Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: PLEASE SEE NOTES ABOUT WARNINGS IN FIRST CHAPTER
Word Count for this chapter: 6579
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Joel fiddled with Ellie's walkman for all of ten seconds before handing it back to her. "I think you should let Marcus fix it," he said. "You'll kill me if I fuck up that tape."
"Okay. So you'd rather I kill Marcus instead?" she teased him.
"Yep. Nah, he's prob'ly got the right gizmo to fix it, is all."
"You mean he's better at it than you."
He smiled. "That too. I ain't ashamed to admit it."
They were hanging out on the living room couch, just the two of them. Joel had been coming to visit her every day, and she found herself warming up to him rather quickly -- too quickly for her liking. She was still very aware that just because he'd been true to his word for a week or two didn't mean he would always be. They didn't converse a lot (because Ellie never wanted to for long), but the silence didn't feel so... deafening, now. It wasn't like old times -- it never would be like old times -- but it was better. She had the feeling that Joel would be more receptive now if she did feel like talking about tough topics. And she felt like maybe that wouldn't be so terrible, that she could take his hand and lead him into that dark corner of her heart where the pain lived, and he could handle it... that maybe it would be good for both of them to do a little housekeeping in that corner, together...
Just... not yet.
Joel helped her with household tasks, including fixing lunch or dinner (and sometimes both in the same day). She liked having him around at mealtime. Sometimes all five of them were there for dinner, and Ellie liked those times the best. It felt like they were a family. Even though she wasn't happy like she used to be, there was something appealing and satisfying about it. She found that she didn't tune everything out as often as she used to.
Ellie did make more of an effort this time to not automatically reject Joel's suggestions, simple things like going for a walk or watching a movie. She wanted to please him, but it wasn't only that; the idea of doing these things didn't strike her as unbearably awful anymore. But when she did truly want to be alone, he didn't push her.
She was still tired a lot. Some nice friend of Ed's had donated their sound machine, which was supposed to help her sleep. It seemed a little odd to her at first, to play these artificial sounds of rain, or an ocean, or a river... but it did actually seem to help. The rain was her favorite. She usually slept for several hours at night, uninterrupted by nightmares more often than not, and took naps during the day. One nice habit they'd gotten into was Ellie resting on the couch beside Joel while he read the pregnancy book (she tried to tell him there was no point in doing that, but he wouldn't listen to her). Sometimes she didn't even fully fall asleep; she just lay there listening to the soft swishes of turning pages, like she had that one night with Tommy, safe and content and… not alone This isn't so bad, she would think. If I could still feel happy, I might be happy right now.
Physically, she felt better than she had in a long time. Emotionally... well, apparently her whacked-out hormones weren't helping any, but at least she wasn't a total wreck. She didn't have as much time to fantasize about suicide anymore... and she found she didn't really have the desire to, either. She still liked the idea of knowing she could end her life if she chose to, that she had the power and the means, but thinking about it now wasn't the comfort that it used to be. Her brain still balked at dealing with the baby adoption situation, so she kept avoiding the issue whenever possible. Other than that, she felt there wasn't anything worth killing herself over. She was stronger now. She could take it, whatever 'it' was.
Maybe she would have reached this point on her own eventually, but she felt like she owed it to the one missing piece of her that had been restored -- Joel.
Usually Joel relished the chance to do shit like fixing her walkman for her, especially now that she rarely asked him for anything -- gone were the days of asking him to sing to fucking plants -- plus, he was still trying to make up for leaving town. She eyed him suspiciously. "Are you just trying to get me to go see him or something?"
"Why would I do that?" All innocence.
"You tell me." Ellie scrutinized his expression for signs of ulterior motives or mischief.
Joel chuckled. "Well, he is a nice kid. An' it wouldn' hurt for you to spend more time with people your own age."
"He's two years older than me," she pointed out.
Ellie snorted. "You didn't even want me to be with Bailey, and now you're practically pushing me at Marcus?"
"Not as a boyfriend, nothin' like that," Joel clarified quickly, a familiar expression of horror on his face (yep, she'd assumed correctly that he'd be okay with her being celibate for the rest of her life). "He was your friend before, remember? I know he still wants to be."
Ellie wondered if Joel and Marcus had done some male bonding when they were Outside together for those few weeks. Marcus had described Joel as quiet, and pretty much angry the whole time, but guys were weird -- they could probably bond through the anger. "Fine," she said, "I'll go see him, at least to drop this off."
