Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 4953
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: What's the best place to find relationship advice? Teen magazines from the old world, of course!
With a gleam in her eye and a spring in her step, Ellie headed for the library. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, all was well with the world. She greeted everyone she passed with a smile and a ‘how are you?’ -- and actually paused to hear their replies. Even people to whom she never had anything to say… like Max, a scavenger she’d met at the warehouse. He answered her friendly ‘hey how’s it going’ with something resembling a glare.
It didn’t perturb her. She stopped in her tracks. “That good, huh?”
He seemed surprised at the follow-up question. Maybe even suspicious. Max reminded her of Joel in some ways. “Oh, I’m just wonderful,” he drawled. “Who blew sunshine up your ass today?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, tilting her head pensively, as if trying to figure out who had done such a thing. “But if I find out, I’ll send ‘em your way. Have a great day!” she added before bouncing away.
She also saw A.J. the Asswipe, hanging around outside the library, probably waiting for his posse. He scowled at Ellie as she approached the doors. “Lesbo,” he muttered, sneering.
Not anymore! “Hi, butthead!” she replied cheerfully, smiling at him like they were friends. “Have an awesome day!” Just let him wonder about that for a while! Ellie thought with satisfaction. She entered the library before he could reply.
She asked Paige to come fetch her later on for story time, then she hit the magazine room. The magazines didn’t see much action, and thus, were relatively well-organized. By title, at least, if not by date. Most of them were stored on shelving units in magazine binders, some were more haphazardly stored in boxes or crates on the floor. There was a table in the middle of the room where she and Annie could sift through them. Ellie wasn’t sure whether to look for women’s magazines or teens’. She tried women’s first; the whole point was that she needed to act more womanly, right? Joel was no teenage boy. But the first few volumes she checked didn’t yield anything. She couldn’t make use of tips on home décor, recipes, child-rearing, fashion… the sex tips, possibly later, she snickered to herself happily (although she hoped she could find some with more detailed instructions than the ones she’d skimmed). Apparently, women in the old world were all married and didn’t need the kind of help that Ellie did. Maybe because they’d learned everything from teen magazines!
She flipped through the fashion, make-up, and celebrity articles… articles about ‘sexting & texting,’ and other bizarre things that she knew had to do with the way people used to communicate, via computers and phones. Maybe she’d need to find older editions.
Annie showed up as Ellie finished reading about a twelve-year-old cyberstalker (yeah, not helpful, but she was curious). “Hi!” Ellie greeted her friend with a hug even though she’d just seen her a short while ago. She closed the door behind Annie. “Did you know that people used to get bullied through the computer? I don’t really get it. I mean, you could just turn off the computer and not talk to them, couldn’t you? They’re not in your face. Except somehow they also, like… write shit on your walls? Why would you even let them in your house?”
Annie shrugged. “No idea, but what does that have to do with you getting your guy to fall in loooooove with you?” She made a swooning gesture for the ‘loooove.’
“Not a fucking thing. Now that you’re here we can get down to business!” Ellie grabbed a couple volumes from a different shelf, plunked them down on the table, and shoved one towards Annie.
Almost immediately, Annie found something promising in a magazine from 1993. “Ellie, here’s one – ‘How to Get Him to Make the Next Move.’ Wanna hear?” Annie started naming the five possible reasons Joel hadn’t 'given in to his true feelings' yet. -He’s insecure or inexperienced? No. Ellie assured Annie that he had definitely had a girlfriend before (she didn’t mention the wife and daughter). -He’s afraid of commitment? That didn’t seem too likely. He was committed to her. He wanted to adopt her, for fuck’s sake, and that’s a lifelong commitment. Ellie still had to pretend to mull it over, though, for appearances’ sake. -He’s busy with other stuff? No, she saw him plenty –- he always wanted to be with her. She told Annie she saw him fairly often in the library; that wasn’t even a lie. –He’s feeling peer pressure? Hmmm…
“I thought peer pressure was more like, ‘come on, have a beer, all the cool kids do it,’” Ellie mused. “What do you think it means here? That his friends are telling him I’m just a little kid?”
