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"Uncertainty" Chapter 19: "The Weight of Your Love" (19/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 19: "The Weight of Your Love" (19/47)
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Pairings: Joel/Ellie
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 5936
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

A/N: Title from the Editors album. Also, their song "The Weight" is SUCH a Joel song, omg.

~


Joel didn't find out what the fight was about until the next day, and it wasn't from Ellie; when that girl didn't want to talk, she clammed up real good. She hadn't wanted to talk to Tommy or Maria at dinner... or after dinner, as there were still other people in the house. The 'Tuesday kids' and a couple of their parents.

Tommy tracked him down on the job -- and Joel had the distinct pleasure of being lectured by his brother twice in as many days. Well, two and a half, going back to the night of the wedding, since Joel had managed to avoid a run-in with him the entire day, and Tommy hadn't actually gotten preachy at dinner last night, what with all the people in attendance. He had tried to take Joel aside for a chat, but Joel kept him at bay with 'not now's and 'later's. Now Joel was messing around with one of the sanders, trying to rig the belt -- which was way beyond needing to be changed out -- so that the goddamn thing would still run, when Tommy approached him. "Can't your soldier friends get their hands on a new belt for this thing?" Joel muttered by way of greeting.

"Maybe. Is it really shot? Try takin' one from a--"

"Vacuum cleaner," Joel finished for him. "That's where this one came from." And one of these days he would have to track down an actual working vacuum cleaner for home, since they never signed up for Jackson's 'housekeeping services,' such as they were. Joel didn't like the idea of people snooping through their house. Ellie wanted to get the housekeeping just so they could pretend to be rich people with servants, like in the movies, but she hadn't put up a fuss when he'd said no.

Tommy frowned at the decrepit tool. "All right, leave it alone an' one of the maintenance guys can work on it. The Dewalt still run okay?"

"Overheats pretty quick, but it'll do." He could supplement that with doing it by hand; the old-fashioned way really was the easiest sometimes. Joel set the sander parts on the table and glanced at his brother. "Thought you were goin' back out to the sister farm again." Or maybe that's what I wanted to hear, to make that 'later' even later...

"I am," Tommy replied. "Next shipment's come in by now, I expect." He paused, like he was about to say something more. Joel wondered for a moment if Tommy was going to ask him to come with, even though he'd made it clear he wouldn't go without Ellie, but nope, that wasn't it -- "Joel... did Ellie ever end up tellin' you what her an' that Christine girl were fightin' about yesterday?"

"Nope."

"Well, I heard it was about you."

"Me?"

Tommy gestured to a couple of nearby chairs. "Sit down an' we'll--"

"I'm good." He crossed his arms in front of his chest and regarded his brother. "How was this about me?"

Tommy remained standing on the other side of the table. "Christine was teasin' her about you an' she jus' snapped. People are catchin' on... they know she's got a thing for you."

That... wasn't ideal, but Joel didn't see what the big deal was. "So?"

"So... I really think you oughta consider... makin' some changes."

Joel sighed. "You jus' said all this shit the other night, Tommy. Nothin's changed in my mind since then. That little fight don' change anythin'."

"Ellie messed her up pretty bad. Other people might say things to her... she gonna keep shuttin' 'em up with her fists?"

"I don' know, little brother. Maybe she will, if they don' learn to keep their goddamn mouths shut." He wasn't thrilled that Ellie had gotten into it with that girl, but he couldn't help feeling defensive of her, especially with his holier-than-thou brother.

"Oh, that's jus' great, Joel. Real civilized. An' what'll you do if Ellie's the one who gets the worst of it? Go beat up the person?"

"If the person's a man? Hell yes I would." He would probably kill the guy, and Tommy knew it.

"What if it's a boy? A teenage boy. Jus' some kid sayin' somethin' stupid. Like kids do."

That was a little stickier. "Then... Ellie could prob'ly kick his ass anyhow. She can handle herself. But if he hurt her... I'd at least have some words with him, sure."

"Words," Tommy repeated skeptically.

"...Might throw a punch or two for good measure," he conceded.

