Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 5902
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: An outside opinion... and a proposition.
Ellie didn’t fall into a deep sleep. She kept waking up… like her mind was still fighting the idea of being unconscious. Joel was sleeping like a… log? Whatever that dumb expression was. She rolled over onto her side, her back to him, and he rolled over too. Draped his arm over her. Okay, so logs probably didn’t move at all in their sleep, that expression didn’t apply. She wondered if even in his slumber he was afraid of her leaving him. It was going to be so hard to give him up, if she did decide to leave. She’d never be able to do it, especially not if she kept using him as a sleep aid. But when she thought of him sleeping on the couch, while she was in the bed… she couldn’t imagine it. She’d have to be further away from him, like in a different house -- crazy as that sounded.
Contradictory thoughts kept battling in her head. Was she angry with Joel, or touched by how much he cared? Should she try to figure out how to escape, or try to accept the decision Joel had made for her? And if she decided to leave, should she distance herself from Joel, or enjoy what little time they had left? One minute she felt one way, and the next minute it changed. She was going to have to make up her mind at some point. Pick a side and go with it.
Ellie must have dozed again because when she heard a soft rapping on the door, she noticed the room was suddenly full of morning light. Joel was still asleep. She carefully extricated herself from him, stuck her feet in her slippers, and padded over to the door. “Who is it?” she asked in a loud whisper.
“Ellie, hey! It’s Tommy. I hope I didn’ wake you. I wasn’ even sure you all would be home.”
She unbolted the door and opened it. It was a little strange to talk to Tommy in her nightgown, but it was long and not-see-through and covered pretty much all of her, so not embarrassing-strange. “Joel was gonna come see you… it was really late when we got back last night. He’s still asleep.”
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” He looked genuinely concerned.
Ellie shrugged. I guess I’m gonna have to lie when people ask me that. “Can I talk to you… some time? Maria too.”
“Of course. Do you wanna come back to the house now?”
It was tempting. Joel wouldn’t like it, and part of her still wanted to punish him. “I would, but… I think Joel would freak out if he woke up and I wasn’t here.”
As if on cue, Joel called out from the bedroom. “Ellie? Ellie!”
“I’m out here!” she called back. “I’m fine, go back to sleep!”
Tommy looked puzzled. “So… he wasn’t sleepin’?”
“He was, I guess he…” Oh shit. Tommy’s wondering why he heard Joel’s voice coming from the wrong side of the house. She didn’t think sharing the bed was anything to be ashamed of, but she’d promised Joel to keep it a secret. “Maybe he um… had to go to the bathroom and saw I wasn’t there in the bed…” Yep, she was a liar too, apparently. Not that her lie was anywhere near the caliber of Joel’s.
Ellie thought that explanation was plausible, but Tommy seemed skeptical. “Mind if I come inside?” he asked, clearly expecting her not to mind as he took a step forward before she’d even replied.
She held her ground, though. “No! No, come back when Joel’s awake.”
“I’m awake,” Joel announced as he walked up behind her. “That my brother you’re talkin’ to?”
Joel swung the door back a little more, but he filled the doorway much more effectively than Ellie had, so Tommy’s view of the totally-not-slept-on couch was probably blocked. Hopefully.
“Joel. You still look –- and sound -- like shit,” Tommy said with a grin. “Glad you finally found her.” He glanced at Ellie. “Or did you go find him?”
“He found me. After I moved.” Ellie turned back to Joel, and tried to sound natural. “Joel, you should go lay down on the couch and get some more sleep.” Oh my God that was so obvious. Shit!
At least it was obvious enough that Joel picked up on it. “Right. Tommy, would you mind gettin’ word to Craig that I’ll need a… well, some time, not sure how long.”
“I can do that,” Tommy replied, looking back and forth between Joel and Ellie like… Fuck, he knows. Or at least suspects. Maybe he thinks it’s more than what it is. “While you get some more shut-eye, Ellie’s gonna come over to the house.”
Before she could even explain that that’s not what she said, Joel responded. “Oh no she ain’t. Ellie, you need some more sleep too. We’ll come over later.”
“I think Ellie might like to talk to me without you around.”
