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"Uncertainty" Chapter 25: "Somewhere Only We Know" (25/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 25: "Somewhere Only We Know" (25/47)
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: 6536
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

A/N: Chapter title from the Keane song.

~


Joel was in that blissful haze that precedes sleep -- when you're not quite asleep but not quite awake, either -- when the sounds of glass shattering and Ellie screaming woke him the fuck up and instantly threw him into fight-or-flight mode. Ellie!

He could tell from her scream that she wasn't in the bed with him, but in that first terrifying second, he couldn't see her in the nearly-dark room-- "Ellie! Ellie!" He quickly switched on the bedside lamp -- and there she was. She was getting to her feet... from the floor in the hallway.

"The window! Someone..." She didn't bother to finish her assessment. Just ran into the front room. The light went on out there. "Joel! Stay there! There's glass everywhere."

Joel had already noticed that when he stepped on some, following Ellie into the other room -- and the sound of shattering glass was generally a good indicator that there would be glass scattered about. Glass and rainwater. The wind was whipping through the curtains violently... the small plastic tumbler from the bathroom was on the floor, not broken but possibly cracked... there was a large rock on the floor near the doorway -- and a rock-sized hole in the wall near the door, where it had hit. As for her "stay there!"...the thought of calmly sitting in bed waiting for her to return might be amusing later. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine."

"You were on the floor--"

"Only cuz I thought someone was shooting. But it was just..." She was retrieving a gun from their little arsenal in the corner, where they kept their backpacks.

"What're you doin'? Stay in here, I'll go out an' see--"

"Then we'll both go."

"Ellie--"

"We'll both go," she repeated stubbornly.

Expecting her to wait patiently for him to return was nearly as unreasonable as him staying in bed. He sighed. "Put some pants on first, wouldja? An' shoes." Joel was wearing sweat pants. No shirt. No shoes. Good enough. He grabbed the shotgun out of Ellie's hands.

"Hey! I was--"

"Put your shoes on before you go in there," he said firmly, "and don' wear the jeans you left on the floor -- too much glass." He could feel a little shard in his right foot, but he'd be damned if he was going to sit there and pick it out when there was some idiot outside trying to fuck with them. He would just favor the other foot in the hopes that it didn't sink in much further.

He clipped his flashlight to the waist of his pants, which wasn't as good as when it was on his shirt, but he didn't have that luxury at the moment. By the time he got outside, of course, there was no one there. The motherfucker chucked the rock and ran, if he knows what's good for him. And the rain was still coming down hard, making it difficult to survey the area properly. Ellie ran up behind him only ten seconds later with her pistol. "Who the fuck threw that thing?" she yelled. Her voice had to compete with the howl of the wind and rain. "You're a fucking coward! Come over here and fight like a man!"

Joel sighed again. "Where are your pants?"

"That would've taken too long so I stopped at the shoes part," she explained, then turned and waved her flashlight around wildly, the light darting around quick as lightning. "Motherfuckeeeeeerrrrrrrs!" she bellowed. "Where the fuck did you go?!"

Joel's flashlight was already annoying him, sagging at his waist, so he gave up on clipping it and held it instead; he had a feeling he wasn't going to need to fire the gun anyway. He scanned the north, aiming his flashlight beam to take a sweeping look. Then he scanned the other less likely directions. "Nothin'," he muttered. He wasn't surprised. It was hard to see through the sheets of rain, but he didn't expect anyone to stick around anyway... which was fucking unfortunate, because he was of a mind to beat the ever-living shit out of the person. He might be able to find them with a lucky guess at their direction... he and Ellie hadn't caught up to the spies, though, with more of a head start than this. And it hadn't been pouring then... he hadn't had glass in his foot... Shit! We're fucked -- about the only thing they had going for them this time was that it was late enough at night that no one else would likely be in the streets to help the motherfucker blend in...

