Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 5277
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 in the hopes that no one's eyes glaze over by the end!
~Continued from Part One~
Shit, she was blinking back tears again. He wanted to console her, but that would undo all the boundaries he’d been trying so hard to set here.
“What I deserve is not to be treated like a joke,” she said bitterly.
“You are. You act like… fuck, Joel. Just look around. Slim pickings here. It’s not like in movies where you can just walk down the street and meet someone new every minute. Like in your time. You had like, what, millions of people in the world to choose from? And you could drive cars and fly on planes to go anywhere in the world you wanted. You think most relationships fail? Maybe they did back then because people had all these options. The world’s not like that anymore. People have to stick together now.”
She’d clearly been thinking about this a lot. Joel could see where she was coming from. It didn’t make him any more willing to fuck up the good relationship they had, though. “You an’ I do stick together. We’re family. We can’t… cheapen that.” No, that ain't the right word for it…
“How would we cheapen it by improving it? That doesn’t make sense.”
He wasn’t explaining himself very well. Maybe he was being too careful, and not saying what needed to be said. “It wouldn’ improve. You’re… projectin’ some fantasy onto me. I can’t give you what you want.”
“You’re the only one who can give it to me! Even if I had all those millions of people to pick from I wouldn’t want anyone else. You’ll see. A year from now I’ll still feel like this. I’ll be sixteen then. Is that old enough for you to believe me?”
Joel was so certain that in a year she’d be laughing at all this, he could have indulged this idea of hers. But it pained him to think of her carrying around this hurt any longer than she had to. He could carry it around. And he would, indefinitely. That was fine. He’d already lived his life. Fallen in and out of love, done the marriage and family thing. All he really cared about now was giving Ellie a good start to her life and being the stable father figure she needed, the one he wished like hell he’d been all along. “No. I’d jus’ think you’re stubbornly tryin’ to prove me wrong, an’ it would make me sad to see you wastin’ your time like that. You said you wanna make me happy? You gettin’ over this would do it.” Another half-truth. He meant it, and yet the words didn’t quite ring true to him. Yes, that’s what you want, you selfish prick. You want her to forget this infatuation and move on.
“That’s not gonna happen,” she said with a sigh. “Look, you don’t have to give me anything. I don’t want you to change, or be perfect, or whatever, if that’s what you’re afraid of? Do you think you’ll disappoint me or something? You won’t. You couldn’t.”
Joel ignored the question. “Forget me. What makes you so sure you would be happy?”
Ellie looked a bit taken aback. “What do you mean? Of course I’d be happy. I’d be with you.”
So simple. So sweet. “You don’ think I’d piss you off? Drive you crazy? Look how much we’re fightin’ already. It would only get worse. I’d make you miserable, an’ you’d wish we stayed how we were.”
“You already piss me off and drive me crazy and I still want to be with you. And you can be so sweet when you want to be. You’d be great,” she added with a little smile. Such a pretty smile, and the way she was looking at him…
No. You can’t be with her like that, and quit fucking thinking about kissing her, for chrissakes. This wasn’t where the conversation needed to go, and he couldn’t afford to think about how ‘sweet’ he would be to her. Hearing her say it made him feel stupidly giddy, too. Like a goddamn teenager. He was starting to get really angry with himself. “No, I wouldn’t,” he snapped. “You don’ even know how I’d be. You imagine it in your head an’ it’s different from how it really is.”
“That’s not what I’m doing! I know you. I know… how you are with me. I do know what it would be like.”
Joel sighed. She was so… fifteen. It was all about the ‘honeymoon phase’ and not the nitty-gritty shit. “You don’t. It’s a fantasy. You’re in love with the idea of bein’ in love.”
She looked stunned. For a moment Joel wondered if it had hit her all of a sudden that he was right. But then she said, “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It ain’t stupid. You’re young… inexperienced…”
“And you think that means I’m a nutjob?”
He actually chuckled at that. “No. It’s normal, actually.”
“So… wait, you’ve decided I’m normal now? Which somehow means I’m too fucked up to love like a normal person?! I don’t get it. Am I normal, or messed up?”
