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"Comforting Sounds" Chapter 8: "Just When I Needed You Most" (8/17)

Title: "Comforting Sounds" Chapter 8: "Just When I Needed You Most" (8/17)
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Pairings: Ellie/OC
Warnings: PLEASE SEE NOTES ABOUT WARNINGS IN FIRST CHAPTER
Word Count for this chapter: 7198
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Author's Note: Chapter title from the song by Randy VanWarmer, which has got to be one of the saddest songs ever recorded (insert a "You left me" in front of the title).


He's messing with me. That was Ellie's first thought: it was a joke in poor taste. Joel wouldn't just leave. Especially without saying goodbye to her. "That's not funny, Tommy. Where is he?"

Tommy took a seat on the floor, close to her. "I ain't jokin'. He really did leave. You know he can't stand it, what happened... not bein' able to help you... he was goin' stir-crazy, wantin' to do somethin' about it."

Joel's not the one going crazy! Ellie didn't want to hear it. "I was gonna go with him -- he knows that -- I'd have gone with him now if I'd known!"

Tommy snorted. "With a crutch an' a cast? He'd never let you."

"The doc says my ankle's healing good -- I can walk on it okay now!" It was true. Joel wanted her to keep using the crutch as a precaution, because her ankle wasn't entirely stable, but she was able to bear weight on it now.

"Your cast don' come off for a few more weeks though, right?"

"So? I don't need my arm really. I mean I can shoot with my other hand."

Tommy shook his head. "Joel never mentioned takin' you with him. I don' think he ever intended to. He worries too much about you, an' you're a hell of a lot safer here."

I'm safe with HIM. Wherever we are. Maybe Joel thought she was too weak now... a liability, something that would only slow him down. Ellie decided to shift gears; she glared at Tommy. "Why'd you let him go? Did you tell him to leave without even saying goodbye?"

"Let him go?" Tommy scoffed. "My brother does what he wants to do. Ain't no stoppin' him. The only one who coulda stopped him was you. An' he knew it."

The fucking coward! she raged in her head. She couldn't really be angry with Tommy for Joel leaving. But... "You could've told me," she said accusingly.

"I'm tellin' you now. It only jus' came about yesterday. At least he didn' jus' take off on his own. -Kinda surprised he didn't, actually. It's him an' four other guys. Marcus was one of 'em. The youngest. Joel wasn' sure about takin' him along -- he's only eighteen -- but he was plenty persuasive, I guess."

Ellie wished she'd been given the chance to do some persuading of her own. "How did he even... he was at the house the whole time..." Did she space out through Joel having a bunch of visitors? Some kind of meeting during which this was planned?

"Not the whole time, no. He came up to the house and asked if I could stay with you a while. Said he had some shit to do. I didn' know what it was 'til he came back. He was gone a couple hours."

"You were here yesterday," Ellie stated the question.

"Yep. You were asleep when I got here an' asleep when I left."

I slept for over two hours straight? She didn't think she was capable of that anymore. She really had lost sense of time. "You could've woken me up to tell me," she grumbled.

"I could have," Tommy admitted. "You can be mad at me for that. Whatever I did for one of you was bound to upset the other, so..."

"You chose him." Because why wouldn't he? Joel was family, Ellie was nothing.

"I didn' think of it as a choice, it was more like... not fuckin' up his plans."

"Why didn't you go with him?" She already knew the answer to that one. "-Because of me. Right? Someone's gotta babysit? You made it real easy for him, didn't you: 'Don't worry, brother, I'll take care of her, you just go on and don't worry about Ellie.'"

Tommy sighed. "Joel was real torn about leavin' you. He couldn' leave you alone, so yeah, he asked me an' I agreed."

"So why couldn't you go and Joel could stay..." she started to ask miserably. She already knew the answer to that one, too.

"Then he'd still be sittin' on his ass doin' nothin' -- his words, not mine. He had to go. I think he kinda blames himself for what happened."

"What? That's crazy -- what does he think he could've done?!"

"I don' know. He didn' say nothin' to that effect... it's jus' the feelin' I got off him. I reckon he feels like he's supposed to protect you, an' he didn't."

"He was fucking sleeping! I made sure he didn't hear me leave. There's no way he can think it's his fault." Unless, once again, he was lying to himself. But why would he? Did it make him feel better about leaving or something? It still made no fucking sense. "You have to be wrong about that."

