Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: PLEASE SEE NOTES ABOUT WARNINGS IN FIRST CHAPTER
Word Count for this chapter: 8145
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Pre-Cordyceps, people used to swallow pills that magically relieved their pain. It was like a normal, everyday thing: have a headache? pop a pill. Ellie remembered being given some chewable pills as a child, but only when she was sick with the flu or something, not for ordinary aches and pains. Thanks to some town drama related to these types of pills, the only pain relief doled out in Jackson these days was all-out, knock-you-on-your-ass shit (acquired mostly in trade), or the locally-grown marijuana, of which there was abundant supply. The hardcore drugs were scarce, and thus, restricted to emergencies only -- like primitive surgical procedures. In the old world, Ellie would have had fancy pictures taken of her fractured wrist (somehow on the inside of it), the option of surgical repair evaluated. Now, the doctor slapped a cast on and hoped for the best, and sent her home with some pot, to be smoked or ingested in food. Her ankle was only sprained, though without one of those pictures, it was impossible to say what 'grade' of sprain it was; the doc's guess was 'moderate.' The cut on her face that she didn't even remember getting didn't need stitches. Some of her ribs were either bruised or broken. It didn't matter which, the treatment was the same: nothing. Nothing but time, the alleged great healer.
She was given a crutch to help her walk, but Joel carried her home from the clinic, with Maria in tow. Tommy was off dealing with something else... something Ellie didn't really want to know (because she suspected it might have to do with Bailey not actually being asleep). Ellie just wanted to go to sleep and wake up to find that this whole night was only a terribly vivid nightmare. She didn't want anyone fussing over her, or cooking marijuana for her, or interrogating her, or doing anything with her other than staying in the house so she would know she wasn't alone. Even when they weren't asking her questions, the way they looked at her... it was like their broken hearts were shining right through their eyes.
Maria offered to help her bathe; the cast wasn't supposed to get wet, and they thought she might have some difficulty, given how banged up she was. Ellie didn't want to bother with bathing anyway. It wasn't like washing would make her clean. She did allow Maria to dress her in the sleepwear she'd so gleefully shed hours before: a tank top and sweat shorts. Sat there like an Ellie doll. A broken one... one that should be discarded. An endless string of days flashed through Ellie's mind, days of getting up and going through the ritual of pointlessly putting on clothes, followed by nights of removing them. Over and over. How absurd it was.
When Maria left, Joel brought Ellie a glass of water and a washrag full of ice, which would help reduce pain and swelling. They were both quiet. He sat next to her on her bed with her feet in his lap and applied the ice rag to her wrapped ankle. She was lucky he wasn't angry enough with her to say, "You know what? After what you did, you're on your own." His actions told her he still cared.
Maybe it just hadn't completely registered yet.
Ellie had tuned out most of Dr. Choi's voice, including some argument he'd had with Joel... something to do with how thoroughly she needed to be examined. She'd heard Joel use the term 'DNA,' and remembered what he'd told her about how they could catch criminals in the old world by testing it and somehow matching it to them. It sounded like science fiction to Ellie. Even if someone -- the Fireflies, maybe? -- had a lab where they could process DNA samples, there was nothing to match it against anymore. Since there'd be no DNA to collect, she didn't need to be put through an invasive examination.
Still, she'd been at the clinic for a long time, thanks to her wrist. She allowed the doctor to cast it, and to wrap her ankle, but balked at the rest of her being cleaned up at all, even by an antsy Joel or Maria. Ellie had fuzzed it all away, counting to herself, doing her best to not 'be' there, figuring Joel would pay attention to what needed to be done... and even if he missed something, she found that she didn't much care. She didn't want him catering to her like some invalid, though; she'd have to get him to repeat all the doctor's instructions. Tomorrow. I'll try to care more tomorrow.
Ellie could feel him not-looking at her. That was fine -- she was not-looking at him, too. She sipped her water and glanced at the window. The fucking window she'd been staring at the last time she'd been in this room... where Bailey had popped up. He wouldn't be doing that anymore. The screen was on the floor where she'd left it. The moon was gone from view, too, having journeyed across the night sky, and the dark was already beginning to give way to cold gray light.
Even though he wasn't saying anything, Ellie sensed that Joel was resisting the urge to yell at her, and struggling to find the right thing to say to her. Like there was any such thing. She wanted to tell him not to bother. That she didn't know what to say to him either... that however angry he was with her, she was even angrier with herself... that of all the painful thoughts bouncing around in her head, the only ones that hurt in a good way were about him -- that in the end, she hadn't broken him by getting herself killed... and the relief she'd felt that after being grief-stricken with the knowledge that she'd never see him again, there he was.