Joel snorted. “Well, that ain’t gonna happen. We’ll see you later.”
The two brothers were looking at each other so intensely that Ellie got the impression they were saying as much with their eyes as with their words. If not more.
“You don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t talk to,” Ellie said crossly.
Joel kept his gaze on Tommy. “You can talk to him. But not without me present.”
And Tommy kept his on Joel. “Ellie, you don’ need permission to—“
“Tommy, jus’ stay out of it!” Joel interrupted him, scowling. “Don’t tell her what to do.”
Tommy looked incredulous. “Oh, I’m the one tellin’ her what to do?”
“Um, hello? Guys? I’m right here.” She might as well not have been, for all the attention they paid her.
Joel glowered at Tommy. “There’s nothin’ she needs to say to you that she can’t say in front of me.”
“Is that right? Why don’t you let Ellie decide that?”
“Because Ellie is confused. You’d only confuse her more.”
“If she’s confused, it ain’t ‘cause of me.”
“I’m handling it, Tommy.”
“That ain’t what it looks like to me. Looks to me like you’re fuckin’ it up.”
“Stop it, you guys.” Ellie noticed Joel was doing the fist-clenching thing and she was glad that she stood between the two men. She moved a little to her right so that she was standing completely in front of Joel. “Do you wanna talk right now? The three of us?”
Tommy said yes while Joel said no.
“Well, I vote yes, that’s two to one,” Ellie declared.
“This ain’t ‘majority rules,’ Ellie,” Joel grumbled.
Tommy snorted. “What is it, then? All hail King Joel?”
“I’m lookin’ out for her best interests!”
“Is that what you’re doin’? I’m beginnin’ to wonder. Especially after…” A look of repulsion flitted across Tommy’s face.
“After what? What the fuck is that s’posed to mean?!”
Oh fuck fuck fuck does he mean the bed thing? She’d better shut down this line of conversation. “Both of you, shut up! I change my vote to ‘no’ if you guys are just gonna keep arguing! This isn’t helping anything.”
“Fine by me,” Joel said, eyes still locked on Tommy. “Come on, Ellie, let’s get back inside.”
Ellie bit her lip. Joel had taken a step back, but he waited right there for her to close the door… like if he dared to walk away, she and Tommy might have some furtive exchange there in the doorway? She really did want to talk to Tommy, though. If Tommy could still speak his mind with Joel present, and it sure seemed like he could, she didn’t mind Joel being there. “Tommy, just give us a minute?”
Joel sighed. “Ellie, you jus’ said—“
“I do want to talk to him, though.”
Tommy lowered his voice. “Ellie, if there’s somethin’ you wanna tell me, privately, don’ let Joel stop you. Maybe later.”
Joel heard him, though. “Jesus Christ, Tommy, give it a rest already.” He pulled Ellie inside, and she barely managed to shout a ‘be right back’ to Tommy before Joel slammed the door.
“Joel, I think he knows you were sleeping in the bedroom,” she hissed.
“Shit. You mean ‘cause I hollered from in there?”
Unsure of how soundproof the house was, Ellie tugged him further away from the door and went into her mile-a-minute mode. “Yeah, I messed up, I shouldn’t’ve said you were asleep, at least not the second time -- I tried to make it sound like maybe you went to the bathroom and noticed I wasn’t in the room but then I remembered you would’ve seen me at the door if you got up off the couch, so maybe you were already in there a little while and I got up and went to the door after you went in so you didn’t know, cuz you were like… taking a shit, I guess, or, well, it wasn’t that long, it coulda been a long pee… oh! No -- I got a better idea! You were so wiped out that I let you sleep in the bed last night and I slept on the couch. That’s perfect!”
Joel listened to her spiel with some amusement, then shook his head. “You’re overthinkin’ it. We don’ gotta explain nothin’. The more we try to make it sound like we weren’t sleepin’ to—- sleepin’ on that mattress, the more he’ll think that’s exactly what we were doin’. Besides, never in my life have I let a woman take the couch while I slept in a bed. Don’ matter how tired I am. I’m gonna go throw some clothes on, since you insist on talkin’ to my goddamn brother.”
