Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Accretion" Chapter 23: "Endure and Survive"

Title: "Accretion" - Chapter 23: "Endure and Survive"
Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 5956
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Party time! But Ellie couldn't care less now.

The sun didn’t show its face again until mid-afternoon the next day. Ellie was picking blackberries. As one of her least-favorite chores, and one that certainly didn’t need doing on the so-called holiday, it was a testament to how little she wanted to go to that fucking party now.

She had expected it to be hard to see Annie in the morning, to see the hope on her face give way to shock and disappointment… but it actually hadn’t been so bad. Maybe because she’d already endured the worst? They had chores to do, and Ellie didn’t want to broadcast her business to any of the other workers in earshot, so they didn’t talk privately until late morning. They had quite a bit of help scheduled for today, the idea being that the quicker the essential tasks got done, the more time the farm residents would have to enjoy the party, which started at eleven and would end… whenever it ended. Late, probably. Pretty much everyone else had the day off (excepting the guards, of course). Even the library was closed. Ellie wasn’t scheduled for farm work this afternoon, but she planned to hang out at the farm the entire day. She could take over for someone else who would be all too happy to go to the party.

Even with the complete privacy of Annie’s bedroom, Ellie had to omit a lot of details –- she had to keep Annie in the dark about the mystery man’s identity. Good thing she hadn’t told Annie who it was –- how much more humiliating would that have been?! Ellie made it sound like Joel had allowed the dinner to happen, but then he and Ellie had gotten into a huge fight afterwards. That would explain Ellie’s reluctance to see him, as well as any awkwardness that might be observable between them. Ellie had thought she wanted Annie’s opinion, perhaps some advice… until she’d started relaying her tale of woe and realized that without the full explanation, Annie just wasn’t going to get it. The thing was, she wouldn’t get it even with all the gory details. Hell, Ellie didn’t understand it herself. Annie had come to the conclusion that Ellie needed to move on. Ellie admitted that she didn’t see how she could be friends with ‘Leo’ after all this… she didn’t admit that she had to be, because she couldn’t live without him. That’s the part Annie would never understand. That no one understood, except maybe Joel, but little good that did her. No, she was alone in this venture now.

Picking blackberries wasn’t quite as mindless as it would seem. It was slow and tedious, and you had to look carefully or you could miss whole vines of ripe berries. At least she had gloves to protect her from the shitload of thorns. She plucked the berries gingerly, careful not to smush any, and collected them in a tin can hanging around her neck, which she periodically emptied into plastic bins she’d lugged over with a little wagon (the kind little kids rode around in). For the most part, she was able to do it without having to think. She was pretty fucking tired of thinking; she’d done enough of that last night.

Tommy hadn’t really been surprised to see her… until he realized Joel wasn’t in tow. The six kids at the house had immediately roped her into playing one of their favorite imaginative games, loosely based on a cartoon (Ellie much preferred to play the game than watch the dumb cartoon with them), which combined hide-and-seek with some acting, everyone taking turns playing the villain. It was so easy to make the kids laugh. She would have gladly played with them all night to escape reality, if they hadn’t all eventually been dragged off by their parents. Tommy couldn’t believe that Joel hadn’t shown up to drag her off as well. The thought had crossed Ellie’s mind, too, and it was just another dose of pain when he didn’t come. She had shyly asked Tommy if it was okay that she crashed there, knowing he’d say yes, but that he’d want to know why. She couldn’t deny that it had something to do with Joel. She hadn’t even lied when she said she didn’t want to cause any conflict between the brothers and thus, preferred to keep her mouth shut. She assured Tommy that Joel knew where she was, and there was no need to go talk to him.

