Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Disclaimer: I own nothing! Not The Last of Us nor any brand name references used
Word Count for this chapter: 3967
Summary: Ellie may be mature for her age, but she still has the brain of a teenager, and doesn't always make the wisest of choices; after living in the relatively safe town of Jackson for over a year, she is cruelly reminded of how precarious life is.
Author's Notes: Title comes from one of my all-time favorite songs of the same name, by the band Mew. The Comforting Sounds icon was made by the lovely owlofnevermore as a FFN cover, and doesn't show up quite so well on LJ :\ She took the famous window from the beginning of the game and made it look supercool by recoloring it to be nighttime, with a full moon.
***WARNINGS*** Violence, Murder, Rape, Disturbing Imagery, Suicide, Suicidal Ideation, Depression, Angst. Plus two more that are too spoilery to list here, but I will divide the chapters in such a way that the chapter-specific warning won't be a spoiler by that point (I don't think any reader who makes it through to the last one will be fazed by THAT warning, but better to be safe than sorry, right? And hopefully I will remember to allude to my reasoning on that when the time comes).
Please keep in mind that I am only going to give chapter-specific warnings for the two instances above, and for the most extreme chapters. The fic starts off fairly fluffy but don't be lulled by that, it does get bad O.o
The Jackson County depicted here is not as well-fortified as the one in my fic "Accretion" -- and this story is not connected to that one in any way. The relationship between Joel and Ellie is central to the story, but strictly as father & daughter. Jumping them ahead a year post-canon presented some challenges in characterization; my hope is that the initial changes are subtle enough that no one feels OOC, but distinct enough that it's not like no time at all has passed.
I expect to update approximately every 2 weeks, give or take a few days. I've already done a lot of work on this story and am absolutely committed to finishing it. I'm just not one of those people who can post new content every few days :)
Crossposted to AO3 and FFN.
Thank you for reading!
~I don't feel alright
In spite of these comforting sounds you make
I don't feel alright
Because you make promises that you break~
--"Comforting Sounds" by Mew
It was Ellie's favorite time of day: hammock o'clock. With Joel, to be more precise. Oh, it was pleasant enough on her own as well, but Joel's presence made all the difference. Some days, they talked about present-day life in Jackson. Other times, they shared stories of the past, from that mythical long-ago time before they knew each other. And some days they barely spoke at all; they simply lay side by side and enjoyed being still. At peace. Together. This was one of those days. Ellie was nestled in the crook of Joel's arm, watching the clouds drift by through the little triangular window the break in the redwoods made overhead, a gentle breeze tempering the late afternoon warmth of summer (it wasn't muggy and sticky enough here for a Bostonian to consider it heat).
They'd been in Jackson for over a year now, so they were no longer the 'new kids on the block,' but settling in to civilian life had taken a while. Actually, Ellie wasn't sure if Joel was all that settled in yet. He was still prone to jumpiness, still uninterested in getting to know any of the townsfolk beyond casual acquaintanceship -- and still way overprotective of her.
It was no surprise that he'd been upset when Ellie told him she had a boyfriend. He was angry, but it was also like he felt somehow betrayed. Like she'd only acquired one to piss him off.
"You said you were a lesbian!"
"I thought I was, but obviously I was wrong."
"So... Riley -- what was that, then?"
"A person CAN like both, ya know."
"The kid's makin' you THINK you ain't one. He only wants one thing, Ellie--"
"That's so stupid! He can't make me feel something I don't feel. Besides, I was the one who made the first move -- he thought I was a lesbian, too. And he's totally okay with waiting a while."
"A while? He's seventeen -- a 'while' is maybe a week. If he lays a hand on you, I swear to God--"
"Jesus, Joel! He's my BOYFRIEND -- I WANT him to 'lay a hand' on me, it's not your decision to make!"
"It is when you're only sixteen years old -- too young to know when a boy's jus' sayin' what you wanna hear so he can get what he wants."
And so forth.
Even the guy's name should have reassured Joel that he wasn't a dick; Ellie had always thought of 'Bailey' as a girl's name. The Baileys of the world just weren't the sort to be thugs. Bailey lived with his mother, Rachel, and they were respected members of the community, arriving a few months before Joel and Ellie. Rachel was one of three people who shared teaching duties in what passed as a school in Jackson (quite unlike the military schools Ellie was used to -- its purpose was to teach younger kids reading, writing, math, basic history, and survival skills).