"Want me to go with you?" he offered.
"I'm not afraid of him, Joel," she scoffed. And she never left home without the gun. "You can't see my belly really, right? Even if I'm sitting down?" She tried out various positions on the couch, looking to Joel for assurance that the baggy sweater she was wearing was baggy enough to hide her little bulge. She would also be wearing Bailey's puffy jacket to go over there, but no need to keep that on indoors if she didn't have to. It was cold enough now that everyone was using their heaters.
"He won' be able to tell, don' worry. When are you gonna tell him?"
"I dunno... not today," she said with a sigh. "I'll go after dinner; he'll prob'ly be home then."
And he was. Several hours later, she and Marcus were hanging out in his bedroom, Ellie sprawled out on the floor in front of his CD player because he had a Tori CD! for her to check out. Marcus was sitting at his desk messing with her walkman while she listened. It felt strange to be there without Bailey. She tried not to think about it. Tried not to imagine how he might have teased her about her obsession with this one singer.
Marcus completed the repairs before the last track of the CD had played, but he let her finish listening in peace. Then he tried to show her what he’d done, because he said it was rigged-not-fixed and the same thing could happen again, but, in spite of her regret at not learning how to fix the damn thing herself, she was only half-paying attention -- she knew she'd bring it back to him rather than risk fucking it up herself. And she told him as much.
"Oh, whatever, you've fixed this thing before," he reminded her.
"I've also completely wrecked some tapes in there trying to fix it," she countered.
"Well, hopefully it's good to go for a little while. -Hey, you know what?" His face lit up. "I can't believe I didn't think of this before. There's blank tapes in storage -- I can make a copy of this for you! If the tape-to-tape stereo at the bookstore still works. Haven't had to do that in a while. Quality won't be as good, except the tapes are unused so they should play better. And I could copy that CD onto a tape for you, too! Then you can listen to it whenever you want. That one, I can do right here."
"Really? That would be awesome! If you can get the Stuffnazis to give you any." Ellie didn't remember exactly what a nazi was or who had given the provisions managers the nickname; she just knew they could be stingy, especially with the non-essentials. This is ESSENTIAL, though!
"I don't see why they'd care, but yeah, you never know, especially if you get Jill, she's the worst. I bet if I drop your name they'd give 'em up quick enough, though -- ~Tommy’n’Maria’s niece~" he teased, sing-songing that last bit in a snooty voice.
"Oh, whatever, shut up." She plopped back down on the floor. Marcus and Bailey -- mostly Bailey -- used to tease her about using her ‘social status’ to get whatever she wanted, and Ellie would play along, trying to imitate a spoiled brat when she really had no idea what such a person would act like outside of movies (she used to do it to Joel sometimes too, and he thought she wasn’t half bad at it). It was funny because in reality, Ellie never wanted much. I already had more than I ever thought I would...
And just like that, her enthusiasm died, guilt taking its place.
Marcus sat down on the floor near his desk. "I miss him too," he said quietly.
She started to get up. "I should prob'ly get going--"
"No, stay. You never wanna talk about him. Why? Does it hurt too much?" His tone was kind enough to give Ellie pause.
She slumped back to the floor and leaned against his bed, sighing up at the ceiling. "You wouldn't understand," she intoned.
"What wouldn't I understand?"
"Why don't you hate me?" she blurted out instead of answering. "I've always wondered."
He gave her an odd look. "Why would I hate you? I know it's been hard for you... that you're not yourself..."
"I am myself. This is how I am. That other me was so... dumb."
She cut him off before he could try to comfort her with lies. "But that's not what I'm talking about. Don't you hate me for... taking him Outside like that?"
Marcus still looked confused. "No, that's... you feel like that because of what his mom said. Right? You blame yourself."
"Not because of her saying it -- because it's fucking true. I knew it before she even said anything." Ellie was thick-skinned enough to shrug off mean shit people said if it also didn't happen to be correct.
Marcus frowned. "I get it, why you'd feel like that. But Bailey made the same decision you did, so if it's your fault, then it's his fault, too."
"No, see, cuz it was my idea. I'm the reason he went out there. He didn't even want to go."
"No! Maybe it was your idea, but Ellie, he wanted to go with you. He was excited about it."
She could see Marcus believed what he was saying... but it didn't matter. He was wrong. "I think he was more scared than excited," she corrected him. "Because he was smarter than me."
