Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 27: "Footprints" (27/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 27: "Footprints" (27/47)
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: 8574
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

Joel was starting to wonder if that Chelsea girl was ever going to leave. She was a frequent dinner guest of Tommy and Maria's, along with her brother and mother, but the latter two were on guard duty tonight, and she didn't like to spend evenings alone in the house the three of them shared. He was about to drop a not-so-subtle hint that he had family shit to discuss when she finally bid them all good night.

Joel gathered the four of them in the living room: Tommy and Maria on the loveseat couch, Joel and Ellie on the other. Joel explained the situation, including the part about possibly staying on the coast for the winter -- and excluding his promise to Alex... which he hadn't even told Ellie about, for some reason. It didn't really factor into the decision, anyway, as far as he was concerned ("traveling hundreds of miles" was a far cry from "checking in once in a while," and thus, he felt no obligation). He noted that they hadn't yet made up their minds about whether or not to go, and input was welcome. In truth, it was Ellie who had yet to decide, but Joel wasn't so resolute about going that he couldn't possibly be swayed the other way, either... maybe by something that would occur to his brother or Maria that hadn't occurred to him.

Tommy was the first to speak. "Shit, Joel. This is huge. I'm kinda surprised she'd even ask you."

"I'm not," said Maria, stifling a yawn. She was leaning against Tommy, and Joel had half expected her to doze off before he'd even finished talking. Making a kid seemed to be taking a lot out of her. "Think about it. Who else would be better?" And she started running through some names, along with reasons to eliminate each one as a candidate. Max was among them. In Joel's opinion, he would be a great choice for an escort, as it would guarantee he'd be out of town and away from Ellie for at least three months -- that was, if he went straight there and back, and with the assumption that they could take a couple horses. Unfortunately, Max and Sophie had had some kind of brief fling not all that long ago, and things were awkward now. Joel had never asked Sophie about it, and he didn't pay much mind to the gossip around town, but he knew because Ellie knew. Ellie heard all the gossip, whether she wanted to or not. She'd learned early on that you can't believe everything you hear in this town; some of the rumors that had circulated about them when they'd first arrived were just plain ludicrous.

And, of course, there was the recent nastiness. Which Tommy was quick to bring up. "Is this because of the rock, and all that bullshit? 'Cause I--"

"No," Joel said quickly. "Maybe some, but... it ain't like... we're runnin' away, or..."

"Ain't it?"

Joel didn't like the note of challenge in his brother's voice there. "Look, it ain't pleasant to go around here with the whole town thinkin' you're a pedophile, but--"

"They don't," Tommy assured him. "Believe me."

"Half, then."

"Not even that. Not after the meetings. We're gonna talk about it at the next one, too."

Maria had addressed most of the town at the monthly meeting (which conveniently happened to be only two days after the incident); not everyone was able to attend, but Maria had means of spreading the word to those who could not. She relayed to the town the version of the story that Joel and Ellie had fed her -- which featured Ellie in the bedroom alone, and left out the detail of the etching on the rock. Joel had reckoned that he and Ellie could keep that detail to themselves, so if anyone else mentioned it under the assumption that it was public knowledge, they might be able to follow that trail to the guilty party. Unfortunately, this strategy hadn't yet yielded any results. The purpose of the meeting was to point out the dangers of such acts, whether it be due to vigilantism or a stupid prank, as well as the destructiveness of spreading lies in the first place, and that this behavior wouldn't be tolerated.

Which was a bit of a joke, Joel thought, because clearly, whoever had thrown that rock had gotten away with it. Joel had attended the meeting for the sole purpose of scoping out the crowd to see if he could get a guilty vibe off anyone. He'd had as much luck with that as he'd had with trying to decipher the dirt smudges and blades of grass around his house -- and later, by straight up asking people what they knew about the incident.

Asking politely... not employing his usual interrogation methods. Though he was really, really tempted, with some folks. He didn't have that luxury now... not if he wanted to stay in his brother's good graces. Or SEMI-good graces...

He'd come the closest to brutality with a man named Warren, who was twenty-some years older than Joel. Joel didn't like the idea of beating up old men -- even mouthy, opinionated old codgers -- but this guy was insufferable, and he'd had to grit his teeth to get through the conversation.

"Why would I know anything about that, hmm?"

