Lumy (luminations) wrote,
Lumy
luminations

"Accretion" Chapter 22: "Born Too Late" (part 1 of 2)

Title: "Accretion" - Chapter 22: "Born Too Late", part 1 of 2
Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 4308
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Things go just a wee bit differently than Ellie had hoped.
Author's Note: I felt like this needed to be all one chapter, but given the length, I'm taking a friend's advice and splitting it into sub-chapters (posted together) in the hopes that no one's eyes glaze over!


Joel knew he’d heard her correctly. Somehow he’d even known the jist of what she was going to say the moment before she said it. It just didn’t make any sense. Before that, he’d been wondering if maybe all this was her way of telling him she was ready to discuss him adopting her. Things had been pretty good between them recently, so good that it seemed like all that shit with the Fireflies was forgiven and forgotten. He didn’t know why she’d be so nervous to talk to him about it, though. Maybe she believed he was angry with her for rejecting him the first time (he’d never actually been angry about that, only disappointed), or that he’d changed his mind. Or maybe she wanted to tell him that she loved him –- platonically, like a father.

He’d been waaaay off. Now it was clear why this was so difficult for her. How much bravery it required. Why she’d been acting strangely. That made sense, but Ellie having romantic feelings for him did not. How could she be in love with him? Had she somehow picked up on his own repressed feelings and… and what? If she had, they should have freaked her out.

He stared at her for a long moment, waiting for her to crack up and say she was just fucking with him.

She didn’t, though. She was dead serious, and looking at him expectantly. “Well, say something,” she urged him softly.

Joel let his hand fall to his knee. You touch her too much, you asshole. That’s why she thinks she’s in love with you. “Ellie… you don’ know what you’re sayin’.”

“I know exactly what I’m saying.” Ellie put her hand over his, undeterred by its retreat from her. Her palm was moist.

Joel sighed. He’d fantasized about her having such feelings for him, of course. This was his perverted mind’s dream come true. He couldn’t believe it. And he didn’t believe it, because that part of his brain was governed by his dick. He knew better than to trust it. There was logic to be applied here. Ellie had never known unconditional love, never experienced this amount of affection… Joel knew she loved him, possibly more than she’d ever loved anyone in her life. It did seem plausible that she might confuse those feelings with attraction, especially if he took hormones and novelty -- and maybe even gratitude? -- into consideration. “You’re not in love with me. You’re a kid. You don’ know what love is yet… not that kind of love.”

“That’s not true.” She was surprisingly calm. He’d expected her to pitch a fit. “I do know what it is cuz I’m feeling it.”

Joel didn’t want to be a jerk… but there was no way around the fact that he was going to piss her off. “Look. You might think it’s love, but it ain’t. It’s a crush, that’s all. It’ll go away, in time.”

“No it won’t! It’s not some stupid fucking crush, Joel,” she said vehemently. “You can’t tell me how I feel. I know how I feel.”

She was pretty damn sure of herself. NO. It’s impossible. She’s just a little girl with a crush on Teacher. He’d failed her; he was the adult here, he should have foreseen this, should have been more careful in his interactions with her. “This is crazy. I’m old enough to be your— hell, it ain’t jus’ that I’m old enough, I practically am your father.”

“But you’re not! Don’t you see? This is why we can’t be father and daughter. We’re… you’n’me. We’re different.”

She looked so earnest, so… vulnerable. And so pretty in that cute little dress. It would be very easy to take her in his arms and kiss her, make her head spin… to selfishly use her confusion to his advantage. He was tempted. Fuck, was he tempted. Now that he knew it wasn’t just wishful thinking, all those times— a certain way she’d look at him, or something she said, something in her touch --he’d chalked all that up to nothing more than his perverted imagination. Now that he knew she wouldn’t be repulsed by him… but she SHOULD be repulsed. I’m ancient to her young eyes. He shook his head. “I’m way too old for you. What do you want with an old man? You’re s’posed to want some… young pretty-boy type.”

Ellie smirked. “You don’t want me to want some boy. You know why? Cuz I’m supposed to be with you. You know it, you just won’t admit it yet. You’re not old. You’re just older than me.”

“Thirty-five fuckin’ years older, Ellie. Thirty-five. That’s more than twice how long you’ve even been alive.”