"I dunno about that, but... if he was scared, maybe that was part of the excitement?"
Ellie thought that any excitement on his part was probably just a reflection of her own. She remembered him being afraid. What Marcus said... "Wait... how do you even know? No one knew we were gonna sneak out that night."
"I did," he smirked. "He knew I wouldn't tell his mom. We were working together that day. He didn't seem scared at all. Just excited. He was looking forward to it. I didn't try to talk him out of it, either. I didn't think that-- didn't expect anything like... that... would happen. Maybe I could've said something to him. You know? I think about that, sometimes. How things could've been different. For him and for you."
"It's not your fault!" Ellie was horrified that he might feel even remotely guilty about her mistake.
Marcus shrugged. "Maybe not directly. But then it's not yours, either."
"It was my idea," she repeated exasperatedly.
"He could've said no. I could've talked him out of it, then he could've talked you out of it, and neither of you would've gotten hurt."
Ellie laughed mirthlessly. "That's kinda pushing it, don't you think? You have nothing to feel guilty about. Bailey was good and obedient and... I should've just let that Tara girl have him."
"Wait -- what?" Marcus seemed to find that amusing. "Psh. Please. Don't you think if he liked Tara like that, then he'd have been with her?"
"But I, like... stole him."
"He was never hers -- you didn't steal anything, dumbass."
"He used to hang out with her, didn't he?" The idea of Bailey and Tara as a couple had come from somewhere. She wasn't making it up.
"Not that much, no. Enough that people gossiped about them, I guess? But people don't know shit. He never liked her that way, I'm telling you."
He sounds so sure about that... Ellie wondered if Bailey would have admitted it to Marcus if he'd had a crush on the girl. She didn't know if guys typically told other guys shit like that. "Well, maybe he would have, if I'd left him alone," she said stubbornly.
"Bullshit. He didn't like her. You're the one he wanted. If they'd been together, it would've been like... like he was settling. Like 'okay I guess if I want a girlfriend it has to be her, I'll just make the best of it'... he wasn't the type of person who would do that. He'd rather just be alone."
That reminded her of things Joel had said before, about people making do with limited options. Joel wasn't willing to do that, to try to force anything -- like the way Tommy had pushed Esther at him when they first came to town. Maybe Bailey wouldn't have been willing, either, even if Ellie wasn't in the picture. But that seemed an awfully lot like she was trying to let herself off the hook when she deserved to have that hook firmly wedged up her ass.
"You don't seem convinced," Marcus observed when she didn't reply. "Ellie, seriously, he was so into you... you know, I think maybe part of the attraction was because his mom didn't like you. Like you gave him this feeling of... rebelling, or whatever. I mean, yeah, him and his mom were close, but he didn't like being the ~perfect little boy~ she thought he was. You and him together, like... made him more of his true self, you know? Does that make sense?"
Ellie felt the tears welling up, and she kind of wondered what had taken them so long. She shook her head. "No, he was good, and I made him bad -- I corrupted him!"
"No you didn't! You-- you couldn't, you're not bad--"
"Yes I am! You don't know," she spluttered. She started to feel the panic rising up into her throat. Maybe it was all the Bailey talk... thinking about that night... although sometimes it happened for no obvious reason that Ellie could point to.
"You're not," Marcus insisted quietly. He noticed she'd started breathing more audibly. "Are you okay? You, um..."
"Shit," she grumbled. She was glad the door was closed (Marcus had said if he didn't close it, his little brother would pester them all night). You're closed in, Ellie... safe and secure, you don't need to go to the corner... "Yeah, just-- sorry. It's gonna -- it'll be over -- pretty soon --"
Marcus didn't look as freaked out as she thought he'd be. He was downright calm, even. "What do I do? You want me to go get Joel?"
"No -- no," she gasped. Joel always overreacted, and it wasn't like he could even do anything to stop it. "Nothing -- don't, just -- it'll go away -- sorry--"
"‘kay. Don't be sorry, it's cool. Uh... not cool, I just mean... you know. You can't help it."
You're fine, you're okay... She scooted into the corner anyway, even though she was supposed to understand that it didn't make any difference. You're fine, you're safe, she kept telling herself. "I can leave," she offered. It was embarrassing, freaking out in front of him. Better to do it outside.
"What?" He looked appalled. "No. Is there anything I can do to make it go away faster?"
