Disclaimer: Do not own Last of Us or any of it's characters.
I LOVE THIS GAAAAAAAAME. Okay. (this takes place during the rest of winter after the whole crazy David shit in the game)
They don't move as much anymore.
The rest of the winter is harsh, the land constantly shrouded in a blanket of frozen powder, always in the grip of some snow storm or other.
Joel's wound bothers him, and the pages of Ellie's joke book have frozen together in her backpack; not that she pulls it out anymore.
They move from place to place, but find themselves bogged down by ice storms, forced to stay in the same shelter for days before the weather grants the world enough of a reprieve for them to break for the nearest town or city. Even then, they never make it far, not with his shoddily stitched injury slowing them down.
Tonight, they're in a dilapidated old barn somewhere in a small stretch of tranquil country fields. Winter's fury rages outside, making the deteriorated timber groan like some beast in its death throes.
They huddle together in a chosen corner of the barn, where Joel has managed a small, controlled little campfire that provides them with warm tins of flavorless water. He mentions vaguely to her that on a night like this, hot chocolate is the only cure, but Ellie's too busy getting the blood flowing back into her frostbitten toes to bother expressing any interest in what hot chocolate might've tasted like. She absently stares into the licking flames, letting the hot water slide gratefully down her scorched throat, warming her from the inside out as the flames chip away from the outside in.
It's the first time in a while she's felt a bit more at peace with herself. It must be showing in the tiny, content smile that tugs the corner of her lip, because Joel makes a comment.
"You seem better," he says, setting his tin down on some stray hay. Ellie sets her own down, pulling the old wool blanket they'd found more tightly about her shoulders. She nods her head a little bit, staring at him resolutely across the fire.
"I feel better."
"I'm glad to hear it."
She's not lying to him, exactly. She does feel better, lighter somehow; her nightmares have lessened, at least. She thinks the only thing left is for the snow to stop. Once, the snow had held beauty and wonder for her, but now it just puts his face in her mind, his clammy fucking touch, and icy grip of fingers around her neck…
"I asked if you'd had enough to eat."
"Oh. Sure, I guess…"
Joel's brows furrow, accentuating the deep crevices on his forehead. Sometimes, Ellie forgets how old he is until he makes faces like that.
"You sure you're feelin' alright?"
She lets out a slightly forced laugh, teetering back a bit on her butt and waving a dismissive hand at nothing in particular.
"Yeah, it's just, c'mon Joel, when the hell have we ever had enough to eat?"
"Hmm," he answers, and Ellie knows he sees right through her. He doesn't make comment, though, and it's in times like this that she loves him for not being the kind of person that pushes too hard. They sit in relative silence for a while, listening to the wind howling through the various cracks in the walls. Hay skitters across the dirt floor, pushed and shoved about by the chill air leaking through.
"When do you think the snow will stop?"
"Can't be much winter left, but I think this year it might bleed on into spring."
Ellie groans inwardly at the thought. Winter has been nothing but trouble for them both, especially her. Sometimes she can't breathe at night, when Joel's already fast asleep and her face is freezing and the pounding blood in ears sounds like the laughter of a sadistic man.
More than once, she has quelled her fears by reaching out blindly in the encroaching darkness, fingers seeking out and clutching into Joel's cotton shirt like it's a goddamn life line. She's never been afraid of the dark before now, but the incident with that fucker David has got her messed up in the head; she sees phantom men in the blackness that surrounds them at night, hands reaching for her, arms attempting to wrap around her neck to choke her unconscious. Until she finally settles for shoving her face into Joel's back, scrunching her eyes tight and letting the gentle rhythm of his steady breathing lull her into a sense of sleep and security.
But she thinks she's getting better; the last two nights she's toughed it out and slept away from her companion. That's progress… right?
"I think you bes' get some sleep, I'll stay up a while longer," Joel tells her, stoking the fire. Reluctantly, Ellie consents to his suggestion, hunkering down amidst the smell of hay, utilizing her uncomfortable backpack as a pillow. She draws her drab cover close, fingers twiddling lazily with the keychain hanging from her zipper, until at last sleep claims her.
The sound echoes doubly in her ears; once, from her back as it slams harshly onto the chopping table with David and James laughing menacingly above her; and twice, from the barn door being nearly blown off it's rusted hinges by a sudden, gale force wind.
Ellie comes awake with a gasp, heart pounding out of her chest, body covered in a thin sheen of cold sweat. She can barely make out Joel's figure springing into action, running past her head toward the commotion. For one wild, wild second, Ellie thinks that David has come for her, somehow survived her horrific maiming of his face, and that he's standing on the threshold of the barn, snow swirling around him like sparks.
But she quickly dismisses her fears upon finally getting her bearings into focus, seeing Joel struggling to get the door closed and secured. She's disappointed in herself; normally she would've been up in a trice helping him take care of the problem, but there's the curling tendrils of leftover fear keeping her rooted in place.
Joel wedges the door expertly with a few bales of old hay. He returns to the fire, rubbing absently at the puncture in his side, when he notices Ellie sitting up, obviously spooked by the noise.
"Bet that scared the hell out of you. S'alright, get back to sleep," he instructs, grunting as he settles back down before the dwindling light of the fire.
Ellie can't, though. She's rattled, afraid that if she closes her eyes her nightmare will continue where it had left off; she doesn't want to relive that experience again. Once was enough for a lifetime, however long or short hers might be. She boldly keeps herself composed, keeping her tears to miniscule pinpricks at the corners of her green eyes, but it's not enough.
She gets to her feet, ignoring Joel's questioning look. She crosses the fire and plops down next to him, curling her body into a tight ball secure in her wool throw, letting her body and head fall comfortingly into Joel's side. He doesn't say anything to her, but after a few moments, one of his arms moves to rest around her, squeezing her forearm gently.
With a vague sniff and a sigh, Ellie lets her eyes drift closed, soothed by Joel's presence and the heat from his body.
She's asleep far too quickly to hear his quiet words a few minutes later.
"I'm here, baby girl, I'm here."
Her nightmares do not plague her any more that night.
Years later, when their adventures are done and they've settle at Tommy's; when she's nineteen and more independent than ever(and growing much too fast in his opinion); on night's in winter's harsh grip when the windows groan and rattle beneath the howling onslaught of icy rain, and the rare occasion when her dreams are plagued by nightmares of David, Ellie finds her way to his room. She crawls into his bed, scared and weary, and pressed her knees, her curled elbows into his back, her forehead resting between his shoulder blades.
And he's always awake.
He waits until her harsh breathing has slowed, until the puffs of exhale on his back are more tempered with the even pace of undisturbed sleep, before he gives a sad smile to the darkness and whispers,
"I'm here, baby girl, I'm here."
I say years later for their adventure because I feel like there's a whole 'nother tale to be told for these two, especially with Niel's explanation of the ending and all. A whole 'nother adventure for them to go on before they can truly try to settle and just be together at Tommy's.