Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 26: "Ellie's Choice" (26/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 26: "Ellie's Choice" (26/47)
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: 6616
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

Ellie did feel a bit like she and Joel had stepped majorly backwards. They had to wear clothes around each other all the time. No kisses or suggestive remarks. Hugs occurred less frequently -- and, more than once, they'd had to pretend that Joel was consoling her when someone walked in on an embrace. They could play-wrestle and stuff to some extent, but that made it dangerously tempting to be 'inappropriate,' so Ellie tried to confine that sort of thing to the times where they played with the visiting kids. Neither of them would ever behave obscenely in front of them, no matter how tempted. Of course, getting Joel to join in the play with them at all was always a bit of a challenge.

That first night, after they'd told Maria what happened and Ellie had deposited her stuff in 'her' room (the guest room she used whenever she spent the night there), she'd stuck her head in the room that would be Joel's and tried to imagine him sleeping in there, without her. She felt jealous of the fucking bed that got to be close to him when she could not.

And she'd also thought, no fucking way.

As she brushed her teeth, she'd racked her brain for a way they could sleep together. She checked the distance between bedrooms; it was roughly the same as between her bedroom and the living room couch at home. Maria probably wouldn't realize it, though... and wasn't Ellie's perception really all that mattered, if she was upset, and needed Joel closer to her... ? ALLEGED perception, that is...

Joel and Maria had been talking downstairs in the living room. Ellie was supposed to go to bed, and Joel would come up and say good night (they could get away with a chaste good night kiss here if Maria stayed downstairs, but that wasn't going to cut it for Ellie). She did go to the bedroom… she just didn't get in bed. Instead, she forced herself to cry. It wasn't too difficult to conjure the tears, though it did take a couple minutes to get properly worked up; she simply had to think about things she couldn't stand thinking about -- namely, things related to losing Joel in some fashion. The idea itself was a bit too broad, too abstract... but if she thought about very specific things that created vivid, disturbing imagery in her mind... like if she'd returned to their winter hide-out when he was sick and found him dead. Or if she saw him look at another woman the way he looked at her, smiling that Ellie-only smile. Presto -- tears! Then, she had gone downstairs with tears streaming down her face, hurled herself into a very surprised Joel's arms, and blathered on about how scared she was in that room by herself, how she just kept 'seeing' the rock flying through the window and shattering the glass, remembering how in that moment she felt like she was about to die, and she thought she might be starting to have a panic attack now.

Maria had been moved. Ellie's waterworks had brought tears to her eyes (apparently pregnancy hormones made women cry more or something, although she was genuinely concerned about Ellie). She offered for Ellie to come sleep in the big bed with her. Tommy was gone, after all. Not for much longer, but maybe it would help Ellie get through the next few days.

Ellie had panicked for a moment. Then she said she couldn't do that, because she was sure that this whole rock thing would trigger her nightmares again, and Maria really needed to get her rest for the baby's sake. She didn't need Ellie waking her up in the middle of the night. Multiple times, probably. But Joel? He could handle it. He did it all the time at home, Ellie pointed out. Sometimes he woke up so fast that he could soothe her out of the nightmare before she even realized she was having it. Not a lie -- Joel had done that many times. Ellie neglected to mention that it hadn't happened any time recently, but it wasn't a lie! She also made it sound like at home, Joel would sleep on the floor beside her, not in the bed. But here, she was afraid Joel wouldn't hear her 'all the way down the hall' so if he could just sleep in there on the floor to begin with...

Of course, Maria had agreed that that's what they should do, if Joel was amenable and it made Ellie feel safer. Joel had caught on to what she was doing, so he played along.

