Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters (in this chapter): Joel, Ellie, Tommy, Maria, OC
Word Count: 4436
Chapter Summary: Shit hits the fan.
It took a moment for Joel’s brain to catch up with his ears, to get past the knee-jerk response of denial. Oh God this isn’t fucking happening. “Ellie! Stop -- don’ listen to that!” As if it wasn’t already too late, and the clock would rewind itself a few minutes if he only wished it hard enough.
He didn’t bother to dry off, and nearly forgot to wrap a towel around his waist in his haste to get to her and… do what, exactly -- stop it from happening, as if it hadn’t happened yet? Ellie was ghostly pale, crouched in front of his backpack with the damn recorder in her hand. It ended with Marlene whining about how tired she was. Ellie set it down and pulled another one out of his bag. She hadn’t listened to them all! Only the one, it looked like. He needed to remember what it said and do some damage control here. He tried to grab the next one from her hand, but she quickly pulled away, scrambling to her feet. She stood there, thumb poised over the ‘play’ button, the trigger of the smoking gun. Should he forcibly take it from her, or plead with her not to play it? “How many recorders are there?” she asked, barely above a whisper.
Think, Joel. He was going to have to come up with something on the fly. If he was going to spin another lie, the less she heard the better. That much was obvious. Which one was that in her hand… the one with the medical mumbo jumbo on it, hopefully. “Only them two. Ellie, don’ play that… please… it’ll jus’ make things worse. I can explain!”
Ellie shook her head. “Explain? You mean tell me more lies?” Her voice was shaky. “There’s at least one more in your backpack. I saw it.”
Fuck. I better get that thing out of her hand. He approached her slowly, as if she were a frightened animal. “You already heard the one in there. It was the one about the monkeys.”
She backed away from him. Glared at him like he was the scum of the Earth. “You just can’t stop lying, can you? The monkeys are in the fucking desk, along with all the other shit we picked up. At least I thought that was all of it.”
Maybe he could say he’d taken it out of the desk and put it in his backpack for some reason… no, all Ellie had to do was go over to the desk and open a drawer. He could physically stop her from doing that, but that would only serve to prove the same damn thing. The girl wasn’t stupid.
“Ellie, please do not play that. Please. If you ever—“ Joel couldn’t quite bring himself to play the if-you-ever-cared-about-me card here… how would he feel if she went ahead and played it anyway? It was starting to dawn on him that there was no way out of this: Ellie was going to hear those tapes.
Looking at him defiantly, she pressed ‘play.’ It was the surgeon’s recorder, so she hadn’t heard the worst of it yet. He didn’t have to let her hear the other Marlene tape. He could destroy it. He had a minute to think while she listened to the surgeon blather on about blood cells and fungal growth. If he simply pulled out the third recorder and bashed it against the wall, that would be that. She’d probably run over and try to stop him when he reached for the bag, but she wouldn’t succeed. She’d never have to hear it. Although… she would still know it had existed and that he’d deprived her of it. And it would drive her crazy, not knowing its content. I can’t paraphrase it for her -- she’ll think I’m lying. Hell, I probably would lie, at least a little. She won’t believe another word out of my mouth now anyhow. Maybe it would be better if she just knew it all.
Joel watched her face as she listened to the description of what the Cordyceps had done to her insides. She was… stoic. What was she thinking? Feeling? When it ended, he stepped toward her again, and again she backed away. “Let me tell you what happened,” he said slowly, trying to keep from sounding panicked or desperate.
She headed for the backpack, as if he hadn’t spoken. He didn’t try to stop her. God, was he doing the right thing? If only he’d played out scenarios like this in his head, figured all this shit out instead of tucking it away in some dark corner of his brain because he didn’t want to deal with it. His thoughts hadn’t gone beyond preventing her from finding out in the first place. Now there was no time to decide anything. She fished out the third recorder, then rooted around in the bag, probably to see if the one in her hand was the last. She sat on her knees to listen to it. Joel tightened the towel around his waist and joined her on the floor. He should probably go put some pants on… but he didn’t want to leave her, or risk her taking off.
Marlene was ‘talking’ to Ellie’s mother, playing the reluctant hero, pretending to feel bad and claiming she had no choice. Ellie’s face was like a stone wall… until the very end, when Marlene said that crap about how Ellie would be with her mom soon. Ellie’s lip trembled a little and she looked like she was about to cry. Joel put a hand on her shoulder, but she scooted back out of his reach. Her expression reverted back to… nothing, pretty much, except for her eyes… they were moist. She stared at the floor.
