Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Accretion" Chapter 12: "Stairway to Heaven"

Title: "Accretion" - Chapter 12: "Stairway to Heaven"
Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 7290
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Ellie's turn.

Ellie had found the perfect hideout. Not right away… she’d wandered around a bit first. The streets with the burnt-out houses lured her. Up close, there was still a faint odor of… burned things. Not a pleasant smell. She didn’t care. She wondered which one that kid had shot himself in, the teenager that Annie mentioned. Was he buried out here somewhere? The town had been much smaller back then. Maybe all of them had gathered to ‘pay their respects’ -- whatever that meant. How could you pay anything to a dead body? It was just something people liked to say about the dead when they buried them. Along with ‘he’s in a better place now.’ Really? How do they know what happens after you die?

Ellie didn’t have time to explore every single house. She knew Joel would be searching for her. She couldn’t talk to him. Or anyone else… but especially him. She found a burned-out brick house with a fucked-up roof; she managed to climb up some debris to the second floor, and where part of the roof had collapsed, she saw that she could transform the corner into a little hidey-hole for herself. She dragged what appeared to be the remains of a door –- or was it a door-sized chunk of wall? -- over to the corner to partition it off. There was dirt and soot everywhere. And cobwebs (spiderless ones, from the looks of it), which she brushed away. She had room to sit up and lay down, that was about it. There was enough light hitting the wall she was facing to make sitting there bearable. The floor probably wasn’t that stable… after all, parts of it had collapsed, which had helped her climb up to this spot… but it didn’t feel like it would fall down, and it’s not like she was planning on jumping up and down on it or anything. She tested the view of the corner from the outside, with the slab protruding enough to allow her to fit behind it, and it appeared to be just another pile of rubble. If anyone came up here, she’d just have to stay perfectly still and she’d be fine. And who would expect her to seek out a dirty corner like this? Goal achieved. Unlimited solitude awaits.

Now that she was settled, the pain found her again. If her mind wandered away from it at all, as it had while she was focused on finding a place to hide, she was punished by feeling it hit her all over again with the intensity of something new. What did she mean to accomplish by hiding anyway? She didn’t want to think about what she’d learned, didn’t want to think about anything… and for God knows how long, she was able to do just that. She sat cross-legged, staring blankly at the brick in front of her face. When her brain woke up again, so did the pain. She could keep trying to escape it and keep feeling it knife her when it inevitably caught up, or she could try to fucking deal with it, start sorting it out…

She should have confronted Joel about the lie right away. She had known something wasn’t right, she’d just been too chickenshit to face it. She hadn’t wanted to believe that her journey had been for nothing, but then when Joel said as much, she’d desperately wanted his version of events to be true. Because if it was so horrible that he couldn’t even tell her about it... yeah, that meant it was something like this. And she’d known that it would be. But, no –- no, this wasn’t her fault, it was Joel’s fucking fault. He was the one carrying those tapes around. Did he enjoy listening to them again when she wasn’t around or something? Why hadn’t he gotten rid of them?

Ellie knew he liked to save weird shit as souvenirs of the places they’d been. He was doing it before he’d even met her, so it wasn’t for her benefit… it’s just what he’d always done. Proof of where he’d been? Some strange sentimentality he wouldn’t admit to? She didn’t know why he did it. But why save these? It was like… as much as he seemed to hate that she’d found them, part of him had wanted her to find them. Like maybe he wanted to tell her the truth and didn’t know how. Joel had never been very good at expressing himself, or dealing with difficult subject matter.

That really wasn’t what she needed to be figuring out now. She needed to figure out what to do about this. And before she could do that, she needed to understand it.

Joel’s actions in that hospital were easy to understand; he didn’t want to lose her, and he would do whatever was necessary for her to survive. How many lives had he traded for hers, aside from the countless future lives who would have benefitted from the vaccine?! “As many as I had to.” But she was just one person. Logically, the right choice is the one that saves the most lives. …isn’t it? Obviously not for Joel. And pissed off as she was at him for all of this, if she put herself in his shoes…

She’d been in a similar situation. Sort of. Okay, so not quite so extreme, but it had required her to choose between being selfless and selfish. Last summer, on that final day she’d had with Riley, she’d gotten Riley to give up joining the Fireflies for her. Wasn’t joining the Fireflies ‘the greater good,’ something bigger than oneself, something more important than the desires of one girl? It was Riley’s choice, technically, but Riley had shifted it over to her, claiming that Ellie was the only person who had the power to make her stay. Ellie had tried to do the noble thing and let Riley go. She just couldn’t do it, in the end.

