Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Joel and Ellie
Prompt: 6 of 8 prompts for puzzleprompts's February 2018 challenge. Prompts listed at the end!
Word Count: 2657
Summary: Joel picks a bad time to get restless. Takes place between the events of Winter and Spring.
Crossposted to AO3 and FFN.
Joel flipped listlessly through the comic, the tenth one in that futuristic series Ellie liked. He was having a hard time getting into it. Restlessness, maybe… or maybe it just plain wasn’t his thing. He thought comics were supposed to be about superheroes and powers and whatnot. That Daniela girl was the main character, and she hadn’t displayed any special abilities yet in what he’d read, unless you counted her super-science-y brain. They had yet to find the ninth comic anywhere… ‘Precipitate,’ it was called. Maybe that one’s more exciting… like she shoots ice beams out of her eyeballs or some shit. He tossed the comic aside, and glanced out the window to gauge the precipitation in their own world: still snowing, but only lightly. The dying fire needed rekindling, but first… “C’mon, kiddo. Let’s go check the traps before it gets dark.”
She emerged from her cocoon of blankets to fetch her coat. No whining about the snow still falling. No pointing out the fact that they still had enough deer meat chilling in the other room to tide them over that night. Ellie was a little too willing to do what he said these days, which worried him a little, for some reason. It wasn’t really something he could complain about. Maybe she’s just getting restless, too… holing up to ride out a winter storm had been easier a month or two ago, before their wounds had healed. Now, they only had the usual fatigue to deal with. The aches and pains of walking all day. Winter days were shorter, though, and their progress was slowed significantly by the weather; they’d done more waiting than walking the past few days. Hopefully they could get back on the road tomorrow.
If they waited for the snow to stop completely before venturing outside, they might never leave the house at all. Joel actually preferred to go out while it was snowing, or directly afterward, because although fresh snow wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to walk through, it sure beat sliding around on the icy hard kind and falling on your ass – and he’d done a little accidental ice skating on his last trip out to take a piss. At least Ellie hadn’t been around to mock him that time.
And on that note…
“Don’t forget your hat,” Ellie reminded him as she donned hers, an ill-concealed smirk playing about her face. If either of them had had the ability to go shopping for knit caps, the ones they would’ve picked out would be polar opposites of the ones they had now. Ellie’s was a little too small -- child-sized, although it helped that it was stretched out -- and hot pink, with an obnoxious knit flower on one side, the stitches loosened with wear so that it flopped around ridiculously (at least it did until Ellie put it out of its misery by cutting it off altogether). The color actually didn’t look bad on her.
As for Joel’s hat… the soft lavender shade didn’t suit him at all. Neither did the silly poof ball on top. They should’ve just swiped a couple of hats from those dead cannibals… but they’d been preoccupied with matters more pressing than headgear at the time: namely, getting the fuck out of there. The only good thing about wearing the damn thing was that it brought a smile to Ellie’s face. “Why don’ you do me a favor and fix it the way you fixed yours,” he said, more like a command than a request.
“Pfff. No way!” she said, tugging her (much less colorful) gloves on. “It looks awesome like that.”
“Awesome? Awesomely dumb, maybe,” Joel scoffed.
“Well, who are you trying to impress, anyway? The animals? They don’t care.” Ellie opened the front door, and a blast of cold air assaulted them. “Brrr…”
“Hold up, will you?” he called after her when she disappeared from the doorway. Unlike Ellie, he had to holster up and grab his backpack (which he might not need, but he felt naked going anywhere without it). He would continue to bitch about the hat, but he probably could’ve remedied it himself easily enough with just a few twists and tugs from his bare hands. Truth be told, he was glad that she didn’t want to do something he’d asked her to: proof that she was okay. Still the Ellie that he knew and lov— cared about.
They walked in companionable silence for a minute or so. Something in the air troubled him. One thing Joel really missed from the old days was weather forecasts. They might not always have been entirely accurate, but they sure could predict the storms better than he could. “Is it jus’ me or is it colder now than it was this mornin’?” he mused.
“Yeah… and windier. I thought the storm was dying down.”
Joel peered up at the gray sky with an uneasy feeling in his gut. “I don’ know… I think we’re gettin’ another—“
A brilliant flash of lightning to the west halted his thought.
It halted Ellie in her tracks altogether. “Whoa,” she breathed.