Joel sighed yet again. “I’m crap at explainin’ it, all right? I jus’ know you’re directin’ things at me that ain’t about me. I’m jus’ the closest target. You should be with someone younger.”
Ellie sighed, too. “It is about you. Someone younger wouldn’t be you. You’re so hung up on the age thing. Since we’ve been here there’s been, what, four new people? All of them too old for me, according to you. And no one I’d want anyway. You want me to fake it? Pretend I like someone just to—“
He cut her off. “No, of course not. Maybe someone already here. Someone that… when you spend more time with him, things start to change.”
“Like who? Someone my age-- or younger, right? Man, that gives me so many options. Thanks.”
The sarcasm didn’t deter Joel. “You know Clicker has a big ol’ crush on you, don’tcha?”
“He’s twelve!” she gasped. The look of horror on her face would have crushed the poor little guy.
Joel didn’t exactly like the idea of Ellie with the kid, but Clicker was a sweet boy and he truly cared about Ellie. He’d make a good first boyfriend. “You said age don’ matter to you. If you’re so open-minded… three years is still a hell of a lot closer than me an’ you.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “He’s a child.”
“So are you.” The eyeroll only supported that notion, but he kept that thought to himself.
“I’m not! I’ve been trying to show you I’m not –- that I’m… ready...”
They were just talking in circles. “Never mind, then. Not Clicker, but someone will catch your eye, someday, it don’ have to be any time soon, no rush… an’ then—“
“You’d kill him.”
I’d like to. “Well, I need to… not do that. I know.”
“You need to not throw me away like trash,” she said poutily.
“I’m not. I never will. I know it feels that way, I’m not tellin’ you what you wanna hear…”
“You don’t know how it feels. God, you won’t even let me touch you. Am I that disgusting to you all of a sudden?”
Joel wasn’t going to fall into that trap. “Of course not. I am tryin’ to be… appropriate.”
“Appropriate,” she sneered. “Great. So, new rules? No touching allowed except when we’re going to sleep?”
Here we go. Joel knew the sleeping arrangements needed to be addressed, and he dreaded her reaction. He had to steel himself to it or he wouldn’t be able to do what he had to do. He tried to think of the most sensitive way to tell her, but he didn’t need to; he could tell from the look on her face that his hesitation had done it for him.
“Joel, no. You can’t. You can’t do that to me.” She was still calmer than he’d expected. Maybe she figured she’d skip the yelling and go right for the heartstrings...
“I’m sorry. I never shoulda crossed that line in the first place. I don’ wanna hurt you, believe me.” Sleeping apart from her was going to be hard on him, too, but now that he knew she had these misguided feelings for him… that she wanted him to do some of the things he fantasized about… he didn’t trust himself with her in that bed, not at all.
Ellie wasn’t having it. “Uh-uh. No. You’ve said shit like this before and then you realize it’s a mistake and you still sleep with me.”
“Not this time.” He had always given in before, but this was different. He had to make sure she knew he meant it. “The mistake was keepin’ it up. It messed you up an’ I shoulda known better.”
“You didn’t mess me up!” she wailed. “Why is it so impossible for you to believe that my feelings are real?”
“You think they’re real. That’s part of bein’ messed up.”
“What do I have to do to convince you they are real? Can I, like… prove that I’m not fucked up? Do you want me to tell you all the stuff I love about you? So you know it’s not just that ~idea~ bullshit?”
“NO,” he said quickly. He wasn’t that much of a prick, to let her gush about all his alleged wonderful qualities and then shoot her down anyway -- plus it would be awkward as all hell. “There’s nothin’ you can say.”
“Is there something I can do? I’ll do anything. Anything you need me to do,” she pleaded quietly, her eyes huge… the need so palpable.
He had to look away. He always caved when she looked at him like that. It was so much easier to give in, and see her worried expression melt into something joyful… to feel good about making her happy. But that was irresponsible, and cowardly, and it had ended up hurting her so much more than if he’d just been strong in the first place.
She put her hand on his knee, and he didn’t flinch or pull away this time. He covered her hand with his. For some reason it seemed more appropriate now… an act of kindness, not leading her on. Or maybe I’m just weak… “Ain’t nothin’ you can do,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. I know you’re sincere. It jus’ don’ change the facts.”