Her selfish decision hadn’t killed innocent people, though. Had it been a life or death situation, how would she have handled it? What if she’d woken up in the hospital and asked to see Joel and was told no, he was off being killed somewhere in order to save the world? What would she have done? Would she have said, ‘Oh well, that sucks, I guess I’ll be on my way then’? Hell, no –- she would have pleaded with them to reconsider. And if they wouldn’t… Ellie didn’t like to admit it, but she’s pretty sure she would have lost her shit. I would have killed to try to get to him. Even knowing it was the wrong choice.

She would have died trying to save him, because she wasn’t as adept as Joel was at killing. How many people had he killed there? Maybe not as many as he thought. Maybe he’d only wounded some of them. Knocked them out and left them for dead. Although… that wasn’t Joel’s style. He had a very ‘kill or be killed’ mindset; he’d leave nothing but dead bodies in his wake. Still, he wouldn’t have necessarily needed to kill the unarmed doctors, the scientists, the non-soldier-type Fireflies. Unless any of them were foolish enough or unfortunate enough to get in his way; certainly not all of them would be. Were they still there in Salt Lake City, working to find a cure? She owed it to them –- or to someone… like fucking humanity, maybe?! –- to go back now that she knew they could still use her to develop a vaccine. –She owed it to Marlene, if anyone. Marlene, her mother’s friend, Ellie's friend and quasi-guardian, had died because of her. Marlene had made that heart-wrenching decision to sacrifice her for the greater good, because it was the right thing to do. It was tough, but so often the right decision was the toughest option.

And yet… Ellie was angry with Marlene, too. Which made no sense, because she knew Marlene was right! Even so, it hurt her deeply to know that Marlene had been able to order her killed like that. Like she didn’t care about Ellie, not really care, not like… not the way Joel cares.

It was kinda scary, how much Joel cared. Not because she was scared of him -- never. She hadn’t been scared of him since… oh, maybe the second day of their journey (and even then she wasn’t really scared, more like wary), a billion years ago. The way Joel felt about her now… she really didn’t know what to do with all that caring. It was so intense. Just thinking about how deep those feelings ran… it gave her a funny feeling in her stomach. Not haha-funny, or bad-funny. It was a good feeling… sort of… she felt it at other times, too. Sometimes when he touched her, or even just when she anticipated him touching her… or thought about it when he wasn’t even around…

That wasn’t what she needed to be thinking about now, either. It would only make her more confused, more inclined to just forgive Joel like he’d done nothing bad and everything was normal. It would never be normal again. She had to leave Jackson. Right?

Why hadn’t Joel explained everything to her when she’d woken up? Marlene hadn’t given her the choice on whether to have the surgery or not, but then Joel hadn’t given her one either. Instead of driving away, he could have hidden with her somewhere nearby while the drugs wore off. It was her life -- not Joel’s, not Marlene’s. And neither one of them had acted like she had any say in the matter. Had Joel done that because he’d killed everyone and it wouldn’t have done her any good to stay there? No. Because they could have continued the journey, could have tried to find more Fireflies, or maybe even military doctors, someone who could use the research the Fireflies had done. Instead, he gave up, because he didn’t want her to die –- to hell with their mission. The thought was infuriating, but how could she be angry with the man for wanting her to live? Keep your feelings towards Joel out of this, Ellie! She had to figure out what to do and going around in circles about Joel was just too confusing. Somehow she had to be objective… to think in third-person, maybe.

