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: 3351
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong,
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the spring becomes the rose.
~Bette Midler "The Rose"
The hammock was getting plenty of use that summer -- as the baby's favorite spot to nap. Joel thought that had more to do with the coziness of sleeping on top of Ellie and/or himself than the actual hammock, but neither of them minded catering to that preference -- at least in the afternoon, when they enjoyed full shade there.
Presently, the three of them were doing just that. The little guy was sleeping on his stomach on Ellie's chest, his cherubic face turned towards Joel. Ellie fussed with the blanket -- a gift from Marcus's aunt, who had crocheted it herself. Joel had always thought of crochet and needlework and such to be old lady hobbies, but that wasn't so these days. They'd received a surprising amount of hand-crafted gifts from various townspeople. Many from people they barely even knew.
"Do you think he's gonna get cold?" Ellie fretted. "It's kinda breezy out here today..."
"It's a warm breeze, though, an' he's all covered up," Joel pointed out. "If he gets cold, I'm suuuure he'll let us know." The kid had a fine set of lungs, that was for sure.
"Wonder if I'll ever get used to Jackson summers and actually think this is hot," Ellie chuckled and let out a huge yawn. "I think it's naptime for Ellie too."
"Looks like. You were up half the night." Joel hoped the boy would start sleeping through the night soon. Ellie liked to say that it was her fault that he didn't yet -- because he'd learned his funky sleep habits from her in utero. Sometimes the only way to make him stop crying was to walk him around a while until he fell back asleep (laying him down before he was fully asleep tended to result in starting the cycle anew with more crying), and that could take an hour or more.
They had a baby monitor, and the original idea was for the two of them to alternate nights with it, but even when it was Joel's turn to get up in the middle of the night, Ellie would already be there by the time he dragged his ass down the hall to the baby's room. Her room was right next to the baby's, and she always heard him, even without the monitor. She said that sometimes she went in there before he even cried... that she just knew he was awake. So now the baby monitor remained on Ellie's night stand (and even though she really didn't need to use it, she still turned it on, 'just in case'). "Go on, take a 'lil snooze then. We got prob'ly close to an hour 'til dinner."
"I should probably go help Eddie with that, though... I'm being lazy..."
"Nah, he can manage. You could use some sleep."
Joel probably could have nodded off himself if he'd given it half a shot, but he wouldn't, not if Ellie would be napping. He was content to enjoy the companionable silence. Nothing else gave him quite as peaceful a feeling as snuggling with his two kids, the three of them together comprising as real a family as Joel had ever had.
The baby's name was Samuel Bailey Miller. Reserving the 'kiddo' nickname for Ellie, Joel had taken to calling him Sambo, which irked Ellie; she preferred Sam or Sammy. She had read a baby names book cover to cover, lamenting that not knowing the sex meant having to pick out two names. She got rather obsessive over it. She'd wanted Bailey to be the middle name fairly early on, and Joel was fine with that. It worked for a girl or a boy. Using it as a first name hadn't felt right to her. They ended up with Samuel for a boy because it was a good Irish name that Ellie thought Bailey and Rachel would have liked, and also because Ellie figured that the world was missing a Sam, one who died far too young, so it would be nice if she could contribute a new Sam to it. That last was a little hokey for Joel's taste, but also incredibly sweet, and he liked the name well enough.
The universe did have a funny way of working things out. He'd never viewed Ellie as a replacement for Sarah; no one could replace her, and his heart still ached for his first daughter every day. Every single day without fail. But it wasn't lost on him that he'd been given a chance to sort of pick up where he'd left off with Sarah... to see this daughter through to adulthood. And now, with Sam, he'd been given a chance to do the early stuff right -- the shit he'd fucked up on with Sarah. With Sarah's mother and Joel both being so young, and also having to work their asses off to make ends meet, it had been extremely difficult. He'd righted some of the wrongs later on, but he'd always had to work too hard to spend as much time with her as he should have... and when they did have time together, he was often exhausted. Not as attentive, not as... there, with her.
That wasn't the case at all this time around. The world had gone to hell, sure, but at least there were no 'ends' to make meet. No money issues, work days were much shorter (and less frequent, at least for the time being), no endless fighting with the baby's mother about everything under the sun. Ellie was far more mature and responsible than Katie had been. Not that they always agreed on everything... for one thing, Joel wanted to try letting Sam cry himself out sometimes, especially in the middle of the night. He couldn't get Ellie to understand that it wasn't cruel to leave him be.
No, things certainly weren’t perfect; Ellie still suffered from mental health issues, too. The panic attacks, feelings of despair, spacing out and not even realizing any time had passed... and he suspected she still had nightmares, too, although she wouldn't admit it.