What could he possibly say to her that would help? It had to be the truth, whatever it was. “Ellie…” he began. That’s as far as he got. Maybe it would be easier to respond to her questions instead. “Talk to me. Are you…” Christ, he almost asked her if she was okay. “What’s goin’ through your mind right now?”
She was silent. Staring at the same spot on the floor. Maybe she hadn’t even heard him. “Ellie?” he tried again. “Please say somethin’. Anything.”
“Okay then,” said Joel dumbly. He absorbed her silence for a moment, and gathered his thoughts. “I’ll tell you what went down. You remember nearly drownin’ in that tunnel by the hospital? I pulled you out of the water—“
“Stop.” She squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced as if she had a splitting headache.
“You… don’ wanna know what happened?” That was unexpected.
“I don’t wanna hear any more lies,” she corrected him. “I can’t. I can’t stand it.”
“I ain’t lyin’. I’ll tell you everything.”
“You’ll tell me more lies!” Her voice sounded stronger now. Angrier. She stood up and backed further away from him. “I want to see Marlene. You didn’t even tell me she was there. Where is she now?”
Jesus fucking Christ, she wanted to talk to the woman who caused this whole thing? The person who had ordered her to be killed? He sighed and got to his feet. “Look… I’m sorry I lied. Ellie, look at me.” She kept looking at some place beyond him. He stepped toward her, reached out for her…
“Don't.” She glared at him until he retreated, then redirected her gaze to the wall. She couldn’t even stand to lay eyes on him now?
“You’re right. I lied to you, an’ I’m sorry about that. I didn’ want to. I was tryin’ to protect you from… feelin’ like this.”
She looked disgusted. Joel supposed it did sound kind of lame, but it was absolutely the truth.
“You shouldn’ have to… look, I had to do what I did, back there. I couldn’ let them… they were gonna…” Damn, I suck at this.
“Does Tommy know?”
Joel didn’t see how that was important at all. “Yes, I had to tell him. I knew he wouldn’ believe…”
Ellie snorted. “--the bullshit you told me. Right. Maria too?”
“So all of you have been lying to me. Stupid Ellie, she’ll believe anything.”
“It ain’t like that. And they didn’ lie to you, they only agreed to keep quiet when I asked them to.” Joel hoped it would make her feel just a smidge better if it was all on him, that not everyone she trusted had betrayed her.
“What do they call that… lies of omission? Same fucking thing. Tell me about Marlene.”
Joel was silent. Hadn’t Ellie just heard the woman casually sentence her to death? Was that not a worse betrayal than Joel trying to protect her? To save her? It made his blood boil.
“They wanted Marlene to kill you,” Ellie said coldly. “And she didn’t. Obviously. Did you see her?”
“What did you say to her?”
“I didn’ know where you were, we got separated when we got there… I woke up in a hospital bed an’ she was there. I said I wanted to see you. She wouldn’ let me. Said you were gonna have surgery, an’ told me to leave. Like I could jus’ leave you there!”
Ellie shifted her weight from side to side and stared at her feet. “So… then what did you do?”
“I… found you. Got you outta there.”
“How’d I find you? I asked someone where surgery—“
“I mean how the fuck did you get me out? Marlene just let you take me?”
Can she just shut the fuck up about Marlene already?! “Well, no. But I was… uh… persistent.”
Ellie lifted her head a little, but didn’t quite look at him. “Don’t you mean ‘persuasive’?”
I guess you could put it that way. There really was no painless way to tell her what he did. He suspected she was working it out anyway. “Right. Yeah.”
“So you said… you told them you were just gonna... just take me… and they…” Ellie took a shaky breath, and met his gaze at last. “Joel, how many people did you kill?”
Joel sighed. He wasn’t going to lie anymore. In a way, it was a relief that he no longer had to. Relief at what cost, though? “As many as I had to.”
Ellie swallowed. “And… Marlene?”
Joel nodded. He fucking hated Marlene for doing this to her.
“Oh God.” Ellie leaned on the table. “Are you sure she’s…? What if…”
“Yes. She’s dead.” I made damn sure of that.
