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: 7276
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Ellie stared, not quite comprehending what she was seeing. A very bedraggled, scruffy, dirty, thinner version of her Joel... but it was indeed him. He'd clearly gone straight there without bothering to shower and change, like he couldn't wait even just a few more minutes to see her... just like she'd imagined, that day Marcus came home without him. She'd also imagined leaping into his arms and giving him the biggest hug ever.
She remained frozen to the bed, staring... confused. Joel didn't exist anymore, and yet there he was in the flesh. And she didn't know how to feel about it.
His tentative smile faded quickly enough. "What're you doin' with that pistol?" He inched towards her.
"None of your business," she snapped at him. He smelled the way people on the Outside smell when they can't bathe properly -- the way both of them had stunk for months -- skunky and real, and not unlike those two assholes. But it was easy to shove them to the back of her mind now; her brain was preoccupied with thoughts of 'omigod JOEL IS HERE.' Much to her annoyance, part of her was elated to see him. Fuck that -- does he think I'm just going to rush into his arms like nothing is wrong? "What are you doing here? Stay back!"
Startled by her outburst, he stopped the inching. "Can you jus' put-- can you give it to me, please?"
"No way. You'll take it away from me." She became aware of a soreness in her left arm, and realized she’d been pushing the barrel of the Glock into her forearm. Probably hard enough to bruise. She rotated the gun in her lap so that the barrel was pointing somewhat towards her face. If anyone was going to accidentally get shot here, she would make sure it was her.
"That thing loaded?"
"Of course," she answered coolly.
He sized her up silently for a moment. "You're pissed off. Of course you are. You have every right to be. I'm so sorry for... I never meant to hurt you."
Don't let him get to you, she warned herself. She could have told him that she wasn't planning on hurting herself with the gun, but she said nothing. She wondered, with a bit of dark amusement, if he thought she might be pissed off enough to turn it on him. "I said stay back!" she said threateningly when he started moving towards her again.
He complied. His toe had touched something... his gaze fell to the notebook on the floor, splayed there, facedown, like it had been flung -- which, of course, it had. He leaned over to pick it up. "You dropped your--"
"Don't touch that!" she all but screamed at him, scrambling off the bed to snatch it out of his hand before he could turn it over, careful to keep the gun behind her, out of his reach (save for him lunging at her). She quickly moved backwards to return to her spot on the bed. For a moment, the gun had been pointed at him. She didn't mean to threaten him with it or anything... he MUST know I wouldn't hurt him... why does he look so scared? Big bad Joel, hardcore survivor, evader of death, slayer of hundreds if not thousands of men and infected over the years... killed by a sixteen-year-old girl. I could. Man, I could fucking shoot him right now and he couldn't stop me. Talk about feeling powerful!
She set the notebook beside her and rested the gun in her lap again, her fingers dusting over it lightly like she was petting an animal. He could have grabbed me right there and taken it, but he didn't. Why didn't he? Why does he still seem so... She couldn't look at him. Not just because he looked terrible, but because it hurt, for some reason.
"Can I jus' turn on the light? It's dark in here."
Ellie's eyes were accustomed to the dimness of the night light, and the room was actually brighter than usual with a bit of natural light coming in from the hall, but she knew Joel wasn't used to it. "Okay."
He switched on the light and stood there warily for a moment before moving towards the bed.
"No -- go back over there," Ellie ordered him, gripping the gun protectively.
At least he was obedient. "If I sit on the floor over here, will you put the gun away? Please?" He shut the door and slid down on his butt, leaning back against it. "See? I ain't gonna take it from you."
Not yet, anyway. But she did set it aside, if only to shut him up about it.
"Thank you," he said, and she could hear the relief in those two words. "How... how are you?"
She didn't dignify that with an answer. Just played with the scraps of paper littering the bed, watching her hand grasp and release them as if the motion were something fascinating to behold.
"You look a thousand times better than you did," he ventured.
Ellie snorted. "Than like three or four months ago? Yeah, I guess I would."
"Two an' a half," he corrected her. "I'm sorry."
"Are you gonna keep saying that? Cuz... repeating it doesn't make it all okay."
"I know. I don' expect you to... I don' know what I expect. But I'm here now an' I wanna make it up to you."