“C’mon,” Joel urged her as he picked up the pace a little. It was only about a quarter of a mile from the house to the riverbank where they’d laid their traps… but that was still a quarter of a mile away from safety.
A low rumble followed the lightning.
“Is that — was that thunder? It’s going to rain now?” Ellie marveled.
“No, I don’ think so. It’s too cold... it don’ seem right.”
They were treated to a couple more duets of thunder and lightning before they reached their first trap.
“Joel! Look at the river!” Ellie exclaimed, bounding ahead of him now. Or… as close to bounding as a person could do through blankets of snow. “I think it’s totally frozen over!”
“I think you’re right.” He could see from a distance that there was nothing in the jaws of the first trap. The wind had picked up some, making it feel like it was snowing a little harder… or maybe it was snowing harder. He watched Ellie approach the edge of the water. “Ellie! Stay off of there,” he warned, hurrying after her.
He didn’t catch what she said in response, but it appeared she was doing the equivalent of dipping a toe in – just tapping the ice gingerly with her foot. Literally testing the waters.
Joel had a very sudden, very vivid image of the ice cracking beneath her, throwing her off balance and plunging her into the freezing water, the current carrying her swiftly away beneath the ice. He grabbed her arm and yanked her back, probably a little more forcefully than necessary.
“Hey!” she protested, stumbling after him as he tugged her up the slight incline, back to level ground. “I wasn’t gonna go skating or anything, I was just—“
“We need to get back! I don’ like the looks of this storm!” And he didn’t like that he had to shout now in order to be heard even though he was right next to her. He let go of her arm.
“The other traps aren’t that far away!” she shouted back.
That was true, but he didn’t want to be bothered with that at the moment. Why did I want to check them right now in the first place? he cursed himself.
The sky darkened… a stark contrast to the sheets of light breaking across it, now in rapid succession. The thunder cracked loudly before it rolled, and the snow pelted them mercilessly.
“This is so fucked up!” Ellie announced, making a noise that sounded rather like a laugh.
…At least she ain’t scared? Maybe the excitement masked her fear. It was getting harder to see… he took hold of her hand. Just in case. His flashlight was in his backpack, but he didn’t think it would do shit to improve visibility, so he didn’t bother retrieving it.
There were other houses in the area, and Joel considered taking shelter in one of those. They’d chosen their current abode because it had no broken doors or windows – a luxury he now had to weigh against the hardship of making it there without getting lost… the possibility of passing it altogether and blindly wandering through the wall of white until they froze to death. The houses weren’t close enough together that he could rely on easily encountering another one, either.
Going against the wind required so much more effort just to move at a fraction of their earlier pace. They’d been walking for twice as long as it had taken them to reach the river when they ran into a wooden fence. With his free hand, Joel started feeling his way over to either a gate or a hole big enough to allow them entrance.
“Joel! This isn’t our house! We don’t have a fence!”
“I know!” It was all he needed to say. She would pick up on the rest.
He managed to find and stumble through the front door, and was pleased to see it had a working deadbolt. He recognized this house now from scavenging it a couple days earlier: a two-story, featuring two windows with broken panes downstairs and at least one upstairs, and a busted back door that someone had blocked with a refrigerator. Probably just to try to keep people out, as it didn’t obstruct the airflow over the top. Ellie knew the routine; she waited by the door while he did a quick check to make sure no one else was in the house. Seemed unlikely, since they’d just been through there and the weather had been shitty ever since. Even so, he just had to know for sure. He did the same thing every time they returned to ‘their’ house as well, if they’d gone out of sight. Carelessness could get you killed.
It was late enough in the day that it had started to get dark, but not dark enough inside that he needed to bust out the flashlight. “All clear!” he called to her from the second floor when he was satisfied they were alone. “Come on up here, kiddo!”
“Are we gonna spend the night here?” she asked when she found him in one of the bedrooms.
“Not if the storm passes quickly. But we could. Close that door behind you.” He had a thermos of clean water and at least one can of food in the backpack, which he deposited by the bed. The idea of leaving most of their weapons and that precious meat unattended wasn’t appealing, though. This house had a fireplace too, but he’d have to get creative to generate any firewood for it. They would be okay for a while without a fire. He gestured to the bed. “Look, we didn’ even take all the blankets outta this one.”
