a/n; when i finished the game, my life felt empty. hence, fanfiction.
Ellie sits on the post in the northernmost section of Jackson. It's her post, now, ever since she displayed her skills with her hunting rifle against a pack of runners. The electricity was down that day, and the fence was battered in three places, upheaved in two. It took three weeks to fix and it took another week for the heavy sense of security to wrap its way back over the entire settlement. That's usually how the story went. Everyone was used to it, but there was never any harm in being cautious.
So Ellie sits at the post when it's her turn and when it isn't. Today was hers, from noon to dinner. The sun is waning in the west, gilding every tree in the Wyoming countryside. The river near the dam winks at her through the foliage. If there is one thing Ellie can say, it's that the scenery never leaves the eyes wanting.
She's been here so many times; one more inch the sun has to travel before the dinner bell rings. She'll be relieved by John, who'll have already eaten, then she'll hand him the rifle and be on her way.
She starts. Had the dinner bell rang?
"Oh, John. Time already?"
"Yeah," he grins, climbing up the ladder. "Elk, today. It's good eatin', I tell ya." He pats his belly.
Ellie grips the rifle closer to her chest.
"I think I'll stay here. I'm not hungry."
"Ellie, you need to go eat."
"I'll eat when I'm hungry, John."
"Don't be like this, kiddo."
"Don't fucking call me – you know, never mind. Just go be with your family tonight."
"Ellie, I can't let you take the night shift."
"Why the hell not?"
"Just give me the gun, and…" He reaches for her and she backs up to the rail, glaring.
"Go home, John."
He stares at her for a few passing moments. "I'll need to report to Maria."
"She won't care."
"Yes, she will. She's worried, too."
This has got to be the longest conversation she's had with him. It doesn't help his cause with the tone of the talking.
"Then I guess she won't bother me!"
John sighs. "Fine. You win. Radio someone when you have a hard time keeping awake."
He glances back at her once he jumps off the ladder, and he shakes his head. He mutters, "Teenagers," before he's out of earshot.
Ellie turns back to the view, the sun finally descending underneath the line of the earth. John always arrived with a gripe about never eating with his children, never getting to watch the night's movie with them. Of all days, he fought her to stay. Well, at least his son and daughter will get to spend a night with both parents.
The voice crawls through the speaker on her radio. "Ellie, are you okay, sweetie?"
Ellie hits her head on the metal pole of the railing. She curses before sitting up hurriedly, hand feeling around her hip. She snatches the device and hits the button.
"You don't have to stay up there, Elle."
She wipes the sleep from her eyes.
"I want to."
There is a long bout of silence on her end.
"I'll bring you leftovers."
At least Maria won't kick her off the platform.
Morning comes. She's dead on her feet. It's been a long few days, and as many long days as she's had, it seems she can't get used to them. The sun hits her eyes like a match, forcing her to squint. The scenery is the same as it was the day before. She glances around behind her, to her left and right. There never sees to be anything she can shoot these days. Nothing of interest, either. There aren't any rustling in the leaves or signs in between trees. Monotonous and hopeless. Even a bird would help. Anything.
Maria must call off the morning watch, because she brings her a small portion of breakfast. They don't say much, because they've already been over everything, and Ellie doesn't feel like talking about it anymore. Maria's nice, motherly even, and a friend when she feels friendless. But waiting alone is lighter than with another. An acquired taste, that's for sure. Ellie's not sure when she got used to it, but now that she has, she's nearly forgotten how to deal with others when anticipating well, maybe nothing, now. She's tried before, but there were always too many families around for her to stand it. The only things she could do to avoid them was to stay in her room and read books or hang out at her post. Maria was great, and so were the few other teens she found, but distractions had made her feel guilty. And she fucking hated guilt.
Her eyes become unfocused on a partition of trees. She leans against her rifle, her mind wandering off into a daze.
"Yo, Ellie. Earth to Ellie. You still up there or what?"
Her eyes come back into focus on the land.
"Mike?" she calls down. He smiles at her.
"Been missing you at the lunch table. When you gonna show up?"
"Maybe when you get less annoying."
"Oh, come on, I'm not a dick like Rob."
"Nah, not a dick." She shifts her back on the rail, finding a comfortable spot. "An asshole."
"I didn't have to come and check on you, ya know."
"No," she says. "You didn't."
"Elle," he starts slowly. "Two weeks really isn't that long a time, if you think about it."
Ellie looks out to the mountains.
"Come hang out with me," he says. "We can wrangle Rob away from the stables and Bobby from the cattle range. We can practice shooting targets or even go on a hunt."
"Just fuck off, Mike. I'll find you later."
"Sorry for caring. Jesus," he scoffs, then walks away. "I'm gonna get you fucking down here eventually, girl."
"Sure," she mumbles. He never said fuck or swore so much before he met her. It's kind of annoying he picked up the habit.
