Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie & Joel
Prompt: 5 of puzzleprompts's 8 prompts for August: Janet Jackson's "Black Cat" (I used the lyric "not afraid to die"), cleaning up after others, warrior/guardian (technically Joel is a smuggler, but in the game he's Ellie's bodyguard for all intents & purposes), summer's heat/miserable, definitive right/wrong (wrong)
Word Count: 2823
Summary: Joel and Ellie say goodbye to Henry and Sam... well, Ellie does, at least. [Title is from a Western I've never seen, but maybe Joel has!]
Author's Notes/Warnings: References suicide.
Crossposted to AO3 and FFN.
It wasn’t the easiest way to dig a grave, and it was slow as fuck, but they’d made it work -- Joel whacking the ground with a two-by-four, both of them using their hands as makeshift shovels to scoop out the loosened dirt. Ellie had balked at using her hands at first. Not because of the dirt -- it was the worms and other creepy-crawlies they were unearthing. She’d tried a few other scooping devices: her canteen, her feet, a can of peaches. She’d considered using one of her comics, which probably would have worked better, but apparently had decided her mild squeamishness wasn’t worth defacing the comic (not that it was even in pristine condition to begin with), because she returned it untried to her pack with a “fuck it,” then dug in with her hands again.
Joel might have teased her about it, had the circumstances been different, their moods lighter. He did offer to do all the dirty work himself -- not even in a smartass way -- but she would have none of that. And actually, Joel did think that in terms of saying goodbye and moving on, it would be good for her to participate in the physical act of the burial. Ellie had wanted to craft some kind of coffin as well. Joel would have gladly done it if they’d had the means. If it weren’t for her, he wondered if he would even have bothered lugging the bodies down here for burial. Probably not. It’s all the same to them -- they’re dead.
The sun was blazing overhead, beating on them mercilessly, and the air was so humid that Joel was sweating bullets (the sum of which likely exceeded the entirety of what he’d fired yesterday). At least the soil was cooperative; this was definitely better than trying to hack up hard, frozen ground. And it seemed appropriate that he should feel physically miserable while doing this. There was no pleasure to be taken in it.
When they finished digging the shallow grave, Joel sent Ellie off to pick out a tombstone while he carefully laid the bodies inside, side by side. She returned in time to help cover them with the dirt, and Joel let her finish that while he etched their names on the stone she’d chosen. They worked silently, each lost in their own thoughts.
Joel was angry. Henry, understandably distraught, had blamed him. The way Joel saw it, he and Henry either had equal shares of the blame, as adults who’d failed to protect the kids, or none of it, because sometimes this shit just fucking happened. Henry needed a scapegoat and Joel fit the bill. That was fine. What pissed him off was Henry selfishly doing what he did in front of them. That horrific image was going to be seared into Ellie’s brain for the rest of her life (his, too, but he could handle it). It had been an impulsive deed, obviously, and Joel could empathize; he’d entertained the thought many times himself, after Sarah. But, damn… couldn’t the dude have sent Joel and Ellie on their merry way first? At least out of the goddamn room. Even if they’d still heard the shot, he could have spared Ellie the sight.
Now Joel was stuck cleaning up the mess –- which wouldn’t have been all that bad, had the task been entirely physical. This job continued to be much more than he’d bargained for. He didn’t know how to comfort the girl… there was no real comfort to be had, other than at least it wasn’t us.
“It should’ve been me,” Ellie said sadly, patting the last of the soil into place and smoothing it out.
“Don’ say shit like that. It shouldn’t’ve been anyone.”
“No, I mean… instead of Sam. Cuz I can’t get infected.”
“Oh. Right.” Joel worked the stone into the ground a bit, idly wondering what he would do if Ellie had been killed somehow. He supposed he would go back to Boston, back to his normal life… only it wouldn’t be normal, because Tess wouldn’t be there. Surely he would feel the great relief of a burden lifted, not having to figure out how to safely get the girl all the way to fucking Wyoming (to a brother who hated him, at that) –- and beyond, although that was a big question mark, completely dependent on what Tommy knew or didn’t know about the Fireflies. He would find her death tragic, of course -- the way he did for Henry and Sam… for any wasted life. Especially a young one.
“I thought we did so good yesterday, too,” Ellie lamented. “I even told him that. I didn’t know anything had gone wrong… he said he was okay. I was with him the whole time, in that last fight… I should’ve been quicker… ugh, how could I not know?”