So Tommy had settled her in a guest room, and told her to let him know if she needed anything. She’d resisted the urge to reply, “Just Joel.” She’d tossed and turned. Sat by the window for a while and gazed up at the moon. Stared at the fluorescent digits of her alarm clock, watching the limbs of the figures change shape without registering their numeric meaning. She hadn’t exactly been scared to close her eyes… she just didn’t want to. Didn’t want to forget for one second that she was in a place that Joel was not, where Joel had never been, where it would have been unnatural to find him. It was easier that way. Not 'seeing' David was a bonus, too… and not having nightmares. The closest she came to sleep was when she completely emptied her mind and achieved a sort of trance-like state, like she had on that day she ran away... Joel wasn’t looking for her this time. She couldn’t be mad at the man for respecting her request to leave her alone… or so she told herself. She also couldn’t help wishing he’d bend just a little, give her just that one thing -- the bed. She could get through the rest of it, if only she had that to look forward to every night. Then she could at least pretend he was hers.

Ellie’s emotions were bouncing all over the place. Sometimes she still felt hopeful, almost like last night hadn’t even happened. Joel hadn’t exactly told her to fuck off, after all. She knew he was attracted to her, damnit. He hadn't denied it. Maybe there was something else she could do to prove herself to him. She was kind of kicking herself for not trying hard enough to find a way to kiss him… but also kind of glad she hadn’t made that much more of a fool of herself by trying and failing. Maybe all she had to do was wait a while for him to change his mind?

At other times, it felt like cold hard reality was smacking her in the face and calling bullshit on those types of thoughts. Joel clearly didn’t feel the same way about her that she did about him, because if he did, the thought of them being nothing more than friends -- never kissing, never even touching, now -- would be totally unbearable. The huge step backwards that they’d taken is what hurt the most. Joel thought she was mad at him, which, of course, she was, but he seemed to think she’d stop being mad pretty soon and then they could be ~friends~ again. What he didn’t seem to get was that it would be excruciatingly painful to see him now… to see him and not be close to him the way she longed to be. Being angry about it was preferable to feeling sad, but she didn’t get to choose -- she vacillated between the two, seemingly randomly.

The night took forever to end, and when it did, Ellie felt no worse for the wear. What did it matter if she slept? Fuck sleep. Sleep was for babies. She didn’t need it. She didn’t need anything. Today she’d managed to stay mostly in ‘outside mode,’ even when talking to Annie. Crying in front of her friend wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, it just wasn’t something Ellie desired. Now, everyone else was at the lake, not expected back until chore time. Annie had tried to persuade Ellie for a good ten minutes to go eat lunch over there, at least, to just check things out, it might make her feel better, blah blah blah. Ellie assured her she’d go later, that she just needed time alone first.

Only she wasn’t completely alone –- she had Spirit! The horse was still only half broke, if that. Not ideal for farm work, and not anyone’s first choice to take out scavenging or hunting. Ellie had a use for him that day, though: she needed to go back and forth between the blackberry bushes (on the north side of Farm 1) and the sheep paddock on Farm 3 throughout the afternoon to check on Mimi, who was expected to lamb soon. Today, according to Annie’s examination of the ewe’s rear. Ellie was supposed to go fetch Annie and Esther if she observed any of the tell-tale behaviors they’d warned her about that would indicate labor was imminent. This made her feel useful. More so than picking the fucking berries, anyway. Annie had said it would still be a while before Mimi would actually require assistance, so Ellie didn’t have to sweat it too much, but Ellie took the duty very seriously and made quite a few trips (besides, she’d rather ride Spirit than pick berries). Thanks to her, Annie and her family got to spend more time having some much-deserved fun at the party, all of them together. Because, unlike Joel, they trusted her.

Fuck Joel. If he asked about her, Annie had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to tell him that Ellie didn’t want to see him. Which was only half true, although she’d said it angrily enough to be convincing. Still, if he really wanted to see her, a warning wouldn’t stop him. He could come find her… tell her he was miserable without her, that he’d come to his senses and wanted to be with her… it was just shock, last night, that’s all, and now he’d had time to think…

This kept not happening. She would look in that direction, expecting to see him trotting towards her, and see nothing but the fields. It pissed her off.

By the time Annie and company returned, Ellie had managed to convince herself she truly didn’t want to see Joel anyway. Even so, she was dying to know if Joel had talked to Annie. She wouldn’t allow herself to ask. She figured Annie would mention it during the next round of trying to persuade Ellie to go to the party.

