Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters (in this chapter): Ellie, Joel, Maria, Tommy, Annie(OC)
Word Count: 4112
Chapter Summary: Ellie learns more about Jackson's customs and history, and Joel...lies. Again.
Annie and Ellie toured the rest of the town without further incident, yet Ellie remained on high alert for an ambush around every corner. What is wrong with you? Relax, Ellie. A huge portion of town was unoccupied, and Annie wasn’t too keen on taking Ellie through those streets, but Ellie persuaded her to show her at least a few.
“It’s so eerie here,” Annie remarked as they headed down one deserted street, the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves on the pavement magnified by the surrounding silence. It actually seemed more normal to Ellie than the buzzing of a town full of people. “All these empty houses,” Annie continued. “No one around… most of the time, at least. Sometimes people will come through here and salvage things. I heard Tommy has a map of the whole town, with everything inventoried. So if, say, someone’s shower breaks, and they don’t have the right parts at the warehouse, the maintenance people can come in here and find a replacement –- and then it would be documented that house number such-and-such doesn’t have a working shower. If someone wants a new couch, they can ‘shop’ for one. Stuff like that. They’re supposed to go to Maria or Tommy… for big stuff like furniture they’ll need to borrow one of our wagons, anyway. They can’t exactly just stroll in there and carry it off on their backs. The small stuff, though, that’s pretty much all been picked over. Some of it, like the clothes? That’s all kept at the storehouse. And there’s one big section, over there” –- she gestured vaguely to the east –- “that’s way more damaged than the rest of town. There was a fire, before I lived here.”
Ellie could see how the abandoned houses, especially the burnt ones, might seem creepy. She supposed they were creepy, and that she’d just been desensitized to ghost towns on her cross-country trek with Joel. She’d seen plenty of places that gave her the creeps, but it wasn’t simply for the fact that they were deserted. She wasn’t sure what it was specifically that spooked her -- it was more of a gut feeling. Looking at these empty houses in Jackson, she could imagine exploring them… finding clues about what the previous inhabitants’ lives were like, maybe finding things no one else had noticed. She made a mental note to come back here on her own some time. “Does anyone ever come here just to hang out?”
“Kids who wanna get away from their parents, sure. I’ve heard of some parties out here, with alcohol and dope. Marijuana grows on the farm,” she added, answering Ellie’s next question before she could ask it. “On Farm 2. It’s supposed to be used as a pain reliever but that’s… not always what happens.”
Ellie chuckled. “I’m sure. How do they get the booze?”
“They’d have to steal it. Not sure where the hard stuff comes from, but there’s plenty of beer here -- people in town brew it from the barley we grow. That’s what the kids like. Some of the people who lived here before the outbreak did home brewing so that’s where the equipment comes from. The beer is meant for the adults, of course, and last I heard, we actually trade it more than drink it. The soldiers return the bottles for refills.”
“No wonder the soldiers stay friendly with you guys,” Ellie joked. Or half-joked, really. She realized that the lack of bottles littering the streets was one difference between here and the places she and Joel had passed through on their long journey. To her, a glass bottle was a weapon; she’d actually forgotten that people used to drink out of them. Still drink out of them.
“No kidding,” Annie said with a smile. “I personally can’t stand the taste. I don’t know how anyone can.”
“You’ve tried it? What about the weed?” Ellie couldn’t imagine Annie partaking of either.
“Both. Once was enough for me! So, yes, people do come out here sometimes. I’ve also heard of kids running away and hiding in here. Runaways don’t stay long, though. There’s nothing here for them. No food, no water, no electricity… they go home soon enough. There’s been some debate about fencing it off. For now, they don’t think it’s a worthwhile use of resources. It would take a lot of fence to go around this whole area. And unless it’s a barbed wire fence they’d just climb over it anyway, so it would be hard to make it truly off limits.”
Ellie barely registered what Annie said after the running away bit. “Why the fuck would anyone want to run away from a nice house where they can eat all the time? And have a safe place to sleep… and all that. Not to mention a family.” Were the kids here spoiled brats or what? And what did they think they’d find out here that was better than home? It would make more sense to run away to the outside, lured by fantasies of the unknown… but she knew you had to be an adult to leave without parental consent, which a runaway likely would not have. They’d have to find a way out that didn’t involve the main gates.
