Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 3606
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Surely, running away will solve everything!
As expected, Esther had no problem with Ellie switching shifts, and she appreciated that Ellie made the extra effort, rather than simply announcing she wouldn’t be able to work the next day. Ellie tried to make a quick getaway once that business was taken care of, but Esther stopped her. “Sweetie, what’s going on with you? Is there something you’d like to talk about?” she asked kindly.
“No, I’m good,” replied Ellie, casual as could be. She wished Esther would stop being so nice –- it made it hard to hate her. It was unfair and probably illogical, Ellie realized, but if she did it in secret, did it even matter? “I just… have some stuff to figure out. By myself.”
It sounded lame to Ellie. She assumed it didn't sound any better to Esther. “You know, you’re welcome to stay here with us, if you’d like. We love having you around.”
Stop being sweet! “Thanks. Maybe I’ll take you up on that… later.”
She tried to leave again, but Esther wasn’t done. “Joel’s really worried about you.”
Then he shouldn’t act like such a fucking asshole! she thought angrily. It irked her to hear Esther tell her how Joel was feeling. “What did he tell you?” she asked in spite of this, not bothering to hide her irritation.
“Not much. He just said you two haven’t seen eye to eye lately and you need space. I get the feeling he wants to help you, but just… doesn’t know how?” Her tone was meant to be reassuring, her words vague enough to suggest that Joel hadn’t betrayed any confidences and Esther didn’t know shit about what was wrong, but Ellie didn’t buy it. Joel had probably told her all about Ellie’s stupid little girl crush on him. How she’d made a complete joke of herself. Twice, if you count the drinking thing. Maybe she was only being nice to Ellie to score points with Joel: "I tried to talk to her for you, Joel, I really did. Ellie's just too much of a bitch." For some reason, it pleased Ellie to assume the worst about Esther… and Joel, for that matter. Esther’s tone was actually condescending, she decided.
“Whatever,” Ellie mumbled. “Tell him he has nothing to worry about. I’m fine. Seeya in a few days.” Before turning to leave again, she forced a smile as proof that all was well in Ellie land.
Saying goodbye to Annie made Ellie feel guiltier than not saying goodbye to Joel -- Annie hadn’t done anything wrong, after all. She felt a bit dishonest by not telling Annie what she was really doing, even though she wasn’t exactly lying. And then Annie had to go and make it worse by apologizing!
“What do you have to be sorry for?!” Ellie was dumbfounded.
“I’ve been so wrapped up in myself the past couple days I haven’t even really asked you how you were doing,” she said sheepishly. “You’re only one day ahead of me in this… mending-a-broken-heart thing.”
“Pfff. You’ve asked me, silly. I just haven’t had much to say about it.” Not much she could tell Annie, anyway. “And you totally win, asshole-wise. So you… lose, I guess? I mean, your jerk is way worse than my jerk. And that’s sayin’ something.”
Annie shrugged. “We both lost. So what are you going to do that couldn’t wait ‘til the weekend? I mean, it’s okay… I’m just wondering what’s so urgent?”
Ellie wished she had come up with a more plausible reason. Something more concrete than wanting time alone. She couldn’t think of anything that would make sense other than the truth. “I just, um… I can’t explain it. Maybe I can… afterwards? I think you’ll understand, when you know…” Ellie was sure she looked guilty as hell. But I didn’t lie!
“Okay. Is it something I can help you with?”
Ellie shook her head. “It’s just something I have to do.”
“Does Joel know what it is?”
Oh God, now do I lie? If Joel was coming over for dinner, and her name came up in conversation, the lie would unravel with just one casual comment about her mysterious need for time off. But that was many hours from now, she’d be long gone and there would be nothing Joel could do about it then. If she told the truth, Annie’s good-girl conscience might get the better of her… figuring that if Ellie didn’t want Joel to know what it was, it must be something he wouldn’t like, and she might decide he has a right to know. The way Ellie saw it, he didn’t have a right to jack shit where she was concerned.
“I take it that’s a no?” Annie concluded when Ellie didn’t answer right away.
“No, he does know, kind of,” Ellie hedged nervously. “I mean, you know, me’n’him haven’t exactly… been able to talk about stuff. Lately. He knows the gist of it.”
Maybe Annie assumed Ellie’s awkwardness was related to her issues with Joel and not necessarily indicative of lying, because she didn’t push it. “Take care of yourself, ‘kay?” She leaned in to give Ellie a quick hug.
This time her forced smile was slightly more genuine. “I will. Give Apollo and Artemis extra kisses for me… and Mimi too I guess, even if she’s not as cute as they are.”
