Lumy (luminations) wrote,
Lumy
luminations

"Uncertainty" Chapter 21: "A Rush of Blood to the Head" (21/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 21: "A Rush of Blood to the Head" (21/47)
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: 7741
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

A/N: Chapter title from the Coldplay song.

~


Ellie knew something bad was about to happen. She knew it before Joel even picked up one of his pieces. With deliberate slowness, he replaced her horse with his on the board, chuckling at the outraged expression on her face as he scooped the white piece away.

"Joel!" she protested. "You said you wouldn't do that!"

"No I didn't. I explained to you why I couldn' do it with no consequences -- 'cause now, what're you gonna do?"

"Cry about my dead horse," Ellie said glumly.

"Knight," Joel corrected for probably the tenth time this game. Ellie continued to call it a horse just to see how long he would bother to keep it up -- and actually, the piece was a horse head. No knight in sight. Her moniker was better.

"Um... I'm gonna take yours. With my pawn. And then you'll prob'ly take that, too," she grumbled as she moved the pawn diagonally.

Joel studied the board for a minute before doing exactly that. "Aaaaand... check."
"What? You-- ...Fuck. So... fuck. I can't kill you."

"No, but you have two defensive moves you can make. See 'em?"

Ellie identified them fairly easily, and she was trying to learn to look ahead and anticipate what he would do next -- play out the if/then scenarios that could unfold with each decision she made. She didn't think she had the patience to ever be good at this game without Joel doing the strategizing for her. He'd made it sound like he sucked at chess, back when he was first explaining it all to her, but from where she sat, he was an expert -- even if he still hadn't beaten Craig yet. "So, I block you with my bishop guy, and then... you have to back off unless you want to lose yours, cuz if you kill me there, I kill you back. Yeah, I like that." She moved her piece.

As if it wasn't challenging enough just figuring out her moves, Ellie was also distracted by their surroundings. It was early afternoon... not as busy for the library as late afternoon or movie time, but there was a fair amount of people milling about. She didn't like the way some of them were staring at her and Joel. It reminded her of when they'd first arrived in Jackson, over four months ago... people were naturally curious about newcomers, and as they speculated amongst themselves, rumors were bound to circulate. Eventually, people who got to know them could sort out the truth, and those who didn't would forget about it anyway and move on to something else.

Joel and Ellie handled the staring and furtive whispering similarly to the first time around: with glares. Joel had advised her to be cool and just ignore it all, but he wasn't exactly doing that himself, so why should she?

"You're glaring again," Ellie told him.

"No I ain't. That's jus' how I look, kiddo."

"Uh-huh, right. Joel, sometimes the differences in your expressions are subtle, I'll give you that -- but I think by now I know all the different looks you have." Except for one, she thought to herself with a snicker. One that I hope to see tonight.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing." And she gave him her nothing-I-can-say-here look, which he knew well. Technically, she could say it, as it wasn't clear what she would be talking about, but the rumor mill didn't need any more fuel, and the Scrabble players at the next table might possibly be able to hear them, if any of them were of a mind to pay attention. "My face doesn't look that bad, does it?"

"It's... pretty bad. That one there's turnin' purple."

She had a bruise on her left cheek (also the side where her lip got messed up), and near her right eye. That was it. A few scrapes and bruises elsewhere, but nowhere in plain view. "But big whoop. I've gotten bruises at the farm and no one cared."

"Maybe 'cause they know how it happened?" Joel suggested. "If it's really botherin' you..."

"No, I don't care. Are you ever gonna move, or what?"

"Well, if you'd quit distractin' me by criticizin' how I look around..."

"You mean the deathglare you were directing at someone over there," she corrected him. She glanced around the room herself while Joel studied the board again. Christine wasn't around. That wasn't a surprise; she didn't hang out there a lot anyway, plus she probably had her face all bandaged up and couldn't suffer the staring with the relative ease that Joel and Ellie could. Annie wasn't there, either -- also not a surprise, as it was too early in the day, and more often than not, she chose to stay on the farm. Clicker was there, playing on one of the computers... Sims, she would assume, based on which machine he was on. She'd caught him looking their way a couple times, and he did wave the first time, but something about his smile was off. He didn't look happy to see her like he usually was.

"Clicker should come over here," she decided. "I told him I was gonna teach him to play some time."

"Ain't that like the blind leadin' the blind?" Joel said teasingly, though it struck Ellie as an odd thing to say.

"Um, we can both see pretty good... ? Whatever... would you mind if he came over?"

" 'Course not. Go ahead."

"I just need to get his attention..."

"Don't holler."