“I guess,” said Annie. “Since you’re younger than him, maybe he’s afraid of what people will think if you guys get together? That maybe people will think he’s a deviant... like there’s something wrong with him, not going for someone his own age?”
Ellie considered this. She doubted Joel had told anyone anything about her that was at all romantic. Why would he? It’s not like he went around gushing about his feelings all the time. Maybe Tommy or Maria… but that didn’t seem too likely. She was dying to know what he and Tommy had said to each other when Tommy had asked Joel about the bed thing, and Joel wouldn’t tell her. Had he admitted his feelings to Tommy? That just seemed so… un-Joel-like. Tommy had seemed really disturbed by the thought of Ellie and Joel together like that. Would knowing that Tommy disapproved prevent Joel from making a move? Since when did Joel care what his brother thought of him? “I dunno. Maybe. But we could always keep it a secret if it bothered him so much.”
Annie laughed. “Nothing stays secret in this town, my friend.”
Shows what YOU know! Ellie smirked inwardly. Annie would flip her shit if she saw how Joel and Ellie acted in bed. “I could so do it. It would be romantic. Forbidden love… like Romeo and Juliet!”
“Is your guy romantic, do you think?”
“Um…” Was he? No, not really. She couldn’t imagine Joel bringing her flowers and writing her love poems. “I don’t think so. I guess I’m not, either. But we could still be Romeo and Juliet without the mushy shit!”
Annie snorted. “I’d like to see you keep it a secret from Joel. He can read you like a book. Remember when you tried to lie about how you got mud all over you? You said you’d fallen… it seemed really believable to me, and he knew right away that you were lying.”
Joel could see through her sometimes... so why the fuck didn’t he get that she was in love with him? Ellie rolled her eyes. “Whatever, that was ages ago. I’m better at it now. So what’s the fifth one?”
“He’s seeing someone else,” Annie read.
“How can you be so sure? Maybe he just hasn’t mentioned her.”
“I just am.” Ellie realized it sounded lame. “I asked him. And like you said, nothing stays secret here, so I would know if he was lying.”
“Wellllllllllll yeah but you don’t know everyone yet, if you would just tell me who he is I could tell you for sure…” Annie looked disarmingly sweet and helpful.
“Nice try,” Ellie snickered. “So what else does that thing say?”
“Um… that if you do the stuff it says and he still doesn’t do anything then you should give up and find someone else.”
“Ha! Fuck that. There is no one else.”
“Wow, you’ve got it bad,” Annie marveled. “But you might be right. It’s not like there’s a lot of options here.”
Ellie nodded. “Right. So, that article sucked. Let’s keep looking.”
The next article of interest was in Ellie’s binder: ‘Do You Have Starry Eyes for Older Guys?’ from 1986. She started reading it, and decided not to announce its relevance to Annie. “If a guy is going out with a girl who’s significantly younger, the odds are he’s fearful of adult relationships and likes to go out with younger girls because they let him take charge.” Well, Joel did like to tell her what to do… but it’s not like she automatically just did it, all the time. She could be more ‘in charge’ if it was problematic. “Some young women are looking for a substitute father. It’s easier for them to go out with a man who is like a ‘daddy,’ who is protective, than someone their own age. The guy makes the decisions while the girl remains in a childlike position without responsibilities.” Ellie re-read it. The first part kind of seemed to fit. She didn’t think of Joel as ‘easier,’ particularly, except… she did already know that he loved her. In that way, it was safer than going for some stranger. But so what? And she had just as many responsibilities as Joel so she felt they were equals in that regard. Again, she didn’t even see what that had to do with anything.
Trying to see what the issue was here, Ellie kept reading… she was supposed to ask herself if she was going for this older guy to either rebel against her parents or to use him as some kind of social trophy… and was she prepared to be in uncomfortable situations like rowdy bars and after-hours clubs (...what?). She was in the clear on all that. No advice on how to actually get this older guy. Ellie slammed the magazine shut in disgust. Whatever Annie was looking at seemed much more interesting, as it was making her stifle some giggles. Ellie craned her neck, trying to see what it was. “Care to share? Whatcha got?”