"Where should we go?" Ellie had to shout at him in order to be heard, even though she hadn't ventured that far away from him.

"I don' know!" he shouted back. He started checking the dirt around the bedroom window for shoe marks; naturally, all he found were puddles. "Ellie, did you see it come through the window?"

"No. I was just getting a drink, I wasn't looking over there... and it was pretty dark!" She moved closer to him.

"Did you hear anythin'?"

"You mean besides the fucking window breaking? No."

Finding nothing beneath the window, he slowly examined the ground in a straight path away from it, figuring that the thrower would've gone with a straight shot. It was really hard to make out anything in the wet grassy patches. "Maybe they walked around the house first, scopin' it out... go look around, would you?" Though he wasn't sure how much good that would do.

"I don't wanna squint at the mud. I wanna kick someone's ass!"

"Me too, but there's no ass here to kick."

She groaned. "What the fuck is wrong with people?!"

"Lots of shit, kiddo."

She kept having to un-plaster her hair from her face as the rain pelted them. "Fucking asshole. Or assholes -- do you think it was more than one?"

"Don' know. I can't see shit for shoe prints. Will you go look around the house please?"

She sighed. "Okay. Fuck, I thought things were getting better..." she lamented as she trudged off.

So did I. He'd told her to just wait it out, that it was just kids gossiping and they'd lose interest soon enough. Maybe this was just some dumbass kid too, messing around, but they'd gone too far this time. That rock had missed hitting Ellie by, what, two feet? It could have fucking killed her. The house was dark, and had been dark for a little while... fifteen minutes or so? so the person likely figured they'd gone to bed, at least. Joel certainly hoped there was no intent to kill or injure either of them. But intended or not, it could have happened. And did they choose the bedroom window for a particular reason? It was a tiny house; they could have assumed that any window not right by the front door could possibly be a bedroom, but how would they know for sure? They couldn't see inside. Unless... if they'd come around at some point when one of them had the curtains open... but wouldn't they assume Ellie had the bedroom, not him? Or that they shared it...

Maybe it's Ellie they wanted... he was inclined to assume someone had it in for him, not her, but she wasn't exactly making friends in town these days.

He could think about that later. He was on high alert now, listening... there was nothing to hear, nothing to see. Nothing but nature. Whoever it was wouldn't be dense enough to come back and face them and their guns. If only they'd done it after the storm, when the mud would have preserved their tracks. He limped back towards the house; he would have run on that foot if he'd had someone to chase, but since he didn't, no reason to wedge that glass in any further. And he wanted to make sure Ellie was really okay...

"Find anything?" he hollered to her.

"No," she answered from the opposite side of the house. He could barely hear her.

"Come back inside!" he called.

She was still scanning the ground, near the living room now. Even though no one was around, he couldn't go inside without Ellie. It was against his programming, so to speak. He hobbled over to the side and began checking for clues, intending to meet her halfway. He only went about a quarter of the way before Ellie reached him. A scowl darkened her pretty face. "We're giving up?"

"For now." Maybe by tomorrow he'd be like 'fuck it' about the whole sleuthing thing. Not about finding the person and wringing their neck -- just the method. What good would finding shoe prints do? Tell me if it was an adult or a child... if there was more than one of them... then what? He was no forensics expert. And it wasn't like he could preserve whatever he found and go compare it to every single shoe sole in Jackson... like some kind of fucked-up Cinderella story. I could draft a copy, though, and use that. Go talk to everyone... let them know if they fuck with Ellie or me there will be consequences... see if I can tell if any of them are lying... Simply knowing if it was a sneaker or a boot would be helpful in narrowing down the suspect pool, since whoever this fucker was, he probably hadn't thought to (or even had the ability to) change up the footwear for this occasion...

It still seemed a daunting -- and ultimately futile -- task. One he could deal with later.

