Lumy (luminations) wrote,
Lumy
luminations

"Uncertainty" Chapter 22: "Broad Shoulders" (22/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 22: "Broad Shoulders" (22/47)
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: 6164
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

~


"Ellie!"

She wasn't far enough away to be out of earshot, but she didn't stop running.

Joel had lost a few moments on his way out by hastily recruiting Clicker to go back to the chess board and guard his backpack, but he'd seen which way Ellie was headed out the glass doors, and he'd caught sight of her when he exited the library himself. He wasn't far behind her. "Ellie!" he tried again.

Shit! I'm just going to have to chase her to wherever she's going.

She was heading north. To the ghost town area. Had to be -- the farm was south, the lake was east, and home was southeast.

He was gaining on her. "Ellie!" Finally she slowed down to a trot, then stopped altogether as he caught up to her, slamming on the brakes to stand beside her. "What happened? Where you goin'?"

She stood there, panting, not looking at him, and Joel was grateful for the chance to catch his breath as well. He waited for her to speak... but she didn't, so he simply asked, "Can I come with you?"

She threw a glance his way, not meeting his gaze. "Okay." She started walking, and he fell in step beside her. She widened the space between them. Enough that he couldn't take hold of her hand. Thinking it might have been his imagination, he tried to close the gap, but she did it again.

Clearly, she's pissed at me. But why? And why did she kick that kid in the ballsack? From what he could tell, the kid was backing away from her... not trying to start anything. He must've mouthed off to her. What could've made her angry with ME, though... is it because I wouldn't let her fight? Did she really think she could just start hitting people in the middle of the library and no one would stop her?

Joel was grateful that she was letting him come with her, at least. After she'd run away on that day from hell, and he'd spent all day and all night looking for her, worried sick about her because he knew how messed up she was that day (all his fault, too), he'd told her that he would give her space if she needed it. That she didn't need to hide from him to get it. But, that one day notwithstanding, he had since learned that Ellie never really wanted space. Even when he thought she did -- and even when she said she did... even if she didn't want to talk, even if she was pissed at him... it didn't seem to affect her desire to not be alone. They were quite different in that regard.

Or... they used to be. She seemed to be rubbing off on him a little.

Now... he really wanted to hold her hand. To have some physical contact. So she could feel how much he cared for her, and be comforted by it, even in just that small way. But all he could do was follow her lead. They passed only a couple more people on the street (and Ellie uncharacteristically did not acknowledge them at all) before they reached the area of Jackson where no one lived. Rows and rows of deserted houses. People ventured in there at times, for various reasons, but most of the time it was eerily silent, reminiscent of the many true ghost towns he and Ellie had traveled through on their long journey west.

That was how it felt now as Ellie headed exactly where Joel had expected her to -- the burnt-out house she'd run to after learning the truth about Salt Lake City. He had no desire to see the inside again. "Please don' go in there." He could make the request, but if she ignored it, he would follow her. "How 'bout the back yard, or... the side over there, where we talked before?"

She obliged him by heading for the backyard (or maybe that was her original destination anyhow?), and gestured to a huge cluster -- practically a field -- of weeds in the far corner. "That's where I peed that one day. Right there. I don't think the weeds were that big then."

"...Huh." Joel didn't know what to say to that. He was glad her voice sounded fairly normal. Maybe it won't be so hard getting her to talk to me. "Wanna sit on the steps here?"

They sat on the porch steps, rather like they had that day she'd spied on him at Sophie's house. She leaned against him, which had to be a good sign... maybe she's pissed, but she can't be THAT pissed. And she'd been practically having a panic attack earlier, but now she seemed calmer... like her accelerated breathing came from physical exertion, not panic. He put his arm around her. "Can you tell me what all that was about back there?" he asked her gently. "Or... we can jus' sit for a while, if you want."

He thought she'd opted for the 'just sitting' option, but actually, it just took her a minute to answer. "I hate everyone in this fucking shithole town. They're all a bunch of... I hate them!"

That surprised him. Maybe it shouldn't have, given the staring of late. Since the wedding. But today, it did feel worse than the day before. "Not everyone. You don' hate me. At least I hope you don't."