Ellie laid down on her back. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine being in a coffin, being lowered into the cold, dark ground… Don’t. You won’t feel it when it happens. You probably won’t even have a coffin, but it doesn’t matter. You’ll be dead: you won’t feel cold, you won’t have flashbacks, you won’t have nightmares. You will be NOTHING. She opened her eyes and vowed to keep them open. She didn’t know what caused her occasional panic attacks so she couldn’t take any chances, and she already knew that darkness was dangerous for the fucked-up, unhinged part of her brain that liked to torment her with shit that wasn’t there.

How long was she going to stay out here? She knew Joel would be worried… Good. That’s what he gets for lying to me. If she had to listen to him spout any more bullshit, she’d never make any headway processing everything and she’d get more confused. She’d had to get out of there; when would it be safe to go back? She’d have to make up her mind about some things first.

Knowing what she now knew, she didn’t see how she could just happily go about her business every day, milking cows and feeding chickens and mucking out stalls at the farm, or copying things out of books onto index cards –- like any of it fucking mattered. It wasn’t a reason to live. Anyone could do those things. She was replaceable, here. What she could give to the Fireflies, to the rest of the fucking world, was a much rarer thing. She might not be the only person who was immune, but there weren’t that many known cases out there. Clearly it was her destiny to make a difference. It sucked that she had to die, but hey, people died every day. Why should she be spared? Everyone had lost loved ones in a way that was somehow related to the pandemic. Everyone. She could help stop that from happening. She could help the world take a huge step towards what it had once been, that fantastical place she saw in movies that had actually been real… she could save it from extinction. Her piddly little life just didn’t matter. She was worth so much more dead than she was alive.

Ellie had somewhat succeeded in thinking all this as if she were outside of herself, like it was happening to someone else. It felt peculiar, like she had already ceased to exist… but it was definitely easier this way. Feeling sad about dying would just freak her the fuck out about it all. She could put that off until she found the Fireflies, or whoever else would know how to harvest her insides… couldn’t she? She had to be strong. She didn’t even know if she could make it to that hospital again. Not on her own, not without Joel.

Joel. How could she say goodbye to him? He’d never let her leave without him. It shouldn’t be up to him, though –- she wasn’t what the town considered ‘legal age,’ but Joel also wasn’t her father. Would they make her wait until she was eighteen? No fucking way. She could find another way out, then. She could stow away in one of the trade wagons… she wouldn’t have a horse that way, unless she could get Annie to help her out with that somehow. Annie was underage too, so maybe she could persuade her mom to do it. None of that would be necessary if Joel would go with her. She’d still have to say goodbye to him, after they reached their destination… Fuck. He wouldn’t let her march off to her death like that, either. She could talk until she was blue in the face about destiny and how it’s not his call and all that, but he wouldn’t hear a word of it.

This was an impossible situation.

If Joel wouldn’t go with her, would Tommy? He’d been willing to once before. That was definitely an option worth considering. Tommy had authority here that Joel did not. If, by Jackson law, Joel was considered her parent, Tommy could still overrule Joel’s decision to not let her out, couldn’t he? Even if he didn’t want to help her on her journey, he could get her started. Would Tommy betray his brother like that? Joel had said they weren’t close, not since they’d had that falling out years ago… they seemed to get along okay for the most part now, though. Tommy used to be a Firefly -- he might see her side and decide it was worth going behind Joel’s back. And she had no doubt that Joel would have to be completely unaware that it was happening, or it would never happen. She wouldn’t get to say goodbye… couldn’t act any different at all or he’d know something was up.

Ellie heard horse hooves and held her breath, like the sound of her breathing might somehow carry to the street. The clopping sound died out and in the distance, she heard someone shouting her name. It sounded kind of like Joel but not quite… must be Tommy.

And she’d just been thinking about asking for his help. Maybe it was a sign! Should she go talk to him?

No, no talking yet. She needed more time.

She also needed to pee. How many people were out looking for her? She’d better be quick. As quietly as she could, she pushed the slab off to the side and crawled over to the rubble-stairs. When she was about halfway down, she turned and jumped to the ground floor, her heart pounding as if she were in danger, hiding from enemies instead of friends. Where should she relieve herself… no one would probably ever know or care if she went in this acrid old house, but she just couldn’t, she had to go outside. The backyard was still partially enclosed; it seemed safe.