The fact that Joel already knew Bailey from around town should have helped convince him of the guy's not-evil-ness, in Ellie's opinion. It was always in a group setting, but Ellie did recall a time Joel had coached him one-on-one in a firearms class last fall. Pointing that out to Joel hadn't made a lick of difference.
"I'm s'posed to think that 'cause he couldn' shoot worth shit, he's a nice guy?"
"No -- and his eyesight isn't the greatest, by the way, or he'd be better at it -- but you could just SEE he was a nice guy... by the way he acted, how he was like FRIENDLY with you and stuff..."
"Assholes can act nice when they want to. I should know."
Ellie had anticipated the eventual "I don't want you seeing him," and instead of storming off to Bailey's house in a rage (she figured that would only make things worse), she had calmly sat down with Joel to begin negotiations. She'd started high, waited for Joel to counter-offer low, and ended up with a middle that they could both live with. No sex; nothing beyond kissing. Home by 10pm -- no spending the night with him. Ellie was not to spend every free hour that she could with him, which she interpreted as "I don't want to lose you" -- and she was quite happy to give Joel that one. She'd promised Joel a minimum of one day a week to be reserved as Joel'n'Ellie time, no boyfriend allowed. Because Bailey wasn't a Joel substitute... but also because Ellie was pretty sure that she had more reason to worry about losing Joel than the other way around.
And, of course, Joel had wanted to 'talk' to him -- which was Joel-speak for interrogate him, threaten him, and, if he was lucky, to scare him away from Ellie completely.
Bailey had been nervous about this talk, and rightfully so. Ellie had tried to downplay things... told him that underneath the tough façade, Joel was really just a big softie, and that he would just love Bailey once he got to know him better. But she must not have been very convincing, because Bailey had laughed and called her a liar. She wasn't lying, really...
She had possibly been even more nervous than Bailey was that day.
The three of them had sat around the little round patio table in the backyard (Ellie's idea: she'd hoped the clear blue sky and warm breeze would keep Joel's mood light as summer), with Ellie scooting her chair closer to Joel than to Bailey, instinctively feeling like that would help: See, Joel? I'm still with you.
Joel hadn't tried to pretend the conversation was anything other than what it was: him putting Bailey on notice. Still, it was a whole thirty seconds in before Joel had actually issued the first threat -- much to Ellie's horror. "If you do anythin' to hurt her -- ANYthin' at all, an' I don' jus' mean physically -- I will not only fuck you up, I will fuck you up real bad an' then KILL you. An' I won't jus' kill you, I'll make sure you die real slow, in so much pain you'll regret you ever laid eyes on her. Am I makin' myself clear?"
Ellie had felt the curious sensation of simultaneously wanting to die of embarrassment, to kill Joel for being a dick, yet also to hug him for this unconventional expression of his love for her... and at the same time, wanting to hug Bailey, to assure him Joel didn't really mean it (even though she knew very well that he did), to plead with him not to dump her out of fear. Bailey was an inch or so shorter than Joel, skinnier, much less rugged, and Ellie had seen grown men cower at lesser threats from the guy. Bailey had blanched a little, swallowed nervously... but to his credit, he met Joel's gaze evenly, head held high, and answered him sincerely. "I understand, sir, and I swear to God, I'd never do anything to hurt your daughter. Never. If anyone ever did... I hope you'd let me help you with the fucking-them-up-and-killing-them-real-sl
After a beat, Joel had smirked just the teensiest bit -- to himself, but Ellie had detected it. Score! She'd grinned at Bailey, and he'd glanced at her for the briefest moment, his mouth trying to twitch into a hint of a smile that he couldn't allow to form under Joel's scrutiny, before returning his gaze to Joel. Ellie thought he looked quite earnest and eager and ready to prove himself. That was the moment she liked to think she'd fallen in love with him. She may have already been in love with him -- he shared her appreciation of puns, for fuck's sake, what was there not to love?! -- but right there, her heart had pretty much screamed it at her.