"I wasn't going to." She picked up one of the pawns Joel had knocked off the board. "If I chuck this over there to get his attention, think he'd be smart enough to bring it back with him?"

"No. No throwin' shit, either."

"Not at him, just close to him--"

"No."

"You know I have good aim -- I wouldn't accidentally hit him or anything."

"Jus' go over there an' talk to him like a civilized person, would you?" Joel said exasperatedly.

"What, and leave you alone with the board? No way!"

"You really think I'm gonna cheat?" he asked with his legit are-you-serious look (as opposed to his mischievous are-you-serious look).

That was actually more her style than his. Except she would do it as a joke, then 'fess up to it once Joel noticed -- which probably wouldn't take long at all -- and return the board to its previous state after she'd had a good laugh. Provided that she could remember where all the pieces had been, of course. "No. Okay, fine."

Clicker was absorbed enough in his game that she was able to sneak up on him and grab him by the neck with a "Rah!" by way of greeting. He was amusingly startled. "Fuck, Ellie, don't make me shit myself!"

She giggled and pretended to sniff the air for signs of pants-shitting. "Eh, you're fine. So who are you playing... hey, is that me? It is, isn't it! I'm pregnant now?"

"That's not you." Clicker deftly switched the point of view to another Sim, clicked on a couple other things that made them go away, and hit the "save" button. "I was just going to switch houses anyways..."

It was totally her, Ellie knew. She wasn't going to bust his balls about the fib, though. Good thing I was smart enough to hide the 'Joey and Melanie' Sims in a good place he'll never find! "Dude, me and Joel are playing chess. You should come over and we'll teach you stuff."

He glanced at her uncertainly. "Um... maybe some other time."

"Oh -- cuz duh, computer time. Well, when it's over. You've been on this a while, so you can't have too much longer... ?"

"Ummmmmmm... yeah. I dunno."

He sounded completely uninterested in joining them, and that just wasn't like Clicker. "Are you in a bad mood or something?" she asked.

He was blushing a little bit. From her seeing the Ellie Sim maybe? He stared sullenly at the screen... looking like he was trying to think of what to say.

"Just come over. It'll be fun." She noticed him glance away from the screen, at... she turned in that direction and followed his gaze to a cluster of giggly young people -- teenagers, mostly -- in the music pit. She turned back to him. "Wait. Is it because people are looking at me and Joel? Cuz... yeah, I've noticed. I don't know what the fuck people's problem is. But since when do you care about people looking at you? I mean... you sort of live for it. C'mon, you can like... take advantage of our fame..."

"No, it's... ...uuugghhhh. Okay, I'll come with you. Hold on a sec." He shut down the game and left the computer on its home screen for the next user. The people at the surrounding computers weren't looking at her at all. In fact, it seemed to Ellie they were pointedly not looking at her. Joel must have already glared at all these people, she deduced from that.

They'd gone maybe halfway between the computers and the chess table when Clicker blurted, "Do you know why everyone's looking at you?"

"Yeah. It's either one of two things -- the fight with the skank, or drinking a little at the wedding." Neither was a good reason, but... people were dumb? She'd seen Clicker since both of these had occurred, and he hadn't acted weird about it. She'd totally had to downplay the crush-on-Joel thing, of course. And just like the night he'd sort of caught them... he might not have totally believed her, but he'd certainly wanted to, and he at least acted like he did.

"So... you--" He cut that sentence short.

Ellie waited a couple beats. "I what?"

He didn't say anything.

She stopped in her tracks, and grabbed his arm to stop him, too. "Dude, what's wrong? You can tell me. I won't laugh."

Clicker snickered a little. "Yeah, you wouldn't. If I told you."

"Okay, now you have to tell me. That's just cruel, to tease me like that." She tried to keep her tone light and fun, tried to sound encouraging... but he was starting to worry her a little.

He sighed. "I dunno..."

She noticed Joel watching them. He was wearing his should-I-come-over-there look. "Is it something you can tell Joel? Or both me and Joel? You know he's--"

"No! No no no. Like, hell to the no."

Ellie shook her head slightly at Joel to answer his unspoken question and then turned back to the kid. "Ooo...kaaayyy. Man, whatever it is... just tell me. I'm tough. I can take it."

He sighed again. "Dude, like... have you ever found out something, and you don't know if it's true so you kinda want to ask the person, but the person's a friend, and it's a hard thing to ask, so really you hope the person already knows and will just tell you themselves if it's true or not... or maybe lie about it, actually, so you still might not know... but, whatever, at least you wouldn't have to wonder if you're supposed to tell them or not?"

"You kinda lost me after 'have you ever.' Can't you just tell me what it is?"