Ellie flushed with pleasure when he referred to her as a woman. Well, sort of referred. In a way. Yes, it counted, she decided. “Okay, well, I’m gonna mess up the couch some like you were sleeping there. I don’t think he saw it from the doorstep…” How obvious would it be if Tommy had seen a tidy couch which had magically become slept-on when he entered the house? It was a gamble. She unfolded the couch blanket and started tossing the cushions about. “Maybe we could just sit on the porch.”
“No, not with what we’re gonna be talkin’ about, it’s too risky if we get loud," Joel answered from the bedroom. "An’ you know there’s a good chance of that happenin'. Don't worry about it. It's none of his business." When he returned to the front room, he looked at the couch and laughed. “Do I thrash around in my sleep or somethin’? That thing looks like a tornado hit it.”
“Too much?” Ellie took a few steps back and surveyed her handiwork. Okay, so it did kind of look like some little kids had been making a fort out of it.
Joel waved her aside. “Go get dressed an’ I’ll fix it.”
Ellie dressed quickly in her other pair of jeans (the ones that didn’t have black junk all over them) and her standard two layers of T-shirts; she was lucky they hadn’t ended up in a climate where she couldn’t get away with wearing long sleeves year-round to hide her ‘condition.’ She’d have to wash yesterday’s clothes here by hand to avoid some snarky remark from one of the laundry bitches. Joel’s shirt, too. Ellie had once suggested to Joel that they wash all of their clothes at home in the shower and dry them on the porch –- she’d even been willing to do the whole job herself -- but Joel had shot that down, for various reasons. Eh, fuck it -- none of it mattered anymore. What should I say to Tommy?
Joel ushered Tommy inside while she was pulling her hair into a ponytail. She heard Joel say “Lemme jus’ make the couch” like it was a normal part of his morning routine, and she had to stifle a laugh. Good thing she wasn’t in the room because if Tommy had seen her face he would have known for sure. Joel being a cool liar wasn’t completely a bad thing.
Since they only had two chairs in the house, the couch was the most logical place to sit. She declared that she would sit in between them… which she did, but Joel sat next to her and Tommy pulled a dining chair over on her other side. The three of them totally could have fit on the couch, Ellie thought, but maybe it was better for the brothers to be a little further apart from each other. She wondered if it was even possible for them to talk civilly about her predicament.
Tommy spoke up first. “Joel, why are so afraid of Ellie talkin’ to me alone?”
“I don’ want you indulgin’ some crazy idea of hers.”
“It wouldn’t be crazy,” Ellie interjected. “Joel thinks any idea he doesn’t agree with is crazy.”
“I do not,” Joel grumbled. He looked at Tommy. “I don’t want you or anyone else to help her leave Jackson to go kill herself.”
Tommy took offense. “Now why would I do that? You really think I’m that much of an asshole?” He turned to Ellie. “Is that really what you’re thinkin’ about doin’?”
Joel started to answer for her, but Ellie interrupted him. “I can speak for myself. No, that’s not… I’m just thinking about maybe trying to find the Fireflies. And try to… do what I was meant to do.”
“Which means you end up dead,” Joel clarified.
“Not necessarily,” she protested. “But if I do, then… that’s what’s supposed to happen.” She felt strangely calm, like she was a separate person from the Ellie they were discussing who would probably be killed.
“You are fifteen years old,” said Joel. “Whatever is ‘supposed’ to happen, it don’t include dyin’.” He frowned at her, then at Tommy. “She believes in the glorious cause of the Fireflies, like you used to.”
“Hey, it’s not about the Fireflies,” she said irritably. “It’s about, you know, saving mankind. It doesn’t have to be the Fireflies. They’re just… the ones we’ve seen who can do it.”
“They don’ know shit,” Joel scoffed. “She thinks that all she has to do is go die on their table, and wooooo! Instantly we’re all cured, no more Infected—“
“I do not think that! You’re making me sound like a complete moron.”
“You’re not stupid, but you are innocent… naïve about the way the world works…”
“Well, if that’s true, what about Marlene, you think she’s naïve? Because she was willing to sacrif—“
“Marlene didn’ sacrifice nothin’ of value to her, Ellie. If she really cared about you, she never woulda—“
“Bullshit! She did care! She was just looking at the big picture!” Ellie had to believe at least that much was true.
