Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Accretion" Chapter 29: "Riser"

Title: "Accretion" - Chapter 29: "Riser"
Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 5603
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Tommy confronts Joel and another awkward conversation ensues... until Joel gets 'saved by the bell'...

Joel surveyed the fields in front of him and let out a slow whistle. “That would be a lot of barbed wire fence. Might be better to jus’ protect the farmhouse an’ the barn, set up some electric fences for the livestock... don’ know how you’d guard the crops, though. Be easy enough in the day from a tower, but at night?” If people were hungry enough, they’d have no qualms about yanking unripe veggies from the ground. He and Ellie had eaten some green tomatoes they’d found growing wild, straight off the vine… but Joel had known that those weren’t poisonous, nor were they likely to wreak havoc on the intestines. As for other crops, he had no idea what was safe to eat; his knowledge was more limited to poisonous plants and berries. Maybe after a couple decades of eating expired canned food and (in some cases) raw meat, the human body had evolved to become more tolerant of dubious food sources than he knew.

The man who seemed to be in charge of the little group of would-be farmers, a guy around Joel’s age named Nolan, nodded. “We’ve had some theft issues before. I was just saying the other day how the Infected are scary as hell but I’d rather deal with them than other humans… nothin’ sneaky about them.”

Maria chuckled. “If only you could train them to patrol the land for you.”

“Guy I knew back east did that,” said Joel. “Well, not exactly. Not like you can train ‘em. More like Bill used geography to his advantage where he could. Lots more Infected back there than we’ve got out here. Most places, he set booby traps an’ killed ‘em. Made it a little difficult to come pay him a friendly visit.”

Tommy snorted. “A friendly visit where you deprive him of a car, you mean?”

“Hey, he owed me, and we worked for that car, baby brother. Nearly got ourselves killed.” There and a hundred other places across the country. Joel was happy to leave those days behind, especially since worrying about Ellie was a full-time job, even in a town that was relatively safe from such threats.

He was at his wits’ end trying to figure out how to patch up their relationship. He had hoped to at least lay eyes on her that morning when he’d gone for a horse, only to find that she wasn’t even there at the farm -- or so Annie had said. Joel had gotten the feeling she might have been lying about that, but he hadn’t pushed it. Ellie had probably told her she didn’t want to see him.

Tommy had asked him what was going on, naturally, but Joel hadn’t said much; it was his problem, he would deal with it on his own. He hadn’t said anything at all to Maria, yet she had offered to talk to Ellie when they went home –- which meant Tommy couldn’t keep his goddamn mouth shut. Did he have to share everything with Maria? Of course he did –- they were married. But Maria was trustworthy, and Joel wasn’t really upset that she knew what Tommy knew, which was next to nothing.

Esther had asked him about Ellie too, of course. Ellie’s conspicuous absence from dinner when Joel was present, in spite of the fact that she was spending the night at the farm -- and perhaps Ellie’s behavior or mood in general over the past few days -- had raised a red flag or two. She hadn’t pried, though, and Joel hadn’t even needed to shoot her a death glare to get her to back off.

With only a few words actually spoken about the whole Ellie thing, Joel was somehow sick to death of talking about it.

Which was why he was less than thrilled when Tommy brought it up, again, after they returned to the dam a couple hours later. To the same room in which they’d had their first private chat last fall… sitting in the same two metal chairs, even. He appreciated Tommy offering him distractions in the shape of Outside projects that Craig or one of the other guys could have handled, but if it came at the expense of Tommy feeling entitled to harass him whenever he saw fit, was it worth it? It wasn’t as if being in unfamiliar places made him think about Ellie any less.

“I didn’ wanna talk to you about this in front of Maria,” Tommy began, looking awkward as hell. So they didn’t share everything, then.

“Talk to me about what?” Joel crossed his arms in front of his chest and fixed Tommy with an irritated glare.

Tommy ran a hand through his hair. “Look. I know you said… well… shit. I don’ know how to say this.”

“Jus’ say it. You said it’s about Ellie?”

