Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 7121
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Joel couldn't believe his eyes... but there, kneeling in front of him, was a mortified Ellie. He holstered his revolver and looked at the frozen girl slumped on the floor. “What in the hell were you doin’ under there?!”
Ellie's only response was a hiccup.
He was pretty sure he already knew the answer. He thought he'd reassured her enough last night, but apparently he hadn't. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that Sophie had quietly centered herself on the bed, and he was thankful that she wasn't laughing or smirking or anything of the like. He kept his eyes on Ellie. What's she thinking right now? He offered her his hand. “C’mon. Up.”
Ellie hesitated only a moment before taking his hand and rising to her feet. She looked absolutely miserable, and she wouldn't look at him.
"Were you spying on me?" Sophie asked, sounding more intrigued than upset by the notion.
“No,” Ellie said coolly. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, although she had her back to Sophie.
Joel couldn't think of any other reason for her to hide like that. If she needed to see him, she could've just come and found him. Talked to him. Except it was me she was spying on, obviously... and she heard everything... “Sophie… give us a minute, would you?”
Sophie was lounging on the bed, wearing only a silky robe-type thing (the proper name of which escaped him). “Uhhh… you’re in my bedroom? If you wanna walk her home and come back..."
Ellie whirled around angrily. “Fuck off, skank!” she snarled at Sophie, her voice a little shaky, but venomous all the same. "He doesn't want you!"
Anticipating violence, Joel grabbed Ellie before she could lunge at the bed. He pulled her back against him, his arm across her chest acting sort of like a safety bar. He pointedly kept his gaze off of Sophie. "Ellie, calm down."
Sophie didn't seem to have taken offense at Ellie's outburst. "I know he doesn't. He just told me. Noooooo reason to be jealous." She didn't say it unkindly, but her tone came off as patronizing, and he knew that would just enrage Ellie all the more.
Ellie strained against his arm; if he let go of her, he knew there'd be trouble. She snorted derisively. "I'm not jealous of you ~hic!~ you stupid slut -- you should be jealous of--"
"Ellie!" he cut her off before she could say too much. She shouldn't talk to Sophie like that, either, but he wasn't going to go parental on her over it. Nor would he apologize for her; she was fifteen, not five. And, although Ellie was way out of line, he couldn't help thinking it wasn't entirely undeserved on Sophie's part. "C'mon, we're leavin'."
“Stay the fuck away from him!” Ellie yelled at Sophie threateningly, her voice no longer shaky at all. Joel had to resist the urge to clamp his hand over her mouth and drag her out of the room. Instead, he shifted his bar-arm over to her shoulder and steered her toward the door.
Sophie was unfazed. Cool as a cucumber. “No worries -- he's only here to fix my attic. You heard him. Joel, you're coming back to finish up here, right? I'll keep it professional next time. Promise."
Ellie answered for him, trying to turn around, but having to settle for just twisting her neck toward Sophie. "Fuck you! He's not ever coming back here--"
"Ellie! Stop it." He cast a test-glance in Sophie's direction. It seemed safe enough to look at her now, as she'd cinched her robe a little tighter. He caught her eye. "We'll see. Look... I'd appreciate it if you don' mention this to anyone."
"You betcha. My lips are sealed." He saw her drag a finger across her lips before he looked away. Ellie saw it too, unfortunately. He had to tighten his grip on her -- and he did pretty much have to drag her out of there after all.
"Thank you," he called over his shoulder as he shuffled Ellie down the stairs.
"Why are you thanking that slutty ~hic!~ twatfaced... slut?!" Ellie hissed.
Because that 'slutty slut' could stir up some trouble if she wanted to. And Ellie was overreacting to the situation; it wasn't like anything terrible had happened. He stayed quiet until they got outside. He really didn't want to talk to her in the street, but the walk home seemed like it would be unbearably long. Ellie was quiet, too... quietly fuming. If she were a cartoon, she'd have smoke coming out of her ears. She wrenched free of him, and when Joel saw she wasn't intending to run back into the house and kill Sophie, he decided to just let her be. He directed her into a vacant backyard two houses away.