Later, he'd told her with amusement that she didn't need to resort to all the theatrics -- they could have just pretended she'd freaked out at some point in the night and then told Maria the tale of woe in the morning. But Ellie said she wanted there to be no doubt in Maria's mind. She wished Tommy had been there, too, but she could do some kind of repeat performance when he got home. If they thought she was a baby, so be it. It was better than thinking Joel was a pervert -- and way better than Joel sleeping in a whole 'nother room! So, in that way, she'd also opened the door for believable moments of Joel having to console her... she stopped short of faking an actual panic attack. She would half-heartedly grumble later that again she has to look like the lame one, and Joel would say -- again -- that it couldn't be the other way around (which wasn't true in this case, but she had to admit that Joel crying on her shoulder would be tough to sell).

Joel made a bed for himself on the floor out of some blankets. They could close the bedroom door, but it didn't lock, and Joel absolutely refused to sleep in the bed with her -- the bed was too small anyway, but Ellie could have made it work... he said she would have to settle for holding hands as she went to sleep. It was better than not having Joel there in the room with her at all. It was a great comfort to her in the night, just to hear him sleep-breathing. Always had been.

She offered to rotate with him, and take the floor every other night, but naturally, Joel wouldn't have it. He was too macho for that. And when he picked up on her guilt, he assured her he'd much rather sleep on the floor in her room than on some lumpy mattress down the hall. She'd known that, too... from their very first night in Jackson, when he just couldn't stay on the couch. Even though he was the one who had insisted on sleeping there when she'd begged him to sleep in the bed. She had accepted his choice, and hadn't called out to him, yet he'd come to her anyway, on his own. It hadn't been sexual then, and it really wasn't sexual now, either... they just needed each other.

The 'ghost house,' as they'd dubbed it, was now her favorite place to be. It was about as far away from their real house as it could be, tucked all the way in the northwest corner... well, three houses down from the corner. If she could, she liked to go there well ahead of the time they agreed upon. She would sit with her book (she was up to the final one in the Dawn of the Wolf series now) in the second-story bedroom window seat that faced the street, and when she thought it might be close to Joel time, she'd do more gazing out the dingy window than reading. If she somehow missed seeing him approach, she would jump when she heard the front door open downstairs. By the time he called her name, she was somewhere along the path from bedroom to door, flying as fast as she could to leap into his arms and smother him with kisses. Sometimes they could spend several hours together... sometimes only one.

In the week that they'd been doing this, there had only been one day so far where Ellie's schedule fucked things up enough that they couldn't meet. Ellie had wanted to blow off her late afternoon farm shift (and thus, skip out on dinner at Annie's house too), but Joel wouldn't allow it. He was kind of a stickler about things like that. Ellie would have felt guilty about creating extra work for her friends at the farm, too. She would just have to kick herself for not finding someone to swap shifts with... and she vowed to talk to Esther about switching to mornings only, before the October schedule got built. She could claim she wanted to do more with the kids at the library in the afternoons or something. Anyway, she'd had to steal a few extra 'bedtime kisses' that night -- and not chaste ones, either. It was kind of cute, how nervous Joel would get. Like Tommy or Maria could burst in at any moment and catch them.

They were no closer to finding the person who'd vandalized their home, either. Joel was suspicious of... well, anyone who looked at them funny, really -- but his first thought had been the guy he'd punched in the days leading up to that. He had an alibi, though, and Joel said it checked out. His second thought had been Max. Max! Ellie had let him have it for that. She was positive that Max didn't hate Joel the way Joel seemed to think he did, and even if he did, he wouldn't do something as cowardly as that. She figured it was the people who had spied on them... Joel thought it was someone entirely unrelated to that incident.

Whatever. She was sick of it all. And she'd much rather spend her time alone with Joel than waste it by confronting lying assholes only to hear more lies.

