It was colder than it should have been for that time of year. ‘Course who the fuck knew what anything should have been? The world hadn’t been the way it should have been for a long, long while.
Nothing was the way it should have been.
The storm that had threatened to fall since early that afternoon burst from the midnight sky, beating against the basement window like it was trying to break through.
She had a bedroom two floors up, sure, but there was something about it that had always been uncomfortable. She slept in it every now and then, but for years she avoided making it anything that felt like “home”.
Just like this house, “the Hearth”, with which Tommy and Maria had set them up once they’d gotten back to Jackson. Nope, nothing felt like home.
That wasn’t true.
Joel felt like home. Dina felt like home. Even some of the people in the commune felt like home.
But she didn’t even know what “home” was supposed to feel like - so how could she be sure?
She finished tying on her boots, slid her switchblade into the right one, and stood slowly from the small mattress in the corner of the basement. Dina shifted below her, peaceful, silent, sleeping like a baby. Ellie would never know how she did that.
She walked quietly toward the faded bomber jacket that she’d haphazardly tossed onto a chair earlier in her rush to… well… know what? Some shit is just for her and Dina. Don’t pry.
Slipping one arm in, then the other, she zipped the jacket over her hoodie, grabbed her flashlight, and bent down to pick up an old pistol and a sniper rifle, which she strapped across her back.
A low creak came from above her: Joel was in the kitchen.
Ellie sighed inaudibly. It had been a rough few years between them. Sure, she loved him, though she’d never say it. Ew. But what he’d done… and then what he’d said to her before they’d settled back in Jackson with Tommy, Maria, and everyone else… it had been festering in her for years. And Ellie hated to let shit fester.
She picked up a bottle of bourbon from the small desk by the stairs, opening it and taking a drink. It burned the entire way down - she loved that.
She drank again.
“You gonna save some of that for me?” A raspy, soft voice came from across the room. A small smile crawled up Ellie’s face and she turned.
“‘Course, gotta cover that terrible morning breath…” she said.
“Midnight breath,” Dina corrected as Ellie crossed toward her.
“Hi babe,” Ellie crooned, leaning down and burying her face in the dark hair beside Dina’s left ear. She planted a kiss on her earlobe, then placed a few more across some of the freckles on her girlfriend’s soft, brown skin.
“The Watch?” Dina asked, and Ellie nodded.
Another creak echoed from upstairs.
“Does he ever sleep?” Dina asked, looking toward the ceiling.
“Rarely,” Ellie muttered, an edge coating her tone.
“Got some ice with that bourbon, I see,” Dina said, her voice still soft, low, imploring Ellie to talk about what had been on her mind. Dina had watched something eat away at her since she’d met the girl. Ellie had a healthy heaping of sass and sarcasm to her personality, obviously, and a chip on her shoulder the size of North America, but Dina remembered the first week she’d arrived in Jackson. Ellie had barely said two words to anyone, let alone Dina. But Dina rarely needed words to suss out what someone was like. No, she was much more adept at reading what people didn’t say than what they did, and Ellie spoke far more when she didn’t speak than when she was off on one of her rare, but famous, angry rants.
Ellie turned away.
“You’re gonna have to tell him sometime,” Dina said, propping herself up on her elbows.
“Not gonna have to do anything I don’t want to, actually,” Ellie said, turning her back toward Dina.
“So you’d rather just sleep in this basement forever than the bedroom next to his, that it?” Dina was brash, outspoken, but she always had this way of presenting everything like it wasn’t an attack. It was one of the things Ellie liked most about her. But not right now. Right now she felt like she was being manipulated.
“You know that’s not why I don’t sleep up there,” Ellie huffed, indignant, tossing the bottle of bourbon back onto the desk.
“Could have fooled me,” Dina said, using the same tone Ellie so often employed when she was mocking Joel.
“Christ, D, the fuck you want from me? You wake up just to give me shit?” Ellie leaned over onto the desk, her back still to Dina, her voice raised. Ellie rarely truly yelled, it just wasn’t in her generally more subtle, self-conscious demeanor. But she had her moments.
