Lumy (luminations) wrote,

*FINAL CHAPTER!* "Accretion" Chapter 31: "Point of No Return" Part 2 of 2

Title: "Accretion" - Chapter 31: "Point of No Return" Part 2 of 2
Fandom: The Last of Us
Word Count: 12,082 for both parts
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Chapter Summary: Joel kicks ass... for a while. ...and that's all the summary I'm giving, lol. I actually don't know why I've bothered doing summaries for LJ when on FFN/AO3 I didn't bother!

~Continued from Part One~

“We were going to a medical place… Tommy told you, right? He didn’t know I was going, so you can’t be mad at him, by the way. The place had nothing to do with it, though. We coulda been going to some… I dunno… abandoned carnival grounds or something –- I just wanted to go. I wasn’t gonna, you know… try to go make a vaccine and save the world and shit. Is that what you thought?”

“The thought crossed my mind, yes,” he said carefully. Whatever had happened, Ellie certainly didn’t seem volatile right now… but he had a way of accidentally provoking her ire.

“So… you freaked out.” It was a statement, not a question. Joel didn’t think his reaction qualified as ‘freaking out,’ exactly, but he didn’t correct her. “I’m soooo sorry, I didn’t even think about that when I left, I only just realized now… a little while ago. I still don’t want to give up my life like that… even if things are shitty, I don’t wanna just… besides, I promised I’d talk to you first, if I did, and a promise is a promise.”

Joel exhaled. “Right. Good. I’m… glad.” He was quite a bit more than ‘glad,’ but Ellie probably knew that…

Ellie didn’t seem to expect him to say more than that anyway. “I don’t want things to be shitty, though. With us. You came all the way out here and stuff, so… I’m guessing you want that, too. Er… don’t want it. Shittiness, I mean.”

“I want things to be good,” Joel agreed. “But at this point I’ll take ‘not shitty.’”

Ellie grinned at that. “Ha! Okay. How did you get out here so fast? I mean, Spirit, yeah, but how did you even know I left? I thought if you found out at all it wouldn’t be ‘til like… now, or almost now.”

Joel didn’t know what time it was, but the sun had started its descent into the horizon, so it was probably almost dinner time. “I have my ways,” he said mischievously.

“Whatever, you can tell me everything on the way home. Just… what do I have to do to… de-shit-ify this? Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

Joel stared at her. What a complete one-eighty from the ‘I’ll-do-whatever-I-want’ Ellie of late.

Ellie stared back. “I mean, unless it’s something dumb, like, not ever talking to Max again.”

Well, that was more Ellie-like, at least! Joel laughed. “That ain’t dumb. It’s the opposite of dumb, in fact. You don’ know him—“

“Okay okay okaayyyyy I really don’t wanna fight about Max again. Please? On the way home you can lecture me all you want. And I’ll pretend to listen.”

“All right then.” Joel didn’t want to fight about it either. He was just immensely pleased to see that Ellie was in such good spirits, and that she was willing to work on things with him. “We’ll table that subject –- for now. Except… please tell me you didn’ tell him about your condition.”

“Of course not. I haven’t even told Annie, why would I tell him?”

She seemed to be telling the truth. “Good. Don’ tell no one. Not even Annie. If you feel like you gotta talk about it, you come to--”

“I know, Joel, you’ve said it a million times,” Ellie groaned, although she didn’t seem truly annoyed with this particular brand of over-lectured material.

“Maybe only half a million. You talk to either me, Tommy, or Maria,” he finished the thought. “An’ you know… if you need time away from me, you don’ gotta leave town, I was gonna--”

“I don’t!” Ellie interrupted him again. “I never wanted that.”

It was like all or nothing with Ellie. Either she was doing everything in her power to piss him off, or she was trying to say and do all the things she thought he wanted her to. “Uh… yeah, you did. It’s fine—“

“No, Joel, really! I… well… it wasn’t a lie, exactly…” There was that sheepish look again. “Okay, I guess it kinda was. But I thought you knew I didn’t mean it when I told you to leave me alone and… shit like that.”

“You were so angry… you did mean it, the last time, at least…”

“No!” she insisted. “You were supposed to like… read between the lines.”

“What? How?” Old as he was, Joel didn’t feel any closer to understanding the inner workings of the female brain now than he did at age twenty.

“Um… I dunno? Don’t you kinda just know when I mean what I say and when I don’t?”