“What you’ve decided are facts,” she said sadly. “Okay. So, what if… we just sleep together anyway, cuz we’ve done it this long and there’s no reason to stop—“
“There’s every reason to stop!” He looked at her again. “You need to get this garbage out of your head –- how can you do that if we’re jus’ as close as before an’ you keep waitin’… hopin’ things’ll eventually go how you wan’ ‘em to?”
At least she didn’t pretend that that’s not exactly what would happen. “Well, that’s my problem. I can handle it.”
Joel groaned. “You can’t handle it. It would eat you up inside. I can’t let you go on believin’ you’re in love with me.”
“I am in love with you!”
“You’re not. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner we can fix things.”
“You want me to accept a lie! God, why won’t you just believe me? How can we fix things when you won’t even…” She let that thought trail off, and switched gears. “What if I promise that I won’t try to change your mind? And that I won’t even touch you, that we can just sleep—“
“Ellie, I said no. It won’ work.” He could already imagine how that would play out. This is where he would normally acquiesce, where he’d pretend that he believed what she said, as if that made it okay to take advantage of her. Like it was perfectly justifiable as long as it was her idea. He felt stronger now, reassured by the knowledge that he was doing right by Ellie. He was better than a lot of scum out there who would have manipulated the fuck out of her long before now.
“How do you know? I’ll be good, can’t we just try—“
“No. No bargaining. You need to learn to sleep on your own. That’ll help you realize that you’re not really in love with me, that you don’ need me.” He nearly choked up, saying the last bit. It was true; she didn’t really need him the way she thought she did, and she was about to figure that out. Maybe she’d conclude she didn’t need him in other ways, too. Stay strong, Joel. For her sake. Be a stand-up guy for a change.
“What if I have a nightmare? Or a panic attack? What if I see him—“
“You don’ have that many nightmares, you’ll learn to roll over an’ go back to sleep,” he said, gently but firmly, giving her hand a little squeeze. “And the panic attacks -- I ain’t even been with you the past two times you’ve had ‘em -- both in the daytime -- an’ you handled it jus’ fine. You’re stronger than you think. You can do this.”
She still hadn’t really cried, but her face looked like it could crumple any second. He couldn’t let it get to him. He returned her hand to her lap and edged away from her. She swiped at a tear angrily. “Why are you being such an asshole?”
That surprised him a little; he didn’t think he’d said anything unkindly. “I ain’t tryin’ to be.”
She was quiet for a minute. Trying to compose herself, maybe. “I know you’re not,” she said finally. “But you’re stubborn as fuck. There has to be some way to make you see you’re wrong.”
“I ain’t wrong. Ellie, you’re fifteen years old. Full of hormones. This is all new to you. I been around the block enough times, I know what I’m talkin’ about. I never shoulda got in that bed with you in the first place an’ I’ll never do it again. You don’ have to be embarrassed or nothin’. In time you’ll see I’m right an’… maybe then you’ll see me more like a father again. You’ll fall for some kid an’ I’ll try not to kill him… well, after I make sure he’s good enough for ya. If he’s not, I’ll have to kill him.” He waited for Ellie to smile at the threat, or roll her eyes… or say something Ellie-like.
“Oh my God. I can’t—“ She turned away from him. Elbows on her knees, head in her hands, she started rocking herself slightly, a small back-and-forth motion. He’d never seen her do that before. “It doesn’t matter what I say. You’re gonna think I’m just some stupid kid with a stupid crush because that’s what you want to believe, fuck if I know why. Cuz you want some excuse to get rid of me.”
He knew she needed extra reassurance that he wouldn’t leave her; he had endless patience on that front. “I don’ wanna get rid of you -- I wanna keep you around. That’s why it has to be this way. We can’t cross that line, there’s no goin’ back. It sucks right now, but one day you’ll thank me for it.”
Silence. Joel tried to remember if he’d ever gone on to feel any shade of gratitude towards anyone in his life who’d said that to him. It was one of those things that sounded good coming out but didn’t help make the other person feel any less shitty.