"I don' know. I'm just askin' around."

"Can't say as I blame 'em, though."

"...Excuse me?"

"You got no business being with a young girl like that. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"It ain't-- ...Believe what you want. None of that horseshit they're sayin' is true. But someone threw a rock through HER bedroom window, that nearly hit her. You don' see anythin' wrong with that?"

"It DIDN'T hit her, though. The way I see it, they were just sending a message."

"...A message. What would that be? 'We don' like you two'? That's real mature."

"More like... we don't condone sexual predators in this town. Maybe they figured the rock would distract you from whatever you were doing to her in that b--"

That was the end of that conversation. All right, so I DID get slightly violent with him... but technically, Joel hadn't hit him. Just slammed him into a wall and nearly choked him. He'd relented when he saw the fear in his eyes... felt how much physically weaker the older man was. Neither of them apologized to the other, though; Joel wasn't sorry, and that motherfucker probably wasn't either. As he left, Joel was pretty sure he heard the guy mumbling something about how Ellie would be better off without the likes of him, but he let that slide. Looking at it from an outsider's perspective, Joel understood the sentiment. But he just... couldn't quite believe it anymore himself. He loved Ellie. His love for her was probably the only purely good thing about him (...'pure' being subjective there). He would give his life for hers in a heartbeat. How could she be better off with someone else?

Anyhow, it was nice that Maria had shown him and Ellie unequivocal support, and when Tommy had returned to town, he called another meeting and did exactly the same thing -- if for no other reason than to show everyone that he believed in his brother, despite all their differences. He reminded everyone that right before all this, Joel had been a hero... that he'd demonstrated his character through his actions then and in other ways... he gave a pretty impassioned speech, and even Joel had been surprised at how sincere Tommy sounded in his defense, given that his brother had long suspected that something more was going on between Joel and Ellie than meets the eye. Joel wasn't sure how much good the meetings would actually do as far as what Jacksonites would decide to believe about him, but if they made some dumbass think twice next time about hurling a dangerous projectile in the vicinity of another citizen, then so much the better. Tommy also encouraged the perpetrators to come forward -- both the rock-thrower and the person who allegedly saw something inappropriate. He said they could 'work through this'... and he promised them anonymity and immunity.

Suuuuuuure. 'Anonymous,' my ass -- if someone confesses to my baby brother, I will MAKE him fucking tell me who it is. And 'immunity'? Maybe from what passed for law in Jackson... but not from me.

...and Ellie said that was exactly why no one would ever confess. She was probably right.

"People might think we're runnin' away if we leave now," Joel acknowledged presently. "I don' give a shit if they do. My concern is for the dangers out there. I was hopin' you'd have some recon on the area. Anythin' recent?" Joel thought he remembered a scouting party heading in that general direction not too long ago.

"Angel's crew went that way," Maria confirmed his recollection. "They got back a couple weeks ago. Only into northern Nevada, though, not all the way to California."

"California's pretty far, Joel... coast is even farther," said Tommy, ever full of such brilliant insights.

"I know that," Joel said irritably. "But you know what else is pretty damn far? Boston."

"I'm jus' sayin'. We can talk to Angel an' company... look at the map they brought back." Joel knew the scouts were supposed to mark things on their map copies that might benefit others down the road. "As I recall, they ran into some Infected," Tommy continued. "Nothin' godawful, though. Some humans that didn' give 'em any trouble. Might be some issues with water sources. It's rainier in the summertime, so they were fine, but now we're gettin' into fall... it's been a pretty wet year, though, compared to the last one... an' I can get you a water purifier. Maps up the wazoo. Whatever you need. You'd want horses, yeah? You got 'em."

"I'd appreciate that." Joel assumed that Tommy and Maria wouldn't just loan out their horses to anyone who asked, even if they could spare them. He wasn't just 'anyone,' granted, but things hadn't gone so well the last time they'd borrowed a horse for a long trip. Joel had expected some discussion, perhaps between Tommy and Maria in private. Yet Tommy didn't hesitate to offer, and Maria didn't protest. "Two. We'd bring 'em back... eventually." Not that we did last time... but Tommy didn't throw that in his face.

Tommy glanced at Ellie. "You're awfully quiet, Ellie. What do you think about all this?"