Nearly two months had passed, and they'd come a little closer to Ellie's vision of Joel and Bailey bonding, but there was still a long way to go. Joel seemed to have grudgingly accepted Bailey's place in her life, and neither of them appeared to view the other as much of a threat now. Joel had dispensed with the 'sir' bullshit quickly, telling Bailey to call him by name. Joel usually referred to him as 'the boy' when speaking to Ellie, but in person he addressed him as 'son' at times, which always made her feel warm'n'fuzzy inside. It didn't really mean anything, because Joel addressed plenty of others that way, too. Same with her 'kiddo' nickname (but she had the exclusive on 'baby girl' -- she made him promise her that). The 'son' moniker was pretty much akin to him addressing a woman as 'ma'am,' in his eyes. Still, Ellie took it as a good sign; surely he wouldn't use the word if there wasn't some degree of fondness behind it.
Ellie had been true to her word, continuing to spend a lot of time with Joel. Not because she'd agreed to, but because she still wanted to. He was her rock, her safety, her... everything. Technically, this change reduced him to almost everything, with Bailey now a sliver of the pie, but Joel was... Joel. She remembered what he was like when they'd met two years ago -- surly, reclusive, apathetic -- and that wasn't the real Joel. It was still the Joel that most of the world saw, but this hammock-sharing, funny, compassionate, engaged Joel was, according to Tommy, a creature of Ellie's design... more like the man Tommy remembered from pre-Cordyceps days. When they'd first come back to Jackson, Ellie had secretly worried that since they were no longer forced to be together, Joel would grow tired of her, that with this (relatively) huge world opening up before them, he might decide he preferred the company of others. But in the past year, they'd only grown closer. Ellie had found that she could even talk to Joel about fears like that. He listened. He got it.
"I don' think I'll go tonight," Joel announced out of the blue.
Ellie elbowed him. "Shut up, of course you're going. You have no choice!"
"There's always a choice. You don' have to go either. We can stay right where we are."
"We'd starve! I'm going. And if you want to see me at all tonight, then you're going, too." Ellie could out-stubborn Joel.
"You go on, then," he teased. She elbowed him again, harder, and he laughed. "All right, I'll go. As long as you give me a shitload of points for endurin' this torture for you."
Ellie smiled, happy as always to get her way. "Tons. And maybe it won't be so bad. Both of the dinners we had at Tommy's went fine."
"Only 'cause I kept my mouth shut. The bitch was starin' daggers at me the whole time."
"No she wasn't!" Ellie didn't challenge the 'bitch' assessment; Rachel was kind of a bitch. She'd learned not to say so in front of Bailey, though -- just like he didn't dare criticize Joel in front of her. "Besides, it's me she hates, not you."
"She don' hate you. You're impossible to hate. She should be thankin' her lucky stars that you wanna be with her precious little boy."
"Pfff. Trust me, it's the other way around. Her 'precious little boy' was just fine before I showed up and... I dunno... turned his head away from where she wanted it."
"From one o' them town girls. Well, shit happens." He gave Ellie a squeeze. "I mighta been happier if it had gone down that way too, but both you kids wouldn've been. Don' have to look too far 'round here to see folks who ain't so happy with their lot... jus' from doin' what they think they're s'posed to."
"Like you and Esther. You'd be one of them if you hadn't told Tommy to fuck off." And Ellie was secretly glad about that. Not that there was anything wrong with Esther... Ellie just wanted to be the only female in Joel's life. Which was fucked up, because who was she to begrudge him a lover? She wasn't even his real daughter. At least that fiasco had made her more sensitive to Joel's unspoken fear that she might ditch him for Bailey.
"Maybe. All I know is, if it was s'posed to happen, it would've. Like you'n'me. I was fightin' it an' it still happened anyways. We're meant to stay together."
"Yep," Ellie agreed happily. Tommy had thought he was doing Ellie a favor, too, in finding a woman for Joel. Then maybe Ellie would have more time to spend with the other teens, and wouldn't be 'stuck' with his asshole brother all the time. Ha! She didn't feel stuck at all, and she didn't understand how Tommy could even think that. If you're lucky enough to find someone in the world -- someone special -- who loves you, why wouldn't you want to be with them? And now she had two someones.
Having that second someone did soften Ellie a little towards the idea of Joel finding a mate, though. Maybe she could live with not being the only female in Joel's life, if she could just be the most important one. She wanted him to be as happy as she was. To have the fullest life possible. It would be absolutely perfect if Joel and Rachel liked each other -- then the four of them could spend lots of time together and everyone would be happy! And when they paired off to spend time alone, no one would feel lonely or left out.