Tommy didn't like that answer, naturally. "Say you get the kid shittin' his pants, jus' from threatenin' him. You'd still hit him?"

Joel sighed again. "I don' know, Tommy. Maybe? It depends on the kid. I can't say for sure. She didn't pull her gun on that girl, all right? It was a school yard fight. It happens. She was provoked. She knows it was wrong of her to hit the girl."

"Does she? I ain't so sure about that."

Joel reckoned she knew it was considered wrong by Jackson's 'non-violent community' standards, but that she didn't actually believe it was wrong by her own moral code. She believed that Christine had gotten what she deserved. Joel also reckoned he wasn't the right person to convince her it was wrong. "Look. She used to get in fights all the time at those schools she was in back in Boston. Jackson's a little bit different from that. Different environment. But if someone gives her shit, an' she gets pissed off, that's the solution that pops into her head sometimes. I've talked to her about it... several times, since we've been here... all she can do is try. Try to go against her nature. Or... her upbringin', I s'pose is a better word. She likes it here, likes most of the people... an' I know she don' wanna cause you any problems, havin' to deal with this shit..."

"I know she had it rough." Tommy acknowledged that much, at least. "An' kids can be mean. I get it. I'm... not too concerned about one incident. If it keeps happenin', then it'll have to be addressed. As you know, we police ourselves here; there's no official law enforcement, so no official punishment. We've never really had the need. But the town's gettin' bigger, an' with more people... we might need to start considerin' somethin' more official."

Joel knew there had been a few extreme cases... an incident involving alcohol and a gun and some sort of confusion in a crowd that had led to Maria's father getting killed the year before. That man and his family had left Jackson of their own accord. Another had been thrown out for some sort of theft... breaking into the store rooms or something like that. There was no jail, no revocation of privileges... the only punishment ever doled out was getting banished from the town. If it was kids acting out, the parents/guardians were expected to keep them in line. For the older ones, like in their late teens... maybe they weren't technically kids, but they were still kids, and some of them -- like Christine -- didn't even have guardians. More efforts were made along the lines of rehabilitation in those cases because no one wanted to kick a kid to the Outside. On the whole, the townspeople didn't need law enforcement; Tommy or Maria could handle problems satisfactorily on an individual basis... so far. "I can talk to her again--" Joel began.

Tommy held up his hand to stop that train of thought. "I said I ain't real concerned about that. I know Ellie's a good kid. An' I doubt Christine'll be pickin' a fight with her again. But... this crush thing..."

Here we go. "Whatever people are sayin', Tommy--"

"It ain't jus' that -- I've seen it, too. The girl worships you. It's like you're her... her everythin'. Her whole world."

"Not true." At least, I don't want it to be... for the most part... "She's got plenty of friends."

"She spends most of her free time with you," Tommy pointed out. He wasn't wrong.

But Joel could still argue the point. "She spends some of her free time with me. Some of it. I encourage her to hang out with her friends... go to the movie nights at the library--"

"You might encourage it, but how often does she do it?"

"Plenty. She don' spend as much time with me as you think. When I was gone, she didn' fall apart, now, did she?" Joel wasn't about to mention that he'd promised he wouldn't leave her again... that was as much for his own sake as it was for hers, anyhow. Maybe more so.

"An' that was prob'ly good for her. But then... you come home, an' it just..."

Joel glared at him. "An' what? You think I'm a bad influence?"

"No. You're jus'... there. Cuddlin' on the couch, holdin' hands... how is she s'posed to get over you when you're touchin' her all the time?"

Joel snorted. That was exactly what he and Ellie had argued about when he was trying to convince her she needed to get over her 'little crush.' "The girl has never had any real affection in her whole life. No parents, an' I told you Marlene didn' even introduce herself to her 'til she was thirteen -- then she was barely even around after that. Hardly a real mother. I also told you when I tried to withhold that... the affection... it didn' go so well." Joel felt a twinge of guilt about throwing Ellie under the bus a bit there, but it was true, and right now, he could use every shred of truth he could conjure up.

"I know you two... are real connected," Tommy continued. "I know you love her. But you're the adult here. If she's havin' inappropriate feelin's towards you..."