"I could be. For what it's worth, I did try to talk him out of it. For all of about thirty seconds. Slim odds or not, he says he has to at least try to find 'em."

Ellie sighed. "He doesn't even know what they look like, I could barely tell him anything... he doesn't know where they were going..."

"You gave him enough to go on. You told him about the missin' tooth, an' meetin' at the fork..."

"That could be anywhere!"

"We believe it might be the intersection jus' south of the lake, close to where y'all were at. I think they could've heard you splashin' an' such from there."

"Okay, say that guess is correct -- they still could've gone either way when they got there! Three ways, actually, cuz we don't even know what direction they came from!" Ellie wished she'd kept her stupid mouth shut about such a vague nothing non-fact that gave Joel an excuse to say he had some idea where to go.

"I realize that. That's why I think it's a longshot. Unless they have a settlement somewhere an' stay put for Joel an' company to find 'em. It's all dirt roads over there, but not the maze-like ones to the north... they might've been headin' for the one-ninety-one, goin' south. Trail's prob'ly gone a bit cold by now but maybe they'll find somethin'..."

"Did he say how long he was gonna look?"

"No. I think the others will wanna come back before too long, an' they'll prob'ly convince Joel to as well if they don' find nothin'... in like a week maybe? I really don' know."

A week. Would she last a week? She and Joel had never been apart for more than a day. Her need for him ran deeper than any attachment she'd ever had in her life. She'd be lost without him. You're already lost, a voice in her head reminded her. But... he wasn't. And she needed him safe. Anything could happen to them out there. They might never come back. Now came the tears... "He promised he wouldn't leave me. He fucking promised!"

The pity on Tommy's face sickened her. "I'm so sorry, Ellie, I really am. I don' think he looks at it as leavin', exactly..." He started shifting closer, leaning forward to lay a hand on her shoulder.

Ellie jerked backwards before he even touched her, and he stayed put. "But that's what he did! He left! There's no other word for it." In Joel's mind, it probably counted less because he left her with family.

"But he didn' abandon you. He'll be back."

"You don't know that!"

"I do know it. You know how tough he is. What a survivor he is. An' he's got loads of gear, an' a team of people helpin' out. An' if that ain't enough, he's got motivation to get his ass back here: you." He gave her a small smile.

She blinked back the annoying tears and shook her head. "He hates how I am now, Tommy. If anything, I drove him away... I'll be the thing that keeps him away."

Tommy didn't seem at all surprised by this remark, which made her wonder if he and Joel had discussed this shit. "No, Ellie. It wasn' you. He hates seein' you in pain... seein' what was done to you... that's what he can't stand. He felt helpless, jus' stewin' over everythin' an' not doin' nothin' about it."

It sounded plausible, although she could still imagine Joel coaching Tommy on what he should say to make her feel better -- as if anything he said could do that. Ellie groaned in frustration. She was angry at Joel, but she was to blame, too; how many times had she told him he couldn't help her? Why hadn't she been nicer to him? -told him he was helping, just by being there? But -- but! She'd fucking asked him if they were 'okay,' and he'd made her think they were. Now I can't even tell when he's lying? "He's not helping me by ditching me," she muttered.

"Well, he feels like he is. Makin' sure justice gets served. That those sons of bitches pay for what they did."

"That's not for me, it's for him. It's not worth it to me if he gets himself killed. And-- and he might kill innocent people cuz I'm not there to say if-- pffff, he won't care, will he. You know he won't. Anyone fitting the description... who looks mean, or whatever..."

"I don' think he'll jus' blindly shoot people, no. He'll question 'em. See if they've got your switchblade maybe? A gun that looks like yours? See if they're missin' any teeth. Shit like that."

"And risk getting shot or something?" Ellie would rather he just kill everyone in sight in that case.

"Well, no, I reckon he'd restrain 'em somehow first if he felt they were dangerous."

"The second guy I couldn't describe very well, though. So he'll just kill whoever's with the person fitting the first guy's description?"

Tommy frowned. "Prob'ly. He never was very... discerning, I s'pose you could say, when it came to killin' folks. If they keep company with assholes he'd figure they're the same, that they deserve it anyway."

"If they don't kill him first."

