Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Accretion" Chapter 9: "Life in a Small Town"

Title: "Accretion" - Chapter 9: "Life in a Small Town"
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters (in this chapter): Joel (and sort of Ellie & Tommy)
Prompt: N/A
Word Count: 4664
Rating: R
Chapter Summary: Joel and Ellie settle in, and I pack nearly four weeks into one chapter after spending the first 8 on the first day.
Author's Note: FYI for anyone familiar with the so-called epilogue from TLOU live, I decided to incorporate some elements of that without using the actual scene. If you'd like to hear my ranty rant on the subject, feel free to ask :D

Joel didn’t think Tommy would appreciate an early morning visit from Ellie, so he promised her he’d find Tommy to explain her side of ‘the incident’ before he headed to work himself. She was fine with that, but said she’d still like to talk to Tommy later. Ellie cared about Tommy’s opinion of her; whether it was due to wanting to be accepted as part of the family or because she feared getting the boot, Joel wasn’t sure. Maybe a bit of both. Joel wanted to discuss it with Tommy anyway. Tommy needed to know that that little punk either lied to his mama or, worse, she had painted him innocent to gain Tommy’s sympathy… and Joel needed to know who that mama was so he could have a word with her himself. It turned out that Tommy didn’t like that last idea, though, and said he’d take care of it. Joel couldn’t really blame him. It was tough, being monkey in the middle. Joel intended to bypass that monkey altogether in the future.

If he wanted to handle his own problems without running to his baby brother for every little thing, he reckoned he’d better try to learn who was who. That sort of thing was up Ellie’s alley more than his. Fortunately for him, she showed interest in attending the next town meeting, and when he asked her if she could help him out, she was happy to oblige. That meeting took place on the following Wednesday, in an auditorium of what used to be Jackson’s movie theater (and possibly could be again, if the techie geeks could work some magic on the old projectors). It shattered previous attendance records, thanks to people being curious about Tommy’s mysterious brother and his young female companion. Tommy introduced Ellie and him to the crowd, but with over a hundred citizens present, he didn’t have the crowd introduce themselves; instead, he asked everyone to kindly make their acquaintance privately when they had the opportunity. Rumors containing varying degrees of truth had made their way around the town prior to this, and would continue to do so afterward, so it made little difference for the townsfolk to lay eyes on them in the flesh or to hear Tommy’s vague depiction of them, the way Joel saw it.

“I hear you were wanted in Texas for murder PRIOR to the end of the world. Oh, and you kidnapped me -- I have some disease called Stockholm syndrome?”

Such were the gems he heard from Ellie. He didn’t give a shit what people thought, as long as it didn’t adversely affect her, and she seemed to enjoy messing with people if they asked her questions. Joel suspected she actually fanned the flames of some of the rumors. Since they couldn’t exactly tell anyone the truth, that was probably for the best. Let ‘em wonder. He and Ellie were viewed as the invasive species of their little ecosystem, but they would be old news soon, and it couldn’t be soon enough for Joel. He didn’t like the way people stared at them. A few of the people, anyway. The ones dumb enough to believe the most ridiculous rumors, perhaps. All it took was a glare from Joel or Ellie for them to knock it off, at least. Tommy, Mr. Give Peace A Chance, advised that it would be more helpful if they smiled back at those folks instead of reinforcing their fears. Smile at the fuckers? Fuck that.

Joel was glad that Ellie had the self-assurance of someone older. Unlike a lot of teenagers, she knew there was no point in trying to make everyone like her. She was friendly enough, and most likely made more of an effort to make friends than Joel did himself. Joel resisted the urge to tell people to go to hell from time to time, and he thought that was enough of a concession on his part. It’s not like he was hostile to everyone. And he would need to be extra friendly to one person…

Finding a fuckbuddy in Jackson was easier said than done. Maybe if Joel cared a little more to look... his game was rusty as hell, for sure, but he’d caught some of the women checking him out. Some of them were rather flirty, even. Joel just couldn’t force himself to pull the trigger. It didn’t help that it was impossible to determine a woman’s marital status by looking at her left hand. Some married folks had rings, most did not. Hell, most of them, if not all of them, weren’t even legally married. They could have the ceremony and all… there was a guy who served as an honorary marriage officiant… it made it feel real enough, and in the absence of a legitimate legal system, that’s all that mattered. Whether a potential friend-with-benefits was married or not, though, there was still the problem of the town being so goddamn small. It wasn’t like he could stroll into a bar, buy a lady a few drinks, spend the night with her, and then never see her again, repeat as needed.