Ellie did her business in a corner of the yard (the weeds were actually tall enough to hide her when she squatted), pulled her pants back up, and sat down a few feet away. It was a beautiful, sunny day. She didn’t really want to go back up to her stinky cavern. It’s not about what you want, Ellie. If you stay out here, someone will find you and make you talk to Joel. The days of doing what you want are over.

Back in the hidey-hole, she resumed her mental planning. More like running through what-if scenarios. It was calming, in a way. It made her feel like she was in control. If she kept it all business, it was fine. When her thoughts inevitably turned to Joel… she couldn’t do what-ifs with him. Just thinking about him at all beckoned the pain back from wherever she had shoved it, and threatened the disassociation she needed to get through this.

That was a problem. If it was painful just thinking about him, what would happen when she actually saw him? And there was no getting around that. Before she left, she’d have to see him. She’d want to say goodbye to a few other people in Jackson… what would she tell them? She’d need to come up with a good story to –- no, she didn’t need to concoct some elaborate lie. She would just truthfully say that she had her reasons for leaving, and that she couldn’t explain. It would be kinder that way. They could imagine her going on to live a happy life somewhere else.

There, that was more like it. She could have imaginary conversations with people like Paige from the library, or Jacob, or some of the other kids. It was a little harder to stay detached when it was Annie, or Clicker, or Tommy and Maria… and thinking about them brought her back to Joel.

Fuck you, Joel. You brought me here and let me make friends and now it will be that much harder to leave!

If she had to think about Joel, and thus, feel something about Joel, she decided she’d rather be pissed off than sad.

Ellie continued to think, to plot, to rage, and when her brain had had enough of that, it reverted to pure blankness. It became more cyclical as the day went on. The plotting was getting more ridiculous. She couldn’t decide what to do, so she’d start thinking about stupid shit like how to get Maria to make her favorite dinner the day before she left without giving herself away, or what book she should pilfer from the library for her journey (only one, and it should be a book they have multiples of, so swiping it would be okay). Then she’d remember that those things weren’t for her anymore, that she wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything ever again. When she shifted focus to something more important, like how the hell she’d manage to leave in the first place, it always led back to Joel, either deceiving him so she could escape or saying goodbye to him… which led to getting angry (fuck feeling sad), and then shutting down. She laid there on her side, with her face in the slab, most of the outside light blocked by her back. Not all of it… she couldn’t risk that. Couldn’t close her eyes, either.

When she snapped out of the daze, the light was dimmer. She must have been zoned out for a while; the sun was starting to set. She couldn’t stay in this corner at night, it would creep her the fuck out. But she didn’t want to go home, either. She sat up again; she was getting kind of restless. She pulled her switchblade out of her pocket and started fiddling with it.

Ellie remembered when she thought she’d lost it. She’d been so upset. After being held captive by cannibals and nearly sliced to bits, chased and attacked by a crazy man, it was silly to get emotional over a piece of metal, but she had. She and Joel had made it about halfway back to their ‘house,’ walking in silence, when she’d blurted out that she’d lost her mother’s knife back in that restaurant. She had expected Joel to say it was all right, he’d find her another one, it was more important that she was alive and safe. Instead, he’d turned them right around and they’d walked all the way back, even though she could tell he was in a ton of pain. Joel had known how important it was to her to have something of her mother’s. He’d said they could rest nearby, lay low for a while, that David’s men would leave the restaurant after finding his body, maybe even stop looking for them altogether. She hadn’t really wanted to set foot in that place again, but that was preferable to Joel going in alone, so they’d searched it together. Joel had found the blade and handed it to her, which had made her cry, just a little. For some reason, it hadn’t felt as awkward as it should have. Joel hadn’t said a word about it, he’d just put his arm around her and walked them out.

That was the only day she’d ever cried in front of him. Even after Henry and Sam. As a general rule, she wasn’t a crier. And today, she hadn’t shed a tear. Nor would she. Crying was a waste of time and energy.