Tommy nodded. And just sat there, not saying anything. Trying to recall some shit he’d rehearsed in his head, maybe. Unless…

“She’s all right, ain’t she? Did somethin’ happen you’re not tellin’ me?” Panic started welling up inside him. Oh fuck fuck fuck—

“No no no, nothin’ happened,” Tommy said quickly, watching Joel carefully. “Christ, you turned white as death there for a second. D’you really think if somethin’ had happened that I could jus’ casually go ridin’ out with you to—“

“I don’ know, maybe!” Joel snapped. If it was something major, like Ellie being seriously hurt, no. If it was something Tommy deemed minor, but something he knew Joel wouldn’t like… who knows.

“I know that you care about her, a lot,” Tommy said, slowly… like he was choosing his words carefully. Except that wasn’t exactly breaking news, so what the fuck?

“Yeahhhh… and?” Joel prompted.

Tommy cleared his throat. “Remember how I told you that maybe… well, you might be…I don’ know… that maybe you cared too much? To the point of… it not bein’ healthy?”

This again? The glare resumed. “Yeah. You said it about fifty fuckin’ times before it finally sank in that I wasn’ gonna go talk to some high’n’mighty shrink jus’ ‘cause I feel protective of a young girl who’s all alone in the world.”

“Right. You told me to fuck off. On multiple occasions. I remember.”

Why was Tommy looking at him like… that? Joel didn’t know what the scrutinizing look signified, but he didn’t like it. “And I’ll tell you to fuck off again if you say that stupid shit now.”

“I ain’t fuckin’ off, though. I… can’t.”

“What the fuck are you talkin’ about, baby brother? Spit it out already.” Did Ellie say something to him? Shit… she did, that’s why he looks so uncomfortable…

“Someone… brought a concern to me, an’ I can’t jus’ look the other way, even if you are my brother.”

Someone? That didn’t jive with Ellie confiding in him, unless… maybe he promised Ellie he wouldn’t say anything to Joel, and now here he was. “What kind of concern?”

Tommy studied him quietly for a moment. Joel was actually beginning to feel a little unnerved rather than simply annoyed.

What kind of concern?” Joel repeated. He was also rapidly losing what little patience he had to begin with.

“Oh, I think you know.”

“Know what? I ain’t got the foggiest idea what you’re talkin’ about, Tommy. Jus’ fuckin’ say it!”

Even raising his voice didn’t get his little brother to speak plainly. Tommy cleared his throat again. “I know you would never hurt Ellie, not intentionally…”

“Of course I wouldn’. We argue. People argue.” And as far as one of them hurting the other, Ellie had definitely won the last round. Joel knew she was just lashing out, that she didn’t mean all that shit she said, but it still hurt to hear her say the words. He might have been more inclined to believe her if she hadn’t been so… well, honest, the night before, while she was intoxicated. That was the real Ellie, strange as it may seem to say about someone drunk off her ass. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Joel liked to believe that on some level, Ellie knew she could act out because it wouldn’t scare him off -- they were well beyond that point now –- and she knew that when the dust settled, he wouldn’t hold it against her.

“I ain’t talkin’ about your quarrelin’.” Tommy sounded annoyed, too. Annoyed by what -- that Joel wasn’t a goddamned mind reader?!

“Then what are you talkin’ about? Jesus Christ, boy, quit beatin’ around the bush and speak your mind already.”

“I’m jus’ wonderin’… if you an’ Ellie are maybe a little too close. If you catch my drift.”

“What? What the fuck does that mean?” Only Joel knew exactly what he meant now. And he knew that whatever shit was bouncing around in his head, Tommy was jumping to exactly the wrong conclusion. What Joel didn’t know was how he could deny it in the face of whatever evidence Tommy had. Which was… what? There was no evidence, because Joel had never done anything sexual with Ellie. How could Tommy even think that he might have?

“Joel… I know you an’ Ellie have both slept in that bed, together. Maybe not every night, but enough that it’s… worrisome.”

“We do not sleep in the bed together. An’ I don’ like what you’re insinuatin’.” Joel could lie smoothly, even to Tommy, who probably knew him better than anyone… except maybe Ellie, considering this past year alone. Tommy could possibly see through a bald-faced lie of his, but this one had layers of truth, and Joel could play that to his advantage. They hadn’t slept in the bed together in a few days now, nor would they ever again, so technically it wasn’t even a lie.

