Lumy (luminations) wrote,
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"Comforting Sounds" Chapter 9: "Shape of My Heart" (9/17)

Title: "Comforting Sounds" Chapter 9: "Shape of My Heart" (9/17)
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Pairings: Ellie/OC
Warnings: PLEASE SEE NOTES ABOUT WARNINGS IN FIRST CHAPTER
Word Count for this chapter: 6634
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Author's Note: Chapter title from the song by Sting, which was used in the end credits of Léon: The Professional (the main characters of which parallel the characters of Joel and Ellie! Great movie)


The only functional backup power generators in the county were at the dam; everyone else just had to deal with the darkness.

Tommy actually coaxed Ellie into eating dinner at the kitchen table that night. It felt incredibly indulgent. It's only because of the power outage, she told herself -- no candles allowed in her room, and the flashlight was annoying. Tommy didn't fill the air with empty words, didn't try to make her talk. And it wasn't awkward. Not unlike some of the companionable silences she shared with Joel. Had shared -- past tense.

He's not dead, she had to remind herself. He may as well be, the argumentative voice in her head countered. It's only a matter of time... and you've already had far more time with him than with anyone else you've loved, that ominous voice pointed out. She chewed her sandwich morosely, wishing she'd insisted on only a half. Ellie still hated the idea of wasting food, even when she wasn't hungry for it. Sometimes she would ask for the remains of her meals to be saved for later, or that someone else eat them; even so, she'd probably wasted more food in the past few weeks than in her entire year-plus at Jackson.

Ghosts don't need food, she reasoned. If she were left to her own devices, she might never eat again.

After dinner, she helped Tommy put the house back in order. It was the least she could do since she was the one who'd turned it upside down. When that was done, she returned to the living room, trading the stark beam of her flashlight for the warm glow of the candle Tommy had placed on the end table. She sat next to Tommy. "What are you gonna do all night without power... being stuck here with me and all?" She resisted the urge to say yet again that he didn't have to stay with her; this was one time she really, really didn't want him to take her up on the offer.

"I reckon I'll have myself a nice quiet evenin'," answered Tommy. "Read for a while, turn in early. Not a bad idea for you too, yeah?"

A big yawn escaped her as if on cue. Ellie had no idea what she would do about sleeping. She was pretty tired... always tired... fatigue never seemed to be a factor in stopping the flashbacks and nightmares, the constant aching in her chest, the itching of her arm. "Are you gonna read here? Maybe I can take a nap... it won't be so dark."

"Sure. But you need more than a nap."

"I'll sleep more in the daytime if I can. So, um... you know how I made that big mess cuz I was freaked out and couldn't find a gun? I was thinking..."

"You want a gun."

"It's really stupid that I don't have one. I'm not gonna kill myself. I would never do that."

Tommy frowned. "Joel would kill me if I let you have one."

"Well, Joel's not here, so."

"He will be back."

"Please, Tommy? I swear I only want it for protection. I would feel so much safer. I'd be able to sleep soooo much better." That was a bit of an exaggeration -- the gun's presence didn't deter the demons in her head, after all.

He sighed. "I don' know. I'll sleep on it, all right?"

This response was the most cause for hope Ellie had had in ages. "Okay. Thanks." She stretched out on the couch, folding her legs up enough that her feet didn't touch Tommy. "If I fall asleep here, can you wake me up before you go upstairs?"

"Of course."

The radio was still on (with the volume turned way down), but with everyone trying to conserve battery power, the chit-chat would be minimal. Tommy fetched whatever novel he was in the middle of. He said he'd been reading the same book for so long he always had to skim the previous chapter to jog his memory on where he was at. He just didn't read all that often. Not Ellie -- she used to be a voracious reader. Now, she couldn't really remember why. What was the point of it?

She found herself thinking that about pretty much everything these days.