Ellie turned the blade over in her hands, traced it with her fingers… ran it lightly up her sleeve, tugging the cloth up her arm a little to expose the gross blisters of her bite wound. The fucking thing didn’t seem to want to heal. She wished she could slice away the ugliness with her mother’s knife. The words of her mother’s letter (which Ellie had memorized) seemed to taunt her now… “Find your purpose and fight for it” –Okay. She knew her purpose now, and yes, she’d have to fight. But then there was “the thing you always have to remember is that life is worth living!” right before that. Really, Mom? Which one is it, then? The letter ended with “Make me proud, Ellie!” which would seem to tip the scales in favor of fighting for a purpose.

Ellie closed the blade and tucked it back in her pocket. She thought about Marlene’s last one-sided conversation with her mother on that recorder. “Your daughter will be with you soon”… Ellie didn’t really believe that shit. But… what did she know? What if it was real? She could scoff at people who believed, but she didn’t fucking know anything for sure. She might see her mother, and somehow she would know her even though she never had, in life… would she see Riley too? She could imagine Riley there, waiting for her, smirking at her: “Bitch, what took you so long?”

It was a nice fantasy, but… BUT BUT BUT. She couldn’t psyche herself up to die for it. Not when it was probably a lie (isn’t that what all fantasies were?), and not when… Joel is here, how can I leave him? I couldn’t bear it. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to die, I want to live… here, with him… we’ve been so happy here together… oh God I don’t wanna die I don’t wanna die I don’t wanna die…

She hugged her knees to her chest and buried her face in them. She wasn’t crying yet, but it was coming, if she kept thinking about Joel… kept feeling… This is all your fault, Joel, you stupid motherfucker, how could you do this to me? You should have just let me die and I never would have known the fucking difference!

Enough thinking, time to start planning… planning the impossible…

The cycle was starting to wear on her nerves. It reminded her of the last time she’d had a fever, back in the Zone. Lying in bed, feeling hot and throwing off her blanket only to feel cold and pull it back over her the next minute, and the terrible delirium… running through chapters in her history textbook, the same facts over and over again, no rhyme or reason to it, and she couldn’t make her brain stop torturing her with the repetition, until finally by some miracle, sleep rescued her.

Ellie didn’t want to sleep now. It made her think of how she’d be sleeping forever soon enough, how could she ever sleep again, and waste one more minute of life… like all the minutes she was wasting up here… going in circles, trying to get from Point A to Point B but constantly veering off course.

She didn’t know what she wanted to do. She stubbornly wanted things to go back to how they were, and that just wasn’t an option.

And she wanted Joel. But… she also didn’t. She had to be more ready when she saw him. Stronger. With a plan. A solid plan that she could actually carry out.

She heard something… a soft voice… footsteps nearby… it sounded kind of like Joel, but, what was that dumb saying… with a frog in his throat? She held her breath and listened intently. It was definitely Joel. He was talking to her. How the fuck does he know I’m here?! He can’t see me! Did he see me move a little? She kept perfectly still.

“You can hate me,” Joel said in that raspy voice. “I get it. I don’ mind. …Not that I want you to hate me, but you have every right to an’ I… I’ll respect that. You need space? You got it. Jus’ let me know you’re all right.”

Ellie kept holding her breath. She waited for him to say something like “Come on out of that hole now”… but he didn’t. She heard him walking around downstairs. Did he not know her exact location?

“Ellie… God, it reeks in here… yeah, I know you ain’t here, you picked a nicer house to hide in. But I had to look. Gotta look everywhere.”

He was talking to himself! But to her.

“Tommy can go to hell. All of ‘em can. I’ll get them back out here in the mornin’ if I have to. Well, I won’ have to, I’ll find you before then…”

She dared to breathe as he moved to another area of the house, or maybe to the backyard. He stopped talking to her. She listened to him search for another minute or so, then he faded away as he moved on to the next house. She felt kind of asshole-ish for not announcing her presence, but... not yet. She would know when it was time. He could wait a little bit longer.

