doesn't quite tickle him, but the feather light touch of his fingers is almost as bad, and Desmond squirms away from it, snorting. "Guess I gotta be careful," Joel murmurs with a tone that implies he's going to be abusing the knowledge later, and then both his hands are on Desmond's waist, turning them over and pinning him down to the bed. "Hmm. You're clean, I hope?"

Desmond snorts again, pulling a pillow under his head. "If I weren't, do you really think I'd tell you otherwise, when you're this close to touching my dick?"

The look Joel gives him makes something tighten in Desmond's gut. "I think you would," the man muses, and curls his rough, calloused fingers loosely around the said dick. "And I think you just did."

"Yeah, okay, you got me," Desmond breathes, watching. The guy has gun calluses. And – guitar calluses? There was a guitar in the living room, and – and Desmond is not thinking about that now. "That's nice," he breathes out and leans his head back. "That's really nice. I assume you're clean too?"

"As clean as I can hope to be. Can't say I've had a STD test in more than a decade, but - haven't had any issues," Joel muses, kissing his chest and gripping him a little tighter, slowly moving his hand up and down. "Like that?"

"Mmh, yeah. Would be nicer with something slick, though. You got anything?"

Joel goes a little still at that for a moment and then bends down over him, and his beard is tickling at the scars as he presses a kiss beside Desmond's hip, almost apologetically. "Um," he says, a little awkward.

Desmond squirms under him, trying to get an angle at his face. "You don't have anything, do you?" he asks, amused.

"Honestly not something I've needed," Joel admits ruefully and looks up. "Can't say I was planning for this, either."

"Well, shoot, I had like… ideas," Desmond murmurs, squirming a little, and hooks a foot around Joel's back. "Oh well, we'll do without this time and prepare a little better next time. Now come up here and stop tickling me."

In answer Joel rubs his beard against his scarred belly, and Desmond nearly kicks him in the chin, trying to wring himself away from it. There's a moment of scrambling, during which they mess up the bed sheets, while Desmond tries to pull Joel up, and Joel tries to make out with his belly button, but in the end they end up nose to nose – crotch to crotch – and it's not so bad.

"Better?" Joel asks with a wild sort of grin, while hauling Desmond's knee over his hip and finding an angle to grind against. And how he grinds.

"Getting there," Desmond groans, greedily rubbing his hands up and down along Joel's bare back and shoulders before trailing his hands to the back of Joel's neck and pulling him into a kiss.

It's not perfect, nothing is, but it does get pretty damn close to it in the end.

Chapter Text

I don't know what to write here. What do people usually write in journals. Thoughts? Seems kinda pointless since… Journal's a private thing, right, you're not gonna show it to people so, what's the point? Why write your thoughts down, when they're your thoughts in the first place? It's not like you don't know what you're thinking. Right? This is dumb. Kinda self serving. Whatever.


 

Okay, so, I talked with Desmond about the whole keeping a journal thing, since, he was the one I got the idea from. He always writes something every day, just to keep track of days. Says it keeps him grounded – and like… like the point is to keep a record. It's not for now, but for years from now, when you no longer remember what you were thinking. What were you doing, ten years ago, on this same date, stuff like that.

Also it's a way to get out things you can't tell people, can't put into words, can't talk about, but which gotta get out.

I'm… there's so much shit. I don't even know where to start.


 

Joel's playing guitar for Desmond on the back porch – he says it for me, that he's teaching me a new song, but yeah, it's totally for Desmond. It's cute, in that "aww old dudes in love" sorta way. Not that Joel's gonna ever admit it. Hang in there, Desmond – took me months to get a nice word outta Joel. You can do it!

Oh shit Desmond can sing.


 

I dunno if I really ever liked the Fireflies. Like, you knew about then, back in Boston, everyone knew about them. And Marlene knew my mom, they were friends, or whatever. But I wasn't – I didn't really… fuck.

All you ever heard about them back in the academy was how they killed people or blew something up or attacked a transport. And like, I knew about their history, Riley told me, it wasn't secret – they had a thing, a point, they did good things, but like… I don't know. The things they were fighting for, they were long gone, man. Long before I was born, all that stuff was gone. It was like they were fighting over rubble, when we should've been doing something better. Rebuilding. I dunno.