He tried to think of what he could say that would make her feel better. “Hey. We can still do plenty of things together. We’ll still live here together. Eat together. Go to the library. We’ll still go check out the gym when they get it up an’ runnin’. We can walk around the lake. Watch movies. Listen to music. Hang out. Talk. Laugh. None of that has to change.” That was quite the laundry list of shit they could do together. It made him feel like everything would be just fine, once she got all this nonsense out of her head.
She glanced at him sideways through her curtain of hair. He resisted the urge to reach over and tuck some of it behind her ear. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”
So it might take a little while, that’s all. “Maybe it won’ be like that right away, if you’re too pissed at me… but in time I hope you’ll forgive me.” Again. He was counting on that. He already knew a life without Ellie was no life at all.
Back to the rocking. He was still itching to touch her, to rub her back or squeeze her shoulder or pull her close. To comfort her. No. That’s how you fucked her up in the first place. You’ve gotta un-fuck her up now.
She was too quiet. It made Joel uneasy. “Talk to me, baby girl.”
“Don’t call me that,” she growled.
Huh? “I thought you liked it.”
“I don’t anymore.”
He hoped that was a temporary casualty of her anger. You’re still my baby girl. “Oh. Sorry. I won’t call you that.” Just like that awful day she’d run away, he found himself wishing she’d scream and yell and hit him or something. Anything but this cold silence. “Talk to me anyhow.”
She made a little ‘psshh’ noise. Joel waited, but no words followed. She sniffled a couple times. He didn’t know what to do for her. His instincts were obviously all wrong so he had to be more cerebral about it. “Do you want me to leave you alone?” he asked gently.
She stopped rocking. “Go if you want.”
“No, that’s not… I’ll sit here with you all night if you want. Jus’ thought I was gettin’ on your nerves.”
“You’ll sit here. But you won’t… hug me, or anything. Ever?”
Joel couldn’t imagine that. Maybe he should imagine it; he’d gotten by just fine for many years with very little physical human contact. He was pretty sure she had as well. He wanted more for her than ‘getting by,’ he didn’t want her to lack for anything… but she needed to close the door on this crush, and she couldn’t do that with his arms around her. Couldn’t do it while waiting for some mythical day in the future when he might decide it was okay to be affectionate again. “I dunno. Not like before.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, Joel trying to think of comforting words that wouldn’t sound like bullshit, Ellie thinking God knows what. She seemed to come to a decision, and she sat up straight. Held her head high. “I’ll go,” she announced flatly as she stood up. Her face looked… stonier. Harder.
Joel stood up, too. “You don’ have to go.”
“Yeah, I do. Not in this thing, though.” She glanced at her dress with disgust and headed to the bedroom.
“If you wanna be alone—“
He could hear that she was changing her clothes, although she’d left the bedroom door open. “All right. I’ll go with you. Anywhere you wanna go.”
He waited for her to dress. He was glad she didn’t want to be alone. He’d told her before that he’d let her go off by herself if she needed to… she’d never tested him, so he still didn’t know if he could actually do it. Not when she was upset.
She came out of the bedroom wearing her standard beat-up blue jeans and a faded long-sleeved T-shirt, her hair in the usual ponytail. She breezed past him with some garment in her arms -- it looked like her nightgown -- and kneeled on the floor to stuff it in her backpack. “I don’t want you to come with me, that’s the whole point of leaving. I can’t be around you right now.”
That stung, but what did he expect? “Then I’ll leave, you stay here.”
She fiddled with whatever else was in the bag. “No. I get to decide this one. I’m leaving.”
“All right. Can you at least tell me where you’re goin’?” If that was her nightgown… did she really want to spend the night away from him entirely? He’d thought she would at least take comfort in him sleeping nearby. “Are you goin’ to the farm?”
She slung her backpack over her shoulders and walked by without even a glance at him. “No. Tommy’s.”
Shit, why does she wanna go there? Then he remembered something. “Maria ain’t there, remember?”
“I know. Tommy is, though, ‘til Wednesday. And the Monday kids are prob’ly there.”
Tommy. Fucking great. He wondered if she wanted to see Tommy just because she knew it would get under his skin that she’d rather be with his brother. He followed her to the door. “You plan on stayin’ overnight?” At least she’s not taking that other shirt she likes to sleep in…
“Yeah. There’s room for me there.” She opened the door. It had stopped raining, but there was a chill in the air.