"Honey, it's Joel. Things that would kill most people don't faze him. An' he's with a group of people... they'll have each other's backs, if it comes to that. Don' worry about him."

Ellie scoffed. "Are you not worried about him?"

"Nope. He'll be fine."

Ellie figured he was lying, at least a teensy bit, but there was no point trying to get him to admit it. She swiped at her eyes. "Okay, well, you don't have to babysit me, I can take care of myself." She could see that Tommy didn't believe that. It was true, though; she just chose not to take very good care of herself.

"Be that as it may, I ain't leavin' you alone. You'll come stay at the house with us."

"No way! I'm not going anywhere. This is my room. This is-- I'm staying."

"It ain't open for debate. I'm sorry. Between me, Maria, an' Pops, we'll make sure you're never alone. An' don' worry, Joel reminded me about your little garden; we'll stop by an' take care of it."

Ellie snorted. Did Tommy really think she gave a shit about the fucking tomatoes now? Apparently Joel had been serious, because Tommy wasn't joking about that, either. For some reason, it infuriated her to think of Joel even remembering to mention it to him at all. "You guys can move in here if you want, but I'm not leaving," Ellie said stubbornly.

"This house is too small for all of us. Besides, our house is more centrally located, there's a TV there, you can watch movies--"

"I don't want to watch movies! I want-- can't I just..." She trailed off helplessly.

"You can have the extra bedroom. You can stay in there if you wanna be alone, jus' come down for meals--"

"I eat in my room. Nowhere else." With new inspiration, she gestured to her ankle and added, "You want me to go up and down the stairs all day long like this?" Conveniently dismissing what she'd said earlier about being able to walk.

Tommy hadn't forgotten, though. "You could manage. But... no, I won't ask you to do that. You can do exactly as you do here, if that's what you want."

Petty and ridiculous though it was, what Ellie really wanted was to be left alone, right there in her room, to wither away and die so that when Joel came back, he'd regret that he ever left her. That would show him. Maybe he thought she'd be better off without him. That by the time he got back, she'd be shitting rainbows, all 'cured.' Ready to go back to being the Ellie he loved.

"Can you board up the window like the one in here?" she asked.

"Why do you--"

"Can you do it, or not?"

"You're perfectly safe on the second fl--"

"Can you do it, or not?!" she repeated.

"...sure."

"Today? Like, right now?"

"Soon as I can get someone to bring me what I need. Today, yes."

"Okay. Sorry Joel stuck you with me," she added.

"Oh yeah, he owes me for this, big time." He waited for her to laugh, or maybe make some smartass remark. Some reaction that didn't come. "Ellie, you don' gotta apologize. I'm glad to help you. Maria'n'her dad are, too. They'll be back tomorrow."

Ellie didn't ask where they were; it wasn't like she cared. She didn't know Maria's dad, Ed (or Eddie, as some called him), very well. He seemed to like Ellie okay. That didn't mean he wanted her staying in his house. But it wasn't like she wanted to be there, either. He could be mad at Joel, like she was, if he was gonna be mad about it. And she'd certainly stay out of everybody's way.

She'd be a ghost, a benign one... creepy but harmless, haunting her dark little tower.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ellie's new room wasn't so different from her old one. The walls and ceiling bore her staring just as well, her princess nightlight provided the same amount of light... the air still sucked up her silent screams after she had a nightmare. At her request, Tommy even shoved the bed into the same corner of the room as hers had been. The biggest difference, of course, was that Joel wasn't the one tapping on her door. Her heart would leap at the sound (if she was awake; she still kept odd hours), then plummet when the source of the knock was someone other than Joel. After a few times, she stopped expecting it to be him. She knew better. She'd always known better... it just took her heart a little while to catch up to her brain.

She kept messing with the board game, but only at night, after dinner, when she expected to have the longest stretch of no one interrupting her. For some reason, she didn't want anyone there to see her weirdness. She confined everything to the game board so that if she lost track of time and breakfast was arriving before she'd set it all right, she could quickly slide it under the bed where no one would see. There was always enough time between the knock and the door opening to do this, especially if she didn't answer. Tommy had brought her alarm clock over from the house and set it up next to her bed, but she promptly unplugged it; she didn't need to know what fucking time it was.

She spent more time staring at the ceiling than doing anything else, usually in the company of Bailey's little stuffed dog. Her thoughts often centered on Joel. Wondering where he was, if he was okay, when he was coming back.

