Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters (in this chapter): ...actually, I'm gonna stop listing this. Because in chapters like this it would be a spoiler to know if someone does or does not appear right off the bat. Gah! So, whatevs, whoever is reading this will presumably NOT decide whether or not to read based on who's in the particular chapter and it's silly to keep listing this info. There, glad that's settled.
Word Count: 4986
Chapter Summary: Joel continues to search for Ellie.
Joel felt relieved at first that Ellie hadn’t come to the farm for a horse; he didn’t think she would attempt to go Outside on foot. If she stayed in town, there were only so many places she could be. Then he thought maybe it would be better if she did try to leave, on horseback or not, so that the guard would call it in, and Joel could make a beeline for that post. That was assuming all the guards obeyed Tommy’s order. Would any of them possibly sympathize with whatever reason Ellie concocted to leave and let her slip out unreported? She could convince them she’d be fine out there, that she had a gun… but Tommy was adamant that even if that were the case prior to his radio alert, no one would defy his request. It appeared safe to assume that Ellie hadn’t left Jackson, nor would she be able to if she tried later on -- Maria said she would check in with everyone regularly on the walkie and repeat the instruction in case it didn’t get passed along at shift change. Joel intended to find her before that became necessary.
Esther was happy to lend them three horses to facilitate faster searching. She also offered to help look for Ellie, with Annie quickly seconding the offer, saying they could pull people from the other farms to help out with the morning chores while they were gone.
Joel could see they really cared about Ellie, maybe even as much as Tommy and Maria did. No doubt there were others in town who adored her as well. He hoped Ellie realized how many people she had in her corner. “Thank you, but I don’ think we need to launch a big manhunt here… between the three of us, we got it covered. And actually, I reckon it would be better if you two stayed here, in case she does come down to see you.”
“Sure thing,” Esther replied, with an attempt at a reassuring smile. “We’ll send word to you right away if she turns up here. Just let us know if you need anything. Annie, go on and help Joel pick out a horse.” Tommy and Maria quickly chose the horses they were most familiar with of the herd and headed off to the stables with Esther to fetch halters. The horse that Joel had ridden a few times wasn’t there. Spirit looked up from his grazing when they approached the paddock. Was he looking for Ellie too?
“I’ll take that one,” Joel said resolutely. “Ellie’s horse.”
Annie looked at Joel like he was crazy. “Um… I don’t think that… well, he’s not the best when it comes to taking direction? Ellie says he’s getting better but… really I think it’s just her adjusting more to his ways. Maybe a different one… Clementine, maybe…”
“S’alright, I’ll manage.” It wasn’t like he was entering a horse show. And it wasn’t like by taking Ellie’s horse he thought he was preventing her from leaving… he knew she’d just take a different one if she wanted to go. He also wasn’t expecting to lure Ellie out of hiding, if she didn’t want to be found, by dangling the horse in front of her. He wasn’t sure why it had to be Spirit; he just didn’t want any other horse.
When the three horses were all tacked up ready to go, Tommy divided the town into roughly three sections, giving Joel the east side. “D’you think we should ask people if they’ve seen her? People we think might know her, at least?” Tommy asked them.
Maria said it couldn’t hurt… true enough… but Joel didn’t like the idea of everyone thinking something was wrong with Ellie. On the other hand, he did want to find her as quickly as possible. “If we keep it casual-like. Make it seem like we’re lookin’ for her to go have a picnic or somethin’.”
“All right.” Tommy thought for a moment. “Maria and I can call each other… we do have a spare walkie talkie but it’s up at the dam. Joel, if one of us finds her, the other can go find you.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Joel. “If you do find her, do not leave her alone. Even if she tells you to. Let’s get a move on.”
Joel checked his own house first. He didn’t think she’d be there, and he was right. That would be too damn simple. He wondered, if Tommy or Maria found her, would she beg them to hide her away from him? And would they do it? He hoped they would at least let him know that they’d found her. Maybe he wasn’t giving Ellie enough credit. It wasn’t all about him.