It didn’t happen during evening chores. Annie and a couple other people prattled on about the party while milking the cows, and Ellie listened, but didn’t even pretend to care about what they ate, or their introduction to some game called ‘volleyball’ that Ellie had heard of but never played... the music, the dancing, the swimming… all that stuff would have been fun had it happened yesterday. If only she hadn’t been such an idiot. If only Joel hadn’t been such a jerk.

The girls got a chance to talk alone out by the lean-to in the sheep paddock. Mimi hadn’t been interested in her dinner, which apparently also meant she was about to give birth. She was now pawing at the ground, sniffing around in circles… Ellie felt agitated just watching her. “How long will it be now?”

Annie shrugged. “Could be an hour, could be several hours… she was fairly quick last time but that was only one lamb.”

“I’ll keep you company,” Ellie offered, knowing full well that Annie didn’t want her to. This made her realize she actually wanted to go now, if only to lay eyes on Joel.

“No way! You have to go to the party, Ellie. Who knows when the next one will be?”

“I do,” Ellie replied cheekily. “When someone gets married.”

Annie rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. You should still go. There’s so many people there, you could easily avoid what’s-his-name. Hang out with Jacob and Christine and Nicole… Troy and Dee…”

Ellie waited for her to mention Joel.

“Mom will come out, I won’t be alone,” Annie added.

“I suppose I could just go get Jacob… he should be waiting with you. Think how romantic it would be to sit here making out while Mimi’s about to pop!”

Ewwww! Not to be punny or anything.”

Annie knew about Ellie’s fondness for puns. It made Ellie smile. “Ha! Good one.” I am more than Joel’s unwanted trash. I am this whole other person, separate from him. What a strange thought to pop into her head just then. It almost felt nice.

“No, it’ll be fine,” said Annie. “He’s not into the whole sheep midwife thing.”

“Who is?!” It sounded pretty scary to Ellie. Annie had told her about all the possible complications. Ellie would have helped out if needed, of course… but sticking her hand up an animal’s vagina was not on the list of things she wanted to do in life.

“You should go, Ellie,” Annie urged. “Seriously. You’ll have fun. It’ll take your mind off things. Forget about that idiot who doesn’t appreciate you. Oh and I told Joel you’d probably be going later.”

Finally! Joel! “You did?” Ellie hoped she sounded nonchalant. How did he seem to you? Did he look sad? Was he looking around like he was waiting for me to show up? Did he ask about me? Did he tell you anything?

“Yeah. We square danced a little. He’s pretty good! Better than most of the sad sacks out there -- and a lot of those people were even in our class! It was pretty funny, though.”

“He danced with you?” Ellie was sure that didn’t sound nonchalant at all. She didn’t care; she was livid. How dare he dance without me? That was OUR thing!

“Well, me and Jacob. He was in our square. Mom dragged him out there.” She seemed to pick up on the fact that there was more than just incredulity in the question. “What’s wrong with that? Is it really that surprising?”

Joel and Esther?! So he did want someone his own age. What a fucking liar he was! Oh God, how she hated him right now. How can he do this to me? Motherfucker!

“Ellie? What is it?” asked Annie, perplexed.

She still needed to attempt to act normal. “Nothing. Sorry, I was just thinking about something else for a sec. So… Joel danced? I knew he was only pretending to hate those lessons.” She forced some lightness into her voice. If she sounded weird, she hoped Annie would chalk it up to being brokenhearted.

“Only the square dancing, I think? I don’t know, I wasn’t by the dance area the whole time. He did ask me about you, though.”

Ellie tried not to sound too eager. “Yeah? What did you tell him?”

“Nothing, don’t worry. I said you were fine and you’d probably be coming later. He said maybe he’d come by here and talk to you… so I told him you didn’t want him to. I felt bad for him. I think maybe he wants to apologize for whatever you guys fought about last night?”

“Why do you think that?” He’d done enough apologizing. It didn’t mean shit.

