Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 3971
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Joel realizes he overreacted (juuuust a tad *cough*) and dreads the inevitable conversation to come.
Joel had never been one to shy away from manual labor, and when he was pissed off, it was a welcome outlet for the rage. He was supposed to head out with the guys to fell a couple of trees, but he opted to stay behind and start chopping up what they’d hauled in yesterday.
Craig looked skeptical. “I don’t think so, Joel… we only got them two chainsaws, and the one prob’ly won’t even—“
“No no,” Joel cut him off. “I don’ need a chainsaw. I’ll use a handsaw, an’ then split ‘em with the maul.”
Craig looked even more skeptical. “Shit, you lookin’ for a workout or what?”
“Somethin’ like that. Unless you need another body out there…”
“Nah, that’s alright, you go for it. Just don’t overdo it. If we get back and find you passed out from exhaustion, I’ll kill ya.” The threat was tempered with a grin.
“Understood,” said Joel, smirking at the thought of passing out just from swinging an axe for a while. Craig was only a few years older than Joel, and he did a fair share of the labor, but Joel was in better shape than the other man. Craig was better suited to bossing the others around, and mentoring the younger guys (as well as a couple gals, a concept Joel couldn’t get used to… the only women he’d known in construction had been office workers). Joel appreciated that Craig didn’t micromanage him, not even in the beginning when all he knew about Joel was Tommy’s word. Of course, Tommy’s word did seem to carry a lot of weight in Jackson.
He was glad Tommy had dropped the bed thing quickly. Joel was sure he still had suspicions, but he seemed content to leave it be. As well he should -- it was none of his goddamn business anyway. And yet Joel heard his brother’s unspoken ‘I told you so’ in his head now that Joel had fucked up. Unspoken and un-thought, for all Joel knew (it’s not like he’d admitted to sleeping in Ellie’s room), but he was irrationally pissed off at Tommy anyway.
Hacking away at logs was a good way to pass the morning. By lunchtime, Joel started to wonder if maybe he was overreacting a bit.
Maybe he should try to catch Ellie at home before going to Tommy’n’Maria’s. He couldn’t remember if she was working at the library this afternoon or not. He could check her schedule while at the house, too; they each had a computer-printed calendar page, which listed their June assignments, pinned on the refrigerator. Sometimes things changed, but Ellie was pretty good about updating hers.
He thought about it and realized he still didn’t really want to see her. What an asshole. It ain’t Ellie’s fault. Gonna have to face her sooner or later. ‘Later’ was fine with Joel. Maybe the day away would do her some good. Coward.
Craig eventually persuaded him to call it a day. It was still too early to go to Tommy’s and he didn’t want to risk going to the library, so he took a walk around the lake. He found a nice shady spot to relax under a big ol’ weeping willow tree. He still didn’t take this for granted, and he knew Ellie didn’t either… being able to simply be. To rest without a purpose of ‘resting up for’ the next leg of the journey, or to nurse an injury. To be able to sit outside without worrying about being attacked. He wasn’t entirely unworried… hadn’t been so for twenty-one years now. He was still aware of his surroundings, and he would never take a nap out here, like some people did. But there had been no raids, and no serious altercations with other Jackson residents; he did feel relatively safe.
And most folks were friendly. Joel was friendly in return. A year ago, he wouldn’t have bothered. It was Ellie’s influence, he was sure of it. She made him a better person. He’d never be a social butterfly, but he was starting to regard people as humans again. Now he was sitting a good forty feet from the path around the water’s edge, yet everyone who passed by looked over at him and waved or called out a hello. Well, five or six people, maybe. Not the young couple strolling past, arms around each other’s waists, so absorbed in each other that they probably wouldn’t even see him if he got in their path. He felt a pang of regret on Ellie’s behalf. She should get to do that… to be a normal girl…
But that thought had occurred to him before and, in this context, he always dismissed it on account of the only person he wanted her to be that close to was himself. Yes, it was selfish; he was a fucking selfish bastard who didn’t deserve her. But, fuck it. He believed that Ellie didn’t need to be ‘normal,’ as long as she was happy. He knew there would come a time when she would become interested in someone romantically, and Joel would have to do his best not to wring the boy’s neck for… well, anything. He didn’t need a reason. Until then, he would enjoy being the sole recipient of her affections.
Then he remembered that he may have just fucked up all that. Maybe she wouldn’t be completely creeped out by him, she just wouldn’t want to share the bed anymore? No use dwelling on it before he’d even talked to her and gauged her state of mind. Joel resigned himself to seeing her at dinner, which hopefully wouldn’t be too awkward, and then talking to her at home afterwards. Maybe this would renew her interest in socializing at the library. Not that he didn’t like being at home with her (when awkward conversations were not pending, at least), but he would rather see her happily doing all the things she liked doing before, instead of pretending to read a book while not turning a page for half an hour.