She sees figures move in the early afternoon. She'd know their movements anywhere. She places the rifle's scope to her eye, sharpening the faces. Tommy's horse limps along, and they're both carrying two large, stuffed sacks off the backs of the saddles. Indicates they found what they fucking wanted. She gives serious thought to shooting a round off to their right, to piss them off and scare the horses. It's be hilarious to watch Joel slip off his mount. Fucker deserves it.
As they near, Ellie slides down the ladder. She already hears the wave of excitement running through the dirt paths and groups of people. A few gallop past her toward the north entrance. "Ellie," one says, nudging her with delight. "Joel and Tommy finally made it back!" They don't wait around to notice she doesn't follow.
Her eyes find Mike in the miniature throng of moving people, eventually. He laughs when he catches sight of her marching to him.
"Shoulda known Joel's the only one to get you off that goddamn –"
"Whatever," she says. "Still wanna go shoot bottles?"
"Uh…yeah," he answers. "But don't you wanna greet them?"
"Later," she eyes her pistol. "Right now I wanna go shoot stuff. I spent too much time on that damn post without getting to use any bullets."
Mike's easy to persuade. Probably because he gets incredibly attached to anyone he decides to like. "Alrighty," he says. "If you say so."
The shooting range is near the southern entrance. They've set it up to where the walls are cushioned and muffle noise, so bandits, hunters, and infected can't be alerted. There is no one around. They're all across the settlement, and the silence is sweet.
She pulls out her pistol and unleashes on the bottles that have been left up since the last round.
"Damn!" Mike exclaims. "Remind me to get better than you."
"Pft." She reloads. "You never will."
"Those are some confident words for a girl."
"Because I'm a girl I'm not allowed to be confident?"
He shrugs. "It is kind of embarrassing being owned by you all the time. Words are all I got."
"Well, you need to get better at them, because I'm owning you with those, too."
"You wish. Here, I'll bet you on the next runner ambush I can kill twice as many of the fuckers than you."
Ellie rolls her eyes. "Please. There is no way."
"There totally is a way."
"How 'bout we stop measuring dicks and shoot?"
She finishes setting up more of the bottles. Just a few more rounds and her ammo stash would be bone dry.
"My dick will always be bigger than yours."
She shoots two bullets before looking at him. "Shut up and shoot."
He shuffles on his feet, suddenly. He doesn't pull out his gun for a while, but Ellie ignores his idle stance. When she finishes her second round, Mike says, "You know, maybe you should go see Joel."
She heaves in frustration. "You don't have to worry about that, Mike. I'll go see Joel when I want to see Joel. Right now there is no one I want to see less."
"Oh…" Mike shifts. "Well, uh…I guess you'll be around more, uh, often, right? And, uh…"
His eyes are gliding to the doorway and back, and Ellie wishes Mike actually had balls to his name. No one can stand straight under Joel's stare for long.
"Damn it, Mike. Just leave."
Mike hesitates, but he heeds her words and scurries out. She doesn't turn around.
"What do you want?"
"To see you, 's all."
"Well, you've seen me."
He sighs tiredly behind her. "We found the abandoned settlement. We got enough medicine to last a year, if we stretch it."
"Oh, awesome." She throws up her hands. "All of us are allowed to get sick! Finally! I always wondered what a sore throat felt like."
"What, Joel?" She spins around, and she gets an eyeful of him – his beard and his ratty flannel shirt. She feels sick. She sees dried blood mixing with the plaid. He gazes at her. "Fucking what?"
"It was easier getting there than back."
"Really? I didn't notice."
His frown deepens. "I know I promised…"
"I learned a long time ago your promises don't mean shit."
One thing she can count on is how quick he is to anger. He always has been. It's his most consistent trait, along with his selfishness. But for some reason, her words don't seem to bother him.
"They usually don't. You know that better than Tommy, I reckon."
He doesn't even try to justify himself. She shakes her head. "Three fucking days. Not fifteen."
"I missed you, too, kiddo."
He had kissed her on top of her head before he left. He'd never done it before then. She doesn't answer him.
"I'll leave you to it, then," he says, gesturing toward the bottles. "Don't come beggin' for bullets when you run out, 'cause I ain't got any left to spare."
Like hell. He always caves when she asks. "Yeah, sure."
He leaves her, but her ears are full of resounding bullets and broken bottles.
She almost goes back to her post for the night shift, out of spite.
"Look who decided to eat amongst the living!" Rob hollers when he sees her. She decided instead to sit at another table. Joel is in clear eyeshot, but she doesn't care.
"Shut up, Robbie," she says, dropping her tray on the table. She stuffs a chunk of meatloaf in her mouth.
Mike grins across from her. "Good to see your bad mood hasn't left at all."
"Go to hell."
"I'm just teasing you."
She ignores him.
"So I take it you forgave Joel for surviving?"
"Oh, is that what it is?" Rob laughs.
"Shut the fuck up, Mike. You've got no room to talk when you can't even take his stare for five seconds."
"Hey!" he says defensively. "That's not fair. He scares the shit out of me!"
"Out of everyone," Rob corrects.
"You're all pussies."
"Excuse me, I'm an asshole."
"I thought I was an asshole."
"According to Ellie, I think you're more a dick."