I mean, I get that rebuilding is hard and so is working together with people you've spent like two decades fighting but… it just seemed to me like people killing people for no other reason than because they'd been killing people for so long, that they didn't have any other idea how to change things. Just kill more people and maybe it will be better. And I get that's not it, there was more to it than that but still. That was the impression I got.

Marlene, man. I knew her. And I think… I dunno. For months I thought she probably died back in Boston and Joel and Tess were just being nice, telling me she'd recover. Knowing that she's definitely dead, that Joel killed her… I dunno. I don't know what it changes.

I wish I was surprised by the fact that the Fireflies probably didn't know what they were doing with the whole vaccine stuff. But it doesn't.

And I guess that's what makes me most… not sad, but, tired? Exhausted? Something. All of this is just… ugh.


 

Ezio is the bestest boy ever. And I am going to take him on walks forever. Best, best boy.


 

Desmond got in touch with the Brotherhood via satellite phone – me and Joel were there, it was… interesting.

I'm kinda over all this faction business. Fireflies, FEDRA, Brotherhood, whatever. They're all people, all dumb and all good and all bad in their own ways. The people Desmond got messages from, they just sound like people. People who get sick and get tired of their kids and get colds and stuff. Just people. It made Desmond happy to hear about them.

He sent them a message too – told them about me, and Joel, and about the plans of taking samples. Asked for advice on how to proceed on getting the samples back, what would be the best way to go about it, stuff like that – if someone could come meet him halfway, for better preservation of samples. Stuff that.

I dunno why my heart was pounding like mad, listening to it, but it was. Joel actually comforted me about it. It was nice, in a sort of… I dunno. I mean, I know damn well now he's not gonna let anything bad happen. That's good, right?

It's gonna be another week until we can expect a reply – they're going to get the message in a couple of days, apparently, but then it will take three or four days from then until their message gets back to Desmond, because satellite orbits are whack. So, waiting.

Not sure I'm a huge fan of waiting.


 

Hunting again – we took down a moose, a big, big ass moose. It had broken horns, so, no epic trophies or anything, but it will make a pretty good damn addition to the winter stores. I'm getting my insulation for the garage! Score!

Desmond think's we're going to have to leave Ezio behind for the next hunt though, which sucks. Apparently, taking down big prey like a moose and then taking it home is giving Ezio wrong ideas – it's not what he's trained for, and Desmond is really careful about not confusing Ezio about his training. He's not a hunting dog. Which I get, but, still. It sucks.


 

Shimmer's saddle training time. Poor girl is so confused. I am going to get her apples.


 

Worked on the garage with Joel most of the day – it was good. We talked while we worked and it kinda. I guess it helped, to have something to do, to fill up the awkward pauses. So many awkward pauses. I uh.

It's different now. I mean it was different before too even before he told me the truth, but it's like this thing, fuck. It's always there, and I – I'm trying to understand. And I think I do, but I also don't and sometimes, man, sometimes I look at Joel and I don't know who this guy even is. It's weird since he's pretty much my 

He's trying though. He's trying so hard and I guess I gotta try too. He makes for a good handyman, anyway.


 

Desmond says I should put dates in my diary entries, for future references, but, eh. It's not a log, I'm not going to bother – I'm not writing history here. He wants to keep track of days, he can do it himself in his own journal. If that's even what he's doing – it looks like a whole lot of squiggles for me. Apparently, Desmond knows Arabic… and Italian, and Latin and some Native American language and Welsh and overkill much, dude.

Oh my god he's talking to Joel in French now, I'm outta here.


 

I have a stove! And an insulated garage which, in the end, not as much work as I thought it would be – but a stove! Tommy is the best not-uncle ever! He and Eugene went to this place on their patrol and got the stove out of this collapsed cabin and brought it in – they took a buggy out to do it and everything, it gotta have been so much work but I apparently won't even have to pay for it or anything and – and – and I have a stove for my garage!

Now we just gotta make a hole in the wall for exhaust. No biggy.


 

Shaun Hastings, I don't know you man, but we're going to be best friends. Never seen Desmond look so insulted.

So apparently, taking blood samples back is… not a viable option. There is no way they'd keep until the coast, not for the weeks it would take to get there, with broken roads and no cars and such. Taking tissue samples back… even worse idea. Saliva was a maybe, but even then there's no guarantee that it would keep. Apparently the whole thing is stupid and Desmond is stupid and man. It was funny.

