Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters (in this chapter): Ellie, Joel, Tommy, OC
Word Count: 3640
Chapter Summary: Joel meets a new sort of enemy >.>
The storm passed and left a clear, cold sky in its wake. After dinner, Tommy escorted Joel and Ellie to the library, and once again, Joel had the pleasure of seeing Ellie’s awe as she took it all in. Jackson’s library was more than just a house of books. Ellie took Joel’s hand and tugged him excitedly from one part to the next, pointing to things and asking questions -- sometimes pulling him over to the next thing before he even finished answering. Near the children’s section, there were card tables set up in front of a bookshelf full of board games. Another bookshelf held jigsaw puzzles, of which Ellie couldn’t see the appeal (“So they put the picture together just to take it apart? That’s dumb”). Four people were playing Monopoly at one of the tables. Two others were playing a card game. Tommy said they held tournaments for some of the games, generally with bragging rights as the only prize. A bulletin board nearby was cluttered with colorful flyers announcing these, as well as movie schedules, town meetings, and any other information deemed pertinent to Jackson residents (apparently they did have several boxes of replacement copier/printer toner, and a standing requisition to trade for more when possible, but to err on the side of conservation, only certain citizens had printing privileges).
A few rooms which used to serve as meeting or activity centers had been transformed into miniature makeshift movie theaters, complete with freshly-popped popcorn (no soda or candy, though). The rooms were reserved at night for the scheduled movies, but at other times, people were welcome to come watch whatever they wanted, limited to one movie at a time if others were waiting. One corner of the large main room was the designated ‘music center,’ with racks of CDs and cassettes, a handful of stereos, a tangle of headphones and earbuds, and personal listening devices too -- walkmans and discmans. Joel hadn’t seen a discman since he was a kid. Ellie had her own walkman, a broken one she had an odd attachment to, and which Joel was determined to fix for her. Tommy said they also had MP3 players, but no one had been able to get any of them working yet. There was a row of computers along the wall by the stereos, where people could play games or listen to music, only for an hour at a time when demand was high. It all looked very orderly and well-thought-out to Joel.
There were so-called librarians, too. They used a spreadsheet to track who borrowed what book on what date. Music and movies could also be checked out, for those who had the means to play them at home –- people who had lived here a while, for the most part. The personal devices had to be checked out as well, but those could only be used in this building (as they had a habit of wandering off otherwise, never to be seen again). Up to five items per person at a time could be borrowed for home use. If you didn’t return something within two weeks, the bounty hunters came after you -- according to Tommy, who then volunteered Joel for the job. Ellie got a kick out of that.
Ellie took a seat at a table with a chess board and fiddled with one of the white pawns. “Just like Bill’s! Joel, will you teach me how to play?”
“Right now?” asked Joel, amused at her enthusiasm, as he sat down across from her.
“No, I mean, some time.” She put the piece down guiltily and looked up at Tommy. “Oops -- am I not supposed to touch these?”
Tommy looked surprised. “Nah, go ahead, touch ‘em all you want.”
Joel remembered how Bill had warned her not to touch anything on his board. He chuckled. “So there’s no game goin’ on already?”
“Well, if there was, they’re supposed to put a note up.” Tommy picked up a scrap of paper that had ‘game in progress’ scrawled on it, then let it flutter like a leaf back into the box of pieces not in use. “’Course, that’s no guarantee that someone won’ come over an’ mess with it anyhow. The staff can’t have their eyes on everythin’ all at once. Other people comin’ in here to hang out try to keep an eye out for mischief, too.”
Ellie picked up a black stone from one of the squares. “Is this piece like a bomb or something?”
Tommy chuckled. “That would be an interesting deviation from the rules. No, that there is… the black side’s queen, I think. Some o’ the pieces have a way of disappearin’.”
Ellie snorted. “People are so rude.”
Joel laughed. What a little hypocrite she was! “I’m sure you would never steal nothin’.”
“I wouldn’t!” Ellie exclaimed indignantly. “Not from a place like this! That’s selfish. If the place is abandoned, then sure. It’s not stealing cuz no one’s even using it.”
“Right. But it’s alright to take things from an individual if you feel like it, is it?”
“No!” Then Ellie realized what he was hinting at. “Oh, I get it. Okay -- it’s wrong to take stuff from a nice person. It’s not wrong if they handcuff you and make fun of you and tell your traveling companion that he’s a fucking idiot for helping you.”
Tommy’s eyebrows shot up and Joel laughed again. “You don’ wanna know, baby brother.”