Ellie settled herself and found a spot on the ceiling to stare at. She tried not to close her eyes. The soft, rustling 'sshhh' sound of fingertips turning pages kept her grounded in the present: safe. In spite of what she knew -- that they were never truly safe -- for the moment, she felt safe. It was extremely hard to keep her eyes open, but if she fell asleep, the peace would be ruined.

She woke with a start when she realized she wasn't in her room... she was on a couch, in total darkness... oh, right, I fell asleep here. Tommy had been reading by candlelight. The candle was now extinguished, but Tommy was still there, his breathing slow and deep: he was asleep.

A blanket had been draped over her, and apparently, even that hadn't caused her to stir. It's too dark. But Tommy's here... he didn't want to wake me up, and didn't want to leave me alone. No way could he be sleeping comfortably, slouched into the corner of the couch. She had sprawled over nearly the whole thing, taking up most of the room. She felt a surge of guilt... but also affection for him. Followed by more guilt, because even though he was being so kind and considerate, she still wished that the person here with her was Joel.

Tommy won't always be around either, she reminded herself. The three people whose house she was invading were kind enough to switch their schedules around to accommodate her -- that is, babysit her. She wanted to tell them not to bother. That she didn't need them. But then, the one time she was left alone in the house, she completely freaked out. Because of the hunters, of course, but it wasn't like that couldn't happen again at any time. Usually it was less often than once a month; however, she could recall a time that they'd had two in the same week. And it wasn't uncommon for people to die, whether they were in the militia or not.

Ellie didn't go back to sleep. The dark slowly gave way to cold gray light as the new day began to dawn, and she realized that she must have slept a really long time down there. The entire night, probably at least nine hours. Good, solid, dreamless sleep. Everyone said she'd feel better if she would just get proper sleep.

Pfff. Her boyfriend was still dead, along with his mother, and it was because of her -- a family wiped clear off the face of the Earth. Joel was still gone. She was still a broken Ellie doll. The day stretched long before her, pointless and miserable and draining.
Ellie still felt weary.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Power was restored twenty-six hours after it had been lost. That meant Ellie could stay in the bedroom at all hours again... but she didn't. She started eating her meals at the table with the others. For the most part, she tuned out the conversation; the others knew she wasn't there to talk. She didn't give a fuck about the milk rations, or the broken sewer line, or the insects threatening the wheat harvest and the resulting shift of labor from one camp to another. She used to care. She knew she was supposed to. Someone had to -- namely, the three other people in the house. But none of it fucking mattered.

So she would sit and eat quietly, the chatter going fuzzy, yet still somehow keeping her grounded in reality enough to ward off the demons. Everyone tried to pretend that things were totally normal, it seemed to Ellie. Like they were just one big happy family, just how she used to imagine happy families would be. She was the outsider, though. Dumped here by the closest thing she had to immediate family... someone who didn't want to deal with her anymore. I should learn from that, she thought. Be more of a people pleaser. Act how she used to act when it wasn’t an act: make people smile and laugh, help them out so she wasn't just a burden. When her cast came off, she would at least be able to do more of the latter; no one expected or allowed her to help out much with chores now.

But while part of her felt like she should twist herself into whatever shape they wanted her to be, another part screamed "Fuck it!" -- because she would only be setting herself up for guaranteed failure and rejection when she inevitably fucked it all up. She used to know this. Fuck, she'd been smarter at thirteen than she was now at sixteen. Why did she continue to forget the lessons she'd learned? How many times did she have to make the same mistakes? No more. It ends now.

She would decide this, and then one of the three people she lived with would unwittingly un-decide it for her, simply by showing her in some way, however small, that they cared about her. For God knows what reason. If she were them, she certainly wouldn't give a shit about her anymore.

Ellie really didn't need to keep tracking days with 'x's, but she kept up the habit. After eighteen 'x's, Tommy finally gave her a pistol. A Glock 19, he called it. It was similar to the gun she'd lost. He said he was proud of how much better she was doing... which was a bunch of crap, really, because she was still fucked up, but she was pleased all the same at the remark, and extremely relieved to have her own means of protection again. Tommy also told her that she was not to try to help the next time the alarm went off. Even if it happened after she got her cast off. This gave Ellie a vague sense of guilt, but she didn't argue. She could help out if she felt up to it... it wasn't like Tommy or anyone else would have eyes on her then.