Joel and Rachel just needed to get to know each other better. Maybe tonight's little dinner party could be the start of that. Ellie needed to start planting some seeds. And she'd have to get Bailey to do the same thing with his mom. She had invited them to her house, so she wasn't all bad.
"Rachel's pretty, don't you think?" Ellie asked, trying to sound conversational.
Joel grunted. "If you like that type. Why?"
"I think she's pretty. She has gorgeous eyes, like Bailey's... nice blond hair..." Ellie knew Joel liked blondes -- Sarah's mom had been a blonde.
"Your hair's jus' as pretty."
"Liar," Ellie mumbled without thinking.
"I ain't lyin'. What's wrong with your hair?"
She frowned. Did Joel think she was feeling insecure about her looks or something? She needed to shift his focus. "Nothing. Fine, you're right, it's gorgeous. But Rachel's hair--"
"Is no better than yours," Joel finished for her. "Hair is hair. Since when do you give a shit?"
"I don't! Okay, forget it." Not getting anywhere with her looks. So... her awesome personality then? Ugh.
But she was spared the agonizing over how to spin 'bitchiness' into something good -- a voice carried over to them from around the corner of the house.
Bailey! "Hiiiiiii!" she called back. He'd been trained to loudly announce his presence before approaching them in the backyard. Trained by Joel's pistol, which had been pulled on him more than once. By the time he was in their sights, Joel would already have it drawn from where it lay on the ground. But now, Joel remained pleasantly lifeless in the hammock -- as did Ellie.
"Hey!" Bailey came loping into view. He was of Irish descent, and looked it, with his fair skin and freckles -- except his hair was jet-black, and Ellie always thought of the Irish as redheads. Enough people had asked her if she was Irish over the years. Like she had any fucking clue what she was! He smiled at them. "Mom says dinner's almost ready."
Ellie lazily extended her hand for him to pull her up. "We're ready to go except I'm stuuuuck, can't get up," she mock whined.
Bailey pretended that it took supreme effort to tug her out of the hammock and into his arms. Ellie giggled, hugging him briefly before turning back to Joel, who hadn't moved a muscle. "I can't get out, either," Joel said with a sigh. "Damnit, guess you'll have to go on without me."
"Oh no you don't! Get your ass out of that thing," Ellie barked at him, yanking on his arm with all her might. He didn't budge. Just laid there with a smirk on his face. If Bailey didn't already know that Rachel and Joel were... not fond of each other, to say the least, she might have scolded Joel for being rude. Not that it would have changed his attitude... but she knew he was just playing with her, that he wouldn't let her go without him. Ellie turned around to seek an ally. "Help me, Bay!"
Bailey snickered. "Uh... sorry, I think I'd better stay outta this one. Looks like a family matter."
"Brown-noser," Ellie groaned, and Joel chuckled. Undeterred, Ellie tried a different tactic -- she got underneath the hammock and threw all her weight into it at the appropriate angle to capsize it. Joel tumbled out on the other side, but Ellie couldn't tell whether that was her doing or he'd decided to cooperate. She grinned down at him in triumph. "I win!"
Joel got up unassisted and brushed himself off. "You win. Let's do this, kiddo." He still seemed amused as he retrieved his holster and started strapping it on.
Good! Now if Bailey's mom could only be in a good mood...
Bailey, however, was looking at Joel anxiously. "Joel, do you really need to bring that? My mom, she... isn't crazy about guns and violence."
Joel snorted. "No one likes violence. That don' change the fact that it exists. You all own a gun, don'cha?"
"Yeah, but... for protection only."
"What the hell do you think this is for?"
"I mean it just sits in the house. It's not so... in your face."
"How is on my hip 'in your face'?"
Ellie had an idea. "Joel, why don't you just stick a gun in your jeans like I do and pull your shirt down over it? She won't even see it."
Joel shook his head. "I always wear this. Ain't like she's never seen it before. It's standard for militia. I can take it off soon as we get in the house, though. I don' mind that."
"Okay, that's cool, I don't wanna make a big thing of it," Bailey relented.
Ellie eyed Joel's gear. "You're bringing both of those? Awesome, I'll leave mine here then."
"Then you're leavin' when I do."