Ellie glances up and accidentally catches Joel's eye. She looks away.
"Why don't you just tell him you're glad he's back?" Mike asks. "Am I missing some kind of girl psychology here?"
"Nah, dude, you're missing Ellie psychology."
"Oh, yeah. Forgot we labeled her genderless."
"How could you forget? She has a dick and boobs. She's a contradiction."
They're both older than her, and they're both pointless. She suddenly wishes Bobby was joining them. At least he would actually talk about things with more substance. Or Maria. But she's busy smiling with Tommy. Joel is sitting with them, too, but he always manages to look lonely when surrounded by people.
"Were you there when Tommy talked about the raid? He said two rival groups of hunters and a pack of runners and bloaters. They took out the bloaters and led half the hunters into the runners."
"Did that scare the other hunters off?"
"O' course not. Hunters think they're immortal or some shit, just because they've lived out there so long. No, Tommy and Joel had to lead them off on another course so they couldn't come here and attack. But then they ended up killing them, anyway."
"Jesus, that's badass."
"So fucking epic, right? You think we'll ever get to do something like that and do it as good as Joel and Tommy?"
"Psh, doubt it. They're veterans. They know what the world was like before and after, and they've adapted into the scariest sons of bitches around. I'm just glad we have them on our side, in our camp."
"Slow down, Mikey boy, your man crush is showing."
Mike only shakes his head. "I'm not ashamed. I'm just glad I'm not either of their kids. Can you imagine the pressure?"
They both look pointedly at Ellie.
"Geez, yeah. Ellie, what's it like?"
She stirs at the few peas on her plate. She jolts at one of Rob's elbows.
"Man, Ellie, where'd you go?" Rob asks laughingly. "You're completely zoning out."
She keeps doing that, and she doesn't even do it intentionally.
"Uh, yeah. What were y'all saying?"
"Being Joel's kid. What's it like?" Mike says.
The question irks her.
"I'm not his kid."
Mike and Rob share a look.
"Yeah, you are," Mike objects.
"You traveled the country together. You came here together, I just assumed…"
"We're not related," she hears herself say. "We came together by circumstance."
"Well, you guys sure act the part. And Joel…" Rob's intonation makes her eyes narrow.
Rob lifts a shoulder. "I've heard him call you baby girl. Thought that meant something."
Baby girl, she thinks. He hasn't called me that in weeks. Or, well, maybe fifteen days. It's hard to tell when she's so used to hearing it.
"He just matters. Like a father figure, I guess."
"Definitely," Mike says. "I'd bet my shotgun if anyone messed with you, Joel'd break all their bones, slowly, while they're tied to a chair. Screaming."
"It's like it doesn't even matter that he's old. I wonder what he was like when he was younger."
She tunes them out again. She looks up to see Joel standing and moving out of the hall.
"Ellie, where you goin'?"
"None of your business," she tells them, following the trail Joel leaves behind.
She finds him sitting in the chair right outside their house doorway. It would be on a porch if they had the necessary ingredients to make one.
His eyes are closed, but he does not look peaceful. She walks up to him slowly and places a hand on his arm.
His eyes open alert and ready. The tension in him dwindles when he sees her.
"Baby girl," he sighs.
Baby girl, she thinks.
"You should have let me fucking go with you."
His eyes close again, and he rubs at them with his forefinger and his thumb.
"We've been over this, Ellie."
"Before, we went over it. And I thought, oh sure, three days max, of course they'll be fine. Then when you didn't show, I thought, oh, four, that's cool."
"We are fine. We're okay."
"No. I should've gone. I'm good at raids. We're good at them. I have so much experience, and –"
"There's nothing you can say that'll change my mind, Ellie."
She bites her cheek. "I waited, Joel. I waited a real fucking long time. If you want me to stop bringing up this argument, you better come back when you tell me you're going to come back."
Joel holds a hand out. "Look, now, I know I scared you for a while, but you've gotta trust me when –"
"I do trust you, Joel! And all it's been good for is making me worry." She points. "Look at your shirt. That blood could be yours, instead."
"It could've been," he says. He moves in his chair, leaning forward. He reaches for one of her hands and takes it in his own. "But you know I'd never leave you. There's nothing I couldn't do any –"
She pulls out of his hand to wrap her arms around his neck. "Every time you say that makes it harder."
He's caught off guard. She doesn't instigate hugs often.
"I can't risk you out there, anymore. I've done it enough."
"Then how can you risk yourself?"
"I hate you."
He pulls away. "C'mon, baby girl. Let's go watch the movie they're showin'."
"Can we just stay here?" she says, not able to help herself. "You can tell me about all the infected you killed. I heard something about bloaters. And you know how much I love bloaters."
He finally cracks a smile for her. "Alright. Let's go talk about bloaters."
They move to the couch they shoved into their house months ago. She listens to his voice more than his words, and she ends up falling asleep against his shoulder halfway through the story. He brushes the bangs off her forehead before kissing the top of her head a second time. Then he closes his eyes, and he falls asleep with her.