Joel wasn’t about to share his intentions with Ellie, of course. She didn’t need to know, and he wasn’t sure she’d like it if she did. One time, when the gal on laundry duty made a not-so-subtle comment about being happy to handle some of his garments… even Ellie couldn’t help but notice. She said she thought the woman was creepy, and Joel had started to joke about her being sexy rather than creepy, but his gut told him Ellie wouldn’t take kindly to that (and besides, it wasn’t even true). Ellie got real quiet afterwards, though that could have been for a different reason. The girl did have her moods. He didn’t see why his love life should matter to her, as long as it didn’t interfere with their time together, but he wasn’t keen to discuss other women with her anyway.

For the whole month of May, they weren’t on any of the ‘official’ schedules that Maria and company cooked up monthly, and that afforded them great flexibility with their time. Once Ellie saw what the library had to offer, she was torn between wanting to work there and down at Annie’s farm. Sometimes she worked mornings at one and afternoons at the other. Kids were never given library duty, but once that Paige lady showed Ellie the cataloguing project they were working on, Ellie asked if she could help. It was slow-going, as many of the books proved too tempting for Ellie to resist flipping through, but it’s not like there was any reason to hurry. They had all the time in the world now.

Ellie sure did love being on the farm, though. It was springtime, and that meant baby animals. She nearly got to witness a horse, and later, a goat, giving birth… but in the end, she was too squeamish to watch either. It wasn’t the blood and gore –- she’d certainly been desensitized enough to that in the past year -- she just didn’t like seeing the mothers in distress. Like a lot of kids, though, she loved seeing the resulting babies, and helping to name them.

Joel didn’t need to feel out different things to know what he was good at and what sort of work he enjoyed. Taking orders from his little brother was bound to grate on his nerves; fortunately, Tommy didn’t work with him all that often. There was another guy serving as foreman, and Joel got along with him fine. Carpentry in Jackson had its challenges, namely the limited choice of materials and tools, but it had its upsides too –- soft deadlines, no payment issues, no bullshit disputes, and much easier hours. It felt good to put in an honest day’s work, to ache from something other than killing people.

Most afternoons, Ellie took Spirit out for a run, even if she wasn’t working on the farm that day. Joel joined her once… then met Annie’s mom, Esther, which led to him and Ellie staying for dinner. That was a pleasant evening, and everyone agreed it should become a regular thing. It gave Joel and Tommy a break from each other (not that he didn’t love his brother, but… sometimes distance could be a good thing), and it allowed Joel to observe Ellie with her new ‘BFF.’ The girls were quite different from each other, but there were underlying fundamental similarities… something about the two of them just clicked. He noticed them exchanging looks, sharing inside jokes (some of them at his expense), and he was happy to see it. In Joel’s mind, the fact that it made him happy proved that he wasn’t some nutjob who wanted to keep Ellie all to himself. Nope, he was perfectly willing to share her. Just not with other males.

Some days, Ellie participated in ‘story time’ for the younger kids. The children seemed to like Ellie, from what Joel had seen at Tommy and Maria’s house and also the one time he’d dropped in on her at the library. Ellie said she liked being around the little ones because they were honest. No mind games, no agendas, no expectations… which made Joel wonder how the older kids treated her. She didn’t tell him about any more altercations like that one on their first day in Jackson, even when prompted. Even when he reminded her that there’s nothing she can’t tell him. She insisted everything was fine, and she did talk about Annie and some of the other kids in a positive way, at least, so he reckoned there was more good than bad.

“I know you have my back, Joel. And I have yours. If anyone gives you shit, I’ll beat them up for you!”

Yes, Ellie could deflect probing questions just as well as Joel could. She used humor, he used… surliness, he supposed.

Joel also encouraged Ellie to watch movies with the younger kids a couple times, knowing she would enjoy the Disney animated films, if nothing else. He had zero interest in seeing any kind of movie himself. He hadn’t even realized he was averse to movies now; it’s not like he’d had much opportunity to watch any in the past couple of decades. He promised Ellie that eventually he would watch something with her at Tommy and Maria’s, as long as it wasn’t too girly… and so it happened that the four of them had a three-part ‘family night’ commitment to watch the Back to the Future trilogy later that week.

