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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Chapter Text

“You’re gonna tell me what you got Joel for Christmas, right?”, Tommy asked and turned halfway back to Ellie from his horse.

Ellie’s snort was more visible than audible, a white puff of fog in the freezing cold. “So you can slip up and accidentally tell him and ruin it all? Of course Tommy, of course I’ll tell you….not”, she answered flippantly.

He turned back around with a grumble while their horses trodded on through the powdery blanket of snow. It was a good day for patrolling and a good route too, Ellie thought. The snow storm from last night had ladden all the trees with cushions of snow, had wiped any disturbances made by animals or infected or other patrols away and afterwards had dispersed just as quickly as it had arrived. So today her and Tommy were riding under a clear sky and air that bit the insides of your lungs if you breathed in too deeply too fast. This weather still had its own challenges though, the glaring light could make it difficult to spot infected, Ellie wasn’t too worried about that, though. They were riding upwind, so the horses would smell those fuckers long before they could attack. And besides, while they couldn’t freeze to death anymore, infected were still hindered by the cold, it made their movements stiff.

Tommy went on: “Look, I found him a real Gibson guitar, in mint condition even! Do you know how much tobacco I had to trade for it? And then you gotta come around and brag how you found just the perfect thing for him. See, I wasn’t worried about it at first but it’s not like you were subtle about your bragging sunshine. So now I gotta know.”

Well… he had a point. She did brag about it. Not in front of Joel of course but still in front of basically everyone else. Multiple times. Ellie thought she had the right to. She’d been out and about one day on her own (Joel didn’t need to know about that) and had discovered a small wood cabin in the middle of the forest. It had been flanked by a rock wall from one side and tall pine trees from the others and it wasn’t near any other point of interest, which was probably why it’d never been discovered so far. Inside the cabin was the real jackpot, though. It must’ve belonged to some woodworking artisan as it was filled to the brim with carving gouges and chisels and saws and even some exotic colorful and patterned lumber Ellie didn’t know what kind of tree it could come from.

Sure, Joel had woodworking tools but he had to share them with the other carpenters for practical reasons and they weren’t this shiny and new-looking. Her christmas present to him would be a map, marked with the location of the cabin. She gleefully imagined his face as he had to treck there to find out what her surprise for him actually was.

A loud grumble from her stomach pulled her out of her daydream. Right. They’d been out the whole day and didn’t pack food as their route was only up to the ski lift and back. There’d be a hot meal waiting for Tommy and her back home. Maria had promised she’d make her famous corn chowder. People fight over the right to lick the pot clean whenever she cooks it. “People” also included Ellie herself.

“Tommy, I have a deal for you. I tell you Joel’s present and you tell me what the secret ingredient in Maria’s corn chowder is.”

“She’d kill me if I told you that!”,he said, somewhat affronted. Also he sounded like he actually believed that.

“Well then tough luck, buddy. No ingredient, no deal.”

“I bet it’s not even that good. I bet you found something like a ‘world’s #1 dad’ mug or some trash like that.”

Ellie was just about to rebuke him when Tommy gestured with his hand to silence her. The banter would have to wait. Ellie spurred her horse to sidle up to Tommy’s, it complied reluctantly. Sensing danger. Ellie’s eyes followed to where he was pointing. Ahead lay a narrow pass that snaked between boulders on top of boulders, all the size of houses. A single horse could comfortably pass through this chute but not two side by side. It appeared a couple of clickers had seeked shelter from the storm before and in the pass.

Of course they needed to ride through that pass to get home.

Wonderful.

Tommy frowned, “we need to get closer.”

Ellie didn’t understand, “why though, a few shots from the sniper rifle should do it.”

“No shooting. See that snow field?”, he paused and directed Ellie’s attention to an expanse of snow higher up on the mountain to their left.

It looked innocent enough but she remembered what Tommy had taught her about avalanches. The weather the last week and the way the snow seemed to barely cling to the rock underneath were definite warning signs for a snow slide. A gunshot could be more than enough to cause one.

“Any other ideas?”

“Our horses are way faster than these assholes, I go left and distract them, lead them away while you slip through the pass, then I’ll turn around and get through too. If they’re really bent on getting killed we can lead them further down into the valley and shoot them there.”

Ellie thought for a moment. “Sounds good to me, except I’ll be doing the distracting.” She rode off before Tommy could intervene. She loved all the horses in Jackson. Smart enough to know and avoid danger yet trusting you to know what the hell you were doing when you rode head first toward a pack of clickers. The mare she rode today was called Rosie, and they’d been through some shit together. Don’t worry girl, I’ll make sure you get extra oats tonight.

The clickers heard Rosie and her barreling toward them soon enough and when she was sure she had their full attention she made her horse brake and turn around sharply, away from the pass and where Tommy and her had just stood. The clickers were fast but the deep snow slowed them, it slowed Rosie down too but her long legs helped her. After a few minutes of dodging trees, shrubs and boulders, when Ellie was sure Tommy must have passed through by now she made Rosie do a wide turn.

Then it happened.

A gunshot rang across the walls of the surrounding mountains. And another. Several more.