Hopefully Annie wouldn’t connect the Idaho trip with Ellie’s absence. Annie knew the trip was happening; Max needed a horse, after all, and that had been previously arranged. Ellie had all but ignored him when he’d come to fetch said horse. The plan was to depart from Max’s house, and she was too paranoid to talk to him about the trip with others possibly in earshot. She didn’t even trust herself to talk to him at all, as if friendly chitchat would somehow broadcast her intentions. He’d only picked up one horse, so G must have decided not to come, as Max had predicted.
Now Ellie had to go to Tommy’n’Maria’s to fetch her gear. The house was quieter than she’d ever seen it. Still wary of a possible encounter with Joel, she barricaded the front door to take a quick shower, and she furtively looked around for Joel before hauling ass out of there. It was both a relief and a disappointment not to see him. Stupidly, she’d entertained a fantasy or two about Joel somehow finding out she was leaving, begging her not to go… apologizing profusely… saying he’d do whatever she wanted if she would just stay...
Yeah. Ridiculous. Infuriatingly so.
She’d never been to Max’s house, but his directions were easy to follow, and it was indeed the only house on the street with a horse tethered outside it. She tried not to look like a total lying sneak, glancing around surreptitiously for any witnesses who might pose a threat (what she would actually do if she noticed any, she hadn’t planned out!). Thankfully, the street was clear. She cooed a greeting to Clementine and stroked the horse’s neck, then knocked on the door.
“S’open!” a voice called from inside.
Ellie opened the door and found Max crouched on the floor amidst an array of weapons, saddle bags, water jugs, and various other supplies, along with a plate containing what looked like a fried egg sandwich, half-eaten. “Oh good, so it’s not like I was holding you up or anything,” Ellie snarked as she surveyed the mess. “Are we really taking all this shit?”
Max shook his head, which was clad in a beat-up velvety-looking black cowboy hat (Annie would probably know exactly what it was made of… and would also scold Ellie for her usual hatlessness). “Naw, I’m just goin’ through it. I don’t think we need to bother with a tent… only one I got’s too small anyhow… got you a sleeping bag, though.” He gestured to a red bundle nearby and took a huge bite of sandwich.
Ellie had never slept in an actual ‘sleeping bag’ before. How luxurious! Joel had told her about them -- about camping in general -- and Ellie had seen it in movies and books. It was mystifying to her, how people with perfectly nice houses and beds would choose to go sleep outside on the ground, just for fun. But no tent? She idly imagined how annoyed Joel would have been, afterwards, to know she and Max had shared one. Jesus, Ellie, stop thinking about Joel! That’s the whole point -- you have to move forward. “Cool. What should I do? Put me to work!”
Soon they had Clementine all loaded up. The Belgian horse was capable of carrying or pulling quite a bit of weight and she had a sweet, gentle demeanor, making her a popular choice for the monthly trade runs. Her coat was darker than Spirit’s… more Callus-colored. Ugh, don’t think about Callus either. It felt rather strange to mount a horse behind a man who wasn’t Joel. It was impossible not to think about the last time she’d left Jackson. So much had happened since then!
They didn’t have far to go to reach the edge of town… didn’t pass too many people. If anyone found it odd that Ellie was going somewhere with Max, they didn’t say so. They just called out friendly greetings, as was customary in Jackson. Approaching the sentry towers at the west gate, Ellie felt anxious, and more than a little bit guilty. That’s dumb -- I’m not doing anything wrong. I can go wherever I please, with WHOMever I please, and it’s none of Joel’s fucking business, or anyone else’s, for that matter. She tried to keep her face expressionless. What if one of the guards said something to Joel? Later on, that would be fine, but what if he radioed Tommy right away and Tommy decided to come home just to make sure Joel was aware? Tommy and Maria knew they were going to the Eastern Idaho Regional Center, and Max said he’d even given Tommy a copy of the map. Well, there was nothing she could do about that now; she just had to hope that whoever was on duty wasn't a Joel sympathizer.
She recognized one of the guards as a guy named Bryan. ‘Y-Bryan,’ because there was also an ‘I-Brian.’ Ellie couldn’t remember ever speaking to him -- that was good, she decided. Houser was the other guard, and Ellie didn’t really know him either, even though she played with his kids all the time when he had evening guard duty. Neither of them appeared to be particularly friendly or unfriendly with Max.
“Mornin’,” Max called up to them. “Scouting trip. Cleared with Tommy, he called it in yesterday.”