What she should have done differently.

Maybe he didn't realize that when she wanted to be alone, she didn't want to be alone-alone. She wanted him around, always. Didn't he know that? He was a part of her. She wanted to know he was there with her. Had she ever made that clear? She thought she had, but maybe all he knew was she never wanted to talk to him, never wanted comfort from him... no wonder he felt useless. She was still angry at him for leaving -- he'd promised her he wouldn't, and then left without even fucking saying goodbye! -- but ultimately, it was her fault. No matter what anyone else said. She could have faked it. Made it look like she was trying to be normal. That was all he wanted -- the effort. Something that told him she wasn't a complete waste of space, that made him feel like he was helping her, that she was listening to him, that she found solace in his presence... that she needed him. Which was so frustrating because she did fucking need him! How could he not feel that she did?

It hurt. And she realized how much he must have been hurting when he said "I thought you knew that" to her -- after she'd made that stupid remark about them not being family.

And right after he said that, he said he wouldn't turn his back on you, then proceeded to make plans to do exactly that, she reminded herself.

She could fuel her anger with shit like that, and let the fury consume her, leaving no room to feel the pain. When the fiery anger burned itself out, she'd be left with just the ashes -- feeling nothing.

That formula seemed to work decently for her.

Her three housemates were usually pretty good about leaving her alone, although one time, shortly after Ellie's arrival there, Maria tried to talk to her about depression. She sat with Ellie in her room, on the floor, sharing a plate of scrambled eggs off an overturned crate. Ellie was only picking at them.

"Ellie, I think you're depressed."

"Well, duh."

"I'm not talking about feeling sad... it's more than that. It's a clinical thing. Losing interest in everything, disordered thinking, feeling like... well, not feeling things, so much, and definitely not positive emotions... withdrawing from people..."

That does sound like me... Ellie felt sad sometimes too, but more often than not, she was angry or she wasn't feeling anything -- by design, though, so maybe it didn't count. And yet... she should have been worried as shit about Joel, at the very least, but it almost felt like he wasn't real. Like she'd made him up or something. She'd never had a dad -- Joel was only pretending. Make-believe, a fairytale, a dream that fades away as soon as you open your eyes... that's all he was.

When she remained silent, Maria continued. "Before, you would have been given anti-depressants to help you feel better."

"...okay? So..."

"So... right, it doesn't matter, since we can't do that for you, but... well, it's just something I'm familiar with -- or used to be. From my mother."

"Oh." Ellie couldn't remember Maria ever talking about her mother before.

"She died not too long after the outbreak." Maria spoke about her mother calmly, in between bites of breakfast. "I think seeing the world go to hell was too much for her to take. It was hard even for the strongest of people to handle. She was strong in her own way, but after losing everything... Plus, it didn't help that we couldn't get her her meds, after."

"That sucks." Ellie didn't really know what to say to any of that. She stabbed a bite of egg and nibbled on it.

"There were days she couldn't even get out of bed," Maria continued. "I'm not going to tell you I know how you're feeling. I don't. None of us do. And for you, it's like... situational. Right? Or has this happened before?"

She shook her head. She'd been hurt before, and lost plenty of people in her life, but had always found a way to soldier on... until now. How strange that someone in the old world, someone who presumably had everything, or at least many things of value -- a family, food, shelter, health, comfort -- would ever feel that lousy. It was hard not to think of all those pre-Cordyceps people as spoiled, ungrateful... with no real problems like what people faced nowadays. Maybe someone else would think the same thing about her, though. I totally took Joel for granted...

"I know you're not necessarily like my mom," said Maria. "Everyone's unique. And what you've been through... you're traumatized, that makes it different. She would have these... episodes, I guess you could call them... and afterwards she'd try to explain to us what it was like. So... I know you're not choosing to sit up here in the dark all the time -- no, the nightlight doesn't count. I know you're not simply... focusing on the negative and discounting the positive... there is no positive. Not that you can access, anyway. Is that right?"

"I guess... but that's because it's true. It's not a matter of... access, or whatever."

"It's what it feels like to you. That doesn't make it true," Maria said, not unkindly.