Do NOT get excited about that, Ellie commanded herself sternly, trying hard to not-look at him. It doesn't matter how sincere he seems -- he doesn't mean it. Even if he promises. Because obviously promises mean nothing to him. "Pffff. Here for how long?"
She picked up a petal of paper and started slowly ripping it into even tinier scraps. "So... did you kill those guys -- is that why you came back? Would you even know if you killed them? You don't know who they are. Not like you took me with you to confirm."
"I... no. I didn' find 'em," he said, and Ellie thought he sounded apologetic. As if she had asked him to go after the motherfuckers and leave her behind.
"Then how do you know you're here for good?" she scoffed. "You don't wanna kill them anymore?"
"Of course I wanna kill 'em."
"Then why'd you come back? Didn't you decide you were gonna kill them or die trying?"
"For you. To see you."
Ellie didn't dare look at him then. He was saying the right things. Empty words, that's all. "Well, you've seen me, you can leave again," she said nastily.
He didn't seem rattled or put off by her attitude at all. "I ain't leavin'."
"I've heard that before," she reminded him icily.
"I won't this time. I'll tell ya what made me come back... specifically... but not now. Not when you're... upset."
"I'm not upset. Do you see me yelling or... crying or anything? I'm just fine." She lifted the tiny scraps up high and let them rain down over her lap. She sneaked a peek at him.
He nodded. Looked at her with... Ellie didn't know what, exactly. Not anger, or even sadness. It was more like... wonder.
"How are you doin', really?" he tried again.
She looked down, determined not to fall for his act. "Okay."
"Yeah? That's an improvement."
No, because it doesn't mean what you think it means. But, whatever.
"Can you walk all right?" he asked.
She didn't want to give him any information like that about herself. Things that even virtual strangers knew about her that he didn't. Things that didn't even matter.
"Your ribs heal up okay?" he continued. "I hope you're feelin' good... physically... no more pain?"
Ellie did kind of feel like a bitch for not answering him, though. Even if she couldn't trust the man, she knew that his concern for her wasn't actually an act. It still didn't make her want to talk to him about what shape she was in. Does he even know about the baby? She certainly didn't want to answer his questions about that. She decided to say one nice thing in an effort to shift the subject away from her health. "I'm... glad you didn't get your ass killed out there."
"Me too. But... how's your wrist? An' your foot?"
Damn. He's as stubborn as ever. Well, she could out-stubborn him. "Ask Tommy, I'm sure he'll tell you anything you wanna know." She would let Tommy do the honors of announcing her new 'condition' -- if he hadn't already. Maybe Joel just didn't know how to broach the subject. She did have a noticeable tummy bulge now, but only barely; it was easy to hide it under her sweatshirt.
"I ain't askin' Tommy, I'm askin' you."
She sullenly plucked at the shreds of paper.
He didn't take the hint. Any of her hints, and it wasn't like she was being subtle. He just kept asking. "You still havin' nightmares, or..."
"Look, I don't wanna talk about any of that shit," she said exasperatedly. "Everyone here knows this stuff except you."
He was quiet a moment. "I'd like to get to know things about you again."
She sighed. "Why would I let you do that?"
"Because... I truly am sorry, Ellie. I shouldn'ta left."
Shit, he keeps saying the right things! And they were so good to hear; it was hard to pretend this wasn't music to her ears, salve on her soul. But... "You didn't even say goodbye." Her lip quivered. Don't look at him.
"I'm sorry about that, too. I knew I'd never be able to go if I... an' at the time, I really thought I had to. You didn' really want me around, an' I--"
"Oh, so it's my fault?" She already knew it was. Why am I making him tell me it's not?
"It's no one's fault but my own. I didn' handle things right. I'll leave you alone if you want me to. I jus' had to... lay eyes on you. See that you were all right."
So you can leave again, she thought bitterly. "Yep! I'm fine. You can go."
He didn't move. He was probably trying to think of more shit to say to get her to talk to him the way he wanted her to. She glanced at him... nope, that wasn't it -- he was eyeing the gun.
She made a big show of putting it back in the nightstand drawer, which she had to scoot to her side to reach. She shut the drawer and returned to her previous spot on the bed. "Happy now?"
"Not really." Although, he did stand up. "You can jus' pull it out again when I leave," he pointed out. "Promise me you won't... hurt yourself."