Annie shrugged. “Maybe they just want attention? Someone did kill himself in here, though. I barely knew him. It was sad. Shot himself with his dad’s gun in one of the houses that burned down. We’re not going down that street.”
Ellie thought about Henry and Sam, and a chill passed through her. “Why did he do it? Did he get infected or something?”
“No, he just didn’t want to live anymore.”
“Seriously? Man.” Ellie wondered what had made him hate life so much, when he wasn’t even infected or living in a sucky quarantine zone. It wasn’t uncommon for people to kill themselves after being bitten, as not everyone shared Riley’s view on that. But you never knew what could happen. What if Ellie had taken the easy way out? She probably owed Riley her life. Some people didn’t have the balls to actually do the deed... I could do it, if I wanted to. I probably would have if I’d been by myself.
“So have you seen enough of this part of town? Come on, let’s trot.”
They circled a lake -- technically a pond, according to Annie, but everyone in Jackson referred to it as ‘the lake’ -- and Ellie imagined Joel teaching her to swim there. No one was swimming now, as the weather was still a bit chilly. In the summer, this was apparently the happening place to be. Ellie felt a little excited about the possibility of going to barbecues at the lake and other such things that she’d only ever known from books or, more rarely, movies… or -- her favorite! -- from listening to Joel’s reminiscing, which he’d only recently begun to do on a more regular basis.
As they made their way back in the direction of the farming lands, they rode past a house with three men on its roof. Annie squinted up at them, trying to identify them for Ellie. “Let’s see… I think that’s…”
“JOEL!” Ellie shouted, waving madly. It felt like she hadn’t seen him in ages! With some difficulty, she brought Spirit to a halt and looked up at the roof. “Hi!”
Joel looked pretty happy to see her too. He said something to the other men and moved down to the roof’s edge. “You look… wind-blown,” he remarked with a chuckle.
“Well, we’ve been riding for a while! This is my friend Annie, she lives on one of the farms. Annie, in case you didn’t hear me yell his name, haha -- this is Joel.” She paused so they could exchange greetings, then resumed her perky chatter. “And this is Spirit, he’s six years old, he came up from Arizona. He’s trained and all but a little bit wild, he goes really fast and if I can I wanna ride him every day. Annie’s horse is Amelia, that’s her favorite. I guess I can’t say Spirit’s my favorite, I haven’t ridden any of the others yet. But I bet he’ll be my favorite anyways.”
“That horse looks a bit ornery,” Joel observed with some amusement. “You’re gonna need to show him who’s boss.”
“I am! I mean… we’re more like equal partners,” she hedged.
The other two men had stopped working and joined Joel. They both knew Annie, of course, because everyone knew her. Joel introduced Ellie simply as ‘Ellie’. The five of them chatted for a few minutes, until the older guy excused himself to get back to work, with the younger guy soon following. Joel gave Annie the customary ‘nice meeting you’ farewell and then smiled down at Ellie. “See you at dinner, kiddo.”
“Oh -- yeah -- what time is that?” Ellie frowned.
“Tommy said usually between six’n’seven.”
“Don’t worry, Ellie, you can leave before we’re done -- you’re not even on the schedule,” Annie reassured her. She looked up at Joel. “Or she can eat with my family. If that’s okay with you.”
“Oh. Ellie don’ need to—“ Joel stopped mid-sentence, apparently thinking better of whatever he’d been about to say. “That’s okay with me. Ellie, see how it’s goin’ later an’ play it by ear, yeah?”
“Okay. Good luck finishing that roof before it rains! Bye!” The girls directed their horses to get moving again. Ellie looked back over her shoulder and saw that Joel was watching her. She gave him a little wave.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Annie pulled up alongside Ellie. “He has a gun too!” she said, scandalized.
“Well, yeah. So? He’s like me. I’m sure he’s not gonna shoot anyone either,” she lied.