“I… I need to talk to her…”
It was like she hadn’t heard him. Joel understood that Ellie had some sort of bond with that cunt, but her grief infuriated him. “Well, you can’t! I put a goddamn bullet in her head, alright?”
She gasped, and he regretted saying it so indelicately. He sure didn’t regret the act itself, though. Never. “Jesus, Ellie… she wanted to kill you!”
“That’s what she was supposed to do! You ruined everything!” She ran her hands through her hair and made a frustrated noise.
So the bitch had been right… it was what Ellie would want. Well, what did he expect? Part of him always knew that. “I don’ consider savin’ your life ‘ruining everything.’ ” He would never apologize for that. Even if Ellie hated him for it.
Ellie’s laugh was mirthless and bitter, her glare scathing. “I’m supposed to be dead, Joel. It was my turn! God, I even told you about that! And you said—“
“I said it ain’t your fault you survived. That’s still true.” Fuck, she was so angry. It was a calm, steely sort of anger that was quite different from the adrenaline-fueled fury she exhibited in a fight. The way she was looking at him now... At least she’s not hysterical. You can talk to her. Let her hate you if that’s what she has to do right now.
She looked at the wall again, unseeing, the anger fading back into that eerie nothingness. He was still dripping himself dry on the carpet, only wearing the towel. “Ellie, can we sit down and talk about this… after I put some clothes on? I’ll tell you everythin’ you wanna know.”
She obligingly sank into the nearest dining chair, slowly…limply… staring straight ahead like she wasn’t really aware of where she was or what she was doing. Joel watched her for a few seconds. It was a bit frightening, seeing her look so blank, so motionless. What should he do for her now? He went back to the bathroom and started getting dressed. He had to make her understand what it was like in that hospital, and how wrong it was, what they’d done to her. He had to make sure she wasn’t thinking of doing something crazy, like trying to go back… he’d make sure she understood there was nothing left to go back to, if she was considering that option. She was just going to have to accept that Joel had acted in her best interest and—
He heard the front door squeaking shut.
“Ellie!” He pulled on his boots as quickly as he could and ran out the door. “Ellie! Ellie, come back!”
As if she would hear his voice and come running back to him.
He looked in every direction. All he saw was a bunch of fucking trees. She could have gone anywhere. He had to think… where would she go… if he was Ellie right now where would he go… down to the farm? Would she tell Annie, and who knows who else, about what had happened and get the whole town in a panic?
The horse. She’d want to get on that crazy horse and ride him as fast and as far as he’d go. To… where? Would she try to leave? Kids weren’t allowed to go Outside on their own without parental consent, and he sure as hell didn’t consent to it. But… they had never really established to what capacity Joel was her parent. Even if they had, everyone in town knew they weren’t related, she might be able to talk her way out…
He hurried over to Tommy’s house. He didn’t think Ellie would go there, but he needed to alert all the guard posts quickly. And Ellie could be there, if she just wanted him to chase her… like last fall, up at the dam. But she hadn’t slammed the front door, she'd attempted to close it quietly. Like she was trying to sneak away, and the door had betrayed her.
Joel burst into Tommy’s place without knocking and startled the hell out of that Chelsea girl who was always hanging around the house, as well as the small children playing on the floor. “Is Ellie here?” he asked Chelsea as he caught his breath. “Tommy or Maria?”
Chelsea shook her head, her eyes wide with alarm. “No, none of them are here… what’s wrong?”
“Nothin’,” Joel said automatically, even though it was obviously a lie. Yep, Ellie, you’re right, I just can’t stop lying. “It’ll be okay,” he amended. That might be a lie too. “Do you know where Tommy went? Or Maria?”
A little boy whose name Joel didn’t remember called out to him. “Tommy’s at the warehouse!” he announced, looking quite pleased with himself for being so knowledgeable.
Joel flew out the door and sprinted down the street. It was convenient that Tommy and Maria lived right smack in the middle of everything. He entered the hotel that had been converted into a giant two-story storage building. There was a guy loitering in the lobby… the son of the couple who ran the warehouse, and one of the few people in Jackson whom Joel had taken a strong dislike to. No Tommy in sight. “Where’s Tommy?” he asked the man breathlessly; Joel had forgotten his name too. Something that started with M…
‘M’ looked him over coolly. “Where’s the fire, bro? Chill. He’s busy.”