Ellie watched movies with the other teens as well. Annie didn’t usually care to join them, but when she did, Ellie always sat with her (and the boyfriend), so Joel felt comfortable letting her watch in peace and not be disturbed by seeing his head pop up at the window every so often. He always stayed in the building, though, which afforded her the luxury of going gun-less for a couple hours. Sometimes the two twerps she had intimidated on that first day were there, and Joel was pleased to see that they stayed away from her. Whether it was due to fear of Ellie or due to Joel’s watchful presence, Joel couldn’t say. When Ellie had first pointed them out to him, she’d asked him not to talk to them unless they caused any more trouble… and they were like two little cherubs in that library. When they thought no one was watching, the halos slipped just enough that Joel could tell it was an act, but they didn’t give him any excuse to confront them.

One of the rooms in the library served as a gaming room –- for video games. Joel had never been interested in those, but plenty of the other adults played them along with the kids. Ellie was disappointed there was no home version of that arcade game they’d seen last summer, the one with that crazy chick with the knives. She didn’t want to play the war games, or anything involving shooting or blowing things up, unless it was in watered-down form, like a LEGO game. She also didn’t really understand the point of sports (not from lack of trying on Joel’s part… maybe they could start a Jackson softball league or something like that). She favored Mario games and dance games on the Wii. Someone taught her how to play The Sims on one of the desktops, and she proudly showed Joel how she had added their house, and little Joel and Ellie Sims, to the Jackson town the kids had created. Joel found that a bit creepy.

The kid who showed her nearly everything video-game-related was a twelve-year-old whose weird-ass (deceased) parents had named him after the pandemic: Cordyceps, or Cordy for short. What the fuck was wrong with people?

“Oh but he doesn’t care, he like… owns it. I started calling him ‘Clicker,’ and he didn’t get it, I guess they don’t call ‘em that all over the country? So I told him, and it’s totally his nickname now, he told his friends to call him that and everything. Isn’t that cool? It’s better than ‘Bloater’…”

Joel thought it sounded more like a dog’s name than a boy’s. Which he supposed was fitting, as the kid did tend to follow Ellie around like a puppy. Clicker and his ‘adoptive’ parents –- it was kind of like him and Ellie, where these people had just stumbled across each other and decided that they were gonna be family –- came to dinner one night, and the kid made everyone laugh, even Joel. He supposed he could make one exception to that ‘no males’ rule in his head, especially for one so young.

In their first few weeks in town, Ellie only had one panic attack, and it was in Maria’s kitchen, of all places. Ellie had gone over early to help with dinner, because she wanted to learn how to cook. By the time Joel got there, it was long over. He chastised Maria for not sending someone to fetch him, but Ellie had actually told her not to.

“What could you have done, Joel? I just had to breathe and wait it out like always. I feel bad I freaked out Maria, though. Sorry, Maria!”

Joel knew it was a good thing that she didn’t need him to get her through that (as long as she wasn’t alone). But… some stupid part of him wished that she did. That he was the only one who could make it stop.

And that sort of fucked-up thinking was probably why he continued sleeping in her bed. Did she need him to? Of course not. It just made it easier for her, to have him there. And if he thought that maybe he could sneak away after she fell asleep… he could justify not doing that because she did still have nightmares. Not every night, but she had them. He always woke up when she started whimpering, and he could soothe her before it actually woke her up, before the terror prevented her from going back to sleep. And then she wouldn’t even remember the dream in the morning. That really made Joel feel like he was helping her, and it felt pretty damn good.