This time he groaned. "People are looking. I don't know if I wanna tell you, but I don't wanna keep talking out here. We should go..." He looked around for a 'safe' place.

"Oh, I know -- the magazine room! That's where I was when you were looking for me that one time and even you couldn't find me in there, with your mad ninja skillz. It's perfect."

"Er... it's around that corner, right? Like no one would see us go in there?"

"Yeah..." Now he was really starting to worry her. She hoped this was just some little kid drama being blown out of proportion. Sometimes things seemed like a big deal to a twelve-year-old that were so unimportant to older people such as herself. "Go ahead. I'm just gonna tell Joel real quick."

The kid practically started running, like he couldn't get away from her fast enough. Joel quirked an eyebrow at her as she approached. "Everythin' all right?"

"No. I mean, I don't know. Maybe. I'm trying to get him to tell me something, but the way everyone's staring at me is like... making him not want to tell me out here. I'm just gonna find out what's bugging him and then hopefully he'll be ready to come play with us."

Joel started to get up. "I'll go with you."

Ha! She'd be lucky enough if she could get him to tell her by herself -- and she was easy to talk to. Or so she'd thought. "No, no... stay here. Or, take a bathroom break or something? Sorry."

"It's all right. Go on."

When she got to the magazine room, Clicker was pacing and muttering to himself. She closed the door behind her. "Homie! Sit down like a normal person and tell me what's up." She took a seat at the table in the center of the room.

He continued pacing. "What if... you know that this thing is gonna hurt the person-- or, maybe not hurt, exactly, but upset... well, yeah, hurt. And they're really better off not knowing. But then you wonder, what if they hear it from someone else? Cuz they might. They prob'ly will. And then it's even worse, cuz you did all this should-I-tell-them stuff and decided not to tell and then maybe the person hates you, too. For not telling. But when they know what the thing is, it's like--"

"Clicker!" she cut in impatiently. "Will you just fucking tell me already?! You're kinda driving me crazy here. And sit down! ...please?" she added a little more calmly.

He took a seat in the chair that was the furthest away from her and started fidgeting.

She waited. He remained quiet. "Okay," she said. "I'm gonna do what Joel does with me sometimes when he wants me to tell him something that I don't wanna say. Cuz you do want to tell me. You just don't know how. Right?"

"No, I know how. You just say it. Say the words."

Ellie wanted to groan. She wondered if this was what she sounded like to Joel when he was in this position. Seemed like it was. I'm sorry, Joel, I won't do that anymore! "Okay, so... say them then?"

Clicker stared at his hands.

Twenty questions time (that was the appropriate number, according to Joel). "Okay. This thing you have to tell me. It's something I'm not going to like. It's going to hurt me. Or piss me off somehow. Right?"

"Yeah."

"Do you think I'm gonna get mad at you?" She wanted to promise that she wouldn't, but she didn't like to make promises she wasn't sure she could keep, and she didn't know what the fuck his deal was.

"...No. Maybe. Well... no."

"It's not something you did? Or said?"

"No."

"It's... something to do with me, though."

"Yeah."

"Me... and Christine?"

"No."

"Me and Joel?"

He nodded... looking absolutely miserable.

"I already know people are talking shit. We talked about that already. Right?"

"No. It's not just cuz--" He sighed. "You don't know why people are looking at you. I can tell that you don't."

"So... tell me. Pleeeeeease just tell me. I promise you, I can handle it. I know people are saying nasty things. Like they have nothing better to do than--"

"It's not just something they're saying!" He seemed annoyed that she didn't magically know what he was talking about. Again, it struck her that she must sound the same way to Joel when he was the inquisitor -- unfair as it was, she could remember being annoyed at him for not knowing what she wouldn't say.

"Then what the fuck is it?" She got up and moved to the chair directly across from him. Thought about taking his hand, but then decided that would be a little weird; she couldn't do everything the Joel way here. "If it's not what they're saying..."

"It's... what someone saw."

OH SHIT. Be cool, Ellie... but who the fuck could have seen anything? They were so fucking careful. "Okay. What who saw?" She was surprised at how calm she'd managed to sound.

"I don't know. I seriously don't know, Ellie, I swear." He looked at her earnestly, like he really wanted her to believe him on that.

"Okay. So... you heard it from someone? Who heard it from someone who heard it from someone else and no one knows anything so really it's just people talking shit, still. Right?" Or so she desperately hoped.

"Um, well... could be. Yeah, it could be."

"Who did you hear it from?"

"Alyssa."

Alyssa... the little girl he'd been dancing with -- and Jacob's twelve-year-old sister. "And she heard it from Jacob, right? Dude, you know he hates me. He's prob'ly spreading all kinds of lies about me."