“Jus’ tell me where he is!” Joel fought the impulse to slam the jerk against the nearest wall and ask him again. He was still catching his breath or he might have gone ahead. The idiot just looked at him. “Tommy!” Joel bellowed; his brother might hear him, even if he was on the second floor, since the lobby was encircled by a balcony.
M was a good twenty years or so younger than Joel, and seemed pretty sure of himself. “I told you, he’s busy,” the asshole drawled, smiling patronizingly. “Indisposed. Occupied. You’ll have to be patie—“
This time Joel didn’t fight the urge. He lunged and had the douchebag pinned to the wall before he even knew what was happening. Joel knew the guy was in the militia, but all that really meant was that he knew his way around a gun. He had a jagged red scar on his cheek, and relished telling everyone how he’d acquired it, like that made him a bad-ass. The way Joel saw it, all the scar proved was that someone with a blade had gotten the better of him. “You think you’re so funny, do ya?” Joel’s forearm pressed menacingly against M’s throat, which issued a strangled whining noise. “If you don’t fucking tell me where he is right now--“
“Joel! Stop!” It was Tommy, calling from the second floor. “I’m comin’ down!”
Joel kept enough pressure on M’s windpipe to make him pretty damn uncomfortable, but not enough to make him pass out. It would also render him too winded to throw a punch once Joel let him go, should the fucker try to retaliate.
Joel only released him when he saw Tommy emerge from the stairwell, and M slid down the wall, landing on his ass with his hands clutched around his throat, gasping for breath. Joel trotted towards his frowning brother.
“What the fuck, Joel?! What is it? Is he—“ Tommy started heading over to the lump on the floor, but Joel grabbed him.
“He’ll be fine, I didn’ hurt him,” said Joel (not without a trace of regret). “Tommy –- she knows.”
It took a second to register, but he could see on Tommy’s face that he knew what Joel meant. Maybe it was brotherly intuition. “What? How?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. She took off, I dunno where. I think she might try to leave. Can you tell all the fences to not let her out, no matter what she says? And to call you if they see her?”
“’Course.” Tommy unclipped his walkie talkie and quickly radioed the message to the guards. None of them reported seeing her. If she’d gone to fetch the horse, she probably hadn’t had time to get there yet.
M had risen from the floor and was heading their way, one hand on the back of his head where it had hit the wall. He’d likely heard the radio exchange, if nothing else. “What happened, your girl ran away?” he sneered. The guy was looking for a fight now, surely pissed that Joel had showed him up.
Tommy quickly positioned himself in between the two men. “Joel, c’mon, let’s go somewhere else.” He turned to the other man. “Sorry ‘bout that, he’s jus’ upset—“
“Don’t apologize, I ain’t sorry!” Joel protested at the same time the asshole started firing obscenities at him, along with a ‘you better watch your back’ threat that was pretty fucking hilarious. The warehouse keeper (a guy Joel happened to not dislike) had followed Tommy downstairs and was now yelling at his son to calm the fuck down and tell him what had happened. Tommy kept a firm hand on Joel’s shoulder, practically pushing him out the door, although Joel wasn’t really looking to engage the scumbag again anyhow. He had more important shit to think about.
They walked far enough away from the entrance that they wouldn’t be overheard by anyone coming or going from the building, but Joel wasn’t concerned about seeking absolute privacy now; no need to waste the time, he wouldn’t be spouting details. He told Tommy what had gone down, in a nutshell, and Tommy asked him what he’d been asking himself since it happened: why the fuck did he keep those things lying around? Joel didn’t know why he kept all the crap he’d picked up on his journey. As for the recorders, he had given them some thought. He couldn’t keep them in the house somewhere –- it was too small, Ellie would notice. He didn’t feel comfortable leaving them with anyone else, even Tommy. Tommy had more places to hide them, but with so much traffic in that place, Joel didn’t like the idea… didn’t like the thought of them being out of his hands at all, really. His own house was the safest place. Safer than stashing them in an empty house, or burying them where they might possibly get dug up someday by God knows who. Tommy said he should have just hidden them under the porch. With all the creepy-crawlies down there, Ellie (and everyone else) never would have gone near them. Shit, why didn’t I think of that?
