Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie & Joel
Prompt: All 8 (yay finally!) of puzzleprompts's prompts for November: Fire (flamethrower), avian, Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper" (I used the lyric "redefine happiness"), holiday gatherings or lack thereof + angst, hunting (tracking), chilly/windy/cold, socks, happy
Word Count: 1686
Summary: Some decisions about how much to carry are easy; the others are best not to think about. Takes place in fall, at the university -- a "deleted scene," if you will, right before the horrible part.
Crossposted to AO3 and FFN.
One quick, sweeping shot and three runners’ torsos exploded in flame. The flamethrower had been a real find; Joel just hoped he’d be able to scrounge up enough ammo for it.
He heard the moans of one oblivious rogue runner somewhere, and stealthily tracked the sound to the south corridor of the dormitory. With no other infected in sight, good old-fashioned strangling would take care of the last one. He holstered the flamethrower and crept up behind the creature.
That was that. Now he could make his way back north in peace. He considered beckoning Ellie up to join him as he rummaged through the dorm rooms for useful items, but Callus wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the narrow opening like Joel had, and the horse was too valuable to be left unattended.
He found a fair amount of filthy scraps of clothing oft-overlooked by scavengers who lacked imagination. Among those, he also found some seriously ugly, but warm-looking, woolen socks – too small for Joel, but perfect for Ellie. The weather was growing chilly now and the only pair she had was thin and worn out. With any luck, the lab would be the end of their journey… but Ellie would still need good socks for winter, wouldn’t she? And who could say what kind of provisions the Fireflies would have?
In that same room, Joel glimpsed something conspicuously thin amongst the thick textbooks – a comic book! It had a griffin or something on the cover… no, not a griffin… it was one of those birds that rises from the ashes -- a phoenix, that was it. Joel wondered if Ellie would know what that was. It was funny how just about everything he saw these days he viewed through a what-would-Ellie-think lens. Unfortunately, the comic wasn’t part of the ‘Savage Starlight’ series she was into. Damn. But it was in decent shape, and she’d probably still enjoy it. Such simple things made her happy.
The last room on the floor yielded nothing useful, but something entirely impractical and whimsical: a miniature Christmas tree. It was the kind that comes with lights and shit already on it that you just plug into the wall, and voilà: instant Christmas. This one was only about a foot tall, pink, and very glittery. Sarah had had one similar to it. Those first few Christmases, it was the only one she had. Joel had reckoned she was too young to remember it anyway, so why bother getting a big-ass tree? What little spending money they had was better spent on gifts than décor. After they’d started getting real ones, the little one was kept in her room as her own personal tree. And ‘Santa’ even remembered to put a couple tiny gifts under it every year, too.
Shit – don’t think about all that. He couldn’t afford to start reminiscing about holiday traditions. Christmas had gone the way of the dinosaur. The past few years, he’d spent the holiday with Tess, both of them getting shit-faced and not doing anything even remotely Christmas-like… this year, he wouldn’t even have that. Not this year, and not ever again. And Ellie would be with the Fireflies. Christmas would be just another day to sludge through in this life. He probably wouldn’t even know what day it was. Actually, if he would be spending it alone, he’d make sure he didn’t know what day it was. Being alone didn’t bother him one bit, though. He wasn’t the social butterfly type. That was more Ellie’s thing.
Joel had spent enough time alone in the dorms, however. Time to get back to business. He was irritated by a pang of regret, leaving that last room empty-handed. The little tree was probably too girly and childish for Ellie, anyhow. Just as well he couldn’t bring the damn thing back with him. He did occasionally pick up non-essentials – hand-written notes, mostly – but those were small and flat. The tree went well beyond whatever arbitrary line he’d drawn of what could and could not be collected.
“Finally,” Ellie grumbled when he returned. She scooted back for him without him having to remind her. “I was beginning to worry.”
“I found all kinds of good shit up there,” Joel said as he mounted the horse. “Ammo, rags… socks, even… take a look.”
“I’ll pass. I believe you.”
“No, really, take a look. There’s a comic, too. Not one of them Starlight ones, but still.” He directed Callus into the next courtyard, which was as deserted as the last.
“Cool. I’ll look later.”
She didn’t sound like her usual perky self. Joel half-turned his head towards her. “Somethin’ happen while I was gone?”
“What would have happened? There’s no one here. Other than those infected, I mean… no Fireflies. Shouldn’t we have seen someone by now?”