There was no electricity turned on in this area of town. Ellie thought once again that they should have brought a battery-operated clock so she’d know what time it was, how late Joel was… but she never remembered it the next day! Today, even without such proof, she was sure Joel was late. Time seemed to crawl sometimes when she was waiting for him, but not this bad. She tried to tell herself that he'd just gotten stuck on a job, staying just a little later than expected to finish for the day. It wasn't like he had a watch, either (at least, not one that told time). But it wasn't in her nature to believe herself about such things -- she had to fight the impulse to assume the worst. He wasn't coming, and for some truly terrible reason... like he got hurt. Or maybe he just didn't feel like it. Which... even her paranoid mind had to admit seemed unlikely, because he hadn't given her any reason to think that. So -- hurt, then. Ugh!

They'd never discussed what to do if the other didn't show. Or... maybe Ellie just hadn't listened. Joel may have said to just go to the house -- meaning Tommy and Maria's -- after a while. Should she do that now? And if he wasn't there, find out where he was working that day and track him down? What if he was on his way to the ghost house, and she left, and then he stayed there waiting for her? Why hadn't she found out what route he took to get there? Knowing Joel, though, he probably mixed it up from day to day... just in case someone was camped out in one of the houses spying or whatever. Perhaps that was a bit of a stretch?

She was going to go mad if she stayed in this house much longer, though. She paced the living room floor relentlessly. Joellllll, where are youuuuuu??? What should I do?!

Ellie might have been pacing for ten minutes, or thirty, or sixty... she couldn't tell anymore... when finally she heard footsteps approaching. Joel-sounding footsteps! The door opened, and she jumped on him before he even had a chance to close it or call her name. She may have even scared him. "Whoa! What the... Ellie?"

"I was so worried! Are you okay?" She pulled back to look at his face, and then, satisfied after looking at it for a second, she started kissing him with all the pent-up passion that had been building inside her as she paced.

When they came up for air, Joel held her face in his hands and looked her in the eye searchingly. "Jesus Christ, girl, I wasn' that late, was I?"

"Not that late?! It's prob'ly five o'clock by now!"

"I think it was about four-fifteen when I left the office." The 'office' meaning Craig's home base, the construction crew's headquarters.

"Well, that's still pretty fucking late!"

He dropped his hands down to her sides, and shifted like he was going to step back, but Ellie kept her arms around him, holding him in place. "I wasn' even the last one out. Felt a little bad about that... but not too bad. Why are you all mad? You know it's never exact. The other day, you were late, an' I had to wait."

"I was only like fifteen minutes late!"

"Okay, so... I was twenty, twenty-five?"

"Um, try an hour and a half!"

He looked confused. "What? We said four."

"We said three!"

"No, I thought the termite thing might run a lil' longer than yesterday, remember?"

"But-- you--" Ellie suddenly realized he was right. They'd talked about that at dinner the night before, and he had mentioned it again right before they went to sleep. "Shit. Okay, I'm officially an idiot."

He smiled and kissed her tenderly. "I'm sorry I kept you waitin' anyhow. I'll make it up to you, if you'll let me."

"Carry me?" She liked it when he did that, like they were in some old movie... or on the cover of one of Sophie's cheesy romance novels. "No, wait, I'll carry you..." She made a big show of trying to lift him off the ground.

"It never gets old, huh?" he chuckled.

"Nope... just like you," she added with a grin.

He groaned. "I'm already old."

"No you're not. You're still in your forties." For another two or three weeks, anyway. "Practically a baby!" She used to kind of tease him about being an old man, but she really hated to think of him as old now. 'Old' was just on the other side of 'dead,' and that was... unfathomable. Her Joel could never die. She wouldn't allow it.

He squeezed her until she couldn't breathe, and she made a squeaky noise. "There, see?" she giggled. "Only a young person could do that."

"It ain't exactly hard to do to someone small as you," he said, but Ellie thought he was just being modest. He took a moment to lock the door behind them, then scooped her up in his arms and carried her up the stairs to the bedroom in the back of the house -- the master bedroom. There was no actual bed in there, or even a mattress; just a bedspread they'd taken off the twin bed in Ellie's 'reading room,' and various mismatched chair cushions strewn about. There also wasn't a lot of light that came through back there in the afternoons, making it feel a little more conducive to sex stuff (at least, Ellie thought so). If they'd been at home, he most likely would have dropped or thrown her onto the bed playfully, but here, with no mattress, he always carefully set her down... which was romantic, she supposed. Ellie couldn't decide which she liked better -- playful or romantic.