But Ellie said nothing.
Joel was the one who finally spoke. "Do you want me to sleep in here next to you? On the floor?"
She hesitated, then shook her head. She'd taken comfort in him sleeping nearby, all those months on the road together. She knew no harm would come to her with him watching over her. Even after she was safe, it had taken a little getting used to, having separate rooms. More than once she'd gotten spooked by something in the night, or had a nightmare, and crawled into his bed, which wasn't really big enough for the two of them. But that hadn't happened in a while now. As long as she knew he was right there across the hall from her, it was just as good as being next to him, really, and she was able to sleep.
Given that she couldn't keep her eyes closed without some horrible image plaguing her, Ellie doubted she'd fall asleep anyway. No sense making Joel suffer for it. And if she wanted to cry... she couldn't really do that with Joel on the floor next to her. She knew she could cry in front of him -- she'd done it before and had done so again tonight -- but she'd feel embarrassed, and try to stifle it, and it would be awkward for him, and maybe wake him up, and! -at least one of them should get some fucking sleep.
...would he get some sleep? Ellie imagined him tossing and turning... imagined him ultimately deciding to go hunting again. "You're going to stay here, right?" she asked. "In the house?"
He refilled her water glass and left it on her nightstand, then helped her get settled in bed with her ankle and arm both elevated, one on a pillow and the other on several towels, since they'd left the blanket at the clinic. "You need anythin'?" he asked the floor.
She needed lots of things. "No... isn't this your pillow?"
"I don' need it."
It was such a simple thing, yet it bothered her. "Just get me my backpack, I'll use that."
"It's all right."
"No it's not. I don't want you to-- to--" And THAT's what's going to make me cry now? Seriously?
He looked up from the floor and she quickly turned her head towards the wall. "Hey," he said, his voice gentler than she'd heard it all night. "I'll get an extra one tomorrow, kiddo. Don' worry about it. All right?"
She nodded and bit her lip, which somehow signaled the tears to remain in her eyes instead of spilling over to her cheeks. She stared at the wall, not sure why she was so reluctant to look at Joel... what she was afraid she'd see. Maybe she was just too fucking ashamed.
He still wasn't really looking at her, either, but she thought she saw him sneak a look out of the corner of his eye... and then his voice hardened. "I'll leave your door open a little, an' mine open a little, an' that way if you need anythin' you jus' holler an' I'll hear you."
She nodded again. I'm sorry, Joel, I'm a piece of shit and you don't deserve this.
He took her good hand and squeezed it. After a long moment where he again seemed to be searching for the right thing to say, he simply said, "Good night, baby girl."
"'Night," she told the wall.
He went over to the window and locked it before exiting the room, leaving her door ajar. Ellie wished she'd forgotten to close her door earlier that night, or accidentally banged something on the windowsill as she climbed out, or kept Joel up too late by having him sing to the fucking plants and then maybe he wouldn't have gone to bed in time... any number of things that could have alerted him to her stupidity and stopped it. If only wishing could transport her back in time!
Ellie was exhausted, but sleep eluded her anyway. She was too sore, and her brain wouldn't shut off -- or at least, the nerve endings delivering their pain messages to her brain (as if it still needed to get the fucking message) wouldn't. And the emotions she was trying to keep in check threatened to break through that at times... to let her feel them... Can't have that. She'd take the physical pain over that.
She stared at the stupid fucking window again, telling herself she was still waiting for Bailey's head to appear in it, silhouetted in the moonlight (cowlick and all). The moonlight was gone, but she could pretend... she managed to believe it with enough comfort to doze off, more than once, but the painful throbbing of one body part or another inevitably snapped her back before long, and then she had to convince herself again.
As the day dawned, bright and clear, so did reality -- Bailey's not coming, and I'll never see him again. There was nothing she could do about it. No matter what she did from this point on, he would continue to not exist, to be just a memory. She thought of this as one might contemplate a movie they'd just seen or a story they'd heard. It didn't seem like a real... thing. What was real was the physical aching in her chest, from the injured ribs. The way her whole face throbbed. The soreness that wracked her from the inside out.
The sunrise was probably beautiful. But Ellie wanted no part of it... of beauty.
Joel stood in the doorway. Some time had passed, but she had no idea how much. She continued staring at the window.
"May I come in?"
He perched on the end of her bed, and she could tell he was looking at the floor, or... somewhere else rather than at her, again. Before he could ask how she was feeling or start saying awkward things, she asked, "Can you board up this window?"
She directed her own gaze from the window to the floor. "I don't ever want to look out of it again." There's nothing good out there.