Ellie sat up a little straighter. "I dunno... I kind of want to go, but I kind of don't. I want to be here when the baby's born. I wanted to help out, and... I wanted to feel the baby kicking and stuff, when it gets bigger..."

Maria smiled. "Well, maybe we'll have another one."

"Really? ...Didn't you say you're getting kind of old for this?" Ellie asked bluntly.

"I'm the one gettin' old," said Tommy. "Maria's about seven years younger than me."

"Yeah, he's really robbing the cradle," Maria said dryly. "I'm getting up there... but I could possibly have more kids. We're certainly going to try."

Ellie looked confused. "What is it that he's stealing?"

They all had a chuckle at poor Ellie's expense, although Joel knew she didn't mind that sort of teasing. In fact, she usually enjoyed it. "It's jus' one o' them dumb expressions from our time," Joel explained, glancing at her but purposely not looking her in the eye. Ellie was pretty good about not trying to sneak him any knowing looks, but even so, he tried to lessen the temptation for her. "Means Tommy's with someone... significantly younger than himself."

"Oh. Seven years? Pff. That's nothing," Ellie scoffed.

"I agree," said Tommy. "As for havin' babies, they say thirty-five is some kind of magic number; it's supposedly harder for a woman to have babies after that, an' she'll be thirty-six by the time this one's born. But we still got time."

Ellie gasped softly. "I forgot! Joel, what about your birthday? We can't leave before then! The big five-oh?!"

"I told you, I don' celebrate it," Joel said warningly. "Tommy knows that, too. If any of you are plannin' somethin', best just unplan it now."

"We know," said Maria. "Relax, there's no party in the works or anything."

Joel put his arm around Ellie's shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "Sorry, kiddo. I know you like the idea of celebratin' it. If we're goin', no sense waitin' for that day to pass. Out there, we'll lose track of what day it is, and that's fine by me. Besides, we missed your birthday this year, too."

"Only because we had no idea what day it was," Ellie grumbled. "Like you just said. Guess we'll miss my next one, too?"

"We might be back by then." He very much doubted that, as it would mean traveling in winter, but he couldn't seem to keep the words from tumbling out of his mouth anyhow. "Maybe you an' the baby'll have the same birthday."

"That would be cool. Maria, try to keep it in there as long as you can!" Ellie teased.

She laughed. "Will do. March, right?"

"The 23rd," Joel supplied. He wouldn't mind not knowing when his own birthday came and went, but he didn't like the idea of missing Ellie's. From what he'd gathered, she hadn't even celebrated her birthday until she was old enough to know when it was without an adult telling her, and even then, she didn't always have anyone in her life who cared enough to try to come up with some sort of gift for her, or to make it special in any way. It would make him angry at Marlene again, if he thought about it too much. Every kid deserved to have some fuss made over their birthday. "We can keep track of the days, if you want. Mark 'em off your calendar."

"Like... bring some blank work calendar pages? -oh! Work... Esther's gonna be pissed..."

Tommy shook his head. "Nah -- maybe Colton or Logan can take your shifts. That whole group's good with farmwork."

"Yeah but you're trying to get the new farm going and all... and Joel has his projects, and guard shifts..."

"All that is flexible, Ellie," said Maria. "We can work it all out. This town is really adaptable. We kind of have to be."

"Okay. The library stuff... that's pretty easy," Ellie said. "Anyone can read to the kids, and the other stuff can wait. That's not even like real work."

"You may not think so, but that catalogin' stuff you're doin'? Big improvement," Tommy praised her. "Much easier to find shit now... what you've done so far, anyhow. And you're great with the kids."

Ellie squirmed a little. "Yeah, well, like I said... not real work."

"One of these days you'll learn how to take a compliment," Joel teased, mussing her hair.

"You know, you wouldn' even have to go," Tommy said to Ellie. "You could stay here with us. I know you wanna be with Joel, but I'm sure he'd rather know you're safe."

"Oh hell no," Ellie scoffed before Joel even had a chance to get properly, if irrationally, annoyed with his brother. "No offense. I'm not letting him go Outside without me."

"She's my bodyguard," Joel said soberly. "I need her to keep me safe."

Maria and Tommy both chuckled at that. "All right then," said Tommy. "But... she would be safer here, you know."