Joel wasn’t on the militia schedule yet, but he filled in on guard duty a few times in place of the designated on-call person. It was more like being a glorified doorman than protecting the city. The shifts were usually only six hours, which was plenty long enough when there wasn’t anything to do. Always in pairs. And while Joel generally would have preferred to be alone than shoot the shit with some stranger, he had to admit, it was a good thing someone else was there –- someone who knew everyone in town, because he would have been radioing to Tommy any time someone wanted in or out (especially in). He preferred perimeter patrol, where at least he was doing something. He worked one shift with Esther, and he’d been wary at first, because enjoying someone’s company for a half hour or so over dinner with other folks present was quite different from six straight hours of one-on-one… but it went pretty well. Either she picked up on Joel not being much of a conversationalist, or she was partial to long silences herself. Joel made the mistake of mentioning to Tommy that he wouldn’t mind working with her again –- and Tommy decided that ‘she doesn’t get on my nerves’ meant that Joel was interested in her. And that it was perfect, because Esther had stated just as resolutely as Joel that she ‘wasn’t looking.’ At least she wouldn’t be expecting anything. And he certainly wasn’t going to have an affair with Ellie’s best friend’s mother, of all people, so all that shit went out the window with her, and he didn’t have to worry about behaving any way in particular.

Joel and Ellie took the same days off, and spent the majority of that time in the library. According to Ellie, Annie didn’t really take days off, even though there were plenty of hands on deck to do the farm chores. Annie knew the personalities of her animals better than anyone else did, with the possible exception of her mother, and was a bit paranoid about leaving them in others’ hands (Joel could relate to that). If she did leave the farm, it was usually to be with Jacob, and Ellie didn’t want to intrude, naturally. The only other kid she cared to hang out with regularly was Clicker. Ellie spent more of her free time with Joel than anyone else, which was just fine with Joel. He didn’t think he was making her feel like she had to hang with the old man all the time… at least, he hoped he didn’t. She did say that she liked knowing he was nearby. So even if they weren’t together, per se, Joel took that as license to hover. Well, not hover, exactly, but… to stay close.

He tried not to be obvious about watching her… to just peek out of the corner of his eye... and if she was in the game room, he’d keep an eye on the open door. Tommy couldn’t resist giving him shit about it at every opportunity. To tell him how ‘whipped’ he was, or to ask him what evil he suspected might befall Ellie while she played on the Wii or while listening to music. Joel didn’t dignify his teasing with an answer; he just glared at Tommy and changed the subject. Annoying as that was, it was worse if his brother didn’t pick on him… if he tried to talk to Joel seriously about his control issues, and how he needed to expand his social circle so that he didn’t obsess about a teenage girl, and even the toll that his hyper-vigilance would take on him eventually. He even went so far as to suggest that Joel talk to the town’s pseudo-therapist, Claire. Joel knew his brother wasn’t honestly concerned about his well-being… no, he was just trying to rub it in his face that Joel was a fuck-up, and that Tommy was the one who now had his shit together. Even though he was living here by Tommy’s grace, Joel had no problem telling him to go to hell. Tommy always took it in stride: “Alright then. See you at the house tonight.”

If Ellie didn’t like those darned family dinners so much, Joel would have skipped them more often. He had asked her if she would rather eat at home sometimes, just the two of them, and she said no, not really, but she would if Joel wanted to. Joel’s culinary prowess beyond microwaving was pretty much limited to dumping a can of something into a pot and warming it, so that was fine. And some nights they did go home shortly after dinner, if Ellie felt like having a quiet night at home to read. Joel managed to get her walkman working again (which earned him a squeal of delight and a big hug), so she started checking out cassettes from the library too. Selfishly, he was happy that fixing that thing made Ellie want to spend more time at home -- not that he would admit it to anyone.

His favorite times were when they’d hang out together on the couch. Sometimes they talked. Other times, they sat in companionable silence, Joel whittling something (he’d taken to saving expendable scraps of wood on the job) and Ellie sprawled out next to him, reading her book. No matter how tired she was, she wouldn’t go to bed without him -- even the night he worked a guard shift that ended at midnight. Sometimes she dozed off while reading on the couch with him. If he would just encourage her to read in bed, she’d probably be cured of needing him in no time… but what harm was it doing, really? The girl was starved for affection. Marlene didn’t strike him as the maternal type, and although Ellie had mentioned some decent adults in her past -- teachers who still had it in them to be human, and that soldier who taught her how to ride a horse -- it wasn’t the same as parental love. Lots of kids climbed into bed with their parents when they were little. Sarah had done it; it was a phase she outgrew. Since he and Ellie had gotten off to such a late start at the father/daughter thing, Joel figured it was like their relationship was in toddler stage now.