After nineteen 'x's, someone came to visit her. She was up in her room, but with the door open, so she heard the knocking. At first, she thought it was a visitor for Tommy, because she heard him step outside to talk to the person, and it took him a good five minutes or so after answering the door to come up and announce the visitor.

"Ellie -- you got your sling on? Someone's here I think you'll wanna see. -Sorry, not Joel," he added quickly.

She had her sling on and was dressed, even -- and in a long-sleeved undershirt beneath her T-shirt, from the doctor's visit yesterday, or was it two days ago... She went to the hallway and looked over the railing to see who was down below. "Marcus!" Omigod they're back?!

He smiled up at her. "Hey, Ellie!"

"When did you guys get back?" And where the fuck is Joel?! She headed down the stairs, Tommy on her heels.

"Like a half hour ago. Thought I'd do you guys a favor and shower before coming over. You look so much better than... than the last time I saw you." That would have been the day of Bailey's funeral, since she hadn't elected to see Marcus whenever he'd tried to visit.

Tommy gestured for Marcus to sit in the armchair while he and Ellie sat on the couch. Wouldn't Joel have come straight here -- shower be damned? She glanced back at Tommy... if something had happened to Joel, he wouldn't be this calm, certainly. ...would he? "So..."

"Not all of us came back," Marcus answered the question before she asked. "Everyone's fine, though! It's just that, um... we... didn't find what we were looking for."

"Everyone's fine," she repeated dumbly. "Are you trying to tell me..."

"Joel. Yeah. He, um... God. It sucks having to tell you... he said he couldn't come back. Yet."

Ellie stared at him. "He couldn't-- why not?!" She was afraid she already knew the answer to that.

"I think he prob'ly... just... didn't wanna disappoint you, you know?"

Her blood was boiling already. Like the others coming home without him wouldn't be disappointing as fuck! "What did he say?"

"He said... he had to finish it. That he wouldn't go back a failure... with those assholes still drawing breath, I think is how he put it."

Fuck! "So... you guys just left him."

Tommy spoke up. "Ellie, they'd already been lookin' for a couple weeks. It's a wild goose chase."

Ellie glared at him. "What do wild geese have to do with anything?"

Tommy blinked. "I don' know, to be honest. It's jus' an expression. It means... it ain't very likely they'll find what they're lookin' for."

"I actually wanted to go with him, I swear," Marcus said, defensive. "We all got into this arg-- we discussed, after like ten days or something? -that maybe we should give it up cuz it's not like they had a camp set up nearby -- we would've seen it. We tried to pick up their trail and go the way Joel wanted to... didn't find anything, nothing that made it look like they for sure went that way... if they just kept going and going we never would've found them anyway. Even if we could catch up to them eventually, being on horseback, there's too many different routes they could've taken -- assuming they were even trying to follow roads at all. So we went and looked all around Jackson County, every which way you could go. We split up once, but that, um... didn't work out too well, when we couldn't find each other and had to backtrack... Joel was pissed. He was pissed the whole time, though, really."

Tommy snorted. "I'm sure he was loads of fun to be around. He's had a hard time... you know. Dealin' with all this."

"He has?" Ellie shrieked. "It didn't happen to him."

"In a way, it did, though," said Tommy. He was maddeningly calm. "I mean... I think it's even worse, that it didn't happen to him. That it was you. If it was jus' him I don' think he'd be so out for blood-- at least not this bad."

"Great. That's just fucking great. So how much longer is he going to look? Weeks? Months? Years? He could spend the rest of his life trying to track these guys down. What if they're already dead? He would never know! And he just-- UUUUGGGGHHHH how can he-- no, don't," she warned Tommy when he tried to rub her shoulder sympathetically. He withdrew the offending hand. Everyone should know by now: don't touch me when I'm pissed off!