She shook her head. "Just wait."
"I can play the CD again, would that help?"
"No, but -- play it anyway --"
He chuckled and walked past her to the CD player.
"The fairytale -- song," she requested. She doubted she'd be able to really hear it that well over the noise in her head, but maybe this time would be different. You're okay you're okay you're okay, she chanted to herself as she tried to take deep breaths and vanquish the feeling that she was about to die. You're okay, and you CAN save yourself, and people DO hear you when you scream, you're okay, you're safe, you're gonna make it.
* * * * * * * * * *
"I think I'm ready to finally get out of you guys's hair and move back home," Ellie announced cheerfully at dinner one night. "Though I'm not sure why it's hair and not like... your face? Weird expression."
Maria was the first to respond. "We like you being in our hair, and our faces," she said with a smile, "but since this means you're feeling better, I'm glad."
"You, I don' mind," Tommy told Ellie. "It's him I've seen a little too much of these past few weeks."
Joel mock-glared at him. "Why do you think I want her to move home? I'm tired of seein' your sorry ass every day."
"Now now, children," Ed pretended to scold them. "If you two got along better I might suggest we just go find a bigger house."
Maria latched on to that remark. "Like a four- or five-bedroom? There's an idea..."
"Oh hell no," Joel said good-naturedly. "I'm fine with jus' me an' Ellie."
Ellie-and-a-half, Ellie thought grimly. "We'll come visit you so much you won't even miss us," she assured them.
We. Us. Me and Joel. Just like it used to be. Only... not. It would never be quite like it used to be. She was definitely feeling better, though. She didn't like being in her room all the time -- too boring. And she was reading again; she'd started reading the series that Bailey loved, the one he'd begun writing a sequel for. It was pretty dark and depressing so far... which was probably why it was enjoyable to read -- the characters weren't annoyingly happy, or fretting about stupid shit. Some of their lives were way worse than her own. She found it oddly compelling.
She'd even been helping out at school, reading with the little kids. They didn't hate her after all, so maybe no one had explained to them how she'd been responsible for Miss Rachel dying. She sure wasn't going to tell them. Maybe the adults don't think that, either... maybe I assume too much, like Nana said. She wasn't sure what would happen when she got big enough that she couldn't hide her belly under baggy clothes, though... everyone would have a visible reminder of her sins, her shame.
Joel wasted no time in moving her and her belongings back home. Between the two of them, it only took one trip, as she hadn't acquired much since she'd left.
Ellie hadn't been in the house since that awful morning when she'd woken up to find Tommy there instead of Joel. It was a little bit of a time warp, seeing the room again, remembering how she'd felt that day... but she ignored it and busied herself with unpacking.
Joel frowned at the window. Or, rather, the boards hiding the window. "You don' still want these on here, do ya?"
"Yes I do! Leave it alone."
"If you're worried someone's gonna break in, I could just put one across like this" -- he demonstrated -- "and you'd still be able to see out of it. Light would still come in."
"It's not... well, it's part that, I guess. But mostly... something else. Please, Joel. Isn't it enough that I won't spend every waking hour in here?"
He sat on her bed and digested that. "Yes. You're doin' really well, kiddo."
"You are, too." She sat next to him. "You haven't even left town once," she added with a grin, punching his arm lightly.
"Cute. You're doin' so well that you're a little smartass again."
It was true; her sense of humor seemed to have resurfaced. Although she was still no barrel of laughs (how did one stuff laughs into a barrel, anyhow? Another dumb expression). "It's weird, how sometimes I can be... that me."
"Ain't weird at all. You're still you, you will always be you, an' I'll keep remindin' ya 'til it sinks in."
She felt an odd fluttering sensation in her stomach -- one she used to attribute to gas or indigestion, but now recognized for what it was. "Oh! Joel! It's kicking! Right here..." she hitched her shirt up a little and stared at the spot on her belly, waiting for her flesh to move. "Gimme your hand." She wasn't sure why she wanted Joel to feel it.
"I don' think you're far enough along for me to feel it." But he rested his hand on her stomach anyway.
"You don't feel that?"
"Maybe in another week or two."
"The book said it could be as early as twenty weeks, that you can feel it on the outside. I'm almost twenty-two."
Joel chuckled. "It takes as long as it takes."
Ellie rolled her eyes at him. That seemed to be his new motto; he applied it to as many things as he could. The only thing worse was 'it is what it is' -- like something could ever be what it's not?