“Well, what you said before, about wishing you had a bigger… front” –- at least she didn’t say ‘bosom’! –- “I really don’t think you need to do anything, but you could pad your bra a little? If it would give you more confidence… make you feel more attractive?”
Ellie burst out laughing. Joel saw her in her nightclothes every day, no bra. He’d had his hand down her shirt, even. What would he think if all of a sudden when she got dressed she had melons instead of apples in there? “No way in hell. He’s already seen me a bunch of times, I think he knows how big they are.”
“Maybe he hasn’t really noticed?”
“Oh, thanks a lot!” Ellie pretended to be insulted.
“Noooooo I didn’t mean it like that,” Annie said quickly (still laughing, though!). “If you just do it a tiny bit, maybe you’d get his attention. Maybe he’d think, ‘Gee, I never noticed how lovely Ellie’s bosom is before’ or something.”
Imagining Joel having that thought was funny enough… the ‘bosom’ just cracked Ellie the fuck up. She laughed so hard she thought she might pee her pants. Finally she gasped out, “No! Omigod! I’m not doing it and that’s final!”
Her laughter fueled Annie’s, which re-fueled Ellie’s, and it was absurd to be cracking up over something that wasn’t all that funny, really. Then the door opened: it was Joel!
“Ladies.” He watched the girls swallow their laughter. Annie pulled her magazine into her lap before Joel could possibly get a glimpse of the article she’d been reading. Ellie could feel the heat rushing to her face. Joel seemed amused. “Don’ stop laughin’ on my account. What is that you’re ‘not doing,’ Ellie?”
“Nothing! Don’t you fucking knock?” She said it teasingly, though. Hopefully that last bit was all he’d heard; he must have been standing outside the door for more than a few seconds to have heard even that much. Ellie was afraid to look at him, in case doing so somehow planted a blaring ‘HE’S THE ONE!’ neon sign somewhere on her face in a language that Annie could comprehend, even if Joel couldn’t. The subject of their laughter was certainly one to produce a legitimate blush, though, and Ellie wasn’t even sure if she was blushing because omigod Joel’s here or from embarrassment. Annie’s face was red, too, and she was looking at Ellie wide-eyed, biting her lip like she was confining more giggles in her mouth.
“I did knock. I s'pose you were laughin’ too loud to notice. That lady up front told me you were in here. What’re you doin’? Need any help?”
The look of horror on Annie’s face almost made Ellie lose her composure again. “Nope, we’re good, just looking up some stuff. Girl stuff.” She knew that explanation, vague though it was, would be enough to dissuade Joel from trying to ‘help’ them.
Sure enough, he said, “All right, carry on, then. I’ll be out there.”
“’kay. Bye!” Ellie chirped. “And close the door!”
When the door was safely closed, Annie laughed shakily and let out a long breath. “Whew! That was a close one. We should be quieter. You were kinda rude to him, you know.”
Ellie snickered. “That’s what he gets for butting in.” And surely Annie wouldn’t have suspected Joel was her guy, based on that interaction. “Okay, back to work!”
They found plenty of interesting things to read, but nothing really useful. Ellie tried not to get side-tracked by titles like ‘My Ex Tried to Kill Me’ and ‘I Was a Teenage Prostitute.’ Some of the quizzes were amusing: ‘Are You a Good Kisser?’ ‘Are You a Big Fat Bore?’ Some were just plain stupid: ‘Should You Dump Him If He Cheats?’ Um, yeah. No brainer. She was so lucky –- Joel would never cheat on her! She’d never give him any reason to. Focus, Ellie. You don’t have him yet…
While Annie took the ‘Is Your Relationship Healthy -- or Hurting?’ quiz, Ellie did ‘Does He Really Like You?’…and noted that it was rather difficult to answer some of the questions as they were set in places that didn’t exist in the new world: school, cafeteria, basketball game, dance, party, beach… oh, there was one –- the library! Ellie did the best she could, given the alien scenarios, and the score indicated that Joel was on the border of ‘too hot to handle’ (meaning he only wanted her for her body… HA!) and ‘warm and fuzzy.’ The latter category advised her to smile at him a lot and touch his arm. She’d never thought of the arm as being a particularly exciting place to be touched. She’d give it a shot, though, what the hell.