"Please, can you?"
"How 'bout I get you some decent curtains--"
"No. Boards. Completely covered, like you can't even tell there's a window there behind them. No light coming in at all. Not even a tiny bit."
Joel hesitated, then said, "Yes, if that's what you want, of course I can. It'll make it awfully dark in here, though."
"That's okay." On second thought... "Could you get me a night light? The kind little kids have?"
"Sure. I'll do that when Maria comes back... she's gonna help you get cleaned up an' dressed."
Ellie didn't want Maria there. Nothing personal, just... "I can do that stuff myself."
"You can't get that cast wet--"
"I can still do it myself."
"I reckon you can, but it'll be a hell of a lot easier with someone helpin' you."
"I don't care if it's easy."
"I'll help you, if you want. Jus' thought you might feel..."
"I don't want any help." The thought of soaking in a scalding hot bath forever did appeal to her now, enough to make her sit up. "You don't have to wait, you can go get the window stuff now. I'll be fine."
"I ain't leavin' you alone. If you wanna do it by yourself, that's fine, but someone still needs to be in the house with you. What if you fall or somethin'--"
"Pfff. I'm not gonna fall. Even if I did, I'd get up. I'm not some fragile old lady, Joel."
"I'll lock the door." The lock on the bathroom door actually worked. They just never used it. She thought it might make Joel feel more inclined to leave her alone in the house, if she was ‘safely’ behind a locked door. "And I won't sneak out again. Ever. Believe me."
Finally, it was on the tip of his tongue -- yelling, or scolding, maybe a "why the hell did you in the first place?"... Ellie imagined it was something along those lines. Instead, he swallowed it and sighed. "That's not why I don' wanna leave you alone."
"Okay, whatever. I'm gonna take a long hot bath." Ellie chanced a look at him (and nope, he still wasn't looking at her). She could see a vein pulse in his temple that she'd never noticed before... or maybe she just hadn't seen it in ages? She would guess he hadn't gotten any real sleep, either.
"Don' lock the door," he told her. "In case you need help."
If Ellie needed help of any kind, she would feel more comfortable leaning on Joel than Maria... if it wasn't for the being naked part, at least. Although he'd probably seen her naked last night anyway. Hadn't everyone? At least half a dozen people. ..."You little skank"... She wasn't sure who had seen what. None of it fucking mattered.
She did lean on him, literally, to get to the bathroom without having to hop or use that crutch. Once inside, the bathroom was small enough that she didn't have much space to navigate, so she could manage easily enough. Joel left a change of clothes for her on the counter, and offered one last time to help her before Ellie shooed him away.
The reflection she saw in the smudgy mirror was hideous. No wonder Joel can't look at me! The left side of her face was swollen and red... she suspected it would be purple soon. Blood and dirt caked on various parts of her. A jagged, bright red gash along her cheekbone... a superficial wound, but it uglified her even more. Welts and bruises all over her arms. She was one grotesque sight. Ugly as an infected motherfucker. Plenty on this body to be ashamed of now, she thought in response to Bailey's comment the night before. She started to splash water on her face haphazardly with her good hand, then decided to just wait and do it in the bath.
Ellie drew the bath so hot that the water turned her white skin red, except for her left arm and right foot. The arm was cast up all the way past her elbow (she assumed it was for some reason she hadn't listened to) and she had to balance it on the side of the tub. Her right foot, which Joel said she wasn't supposed to immerse in hot water until the swelling went down, she propped up on the tub's edge, leaving it wrapped. The bath was hotter than she could stand -- and that's exactly how she wanted it.
She did stand it. The position she had to sit in to accommodate her stupid arm caused as much discomfort as the water. After a couple minutes, she adjusted to the temperature... like she and Bailey had gotten used to the cold water last night. She knew some of the blood dissipating into the water was Bailey's, and the unreal suddenly turned real again. It hit her like a physical blow, and she allowed herself to cry for him, briefly and quietly; better to cry in here than in front of Joel or anyone else, if she could help it. Crying hurt her ribs more than breathing did. She tried to focus on the mechanics of the act rather than the reason for it, and the tears stopped.
Either she'd gotten so accustomed to the heat, or the water cooled with the passage of enough time, that soon the temperature downgraded to 'regular' hot, although still hot enough to make her forehead sweat. I'm probably supposed to think this is a life lesson or some shit. I think I can't stand it, but I can? It will get better if I just wait? Pfffff.
On the edge of the tub next to the wall, opposite of where her arm was resting, a little green rubber duckie looked at her. It sported a pattern of cheerful yellow stars and a happy face. She leaned forward and knocked it into the water so she could watch it bob about, amidst all the blood and dirt, its sunny expression never wavering.