Joel didn't like the way Tommy was looking at him. He could swear sometimes that his brother somehow just knew what was going on. But Tommy had no proof; whatever he may have felt in his gut did not constitute proof. "She'll get over 'em." Or get better at hiding them.

"How? By meetin' someone else? You won' let her date anyone. Don' even pretend that you would."

"I won't. She ain't ready for that. She's... been through a lot. Besides, ain't it better that she's attached to me, as opposed to, say... someone like Max?"

Tommy chuckled. "I s'pose. I don' know if Max is even capable of that kind of attachment himself. But then... I didn' think you were, either. Anyhow, I don' see him... abusin' those feelin's, if she had 'em..."

"Is that what you think I'm doin'?" Joel asked angrily. Of course it's what I'm doing. I'm a piece of shit.

"No, I wasn' comparin' the two of you, I was jus' sayin'... I don' see it happenin'. But... you are obsessed with that girl. I think you like that she has the hots for you."

Joel heard the challenge in that tone; he wasn't going to take the bait. He just snorted again. "Like I said. Better me than some asshole that don't care about her. So... in that sense? Yeah, I don' mind one bit."

Tommy was studying him now like he was an insect under a magnifying glass. "Some people are sayin' it ain't jus' her that's got those feelin's. The inappropriate ones."

Joel sighed. "An' you listen to them? I thought it was jus' that one nosy busybody--"

"It's my job to listen to 'em, an' yeah, now it's more than jus' the one. You ain't exactly distancin' yourself from her. Maybe... maybe you're leadin' her on, an' you don' even realize it?"

He wondered if anyone had actually said anything to Tommy at all. Maybe his brother had invented these concerned citizens as a means to approach Joel about it under the guise of doing his duty as advocate for the townsfolk -- and to make Joel think that Tommy's doubts were widespread (and hence, more likely to be valid)... anything that, in Tommy's opinion, might make Joel more inclined to listen to him and heed his warning. Or maybe I'm just paranoid as fuck that he KNOWS? "What do you think, baby brother? You think I'm abusin' her?"

"No..." Tommy answered a little too slowly, with a little too much uncertainty for Joel's liking. "I wouldn' go that far. I think you're overly attached -- I've always thought that. But, hell... in this world, you find someone you care about that much? That's a wonderful thing... mostly. But this young girl... she worships you like you're some sort of God, an' you have to find a way to handle it that ain't... I don' know. I still think it'd be good for her to come stay with me an' Maria for a while. Give you a break, if nothin' else."

"I don' need a break. Whatever the fuck you even mean by that. She's not a burden."

"Maybe not a burden, exactly, but... the pressure of... dealin' with..."

"There's no pressure. I can handle Ellie. It's not..." Joel frowned, trying to find the right words to placate his brother. "Like you said, she's a good kid. I realize that her... the age she's at, an' bein' attached to me, like she is... it makes me responsible for her well-being. I don' take that lightly. Maybe you think that's what I'm doin', but it ain't."

"I didn't say--"

"I know it sounds like bullshit, but there's things... about me'n'Ellie... people jus' don' understand. We'll be fine, as long as we're together. If Ellie outgrows me an' wants to spend more time with her friends... or with some boy, when she's a little older... I can accept that. I won' hold her back. Don' look at me like that -- I won't! But pushin' her away, for her own good? Can't do it. It don' work, anyhow -- remember, I tried that already, an' she left town. I can't--"

"Hold on, now -- that won' happen again. Kids ain't even allowed outside at all for the time bein'."

Joel knew that if Ellie wanted out badly enough, she was so goddamn resourceful that she'd find a way. He certainly hoped she'd never want to leave again; he wouldn't give her any reason to, if he could help it. "If she's happy with me, with the way things are, that's her choice. What good would possibly come from tryin' to put some distance between us?"

Tommy stared at him for a moment. "Ain't it obvious? If you don' push her away, where will you end up? She thinks she's in love with you. Maybe she'll... want to have sex with you, or--"

"Jesus Christ, Tommy, she's fifteen!" Joel made sure that his tone and expression conveyed a convincing amount of outrage at such a thought. This wasn't the time to work the after-what-she's-been-through-she's-pretty-much-an-adult angle. He even started pacing a little, for good measure. ...or maybe that was real. It ain't like the conversation's not infuriating enough...