"Of course she would," Joel had to agree. Even with all the shit going on lately -- and he suspected a lot of that would go away if he were out of the picture. But at the same time... he wouldn't know that she was safe. He wouldn't know it for months. Joel wasn't sure he could stand that. He always felt she was safest with him -- even though he knew it wasn't true. The universe had proven as much. It was just his gut feeling. "Part of me wants her to stay here. But--"

"Joel!" Ellie started to complain.

"But -- a bigger part of me thinks we should jus' stick together."

"That's the part you have to listen to," Ellie said sagely, poking him in the ribs.

But is that part the selfish one? If he loved her, how could he knowingly put her life at risk? He'd done it back in Boston, before he knew her well enough to love her... he'd embarked on this dangerous journey with her when he could have just taken her back to the QZ. Back to her school... back to that fucking bitch Marlene. Ellie would never have been able to come and go freely there, what with her condition triggering the scanners and all, but he could have smuggled her in to safety. ...and let Marlene take her across the country instead when she was ready? No way in hell.

Obviously, he had no regrets about the course of action he'd taken -- at least, not what came after Tess's death. They'd had a rough go of it, but they made it, and they'd formed an unbreakable bond in the process. Leaving her with Tommy and Maria was not the same thing as leaving her with Marlene. But even if he could somehow bring himself to leave her, how long would it be before she set out after him, possibly by herself? No, it's better if we stick together. If I want her to be safe, then I have to stay here with her. Maybe Sophie should just find someone else. But... I also want Ellie to be happy. Things ain't goin' so good for her here anymore. Is it worth the--

"Sounds like you guys have made up your minds, then, huh?" said Maria, interrupting another yes/no loop his thoughts tended to cycle through. "It's a go?"

Joel looked at Ellie. He could talk himself into or out of going as needed; it really was up to her, and he didn't have a good enough sense of which way she was leaning yet. "Whatcha thinkin', kiddo?"

She was playing with her hands now, staring at her fingers with that look on her face she got sometimes when she was concentrating on something. She was quiet for a few moments. "Do you think we could take Spirit?" she asked without looking up. "Is it selfish of me to want to?"

She's remembering Callus. Joel glanced at Tommy.

"It ain't selfish," Tommy was quick to assure her; annoyed as he got with his brother sometimes, Tommy did truly care about Ellie, and Joel was grateful for his sensitivity. "I don' think Esther'll have a problem with it," Tommy continued. "He's pretty much yours, anyhow. He ain't so good with field work... an' I think he'd be mighty pissed if you left him behind, truth be told."

She still didn't look up, but she smiled a little. "Okay. Um..."

They waited. And waited. "If you wanna think on it some more," Joel offered, "maybe sleep on it... you don' have to decide tonight. Or tomorrow. Think on it as long as you want."

She snorted. "Some of the stuff I'm thinking of is pretty stupid. Like, if we go... are we ever gonna find out how there can be a polar bear on the island, and what the fuck that freaky smoke monster thing is... and why Jack's dead father is alive?!"

Tommy chuckled at that. "You're really hooked! The island will be here waitin' for you any time you wanna get back to it."

Ellie frowned. "I... guess I wouldn't get to help with the school play, either... and I'm almost done with the Dawn of the Wolf series..."

"You could take the book with you," Maria replied to that one. "I know we've got more than one copy of those. And the play is an experiment... might be a total dud... if it's a hit, I'm sure there'll be more, and you could help with the next one."

"...Right. Okay. Um... I wanted to try to find that song you mentioned last week, Joel... remember? The closing-your-eyes song?"

The things she was mentioning might seem shallow or trivial, but... Joel felt like what she was really saying was that she'd miss the life they had here. The fun things... things every kid from his day took for granted, but that she'd never really had before. "We can stay if you want, Ellie," he reminded her.

"But those are dumb reasons," she said again. "There's also not-dumb ones... like Annie. What if she takes Jacob back cuz I'm not here to remind her he's a jerk? Ugh. I'd miss her and Clicker. And some of the little kids. Kirsten and Kyle, for sure..."

"They'd miss you too, sweetie," Maria replied. "Joel's right -- you guys don't have to go. Someone else can do it."

"You just said why it has to be Joel!" Ellie said accusingly.

"No, I said no one else would be better. But that doesn't mean no one else is capable."

Ellie sighed and slumped against him. "It would drive Joel crazy, not knowing if Sophie made it or not."