“Um… something about the way he sounded? He sort of… looked like he was sorry about something. He didn’t seem mad at all. You should talk to him. I bet you’ll feel a whole lot better once things are right with you and Joel again.”

He was so sorry that he went off and had a blast dancing with Esther. Yep. Ellie knew she should be glad that he wanted to see her, but he couldn’t have wanted to that bad, or he would have fucking come down to the farm no matter what Annie told him.

“Maybe I’ll talk to him. I dunno.” So casual. Like she didn’t care if she saw him or not.

“So you are going, then?”

“Yeah, why not. If you’re sure you don’t need me for anything?”

“Yay! No, go ahead!” Annie gave her a quick hug. “You're kind of farmy, though -- go home and change first.”

Home. Joel’s house? Whatever the fuck it was, Ellie headed there to shower. Now she very much wanted to see Joel, if only to actively show him that she didn’t want to see him. To show him… what, exactly? That she was doing just fine without him? That she was angry? Part of her wanted that. She wanted him to wave at her so she could not-wave back. She wanted him to smile at her so she could glare at him in return.

Another part of her wanted him to know she missed him, that she hadn't slept last night, that her heart was… bruised, if not broken. She had to be careful with this part, because it could lead her to throw herself at him and beg him to change his mind. She felt ashamed enough as it was. And she’d realized something last night: the ‘hunter versus hunted’ thing was totally true. Joel had been most responsive to her after she'd given up trying to persuade him to see her side. When she gave him nothing, turned her back on him, left him.

Yet another part of her wanted to know that he was okay, and to reassure him that she was, too (even though she wasn’t really, and would never be). She didn’t think Joel could truly be happy if she was not. This part was the angel on her shoulder whereas the other two were the devil on the other side -- twin devils. She didn’t feel capable of being an angel.

And, threaded through all of it, she still had this fear of losing Joel, a fear that had taken root so deep that it would never die. She could ignore it sometimes, especially when Joel reassured her he was different from everyone else she’d ever known, people who had cared but left her anyway. He never did this directly, and it usually wasn’t verbal. It happened when she felt him watching her in the library, when his face lit up as she walked through the door at Tommy and Maria’s, when he held her at night as she was falling asleep, stroking her hair… when she remembered that he fucking killed all those Fireflies to save her life. She might forget about the fear for a while, but it was still there, always there, lurking in the shadows like a stalker, ready to grab her if she dared to feel safe (she preferred the more straight-forward attacks of clickers and runners). She couldn’t stand to be around Joel right now, but she couldn’t stand to be away from him, either, because she was too fucking scared that if she was away too long, he wouldn’t need her anymore.

Feeling all of this crap at the same time made Ellie emotionally dizzy. She definitely needed to stay in ‘outside mode’ for the party. Joel wasn’t home; she hadn’t expected him to be. If he thought she was going to the party, he’d stay there all night, wouldn’t he? The hateful dress lay on the bed, looking quite wrinkled for something she’d only worn a short while. She didn’t remember leaving it there. Maybe it had been on the floor all night, and Joel had picked it up that morning. Had he slept in the bed? She would wash the dress tomorrow and return it to Annie, who hadn’t even mentioned it today. She was such a good friend. Ellie knew this, but sometimes she felt irrationally angry with her anyway because her idea hadn’t worked. Like that was Annie’s fault? If Annie had known that Joel was the one she loved, she probably would have advised her to keep her stupid mouth shut forever and get over it.

Feeling geared up like she was ready for a fight, Ellie headed for the lake. She took her switchblade, but no gun. Partly to see if Joel noticed (and got mad), partly out of curiosity… she didn’t think she needed it, not the way she used to. Jackson was the safest place she’d ever encountered in her life. She still possessed a hyper-awareness of her surroundings when she was alone or with anyone other than Joel. With Joel, she had become quite lazy. Let her guard down too much. The only one you can count on is yourself. Remember that, bitch.

Since she was alone now, she was fully aware that there was a person sitting in the bed of a truck on her left that she was about to pass. She gave the truck a wide berth by walking in the middle of the street. She didn’t care to see who it was.

