Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 23: "Muddy Waters" (23/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 23: "Muddy Waters" (23/47)
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: 6042
Rating (for fic as a whole): R


They actually didn't even try to pick up their conversation again until much later. Ellie was able to retrieve Joel's backpack without incident while he waited outside. And -- Joel actually stayed outside, which Ellie figured probably wasn't all that easy for him, measly thirty seconds or not. Clicker gave her kudos for kicking Tyler's manhood, Paige tried to talk to her but Ellie brushed her off, politely... well, as politely as she could... and if anyone else thought about confronting her, something made them change their minds before actually doing so. She made it out with like ten seconds to spare on the Joel countdown clock.

He'd asked her again why she didn't want him to go inside, and it seemed to puzzle him more now that she'd been in and out so quick (she suspected he thought she wouldn't honor the thirty seconds thing, to go and... do what? Blow up the library? Ha!). She couldn't even explain it to him; she wasn't even sure she understood it herself. She just knew she didn't want Joel to feel what she had felt earlier. That... uneasiness of feeling people's eyes on you, and knowing they're thinking you're some kind of degenerate. And it would probably be worse for Joel than it was for her -- she was either a victim or a skank to these people, not a fucking pedophile.

Joel had promised Tommy he'd look in on Maria, and even though they were already planning on going over there for dinner later, they went early; Joel had said Ellie had the right idea, when she wanted to tell him before he heard it from elsewhere, and that they should do the same thing with Maria. Tommy needn't have worried about Maria being alone, either: Chelsea was there, and she seemed to be her favorite helper -- after Ellie herself, of course! -- along with some kids who hung out in the afternoons sometimes (since school was only in the morning) while their parents worked. Sometimes the parents came to get them later and stayed for dinner. Dinners were usually lively affairs there, and Ellie loved them. It made her feel like she was part of a big family. Like the kind you see in the movies, all sitting down to enjoy a meal together.

Maria hadn't heard anything yet -- which was encouraging. Like maybe it was just stupid kid stuff, nothing of concern for adults with power and influence. Ellie had tried to take her aside to tell her alone, but of course, Joel wouldn't let her. Predictably, he'd dismissed her notion of wanting to protect him as utterly ridiculous earlier (although he did seem to be taking it better than she was), and he wouldn't even let her spare him this torture. At least he did say she could do most of the talking if she wanted. Ellie had been all prepared to defend Joel and herself... and she didn't even have to. They didn't even have to tell Maria the gory details -- which was good, because Ellie didn't even want to disclose those to Joel. She'd told him enough that he could assume, but... it wasn't the same as saying all the words, somehow. Like the chance that he could assume wrong would spare him the pain of knowing with absolute certainty. Anyway, Maria had held up her hand before Ellie even got all the basic words out, let alone the gory ones.

"Say no more. I'll set the record straight for anyone who may come to me with this shit. I'm sorry you guys have to deal with it. You'd think people would have bigger problems to worry about."

And Ellie had relaxed a bit. Maria's relative nonchalance made her wonder if she'd already had people lay crap like this on her before. She asked Maria if there was any way she wouldn't be allowed to live with Joel anymore -- Joel had tried to shush her on that, but she had to know! Maria had chuckled.

"Are you kidding me? I dare anyone to TRY to separate you two."

Later, she'd also tried to talk to Ellie without Joel around. Girltalk. Usually Ellie was down for that, but she had a feeling the conversation might center on her alleged crush on Joel, and she didn't feel like going there, so she had shut that down. Whatever desire Ellie may have had to tell Maria the truth about her and Joel prior to the lies... it was gone now. Not that she could've spilled her guts to Joel's sister-in-law anyway -- her loyalty to Tommy would trump whatever loyalty she had to Ellie, and Joel most certainly did not want Tommy to know. But telling her now... it would be like admitting that she had lied about the lie being a lie, even though she hadn't... not really...