Ellie was already at the house when he got there. She was helping Maria do something in the kitchen. Tommy was upstairs talking to someone on the walkie (and Joel reminded himself he wasn’t actually pissed at his brother, even though it was Tommy’s face he’d imagined on some of those logs). No one else seemed to be in the house, which was strange. He said hello and stood awkwardly in the doorway of the dining/kitchen area.
“Joel!” Ellie quickly rinsed her hands in the sink, wiped them on a towel, and hustled over to him. “Guess what!”
She was excited. Apparently not disturbed by his presence on sight, at least. “What!” he answered, mimicking her enthusiasm. Funny how easy it was to act like nothing was different.
“I had another panic attack.” Joel blinked. That was something to get excited about? Before he could say anything, she continued. “And it was in here again. I know what made it happen!”
“You… know? How?” And if this morning had anything to do with it, would she really discuss it in front of Maria? Maybe she discussed the incident itself with Maria… ugh. “Are you all right?”
Ellie nodded. “Yeah I’m fine. I know one thing, anyway. It can’t be the whole thing because it wouldn’t have happened when I was out traveling with you. At least, not all the time, or even most of the time.”
“All right, so what're you talkin’ about? What is it?”
“It’s this knife.” She went back to the counter, picked up a chef’s knife and flashed it at him, then set it back down. “The sound it makes must be similar enough to… what they were doing. It’s a trigger!”
“Huh.” At least getting molested didn’t do it. “How did you figure it out?”
“I don’t know what made it like, click, but… after, I told Maria I thought it might be that. Remember I was here last time it happened? So I watched her chop stuff, and then I chopped stuff, and I stayed focused the whole time and it didn’t bother me at all. I bet I won’t have them anymore.”
Joel wasn’t sure exactly what that exercise was supposed to prove, and not inclined to believe it meant she’d put an end to the attacks… maybe for the times when she was expecting the trigger? Since Ellie was convinced she was on to something, he wasn’t about to rain on her parade. Maybe it was one of those mind-over-matter deals. “That’s great. So you’re cured? And you didn’ even need to go see the shrink.”
Maria chuckled. “Claire’s not a shrink, and I still think it would be good for Ellie to talk to her. You too, for that matter. I know, I know, don’t look at me like that, you’ll never go, I just had to say it.” She started ladling stew from a crockpot into four bowls, handing them off to Ellie and Joel, and then to Tommy, who had apparently already heard about this earlier. “Ellie was brave,” Maria continued. “The attack itself didn’t last that long, either. Less than five minutes, I’d say.”
“Damn. That is good news. Well done, Ellie.” Joel hadn’t witnessed one in a while, but he couldn’t remember them ever being that short. He took his usual seat at the table.
“Pfft, it’s not like I did anything,” Ellie mumbled, ducking her head, but Joel could tell she was pleased. She took her usual seat, too, right next to him. Well, why wouldn’t she? Just because I groped her in the bed don’t mean she expects me to start groping her everywhere else.
“Yes you did,” Maria said, looking at Ellie fondly as she placed the ice water pitcher on the table and took her seat. “It looked to me like you had more control over it this time.”
“It still felt like I was gonna die. It’s so stupid –- I know what they are, that I’m not having a heart attack or anything. And I know I’m not in danger, but it feels like… like I’m more scared than I was any time I was actually in danger. I don’t get it.”
“Did you lay down for a while afterwards?” asked Joel. The panic response seemed to suck all the energy out of her.
“After we finished doing the pot I did, yeah. I guess it’s good no one came over this afternoon, huh.”
“Where is everyone? There some party goin’ on none of us got invited to?” Joel mused.
“Did you forget already?” Tommy said with mock exasperation. “We just talked about it last night. You’re gettin’ senile an’ you still got, what, three months? to go before you’re officially old.”
“Shit, I did forget! Fuck you, you’re right behind me.” Family movie night… which apparently included dinner as well. It was supposed to be last week –- three nights, actually –- but Ellie wasn’t up for it, so they’d rescheduled. Just for one night this time, to watch the first film in the Back to the Future trilogy, and see how it went.
“No I ain’t, I got yeeeears to go. You’ll be really old by the time I get there. Walkin’ with a cane, shittin’ yourself…”
Maria punched his arm. Fairly hard, too, much to Joel’s amusement. “Please. We’re eating. And fifty’s not old! Seventy, seventy-five… that’s old.”
Tommy looked for an ally in the teenager at the table. “Ellie. Ain’t fifty about as old as dirt?”
Joel snorted. “You can’t ask her. Twenty is old to her.”
Ellie shook her head. “Nah. Twenty’s not that old. Twenty-five, thirty… that’s kinda old.”