"I'm really sorry," said Marcus. "I'm angry, too. I wanted those bastards dead just as much as Joel did. And when the other guys said it was time to give up, I could've gone on longer. Joel didn't want me to. He said it might take-- uh, that he didn't know how long it would take, and I should go back to my family."

Ellie knew he lived with an aunt and a younger brother. She nodded. "I'm not mad at you. Joel should've come back, too. Actually, he never should've left in the first place. Or you guys should've taken me with you. Maybe..." She thought for a moment. Sure, I could do it... "Whereabouts did you leave him... did he say which direction he was going?"

"Oh hell no," Tommy answered for Marcus. "You ain't goin' after him, Ellie. He's three days' ride away from here, last they saw him. You might never find him an' you know he'd never want you to try."

"Well, he should know that I never wanted him to leave! He promised me he wouldn't. Did he tell you that?" she asked Marcus.

"No... he didn't talk all that much..."

"Well, he promised. And now... now he's never coming back."

Marcus shook his head. "I think eventually he'll realize he can't look forever. Or, you know, he could actually find them."

"Or get himself killed. Especially all by himself! He would have died that time he got hurt, if I wasn't there." She looked at Tommy; they had told him all about Colorado, how badly Joel was injured. "And he's so stubborn. Tommy, you know he is. He will tell himself that he can't come back without this... being taken care of... he'll believe it. He'll prob'ly even think he's doing it for me. Fuck!"

Ellie flopped against the back of the couch dejectedly. She couldn't ever remember a time she'd been more furious with Joel. And she was annoyed with Tommy for trying to justify Joel's actions. "Now would you say this 'counts' as him ditching me?" she asked nastily.

Tommy didn't answer her. "Marcus, thanks for everythin' you did to help. Glad you're okay. Why don' you go on home to your family now?"

"'kay. One more thing. Ellie, Joel wanted me to tell you... uh..."

Ellie's mind raced when Marcus paused. That he'll be back as soon as possible? That he's sorry? That he misses me? ...that he LOVES me? She couldn't imagine Joel casually saying that last one to Marcus, though.

"What was it... Endure and... live? I think? He said you'd know what it meant."

"Endure and survive," she corrected him. Marcus wasn't a Savage Starlight fan. The words sounded hollow. Empty. Did Joel think I would hear them and feel comforted and hopeful or some shit? "Thanks," she said dully.

Tommy stood up, shook Marcus's hand, and clapped him on the back as they said goodbye. Marcus stopped at the door and looked back at Ellie. "Oh, one more one-more-thing -- did you like the tapes I brought over? Any of them?"

"Sure," Ellie replied automatically. Then she thought better of bullshitting him. "Well, actually, I haven't been listening to anything. I will, though. Thanks." She had the tapes; Joel had put them in her backpack along with her walkman, and they'd brought the backpack over from the house. Okay, so I'm still bullshitting him, but less blatantly?

"Okay. Let me know what you think... some time." He paused, like he was going to say something else, but then he just said, "Bye."

"Bye." Ellie felt a pang of raw grief, remembering how she and Bailey and Marcus used to listen to stuff together, and talk about it, and have friendly debates over possible meanings of the lyrics. More from when the three of them were friends, but it continued after her relationship with Bailey changed as well. Marcus probably missed that -- missed the old Ellie.

She shoved those thoughts away into some dark corner of her heart. Much better to feel angry at Joel than sad about her old life.

Tommy sat next to her again, rather than in the seat Marcus had just vacated. "I'm so sorry, Ellie."

Ellie tried to cross her arms, but settled for tucking her right arm under the bulky left one. She turned her head away from him. "If you'll help me, I'll move back home," she said coldly. "Today." She already knew he wouldn't let her do that; she wasn't even sure why she felt the need to say it.

"What? To go stay in that house by yourself? Uh-uh, no way. You're stayin' here. If you want anythin' else from the house I'll go get it for you, or help you get it."