“Hey! Sunshine!” It was a man’s voice, someone she knew… she couldn’t place it.

She could have just ignored it and kept walking… but now she was curious. “Sunshine?” she repeated dubiously, turning towards the truck. Oh! THAT guy. “Pffff, I’m not so sunshine-y now. And I’m surprised no one slugged me when I was.”

Max laughed. “Slugged you for bein’ perky? Naw, you weren’t obnoxious enough.”

Ellie came closer and sized him up for a moment. He was sitting in the back corner of the truck bed, one arm resting along the side, the other hand holding a little canteen… no, there was another name for it; it was like a canteen but smaller and people put alcohol in it. There was a ruggedness about him. He had longish, shaggy brown hair, and his beard wasn’t full like Joel’s… it looked more like he just hadn’t bothered to shave for a few days. The scar on his cheek was a far sight uglier than Ellie’s eyebrow scar. He took a swig from the boozy thing. “Uh, the party’s over there,” Ellie pointed out, jerking her head towards the indistinct thrum of voices, the people who looked like ants from here (well, somewhere between ants and the tiny dollhouse people in the corner of Tommy’s living room).

“I was there for a bit. Ain’t really the party type.”

“Okay, so… you’d rather get drunk by yourself?” Ellie thought booze was typically something you drank with other people. Like, at parties, especially.

“Who says I’m drunk?” he chuckled. He waved the canteen thing at her -- a flask! That’s what it was called. “Want some?”

“No thanks. I’m gonna go eat.” The smells of grilled meat were actually making Ellie feel hungry. This surprised her, because for some reason she’d thought she might never eat again.

“Suit yourself. They won’t give you any alcohol there, y’know. Not even beer. Though you kids always seem to find a way to get it.”

‘You kids’? The whole fucking town thought she was just a stupid little girl. Ellie snorted. “I’ll manage.”

Twinkly little lights were strung up through the trees around the perimeter of the party, and along the shade tarps and tents scattered around the lawn. Once the sun went down, they would look amazing. There were red, white, and blue paper streamers strewn about as well. The lights didn’t all work, and some of the streamers definitely looked like they’d seen better days, but to Ellie, it looked pretty fucking fancy. The party committee had done a good job on the decorations. She heard music playing. Tracking it to its source, Ellie saw a large stereo system set up with gigantic speakers, and an area that appeared to be set aside for dancing. No dancers, though.

Ellie made a beeline for the grills, pointedly not looking around for Joel. She wanted him to see her first, and to notice that she wasn’t even looking for him. This gave her some sense of power that she knew was stupid, but… it felt good, so whatever. She was going to be all about playing games now. What good had honesty done her? She thought she might see him in her peripheral vision, at least. Or when she was checking out the décor. But nope... no Joel.

A lot of people said hi to her, though, and seemed happy to see her. Ellie was served a hamburger right off the grill. She wondered if this was what barbecues were like in the old world. Immediately she thought of asking Joel about it, of course, because that’s what she always did. It made her feel simultaneously angry and sad. Fuck being sad! Angry it was, then.

She joined a small group of teens eating nearby. Even the tables were adorned with festive (cheesy) paper tablecloths. She had lemonade. French fries. Jello with fruit in it. Ellie felt like she should be appreciating the hell out of this, and it was Joel’s fault that she wasn’t properly excited about everything. Sitting with the teens insulated her; Joel usually left her alone when she was with her peers. But was he watching her from somewhere in the distance? She wanted him to feel her anger. She decided to force herself to join in the chatter. Couldn’t let him see her sitting there brooding like a lovesick kid, now, could she? Jacob made it easy enough by asking her about Mimi.