Joel sighed. “I know you wanna think that, an’ she wanted to think that too to justify orderin’ a young girl to be killed, but it don’ mean she did the right thing.”
Ellie turned to Tommy, who was just sitting there quietly absorbing all this. “Tommy. What do you think? Who did the right thing, Marlene or Joel?”
Joel snorted. “Oh, ‘cause Tommy’s some authority on what’s—“
“Let him talk, Joel. I wanna hear what he thinks about all this.”
Tommy’s expression was… sad. Contemplative. “I think it ain’t as black and white as the two of you make it sound.”
Joel threw his hands up in exasperation. “Great, so no one’s right an’ no one’s wrong?”
“Actually, I think you were more in the right than Marlene was, until you started killin’ everyone in sight. That’s the part I take issue with.”
“I had no choice!”
“Of course you had a choice! But what’s done is done—“
“So you think I shoulda jus’ waved goodbye to Ellie an’ walked on outta there like nothin’ happened? Like it was too late to save her?”
“It was too late. Yes. Marlene made a shitty decision, but that don’ give you the right to murder her an’ everyone else over it. You say Ellie’s innocent? Well, they were all innocent too, they didn’ deserve to die that day either.”
“So you’re sayin’ you wish Ellie had died instead of all the shitheads in there. See, Ellie, this is why I didn’ want you talkin’ to him.”
Tommy sighed. “That ain’t what I meant. I wish no one had died—“
“Well, that wasn’t an option! It was either her, or a bunch of motherfuckers I didn’ know, didn’ care about. There was nothin’ else I coulda done!”
Joel was getting really fidgety. Ellie put her hand on his knee, which stopped it from jiggling and seemed to calm him down at least a little bit… and also seemed to give Tommy a chance to shift gears.
“It’s in the past,” Tommy said placidly. “We can’t change it. No use arguin’ about it. The issue is what to do goin’ forward. Is that right, Ellie?”
Again, it was Joel who answered. “It’s not an issue. She’s stayin’ here. She’s not doin’ a goddamn thing to try to help the Fireflies find their miracle cure.”
Ellie sighed and brought her hand back to her lap. “I don’t want to leave. I like it here. I’m happy. I thought I’d never be happy again, but I am. I mean, I was. That’s the thing… I can’t stay here because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
“Which is ridiculous,” said Joel disgustedly. “You shouldn’t feel bad. It’s on me. I made the choice, I killed everyone so there’s nothin’ for you to go back to, an’ I live with it jus’ fine. If you leave, it would be a wild goose chase to try an’ find someone else to cut you up. Don’ forget, it ain’t exactly a walk in the park out there, either. You could easily get killed anywhere along the way an’ then you won’ do anyone a damn bit of good.”
“Well, that’s why it would be better if someone went with me,” Ellie reasoned. “Like you. But you won’t do it, so maybe Tommy will.”
Joel snorted. “If Tommy did that, I’d never speak to him again.”
“But what if there were conditions?” Ellie continued before Tommy could respond. “Say we find some Fireflies or more doctors or something. They listen to the tape where the guy talks about my blood and stuff, they run their own tests, and if they can figure out a way to use me without killing me, then we do it. If not, we leave.”
Joel laughed mirthlessly. “No. That won’ work. You know why? ‘Cause if they do their analysis an’ say they can do it without killin’ you, I wouldn’ believe ‘em. If they do admit they have to kill you, an’ we say ‘no thanks,’ they might react the same way the other Fireflies did an’ try to kill us anyhow so they can go on an’ be heroes… an’ if they didn’t, I’d have to kill ‘em all anyway for knowin’ about you in case any of ‘em get ideas about comin’ after you. Then you’d feel even worse because more assholes would be dead, and still no vaccine. Oh, an’ need I remind you, we’d have to be lucky to escape with our lives. There’s no guarantee I’d be able to kill all of ‘em. Especially without you helpin’. So I reckon you’d have to go with Tommy, Mr. Firefly, he’d jus’ let ‘em kill ya… but the only way you’re leavin’ with him is over my dead body.”