"I don' know about crazy," Joel replied. "Yeah, I'd wonder about it. Sure. But... that ain't a good enough reason for you to say yes. I can live with not knowin'." Joel had thought that same thing with Ellie last year, when he'd tried to dump her on Tommy, but luckily, he'd realized he couldn't live with it before they'd actually left. It wasn't anything noble that had made him change his mind. It was actually another form of cowardice: he wasn't strong enough to turn his back. He could've lived with her hating him, but not with the not knowing. This wasn't the same situation at all, though. Sophie was a nice person, and he certainly didn't want to see any harm come to her, but she just... wasn't that important to him.

"Maybe you should do what Joel said an' sleep on it?" Tommy suggested.

Ellie shook her head. "No, I want to decide now, not have it like... hanging over my head."

Something about the way she said it made Joel feel guilty. He thought it was only fair to let her decide rather than just lay down the law and say "We're going and that's that" -- like he had when they'd moved in with Tommy and Maria -- but... maybe it was an unfair burden to place on her. He tried to catch her eye, but she was a little too close to him and a little too... eyes-downcast. "Ellie, if you'd rather... not decide... not have the final word... I jus' thought maybe you'd--"

"No, I do," she said quickly. "I'm glad you care about what I want."

"Of course I care about--"

"That came out wrong. I mean, I'm glad you want me to like... be involved in the decision-making."

Joel still felt like it was the weight of the world that made her slump the way she was. "All right. Listen... you'd be givin' up a lot here, I know. It's okay if you don' wanna go. I won' be upset with you. I'd be more upset if you said yes jus' because... you think it's what I want."

"It is what you want."

"Not necessarily. I ain't completely sold on the idea. An' I only want to go if you want to."

"Yeah, right," she grumbled.

"It's true." I just want you to have a good life, wherever we end up... he hadn't forgotten that they weren't alone, and that he had to censor himself. "You wanna talk about this upstairs some more?"


That surprised him a little. He was certain there were things on her mind that she couldn't say in front of Tommy and Maria.

"You sure? If you don' wanna sleep on it, we can talk it all through 'til you feel comfortable one way or the other."

"No, that's okay... ummmm... I think... if I think of something else big I'll ask it later I guess? But okay. Yes. Let's go."

Just like that? Joel looked at her doubtfully. "Yeah?"

She sat up straighter and nodded. "Yeah. Let's do it," she said more confidently -- and he could see the resolve in her eyes... her expression... even her posture. "I think it would bother me, not knowing if she... or if we could've helped and didn't, just because it's harder than sitting on our asses here."

They all chuckled a bit at that; Ellie was hardly what anyone would call a couch potato. Joel hugged her close against his side and kissed the top of her head. He'd been trying to mentally prepare himself to deal with Ellie wanting to stay -- and to truly let it be her decision -- so now that she'd agreed to it, he felt... something like relief. He would have been okay with staying, especially since it was the safer option... but he really did want to get the hell out of this place. "It won' be forever. And once we get there, I think you're gonna love it."

Maria didn't bother stifling the yawn this time. "You're not leaving tonight, right?"

Joel smiled a little; she looked so damn tired. "Uh, no. I was thinkin' more like end of the week."

"Good. You boys can work out the logistics -- I'm going to sleep." She started to rise from the couch.

"No, I'll come up with ya, babe." Tommy stood up with her, and looked at Joel. "We'll start puttin' this together tomorrow?"

Joel nodded. " 'Night. You go on up too, Ellie. I'll close up an' be right behind you." Even here, he couldn't break the nighttime habit of checking all possible points of entry.

Ten minutes later, Ellie was in bed, and Joel was sitting beside her -- on the edge of the bed, his feet on the floor. She always wanted him to lay with her in the bed, even if he was on top of the blanket and she was beneath it... he wouldn't do it. But he would sit here a while if she wanted. Or, sometimes she would go to sleep on her stomach, with her arm dangling off the bed, and Joel would play with her hand a little as she fell asleep. The bedside lamp was still on, though; Ellie wanted to talk, as Joel had figured she would. They just had to speak quietly. Joel was sure he'd be able to hear footsteps on the floorboards just outside the closed door if Tommy or Maria came over within earshot for some reason. Actually, he could probably hear the master bedroom door open before they even got that close.