Ellie fired a few rounds into the night before coming inside. Joel hoped it helped relieve her frustration, even just a little; he didn’t give two shits if it woke anybody up, and he wasn’t going to lecture her about wasting ammo.

After he'd stripped off his drenched sweat pants and dried off a little, Joel plunked himself down on the couch and pulled his foot up to his knee to root out the offending piece of glass.

"Shit... what happened?" Ellie hurried to his side. She'd removed her nightgown, since it too was drenched, trading it for one of his sweatshirts. "Is that why you were walking funny?"

"Jus' glass." They examined the filthy sole of his foot together (he'd rinsed it in the rain before coming inside, but it wasn't exactly clean). "It's right there." Joel pointed it out to her. "I can't get it..."

"Stop stop stop. Your fingers are too fat. Mine are, too... hang on, I'll be right back... don't touch it!"

"Yes ma'am." He'd said that to her earlier... under quite different circumstances. They'd had such a good night together... pity it couldn't last. Well, I suppose the asshole's timing could have been worse.

She returned moments later with tweezers. Those used to be a 'first aid kit' sort of item, but lately, Ellie had been plucking her eyebrows with them. Her already-pretty-fucking-sparse eyebrows, which didn't require any sort of grooming that Joel could see. Tomboyish as she was, she apparently wasn't immune to fashion magazines and the like, even if they were more than two decades old. He loved her exactly the way she was, and told her as much, but it seemed she still wanted to try to 'look better' for his sake. She denied it had anything to do with him, but she'd never cared about that shit before -- before that night she wore the dress.

Or maybe it was truly just the passage of time... as she got further away from the pain and hardship of the past, she had the luxury of caring about more trivial things. Anyhow, she'd declared Joel's eyebrows a mess and tried to 'fix' them before, but after indulging her for a minute, he'd put a stop to that so she couldn't render them too girly. Now she set to work digging into the flesh near the ball of his foot to fish out the wayward pebble of glass. Joel played absently with her wet hair, but otherwise didn't distract her.

"Got it! Shit, you’re bleeding. Don’t move.” She laid the ‘pebble’ aside – actually, the shard was bigger than he’d thought – and hopped up to return to the bathroom.

“It ain’t bleedin’ much. Will you just—”

“No – don’t move!”

He allowed her to clean and bandage the cut. When he tried to talk to her, she just kept shushing him.

“There.” Satisfied with her handiwork, she ducked out of Joel’s reach and scuttled off to fetch the broom and dustpan, carefully depositing the shard of glass in the pan. "I'll go clean up the rest."

"Ellie, jus' leave it for now, would you?"

But she was already heading to the hallway -- with her shoes still on, at least. "No! I don't want you stepping on any more."

"I won't. Jus'... come back over here."

He heard her sweeping the floor in the bedroom... Ignoring him.

"Please, Ellie?"

There was a long pause in the sweeping, followed by a dresser drawer opening and closing... but she did come back to the living room. She dejectedly flopped down next to him.

Poor girl. He wished he could make all this stupid shit disappear for her. Instead, he pulled her into a hug and kissed her temple. "Thank you for helpin' me."

"Of course. You're cold! Here, let me..." She squirmed a bit, trying to tug on the couch blanket, but he wasn't making it very easy for her to move.

"Are you all right?" He kept holding her close. He wasn't that cold... maybe a little colder to the touch than she was used to. Or maybe he just didn't give a fuck about getting warm right now.

"Yeah, I told you--"

"Not hurt, yeah, you told me. But... other than that..." He finally let go of her enough that they could arrange the blanket over the two of them.

"I'm fine. I just hate everybody. Still."

"This was prob'ly jus' one person. Not everybody." But he sure knew the feeling. Not knowing who it was would cast suspicion on a whole slew of people, so it might as well be everybody. Joel cupped her face with one hand, his thumb gently stroking her cheek. Her expression was angry... sullen. "I'm sorry this happened."