“Thirty-four-and-a-half, actually. But so what? Who gives a fuck? I don’t.”

“Well, I do, kiddo.” He groaned and leaned back into the couch again, pulling his hand away from hers. This was bewildering. He ran his hands through his hair and held his head for a moment, as if he had a splitting headache. “It ain’t your fault. It’s mine. If I acted more… proper, with you, you wouldn’ have this bullshit in your head.”

“It’s not bullshit!” she insisted excitedly. Joel was very aware of her hand now resting on his knee. “You don’t have to act ‘proper,’ whatever the fuck you mean by that. I like it when you… I like how we are.”

“Then why are you tryin’ to change things?” He let his arms drop to his sides.

“Because it can be even better. I’ll make you so happy.”

“You already do.” Her hand was quite distracting. I should probably move it somewhere safer…

“But not like –- I mean, you know. Other ways,” she mumbled, blushing fiercely, averting her eyes.

Joel couldn’t help smiling at how adorable she was. He wanted to pull her into his lap and squeeze the hell out of her. Right, that would really help matters. He shook his head, shook the smile off his face. “You’re too young.”

“I’m not, I swear I’m not,” she pleaded, her eyes back on him. “And anyways, that’s my decision, not yours. You’re not pushing me, so you don’t have to feel like a bad person or anything.”

“I am a bad person. That has nothin’ to do with it. If that was the only thing stoppin’ me –- feelin’ like a bad guy? It wouldn’ta stopped me for long.”

“So you do want me.” Ellie grinned at him triumphantly.

Joel blinked. “What? That ain’t what I said.” Did I somehow say that?!

She turned so that she was pretty much sideways on the couch, both (dress-covered) knees touching his leg. He was glad the skirt on that dress was plenty long; he couldn’t even see her legs when she had them folded up like that. “You do. I already know you do. Just like I already knew you were gonna say all this crap about being too old for me.”

He could deny it, and he could say mean things as reinforcement… shit that would wound her enough to kill this ludicrous idea she had. He could prove to her that he was a complete asshole, and then she would hate him. Problem solved.

But Joel didn’t have the heart to do it. There was too much potential to fuck her up even more by eroding her self-esteem -- even if she didn’t completely believe him. And any solution that made Ellie hate him wasn’t a good one anyhow. No doubt she was going to be angry with him after this… much as he didn’t like the thought, he could handle it. He would have to. Instead of backing down and giving in to whatever the hell she wanted, he’d have to fucking handle it this time. If he’d done it before, they wouldn’t be in this mess now. Yes, she was going to be angry after this, but she wouldn’t hate his guts, and after she cooled down, things would go back to… well, sort of normal.

He couldn’t let her casually climb into his lap, which seemed to be what she was angling to do. He had to cut that shit out. He sat up straight and scooted over enough so that no parts of their bodies touched. How could he get through to her… especially when he didn’t have it sorted out in his own mind? “All right. You don’ think I’m too old for you. Has it occurred to you that maybe you’re too young for me?”

Ellie looked surprised. “What do you mean?” She put her hand on his knee again.

Instead of answering, he removed her hand. “Ellie, don’t.” How can I explain…

“Don’t what -- touch you? Don’t you dare pretend you don’t like it. We cuddle all the time. Now you’ve decided it’s bad? Because of how I feel?”

“We can’t. It was selfish of me in the first place—“

“How is it selfish if it’s what we both want?”

“’Cause it fucked with your head!”

“No it didn’t! I’m not fucked up, at least not about you. This is— this is real, Joel. Is that what you’re afraid of? That it’s not?”

“I ain’t afraid,” he muttered. She reached for him again, and he stood up, because clearly she wasn’t going to back off with him sitting there so close to her. It sure didn’t feel good, pushing her away when he wanted to hold her close. Man up, Joel. It’s for the best, in the long run.

Ellie stood up with him. Sticking to him like a shadow, she was. “What, so we can’t touch each other at all now? That’s bullshit. We should be… the opposite of that.” She tried to take his hand again but he moved away from her too quickly.

“Ellie, stop it! Whatever idea you got in your head about us… you gotta get rid of it. It don’ belong there.”

She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. “Why?”