Maybe he’d get so mad at her that he’d be glad to let her leave Jackson…

Ellie didn’t really believe that. But… if she was damaging their relationship by staying away from him, that was a good thing –- it would make it easier for both of them. Get some of the hurt out of the way early. That’s the way she had to think of it. If she felt weak, like maybe she wouldn’t be able to go through with her sacrifice, it would help to think that Joel didn’t really want her around anyway. She imagined Joel being mean. “Go on, Ellie, I’m tired of dealing with you anyhow. I fucking killed for you and you didn’t even thank me for it, you little shit. There’s a reason everyone leaves you, you know.”

But imagining that was somehow even more painful than knowing she had to die, and it didn’t do any good because it only made her think ‘Joel would never say that,’ which brought her back to reality… and the reality was, Joel cared about her, and he wouldn’t stop just because she was being a dick today.

Wait, I’m not the dick – HE is! Damnit, Ellie, stay angry at him. He betrayed you.

Joel’s presence in the house for that little bit sure seemed to have thrown off the cycle, at least. She didn’t feel angry at the moment, even when she tried. It was hard for her to comprehend that he was a liar and not to be trusted… in her heart, she couldn’t believe that their whole life here was a lie (is that even the conclusion I’m supposed to come to?!). She felt bad for Joel, still searching for her after all this time. Was his voice fucked up because he’d been talking to himself like that all day, or because he’d been crying a lot? Joel never cried. If he was crying about her…

He shouldn’t be. It’ll be better for him when I’m gone, he can move on with his life and not have to worry about me anymore. Ouch, that was an agonizing thought. She’d tried to think it in a detached, cold way, but she’d failed, because it fucking hurt. She tried to tell herself he’d be sad for a while and then get over it and be fine... and that shouldn’t be painful to think, right? She wanted Joel to be happy. But… Ellie wanted to be happy too. Happy, not dead. She wanted to have a life, with things to look forward to. Silly things, like beating a level of some video game (and Clicker giving her shit when she fucked up)… trying to get Annie to say a cuss word… playing make-believe games with the little kids as if she were a kid herself… listening to the happy chatter at the dinner table… none of it mattered anymore. It was all so petty. Those sorts of things were for people who could quietly go on living, people whose actions would only affect a small circle of people in the world. Not for her.

Ellie also wanted to look forward to the not-so-silly things… like sex. It sucked that she’d never get to have it, she’d never know what it felt like. And she’d never get to have a boyfriend or get married or have kids. Stop it! She’d go batshit thinking about the unfairness. Having sex, though… that wasn’t necessarily out of the question… maybe Joel could show me what it’s like before I go…

Whoa! She really was going batshit, why would she think such a thing?! That was disgusting. Joel was like her father. She didn’t exactly know what a father/daughter relationship was supposed to be like, but she knew it didn’t involve fucking. What was wrong with her?

Ellie’s head was starting to ache… physically, for a change. She needed to get out of the corner. It was too dark now. Joel presumably wouldn’t come back through here for a while, if at all –- he did say he thought she’d pick a better house. Ellie decided she wanted to be up on the roof. She could easily climb up there. And she needed to really figure out what to do instead of thinking crazy shit.

The moon was far from full, but it lit the roof decently. Ellie stretched out by lying flat on the rooftop, limbs spread as if she were making a snow angel. That made her think of winter, and how she wouldn’t be seeing it again. Or fall. Summer was nearly here, she might get to see a little of it. She wouldn’t get to go to Jackson’s second annual Fourth of July barbecue, though. And Joel would never teach her how to swim.

Suddenly she felt chilled. It hadn’t occurred to her, while she was freaking out that morning, to grab a jacket. She sat up and hugged her knees again. That was a little better. Death was a cold thing. Much colder than this. There was no hunger in death… she didn’t feel hungry. No thirst… well, she was kind of thirsty. She’d gone a day or so without water before, though. Joel always suffered more than she did, in that regard. His muscles would cramp up if he got dehydrated. He said it would probably happen to her too when she got older.

I’ll never have to suffer through the bad things about getting old, at least? That was no consolation. She didn’t want to be comforted anyway, she wanted to not feel. Joel wouldn’t help her with that -- he would try to console her. It would be up to her to resist his efforts. Or… maybe he would get fed up with her. Maybe he’d kick her out of the house. “You wanna run away? Fine, don’t come back.” Maybe he wouldn’t go that far, but he might yell at her. She hoped he did. It wasn’t too hard to feel angry at someone who was yelling at you. That’s what she had to remember… don’t be sad, don’t let him hurt you.

