Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 4563
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Ellie is in no mood to be lectured; Joel is in no mood for her games.
Ellie mushed her oatmeal around dully in the bowl. Her head still felt funny, but she wouldn’t categorize the feeling as a headache… more of an annoying-but-painless throbbing. Like she didn’t usually think about the fact that she had a head and now she was acutely aware of it. She didn’t feel very hungry, just thirsty. Joel was making her eat. Probably because Ellie had made the mistake of saying she had to go see Annie, and he couldn’t let her leave without sitting her down for a lecture first. She’d quickly realized that there was no need to get her hopes up about his wanting to talk to her; it was obvious nothing had changed, that last night was merely him feeling sorry for the pathetic drunk girl.
He sat across from her at the table, watching her toy with her breakfast. Frowning. Disappointed in her, no doubt. “Do you wanna tell me what you were doin’ gettin’ drunk with that douchebag?”
“Do I want to? No.” She couldn’t help being a smartass when he made it so easy.
“Tell me anyhow.”
“What’s to tell? I felt like drinking.”
“You saw him at the party?”
“Nope. On the way there. He was hanging out in the truck. I went back later.”
“You left the party… to go sit in that truck with him?”
Ellie shrugged. To piss you off. Because I was upset. Because why the fuck not?
“You ever hang out with him before this?”
She shook her head.
“An’ it didn’ occur to you that he might…” Joel looked uncomfortable.
“What, that he’s not a nice guy?” Ellie smirked. “Of course it did. I didn’t get a bad vibe so I thought, what the hell. Besides, I can take care of myself.”
Predictably, Joel scoffed at that. “You couldn’ even walk. You really think… Jesus, Ellie, what do you think woulda happened if I hadn’ found you when I did?”
“Nothing! He’s not the jerk you think he is, Joel. He was really nice.” Ellie couldn’t tell Joel that she wasn’t quite as inebriated last night as she’d led him to believe –- that would expose her manipulations and chip away at what little pride she had left. “If you hadn’t come along, he probably would've just walked me back to Tommy’s. Or left me sleeping in the truck maybe.” The look on Joel’s face said he was imagining something different. Good. Let him be jealous.
“You don’ know that. Some guys… they might seem real nice at first, but when a girl gets so drunk she don’ know what’s goin’ on, they take advantage.”
Ellie could have assured him that Max never laid a hand on her the whole time. But why should she do that? Let him wonder… just a little while. Not long enough to get Max killed. “Not him. If he was gonna ‘take advantage,’ he could’ve done it before you got there. We’re just friends,” she added casually.
“You are not friends.”
“That’s not up to you. You’re not my dad, you’re not my boyfriend, I can hang out with whoever I damn well please.” Ellie didn’t care if she sounded bratty. It was the truth!
Joel sighed. “I’m tryin’ to look out for you. Keep you safe.”
“Well, you can stop now. Your job is done. I don’t have to do what you say anymore.”
“My job? You mean the smugglin’… the trip?”
“Yeah. I dunno. Everything.” She stared at her spoon as she twirled it around in the bowl. She didn’t know what she meant, really. She didn’t actually want Joel to stop caring what she did, even if it did annoy her sometimes. But she also didn’t think he’d actually stop caring just because she told him to. This is so stupid. But he’s making me be like this.
“I ain’t ‘done’ with you, Ellie. Jus’ ‘cause I can’t give you what you want—“
“You can, you just refuse to. There’s a difference.” She could feel him staring at her, so she kept her eyes in her bowl. She was already in a constant state of embarrassment, knowing that he didn’t return her feelings -- or returned them up to a point but didn't have the balls to act, which meant they weren't on the same level as hers. Now she had last night to feel ashamed about on top of that. Did I really ask him to take my clothes off??? I did. God, now he probably thinks I’m a slut as well as a dumb kid.
Realizing that she’d better eat if she wanted to ever leave this table, she stopped using the spoon as a tool to make patterns in the oatmeal and started feeding herself with it instead. Joel didn’t have a retort ready for that last remark of hers, and he still hadn’t said anything. Ellie didn’t feel the need to fill the silence. Things were plenty awkward as it was, a little more awkwardness wouldn’t hurt. Although she did wish he’d stop looking at her like… like what? -Like I’m a problem he has to solve. An unwanted burden.
Finally he spoke. “I don’ know what to do to make things… better, for you. To make things right.”