Ellie snorted. "Why shouldn't I? My life is over." One of those things she wasn't ever supposed to say out loud. She said it without emotion, for pure shock value.
Joel reacted satisfactorily -- by looking appalled. "No it ain't, it's jus' beginnin' -- whatever you're feelin', it's--"
She cut him off. "Okay, I really don't wanna talk about this. And I'm sure you don't either. I'm not gonna kill myself, okay? I promise."
"Ellie... look at me, please?"
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and stubbornly looked away. "No."
"You seem better... physically. Skinnier, though... an' you were too skinny to begin with..."
"Well, you're skinnier, too. And you look like shit," she said to the wall.
"And I reek, I know. I'll fix that. I jus' wanna know... how you're feelin'. Or... what you're feelin', I mean. If you're--"
"Didn't you hear me? I am not talking about that with you. Just go home." She realized that sounded harsh, and she shouldn't have cared, but she softened her tone. "You must be tired... you should go home and rest. If you're not leaving town again, we can talk some other time. Can you send Tommy up here? Please, Joel." That ought to make him feel okay about leaving her alone with the weapon. And if it hurt that she wanted to talk to Tommy instead of him, so much the better.
Joel hesitated another moment, like he was trying to think of something to say... but then changed his mind and said nothing. He left.
Then she wished she hadn't sent for Tommy, because as soon as Joel was out of sight, her throat constricted with tears. Not that Tommy hadn't seen her cry, of course, but... still.
Tommy came upstairs quickly. He closed the door behind him and approached her with a cautious smile. "Hey... good to see Joel back, huh?"
Ellie shrugged. She wasn't naïve enough to think that he and Joel hadn't already exchanged at least a few words about her.
He sat next to her, scattering some of the paper petals. He made no mention of them; he was pretty accustomed to her weirdness by now.
She leaned against him, saving herself the awkwardness of him studying her face, and he put his arm around her shoulders. She swallowed. "Did you, um... tell him that I'm..."
"No. Thought you might want to."
"I don't. I really really don't. Can you please tell him? I don't wanna see the look on his face."
He didn't ask her what look she expected. "Are you sure? Maybe he'll surprise you."
Ellie very much doubted that. There was no good way to react to such awful news. It should have been a happy occasion... maybe ten years from now. Her and Bailey, married, telling Joel he's going to be a grandpa. She could imagine his face lighting up then. But this? This was just all wrong. "I'm sure. Do you think he'll stick around?"
"I do. He seems... different."
Tommy thought for a moment. "Not so angry that he looks like he'll explode any minute. That's how he looked last time I saw him. When the gate told me he was headed this way, I waited out front for him. I expected we'd get into a fight. You know how that goes... we don' tend to see eye to eye on things a lot of the time. One of us loses our temper, things get heated. It wasn' like that. Instead, after I told him I was happy to see him alive an' all, it was mostly me hollerin' at him, an' him takin' it. He's like a dog slinkin' around with his tail between his legs... like he knows he done wrong."
"I wasn't real nice to him either," she confessed a little sheepishly. "He prob'ly expected me to like... hug him and tell him how much I missed him and all that."
He rubbed her arm soothingly. "He knew when he left that you'd be angry. Then when he didn' come back with the others... I reckon he knew you'd be furious."
"I was getting used to him not being around. I really was. And now he comes back and..." And what? she wondered. Now I can't kill myself. -Why do I think that? Of course I can. I can if I want to. Always.
"He's kinda... stirrin' up things you tried to stop feelin'?"
"Yeah. I can't do it, Tommy. I can't let myself care if he's gonna just... take off whenever he feels like it."
"I really don' think he's gonna do that, sweetheart. But it's all right to be... you know. Cautious. Make him earn your trust back."
She swiped at her eyes, annoyed with them for being leaky. "But if I'm not happy... I don't wanna make him leave again. Maybe he will if he thinks I don't want him around."
Tommy one-arm-squeezed her. "Don' worry about that. You didn' make him leave in the first place, an' you won' make him leave now."
"Even if he thinks I hate him?"
Tommy seemed amused at that, so maybe she truly didn't need to worry. "I don' think it would matter; he'd stay anyway. But he knows you don' hate him, trust me," he assured her. "Give him a chance, though. Can you do that?"
