A/N: I haven't written anything in a very long time, so please forgive me if I'm a bit rusty. I've never done a story for The Last of Us before, so please be nice and feel free to give me any tips on characters and the like. This story takes place right after the ending cutscene on the hill near Jackson County.
Disclaimer: I don't own the game The Last of Us, but my OC's are mine.
Joel swore to Ellie everything he said about the Fireflies was true, but that didn't stop her mind from dissecting his words.
"There were others like me? The Fireflies have stopped looking for a cure? Did that mean that whole trip across country to get to St. Mary's Hospital was for nothing? Was I just about to be another failed science project?" Ellie thought as she and Joel made their way down the hill towards Tommy's town. She felt confused. So many people had died to ensure that she was delivered safely into the hands of the Fireflies, so that she could do something to save this upside-down world, but…it didn't happen. Ellie felt like all those deaths meant nothing now that she couldn't do anything to make her immunity useful. That was the worst part. Was it really for nothing?
"Ellie, Joel, welcome back! How've you been?" The voice of Tommy pierced through her dark, clouded thoughts like a ray of sunshine. They had arrived at the main gate to the town of Jackson County, and Ellie looked up to see Tommy and Joel shake hands and clap each other on the back. Maria sauntered up behind her husband and shook Joel's hand as well. She looked over Joel's shoulder and smiled at Ellie, but it immediately disappeared.
"What's up, Ellie? You look upset." Maria frowned as she moved out from behind Joel. Ellie shook her head, saying nothing. She had too much going on inside her head, and wasn't ready to let it out.
Joel scratched the back of his head, anxious. "Tommy, can I talk to you, in private? It's important. Maria, can you take Ellie and see if there's any place we can settle down? We're not going anywhere for a while." He quickly glanced back at Ellie, and then walked off with Tommy.
Maria nodded curtly, and placed a hand on Ellie's shoulder, but she shrugged it off. She knew that tone in Joel's voice, and the discomforted look his face. They were going to talk about her. Maria seemed to know this as well and made sure to steer Ellie out of earshot of the two men as they walked towards the power plant.
As if reading her mind, Maria smirked and commented, "I'm sure they're not going to mock you behind your back, Ellie." She said playfully, to lighten up the heavy atmosphere Ellie and Joel's entrance had created. When Ellie merely gave a silent shrug, she tried not to say anything else about the subject.
The pair walked along the dirt roads of the small town, which were somewhat muddy due to the recent rain. They passed run-down houses, some with one floor, and others with two. Metal sheets covered holes in the walls or roofs. A lot had front porches, with worn, plastic lawn chairs on them. One house even had a rocking chair. None of the houses really had backyards, as none had fences, but grass was trying to grow wherever it could around the houses. People who were sitting on their porches smiled and waved to Ellie and Maria as they passed, and the former half-heartedly waved back.
"So Ellie, any idea what you want to do now that you're back in town? I know our cooks wouldn't mind having a bit more help. We make a lot more tasteful things than whatever comes out of a can these days." Maria said to break the silence between her and the fourteen-year-old girl.
Ellie thought about the offer. Cooking didn't sound very interesting to her. She'd rather retreat into her mind and think about the past couple of days, but she knew sitting around doing nothing wouldn't make anyone very happy. "I don't think so…it doesn't sound like my kind of thing." She mumbled, still taking in her surroundings. There were a lot of streets in this little town; it seemed much smaller from up on the hill. At intersections, there were even street signs. They came up to one intersection and turned right. Now they were on River St. She could see a huge building with small paddocks around it in the distance. The smell of hay and horses wafted into her nose from the place. Her eyes lit up at the memory of riding through the forest with Joel and Tommy on horseback. They dimmed again at the memory of Callis being shot and tumbling off a cliff. Pain ached through her body like a drumbeat.
The blond woman beside Ellie watched as she perked up at the sight of the barn. An idea struck her. "You still like horses?" She smirked as the young girl nodded. "Why don't you help with the horses, then? You could learn how to take care of them, even ride them once in a while. We have other animals like chickens, pigs, sheep, and even a few cows. But first, let me show you your new home." Maria halted and pointed to a one-level house that looked in decent condition. There was a metal sheet that was nailed to the roof on one side, but otherwise it was intact.