The ivy was completely overgrown on the trellises and deck railing, providing a level of privacy Joel felt was more than adequate for a heart-to-heart. They sank into a couple of rickety patio chairs that were angled toward each other. He scooted his chair as close to hers as possible. Ellie slumped into the back of the chair, looking away from him, while Joel leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Dirt was smudged all over her face, especially the right side of it. She looked incredibly young to him right now. “You wanna tell me what you were doin’, hmm?” he prodded gently.
“Not really,” she said coldly.
“Tell me anyway." He tried to take her hand in his, but she yanked it away. "What's goin' on in that head of yours?"
"Nothin' you wanna tell me. I get it. But why did you...?" He paused, seeing if she would answer the obvious question, but she just sat there, sullenly staring off into the distance. He knew the bottom-line answer: she was jealous. He wanted to hear Ellie explain in her own words. "Don't you trust me?" he tried.
"I wish you would. I told you, I don' wanna be with anyone else. Only you."
Ellie muttered something that he had to ask her to repeat. "I knew she wanted you," she said.
"It don' matter what she wants. It's me you have to trust."
"But, I told you..."
Joel waited for her to finish, but she didn't. "Told me what?"
She sighed. "You were acting like it was stupid of me to think she might try something, but she totally did. And what was that-- that thing she was wearing... it was too... skanky!" She glanced at Joel briefly before looking out to the yard again.
"Who gives a shit? You know... maybe this was a good thing. I had no idea you were there, an' I... well, you saw that I didn'... do anythin'."
Now she looked like she was fighting tears... a battle she nearly always won, but it still saddened Joel to see that she felt like crying. She was quiet for a few moments, and just when Joel was about to speak again, she asked him a question, her voice barely above a whisper: “Are you mad?”
She was clearly pissed at him, yet still worried about pissing him off. “No,” he replied. He wasn't, really. ‘Mad’ ain’t the right word for it... “I’m confused.”
“About you! What were you doin’ in there? Why don’ you trust me?”
“Then why? Why did you..."
“So you don't trust me.”
“No, it’s her I don't trust."
He just didn't see how she could trust him, and still do what she did. Was she afraid to tell him the truth for some reason? "It's all right if you need more time... to trust me. I won' be mad. I know I fucked up before when--"
"It's HER I don't trust!" she said exasperatedly, glancing at him again... actually, it was more of a glare this time.
Okay, she keeps saying that, so I'm supposed to know what it means with no further explanation. Joel tried to think of how, if she really did trust him not to cheat on her, she'd feel compelled to spy on him. The way Joel saw it, not trusting him was what it ultimately had to boil down to. Unless she thought Sophie would do something crazy... like drug him? Tie him up? Force him to do things? That was a laugh! But what else could it be? "So you... thought she was gonna... do what, exactly?"
"Exactly what she did -- try to fuck you."
"Yes she was! Don't defend her, Joel -- I might puke."
It had been a bit beyond casual flirting... all right, so she probably would've had sex with me if I'd wanted it. But if Ellie really trusted me, she would've known that I'd turn her down. "You thought I might... sleep with her."
"No," Ellie said quietly.
Was she lying? Why else would she pull a stunt like that? "You did. You thought I'd cheat on you."
She looked at him plaintively. "No!"
"Then I don' get it. Please explain it to me?"
She turned her gaze back to the yard. He couldn't tell if she was trying to think of a way to explain, or just ignoring the question altogether. He waited half a minute or so, then tried again. "I want to understand, Ellie. Please. What am I missin'? If you truly didn' think I would sleep with her..."
"It's not that I thought... But I guess like… maybe I... er... fuck. You promise you won't get mad?" She still wasn't looking at him, but she sounded less angry.
"I won't -- jus' talk to me." He could tell she was on the verge of saying something painfully honest.
She gathered her thoughts for a moment, staring off into the distance. "I don't know why I went there, exactly. I guess... I just had to know, if she... and then when I was there... I knew if she tried to like... take advantage of you, being in her house... that she might act like... well... if she was all, you know... sexy, and stuff... and her bed is right there, and everything..." She looked at him then, rather pleadingly. Like 'please understand so I don't have to keep talking.' Sometimes he got it when she did that... but he was still confused this time.
"Then... what? If you truly weren't afraid I'd cheat on you..."
She resumed not-looking at him, but at least she was facing his direction. She swallowed... nervously, it seemed. What is she so afraid of?
"More like... I wanted to see what you were giving up, for me... because you won't, um..." She sighed -- or sigh-groaned, if there was such a thing. "I wanted to see if you acted… if maybe I could tell that you… like, at least a part of you, wanted to...”
