Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Joel & Ellie
Word Count: 2346
Summary: "I would kill for something to eat right now" can be taken literally in the TLoU 'verse...
Author's Notes: While working on a scene for an upcoming chapter in my long fic, I created a memory for Ellie to think about, and I thought, "Hey that would've been fun to do as a one-shot." And then suddenly the words poured out! This takes place between the in-game events of Winter and Spring.
Crossposted to AO3 and FFN
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“I would kill for something to eat right now,” Ellie grumbled. It had been forever since she and Joel had split that last can of creamed corn and a squirrel. At least three days, probably four. Game was scarce after the recent snow storms (or so they assumed). It wasn’t snowing currently, but there were still patches of snow everywhere, and the ground was icy-hard.
“Take a few sips of water,” was Joel’s suggestion.
Sometimes that worked, but this time there was no fooling Ellie’s stomach. Still, she vowed to keep her mouth shut from now on, because Joel had to be just as hungry as she was and he had yet to complain. Bitching about it didn’t help matters.
Unless the universe had heard her bitching and decided to help her out, because it couldn’t have been more than a half hour later when Joel pointed out a thin billow of smoke in the sky to the north. “Look at that, kiddo.”
“A camp fire?”
“Let’s go find out.”
She and Joel had found all kinds of good stuff at live camps, some of it just begging to be stolen. Abandoned sites were easier to search, of course, but usually yielded far less booty. When they got closer, they smelled the smoke… along with the mouth-watering aroma of roasting meat. Someone was cooking with the fire! “Do you smell that?” she asked excitedly.
“Sure do. Stay calm, though. Be alert; some of their group might be scattered around.”
Ellie moved as stealthily as she could with a loudly-growling stomach. The camp fire came into view, and Joel motioned for her to stop behind some sagebrush overlooking the small valley before them. The brush was large enough to provide cover for both her and Joel, allowing them to observe from a safe distance.
Ellie saw a woman on her knees, hacking away at the carcass of what appeared to be an elk. A little girl -- Ellie would guess she was about six or seven years old -- appeared to be in charge of the spits of meat, holding one over the flame and propping the other against her side. There wasn’t any sort of frame thing to rest them on. A boy who appeared to be a couple years older than the girl stood next to her, holding a shotgun that was nearly as long as he was tall. Ellie surmised that he was supposed to be keeping watch… except he was far more interested in the fire than in looking out at nothing. He kept trying to help the girl with the meat, and when the woman lifted her head and gestured for him to move (they were out of earshot, but it looked like she was scolding him), he took a few steps away and looked around perfunctorily, then resumed watching the fire instead.
There was no one else in sight. Scattered nearby were two rucksacks, a rather large pile of cloth that contained blankets or clothes or maybe even an unpitched tent, and some smaller things she couldn’t make out. She wondered if the spits were actually tent poles. Ellie also noticed a bow and a quiver of arrows near the woman. Nothing resembling real shelter, as in any sort of building or enclosure, other than the natural barrier of the mesa behind them.
“They have shitloads of meat, they won’t eat all that… at least not at once,” Ellie remarked quietly. She glanced at Joel. “Do you think there might be more people around somewhere?”
“Don’ know.” But that was all he said. His expression was difficult to read.
“What should we do?”
He didn’t answer her. Just kept watching the little family.
Ellie wasn’t sure what she wanted him to say. She was so fucking hungry that her first instinct was to just shoot all of them, eat as much elk as she could stuff down, and feel bad about it later. It was kind of scary, how casual she could feel about murder these days… even if those feelings were in the form of a primal instinct that she had the power to suppress. She knew she didn’t really want to kill a couple of innocent kids, but the thought of it wasn’t as alarming as it should have been. And Joel had lived like this for years, before coming to Boston. He must be so much more hardened to it than she was.
They could just try to threaten the family and make them hand over the meat. They’d pretty much be forced to take their weapons, too, to be on the safe side (and wouldn’t it be more merciful to kill them swiftly than leave them to die painfully some other way?). The little boy could be problematic; maybe he was actually an experienced gunman, a better shot than one would expect… or maybe he was trigger-happy enough to fire before they could even start to negotiate.
Maybe they could do something to scare them, send them running for their lives… leaving the meat to blacken on the fire.
Maybe they could simply invite themselves to join them for dinner… then all of them would enjoy a friendly meal around the fire and become fast friends.
…Okay, yeah, no. Ellie would have loved that option, but it was too big a risk to take with their lives. Even if they confiscated the weapons first, they had no way of knowing if there were others in their party, maybe off looking for shelter or something… in which case a mercy killing wouldn’t be necessary, if she and Joel went that route instead…
Whatever! Ellie’s head was spinning. She was glad it was Joel’s call, but she wished he’d make up his mind already. She was starving!
“Joel?” she tried again.
“Let’s jus’ keep movin’.”
“You heard me.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” She had to contain her outrage to a stage-whisper to keep her volume down.
“Come on. Back this way.” He started heading back the way they’d come.
Ellie had no choice but to follow; she couldn’t defy him and storm the camp on her own. She fell into step beside Joel and sulked silently. She didn’t want to make him feel bad if he was taking some kind of moral high ground here. If it had been just a couple of men by the fire, would he have been fine with the idea of killing them? …would she? She thought that yes, she would, and that that was fucked up, because it was still murder. If she and Joel ambushed them before they even knew what was going on, they’d be dead, no matter who they were, and in a way, didn’t that make them just as innocent as the children?