"Of course." Ellie had a feeling Joel might want to leave before she did, but she was confident she could persuade him to stay longer. She took Bailey's hand and reached for Joel's. She loved walking around with them that way... like the three of them were a happy little family. She'd tried, quite forcefully, to make Joel and Bailey hold hands with each other once, knowing full well that they wouldn't, and that had resulted in them ganging up on her and tickling her so bad she'd nearly peed her pants.
Bailey never walked around town with a gun, and Ellie worried about that. Unlike Joel, she wasn't concerned that other Jacksonites might go rogue. It was just that you never knew when the town's alarm would sound, indicating a raid. When that happened, she did fear the other citizens somewhat, because things got so chaotic sometimes that people could end up accidentally shooting at other town residents. Even the ones you'd think would know better could panic or get confused. 'Friendly fire,' Joel called it.
"Your tomatoes are lookin' good, Ell," Bailey praised her little garden as they walked around the side of the house.
"Think so? I think they're too small. Like they got to this point and stopped or something." Ellie frowned at the little green balls on her plants. "I don't know what else to do. I water them plenty..."
"Do you still talk to them? Maybe you should try singing," Bailey teased.
"Joel's the singer. Joel, will you sing them a lullaby tonight? I bet they'll double in size and turn red overnight!"
"Red from embarrassment, maybe?" Joel snorted. "Uh, no. Give 'em a chance. They're growin' fine, you jus' worry too much."
"Says the king of worrywarts. You could practice the cunt song!"
That made him laugh. "As a lullaby?! You wanna kill the poor things?"
"Hey, when do I get to hear it? Are you almost done?" asked Bailey. Ellie had told him only the title of the song she and Joel were writing -- "You Put The Cunt In Country." It was enough to pique his curiosity, and Ellie enjoyed torturing him by hinting at context or lyrics without giving him anything substantial.
"We're still working on a tricky part," Ellie said. "It's coming along, though."
"Maybe I'll come eavesdrop on the tomato plant lullabies," Bailey mused.
"No, it's not done enough yet!" Ellie protested. "You'll be the first audience when it is, I swear. Er... first human audience, anyway."
"I ain't singin' it to the goddamn plants, Ellie. Get that notion outta your head." Joel was trying to make her think he was irritated, but Ellie could tell he wasn't really.
"Whatever. We'll see about that." She would totally make him sing to them later. She knew she could get him to do it if she really tried.
The three of them started walking down the street, hand in hand in hand. The warm breeze was turning cooler as the sun descended. Ellie loved summer evenings in Jackson. She thought the weather in general was amazing in the summertime, even when it rained, and at first, it had been a huge luxury to be able to enjoy the outdoors without fear of infected or hostile survivors. It was such a foreign concept to her after her cross-country adventure with Joel. But now that she was well into her second summer here, she kind of took it for granted.
Joel didn't, though. He'd never quite felt like it was granted to him, which Ellie attributed to his twenty-one years of constant vigilance -- even the times he'd lived safely inside a Zone. He didn't seem to know how to just... chill. At least not all the way.
He glanced over Ellie's head at Bailey. "What was it you an' Marcus were gonna fix today? A lawnmower?"
"Joel!" Ellie scolded. "Save that talk for dinner! It'll show his mom that you're interested in his life and all."
"Yes, ma'am," Joel muttered good-naturedly. "You wanna coach me on everythin' I should or shouldn' say now?"
"Hey yeah, that's a good idea!" Ellie beamed at him. "Bay, help me think of stuff your mom would like to hear. Joel, you should compliment her on her appearance, no matter what she looks like. That's a no-brainer. Um... say it smells good when we walk in the door, even if you don't really smell anything or it doesn't smell all that good really... oh! And straight up thank her for the invite. I'll do that, too. Actually, I need to be saying some of this shit, you can't use up all the good stuff. You can tell her she looks nice, though. That'd be better coming from you. What else..."
Ellie chattered away happily as they walked; the two guys remained mostly silent. She thought she caught them exchanging a look of mock exasperation a couple times, and the camaraderie between them made her smile. She had a good feeling about this now. Tonight would hopefully be the first of many pleasant evenings that the four of them shared.
~ ~ ~
one more A/N: I borrowed "You Put The Cunt In Country" title from a friend of mine who wrote such a song. Google tells me there are already at least TWO other songs with that name! Neither of us realized that so I credit my source, albeit anonymously :)
~Continue to Chapter 2~