As time went on, it seemed more plausible that the mean Joel in her head could be real. Which made her want to talk to him, to make sure she hadn’t totally fucked things up. Except… that’s what she wanted, to make her departure easier, wasn’t it?


Ellie needed to get into I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-anything mode… and she couldn’t. She finally resigned herself to not getting any further ‘productive thinking’ done, at least not until she’d talked to Joel. She needed more details about who he’d left alive at the hospital, if he knew anyone’s name… she didn’t think that would make much difference, because she hadn’t talked to all that many Fireflies besides Marlene back in Boston… Marlene was gone (don’t think about her either), so who was their leader now? Would they be waiting for Ellie to come back? Maybe even actively searching for her? To do what… kidnap her, if she didn’t agree to help them? Probably. Marlene had ordered her killed for this; Ellie wasn’t given a choice then, so why would they give her one later?

She was tired of ruminating. For a while, she looked out at the silvery buildings, the shadows, the trees... she wasn’t a real person anymore, she was nothing… she could empty her mind, her heart… then it was peaceful… sort of. Not happy-peaceful, but nothing-peaceful. She could stay like this forever. An occasional wind sent shivers through her, which snapped her out of the tranquility of her daze. She thought that if she had to choose, freezing to death wouldn’t be a bad way to go. She knew it wasn’t cold enough to freeze (it wasn’t even cold enough for her to see her breath), but she imagined she was stranded on a snowy rooftop, no warmth or comfort of any kind around her for miles.

Just thinking ‘I’m cold’ kept the more troublesome thoughts away and helped her slip back into the trance. In time, she became numb to the cold breezes as well, and her head was so full of emptiness that her brain must surely be hollow by now and she’d never have to think or feel anything ever again.

Except it wasn’t. The next thing that snapped her out of nothingness was Joel’s voice. The real flesh-and-blood Joel… her mind wasn’t playing a trick on her. He was shining a light on her, and she got the impression he’d said her name a few times before she’d registered his presence. She hadn’t even heard him approaching. She had no idea how long she’d been sitting there. Suddenly she became aware that her ass was numb and sore. It felt like she’d just woken from a weird dream and hadn’t quite gotten her bearings, even though she hadn’t closed her eyes… had she?

“Ellie, will you please come down from there?” he asked her hoarsely.

Ellie peered down at him. He’d shifted the light so it wasn’t blasting her in the face, but she couldn’t make him out at all in the darkness behind it. Now she didn’t want to talk to him, again. She was afraid of… what, exactly? Him being too mean or being too nice? “I will. Later.” Her voice was scratchy too, like she hadn’t used it in eons. And it seemed odd that her empty body could produce such a sound. She felt light-headed and just… strange. Unhuman.

Joel was quiet for a moment. “Okay then… would you mind if I joined you?”

No, this is my spot, mine alone, you can’t join me. No one can. She couldn’t say that. “No, don’t come up here. I’ll come home soon.”

He didn’t argue, didn’t sigh with disgust or exasperation, didn’t make any noise at all, for a long moment. She could barely hear his reply: “If you change your mind an’ want some company, I’ll be right here.” He switched the light off and sat down on a grassy patch along the side of the house… closer to the neighboring house, actually. She could easily see him now in the soft moonlight -- his form, at least; she couldn’t really see his face.

Ellie remembered that she was angry at him. How could she have forgotten? He did this to me. He saved me just so I could die a slower, more excruciating death. He lied, every day we’ve been here has been a lie, and he killed people who didn’t need to die. He killed MARLENE. All so I could have a few happy weeks. Not that he knew it would be such a short time before I found out… but if he did, wouldn’t he have still done it anyway?

He’d ruined everything. How could they be like father and daughter now? Maybe she could tell him that she didn’t want to be his pretend-daughter anymore. It would be a lie, of course. Payback’s a bitch. He’d be hurt, but then he’d have to let her go, and she could do what she had to do. He’d get over it. And she wouldn’t have to get over it, because she’d be dead.