She didn't laugh. But that could've been because the remark wasn't all that funny.

Still, he continued with that thread. "You don' hate Tommy an' Maria... Annie... Esther... the little kids you read to an' play with at Tommy an' Maria's... Clicker?" Something had happened with Clicker, but he didn't think Ellie was upset with him. It was obvious the boy didn't want to tell him what they'd been discussing in the other room, and Joel hadn't pressured him. The two of them had just sat there, watching Ellie across the way. Joel hadn't become concerned until she'd started to return to him, only to then turn around and confront the one boy. I'm sure he regrets pissing off my girl now! he couldn't help thinking -- and with pride. No, he wasn't going to lecture Ellie about fighting again. At least not right now.

He was more concerned about the potential for her friends to turn into enemies than he was about the crotch-kicking. She'd been doing so well... fitting in pretty damn good for a square peg in a round hole. He hated to see her start to lose what camaraderie she did have with her peers.

She seemed to want to talk... but now she's too damn quiet. Joel squeezed her arm. "Talk to me, kiddo."

She sighed. "I know I have to, but I really don't want to."

"You don' have to. If you really don' want to, I'll jus' sit here with you. If you want. No talkin'." He didn't want to do anything to make her withdraw from him, either physically or emotionally. He could be patient, because he knew she trusted him enough to speak her mind when she was ready.

"No, I have to. I just wish..." She sighed again.

"...what do you wish, baby girl?"

"Lots of things. But... God, I wish I didn't have to fucking tell you."

"You don' have to tell me anythin' you don' want to," he repeated. "I jus' think it might help you feel--"

"No, it's not that I don't want to tell you cuz of... I mean, it's just that... I don't wanna tell you."

As close as they were, Joel still wasn't entirely schooled in Ellie logic yet. That explanation made no sense to him, although he could think of a few possible reasons for her reluctance. "Why? Are you afraid of how I'll react, or... what I'll think of you if--"

"No no, it's not like that," she cut him off again. "It's more like... I want to protect you from all the bad shit in the world."

Joel had to chuckle at that. "What are you talkin' about? That's my job. I protect you. I already know all the bad shit. You don' have to protect me."

"Then I guess it goes both ways, cuz I do."

She's serious! He kissed her temple. "Whatever you feel you have to tell me, I can handle it."

"Ha! That's exactly what I said to Clicker, but I guess it was a lie, cuz now..." She made a vague gesture of... hopelessness, or surrender.

"Then let me help you handle it. Whatever it is. Try me." It was painful, watching her try to bear this burden by herself. He had to get her to open up. My shoulders can take a lot more than yours can, baby girl...

More silence.

Joel could wait. He looked upward to watch the clouds roll by. "Looks like it's gonna start rainin' soon."

She looked up to the sky as well. "Yeah..." But that's all she said.

All right, no easing in with small talk, then... "Is Clicker in some kind of trouble?"

"No! No, nothing like that."

"Was it somethin' he said to you?" he tried.

She chuckled mirthlessly. "I was kind of doing this with him, trying to drag it out of him, and it was so annoying that I vowed I wouldn't do it to you anymore."

He squeezed her again. "I'm not annoyed. Some shit is hard to talk about, I know." So it WAS something Clicker told her...

Another sigh, followed by silence.

"Ellie... I love you. You can tell me anything."

She actually smiled a little then. Not at him, but it was a smile nonetheless. "I love you, too."

Joel was usually the one adding the 'too.' Neither of them said those three words to the other all that much. It just seemed like maybe a reminder was in order here. He didn't ask her anything else... just kept waiting for her to talk to him. You already know too much of the bad shit out there, baby girl... I know you do. Doesn't mean I'll ever stop trying to shield you from it. But what the hell could possibly be so bad that I ain't already aware of? Why do I need protecting? If something had happened to her... but he'd been with her nonstop since last night, and she'd been just fine. At home, at the warehouse, at the library... she was okay, until she'd talked to Clicker, and then to that group of kids in the music pit. It did no real good to speculate here, but since all he was doing was waiting for her to speak, it was kind of hard not to...