She'd been reluctant to read that pregnancy book. Why bother if she wasn't keeping the kid? To understand what was happening to her body, they said... well, she didn't need to know the gory details. They also said it might help her think of it more as a person and not a thing -- but to Ellie, the more removed she was from it, the better. Until curiosity had eventually gotten the better of her.
Well... curiosity, and Joel obnoxiously reading her random things out of it from time to time. Like how the baby already had eyebrows, and it swallowed, and it could hear her if she talked to it, or sang to it. Shit she really didn’t need to know, or think about…
The book was addictive, though. It had a week-by-week description and illustration of the baby's development. Ellie still thought the pictures looked creepy as fuck, yet somehow, seeing them did make the baby seem more human. When she learned that that first marijuana-induced nightmare she'd had (where she felt like some demon was trying to claw its way out of her) was too early for the baby to even have implanted itself in her womb yet, it solidified the obvious -- she was indeed having a baby, not a monster.
That didn't make her want to keep it, though. It just... made her care a little more. She wanted it to have a good home. She'd finally told Tommy and Maria she was ready to discuss it, and ready to go about selecting parents. It was Joel who had nixed that idea. She'd thought he'd be pleased to see her start addressing the issue... but no! He thought it was better to arrange the adoption after the baby was born.
"But Joel! I'd feel better about giving it up if I know where it's going."
"You mean you'll tell yourself you have no choice, once you commit to the adoptive parents."
"Well, kinda, yeah. That's a GOOD thing."
"Not when you won't even talk through your feelings about it all."
"I don't have to! There's no way I'm fucking keeping it!"
"Because! Because I'm sixteen and not married and the father's an asshole."
"MIGHT be an asshole."
"He's either an asshole or he's dead. Same difference, really -- I'd be a single parent."
"With a shitload of help from your family."
"You don't actually WANT me to keep it, do you?!"
"...I want you to give it some thought."
"I've thought about literally nothing else since this happened!"
"No, you haven't. You told yourself from the get-go that since you can't abort it, you'll give it away. You haven't considered how hard that might be to do, or that maybe when the time comes, you really WILL want the kid."
"Because I won't!"
"Maybe. Maybe not. You don' know yet."
"And you don't know that I WILL."
"True. That's all I'm sayin' -- we don't know. That's why you decide AFTER."
She'd given in, although she wasn't going to change her mind. When she thought about it... did she really want the parents-to-be -- total strangers, or people she only barely knew -- hovering over her all the time? Judging everything she did, monitoring what she ate... talking to her through the duration of her pregnancy? Granted, they might not do any of that, but she imagined they'd want to be involved. They would be the ones feeling her belly -- or wanting to. There was no need to get that ball rolling yet.
Joel pulled his hand back and looked at her for a moment. "I never told you this, but... in the beginnin'? I didn' want Sarah."
Ellie was surprised -- at both the content of the confession and the fact that he was even confessing to it at all. She knew that Sarah had been his world. "What? You're shitting me."
"It's true. I was about your age at the time. Seventeen when she was born... jus' like you'll be. Neither of us was ready to have a baby. Katie was only sixteen, she ended up droppin' out of high school. I finished, but, like I told you before, didn' go to college. Yep, I sure thought my life was over, gettin' saddled with a wife an' kid before I was even legally an adult."
My life is over, too, Ellie thought, rather reflexively. Except now it didn't quite ring true. Not the way it did a month ago. She wondered if Joel had chosen those words purposely, to echo her own. "Did you get married before she was born?"
"Yes. I wanted to 'do it right.' Damn, was that ever a mistake!"
"Huh? But you loved Sarah..."
"Oh, she wasn' the mistake," Joel was quick to clarify. "The marriage was a mistake. Anyway, Katie an' me, we talked about our options. Abortion, adoption, keepin' it. Pretty much in that order. Neither of us was real keen on abortion. For a while, she wanted us to raise the kid, an' I wanted to give it up for adoption."
Ellie listened raptly. As surprised as she'd been a few moments earlier, now she couldn't believe Joel had never mentioned any of this before. She tried to imagine Joel as a seventeen-year-old. Bailey's age. She couldn't do it. Surely he'd been old his whole life. Ha! "Did you change your mind after she was born then? Is that why you think I might do that?"