The pair stepped inside and the older woman gave Ellie a tour. "There are two bedrooms on the left side of the hallway and a bathroom on the right. There's a small office at the back and a kitchen right over there." Maria motioned to the right them, where a small table with three mismatched chairs sat next to an area with a stove, oven, sink, and fridge. They were standing in the living room, with only one couch against the wall. The living room connected to the dining area, which was adjacent to the kitchen.
"It looks great. Thanks, Maria." Ellie said sincerely as she plopped herself down on the couch. A bit of dust flew up, but otherwise the place was as clean as anyone could manage.
The blond woman was about to reply, but the walkie-talkie strapped to her belt beeped. She picked it up and snapped, "What is it?" A mixture of buzzing and a man's voice crackled through from the other end. Ellie couldn't make it out.
"Yeah, fine, I'll be there in a few. Stand by." Maria pressed a button on the handheld device and turned back to Ellie. "I've gotta go, some hunters just came back with some fresh meat and a few wounded. You'll be okay by yourself?" She asked as she turned to leave.
The redheaded girl nodded and said, "Yeah, I'll unpack my stuff and see what I can do at the barn."
The older woman gave her a small smile. "Just try not to run away with one of our horses this time, okay?" She winked as Ellie rolled her eyes a little. Maria had one foot through the door before she thought of something else to say. "Oh, if you're going to the barn, look for my nephew Jason. He's my sister Julie's son, and he's about your age. That is, the youngest one there. He knows all about horses. Well, I've got to run, so I'll see you around later." With that, she was gone, jogging down the street.
Ellie let out a deep sigh and decided to go down the hall and inspect the other rooms. The bathroom looked pretty clean, with a small sink, shower, and toilet. A medicine cabinet with a mirror on the door was above the sink. A tired, dirty, red-haired girl stared back at Ellie from behind the glass. Another unwanted thought crept into her head as she stared at her dirt-streaked face. "Why am I allowed to live when so many others weren't? What's so damn special about me that I deserve that luxury?" She shook her head roughly to get the thought out, and crossed the hall to see the bedrooms. The first one only had a bed and a rickety wooden chair in the corner. At least the bed looked clean and had a pillow, along with a gray blanket. An empty closet set into the wall was beside the bed. Ellie snorted, "As if I'd ever have enough clothes to fit in a closet like that."
She exited the room and went into the second bedroom right beside it. It looked essentially the same, except with a wooden desk instead of a chair in the corner. Some parts of the desk were chipped, and a drawer was missing, but it was still a pretty good desk. It even had a reading lamp on it. Ellie decided the claim the bedroom as hers and threw her backpack on the bed. She unpacked her comics and set them in a neat pile on the desk, and hung her only other gray shirt, pair of jeans, and her purple and white sweater on the hangers. With unpacking finished, she laid down on the bed for a few minutes, taking in the fact that she actually had a place to herself for once. She reminded herself that she had to go see this "Jason" kid in the barn, and got up to walk out of the room.
Ellie rummaged around in the kitchen for paper and a pen. When she found them, she scribbled down a note to Joel saying where she was. With that done, she headed out and followed the smell of horses to the stables.
When she arrived, she breathed in the scent of hay and let it calm her thoughts. Ellie counted six stalls on each side of a long aisle. She yelped in fright as something heavy dropped to the ground beside her with a loud thump. Ellie looked up to see an older man, about 40, looking sheepishly down at her.
"Sorry, little lady, didn't see ya there! Watch your head; I'll be throwing down more of this stuff! Horses gotta eat, ya know?" The older man chuckled as he set his pitchfork down.
Ellie looked at what the man had thrown down. It was half of a bale of hay. It smelled fresh, too. "Yeah, umm…hi. Do you know where I could find Jason? Maria told me he could give me a job here. I'm Ellie, by the way." The man seemed friendly enough to tell him her name, and if he lived here, why not?
The man smiled down and began to move along the second level of the barn, forking hay down to the level below as he spoke. "Name's Shane. Jason's my son. Pleased to meet ya, Ellie. Jason's out in the paddock behind the barn, lunging one of our fillies. He'll have some work for ya. Ever mucked out a stall before?"
The red-haired girl spent about a minute trying to decipher what Shane just said. "He's doing what with who now? What's does mucking mean?" She asked, her face screwing up in complete confusion. If this was horse-talk, she needed a dictionary.