“We got it down,” Houser acknowledged, “but he didn’t say anything about Ellie.”
“She’s taking G’s place. Only need one horse that way so it works out better.”
Houser looked them over. “She taking his weapons too?”
“These are mine,” Ellie piped up. “And it’s okay, I’ve used them tons of times, I know what I’m doing. And anyways I’m going out with an adult, so...”
“He’s not your parent, though.”
“No, but he doesn’t have to be.” Ellie thought quickly. “You know Clicker, right? Er…Cordy? He went out hunting with Tate last week and they’re not related -- and he’s way younger and less experienced than me. I don’t have any parents so… if I wanna leave for a little while, what’s the big deal?”
“He’s not my dad!” she exclaimed before he could finish that sentence. Easy, Ellie, don’t be rude… you don’t want to piss him off. “Sorry. It’s just… he’s… we came to town together, that’s all. He’s a friend. I don’t even live with him anymore.” A stretch, perhaps, but she didn’t spend last night there, at least. She considered herself temporarily homeless.
“Look, I’ll be with her the whole time,” Max added. “It’ll be fine. We won’t be gone long.”
Bryan, the guy in the left guardhouse, had been observing them quietly. When Houser looked over at him, he shrugged. “They’re not breaking any rules. I got no issue letting ‘em out.”
Houser frowned. “I’d feel better if Tommy okayed it."
Ohshitohshitohshit! Tommy personally might not care about her leaving if she wanted to, but he most certainly wouldn’t 'okay it' until he’d checked with Joel. She couldn’t think of a reason to stop him from calling Tommy that wouldn’t showcase her guilt. Apparently Max couldn’t think of anything either. Why did I think I could get away with this?! “Well, it was fun while it lasted, all five minutes of it,” she muttered into the back of his denim shirt.
Her heart hadn’t quite plummeted all the way down to her shoes before it was buoyed up again by the voice on the other end of Houser’s walkie talkie: “Tommy and Maria went out of range. Should be back in a couple of hours. Whattaya need?”
That’s right! Tommy had mentioned that they were meeting with a farm north of the dam, to see about fortifying it, forming some kind of alliance, shit like that. Ellie held her breath.
“Ah. Nevermind then, we’re okay, over and out.” He looked down at them again, still frowning. “If we catch any heat for this later I’m passing it on to you.”
Ellie smiled broadly as the gates began to swing open. “Thank you! It’s okay -- like he said, we’re not doing anything wrong so… neither are you! Thank you, thanks… have a good day!”
For a moment, Ellie thought she may have ruined everything by seeming over-eager, but the gates continued to move, and they made it out before either guard could reconsider. Well, before Houser could -- that Bryan guy seemed cool.
“Yes!” Ellie chirped with quiet glee. “It wouldn’t have surprised me if Joel had plastered a big ‘DON’T LET ELLIE LEAVE OR ELSE’ sign at each post.”
Max snickered, and Ellie resisted the urge to let out a whoop of joy as he directed the horse to canter south. She didn’t want the guards to hear and think she was celebrating because she’d ‘gotten away with something’ -- and then take it upon themselves to somehow get a hold of any of the three adults they linked to her as family. Maybe that was a bit paranoid of her… but also, she didn’t want to annoy Max; she’d told him she’d be quiet and that he wouldn’t even know she was there, after all.
The rush of excitement that accompanied the feeling of freedom, of independence, of escape from this town that wasn't as perfect as it pretended to be… it dissipated quickly, tempered by a niggling sense of guilt and betrayal. Followed by annoyance: she didn’t want to feel bad about leaving. Joel had hurt her, so he deserved to be hurt in return. He didn’t do it deliberately, though, a nagging voice in her head piped up. It was the angel on her shoulder, like in that one cartoon movie, The Emperor’s New Groove -- only far less amusing. Countered by the devil on the other shoulder: It doesn’t matter if he meant to or not… he knows that he did, and he knows what to do to correct it, but he won’t even take one teensy step towards meeting me halfway.
The devil was always easier, and much more satisfying, to believe. She wondered why. Maybe it meant she was a bad person. She’d felt like a bad person for deciding to stay in town before, and Joel had pounded it into her head that she wasn’t; now she felt like one for leaving.
Ellie stewed about it for a couple minutes before deciding to seek reassurance. “Max, I know I said I’d be quiet and all, but can I ask you a question?”
“Of course. And you don’t have to be quiet.”