Joel had acquired it for her a few months after they'd arrived in Jackson. After a casual conversation one day about bath time as a child, in which Joel had asked Ellie if she'd ever had a rubber duck. Her answer of 'no' was sad to him. It was one of those things that he viewed as tragic that seemed like no big deal at all to Ellie. She hadn't even realized it was a staple of childhood in the old world -- at least, where Joel had grown up. He wouldn't tell her where this one had come from (and she had to wonder if he'd stolen it from some child's bathroom).
"Um, Joel, it's nice and all, but... you know I'm not a five-year-old, right?"
"Ha. You don' have to be. Grown women used to take baths with these things, too."
"I dunno... 'cause they think they're cute?"
"Anyways, I take showers, not baths."
"Well, you'll have to take a bath every once in a while, then."
"What do I do with it?"
"What do you mean? Jus' put it in the water."
"And play with it?"
"Jus' let it swim around."
"It's not real, it can't SWIM."
"Look, if you really don' want it, I'll--"
"No! I do, I do. It's... cute. I'll try it out."
Ellie tried to remember the last time she'd bathed with it. It had only been like two or three weeks ago, but she couldn't recall what that last bath had felt like, what she'd thought about...
The duck didn't belong in that filthy water. Her filth. She plucked it out of the bath and tossed it into the corner.
She did her little counting trick until her mind went spacey enough that she didn't need to. Every so often she heard Maria or Joel at the door, asking if she was okay. No-- but she always said yes to make them go away.
Yet they always came back.
"Ellie -- you sure you're all right in there?"
It was Joel. "Yes, the water feels good!" she hollered back. The water was only tepid by then, and she felt far from 'good,' but it was something she would have to lie about from now on, she realized.
"Do you still want me to board up that window?"
A few minutes later, she heard the hammering. Who do I think I am, asking him to do that? Like she had any right... how could she even want anything at all, after... because I'm still a selfish asshole, that's how.
When the water turned cold, Ellie decided it was time to get out; being cold would only remind her of more things she couldn't stand to think about. She declined offers of help to get dressed. It wasn't like she was in a hurry. There would be nothing to hurry for, ever again. The rubber duck lay on its side in the corner; it didn't belong there, either. Ellie rinsed it off in the sink, dried it on her towel, and found a new home for it in the corner of the cabinet underneath the sink. "Bye," she whispered to it, not even bothering to feel a bit silly for speaking to a bath toy.
The crutch was leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door, where Joel had said it would be, and she wasn't going to bother with the sling just to go down the hall. She hobbled into her bedroom, which was dark as night with the window boarded. Joel had done it exactly as she’d wanted, all the boards perfectly aligned so as not to allow any slivers of light… and in two layers, one vertical and one horizontal. There was enough light to see by with the door open, the natural light spilling in from the hall. She'd barely eased herself onto the bed when Joel came in.
"You look better. You feel any better?"
"Yeah." Be the Ellie doll, say the appropriate, pre-recorded words...
"You want help out to the couch?"
Ellie shook her head. She didn't belong out there. "Thanks for doing the window."
"No problem." Joel sat beside her on the bed. "Maria's gettin' your nightlight, an' some fixins for lunch. Some tomato-dope soup recipe she's got. Are you ready to tell me..."
"Ellie. Sooner or later--"
Joel was quiet a moment. He didn't seem to be quite so actively not-looking at her, now. Maybe the near-darkness helped. "Maria had a good idea. She thinks maybe you oughtta go talk to Nana."
Ellie snorted. "No."
"Why not? You like her, she's easy to talk to--"
"And she's surrounded by a zillion kids all the time." Nana was kind of like everyone's grandma. Ellie liked her okay -- the woman was impossible to dislike, really -- but what the hell did Joel think they would talk about?
"It could be when those teenagers are lookin' after the kids, or when one of the moms is there. You could talk privately. Or if you don' wanna talk, maybe you could sit an' watch the kids play, an'... it'll make you feel a little better about things."
Ellie glared at him (or in his general direction, at least). "Are you for real right now? I'm a freak, I'd scare all of them."
"No you're not--"
"At least my outside matches my inside now." That was not a very Ellie-doll response, but it wasn't as if her freakishness was new territory for Joel.
"You are not a freak. Never have been."
"I've always felt different from the other kids here. You know that. I am different."
"Then why--" He stopped that thought abruptly. It was an angry one.
But he didn't finish it for her. He sighed again. "Fine -- no kids then. Just Nana. Girl talk."