“Because. Nothin’ good can come of it.” He resisted the urge to start pacing the floor.

“You don’t know that. -Why did you say I’m too young for you?”

There was fear behind the question; her lip quivered a little. He couldn’t explain what he meant because she wouldn’t understand. He could hear her already: “I’m not like that, Joel. You know me. I would never do that to you.” And she’d believe it with all her heart. Because she was fifteen. In her mind, the way she felt now was the way she’d feel forever, simple as that.

No sense going down that road. Best to drop it. “Nothin’. Jus’ that there’s too many goddamn years between us for it to work.”

She didn’t let it go, though. He could practically see the wheels spinning in her head. “You think I wouldn’t be, like… good enough at it to... Joel, I would try… really hard…”

Christ. “What?! No. That ain’t it at all.”

She sank into the couch, not looking even remotely reassured. It was like she hadn’t heard him. She stared straight ahead at some vision in her mind. “You want someone your age. Someone who knows everything. Like that sk-- Lucas’s mom.”

I should just let her believe that shit. …but I can’t. Goddamnit. “No. That’s not what I want.” Her innocence and lack of experience were actually part of her appeal. Didn’t she understand that? If only he could share the fantasies he’d had about showing her things… and reassure her that she would never have to ‘try really hard,’ not with him. Of course, he couldn’t do that to her –- couldn’t dangle the proverbial carrot in front of her face only to yank it away, then ultimately have to convince her she didn’t really want it in the first place.

“So I should find some boy to practice with and come back when I have more job experience?” she said, her tone somewhere between nasty and sad.

“Are you listenin’ to me? I said that ain’t it.” If this was some ploy to get him back on the couch, he wasn’t giving in. “An’ I don’ want you to ‘practice’ with anyone.”

“You don’t want me to be with you, but you don’t want me to be with anyone else. So what am I supposed to do?” she asked plaintively. Her eyes were shiny again.

Joel sighed. “I know I’m a little overprotective of you, and you’re right, it ain’t fair. It’s somethin’ I gotta work on. It’s a problem a lot of dads have with their daughters. We know what boys are like an’ we don’ want ‘em messin’ with our little girls.”

“I’m not your daughter, though,” she said, not unkindly. “Or a little girl. And you know I can protect myself better than most of the guys in this town can. It’s jealousy that makes you that way.”

Ploy or not, Joel wanted to sit next to her. It felt weird to stand in front of her, anyway. He sat on the couch, leaving a little space between them. It was pretty goddamn difficult not to touch her. He ignored the jealousy comment; no good would come out of discussing that. “I know you can take care of yourself. But shit happens. You know that. I’m always gonna worry about you.”

“Except when I’m with you,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Right.”

“Don’t you get it? That’s why it would be perfect.” The excitement was back in her voice now.

“No, I jus’ need to… let go. A little.”

“Let go. Like… ‘let’ me be with some other guy?”

“No.” Joel still couldn’t stomach the thought of it. But… he had to. “Yes. Maybe. When you’re older.”

“Not when I’m older. Right now.”

Wait… is she talking about me, or dating in general? Joel was reluctant to ask this, but…”Is there someone you’re interested in? Someone I’m holdin’ you back from?”

The way she looked at him… he couldn’t ever remember seeing her look so sad. “Yeah. You.”

Joel sighed again. “Ellie…”

“Stop ‘Ellie’-ing me. I told you -- I’m in love with you. How could you even think I might want someone else, after I told you that? What kind of person do you think I am?”

The most beautiful person I know, from the inside out. “A young one. A young person who is all mixed up, thanks to the asshole she lives with.”

Ellie snorted. “You’re right about that. You’re mixing me up now, because you’re not making any fucking sense. And stop beating yourself up for what you like to think you did to me, cuz that’s crap. You have this thing about blaming yourself for anything you can, it’s like… like you want to be a bad guy. But I already know you’re not bad.”

It felt like she was calling him on his bullshit, only… it wasn’t bullshit. She was just too innocent to know any better. He was a bad person, undeniably. Not the worst out there, but bad enough. He could see why she was blind to it, though. Ellie brought out the best in him. And if he rattled off every horrible thing he’d ever done in his entire life, she would still only see the man who valued her above all else, and judge him a good person based on that alone. Bad or not, he did strive to do right by Ellie, and he wasn’t deceiving her about who he was. She just refused to accept it. He didn’t argue with her this time. He just racked his brain for a way to fix this.