“There’s room for you here.”
She sighed. “I can’t, Joel. I can’t sleep here.”
“Yes you can.”
She was still in the doorway, her back to him. “I can’t sleep in that bed without you.”
“Sleep on the couch, then. I’ll sleep in the bedroom.”
“Isn’t that against your macho code or something?”
“Not if I sleep on the floor.” He didn’t want to sleep in the bed without her anyway.
She didn’t answer; he hoped that meant she was considering the option. “You promised you’d sleep with me as long as I wanted you to. Remember?” She finally turned and looked at him then, the question hanging there… giving him one more chance to change his mind about the bed.
“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly. “I truly am.” I am a piece of shit and you’d be better off without me. That’s what I have to remind myself while you’re gone.
“Anyways, it’s your house, you should sleep in the bed.”
“It’s your house, too.” It pained him that she thought of the house as his alone. Usually she referred to it as ‘home’ or ‘the house’ (although that sometimes could mean Tommy and Maria’s), but he’d overheard her say ‘Joel’s house’ on occasion when talking to others, and he’d always reiterated that it was just as much hers as it was his. He wondered if she said it now just to spite him. “Please, Ellie. I—“ …need you here with me. “I want you to live here still. I can make myself scarce if it helps.”
She’d made it out to the porch, and now he stood in the doorway. She turned around to look at him again, her expression softer. “I’ll come back. Just not tonight. Okay?”
How can I let her leave? He had to, though. She wasn’t his prisoner, and the sooner she weaned herself off him, the sooner she’d heal. But… it wasn’t easy. “So, jus’ this one night?”
“Maybe. I dunno.”
“What’re you gonna tell Tommy?”
She snorted. “Nothing. Don’t worry. You think I want him to know? Anyone to know?”
“He’s gonna wonder. You’ve never spent the night over there before.”
“He won’t make me talk if I don’t feel like it. You can tell him whatever you want. Have a good laugh over it.”
“No one’s laughin’.” She didn’t really think he’d do that, did she? And Tommy adored Ellie now. He’d be kind to her tonight. The thought of his brother comforting her enraged Joel for some reason. Naturally, he expected to feel jealous, but the only person he should be angry with was himself.
Ellie scuffled down the porch steps.
“Ellie, wait. Take a gun.”
She kept walking. “I don’t need it to go to Tommy’s.”
“Yes, you do. It’s gettin’ dark an’ it ain’t like that’s right around the corner.” The days were long now; the sun didn’t finish setting until after nine o’clock. But Joel didn’t even like the idea of Ellie walking around on her own in the daytime.
“I don’t care.”
Goddamnit. That had to be spite. “You don’t care? Well, I care. Let me walk you there, at least.”
She stopped. Heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Fine, gimme the 9-millimeter then.”
Joel brought it to her. Their hands didn’t touch when he handed it over. She didn’t look at him. Just silently tucked it into her jeans and started to leave again.
She kept walking, albeit slowly. “Yeah?” Said like an audible eyeroll.
Joel knew he was annoying her, but he couldn’t seem to help it. He moved closer to her. “I’m sorry.”
“You said that already.”
“Can you jus’… c’mere.”
She paused. She was only a few feet away from him; he just needed her to turn around.
She turned. Her head was bowed, like a dog expecting a scolding.
One more time won’t make a difference. He pulled her close to him. Wrapped his arms around her and held her against his chest. “I’ll be here if you change your mind an’ wanna come home, all right?” He kissed the top of her head. It still felt good, felt right, having her in his arms, this precious little person… his Ellie. Maybe after a while he could hug her, when she could believe it was a fatherly gesture and nothing more. He wondered if he could ever convince himself that’s all it was. He’d stopped trying long ago. All that mattered was getting her to stop wanting it to be more.
She didn’t resist, but she felt stiff. Her arms hung at her sides. She said nothing. Joel had to admire her strength and maturity. She could have whined, pleaded, screamed, yelled, begged through hysterical sobs, thrown herself at his feet, jumped him… anything to try to manipulate him into doing what she wanted. He’d known grown women who would have made a bigger fuss. Sure, she was more upset than she was willing to show him… he understood that. She had to protect herself… protect herself from him. Maybe her heart was already hardening towards him. That was a painful thought. It had to happen, though, and he deserved to feel like shit anyhow.