Ellie had never been completely innocent in the time he'd known her, and he'd seen the wretched world sap more innocence with each passing month when they were on the road. By the time they'd reached Jackson that spring, she was hardened, bitter, fearful... it had taken a while (for both of them) to adjust to living in civilization again, among strangers who had to be blindly trusted to a certain extent. To walk down the street and not feel the need to hide at the sight of other people, to assess their numbers, their intentions... to approximate the level of danger, and respond appropriately. Truth be told, Joel still couldn't not do that, in his head if not in his actions. Not after some of the shit he'd seen in the past couple decades. But over time, Ellie had unlearned some of those ways, and she seemed to believe that no harm would come to her as long as the two of them were together. It was like some of her lost innocence had been restored -- only to be brutally and irrevocably obliterated, because he hadn't protected her. He had failed her, whether she saw it that way or not.
She knew that he would give his own life for hers, but it wasn't enough to make her feel safe. There was nothing he could do that would allow her to believe that the world was a good place -- which would be a lie, but oh if she could just believe it again, at least to the extent she once had... she was like a kid who finds out that Santa Claus isn't real: no going back. Only pretending, perhaps. She admitted that she liked to pretend sometimes. That because of him, at least that much was possible. And for little Sam... well, all Sam knew was that when he cried, someone would fix what ailed him.
It killed Joel that he couldn't do that for Ellie.
He still hadn't forgiven himself for what happened to her last summer. Maybe he never would. And it was hard to let go of the anger; it flared up from time to time, usually in conjunction with one of Ellie's panic attacks. That motherfucker he'd killed had deserved a hundred times worse, and it was unnerving that they'd never know if the second dickhead was alive or not.
He had to keep reminding himself that it didn't matter. That there was nothing he could do about it. It was out of his control, and trying to fight that fact would be like trying to stop a storm from coming. It wouldn't do Ellie or Sam any good for him to take off to parts unknown on an impossible quest for justice. They needed him here.
No, it definitely wasn't all smooth sailing, but overall, the waters weren't all that choppy. There was love and laughter and happiness, and it was just as real as the pain and sadness.
While the universe was doing its thing, Joel figured it would have found a way to make Tommy a father, too. Time hadn't yet run out, but with Maria pushing forty, it possibly just wasn't meant to be, at least not biologically. Tommy got marriage, Joel got fatherhood -- he'd take that deal any day. And with all of them living together (albeit not in some newly-built dream house that Ellie's hyperactive imagination had conjured up), at least his brother would get to see little Sambo grow up, and be an important part of his life. Tommy and Ellie had also grown closer while Joel was out hunting assholes. If there was one good thing to come from that, it was Ellie finally accepting Tommy, Maria, and Eddie as her family -- recognizing that she had a place in the family by her own right, not just by extension through Joel. Hell -- Joel was pretty sure they all preferred her company to his any day, and he couldn't blame them. He wouldn't have blamed her if she'd felt the same, but Joel was still clearly her favorite person.
At least, he had been -- until Sam was born.
Ellie had seemed to have her heart set on having a girl. She'd tried to downplay it as no big deal, said that even though she'd mentioned wanting a girl before, she truly didn't care which sex it was... but Joel could hear it in her voice. When the doc announced it was a boy, Joel had held his breath waiting for Ellie's reaction. After firing every obscenity in her arsenal during labor, she'd grown eerily silent at the end, not saying a word while the doctor's assistant cleaned the baby up a little. Joel had smoothed her hair back off her sweaty forehead, squeezed her hand, and told her she did real good, that the baby's crying sounded healthy. She said nothing, and her eyes were all glazed, unseeing... Joel had started to worry that something was seriously wrong, but when they placed the squalling baby in her arms, she came around. She had looked down into his scrunched-up little red face and started crying. Joel hadn't known what to say. It felt a little ridiculous to apologize for this beautiful, healthy baby being the wrong gender, but it was all he could think to say at the time.
Then she'd told him to shut up -- she wasn't crying because she was sad. "He's perfect," she'd said. And Joel had sighed in relief.
She was right, of course. It took no effort whatsoever to love the kid. He had a head full of jet-black hair that Ellie liked to sculpt in such a way that the little tufts stuck out all funky-like. The color could have come from any of the possible fathers (if the two assholes truly were brothers, at least), or even somewhere on Ellie's side for all they knew... but Ellie liked to say he had Joel's hair, only without all the gray (ha, ha). Joel could see Ellie in his facial features, especially his little nose. Ellie wasn't too keen on trying to figure out who he most resembled. If anyone else started speculating, she would cut them off with a 'he looks like himself' type remark -- or a joke about Joel's hair -- and abruptly change the subject.
Just as he'd predicted she would, Ellie had bonded easily with the baby, and that boy sure loved his mama. Most of the time, when Joel went in to Sammy's room first thing in the morning, the little guy wasn't there -- he was in Ellie's bed. Between her and the wall, usually with her arm draped over him, looking happy as a pig in shit. At times like that, Joel really missed having a working camera. The baby seemed to have taken the place of that ratty old stuffed dog that used to be Bailey's (which Ellie had now bequeathed to little Sam) as her sleeping partner of choice. At first, she said she was taking him into her room to feed him and then oops, she would just fall asleep; later, she admitted that usually she brought him to bed when it wasn't even time to feed him and he wasn't even fussing, because she missed him too much, and it made her sleep better. That might need to get addressed at some point, but when the kid was so young, Joel didn't see the harm in the two of them deriving such comfort from each other.