She'd already tested the waters with Annie, as far as confessing the truth, and she'd found the waters unpleasant. There was no one else Ellie would even consider telling. She truly couldn't talk to anyone about Joel except Joel -- and Joel sort of... muddied the waters. Because part of him believed that the people who would call him a sicko were right.
Chelsea had heard. Ellie could tell. She wondered if the girl was wrestling with whether she should say anything about it to Maria. But Chelsea didn't treat her or Joel any differently, and Ellie felt that if she were to ask her, she'd say she didn't believe it. Anyone who had spent any decent amount of time with her and Joel shouldn't believe it! The 'Wednesday kids' were either too little to understand, or currently too insulated from the other kids to have heard. Playing with them was a welcome distraction... but only for small pockets of time.

Any time someone knocked on the door, Ellie's heart leaped into her throat. They're coming to split us up! she would think... quite nonsensically. Most of the time, the knock was followed by one of the kids' parents/guardians/whoever entering without waiting for someone to answer the door, as was customary. If it was anyone else, Maria spoke to them outside briefly, and Ellie couldn't help wondering if it was at all related to her and Joel. If ever it was, Maria didn't let on.

One guy came inside and hovered in the living room; Maria had gone upstairs after answering the door. It was Yasmany, the father of the little girl Joel had rescued. Surely he wouldn't believe the bullshit... he liked Joel. Ellie tried to gauge his knowledge by his interaction with Joel... and decided he probably hadn't heard anything. It turned out he was just picking up a gun that someone had repaired and dropped off. He wasn't coming to make Maria aware of, or register a complaint against, the 'town perv.'

Joel could tell her she was paranoid all he wanted to, later on... but it's not like he wasn't sitting there thinking the exact same thing she was. Or trying to decipher who'd heard and who hadn't heard, just like she was. And any one of those people could have been the one who started it. Sneaking around outside the house and lying about what went on inside seemed like a childish thing to do, and Ellie assumed it was done out of spite... hatred... something that someone had against either her or Joel.

By the time they went home, the day had taken on some kind of unreal quality. Almost like it was some… exaggeratedly traumatic thing that had happened to someone else. As soon as Ellie saw the couch, though, she felt it again -- the bitchslap of reality. She turned right back around and went outside to do a lap around the house. "Coast is clear, Joel!" she declared loudly, in case anyone was in the woods nearby, within earshot. "No peeping-Tom pervs trying to catch us being pervs! Maybe we should really put on a show this time! You know, where we're naked, and... like, moaning and stuff... make it worth their while to trek all the way out here!"

She was kind of surprised Joel didn't try to shut her up before she said all that. He just waited for her by the door, looking... unamused, but not really annoyed. "You done?" he asked as she approached the door.

She breezed past him and face-planted on the offending couch where she allegedly-- No, I can't blame the couch. It's not the couch's fault people are idiots. It's an innocent victim! Like us!

Joel sat beside her and started rubbing her back with one hand. "Ellie, come on. Sit up."

"Okay. Only cuz I have to pee."

"Again? You jus' went right--"

"Yes, again. Be right back."

He was waiting patiently on the innocent couch when she came back. She sighed and flopped onto it again, but this time it was into his arms instead of on her belly. "Okay so I wasn't really peeing."


"Nope. I was... my aunt from Red River is coming." That was her favorite way of announcing it.


"Fucking bitch," Ellie grumbled.

He settled her into the crook of his arm. "How you feelin'?"

"Okay." Ellie didn't suffer through 'that time of month' as much as some girls apparently did. But, with a little guidance from Riley, she had learned the fine art of using 'female troubles' to manipulate people when needed. Especially males; it was such a foreign, mysterious thing to them that it wasn't like they could doubt anything she said. Not that it always worked; assholes were assholes, after all. But Joel was usually sweet to her without having to resort to such tricks. She could get him to do pretty much anything she wanted, any time at all, sometimes without even trying all that hard.

...with one notable exception.