"Not your fault," she said bitterly. "Why can't they just leave us alone? If they could just... fucking see you... that you're not what they think..."

Oh, I'm exactly what they think. Especially after what we did tonight. No point in saying shit like that to Ellie, though. It would only upset her. And he knew it wasn't the whole truth. Was he a sick fuck? Yes. He exploited the love and trust of a teenage girl on a regular basis. But at this point, it was the lesser of two evils; he'd allowed things to progress to the point of no return, and he wasn't going to break his promise and decide it was too 'wrong' for them to continue a romantic relationship. Ellie was tough in many ways, but she was also more fragile than people realized.

And yes, he was a selfish bastard. He loved her and wanted her for himself, and wasn't strong enough to take the high road. He also didn't trust her in the hands of anyone else. The world is different now, he would tell himself. If they were living in the 2010s, Ellie would have a shitload of guys to choose from -- plenty of them more suitable for her than himself. But what did she have now? A handful of punks... none of them good enough for her. -Except possibly that new boy... possibly...

He didn't want to think about that now. He pulled his arm out from beneath the blanket and resumed the calm stroking of her wet hair. "Must've been scary. The window breakin'."

"Pfff. Scary? After everything we've been through? Please."

"You screamed," he pointed out.

"Well, it startled me."

No shit! He wondered why she wouldn't just admit it was scary. "It's okay to say you were scared."

"I wasn't!"

Maybe it was true. She IS tougher than me... tougher than anyone he knew. "Well, I sure was. When I woke up."

She gave him a disbelieving look.

"I was," he insisted. "You weren't right next to me... you screamed... I didn' know if it was a gunshot, or... the storm, gettin' violent somehow... I jus' heard the glass breakin' an' you screamin'. Scared the shit out of me. This is our house... it's s'posed to be a safe place."

"Yeah. It sucks that we're not even safe here anymore," she grumbled.

Joel knew there really wasn't anything he could have done to protect the house from having a window bashed in... short of finding a way to put bars on them, perhaps... but he was supposed to protect Ellie, and he felt like he'd failed. Again. He could fix the window... he should've replaced all the windows with double-paned as soon as they'd moved in. Might take him a little time to find a workable replacement in Ghost Town, so it would probably be better to board the thing up for now. For the more immediate now -- as in, tonight -- he could shove the dresser in front of it. Not a perfect barricade, but it would serve.

Besides, it wasn't like they could stay in this house now. The more he thought about it, the more he realized they had no choice but to leave.

He could bar or board up all the windows, and they still wouldn't be safe -- what could he do to stop some sick fuck from taking a match to the place? The old house would light up like a fucking bonfire. Maybe they'd do it when he and Ellie were both dead asleep. And then they would be trapped inside by the barred or boarded windows...

"We're gonna go stay with Tommy an' Maria," he announced. He didn't have to ask them if it was all right; he knew Ellie had a standing invitation over there, and given the circumstances, they wouldn't expect Joel to stay behind.

Ellie looked at him, shocked. "What? Joel, no! No way -- that's like saying those shitheads win!"

"Then they win -- I don' give a shit. It ain't safe here, Ellie."

"No! I didn't mean... I do feel safe here, Joel, I swear!" She looked at him, pleading with those big green eyes that so often enabled her to get her way...

Not this time. He smiled a little. "We're not goin' because of what you said. We're goin' because it's not safe."

"Yes it is! You're here, so--"

"That rock nearly hit you."

"It didn't even come close to me! You're exaggerating. Please, Joel... we can't leave the house -- how can we like... be together at Tommy'n'Maria's?"

"We can't. I know. Not... the way we are here. But we'll still be together, an' we'll be safe. No one's gonna fuck with us at their house. Out here... we're too remote. Their place is right smack in the center of town -- with street lights around an' everythin'. Hell, no one would even have to know we're stayin' there -- we're over there all the time as it is. They'd have no reason to try anythin' there... an' even if they knew, who's gonna make a move against those two? They'd have to be pretty goddamn stupid."