Joel pondered that for a moment. “I reckon I do, sometimes… to a point? But you were very clear. ‘Leave me alone, don’t come after me.’”

“Yeah, that actually meant don’t leave me alone and do come after me. Which you did, today! I didn’t mean for you to go that far after me. God, I’m such a… “ Ellie sighed. “You should be furious with me. But I’ll try harder. I’ll make it up to you.”

“Ellie, we ain't on the road no more. Uh... at home, I mean. I don’ wanna jus’… lay down the law for you to follow, an’ you jus’ do it ‘cause you think that makes me happy. That ain’t… healthy.” Not a word he was particularly fond of using, but it was applicable.

“Healthy?” Ellie balked a little at the word, too. “But don’t you like telling me what to do? Yeah, you do. You love it.”

Joel chuckled. “Well… maybe. Sometimes. It’d be better if we talked shit through until we agree on what to do.”

“Like… compromising.”

Joel winced. That was so… relationship-sounding. But it did fit. “Yeah. Like that.”

Ellie laughed at his discomfort with the word. “Don’t worry, Joel, it’s painless! Physically, anyway.”

Reluctant as he was to set her off by unwittingly saying the wrong thing, Joel felt like it was his turn. “Look, I realize I haven’t handled things the greatest. You an’ me, we’re… complicated. It ain’t all cut’n’dry, an’… I know I’ve been…” He was struggling to find suitable words, and Ellie cut him off.

“I know,” she said, and it felt like she did somehow know what he was going to say, even though he didn’t even know it himself. “I’ve been angry with you. Maybe I’m still angry with you, but, the thing is… you have way more reason to be angry. I know you are the way you are cuz you care about me, and I’ve just been so… nasty, I guess is the right word… to you. I’m sorry. Like, really sorry. I’ve been such a fucking cunt, I wouldn’t blame you if you’re too mad to give me another chance… but if you do, I’m gonna do better, I swear.”

“I ain’t mad at you,” Joel said, quite honestly. How could he be mad after such a sweet, heartfelt apology that he was pretty sure he didn’t even deserve? But something about her demeanor still troubled him. Kind, earnest… to a fault? “Ellie… I appreciate you sayin’ all this. But it’s okay to be mad at me and let me know it. I don’ want you to ‘do better.’ Whatever that means.”

“You don’t? Do you actually like it when I’m a bitch?”

Joel laughed. “No, I mean… well, yes. In a way. I always want you to be honest with me. If that means you have to yell, then yell. When you’re quietly pissed an’ I don’ know what you’re thinkin’… that’s worse. I think we need to figure out how to talk to each other better, yeah? Both of us.”

Ellie nodded. “Our communication skills are somewhat lacking,” she said cheekily.

Joel let out a mock sigh at the use of another relationship-y word. “Exactly.”

“So when you’re being a total dick, I should just tell you.”

“Yes! That part, you’re usually real good at,” Joel teased.

She slugged his arm playfully, and both of them laughed. This was going much better than Joel had anticipated. Just don’t fuck it up, it ain’t over yet!

Ellie got back to business quickly. Although now her knee was touching his leg… “Okay, so… I could just be nicer about it? ~Joel, I regret to inform you that you are being some variant of asshole at this present moment~,” she said, affecting a goofy, high-pitched, snobby-sounding accent.

Joel had to laugh. “Uh… no, I’d rather you jus’ straight up tell me I’m bein’ an asshole.”

“You don’t ever tell me when I’m being a cunt,” Ellie pointed out.

“Because you ain’t one.”

Ellie rolled her eyes. “You know I am.”

Joel shook his head. “No. You’re a kid— a young woman,” he amended, because he needed to try to remember how much it irritated her to be called a kid, “who’s had a hard time an’ is handlin’ things the best she can. If you’re angry an’ you let the anger out, that’s… okay. Good, even. I can take it. I’d rather not make you angry in the first place, but… you know how that goes.” She smiled, and he relaxed even more. Talking wasn’t so hard, really. “I would rather hear it than for you to… ignore it, or bottle it up ‘cause you think that’s what I want. That ain’t real. I want…” How do I say this? “…I reckon I want you to know that… you can be real with me. I ain’t goin’ nowhere, no matter what. You don’ gotta act a certain way— there’s no requirements, or… jus’… be yourself. You understand?”