The Brotherhood is coming up with alternatives, but since I'm safe here, and Desmond is here and Joel's… Joel, they figure the safest bet would be for, uh… me, the resource, staying here and staying safe, and for the research to come to me, rather than wasting time ferrying around spoiling samples. So, uh… Desmond and Joel are going to talk to Tommy and Maria about it – about the Brotherhood sending like… experts? To Jackson, to examine me. 

Kinda seems to me that the easiest way would be for me to go to them, to whatever laboratories they have set up on paradise islands or whatever, but at the same time…

I dunno. Desmond and Joel are both pretty vehement that Jackson's pretty much the best place ever. And, going by what I know, I guess it is. I just…

I hate being a burden.


 

Dog sitting Ezio while Desmond and Joel are on a date. Desmond's shown me how to run Ezio through his paces – how to play fetch which is also like training, and how to reward him right, how to handle him if he breaks orders, stuff like that. Ezio is the best boy.

Also, I cannot believe the gossip there's about Joel and Desmond. I mean, they're dating. It's not that big of a deal. Well. It is. But it also isn't. Shouldn't be.

God I wish when I start dating, it won't be as big of a deal as Joel and Desmond are. I'd hate that, people talking about me like that. Even Kat like, swoons? About them? It's weird. Small town people are weird sometimes.

Ezio's a good boy though.


 

Movie night – we're watching Disney movies!


 

Joel taught me a new song. We were sitting in the back porch, just strumming and it was – it was nice. Not like old times, exactly, because things are different, but it was almost… better, I guess. He always picks like vaguely sad songs, because deep inside I think Joel is full of emotion, but I sorta… get it now. Emotional expression and Joel just don't go hand in hand, huh. He's gotta sing about it. Which… actually, it makes even more sense why getting him to sing is like pulling teeth, huh.

He's got a nice voice when he really gets warmed up though. Very smokey whiskey country. He should sing at the dances – we should sing together! He says no, of course, because Joel's gotta Joel. I'm gonna make him do it though. Winter dance, we're singing.


 

More work on the garage – it's almost winter ready now. Next order in business – actually stove and maybe water collection system for roof. Oh, and a bed, but that's easier. I wonder if I could get fairy lights or something for the place...


 

Joel and Desmond had uh… a fight. I guess. I think it was a fight. I was at the garage and there was shouting in the house, a bit. And then there wasn't and when I looked in – erm. Yeah I'm sleeping in the garage tonight.

They're weird sometimes. But I guess, Joel's Joel and anyone who likes Joel would have to be weird and… ugh. And I guess I'm happy for Joel, because he's got this – this undercurrent of misery about him, all the time. Because of Sarah and all the things that happened to him over the years since and… and it's nice he found someone. That Desmond genuinely likes him, and Joel, in his own way, likes him back. But at the same time, it's kinda like they're always on the verge of fighting.

I don't get them, man. If I ever get a girlfriend, I don't want it to be like that. It makes sense for Joel, I dunno if he can even communicate properly with a bit of violence in the mix… but I wouldn't want to be constantly on the edge of fighting someone I love.

Weirdest thing is, I think Desmond actually likes that about Joel. Weird old codgers, both of them.

Thank god for headphones.


 

Uh, I think… I did a bad?

Shit.

Um, so, Desmond's setting up the dog training thing, right, and I've been watching Ezio while he and Joel and Tommy and Maria and a bunch of other people are working on it, right? And uh. Desmond told me, there's a difference between when Ezio's working and when he's playing, and when he's working you gotta have boundaries, and treat him accordingly, because training and signal and what. Dogs are smart, man, they learn, and they will learn bad habits too, if you teach them. So you gotta be careful with your signals. And I did bad.

I didn't even think. I was doing the usual thing with Ezio, having him play tricks, stay, sit, sneak, low, fetch, and rewarding him accordingly – best dog, seriously, Ezio is the smartest pupper ever. But then some guys from the classes came along, Dina and Kat and Jessie and, uh…

I mean, I figured it was fine if they petted Ezio and gave him treats, right? Ezio's a good dog, he deserves all the pets. But he was working, and, uh. Mixed signals.

I don't think it was that bad, Desmond wasn't mad but he was like… I dunno. It was weird. For a bit I was actually worried I lost my Ezio-walking privileges.

I'm going to be careful in future. I cannot lose Ezio-walking privileges, they're the only thing keeping me sane, being a participant of the Joel-and-Desmond show.