“You say that now… Joel used to get really annoyed. He said I didn’t know how to shut up. But like, in a teasing way, not a mean way. I think he kinda liked having someone to talk to… er, someone talking at him, more like.” She knew for sure that her chatter, whistling, and humming didn’t truly bother him, because he’d clearly missed it when it stopped. After David… whenever she suffered one of her black moods. That’s when Joel had taken over the job of talking. “Anyways, so um… do you think it’s wrong of me to leave? To leave Joel without telling him? Does this make me… I dunno... bad?”
“Bad? Naw. He treats you like shit, you got every right to leave.”
That actually made her feel worse. “Well… it’s not like that… exactly…”
“He don’t treat you the way you want him to. Right?”
“I dunno. Maybe I’m being selfish. Maybe I don’t treat him the way I should.” Maybe I shouldn’t tell him lies like ‘I don’t need you anymore.’
“What do you do that’s so bad? Just ‘cause you don’t jump to do his bidding all the time?”
“No, not that, just like… ugh, I don’t know.”
“Do you beat him up?”
“What? No! Like I even could!” Ellie said with a snicker.
“Call him names?”
Ellie thought about that. “No…” Maybe she did in her head on occasion, but she couldn’t remember doing it to his face. The grudging respect she had for him, even when she was angry, wouldn’t permit it.
“So what do you do that’s so bad?”
“Um… I yell at him, I guess?”
“You argue with him.”
“That ain’t bad. Especially if he’s wrong.”
“Ha! Yeah, he thinks he’s always right but he’s not.”
“Well, there you go. You’re fine.”
Ellie wasn’t satisfied. “I lie to him. Sneak out of town without telling him.”
“Only ‘cause you had to. If you told him, you’d never have been able to go, and that ain’t fair to you. You had no choice.”
“I had the choice to stay. Maybe I’m just a big chickenshit, running away.”
“Taking a break ain’t the same as running away.”
Taking a break. Yes, that’s what she was doing. From Joel as well as the two-faced Jacksonites pissing her off. “Okay. …I guess.”
Max pulled Clementine to a stop and twisted around a bit to look at her. “Hey, if you’re having second thoughts, we can go back. You can change your mind. I won’t be mad.”
Ellie bit her lip. “But then you’d either be alone or G would have to come, and you said he doesn’t really want to.”
“I go Out by myself all the time. Maria and Tommy, they encourage people to go in groups, but it’s a suggestion, not a rule. Most people don’t wanna be Outside on their own, either. But me? I don’t care. I like it, even.”
“Yeah, you’re like Joel -- there’s not a ton of people that you like to hang out with.”
“Dunno how ‘like’ him I am, but yeah, I s’pose, in that way we’re alike. We’re particular.”
And they both liked her, for whatever reason. Maybe Joel wouldn’t like her so much after this. But… wasn’t that partly the point? She had to break away from Joel. Be her own person. She wasn’t usually so nasty… Joel brought it out in her. What would happen if she went back? She’d go back to trying to avoid him and stress out about running into him all the time… or seeing him with Esther… wondering just how close they were getting…
She’d honestly rather worry about running into Infected or hunters… bandits, whatever-the-fuck they wanted to call them. How sad is that?
And Joel was obviously wrong about Max. He’d been nothing but kind to her. He wasn’t even irritated by her indecision. He respected her enough to make her own choice in the matter. That was more than she could say for Joel.
“Thanks, Max… I don’t wanna go back. Let’s keep going. It’s only a couple days so I’ll be back soon enough, it’s no big deal. And maybe by then… maybe I’ll have my shit more together, you know? I’ll feel better about… everything.”
“You got it, sunshine.”
It was a beautiful summer day, and she didn’t want to taint it by fretting about Joel. She also didn’t want to be lulled into a stupor by the sunshine; she needed to be alert, aware of her surroundings. Remember the skills Joel had taught her. It hadn’t been that long since she’d been out here doing that pretty much automatically, all the time. Slipping into her hypervigilant skin now required surprisingly little effort. She almost said as much to Max, but a sudden bout of shyness made her reluctant to share her thoughts. She’d yakked away the other night, with the booze loosening her tongue, but that was mostly stupid shit -- and shit she could have explained away later as the product of drunkenness, if need be. Maybe Max didn’t want to know everything about her. He wasn’t Joel, after all. And he wouldn’t necessarily get her the way Joel did.
Wait, what?! Joel doesn't 'get' me all the time! Especially lately. And she was failing pretty spectacularly at not thinking about the man. Thinking about… longing for… missing the hell out of… Remember, everything you had with him -- or thought you had -- got fucked up. You’re starting a new chapter in your life now. Fucking deal with it. No going back.
~Continue to Chapter 29~