He rubbed her head gently, wishing he could extract all the fucked-up-ness he’d planted in her… take away the pain his selfishness had inflicted. God, he did not want to let her leave his arms. He thought she’d be the one to pull away, but she kept standing there, her face buried in his shirt. He was probably confusing the hell out of the poor girl. Well, that ends now.
This ain’t the last time. You’ll hold her again someday, he told himself, because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to let her go. “All right then. I’ll see you later.” It wasn’t a goodbye. That would have sounded too final. Besides, she might come back tonight. Joel pulled back slowly and tried to give her a reassuring smile. Her face was a blank slate. He was hoping for a sign from her that it would be all right… a little smile, some sort of look that would say “It’s okay, I’ll be back soon and everything will be good again, don’t worry.” But she just turned away with downcast eyes.
He watched her go. Had himself a crazy fantasy of running after her… grabbing her, kissing away everything he’d said. And then he did go after her… but very stealthily, a great distance behind her. Her ‘I don’t care’ had been flippant enough to worry him a little –- and he wanted to see that she hadn’t lied about where she was going -- so he made sure she got to Tommy’s safely before ambling back home. He was in no hurry to face a night without Ellie. He almost would have preferred it if she’d gone off by herself, to the lake or to the ghost town… where he could follow her… No, it’s fine that she’s with Tommy. She’s safe there.
The house already felt so empty. Lifeless. Joel didn’t know what the hell he was going to do all night. He couldn’t leave –- not when Ellie might decide to come back, and he’d told her he would be there. He could do the dishes; that would take all of five minutes. Maybe he could read whatever library book Ellie had left in his backpack. It was going to be a long night. He already knew it would be a sleepless one.
He looked in the bedroom that should have been hers and hers alone. At the bed, now rendered unusable. Her alarm clock was missing from the makeshift nightstand. The dress lay crumpled on the floor.
She really had looked pretty tonight. Not that she wasn’t pretty all the time… but tonight she’d looked especially so. Like Cinderella emerging from her rags. Had he even told her how nice she looked? Probably not. He’d have to be careful about saying shit like that now, though; he didn’t want her to think he might change his mind (and the douchebag part of him that did want her to pine after him needed to shut the fuck up immediately). Joel picked up the dress and smoothed it out on the bed. Maybe I can close the bedroom door behind me, go sit on the couch, and pretend she’s in here. …yeah, sure, ‘cause that’s not fucked up or anything. Jesus, Joel, don’t be such a fucking pussy.
He tried (well, half-ass tried), but he couldn’t concentrate on anything. Couldn’t distract himself with stupid shit. All he wanted to do was sit and think about Ellie, and listen for the front door to open. He flopped down on the couch. Unbidden, he heard Tommy’s voice in his head, speaking to Ellie. “What did my asshole brother do, sweetheart? I’ll go kick his ass.” Now, that thought didn’t piss him off. It might actually make him feel better to have his brother take a few swings at him. Tommy would be shocked shitless if Joel didn’t fight back… actually, Joel would be, too. More likely than not, they’d still get into it like a couple of kids in the schoolyard.
He thought about going to Tommy’s. What could he say to Ellie that he hadn’t already said? Seeing him might get her hopes up. Maybe she’d think he was coming over to tell her he was wrong… that he loved her and nothing else mattered…
Leave her alone. She needs time away from you, he scolded himself. He used to want to be alone all the time. Before Ellie came along.
A pang of loneliness struck his heart. The walls Ellie had busted through, the ones that had protected him well for so many years, lay in rubble now, but he could repair them right quick… if he needed to. Remember what’s truly important: you’re lucky she’s even alive. This will blow over, you just have to ride it out.
Joel retrieved the dress off the bed and draped it over his chest like a miniature blanket, then arranged the couch blanket over himself to hide it. He wasn’t sure why he bothered to cover it; his gut told him Ellie was gone for the night. My gut can be wrong, though, can’t it?
He stretched out on the couch and waited.
~Continue to Chapter 23~