She did find another article that might be helpful: ‘How to Turn a Friend Into a Boyfriend,’ from 1989. If that couldn’t help her, what could?! Ellie skimmed the first few paragraphs. “Weird, this one says guys like to be hunters. They must mean something different from the hunters we know… unless guys were all assholes back then. Oh, and it says they don’t like to be hunted. Well, duh? Who does?! So stupid.”
Annie chuckled. “I think you’re taking it too literally. They probably mean don’t be too pushy. Let him make the first move.”
“Oh. Okay. So don’t kiss him, wait for him to kiss me. I figured that’d be better anyways.” She would die if she tried to kiss him and he was utterly repulsed! Ellie read through the tips, dismissing each one: strategic socializing and making sure you run into each other often, focusing on the stuff you have in common, complimenting his new sweater (‘new’? Ha!) or haircut –- okay, she could try that one. She didn’t dish out compliments very often. It would probably feel awkward, but if it worked… “So, what does ‘give him the green light’ mean? Some kind of code we don’t know about?”
“Hmm. I guess so. What kind of light?”
“That’s all it says about that… and there’s the arm thing again! Jeez. What’s so great about arms?”
Annie chuckled. “I guess it’s like… sort of intimate, like, not something you do with strangers, but not overboard where he might think you’re a pervert?”
“Like if I grabbed his ass?” Ellie giggled. How much would Joel flip out if she just randomly did that?
It also advised her to try casually sitting a little closer than usual. That wouldn’t tell Joel anything -- she couldn’t get any closer to him, really… not without fucking. And if that option were on the table, I wouldn’t need any of this! “’Find out what turns him on and go for it’? Yeah, okay. I’ll just ask him.” Ellie sighed. “Well, if he likes girls who wear red lipstick and fancy clothes, there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t dye my hair blonde or paint my nails. What you see is what you get.”
Annie propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin on her hand. “Not necessarily…” Her eyes glazed over as if she were watching some movie in her mind.
Ellie quirked an eyebrow. “Uh-oh. Do I even wanna know what you’re thinking?”
Annie looked appraisingly at Ellie, back in the present moment. “You could wear different clothes. More feminine ones. There’s nothing wrong with jeans and T-shirts, but… a boy could easily wear those clothes, too. If you want to get his attention… let him know you’re not a kid sister or ‘one of the guys’ but a pretty girl he can fall in love with, you could mix it up a little? And there might not be a ton you can do with your hair, but you could wear it down and curl it or something?”
“No way.” Ellie crossed her arms in front of her chest and frowned. “That’s not me. I’m still supposed to be me, aren’t I?”
“Of course!” Annie leaned back in her chair. “You’d still be you. Just a little bit girlier. You wouldn’t have to change your personality. Think about it. You want him to notice you’re a girl, don’t you?”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “He knows I’m a girl. Believe me. But… I guess I know what you mean. Hmm.” She knew nothing about Joel’s ex-wife or any of his girlfriends, unless she counted Tess, and she didn’t even know what their relationship had been. He’d made it clear he didn’t want to talk about Tess, and that they shouldn’t trade stories about their past. That was a long time ago, though. They did talk about their past lives now, so maybe it would be okay to ask him about Tess? She already had a sense of who Tess was as a person -- and she was no princess. She was tough… not girly at all from what Ellie could see. If she and Joel had only been friends, was that possibly the reason why? Joel appreciated her skills and all but didn’t feel happy in the pants for her because she wasn’t feminine?