Joel had expected to see someone by now, too. But it didn’t necessarily mean no one was here. “Maybe there ain’t enough of ‘em to spread out like that. Maybe they only guard the lab an’ don’ stray too far from it. We’re almost there.” The gigantic mirror, which Tommy had said was the landmark of their lab, loomed large on the horizon.
Ellie was quiet for a moment. “Joel… what if we do find them? What then?”
“Whattaya mean ‘what then’? That’s our goal. We’re done. You go on an’ save the world.”
“But… what exactly do you think will happen? They don’t even know I’m coming. Or why I’m coming.”
“So we’ll explain.”
“Sure. You think I’m jus’ gonna drop you at the door an’ take off?” That’s all Joel was supposed to do, originally, with Tess – just take Ellie to Marlene’s cronies, go back and collect the reward. But they’d been expecting Ellie. Joel wondered sometimes what would have happened to Ellie if those men hadn’t been dead when they arrived. How long would the group have survived trying to cross the country? He would assume they were responsible and capable, since Marlene was entrusting Ellie to them… and yet, they were dead. Possibly through no fault of their own, but possibly not.
He realized Ellie hadn’t answered him. “Hey. I’ll make sure you’re all right first. That it’s safe.”
“What if they don’t want me to stay with them? Like… they just wanna draw some blood and send me on my way?”
“That’d be pretty stupid. It ain’t like… like they get a blood sample an’ jus’… instantly make a vaccine out of it.”
“So they’ll wanna keep me around. For more blood… and for running tests or whatever?”
Joel waited, but she left the thought hanging there. “What if what?”
“Nothing, never mind. What about you? What will you do? Go back to Tommy’s?”
“I dunno. Maybe. Maybe I’ll go live with Bill.”
Joel was pleased that he’d made her laugh. “What, you don’ think he’ll be happy to see me?” Maybe if I redefine happiness as possibly not feeling inclined to shoot me on sight…
“Um, lemme think about that… NO. First of all, why the fuck would you even want to live with him? Second of all, he sets those traps to keep everyone out – obviously he likes being by himself. Third… he’s a total asshole! Which takes me back to the first thing.”
Joel chuckled. “He ain’t so bad, once you get to know him.”
“Right,” Ellie muttered, sounding thoroughly unconvinced. She fell silent for a minute, and Joel thought maybe she’d gotten the worries out of her system, but then she asked, “What if they said you could stay with them, too? Would you?”
“Me, a Firefly?” Joel scoffed. “No thank you.”
“Maybe not join their cause and all that, just like… as a guest?”
“A guest,” Joel repeated dubiously.
“Well, not like a freeloader -- you could help keep watch or something.”
Joel smiled to himself. Obviously, Ellie didn’t like the idea of them parting ways when this was over, although she wouldn’t come right out and say so. He didn’t much like it either, truth be told, but he was resigned to it – and Bill had the right idea on that front. The lighter you traveled nowadays, the better off you were. Best not to get her hopes up. “I don’ think they’ll want my help.”
“Did you trust me when you first met me?”
“Bullshit. You wanted to stay with Marlene.”
“For like, five seconds. Then I trusted you.”
“It took quite a bit longer than that.”
“Well, you were kind of a dick at first, but still, it didn’t take all that long. Just don’t act like that this time, and – I’ll tell them. I’ll say how you got me all the way across the country and stuff.”
“Maybe they won’ trust you, either. At least not your opinion of me.”
“Okay, fine, whatever, say they don’t want you – will you at least decide where you’re going, and tell me, before you leave?”
So I can come find you someday, Joel added for her. Would she set off on her own, looking for him? He definitely didn’t like the idea of that. Even though she’d now seen many of the dangers in the world firsthand, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she tended to underestimate them -- or maybe it was that she overestimated him. He hoped it was the latter, and that she wouldn’t eventually try to leave the Fireflies’ haven on her own. Or even leave with other Fireflies… the dead ones they’d found back in Boston flashed through his mind again. “Why don’ we jus’ concentrate on findin’ ‘em first an’ then see what happens.”
Clearly not the response she was hoping for. But she dropped it.
The wind had picked up a little, and Joel wouldn’t be surprised if they saw flurries by day’s end. He had hoped to be done with all this before the weather started feeling like winter. Yet as they approached the science lab, he couldn’t help thinking that it wouldn’t be all that terrible if they found that it had been abandoned.