They finished eating and sat around for a while just shooting the shit. Ellie still hadn’t seen Joel, and she was starting to get a little concerned, much to her annoyance. She allowed herself to look around… there he is! She found him when she completely turned around in her seat. There was a circle of lawn chairs around a fire pit about fifty yards away, and Joel and Tommy were stoking the fire. Ellie squinted to identify the others in the area… mostly middle-aged, it looked like. Two women she didn’t like -- those stupid laundry bitch skanks. What the fuck was Joel doing hanging out with them? He turned and caught her looking. Damn! He waved, and beckoned her over with an exaggerated windmill motion of his arm, so there was no mistaking the gesture. Tommy waved, too. She waggled her fingers in a half-ass wave to both of them and made no move to get up. It was kind of hard to look away, but she turned around. It would look too weird for her to hop over to the other side of the table now, but maybe that was good: now she could put on a show for Joel about how little she cared to see him.

A few minutes later, she fetched herself another helping of Jello for the sole purpose of glancing in Joel’s direction (not that the Jello wasn’t yummy), and he wasn’t even there. Good. Except where the hell was he now? Quickly scanning the area, she saw him walking with Tommy, almost out of sight. That was okay… maybe… unless they were talking about her? Or would that be a good thing, too? Not knowing was annoying. She was kind of tempted to follow them. No. Fuck them. That was always the answer. Just… fuck everything.

“Ellie!” She had almost finished her Jello when she heard Clicker calling to her from the general direction of the lake. “Come here!”

Clicker would be a good distraction from her melancholy. She shoved the last couple bites in her mouth and said “seeya later” to the table. Hey Joel, I’m going to hang out with my boyfriend! Are you happy? She couldn’t believe Joel had actually suggested that she hook up with a twelve-year-old. Did he really think she was that much of a little kid? Jesus fucking Christ. Her anger bubbled up again. Or… kept simmering, really. Not like it ever went away.

It wasn’t the kid’s fault, though. She wouldn’t take it out on him. He’d called her over and then run off, yelling for her to follow him. She was trotting, not running, and she lost sight of him amongst the trees. “Wait up! Where’d you go?”

She saw it coming just in time to twist around -- something exploded against her shoulder blade, drenching her shirt, making her shriek. A water balloon! “Oh, you little shit! You’re gonna pay for that!” she threatened as the little shit laughed maniacally. “Wait, no fair, I need ammo!”

“You can have half my stash,” Clicker offered. He waited for her to catch up. “Come on! It’s over here!”

“Your stash? What, you’re hoarding the things?”

“Yeah, me and the twins and Alyssa and Will were playing before and used most of ‘em. I didn’t want them to be all gone before you got here.”

“Awww, that’s nice, you saved some to pound me with! So you have the last of them?”

“Yep. It sucks, a lot of them didn’t work, they were either like, stiff, or they broke too fast.”

Just like the condoms here, Ellie snickered to herself. Or so she’d heard. The restrooms in the library had these dispensers that someone had rigged to dole out condoms. Most of the time they were empty. Condoms were a rare luxury, and whatever was brought in was really old -- older than Ellie -- so, always a gamble. Apparently the subject came up at town meetings sometimes, with some people wanting them warehoused like any other commodity, or distributed fairly amongst adults. Some wanted them available to parents of teenagers, to be given at the parents’ discretion. The compromise agreed upon was a hodgepodge of everything, really. Ellie thought it was smart to have them available anonymously in a public bathroom, because what teenager would ask his or her parent for them? Well… maybe Annie would. Ellie couldn’t imagine asking Joel. Anyway, it didn’t even matter much, since they didn’t work too well to begin with and the dispensers got emptied so fast (probably by people hoarding them the way Clicker was hoarding the balloons). Even if the bounty was spread over multiple days, they went fast. Ellie had seen some of the teens share amongst themselves, passing them to each other with giggly whispers.

She wondered why people didn’t try to repurpose the balloons as condoms. She’d never actually seen a condom before, outside of the wrapper, but she knew what it did, and couldn’t the balloon do the same thing? Maybe if you snipped off the weird little thing on the end? It was a good question to ask Joel when she wanted to get him all flustered and awkward. No, not anymore, and I really have to train my brain to quit jumping over to him for everything. Motherfucker!

“It’s okay though cuz we had to switch to water guns,” Clicker continued merrily. He would have appreciated the condom comment, but now Ellie would feel weird bringing up anything even remotely sexual with him, thanks to Joel. “The girls were whining that the balloons hurt. Even when we threw them not-as-hard, me and Will. I knew you wouldn’t be like that. I bet you throw harder than Will, too! I bet yours’ll hurt!”