Ellie sighed. The only thing she wanted (that was still in the realm of possibilities, at least) was Joel, and he certainly wasn't at the house. "Look, it's one thing to babysit for a couple of weeks. It's another to do it for all eternity. I should get out of your hair." She glanced at Tommy.

"It ain't babysittin'. I don' mind. Honestly. We don' mind. We wanna help you. Do you really think Joel would want you to--"

"Fuck what Joel would want! He doesn't even know if I'm okay, or..." She blinked back tears. "This is your fault, too. Know why? Cuz Joel knew you'd look after me. If he had to leave with me strangers, or if like... you were kind of a jerk or whatever, he'd have to come back -- he prob'ly wouldn't've even left. Right?"

Tommy gave her a sad little smile. "You're prob'ly right. Sorry I can't be more of a jerk to you. Too late to start now, Joel wouldn' know about it so it wouldn' do you no good."

A couple tears escaped, and she blinked angrily to keep the others in. Not so long ago -- although it felt like a lifetime, now -- she'd been on top of the world, with the two people she loved most right beside her. Now they'd both left her, like everyone always did... it wasn't always their choice, but in the end, they left her all the same. She would never feel that happy again. She'd never feel happy again period, no matter what Maria thought. "I'm gonna go upstairs," she mumbled as she started to get up.

"Hey, wait a sec." He put a hand on her arm to stop her from standing, and this time she didn't shake him off. "I don' mean to make excuses for him doin' this. I know why he's doin' it, but that don' make it all right. My brother... he's never been that good with... emotional shit, as you've prob'ly noticed. Even before." She knew he meant 'the great before': 2013. "But especially after. You know you made him... more like he was before." Tommy paused. "Damn, forgot what I was tryin' to say. Jus'... know that, no matter how long it takes Joel to get back here -- an' I know he'll be back -- you will always have a place here with us. An' we ain't goin' nowhere."

"That's exactly what he said. And then he left."

"He didn' stop carin' about you, though. An' he never will."

"He has a fucked up way of showing it."

"I know he does. But it's still true."

She started to stand again, and this time he didn't stop her. When she was halfway up the stairs, Tommy called to her. "You sure you wanna be alone? You could sit here... don' gotta talk if you don want to. Jus' sit."

"No thanks." She paused at the top of the stairs and looked back at him. "Thanks for everything, Tommy. Sorry I'm such a bitch." She turned away before he could respond with the kind lie that she wasn't.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ellie quit doing the 'x's. And she wasted a good deal of pencil lead scribbling through all of them until every single one was unrecognizable. She hadn't realized how much she'd been counting on Joel coming back. That she'd actually felt fucking hopeful about it. She'd never let herself dwell on the possibility that maybe he wasn't. She couldn't go there. She would complain to others about him never coming back, forcing them to say 'of course he will, Ellie!' to which she'd scoff (it was like putting on a little show, everyone playing their roles perfectly every single time) -- yet in her gut, she believed them.

It seemed so stupid of her now. Why hadn't she predicted this? It was so... Joel.

Ellie regressed to hiding in her room as often as possible. She declared that she would eat a bowl of oatmeal and nothing else. Twice a day, not three times. She hoped to lose complete track of time, without even the components of her meals to clue her in to the time of day. She resumed 'playing' with the Monopoly pieces again, this time not really caring if anyone took notice of it (what the fuck did she care what they thought of her? Like her recent behavior hadn't been testament enough to what a useless subhuman thing she was?). When she had the flashbacks, the fastest way to get past them was to do something completely inane, like lining up the little ships in symmetrical patterns... trailing the paper money across the floor.

She still spent a great deal of time zombiefied: staring at nothing, thinking nothing, feeling nothing. She knew she couldn't do it forever. Tommy, Maria, and Ed might have more patience than Joel (especially when it was spread amongst the three of them in alternate shifts), but eventually theirs would run out, too. Maybe they'd kick her out. Not to be mean, but to practice that thing called 'tough love.' Sometimes she wanted them to do that, so she could go curl up somewhere and never have to talk to anyone again... just waste away into the dirt. To finally have nothing left to lose. Other times -- most of the time -- the thought terrified her. She tried to be more polite to them than she had been to Joel. It wasn't so difficult to say 'please' and 'thank you' and to just... not be annoying.