They had surmised that it must have happened then –- the only time they’d witnessed Sam getting attacked by anything -- because Joel had made sure that none of the Infected had gotten near the kid when he and Sam had been separated from Henry and Ellie in the sewers. I should’ve lied about that to make her feel better. “It wasn’ your fault,” he assured her. He didn't expect her to believe him. Henry had been right down there with her, Joel up in the sniper nest firing at the fuckers, but she could have done more? “We don’ even know for sure when it happened. It can take two days to turn. It coulda happened before we met up with them on the beach.” In his gut, Joel felt that that wasn’t the case, but technically, it was possible. “You did do good. You held your own, an’ then some.”
Ellie sat at the foot of the grave with her knees pulled up to her chest. She glanced at Joel. “You’re not afraid to die, huh.”
In theory, he wasn’t. Why should he be when he had no real reason to live? Perhaps it made him a little reckless, less wary of danger than most folks. The survival instinct was strong, though. Stronger than it had any right to be.
He didn’t respond, and Ellie continued. “You’re not afraid of anything. Sam was. He was afraid of turning… like he would feel it and not be able to do anything about it… what if he’d told us? We could have, like… helped him not be so scared, at least. Do you think he slept at all last night? We could have shot him in his sleep, if he started turning. He’d never even have to know what it felt like...”
Joel sighed. “Ellie, it don’ matter, what’s done is done. He can’t feel it no more.”
“I know, but—“
“No buts.” Joel stood up. “Say your goodbyes. I’ll wait for ya over there. Take your time an’ say ‘em real good ‘cause this is the last time you’ll speak of this.”
She frowned… and seemed rather disappointed. “Aren’t you gonna say anything? You know… last rites or whatever?”
“I ain’t no priest. I got nothin’ to say. You jus’… say what you wanna say, an’ that’ll do. Come over when you’re done. All right?” Joel started walking away before she could protest. She could have called out to him, of course, so it wasn’t like he was being a total dick. He just wasn’t into all that shit, and didn’t particularly want a teenager emoting all over him. She let him leave.
He strayed far enough away that he wouldn’t see or hear it if she got a little worked up, taking a seat with his back against a fat redwood tree. Watching over her from a safe distance. It was a kindness; he was giving Ellie privacy if she needed an outlet for her feelings. He’d never seen her cry about anything… she was a pretty tough kid, and would probably be too embarrassed to shed tears or show deep emotion in front of Joel. And if she wanted to talk, it wasn’t like he could say anything to her that would even be remotely helpful anyway.
Joel didn’t want to think about any of it. He tried his usual strategy: concentrating on being too mindful of their surroundings to have any space for thought. It only worked to a point. He found himself wondering again how he would feel if something happened to Ellie. It would definitely affect him more than the deaths of Henry and Sam did. Well, sure… I’ve known her a little longer. And she’s my responsibility -- for the time being. He would feel especially guilty if he failed in this mission, since it was Tess’s dying wish that he see it through.
He was fond of the kid. Maybe a little too much so. When Henry had started losing his shit, Joel had been a much more likely target for his rage, yet it was Ellie’s safety Joel worried about. After each disturbing event in the sequence of horrors this morning, his immediate reaction had been to make sure she was okay. Of course it was -- it’s your job, asshole. Don’t mistake it for anything else. Once you get her to the Fireflies, they’ll take over and you won’t have to think about her ever again.
Ellie sat at the grave for a good ten or fifteen minutes. When she got up and started walking towards him, he met her halfway. Her eyes were downcast, shoulders drooping. She looked… drained. Defeated. “You all right now?” he asked her.
Joel felt like he should say something, something that was pure bullshit but sounded good. Nah, bullshit is bullshit. “Okay, kiddo, let’s get a move on, then.”
It was still hot as hell, and Joel felt the beginnings of a heat headache pricking behind his eyes. The air felt heavy; there wasn’t even an occasional breeze to provide some relief. The dark clouds ahead held the promise of a shower, though.
For a little while, they walked in silence; even the sound of their footsteps was muffled by the overgrown grass. Ellie kept pace behind Joel, as he’d instructed her to. Not long ago, she would have been bounding on ahead, eager to see everything she’d been missing while cooped up in that Boston school. The novelty of being outside had faded. So had some of her childlike enthusiasm; it would be a shame if it died out completely.
“Why can’t we talk about them?” Ellie asked out of the blue.
“Because.” He would have liked to leave it at that, but she made a disgruntled noise. “It don’ do no good, talkin’ ‘bout the past. It happened. It’s over. If you think about it an’ talk about it… you’ll jus’ get sad.”
“I’m already sad. And I can’t… not think about them. What am I supposed to think about instead?”
“I don’ know… somethin’ happier. Hum one of your songs. Practice your whistlin’.”
She snorted. “Pfff. That bugs the shit out of you.”
“Well, this time it won’t.”
“I don’t feel like it anyway.”
“Then think about ‘em an’ be sad if you want.”