Plus, it was just so damn cute.
The baby was a tonic for all that ailed both of them, particularly when he was happy. Ellie was never away from him for long. She'd tried to go on patrol with Joel once, leaving Sam with Nana so their three housemates wouldn't have to rearrange their schedules, and she'd just about driven Joel crazy with her fretting. Reminding her that Nana had raised a son herself and had been looking after many of the Jackson kids for ages only placated her momentarily. After that day, he'd convinced her that being a stay-at-home mom was best right now -- for Joel's sanity as well as hers.
Ellie claimed she honestly wasn't disappointed that Sam wasn't a girl, and that it was actually a good thing he was a boy because Joel had never had a son before. Joel would have loved to have another girl, but there was indeed a certain novelty about having a son. And, though he wouldn't say so to Ellie, he was glad in a way, because at some point, hopefully not for many years yet, Joel would be gone... and he would feel better about 'leaving' Ellie under the protection of a son, ideally fully grown by that time. He figured Ellie would either say that was sexist and a daughter could do it just the same, or that she wouldn't need any extra protection (and Joel would disagree on both counts -- if it made him sexist, so be it). But mostly, he kept such thoughts to himself, because he didn't want to upset her with the idea of his death. In the few times it had come up over the past couple of years, she'd refused to talk about it and said that Joel was going to live forever, end of story. Having someone to grieve with would help her deal with it when the time came. And having someone else she loved even more than him had to help, too.
It was hard to imagine now, while Joel's hand spanned Sam's entire back, that someday this child would be the 'man of the family.' Joel felt just as protective of the boy as he did of Ellie. They both wanted the kid to have a real childhood, and that seemed possible in a place like Jackson. Kids here still knew fear; the alarm still sounded from time to time, after all, and sometimes it left dead bodies in its wake. But the rest of the time, they could run around their yards or through the town hollering and laughing, not giving any thought to the dangers of the world. They would grow up soon enough... and the thought was more hopeful than mournful. The more Jackson flourished, and the more the surrounding settlements flourished (Tommy, Maria, and Eddie had made that their crusade, helping towns in Fremont and Sweetwater counties grow to nearly the size of Jackson over the past couple of years), the brighter the future looked. Maybe Ellie and Sam would even live to see a bonafide resurgence of commerce and industry... technology... transit systems... government beyond just martial law type military control. A justice system and regulations and politics and all the accompanying bullshit. Hell -- maybe the Fireflies, or some such regime, would even discover the goddamn cure for the Cordyceps.
Without Ellie's help, naturally. Joel didn't plan on ever laying that burden on her, but even if she somehow found out the truth about Salt Lake now, he could use Sam as leverage if needed. A child needing his mother was far more compelling an argument than a weak man being selfish.
Joel was also glad Sam was a boy because he knew he'd have less qualms about teaching him how to shoot a gun at a very young age than if he were a girl. That skill couldn't wait for adulthood in this day and age. Joel would teach him how to shoot and fight and hunt (the fishing, he would leave to Eddie, who could out-fish any man in town). And he would teach him about things like chivalry, honor, and respect. To be tough without being a dick. To take pride in his work -- in all of his actions. How to be a stand-up guy.
How to look out for Ellie without letting her know.
But all of that was years away. Joel had learned to savor the moment, and this one was one of the sweetest there could be: his boy and his girl, snug and cozy... the deep, even sounds of their sleep-breathing a proof of sorts that they trusted him to keep them safe and secure at their most vulnerable. The baby, of course, knew nothing of the horrors of the world, but Ellie... maybe she ain't the only one who likes to pretend. Right here, right now, she's innocent again. She's not afraid. She feels safe. She has absolute faith that nothing in the world will harm her.
Even if she didn't know it, due to being unconscious and all.
Sometimes, when Joel woke from a nightmare (yes, he still had them too) or just plain couldn't sleep, and the house was completely quiet in slumber, he would go to Ellie's room and pry the door open ever so slowly, careful not to make a sound and risk disturbing her. Just to make sure she was there, that she was safe, sleeping peacefully, her Cinderella night light bathing the room in a soft, warm glow. Then he'd check on Sammy (without exercising quite so much caution, as he 'slept like a baby'). That was usually all the reassurance Joel needed to sleep decently the rest of the night.
And now, he reckoned he might just ignore the call to dinner and let them sleep, prolonging the peace... imprinting the perfect sweetness in his memory. He adjusted the baby's blanket, smoothed a stray lock of Ellie's hair out of her face. For as long as they let him, Joel would hold them both in his keep, come what may.