Yes, she'd taken Joel for granted. Because she was an idiot? Or because deep down she'd felt too secure in his love? If Joel had suddenly started being a dick to her, she still wouldn't have left him. Ever. She just fucking couldn't. But clearly Joel didn't feel the same way.

Maria and Ed seemed content to let her be. They were unfailingly nice to her, and she knew they would listen if she wanted to talk, or would happily oblige her if she expressed the desire to do anything normal, but she never really wanted to. Ed wanted to take her fishing once. He'd taught her how at that very same lake, ages ago. She didn't want to go back there, and he understood. It was Tommy who went the Joel route and tried to push her into doing things. Ellie passed on to him what Maria had told her about depression, and Tommy said yes, Maria had discussed it with him, too, but that he couldn't just not try to reach Ellie somehow. Even if she said 'no' a hundred times. "Ellie, why don't you try reading this book?" "Hey Ellie, I'm going for a walk, wanna come?" "Ellie, I bet you'd really like this movie."

And, after she got her cast off -- "Ellie, I brought your guitar over..."

Man, that one really killed her. The guitar was a her'n'Joel thing. She couldn't play it by herself. Didn't he get it? And even if Joel were there... music made no sense to her anymore. She had no desire to listen to anything.

And eventually, when she failed to do what they wanted, then she'd have to leave. Or she would choose to, rather than jump through hoops for them. This is what she told herself would happen; it was inevitable. She had to prepare for it.

But her mind still balked at any sort of preparations for a future that she had no idea how to face.

One thing all three of them insisted she do was exercises for her wrist. This, Ellie actually didn't mind. The thing was so gimpy at first she wondered why they'd even bothered to cast it; it certainly didn't seem fixed. Dr. Choi assured her that the bones had healed decently and if she did the exercises, she would regain a fair amount of strength and range of motion in it. She knew she was supposed to care about that... but she'd let her housemates do the caring in that regard. What she liked about the rehab was the rhythmic nature of the motions, and that the discomfort they caused was a welcome distraction from her despondent thoughts. The doctor had told her to stop if she felt pain, but a little pain didn't stop her. Her favorite one was rotating her wrist back and forth from palm up to palm down while holding a hammer -- a hammer with a heavy head that would push and pull her wrist further than it wanted to go on its own. Like a metronome, or an upside-down pendulum. It hurt, but it was a good kind of hurt. The kind of ache Joel would describe sometimes after a hard workout or weightlifting session. She did way more than the daily requirement. She would work her wrist until it became a trembling mass of jelly that refused to cooperate any further.

When she admitted this to the doctor, he sternly told her not to overdo it, that it could cause inflammation and actually set her back. So far so good, though. Apparently being young really helped. She figured she could cut back some, especially if she noticed any swelling, but it was so tempting to keep going...

She was working herself to the jelly point one day when Maria came in with her oatmeal. Ellie was so sick of oatmeal that she couldn't even taste it anymore. Perfect. She set the hammer aside and dutifully took the bowl, setting it in her lap. There was a shitload of strawberry slices on top, which was cheating on her oatmeal-only diet, but Ellie didn't refuse them. She used to love strawberries. Some part of her still did... or wanted to.

Maria didn't leave after delivering the food. She closed the door and sat on the bed next to her. "Ellie... I've been wanting to ask you about something," she began slowly. "I can wait 'til you're done eating."

"I don't wanna talk about anything," she said wearily, as she'd said a million times before.
"I know. But we have to talk about this."

Shit. Were they going to get hardcore on her already with the tough love bullshit? She was pretty sure it would be Tommy, not Maria, who took the lead on that campaign, though. Ellie sighed. "Don't wait 'til I'm done, just ask."