But she was ravenous, and that meat had smelled soooooo good… it was extremely disappointing to leave it behind. Like, heartbreakingly crushing. How long would it be before they found food of their own, let alone something so fresh and satisfying? How long would it take for them to finally keel over from exhaustion and malnutrition? Joel always said water was more important, that if they stayed hydrated they could get by on very little food. Fortunately, having an adequate supply of drinkable water hadn’t been an issue for them lately.
They’d only been walking a few minutes when Joel stopped her. “Rest here a minute. I gotta go spend some quality time with nature.”
That was one of their euphemisms for taking a shit. Ellie wondered how he could possibly have anything solid left in his bowels to shit out, but she wasn’t about to pry. And she could really use the rest. “Okay.”
Maybe he’s going back to the camp! She couldn’t let herself fantasize about that, though. If he’d changed his mind, he would have taken her with him. Plus, he hadn’t gone back in that direction. But he could have left his backpack with me, and he didn’t… No, that didn’t mean anything. There were plenty of times he just didn’t bother shrugging out of it for such short periods of time. She slumped down in the dirt, leaning against a large red boulder, a pistol in her lap. The ground was too cold to sit on comfortably, but she didn’t care.
It was difficult to rest and stay alert at the same time. Her mind just would not let go of that fucking barbecue they’d missed out on. She imagined grabbing one of the spits and gnawing off a huge chunk of seared elk flesh, how she’d try to chew it slowly to make it last but once she got going it would probably be hard to restrain herself. Her eyes closed, more than once, and she had to force herself to snap out of her fantasies.
“Stop it, Ellie,” she commanded herself – she actually said it out loud.
Joel was taking his sweet time with nature. If he ever took what she felt was an inordinate amount of time, she would go looking for him, and vice versa. This was approaching the borderline. She got up, brushed herself off, tucked the gun back into her jeans, and began to pace around the rock. She was tired, but if she kept sitting there daydreaming about food she might pass out or something.
She could still smell that delicious gamey aroma of smoked elk. Joel said she didn’t know what true smoked food was, that there was this whole long process to it… to Ellie, if it was cooked over a smoking flame, it was smoked. The scent was so salivatingly strong she wondered if she was starting to lose her mind from starvation… until she caught sight of Joel returning – from the direction of the camp, carrying…
Oh my God! Ellie couldn’t wait, she ran over to him, leaving her backpack behind. The meat was strung up on a single wooden stick, not one of the makeshift spits. “Omigod, Joel! What did you… how…” She tried to grab a piece.
“Hold your horses,” he said with amusement. “Go sit down over where you were.”
Ellie ran back to the boulder and sat on her backpack, her mouth watering like crazy again. It seemed like Joel was walking infuriatingly slowly. Like in slow-motion. And when he finally reached her, he still didn’t hand over the meat. “I’m gonna give you jus’ a little bit at a time, an’ you eat it real slow, all right? Remember, if you wolf it down, you might get sick. I got extra wrapped up in my pack for later, too, so take it easy.”
She knew the drill. “Okay okay okay, gimme!” Ellie eagerly held her hands out.
“Real slow now,” he repeated as he handed over a small chunk of the manna from heaven.
Ellie obligingly took a small bite. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” she moaned happily. Her mouth wanted to gobble it all down, and it took a concerted effort to give her brain the power required to override the urge. Joel settled himself on the ground across from her and began eating slowly as well. After she swallowed that first scrumptious bite, she started to ask, “How did you—“
But he immediately cut her off. “Don’ worry about that. Jus’ eat.”
“No buts. It don’ matter.”
“Ellie,” he said warningly, giving her a stern look. “I said don’ worry about it. Jus’ forget it.”
She could tell from that look and the hardness of his tone that he would never tell her, no matter how many times she asked. Subject closed.
Truly, she didn’t care. She was that hungry. She nibbled on her portion, savoring every little morsel. Later, she could wonder why Joel hadn’t taken her back there with him, or at least told her that he was going. Didn’t he trust her to follow his lead? She was pretty sure he trusted her with his life by now (and not just because he’d had no choice over the winter). Did he want to spare her the moral ramifications of helping him do whatever it was he’d decided to do? But it wasn’t like she was innocent of the ways of the world. Not anymore. Did he not want her to witness him doing something terrible? She hadn’t heard gunfire… but that didn’t mean he hadn’t killed them, or hurt them, or traumatized them in some way. Had he spoken to them first? What did he say? “Sorry, ma’am, I don’t want any trouble, but me and my girl gotta eat.” What about the boy with the gun? Joel had returned unscathed, so obviously whatever plan he’d hatched had worked. Had he plotted this before he’d told her to keep moving, or had he changed his mind shortly after? If he hadn’t been tasked with feeding Ellie as well as himself, would he have acted any differently?
Whatever he’d done, would he be able to ‘just forget it’ and move on?
But none of that mattered right now. As for any guilt she may have felt… she swallowed it along with her dinner. We do what we have to do.
They ate silently, habitually mindful of their surroundings. Ellie couldn’t determine if Joel was being extra mindful towards the direction of that fire or not. She tried not to think about it.
It wasn’t until she was halfway through her second piece of meat that she realized she hadn't properly expressed her gratitude. Not that any words she said would be enough... but still. “Thank you,” she said simply. I don’t care what you did, I’m just glad you did it for me.
“You’re welcome,” he answered, and Ellie heard the silent ‘I would do anything for you’ in his voice… saw it on his face when he watched her eat.
Maybe that other stuff would never matter. Joel obviously felt that she didn’t need to know, and he had her best interests at heart. She decided she could live with not knowing exactly what that ‘anything’ entailed.