"You thought I'd want to cheat on you. Is that it?"
"I dunno... maybe?"
That's a yes. Joel looked at her earnestly, even though she was avoiding eye contact. “Ellie, no part of me wanted any part of that back there. Do you believe me?”
Ellie snorted. “I think maybe part of you did… she made that comment...”
"About your body not lying...?"
Joel shook his head. “No. I really didn’. That was her imagination, or... wishful thinkin' or somethin', I don' know. You heard me tell her. For you to actually… to sneak into her house, her bedroom…”
“I knooooow, God, I’m a terrible person,” Ellie said with another groan.
Joel didn't respond to the sarcasm. He was trying to think of how to respond to her fragmented thoughts from before. He wasn't good at this shit, but... Ellie needed him to be. He had to try. "I don' know what it is you think I'm... givin' up for you, when I don' want nothin' else in the first place. I ain't sacrificin' anythin'."
"Pfff. Yeah, right."
She squirmed a little. Tucked a leg under herself and started plucking at the patch on her knee, frowning.
She wants to believe me, but she doesn't really... "Are you upset with me?" he asked gently.
"... ... ...no."
That was so unconvincing that it was a half-yes, at best. But he'd take it. "Can I hold your hand, then?"
She bit her lip... then nodded. He took her closest hand in both of his, caressing it with his thumb. "I don' care what she does... her or any other woman in this town -- nothin' is gonna change with you'n'me. You don' have to worry about... me wantin' anyone else but you. Okay?"
"I know," she said, but Joel wasn't at all convinced she did.
"I wish you felt more secure in yourself. In us. How long were you up there?”
She was staring at their joined hands now. “Just... a little while. I only went under the bed when she came down to take a shower."
"Where were you before then? Up in the attic?" How the hell could he have missed that?
"No, just close to it. I was afraid to go up there... afraid you might see me... I heard you guys laughing and stuff..."
"You heard me laughin'?" Joel didn't recall laughing at anything. He might have snorted or something, if Ellie wanted to nitpick.
"Well... just her," Ellie admitted. "She laughed. And talked a lot. Why didn't you tell her to leave? Or did you tell her and she just wouldn't and then you were like 'oh well, fuck it'... Did you like having her with you?"
Joel didn't like the accusation in her tone. He wondered if there were any good answers to those questions -- good answers that weren't lies. Truthfully, he hadn't minded Sophie's presence. That was probably some sort of betrayal, from Ellie's point of view. Sophie had been somewhat flirtatious, he supposed, but not at all like she was in the bedroom later. Mostly, she'd talked about Alex; Joel knew she missed him, and if talking helped at all, well... He could lie and tell Ellie that he'd been annoyed, and that he hadn't asked her to leave him alone out of politeness, or some shit... but if Ellie didn't believe him, it would erode a little more of whatever trust she did have in him. He wasn't sure she'd completely gotten past him lying about Salt Lake yet. As a general rule, he didn't lie to her anymore. Lies of omission, sure... and white lies that still slipped out, because it was more automatic for him to protect her than tell her the truth. Okay, so I DO lie to her. But not about anything huge. "I would've rather had you up there with me," he said diplomatically. "Though I ain't sure a lot of fixin' would've gone on, in that case."
"Whatever." She wasn't ready to be placated yet. "Why was she barefoot up there if there was like mouse poop everywhere?"
"...I thought you weren't up in the attic?"
"I wasn't. I saw her feet when she walked by me. All I could see was you guys's feet."
"She has these shoes she leaves up there," Joel explained. "Moccasins or somethin'. So as not to track shit down to the house." Of course, she needn't have bothered with that; he only had his boots, so if there was any filth to be tracked, he would've done it himself anyway, inadvertently.
"Wow, must be nice to have so many shoes that you can like, have a different pair for each floor of the house," Ellie scoffed.
Joel wondered if Ellie was aware of how many shoes most women had in the old days. The two of them had scavenged their way through plenty of closets and bedrooms on their trip, but most of the shoes had wandered off by then. He decided to ignore the snark... though he wasn't sure how else to respond to that.
No matter -- Ellie asked another question soon enough. "Why was she taking a shower if you weren't even done yet, anyway?"