Ellie sighed. "I'll try." She wanted to believe Tommy -- and Joel himself -- but in her heart, she couldn't quite. It was too risky. What if Tommy was wrong? Going home, having to be perfect enough that Joel wouldn't leave again, was a pressure she didn't think she could face just yet, especially when she could barely even talk to him. She pulled away and looked up at Tommy pleadingly. "Can I still stay here? Please?"
"'Course you can. Long as you want." He looked like he meant it. That maybe he didn't secretly think of her as an unwanted burden.
Maybe I can't kill myself cuz of Tommy, either. She threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his collar, still trying to stifle tears. "Thanks, Tommy." They hugged for a few moments, until Ellie pulled back. "So you'll tell Joel about... everything. Don't tell him I told you to tell him, okay? Just like... play dumb and ask him if I said anything, and when he wants to know what the hell you're talking about, then tell him?"
Tommy chuckled. "Don' worry about it. I'll tell him. I'm sure he's gonna want to talk to you about it. Maybe it'd be a good time for all of us to talk?"
Ellie shook her head. "No, I can't."
"All right. Sooner or later you're gonna have to. You know that."
That was one downside of not killing herself; she would have to face the fact that there was something growing inside her that shouldn't be there, and that eventually, it would have to come out.
* * * * * * * * * *
At breakfast the next day, Tommy informed her that he had broken the news to Joel. He said he'd taken it well -- but Ellie had expected him to say that even if it was a lie.
An hour or so later, she was dozing on her bed when Joel came to visit. The knock woke her. "Come in," she called to him, not bothering to sit up. She was laying on her side, her back to the wall, Bailey's stuffed dog tucked under her chin.
"Mornin'. How are you?" he asked her as he perched on the end of the bed. Just like he used to.
Happy to see you. "Tired," she said. He was really there. She wasn't dreaming, and yesterday hadn't been a dream, either.
"Didn' sleep good?"
She just stared at the clock (which she never did set to the right time, even though she'd plugged it in). The paper petals had been shredded into even tinier pieces, with the last note to Joel added to their numbers; she would have died if he'd seen that and believed that she actually intended to kill herself. He might have freaked out and locked her up somewhere without access to anything she could possibly turn into a weapon. She shouldn't have cared about that, though... was she starting to outgrow her prison walls? It didn't matter; she'd eliminated the evidence of her nuttiness. All that remained of her note was the illegible bits of paper, now serving as a featherbed of sorts for Bailey's action figure.
Ellie didn't know what to say to Joel, how much to tell him or withhold from him... how to go about 'giving him a chance' in a way that didn't feel like giving him everything he wanted from her, as if he hadn't broken her heart by leaving.
"Did Tommy talk to you about the gun?" he inquired.
"Yeah." Joel hadn't left the house when he'd left her room last night; he'd waited for Tommy to come down so he could make sure Tommy worried about the fucking gun, too. Tommy had been tempted to take the gun back. They'd discussed it at length, and in the end, it almost seemed like he understood... and he didn't want to deprive her of something that made her feel safe. He'd decided to trust her. She had agreed to talk to him, or someone, the next time she felt like 'playing' with it that way... but somehow, Ellie could agree to that, knowing full well that if the mood struck her, she wouldn't feel like talking, and then she'd have no qualms about blowing off the agreement -- justifying it to herself with the knowledge that she had no intention of blowing her brains out. I'm no better than Joel with promises, and justifications for breaking them, she realized. Only... this was different. Because she wasn't hurting anyone, not even herself. "I told him I'm not going to kill myself and he believes me. I wouldn't do that... to Tommy," she added spitefully.
If it hurt Joel's feelings at all, he didn't let on. "I knew he'd watch over you when I was gone. Maria an' Eddie, too. They're all good people. They think of you as family."
"That's no excuse for leaving," she said quietly.
"I ain't makin' excuses. Jus' sayin'. I knew there was nothin' you could get from me that you couldn' get from them."
She turned her head to glare at him. "You really think that?" Though she'd already suspected he did.
"You sayin' I'm wrong?"
She lay her head back down on its side. She didn't want to look at his face too much -- a face that had been gentled somehow, reminding her of the softer Joel she'd come to know towards the end of their journey, and especially once they'd settled in to Jackson. "Yeah. You're wrong," she mumbled. If he asked her to explain that... she couldn't.