"No, not Jacob. Rainne."

Alyssa's best friend. She was like twelve or thirteen, too. Ellie sighed. "And she heard it from...?"

Clicker shrugged. "No one will say who saw it cuz... of Joel, prob'ly."

"What, like... they're scared of him?" Even though Ellie was the one who was more likely to go kick their ass than Joel was, if it was someone her age or younger. "Okay, so... what are they saying this person saw?"

He was totally blushing now. She felt a little sorry for him... but she had to know.

"You said it's about me and Joel? So... someone says they heard us-- saw us. Whatever it was, it's nothing for you to be upset about. Okay? It's like... when me and Joel were playing that game, and you saw us." Ellie could have kicked herself for bringing that up, because she wanted him to forget all about it, but too late now. She felt the heat rushing to her face. "You totally got the wrong idea. It was just a misunderstanding."

"I... don't know how this would be a misunderstanding."

"Then it's someone making shit up, Clicker. It has to be. Because... there's nothing you should be upset about," she repeated lamely.

"Yeah... okay. Let's go play chess?"

Ellie snorted. "Not so fast. You still have to tell me what they supposedly saw."

"But you said it's just people talking shit, so. Yeah. Just lies."

"I don't fucking know what it is, though. You can't leave me hanging. Don't I deserve to know what everyone's saying behind my back? Isn't that why you wanted to tell me in the first place?" she prodded gently.

He nodded. Stayed quiet.

She wasn't about to start laying out all the possible scenarios that could occur between her and Joel that someone could misinterpret. "Dude... just say it real fast, that way you talk sometimes. Just get it out."

" 'kay." He still sat there quietly for another few moments, somberly... like he was summoning courage... then he squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. "Someonesawyou-- theysaidyou-- theysawyou--" He cut himself off with a nervous laugh, opening his eyes but not looking at her. "I can't even fucking tell you that way." Before she could sigh in exasperation, he continued. "They saw you, ummmmm..."

"Me and Joel?"

"You. They saw you. And him, but you... you were... doing something."

"Doing what?"

"...to Joel."

"To him?" she repeated, willing her guts not to go all twisty inside her as her mind raced to fill in the blanks.

Clicker was staring hard at his fidgeting hands. "Yeah. Um... giving him... doing something to him."

"Giving him...?" She wasn't going to fill in that particular blank out loud, but she had a sick feeling she already knew.

He glanced at her. Glanced away. Glanced at her again. "Yeah. That. What you're thinking."

She couldn't bring herself to say it. "How do you know what I'm thinking?" she all but whispered. "I'm thinking lots of things here. Help me out." Please let this be more innocent than it sounds...

Clicker rotated his thumbs, one around the other, over and over, and stared at them like it was somehow a mesmerizing sight. He went quiet again.

"Pleeeeeease just tell me," she begged.

"I'm trying!" He kept his eyes on his hands. "So... okay, well, it's... a bad thing that... not bad, but it's bad for a girl to do it to her dad. It's... something she'd maybe do with a boyfriend. Or someone she liked. Liked in a... not-like-a-dad way."

Somehow she had the presence of mind to realize that it would sound suspiciously defensive if she pointed out here that Joel was not actually her dad. I kissed Joel on the farm that one day, really quick... but that was AGES ago. Why would it be a thing now? Still, it's better than... "So... kissing him. Daughters do kiss their fathers, you know. You've seen that here... with other families, like..." She let that lame 'wishful thinking' attempt fade away as he slowly shook his head.

"Not-- not kissing. Er... at least, not... on the mouth... you get what I'm saying now?" He squinted at her, cringing, like he expected her to explode or something.

Someone saw me giving Joel a blow job?! Ellie was speechless. There was no way that anything she and Joel had done in public could be misconstrued as... that. Even if someone could see them in their house, there was nothing like that -- nothing that could make them think--

"And then, you know, people have to add to it," Clicker continued, seeming quite relieved to have gotten past having to spell out the details for her. "I know that part's not true. At least... I'm pretty sure it's not."

"None of it's true," she said, amazed again at how calm she could make herself sound. She could keep the rage simmering beneath the surface for now... could go scream after he told her everything. "I've never done that, dude, I swear to you."

He gave no reply to that.

Is that how red I get when I blush?! she wondered. "I swear on my life. On Joel's life. On the life of everyone who ever--"

"Okay, I believe you!"

"...and the other stuff you said you know isn't true? What is it?" And he hadn't even been a hundred percent certain of that, whatever it was... How the fuck can it be worse?!