Damn right you don’t. “There’s nothing you can do,” she said coolly. “Don’t do anything. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”
“My thing is makin’ sure you don’ get hurt by some lowlife sc—“
“You’re a fucking hypocrite!” Now she glared at him. “Max didn’t hurt me, and he’s not going to hurt me. I can’t say the same for you.”
She could tell that stung, and she was glad. Joel sighed again. “I’m sorry for that. You know I am. I can’t… change anything, or undo what’s done. I’m tryin’ to… jus’… find a way to move forward.”
Ellie shoveled a large spoonful in her mouth to buy an extra moment to think. Move forward? I just want to go back. Pretend I never said a fucking thing, so we can still cuddle on the couch and fall asleep in each other’s arms. So I can look at you and not overflow with shame and regret. “We can’t. There’s like… nowhere to go, looking forward.”
“Yes, there is. We stick together, an’ we’ll figure it out.”
Stick together, but from a distance. Right. “You don’t understand.”
“Then explain it to me.”
Ellie snorted. “You still won’t get it. Everything’s so easy for you.”
“What? None of this is easy for me!”
“You think everything can just go on like normal, like I didn’t fucking—“ Shut up, Ellie, don’t give him anything. “Well, it can’t, okay? I can’t even stand to be around you now. So if I wanna go be with other people –- if that’s what makes things better –- you have to fucking let me. It’s my life. It has nothing to do with you!”
That last was a lie, of course, designed to hurt him. Everything had to do with Joel. It really was scary, how much she’d let herself need him. She had to remedy that.
Joel started to say something but stopped. He ran his hands through his hair and held his head for a moment before dropping his elbows back down on the table. “Ellie, I can’t jus’ let you run wild an’ do whatever the hell you want. I won’t force you to spend time with me, but if you need a friend, go hang out with Annie. Talk to Maria an’ Tommy when they get back. Don’ find some random guy to get shitfaced with jus’ to… to prove you can. I know you can make better choices than that.”
“Pffff. Max isn’t random.” Time to twist that knife a little deeper and exaggerate some shit… “I told you, he’s my friend. He listens. He understands me. He treats me like an adult. We sort of like… clicked. And before you say he’s only trying to get in my pants –- he’s not. You know G, right? His daughter was Max’s girlfriend.”
Joel looked a little confused. “She’s dead, ain’t she?”
“Yeah. Before they got here, she got infected and—“ Suddenly it occurred to Ellie that Max may have told her things privately that he wouldn’t necessarily want Joel to know. “She died.”
“What’s that got to do with your pants?”
“Duh -- he loved her. Still does. He’s not… you know, that type of guy.” Max hadn’t actually said any of that, but Ellie felt that he would have, if he’d been more vocal on the subject. Guys and their stupid macho egos.
Joel shook his head and… smiled. It surprised Ellie for a moment, until she realized it was an Ellie-don’t-be-so-stupid smile. “The motherfucker’s playin’ you. Tryin’ to get your sympathy an’ make himself seem like a sensitive shmuck in the process.”
That was so ridiculous that Ellie had to laugh. “Are you serious? You don’t even know him! And you think— Jesus, Joel, why would he even— he doesn’t care what people think of him. What I think of him. He wasn’t trying to, like… make me feel any particular way…”
“I don’ know him? I know enough. You know I’ve never liked him—“
“Yeah, and you never gave me a reason why. You don’t like loads of people. So, you don’t like him. You don’t have to dislike him.”
“I don’ give a shit one way or the other about most people, which is different from not likin’ ‘em. But he is an arrogant son of a bitch, ain’t that reason enough?”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Lots of guys are cocky. You are too, ya know.”
“All the more reason.”
“Whatever.” Maybe Joel didn’t like Max because he reminded him of himself? Not that he’d admit it, or even recognize it. She wouldn’t go there. “He hasn’t said a single bad thing about you.”
“He don’ like me any more than I like him, trust me. I’m surprised he ain’t tryin’ to paint me as the bad guy.” Joel snorted. “Actually, no, that’s smart. He knew we’d be havin’ this talk an’ now I’m doin’ it myself, because I ain’t buyin’ the bullshit he’s sellin’ you.”
“Why do you think it’s all about you?! I went to him, remember? He’s not trying to like, lure me away from you or something. Not that he even has to. You got rid of me on your own.” Or you may as well have. She resumed playing with the remains of her oatmeal as an excuse not to look at him.