Annie didn’t seem particularly worried, at least. “You were so… you really light up when you talk to him.”
“I do?” Ellie knew she’d been talking fast… smiling a lot… was that ‘lighting up’?
“Mmhmm. I can tell you guys are close. If I didn’t know better I would’ve assumed he was your dad. The younger guy on the roof -- Xavier -- he’s Cedric’s dad. Cedric was one of those boys back in the Square. The quieter one. A.J.’s little lackey.”
Ellie snorted. “Does Xavier know his son’s a dick?”
“No idea.” Annie giggled. “Do you always cuss so much?”
Ellie didn’t consider ‘dick’ a true cuss word, but whatever. “Do you ever cuss?” she retorted.
Annie contemplated this. “Um… maybe I’ve done it a couple times in my life?”
“Oh man.” Ellie rolled her eyes. “We’ll have to work on that. No, wait, repeat after me -- ‘we’ll have to fucking work on that shit.’”
Annie laughed but didn’t play along; she just urged Amelia out in front of Ellie and Spirit again to continue the tour. A very light, misty rain began to fall. Ellie didn’t mind it one bit; she tilted her head back to help the sprinkles dust her face. Annie didn’t seem to mind either except to comment that she hoped they’d get the cows in before it started coming down hard and maybe they’d do that earlier than usual.
The last place they passed was Joel’s house, which Annie described as unoccupied. She started telling Ellie about some guy who’d actually built it, years ago, even though there were plenty of houses right there in town. Ellie smugly interrupted her to inform her that for once, she knew something about Jackson that Annie didn’t. Ha!
“Are you sure? There’s not even a road that goes out here…”
“I think I know where I live, thank you,” Ellie said with mock offense. When she and Joel had left this morning, she’d turned around and looked at it to commit it to memory. And the funky mismatched old lawn chairs on the porch were pretty recognizable.
“It’s tiny. Are you moving into a bigger one?”
“Nope. We like it. It’s plenty big enough and it’s not like we’re even gonna spend much time in it, really.” Was she going to have to defend the house to everyone who saw it? Although Annie seemed satisfied with that answer and they kept riding. They would conclude the tour by galloping through the other two farms, ending at the stables between Farms 2 and 3. Ellie was glad Annie had announced the plan because once Spirit picked up the pace, he seemed eager to run again, and Ellie wasn’t inclined to try to stop him. That sensation of being thrilled and wild and free and… elemental, even… it was utterly amazing, nearly to the point of being overwhelming. Soon Annie and Amelia were far behind her.
The rain was coming down hard by the time Ellie arrived at Tommy and Maria’s for dinner. She probably would have enjoyed having dinner with Annie & company -- Annie’s boyfriend Jacob seemed friendly enough, and Ellie would have liked to meet her mother and little brother -- but she hadn’t seen Joel all day except for those few minutes on the roof, and it felt strange to be away from him for so long. She missed him, sure, but more importantly, she just had to make sure he was… real. As opposed to something she had dreamed up? Or someone from a previous life? It was a bizarre, illogical feeling. She’d never felt it when they were on the road.
Annie had offered her an umbrella, which Ellie had declined (“umbrellas are for sissies!” she’d teased her), and since she hadn’t thought to bring her jacket with her this morning, she was now thoroughly drenched. She knocked on the door and then entered without waiting for an answer, as she’d been taught to do that morning. It smelled fucking fantastic inside.
Maria came over from the kitchen. “Girl, you are soaked,” she observed amusedly, then called over her shoulder, “Joel! She’s here!”
Ellie realized she was creating a little pool of water at the entryway. “Uh-oh… I’m getting your floor all dirty.”
“That’s alright, I’ll have the servants wax it tomorrow,” Maria said airily. Ellie laughed. “Come upstairs and let’s find you some dry clothes.”
Joel approached them (he was indeed real, much to Ellie’s relief) and shook his head, smiling at her bedraggled appearance. “Now that we’re in civilization I reckoned you wouldn’ go for that drowned rat look no more.”