They all got a laugh out of that. Joel smirked at Tommy. “See? All of us are old.”
“But I don’t think fifty’s that bad, really,” Ellie added, glancing at Joel over her spoon. Like she was trying to make him feel better? How sweet. And Joel wasn’t even upset.
“Thank you, Ellie,” said Joel, shooting a smug look at Tommy. “I figure I got another ten years of middle age, at least. Twenty, by Maria’s measure.”
“Definitely,” said Maria. “And every year you survive is like a badge of honor. We have two octogenarians in Jackson, you know.”
“Both of ‘em women,” Tommy pointed out. “It used to be said that women tend to live longer than men. I reckon it’s still true.”
“You jus’ watch, I’ll outlive all of ‘em here,” Joel said overconfidently, for Ellie’s benefit. He knew it bothered her to think about the fact that he was far more likely to die before she did, if you took the possibility of getting killed by an enemy out of the equation. If she still cared about that, after what he— of course she does, Joel, don’t be an idiot.
She was quiet through most of the meal, but that was pretty normal these days. She would speak when spoken to and no more than that. Sometimes she didn’t seem to be paying attention to the conversation. But she didn’t seem sullen or sad or… traumatized. When Maria asked her if she still wanted to watch the movie, she said yes, which was kind of surprising to Joel. Well, why wouldn’t she? Just because I groped her— yeah, Joel needed to quit leading with that in his head. He needed to talk to her about it and see what was what.
Of course, she could have just said yes as a means of avoiding going home. That was really the only reason Joel wanted to watch it, actually. He still hadn’t watched a movie since they’d arrived in Jackson. Ellie had tried to interest him in watching movies with her, both here at Tommy’n’Maria’s and at the library, and he’d always declined the offer. Didn’t matter what kind of movie it was. When she’d ask why, he’d say he just didn’t feel like it. She’d ask why he didn’t feel like it, he’d say he just didn’t. Eventually she asked if it had to do with not wanting to think about the past, and everything he’d lost… Joel didn’t like to admit it, but she’d hit the nail on the head.
If he could look at movies through the lens Ellie seemed to have –- where none of it was real, it was all pure fantasy, no matter what kind of movie it was –- it would be different. She didn’t push him after that. He did agree to do this, though, and if it was torture, he wouldn’t do it again. And now he certainly wasn’t about to dissuade her when this was the first time she’d wanted to watch a movie in two weeks. If it helped Ellie get back into watching movies again herself, it would be worth it.
When the table was cleared and dishes done, two bowls of library-swiped popcorn on hand, the four of them settled in to watch the movie. Tommy and Maria took the side couch, figuring Joel and Ellie would be more comfortable on the one that faced the television. Tommy was all sprawled out, Maria right in front of him, leaning back against his chest… Joel would have been just fine sitting like that with Ellie, his arm occasionally reaching around her under the pretense of grabbing some popcorn… yeah, probably not appropriate. And probably uncomfortable for Ellie, considering…
And yet, she did sit close to him. He took one corner of the couch and figured she’d take the other… nope. Right alongside him. He could have put his arm around her shoulders, but he resisted the temptation. Maybe she thinks I’m gonna freak out or something. It’s just a fucking movie. …I only freak out when I accidentally molest young girls. Or maybe she simply did it so as not to hog the popcorn bowl.
Joel hadn’t seen this movie since he was a kid, probably forty years ago. He’d forgotten a lot of it. He was glad to see that Ellie got into it right away. She asked if it would annoy anyone if she had questions, and the three of them encouraged her to ask away. Maria said they could always pause it or rewind it if need be. Tommy and Maria hadn't even been alive in the eighties, so Joel was dubbed ‘the expert’ -- even though he had only the fuzziest of memories from the decade, and was only a year old when the movie came out. Ellie asked general questions (“Was skateboarding behind cars a thing back then?” “Did people really wear life preservers around like that?” “Did you go to dances at your school?”) and some that were more Joel-specific (“Did you ever do any rock band auditions?” “Did you ever have your name embroidered on your underwear?”). Ellie loved Biff’s ‘make like a tree and get outta here’ pun (“He fucked it up! Haha! That’s a good one!”). Joel cringed at the ‘destiny’ stuff with Marty and George, wondering if it would bother Ellie, but it didn’t seem to. She laughed at Marty feeding George such lines that girls allegedly like to hear, and asked Joel if he’d ever said anything cheesy like that to a girl -- which inspired Tommy to make up some bullshit story about Joel saying shit he’d never say in a million years to some girl in high school. Joel got even with him by making up an even worse scenario for Tommy at the part where George flubbed the line and said ‘density’ instead. Then they had to rewind the dvd because all four of them were laughing too much.