It was the first time she'd gotten her period since Joel had... started touching her there. At least this would make it easy to resist the temptation of letting him do that -- he wouldn't. ...right? She was trying to remember when they'd talked about it... what had he said to her... that he'd never had sex during that time? Did that include finger sex? She hadn't asked him too much about it, because she really didn't want him to remember being with other girls -- women, even -- and maybe start comparing them to Ellie in his mind, or whatever the fuck people with exes did... she never compared him to Riley, but did Riley really count? They'd never gotten the chance to have anything like what she and Joel had.

Whatever. She thought it would be too gross for Joel to touch her now, so she wouldn't let him. That would be that. She was always a little less cuddly with him at bedtime while she had her period, too -- because what if she, like... dribbled on him? Yuck! He told her not to worry about that, but the thought grossed her out. Apparently, feminine hygiene products sometimes did manage to make their way into Jackson, but it hadn't happened since they'd arrived. Ellie had already been used to making do without, anyway. And the town seamstress, Millie, was experimenting with something similar to the cloth diapers the babies used; Ellie had high hopes that she would soon find a design worthy of mass production.

During the day, she mostly used toilet paper -- wads and wads of it -- but if she tried to do that at night, even if she used extra, it was more of a disaster than the rag. One night, she'd told Joel that she was going to go sleep on the couch (with a thick blanket beneath her, just in case), and he had thought that was such a noble gesture... it wasn't really, though, because she'd known all along that he wouldn't let her.

She noticed Joel was quiet now. Not all that unusual, but she thought for sure he'd be trying to reassure her that all was well in Joel'n'Ellie land... "What're you thinking about?" she asked him.

"Uh... nothin', really... you seem..."

"I seem what?"

"Better. Calm. Except for right when we got home, but... now you're calm."

"I'm still pissed," she assured him. "You know what else? We didn't even get to swap out our shit at the library. I wanted to get a new tape."

"I'll get it for you tomorrow if you remind me what you wanted," Joel offered.

She didn't have anything particular in mind; she liked looking through the stacks, leisurely reading the cases (for the ones that had them), taking her sweet time. "Thanks, but I can just do it in the afternoon, if I remember to take the Beatles one out of your backpack." Each resident was only allowed to check out one item per media type at a time. It was tempting to cheat sometimes (and it wouldn't be that difficult to sneak something out), but Ellie understood the reason for the rule, and she tried to respect it... mostly.

"At least you ain't ready for the next wolf book yet."

"Yeah... this one will prob'ly last me 'til your next guard shift." They were only a couple days away from September, and she'd noticed that he would be on evenings this month -- what he called second shift (which didn't make sense, because if you counted them like a normal person would, it was actually fourth). He was scheduled for only three shifts all month, since his construction job was his primary one. She usually passed the time on those nights by going to a movie at the library. By the time that was done, she'd only have maybe an hour at home without him. But she wouldn't be doing that this week. Nope, that's ruined, too.

If Joel realized that she was saying she'd be staying home that night, he didn't comment on it. "Did bein' at Maria's help?"

"Um... I guess. Yeah. Things seemed... pretty normal there."

"Good. Because things ain't all that bad, see?"

Ellie chuckled. "Joel... you don't have to try to make me feel better. I don't want you to."

"You... don' want me to make you feel better? Since when?"

"Well... that's nice of you and all, but... this sucks, and you don't have to tell me it doesn't." She plucked idly at his shirt. This was a good position for them to sit in; they could talk face to face, but if she needed a quick escape, one quick turn of her head could bury her face in his shoulder. "I know how you feel now, about me... when you... I wanted to protect you from this. And I couldn't. I can't. You were just innocently thinking everything's all good..."

Joel quirked an eyebrow. "So now I'm innocent."

"Yes! You were. 'Til I fucked it up."

"Oblivious, maybe. It ain't the same thing as--"

"Yeah yeah yeah, I know. I wasn't even talking about... the sex stuff. I dunno... it's not just the innocence thing, or wanting to protect you... I just think that... well, isn't it a real drag having to make me feel better all the time?"

"What? Of course not--"

"Don't lie."

"It ain't a lie."