Tommy seemed to be waiting for him to elaborate on that. "Yeah, and--?"

"And..." Keep it vague -- don't put words in his mouth... "She ain't gonna do anythin'... like that."

If Tommy noticed that Joel didn't address the 'want' part of his statement, or that Ellie 'doing' something wasn't what he was implying, he didn't call him on it. He took a few steps away from the table... not matching Joel in his pacing, just getting closer to him. "You don' know that. She's got... whacked-out hormones an' shit. Say she did do somethin'. Then what?"

Joel stopped moving right in front of Tommy, and stared at him hard. "Then I can draw a line that needs to be drawn. Not pushin' her away ain't the same thing as... doin' whatever the hell she wants. Can't you see that?" ...I just don't draw that line quite in the same place that you would, baby brother...

Something finally seemed to click in his brother's brain, and Tommy visibly relaxed. Moved in and clapped Joel on the shoulder, even. "I'm sorry, bro. God, I know you would never... I didn' mean to... imply that you'd..."

"S'alright," Joel grumbled. He felt like the biggest fucking hypocrite to ever walk the Earth. It wasn't necessarily a bad feeling. Once again, he was just doing what needed to be done. He could justify pretty much all of his immorality that way. It did get easier to bear, in time. He'd thought maybe it would be the opposite, with Ellie... but as it turned out, it was still much easier to keep sinning than it had been to commit the first sin. Easy as hell to lie about it, too. Which was a good thing since Ellie wouldn't turn eighteen for another two and a half years. Christ, that makes me feel older than dirt.

He should probably thank Tommy for trying to look out for Ellie. If the tables were turned here, and Tommy was the object of Ellie's affections, wouldn't Joel be doing the exact same thing? Except he knew that Tommy with his sky-high morals would never take advantage of her that way. Motherfucker probably wouldn't even be tempted -- and not just because of Maria. It irritated Joel that Tommy doubted him, even though such doubts were obviously well-founded. Yep -- total hypocrite.

Tommy apparently believed him now, though. For one wicked moment, Joel couldn't help imagining the look on his brother's face if he were to casually announce that now he had to let Ellie jerk him off, because by not doing so, he was crushing her self esteem. "It's for her own good, baby brother -- not 'cause I'm a pedophile, see?"

"You do what you think's best," said Tommy. "People are always gonna talk. Eventually they'll get bored of this an' move on to somethin' else. But if you do ever need a-- okay, maybe 'break' ain't the right word... a breather? Or jus' some time to yourself... 'cause I know you used to need a lot of that. Jus' tell her Maria could use her help. It ain't even a lie. She still gets sick, an' she's tired... I don' want her to overdo it..."

"We'll check in on her when you're gone, don' worry," Joel assured him.

"This next trip is the last one I wanna make up there, now that Maria can't go. I'll let Craig handle things from here on out, an' I'll fill his shoes here."

"Jus' so you can boss me around, no doubt," Joel said lightly.

"That's part of the appeal, sure." Tommy grinned. "No, seriously, I know you don' need the bossin' like some of the younger ones do. I'll count on you to do a fair amount of bossin' yourself, in that regard. Impart your wisdom to the younger generation."

"Always do." Like with Lucas, the nineteen-year-old son of 'Skank #2'... or was it #1? The one that wasn't Sophie. Ellie had once tried to flirt with the boy to make Joel jealous -- it had worked, in a way, although neither he nor Lucas had known at the time what the hell she was trying to do (and Lucas still didn't know; Ellie said she figured he just thought she was weird). Although Lucas was more interested in the engineering side of things than the gruntwork, the gruntwork was much more abundant, so he needed direction. Not because he was shiftless or lazy or anything... just inexperienced.

"Well, I'll let you get back to it," Tommy was saying now. "I take it no one's said anythin' to you, then? About any of this... about Ellie?"

Joel scowled. "No."

Tommy looked at him and chuckled. "Can't imagine why."