He waited probably a good five minutes this time, to no avail. "Why do you hate everyone?" he finally prompted her.

"Because. Joel... it's... really bad."

"I can handle it," he repeated. "Does it have anythin' to do with the fight you had with that girl?"

"No. Well... maybe. Kind of, yeah." She laid her head on his shoulder. "Okay, so... remember last night when we heard noises outside?"

"Yes..." Is that what this is about? Was it Clicker out there after all?

"Well, whoever that was... they didn't see us. They couldn't have. I know the curtains were closed. Plus we weren't even doing anything. We were just hanging out on the couch. No one was naked, no one was... doing anything..."

"...right...?" Joel didn't like where this was headed.

"That person... people -- there were at least two, right? -- they're telling everyone that they saw me, um... that they saw me..."

"...saw you what? Naked?" But she wasn't--

"No. They said I was... doing something to you... like... while you were sitting on the couch." She paused. Turned and pressed her face into his shirt. "They said I was... um..."

Shit. "I get the picture." Maybe not the full picture, but enough to know it was something sexual. It was kids being kids. Saying stupid shit, showing off to each other. And, given that it wasn't so far from the truth, maybe it felt a bit worse for her to hear than the usual garden-variety shit. Disturbing though it was, Joel wasn't all that alarmed; he was just worried about Ellie. He squeezed her again. Smoothed her hair. "I'm sorry, baby girl."

"Joel, the things they're saying... it makes me sick. Like, literally sick."

People speculating about their relationship, jumping to vile conclusions... hell, thinking the worst was just human nature -- his own included. But to know that someone would flat-out lie about what they saw... that was more malicious than salacious, and far more troubling. "I know it's... upsettin'..."

"Upsetting? It's... disgusting. They take something that's so..." Her voice caught, and for a moment, Joel thought she might start to cry, but she regained her composure quickly, and she even looked at him, sort of... at least, she pulled away from his shoulder and faced his way. "You... are so good to me. You've been nothing but nice to me. No one's ever... the way you care... so much... and then for them to just say... to turn it into... something so... ugly..."

"Hey." He tilted her chin up. "They ain't turnin' it into nothin'. It's jus' words. They can't... change... what this is. What we have. It ain't ugly."

"You really think so?"

"I know so." Doesn't she know that? She'd never expressed any doubts before, but the way she'd asked that... and he wasn't certain what she was questioning -- the ability of people to fuck up their relationship, or his assertion that it wasn't ugly.

She nestled her head on his shoulder again. "Except part of you agrees with them. Part of you thinks it's disgusting."

"No--"

"Yes you do," she said sadly. "That's why you don't let me... do that. ...do what they think we're doing. You think if you do, it means you're a pervert. But you're not... and it wouldn't."

They'd argued about this so many times, and Joel could never quite explain it to her in any way that would stick. He usually ended up resorting to physical distraction, because that always made her feel better -- and it was easy.

Before he could even begin to try to find the right thing to say to that, she continued. "You warned me about this, in the beginning. You said people could make things bad for us. I thought you were being paranoid... I mean, I understood, but like... I didn't think it would be like that. Like this."

"Like how? Are they bein' mean to you?" Ellie never wanted Joel interfering in her affairs, but if these punks kept saying inflammatory things to her--

"No. Just... what if they ruin everything?" she asked quietly.

That was pretty general. He wasn't sure how she felt they could 'ruin everything.' "We won' let them," he assured her; he didn't need to know specifics to know that much.

"What if they say I can't live with you anymore?"

"What?!" No wonder she was so upset, with shit like that going through her head! "That is not gonna happen."

"We're not even immune to it in our own house."

"Ellie, nothin' happened. No one saw anythin'."

She wasn't hearing him. "We have to leave. We can't stay here. They hate us, and they're trying to ruin everything, and... I can't lose you..."

She seemed to be fighting tears again, and Joel wished she would just let go and cry. "You won't. Ever. C'mere." He turned so he could give her a proper hug, holding her close, petting her hair... even rocking her a little. "It's gonna be all right. I promise. No one's ever gonna split us up. I'd never let that happen."

She sniffled a little, but didn't start crying in earnest. "I'm being selfish," she muttered.