She hadn't really expected him to say that it was a drag, even if he secretly agreed that it was. "This whole time -- ever since we've known each other, actually -- except I guess at first when you were kind of a dick and didn't care and stuff -- but after that... it's always you that has to make me feel better. Never the other way around."

Joel looked confused. "You're... upset because you want--"

"Not upset. More like... annoyed. No-- not that, either. Um..."

"What about when you had to nurse me back to life in Colorado? That was you takin' care of me."

Ellie thought about that. It was really her one redeeming feat; she was sure Joel would have died if it hadn't been for her. Maybe a few other times on the trip as well, but those happened quickly, so they were 'easy,' in a way... merely reactive on her part. When he was unconscious, or feverish and might-as-well-be unconscious, for such a long time... that was probably the hardest time of her life. Physically, emotionally, mentally... even spiritually. She could dismiss it all now, though, since it didn't reinforce her point!

"That doesn't count. You weren't like... crying on my shoulder every day, wanting me to tell you everything's gonna be okay... you didn't even know what the fuck was going on."

"Oh yes I did -- I knew you were takin' care of me. Sure I did."

"Okay, whatever -- you still weren't whining to me about shit."

Joel laughed. "You still comforted me. I seem to recall you tellin' me everythin' was gonna be okay, that I was gonna make it... 'don' worry, I got this'... an' you were singin' me lullabies... hey!" He pretended it hurt when she play-punched him.

"I didn't sing to you, okay? And definitely not lullabies. Maybe you were dreaming... or... maybe you're just messing with me now?"

He kissed her forehead. "You're jus' so easy to mess with sometimes."

"Okay, well, that stuff doesn't count, because you were out of it. You never... come to me to make you feel better."

"Not true. I do it all the time. Every day."

"What? No you don't! You never do!" Ellie couldn't even name one time, and he claimed it happened every day?!

"Every day."

He must not get it. "I mean talking to me specifically because you have a problem you want help with, or you're in a bad mood for some--"

"What are you talkin' about? I talk to you about problems all the time."

"Like what?!"

"Like... when the railing on that one cart broke right after we loaded it up real good, an' that dude Jack tried to take the--"

"That doesn't count!" Ellie interrupted exasperatedly.

"Why does nothin' ever count?" he chuckled.

"Because that's like... that's... I dunno... shallow, or something?"

"You talk to me about farm shit sometimes, too. Jus' day to day things that happen. We both do that. An' sharin' that stuff feels nice, don' it?"

"Joel!" Ellie groaned. "That's different. You have never once come to me just wanting me to hold you and tell you you're okay. Or that everything's okay. Or will be okay. Whatever. And you never cry."

"Now you want me to cry?"

He seemed really amused by all this, and it was kind of starting to get on her nerves. "I want you... to want comfort from me. You know? If you feel worried or scared or... sad..."

"You've seen me cry."

"Having tears in your eyes doesn't count."

"Oh, right... nothin' counts..."

"Tears that don't come out -- that's not crying! You've seen me sob like a baby."

"So, you want me to start bawlin' my eyes out--"

"No! Ugghhhh, Joel, just..." Why couldn't he just get it without her having to explain every little thing?

"You want me to cry, then you don' want me to? You ain't makin' a lot of sense, baby girl. But you're cute."

"Maybe that's what I mean. The... cute. It's like... you don't take me seriously, maybe you just think I'm some clueless kid, whatever... so why would you come to me for... but then, where do you go for it? I want to be the one that does that for you."

"Does... what for me?"

ARGH! "Tell you that everything's gonna be okay!"

Joel chuckled. "You do tell me. Even if you don' tell me."

"Um... okay, now you're not making sense."

"Maybe you don' tell me in words... I don't ask you to tell me. No. But I do come to you, all the time, an' you make me feel better."

"You do not! Name one time."

"Right now, for example."

"Now? Arguing with me about it isn't comforting."

"It feels good jus'... sittin' with you. That's all I need. Just bein' with you like this... it's more... fulfillin', I s'pose is the word... more than you realize."

"But you're not upset about anything right now."

" 'Course I am. You think I like all that shit today?"