"She's fucking sunshine and rainbows, Joel. Do you think if I talk to her they'll rub off on me or something?"
"I don' know about that, but... Maria had a good point. Sometimes it's easier talkin' to someone you don' know real good."
"That makes no sense. And I can talk to Maria if I want 'girl talk'." Why is Maria suggesting this? Maybe she doesn't actually WANT to talk to me herself...
"Yes, of course you can talk to her. She'll be back soon."
"I don't want to talk to her. I don't need to talk, period. If I talk to anyone, it'll be you."
"Good," he said, after a beat. "That's good." She thought he seemed a little scared at the prospect. He doesn't want to hear about two guys ramming their dicks up inside me. Can't blame him. Why would anyone even want to talk about that?
"I just want to be alone," she said. "Alone, but... with you nearby. Then I'll feel safe."
She wasn't feeling especially unsafe, but that provision was more in the realm of what Joel could handle. And it was something she could give him, to fill his need to help her in some way. "Of course," he said easily. He reached out to touch her hair -- probably to tuck a wayward strand behind her ear -- but she flinched a little, and he dropped the hand. "I can brush your hair out for you," he offered.
"No thanks." She'd gotten her hair wet, but hadn't bothered washing it, and she wasn't going to brush it. What was the point? It could stay a tangled mess for the rest of her life. "Can I just be alone... please?"
"Sure. I'll be right out there."
* * * * * * *
Her new night light was some princess character with an elaborate hairdo and a fancy blue dress. Quite the anti-Ellie. The princess cast enough of a warm glow to keep the worst of the demons at bay in the waking hours, but not enough light to make Ellie feel like she was part of a world that could ever look bright or cheerful -- thus, she was perfect. The door would always be shut, no matter the time of day or whether Ellie was sleeping or not. The bedroom was now her prison, she decided. Life sentence. Safe and secure (no one could come in without her permission, and she would only permit Joel, Maria, and Tommy). Better than most prisons, really, from what little she knew of them: she didn't have a toilet next to her bed, for one thing.
Not for lack of trying. She asked Joel for a bucket to piss in, and he refused her. Said he'd help her to the bathroom if she wanted, but she was not pissing in some pot (even when she said she'd assume the task of emptying it herself). She couldn't explain that it wasn't about the bathroom being too far away, or sheer laziness, even. Well... maybe she could, but she wasn't inclined to try.
Over the next couple days, it became like a game to see how far she could get Joel to go. He agreed to bring her meals to the room, if that meant she'd actually eat them (she told him the marijuana made her feel sick, but he seemed to think she was just trying to be difficult); he did not agree to cut a hole in the door large enough to slide her plate under. He agreed to leave her alone in her room for the most part, aside from bringing meals to her; he did not agree to leave her alone in the house to go about his usual business, and he kept making sure she knew he was nearby any time she wanted him. Which, Ellie had to admit, was really what she wanted... except that she hated being a burden.
Every time she asked to go see Bailey, Joel replied with 'later.' In Joel-speak, that sometimes meant 'never,' but she kept asking -- eventually he'd have to come clean with her and give her a real answer, only... she didn't really want to hear it, because she knew that would be the end of pretending. Did Joel realize that? Sometimes he did seem to know things about her... things she never vocalized.
And he agreed that when he asked her questions about what happened, he would stop if she shut him down. At first, she ended it before he could even ask one question. After several rounds of this, he got a little pushier about it.
"Please, kiddo... please try." He was icing her ankle in his lap, concentrating his gaze on that, while she laid back and iced her face, contemplating the water stains on the ceiling. Ellie thought the swelling had pretty much gone away by then, but the treatment was a good excuse for Joel to sit with her for fifteen minutes and try to grill her.
She did feel kind of guilty about being so stubborn after she'd promised him that she would tell him things. He didn't even guilt trip her about that, which only made her feel guiltier! But... he didn't know how hard it was to bring that encounter to mind. "You already know what happened. Why do you want to hear the details?"
"I don't. Believe me, I don't. But I have to make these motherfuckers pay, and I got nothin' to go on. What did they look like? Did they have any scars, or--"
"You can't kill them, Joel, they're not Jackson people. They're out in the world somewhere."
"That don' mean I can't find 'em."
"That's exactly what it means!"
"If you don' tell me anythin' I'll jus' have to kill every guy I come across. You want me to do that?"
She shook her head. Covered both of her eyes with the ice rag.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I won't put that on you."
"But you'd still do it," she said quietly.
She left the rag where it was. Feeling his hand touch her arm made her jump. "Don't," she growled.