They kissed and petted each other for a little while before even attempting to have an actual conversation. Sometimes Joel would start trying to ask her about her day, and she'd tell him to save it for dinner -- why waste good make-out time? She liked hearing about his day too, but he'd likely repeat it at dinner anyway for Tommy, or when asked by Maria or whoever else was there. He didn't seem to be interested in advancing to the clothing removal (or even under-the-clothing) stage today. Which was fine; Ellie just wanted to be able to touch him and kiss him -- and to speak without censoring herself. If she'd been super-horny, she could've initiated something herself and he most likely would've indulged her.

Joel leaned a cushion against the wall so he could lean his back into it, and he pulled Ellie into the crook of his arm. "All right... I ain't askin' you to tell me what happened all day, you can tell me at the house, but... how long were you waitin' here for me? Two or three hours? Didn' you have the library this afternoon?"

"I did. I bailed after story time."

"No gamin' with Clicker?"

"Nope. Do you know how hard it would've been to leave and make it here by three if I'd done that? And yeah, I know it was four, but all day I was stupidly thinking three."

"Don't you go ridin' with Annie sometimes in the afternoons?"

"Sometimes. I went at lunchtime today instead."

"By yourself? Or with Annie?"

"By myself. So? Joel, what's with the first degree?"

"Third degree," he corrected her with a chuckle.

"Why is it third?"

"I don' know, it just is. An' I ain't… doin’ that. Jus' seems like you're spendin' more time by yourself, or with me..."

"Well, I guess so. So what? I see people at the farm and the library still, and we haven't even had dinner by ourselves since we moved out. What's the big deal?"

"No big deal. I'm wonderin'... if maybe you ain't as happy as you used to be."

Ellie sat up and looked at him sharply. "I'm totally happy, Joel! I swear! How can you think I'm not?"

"I didn't say that. Jus' not as happy as you once were. Like when we first got here." He tucked some wayward strands of hair behind her ear and smiled at her, like... Ellie didn't know what, but not the way he usually looked. It was almost wistful. Like he was remembering a better time or something...

Oh my God... "Joel... are you trying to say you're not happy? That you wish things were like before... with us?"

"No. Don' put words in my mouth, kiddo."

"You're being weird, though. Something's wrong." She felt a little panic start to rise up in her throat. "Do you want me to do something different? Just tell me. I'll do it. Don't--"

"Ellie! Calm down." He drew her close for a gentle kiss. "Maybe I should start every conversation with 'I love you, an' I ain't leavin' you.' "

Now she felt embarrassed. "Sorry, I'm a dumbass," she scoffed at herself.

He kissed her forehead. "Nah. A little paranoid, maybe. And you're right... sort of. Somethin's come up, that... I wanted to run by you."

She stayed where she was -- turned slightly in front of him rather than wedged to his side -- so she could see his face. He'd started playing with her hair... that's a good thing, right? He's not upset... "But you're not leaving me," she clarified.


"I mean like, physically leaving me for a long time or something, not leaving me-leaving me, as in breaking up. Neither of those?"

"Neither of those."

"Okay, good." Whatever it was couldn't be that bad, then. "So spill."

"Sophie came to see me today."

"...Oh." At least he SPILLED -- didn't dance around that all slow-like. What the fuck could that skank want with Joel? "She invite you back to her place for a quickie?"

"Nothin' like that. But she did ask me somethin'."

"Oh God. Do I even wanna know?"

Joel chuckled. "I thought you two bonded in the ladies' room at the wedding."

"Uhhh, not really! What did she ask?"

"Well, her brother's been gone a long time now... he didn' actually leave on Jackson business."

"Yeah, everyone knows that. She finally said why he left?"