He didn’t get mad, though. “No, I didn’t. You need your space, an’ that’s fine. Whenever you’re ready, I’m here, an’ I want you to be here, too. In the meantime, don’ go doin’ stupid shit like drinkin’ with men twice your age… or anyone else, for that matter.”
“Or what? You’ll lock me up?” I don’t want space. I want you to love me, and I fucked that up so now you won’t.
Joel sighed. “It ain’t a threat. It’s… me wantin’ you to be safe. You shouldn’ trust people so easily.”
“Yeah, no shit.” She shot him a glare just to see him wince.
Only he didn’t. He was becoming immune to her little barbs. And he wasn’t done lecturing her. “Alcohol can make you do things you might not do otherwise. It lowers your inhibitions. An’ remember, he was drinkin’, too. Even if he was the nicest guy in the world -- which he sure as hell ain’t -- it could change his behavior. He might’ve… tried somethin’.”
If Ellie wasn’t so annoyed, she might have found it cute that Joel wouldn’t directly say what he meant. He already thought she was a slut after last night, so she might as well go with it… “’Tried somethin’ ’? You mean like, maybe we would’ve had sex? At least then I’d know what it feels like.”
She’d said it for pure shock value, and the expression on Joel’s face did not disappoint. “Damnit, Ellie, you can’t jus’—“ He looked like he wanted to hit something. Instead, he shoved his chair back and stood up. Ellie calmly finished her oatmeal while he started pacing. “I know you’re pissed at me," he grumbled. "I get it. If you said that jus’ to piss me off, all right… but… don’ start actin’ out an’ doin’ things that’ll hurt you in the long run jus’ to get back at me.”
She almost felt sorry for him. Almost. What was he supposed to say when she said shit like that anyway? He hadn’t dismissed it as a joke -- he was worried she might actually do something crazy. “How do you know it would hurt me? Oh, wait, you mean cuz like, the first time always hurts for girls? That’s what I heard, anyway. I’m sure I can handle it.” She proceeded to rinse her bowl out as if they were just having a casual conversation about the weather or some shit.
“Ellie, knock it off,” he growled.
Okay, so I took that a little too far to be believable. Hopefully Joel would still be tortured from time to time by the thought of her first time being with a guy he couldn’t stand. “You said you wanted me to be with someone else. What’s the big deal?”
“When you’re older! And not him.”
“You’ll never think I’m old enough,” she muttered. She gestured to her bowl and spoon in the sink. “You don’t mind if I leave this here, do you? It’s not like I never washed any of yours.” Ellie knew he didn’t actually give a shit about the tableware and it would probably sit there unwashed for the next week. “I’ve gotta get to the farm.”
“You’re off today.”
Ellie was pleased he still remembered her schedule for the week without even looking at the calendar. “Yeah, but I have to make sure Annie’s—“ No, wait, I don’t want him to know about her and Jacob! He’d just point to it as one more example of relationships not working out. Maybe he’d say they were just too young. Whatever he would say, Ellie was sure she didn’t want to hear it. He could find out later from his special friend, Esther.
“Annie’s what?” he prompted. He stopped pacing and looked at her.
“Well, Mimi had the lambs last night and I want to see them. Plus I get to name them.” She went to the bedroom to put her shoes and socks on.
Joel followed her and leaned against the door jamb. “Let me guess. Fluffy an’… Curly.”
“Pfff. That’s why I’m naming them.”
He chuckled, and she accidentally smiled at him for a second. She recovered quickly… but maybe not quickly enough. He sat next to her on the bed, just where he’d sat last night. “Tommy’s house will be empty tonight. If you—“
“I’m not sleeping here, Joel. I told you. Not unless you change your mind about the bed. Which you won’t,” she added, because she couldn’t let him think she was still holding out hope for that, or that she was trying to manipulate him into sleeping with her. She was done with that tactic; it only made her feel more humiliated. She concentrated on tying her shoelaces. It felt like her brain was sore… is it a hangover, or all the mind games I have to play with Joel?
“You slept here last night,” Joel pointed out.
“Yeah -- against my will.”
“Slept real good though, didn’tcha?”
“I was fucking tired.” She had slept well. Deep, dreamless sleep. She actually couldn’t have said if Joel was in the bed with her or not, that’s how sound it was. She just assumed he wasn’t, because… she had to. And she felt like somehow she would just know, if he’d been there. Also, Joel looked like shit. She wondered if he’d gotten any sleep at all. Stubborn motherfucker. He knows he sleeps better with me than he does alone and that’s still not enough reason for him to keep doing it.