She shifted the rag back to the left side of her face and resumed staring at the ceiling. "It's all my fault, you know," she blurted out. She had to make Joel understand that she didn't deserve his sympathy. Sometimes he seemed to get that, but he still wasn't showing it. He'd certainly scolded her for lesser things in the past. "You can lecture me now. Tell me how fucking stupid I was to sneak out, and then not pay attention to my surroundings, and pretty much just give away my gun and knife."
"Sounds like you don' need the lecture."
"Well, yell at me anyway. Tell me I got what I deserved." She looked at him then, silently challenging him to meet her gaze and deny it.
He was scowling at her ankle. "You think you deserved it? No, Ellie. No way in hell."
"It should've been me that died. Bailey is the one who didn't deserve it." A lump started rising in her throat just saying his name, but she willed it away. I'm a cold, heartless monster. Monsters don't feel things.
"Neither one of you deserved it, an' you didn' kidnap him, for Chrissakes, he went of his own accord, so don't... don' take that--"
"He never would've gone out there by himself! He only did it to make me happy. He's so... so good."
"So are you. What happened out there... it don' change that."
"Pfff. Tell that to Rachel. I'm surprised she hasn't come over here to kill me herself."
She watched Joel's face; his expression didn't change, but he wasn't answering her, so... "She has, hasn't she. She's come over here and you haven't let her in."
"No, actually, but that might just be 'cause she's stayin' with... I don' know, some church-y friends of hers. You're right, though -- if she does show up here, I ain't lettin' her near you, don' worry."
"I'm not worried! She can come here and kick my ass if she wants to, I wouldn't stop her. I want her to yell at me, since you won't."
Joel groaned. "Ellie..."
"What? I know you're disappointed in me. Pissed off at me. You're so angry you can't even look at me."
"It ain't you I'm mad at."
She knew he was lying, but since she also knew he was far angrier with the two hunters than he was with her, it might have been because he was actually lying to himself. "It's okay if you are. I'm mad at me too."
"This was not your fault. Those two sons of bitches--"
"We were naked, Joel! Maria told you we were swimming, right? I could've handled them if not for-- if I had my stuff--"
"That don' make it okay for them to... do what they did," he said carefully. "An' havin' clothes on wouldn've stopped 'em."
"Still. I'm an idiot. People out there are... different. They didn't act like... like we were human beings, or... they didn't care, they were like okay let's take whatever and... there wasn't ever any question if they would kill us or not. Just, 'Oh, there's two people, that means we do this.'" Except for Tony's throwaway comment about taking her with them, but Joel didn't need to know details like that. "You and me, we weren't that bad when we were out there..." But she let that thought trail off uncertainly.
"Of course not," Joel said with no uncertainty whatsoever.
"We killed people like it was no big deal, though."
"No, we were jus' doin' what we had to do." He talked over her when she tried to interrupt. "Jus' because it wasn't always in self-defense don' mean we didn' have to do it."
"That's exactly what they did."
"No it ain't. They didn' have to--" Joel cut himself off and sighed. "They coulda jus' stolen your shit an' left without you even seein' 'em."
"Is that what we would've done?"
"We did do that. Don' you remember?"
"You mean... that one cabin with all the potatoes?" The inhabitants had been asleep. She and Joel had taken as much from them as they could make off with, but they hadn't killed the poor hapless people.
"An' other times like that, yes."
Other times. They had come across plenty of abandoned camp sites, but there'd also been some live ones. One time in particular that stood out to Ellie was in late winter or maybe early spring, when they hadn't eaten for several days. The heavenly aroma of roasting elk had drawn them to a camp that appeared to belong to a mother and two children, no father in sight. Ellie had been dying to get her hands on that food, and she could tell Joel was struggling with the decision of how to handle the situation. He'd told her they should just keep going. Not even five minutes later, he'd told her to wait for him while he 'spent quality time with nature' (i.e. take a shit). She'd found the timing suspect, but she did as she was told. A short while later, he'd returned -- with the family's dinner. She asked him what he'd done, and he'd told her not to worry about it. He refused to tell her how he'd managed to get the elk meat, and she was so hungry she really hadn't cared all that much. It became one of those things they were never to discuss again, an incident Ellie just knew by some unspoken understanding was off limits.
She thought she could live without knowing what he'd done, but later, she'd broken that understanding to ask him 'just one thing' -- if he had killed them. His 'no' was convincing enough for her to leave it alone after that.
But whatever he did, Joel didn't rape that woman. No fucking way.