Ellie tried, in vain, to suppress her irritation. "So I should feel happy that I was assaulted, and I killed my boyfriend and his mom, and drove my dad-type person away--"

"No! No. You didn't do those things, but that's not what I'm saying. There is no 'should.' Only what is. Whatever you're feeling, or not feeling... it's okay. We're not going to try to make you feel otherwise. Or make you do things you don't feel like doing. We know you're not just going to 'snap out of it.' I'm no psychology expert, but... I think maybe there's only so much pain a person can take at one time, and this is your brain's way of protecting you, turning off your feelings..."

Ellie gulped down some juice and leaned back against the bed, indicating she was done with breakfast. It did make some sense. Except... "If that's what it's doing, it's doing a fucking lousy job, because I still feel terrible. And I still cry, sometimes..." She cried for Bailey, for Joel -- she missed both of them desperately -- and even for her fucking self, or what was left of it.

Maria's smile was kind. "Maybe it's not doing a real bang-up job, but it's trying?"

"Pffff."

"Look, all I know is... it probably feels like you're going to feel this way forever, but you're not. I promise you, you're not. You will smile and laugh and be happy again."

Like hell I will. So Maria really didn't know what she was talking about after all. "I'm tired. I don't wanna talk about this anymore."

And, true to her word in that regard, at least, Maria left her alone then.

One good thing Ellie had gleaned from that conversation was that they didn't expect her to fake it; they were okay with her being however she was going to be... the Ellie doll that had forgotten how to sing and dance. She wasn't a disappointment to them like she was to Joel. Or maybe it just felt that way because she wasn't as close to them as she was to Joel... or had been to Joel... thought she'd been to Joel... Maybe Joel felt like it was his job to 'fix' her, because that's what parents do... right? Like I would even know.

And now, maybe Joel felt free to be... whatever he was being, without her around to stifle his true nature.

It didn't matter if living with the three of them was easier in some ways -- she still wanted Joel. Angry, pained, imperfect, disappointed-in-her Joel. And if he felt like he was letting her down... she didn't care about that. He didn't need to pretend with her; she would gladly take him as is, flaws and all. How could he not fucking know that?! Hadn't they seen each other at their worst? Long before now, even.

It didn't matter anymore; he was gone.

Ellie still got her days jumbled up, so every time someone brought her breakfast, she marked an 'x' on the back of a notebook (one of Bailey's) after she finished eating. On the seventh day, she didn't need to count them -- she'd been anticipating this one. Tommy was the one who brought her breakfast that day.

"It's been a week," she announced. "You think Joel will come back today?"

Tommy looked pained. "Oh honey I don' know, I was jus' guessin'."

"None of them have come back yet? You haven't heard from anyone?"

"Nope. Not yet. We jus' gotta be patient."

She felt betrayed, for some reason. But mostly disappointed.

After ten 'x's, Dr. Choi pronounced her ankle cured, but advised her to keep doing the stretching and exercising to strengthen it. Tommy and Maria promised the doctor they'd make sure she did as instructed. Ellie thought it was kind of silly to worry about her stupid ankle when she had nowhere to walk to anyway, but she complied.

After twelve 'x's, the electricity died, and not for just a blip or a few minutes like it sometimes did. Fortunately, Ellie had been given a flashlight to replace the one she'd lost that night, because the pitch black freaked her out... invited all her demons to come out and play. She could have used candles for longer blackout periods, like this one threatened to be, except that one of the house rules was no candles in her bedroom (she was okay with that; she didn't trust herself with them either, and her conscience was guilty enough without also burning down the house). Still, since it was daytime, she just left her door open to let the natural light from the hallway in; no need to waste precious batteries. She thought about going outside... she wondered if she would ever be able to enjoy simple pleasures again, like feeling the sunlight warm her, the breeze on her face... she doubted it. She couldn't 'access' those feelings. That was her old life. Those things were for other people. And it always came down to 'It doesn't fix anything anyway -- nothing will.'

She heard voices on Ed's walkie talkie -- people at the dam, she assumed, saying stuff she either couldn't make out or that was too technical for her to understand. What she did understand was that Tommy and Maria were heading up to the dam to deal with it.

If she didn't still feel so shitty, she might have actually forced herself to ask if there was anything she could do to help. But she was achy and itchy and exhausted, and still one-armed, so self-pity won out. She settled herself on the hall floor and leaned face-forward into the railing that overlooked the living room. She felt like she might drift off to sleep like that, until Ed called up to her, jolting her to her senses.