"You don't want to know. Pretend I didn't say that." He looked sheepish.

"Clicker! What the fuck is it?! Tell me!" she fumed -- still rather calmly, considering the bullshit he was spewing.

"I mean... like you already know, people are saying... things. Like how Christine must've said something bad that pissed you off. I know that part's not true, but I think some people believe it. Or they just like to believe the worst about people, know what I mean? Like that's more... fun, or something."

He was right before -- she kind of didn't really want to know. But it would gnaw at her, the way secrets had a way of doing... especially the bad ones. The way he seemed to be dividing shit into parts and trying to decide what might and might not be true was... annoying. Hurtful, actually. "What worst do you think...? And what do you mean that part's not true? She did say shit that pissed me off."

Clicker was looking at her now... eagerly. "Yeah -- and you never told me what it was. What did she say?"

Ellie was sure her whole face must be as deep a red as her bruises by now. Not like it matters -- who WOULDN'T blush, hearing that shit? "She was just being mean," she said unhelpfully.

"How?"

She knew he was hoping she would say something that would exonerate her from whatever it was he wouldn't tell her. Fuck! Still, she just... couldn't. "It doesn't matter! What the fuck are people saying? The whole truth. Please... I have to know." She looked at him beseechingly. "Just tell me and I'll never ask you about it ever again, I swear."

Clicker shifted a little in his seat -- actually looking even more uncomfortable than before. "Just that... er... Joel makes you. And stuff. That he's just--"

"Okay, stop -- I don't want to hear that fucking bullshit," she said -- still calmly, but with a quiet anger lacing the words. She felt like she'd been punched in the gut, and it hurt worse than any physical punch.

Now that she wanted him to shut up, Clicker seemed to want to talk. "Well... you should also know... the other side of that is... you know. That you're a... a... errrm... how you... like to, and... all that."

Un-fucking-believable! Ellie slumped back in her chair and let the lies sink in. Or, tried to -- Clicker didn't really give her a chance to think.

"Are you mad?" he asked meekly.

"Of course I'm fucking mad! God, I could just -- kill whoever--"

"I mean, are you mad at me."

"No. I'm not. Unless you believe any of that horseshit."

"I don't! And I tell them they don't know shit if they say-- I mean, I don't listen to... I almost got in a fight. Over that."

He seemed a bit proud of that. Like he wanted a fucking medal or something. She snorted. "So... guys are gonna come ask me for favors now, huh?"

"Uh. If they do, I hope you kick their asses," Clicker said solemnly.

Ellie was just... bewildered. "How could someone say they saw it, when we've never... I've never..."

"I guess like... cuz people were saying stuff after the wedding, about you guys, and then you and Christine were fighting about it, and some of them wanted to find out the truth, and they spied on you. At your house. They saw you... on the couch last night."

Ellie gasped. Those dickweeds that ran away last night! "We were on the couch, yes. Like, sitting there. I was reading a fucking book! He was working on-- he made that chess piece! He finished it, it's on the board now, I'll show you -- we weren't fucking doing anything like--"

"Okay! I said I believe you! Don't kill the messenger!"

Ellie put her head in her hands and rubbed her temples. Okay, fucking THINK, Ellie. You can't just go out there and SHOOT all of their stupid laughing faces. And Joel... oh God, you can't tell Joel! But how could she not? She couldn't just pretend that she hadn't heard all this.

If the tables were turned, Joel could. But he was definitely better at keeping secrets from her than she was from him. He said people would think he was a bad guy if they knew... is this what he meant? He didn't say they'd think that about me, too. So if we do sexual things like ANY OTHER COUPLE might do, there's something wrong with us? We're sick fucks because we LOVE each other?

"Are you okay?" Clicker asked feebly.

She didn't answer. Because she was trying to fucking think.

The worst thing about it was that it was so... completely opposite of the truth, when it came to Joel. If they wanted to think shit about her, well... fine -- if they felt like there was something wrong with her for loving Joel, for enjoying being close to him that way... that was their opinion. A wrong fucking opinion, but still. What she really couldn't stand was for someone to believe that Joel -- her sweet, loving Joel who was so concerned about taking advantage of her or somehow fucking her up that he wouldn't even let her do stuff with him that she really really wanted to do, stuff that she was always trying to talk him into doing... how can they think for one second he would ever FORCE me to do it?! If anything, it's the other way around! Just this morning, he wouldn't have even touched her if she hadn't followed him into the shower and then... God, he wasn't looking to do ANYTHING sexual, and I made him. Twice, if you count when he stopped and I whined and-- no, he was just being a dick to be funny, that doesn't count. Whatever -- obviously I am the pervert here, not Joel!