He liked these easy questions. "We were goin' to take a break for lunch, an' she felt dirty after bein' up there," Joel explained.
"I bet she did," Ellie said nastily.
Joel squeezed her hand. "She didn' act... like that... up there. An' her brother said she likes younger guys... I didn' expect her to--"
"Right. Even though I told you. If you would've just listened to me!"
Joel wasn't sure what he would've done differently, if he'd known what Sophie was going to... offer. Avoid going in her bedroom, sure. The right thing would probably be to avoid the job entirely. Maybe he could've arranged it so that Ellie could come... which would've been awkward as hell, but it was one of her suggestions last night. At any rate, he'd learned that sometimes it was best to pick his battles, and not waste the energy going in circles on the small shit. He could concede this one to Ellie. "You did. I'm sorry I didn' listen to you. But nothin' happened. An' nothin' ever will. I was there for work. All right?"
Now she was looking at him. Studying his face. "Does that happen to you a lot?"
"Does what happen?"
"You know. Getting hit on like that when you're working."
"No! I swear she's never done that before."
"Only cuz you've never been to her house before. But what about other people? Other women in this town?"
"No. Never." Joel was glad Ellie hadn't lingered on that first statement; lies of omission were the easiest kind. He actually had been to Sophie's house more than once. After Alex left. But Ellie didn't need to know about that, and nothing even remotely close to this had gone on. He wasn't... hanging out with Sophie, trying to be friends or anything. He and Ellie had a rule about that -- a rule that he'd proposed more for his own peace of mind, but it did go both ways. "It jus' so happens that the first time you decide to spy on me is the only time it's happened. -This is the first time you've done somethin' like this, ain't it?"
"Yes! Can we just pretend I never did it? You don't have to lecture me. I'll never do it again. I just wanna forget the whole thing."
Joel didn't particularly want to dwell on it, either, but he felt it would be remiss of him to 'forget' it altogether. "No lecture. 'Cause you realize it was... childish, an' disres--"
"Yes yes yes! All of the above, fast forward to the end, I've learned my lesson," she drawled.
"Only 'cause you got caught."
"You understand it's wrong to break into people's houses?"
"I didn't break in!"
"A technicality. To... enter someone's house without their permission."
"Duh! That's part of the fast forwarding. It's an invasion of privacy, blah blah."
She sounded so completely unremorseful... and Joel had to hide his amusement. "How would you like it if someone was watchin' your every move when you thought you were alone?"
"I wouldn't mind."
"Face it, Joel -- the only one who does that is you, and... I don't care. You can watch me all you want. I've got nothing to hide."
"I don't spy on you."
"Well, you're welcome to if you want."
He sighed. "Ellie--"
"I know it was wrong, okay? You don't need to try to make me feel bad about it. I'll never do it again."
"It's also wrong to insult people in their own--"
"I was just speaking the truth!"
"Sure you were. Almost too much of it, too. Tellin' her she oughta be jealous?"
"Well-- I wasn't-- I wouldn't have said anything bad, Joel. I'm not an idiot. She provoked me!"
"Maybe you're too easily provoked. If I hadn't stopped you, you would've actually hurt her."
" 'So?' Jesus, Ellie, she's not an Infected, or a hunter--"
"Ohhhhh whatever, Joel. Like you wouldn't do the same thing if it was me-- if the roles were reversed."
"I wouldn' be hidin' under the bed, for one thing..."
"Pretend you fit under there."
"Even if I did!"
"Okay fine, but you'd kill the guy."
...Yeah, probably. "No I wouldn't."
"Bullshit! You're such a liar!"
"It's different, with guys. Sophie... ain't as tough as you."
"Oh, God, don't even-- ugh. Can we be done with this now? You did your dad thing. I get it, I screwed up, I'm sorry."
Good enough. "All right then." He had the feeling she wasn't quite done yet, though. She still wasn't... happy. Sometimes Joel thought the only way he could convince her of his love was through physical means. Even if he couldn't do it in its ultimate form (and this wasn't anywhere near a good enough reason to justify having sex with her). "You wanna go home?" he asked her.
"With you? You're not going back to her house, right?"
"Well, I left all my shit there--"
"I'll get it for you," she offered quickly. "Later?"
"No need to go back right now, but I don' know if I trust you not to kill her if you go over there." He was only half joking about that.