Ellie snorted. “Very funny. Excuse me while Maria and I go find me some clothes because she is nice enough to help me out, not make fun of me like some people.” She punched his arm playfully as she walked by him, and he pretended that it hurt. That was so cute that she smiled, negating all pretense of being annoyed with him.
Upstairs, Ellie started drying herself off in the hall bathroom while Maria scrounged up some clothes for her. This house reminded her of the one she’d fled to last fall, when she had realized Joel was planning to ditch her. It was really big -- too big for two people. Maria handed her a sweatshirt, jeans, and socks. “Here you go. Take your time. I told Tommy I’d hold supper ‘til he got home and he’ll probably be another ten minutes or so.”
“Okay. Oh hey, Maria… I was just wondering… why do you and Tommy live in such a big house?”
“Well…” Maria frowned a little, and Ellie worried that the question may have been too nosy. “My father used to live here too. He was the true visionary behind this place -- Jackson the way it is now. But he’s no longer with us. He was… killed.” She swallowed a lump in her throat, then brightened. “We get lots of visitors, and it’s nice to have the room for them to spend the night if they want to. But the real reason we like this house is ‘cause we want to fill it up ourselves… we’re trying to start a family.”
“Oh, awesome!” Ellie exclaimed. She could already imagine a couple of youngsters climbing all over their Uncle Joel. Who would I be -- Cousin Ellie? “You’re gonna be a great mom. Sorry about your dad.”
“Thank you. We’ll see. We’ve been trying for a while and haven’t had any luck yet,” Maria said with a sigh. “Do me a favor: don’t tell anyone. People around here mean well, we’d just rather not have them all up in our business.”
“No problem! I won’t tell. Except… does Joel know?”
“I don’t know. Tommy might’ve told him? You don’t have to keep it a secret from him, though. He’s okay.”
“Yeah, Joel’s pretty good at keeping secrets,” Ellie said bitterly.
Maria looked at her a long moment and seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but instead she just said she’d see Ellie downstairs, and closed the bathroom door behind her.
Ellie washed her hands and face, re-did her ponytail, and headed downstairs to the dining table. She expected Joel to make fun of her again because the clothes were way too big, but he barely seemed to notice when she sat next to him. She glanced around the table at her dinner companions, some of whom she remembered from last night along with some new faces. Buster was amusing the others with a tale of hunting in the rain -- amusing everyone but Joel, that is. He didn’t look like he’d heard a word of it. Ellie nudged him and whispered, “Are you okay?”
Joel looked at her then. Flashed her a wee smile. “Yep. Glad you could make it back for dinner.”
Maria had just finished introducing Ellie to the strangers at the table when Tommy arrived. He wasn’t nearly as wet as Ellie; he just went to ‘towel off real quick’ while Maria and that other girl, Chelsea, fetched the food that was being kept warm in the kitchen. And Joel was suddenly jumpy as fuck. His gaze darted around… when he heard Tommy’s voice, he stared at the entry to the dining area. Then he stared at Maria, who seemed to notice the staring but didn’t seem to think it was odd. Joel’s knee was bobbing up and down real fast, almost like a spasm. Ellie knew it was a fidgety thing that he did. Not necessarily a nervous thing… but he was also clenching the end of the tablecloth. Even the sight of the mouth-watering roast didn’t faze him. Was it all the strange people? He hadn’t acted this way last night, though. Ellie watched him surreptitiously.
A couple of minutes passed like that before Tommy returned. He said hello to everyone, kissed Maria on the cheek, and took his seat without looking at Joel. Even though Joel was staring at him again. If stares could wake the dead... when Tommy finally made eye contact with him, the brothers looked at each other for a long moment. Joel cleared his throat. “Tommy, I need a word with you,” he said in an annoyed ‘that-goes-without-saying’ tone… and Ellie felt the panic swelling inside her.
“Maria didn’t...?” Tommy looked at Maria, who gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head.
“She was waitin’ for you,” Joel grumbled.
He started to get up and Ellie clutched at his arm. “Joel, what’s going on?” she asked with quiet desperation, not even trying to sound casual.
Joel shrugged her off and stood up. “Nothin’. I’ll be right back.” Both Tommy and Maria were leaving the room.