Joel managed to forget about the whole molestation thing for most of the time. There were a couple scenes that brought it to mind, but he cast a sidelong glance at Ellie and found that they didn’t appear to bother her at all; from what he could see, she was absorbed in the story. When there was about half an hour of movie left, Ellie leaned against him, her head on his shoulder. It was like she’d completely forgotten that morning, or maybe Joel had dreamed the whole fucking thing. He finally put his arm around her –- so that she’d be more comfortable. Right. Well, Tommy and Maria didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with them sitting like that (he knew that Tommy, at least, would be death-glaring at him from time to time if he deemed it inappropriate). Why am I so fussed about what it looks like? Some kids are snugglier than others. Ellie likes to snuggle. It ain’t a sexual thing.
Of course, no one realized that with Ellie, Joel had this sort of… well, perverse attraction, if he was calling a spade a spade. But that was Joel’s problem. He’d deal with it on his own and no one would be the wiser. It didn’t mean that he didn’t genuinely love Ellie -- of course he did. That much was apparently obvious to all. And he wasn’t attracted to any of the other young girls in town… it was just Ellie. Somehow that made him feel like less of a sick fuck. Or maybe it was because by now he’d absorbed the label into his psyche and accepted it as part of himself, like it was one facet of being a bad person -- and that hadn’t bothered Joel for a long time. Hurting Ellie was what bothered him… and she didn’t seem to be hurt.
So family movie night was deemed a success, and they planned to make it a fairly regular thing. On the walk home, Ellie chattered away, just like old times –- the ‘old times’ of a couple weeks ago. She coaxed him into sharing some memories of high school (more factual accounts than what Tommy had portrayed them to be). Their conversation was light-hearted, comfortable, easy… but Joel knew that as soon as they were safely inside, the Incident would need to be addressed.
He asked her to sit with him on the couch for a bit. She plopped down next to him sideways and looked at him curiously. “It was fun watching that movie, huh. For you, I mean. You didn’t get… sad, or whatever, did you?”
“No, I guess I didn’t.” Joel hadn’t even realized it. Ellie’s presence had probably been the biggest factor in that regard. “What about you? Gonna go back to watchin’ things like before?”
She chuckled. “Maybe. I guess it’s like…” She paused to think for a long moment. “If you really think about anything in life, if you focus on it, it will seem small… like, insignificant. Not always pointless, but small. Like, drinking a glass of water. Our bodies need it so it’s not pointless, but it’s not like there’s great meaning in it either… or like… milking the cows, feeding all the animals… shit has to get done, day in, day out, we do it over and over and there’s always more to do…”
Leave it to Ellie to start waxing existential while he was trying to figure out how to bring up the subject of accidental abuse. “And… ? What’s that got to do with movies?”
“Um… well, the movie was a total waste of time, not anything that had to get done, at all. But it was fun. And watching it by myself, it still woulda been fun, I think, but it was definitely more fun with you guys there, laughing and… sharing it, you know?”
“…right… ?” I’m sorry I grabbed you, I swear I was asleep…
“Like… not everything has to be about meaning, and purpose… and gotta-get-this-done… it’s the other shit, the stuff that’s not important, that’s actually more important. Cuz if you don’t have that, you might as well be dead. And if you do have it, then… it all matters, every little thing, and you don’t have to look for anything else because you’re not going to find it. …Does that even make sense?”
“Sure. Er… sort of.” She’d lost him after the not important/more important bit. It was an accident. You know I would never do anything like that to you on purpose, don’t you?
She’d lost her steam on that train of thought anyway. “I dunno. It felt good to have fun again, I guess. For two whole hours, or whatever it was.”
You seem happy now but we HAVE to talk about this before going to bed. “Right. So, uh…” Joel coughed. Stared at his knee. “Glad you enjoyed it. Ellie… about… you know, earlier…” Nice segue, Joel.
She waited. “What? Earlier being…?”
“You know. This morning?”
“What about it?”
Christ, she wasn’t going to make this easy, was she. “I, uh…”
He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry,” he said simply. She didn’t look upset, but he went back to staring at his knee right after uttering the words anyhow.
“No, it’s not okay. I shouldn’t’ve… it was an accident. You know that, right?”
“You… accidentally ran out of the room like a… what’s that expression… bat outta hell? I wonder what the poor bats did to end up in hell.”
“Well, no, that wasn’ an accident. You know… before.”
She was quiet. He looked at her again. Was she blushing? She’d gotten pretty decently sunburned the other day so it was hard to tell. She had to know what he was referring to. Was she really going to make him say it?
“Ellie… I was asleep, I didn’ know I was…” He coughed again.
“Oh, that.” Finally she acknowledged it! Her tone was more nonchalant than embarrassed. “What was so awful about it?”
~Continue to Chapter 17~