Tommy rolled his eyes at the dead body comment. “Enough speculatin’. Can I listen to these tapes of yours?”
“Sure,” Joel replied. “Me’n’Ellie will step outside, Ellie don’ need to hear that shit again.”
“No, I wanna hear them again,” Ellie piped up immediately. “I only heard them once and I was… pretty upset, so...”
“An’ I don’ want you gettin’ upset again.”
“I won’t! I mean, not like yesterday.”
Joel looked doubtful.
“What? Even if I wanted to run, which I won’t, you’re sitting right next to me, and Tommy’s in between me and the door. I don’t think I’d get very far.”
Joel sighed but didn’t argue the point. He gathered the three recorders and handed them to Tommy. Ellie remembered what the ‘worst’ one looked like and advised Tommy to listen to that one last.
Joel returned to his seat and pulled her close, his arm around her shoulders. Ellie wondered if he truly did think she would try to bolt again, or if he thought she’d need comforting. It was a little distracting, though, being close to him like that; she was used to it when they were going to sleep, when they were alone… it seemed a little weird in the daytime, in front of Tommy. Not bad-weird, though. Definitely not.
Tommy didn’t seem to find it strange. Maybe he thought she was going to burst into tears like a little girl, too. “Ellie, if you want me to stop it, you jus’ say the word, alright?”
Ellie nodded. “I’m okay. Really.”
It was surreal, hearing it all again just one day later when it felt like surely a week must have gone by. Things had turned upside-down so fast. Ellie tried to listen to everything in the disconnected way she’d started thinking of as ‘outside mode,’ which was easier than being completely inside where all the emotions were. She hadn’t figured out how to control it, how to stay outside when the inside wanted to take over. However, she did find that it was way easier to hear them the second time around, especially with Joel right there, giving her shoulder a squeeze every now and then. And actually, she felt like she should be the one doing the comforting at times, because Joel really tensed up when he heard Marlene’s voice. She could practically feel the anger coursing through him. Ellie wondered if he’d truly had to kill Marlene, or if he just couldn’t control his rage.
When Tommy had finished playing the last one, he addressed Ellie somberly. “I’m sorry you had to hear that, that stuff about your mom, especially… I can only imagine how it made you feel. And Marlene… clearly she struggled with that choice. Sounds like she was pressured into it.”
“’Clearly,’ my ass,” Joel scoffed. “And the alleged pressure was her excuse. Why did she even bother makin’ those tapes? Maybe she didn’ wanna be labeled a child murderer an’ thought if she… if she made it sound like she was doin’ it for the greater good, an’ all that bullshit--“
Ellie still felt compelled to defend Marlene. “You didn’t even know her, Joel. I… I know she cares about me— cared, about me.” But her voice wavered; she wasn’t so sure of it anymore.
“Of course she did, honey,” Tommy reassured her, shooting a glare at Joel. “She was in a really tough position.”
“You knew her, right, Tommy?” asked Ellie, not sure why this mattered to her… “Did she ever talk about me?”
“No, she didn’t… but we weren’t real close like that. We didn’ talk much about personal stuff.”
Joel snorted. “I’m surprised she didn’ bitch to you about her obligation to look after her friend’s kid. Who, by the way, she didn’ even bother to introduce herself to until she was thirteen. What kind of godmother does that? Fuckin’ cunt.”
“Joel, stop,” Ellie pleaded quietly, feeling that lump in her throat again. Today it didn’t make her feel better to hear him bash Marlene. She shrugged his arm off and scooted to the corner of the couch; she figured that the action was more likely to stop him than her words. Plus it made her feel awful when it hit home again that Joel, her Joel, who could be so incredibly sweet and kind when he wanted to be, had killed her friend without thinking twice… and it was all because of me. Like Tess. And like everyone else who died between Boston and Salt Lake City.
“Joel, you need to cut that shit out,” Tommy chastised him. “Ellie cared for Marlene an’ you’re jus’ makin’ things worse.”
Joel was silent for a moment. Then, to Ellie’s surprise, he didn’t get defensive or argue with Tommy. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry, Ellie. I’ll keep my opinion of her to myself from now on.”