A smile played about her lips. "Yeah, I might."
"An' I don' want you gettin' tossed out of Jackson for murder."
A bigger smile. "Would you come with me if I did?" she asked devilishly.
Joel was grateful for the sudden shift in her mood. "Of course! You kiddin' me? I wouldn' stay here without you."
She leaned forward, grinning. "Am I allowed to kiss you here?"
Joel looked around with mock furtiveness; he knew no one was around, and they had their ivy curtain. "I s'pose one kiss wouldn' hurt." That was true enough -- but if they kept it up, he was afraid he'd get too distracted to notice if anyone was coming. And as unlikely as it was that anyone else would happen to enter this deserted backyard, it was best not to take chances. Sophie hadn't followed them, he knew, but she could have watched where they went when they left her house, then gone looking for him... still unlikely, it seemed, but possible.
He didn't let her lean far enough to kiss him; he stood up and pulled Ellie to her feet, then kissed her tenderly, only for a few moments. He pulled her into a bear hug afterwards. How can she even THINK I'd want to be this close to anyone else? he wondered, squeezing her, kissing her temple and massaging the back of her head a little before letting her go. He hoped she could feel how much he loved her. That she would believe in it. Her mood seemed to have already done a one-eighty... not uncommon for her. It swung both ways, though, so he wasn't going to assume he was out of the woods yet.
They walked home, hand in hand -- pretty much the only affection he felt comfortable with in public. People already knew they were extremely close... 'codependent' was the word Tommy was fond of using now. If anyone wanted to assume there was more going on, well... they might do so even if he and Ellie never laid a hand on each other. One anonymous person had already complained to his brother, thinking something perverse might be going on at home. Tommy himself had suspected something was up -- but Joel had taken care of that. He didn't admit as much to Ellie, but he'd led Tommy to believe that Ellie had sort of a 'teacher crush' on him, one that Joel of course wouldn't do anything to indulge. He was fine with Tommy knowing how much he cared for Ellie -- hell, he'd made that clear the day he'd confessed what happened in Salt Lake City. If Tommy knew the nature of Joel's true feelings... he would be horrified, certainly, but Joel could deal with that. He just didn't want Tommy to be in the position where he had to do something with that knowledge, in some official capacity.
Joel hadn't figured out the best way to handle it all yet. He knew they couldn't keep the secret forever, but he hoped they could keep it at least until Ellie was eighteen. That would make things a little easier. In the meantime, Ellie didn't have a very good poker face, and now if Tommy (or anyone else) picked up on anything... untoward, he could attribute it to her little crush. No one would get bent out of shape over that. And for all they knew, Ellie might outgrow him by eighteen anyway. It would devastate him, but it was a possibility... one he kept tucked in some far corner of his brain. He could handle it, if he had to. The only thing he knew for certain he couldn't handle was Ellie dying.
After kissing on the couch for a little while, Ellie seemed more willing to talk. Joel would have preferred to just keep snuggling, but he also knew it was important to get this resolved... or at the very least, to keep giving Ellie the reassurance she needed so much. She was sitting in his lap, and he had his arms snugly around her.
"That sk-- Sophie's really pretty," Ellie said, nonchalantly-except-not-really.
"You're really pretty," Joel replied, kissing her brow. He knew how to play this game. And it wasn't a lie.
"Whatever. Not prettier than her," Ellie grumbled.
"No no no, Joel, I'm not trying to make you say that stuff! But... do you think that... maybe my nose is prettier than hers?"
"Hers is a little... I dunno... not long, really, but..."
"Yours is perfect." He kissed her freckled little button nose for emphasis. He could tease her about where her sunburn was making it peel a little... but he got the sense that now wasn't the best time for that. She was self-conscious enough about her appearance as it was. He wondered if she was aware of the dirt smeared all over her face.
"I don't know about that..." She smiled shyly. "But, um... thanks. What about her chin? It's maybe... a little too pointy?"
Joel smiled. "Oh yeah. Yeah, she's jus'... so damn ugly that I can't even believe you'd try to compare yourself to her. You're way out of her league."
Ellie rolled her eyes. "Okay, so actually, she's really pretty... I didn't see her all-the-way naked or anything, but like... those long legs... and the way her robe... I mean, I kinda couldn't help looking at... um... well, like trying to look down it, so I assume you did too..."