 

Pickling day with Joel. Fun. I mean that both honestly and sarcastically – I hate pickling, I hate vinegar, just. Ugh. But spending time with Joel isn't so bad. We talked about pre-outbreak time, what he used to do, how things were. He even talked a bit about Sarah. He's mellowed out a bit, I guess. It was… nice. Just nice.

Wonder if Desmond knows Joel used to be married.


 

Another satellite window time – I think there's been some back and forth with radios too, sending coded messages and whatnot. Shaun and Rebecca are coming here! Along with a medical person who's spent the last twenty years teaching herself to be a specialist in mycology. She was the one who did the infection trial on Desmond. They're coming here – they're gonna set up a lab here.

I dunno if this is awesome or terrifying. Little bit of both.

There's one good thing that's coming from this – apparently, they're bringing us more dogs! More dogs, more good. It will take them weeks to get here, sure. But. Dogs! Dogs for spore sniffer training!

I wonder if I could get a spore sniffer dog to train…


 

Oh man, oh man.

So, hunting again, right, me and Joel and Desmond and no Ezio because, ugh, mixed hunting signals, but whatever, right? Except, no, it's not whatever, because since there was no Ezio we had no warning and we almost ran into a horde. Or it ran into us. Whatever! There were a whole bunch of them anyway, and with no Ezio there, we had no warning. And damn, it was … so close, dude.

But that's not the big thing – the big thing is that Desmond can do things. Climb like mad. He says it's parkour, which I… think I might've heard of in Boston, can't remember. It was crazy – he just went straight up a wall and then jumped from one rooftop to another like it was nothing and then ran off, just to distract the horde from our location. I swear, Joel almost shat his pants, when we heard Desmond start shouting. It was kinda awesome, in a scary way.

Desmond is so totally going to teach me how to do that.

And also maybe how to fight with a sword, because dang, that thing, so handy.


 

Joel vetoed the sword fighting (for now, old man, this isn't over yet) but parkour training is a go! Hell yeah!


 

Working at the stables today. Shimmer's coming along so well – Greg says she's showing real promise, has a good head and isn't easily spooked, that she's going to be a good patrol horse. Dina was working with Japan while I was working Shimmer, getting her used to a halter. Dina's aiming to join the patrols too, once she's old enough, pretty much the same as me. Wonder if we'll end up doing any patrols together.


 

Joel and Desmond are getting drunk and maudlin on the back porch talking about their kids and, I'm…

I can't remember what Mom looked like anymore. I think she had hair the same colour as mine, maybe a bit redder, but… but I don't have any photos. I dunno why that's – I mean, I didn't really even know her, I was really little when she died, I don't… remember that much about her. But I knew what she looked like. I remember knowing that. Wish I had a photo of her. Guess it doesn't really, matter but –

Aw man. I think Desmond's making Joel all soft, he actually, like... Aww. Old fogey. You're alright. You do alright.

No, I'm not crying, you're crying.

Love you too, you crazy old man. Even if you're only saying it because you're drunk.


 

Desmond and Joel are taking me out on spore sniffing patrol! We're starting to get the winter hordes now, apparently – the infected up north are wandering back southwards, before things start getting really cold and there needs to be more sweeps and, yeah. Patrol! Doggy patrol! Best patrol. Desmond's going to be showing me how to handle a dog during proper sweep and it's going to be awesome.

… can I take this as confirmation that I will be getting my own dog?

I think I can! I will! YES!


 

Ezio is the best goddamn dog on the planet, holy shit. Such a good boy. I am so getting me a dog like him. Oh man. All the treats, all of them. Ten infected, man. Best boy.


 

Parkour lessons started lame, but man, they pick up fast. Desmond, I dunno man, sometimes you come across so chill and then suddenly we're trying to run up a wall. It's a wall, man. How do you even do that? Do you know gravity? Do you even know Newton's first law of motion, man?

I need to start doing pushups or pull-ups or something, jeesh.


 

Joel and Desmond are kinda cute in a terrifying way. Guess I see why all the old ladies are all besotted with following their little soap opera. Still hope to god I will never be like them. Honestly, it seems either very stressful or really stressful.