Ellie snatched up the musty comforter and situated herself in the armchair next to the (completely intact) window, nudging her shoes onto the floor and tucking her legs beneath her. She hadn’t bothered to shed any of her outerwear.
“I hope you shook all the snow off of you first,” he teased.
“Duh, I did that downstairs. Oh – did you wanna sit here?” she offered.
Even if he did, she looked too comfy to disturb now. “Nah. I’m gonna lay down. Maybe take a nap.”
Ellie snorted. “No way can you sleep through all this noise!”
She was probably right; he was a pretty light sleeper these days.
He removed his boots, holsters, and coat before laying on the bare mattress. It was chilly in there, so he draped the coat over himself like a blanket. Ellie had the only real blanket in the place, and that was fine -- she needed it more than he did. He would rather freeze than take it from her anyhow. He might be a bastard, but he was a gentlemanly bastard.
Oh, who was he kidding -- he loved the kid. He wasn't sure when that had happened. Probably before Tommy's, because if he hadn't loved her, he could've just left like he'd planned. Left without looking over his shoulder, that is; the act of leaving in and of itself wasn't so hard. The hard part would’ve been coping with the fact that he'd never know if she'd made it or not. If she was all right. Having to live with that every day. That was worse than having to deal with the possibility of... whatever else might happen.
Bill's words about caring for another person echoed in his head: "That sort of shit’s only good for one thing: getting you killed." He wasn't necessarily wrong. Joel hadn’t wanted to care about Ellie… it had just sort of snuck up on him. There was something special about her.
And that was before.
He couldn’t help thinking that Bill wasn’t necessarily right, either. Joel was always the one taking care of everyone else (and not always doing such a bang-up job of it), but not this time. He was dead… he’d fucking felt it, felt the life leaving him… yet Ellie had brought him back. No one had ever gone to such great lengths for him before, let alone a slip of a girl, only fourteen years old. She wasn’t just special – she was downright amazing. More so than any tricked-out superhero in a comic book. Ellie didn’t seem to realize that. She made it sound like she’d had no choice… because she needed him if she had any hope of finishing this journey.
Joel didn't know what the future had in store for him and Ellie, but he did know that saying goodbye was no longer an option. Unless that was what she wanted. She'd hinted before that she wanted to stay with him, but lately, she'd been more 'whatever' about things. Maybe he'd been too noncommittal, and she'd just... accepted it. He hadn't wanted to get her hopes up about staying together once the Firefly thing was done, because he had no idea where his place would be in all that. All he knew was that now, there was no way he was leaving her there by herself. If he couldn't stay with her on the premises, he would stay close enough that she could come to him if she needed anything. Assuming the Fireflies would let her.
It ain't gonna be a prison camp, he reminded himself. He would check things out, though. Definitely. He wasn’t sure if Marlene had planned to make the trip when she was able to -- hell, even if she did plan to, actually making it was another matter. He would feel a whole lot better if she was there, though. Presumably, Ellie loved her, so it would be good for them to be together... but the main benefit was that no one would dare fuck with her while she was under Marlene's protection.
The storm was still making a big racket out there. Between the howling of the wind and the cracking of the thunder, it made absolutely no sense that Joel had started to feel the lull of sleep wash over him... as if he might actually be able to tune out all the noise. It had become fuzzier, somehow. He felt... at peace, in spite of the raging thunderblizzard or whatever the hell it was.
They were safe. Perhaps safer than when the skies were calm.
The room was completely dark now, except for the brilliant flashes of light. He sleepily watched the way they lit Ellie's face as she stared out the window. What she saw out there, he couldn't say; to him, it looked like just a sheet of white. A blank slate.
The last thing he saw before drifting off to sleep was her smile… and she was smiling at him, not the window. Must be the damn hat.
Cryokinesis (snow/ice control) – Joel’s speculation about the 9th comic. Which I was totally going to have him read so I could USE it in there, only to discover to my dismay that they don’t actually find “Precipitate” until Spring, lol.
Winter sports – Joel’s memory of “accidental ice skating”, and Ellie’s mention of ice skating at the river.
River or lake – frozen river.
Thundersnow – the storm!
Purple – Joel’s hat. Alternate title to this fic for Firefly fans: "Joel’s Cunning Hat." LOL
Book – the comic book Joel was reading.