“Come off it, Joel. I was there that one day. I saw you.”

Joel scoffed. “You didn’ see us in bed together. You didn’ see shit! Where is this comin’ from? Someone jus’ decided to start spreadin’ lies about Ellie an’ me?”

“Where it comes from ain’t important. What’s important is… Joel, you know your head ain’t right when it comes to that girl.”

“What the fuck -- my head ain’t right? If you’re talkin’ about all that Firefly shit—“

“No, I get that. That’s maybe where it started, but I’m talkin’ ‘bout after you got back here. The feelings you have for that girl are…”

“Are what?” Joel’s tone was challenging. How dare Tommy chastise him for finally giving a shit about another human being after all these years!

“They’re… improper. And you know it.” Tommy challenged him right back. He was pretty fucking sure of himself.

“I don’ believe this. I’ve never done a goddamn thing to Ellie -- I want to adopt her, for fuck’s sake!”

“I know you do. That don’ mean you’re not fucked up like everyone else left in the world.” Tommy was infuriatingly calm.

“Whatever they told you, it’s bullshit. I didn’ do nothin’ wrong.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Can you tell me why Ellie suddenly won’t sleep in that house? What the hell happened?”

“I told you! We had an argument.”

“Yeah, an’ you won’ tell me what it was about. Neither will she. What’s the big secret?”

“Fuck you, Tommy! It’s personal. If Ellie wants to tell you, she’ll tell you. I ain’t gonna betray her confidence.” Joel sure as hell wasn’t going to enlighten Tommy about the main source of tension between them. It would only make things worse.

“Betray her confidence,” Tommy repeated thoughtfully. “So it’s about some secret of Ellie’s? You said it was an argument. You can’t jus’ give me the general idea?”

“I already did –- me an’ her don’ see eye to eye on… certain things.”

“No shit, Joel! On what things?”

“None of your goddamn business! If you wanna think the worst of me ‘cause I won’ discuss personal shit with you, then go right ahead.”

Tommy groaned. “It ain’t about thinkin’ the worst -- I jus’ wanna know what’s goin’ on!”

“Nothin’s goin’ on! You tell that nosy busybody who’s so concerned to mind her own goddamn business an’ quit stirrin’ up trouble. Ellie will come home when she’s had enough of…” Of what? Pissing me off? “Whatever it is she’s doin’.”

“It wasn’ jus’ someone bein’ nosy. They had good reason to be worried. As do I. She’s just a kid, Joel.”

Just a kid. Right. She was, and she wasn’t. And Tommy didn’t get it. Joel could argue that kids today grew up faster than back in their day, at least the ones who’d had it rough, like Ellie… that the line between child and adult was a little blurrier than it used to be. But that would only feed Tommy’s suspicions; he would think Joel was trying to justify his ‘improper feelings.’ Besides, it was hard not to think of Ellie as a kid when she was acting so much like one.

Tommy was looking at him appraisingly again. “What?” Joel snapped.

“Nothin’. I was jus’ thinkin’… I’m kinda surprised you haven’ tried to deck me yet. I think Ellie’s softened you up.”

Joel snorted. He knew she had. “I should deck you ‘cause you’re spewin’ bullshit at me.”

“More like… ‘cause you know it ain’t bullshit.”

“Damnit, Tommy, what do you—“

“Don’ get all fired up,” Tommy interrupted. “You don’ wanna talk to me. Fine. But you gotta do somethin’. I think if you two can’t resolve your issues, maybe you all should talk to Claire—“

“I ain’t talkin’ to no goddamn shrink, how many fucking times do I have to tell you?” Joel finally got up and started pacing to let off some steam. He really did want to hit his brother when he started acting all sanctimonious.

“An’ how many times do I have to tell you she ain’t no shrink? She knows about psychology an’ crap, though. She’s good at talkin’ to people. I think she could maybe help you figure out… boundaries, an’ such…”

Boundaries. That was a fucking joke. “I am done talkin’ about this, baby brother. An’ if you know what’s good for you, you’ll drop it.”