Joel couldn't tell her that that was the main reason he was so careful to mind where he looked, because that would be an admission of guilt somehow, in Ellie's mind. Her gaze could be drawn to particular places, but his couldn't. No, it was best to not even get into that shit with her. He sighed. "What're you gettin' at, kiddo?"
Ellie hesitated. "...You like naked women, don't you?"
Well, that was blunt. "Uh... no?"
"Come on. You're a guy. A straight guy. Straight guys like naked women. Pretty ones, I mean. And you saw her all-the-way naked, not just in that robe."
"No. She wasn' naked."
"...In her underwear, then. Like, topless?"
Joel remembered that Ellie had heard everything that went on in that room, she just didn't have the matching visual. "No. It was a towel, before the robe." And don't ask me about that 'oops'...
"Oh." She absorbed that information... with a bit of relief, Joel reckoned. "Okay, so you saw her... almost-naked, and now that picture is in your head. You wonder what she--"
"No," he said firmly. "I don' have those kinds of feelin's for her."
"I mean, if I'm wondering, you must be--"
"No, it ain't like that. At all."
"Next time you jerk off, you're gonna be thinking about that."
It was like she didn't even want to hear what he was saying... except he knew she did want to be reassured. "No. Ellie, you can't jus' lump me with every other man on the planet... no more than I can do that with you an' other teenage girls. You don' like it when I do that, do you?"
"No," she admitted. "But-- if you have those... feelings... for me... ?"
"You know I do."
"Then if you could just see me naked..."
Christ. "We've talked about this."
"And you don't wanna see me naked, cuz I'm too... small... I don't have a body like hers..."
"No. You're young. Your body is beautiful jus' how it is."
"So... it's okay for you to say that, but not to actually look at it, cuz that makes you a child molester. Except I'm not a child, and I'm like... totally willing for you to look at it. And... to do whatever."
Joel sighed again. "I know you think I'm a hypocrite--"
"No I don't!" she said quickly, but then added, "Like... how?"
"You think since I can kiss you, I should be able to do it all. To jus'... own it."
She chewed on that for a moment. "Well... maybe that's true? I think if I'm comfortable with stuff, then you should be, too, if the only reason you're uncomfortable is not wanting to make me uncomfortable."
"I also don' wanna take advantage of you."
"You wouldn't be!"
"I would. You jus' don' see it, 'cause that's what takin' advantage is."
"Whatever. So why is it okay to kiss me? That's not taking advantage?"
Joel had yet to figure that one out himself. It should bother him. "Are you tryin' to talk me out of kissin' you now?"
"Noooooo! No -- no going backwards. You said!" She sat a little more upright to give him a dirty look.
He chuckled. "I did say that, yes. I promised I wouldn' do that to you, an' I won't. That's why we need to be careful about goin' forwards." Once he'd crossed that line, he knew they couldn't go back to the father-and-daughter dynamic, but that didn't make it okay to just say 'fuck it' and treat her like someone twenty years older. She was so young...
She settled back into his arms. "Good. I don't wanna make things worse."
"Worse? Are they bad?"
"No. I just mean backwards-wise." She sighed. "I know you're not ready to have sex, or anything in the sex category, even... but that's a small thing, isn't it? Just looking?"
"Hmm. Maybe I wouldn' be able to keep my hands off you an' I'd get myself in trouble," he teased. He should probably be careful about saying shit like that to her too, but... it was fun and harmless?
She giggled. "Doesn't sound like trouble to me!"
"Naughty girl. You get me in enough trouble as it is... that way."
"What way? Oh -- yeah, like a little while ago! But it went away. It always goes away."
It made Joel feel vaguely guilty and pedophilic that she even noticed when he got hard; he had to remind himself that she wasn't that innocent.
Ellie pulled back a little to look at him. "You really didn't, um... you know... when you were looking at her in her bedroom like that?"
"I really didn't." He might have, if he'd let himself go there; he just knew better. And he knew better than to try to explain that to Ellie. She would never understand. He wasn't a teenage boy who got hard over anything and everything, but he wasn't entirely immune to visual stimulation, either. The thought, or idea, or... whatever of Sophie truly didn't 'do' anything for him, though. Either because it just didn't, or because he was in love with Ellie -- and that was all Ellie needed to know. He gave her a quick kiss. "I swear. You saw me. You would've noticed. 'Specially when I was tryin' to keep you from killin' her. Remember?"