She wondered if that family was still alive... if they were out there maybe doing to other people what had been done to them. Perpetuating the never-ending cycle, escalating it to the next level every so often as they grew more comfortable with it. Or maybe they had already been murderers, having killed others for the meal that Joel had then stolen from them. Maybe they were nice and considerate and gentle, and would never hurt anyone -- in which case they were certainly dead by now.
She looked at him blankly.
"I said it ain't your fault, it's theirs. An' you're nothin' like them." Their eyes finally locked on each others', just for a moment. He seemed so sincere. How?! He couldn't actually believe she wasn't to blame.
Ellie looked away. "It is my fault that it happened, though. It shouldn't have... none of it... just... the one guy? He used my mom's switchblade to threaten me. He couldn't have done that if I'd had my clothes on, it would've been in my pocket -- and I could've pulled my gun-- Jesus, even if I'd just been paying attention when we got out of the water, maybe I would've heard them and we could've run before they got too close. Maybe they wouldn't have even come over there if they hadn't heard us -- heard me -- splashing and being all loud, and... God, I could have done so much more--"
Once she started talking, it seemed she couldn't stop. It gave her some kind of perverse pleasure to convince Joel that this was all her fault. She had to get him to admit it. "And it was my idea. I'm the one who wanted to go out there. I thought it would be exciting and fun and God, I'm such an idiot. I killed him, Joel," she added, her voice finally breaking.
"No, they did," Joel insisted. "C'mere..."
He was trying to gather her up in a hug. "Don't!" She swung her legs off his lap and sat up so she could back away a little. Her bed was shoved up against the wall so there was only the one side of it open; he could have cornered her, but he stayed put. They each let their ice rag fall.
For someone so angry, Joel was still unbearably patient and kind. "Sometimes it makes you feel better if I hold you, when you're sad... or after a nightmare..."
"That's different," Ellie mumbled. He hadn't soothed her lately, the few times she'd dozed off since it happened. Ellie was sure he didn't know she'd been having nightmares. If he'd known, he would've come to her in a flash. She always felt like she was screaming, but when she woke up, she realized she hadn't made a sound. Usually, waking up to reality after having a nightmare was a relief, but now it hurt worse than her breathing did, worse than any bruise on her body. Everything hit her like she was living the horror all over again. It made her try to stay awake. Being awake sucked too, but it was preferable to sleeping with that as the end result. She had more control over things when she was conscious. She wondered a few times if the nightmares were also happening when she was awake... it seemed like it... but she always concluded that it was because she was so tired, she'd started dozing off again, and then they'd hit her before she could even get any actual rest.
When she used to crawl into bed next to Joel after a nightmare, she'd tried not to disturb his sleep (though in the beginning, he always woke up, even at the slightest little thing). Even if he didn't wake up, just hearing his deep, even breathing was comforting enough for her to fall back asleep. I don't deserve that kind of comfort anymore. Besides, it was pointless. It always came down to the same two things that no amount of comfort could remedy: it wouldn't bring Bailey back, and it wouldn't make her whole again, the way she was before she'd fucked up so royally. These things were too awful to say out loud.
She did feel bad that she'd hurt his feelings over it, though. Or... maybe hurt them. Hard to tell with Joel sometimes, and it wasn't like she was completely in tune with him anymore. She'd fallen out of tune with everything, so suddenly.
Ellie decided to throw him a bone. She took a deep breath and willed her emotional side to sort of... check out. Cold hard facts, no room for emotion here. She stared at the floor as she recited what she could remember. "The meaner one had darker hair, dark and straight and thick-looking... and he had a missing front tooth. Kinda reminded me of a pirate. Tony, the other guy called him. He seemed like the one in charge. Full beards, both of them -- longer than yours. Bushy. Longish hair. The other one's hair was fuzzier... frizzy, like... dark too I guess but... I dunno, I think in the daylight his hair would be lighter. I never saw the flashlight shine right on him. I did on the other one, Tony -- skin darker than mine, but... he was white, still. I think. At least partly. They were both wearing like dirty T-shirts and... jeans, I guess. They didn't have accents like you and Tommy. But the second one -- Pete, he answered to Pete -- he sort of sounded a little bit like you but... like if I used the words you use, you know? In my accent with some of your words. I don't know how old they were. Older than me, younger than you." Not that that narrowed it down all that much. She glanced at Joel.
He was listening attentively. "That's good, kiddo, real good. Did they talk about where they were goin'?"
"I can't remember... I wasn't my sharpest..."
"That's okay. Jus' try. Anythin' at all."
"Um... I remember Pete was supposed to meet the other one at 'the fork.' I don't know where that is. Does that help?"
"Maybe. It's a start."