"Well, I think they're pretty stupid to do shit to you. You could kill them with your bare hands."

He sighed. "Not if they're a phantom I can't get my hands on."

"Joel, we can't go. How are we going to sleep in the same bed over there?"

He didn't answer. I'm gonna miss that too, baby girl...

"Nooooo! I can't. I can't do that. I can't sleep without you."

The desperation in her voice broke his heart a little, but he could be firm about this -- when her physical safety was involved, it was easy. "You can. You've done it plenty of times."

"Not plenty! I barely slept at all when you were gone, and... and I had nightmares every night... it was awful!"

Shit... is she playing me? She had tears in her eyes. She sounded sincere, and Ellie didn't generally lie to him... but if there was any time she might exaggerate the truth a bit for her own benefit, this would be it. "You never told me about that."

"Because I didn't want to be a wuss, and I knew you were coming back soon, and... wait, how long are you talking about staying there? Just until you fix the window? You can fix it tomorrow -- I'll help you!"

"Sorry, kiddo. Longer than that."

"But not forever?"

"Maybe not. I don' know."

"Maybe not? So... maybe yes. I can't do it, Joel, I can't!"

He sighed again. "It ain't up for debate. We're goin'."

"But--"

"We're goin'," he said more firmly.

Ellie pulled away from him, pulling the blanket with her, and stood up... so she could glare down at him, it would seem. "So now it's Joel-the-dad again, huh?" she said nastily. "Is that it? What you say, goes?"

"In this case? Yes. It ain't safe here," he repeated.

"Great. So because one stupid asshole tosses a pebble, you decide it's not safe. Shit happens! That's life! You just have to deal with it the best you can, and... don't go running off to fucking hide behind your little brother whenever it--"

"That is not what I'm doin', believe me." Tommy was still away; he didn't even know about all the rumor shit yet, and Joel sure wasn't looking forward to telling him. You're getting your wish, baby brother -- Ellie's gonna stay with you two. You just didn't realize you'd be getting me in the deal as well.

"Well, you can go if you want, but I'm staying here," she said haughtily. Chin jutting out a little... stubborn as fuck. "I'm gonna go clean up the bedroom."

Joel didn't answer her, but inwardly, he groaned. It struck him again how very young she was. It was annoying, sure, but he also felt bad for her... she didn't have the same coping mechanisms adults had (although even so, her skills somehow exceeded his own, in some ways), and she reacted the way she did to things sometimes because it was hardwired into her at this point. He tried not to lose patience with her.

He also hated having to be the bad guy, but his mind was made up about this. He didn't want to scare her, so if she thought he was just being overprotective, so be it. Hell, maybe he was. It didn't matter -- they were going to stay with Maria, and that was that.

Ellie working that broom angrily, wearing a sweatshirt long enough to be a mini-dress, with her shoes on but no pants, made for an odd sight. She heard him approaching behind her, just inside the bedroom, and she turned around. "You can't come in here barefoot."

"Ellie, would you put that--"

"No! I'm going to sleep in here tonight and I don't wanna step on glass in the morning." She resumed her sweeping. "Fuck, there's some on the bed too."

The glass did seem to have scattered everywhere; it was a small room. The curtains weren't blowing in quite so much now, at least... like the storm was finally winding down. He was debating entering the room barefoot or putting his boots on to humor her, when he noticed something -- actually, the lack of something. "Where'd the rock go? It was right there."

Ellie didn't answer him. Just kept sweeping.

"Ellie? Where'd you--"

"I took care of it, okay? Don't worry about it."

Her back was to him again, so he couldn't study her expression. "Where is it?"

"I told you don't worry about it!"

"Let me see it."

"No -- it's gone, I got rid of it, just forget about it."

He watched her for another moment. "Why don't you want me to look at it?"