"Okay. Sweetie... when was the last time you had your period?"

SHIT! "I don't know," she said without thinking. Except she did know. She dunked some strawberry bits into the depths of the lake of oatmeal. Stirred it up and stared at the spoon as it carved its way through the lumps.

"Not since you've been staying with us, right?"

"I don't know. Maybe? I don't wanna talk about this." She shoved a huge spoonful in her mouth.

But Maria kept talking. "I think you do know. At least if it was before, or... after."

This door inside her head that she'd carefully kept locked, even from herself, was being pried open whether she liked it or not. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck fuck! Ellie swallowed her bite and looked up from the bowl to Maria. "I started to, I think. I mean, I thought I was, I T.P.'d up and all, but then... nothing. Only a couple drops."

"That doesn't count as a period. When was that?"

"Um... a while ago... after I got here, though. In your house."

"Okay. And before that?"

Ellie played with her oatmeal again, drowning some more strawberries. If I don't answer, maybe this will go away...

"Ellie," Maria prodded, her voice somehow gentle and firm at the same time, "You do remember, don't you."

After one last pause, one more moment of make-believe, Ellie nodded. FUCK. "It was before... that night. A few days... a week...? I know what you're thinking -- but I'm not pregnant. I'm not. There's no way. I would know if I was. And-- and-- I'm not throwing up. Right? If I was pregnant I'd be puking my guts out every morning." She looked at Maria hopefully.

"Not necessarily. You've been queasy a lot, though, and there's no... your injuries wouldn't have caused that, at least not to this degree."

"It was the pot -- it made me sick!" Ellie was grasping now; she wanted to blame it all on the dope, but it made no sense.

"Maybe it did. But you haven't had any in weeks now. Although... it could be psychological, too," Maria admitted.

"What? I'm not making it up -- did Joel tell you--"

"No no, honey, that's not what I meant. Just that... you can have physical symptoms brought on by... things going on in your head. But, you're also tired all the time--"

"Because I can't fucking sleep!"

"Your appetite is... weak, at best..."

"Wait -- that should prove I'm not. Right? If I was pregnant I'd be stuffing my face all the time."

Maria shook her head. "Not in the beginning, while your body's adjusting, especially if you're nauseous."

Ellie frowned. "How do you know all this?"

Maria hesitated, then said, "I've been reading this book. You can read it--"

"NO. I'm not pregnant. My period, it's not always regular. I skip months all the time." Not 'all the time,' exactly... she'd been fairly irregular all those months crossing the country with Joel, but not so much since arriving in Jackson.

"Okay. It's entirely possible that you're not pregnant. I just wanted to see if there was a possibility, because it seemed like there was. There are other explanations, like... not eating much because you're depressed. Having an upset stomach because you're anxious. But I think you need to be aware that... that you might be. We should go talk to the doctor about it."

Ellie continued eating slowly, not tasting anything. She started to tune Maria out, making her voice go fuzzy. I'll finish eating and she'll go away and I won't think about it anymore... yeah, because that always works...

"Ellie!"

Ellie jumped when Maria touched her arm and said her name loudly. "Sorry," Maria said, "but it seemed like you were a million miles away, not hearing a word I said."

"I... didn't hear everything," she admitted.

"I was just speculating about other symptoms. Tommy told me that you fainted a couple weeks ago?"

"I got dizzy when I stood up too fast, and cuz I'd barely eaten that day -- it doesn't mean anything!"

"Okay, okay. Maybe it doesn't. I have another... delicate question, and then I'll leave you alone. You don't have to answer this one if you don't want to, it's not really..." Maria winced.

"What." Ellie braced herself.

"Is there any chance, if you are pregnant, that it could be Bailey's?"

Oh. "I, um... actually, I don't know. I feel stupid," she mumbled.

"You're not. You're young and inexperienced. Did you and Bailey have sex?" Maria asked quietly.

Much to her annoyance, Ellie felt herself blushing like a little girl. "Yeah. Twice."