"You're fine. I got you."

"No, I mean... I should prob'ly let you go... but I can't! I can't."

"Let me go? I ain't goin' nowhere. I'm right where I want to be." He had to find a way to steer her away from this line of thinking. Clear this bullshit out of her head. He pulled her up over his leg so that she was sitting in front of him, and he could hug her against him from behind.

She leaned into him. "But I don't want people thinking you're... bad."

Joel chuckled. "Who cares what they think? Half of 'em prob'ly already thought that before all this." And now was not the time to get into the good/bad argument with her, concerning what sort of person he was.

"I care. I care because you're totally... I wish they knew what a good person you are! But they don't even want to see it. Even if I could show them... they can't see it."

"That don' mean you should 'let me go.' You think I'd rather have them think 'hey, that Joel dude ain't so bad after all'... that I'd rather have that, than to be with you? 'Cause if that's what you think, you're wrong. I'd rather be with you than to have all their... esteem, an' whatnot."

"...Well, when you put it like that..."

Joel felt hopeful that the message was sinking in as she mulled over this. "That's how it is. Pretty sure you feel the same way."

"Of course I do!"

They'd talked about that plenty. Joel still harbored some guilt over depriving her of the chance to be with someone closer to her own age, to be more normal... but for the most part, he accepted that Ellie wanted things this way. And no relationship was perfect, after all. "So, fuck 'em. Don' let their bullshit get to you."

"No... we should leave. If we stay here..." She sniffled again. "It's my fault. I don't hide my feelings as good as you do. I put the ideas in their heads--"

"It ain't your fault. People are jus'... they like to talk. It'll blow over. We don' have to leave."

"But I can't stand them thinking of you like that."

"It don' matter what they think." Joel wondered if they were saying nasty things about her, too (and if so, would Clicker have told her?). Things he didn't want anyone to think about his little girl. Even though she wasn't exactly his little girl... he couldn't help thinking it sometimes. It was all well and good for him to say it doesn't matter what people think, but in the heat of the moment, he had a feeling that sentiment might fly right out the window if someone said something about Ellie in his presence that was... unsavory.

"Except what if it does matter? I had to tell you, because what if they tell a parent, or like... some adult person, and then they go and tell Tommy and Maria? I know some of those other people in the library heard the shit, too. Not just the asswipes in the pit. And you said it's a crime... or did you just mean the sex part? Like, it's okay as long as we're not fucking?"

Joel hated to douse that little flicker of hope he'd just heard in her voice. "No... it would still be... bad. In the eyes of those who wanna see it that way. You'n'me, we know better. I know I... confuse you sometimes, with my... -but jus' know that I do not think what we are is a bad thing."

"I know."

He nuzzled the side of her head. "Good."

"But the last thing we need is for Clicker to find us like this." She wriggled away from him just far enough to sit on the step below, though she turned herself sideways so they could talk face-to-face. She was still situated between his legs; Joel thought it would hardly look any better to passersby, but he'd be shocked shitless if anyone stumbled upon them here, in the backyard of this ugly old burnt house. "I think he sort of believed it," said Ellie. "The fucking lies. Before he talked to me. Not the bad stuff, but the actual... going-down-on-you thing."

"No one can prove anythin'. Especially shit that never happened. We do what we've always done -- deny it if we have to." Joel was glad that Ellie could honestly deny performing sexual acts on him, at least. Plausible deniability.

"Deny it. Pfff. We shouldn't even have to do that." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "What if I was the older one? Would it make any difference?"

"If you were older?"

"Older than you. Say you're the kid and I'm the grown-up. Is that supposedly a crime, too?"

"Well, yeah." Joel couldn't even imagine Ellie being middle-aged, with himself in the teenager role here. "What're you gettin' at?"

"Nothing... I dunno. I guess I should be glad it's not sexist. Just ageist."

There was absolutely a difference, in Joel's mind, but he didn't see the need to try to explain it to Ellie. She would just call him sexist, anyway. And maybe she'd be right. In the old world, the law would've agreed with her; it had to be black and white when it came to shit like that.