Ellie only had a moment to spare to look at the snow field. Which was starting to slowly slide from the rock it had sat on. For a moment she had the ridiculous urge to just. Reach up there and keep the snow in place, like when you stack some stuff too high and you can sense it toppling in a second and want to steady it but of course it’s always too late for that and you’re left with broken dishes or a jumble of books. A panicked whinny from Rosie snapped Ellie back into action, she spurred her on and didn’t even try to control the horse’s direction just as long as she would run faster. Even the clickers had paused their chasing and snarling for a moment, the low rumble of hundreds of tonnes of snow in the distance must have confused their echolocation but frantic movement from their prey drew their senses back to Ellie.

A glance over her shoulder told Ellie that they’d never stand a chance to outrun the avalanche as it plowed downwards but luckily they didn’t need to. The path it took ran more or less parallel to them and with Rosie putting even more distance between them and the snowslide they would make it out unscathed. Unless the clickers snagged them for dinner, that was.

Riding and shooting at the same time would work with one infected target, maybe two. But not a dozen. Ellie had a better plan though. As they passed between two boulders she dropped a bomb and another one several feet further along, figuring that every damn snowflake that wanted to get down from that mountain and cause problems had done so by now. With satisfaction she heard the two loud booms and stopped Rosie.

Only one clicker was still jerkily running towards them and a shot through the brains stopped that one in its tracks. The other ones not killed were too heavily injured to pose a threat and since Ellie didn’t want to waste ammo she gave those a wide berth and made her way back towards the pass. Rosie seemed grateful for the more sensible riding speed, her nostrils were still blowing out foggy breath like tea kettles. Ellie patted the horse’s neck in thanks as her own adrenaline levels abated as well.

Now she actually had the time to be concerned about Tommy. No, he’s fine. The ‘lanche had ran parallel to him as well, it hadn’t pathed down into the valley, and even if, the trees stand close down there to stall it. He’s fine.

The way she gritted her teeth betrayed just how sure she was about that.

Aside from worrying, she also wondered who had loosed those gunshots that had caused this whole mess. They’d been too close to had come from another patrol...

The sky was turning pink by the time they’d reached the pass again. It’d taken longer than Ellie would have imagined. You really gave it your all back then, huh girl? She gave Rosie some more pats just because.

Her mood sank when she saw the sheer wall of snow and upturned trees that now lay before her and Rosie. Instead of a pass and a way back home to a bowl of hot food and a warm bed. There was just so much of this shit that there might as well never have been a pass at all. It looked as massive as the mountains to the left and the right. Rosie would never make it across but maybe Ellie could climb it.

She dismounted and tried to get a grip, she managed barely ten feet before sliding back down. The snow lay too loose, it crumbled away beneath her feet. With the random rocks and tree branches strewn in it would be a miracle if she climbed it all and didn’t break her ankles while doing so.

“Fuck, fuck fuck, fuck IT! What the hell is this Rosie! Look at this shit!” Ellie pointed at the mess before them as if the mare would offer a solution.

She didn’t. Of course.

The horse only shifted her weight and swiveled her ears.

“Watcha hearing now girl. More infected?”

Rosie snorted. Ellie sighed in resignation. She buried her face against the horse’s side for a moment, visualizing her surroundings from above. She made a mental cross on her estimated location. Jackson to the south and now a mountain range between them. If she went north and then around them it would take roughly…

She pondered the math, her experiences from past patrols…

12 days to get back home.

Oh fuck me

Ellie sighed again. No use in whining about it now. Staying here and waiting for rescue wasn’t an option, she’d freeze or starve or get eaten long before anyone from town would dig their way up here. So she mounted her horse and they were on their way.

 


 

If her mood weren’t so sour, Ellie would have appreciated the beautiful snowy landscape in the red tint of sunset. As it were, she focused on steering Rosie toward a village of wooden lodges not far away, the mare’s ears were still swiveling, picking up sounds too quiet for Ellie’s human hearing range. She didn’t seem nervous though, which made the behavior rather unusual out here.

A second avalanche must have hit the village, Ellie realized as they approached, it had lost its momentum on its way through and while the lodges to Ellie’s right, the ones closer to the mountains were either completely buried or heavily damaged, there were others to her left that the snowy masses had barely touched. They snaked between cars the snow had pushed along with it.

And while Ellie tried to lead Rosie to the undamaged houses, the horse had other plans. Her ears were now pointing right almost all the time and she nickered in a “I’m trying to tell you something here, idiot” kind of way. Ellie stopped and listened intently too now. And yes, she could hear agitated talking. It sounded muffled but she could locate it coming from a lodge nearby. The avalanche had surrounded it with snow and kept it in an iron grip, only part of the roof was still showing. The voices came from a window in the roof, or rather, the hole where a window used to be. Ellie got off the horse and made her way onto a car, then to a slope and from there to the snow covered roof with some difficulty.

She peered down into the house, it was a two floor drop down into darkness. Not complete darkness, though. She saw two flashlights between random debris and furniture, Held by two people, gesticulating and talking.

Ellie realized they couldn’t get out of the house. The snow had blocked all windows and doors, save for this one on the roof. But they had no way of reaching it.

“Hey!” The people jerked in surprise and their body language immediately translated to danger in Ellie’s mind She moved out of their line of sight just in case.

“So when you guys down there are done pointing your guns at me do you need any help?”, she called out.