“That’s the general idea. When you’re tired, you sleep.”
“Well, I’ll find somewhere else to sleep,” she said with matter-of-fact aloofness. She could have slept at Tommy’s by herself. Tommy didn’t care. She just didn’t want to; being in that big house alone would probably creep her out. ‘Somewhere else’ would most likely be Annie’s house. But Joel could just wonder about that.
“You don’ have to. This is still your home. You belong here.”
“I don’t belong anywhere in this world, actually,” she said sulkily.
Joel frowned. “What makes you say that?”
Ellie shrugged and left the room without answering. Her backpack was still at Tommy’s. If she decided to go with Max tomorrow, she’d need to come back here and retrieve some stuff. She checked the calendar: it indicated Joel should be working this afternoon. She hoped it was accurate because she certainly wasn’t going to ask him now.
Joel returned to the front room. “Ellie? What did you mean by—“
“Nothing,” she groaned exasperatedly. “Forget it. I gotta go.”
“Nothin’, or nothin’ you feel like tellin’ me?”
“Does it matter? It’s nothing.” Fuck you. I can’t talk to you anymore.
Joel let it go, at least. “Will I see you at dinner? At the farm?”
Dinner? Oh, of course -- Esther, as his new best friend, would have invited him since Tommy was heading up to the dam today. The thought of sitting there with the two of them playing footsie under the table made Ellie’s stomach lurch. They’d never been flirtatious before, at least not that Ellie had noticed, but things might be different now… “No way,” Ellie blurted out before she thought better of it -- she didn’t want Joel to know she was bothered by them. By the idea of them.
Joel took it in stride, though. “All right. Maybe I’ll catch you at the library then? Or… how about I jus’ go home after dinner, that way if you want to go to the library you won’ have to worry ‘bout runnin’ into me there. Sound good?”
Ellie was content to let him assume she simply didn’t want to see him. It was better than stroking his ego by letting him know she was jealous. Better than hearing him say he had every right to fuck whoever he wanted. …Okay, so he probably wouldn’t say it like that. But she didn’t want to hear it kindly phrased, either. “Whatever.” As if she couldn’t care less what he did.
She was finally almost out the door… but Joel still wasn’t done bugging her. “Promise me you won’ go see that asshole.”
Man! I was almost gone. Ellie turned around and looked at him defiantly. “I’ll see him if I want to see him. You can’t stop me.”
“Then I’m… askin’ you not to. Please.”
“Why should I do you any favors?” she said, not caring if she sounded like a spoiled brat. Fuck you, Joel. You hang out with Esther, I’ll hang out with Max if I want to.
“It ain’t for me, it’s for you. He’s bad news.”
“Bullshit it’s not for you! He’s my friend. Whether you believe it or not.”
“Ellie, he ain’t your friend, how many times do I have to tell you, he’s jus’ usin’ you to fuck with me!”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Well, so what if he is?” I’m using him for the same reason. It’s only fair, really!
Joel sighed. “You don’ care? As long as I’m miserable, it’s all good. Is that it?”
“Pretty much. Yeah.” If she had to be miserable, why shouldn’t Joel be? It was all his fault. He’d brought it on himself. She might beat herself up over blowing it with Joel at times, but when he was the one trying to make her feel guilty about being a bitch to him afterwards, it riled up her fighting spirit or something… she couldn’t blame herself for Joel being a dick. How was that her fault?
“Don’ be stupid. I ain’t always gonna be around to keep you from gettin’ yourself in trouble.”
Ellie bristled at the word ‘stupid.’ Oh yeah, I’m just a helpless, naïve, idiotic child, right, Joel? Incapable of taking care of myself? “Who asked you to be?!” she fired back, a little more vehemently than she’d intended, but he really was starting to royally piss her off now.
“If I hadn’ shown up last night—“
“I would’ve been just fine! I don’t need you!” And now she was screaming at him. It felt good to unleash some of the anger she’d been carrying around. No matter what she said, she could never hurt him as much as he’d hurt her, and that was justification enough.
“You don’ know what woulda happened, Ellie! You coulda passed out... woke up, found yourself alone an’ naked an’ not knowin’ what the hell happened. Or found that you were hurt--”
Really?! “Uuuggghhh! Stop it, Joel! That didn’t happen because Max is a good person. Not because you showed up to save the day!”
“You sure looked happy to see me when I got there.”
“I wasn’t!” A lie, of course. But she was also angry with herself now for wanting to see him last night. For being so fucking weak. “I was happy cuz I was having fun, until you showed up! You just can’t stand it, that I was with another man.”