Also, how hilarious is this? Next time anyone asks me how they met (which no one ever will because everyone already knows, but, you know). If any one ever asks me how Desmond and Joel met, I'm gonna tell them: "Well, Desmond stole Joel's brother's horse, and Joel broke into his hotel room drunk. It was love at first fight!" because I swear to god, it might've been. They're nauseatingly in love.

… haha, Desmond was out securing the perimeter and I asked Joel if he would ever marry the guy and damn, the reaction.


 

I miss Boston sometimes. It's weird – I dunno if ever really liked the place. It was sorta all I've ever known, before Joel snuck me out of there anyway, and I know as places go while it's not the worst, it's definitely not the best either, but… yeah.

I woke up this morning, and I think I dreamed of Boston, because I woke up thinking I'd just heard the bell ringing and that I was gonna be late for drills – I was half outta bed, looking for my clothes, when I remembered, oh, I'm not in Boston anymore, and I don't have military drills anymore. And I felt… let down, a little?

That was the before time. Before… before everything. When Riley was alive, and I wasn't bit, and didn't know Joel and the Fireflies were still blowing up checkpoints and, I dunno. It wasn't a better time, I know that, it was just different, but… I guess it was simpler, back then. I knew what I was back then. Didn't know if I was happy with it, or if I'd stick with it or run away like Riley did, but… it was simpler.

I guess I miss things being simple. Things like water guns and getting horse riding lessons from Wilson and…

Jackson's a better place. I know that. It's so much better.

But sometimes…


 

Joel acts like he hates Ezio sometimes but then you come home and he's snoring on the couch with Ezio lying all over him and boy, I think he's one of those dads guys.

I mean.

It's cute, is all.


 

Parkour milestone number one according to great Mentor Desmond Miles is apparently climbing the local church. Which is. Okay. Right. Okey-dokey man. Jesus. Literally.

Man, the view was something else, up there.

He got a bit weird about it, like… I dunno, not exactly sad, but something. Nostalgic maybe. We talked a bit while up there, he told me that he'd named Ezio after his ancestor and then sort of… stopped talking. I dunno. It was weird, and kinda glum. Think there's a lot of things Desmond knows he wants to talk about but can't because of all the spy business. I asked him about Joel instead and I think that made him feel a bit better. Talking shit about Joel always does. Desmond's kinda mushy sometimes.

I think I managed to convince him to get flowers for Joel, just for shits and giggles. Sorry Joel. I'm not really sorry.


 

Desmond says that it shouldn't be long now, until they get here – the people from the Brotherhood. It kinda – stunned me. A bit. It should be okay, Joel and Desmond both told me, they expected nothing for me, just to perform some tests, safe, careful tests, but like…

It's not real sometimes. Doesn't feel real. That the Fireflies wanted to take out my brain. And okay, maybe that wasn't the point, they wanted the growth around my brain, but… like… what? How do you even. What are you supposed to think about that?

I know the doctor from the Brotherhood isn't going to do that. The most she wants is a tissue sample and probably a brain scan and then it will probably be weeks and months before they figure out anything. This thing, it's going to take months just to, to… to confirm, probably. My strain and Elijah's, they're probably different, too, and that's gotta be figured out too and, and…

And it will probably, likely, be years before anything comes out of it. And until then, we gotta be careful. Secretive. No one can know. Which I get. But.

I thought I knew what I felt about all of this, you know. The whole mutant strain thing, me being hope of mankind, or whatever. I thought I had it figured out. But now it's coming and I don't know shit, and sure, I don't have to know shit, they got doctors for that, but…

It's just a really really weird feeling. Like I'm only half-person here, and half this thing. This thing in my head. And the thing in my head is almost the most important part of me – the parasite that makes me immune. I know that's not right, but still…

I think I get it now. Sort of. From an outside perspective, kinda. Maybe. I get why Joel did what he did and what that actually… means. For me. For him to do that means I'm not a thing for him, right? I'm not just the cure. That's why he did it. Because… yeah.


 

Desmond and Joel both fell asleep at the movies tonight. I think the whole damn theatre cooed at them. Poor tired old dads.


 

Shaun and Rebecca and the doctor lady, Chewy – or, Chiu? Kinda missed it. Anyway, they're here, they have dogs, Shaun's giving Desmond hell and Rebecca brought a whole bunch of equipment and stuff. I think that more than anything calmed Joel down too, seeing that. They're going to start working out a lab for them tomorrow and then I'm going to be working with them and you know what?

I think it's going to be alright.