"I don't believe any of it," Clicker reassured her. "I told Alyssa it's not true. I'll go out there and tell all those dumbasses out there it's not true. I'm gonna go do that right now."

He hopped up out of his chair, and that snapped Ellie out of her thoughts enough to stand up, too. "No, don't." I should do that myself. Right? Or just ignore it? I need to fucking find out who started that stupid fucking rumor and bash their fucking FACE in. Or... JUST IGNORE IT?! I don't know if I can do that. I want to ask Joel what to do, but... I want to protect him from this. CAN I protect him from this? Is it just stupid kids spreading stupid lies, or is some adult gonna believe it and feel like they have to DO something about it? Joel always cautioned her about that, and she'd gotten a taste of it herself when she'd mistakenly led Max to believe that Joel was abusive to her, before they had even so much as kissed. How had Max put it... "Other living arrangements can be made..."

No, that wasn't going to happen. No fucking way. No, Joel would never let that happen!

"I don't care if they laugh at me," Clicker was saying, bringing her attention back to him again. "Or say stupid shit to me, or... act like asshats... whatever they're gonna do. It's fucking bullshit."

"You seem more pissed off now than before," Ellie observed.

"I guess cuz... I was weirded out before? But obviously it's all lies, and it sucks that people are such douchebags."

He wasn't sure if it was true before, Ellie realized. That one night had planted the seed of doubt, and maybe other people had picked up on that when they talked to him. But now that Clicker had talked to her, and she hadn't said anything along the lines of "well, sure, I blow Joel every night, what's the big deal?" -- now he didn't believe the rumors. She felt a twinge of guilt about that, because it wasn't quite as not true as she made it seem. Except it's not! The nasty crap that makes us out to be sickos is all lies! "Whatever. Assholes are assholes. My real friends -- like you -- will at least ask me if it's true instead of spreading crazy stories behind my back. ...I think I have to tell Joel," she added as the truth of that statement dawned on her. She didn't want to, of course, but considering how many people were flapping their lips about it, he was going to hear it somehow, and he had to be prepared. More prepared than she had been.

Clicker looked horrified at the idea, though. "What if he goes batshit?"

Ellie snorted. "What's he gonna do, go beat up everyone in the library? ...I wouldn't mind that, actually. Maybe I'd help him."

"No, you guys can't -- they kick people out for stuff like that!"

"Then we'll just go home."

"I mean out of Jackson, not out of the library!"

Out of Jackson... away from all their fucking malicious lies... "Yeah, well, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing."

She didn't think Clicker could look any more horrified than a few moments ago, but somehow he managed to. "No, you can't leave, just cuz some people are idiots! Who's gonna teach me how to fight, and... throw water balloons at me that actually hurt... and play the Wii with me?"

In spite of the layers of shit that had just been heaped on her, Ellie had to smile at these alleged reasons to not leave Jackson. She wished the other boys around Clicker's age weren't such asswipes. But, since they were, most of his friends were girls, and they weren't as tomboyish as Ellie. "Dude, plenty of people. Er... the Wii part, at least. I know you play with other people! We're not going to get kicked out, though. Joel's not as mean as he looks. You know that. But... I'll at least tell him outside or something. Just in case. Come on." She walked to the door and then turned around to look at him. He was right behind her. "And thank you. Really. Who knows how long I would've gone on, not knowing."

He looked embarrassed but pleased. "No biggie."

Telling Joel was not going to be fun. She figured she'd just tell him the base of the rumor -- the blow job thing. He didn't need to know the accompanying speculation.

As she was walking back towards the chess table, Clicker in tow, she couldn't resist glancing around the place, especially in the music area. No one was looking at her now. Maybe it really wasn't all that big a deal...

But then one of the teens took notice of her and Clicker, made some remark to his neighbor, and everyone in their little group laughed. Now that she was armed with the rumor knowledge, Ellie could imagine what they were saying. She didn't even try to tell herself to just ignore it; the rage was escalating from simmering to boiling. "Dude, go hang out with Joel for a sec. I'm gonna go... have a word," she added, borrowing Joel's phrase.

"Me too!"

"No. Just go keep Joel distracted or something. Don't tell him anything."

Clicker laughed without humor. "Are you kidding?! I could barely even tell you, and he's like... a million times harder."

"Okay, good. Go." He dutifully headed over to the chess table. Ellie had glanced over there just long enough to know Joel was there waiting for her, but she didn't want to exchange looks with him now that she was all fired up. He always kept an eye on her (an extremely overprotective eye, not that Ellie minded), but he generally let her interact with her peers without interference on his part.