He shook his head. "No. We wouldn'ta gotten married in that case... at least not before Sarah was born. She was the only reason I wanted to get married. To give her my name, an' jus'... you know. Be a real family. No, what happened was I went to one of Katie's doctor appointments. Saw the little blob on the screen... like the pictures in your book. Didn' think much of it. They asked if we wanted to know the sex. I didn' much care. Katie, she wanted to know so she could get the 'right' color on everything, buy the right outfits, all that shit."
"Even though you still wanted to give it up for adoption?"
"Yeah, an' she knew I felt like that. But she wanted to keep it no matter what, an' raise it by herself if she had to... I didn' like the idea of that either, so I figured I'd go with the flow an' hopefully get her to change her mind somewhere down the line. She was thinkin' along the same lines, that she'd get me to change my mind."
Ellie smiled. "She won, obviously. So what happened at the appointment?"
"So, the doc tells us it's a girl. An' right then... I mean, it wasn' like I all of a sudden changed my mind right away, but I thought... 'huh, I'm gonna have a daughter. That's my little girl in there.' She wasn' an 'it' no more. I could kinda imagine what it would be like, havin' a daughter, an' it felt like... like 'hey it could actually go like that'... I prob'ly ain't explainin' it too good, but I slowly started to come around, after that."
"Awwww, that's so sweet!" She could totally imagine Joel's expression (even if it was on his current face, not a young one) when he heard the announcement. "What if it was a boy?"
"I reckon I prob'ly would've had similar thoughts -- 'that's my son in there.' I don' know..." Joel chuckled a little and shook his head. "There's somethin' special about dads an' daughters, though."
Ellie could tell that he wasn't thinking only of Sarah when he said that. He still thinks of me as his daughter. Well, duh... otherwise he wouldn't put up with my shit... She was glad he didn't seem to expect a response from her, because her throat suddenly felt tight.
"Either way, it makes it seem more real," he continued. "Maybe that's a cliché, but it really is true. Too bad we don' have one of them machines to hook you up to an' see what you're havin'."
Ellie wondered how she'd feel if she knew the sex of her baby. Surely it wouldn't matter... it wasn't like it would change reality, after all. She'd still be having an unplanned, unwanted rape baby.
Joel seemed to sense her thoughts. "I know the situation was different an' all, an' I ain't tryin' to influence you. Adoption would be different for you, here... you wouldn' exactly be sendin' your kid out into the great unknown with a chance of never seein' it again. It would be right here in Jackson. You could spend time with it if you wanted. Or not. I hope you know I ain't tryin' to change your mind, that--"
"I know that," she assured him. Why would he? It was already set on the option he liked. "You've already told me that, like... every single time you try to talk to me about it. To keep an open mind, but it's ultimately my choice, blah blah blah."
"Blah blah blah? You make me sound like a girl... ow!" He pretended it hurt when she play-slugged him for that assessment. "All right then. Jus' know that it's possible -- possible -- your feelings might change as time goes by. Look how much they've changed already-- about yourself... me..."
"The world is still a fucked-up place, though," Ellie lamented. "And I don't really know why anyone would want to raise a child in it... it's hard enough to get through it yourself, then you have to worry about being responsible for someone else's well-being on top of that?!"
Joel was quiet a moment, with an odd look on his face, and his smile struck Ellie as rather sad. "Funny, that's how I felt for a long, long time... 'til I met you."
* * * * * * * * * *
Everything changed one day in mid-December.
They hadn't had a real blizzard yet this winter, but it was pretty fucking cold. Cold enough that she and Joel wore jackets and gloves, knit caps and scarves. Having appropriate clothing made cold weather so much more bearable. Ellie always told herself that wearing Bailey's jacket was like having his arms around her again, keeping her warm. The thought somehow hurt and felt good at the same time.
There were patches of snow on the ground, and a gray sky above them that promised more to come. After the winter they'd endured two years ago, Ellie would have expected that if she never saw snow again, it would be too soon... but now, she kind of liked it when it was new and fresh. Pure and powdery and beautiful. She could enjoy it for a while, then go inside and warm up with a mug of hot cider -- a luxury she did not take for granted, and hoped she never would.
But now, there was work to be done, and Ellie still relished the idea of being useful after being nothing but a burden for so long. She tugged on the wood panel and felt it give a little. "These two here are loose, see? Not like falling-off loose, but if I was looking to get out, I'd totally exploit this part."