"Oh... yeah... I guess you're right. You weren't poking me." She giggled a little and nuzzled his neck. "I'm sorry I stalked you. I won't do it again."
He started playing with her hair, which he'd tugged out of its ponytail during a round of kissing. "Jus' talk to me next time, okay?"
"Next time?!" Another dirty look.
"I mean if you feel like that again."
"You're not going back there though, right?"
He chuckled. "We can go get my tools together if you want. I'll have someone else finish patchin' that up. She can jus' wait." He hadn't even assessed all the water damage on the ceiling in that area; her roof probably needed some attention, too. Sorry, Alex, but Ellie's more important than Sophie. Joel would have given Sophie a chance to redeem herself, if it had been up to him alone. He figured she was used to getting her way, and it must've thrown her a bit when Joel resisted her charms. But he couldn't blame Ellie for not wanting him to go back there. Even if she'd told him she was okay with it, he wouldn't have believed her, and he didn't want her fretting over this shit any longer.
She seemed pretty happy at the moment. "Okay, good. And yeah, we can't leave your tools there. Your hands were on them so the crazy bitch is prob'ly like, using them to..."
Joel had to laugh. "Hey now. Be nice."
"Wait, forget I said that -- I don't want you thinking about that the next time you jerk off, either!"
He squeezed her. "I don' jerk off," he said lightly. It was a running joke of theirs.
"Oh right, I forgot. Didn't mean to lump you with other guys again," she teased.
"Damn straight." He pulled her up so she was straddling his lap, then kissed her deeply, and gave her a crushing hug -- as hard as he dared. She liked it when he squeezed her 'as hard as he could' -- which, of course, was nowhere near as hard as he was physically capable, because he could actually injure her if he did that. He would do it hard enough to make her wheeze, just for a second, then ease back to normal-crush level. She loved that.
"What was that for?" she said happily, hugging him back tightly.
"Jus' 'cause." Because I love you, and I'm glad you're willing to put up with my shit. "Maybe when I get back... maybe we can try takin' a baby step forward."
"Really?" she squealed adorably. "Like what?"
"I don' know... jus'... somethin'. It's gotta be small, since we can't go backwards."
"Okay! But Joel, seriously, I'm not... unhappy with you or anything. Not at all. I like how we are. We're good."
When she backpedaled like that, sometimes he couldn't tell if she was genuinely concerned about how he was feeling, or if maybe it meant something more... like she wasn't as ready as she thought she was. "All right, then... no baby step..." He tried to kiss her, smiling as she pulled away to protest.
"Nooooo that's not what I meant, either!"
"I'm jus' kiddin', don' worry."
"Good, cuz I really really really really really want that step. If you want it."
He decided to just take her words at face value. "You bein' good with things... it makes me feel better about doin' it. So don' worry." This time, she let him kiss her. It was a good, long, dizzyingly-deep kiss that made him feel hot all over. When he tried to come up for air, she wouldn't let him. Or, rather, her tongue wouldn't let him... and it was no use trying not to get hard again. But that was pretty much a given any time they sat this way, and he was the one who'd pulled her up like that. Good thing I like the torture...
Ellie was all flushed when they finally broke the kiss. She leaned her forehead against his. "Mmm. You better not be gone for eight days this time. For sure you have to be back before the wedding. I don't wanna go without you."
He gently stroked her cheek with one hand while he ran the other one through her hair. "I will be. Should be under a week. We might be all done then until we get more materials brought in, anyhow. Jus' remember, in the winter we're gonna have a lot of time together." He was constantly telling her they'd have so much time together in the winter that she'd get tired of him. That they'd spend days and days holed up in their little house to wait out a storm. Truth be told, winter worried him a little; if they weren't together when a huge blizzard hit, how would he get to her? What if he couldn't find her? Joel might just keep her under house arrest the whole winter. Problem solved. But, no need to discuss that yet.
"That's like three or four months from now," she complained. "Longer than we've even been together!"
"No it ain't. It was last summer when--"
"I mean together-together. Oh my God..."
"I don't know how many weeks it's been! I lost track!"
Joel chuckled. "Good, 'cause it's a bit much to celebrate our anniversary every week." He was thankful he wasn't expected to come up with some kind of heartfelt gift that often.