She understood. He could tell by the way she nodded and ducked her head… embarrassed by emotion, but pleased. She mumbled something he couldn’t make out. He gently asked her to repeat herself, and he heard it: “unconditional.” Followed by a silent ‘love,’ he was pretty sure.

“That’s right.” He cleared his throat, afraid he might get a little choked up himself. Saying the ‘L word’ would have done it. Ellie knows I love her. She pretty much just said so herself. “When I talk about fixin’ things, I don’ mean you followin’ orders better, or anythin’ like that. It’s prob’ly more on me. I gotta change whatever it is I do that pisses you off so much. But you gotta help me do that. Some things are… let’s say non-negotiable. Things you think I do to treat you like a little kid that’s more about me lookin’ out for you. I’d do it even if you were forty-five instead of fifteen.”

She still had her head down, but she peeked at him with a sly smile. “So it’s more of a chauvinist thing than an age thing.”

“No it ain’t,” he protested, laughing. “Maybe a little. I dunno.” He didn’t consider himself a chauvinist. Women were different from men -- that was a fact. Did acknowledging that make him a chauvinist?

“It’s okay, I kinda like it,” she admitted. “It’s not something I’m used to. I mean, I’ve always had rules to follow, like in those stupid schools… but you do it cuz… well… you’re different from them. What really sucks is when I tell you how I’m feeling –- which you always say you wanna know –- and then you tell me I don’t really feel that way, cuz I’m just a kid. It’s insulting.”

Joel absorbed that quietly for a moment. He could have argued that he had a lot more life experience than she did, that he understood some shit that she didn’t yet… but she did have a point. He nodded. “I’ll work on that.”

She was sitting up straight again, and had even backed up a little so that no part of them was touching the other. That was a good sign. Maybe she’s more willing to respect boundaries now…

“So… about the bed thing.”

Or maybe not. Shit. But before he could even so much as groan in frustration, she shushed him.

“I can sleep in the bedroom, alone, if that’s what you want. I might have overreacted just a teensy bit on that.”

Joel was surprised. “I don’ think you did. At all. You had good reason to be upset.” He’d been wondering if he should reconsider his harsh stance on that, but if she was okay with it, it would be stupid of him to back down now. It was inappropriate to share the bed with her, and despite her claims otherwise, Joel was worried that it had somehow fucked with her head. Maybe it would show up later, manifesting in the way she related to boys… men… ugh. He still couldn’t stand thinking about her ‘relating’ to them in that way.

“Maybe. But the thing is, I complain about you not listening to me, right? Well, I’m a fucking hypocrite cuz I don’t always listen to you. I didn’t, with the bed. I shouldn’t’ve made it like this big ultimatum.”

Joel continued to be impressed with the maturity she was displaying here. “I think you did listen. You jus’ didn’ like what you were hearin.’”

“It wasn’t just that,” Ellie insisted. “You told me how you felt about it –- before this last time I mean, too! Lots of times! –- and I didn’t care, I whined at you and made you feel guilty and… I even bullied you about it, really. It makes you very uncomfortable. Obviously. So me acting like that… I mean, when you think about it, how is it any different from someone pressuring someone else to have sex, jus’ cuz that’s what they want?”

Joel stared at her for a moment. How in the world could she equate wanting to innocently snuggle in bed with… She was serious! And he was sitting there trying not to laugh, a predicament that did not escape Ellie’s notice.

“What? How is it different? It’s exactly the same thing.” She was all defensive now… and maybe even starting to blush. Hard to tell sometimes with her perpetual sunburn. Regardless, she was completely, utterly, undeniably adorable.

Joel tried to keep a straight face. “I don’ think of it that way, but…”

“Don’t laugh at me!”

“I’m not!”

“You are, I see it –- your face fuzz doesn’t hide everything, you know!” She poked at the corner of his mouth, which was indeed curling up into a smile, and he laughed. “See? You’re laughing!”

“’Cause you jus’ made me!” She was so damn cute. He couldn’t stand it; he had to hug her. “C’mere, you.” She practically leaped into his arms and he squeezed her tightly, cradling her head against his unhurt shoulder.

Now she was laughing a little, too. “You get what I mean, though, right?”