Ellie tried to psyche herself up for this. She played it out in her head, practiced telling Joel that they needed to split up. That it’s what she wanted. He wouldn’t believe her if she couldn’t look at him when she said it, which was a problem. Yeah, she would definitely fuck it up. She wished she could lie as easily as Joel did. Fuck, she couldn’t even really look at him now, a mere faceless shadowy blob down on the ground… but she knew it was Joel. That he was sitting there, waiting for her. If she sat up here for days, he’d probably still be there… waiting for an invitation she wanted to give him but couldn’t.

Maybe he didn’t care so much about the invitation as he did about keeping her safe. It had just occurred to her that she hadn’t given any real thought to her own personal safety all day –- a day not spent with Joel, no less. She knew it was the broken part of her brain that wouldn’t register the fact that she was safe in Jackson, so this appeared to be progress towards normalcy… except that she knew it was only because she’d been so out of it that she didn’t care. Funny that she became aware of it now, when Joel was there, her safety guaranteed. Usually it was a two-way street, each looking out for the other, but there were times when she was with Joel that she forgot, which made her feel guilty later. Joel never forgot.

She would never be able to tell him she didn’t want to be with him anymore. The thought of him believing it even for a second made her sad, even though she was trying to think about it in a detached, rational manner; Joel’s presence seemed to be dampening her ability to think that way.

You’re mad at him, Ellie reminded herself again, guiltily. It felt like she was betraying Marlene by sympathizing with her killer. But… Marlene betrayed me first. She was willing to sacrifice me… she wasn’t thrilled about it, but she was willing. Joel wasn’t. Maybe he just wanted to spare himself the pain that Marlene was willing to bear... but Joel has done more for me in the past year than Marlene has my whole life. Marlene looked out for me because she had to, as an obligation to her dead friend. Joel also did it because he had to, but he had to because he just… can’t NOT.

And Marlene had passed her off to Joel easily enough. Marlene had been wounded, but couldn’t they have held up a couple days while she healed? Marlene hadn’t wanted to risk her own neck if she could get Joel and Tess to risk theirs instead. And Ellie had been upset the first time she and Joel had come through Jackson, when Joel had tried to ditch her… but when she’d happened to think about it a couple months later, she’d realized she didn’t have a right to be upset with him, because he didn’t have any obligation to her. She was just a job to him. Smuggled goods. It wasn’t his fault she’d grown to care about him.

Luckily for her, he’d cared enough not to go through with it, and she knew he’d grown even more fond of her in the months since. He’d been searching for her probably most of the day and night, and he was sitting down there now, waiting patiently… and Joel wasn’t exactly a patient man.

I want to talk to him! I HAVE to talk to him, I’m going crazy. She was nowhere near strong enough, but… she was beginning to think she never would be. Not the way she wanted to be.

“Okay,” she called out to him. She stood up and winced at the ache in her butt. Joel scrambled to his feet. “I’m coming down. Through this… little area here…”

Joel headed inside and shined his light up at her again, following her movement. And it was a good thing, because the moonlight wasn’t really cutting it here. She dropped down off the roof easily enough -- it was all caved in where she’d climbed up. Getting down from the second floor would be a little harder. “Careful,” Joel cautioned her. “Let me help you…”

“I got it. If you just wanna shine the light there… yeah, that’s good.” She turned her back to him to slowly climb down the debris to the first floor, until she got down far enough to safely turn around -- the spot she’d jumped from earlier. She could have jumped or slid down, but Joel was right there in front of her, and he was reaching up to help her… or maybe to catch her if she fell… before she knew it, she was in his arms.

And he wasn’t letting go. In fact, he was holding her so tight she almost couldn’t breathe. It felt so fucking good that Ellie finally did what she’d been determined not to do all day: she cried.

Author's Note: I'm sorry it's so long! But I couldn't break it down -- I truly felt that this needed to be all one chapter.

~Continue to Chapter 13~

Tags: accretion, fic, tlou
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