“You’ll have to fill me in on your travel adventures some time,” Tommy said amusedly. “Well, you all do what you want, I’m gonna go talk to Paige over there at the counter. Seeya later.”
“Bye Tommy, thanks again for dinner,” said Ellie. She really was rather polite… for a teenager with a potty mouth. She’d helped out with the dishes after dinner, too. Without being asked.
Joel toyed with a couple of the black pawns. “So, in your opinion, it’s perfectly fine to steal from someone, so long as they’re an asshole?” he asked casually.
Ellie thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, maybe. I s’pose so. If they’re an asshole then they deserve it.”
“I’m an asshole, so it’s okay if people steal from me?”
“You are nooootttttt,” Ellie said, exasperated. “You’re one of the good guys. You just don’t want to admit it cuz you like your tough guy image. You can be bad-ass and still be good, y’know.”
It wasn’t worth arguing with her. There was a lot about him that she didn’t know, or had only scratched the surface of, and Joel was content to keep it that way. “Bill’s not really an asshole, either. He was a big help to us. We might not even be here if it wasn’ for him. You realize that?”
Ellie shrugged. “He didn’t have to be such a jerk to me. Anyway, it’s not like I took anything important.”
“How do you decide what’s important and what’s not? People have different opinions on that.” Joel was just giving her shit now. Because it was fun.
Ellie rolled her eyes. “I’m sure Bill already read that comic… and listened to that tape… and ‘used’ that magazine.” She grinned at the last bit.
Joel smirked. “Maybe he hadn’ got around to it yet. Or maybe he wanted to use those things more than once. And you jus’ tossed that magazine outta the car after two minutes.”
“You told me to get rid of it!”
Joel blinked. “Oh, right, I forgot. Well, you didn’ need to be lookin’ at that shit.”
Ellie absently twirled a white bishop across the board. “Yeah, well, I bet if there were naked girls in there, you wouldn’t’ve made me do that,” she said knowingly. “You woulda said, ‘Ellie, go ahead and put that safely in my backpack so I can read it after you fall asleep!’”
“I would not!” Joel protested, trying not to smile. He almost tossed back a snarky comment, but decided to hold his tongue. This wasn’t a subject he even cared to joke about with her; it was too damn awkward. The way she tried to lower the pitch of her voice to imitate him was kind of adorable, though.
“Whatever. I guess poor Bill just has to use his imagination now. If he doesn’t have like ten more of those under his bed,” Ellie snickered. Then she looked at Joel inquisitively.
Don’t ask me something, he pleaded silently. Best not to give her the chance. “Well, it’s almos’ time for the movies to start. We should go check that out. Meet more kids your age you can hang out with.”
“Um… okay. I don’t know if I’ll feel like staying… I do wanna try some of that popped corn, that smells good.”
Hmm, was she a little apprehensive? Ellie had seemed eager enough in the past to spend time with kids her own age, at least in theory. Maybe just shy about meeting strangers. Joel reckoned she’d get over that soon enough, personable kid that she was. She’d probably be friends with every teenager in town before the week was out.
Joel led Ellie over to the movie rooms. Whiteboards mounted next to each declared the title, rating, and leads of the movie to be shown inside. The door to the room for younger kids was closed, with a movie already underway. Tommy had said the children’s movies were supervised, and the other rooms only surveyed perfunctorily from time to time by one of the librarians. An indistinct blend of voices young and old drifted out from two other open doors. An old-fashioned red popcorn trolley stood against the wall. The table next to it offered a large cooler with a spigot for water, a stack of large plastic bowls, and a few little red and white striped boxy containers designed to resemble popcorn bags. Joel grabbed one of those, opened the glass door, and scooped out the fluffiest pieces he could find. He handed the container to Ellie and awaited the verdict. He’d never been a big fan of popcorn himself, but he found it sad that Ellie and lots of other kids -- even young adults –- had never even tasted it before.
She ate a piece tentatively. “Hmm. Weird,” she said as she shoved a handful in her mouth.
Joel sampled a piece from her ‘bag’. Not bad. He probably would have added more salt back in the day, maybe a little of that fake butter crap. He’d grown accustomed to plainer fare in the past couple decades. Ellie ate another handful. “Easy. Save some for the movie,” he advised with a chuckle.