"She did. Apparently when they were livin' in the Reno QZ, he met this girl. Shit hits the fan there, the QZ gets ditched in a hurry, people are herded south, to the one in Las Vegas. It all happens so fast, Alex loses track of this girl... he asks around an' someone tells him she went someplace else. With her family. Alex an' Sophie an' her boyfriend don' plan on goin' to Vegas, either... the soldiers don' say so, but they figure there ain't gonna be enough room for everyone when they get there, an' some of 'em'll go on a waitin' list... prob'ly like what we had in Boston. Anyhow, they heard about Jackson an' wanted to see if they could make a life for themselves there. They were thinkin' about that even before the QZ went to hell."

"Huh." She would've done the same thing. Jackson was way better than a QZ. Or, it was before... I guess it still is... "So... if they were in a QZ, how did they even know about Jackson?" Ellie wondered.

"I don' know... soldiers maybe? Some of the scouts or scavengers, they can venture out pretty far... some of 'em that don' come back here ain't necessarily dead, either. Remember that one dude... he got shot, an' prob'ly woulda died, but some people found him?"

That was a little before their time, but Ellie remembered hearing the story. "Yeah. Hayley's dad. His partner died, but he didn't... it just took him two months to get back here."

"Right. He was lucky to meet some nice folks out there instead of asshole hunters. Maybe he told them about Jackson, they told others... who knows. Shit like that happens, word can get around. Anyhow, the three of 'em decide to come to Jackson. An' the whole time, Alex is thinkin' about this girl. Sophie figured once they get here, meet some new people... she reckoned he'd get over it."

"But he didn't?"

"Nope. She didn' realize how bad it was. Not like he ever talked about her. He wrote her -- Sophie -- a letter. Left it on the kitchen table. She comes down an' reads it... finds out he's gone. It said somethin' like... he knows it's crazy, but he has to find her an' see if... there's somethin' there."

"Awwwwww, that's so sweet! I'd totally do that if it was you," Ellie declared, leaning in to give him a kiss.

Joel chuckled. "No you wouldn'. It took us a long time to get to know each--"

"That wasn't my fault, I might add!" Ellie laughed. Leave it to Joel to ruin a sweet moment. "So, we've met but we barely know each other, just enough to know that it's... like, special... and we go off in different directions... you'd forget all about me? Just like that?"

He grinned. "Yep. Never think about you again."

She started hitting him, and he pretended to cower from her in fear... until he started wrestling with her, and he had her pinned in about five seconds. She pretended to be mad until he kissed her. But even afterwards, she pouted a little. "Take it back. What you said."

He kissed her pouty lip. "Of course I wouldn' forget. I'd... " He made his voice sound unnaturally dreamy, and not-Joel-like at all. "I'd follow you... to the ends of the Earth, jus' for... the slim chance that I might... lay eyes upon you again."

Ellie giggled. "That's more like it. A little cheesy, but very sweet. So keep going. Alex leaves a note..."

Joel tugged a cushion over so he could use it as a pillow and lay on his side, propped up on his elbow, with Ellie mirroring him. "So, Sophie's pissed," he continued, and he started rubbing circles on her arm. "Says she would've gone with him if he'd said somethin'. But that's exactly why he didn'. He wanted her to stay here, where it's safe, an' she's comfortable. An' besides that... she thinks he maybe didn' wanna have to worry about lookin' after her out there. You know, like she'd be a burden."

"Because she's a princess, right?" Ellie snorted. "How is she even still alive?"

"Not exactly a princess... but she ain't exactly you." He kissed her nose. "She's fired a gun before, but to her recollection, she's never hit nothin'."

Ellie suddenly remembered that there was a point to this story; a reason for Joel to be relaying it to her. "So... she wants you to give her lessons." She got the feeling it was way more than that... but if it wasn't, she wasn't going to plant any ideas in Joel's head.