Or was that just some bullshit he told himself to justify the fact that he happily let it continue? If he had a creepy sexual thought here or there… as long as he kept it to himself, and felt appropriately guilty about it afterwards, no harm done. And he was taking care of that by looking for a ‘special friend.’ Or, half-ass looking. …Okay, so not even half-ass -- more like, it was a fine idea in his head, but he couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm required to see it through. He knew he would never do anything to hurt Ellie, so if he could always keep in mind that his dirty thoughts were not acceptable (for he knew time and repetition could dull the sins on your conscience), he could keep himself from sliding down that slippery slope into true pedophile territory.

As the days flew by, Joel had stopped dreading Ellie questioning him about the Fireflies. With enough time passing, maybe he’d even believe his own lie; some lies had a way of feeling real if you lived with them long enough. He had absolutely no doubt in his mind that he’d done right by Ellie, and that she never needed to know what had transpired in that hospital. He had toyed with the idea of possibly telling her after many months, maybe even years… the passing of time would give her the chance to fall so in love with life that she couldn’t fathom trying to sacrifice herself that way. Then she would be able to understand why Joel did what he did, and forgive him for lying. But wouldn’t it still be an unbearable weight on her shoulders? Time couldn’t erase that. Only Joel could do that, by bearing it in her stead. She simply didn’t need to know, for her own good.

Joel had no desire to sit down with some strange woman and talk to her about feelings and shit, but he thought Ellie might benefit from it. Girls seemed to like to talk everything to death. Ellie wasn’t like most girls, though. When he suggested it to her, she too balked at the idea. “Pffft. I’m fine. I can talk to Maria if I feel like talking to someone!” Joel had thought she might say she can just talk to him, so he was a little surprised when she answered that way. Didn’t she know she could talk to him? He was sure she did; he was always reminding her. He wasn’t about to remind her again after she made that statement, though. If she didn’t want to talk to him, so be it. Maybe he wasn’t as easy to talk to as Maria was. Maybe it was a girl thing. Or maybe Ellie knew he wasn’t all that keen on talking about the hard stuff. Like Henry and Sam… he’d made it clear they were not to discuss what happened. Is that why she didn’t want to talk to him now? He tried not to dwell on it. It was better to leave the past in the past, and just keep moving forward.

And Ellie was acting more like her old self these days. She’d even started humming her little tunes again. Joel recognized a lot of them. With no preconceived notions of what’s cool to listen to and what’s not, Ellie would listen to just about everything… whether a song was recorded in 1933 or 2013, it was all the same to her.

“It’s sad that the music you call new is from way before I was even born. Will there ever be anything new again?”

Joel doubted it, at least for his lifetime, but he simply said he didn’t know.

There was a decent variety of music available, at least. There was plenty on the computers, but to get on one of those, you either had to have excellent timing or be willing to wait a while. There were plenty of CDs, not as many cassettes (to Ellie’s dismay, but it was a good thing, since the CDs had held up much better over time), and some of it was even on vinyl. She loved the heck out of a song on the only cassette that had made it with her from Boston -- Etta James’ “I Got You Babe” (she’d never even heard the Sonny & Cher version). He tried to turn her on to some country artists like Brad Paisley…George Strait… she was open to everything, and seemed to enjoy listening to country with him. Overall, it seemed she hummed more 80s pop tunes than anything else, so either she liked them the most or they were just more likely to get stuck in her head than other songs. She claimed she had to listen to everything before declaring favorites. Joel got her a notebook to help her keep track of it all –- who sang what, on what album, which tracks she liked best, shit like that. She got all excited about that and said now she’d have to re-listen to everything she’d heard so far so she could make notes on each, documenting in the style of the cards in her card catalog at the library. Who would have thought that a plain old notebook could make a kid so happy?

And who would have thought that he’d ever regret giving her something that made her happy… well, more accurately, he would rue his own stupidity.

They’d been in Jackson nearly four weeks, and it was one of their mutual days off. They planned on going to the library that morning. Ellie preferred to let Joel have the honor of toting her shit back and forth so she could leave her backpack at home. He rounded up her library returns and packed them in his backpack while she got dressed. The only thing he didn’t pack was that damn notebook, because she wanted to look at it while waiting for Joel to get ready.

As soon as Joel turned off the shower, he heard a tape-recorded voice in the other room:

“…way of saying we gotta kill the fucking kid. And now they're asking for my go ahead…”

~Continue to Chapter 10~

Tags: accretion, fic, tlou
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