Ellie could think of plenty of times Joel had teased her for ‘acting like a girl.’ He seemed to like that she wasn’t wussy like a lot of girls. Would he think of her in a romantic way if she acted more girly? That would be changing her personality, though… maybe she just needed to look that way for it to click in his head that she was someone he wouldn’t mind kissing. It made sense that physical attraction was based on physical appearance -- and Joel wasn’t into boys.
Still… curling her hair? Wearing ruffles and lace? Eww. Ellie wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know if I can do it. I’d feel weird and he’d probably just laugh.”
Annie wasn’t giving up, however. “Well, you wouldn’t have to do it all the time… unless he likes it so much he’s all over you, anyway.” She giggled. “Yeahhhhh you like the thought of that, you’re turning red again! You’d have to do it on a day that you’re guaranteed to see him. Preferably alone. Maybe… you could invite him over for a friendly dinner or something? People do that all the time around here, it’s like a neighborly thing. I could even be your alibi for Joel, if you want. You’d just have to time it so you’re gone before Joel comes home. Go for a walk with him maybe?”
Ellie had to laugh at her friend’s zeal for plotting her love life. “You are really sneaky, you know that? Wouldn’t he find it pretty strange that he’s never seen me dress girly before and then the one day I cook him dinner…?”
“Maybe. But that’s partly the point, right? You have to let him know you like him as more than friends. You could be casual about it, like… say you wear jeans for work or for playing with the little kids and stuff but sometimes you like to wear dresses?”
Ellie snickered. “Yeah. That would sound real natural. One more problem: I don’t have any dresses.”
Annie was undeterred. “Don’t worry about that. Maybe you could be sort of honest and say you’re experimenting with different styles? That should at least prompt him to tell you how pretty you look, I would think. Oh you know what? I know the perfect dress for you. Do you remember the dress I wore that last time we came up for dinner with you and Tommy and everyone? The white one with the little yellow flowers? That would look so cute on you, Ellie.”
“The one with the tiny little straps?” God, she would feel naked wearing that.
“Spaghetti straps, yes! I’m taller than you so the skirt might be a little long, but we could take up the hem, show off your legs…”
“Wait, now you’re talking about mutilating your own clothes for this? No!” Ellie exclaimed in disbelief. It was sweet of Annie to want to help, but she didn’t think they needed to go that far.
Annie shrugged. “I have others, and it’d be for a good cause. I bet Millie would make you one if we ask her—“
“No! No one else can know about this. Millie would prob’ly tell someone who would end up telling Joel and he’d grill me about what I’m up to.” Best to spring it on him when it’s too late!
“You might be right. She does like to talk,” Annie admitted. She shot a sly look at Ellie. “Soooo… you do want to give it a try, then?”
Ellie sighed. “Maybe. I dunno. I don’t wanna mess up your dress, though. Maybe I won’t even have to do anything. Y’know? I can try the little stuff like complimenting him and touching his arm and all that but nothing big yet. Anyways, what would I cook? I’ve never made anything on my own. Not like a real meal. I guess I’ve helped Maria and Tommy enough…”
“I would help you. We could probably make something ahead of time at my house and then all you’d have to do is stick it in the oven? And you know, even just doing that, cooking for him… that emphasizes you’re a girl, too. Boys don’t like cooking so much. Unless they’re barbecuing. They’ll all be tripping over themselves to man the grills on 4th of July. Wow, Ellie, this guy might be your boyfriend by then!”
The whole town was gearing up for that party. A slow smile spread across Ellie’s face. She wasn’t sure about the boyfriend thing; she couldn’t imagine Joel being okay with going public so soon. Maybe Joel would be so in love with her by then he’d be pulling her away from the party to secretly make out behind a tree because he couldn’t wait until they got home. Ellie sighed happily at the thought. It was more likely that he’d be too paranoid to do anything like that. Just knowing that he was hers would be enough for her, though, truly. “I don’t know about that, but I’ll know where we stand by then. That will be my deadline. If he doesn’t kiss me in the next, like, two weeks? I’ll turn myself over to you.”
Annie squealed a little and clapped her hands. “Okay! Or even if he has, we could still do it. It could be a nice romantic evening for you two.”