“What I can’t stand is that you’re bein’ so goddamn stupid an’ careless!”
“I wasn’t—“ Ellie groaned and turned back towards the door. Again, nothing she could say was going to change his stubborn-as-fuck mind about it. She was so angry she was actually shaking a little. Fuck this shit. “Goodbye, Joel,” she said to the door on her way out.
“No!” She whirled around (a little too quickly for her head’s comfort, but fuck it!) and shot him the iciest of icy glares. “When are you gonna get it through your thick head?! I don’t need you and I don’t want you so just leave me the fuck alone already! God!”
Joel threw his hands up in defeat. “Fine! Go do whatever the hell you want, then!”
“I will!” She’d really gotten to him this time. Good! Motherfucker. She could have left then; she’d made her point, and she even had the last word. But she was on a roll, so she added, “Don’t come looking for me, don’t try to talk me into coming home. You go your way, I’ll go mine. I’ll be better off without you!”
She didn’t know what she expected him to do. Burst into tears and beg her to stay? That wasn’t in Joel’s DNA; she’d never seen him so much as shed a tear. She couldn’t read any emotion on his face except anger. “I get it. Jus’ go!” he snapped.
‘Just go’? Now that I want to have it out with him he gives up? Fuck that shit! She slammed the door as hard as she could (another action her head didn’t like) and headed for the farm, feeling triumphant. Maybe he’ll come after me.
He didn’t. She made it all the way to the fences Joel-free. Had she gone too far this time? No. If he really cares, he’ll still try to talk to me. Maybe he’s just letting me cool off for a while first. …even though I’m cool already. She liked that he was overprotective… that he couldn’t stand the thought of anything bad happening to her… that he cared more about her well-being than she did. Did Joel know that she loved him for these things, even though they irritated her sometimes? -Yes, of course he did. She’d just spilled her guts a couple days ago babbling away like a complete moron, for fuck’s sake.
And the truth was, they probably did need time apart. Joel didn’t love her the way she loved him. Until she accepted that, seeing him was going to hurt like hell. She didn’t want to accept it, she wanted to fight it... to change his mind about her. Arguing with him and saying shit she didn’t mean wasn’t the best way to do that, she had to admit. He’d actually lost patience with her this time. How long would it be before he stopped caring altogether?
Stop feeling and start thinking. Stay in outside mode. Their lives were so intertwined and the town was so small, it would take some serious detangling to avoid Joel. Taking that little trip would be a good start. It wasn’t just about Joel -- she wanted to get away from the whole damn town. Life was simpler on the Outside. Not easier, but simpler. Maybe when she got back, she’d feel the same kind of appreciation for Jackson that she’d felt when they’d arrived. Okay, that was probably a stretch… she probably wouldn’t be gone long enough for it to make much difference. She’d be stronger, though. She’d have time to sort things out in her mind without interference. Thoughts of Jacob and Christine and maybe even Joel would just roll off her back like nothing. She would be all business. They could come up with a schedule for dinners and library time. As far as where she slept, she could alternate between Annie’s house and Tommy and Maria’s, maybe even Clicker’s -- she liked his parents and they liked her. In fact, she should get herself invited for dinner over there tonight -- one problem solved. She would bounce around from place to place so as not to overstay her welcome at any of them. She didn’t need a home, per se. Having a roof over her head and a blanket to sleep with at night was luxury enough.
But she could worry about all that later. First, she had to make sure Annie was okay, and cheer her up as best she could. If Annie needed her and didn’t want her to take the trip, she wouldn’t go, but Ellie didn’t think she’d mind, especially if she wasn’t leaving them short-handed at the farm. She would swap shifts with people to free her up for the next few days. And actually… she couldn’t even tell Annie what she was doing, because even if she was sworn to secrecy, she might let something slip to Esther, who of course would blab to Joel. She’d have to be vague. Make it sound like she was camping out in Ghost Town or something. If either of them let that slip to Joel, he could waste time looking for her there if he wanted to.
And this was all assuming Max would even let her come. Shit! She’d better deal with that before fucking with her work schedule. She could go find him at lunch time -- she didn’t particularly want to see Esther, so that would work out nicely. She felt confident she could convince him to let her tag along; she could be pretty charming when she wanted to be.
Ellie felt stronger already. Fuck you, Joel -- that's my new motto. I really DON’T need you. Not anymore.
~Continue to Chapter 27~