His search area was the least densely populated, and also included the lake. Maybe Ellie would go sit by the water. They’d taken a few strolls around the lake together and she’d liked it out there. Maybe she would go in the water, far enough to… NO. He needed to keep dark thoughts like that at bay. He truly didn’t think Ellie would do anything like that, even if she wanted to ‘get back’ at him. She had the gun, too… that would be the easier method… NO! Besides, it ain’t that easy. A person can be miserable as fuck and not want to go on living… hold that gun up to their head or put it in their mouth… but actually pulling that trigger is harder than people think. I should know.
Spirit wasn’t all that bad (well, aside from nearly tossing him a couple times early on). Joel was probably a little sterner or rougher with him than Ellie was. Joel was learning how to read his body language and if he felt like a buck might be coming, he would pull hard on the reins to pull the horse’s head back and prevent it, and then Spirit would do what Joel wanted, for the most part. Once at the lake, Joel attempted to canter, then didn’t resist when the horse decided to gallop instead. This was the best place for Spirit to get it out of his system, as Joel didn’t need to dismount to search for Ellie there.
Some of the houses in Joel’s area were unoccupied, but he didn’t know which ones. All of the houses were in some state of disrepair, so he couldn’t make any assumptions based on appearance. He had never visited the homes of any of his neighbors, and he didn’t think Ellie had either. He could imagine her hanging out in an empty house, to get away from everyone, to think or cry or whatever she had to do that she felt she couldn’t do at home. Did she know which of these houses were vacant? Joel decided to ride up and down each road first, in case she was just out walking aimlessly. If he recognized someone on the street, he asked if they’d seen Ellie; otherwise, he kept quiet.
No Ellie, and no Ellie sightings.
He circled back through, and if he couldn’t detect any activity inside a house, he knocked on their door. If anyone answered, he claimed he’d mistakenly gone to the wrong house and he’d be on his way. More than a few people offered to help him find the ‘right’ house. At first he shrugged them off, but then figured he might as well ask them which houses in the area were empty. They didn’t need to know what he was searching for. One woman assumed he was scouting the area for a bigger house for himself and Ellie. Joel didn’t see any reason to correct her.
Maybe they should move to a bigger house. Ellie probably wouldn’t want him to be so close to her now. He’d have to start sleeping in the other room. Which is what he should be doing anyway, he had to remind himself. I don’t care. As long as Ellie’s home safe she can be alone in that room as much as she wants.
He had to figure out how to be more of a father to her, and less of a… what, exactly? Pervert? Pedophile? Sicko? Lecher? And he had to remember that she had loved Marlene; he couldn’t expect her not to grieve that loss. He had to control his temper, to just shut the hell up. The bitch had known Ellie since she was born. Known things about Ellie that Joel never would. Be that as it may, there was no fucking way Marlene cared for Ellie as much as he did. No matter what the cunt said, Marlene’s so-called love for the girl wasn’t even a fraction of his own, or she wouldn't have done what she did. But… how did Ellie feel? He was pretty sure she loved him. Or had until that morning, at least. No, she still does. It doesn’t just go away in an instant. Considering she’d spent the last year with him, he assumed Ellie felt more for him than she did for Marlene. But in Ellie’s eyes, Marlene was the one who’d done the right thing. And Joel had murdered her. How could she forgive him for that? Plus all the lies? And the lie he told by looking her straight in the eye and telling her he wasn’t lying.
Fuck. He should have just come clean with her. He should have known he wouldn’t be able to continue the charade forever. Except he could have, if he’d just hidden those tapes. Fuck!
Joel hadn’t yet finished checking his area when he saw Tommy heading his way at a trot. He felt the anticipation welling up… had they found Ellie?... Tommy shook his head before he reached him, as if Joel had asked the question out loud. “We ain’t found her yet, but Cordy saw her.”
“Where? Did he talk to her?”
“He did, but not much. She was headin’ north. Prob’ly into Ghost Town, I reckon.” That was the name they’d given the large span of empty houses. If Ellie truly didn’t want to be found, that was certainly the best place to go.