"You're not crying, or... yelling... venting... anything like that." Ellie snorted. "And actually, this is turning into you trying to make me feel better. Again." He smiled at that, and she frowned. "It's not funny! I'm... trying to get you to see me as an adult... a woman... so maybe you can... oh, forget it."

He pulled her up fully against his chest and squeezed her... really hard, until she had to laugh breathlessly. And then he kissed her, but the kiss was gentle and sweet... maybe on account of her lip... she wasn't irritated enough to push him away and pout or whatever. She kissed him back. Like she pretty much always did. And then she could never seem to stay mad at him.

"I love you," he whispered against her lips, kissing her once more.

She always thought 'awwwww' when he said it first. Even though it was like a bunch of times now. "I love you too, but that wasn't fair... I'm trying to be mad at you..."

He settled her now with her head tucked under his neck. "You can be mad if you want. But... I do hear what you're sayin'. You jus' sell yourself short, by thinkin' that... this... ain't a comfort to me."

"You're holding me, not the other way around," she pointed out.

"Well, kiddo, that's jus'... biology? Physics, rather. You can hold me, but then I'd be sittin' on the floor. Or I can sit in your lap, an' crush you. We jus' fit better this way. I like holdin' you prob'ly more than you like to be held, truth be told. But when we go to bed tonight, you can hold me if you want. How's that?"

Ellie did make him sit in her lap sometimes, for fun. He did it on his own once in a while too, to make her laugh. And if she woke up at night and found him on his side, facing away from her (she was happy to find that he wasn't always rolling away from her in the night anymore, but he still did it), sometimes she'd roll up behind him and spoon him awkwardly, with her face pressed into his back. They did fit better the other way around. And... if that was truly all the 'comfort' or whatever that he needed... at least she knew he wasn't getting that from anyone but her.

"Don't you ever wish I was bigger than you?" Her tone was lighter now; she wouldn't mind if he thought she was cute here.

"Uh... no? Why would--"

"Cuz then you would get to know what it's like to fit completely in my arms, to be... totally surrounded by me on all sides."

He pondered it for a moment. "That... would creep me the fuck out."

"Really? Aww, but it would be me, still. Just a ginormous me. And I could lift you up and swing you around... squeeze you 'til you can't breathe... that would be awesome."

"Creepy," he countered with a chuckle.

She pulled back enough to smile at him. "You know what? Maybe everything's not ruined."

" 'Course it's not. Nothin's changed."

"Nothing? Meaning..."

He seemed to pick up on what she meant. "Meanin'... nothin's changed."

I decided I wasn't going to let Christine ruin anything for me -- why should I let all those other morons do it now?! Since Joel didn't think it was perverted and disgusting of her to fucking ask him to touch her, hopefully she could get him to see that he wasn't coercing her or manipulating her if she decided it was high time she returned the favor. "Soooo... I can, um..." She tentatively rested her hand on the crotch of his jeans.

He didn't move her hand, to Ellie's surprise. "When you're feelin' better... physically."

"I told you -- I'm fine!"

"In a few days."

A few days... when her 'aunt' had cleared out, because God forbid she make him come when he can't do the same for her -- even though he'd done it so many times already! But maybe it was also due to the lies fucking with his head. Ellie snickered. "I say we open the curtains on all the windows -- and open the windows, too, so everyone can hear stuff -- then I'll open your pants and give the pervs something worth watching."

"That's awfully naughty of you, little girl." Joel brought her hand up from his crotch to his lips and started lightly kissing her fingers.

Whenever he playfully called her 'little girl,' she had to resist the urge to call him Daddy; she'd certainly learned her lesson about that. "I thought you were gonna 'Ellie' me for that."

"...Do I need to?"

"No." She wondered what he would do if she actually started fiddling with his belt...

" 'Cause we can't throw our relationship in their faces."

"I know! Can we talk about this tomorrow? I wanna forget about it the rest of the night." She snorted. "I sound like you, huh." More often than not, Ellie would be the one prattling on when Joel just wanted to get on with things -- going to sleep, usually.