* * * * * *

Dinner that night was at home, courtesy of Ellie. Esther had eventually taught her how to make 'spaghetti' out of zucchini, like she had planned to that one night -- the night Joel had showed up after that eight-day absence and shot that plan to hell. Ellie made the sauce, too (...out of tomatoes, thankfully, not zucchini). It wasn't half bad. More watery than the pasta sauce of times gone by, of course, but people had to be frugal that way now -- and his palate had adjusted over the years.

Now they were all set to have a cozy evening at home, with Joel sitting on the couch and Ellie laying beside him, her head propped against his thigh. Joel was whittling a chess piece to replace one that had gone missing from the library's set: the black side's queen, which Ellie had guessed was a bomb the first time she saw it. She continued to refer to it as such, even though she knew better now. Ellie was reading her latest book... whichever one she was on in the Dawn of the Wolf series -- which Sarah had liked as well. Joel had flipped through random pages of the tripe before, trying to see the appeal... and he couldn't find any. Possibly because he wasn't a teenage girl.

Before Ellie got too far into the reading tonight, though, Joel decided to try again. "Ellie... you ready to tell me what that fight was about yesterday?"

Ellie groaned dramatically. "Man, we made it all the way through dinner and everything! I thought you finally stopped giving a shit about that."

"Of course I give a shit--"

"Well, you shouldn't. About me, yeah, but not about that."

"I give a hell of a lot of shits about you."

"So romantic." Ellie arched her neck to grin up at him.

He set his shit down and leaned back so he could caress her face, his thumb running lightly over her busted lip. The bruises had deepened to a dark purple. "Why can't you jus' tell me?"

"I just can't, okay?" She slumped back into her reading position. "Just forget about it. Why do you wanna know so bad?"

Morbid curiosity, at this point. "I already know the jist of it. Tommy heard. I'd like to hear it from you, though."

"What did Tommy tell you?" she asked... nervously. Trying to be casual, but Joel wasn't fooled.

"Jus' that she was givin' you shit about your... 'crush'... on me."

"That's all he said?"

"That's all he said."

She relaxed a little. "Awesome. So Tommy thinks I have a crush on you too, huh?" Joel didn't answer right away, and she snorted. "Let me guess -- he already thought that?"

"He did. Yes. I didn' exactly... disabuse him of that notion." Joel hadn't been quite that passive about it, but Ellie didn't need all the gory details. "It jus' makes sense. They see how close we are..."

"They? Maria, too?"

"Sure. What Tommy knows, Maria knows, pretty much."

Ellie laughed mirthlessly. "This whole fucking town thinks I'm pathetically lusting after you like a loser. You know who else thinks that? Annie. I admitted it to her."

"You did?" He probably shouldn't have been surprised. Joel smoothed her hair off her forehead... just an excuse to play with her hair. "You didn't tell her..."

"The whole truth? No. Of course not. I promised you I wouldn't." She sounded a little miffed that he'd doubted her.

"Thank you for that." He tried to thread his fingers through her hair, but there weren't enough loose strands to do much of that.

"She felt sorry for me," Ellie continued. "She thinks it's totally hopeless and that I need to get over it. She said I could come stay with her. ... ...Oh my God... that's why Tommy wanted me to come stay with them the other night, too, isn't it! Everyone wants to get me away from you!"

Joel chuckled. "I'm the big bad wolf or somethin'."

"I'm so sick of it!" She tilted her face up again. "You know what I wanna do? At the town meeting next week, I'm just gonna climb into your lap and start kissing you. See what they think about that."

"Ha! I guarantee you, they'd be havin' some loud thoughts about that."

"Wouldn't it be great? Or even just at Tommy and Maria's. You could smack my ass when I walk by or something. Or-- I'll just start groping you under the table! They wouldn't notice that, but it'd be fun."

Joel was actually a little surprised she hadn't tried to do that already. Surprised, but grateful. "Ellie, you've been really great about this whole thing."

"You really think so?" She was surprised now, too. And a little embarrassed, like she usually was when complimented.