Tommy seemed surprised too; Ellie surmised that ‘you’re right’ was not something he’d heard from Joel very often. She nodded, but didn’t look over at Joel. She was getting that feeling again that it wasn’t safe to do that, not when she was trying to stay in outside mode. “It’s okay.”
Tommy cleared his throat. “All right then. I’ve heard the evidence. Ellie, I have to say I’m sidin’ with Joel on this one. I don’ see any reason either of us should drag you around the country lookin’ for someone who may not exist –- someone who can supposedly pull the infection outta you and turn it into a cure. They seemed to have a theory, but nothin’ solid… that dude said ‘we must find a way’ –- well, it don’ seem smart to me to kill the one person you have in front of you who has what you’re tryin’ to get, when all’s you got is a hunch. Even if there were Fireflies left in Utah who swore they could do it, I wouldn’ send you back there. Maybe if you were an old lady who’d lived her life an’ had no one left in the world… hell, maybe not even then. You’re so young, you have your whole life ahead of you. I don’ know what you believe about the afterlife, an’ whatnot… but I know your mama don’ wanna see you any time soon. She wouldn’ want her baby girl to try an’ be noble, to die, over a longshot -- an’ that’s all it is, is a longshot. She’d want you to live, an’ be happy. And, you have people here in Jackson who care about you, who… you make a difference in their lives. In my brother’s, most of all. If you leave here… you’d not only be endin’ your own life, I’m damn well sure you’d be endin’ his too. I have never seen him love anyone the way that he loves you.”
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck! Don’t cry, Ellie, don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry… She didn’t know if the unshed tears were for the way Tommy talked about her mother, the sorrow she felt at the thought of Joel dying like that, or the joy of hearing how much Joel loved her… or, how much Tommy thought he loved her, but Joel didn’t correct him, either, so...yeah. She noticed he phrased it as ‘the way,’ not ‘as much as’ or ‘more than’…but the way he said it, with such conviction -- and even using the word ‘love’ at all –- it was powerful. And if she died, would Joel really… No, he can’t, Tommy’s exaggerating, or speaking figuratively. Ellie didn’t know what to say, but even if she had the words, she didn’t think she’d be able to speak them. She just stared at a spot on the carpet and nodded dumbly. Joel was quiet, too.
“Now, that bein’ said,” Tommy continued, “I’m on the fence about how much authority Joel should have here. He ain’t your father. You two have no blood ties whatsoever. If you were to go your separate ways, that’d be that. But, you are a minor, an’ it don’ seem right to let you make such an important decision for yourself, either… not when the consequences are so high.”
They were all quiet for a minute. Joel was the one who broke the silence. “What if I adopted her?”
Ellie was pretty sure her heart stopped beating for a moment. What?!
Tommy nodded. “I was thinkin’ somethin’ along those lines myself. It makes sense. You know Cordy –- Clicker -- he was adopted like that. He was orphaned as a youngster an’ it was kind of a similar situation. John’n’Georgia had lost their boys, their paths crossed with his, they made themselves a little family. That was before they got to Jackson. But we drew up papers for them to sign to make it as official as we could for them. And as you’ve seen, he calls ‘em Mom an’ Dad, too, all that. It’s as legit as anythin’ else is in this crazy world. What do you think, Ellie?”
Ellie remained quiet. She wasn’t sure how she felt about this. She had to consider it with the assumption that she’d be staying in Jackson forever. On the one hand, she relished the idea of being tied to Joel permanently. If she were his daughter, she’d never have to worry about him leaving her. She wasn’t really worried about that now, but… what if things changed in the future? She was accustomed to people leaving. People who cared about her. The truth was, shit happened. What if Joel got a girlfriend who didn’t like Ellie hanging around all the time (especially in his bed) and Joel chose her over Ellie? Ellie couldn’t stand the thought of Joel having a girlfriend in the first place, probably out of fear of that very scenario playing out… but that was extremely selfish of her, and she figured he wouldn’t stay single for the rest of his life. If I’m his daughter, I come first. I will always be the most important person to him. We’ll be family. Together forever.
“Ellie?” Joel prompted her as her silence stretched into awkward territory.