Yeah, that’s me, not-a-girl. But she did pride herself on being tough. “Ohhhh you’re really asking for it now, dude. You bet your ass mine will hurt! You’ll be wishing we were doing guns.”

Clicker knew that Ellie ‘didn’t like’ water guns, and that it wasn’t because of the water. She’d never explained why. She was content to let him think it was for the same reason she didn’t like playing war-like video games that had guns. Riley was a secret too sacred to be shared with people. She hadn’t even told Joel much about her. The water balloons did remind Ellie of her, though… and it was okay. Truly okay. Maybe the guns wouldn’t be so bad either.

“Almost there…” Clicker was leading her out of the park, to a house across the street.

“Where the fuck did you hide them?”

“In Bryan’s yard. If I left them anywhere by the lake, people would gank them!”

Ellie snickered. “Like you did?”

“I didn’t want you to miss out. It was my good deed of the day.” He grinned at her.

“A noble act, definitely. I think you need more boys to play with.” There weren’t many boys in town around Clicker’s age. It would help if the Asswipes weren’t asswipes, but Ellie couldn’t count them as playmates. She was glad Clicker didn’t like them.

“Nuh-uh –- that’s why I’m friends with you! Okay, wait here…” Clicker retrieved a bucket full of balloons from the backyard of the house. “They’re all good, I tested them.”

“Holy shit, there’s like, fifty in there!” Ellie was amused at what a little thief he was.

“More like forty,” he corrected. “Let’s play catch first, they’ll last longer!”

She was happy to oblige. She wanted to make the water balloons last, too. Also, her dinner was still rumbling through her digestive system and she’d rather not run around too much while it did, she might get a stitch in her side or something. Ellie had to admit, the party was lifting her mood somewhat. Thinking about Joel in any way made her angry, and she thought of him more often than she cared to, but other than that, things were pretty good. Fuck Joel. She could have fun without him.

They played in the street and the front yards of the nearby houses. There were more places to take cover than there were by the lake, no risk of annoying other people with their antics, and way less mosquitoes (ancient bug repellant didn’t work very well). Bonus perk: Joel might wonder where she was. She’d be easy to spot if he looked in this direction, and God knows they were yelling loudly enough, but maybe it wouldn’t occur to him to look outside the party boundaries?

When the balloon arsenal was exhausted, they plopped down in the grass to rest. Both of them were soaked. Ellie was cold, but she didn’t care. She’d certainly been colder. Still, she hugged her knees to her chest to try to keep warm. Clicker did the same. “I shoulda stashed some towels over here, too,” he lamented.

“Towels are for wimps,” Ellie teased him. “That was fun. Thanks for stealing all those.”

“No biggie,” he mumbled. He could be sort of shy sometimes. Probably why Joel thought the kid had a crush on her... which he probably did, Ellie conceded. Clicker possibly had the type of crush on her that Joel alleged she had on him. It was so fucking infuriating, how he’d just lumped her in with every other teenager on the planet, like no way could she be different at all. Even though she was different. They were different. They were practically in a fucking relationship already, just without the sex part. If only—

Ellie’s thoughts were interrupted by something that caught her attention a couple houses over. She wasn’t completely sure, it was just a flash… but she didn’t like it. “Clicker, why don’t you go back and dry off, I have to go do something,” she said calmly.

“Can I go with you?” He always wanted to be her sidekick.

“No, it’s… personal. I’ll see you later, okay? Go.” She got up and ruffled his hair -- an apology of sorts for her abrupt departure. He seemed reluctant to leave, so she added, “And don’t follow me. Promise!”

Clicker sighed. “’k, fine, I promise. Later.”

Ellie watched him shuffle off, and when she was satisfied he wasn’t watching her, she stealthily made her way down the street to investigate what she hoped had been a figment of her sleep-deprived imagination.

~Continue to Chapter 24~

Tags: accretion, fic, tlou
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