"I do. It... ain't the easiest thing, for me... an' you're jus' a kid--"

"Young woman," she corrected exasperatedly, lowering her head again.

"Young woman," Joel agreed. He ran his hand beneath her head to tug some of her hair loose without yanking it, and fanned it back over his leg so he could play with it. "It's a heavy burden to carry around. An' to not even be able to tell your best friend..."

"It's not that hard. Like you always say, it's better than the alternative. We have to do it, so we do it. Just like we always have, with... whatever."

"That's right."

"But... it's sort of unfair that everyone thinks I have a crush on you and not the other way around, don't you think?"

"It may be unfair, but it better stay that way."

Ellie sighed. "I know." She grabbed the hand that was toying with her hair, brought it to her lips, and started kissing the tip of each finger, one by one. Joel thought it was cute as hell when she did things like that. "It's so stupid, though," she lamented. "You're like the sweetest guy ever. Totally not a pervert or sicko or whatever they wanna think."

"I ain't sweet."

"You're tooootally sweet. And it sucks that nobody knows!"

Joel chuckled. "It's fine with me. Gotta keep up my macho image."

"I don't think you have to worry about that." Ellie squiggled up to give him a quick kiss on the lips, then returned to her position. "Cuz you're only sweet to me. Just like it should be."

Joel didn't see the need to discuss his alleged sweetness. He reached for the knife and wood again. "All right, read your book now."

They hadn't even been quiet for two minutes when Joel thought he heard something outside. He stopped whittling to listen harder.

Ellie only took notice when he stopped. "What's wrong?"

"...Did you hear somethin'?"

"No. Just the wind." She turned a page of her book, completely uninterested in whatever the noise might be.

Joel was about to chalk it up to paranoia and resume his task... when he heard it again. A little louder. Voices outside -- too muffled to identify, but obviously human voices... like people arguing, not realizing they're getting louder as they try to talk over one another, or over the breeze rustling through the trees. Ellie heard it this time, too. She sat up abruptly.

He turned and parted the curtains just enough to see outside -- or try to. The window wasn't exactly sparkling clean. Still, he'd be able to see if there were people out there... and he saw no one. "Stay here," he told Ellie as he swiftly grabbed the shotgun from the corner and strode toward the door.

She didn't obey him. "You're going out there?" She scrambled to retrieve the 9-millimeter and follow him.

"Ellie, stay inside," he told her again. The sun had started to set, but there was still plenty of natural light to see by, so he didn't bother to grab a flashlight. He opened the door and did a quick scan of the area before stepping out onto the porch. "Who's there?" He cocked the gun as he walked down the porch steps and around the side of the house, toward the source of the sounds.

Ellie was right on his heels... in her socks. Didn't even bother to put her shoes on. "Who is it?"

"Ssshhh--" Joel was listening again. He heard receding footsteps to the west... not real close, either. Damn! they're already in the woods. "Go back inside!"

"No!"

He wasn't going to win this one. "Then... at least get your shoes on. Hurry up. And grab the key."

She obeyed him this time. He trotted around the back of the house while she did that... around the other side... no one there. Maybe it's better if Ellie does come with me... a host of possibilities flooded his mind. Some of them too crazy to give a second thought to... others, not so much. On the off chance that someone was trying to lure him away from the house, he would feel better with Ellie at his side, the house locked up. If someone was hell-bent on getting in there, they could break a window, but he would take that chance.

As soon as Ellie came back outside, he motioned for her to follow him. He thought he might be able to track the trespassers via a path of trampled (or at least disturbed) overgrown grasses, but assuming he was reading the trail correctly, it still only led him into the woods, where it promptly ended. They could've gone any which way from there.

Ellie came up behind him. "Which way?"

"I don' know."

"Who do you think it was?"

"...Prob'ly jus' some kids messin' around." What else could it be? Of all the things that had come to mind, that was the one that made the most sense. The town was a veritable fortress. There was always a chance someone could find a breach in the perimeter wall... that had never happened, or so Tommy said, but it could. Although why the fuck someone would bust Inside and then target their remote little house... unless they're Fireflies, maybe...

Ellie was frowning. "Why would anyone... you think they were spying on us?"