Unless she made a scene; then all bets were off. Keep cool, Ellie... She walked quickly and confidently over to the pit. She wasn't going to hang her head in shame and scuttle around like a timid little mouse. After everything she'd been through, a few laughing idiots were nothing. There were some mutterings of 'uh-oh, here she comes'... idiots poking each other... all eyes on her now. Someone turned off the CD they'd been listening to. There were six of them there, ranging in age from thirteen to like twenty or twenty-one. If only her fucking face wasn't so hot! But by this point, the red was probably more from anger than from blushing.

She allowed herself a wicked little fantasy of stopping where she was and tossing a nail bomb right in the middle of them. Or maybe a Molotov. Yes! She imagined their sorry asses going up in flames... how their mean little whispers would transform into screams of agony... maybe they'd beg her to help them...

How fucked up is it that THAT is a more pleasant fantasy than doing it to fucking infected?! Maybe there really was something wrong with her. -Of course there is. Always has been. But loving Joel is NOT part of that. That's the best thing I've ever done! And these fuckheads want to take that away from me! Take HIM away from me, if this goes far enough... anyone who tried to do that was just as much her enemy as the infected, as far as Ellie was concerned.

Even if she really did want to blow up her more insidious enemies here, all her shit was at home. So instead, she stood in front of the assholes, towering over them (for a change), as they were all sitting either in the 'pit' or on the two levels that outlined the little square and led down into it. The broad steps served as backrests for whoever wanted to lounge there by the stereos. "Okay, so... I know you guys are spreading lies about me. What I wanna know is who started it? Who says they saw me? Because that person is a fucking liar, and... and I need to talk to them." She looked at each of them in turn. Most seemed to be trying to look innocent. One was barely concealing a smirk.

"Was it you, Cedric?" she asked the thirteen-year-old (and she thought it was extraordinarily civil of her not to use her Asswipe #2 nickname there).

"No," he said quickly. He actually made eye contact, too.

Doesn't mean anything -- Joel can lie while looking a person in the eye, too. Ellie snorted. "Well, since you're A.J.'s bitch -- was it him?"

"I'm not anyone's bitch, you bitch!" he scowled.

Yes, how original, call me what I just called you. You're so clever. Ellie scowled right back. "Was. It. HIM," she repeated slowly, as if he was too thick to get it.

"No!"

"Then who was it?"

"I don't know! He's the one who told me and he doesn't know who saw it, either."

"Ellie, none of us know who saw it," said one of the girls. A pretty girl named Nicole. Someone Ellie barely knew.

"Oh good, you've already compared notes, then. Well, someone started this bullshit. If no one knows who supposedly saw it, someone's lying. Maybe all you guys are lying. Covering for someone? Obviously this person is a coward or they'd make themselves known." No doubt they were more afraid of Joel than of her, even after the Christine thing... but whatever. We're a package deal, anyway! She glared at one of the boys -- the younger of the Justins in town. Tara's Justin, although Tara wasn't present. "Let me guess -- you heard it from Tara? And she doesn't know either?"

"She doesn't believe it," Justin said nobly.

"None of us believe it," added another girl -- Karen. Karen, who had been so nice to her at the wedding. Now sitting around with the others, laughing, calling her a slut and Joel a pervert and who the fuck knows what else.

"Right. You'll just sit here and talk shit behind my back anyway? How classy." Before the girl could produce some fake protests, Ellie turned her glare on Olivia -- the oldest in the group, and Christine's roommate. "Guess I can't blame you for not saying it to my face... how is your skanky friend, anyway?"

Olivia held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, I am staying out of you guys's teenage drama, okay?"

"You're fucking sitting here with them -- I wouldn't say you're out of it. Christine's prob'ly the one who started this!"

"It wasn't her! Seriously, she like never leaves the house now, thanks to you."

"Not my fault she's too vain to show her ugly face." And fuck, it had only been a couple days since the fight --'never' leaves the house... pfffft, whatever! Ellie looked at each of them, her brain scrambling to find the right thing to say.

Something Joel had said a while ago came to mind... something he'd said before they were even together, about how they didn't need to defend themselves when they'd done nothing wrong. And explaining her relationship with Joel was literally impossible -- even without the sex stuff. "Okay, so, none of you has the balls to tell me who it was. That's fine. Be a bunch of pussies. But it'd be nice if you didn't spread around this nasty shit about me and Joel. If you can't do that... go fuck yourselves."