"It's not that I don't want you to look at it -- I just got rid of it already. Jesus, Joel, what's the big deal? Forget it. Shouldn't you be packing to go to Tommy's?"

"You couldn't've got rid of it -- I see it ain't in the dustpan --"

"It's in the bin outside already."

Joel knew that was a lie. "Really? When did you do that? 'Cause it was still there when--"

"Okay, fine -- it's not out there. But it's taken care of."

"Taken care of," Joel parroted. "Well, there's only so many places it could be, so if you don' tell me, I'll jus' have to start--"

"No! Joel, just-- GOD, why are you being like this? Will you leave me the fuck alone already? I have shit to do here."

He wasn't going to let her be, but he would drop the rock thing for now. "Ellie, will you put that down an' come here?"

"No."

"Please?"

"No! Just fucking go already." She started sweeping furiously.

She hadn't dealt with the glass on the bed, though. This might piss her off more, but... "You might wanna do the bed first, so you don' have to re-sweep the--"

"I'll do it how I fucking want to! What do you care anyway? Just leave!"

Some of the glass bits started flying out into the hall, she was sweeping so hard. He felt a couple land on top of his feet, with more pinging off his legs. At least one of them was clinging to his leg hair. She was spreading the water around, too. Joel stepped toward her.

"If you get more fucking glass in your foot, I'm not digging it out for you!" she spat at him.

"That's fine. Jus' stop, will you?" He grabbed the broom out of her hands. The room was so small, with the bed on one side of her and dresser on the other, that she couldn't walk by him without shoving him out of the way. She turned her back on him and crossed her arms over her chest.

"If you don't leave, I'm gonna have to crawl over the bed to get away from you, and there's still glass on there, so... I'll probably get glass all up in my hands, and... my knees... maybe I'll bleed to death, and then hey, you won't have to worry about me being safe anymore!"

He wanted to laugh -- it was just so damn over-the-top -- but since she hadn't said it to amuse, he didn't want to piss her off any further by laughing. He let the broom fall on the bed and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. She didn't resist, but she stood there all stiff-like.

"I won' let you do that," he said softly, pulling her back against him, nuzzling her hair.

"Don't," she warned... but it wasn't her I-mean-it version of the word.

"Don't what?" He kissed above her ear.

"Don't... be nice to me. Not if..."

"...not if...?"

"If we can't... if we leave here, we can't be like this anymore. We'll have to... just..."

"We'll still be together. You like bein' over there. I know you do."

"I did before all this... fucking bullshit started."

"An' you still do. The couple times we've been there since, it's still been good. Plus, you love Maria. You can have... girltalk, an' whatnot--"

"I love you, you jerk." Her voice trembled.

"I'll be there too," he reminded her. He squeezed her, and it felt like she'd relaxed maybe just a hair. "You're actin' like I'm leavin' you or somethin'. I'm not."

"You might as well be." She sniffled, then turned around and buried her face in his chest. Not crying, but it seemed like she was putting forth a big effort to keep it that way.

He petted her soothingly. "Why do you say that?"

"Because... cuz if we can't... love each other..."

"We'll still love each other."

"If we can't show it..."

"It'll take some gettin' used to, I know."

"No -- what if--"

He waited for her to finish, but she didn't. "If what?"

"Nothing," she mumbled.

He took her face in his hands and looked her in the eye again. "No -- tell me."

She really didn't want to, he could see. It took several more pleas (and a couple kisses) after several more teary-eyed protests to get her to tell him what was on her mind. "What if... we go there and we're there for a while, and... well... you said no going backwards, right? It's so far backwards it's like all the way back to the beginning, and maybe..." She looked away.

"Maybe what?" he urged.

"What if you, like... forget, you know? Yeah, we'll be together, but... like father and daughter again, and you won't even... after a while, you won't even want..."

Oh, baby girl... don't you know how much I love you? "No, Ellie, that's not gonna happen."

"How do you know?"