"How're ya doin' up there, kid?"

"I'm okay," she said dully. "Don't worry about me."

"I'm not worried. I let the others do all the worrying." He winked at her, and Ellie produced a half-smile for his kind effort to amuse her. She was fond of Maria's dad. She didn't see much, if any, family resemblance between him and Maria. She wondered if Maria looked like her mother, and if so, did that bother the man or comfort him... or did it make no difference after so many years?

Ed cheerfully beckoned her downstairs. "Why don'tcha come down here where there's more light?"

"No thanks."

"Only 'til they fix this power glitch. You can go back up there before the others get home... keep your 'street cred' as a tough cookie, a lone wolf..."

Ellie snorted. "It's not that. I just... can't. I'm too sleepy. But I'll sit out here in the open. Okay?"

The old man nodded. "I'll take it. -Excuse me." More jibberish on the walkie talkie... Maria's voice. Ed did more listening than talking. Maria apparently had some idea about how to fix it.

When there was a break in the conversation, Ellie called down, "Do you need to go deal with stuff? You don't have to stay here cuz of me." She was constantly telling them they didn't need to babysit her. And they were constantly telling her, good-naturedly, to shut up about it.

"Nahhhh. Good excuse to let the young whippersnappers take care of it."

Ellie didn't know how old a 'whippersnapper' was, young or not, but she'd heard Ed refer to people Ellie's age up through Tommy's age as such, so she knew it was a broad category. Joel, it turned out, was not a whippersnapper. Not even an old one. She'd asked Joel once and that was about all he gave her by way of a definition. The whipping and snapping bit was a mystery.

She sat there with her face pressed against the spindles of the rail for what she figured was a good long while, dozing off and waking with a start, several times.

And then the most terrifying sound in all of Jackson woke her the fuck up for good: the blaring town-wide alarm that signaled a raid, or at least a breach.

Before 'the Incident,' Ellie had been assigned to cover an area on the southeast side of their settlement, with Joel if possible. An area that didn't see much action (although Joel had been directed elsewhere on occasion). She'd never even encountered a bandit in the dozen or so times she’d been called to duty. But since most people didn't have walkie talkies, it was impossible to know who was positioned where; it wasn't like everyone was always near their home or assigned location when someone sounded the alarm. What they really needed was some kind of announcement system, like the Zone had back in Boston, through which instructions could be conveyed to the masses. And while most Jackson residents who were not in the militia got themselves to safety calmly enough, some of them freaked out. It was usually pretty chaotic.

Ellie had never freaked out before. She wasn't so desensitized to danger that she didn't feel scared when the alarm sounded, but there was usually a rush of... adrenaline or excitement or something like that, some thrill, that accompanied the fear. This time, she felt pure panic. She nearly tripped over her own feet scrambling to get down the stairs. "I need a gun!" she cried.

Ed had already grabbed the shotgun that was mounted over the front door. "No you don't. You're safe here. Lock the door behind me. I already locked the back door."

Her mind was racing. She couldn't breathe.

"...Scream all you want, bitch, no one can fucking hear you..."

"Ellie!"

Ed was trying to get her attention. She looked at him blankly.

He put a hand on her shoulder, which seemed to ground her a little. Enough that she heard him this time. "Didja hear me? Lock this door. I'll be back, soon as I can. ...Ellie?"
She nodded dumbly. "Lock the door," she recited. She turned the deadbolt into place as soon as he left. You're safe, she told herself. She was taking quick, shallow breaths. You're safe. You're safe.

Ellie didn't believe herself, though -- the other voice, the self-preserving one, was louder. You need a gun. Anyone could bust through a window or blast a hole in the door. If Tommy, Maria, and Ed were telling the truth, there was no stray gun in the house, except for the one that had just gone out the door with Ed. She'd beseeched all three of them, separately, for a gun, and none of them seemed even remotely tempted to help her. Paranoid Joel had apparently instilled some horrific image in their brains of Ellie searching their bedrooms for a gun to turn on herself while they went about their business downstairs, oblivious. She cursed herself for not snooping before now.

A knife. You can get a knife! She headed to the kitchen and grabbed the biggest one from the knife block. The blade was longer than her hand, and nearly as wide. She still wanted a gun, though. Still gasping for air, she frantically searched every drawer, every cupboard, every closet, every nook and cranny, every place she could think of that might house a gun. She moved from one place to the next methodically, but in her blind panic she fretted that she might have overlooked something, so she checked everything multiple times. Nothing.