They sat quietly for a few moments, and he imagined Ellie was racking her brain, too, in a counterproductive fashion. She inched closer to him, but stopped when he once again shifted away from her. “Please, Joel. Just give me a chance. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Joel laughed mirthlessly. “You wanna know the worst that could happen? We lose… this. You an’ me. It ain’t worth the risk.”

Ellie shook her head. “No, that wouldn’t happen! I swear! We would still be you’n’me, we’d be a better you’n’—“

Joel interrupted her. “For how long?”

That startled her. “What? Well… forever.”

“Forever. That’s what you think. And if ‘forever’ turned out to be a few months, a few weeks, a few days… it’d be worth it to you, to throw ‘us’ away?”

“What are you talking about? Forever is forever. A long time. We wouldn’t be throwing anything away.”

Jesus fucking Christ, she’s naïve. Adorable as hell, but naïve. “Ellie. Have you ever actually been in a relationship?”

He expected her to say no, but she thought about it before answering. “Well… kinda…”

Joel was curious about that, but now wasn’t the time to pry into her history. “’Kinda’? All right then. What happened when it ended? You felt shitty, right? You couldn’ be around him no more?”

“No, actually. But it doesn’t matter. This is different! You can’t honestly tell me that you’ve ever had what we have with someone else.” She’d said it so confidently, then suddenly looked doubtful. “Right?”

Again, he had a chance to be a dick, to tell her lies that would make her hate him. ‘Yes, I have. Ellie, you are simply one girl in a long string of women in my life. Not all that special, so get over yourself.’ “Every relationship is unique,” he said slowly, mindful that he needed to choose his words carefully. “I’m tryin’ to tell you that this… the friendship we have right now… it’s worth too much to fuck up.”

Ellie processed that. He’d thought it was a nice sentiment, but it seemed to piss her off more. “So… you’re so sure that it would get fucked up that you don’t even wanna try. Anyone else, you’d give them a shot. But me? Nope. Fucked up.”

“It’s not you bein’ fucked up –- it’s just the most likely outcome. To any romantic relationship.”

“Says you! How can you even—“ She looked ready to scream. He was kind of surprised she hadn’t already. She was remarkably calm -- on the Ellie scale, at least. Instead, she took a deep breath and composed herself. He wondered if she’d been practicing… trying to rehearse this conversation. “You’re gonna want to get rid of me at some point. Is that what you’re saying?”

“No. I don’ want that at all. Hell, I wanted to adopt you. I still do.”

It was Ellie’s turn for mirthless laughter. “That is fucked up, Joel. We are not like— like-- okay, whatever. You don’t wanna get rid of me. So you think I’m going to ditch you?”

Yes, as soon as you outgrow me. It bothered him that she was so dismissive of what he wanted for them. “Again, shit happens. Most relationships fail.”

“Not us,” Ellie insisted stubbornly.

“We’d be startin’ out with a couple strikes against us already. Number one bein’ me. I ain’t good at that shit. Never was.” He shushed her when she started to protest. “Number two, don’tcha think people in this town would be… upset, to see an old man an’ a young girl… together, like that?”

“You’re not old,” she repeated. “And fuck them. Who cares what they think? It’s what we think that matters.”

“To a point. But we’re not alone, we live in this world with other people. Other people you care about. An’ other people who could make things mighty unpleasant if they wanted to. It would take a toll on you.”

“It’d be worth it, though. But… I bet I could make them understand, make them see it’s not what they’re thinking, that we’re… legit. Or we could keep it a secret, if you wanted.” Sudden inspiration struck and her face lit up. “Or we could leave! We did just fine on our own for months and months. That’s what we should do!”

“Jus’ fine? We nearly got killed a thousand times over. We never knew where our next meal was comin’ from, we had to watch our backs all the time -- all the time, sleepin’ with one eye open, constantly tired, hungry, thirsty, everythin’ achin’… do you really wanna go back to that life?” Not that he regretted any of it; Ellie thought it had all been for nothing, but that wasn’t the case at all. Joel actually missed those days sometimes, crazy as that was. Still, he had no desire to go back to the Outside, not after sampling a decent life. And constantly worrying about Ellie’s safety would probably drive him mad.