But he didn't. "I don' think you should have a gun when--"
"Will you forget about the fucking gun already?" Ellie groaned, exasperated. "It's not your call. You left. You can't just..."
"I'll talk to Tommy about it, then."
She glared at him again. "And what, bully him into taking it from me? I need it, Joel. There was a raid after you left, you know."
"There was? What--"
"Yeah. It was scary." Ellie didn't bother to tell him she hadn't been anywhere near the action, or that no one had died.
"I'm sorry I wasn'--"
"Stop saying that!" she groaned again. I should probably let him finish his sentences... but it seemed like everything he started to say irritated her too much.
He dropped the subject, at least. "I... brought you somethin'." He paused, perhaps waiting for her to sit up. "It ain't much, jus'... somethin' I found, an' wanted to save for you..."
She dutifully sat up beside him, and he produced a plastic bottle of something from his jacket. He handed it to her -- a nearly-full bottle of honey. Ellie used to love making honey sandwiches, drizzling the stuff into her oatmeal or cream of wheat, even eating spoonfuls of it raw. It didn't matter how old it was; it never went bad. You just had to microwave it to soften it up. They'd run out of it last spring and, to Ellie's knowledge, the town's trade runs hadn't brought in any more. She turned the bottle over in her hands, running her thumb over what remained of the faded label.
"I know it ain't much," he repeated... apologetically, it seemed to Ellie. "That it don'... make up for anythin'. I jus' wanted you to have it."
She glanced at him. Wondered if he expected her to throw it in his face and blather on about how she doesn't care about shit like this anymore. Instead, she simply said, "Thank you." She would eat it, even though she knew it wouldn't taste as sweet as it used to.
"Ellie, it's depressin' as hell in here. Can I take them boards down off the window?"
"No." Ellie still needed that barrier... from the stars, especially. The moon. The world. And she needed to stay imprisoned.
"Then can we go sit outside or somethin'? It's chilly, but the sun's shinin' an' it's pretty nice out."
"I like it here. Tommy doesn't make me come out if I don't feel like it."
Her attempts to piss him off via mentions of his brother kept falling flat. "An' you can come right back up here afterwards if you want. Come on, kiddo. Please?"
"Maybe I don't even wanna talk to you..." She did and she didn't. ...mostly she did, she realized. If only to hear the sound of his voice in real time, not just in her memories and suicidal fantasies.
"Can you jus'... try? For a few minutes?"
Heaving a long-suffering sigh, she got up and pulled a sweatshirt over her head -- Bailey's Notre Dame shirt. She kind of wanted to preserve the Bailey scent of it by not wearing it, but also kind of wanted to feel like she was close to him by wearing it; the latter option won out. She hadn't washed it, though, and didn't plan on ever washing it again. Their scents could mingle, that way. She thrust her feet into her ratty old fuzzy slippers. Didn't bother changing her flannel pajama pants. "Lead the way."
The sun was bright, brighter than it had any right to be, the air fresh and crisp and cold. Ellie shouldn't have been a part of it... it was part of her previous life. It hurt to be reminded of everything she'd lost. She tried to block it all out as they sat in the loveseat swing in the backyard -- a swing that Ellie used to love. When was the last time she'd sat there...
Joel was recalling the same memory. "Remember that barbecue they had back here... we sat here an' somehow I got my shirt caught on... this little thingamajig here..." -- he grabbed at the metal hinge -- "...you thought it was the funniest thing for some reason, so I kinda played it up a bit..."
She couldn't comprehend how something as dumb as that had ever made her laugh. "I was so stupid."
"No you weren't. You were jus'... happier."
She leaned away from him, against the side of the swing. "I'm not that person anymore," she reminded him.
"You're still you."
"Not really. I'm... nevermind." She didn't want to get into the subhuman stuff with him.
"Nothing." Literally. Ha.
He waited to see if she would answer honestly, but didn't push it when she didn't. "Listen... Tommy told me about your... predicament. Don' get mad at him, now -- he figured I should know an' it might be easier for everyone if... if he was the one that told me. He also said you're... kinda in denial about it."
"I'm not," she said coldly. "For fuck's sake -- everyone else was denying it a lot longer than me. I know there's this fungus growing inside me... that has nothing to do with the Cordyceps."
"It ain't fungus, for Chrissakes."