“I’m not giving you shit, baby. I just don’t like watching you eat yourself alive,” Dina said quietly, evenly. It was intimate. Ellie softened. Barely.
“Yeah, well. I gotta go,” she said, pulling her barely shoulder-length brown hair back into a tight bun and walking toward the door to the backyard.
“Be safe,” Dina said, and Ellie turned, her fingers wrapped around the doorknob.
“Yeah,” she said quietly, opening the door and throwing the hood of her hoodie up, stepping into the rain.
Drops beat down so hard that Ellie briefly feared having an eye taken out should one hit her just right. She pulled her hoodie more tightly around her face and began jogging toward the South Tower.
Overnight watches were her favorite. Not that she didn’t enjoy laying next to Dina while the girl slept, but there was something about being outside in the infinite black and silence at night that brought her peace. And if she got a shot or two off at a lone Runner, Clicker, or a group of Hunters or Bandits well, hell, that wasn’t too shabby either.
The “Towers” they’d built on the wall (more of makeshift kinds of hideouts made of scrap metal and ruggedly-chopped wood) would provide some relief from the rain. But it was still going to be cold. Maybe she could build a small fire up there without any smoke attracting too much attention…
Nah, Maria would kill her.
…Maybe it would be worth it.
She jogged around the last corner and began down toward the wall. It was quiet on the streets tonight. Usually a few stragglers were hanging about - playing a game of catch or having a couple drinks. Sometimes some of the kids sneaked out at night for ’target practice’ with their little water guns. Guess nobody wanted to be out in this downpour, though.
But Ellie had always liked the rain, and if no one wanted to join her, well that was fine with her. Not that she didn't like the others in the commune - she was generally happy to strike up conversations with anyone and they were good people... but lately, lately she'd taken to being with herself and her thoughts.
She reached the ladder to the South Tower and started to climb, careful not to slip. She stepped up onto the path on the top of the wall and walked a few steps toward the door to the Tower.
She knocked slowly twice. Then three times. Then waited for two seconds, and knocked twice in quick succession. The peephole on the door opened.
“Oh, hey Ellie,” a friendly, deep voice cut through the storm.
“Open the door, Jesse, it’s fucking cold out here,” Ellie moaned.
“All right, all right, hold your horses,” Jesse said as he unlocked and opened the door, allowing Ellie to step in.
“Thanks,” Ellie huffed, taking her jacket off and shaking it out before dropping it onto the back of a chair.
The Tower wasn’t enormous - it was big enough to fit about five people comfortably, but they rarely put that many up there. Tonight the South Tower had just been Jesse, and it would just be Ellie. A few blankets laid strewn in one of the corners, along with a couple chairs hanging about. The wind and rain was kept out mostly, but there was a slit a couple inches wide that cut through the entire circumference of the Tower walls so the Watchers could, you know, keep watch. There was a small latched door on one of the walls, just big enough to fit an arm through, that led out toward a heavy bell they had to ring if Jackson was ever in trouble. Ellie hoped to never have to use it, but in an Infected Dystopia, she knew her pipe dream was just that and it was only a matter of time.
“Cold out here tonight, huh?” Ellie said, peeking out toward the forests surrounding Jackson.
“Yeah, but it’s been quiet. Wrapped myself in a few blankets. Been fine,” Jesse said, tossing the blankets he’d had wrapped around himself her way.
“Gross, man, I don’t want your B.O. blankets,” Ellie said, letting them fall to the slightly damp floor.
She looked up at Jesse, grinning. He shot her a smile back - Jesse somehow always looked like a little kid when he smiled. He’d somehow retained a boyish charm amidst the devastating apocalypse. Ellie could see what Dina had seen in him. They’d dated for awhile before Dina and Ellie had gotten together, but Jesse had always been cool with Ellie, not like some of the other guys in town. They got a bit cold with Ellie when she and Dina had started… hooking up? Dating? Being “girlfriends”? Ugh, Ellie hated all those weird dating terms. Stupid shit. Honestly.