Joel wandered over to the doorway of the teens’ room. Inside, perched on a tall entertainment stand against the opposite wall, was a large flat-screen TV. He figured it was at least 60 inches. There was an open area in the center of the room, and several couches arranged in a V shape on either side of that. There were blankets, pillows, and thermoses scattered about. Nine or ten young people (teenagers or possibly early twenties) were lounging around, some on sofas and some sprawled out on the floor, some tossing popcorn at others, all of them chattering loudly. Tommy had said the age groupings were merely suggestions, not hard and fast rules, but Joel couldn’t imagine wanting to watch a movie in there with that rowdy bunch, not even for a title that interested him. He felt acutely aware of his age.
Ellie glanced inside the room, then drifted over to the other doorway. Joel joined her and found a much different scene inside that room. Probably about thirty people, ages ranging from twenties to sixties or seventies. No one sat on the floor. No one was throwing popcorn. The volume of the conversation was a bit lower.
“Do you wanna watch either of these movies?” asked Ellie, happily munching on her popcorn.
Joel read the whiteboard in front of him: The Bridges of Madison County. He hadn’t even looked to see what the teens were watching -- not that he needed to. “Uh, no. This one’s definitely what they call a ‘chick flick.’ I think my mother liked it.”
Ellie walked over to the other board. “And Clueless? You see that one?”
Joel racked his brain for a moment. Alicia Silverstone… Stacey Dash… Brittany Murphy -- she died before the outbreak, didn’t she? The others were probably all dead now as well. That was a lovely thought. “Don’ think so. If I did, I don’ remember it. I was a kid when that came out. You go on, I’ll wait for you out here.” Something caught Ellie’s eye and Joel turned to follow her gaze. A boy was approaching them. Mid-to-late teens, tall-ish, lanky.
The kid stopped near the teen room doorway and smiled crookedly at Ellie. “Hey, Ellie. You watchin’ the movie?”
“Hey. I dunno… have you seen it? Is it good?” Ellie took a step towards the other teen.
“Yep, saw it last year. It’s kinda funny. I think it was like, really funny, when it was new, but half the jokes don’t make sense now. Some of the girls love it. They go around quoting it and stuff. They go ‘as IF!’ and ~whateverrrr~” The boy made the ‘W’ with his fingers -- yeah, Joel vaguely remembered that, from a lifetime ago -- and Ellie laughed.
For some reason, Joel hadn’t really made the connection earlier… that if there were other teenagers in the town, there were teenage boys in the town. Teenage boys with raging hormones who would be attracted to a cute girl like Ellie. Suddenly he was grateful that she was wearing such a big, baggy sweatshirt. It can’t hide her pretty eyes, though. Or that smile.
“Joel, this is Jacob. Jacob, Joel.” There was Ellie, being polite again. The kid mumbled ‘hey’ and smiled at Joel, all friendly-like. Joel nodded in acknowledgment but didn’t force himself to return the smile. “I met him on the farm today,” Ellie explained. “He helped me groom Spirit.”
“It’s cool that someone likes riding that crazy horse,” said the boy with a chuckle. He stepped into the room and gestured for Ellie to join him. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
Ellie looked back at Joel. “You don’t mind?”
“No, but… c’mere a sec first.” He glared a warning at the kid, who appeared to be oblivious to it. The innocent act don’t fool me, boy.
“I’ll save you a seat,” said the little bundle of hormones before disappearing into the room.
Joel took a few steps back from the doorway so passersby wouldn’t overhear them. Ellie followed and looked at him expectantly while continuing to devour her popcorn.
“You sure you wanna go in there?” Joel asked her gently. “You don’t have to.”
Ellie nodded. “I know.”
Joel looked at her a long moment. ”Alright then. I’m gonna find a book or somethin’ to look at an’ I’ll be right out here. If that boy… if you feel uncomfortable at all, you jus’—“
Ellie interrupted him. “No, it’s not like that! He’s Annie’s boyfriend!”
Annie’s boyfriend. Like that meant he wouldn’t be looking at Ellie and thinking… shit that Joel wished no one would think about his girl. Joel sighed. “It don’ matter whose boyfriend he is, he’s still a boy.” With hands. Hands that will be tempted to wander in the dark, especially if concealed by a blanket. I know, because I used to be one.
“Joel. It’s fine. He’s nice. I’m not going to be uncomfortable.” Her tone was rather patronizing. She really had no idea… “And in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s lots of other people in there.”
Oh, he’d noticed. That boy might not be the only one he had to worry about. “You still got your gun on ya?”