"Well, it's just as bad. Worse, actually." She felt his hand on her shoulder... and didn't shrug it off, although she wondered how he could stand to touch her now that she was even more disgusting than she used to be.
"I didn' say it wasn' bad... it's hard on you, yes. But... he also told me you're not sure if... he said that Bailey might be the father."
Was he going to lecture her about that now? "He's probably not."
"But he could be."
She sighed. "Yeah, we..."
"Right. I don' need to hear the details." That translated to "please don't tell me, I can't stand to hear about my baby girl having sex." Which was perfectly fine with her.
Did he want her to apologize? Fuck that. She wasn't sorry that Bailey didn't die a virgin, and that she hadn't lost her virginity to that fucking asshole Tony. Hadn't she lost enough? Maybe Joel was trying to put her on the defensive, though. Get himself off the hot seat. She stared at a wheat-colored patch of grass on the ground. "I disobeyed you. I know, it's part of what makes me a terrible person. But what you did was worse. It had nothing to do with you... I didn't hurt you," she muttered.
"I'm sorry, Ellie," he said yet again. "It don' make you a terrible person. It makes you a... a teenager. An' I kinda suspected maybe..."
She turned around and looked at him incredulously. "You knew?" -and didn't go batshit?
"Suspected," he repeated. "That you two were doin' more than jus' kissin', anyway. I wasn' sure what to do about it, if I should do anything about it..."
"Weren't you mad?"
"Not really. ...maybe a little," he amended. She still saw no anger in his face. "But I wasn' sure. I meant to talk to Maria about it, see if she'd talk to you. Thought maybe havin' a woman's perspective on... reasons to wait... maybe if it wasn' comin' from someone you thought was bein' overprotective, that... I don' know. But I never did talk to her. I kept puttin' it off."
"I'm not sorry I did it," she said quietly, fidgeting with her shirt, unable to look at him now. She'd heard the guilt in his voice, and this was one thing she didn't want him to feel guilty about; it wasn't his fault. "But I am sorry that doing it meant breaking my promise. I thought if you didn't know, then... it wouldn't upset you or anything, see, and then eventually I'd talk to you about it again like maybe after me'n'him had been together forever and then you'd say it was okay. And it sorta happened by accident -- er, I mean, little by little, until... we actually didn't even have real sex until... just a few days before."
He squeezed her shoulder. "It's all right. It don' matter now."
And Ellie figured he was probably glad it would never be an issue for them again. "Aren't you gonna tell me we're even now? We each broke a promise?" She snorted. "I'm surprised you didn't point that out to me already."
"What, you think I'm keepin' score? One thing has nothin' to do with the other. I don' expect you to call it square jus' 'cause... no. I know it don' work like that. It never even occurred to me, actually."
Ellie didn't think it made things even, either. If it did, how could she still be so angry with him? Yet if there was a scale for measuring bad decisions, the weight of hers still far exceeded his. "Well, I'm paying for my mistakes now. I have to carry this..." She let that thought die as she wadded up her shirt in her fists, flexing and unflexing.
"You don' have to deal with it all by yourself."
"I know. And I won't be dealing with it forever cuz I'm giving it away. I'm sure you're happy about that."
"No, Ellie. I ain't happy about any of it... I hate that you have to..." He sighed. "Tommy also said you made that decision awfully quick, an' when anyone tries to talk to you more about it, you shut down. ...I can feel you doin' it now." He dropped his hand. He must have meant that he felt her tense up a little, because no way could he read her mind. Right?? At least not to the extent that he could when they were close. "I ain't gonna push it," he said. "I'd be a hypocrite... considerin'."
He didn't have to finish that thought. She glanced at him. "I guess I owe you an apology for every time I tried to make you talk about something that hurts."
"No, see... talkin' about it was good, in the end. I needed to. I jus'... needed a whole lot of pushes. An' someone special doin' the pushin'." He offered her a small smile.
She didn't reflect it back to him. Instead, she turned away. Don't let him get to you. Just because he said you were special...
"Maybe you don' trust me now," he continued. "I wouldn' blame you. If you wanna talk to someone else, that's fine. But you can't keep shuttin' everyone out."
"You sound like Tommy."
"Do I? I'll take that as a compliment. He's always been better at... you know... talkin' an' shit."