Joel didn't answer right away. It took him long enough to reply that Ellie started to get nervous. Finally, he said, "She wants my help."

"With...?" Don't tell me...

"Alex said in his letter he'd see about comin' back with this girl. Or, he might jus' stay where she's at. Assumin' he finds her. Or, of course, if it didn' work out like he hoped, he'd come back by himself... an' that'd be fine too 'cause at least he wouldn' spend the rest of his life wonderin' what mighta been. But whatever the case may be, he's still out there."

"So she wants you to find him? Let her know he's alive?"

"...somethin' like that..."

"Joel..." Ellie said warningly -- in the same tone he used when he 'Ellie'd her.

"She wants to go, too. An' she can't do it by herself."

Ellie sat up and threw her hands up in an angry gesture. "Great. That's fucking great. Why can't someone else do it? There's a million scouts here who I'm sure would be happy to--"

"A million? Maybe a handful." Joel sat up with her.

"Whatever -- there are people here who aren't you that can help her."

"Well, she knows I brought you all the way here from Boston. She knows I'm the one who found the missin' kids... now, I told her that was sheer dumb luck, that any--"

"Whatever!" Ellie repeated. "And she wants to fuck you."

"No. That ain't it at all."

"Right. Like when she made you come fix that little hole in her house. No interest in fucking you then, either, right?"

Joel ignored that. "Ellie, if I help her, you'll be comin' with me. I told you I ain't leavin' you. She knows I won't leave you. Right from the start she talked like you'd be comin' too."

"I don't care what she-- Why do you wanna do this, Joel? Why didn't you just tell her to fuck off?"

"Because. I think it might be good to get outta here for a while. Town's a little more hostile than it used to be."

She looked at him with new concern. "Did something else happen? Did someone confront you, or ask you--"

"No, nothin' happened. I jus' mean in general."

He wasn't wrong about that. She might downplay it to Joel, but it wasn't an accident that Ellie was spending more time away from it all. "You didn't want to leave before, though. When I first heard the bullshit rumors and I said we should leave..."

"That was different. This would be... I don' know... a reason. A purpose. An' besides, if she goes off on her own, an' somethin' happens--"

"Oh, please!" Ellie scoffed. "Did she tell you she was gonna do that? No way would she leave here without some sort of bodyguard. Unless she has a death wish."

Joel chuckled. "Don't you even wanna know where we'd be goin'?"

" mean you know where to look?"

"Yes. He was told the girl an' her family were headed for Monterey. That's in California. They were livin' 'round there before -- San Francisco, which is a little further north -- 'til her grandpa got sick an' they went to see about gettin' into a QZ... but I guess her parents used to live in Monterey an' they wanted to go back, live on a fishin' boat or on the beach or somethin'... you've never seen the ocean, have you? You really never set foot outside of Boston before?"

"No..." A memory of Riley sprang into her mind. The vacation they were supposed to take together someday... in our dreams, but still...

"Well, I have," said Joel -- before she could get lost in the memory. "I've seen the gulf coast, east coast, west coast... It's... really somethin'. I got to thinkin'... it'd be nice to see it with you. To show it to you. What better chance are we gonna get?"

Ellie could hear the sincerity in his voice, the excitement... low-key excitement, by most standards, but on the Joel scale... she smiled a little. "So we could like... take moonlit walks on the beach, like they do in the movies?"

"We could."

"Except with guns tucked into our bathing suits."

He chuckled. "Prob'ly, yeah."

"What about Sophie? Doesn't it mean that... I mean, we're back to father-and-daughter again because we'll be with her 24/7."

"On the way there. Once we're there... assumin' we find these people... we do what we want. We can stay there for the winter. There's no snow there, Ellie. Summer here is like winter there. We could come back here eventually. Maybe for a long visit, maybe to move back... see how we feel in a few months."

"Man, you've thought about this a lot!"