Ellie waved all that away. “Pffff. You’re just remembering the bad stuff. It would be better this time. We wouldn’t have to push ourselves so hard and move around so much… it would be more like a romantic adventure.” She was getting a little too dreamy-eyed here. How the fuck did they end up talking like being lovers was a done deal in the first place? He needed to backtrack.

“No. We ain’t leavin’ ‘cause we don’ need to, we’re not a couple an’ we never will be. It wouldn’ work. I don’ know how else to put it. You’re too young, you don’ love me the way you think you do, an’ I ain’t willin’ to enter into somethin’ that will fail an’ end up drivin’ us apart.”

“You’re driving us apart now coming up with bullshit reasons to turn me down,” Ellie scoffed. “But, okay, for argument’s sake, let’s say we tried it and it blew up in our faces… then wouldn’t it be like you and Tess?”

What the hell does Tess have to do with anything? “Excuse me?”

“You guys were friends after. You cared about each other, even though it didn’t work out, romantically. Right? Things were still good.”

Joel couldn’t fathom how she even knew that much about him and Tess, from what little interaction the three of them had last summer. He’d never talked about her. Didn’t especially want to talk about her now, either. “That was different. I never—“ Never loved her the way I love you. Never felt like losing her would be losing myself. Never thought that without her in my life, I couldn’t even go on living.

“Never what?”

“I ain’t gonna talk about Tess,” he grumbled. “That has nothin’ to do with our situation.”

“Okay. Sorry. So, all your past relationships, the romantic ones, failed. Every single one.”

“Yes.”

“And you think if we were father and daughter, we wouldn’t fail.”

“Yes. That’s the type of relationship we should have. It’s more permanent, and it’s a hell of a lot easier.”

“How is it easier when I feel like-- when we both have these… these feelings.” She assumed it was mutual. Of course she did. Because he hadn’t said otherwise, despite numerous opportunities to do so, and if it were otherwise, they wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

He didn’t want to encourage her by reinforcing the assumption. I should just lie and tell her I don’t think of her that way. He couldn’t, though. He wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to hurt her... he couldn’t put his finger on it, and since he had neither the time nor the inclination to figure it out, he told himself it was because she’d just see through the lie anyhow. “I think we can overcome that.”

“I don’t want to overcome it!” She looked at him earnestly. Started to reach for his hand but caught herself when he flinched; he reckoned she was trying to behave in such a way that he wouldn’t leave the couch again. “Joel, you don’t understand. If you’re afraid of things getting fucked up, you don’t have to be. Cuz I won’t let them. You’ve never been in a relationship like that with me -- I’ll make sure nothing bad happens that would split us up. You can trust me. You don’t have to worry about anything!”

Joel sighed. She really believed it was that simple. It was endearing, how sweet she was. Ellie talked tough, and it wasn’t just talk -- she could walk the walk. But underneath that, there was this lovely young woman with a huge heart, and such a capacity for compassion, the depths of which he was only just now beginning to glimpse, here in their new life. No wonder he loved her so much. Part of him wanted to believe in her fairytale, to share that indestructible hope with her, and be cocky with thoughts of ‘we’re different from everyone else,’ immune to adversity. That would be the part of him governed by his heart… and again, his head knew better. “That ain’t how it works, Ellie. But you… you deserve to be with someone who feels the same way. Some dreamy kid who don’ know that everythin’ eventually turns to shit, no matter how good it starts out.”

“Great, so we’re back to that again. Who do you want me to be with, then? Huh?” she challenged.

“I don’ know. Not me.” He was a good liar. It was easier to be convincing when the lies were actually half-truths, or true from a certain point of view… when he let his head dictate the words. Ellie seemed to know when he was flat-out lying, and he’d meant it when he told her he wouldn’t lie to her anymore. He just couldn’t tell her the entire truth. Couldn’t expect her to understand things like “I DO want you with me, Ellie, more than I’ve ever wanted anyone, but no can do.” The best way to lie was to not tell lies, strange as it sounded.


~Continued in Part Two~

Tags: accretion, fic, tlou
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