She did the same thing upstairs. Nothing! And now she'd ransacked the place.

The alarm was still ringing, compounding her panic. You need to hide.

"...Quit hiding behind your little boyfriend..."

She closed her bedroom door and felt her way over to the closet. She struggled to slide the door closed from the inside, then huddled in the corner to wait for the terror to subside. Her ribs were hurting more now, stabbing her like they had in the beginning rather than the duller aching of late. Quit gasping. Just breathe like a normal human being. ...PRETEND you're normal...

It was warm enough in there that she started to sweat. And it was dark as night, although she knew it was only afternoon. You're safe. They're not here. No one's here. She hugged herself, the good arm wrapped around the bad, still clutching the knife. Tried not to see their faces... smell their breath... hear their voices... feel them tearing her apart.

Logically, she knew they weren't coming for her. Even if Pete had confessed to Tony that he hadn't killed her, they'd have to be all kinds of stupid to try to get to her within a place like Jackson, where it was likely they'd get killed before they even found her. And why would they bother? It wasn't like she could hurt them.

The panic overrode the logic, though. Always. And this attack felt worse than usual... maybe because of the real danger to the town?

Where are you, Joel? I need you. I NEED you!

He couldn't hear her, of course. No one could hear her in her own private hell anyway.

Time passed, as it always did. Her body eventually wore itself out panicking, and she did manage to calm down and zone out. But when she snapped out of it, she didn't know where she was for a moment, and started to panic again. Ssshhhh, they'll hear you. Shut the fuck up.

The house was empty and quiet. She was alone, and safe, but she felt like she was about to die. That's what the panic did when it took over. The terror gripped her as intensely as when she really had been about to die, crumpled on the ground that night, waiting for Pete to kill her.

No one will save you, and you can't save yourself: you're fucked.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Ellie?"

A bright light was shining in her face, blinding her. For some reason, she wasn't afraid of it... the light comes from people who help me, she thought, rather illogically -- light comes from whoever has a fucking flashlight. They had had a flashlight that night, too. But she wasn't afraid now. The flashlight was laid down on the floor, the beam pointed somewhat in her direction (but not aligned with her face) and somewhat at the wall. "Joel?"

"It's Tommy. Why don' you gimme that knife now..."

"Knife?" I'm holding a knife. She didn't remember why. She must have fallen asleep, because she'd been dreaming -- not a nightmare, either, just a strange dream. Sam wasn't dead, and they were building a wall together out of like... bars of soap or something. Someone else was there; in the dream, Ellie knew who it was, but now she didn't... that person was throwing rocks at the wall. And then suddenly they were at her last school in Boston, trying to steal food from a kitchen, but it was one she'd seen like in Pittsburgh or somewhere...

"Yes," said Tommy. "Was someone here?"

Ellie stared dumbly at the shadowy shape in the doorway of the closet.

"It's okay. It's over now. Please, let me take the knife."

She offered it to him.

"Thank you." He laid it down somewhere outside the closet, then knelt on the track of the sliding closet door. "Are you okay? Were you hidin' from someone?"

"No..."

"Was anyone else in the house?"

"No..."

"I didn' think so... had to dig up the bolt key, an' the back door was bolted, too. But I saw... Well, come on out now, you're safe."

The alarm was sounding, she remembered. She realized it wasn't anymore. "We're never safe, none of us," she lamented.

"We are safe now. There were six intruders, all of 'em are dead."

There will always be more, she thought darkly. That's the way of things.

"No fatal casualties on our side. Only one wounded enough to go to the clinic, but he'll be okay."

Ellie didn't ask who it was. She hadn't even thought to ask if everyone was okay. She knew she cared, that she wasn't a cold, heartless bitch... well, maybe she was. Or would be soon. She was certainly less human now than she used to be. She was a monster that killed innocent people.

"Where's Joel?"

Tommy didn't answer right away. Maybe he was trying to assess how nutty she was... if she'd really forgotten, or... "I don' know," he finally said. "I'm sorry."

"I wanna see him," she said petulantly. No, she hadn't forgotten. She wasn't sure why she was acting stupid about it. He hadn't even made an appearance in her dream. Dreams were weird like that, though... she hadn't seen Sam in two years, and hadn't thought about him recently.