“Don’t you threaten me. It won’ work.” Tommy wasn’t going to drop it. Joel recognized that stubborn expression, the way he set his jaw… stubborn as a mule, he was. But Joel was just as stubborn.

A squeaky voice crackling over the walkie talkie saved Joel from any further pointless conversation. “Tommy? Are you there?”

Tommy knitted his brow in what-the-fuck? fashion and unclipped the walkie from his belt. “I’m here. Cordy, is that you?”

“Yeah. Do you know where Joel’s at?”

A genuine rush of panic surged through Joel this time. Why the fuck would Clicker be so desperate to find him that he had to hunt down someone with a walkie talkie? It had to be about Ellie. He stood in front of Tommy and reached for the walkie, but Tommy answered the kid. “He’s right here. What’s wrong?”

“’Here’ is the dam, right?”

Joel yanked the thing out of Tommy’s unprotesting hand and held the button down. “Clicker, it’s Joel. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Well… I was just wondering if you knew about Ellie?”

Shit shit shit! “No. What about her? Tell me!”

“She left.”

That evoked a strange mix of emotions -- a sense of relief that Clicker hadn’t said ‘she’s dead’ or ‘she’s hurt,’ along with more rising panic because what the fuck did he mean ‘she left’?! Joel looked at Tommy, who appeared to be equally perplexed.

“What do you mean?” he asked Clicker. “Left Jackson? That’s impossible. Kids are never allowed to leave by themselves. All the guards know that.” He glanced at Tommy for confirmation and Tommy nodded.

“She wasn’t by herself. My dad says it’s on the log.”

The fuck…? Joel looked to Tommy for translation but it dawned on him before Tommy could speak. Of course –- Clicker’s dad was in the militia. “The guard log?” he said into the walkie. “What does it say? Which gate?”

“There’s a note about Max being scheduled to leave and a time written next to it in someone else’s handwriting and Ellie’s name is added like on the side of that. She didn’t show up at the library when she was supposed to even though we were gonna do Oregon Trail which I think is totally lame and boring but she’s all into it -- and the only other time she blew off gaming, she…um… it was bad. So. Then I couldn’t find her in the usual places –- and she wasn’t riding cuz her horse is still here. Yesterday she was kinda bummed and said something that made me think maybe she wanted to go Out? Dad just started at noon and he said her name was on the thingie from last shift. Oh yeah, um, west gate. … … … …what?... oh! right… OVER.”

Joel waited impatiently for the kid to stop babbling and let go of the button. “What time does it say? Where were they goin’?” But he needn’t have asked the second question –- one look at Tommy told him that his brother knew all about it.

“9:20 A.M. It doesn’t say. Dad says Tommy knows, if it was a scheduled thing. Max goes to far away places, though, like prob’ly somewhere dangerous and I didn’t think you would let her go if you knew? Over.”

“Damn right I wouldn’t!” Joel barked accusingly at Tommy, grabbing him by the collar. “You knew about this an’ you didn’ think—“

“Whoa whoa whoa, hang on, I didn’ know he was takin’ Ellie! I woulda stopped ‘em, swear to God.” Joel relaxed his grip a little, and Tommy pushed him away. “Shit, Joel, you gotta calm down.”

“What the fuck time is it now? She’s been gone for at least three hours. Where’s he headed?”

Another voice came over the walkie. “Tommy. The west gate called up here looking for you around that time. I told them you were out of range and they said it wasn’t important. Over.”

What bad fucking timing. How in the hell was it not important? “They shoulda asked you to call when you got back and made Ellie fucking wait there until you did,” Joel grumbled. “Tell me where they’re goin’.”

Tommy fixed his shirt. “They didn’ have to. She ain’t my daughter, or yours. She left with an adult, an’ that’s the rule. They’re headed to Idaho.”

Where in Idaho?”