Shane laughed heartily, setting down his pitchfork and sitting on the edge on the upper floor, swinging his legs. "I see we've got a lot to teach ya about horses! Mucking means the same thing as cleaning. See those empty stalls? You need to clean out all the dung and soiled straw, and put it in that wheelbarrow you see over there." He pointed to a red wheelbarrow in the middle of the aisle. It had a pitchfork leaning against it. "Lunging is…well, you'll figure it out once you see it. A filly is a young female horse. Jason's training her to be a riding horse. Go through the door at the end there; he'll be happy to have some help. Also, he's not really a talker…just let him show you how to do things. Thanks for the help, Ellie." Shane's cheery expression darkened on the last phrase, and he got up to continue forking hay.
Ellie waved him goodbye and headed down the aisle, pushing open the heavy doors at the end. There was a lot more space behind the barn that she thought. Every paddock was divided with a hastily constructed combination of wood and wires. Hens ran to and fro, pecking at the muddy grass for seeds and whatever else they could find. Two horses and a cow grazed on hay in the paddock to her right. A third horse looked at her curiously from a smaller paddock to her left. It snorted, and finding her no longer interesting, went back to eating the hay at its feet.
"Hello to you, too." The redhead mumbled sarcastically at the uninterested horse. She turned her attention to a circular paddock in front of her as she heard the quickening of hoof beats. A black horse with white splotches all over it threw its head up as it went into a trot. A saddle was strapped to its back, and it was clearly uncomfortable with it being there. It tried to buck, but never succeeded in throwing off the saddle.
Ellie was amazed and also afraid of the power of the animal as she slowly approached the circular ring. The boy in the middle was holding a long whip and had the filly trotting in circles, attached to her halter was a long rope that he held in his free hand. He had short, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a lanky build. He encouraged the filly with nods, but made no vocal encouragement. He didn't notice Ellie as she climbed up the high wooden fence and sat on top of it, careful not to lose her balance.
"Hey, there. You're Jason, right? I'm Ellie. Your dad said you can teach me about horses." Ellie introduced herself, unknowingly startling the boy. He spun around in surprise, accidentally flinging his whip to the ground. The filly started at the potential projectile and broke into a gallop, kicking up mud while Jason tried to calm her down. After about four circles, she finally slowed to a standstill. Jason walked up to her and patted her shoulder, while he narrowed his eyes at Ellie.
The young girl scratched her head in embarrassment. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you guys…Umm, you are Jason, right?"
Jason nodded as he folded up the lunge line. He picked up the whip and handed it to Ellie, who had gotten down from her perch on the fence. She took it and opened the gate for the pair. The boy and his horse walked out and back to the barn. Ellie followed, feeling a bit awkward that he wasn't saying anything. He was probably the silent type, she figured. Lots of people around here had reason to shut their mouths. She sure did. Pleasant conversation couldn't be harmful, though.
The dark-haired boy clipped two long, thin chains that were attached to the wall to the halter on the horse's head. He unclipped the lunge line and handed it to Ellie, who hung it on one of the hooks beside a stall. He then proceeded to take the saddle off, also handing it to Ellie.
She almost dropped the heavy saddle. "Jeez, this thing is heavy! I feel bad for the horse!" Ellie protested as she shifted the saddle to get a better grip. Jason rolled his eyes and pointed to a small room near the door they had come through. "Take it there? Okay." She confirmed and walked past him to the room. Inside, there were three more saddles sitting on triangular, wooden posts jutting out from the wall. She gladly placed her load on an empty post. Ellie looked around the small room. A wooden cabinet sat against the wall to her left. Buckets with brushes and some other things she couldn't name were lined up against another wall. Halters and other things that looked like they fit on a horse's head hung on hooks above them. She remembered Joel called them bridles. The saddles hung on their posts on the wall to her right.
Ellie heard a door being closed and a few moments later, Jason walked into the room. He pushed passed her in the cramped space, causing her to complain, "Hey, at least you could say 'excuse me' or something. No need to be so rude."
Jason ignored her comment and motioned to the saddle she had placed on the post. The redhead looked at it, and then back to Jason. "I don't see the problem. I know you're not a talker, but this is getting ridiculous. Just tell me what's wrong." She placed her hands on her hips in frustration. Why wouldn't he just say something?
The dark-haired boy pulled the sweaty pad out from under the saddle, flipping it over and laying it on top so it could dry. He then looked Ellie in the eye and raised his chin up. A short, jagged, pink scar ran the width of his windpipe. Ellie gasped in shock.
He didn't talk because he couldn't.