That almost made her smile. He was trying. She looked at him again. "You think you're bad at it, but you're not. That's not why... um, are you mad that I wanna stay here?"
"Not at all," he said, sounding -- and looking -- quite sincere. "It's good for you to be around the three o' them."
"I am glad you're back, though. And you do seem different. You don't look at me like..." Like the filthy slut that I am.
He lightly traced the cut on her cheek, which was much less noticeable than it used to be. It was the only visible scar that remained, and it too would fade into nothing before long. "I was so... so incredibly angry, I can't even describe it to you. It's good seein' you walkin' around again... your face back to its normal color... well, a bit paler than usual, not sunburned... but still. I was hopin' you didn' notice, back then... how I..."
"Notice what? That you were pissed off? Kinda hard not to notice," she said dryly.
His hand dropped back to her shoulder. "'Pissed off' ain't the right term. Furious as hell, more like. Even that don' do it justice."
"Justice. Right. Like what you set out to get."
"It wasn'... noble or nothin'. Vengeance would be more like it."
"For what they did to you. Yes."
"For me... even though I didn't want you to go. And you promised me you wouldn't," she pointed out stubbornly.
"I meant it at the time. I swear I did. But the days went by with me doin' nothin' day after day after day an'... I snapped."
Ellie snorted again. "You meant it at the time? See, the thing about promises is, they're supposed to be, you know... forever? Not just when you fucking feel like it. And how is it that you 'snapped' when you planned the whole thing out at least a day ahead?"
"It was very hastily planned," he said defensively.
"But you didn't just snap and run off."
"All right, maybe 'snapped' ain't the best word for it. Somethin'... somethin' changed, though. I couldn't jus'..." He seemed frustrated, not being able to explain himself, but Ellie thought she knew what he was getting at. "Anyway... I didn' wanna go off half-cocked. Others were willin' to help, an' I thought... Plus I had to tell Tommy, I couldn' jus' up an' leave you alone without a word to anyone."
"Anyone except me!"
"I knew if I told you face to face I'd never be able to leave."
Like that was a good excuse. She wasn't about to let him justify his actions with that. "Yeah, well, don't you think that should have told you something? Like, maybe you shouldn't leave."
"Maybe. I wasn' thinkin' too clearly."
"So, now I'm supposed to believe whatever you say because you're 'thinking clearly.' Until the next time you get mad and forget your fucking promises." She turned away again, shrugging his hand off her shoulder, willing herself not to cry. She leaned into the forward pole, twisting her body to face away from him as much as she could. The cold was starting to gnaw at her, despite the sunshine warming her face.
"It was wrong. I know. I'm so sorry, Ellie."
She felt his hand on her back, and let it stay there. He kept reaching out to her, in words and gestures, and she almost asked him why he bothered. How long would he keep trying? But... she did want him to keep trying. She couldn't lie to herself about that.
She stared at an evergreen tree across the yard. Riley had come back, too... people weren't always gone forever when they left her. But had Riley stayed away from her, she might still be alive today. And I never would have met Joel...
Riley had been back (back from the dead, in Ellie's eyes) for such a short time, only like an hour before they got infected, that it all seemed like a dream. A wonderful dream that evolved into a nightmare that in turn led her to this man who ended up changing her life completely. Even though they hadn't gone on to live happily ever after like some fucking fairytale, it had been amazing to finally love and be loved in return. As close to a fairytale as they could get, until she shattered the illusion... and Joel pissed on the remains.
"I'll prove to you that I'm stickin' around from now on," Joel continued. "If you'll jus' let me."
"Would you still feel it was wrong to leave if you'd actually found the guys?" she challenged, glancing back at him.
Joel hesitated. It was all the answer Ellie needed.
She turned away again. "Thought so. You... you say all the right things, the things you're supposed to say to make me forgive you, or... to make me feel better... but it's just... noise. It's not real words with real meaning that... that..." Damnit, don't cry! she commanded herself, sniffling.
Joel's hand had started rubbing her back soothingly as she spoke... now it tried to pull her towards him.
"Don't," she snarled.
He let it rest on her back again. "It'll take some time," he said softly. "I don' expect you to forgive me. I made a mistake. I have to pay for it. I get it."
"It's not about punishing you!" she snapped, turning to glare at him. "I can't trust you."
"'Cause you think I might leave again."