There were no real laws anymore, of course, aside from the ones each community made for themselves... vigilante justice. Whether inside a town, a QZ, or out in the wild, that's all there was. Most -- hell, probably all-- groups obviously weren't going to tolerate extreme violence... that was a given. The rest of it, though... it could be a bit of a crapshoot deciphering right from wrong, and what needed to be done about the wrong. The QZs were probably run pretty similarly, but aside from that... Joel had to assume it was all pretty insular; it wasn't like anyone could communicate with anyone else outside of their own village with any regularity. Each town was an island. And from what he'd seen, no other town could be any safer -- or have more amenities -- than Jackson.

Jackson had enough older folks -- those like himself, who had come of age before the Cordyceps had fucked up the world -- that he could safely assume a romance between a forty-nine-year-old man and a fifteen-year-old girl would be universally frowned upon here. No one had proven him wrong yet. And, judging by the rumors, the younger ones clearly took issue with it, too -- if only because it fell too far outside the norm. Take away the life-and-death shit by plopping them in a town like Jackson, and teenagers were apparently still teenagers: inclined to want to be cool, popular, ~normal~ -- and willing to shit on the outsiders if it helped that cause.

Ellie sighed. "Not that it even matters. Law or no law, people think it's revolting. They don't... get us. And -- fuck, between the two of us, I'm the worst as far as... being a pervert or whatever."

Joel chuckled. "What? You ain't--"

"I am! I'm always the one wanting... stuff. It's like I make you do it."

She's just too damn cute sometimes! He shook his head, laughing a little. "You don' make me do--"

"Shut up, I totally do! What would they think about that? And does anyone even care that I'm happy with you, when they think how wrong it supposedly is? If you were fucking abusing me somehow, why would I be happy?"

Because you don't realize that it's abuse... and the more time that passed, the less he was seeing it that way himself. Which both disturbed him and pleased him -- at the same time, which was weird as hell. "They could be afraid that... you think this is normal. Like I sort of... brainwashed you or somethin'."

"Well, who the fuck are they to-- why should they even give a fuck?! It's my life, not theirs."

"I reckon people feel a... natural obligation to look out for kids. Kid like you, with no parents... nice young girl... stuck with this old dude who--"

"Stop!" She thumped his leg in annoyance. "Don't talk about yourself like that. I'm not fucking stuck. If anyone tries to split us up, Joel, I swear to God..." Her voice broke a little.

He laid a hand on her shoulder to give it a squeeze. "They ain't goin' to split us up, kiddo. I've talked to Tommy... not about this new horseshit, obviously, but about... us in general. He believes that nothin's goin' on. Kids spreadin' rumors ain't gonna change that. Worst case scenario... if it ever comes down to splittin' up or leavin' town, we'll leave, all right?"

"You promise?" She looked at him... in that doe-eyed, vulnerable way she had that could make him promise her the moon.

This one's real easy, though. "I promise." He couldn't even comprehend the idea of trying to lead a life separate from Ellie's at this point. And for what?! To please the masses? They can go fuck themselves six ways to Sunday.

The promise didn't completely ease her fears. "Okay. Except what if-- They know you feel that way, right? -so whoever would want to... what if they think that for my own good they have to like... I dunno... hide me somewhere?"

"...You really think I'd let 'em do that? Really?" That was almost insulting, actually.

"Say you can't help it. They come get me at the farm or something."

"I think your imagination is runnin' a little wild there, kiddo. No one's gonna do that. If they even tried, you're smart. You'd get away from 'em an' find me an' then we'd go."

"Or... you'd come find me."

"Or that. Of course." With a bunch of townsfolk conspiring to keep her away from him, perhaps moving her from place to place, it could be difficult to find her, even if he did tear the whole fucking place apart. I'd end up killing them all.

She relaxed a little. "Okay. But um... what if... someone says something to you and you kill them?"

Did she just read my mind? he thought with amusement. "I'll try not to do that," he said dryly.

"I'm serious! I might've hurt Christine -- and Tyler -- just a little, but... that's cuz I didn't use a weapon. If you get in a fight... you don't need a weapon. You could kill them with one hit."

Joel chuckled. "It'd have to be an extremely lucky hit. An' I reckon they'd deserve it."