“I get it. I should thank you for tryin’ to see things my way. Even if you ain’t exactly seein’ ‘em straight.” When he and Ellie talked this way… openly, sensibly, honestly… these were the times that he could forget she was only fifteen years old, and that he was more than three times her age. Sometimes he felt so close to her that it was almost like they were one person, a feeling that only seemed to intensify as time went on. He didn’t give a shit if it was wrong or unhealthy or whatever label someone might want to slap on it. It was just the way it was. For himself, at least… for Ellie, he needed to care about it. But what if she did feel exactly the same way? If her reality was as unflinching as his own? Would he feel this level of connection if it wasn’t? That she’s-not-a-shrink chick could probably shoot a few holes in these musings, but Joel assumed her knowledge was book-based –- and 2013-based, at that. He didn’t set much store by it. What was actually the better course of action to help Ellie: guiding her to fall more in line with the conventional standards of a society that didn’t even exist anymore, or accepting that she was never going to be a well-adjusted, independent, so-called ‘healthy’ person by such measure? What would do less damage: ripping apart the stability of this reality to try to force a new one on her that may not unfold the way he hoped, or embracing that she was fucked up, like him… like many others… and offering her what love and support he could, even if it fostered more dependence on him?

Or was the latter option really just him being a pervert trying to justify his attraction to a teenage girl?

Her legs shifted so she was sitting more comfortably in his lap, and he was glad she was in no hurry to end the hug. He would happily keep holding her there, rubbing her back… enjoying the feel of her in his arms and the sense of peace it still brought him. Her hair smelled like a curious mix of dirt and her fruity shampoo. He kissed it, just like he used to. I shouldn’t be doing this, either. But fuck it -- it feels good to have her close, and she’s so happy right now. He sighed, more out of contentment than frustration. “What am I gonna do with you, girl?” he pondered… to himself, only realizing a moment later that the thought had projected spoken words.

She pulled back, and Joel protested internally –- no, I don’t wanna let you go yet! –- but she didn’t pull away from him completely. Her arms were still around his neck and she remained in his lap. She was looking at him with those beautiful, soulful green eyes again, searchingly… so close to his face…

And he kissed her. How could he not, when she looked at him like that? It was a gentle, chaste kiss, their lips barely touching. He half-expected her to shy away, to giggle and say ‘okay yeah I guess I AM kinda weirded out by this’… she didn’t, though.

I REALLY shouldn’t be doing THIS. I could stop it right here…

Except he couldn’t. He pulled back just a little, and her eyes fluttered open... he saw the hope and longing in them… “Shit,” he muttered as he kissed her again, more firmly this time. One hand entangled itself in her hair, cupping the back of her head, while the other pulled her as close as he could. Fuck, it felt so good having her body pressed to his -- and embracing her felt like the most natural thing in the world. Her lips parted and his tongue found hers… he felt warm and tingly and excited and just incredibly fucking happy, happier than he had any right to feel. They were starring in one of those stupid-ass, cheesy romantic comedies he hated, only this time he didn’t want to turn it off. She was so sweet… a bit tentative, unsure of herself… but clearly enjoying it. He kissed her deeply then, holding her as tightly as he dared, the warmth inside escalating to a dizzying heat, and he felt… alive. Vibrantly, brilliantly alive. The euphoria was unlike anything he could remember. Joel could have easily spent the rest of the day like that, but finally he came to his senses -- at least enough to stop.

“Whoa,” Ellie breathed.

Joel felt a bit dazed himself. Did that really just happen? “Ellie…”

She grinned at him triumphantly. “Don’t ‘Ellie’ me. You can’t tell me you didn’t like that,” she challenged.

“I sure can’t,” he agreed with a chuckle. He hugged her, returning her head to its former place on his shoulder, feeling happy as a pig in shit… but also wondering what in the hell he thought he was doing here. Well… what if it was inevitable for them to get romantically involved? How long could he have battled himself anyhow? Forever, if he had to… had his feelings been unrequited, or had they decided to be father and daughter… an idea which still held some appeal for him. Could they do some unorthodox mixture of both? He loved her; no one could love her more than he did. Didn’t that count for something? “That’s never been the problem, me not likin’ it.”

“There’s never been a problem,” she countered. “Only in your head.”

“Mmm. Guess we’ll find out.”

“You mean it?” She pulled back to look at him hopefully.

Shit! Think before you say potentially misleading things like that. “I don’ know what I mean.” He sighed again, but he was smiling, too. There certainly were worse problems in the world to have.

She looked worried now. “You still think we shouldn’t touch each other at all?”