"You can't promise me that you won't, because your fucking promises don't mean shit!" She turned away angrily, resting her forehead against the pole.
"I'm sorry, Ellie. I truly am."
"Stop saying-- ugh, that doesn't change anything, Joel."
They sat quietly for a moment. Joel pulled away from her. "Do you want me to leave you alone?"
He said nothing, perhaps waiting to see if the 'no' would stick.
"That's the fucked up thing," she said, leaning against the back of the swing and wiping her eyes. Joel had angled himself towards her, his elbow resting over the back of the swing. She stayed in the corner and stared at her lap. "I hate what you did and... I hate that I can't believe anything you say... but I still wanna hear it. So I can pretend, I guess," she confessed. Maybe if I'm real with him just a little, he won't leave me... it will be enough...
"You don' have to pretend." He lifted his arm off the back of the swing to stroke her hair... and she let him. She kept fucking letting him. "I'm back," he said quietly. "I'm here. All I wanna do now is help you. Will you at least let me try?"
"No one can help me," she mumbled.
He sounded so sure of that. She wanted to believe it so badly. "I don't know why you'd even want to," she admitted.
"What -- help you? Why wouldn't I?"
"Cuz this isn't what you signed up for when... when we came here."
"Mm. What is it you think I 'signed up' for?"
"Um... laughter and smiles and... fun things, like the guitar... nice things like... like the hammock... don't you miss all that?"
"Sure I do. Don't you?" He continued petting her hair slowly, gently... lovingly, it seemed to Ellie.
She wondered if he'd missed doing that, too. Even though she knew it was one of those things that didn't matter anymore, Ellie was glad she'd washed her hair yesterday, that it wasn't all gross like the last time he'd seen her. He could thread his fingers through it easily now instead of losing them in a filthy web of tangles. She liked that he liked her hair. But that was vain and shallow of her, and it didn't make sense for her to even have an opinion about such things anymore. "All that stuff... that was a different life. A different me. It's all gone."
"Different, maybe. Sure, yeah, things were different before. But you're still my Ellie, no matter what. You're still my baby girl." His voice broke a little on the term of endearment, and Ellie knew if she looked at him then, she'd lose it completely.
She kept staring at her lap. Her own voice was quivery, too. "Except I'm not."
"You are," he said firmly. "What, you think I... that I bailed on you 'cause things were hard? That ain't why I left. I left because I couldn' fuckin' take it anymore, that... that I let these two motherfuckers hurt my baby girl an' there I was, sittin' on my ass doin' nothin' about it."
She bristled a little. "You still feel it. You still feel that way. You wanna hunt them down."
"I ain't leavin' you again."
"But you're not denying it." Not that she could blame him, really. How would she feel if he said he was over it now? That he was okay with what they did? She might hate him for that. It was a no-win situation for him.
"It don' matter -- I'm not leaving you."
"They might already be dead for all we know," she pointed out. In case he needed extra incentive to give up the hunt... later, when his promises were forgotten in a fit of rage or something.
"That's right. Even if they ain't dead, tryin' to find 'em would be like lookin' for a needle in a haystack at this point."
"No," said Ellie. "I could find a needle in a haystack. Might take me forever but I could, cuz it would just stay there, it wouldn't be like... possibly jumping back to a place I already looked, if it felt like it. If I pulled the clumps of hay out and sifted through them all methodical-like I'd eventually find it."
"You're right. It'd be harder than that, then."
She could hear the smile in his voice. She risked another glance at him. "I'm glad you're here, Joel. Really. But it's cold out here and I need to pee and I... want to be alone for a while. Just a while, not... not forever."
He dropped his hand to her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze, then backed off. "That's fine. I'd like to keep comin' to see you, if that's all right."
Again, she had to wonder why, but she was done talking about this shit. She nodded. "Okay."
"I'll see you this afternoon then?"
Really? She had thought he might say 'tomorrow,' or 'in a couple days.' This afternoon was so...
"Too soon?" he asked, apparently misjudging her hesitation as reluctance.
"No, it's okay. See you later, then." She got up and started walking back inside before Joel could see her face. Maybe he still loves me a little. That's something, at least. She could feel her lips twitching up into a little smile -- a real smile, unbidden, honest and pure and not at all like the plastic smiles she'd become accustomed to wearing.
~Continue to Chapter 14~