No no no no whatever it is NO. “I’ll go with you!”
“No,” Joel said firmly. “Stay here. It’s nothin’ you need to worry about.”
Ellie started to get up anyway.
“No, Ellie. I’ll be right back,” he repeated, fixing her with a Look until she settled back in her seat. She watched him leave, feeling helpless.
Maybe she should follow him on the sly and eavesdrop… but then Maria looked back at her and mouthed ‘it’s okay’ with a small smile before she left with them. It was enough to keep Ellie in her chair.
She heard the front door open and close. ‘Be right back’, my ass.
Ellie stared down at her plate. Someone -- she didn’t notice who it was -- had put some elk meat on it, and mashed potatoes. And someone told her to eat. Called her ‘honey.’ Ellie’s mouth had gone dry and she wondered if she could even pretend to eat now. Her thoughts were racing. What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck. What are you doing, Joel? Did you just lie to me again? Why don’t you trust me enough to tell me what’s going on? Aren’t we in this together -- you and me against the world? WHAT THE FUCK. Did something happen? Are you leaving? I’m going with you, if you are. No matter what you say. Even if I have to pretend I’m not and then sneak out and track your lying ass down. Fuck you! You said we’re a package deal. Was that a lie too? That feeling I had today, that you were a dream… was it a premonition?
And then he was back. All three of them returned to their seats like nothing of note had happened. They weren’t even wet, so they probably hadn’t even gone beyond the porch. Joel squeezed Ellie’s shoulder as he sat down. “See? Told you I’d be right back,” he said cheerfully. He grabbed the serving tray that was in front of them and slid some meat onto his plate. “I am hungry. Aren’t you? You haven’t touched your food.”
Ellie stared at him, somewhat bewildered at the sudden change in his demeanor. “What was that all about?”
“I told you, it was nothin’.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
Then he switched gears and offered the second stock answer in his repertoire of bullshit: “We’ll talk about it later.”
“Sure, Joel. Later.” Ellie knew that in Joel-speak, ‘later’ meant ‘only if I ever deem it necessary to tell you, which I probably won’t.’ She was still irritated with him; even if all those thoughts that had just swirled through her brain were not (necessarily) applicable, they were still there… she still felt them. And just because he hadn’t left her right this second didn’t mean it wouldn’t be happening imminently. The table was humming with multiple conversations, and no one was paying any particular attention to the two of them, so surely he could answer one simple question. “Can you just tell me… are you leaving?” she asked softly, afraid to look him in the eye but forcing herself to do so.
Joel met her gaze evenly. “No, we’re not.”
Ellie didn’t like the ambiguity of that. It was the kind of answer Joel could throw at her later and claim he hadn’t lied because he’d said ‘we’ and not ‘I’. Ellie swallowed. “I asked if you were leaving.”
“And I said no, we’re not -- do you really think I’d leave without you? Don’t worry, kiddo. Everything’s fine, I promise. Why would I want to leave? We just got here. Now eat.” With the matter settled, Joel turned back to his plate.
But was it truly settled? God, he sounded so sincere, and he seemed much happier now. Ellie wanted to believe him. Deep down… she did believe that he wouldn’t abandon her, not now. Not after all they’d been through together. She knew she believed that, so why did she question it? It was that fucking lie, a weed poking its way up through their relationship… growing, spreading, threatening to overtake them.
Joel was speaking to her and she couldn’t ponder its ramifications any further. “Now,” he said through a mouthful of potatoes, “I wanna hear all ‘bout your shenanigans down on the farm. Didja like it? What did you do besides ride that barely-broke horse?”
Ellie would have to drag it out of him later, somehow. For now, it was too tempting to flick off that switch and relax a little. It felt great to be eating yet another satisfying meal, sitting next to a chipper Joel, telling him about her day… and he listened to her. He was interested. He cared. How could she stay mad at him when he was in such a good mood? He was here with her, he wasn’t going anywhere, she would see him every day for the rest of her life. I’m the luckiest girl in the world. Forget about the lie, she had to convince herself. Be like Joel: pretend it doesn’t exist.
~Continue to Chapter 7~