On the other hand, Ellie couldn’t imagine calling him Dad. And maybe he’d feel weird about sharing the bed with her after that. She could just hear him now – “Fathers do not sleep with their teenage daughters, we’re done with that.” Even if Joel continued to sleep in the bed with her as father and daughter, there was something else. Ellie did think of him as a father in some ways: for the most part, she respected his authority over her life, and he was definitely more than a friend… but… but… but what? He just… wasn’t quite. If he was, she wouldn’t want to keep sharing the bed, right? She told herself it was because of the nightmares and because she had trouble falling asleep on her own, but if she was completely honest, she had to admit it was more than that. She’d thought about having sex with him yesterday. For like, two seconds, but still. That odd flip-floppy thing that happened in her stomach sometimes… it meant something. He could never be like... her boyfriend, or whatever, but... was he really her dad? All she knew for sure was that he was her Joel. Putting a permanent conventional label on their relationship when she wasn’t 100% sure it was the correct one just felt wrong.
Then again… did it really matter that much? Joel obviously saw her as a daughter, not… anything else. Did she want to give up the opportunity to have Joel be hers forever because of a stupid stomach spasm?
Joel leaned forward and gently placed his hand on her back. “Hey. What are you thinkin’?”
She was very glad she wasn’t facing his direction. I’m thinking that I need more fucking time to think about this! She turned slightly towards him but didn’t look at him (too risky). “Is that what you want?”
Joel was looking at her, though. Intensely. She could feel it. “Yes, I’d like that very much,” he said softly. “It’s up to you.”
If she looked at him, she’d say yes, she knew it. She wasn’t ready to say yes. She looked at Tommy instead. “Um… can we maybe talk about this some other time? I don’t know if… if that would be the best thing to do. At least not right now.” I’m soooo sorry, Joel, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings… please don’t hate me… please don’t be sad…
“Of course,” Tommy replied benevolently. Was it her imagination or did her answer make him a little sad or disappointed too? “It’s a big decision. Bein’ related to Joel ain’t the easiest thing, let me tell you…”
“Very funny, baby brother,” Joel said, with a chuckle that sounded forced.
Tommy may have cut some of the tension with that little joke, but Joel had to be feeling shitty, which made Ellie feel like an asshole. She knew how she could compensate for the hurt –- well, some of it. She kept looking at Tommy. “As far as me leaving… it still feels like… like maybe that’s something I’m meant to do. That… it’s something a good person would do.” She shushed Joel when he started to protest that point. “But… I think for now I can… I can do what Joel wants, and stay.”
“What do you mean, ‘for now’?” Joel asked. Which was amusing, because it was the sort of phrase that would allow her to breezily dismiss the idea later if she changed her mind, by claiming she meant it to mean that day only or something. And Joel knew it because they’d each done it to the other before. She wouldn’t do it with something this significant, though.
Ellie turned toward him a little more. Looked at his shoe. “I mean… maybe forever. I won’t try to leave on my own, I won’t try to get anyone to go with me or help me get Outside… I’ll stay here. And if I think I might change my mind about leaving… I’ll talk to you about it first. I won’t try to trick you or sneak out or anything like that.”
Joel scooted closer to her. “Ellie, look at me. Can you promise me that?” He seemed to be holding his breath.
Ellie could feel that her eyes were moist but she also felt that she could control herself enough not to cry. She knew it was important to look Joel in the eye and say it, and to suppress the childish urge to make a snarky remark about how he had lied to her while looking her in the eye; now wasn’t the time. She took a deep breath and finally met his gaze. “I promise. I won’t leave. I can’t promise that, um… that things will be normal, or that I’ll be… happy again, or anything like that, but… I’ll stay in Jackson. I’ll stay with you. That makes you happy, right?” She gave him a watery smile. I hope this makes up for rejecting you, just a little bit…
Joel’s eyes were bright. He nodded, and exhaled with his whole body. “Yes, yes it does," he said huskily. Thank you.”
Joel looked so relieved, so glad that she wasn’t leaving… she impulsively leaned over and flung her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a long, tight squeeze. “Thank you, baby girl,” he whispered into her hair.
In that moment, Ellie actually did feel happy. Maybe things would work out okay after all.
~Continue to Chapter 15~