"I know, sweetheart. You will. Soon. Will you please come out of there?"

"I've been in here for days..."

"Days? No. Hours, maybe, but not days. I saw you this mornin'."

"I feel weird." Her head, her chest, her stomach, her back, her calves -- even her good arm. All sore or throbbing or at least making her aware of their presence in some way.

"Are you in pain?...sick?"

She nodded. "Joel..."

"He'll be back soon."

Then it hit her hard. He'd been gone for so long... "He's never coming back!"

"'Course he is! Come on, let's get you outta this closet. Wanna lay down on your bed? It'd be more comfy than that little corner."

She scooted towards him. He stood up and offered her his hand. She grabbed hold of it and got up -- at least, she thought she did; she didn't usually space out when she was doing something, but then she was hearing her name, muffled-like, as if someone were calling her from underwater, or far away... except the next second, it was from close by, really close -- and she realized a man's arms were around her, holding her up. "Joel? Am I dreaming?"

"Maybe you are. C'mon. Over to the bed."

He sat with her, his arm around her, holding her snug against his side. She felt a bit disoriented, but she realized it was Tommy, not Joel; Joel had left her.

"You passed out for a few seconds there," Tommy told her. "That ever happen before?"

"I did? ...not like that, I don't think... I dunno. I was... getting up... I guess I stood up too fast."

"I'll go get you some water. Here, lay back--"

"No, don't go!" she blurted out.

"Not even jus' to fetch you some water? You're prob'ly dehydrated as hell."

She snaked her arm around his back and buried her face in his sleeve. "No," she mumbled into the fabric, sniffling. She shouldn't let him -- or make him? -- comfort her. She knew it was wrong, and she was usually good at automatically rejecting it, yet here she was, seeking it out. And this was Tommy, not Joel -- she wasn't as comfortable with him...

But Tommy was a really nice guy. He shifted so that her head leaned into his shoulder, and he put his other arm around her. Gave her a squeeze.

She kept talking into his shirt. "I used to be strong. Now I'm just..." Worthless. Dead weight. A burden. And she was trying not to illustrate the point with tears. Don't cry don't cry don't cry--

"You're still strong. But you don' gotta be, all the time... go ahead an' cry if you want. I got you."

"I got you" -- Joel used to say that. "Why'd he have to leave?" she whined. "I hate him!"

Tommy chuckled, but it was a sad sound. "You can let 'im have it when he gets back."

IF he comes back, she mentally corrected him. "Why are you here? I thought you were going to the dam."

"Got called back before we even got halfway there. Pops'n'Maria are headin' back there now. I wanted to make sure you were all right. We all did. We were fightin' over who would get the honor."

Ellie doubted that, but didn't feel like arguing about it. She found that she liked listening to his voice. It was soothing... it reminded her of Joel... "Was the raid related to the power outage?" she asked.

"The timin' makes it seem so, I know, but... I don' know how they could've coordinated that. There was no trouble up at the dam, bandit-wise."

Ellie hadn't helped the town at all this time. She was completely useless now. And she felt guilty for the trouble she continued to cause, the burden she continued to be. "I messed up your house," she confessed.

"Ah. Was wonderin' how that happened," he said lightly. He didn't even ask her what the fuck she'd been doing.

Ellie felt her throat clenching. "You're being so nice to me. All of you," she whispered.

"'Course we are. We love you."

Joel doesn't -- not anymore, she thought. He knows better. He knows what a repulsive piece of shit I am. "Well, you shouldn't," she said miserably, then started crying in earnest, muffling the sobs as best she could with Tommy's shirt. Everyone had seen her cry by now, it didn't really cause her the embarrassment that it used to... but even so, she did usually manage to hold the tears to a trickle in the presence of others. This time, they just gushed out.

Tommy rocked her, petted her, told her "it's okay"... and she let him, because it felt so unbelievably good. It didn't make sense, because nothing had changed, nothing was getting solved, nothing would be any better afterward... yet something about being held and cared for made her not care about all that. Like somehow it didn't matter -- all that mattered was someone loved her.

She could beat herself up about it later. For now, she was too fucking selfish to push him away.

~Continue to Chapter 9~

Tags: comforting sounds, fic, tlou
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