"Joel! I know they'd deserve it, I just don't want you getting in trouble for it!"

"That's cute." She didn't protest when he took her hand and kissed it. He continued holding her hand in both of his. "I do hope you're jokin'. None of this shit is worth someone losin' their life over."

"I was. ...half, anyway," she added. "Promise you're never gonna leave me."

"Never." He'd already promised that many times, but sometimes she just needed it reinforced.

"Where you go, I go."

"Right."

She turned and looked up at the darkening sky. "Last time I was here at this house, I thought I might have to leave Jackson. And leave you. I was so sad. It was such a... lonely feeling. Even though I was mad at you, I didn't wanna leave you."

"An' you decided to stay, in the end." Thank God... and Tommy.

She smiled. "Yeah. Remember how I went up on the roof, and that's where you found me. And then... I wouldn't come down, and wouldn't let you come up, so you just waited. And waited and waited."

"I remember." He'd been so relieved to finally find Ellie, he was happy to simply wait for her.

"You know, if I had decided to leave... none of this would be happening."

"Ellie-- no. Don' tell me you're thinkin' about..."

"No... not really. Just a thought."

If you'd left, and I couldn't find you, or couldn't find you in time... I'd be dead by now, I'm damned sure of it. But that wasn't a burden he would lay on her. She sometimes said she would die without him, and Joel would get a little worried, and talk to her about it, and she'd end up saying she was just exaggerating or joking around or something... Joel never completely believed her. He planned on living a good long life yet, certainly long enough to at least see Ellie through the tumultuous teenage years, but... well, facts were facts.

That was another reason he wanted her to be in Jackson. Both of them, actually -- himself, so he could stay safe and lessen the risk of dying any time soon, and Ellie, for safety too, of course, but also so that she could have a full life. Full of people. Family, friends... love. With purpose, entertainment, intellectual stimulation at her fingertips, security, stability, some relative luxuries... If they left, he'd be depriving her of all but the love part.

And then where would she be when he died? All alone in the world. Again.

He wasn't sure what he should do to prevent the tensions from escalating in town. Talking to Tommy and Maria could only take them so far. What could they do? Hold a town meeting where they ask everyone to play nice? He'd get more results if he personally visited every household and threatened to kill anyone who interfered with Ellie and him, or who hurt Ellie in any way.

Well... it was a nice fantasy, anyway.

She'd grown quiet along with him. "Hey. Whatcha thinkin', kiddo? If you're not thinkin' about leavin' to go an'--"

"No. Not... the whole virus cure thing." She took a moment to answer. "I was thinking how this is going to ruin everything."

Joel stifled another sigh. Didn't I just tell her it wouldn't? "This ain't gonna split us up. Not if we don' let it."

"Okay, but... you already sort of don't want me to... touch you--"

"Ellie--"

"No, listen! You can't seem to help thinking it's wrong. At least partly. Isn't this going to make that worse? And even if you say it doesn't make it worse for you, now... now it's in my head, too. I don't want it there, but it's fucking there. And it's not even a bad thing, without those pricks taking it and saying that-- I mean, I just want to... you know... do what any real girlfriend wants to do... what's wrong with wanting to make you happy? And don't say 'you do, Ellie' -- cuz I don't -- not that way."

"Ellie--"

"Let me finish, will you?! I'm trying to say... oh! Yeah. So. Now we're both going to be thinking about how everyone else thinks it's wrong, and gross, and I'm going to hear what they're saying -- I've only heard a small bit of it, like, for real, but I hear it, you know? We're just like... this big joke to them... and we're supposed to be so much better than them, Joel. I don't mean like, better people, but... above them, somehow... cuz they could never understand... there's no way anyone in this town could ever love anyone else as much as I love you. It's just fucking impossible. But it's all just... something to be ridiculed for? Or... made to feel ashamed of? That means my whole... existence... is just..."

He started rubbing her back with one hand. "...just what?"

Ellie laid her head on his knee, which was jutting up in front of her... and which did not look at all comfortable. "I dunno. I'm done. You can talk now, finally."