“Ha! If I can get him to kiss me without having to wear a fucking dress, you better believe I’m not wearing one.”
Annie laughed. “Oh, Ellie, don’t be a spoilsport, maybe you’ll like it!”
Ellie grinned. “If it makes him wanna rip it off me? Hell yeah I’ll like it. But then you can have it back!”
There was another knock on the door, and before Ellie could worry about how much Joel had overheard this time, a cheerful blonde seven-year-old stuck her head in the room. “Hi Ellie! Hi Annie! Ellie, Paige sent me to give you a five minute warning! What are you gonna read today?”
Ellie gave the girl a big smile. “Hey Kirsten! I dunno, do you wanna pick out something? I’ll be right there.”
The girl happily bounded away, and Ellie started gathering the magazines strewn around the table. It hadn’t been a complete waste of time, but she hadn’t learned the sorts of things she’d hoped to. Instead, she’d learned more about what teenagers’ lives were like back in the olden days. She still thought it was lame to obsess about clothes and boys and other stupid shit, but she could kind of see where they were coming from now. Maybe she shouldn’t judge them so harshly. She hadn’t even been in Jackson two months and already she was taking survival and safety for granted, which freed her mind up to think about other things... if they had a prom in Jackson, wouldn’t she obsess over it like the girls in these magazines did? And they didn’t all enjoy the easy life. Like the teenage prostitute girl -- it wasn’t like she’d embarked upon that career for the sheer enjoyment of having sex with lots of disgusting men. Ellie couldn’t imagine having to do anything like that to survive. They didn’t live in a world where she’d ever have to.
Ellie usually thought the people who lived before 2013 were lucky, but really, she was the lucky one. Life was better now without all that weird shit they had in the past. If she had access to that DeLorean time machine, she’d definitely like to visit -- especially to drop in on younger Joel, maybe even catch him singing -- but she wouldn’t want to stay there. The best thing she’d gleaned from those old articles was that the world was totally different now. The only reason the age difference could be considered an obstacle was its leftover stigma from Joel’s generation; there was nothing real, nothing that made any practical sense. They had as much right to be together as anyone else did, and if Joel even tried to argue the point, she was willing to bet he couldn’t come up with anything more solid than ‘because it’s just wrong.’
As Ellie headed for the children’s section, she glanced around to see where Joel had parked himself… and didn’t see him. He said he’d be out here, where the fuck did he go? She told herself not to worry, but the worry niggled at her anyway. Where was he/what was he doing/was he okay?
Sometimes she felt so confident that Joel would never leave her that she forgot it was still a very real possibility, one which warranted a healthy dose of fear. Not that she thought Joel had chosen to abandon her so abruptly here -- that was ridiculous. But she couldn’t let herself be lulled into a false sense of security, either. Even if Joel didn’t actually leave her, he could distance himself from her, and that would be almost as bad. That was another reason she had to succeed at advancing their relationship: if he was in love with her, she would have more control over the situation. He would never need to find a girlfriend… a potentially jealous girlfriend who might try to steal him away from her (and how could daughter-Ellie compete with Joel’s lover? She wasn’t that special). It would be even better than being his daughter -- Joel wouldn’t have to figure out how to divide up his time if it was just him and Ellie. She would need to be careful not to do anything to sour his feelings towards her, though. For a strong guy, Joel sure seemed afraid of her sometimes; she couldn’t risk scaring him away.
Ellie took her seat and greeted every child in attendance by name. Kirsten came forward with the chosen book: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a very silly book she’d read to the kids before which they all seemed to love. She would have to put Joel out of her mind for the time bei-- oh, there he is! He was in the music area… without her?! How odd.
And just like that, she was happy again. It was so easy to smile now, and to animate the story for the kids. Knowing she’d be with Joel in just a short while filled her with exuberance, like she had a light shining inside her that she couldn’t contain. If she felt this way now, she wondered how she could possibly cope with feeling even happier, after she made Joel love her the way she wanted–- no, needed him to. She couldn’t wait to find out!
~Continue to Chapter 20~