She didn't seem to have heard him; she was counting. "What's today... Joel! It's Thursday! Happy six-week anniversary!" She pulled his face to hers and kissed him excitedly.
He grinned at her. "I knew that. That's why I picked this day to be home."
"You did? Really?!"
"...No. It sounds good, though, don' it?"
She groaned theatrically.
"Hey, you didn' remember, either. Forget the weeks thing. Let's do months."
"Okay, fine. And winter is still months away."
"They'll fly by, trust me."
"Not if they go like the last eight days did!"
Joel forgot sometimes that time passed much slower for Ellie, that she was young enough for a single year to be a significant portion of her life. Even as old as Joel was, those days without her did pass by slower than normal days. "Keep yourself busy an' you'll be jus' fine."
"But I'll still be thinking about you all the time," she said, a bit whinily. She never used to whine about anything. He wasn't sure when that had started.
"I know, but... maybe try somethin' new?"
"I don' know... somethin'. You're interested in lots of different things... your life shouldn' revolve around me anyhow." ...the way mine revolves around YOU.
"But I like it that way!" she pouted. "Why don't you like it that way? And I do lots of other things. You're just like... my favorite thing. Isn't that allowed? You're my... boyfriend... type person."
Joel chuckled. She knew he didn't like that word. 'Boyfriend' sounded so damn young. "More like oldmanfriend."
"You're not old!"
"It's easier to say than... middleagedmanfriend, though."
She giggled. "You're my Joel, then. So am I your girlfriend? Youngwomanfriend?"
"You're my Ellie."
"Which is better than a girlfriend."
"Okay. But, um..."
Uh-oh... They'd been doing so well! But now she had that... look, again. "What?" he asked warily.
"She called you baby."
He exhaled. "So? That was just like a... in-the-moment thing, I think."
"She doesn't call you that all the time?"
He laughed. "No!"
"Do you wish I would call you that?"
God, was she adorable. He pulled her close. Squished her and made her squeal. "I wish you would forget this whole thing."
"Cuz I don't know if I could do it. Call you that." She settled more comfortably in his lap, leaning her head against his shoulder. "You don't seem like a 'baby' sort of person. But you call me baby girl, so... if we're gonna do a matching thing, I would call you baby boy?"
Joel laughed again. Baby boy?! "Nooooo, baby girl. Call me by my name. Please."
"But you're supposed to have a nickname, like sweetie... honey... darling... I've heard Tommy and Maria call each other babe... ?"
"Please jus' call me by my name," he repeated. He couldn't easily imagine Ellie using even those generic nicknames.
As tempted as he was to end this conversation by kissing her, he still got the feeling that she needed to talk through the Sophie thing a little more. And this shit ain't so hard after all. "What?"
She tilted her face up a little. "What did she mean when she said... a man like you can't be happy with... what? She was talking about sex, right? A man like you..."
"I'll tell you what I told her -- she don' know anythin' about me. I don' know why she said it like that. I am happy. With you."
She nodded, then buried her face in his neck, and he could tell she was hiding an emotional response... more tears she can't let out? He ran his fingers through her silky hair. "You're the only one I want to be with, even if all we ever do is sit like this. 'Cause it's you I want. Not the sex."
"I know." He hoped she did truly know, this time. "But we're still gonna do... the sex stuff," she affirmed.
"...'Cause that's all you want me for, yeah?"
"Yep!" She giggled.
"You gonna dump me after I sleep with you, then? Is that it?"
"Why would I do that?!"
"That's jus' how it's done."
"That's stupid. If all you want is sex, and you wait and wait and the other person finally gives it to you, why would you dump them when they're finally giving you what you want?"
"Well, see, you're a lot smarter than everyone else. If you were gonna do that to me, I'd never sleep with you. Jus' to make you stick around."
"Don't worry! You don't have to do that!" She lifted her head from his neck and gave him the brightest smile.
She was still rather giggly when he started kissing her. Ellie wasn't all that hard to figure out, really... or to please. She just needed love. Lots of it. And that was something he was able to give her in abundance.
A/N: Just got my first ever piece of fanart! From a reader on AO3 named nodonttouchme, who has graciously allowed me to share it. Painted in watercolor. Check out Joel and Ellie's heart-to-heart on the back porch!
~Continue to Chapter 5~