“We prob’ly shouldn’, no.” He made zero effort to push her away from him this time. “Clearly I ain’t too good at doin’ what I should.”

She let out a shaky laugh. Started to say something but stopped herself.

“What? Tell me.”

“Well… what about Esther?”

Huh? “Esther? What’s she got to do with anything?” What a strange person for her to think of in this moment.

“I thought you and her…”

Joel blinked. Seriously?! “What? She’s a friend. Never been more than that. Why would you think—did Tommy say somethin’ to you?” Joel had thought his brother was done meddling in his love life, but maybe not. For a second, he imagined the look of horror on his brother’s face if he were to witness what had just happened between him and Ellie. Maybe it was the giddy high he was riding now, but the thought amused him a hell of a lot more than it alarmed him. He could handle Tommy.

“No, I just thought… you know. I heard about… at the party? You guys were dancing and stuff?”

Joel kissed her nose and played with a strand of her hair. Doesn’t she know she’s the only one I’m close to like this? “It wasn’ like that. There was no ‘and stuff.’ We square danced. She was itchin’ to dance an’ needed a partner, an’ she sorta dragged me out there. That’s it. How does that make us… whatever you’re thinkin’?”

Ellie dodged the question. “Were you trying to forget me or something?”

“No. I couldn’ even if I tried.” That sort of slipped out before Joel could water it down. It sure took that worry off her face in a hurry, though.



“You’d rather have been dancing with me?”

“Definitely. You’n’me’ll dance at the next shindig.”

“Okay.” She sighed in relief and snuggled up to him again. “Good, cuz you and her… that woulda been harder to deal with than the bed. I guess… I always kinda knew you guys weren’t, like… I just made myself think it somehow.”

He gave her a squeeze. “There’s no one else, baby girl. I think it’s pretty clear I ain’t gonna be like a real dad to you now. Or… ever.”

She giggled. “Nope. That’s okay, I don’t need a dad, I need a… a Joel!”

“Ha. Well, you’ve got one.” He stroked her tangled hair, tugging the elastic off the remaining locks in her ponytail and combing through it gently with his fingers.

“Mmm, that feels nice. And just so you know –- I never did anything with Max. Or wanted to,” she admitted as she buried her face in his neck. “I just said that stuff about having sex with him to piss you off.”

That was a relief. “I suspected as much, but thank you for ‘fessin’ up. I wasn’ sure.” If the thought of Ellie being intimate with anyone made Joel feel a little sick to his stomach, the thought of her and Max made him want to puke his fucking guts out.

“And! I’m… not actually a skank,” Ellie mumbled into his neck.

And that was a laugh! “What? Who said you were?”

“I did. Sort of. I mean, with the way I was acting.”

“When was that?”

“You know! The other night when I was like… hanging on you and trying to get you to take all my clothes off and stuff?”

Joel had to laugh again. “Well, good thing you clarified that for me, I was actually wonderin’ if maybe you were a whore, after that.”

She popped her head up to look at him. “Are you being sarcastic?”

“Not at all,” he said sarcastically, grinning. She gave him a mock pouty look. “Awww. Ellie, you will never be a skank, no matter how you act.”

“Well, that’s not a very nice thing to say!”

“What, you want to be skanky now?”

“Maybe not skanky, but… sexy.”

“You already are.”

“I am?”

“Mmhmm. An’ it’s sexy that you don’ know you’re sexy.”

“It is?” She scrunched up her face in disbelief.

“It is.” Joel felt a little peculiar discussing Ellie’s sexiness with her. He couldn’t just turn the ‘father’ switch in his brain all the way to the ‘off’ position, and she was so young. How much did it really matter? So, they were different. They would never be conventional as a couple or a father/daughter pair. It wasn’t about sex, either -- that was secondary. The attraction was definitely there, but…

“So… does that mean you wanna fuck me?” she asked with a smirk.

Joel sort of sighed and laughed at the same time. If she'd felt the shift in his pants when they were kissing, she already knew the answer to that. At least she was back to playing her let’s-embarrass-Joel games (which he would never admit that he liked). The question definitely made him feel uncomfortable. And maybe it was a bit... unmanly? soft? of him, but he didn’t like her use of the word ‘fuck’ in this context, either. It felt cheap and dirty, like he was just looking to shoot his load in a warm hole and walk away. “We’ll talk about that later. Don’ look at me like that -- we really will, I ain’t jus’ sayin’ it. But we better get goin’. It’s a long ride home.”