Joel didn't respond to that observation, though. "Uh... you got the farm in the mornin', don'tcha? You'll be all right there? Maybe you can have a good talk with Annie... or Esther..."

"Not Esther. Annie, yeah."

"But Esther might--"

"No. I don't want to hear anything she has to say about it." Fuck Esther and her stupid fucking ageist opinions!

He was looking at her oddly now. "Why not?"

"I just don't. She better not bring it up at dinner, either. I'll leave. I'll go eat at Maria's."

Joel chuckled. "I don' think she'll do that, but if she does, we can jus' ask her to kindly shut the hell up."

Ellie wondered if Esther would say anything to Joel about it privately. They had gate duty together sometimes, and they were almost what you might consider 'friends.' She could just imagine how Esther might make Joel feel if she got into some kind of rant about child molestation or some shit. Maybe she'd start telling him about the older guy Annie had a crush on... "When do you guys have duty next?"

"I've got it Saturday... but I don' know if it's with her."

It probably would be. Tommy did the gate scheduling, and Ellie knew he was hoping Esther and Joel would become a thing -- in spite of each of them stating otherwise. She had to try not to be mad at Tommy for that, because he simply didn't and couldn't know the real reason that it would never happen. "Well... I hope she's cool about it."

"Ellie, everyone who knows us... they ain't gonna believe it. They know how I feel about you... part of it, anyhow... an' they think that anyone who cares about a young girl so much--"

"Old girl!" she corrected him.

"Young lady," he amended. "They're gonna think no way would I do that to you. An' we have to jus' let 'em think that."

"Because you wouldn't be doing it to me -- I'd be doing it to you. Because I'd want to. There's a--"

"I thought you didn' wanna talk about it."

"I don't." She was starting to get angry again. Can Joel and I just never leave this fucking house ever again? Then I'd be happy.

He was silent for a few moments. "Look... a few days from now, it'll be old news an' no one'll be talkin' about it anymore an' that'll be that."

"You really think so?"

"I do."

Ellie wanted to believe that so badly. She kissed him, snuggled with him... tried to push all the nasty thoughts away -- and they did manage to get through the rest of the night without discussing it any further.

The next few days went... about how Ellie expected. Maybe even a little better than she'd expected. No one tried to separate her and Joel, and that was her main concern. They hadn't gone to the library together again, and people pretty much left her alone when she was there reading to the kids or doing her library chores.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, being scrutinized by everyone around her... well, maybe not everyone. But even people who either somehow hadn't heard the bullshit, or simply didn't care to let it alter their encounters with her, were suspect to Ellie. As far as she was concerned, the whole town -- minus a select few -- had it in for her and Joel. Trust no one. That was the safest way to operate. And even with those select few, Ellie had to be guarded. The bullshit was bullshit, but... what if they could tell that she wasn't being completely honest when she said nothing was going on? Was she acting the way an innocent person was supposed to act, or should she do something different? What were people saying about them now? Had anyone's opinion changed?

Annie was pretty non-confrontational, so she wouldn't get into fights or even heated discussions about any of the lies, but she also wouldn't tolerate anyone talking shit about Ellie. Even when Ellie wished she would tolerate it a bit -- just so Ellie could get the scoop from her and find out if things were improving or not. Everyone knew they were friends, so maybe Annie wasn't likely to hear much anyhow... and Annie didn't really hang out with the other teenagers much. She never had, so Ellie didn't feel too bad about inflicting this shit on her friend. As for Clicker... well, he didn't hang out with the other jerk-offs who were his age, but she still felt kind of bad that he had to suffer because people connected him to her. She'd tried to fix that by offering to steer clear of him for a while, but he'd balked at that:

"Why should we not hang out? You didn't do anything wrong."

"That doesn't matter. People are treating you different, right? Because of me?"

"...not really."

"Yes they are. I saw it when I got here. And you know those fuckers are out there right now, joking about me blowing you cuz I pulled you aside to talk."

"Ellie, jeez--"

"It's not cool. I mean, obviously, for them, cuz they're assholes, but... for me. To let MY shit affect you like that."