"He was supposed to meet Tony there when he, um... finished with me and... and killed me," she said quietly. She felt the emotions stirring, but she kept going. "I don't know why he didn't kill me. I knew he was going to before he even... I didn't even try to get away. I guess I knew I..." Ellie couldn't even say why she hadn't fought right up until the very end, why her brain wasn't acting like it usually did. She didn't understand what had come over her then. "I don't know. I was just waiting for him to pull the trigger, and he just... got up and shot a round into the ground or something instead. So the other guy would think he did it. Why did he do that?" She looked at Joel again.
His eyes looked bright, staring at the floor. She looked away; she didn't want to see him cry, and knew he didn't want her to see him cry, any more than she wanted him to see her do it. He didn't cry, though. Not that she could hear, anyway. "I don' know," he said softly. "I'm jus' glad the fucker had a shred of humanity in him."
Ellie could hear the anger in his words... the quietness of it was somehow more alarming than if he'd been yelling and throwing shit. "Joel... you're not gonna go looking for these guys now, are you?"
"The longer I wait, the colder the trail gets."
"Tommy said people are out looking already! You can tell them what I told you--"
"The patrols are lookin' around, sure. More in the interest of keepin' the town safe. In case they're holed up nearby."
"So let them do that, then."
"It ain't the same thing as trackin' them, tryin' to follow their steps... the first decent rain will wash away any imprints they might've left, make it harder..."
She looked at him then, willing him to meet her gaze. "You can't. Joel, you can't. Please don't leave me."
He still wouldn't look at her. "I ain't leavin' you--"
"Yes you are! You are if you go after them!"
"But I'll come back--"
"When -- after you kill them? What if you never find them? What if something happens to you out there?" She bit her lip again to keep from crying; she'd probably bloodied her lip more in the past couple days than the guys had that night.
"I will find them. I swear to God I will find them and make them pay for what they did." His angry gaze was still directed at the floor.
"Joel, no! Look at me. You have to stay."
He didn't look. "I can get someone to stay with you, Tommy an' Maria would be--"
"I want you to stay. I... I need you to stay." The 'need' triggered her tears to start flowing.
Joel sighed. "I haven' been able to do anythin' for you that they can't do." The tears only served to annoy him this time.
"I just need to know you're here. That you're safe and we're together. Please, Joel. Please. Promise me you won't go after them. Or if you go, then I'm going with you."
"You're in no shape to--"
"I know, that's why it would be better to go later." Ellie shuddered at the thought of actually going Outside again. But if she was with Joel, she could handle it. Maybe she could even pretend it was two years ago, before she knew there was a Bailey in the world... before she made the biggest mistake ever... before she knew what it felt like to have her soul ripped out of her body.
"If you really wanna go now, take me with you. I can ride a horse like this. Or I can sit behind you on your horse."
"No way in hell. You need to rest... let your body heal."
She was never really going to be healed, so what was the difference? She didn't care if pushing herself physically hurt her body. Maybe she even wanted to hurt it more, fucked up as the idea was. "If you go, then I have to go, too. That's the deal."
"I ain't makin' no deal like that."
"You already did, a long time ago, before we even got to Salt Lake City -- you said we'd stick together no matter what."
"That was different. I wouldn' be leavin' you alone in the world, you'd be with people who can take care of you."
"Don't leave me at all! If you won't let me come with you, then you have to promise. Promise me you won't go."
Joel sighed again, exasperated. Didn't say anything.
He's close... almost there... "Look at me and say it. Please, Joel." She scooted closer to him and laid her hand on top of his.
Joel closed his eyes and sat quietly for a long moment before finally looking at her. "If you want me to stay that bad then... okay."
"Thank you." She was so relieved that she hugged him. It was a real hug (albeit one-armed), not just a side-hug, because he was sitting on the wrong side for that. He wrapped his arms around her tentatively. Neither she nor Joel had been accustomed to much in the way of physical affection -- Joel, for the past couple decades, and Ellie, her entire life -- and it was something they'd eased into with each other over the course of the past year. It was supposedly some basic need of all humans, to touch and be touched... but Ellie thought that was bullshit. It wasn't anywhere near as important as having air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat... still, it was nice, even in smaller doses than hugs. And Ellie lumped Joel into the same category as air and water and food, when it came to her own survival.
When she didn't pull away, Joel started rubbing circles on her back. Because he knew she liked that. It was an invitation to stay. She still liked it, but... now it was starting to feel too much like she'd hugged him in search of comfort, rather than out of gratitude.
Ellie had to pull back; he'd already been nicer to her than she deserved just by agreeing to stay in town.
~Continue to Chapter 6~