"All afternoon," he admitted. "Since she asked me. I told her I had to discuss it with you. That it's your decision. We won't do it if you're really against the idea." He leaned back against the wall cushion again, pulling Ellie with him. "Look... it ain't like it'd be a vacation out there. We're jus' gettin' used to not havin' to look over our shoulders all the time, an' we'd be right back to doin' that."

"You still look over your shoulder," she teased. Half-teased, because it was the fucking truth!

"I'd be doin' it more out there. That's one reason the father-daughter deal wouldn' be so bad, either. Less distraction."

"Distraction? What distraction?" Ellie smiled slyly and climbed into his lap... sort of. Her butt was on the bedspread, between his legs, and her legs were pretty much hugging him. She wrapped her arms around his neck. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said, close enough to his face that the words practically tickled his lips.

He promptly kissed her. "Mm. You're right, this ain't distractin' at all," he drawled... and there was that sexy smile again that Ellie loved so much.

She kissed him deeply... more hungrily. One of his hands wandered down to her ass. She debated wedging her hand between their crotches to grope him, but figuring rubbing against him was doing the same thing, unless she could get his pants un-done... she started fumbling with his belt -- and wasn't surprised when he stopped her. "Not right now, baby girl."

"What if we don't get another chance to do it for ages?" she protested.

His eyebrows shot up. "Does that mean you..."

"I mean, if we go. I don't know..."

"You can think about it awhile. Ain't like we gotta leave tomorrow."

Ellie wondered if this really was her decision to make, or if Joel would swing it so that she eventually made the choice he wanted her to. "You really wanna do this, though, huh." She leaned back a little, keeping hold of his neck, his arms holding her in place. "Because of the twats in this town thinking you're a bad guy."

"Partly. I don' give two shits what they think of me, most of 'em... the ones I do, they don' think nothin' bad anyhow. But on our trip, comin' out here... when it was jus' me an' you... things were simpler back then, yeah? Harder, but simpler."

"That... sorta doesn't make sense, but I know exactly what you mean," Ellie laughed. "It might be nice to know that if people throw shit at us that might kill us, it's nothing personal? Like they don't care who we are or what we do, they just want to steal our stuff."

"Yes. Exactly." He gave her a peck on the lips. "Might be nice to have an honest fight after all this... mystery, here... can't fight an enemy when you don' know who they are. I don' know what kind of trouble we might get into... no doubt we'd be hungry, an' weary... filthy... sore..."

"Way to sell it, Joel," she teased. But she did actually reflect on their journey west with fondness. Just her and Joel, day in and day out. He became her whole world, and she became his. They hadn't fallen in love during that time, but they'd come to love each other. Ellie couldn't see how Joel could have possibly grown any stronger than he was at the beginning, but she certainly had. She'd learned so much from him. And to this day she still didn't know how the hell she survived when it seemed like Joel would die. Somehow she'd managed to not freak out, and just do what needed to be done day after day. Because if she hadn't, he would have died. Thinking about it still gave her chills. "You're right, about the distraction thing. Kinda hard to have each other's backs if we're... um..."

"Shovin' our hands down each other's pants?" Joel suggested with a little smirk.

She giggled. "Yeah. And kissing... the world sort of disappears when we do that!"

"Mmhmm. Can't have that."

"And then there's Sophie..." Would Joel bond with Sophie the way he'd bonded with Ellie on their trip? ...He couldn't possibly. There's no way. I would just have to make sure they're never alone together...

"She knows we're close. Closer than... normal folks."

This time it was Ellie's eyebrows that shot up. "Do you think she knows? Maybe we could just tell her! And then--"

"Noooo no no. But if we hug an' whatnot, she ain't gonna think twice about it."

"Could we make her jealous?" she asked hopefully.

Joel chuckled. "Not by kissin' we can't. If you think she'd be jealous of a hug, sure."

"What if she wants one, too?"

"You can hug her then, if you're feelin' generous," Joel teased.

Ellie giggled. "Wouldn't that make you jealous?"