It wasn't the most irrational fear to have. Maybe she'll be the one to 'forget,' if it goes on long enough... "Because I know."

"But we'll be with them all the time, and other people, people who think this is wrong, and after a while... And we'll be going to sleep in separate rooms every night--" He tried to kiss her, but she wouldn't let him. "You're gonna forget, and I'm gonna be miserable," she insisted.

"How could I forget?" He kissed her forehead, her temple, her cheek... wherever his lips could reach since she'd turned her head to avoid a real kiss. "I love you. That ain't gonna change. I know it'll be hard... really hard... we can find other ways to be together, all right?"

"...What do you mean, other ways?" she asked grumpily.

"Well... we can go... have a secret rendezvous in Ghost Town or somethin'."

"Really? You mean like some of the teens do?"

Teens and young people who lived with parents or other adults, mostly. Well, she DOES keep me young… "Sure. We'd jus' have to be careful. Make sure Clicker don' follow you around."

And, easy as that, she finally looked happy again. "You would do that for me?"

"No, it's for me." Because he was selfish enough that he didn't want her to forget. "You think I could stand not kissin' you every day?"

She smiled. "Okay. You could've just told me that right away, you know."

"I wasn' thinkin' along those lines yet, or I would have."

"Every day? Really?"

"If we can swing it, sure. We could leave each other notes at... shit, we could meet here. It ain't like the place is condemned, it jus' ain't the safest place to... I don' want you sleepin' here."

"Huh. Yeah... but people know this is your house. If we--"

"Our house," he corrected her. It bothered him that after all this time, she still thought of it as his... like he was just allowing her to stay here out of the kindness of his heart, and could throw her out if he felt like it.

"Whatever -- people know we're here. If we could go find a place in Ghost Town... and like, fix it up a little maybe... some place no one else goes... we could spend tons of time there, right? It's not like we'd have to check in with Tommy and Maria all the time. I mean, same as now, we just plan on dinner and movie nights and stuff, but if we're not around, they don't care where we are."

"Right. But... I hope you ain't thinkin' about your burned house, 'cause that reeks somethin' awful--"

"Noooo not that one, that's a sad times house! We'd go to a happy one."

It was a relief to hear the happiness in her voice again. To see her smile. "Good. We'll find one that has a good inside lock. A bolt or a bar."

"I remember seeing some cool houses when we were scavenging for the newbies that one day. We could go to a two-story house so no one can see us or hear us!"

"Mm, good thinkin'." He could probably piece-meal a collection of sturdy curtains for each window, but he couldn't exactly ask that Millie person to sew him some nice new ones. As for blinds... he had yet to see any that weren't fucked up at least a little bit, with panels missing or hopelessly bent. Being on the second floor would eliminate the need -- and also give them time to react if someone did manage to get in somehow.

Ellie interrupted his thoughts with a sweet kiss. "I love you."

"Love you too." He smiled. "Thank you for talkin' to me."

"I guess I should've just done that to begin with, huh," she said sheepishly. "I don't know why you put up with me."

"I jus' told you why -- I love you," he said lightly. "Besides, it ain't so bad. Nothin' to 'put up' with, to speak of."

Ellie rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. Just me being a colossal bitch. No biggie!"

Once again, she'd acted out when she needed reassurance that she was loved, and that he wasn't leaving her. Or in this case, would continue to be loved, not cast aside because they couldn't be romantic as often as they would like. Joel could handle that. "You are not a bitch. Don' say things like that about my baby girl."

She giggled. "Oh yeah? What if I do? You gonna kick my ass?"

"Your ass might be involved, yes," he answered with a grin. And of course he had to grope her a bit there for good measure.

"Oooo... what happens if I call her a cunt?" she challenged, eyebrows waggling suggestively.

"This." Joel inched his hands from her ass along the edge of the sweatshirt, around the outside of her thighs... but then he didn't do what she expected -- instead, he quickly flitted his hands upward to start tickling her sides, making her squeal and double over.