Ellie had guesses that some of the dudes thought that they were “in line” next to date Dina after Jesse. Stupid mentality, really. Ellie always chuckled a little bit whenever she and Dina walked by any of them. If she was feeling particularly brave, she’d give them a little smile and a wink, too. They weren’t fond of that.
Jesse, though, Jesse had always been cool.
“Earth to Ellie,” Jesse said, snapping his fingers in front of her face. “Ya with me?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ellie said, and coughed. “Sorry.”
“Phew, take a couple shots before coming tonight?” Jesse said, jokingly fanning the air in front of his nose.
“One or two,” Ellie said, smiling.
“Well I wanna gonna ask if you wanted to drink to our stunning health or something before I headed home to bed, but looks like you beat me to it,” Jesse said, holding up a bottle of whiskey. “And Maria’d have my ass if I let you sit up here drunk all night.”
“Oh, our stunning health, huh?” Ellie said.
“Or something,” Jesse grinned.
“Gimme that,” Ellie said, reaching for the bottle. He handed it over. “Or something,” she said, lifting the bottle over her head and taking a swig, then handing it back to Jesse, who followed suit.
“See ya when the sun’s back in the sky, kid,” Jesse said, popping the cork back in the bottle, tossing it in his pocket, and opening the door to the rain.
“Who you callin’ kid, old man?” Ellie said, grinning just slightly.
“Old man? Now you’re just confusing me with Joel,” Jesse said. “I’m not that much older than you.”
“Yeah, don’t you forget it,” Ellie said as Jesse shut the door, the two of them still chuckling.
Ellie grabbed a few blankets from the floor and took a seat on one of the chairs, setting herself up to sit staring out across forest all night. The rain made it difficult to see further than a few feet but she’d manage. She always did.
She took a few quiet, even breaths, happy to be breathing the rainy air and have some time to herself. She absentmindedly traced the tattoo on her right forearm. A nostalgic smile crept up her face: she remembered how pissed Joel had been when she’d showed up back at the Hearth with it. Ellie guessed old habits died hard, even if it had been 25 or so years since the world had even looked like it used to, since anyone would have given two shits about tattoos. She hadn’t even been alive then. Joel had, though.
Her tattoo… it wasn’t just some ink - it wasn’t just something sentimental or a thing she’d done when she was drunk… no, this tattoo covered her five-year-old bite scar, and often Ellie tried to let the tattoo hide her memories along with it. She looked down, her fingers still moving along the outlines of the leaves and the moth, the harsh blacks of the ink clashing perfectly with the different shades of the white and pink of her skin and scar. The whole thing was so ugly and utterly gorgeous at the same time. It’s why she loved it so much.
Joel crossed her mind again and she sighed angrily. Deep down she knew Dina was right, she knew she was going to have to confront Joel about what he’d done four years ago but… dammit she really didn’t want to.
Not because she was afraid of him.
Not because she was afraid of the confrontation.
Not even because she didn’t want to piss him off.
It was because she didn’t want to see his face when she finally told him the truth.
She didn’t want to see his face when she told him that she had known.
She’d known all along. Girl magically born immune to the infection that had ravaged the planet?
She knew that four years ago she had been crossing the country with an understanding she wouldn’t wake up from that surgery, but fucking hell, at least it all might have meant something!
She’d known she was going to die. But they were all going to sooner or fucking later.
And Joel had ripped that away from her.
A stray tear fell down her cheek as she kicked the sheet-metal wall in front of her, hard. She didn’t know if she was more angry at Joel or the fact that she was sitting in this stupid Tower crying over something four years old.
She didn’t have much time to stew in anything, however, as the deep BONG of another Tower’s bell rang out across the commune.
Jackson was under attack.
“Fuck me,” Ellie whispered, tossing the blankets onto the ground and readying her sniper in her hands.