"Tryin' to, maybe." That was the most logical explanation. And he wasn't going to plant the Firefly idea in Ellie's head -- he'd told her that he'd killed every last one of them, because he'd wanted her to believe there was nothing to go back to in Salt Lake City. It was far more likely that the trespassers were citizens of Jackson. Technically, they weren't even trespassing; it wasn't like anyone owned anything anymore, or that there were any legal ramifications for hanging out on someone's allotted property... eavesdropping, or whatever the fuck they were trying to do there. "Come on. They're prob'ly headin' to the street." If they're smart.

"We'll never find them then!" Ellie complained. "They could just act all normal and we wouldn't even know it was them."

"Jus' keep quiet, keep your eyes an' ears open... an' we'll have a look around. We might get lucky."

The wind didn't do them any favors, either... they would've had to get really lucky to catch up to them at this point, not knowing which route they took. It's just kids being kids anyway. No cause for alarm, Joel tried to tell himself.

When they came out the other end of the little forest between their house and the street, and not a soul was in sight, Joel figured he'd spent his... adrenaline, or whatever it was, and they might as well head home.

Ellie didn't like the idea. "We're giving up already?"

"We don' even know who we're lookin' for, so we won' find 'em if we cruise the streets," Joel pointed out. "If they went more towards the farm... maybe we could catch them, except we jus' gave them a huge lead by goin' in the other direction. My bet is they've already blended back into the town."

She sighed. "I guess. Okay, well... do I still have to be quiet?"

He chuckled. "No. S'pose not."

Joel stayed alert on the walk home; he was always somewhat on guard when out and about, even in this safe town, but now he was more so. It seemed that Ellie was, too. "Do you think Clicker might...?" he asked her.

"I was just wondering the same thing. I don't think so... he doesn't really spy. He follows me if he thinks I'm upset, or if he forgot to tell me something, or... if you send him after me." She smirked a little at that. "But just like... hiding nearby? When I'm at home? That's not him. And it was more than one person -- who else would be with him?"

The pitch of the voices had been... somewhat indistinguishable, but he wanted to say it sounded more like kids than adults. One higher-pitched than the other. A woman and a kid? Two kids? The lower one could've been a male voice, though... he wished he could replay it for analysis.

When they got back to the house, he started searching the area where he'd heard them. He looked at the window, a sickening thought taking root in his stomach. He searched the perimeter (no signs of a break-in), and even insisted on going inside first, just in case someone had managed to get through the locked door. All for naught, but Ellie didn't even tease him about being paranoid this time. Satisfied that they were alone, he turned to look at her. "Go sit on the couch an' start talkin'."

"What?"

"Jus' go sit on the couch an' talk to yourself. In a normal voice. I wanna see if I can hear you from outside."

"Joel, you hear, like... way better than most people..."

"I'll take that into consideration. Jus' do it, will you?"

"Okay..." She humored him.

What the fuck were we talking about? Joel mulled over their conversation as he returned to the right spot outside. How sweet I am? That's pretty innocent. But how long had those eavesdroppers been out there? She had kissed him... could they see that through the drawn curtains? The curtains weren't exactly made of the heaviest material. Even so, it was just a peck. Could've been on the cheek, for all they could tell.

As for Ellie sitting on the couch, Joel could make out the silhouette of her head... but only just. The sun had set almost entirely now, but there had been more light a little earlier, which would have made the silhouettes even less noticeable; the spies probably couldn't have seen anything very well. That would’ve been easier if it had been dark, since there was a light on inside the house.

To his relief, he could hear that Ellie was speaking, but it was muffled enough that he couldn't make out the words. His own voice carried farther, he knew, but... he hadn't said anything incriminating, had he? He'd asked Ellie about the fight... told her she was handling things well, which was vague enough that it could pertain to any number of things... there was probably nothing to worry about.

But having their privacy invaded was unnerving, and he didn't like the idea of needing to exercise even more caution than they already were. Little good it would probably do in the long run, but for his own peace of mind, he would have to add an extra step to his bedtime shut-down routine: patrol the immediate area surrounding the house.


~Continue to Chapter 20~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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