“I don’t wanna go home,” Ellie announced, sounding whiny for the first time that day.

“What? Sure you do. Dude prob’ly left by now anyhow.” With any luck. Joel gave himself props for not referring to him by some derogatory term that might annoy Ellie.

“No, I mean I wanna stay here. Where everything’s perfect. I’ll go tell him to leave and I’ll bring Spirit back here and we can stay a while. Like, forever maybe.”

He kissed her forehead, her scarred eyebrow, her freckled little nose… and finally her lips, where he lingered for a moment. “This ain’t some magical place, Ellie. What do you think will happen if we leave?”

She shrugged and looked away.

This turnabout had to be confusing for her, too. Maybe I ain’t good enough for her… but who is? I wouldn’t TRUST anyone else with her. At least if it’s me, I have some control over things. But it ain’t like this is all about me. How can I do right by Ellie? Am I being a selfish prick, or am I the best one for her, especially considering the limited options? For God knows what reason, I’m the one she wants, flaws and all. Doesn’t THAT count for something, too? That should count for a lot. She was only fifteen -- a fact that was, at times, painfully obvious. But teenagers in today’s world were different from the ones he remembered… at least, some of them. Ellie was different. Special. “We have things to figure out, sure,” he said slowly; he still had to be mindful of what he told her, maybe even more so now. It felt like a line had been crossed that couldn’t be uncrossed. He didn’t want to jerk her around by trying to uncross it to assuage his guilt or whatever the fuck it was that made him think they shouldn’t be romantically involved. Or maybe that line was still mostly intact… it’s not like they’d done anything but share an innocent kiss… almost-innocent, anyway… “But we will figure them out,” he continued. “I told you, I ain’t goin’ nowhere. You’re stuck with me.”

The laugh that came out of her was nervous and forced. “Yeah, but…”


Then she got quiet. He rubbed circles on her back and waited for her to find her words. She was staring at something off to the side that Joel couldn’t see… staring at nothing, like she did when she was upset sometimes. They’d been communicating so well! Don’t shut me out now, baby girl. “But what?” he asked gently.

She swallowed hard, and it seemed like she was screwing up whatever courage she could muster before finally speaking. Still looking at the ‘nothing’ spot, shiny-eyed, her voice barely above a whisper. “Okay, so… will we still be like… I mean… what if you decide that... we can’t...” The bravado quickly crumbled and she ducked her head again.

Her vulnerability obliterated what little reserve Joel had been clinging to. Fuck it. Maybe I ain’t so tough after all. “I won’t. Hey. Look at me. Look at me, Ellie, please.” He waited for her to lift her head a little, in case she needed a moment to compose herself. He cupped her pretty face in his hands. She had every reason to doubt him. He needed to earn his way back up to the level of trust they used to have. She bravely met his gaze, and Joel felt his own eyes grow moist. “I won’t. I swear. No goin’ backwards. I don’ know what this is… what we are… exactly… but I won’t do that to you. All right?” He sealed the promise with a tender kiss that he hoped was more reassuring than his bumbling words.

It did seem to relax her a little. “What about all that stuff you said… that night?”

He stroked her cheeks with his thumbs. “I don’ know. I know you want me to say it was all bullshit, but it wasn’t. Maybe some of it was. I jus’ know that… this, here… I won’t try to… undo it.”

“Okay.” The smile returned to her voice. “I won’t, either. I promise.”

Happy as he was, Joel had all but forgotten that he shared some of her fears. Same fears, just growing from different roots. Ellie had enough youthful hope for both of them. Maybe some of it was already rubbing off on him, because he felt quite optimistic already about this nascent union. He was shit at relationships, he knew this, but… like Ellie had said, he’d never been in one with her before. Only, she had meant that she would be good enough at it for the both of them -- an endearingly naïve opinion. The truth of it was, he hadn’t had the motivation before. He’d been going through the motions of living for twenty years. His heart hadn’t been in it; it had been in the past. Ellie had made him start living again. Couldn’t that rebirth of sorts also bleed into his inability to sustain a romantic relationship?

He had cared about Tess. It was his fault things hadn’t worked out. But he’d never felt like this with her, either. Maybe that would have made all the difference. With Ellie… she was his world. He couldn’t live without her, life would have no meaning… all that romantic horseshit. It was all true! And the two of them together were a force to be reckoned with, truly invincible. Invincible… except I’m such a pussified puddle of goo right now that one stupid fucking Runner could waltz through that door and best me.