What he actually should have done was destroy them. He’d thought about it, of course, but until recently he’d been considering telling Ellie the truth at some later date, and he thought they might help his case. If Ellie didn’t believe that they actually intended to kill her, well… there it was, from the horse’s mouth. And if she thought she was the only one who could save humanity, nope –- the doc mentioned that they had experimented on other lab rats before her, and obviously no cure had been found… what would make her case any different? Truth was, they didn’t know shit. It was all a guessing game. He’d meant to point that out to her after trading his towel for his jeans.
He should have just kept the goddamn towel on. –No, he should have taken an extra few seconds after his shower to yank some pants on before rushing out like a moron to the other room. It’s not like haste mattered at all by that point.
No use beating himself up about it all right now, though; he could do that while he looked for Ellie.
Tommy didn’t seem angry with him now. In fact, he seemed genuinely sympathetic. “Did she take her backpack? Any guns?”
Joel hadn’t even thought about that. “No… well, I don’ know, maybe? I didn’ really look around, I jus’ ran outside. Let’s go check.” Maybe Ellie would be sitting there on the couch, ready to talk some more.
Sure she would. And she’d just forgive him lickety-split, too.
Joel couldn’t indulge in little fantasies like that right now. He had to focus on finding her. Back at the house, Joel found her backpack and all their weapons tucked away in the corner like always, save for her 9-millimeter pistol. She’d probably tucked it into her jeans like always.
“She prob’ly woulda at least grabbed her bag if she was plannin’ to go, right?” Tommy reasoned.
Joel shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe she didn’ know where the hell she wanted to go an’ she’ll think of that later. Maybe she’ll come back for it. For supplies an’ whatnot.” Joel knew he’d never be able to sit around the house waiting on the off chance that that happened, though. Hell, she could decide to come back any old time. She knew she was wanted here. She also knows I won’t sit on my ass when I can be out looking for her.
“You said she was pissed off… but not like, crazy-pissed off?” asked Tommy, leaning on the table in almost the same place Ellie had earlier. Joel started pacing.
“She was upset… shocked… pretty calm, though, considerin’. She wouldn’ do nothin’ crazy…” But Joel’s tone reflected his uncertainty. He would have preferred it if she’d gotten really furious and started hitting him or screaming at him. That, he could deal with. At least he’d know where she was, and what was going on inside her head.
“I better warn everyone. Best be on the safe side.” Joel didn’t even realize what Tommy was implying until he heard him on the walkie, alerting the guards like Ellie was some psychopath who was gonna go shoot people solely because she was angry at Joel, or at the world.
“For fuck’s sake, Tommy, she ain’t gonna hurt anyone! Her wearin’ that gun is like her gettin’ dressed.”
Tommy frowned. “What about someone in her way? If she wants out? Would she…?”
Joel shook his head. “Ellie ain’t like that. You’ve seen how she is. She’s… good.” Unlike me. “She feels guilty bein’ alive. She wouldn’ go take away someone else’s life, someone innocent.”
“Alright then.” Tommy’s voice softened. “Joel, I hate to ask, but… d’you think she might hurt herself?”
“NO.” She can’t. It would kill me. ….and she knows that, so does that make the odds better or worse? He didn’t think Ellie would try to take her own life. It made no sense. It wouldn’t change the fact that she’d been denied the chance to sacrifice her life for ‘something bigger’ (or so the bullshit was packaged). But what if she wasn’t thinking straight? And she was just a kid. Teenagers, especially, could let their emotions get the best of them. Her words echoed miserably in his mind: “~I’m supposed to be dead~”
Maria knocked on the open door and walked in. She had radioed Tommy shortly after hearing his bulletin to the guards and asked where she could meet them. Now she cut straight to the chase. “What’s the plan?”
Tommy looked from Maria to Joel. “How ‘bout we go down to the farm, check with the girls, find out if they’ve seen her… see if that horse she likes is there. Maybe Ellie will be there… they might see she’s upset an’ not let her ride off? Or maybe she’d wanna talk to Annie ‘bout all this?”
Joel didn’t think any of that would be true, but hoped he was wrong. When he found her, he sure as hell wasn’t letting her out of his sight again. The three of them set out toward the farmlands; if they didn’t catch her there, they would each borrow a horse and split up to go search for her.
Ellie wasn’t there, but Spirit was. No one had seen her.
~Continue to Chapter 11~