“I don’t want to -- I can’t help it. Aren’t you sad?”
“I ain’t got time to be sad. I’m keepin’ an eye out for trouble, an’ for things that can help us out.”
“There’s no one around, nothing to see...”
“There’s plenty to see. An’ jus’ ‘cause you don’ see -- or hear -- anyone right now don’ mean there’s no one around. They might be jus’ barely outta sight.”
She digested that for a few moments before answering. “So… when you say some place is ‘clear,’ it’s really not. Or it is, just for like… that second, so it might as well not be.”
“Uh… I s’pose that’s right. But if I say it’s clear, then you don’ gotta worry ‘bout it.”
“I don’t, but you do?”
“It’s jus’ habit by now, Ellie. Been doin’ it for twenty years. Even in the Zone. Not so much there, but… shit can happen anywhere.”
“Has anyone ever snuck up on you?”
“Sure. I ain’t perfect. It don’ happen so much nowadays, though.”
“How do you ever fall asleep if you’re always worried about this shit?”
“I jus’ don’ sleep real deep.”
“Then we should take turns sleeping. There’s a lot of nights between here and Wyoming, right? You have to sleep good some time.”
Joel was surprised by her generosity. Why should she care about the quality of his sleep? Maybe she was just considering how it might affect his abilities. “It’s fine. More efficient if we both sleep at the same time.”
“Did you sleep okay last night?”
“Not bad.” He didn’t need to ask what the deal was with all her questions; she would just ask and ask and ask for as long as he answered, and a theme may or may not eventually emerge from them.
“I slept pretty good. You know why?”
“Because… you actually like sleepin’ on hard floors?”
“Because it was like… we were a team. The four of us. It was nice. Like having a family. You could talk to Henry about stuff from your time, and I could talk to Sam about… not knowing that stuff. All of us looking out for each other. I wish they could’ve come with us. I wish…” She trailed off into a sigh.
Joel was about to chide her for bringing up Henry and Sam again, but something held his tongue. He should have felt irritated. Mostly he felt sorry for her. She yearned for things Joel had stopped giving a damn about years ago. What the hell does she want me to say? Not the truth, which was something along the lines of “Life sucks, and it never gets any better. The sooner you accept it, the better off you’ll be.”
Instead, he said nothing. He should have known that wouldn’t make her drop it.
“Henry still could’ve come with us. Don’t you think he—“
“Ellie, stop.” Joel stopped walking. “You’re gonna drive yourself crazy if you go on about what ifs an’ shouldabeens. It’s done. Best to leave the past in the past.”
“It’s not past if it just happened today,” she protested stubbornly.
“It is if it’s done. There ain’t nothin’ you can do about it now. I’m sorry things didn’t go like we planned. I really am. But we jus’ gotta… get on with it.”
Ellie gave him an appraising look. “You don’t want to talk about them. I thought it was just your own past. Like… you’re a private person. Which I get. But Henry’n’Sam have nothing to do with you, from before. They’re new. They’re… ours.”
Now he was starting to feel a little more annoyed. “Damn right I don’ wanna talk about ‘em. I’d rather forget our paths ever crossed. We didn’ even know ‘em, Ellie. They were strangers to us, even more than you an’ I are to each other. A few days ago, you didn’ know they existed. Now they’re gone. Talkin’ about what happened ain’t gonna change anything, except to make you feel worse. You gotta bury your dead real deep, or they’ll haunt you.”
Ellie let it go then. Turned away with a sour expression on her face, muttering “whatever.” Maybe it was a girl thing, wanting to talk endlessly for no reason, no purpose. Maybe Joel was a jerk not to indulge her a bit more. No, it’s for her own good. The less she talks about them, the less real they become.
They walked on in uncomfortable silence, which suited Joel just fine. It was still a hell of a lot more comfortable than the conversation had been. It morphed into companionable silence before long.
I’ll miss her when this is over, he grudgingly admitted to himself. After they’d walked a couple miles or so, he asked her if she needed a break… more to hear her voice than because he thought she might actually need one. She said she was good. A lie of sorts, but Joel took the remark at face value.
Then they finally caught up to the dark cloud. “I just felt a raindrop!” Ellie announced. “Did you? It’s raining!”
“It’s sprinkling,” Joel corrected her. “This ain’t even a drizzle.”
“Well, it’s about to rain, then. Good! I’m so fucking hot!”
She trotted on ahead then, the prospect of a shower apparently energizing her, and Joel didn’t call her back. The relief from the oppressive heat lifted his spirits slightly as well. The rain escalated quickly from sprinkle to downpour. She squealed in surprise when it started pounding her… flung her arms out and her head back, as if in welcome.
Joel watched her, and something painful twitched in his chest… but somehow it also made him smile.