That was a sobering thought, actually. “All right, that’s settled then. You ready to go home?”

“I guess. If you insist.” She backed off his lap and pulled him up with her… right into another kiss. His shoulder protested the motion, but the sweet embrace more than made up for the sting. She giggled softly. “Can we do this all the way home?”

“Hell no, you wanna get us killed?”

“What, can’t you kiss me and shoot people at the same time? I have faith in you, Joel!”

He laughed. Hugged her close. Kissed her again, just because he could. “I think you overestimate me jus’ a smidge. No more kisses ‘til we get home.”

“That’s ages from now!” she protested.

“Well, seein’ as how it took a year to get to the first one, that ain’t long.”

“Good point!” she said, giggling adorably in his arms. “It’s still ages, though. Okay, so I’ll do the shooting. You can just relax and enjoy the ride.”

No one made him laugh as much as Ellie did. God, he’d missed her. And now… he was the luckiest bastard in the world. “Don’ you want somethin’ to look forward to at home?”

“Yeah –- more kisses!”

He chuckled and let go of her. “Come on, the sooner we get goin’…”

“Yeah yeah,” she grumbled good-naturedly.

They started gathering their gear and reloading everything. It was just like old times… only better, because… everything was suddenly better. He wondered if he could actually make it all the way home without kissing her again.

Ellie looked happier than he’d ever seen her. “Hey, so… is it okay if I hold your hand?” She retrieved her hair band and crafted herself a fresh ponytail. “In public I mean? Is that, like… too embarrassing, or… whatever?”

Joel glanced at her. Holding hands was fairly innocent; friends and relatives could do it, it wasn’t really crossing any lines. It could be misconstrued, but so could a lot of innocent things. “Uh… I s’pose that’s all right? It ain’t that I’m ashamed of you or anythin’ like that. It’s jus’… for now, at least…”

“I get it. I actually do get it more, now. Why it has to be a secret.”

Joel wondered how long it would actually be a secret. Some folks apparently already had the wrong (right?) idea about them, and Ellie was fairly transparent. “You okay with that?”

“Yeah. I’m okay with it.” She shrugged into her back pack. “I wouldn’t be if it was cuz you wanted to be with someone else in public and me in private. But you’re not like— like some guys.”

Joel got the impression she’d been about to say someone’s name and stopped herself. Was she somewhat disenchanted with Max already? But he didn’t especially want to get into any of that right now. “’Course not. I’m glad you wouldn’ be okay with it if that was the case. You shouldn’ be.” And there was that… that Ellie deserved better than to be a dirty little secret. Yet another issue to shove aside for now and figure out later.

He briefly scouted the surrounding area to make sure it was clear before beckoning Ellie outside. He held his hand out for her, and she took it with a smile, lacing her small fingers between his, swinging their hands gaily as they walked down the highway. He was smiling like a fool himself… he would have to knock that shit off or he’d be the one to fuck up the secrecy –- and to Max, of all people, if he was even still around. Joel could smile on the ride home all he wanted. Get it out of his system there. Damn... he was too jaded, too damaged, too old to feel so… young.

Ellie started giggling for no reason. Or no obvious reason. “What’s so funny?” asked Joel, amused.

“Well… you were supposed to wanna kiss me when I was all foofoo’d up in that ridiculous dress and my hair was all brushed out and everything… not when I’m wearing the same old beat-up clothes I always wear with my hair all dirty… my face all dirty…”

Joel laughed, too. He had wanted to kiss her that day. But she was just as beautiful right now, grungy as she was, because she was so happy… and, well, she was Ellie. The window dressing didn’t really matter. Still… she’d looked awfully cute in that dress… “It wasn’ ridiculous at all, Ellie. That’s one thing we gotta discuss,” Joel said with mock seriousness. “I understand you bein’ dirty out here, especially after a fight. But back home, I expect you to wear nice dresses for me every day from here on out. Cook dinner every night, too.”

Ellie play-slugged him with her free hand. “Fuck you! I’m not gonna-- wait. If I do, then you have to wear… um… bunny slippers! I’ll get you some finally! That’s not enough, though. You also have to wear… oh, a tuxedo! Yeah that’d be cool, I’ve never seen a guy wear one of those before. Not that I don’t like the sweaty, filthy, bloody, ripped-up-shirt thing you’re rocking right now…”

Joel cocked an eyebrow. “A tuxedo an’ bunny slippers? Those are your terms?”