"Really? You don't care if I hug someone else?"

"As long as it ain't a guy you're huggin.' "

"Even if there's nothing sexual about it whatsoever."


"That doesn't make sense."

"Maybe nothin' sexual for you, but I guarantee there'd be at least a passing thought on the guy's end."

Ellie rolled her eyes. "Because I'm soooo sexy."

He chuckled. "You are. But no, it's more like... a biological thing. Men are more..."

"Horny," she supplied.

"...more inclined to think somethin' sexual."

"Not all of them. Not you... right? You don't think about having sex with anyone but me. Right?" She made the last word sound like a threat. She was joking, but... also not.

"You're right -- not all of 'em are like that. I jus' have to assume the worst, when it comes to someone... with you."

She liked that he answered her seriously this time, even though she was teasing him. She leaned forward to give him a quick kiss. "But I'd still be jealous if you hugged a girl or a guy. Cuz you'd be hugging someone who's not me."

"You're the only one I hug, so it don' matter."

"No, I've seen you hug Tommy before! A man hug, anyway."

"Man hug?"

"You know, like half-assed. You don't grind your dicks up against each other or anything."

He looked so disgusted at the thought that Ellie had to giggle. "We don' hug hardly ever," he said firmly.

"Shit -- Tommy and Maria... the baby. Would we be back before the baby's born?" They had no way of knowing exactly when the baby would come, but the parents-to-be had calculated a broad window of February or March, estimating a due date of late February/early March... and since it was never exact, there was some give or take of a few weeks in either direction anyway.

"I doubt it, kiddo. Babies ain't fun in the beginnin' anyhow, though. Can't play with 'em, they jus' eat an' sleep an' shit."

"Well, then I wanna see him eat and sleep and shit! I wanna see Maria's tummy get all big, and put my hand on it and feel the baby kicking... I want to see the baby the day he comes into the world. Don't you?"

"Or she," Joel reminded her -- he still said it was going to be a girl.

"Or she. Don't you want to be there for her first day ever? Your niece or nephew?"

"Sure." But he didn't sound all that enthused, to Ellie's ears. Even accounting for the Joel scale. "We can talk about it at dinner... er, after dinner, when everyone leaves. You ready to go?"

"Is it time already?"

"Think so. Close enough."

"Um... ten more kisses first. Long ones." She would turn that into twenty, and maybe another ten by the door... it didn't really matter how many times they kissed -- she would want more as soon as they left. Knowing they couldn't mess around for a long time afterward seemed to make her want it more, every time.

What would it be like to be Outside with him now... would they not even so much as kiss for like, months?! Ellie couldn't imagine it. She wondered if he could imagine it... was okay with it... again, she wondered if he would forget, and his feelings would just... die out. He would still love her, just maybe not LIKE THAT.

But it's my choice. He said so. We don't have to go. Sophie can go with someone else and then there'd be one less person here I don't like. Except... she's been cool about the whole rumor thing, so I can't really count her as unliked. One less person who wants to fuck Joel, anyway. Ellie had no idea how many people wanted to fuck him; she figured it had to be a lot, because he was so... Joel. Whoever didn't want to was crazy. Yeah, yeah -- I'm sure I think that cuz I'm in love with him... so, out there, I'd have him pretty much all to myself -- with Sophie, but whatever -- we'd be together All.The.Time. There'd be no one else to--

"Now you're ready?" Joel asked her softly.


"That wasn' ten. But if--"

"No! That was only two." Her thoughts had actually distracted her from kissing him. How backwards was that?!

He chuckled. "Two? More like... six or seven, maybe."

"Two," she insisted, pulling his face back to hers. She could think about this shit later. Right now, she didn't want to think about anything unrelated to being in Joel's arms and kissing him like there was no tomorrow.


A/N: Chapter title is a play on Sophie's Choice, har har. Since nothing brilliant came to mind, I couldn't resist :)

~Continue to Chapter 27~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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