"You dick!" She tried to get away from him, and nearly hurled herself onto the bed, but Joel grabbed her and prevented her from doing that.

"Don' do that -- glass," he reminded her, hugging her from behind again, not doing any more tickling maneuvers.

"Oh... yeah. I was cleaning that up..."

He kissed the side of her head. "Jus' leave it. We'll come back tomorrow an' clean up an' get all our shit. Let's jus' go before it gets to be too much later... we'll prob'ly be wakin' Maria up now as it is." It wasn't an ungodly hour, not yet midnight... but Maria usually turned in pretty early these days. "I'll shove the dresser over there for now. Let's get dressed." He pulled her back, out of the way, and turned to open a drawer of hers.
A gasp from Ellie made him turn back around.

"What?" he asked. Why's she looking at me like that?

"Your shoulder! How'd you get glass up there?"

"I didn't...?"

"Yeah, right here -- look!"

He tried to twist his neck around to see where she was indicating. He couldn't really see, but he realized what she was referring to. "Oh, that. That ain't from the glass. Those are jus'... scratches."

"What? I didn't see them before. How did you do that?"

He smirked a little. "You did it."

"Me? No I didn't! What do you mean, I--"

"When we were... messin' around? Remember?"

The look of horror on her face was priceless. "No, I -- I couldn't have -- what the fuck? -- I would never --" she spluttered.

"You were jus' excited. So it's on me." He kissed her nose.

"Oh my God, Joel, I'm soooo sorry!"

"It's all right, Ellie. Shit, it's--"

"No it's not! Why did you let me do that?!"

He laughed. She was too fucking adorable sometimes. "You act like it's a bad thing."

"Well, yeah, it looks like it hurts!"

"Nah."

"But what if people see it?!"

"They're scratches, not hickeys. I'll say I got 'em from... shoot... anywhere. Some job I was doin'. No one's even gonna see 'em up there on my shoulder anyways." ...and we can talk about how hot that was some other time...

He shook off whatever little bits of glass may have been clinging to him, got dressed -- boots and all -- and moved the dresser. It didn't completely block the window, but there was no way anyone could get in, or budge the heavy dresser out of the way from the outside. They would lock the door and take the key with them, and pass it back and forth or coordinate where to leave it for each other, similar to how they did now.

They were about to leave when Joel remembered the rock. "Where'd you put it, Ellie? Why don't you want me to see it?"

Her face turned red. "Just forget it, okay? You don't need to see it."

That only made him more curious. "What are you tryin' to protect me from now?"

"You just don't need to see it," she said irritably.

Joel gave her a Look. "Guess I'll have to hunt for it then. I will find it. You can either tell me where, or you can let me waste my time searchin' for it."

At last, Ellie seemed to recognize she wasn't going to win this one. She sighed in defeat, went into the bedroom, and returned with the rock. "Here." She thrust it at him.

He took it from her. It was a large, smooth river rock that filled his palm. He turned it over... and then he saw why Ellie hadn't wanted him to see it. Etched onto it, in choppy block letters, was one word -- actually, half a word: PERV. He stared at it silently for a moment. He wasn't surprised. Not at the word itself, at least... but he was actually surprised to find that it stung a little.

"Give it," said Ellie. "I'll throw it into the lake tomorrow."

She made a grab for it, but he moved it out of her reach. "No. No, I'll take care of it."

"What are you gonna do with it?"

Joel didn't answer. He slid his backpack off one shoulder, unzipped the main part to slip the rock inside, then zipped up and hoisted the bag back onto his shoulders. At least the writing on that rock had clarified that this was about him... not Ellie's recent aggression toward others. He much preferred it that way. "Go on. I'll lock up."

"But what are you--"

"I said I'll lock up. Let's get the hell out of here.”


~Continue to Chapter 26~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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