"That night?"

"No. We were only naked for swimming, I swear." She wondered why she was even bothering to defend herself now... like Maria would care? Especially when they most likely would have had sex that night, if only...

"But that same week?"

"Yeah." Ellie snorted. "I go from being a virgin one week to fucking three guys the next. What a slut, right?"

Maria's expression darkened. "What happened to you does not make you a slut, Ellie. Don't say-- don't think things like that. You weren't... fucking them."

"Okay, whatever." Not like she'd ever be having sex again. She figured three wasn't so slutty over the course of a whole lifetime.

"And Bailey. Did he... finish, both times? It's okay, don't be embarrassed."

Easier said than done. Maria was being kind and nonjudgmental, though, and Ellie found it wasn't that difficult to tell her about it after all. "That's... kinda the part I feel stupid about. We had agreed that he would, um... you know. Pull out?"

"And did he?"

"The first time, yeah. I think so. It was pretty uncomfortable... and he could tell, and he didn't wanna hurt me so he stopped early. I think some of it like... leaked out already though? If that counts? But most of it came out after we... um..."

"...used other means?" Maria supplied.

"Yeah." Ellie marveled at how Maria didn't even seem the tiniest bit embarrassed, talking about sex so frankly. Joel would never have been able to talk to her about this.

"And the second time?"

"It went much better than the first time. It still kind of hurt but I was okay with him not stopping. I reminded him a couple times to pull out before he... uh... but he wanted to try a little longer..." She smiled a little, remembering, but then immediately felt the loss of him so acutely she almost burst into tears. She covered her face with her hands and mumbled, "Gimme a sec..."

"Sure. When you're ready." Ellie felt Maria's hand on her shoulder, and she didn't shrug her off. She concentrated on stuffing those emotions deep down so she wouldn't have to feel them until later -- Joel's version of 'later,' she hoped.

She wondered how much room there was in that corner of her heart... how much would fit before there was nowhere left to put it.

Do what Joel does, bury them so far down you can't feel a thing... After a few moments, she returned to the memory, trying to think of it like it was just a movie she'd seen. Bailey had claimed that he was an expert at predicting when he was about to come thanks to years of jerking off on a regular basis, but then at the end he was like 'OH SHIT' and barely withdrew himself from her before the jizz started flowing -- and Ellie wasn't convinced he had done it in time. Maria didn't need to know all that, though. Ellie picked up where she'd left off. "So he waited like a little too long. He said he didn't, but he was all like... sheepish about it. And there was barely any, um..." She gestured vaguely.

"Semen?"

"Yeah." Ellie was glad Maria could fill in her blanks. If her face got any redder, it might explode or something. "Not like the first time, when... yeah. So I think most of it got, um... released... you know."

"Okay. So there's a chance."

Ellie shook her head. "Way more of a chance that it's not him. Those disgusting guys... they didn't bother to..." She saw their faces again... heard herself screaming... She stood up and thrust the bowl of oatmeal at Maria. "I can't talk about this anymore. I can't." She retreated to the corner of the room where she sat sometimes after having a nightmare. Curled into herself and waited. When her emotions were so raw, the fucking panic seemed to take it as a cue to rise up and take over.

Maria crouched in front of her. "It's okay. Can I...?" She reached out slowly, and Ellie shook her head.

"Is it okay if I just sit here with you then?" Maria asked.

"I'm sure you have -- better things to do --" Her breathing accelerated.

"I really don't. I'd rather stay with you."

"But I can't -- talk to you --"

"No, that's fine! Just breathe. Slow, deep breaths if you can. I'll just sit here with you until it goes away. No talking."

Until it goes away? Pfff. It would never really go away. But she was glad Maria was there. It did help, having someone else there in the room with her. And scary though it was, concentrating on trying to breathe was preferable to thinking about...

Just breathe. In, out, in, out. There is nothing else.

~Continue to Chapter 10~

Tags: comforting sounds, fic, tlou
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