“Yep. Every day that I wear a dress you have to wear that. And whenever we cook at home you have to cook, too. We’ll do it together.”

“Fair enough. Too bad there ain’t no tuxedos in town. That’s a damn shame.”

Ellie snickered. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure Millie will make you one. Unless you’d rather have a dress instead? We could both wear them! Wouldn’t that be cute? Yeah, that’s even better than the tux thing!”

Joel cringed. “Ugh. Why do you want me to look like a girl?”

“I don’t! You’d be a butt-ugly girl. No offense. You’d just look awesome in a dress.”

“I beg to differ.”

“You beg to… haha, I guess if you beg me, I might let you off the hook.”

Joel laughed. “So, every day I don’ wanna wear a dress –- which is every day –- I have to beg you?”

Ellie pretended to consider. “Mmm… no. Actually, all you have to do is kiss me. Every day. But if I kiss you back, then I don’t have to wear one either.”

Joel smirked. “You got yourself a deal, kiddo.”

“But, before… those don’t count. If you don’t wanna wear one when we get home, you still have to kiss me.”

“Shit,” Joel grumbled, trying to suppress a smile. “Wait -- we ain’t gonna get home ‘til after bedtime.”

“Doesn’t matter. You… um… you have to stay up an extra hour just to wear it. Yeah.”

“I don’ have a dress, how am I s’posed to get one so fast?”

“Not my problem! You’ll have to figure it out. Or, you know, just kiss me.”

“Hmm, tough choice there.”

“You can think it over on that long ride back. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision.” She looked completely serious now. And so cute.

“Where’s this barn of yours?”

“The barn? Um… there, see it?” She lifted their joined hands to point to a building some two hundred yards away, well off the highway. “We left the horses and ran the whole way in from there. I knew it was you when I saw Spirit. That you were here somewhere, I mean.”

“Thank you for that. S’pose I should thank your horse for runnin’ off on me, too.” Joel didn’t see Max near the barn, far away though it was… and he wasn’t sure how far the guy would roam to ‘keep watch’, but he wasn’t anywhere in plain sight. That was good enough for Joel. He stopped walking and swung Ellie around, tugging her close to him before letting go of her hand to wrap his arms around her waist. “I’d like to inform you of my decision, ma’am.”

Ellie almost giggled again but caught herself. “Are you sure you gave it enough thought? There’s no rush, take all the time you need.”

“I don’ need more time. I’m sure I made the right call.” She smiled and started to reply, but Joel snuffed out the words when he kissed her. He couldn’t believe how amazing it felt. He also couldn’t help thinking, What the hell took me so long? But, things took as long as they took. Maybe they had to experience everything they went through to get here, letting one layer set before adding the next. Rushing or half-assing only caused problems down the road. Building things properly took time and patience. And they weren’t done yet; the foundation was laid, but they had a long way to go. Probably longer than Ellie realized.

She was looking at him now like he’d hung the moon, and Joel wanted to enjoy that for as long as it lasted. “Mmm, I think you did, too," she said cheerfully. "Now let’s negotiate other stuff… like how I can get you to kill a bug in the house for me!”

“Ha! Well, now you’re pushin’ it. You think all you have to do is kiss me an’ I’ll do whatever you want?” It wouldn't even take that much. Probably all she had to do was smile at him… or look at him... shit, I’m doomed.

“Yep, pretty much.” Ellie giggled. “It’s clearly the best solution to any given problem. And we can’t fight when we’re kissing so not only does it solve everything, it like… prevents future problems. It’s perfect!”

Joel couldn’t argue with that.

A/N: If anyone’s curious… unlike Joel, I DID do the math, and was delighted to find that Joel would catch up to Max and Ellie about a mile past the town of Swan Valley, close enough that I didn’t even have to make something up. The fudgiest part is I perhaps made Spirit a WEE bit faster than he should be. Well, he’s special! And while we’re doing math, Joel actually killed 27 Infected before Max and Ellie showed up. Good thing I was controlling him with written words and not my PS4 controller or things would have ended very differently, lol.

And there's actually an epilogue, so not QUITE the final chapter ;)
~Continue to Epilogue~

Tags: accretion, fic, tlou
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