Clicker’s father got on the walkie talkie, apologizing for not telling them, saying he would have right away if he’d known, no one said anything when he came on, blah blah. Joel didn’t give a shit who was sorry and what they would have done. He pressed the button. “Who was on duty this mornin’?” Tommy started to chide him for that, and Joel realized how it sounded, so he shushed Tommy and added, “I ain’t blamin’ anyone, I jus’ might need to ask ‘em questions about Ellie.” Offline, he snarled to Tommy, “That shithead coulda kidnapped her for all we know.”

“He wouldn’t—“

“You don’ know what he’d fuckin’ do! He hates me.”

“It was Houser and Bryan,” said Clicker. “Y-Bryan. Over.”

“But still. Kidnapped? The guys wouldn’t’ve let them go if they thought Ellie was bein’ forced. An’ Ellie’s smart, she would’ve found some way to tip ‘em off, if it wasn’ obvious. Hell, she would’ve kicked his ass before they even got anywhere near the gate, if she’s as tough as you say.”

The ‘dam guy’ (Joel recognized the voice but couldn’t remember his name) came on the walkie again. “It was Houser who called. Over.”

Joel knew Tommy was right about Ellie. He couldn’t help worrying about her; she could be overpowered physically and put at a disadvantage (although even then, she was resourceful enough that it wasn’t a given). But she was quite capable, and if they were at the gate like that –- presumably without her being bound and gagged -- then she was a willing participant. “He fuckin’ brainwashed her then!”

“Do you wanna ask the guards about it? I could ask Cordy to go hunt ‘em down, bring ‘em over to a radio to talk, or to the east gate to meet you when you get back there.”

“No.” He didn’t really know Bryan, but he trusted that Houser would have barred the exit if given any indication of foul play. In his gut, Joel knew Ellie had gone of her own accord. No need to waste time confirming it. “Where are they goin’?” he asked for what felt like the tenth time.

Tommy took the walkie talkie back from him. “Thanks, everyone. We’ll handle it. Over an’ out.” He clipped it back on his belt and looked at Joel. “Eastern Idaho Regional Center. It’s a medical facility.”

What?! “A medical facility? You mean like a hospital? Why would…”

“He’s vettin’ it for us, might be a place we can do business with or might be a complete waste of time. He likes doin’ shit like that. Gets restless bein’ in one place all the time. An’ he can tell me what sort of barriers an’ whatnot are in between so we know what to— Joel, you’re all ghostly-white again. She’s fine. She’ll be fine.”

“It ain’t that,” Joel grumbled. Well, it was that, just not entirely. In his mind, Ellie was never ‘fine’ while she was out of sight, because he couldn’t know it for a fact.

Tommy blanched a little too as it dawned on him. “You don’ think… are you thinkin’ Ellie might…”

It was exactly what Joel was thinking. What was it she’d said yesterday… “I don’t belong anywhere in this world.” It could have been a throwaway comment, but it had concerned him, and when he’d asked her to explain, she wouldn’t.

“Look, we don’ know if there are any doctors or scientists or whatnot at this place. It’d be a longshot. An’ Ellie promised she’d talk to you first if she changed her mind about… doin’ that,” Tommy reminded him.

“She promised she wouldn’ leave without talkin’ to me, an’ she jus’ did.”

Tommy shook his head. “I don’ think that’s what she meant, though. She meant if she decided to go give up her life to be a science experiment. Not leave town for a couple days.”

“It don’ matter –- we’re wastin’ time. I gotta go after her.” He half expected Tommy to argue with him about that, but he didn’t. Either his brother had realized the argument was futile, or he understood that to Joel, it wasn’t even a choice.

“Max gave me a copy of the map he’s usin’. Hang on.” Tommy crossed the room to a row of lockers and started rooting around in his back pack.

Joel started pacing again. “If anything happens to her, I swear to God, Tommy, I’m gonna kill the motherfucker.” He might kill him even if anything didn’t happen to Ellie.

“Nothin’s gonna happen,” Tommy reassured him, as if he could possibly fucking know that –- and knowing full well that the platitude wouldn’t reassure Joel one bit. He found the map and turned back to Joel. “I know you don’ like Max, but he ain’t a bad guy. Marches to the beat of a differen’ drummer, maybe… that don’ make him bad. An’ he’s gone on shitloads of these trips, always comes back in one piece.”