“That’s part of your search area, right? You two look in there?” Joel was already on his way back to where he’d left Spirit.
“We did,” replied Tommy, following him. “Rode up and down each street. Lookin’ around, callin’ her name… we didn’ go inside the houses, though.”
Joel hopped up on Spirit again and coaxed the horse into going the direction Tommy had come from. “Well, now that we know she’s in there… or most likely in there, that’s what we gotta do.”
“Joel, hold up a sec,” Tommy called to him.
“What,” grumbled Joel, reluctantly turning Spirit around. “You got a better idea?”
“I jus’ think… well, if Ellie wants to be by herself, an’ it sure as hell looks that way, maybe we oughta let her be.” Joel started to argue but Tommy interrupted him. “It would take a hell of a long time to search every room in every house out there. Besides, it’d be like hide’n’seek. What if she saw us comin’, then snuck outta where she was at to go back to a house we already looked in? It’s pointless. Give the girl some time. When she wants to see you, or see whoever, she’ll come out.”
“So in the meantime, I sit around waitin’? I can’t do that, Tommy. I have to find her.” I have to know she’s okay. If anything happened to her I’d never forgive myself.
“You do what you want,” said Tommy, not unkindly. “You can look for her. Maria’s still out there lookin’ but she ain’t gonna search every single house. I’ll ride through there again one more time myself… I don’ expect I’ll find her. Don’t worry. Ellie won’ have food or water, no electricity or nothin’… she won’ hide out forever.”
Joel knew Ellie didn’t care enough about any of that to come out any time soon, not when she was reeling from his fuck-up. He sighed. “Where’s Clicker now?”
“At school. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.”
The boy wasn’t a student -- he was some sort of class helper/tutor, according to Ellie. Joel knew where the building was that served as a school. He’d never been inside it, but he found Clicker easily enough. He disrupted the class to get the boy’s attention and the two of them stepped outside.
“How you doin’, kid?”
Clicker shrugged. “Eh. I’ve had better days. Is this about Ellie? Is she okay?”
“I don’ know. I’d like to talk to her an’ make sure. Tommy says you spoke with her?”
“A little.” The boy put his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. He seemed a little down.
“Can you tell me exactly what happened? Where did you see her?”
“Over there –- she was running. Er, more like jogging. I didn’t see you anywhere. I thought that was weird. Both of those things, I mean. I knew she had today off and you guys are like always together, when she’s off. I couldn’t figure out where she might be going, away from the Square like that, so… I followed her.”
Joel knew he liked the kid for a reason. Too bad she’d obviously ditched him somewhere. “You followed her. She didn’t see you? Where’d she go?”
“Oh it wasn’t all cloak-and-dagger or nothin’ –-“ –Joel was mildly surprised he knew the phrase- “--I just ran after her, yelling. She saw me, I kinda made it hard for her not to. I should have ninja-followed her, huh. That woulda been more fun. She was so not in a good mood.”
Damn. If Joel at least knew where Ellie might have entered the maze of houses… it probably wouldn’t make much difference, actually. He was grasping at straws. “Did she stop and talk to you?”
“She just told me to go away. I asked her where she was going, she didn’t answer. I caught up to her and asked her what was wrong. Why she was acting funny. Then she stopped. She was all annoyed. She told me she couldn’t talk to me right now, to just leave her alone, and…” Clicker looked sheepish.
“And?” Joel prompted. Please tell me something useful…
“She said ‘pretend you never saw me.’ I didn’t exactly do that -- I told Tommy and now you. It was weird when Tommy came in the classroom looking for her, asking if any of us had seen her. Y’know? I mean she never comes over here, and the one time she does, Tommy shows up... I kinda just blurted it out. Jeez, Ellie’s gonna kill me.”
Joel gave him a wry smile. “I think she’ll forgive you. Did she say anything else?”
“Well, um… I couldn’t just leave. I don’t know why, cuz she totally didn’t wanna see me. But… I wanted her to tell me what was bugging her. I’m nosy like that.”
“And you care about her,” Joel supplied.