"...It's not 'your shit.' It's not your fault!"

"Well, it's not yours, either. And it's less yours than it is mine."

"Who cares whose shit it is? I don't want to not be friends with you cuz of it. That's stupid."

"Not forever -- just for now. Until it dies down."

"No. No way! It's like you said -- your real friends know the truth. Well, same here. If anyone's going to... be a douche over this stuff, then... fuck 'em, y'know? You didn't do anything wrong, and I'm not going to like... AVOID you... that's like saying I agree with their douchebaggery. Fuck that shit. And why should I lose you as a friend when I didn't do anything wrong, either? That's SO not cool."

"But I don't want you getting in trouble cuz of me, or..."

"Even if I get to show off all the moves you taught me?"

"No! You... don't fight with people. You're good. That's all for like... defense. And actually, you shouldn't have to fight with anyone -- me and Joel have your back."

"You... really? No shit?"

"Of course! Duh, why wouldn't we?"

"I dunno, I guess I just never really thought about that."

"HOMIES, dude. You know that."

"Okay, so... I won't fight with anyone -- will you still be my friend then?"

"I'm still your FRIEND, it's just that--"

"A HANGOUT friend! Let me have your back, too. They can't take the sky from us!"


"It's from this show -- never mind. Please, Ellie? Don't let those douchenozzles win."

So she made a point of continuing to game with him the way she always had. She and Joel even had dinner at his house one night; if his parents hadn't quite been sold on their innocence before that, Ellie felt pretty confident that they were afterward.

She ignored the people who just stared, or snickered behind her back. She confronted Jacob, who swore up and down that he had nothing to do with starting the rumor -- Ellie didn't buy his act, and it infuriated her that Annie stuck up for him, but what could she do? No one would admit to being one of the spies, or to knowing who the spies were. They were all a bunch of fucking cowards. They were likely scared shitless of Joel, which was irritating. Why did Joel have to be so fucking intimidating, anyway? It really impeded their investigation. But... she also loved that about him. She couldn't even imagine being on the other end of his wrath. Even when he was truly angry with her, he would never hurt her... but that wasn't a courtesy he extended to most people. Even his own brother.

Ellie tried to be polite to any well-meaning adults who got all up in her business... the ones who gently tried to get her to 'admit' what was going on at home... tried, with varying results. It was always women who took that route... which made sense -- they were more meddling and nosy. Or, a more charitable assumption: they were more well-equipped emotionally to handle any confessions she might make. If they immediately backed off, she was perfectly nice; people just weren't always accepting of her answers to their stupid questions. She had to tell more than one pushy person to fuck off, or go suck a dick (and she had to bite back a sarcastic supplement to the latter)... but at least she didn't get into any more fist fights.

Joel did. At least one that Ellie heard about. It wasn't a fight-fight; he just decked some guy who was dumb enough to not be afraid of pissing him off. Joel didn't want to talk about it, other than to say he didn't want Ellie getting into fights herself, and that yes, he realized he was a fucking hypocrite. Ellie didn't try to pry the details out of him; after all, she'd never disclosed any specifics of either the Christine fight or the Tyler kick, and she was not a fucking hypocrite!

She thought maybe it would all blow over, like Joel had said... that they could just go back to their normal lives... She, for one, had managed to stop letting people's stupidity poison her own feelings about the matter. And that was especially important if she was going to help Joel get over his reluctance to let her touch him. She just had to remind him that loving touches were not dirty and wrong. That all he had to let her do was what he'd already done to her -- all of which was good for them. For their relationship.

Feeling confident one night, Ellie planned on being a little pushier than she had been. He had said before that he would try... that he was ready... and that was what she would do tonight: try to help him try. ...and then try not to be crestfallen if it didn't work.

If only she had known what was to come.

She couldn't have realized, of course... had no way of knowing... but Ellie might have pushed for even more, had she known that tonight would be the last time in the foreseeable future that she and Joel would share the bed.

~Continue to Chapter 24~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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