Joel fetched a hammer and a long nail out of his toolbox and drove the nail through the panel into the rail supporting it. He showed Ellie where to reinforce it on the bottom half, and he let her do that one herself. Sometimes, if he was in a certain mood, Joel waxed nostalgic about all the power tools he used to have at his disposal for this kind of thing, as well as the variety of materials, the seemingly endless bounty of supplies compared to what they had to deal with now... and he'd lament the shoddy state of so many structures in the town. Ellie thought that if it were in his power, he would rebuild the entire settlement. She listened attentively during these times, asking him questions just to hear him talk with that little extra something in his voice that wasn't usually there.
He wouldn't be that way this time, at least not as much -- not while they were patrolling the perimeter, on the Outside. It was the only time Ellie would go out there: only in daylight, and only with Joel. She wished they could make Jackson County as impregnable as a Quarantine Zone, but they just didn't have the means. If they could only have barbed wire electric fences everywhere, there would be fewer raids. Joel had suggested their current project -- scouting the walls and fences for weaknesses -- as something therapeutic for Ellie. She wanted to make Jackson as safe as possible from intruders... but she was also concerned because she and Bailey weren't the only stupid kids looking for ways to sneak out. She knew how kids could dare each other to do idiotic things, never thinking of the repercussions. Some kids had never even gone Out at all, and seemed to view it as a mystical land that promised adventure. Her story was a cautionary tale to them. Joel thought it would be a pretty powerful message, coming directly from her, but... Ellie didn't feel ready for that, not yet. She really did want to do it, though (conveniently omitting the naked skinny-dipping part, of course). Someday. For now, it would have to be enough for parents and guardians to pass it on and hope the kids took it seriously.
Ellie still struggled with her brain throwing threats in her face that weren't real. Nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks... all less frequently than before, but still. Her first venture Out didn't last very long. Every little rustling sound, even just the whispering of the wind, sent a jolt of terror through her. She tried to tell herself not to be ridiculous, that she heard wind all the time Inside and wasn't afraid of it then... but Joel took her home in less than ten minutes.
She did much better the next time, and the time after that. She had her gun (Tommy had let her keep the Glock), and she had the best 'bodyguard' ever. Nothing to fear. And patrols never took them too far away from the town, not like hunting would have.
She was still ubercautious, though. Joel said that was a good thing. Every time she thought she heard or saw something sinister, he took it seriously. Every single time, even though usually it was still only the wind. She loved him for doing that.
Ellie was the one who noticed it first, as she stood guard while Joel adjusted yet another wooden panel. Someone approaching from the west... someone who might very well have been a Jackson resident, but out there, you couldn't afford to make any assumptions. "Joel!" she alerted him as she drew her gun. He dropped the hammer and immediately pointed his shotgun in the direction Ellie was looking. It was a man, bundled up against the cold in a trench coat... a knit cap and a scarf as well. No weapon in plain sight. A rucksack on his back.
If he lived in Jackson, he would have identified himself by name or with the town's standard code word by now. The guns didn't make him turn tail and run, but he did slow his approach, and he raised his hands up over his head in the gesture of surrender. "Don't shoot!" he called out to them. He was closer than shouting distance, but far enough away that they'd need to speak loudly in order to communicate. "I'm not looking for trouble. You two live inside?"
"What do you want?" Joel asked gruffly. He wasn't exactly the welcome wagon of Jackson, to say the least, greeting strangers with suspicion and his trademark scowl. "Stay right there."
Ellie really was taking after Joel with regards to new people, because she didn't like the guy. Even though he sounded perfectly friendly and hadn't done anything even remotely threatening. Jesus, not every guy is BAD, Ellie, she reminded herself.
The man stopped walking. He was a little too far away for her to make out his facial features perfectly, but from what she could see, he resembled someone she very much wanted to forget... but he's long gone, so what the fuck? "I got nowhere to stay for the winter," the guy was saying. "I'm looking to trade work for food and shelter."
Joel sized him up. Glanced at Ellie. "Pretty sure we don' got any job openings."
"I'm a good worker," the man called back to them. "Shittiest job you got? I'll do it. Anything."
It was something about the cadence of his voice there that made it click for her beyond the shadow of a doubt... "You wanna carry her? 'Cause I don't."
Ellie stifled a gasp. Oh my God... She tugged on Joel's arm and squeaked out, "He's one of them!"
~Continue to Chapter 15~