Clicker blushed at that. “She started to run again, so I chased her again, and she turned around and yelled at me. Told me to fuck off. So… I fucked off. I don’t know where she went.”
Joel sighed. None of that was remotely helpful, other than the direction she’d gone, and Tommy had already told him that. But it wasn’t the kid’s fault. “That’s all right. I’ll find her.”
“Do you think I made things worse?” The boy bit his lip and scrunched up his face in a way that reminded Joel of a question mark.
“Nah.” Couldn’t get much worse. “Don’ worry about it. Alright, I’m gonna get back to it. Seeya.” He turned to leave… and didn’t get very far.
“Wait, Mr. Joel?” It was kind of cute, how the kid put ‘Mr.’ in front of his name. “I can help look for her when I’m done here, if you want?”
Joel looked back and nodded. “That’d be great, if you’re so inclined. I’ll be searchin’ the ‘ghost town’ area, which is awfully big. If you do see her again, stay with her, okay? If she don’ want you to, come find me. Or… if she’s goin’ somewhere diff’rent, go ahead and do the… your ninja thing. When she gets to where she’s goin’, see if you can either find me or get someone to find me. Or find Tommy, or Maria. An’ if you hear me yellin’ out there, and you’re with her, yell back. Even if it pisses her off. If she starts runnin’ then, you follow her.”
Joel chuckled. “You got all that? If you get bored after a while, jus’ go home. If I find her I won’ really have a way to let you know it, unless you happen to be around. No sense runnin’ yourself ragged.”
“Seeya later, kid.” Joel looked at him a moment. “Ain’t you even gonna ask what she’s upset about? Thought you were nosy.”
“I am, but... well, that would be rude, and besides, you’d just say, ‘That’s none o’ yer bizness, kid.’” He did a halfway decent impersonation of Joel’s accent (the baritone, not so much). “Am I right?”
Joel chuckled. “Maybe. So it’s rude if you ask me, but only nosy if you ask her? How come?”
“Cuz me’n’her are homies.” Joel picked up an unspoken ‘duhhh’ in that statement. ‘Homies’ was a term he hadn’t heard in a while. Whatever Joel and Ellie were to each other… he suspected it wasn’t that. “Bye, Mr. Joel!”
Joel headed out with Spirit, feeling slightly more hopeful. Maybe Ellie would want to talk someone eventually, one of her homies. To get her mind off things. Or vent about what a liar Joel was. Something. And since Joel wasn’t going to quit until he found her, he’d have to hear their voices eventually. She could tell him to go fuck off, he didn’t care. He just had to see her, and know where she was.
He began methodically searching the houses. Living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms, basements, attics… even closets. Always calling Ellie’s name, hoping to be answered by a cry of ‘I’m over here,’ and instead, hearing nothing. No signs of human life, anyway. He could hear the fucking birds singing, leaves rustling in the breeze… Joel couldn’t help but be reminded of his long journey with Ellie. She should be here with him, looking for useable shit. Then it would feel right.
After a while, his voice started to get hoarse, his throat parched, but his determination remained strong. Maria had found him and let him know she was going back. She’d suggested he do the same, but didn’t seem surprised that he wouldn’t. Ellie had to be in one of these houses. She couldn’t just disappear off the face of the earth, no matter how hard she might wish it. And maybe they were right… maybe he should just let her be… but it didn’t matter, because he couldn’t.
Maybe looking for her in this manner was futile, but the physical nature of the job kept him from ruminating… and from punching holes in walls, too, he suspected. Joel pushed himself pretty hard. He ran up and down the flights of stairs and from house to house like a madman. By mid-afternoon, he was fairly drained. He finished checking a street that crossed the one where he’d tied up the horse, and headed over to give Spirit a pat on the neck. Maybe he was going crazy out here, but he could have sworn the horse looked sad. “Sorry, bud, it’s only me still. No sense keepin’ you around for this part, though. Let’s get you home.”