But now Joel didn't know what to say. The first thing that sprang to mind was to simply negate everything she'd just said: -No that's not true... -no it's not wrong, or gross... -we are not wrong or gross or the butt of some joke... except perhaps a cosmic one the universe is playing on us? It all just sounded... lame and trite now, in his head.

"You can't say anything because you know I'm right, huh," Ellie deduced from his silence, still shifting her face a bit to try to make his kneecap a better headrest.

"No. I jus' ain't so good at talkin' as you are."

At least that made her smile. Just a little. "Whaaat? Please. You rock at talking. You just don't give yourself enough credit."

Joel snorted. "I can muddle through all right sometimes. That ain't exactly the same thing as rockin' it. But... why don' we go home now, hmm? We can talk... easier... there. In private." And hopefully I'll think of some magic words to fix everything on the way home. If that failed, at least he could kiss her freely. He was sure he could kiss away some of those troubling thoughts tumbling around in her head. The kisses would chase those away better and faster than any words could.

"Even though home isn't even a sanctuary anymore," Ellie grumbled, but she did start to get up.

"It still is." Joel stood up with her. "I'll start plantin' booby traps 'round the place. Like Bill had everywhere."

"So anyone who comes over to spy on us... they just blow up?"

"Yep. Boom! Problem solved."

Ellie smiled... leaned into him and tilted her face up like she was going to kiss him... but then pulled away. He would have let her do it; he knew Clicker hadn't followed them.

"We gotta swing by the library first an' get my backpack," he told her.

"Shit. Someone prob'ly stole it by now, to do who-knows-what with it, like--"

"Nah -- Clicker's guardin' it." Hopefully he hadn't decided to go look for them. They hadn't been gone very long, really, but he didn't know how long the kid would wait.

Ellie was walking a little bit ahead of him. He caught up to her, reached for her hand...

"We can't," she said matter-of-factly. "That's ruined."

"Bullshit." This time he grabbed her hand quickly. "If you really don' want to, I won't insist, but there's no reason we can't walk down the street holdin' hands like we always have."

"Not always. We didn't before."

Before they were a couple. "Maybe not. But we could have. Jus' hold my hand, Ellie. Please. Think of it as a 'fuck you' to... whoever."

She smirked at that. "Okay, fine. A better 'fuck you' would be to just start making out on one of those library couches. In front of all those fucking assholes." He started to give her a Look, but she rolled her eyes. "I'm just kidding. Of course I am. We could never ever do that in a million years."

"Maybe three years."

"Same difference."

To her, maybe. To Joel, three years wasn't all that long -- at least, not if they were together... apart, it would probably be an eternity. But it was far enough in the future that they couldn't think about it now. And the age gap was never going to shrink; he doubted that everyone would suddenly turn a blind eye the moment Ellie turned eighteen.

She started swinging their hands, walking faster. "Joel... let me go get your backpack, and you wait outside."

"What? Why?"

"Because that's how I want to do it. Okay?"

"If you wanna go try an' finish that fight--"

"No -- I'll just run in and run out. Soon as I find Clicker. Please?"

"We can both go in."

"No! Just me."

"Then... I'll go in, you wait outside."

"No -- me. I'm going in."

Joel sighed. "You know I can't let you go--"

"Okay okay -- so, count to like... thirty, and if I'm not out by then, you can go in. Deal?"

"Why are you--"

"Deal?!" she repeated, employing her don't-you-dare-challenge-me look.

Joel didn't get it, but it was clearly important to her, so... "Fine. Thirty seconds." He could stand by the glass doors, but at this time of day he wouldn't be able to see through them very well from the outside.

Maybe the magic fix-it words would pop into his head while he waited for her. Right now... he wasn't even as angry as perhaps he should've been. Maybe because he wasn't all that surprised; he didn't share Ellie's all-encompassing good faith in people. He just felt so... he wanted to take away the pain this was causing Ellie.

She'd mentioned wanting to protect him, but she was the one who needed protecting... whether she thought so or not. More of her innocence was being chipped away. And unlike the chipping that he was responsible for, there wasn't any sort of reward or payoff with this. Just more adversity... shitty feelings... and new fears.


~Continue to Chapter 23~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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