“Maybe he does. But not everyone who’s with him. An’ if he’s such a good guy, why’s he givin’ booze to a young girl?”

“Look, I ain’t defendin’ that, all right? But when he’s Outside, he don’ drink.”

“Jesus Christ, Tommy, you’re almost as naïve as Ellie. How do you know what he does out there? You go by his word? His parents’ word?”

And I’ve been out there with him! An’ so have the supply runners who—“

“All right all right I don’ got time for this shit, gimme that!” He snatched the map from Tommy’s hands and studied it hurriedly.

Tommy stood next to him and pointed at a large chunk in the middle of the map labeled ‘Palisades Wilderness Study Area.’ “I know it’s temptin’ to cut through there ‘cause it’s a straighter shot but we can’t risk it, the trails haven’ been kept up in the last two decades, of course, an’ the mountains—“

“Wait -- ‘we’?” He raised an eyebrow at his brother.

“Sure. I’m goin’ with you.”

Joel shook his head. “No you ain’t. Maria would kill me.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “That again? No, she’d understand. She loves that girl too, y’know. An’ if you really think Ellie’s tryin’ to…”

“I don’ know, Tommy. I don’ know what’s goin’ on in her head lately.” Do I want him to come with me? Joel quickly weighed the pros and cons. The extra protection would be nice. Things were calmer out there in the general vicinity of Jackson, but they knew very little beyond that. Scouting reports weren’t completely reliable because things could change rapidly between one trip to an area and the next. An extra person would slow him down, though. If they took one horse, their combined weight would slow the horse and tire it out much more quickly. If they took two… the second one would be considerably slower than Joel’s, because he was definitely taking Spirit. Not a major problem, perhaps -- except then Joel would worry about something happening to Tommy when they got separated. And if Joel did kill Max, it would put his brother in an awkward position; if he wasn’t even there, plausible deniability applied. Ellie would still be there, though –- or she’d better be. Maybe I could trick her…

Joel arrested that train of thought with a reminder that it was irrelevant for the time being. He looked at the map again. “Eighty-nine miles? Then they’re not even close yet. I ain’t got time to do the math but I know it’s gonna take hours to catch up with ‘em. Hopefully they take a lotta breaks. But still. Hours. Thanks, baby brother, but I’m gonna take Spirit an’ jus’ haul ass out there. Ellie didn’ ride him today, he should be rarin’ to go.”

Tommy chuckled. “Ain’t that horse more trouble than he’s worth? Jus’ ‘cause he’s fast don’ mean he’ll do what you want him to.”

“He will. It’ll be fine.” Joel couldn’t explain it to Tommy but he could swear that the horse understood him when it came to Ellie… that if he told Spirit that Ellie was in trouble, he’d get it. Tommy would say it was his imagination. Joel wouldn’t have believed bullshit like that himself if he hadn’t experienced it firsthand.

“All right. Even so. You can’t jus’ take a horse an’ gallop full speed ahead for hours.”

“I know that. But he’s the fastest one you got an’ he’ll get me to Ellie the fastest. That’s water there, right?” He pointed to a reservoir on the map and Tommy nodded.

“Last we heard it’s actually got water, too.”

“An’ it’s been rainin’ here a bit. Hopefully been rainin’ out there too so water shouldn’ be an issue. You sure he’s followin’ the highways? A hundred percent sure he won’ cut through that wilderness thing?”

“Positive. Too mountainous. Only place he might take a slight detour is a small town that used to have bandits livin’ right off the highway there, assumin’ any of ‘em are left… where was it…” Tommy squinted at the map.

“What, your soldier buddies don’ take care of that shit? He better fuckin’ take a detour then,” Joel muttered, incensed at the thought of the asshole leading Ellie through a dodgy area. He was angry at Ellie, too, he knew he was… but right now, all of his rage was focused on her companion. An unmapped detour would make it harder to find them, though. What if he fucking went past them and didn’t even realize it? He’d just have to catch up to them before that point.