He rode past Tommy’n’Maria’s place; he didn’t really want to see either of them unless they had news about Ellie, and if they did, they wouldn’t be sitting there at home anyhow. He stopped by his house… his’n’Ellie’s house… of course she wasn’t there, but he needed to go in anyway to grab a gun, which he’d completely forgotten this morning. He took a few minutes to splash some water on his face, take a leak, and to chug down some water. Which made him feel a pang of guilt, since Ellie didn’t have water. Then he thought, fuck that -- that was her goddamn choice. Joel would have given her the moon if she wanted it.
Christ, he was such a prick that now he was getting pissed off at Ellie? Time to get back to not thinking. He tucked the shorty into his jeans and was about to head out when it occurred to him that Ellie might get thirsty enough to be lured out by a canteen, and it’s not like he wouldn’t want some more water out there himself.
Armed with that, he locked the front door and delivered Spirit to the farm. He didn’t want to see Esther or Annie either, and was hoping someone else would be hanging around outside that he could hand the horse off to. No such luck -- Annie came running out of the house when she saw him riding in (he’d have to tell Ellie that you can run when you’re wearing a long-ass skirt).
He could see the disappointment replace the hope in her face as she drew closer. “Oh -- Ellie’s not with you. Is she at home?”
“No. Still lookin’. But I don’ need the horse anymore, so.” Joel dismounted and handed Annie the reins. “Thanks anyhow.”
Annie’s smile seemed forced. “Don’t worry, you’ll find her… or she’ll find you. Tommy said she just needs time by herself right now… but I know she can only go so long without seeing you.”
“I ain’t so sure about that. Did she actually say that to you?”
“Sort of.” Annie seemed embarrassed. What the heck did Ellie tell her about him? Now he was curious. Or maybe Annie was embarrassed because she wasn’t the mushy type. Ellie wasn’t, and Joel sure wasn’t. “If you want help looking for her, we can get something organized—“
“No, thank you,” Joel replied quickly. It was starting to feel like a personal failure that he hadn’t found her after looking all day, and the less people involved with that, the better. Now he wished he hadn’t told the other kid to go looking if he felt like it. I have to be the one to find her.
“Okay, well um… I’m here if she wants to come down later and talk or whatever? No matter how late it is.”
Joel didn’t tell her he wasn’t planning on ever letting Ellie go anywhere without him again. “Oh sure, Ellie can come have a girl-to-girl talk with you, as long as I’m sitting right there too. Don’t mind me, I won’t say a word.” He knew it was crazy, that it wasn’t feasible to literally never let the girl out of his sight… but that was definitely how he felt right now.
He was glad to get back to the physical stuff, exhausting though it was. He welcomed the quiet. Somewhere in a corner of his brain (where he kept shoving the dark thoughts), he was terrified of hearing a gunshot break the silence. Maybe that’s why he started talking to Ellie instead of just calling her name. He had a few lengthy one-sided conversations with her… some out loud, some merely in his head.
An hour or so had gone by when he heard Ellie’s name being shouted out in Clicker’s high-pitched voice. He headed in that direction and caught up with him in between houses. “Mr. Joel! Did you find her?” the kid asked hopefully.
“Not yet. How long you been out here?”
“Um… a loooong time… I went to the library first. Since she wasn’t working she was gonna make sure we got a spot on the Wii for when I was done at school. Remember how last time we got up to Year 4 on LEGO Harry Potter? The Quidditch World Cup! She prob’ly forgot, huh. Being mad and stuff. So… I’ve been here since right after lunch. I ate real fast. Getting hungry again too. Where the fuck is she?” Clicker looked as bewildered as Joel felt. Joel offered him some of his water and he gulped it down.
“Thanks for your help, son, but go on back now. It’s my fault she’s out here. I’ll find her eventually.”
“I’m not that hungry,” Clicker quickly objected. “Seriously. I wanna keep looking. I can’t play that game without her anyways, it’s a rule.”
Joel sighed. “All right. One more hour.” Not like he could fucking tell what time it was.