Not exactly a creative or inspired ending to the conversation, but Ellie felt a little better now... maybe her blood was still boiling, but the pot wasn't going to boil over. Now, at least these six people knew she wasn't cowering in shame or whatever. These six, plus perhaps a few others in earshot. Let them spread that around. As she started walking back over to the chess table, wondering how the fuck she was going to tell Joel, she heard someone back there... it was a boy's voice... something about 'boys too'... something about 'under the table'... some snickering...

Ellie whirled around. From what she could tell, it was either Tyler or Justin. She walked back over to the pit. "You wanna say that to my face? Huh?" she challenged the boys. "Who said that?"

"I said it," said Tyler, a sixteen-year-old that Ellie didn't know very well. She was quasi-friends with his ex, Dee, so maybe he hated her by extension? Not that anyone needed to hate her simply to indulge in laughing at her expense. He stood up, crossing his arms in front of his chest, looking at her defiantly from the pit. "It was just a joke. You weren't supposed to hear it."

If that was some sort of apology, it was pretty lame -- even for a fake one. Ellie moved down onto the first stair of the pit to get directly in front of him, which put them at nearly the same height. "Say it to my face. Come on, you fucking pussy. Or would you rather take this outside?"

The asshole just stared at her. He's taller than me, heavier... I have no idea if he knows how to fight... but I'm not afraid of him. She'd killed grown men. Killed them. This pansy-ass shit didn't scare her in the slightest. The problem was, 'taking it outside' would mean walking closer to Joel. Not right past him, but close enough. They'd never make it out there without him noticing. Plus, they were attracting more attention now. Paige was probably on her way over there to issue some kind of warning. And Joel... she didn't dare look his way now, because how would that look to the others? She didn't need Joel to fight her battles for her! As it was, he'd probably be coming over in a matter of seconds. She knew he was watching her. He would notice her getting in this guy's face, and he'd be waiting for her to signal him the yay or nay like she'd done with Clicker... and when she didn't even look his way, he'd make his own decision -- which would most likely be to come over. Even though she pretty much never wanted him to do that, and he knew it. Fuck!

Tyler ignored the taking-it-outside thing. He glanced away for a moment, then looked at her. "It was something... dirty," he disclosed unhelpfully, and though he seemed to be trying to keep his expression blank, Ellie detected a little smirk.

"Say it!" She moved closer to him, to the second stair, giving up a little height in exchange for being right in his face.

"It wasn't even about you! It was dumb. Just forget it." Tyler took a step back now, and he kept glancing sideways...

Towards Joel -- of course! She could kind of see Joel headed their way in her peripheral vision... or maybe it was more like sensing how close he was... Fuck it, I gotta just take the cheap shot.

Ellie kicked the fucker squarely in the crotch.

She barely had the satisfaction of hearing Tyler suck in his breath and make an unmanly squealing sound, of seeing the pain scrunch up his face as his body curled in on itself, when Joel's arm was around her, dragging her backwards off of the stairs. The other people sitting there had sprung to their feet... a few others had drifted over from whatever they'd been doing...

She stumbled after Joel as he ushered her away from the pit, but Ellie still felt very much in it-- she turned, tried to move back toward the assholes -- the commotion -- take it all in and let it all out --

A sea of faces... angry faces... confused or shocked faces... A buzz of voices... this one yelling, that one laughing...

And, for once, Ellie didn't want Joel's hands on her.

Her blood was fucking boiling -- boiling over the pot now -- she had to fight -- had to, like she couldn't not -- had to hit someone, or everyone -- everyone trying to fuck up her life. And Joel wasn't letting her! If she’d had a Molotov in her hand just then, she would’ve chucked it, consequences be damned. She tried to push Joel's arm away... the one holding her back like some kind of safety belt.

Then he spun her around to face him, his hands on her shoulders, and she knew he was saying her name.

Her eyes wouldn't focus on him... her gaze darted from one person to the next in the small crowd, and he said her name louder. Loud enough to break through the buzz and the blur.

"Ellie! Ellie, look at me."

All of a sudden, she felt like she might cry. The fight was starting to drain out of her without release, and Joel was... fuck, I can't even look at Joel right now! "Let go of me! LET ME GO!" she screamed at him, still not looking him in the eye, but glimpsing the surprise that registered on his face.

He loosened his grip enough that she broke free easily. She turned and bolted for the door.

Run run RUN--

All she wanted was to get far away from everyone. Even Joel.

Maybe especially Joel, blissfully clueless as he was to all the vulgar crap. The things that she couldn't un-know... couldn't un-hear... I can't tell him -- I HAVE to tell him -- but I can't!

She knew the shit would follow her-- that there was no true escape-- that it would stay with her and pound itself into her head. No matter where she went-- no matter what she did--

And yet, she ran.

~Continue to Chapter 22~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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