“Swan Valley, that was it! Should be mile signs on the twenty-six so you have an idea where you are. Very small town. Can’t detour very far, with the mountains an’ all… jus’ enough to avoid the highway. They’ll prob’ly swing north.”

Joel folded up the map and held it out to Tommy, but Tommy shook his head. “That’s for you, you asshole. It came from the library, I can get another one if I need it. If you all don’ come back here by… I dunno…”

“We’ll be back tonight. I’ll have the guard radio up here an’ let you know.” Joel really had no idea what time he’d make it back. He would be back, with Ellie. He had to believe that, because he’d go crazy if he dared to think of alternatives. “We’ll be slower comin’ back, of course. I’ll rest the horse some, after I’ve got her. Might need you to talk to her again, you got through to her last time.” It pained Joel to admit it, but his brother was better at that shit than he was, and if it kept Ellie safe…

Tommy chuckled. “It wasn’ me. I jus’ said the words. It was all you. But… Joel, what if she refuses to come back with you?”

Shit, he hadn’t even thought of that, and it was such a likely possibility. Did he really expect that once he caught up to her, Ellie would suddenly do whatever he wanted her to? She hadn’t even told him she was going, and she had to know he’d be worried sick when he found out she’d gone to a fucking hospital, of all places. Did she really hate him that much? She doesn’t hate you, he reminded himself, with a little more difficulty believing it now. She’s mad and she’s acting out. She ain’t thinking straight. Joel sighed. “I dunno, I reckon we’ll have ourselves another fight over it. I can’t worry about that right now. If she won’ come home with me, I’ll go with ‘em to the hospital an’ I won’ let her out of my sight.” And if she told Max about her ‘condition,’ that’s reason enough for me to kill him. But Tommy doesn’t need to know that.

“An’ if she won’t let—“

“Then I’ll fuckin’ follow their asses there, an’ there won’ be nothin’ she can do about it,” Joel said exasperatedly, heading for the door. “I gotta get goin’, I’m wastin’ time. Still gotta ride all the way back to the farm first. Shit. Oh –- Tommy, can you see if you can find someone to give Esther or Annie a heads up? Get Spirit tacked up an’ ready to go?” Every minute he could save was valuable and it would be really helpful to pretty much be able to hop off one horse on to the next by the time he got down there. He didn’t care if it wasn’t ‘his’ saddle he’d be riding on. He also had to swing by the house and pick up a few things.

“I can do that. Hold up a sec.” Tommy strode to the door and gave him a quick one-armed hug that took Joel by surprise. “Good luck. Be careful out there.”

“Will do, little brother.” Joel clapped him on the back, then bolted out the door. The tension between them didn’t matter one bit, when it came down to it. Ellie… the survival hardships in their past… strip it all away and they were still of the same blood, the only blood kin they had left, to their knowledge.

But Ellie was just as much family to Joel, in his own mind. Ever since Colorado. She could be angry with him for the rest of her life… never speak to him again… it didn’t matter, as long as she had a life to spend hating him. He could bear anything, anything at all, other than Ellie being dead. Anyway, that was the worst-case scenario. Joel believed that in time, she would come to understand his side of things. Like she had about the Fireflies –- that had turned around relatively quickly, to his surprise.

Maybe she was just going along for the ride with Max, not looking to sacrifice herself for an allegedly noble cause… it was a risk Joel couldn’t take. Even if he could somehow magically know her intentions, or know that there wouldn’t be anyone in that hospital willing to slice her up in the name of saving humanity, he couldn’t just sit on his ass and wait for her to come back. Yes, she was capable, but she was still human. And she was with a guy Joel didn’t trust. Ellie did trust the dickwad, which only made it worse. Maybe Max was only being kind to her the other day to lure her out completely from under Joel’s thumb… and do what? He couldn’t go there. He had to believe Tommy was at least partially right about the fucker.

And he had to be focused. Single-minded. Alert as fuck. At times like this, it was helpful to have the ability to stuff his emotions into some dark corner where he couldn’t feel them, to be the machine he needed to be. To be what Ellie needed him to be: strong and sure, her own personal human safety net. Always there, whether she liked it or not.

~Continue to Chapter 30~

Tags: accretion, fic, tlou
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