“Oh my God. YES” –- she twisted a bit and patted the bulge at her hip, hidden by the sweatshirt -- “but I’m not going to need it. You’re being so silly. Actually –- I don’t want it. It’s gonna bug me if I wanna lean on that side. And if you’re right out here I feel safe anyways. Here.” She thrust it at him.
Joel sighed. Truthfully, he couldn’t imagine Ellie whipping out her gun in reaction to a boy getting a little frisky (although he couldn’t say the same of himself). It wouldn’t come to that; she could assert herself. And the presence of the other kids might deter the shmuck from persevering and risking an ugly scene. Unless they ganged up on her… they could be plotting something right now…
“Look.” Ellie interrupted his nasty thoughts and pointed to the door. “See how the doors have windows on the top? You can look in there every five minutes if you want. You’ll see me sitting there watching the movie. In no kind of mortal peril whatsoever.”
Joel still didn’t like it. Why the hell had he encouraged her to do this? And was she going to want to come back night after night -- an endless string of nights like this where Joel would have to worry about boys and their hands? There were other girls in there… where were their parents? Didn’t they care what might happen? Didn’t they see all those goddamn blankets?
“And it’s not like those rooms are sound-proof or anything,” Ellie continued. “You could hear me scream. Not that I would, but if I did. Good thing it’s not a horror movie, huh!”
Joel sighed. “Fine. But it’ll be dark in there… if you wanna leave at any time, we’ll leave.”
Ellie smiled in triumph, pleased that she had successfully reassured him -- or so she thought. “It won’t be totally dark cuz the movie’ll be on, and it’s… different. There’s a bunch of people around. I’ll be okay. Oh here, you can have the rest of this. Seeya later!” She left him with the dregs of her popcorn and bounced off into the den of doom.
Only yesterday he’d had real enemies to protect her from, and that didn’t unnerve him nearly so much as this. Did those ‘real’ enemies scare him? Hell yes. One wrong move, one missed shot, one second’s hesitation, and you could be dead. The number of close calls they’d had on their journey made Joel’s head spin. But at least those enemies were obvious. Infected didn’t smile at you and act nice and make you think they were your friend. No -- if you saw one, you knew right away what it was and that it had to be killed, and you took care of business. There was a simplicity to it.
Joel took her up on that offer of looking through the window every five minutes. He looked in once before the door closed as well, to scrutinize every kid in the room. He realized he was probably going a little overboard, but… fuck, he couldn’t help it. Even though she wasn’t facing the door, Ellie always caught him looking in, and she always smiled at him to let him know all was well. At least she was still vigilant, aware of her environment even during a movie.
That kid Jacob noticed him looking once, too. Good. Should make the fucker think twice. Joel couldn’t be completely certain that there were no blanket shenanigans going on. It looked like Jacob and Ellie were sharing a large one across their laps -- sitting a respectable distance apart, but close enough that he could touch her if he wanted to.
Joel knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on reading now so he simply parked himself nearby in a ratty but comfortable overstuffed chair. What was it he’d wanted to talk to Ellie about tonight? Something awkward, probably. Something he didn’t really want to think about that he hoped would magically take care of itself on its own. Great parenting, Joel.
There was so much to consider, now that they had more to worry about than merely staying alive and making it to their next destination. Just watching Ellie talk to a teenage boy had triggered a slew of unwelcome thoughts. Joel didn’t even want to entertain the possibility that someday Ellie might actually want some jerk’s disgusting hands crawling over her… his mouth on her… it made him sick to his stomach. Hopefully that was a long ways off –- years. She was so young. But… not that young, Joel had to admit. And he had no idea how much she knew about the proverbial ‘birds and the bees.’ Luckily for him, she already knew how to take care of… female problems, when they set out on the road last year. Where she learned this stuff, Joel didn’t know. Other kids? School? He knew she’d grown up without a mom. Oh, right –- Marlene had been there for her. The stupid cunt may have passed along some womanly wisdom back in the days before she wanted to kill Ellie. But how much? And how would the shit that went down with that fucking asshole David affect her?
Joel remembered that he’d wanted to look for a book about PTSD. He wasn’t inclined to stray far enough from this area to search for one now. And Ellie seemed to be doing alright here in Jackson so far. She hadn’t had any panic attacks today. That girl Annie appeared to be a suitable companion, and Ellie liked her. She seemed to really enjoy riding that horse; apparently what had happened with Callus hadn’t turned her off of that…
Even when absorbed in his thoughts, Joel too remained aware of his surroundings. He turned and saw Tommy striding across the room towards him, looking grim.
Shit, what now?
~Continue to Chapter 8~