The sun gave him an idea of the hour. It was just starting to dip down to the horizon when he took a seat on the rickety porch steps of the millionth house he’d searched. He wasn’t tired. Marlene had been tired; Joel wasn’t tired. He would keep at it as long as he had to. And once he’d debriefed Clicker on the streets he’d covered, Joel had finally persuaded him to leave, with his final mission being to fetch a flashlight or lantern from Tommy’s and bring it to him at this house. He told the kid to holler when he came back if he didn’t quite remember where Joel was at.
It wasn’t the boy’s voice that hollered, but Tommy’s. Joel braced himself for another lecture. “Over here!” His voice was so hoarse he doubted Tommy could hear it, so he got up and moved in Tommy’s direction. His body objected, but Joel pushed through the soreness.
At least Tommy had brought a flashlight. “Thank you,” Joel mumbled, taking the light from him and abruptly turning away. However, Tommy wasn’t about to let him go that easily.
“Hang on, Joel. What the fuck are you doin’? You can’t stay out here all night.”
“I can, actually.”
“You look like shit.”
Joel snorted. “That don’ matter. Ellie’s seen me look worse. Much worse.”
Tommy sighed. “This is nuts. You ain’t exactly young no more…”
“No? I hadn’t noticed. Thanks for pointing that out, baby brother. But guess what. When we were on the road, me an’ Ellie, we had longer days than this. And I was jus’ fine.”
“But you don’ have to do this. Your voice is shot. It’s gonna get dark soon. Chances are she’ll have had enough of bein’ by herself and come on back on her own. This place is creepy as fuck at nighttime.”
“All the more reason I can’t leave her here all alone,” Joel grumbled.
Tommy clearly pitied him; Joel could see it on his face. “Joel, don’t you think if she wanted you around, she’d—“
“Fuck you, Tommy! I ain’t leavin’ without her.”
Tommy sighed. “Why don’ you jus’ come on back to the house, eat a nice meal, relax… you don’ have to talk or nothin’.”
Joel scoffed. Unbelievable! Like he would just sit around on his ass stuffing his face when he didn’t even know where Ellie was. To his annoyance, his stomach chose that moment to gurgle loudly, like it was on Tommy’s side too. “Did you not hear me? Was I somehow unclear? I am not leaving without her,” he enunciated carefully. “You don’ like it, you can go to hell.”
“You don’ have to be nasty about it. Fine, you wanna kill yourself lookin’ for her? You go right on ahead, if that makes you happy.” As Tommy started to walk away, Joel heard him muttering, “Goddamn stubborn as fuck asshole.”
Joel resumed his searching, remaining thorough but moving at a much slower pace. Eventually he stopped calling her name. What was the point? His voice was too hoarse to be heard (that was preferable to believing she was ignoring it). At some point in the middle of the night, when he felt pretty sure he’d been through all the houses, he went back through the streets Clicker had covered. He walked around the lake. He went back to his house… even though the door was locked, maybe she’d be waiting outside… nope. Of course not. Feeling utterly defeated, Joel let himself collapse on the porch steps with a thud, his head in his hands.
The sane thing to do would probably be to get some fucking rest, then go back to Tommy and Maria in the morning -- after it had been a full 24 hours, because wasn’t that the general protocol for missing persons cases back in the day? -- and see about organizing a search party. But, Joel wasn’t the sanest of individuals. He reckoned he could rest some once he’d found Ellie. Was she really so angry with him that she couldn’t stand to be near him? Even just to put his mind at ease? She had to know he was worried about her. Was she punishing him? She couldn’t go to sleep without him; she needed him. Even when she was irritated with him, that was still true. She was beyond irritated now, but… it still applied, didn’t it? Or, maybe he would find her asleep somewhere… then she wouldn’t be able to sneak away when she saw him coming. Hang on, Baby Girl…
‘Hang on’? She doesn’t want you, you stupid fuck, he reminded himself bitterly. And then Joel felt something awkward and strange happening to him, something so rare he’d forgotten what it felt like -- the threat of tears constricting his throat. If he sat here one more second, he’d be fucking crying. The thought pissed him off enough to get off his ass and jog back to Ghost Town for another round of hell.
~Continue to Chapter 12~