Ellie thought he wouldn't sleep with her or even lay down with her because he was afraid of getting caught, but that was only part of it; Joel knew his brother would disapprove (to say the least), and it would be downright disrespectful to get romantic with Ellie under his roof. It would also be an especially hard slap in the face after the way Tommy and Maria had stood up for him against the town. It was funny how he could feel guilty about this, yet not guilty about lying to them in the first place.


He brought her hand up to his lips and started kissing her fingers. "Yes, baby girl?"

"I was thinking..."

"Here we go," he said in mock exasperation.

"Fuck you," she laughed. "I was thiiiiiiinking... since we're not going to be alone for... how long do you think it'll take to get there?"

"I haven' looked at it too close yet. I reckon at least a month, month an' a half... or more. I don' know."

"Okay. So, for that whole time, we're not going to be alone. Ever."

"I don' know about ever... but Sophie's gotta stay pretty close to us. She's..."

"Useless," Ellie supplied.

"Inexperienced," Joel suggested more kindly.

"So like I said. Not alone. I think that... maybe, um..."

Why is she nervous? He squeezed her hand. "Yes?"

"Don't you think it would be a good idea if we... well... if we had sex before we leave," she finally blurted out, as a statement rather than a question.

Okay, she surprised me with that one. She was dead serious, too. Not playing around about it like she sometimes did. "What's one thing got to do with the other? 'Cause I think you know that we ain't ready for that yet."

"You mean you're not. But... don't you think... Joel, I don't wanna pressure you or anything, but I'd feel so much better if we did!"

"Lower your voice," he reminded her. "Why? What do you mean by that?"

"Well... like with the not-kissing thing," she said in a near-whisper. "Not messing around. If we could just... um... I think maybe..."

Joel could see she was struggling to find the right words to explain. He had an idea of what she might be thinking... same thing as right before we moved in here? "Rewind a little. What do you mean 'better'? Better about us?"


That worried him. They had their issues, sure, but he thought she was feeling good about things now that he'd gotten to the point where he could allow her to... be more intimate with him. "Ellie... sex ain't some sort of... magical thing that fixes everythin'. If somethin's botherin' you, tell me, and I'll see about fixin' it the right way." He took her hand in both of his now, stroking it with his thumb.

She tried to smile, but it didn't quite work. "I love you. You're... really great."

Uh-oh. "...but?"

"No, I don't mean it like... there's nothing wrong. I'm just being stupid."

As if he could leave it at that. "Tell me, please," he prodded gently.

"Okay, well... if we're not going to be doing anything... if we're like father and daughter again... and you and Sophie are like... whatever..."

Joel's eyebrows shot up. "We ain't 'whatever.' We're nothin', Ellie."

"I know I know I know. Just, um... forget it, okay?"

"You know I can't do that. What are you gettin' at?"

She sighed. "I'm being stupid, because you already told me before... that you're not going to forget. To forget us."

"That's right. I won't. You don' gotta worry about that, baby girl." He leaned over and kissed her sweetly... not-quite-chastely. He stroked her cheek... lingered there by her lips. "And that's not a good enough reason for us to have sex before we go. If you're feelin' insecure... I wish you wouldn't." Brilliant, Joel, that's really reassuring... It wasn't what he really meant to say. ...not that he knew what he meant to say. Again, he wondered how she could just... not already know how much he loved her. It was so obvious to him -- how could she not see it? Maybe because you don't know how to tell her the right way, asshole...

"I'll try," she said, forcing a smile that was more convincing than the last one.

But not by much. Joel groaned inwardly. Not the 'I'll try'... that was code for "I knew it was dumb for me to tell you what I'm thinking because you can't change it so let's just forget it now." It broke his heart sometimes. He gave her another little kiss before sitting up again. "Ellie... I love you. Only you. This trip ain't gonna change that. Nothin's gonna change that. When we do finally m-- ...have sex... it'll be 'cause it's the right time, not 'cause we have to squeeze it in real quick before we hit the road."

"You were gonna say make love," she said quietly. Soberly.

"I was. Yes." He thought of it that way in his head, but normally didn't say it out loud. He knew Ellie would tease him for being a sap. He just couldn't abide her referring to it as 'fucking,' and she'd respected his wishes there. Ellie was too young to fuck. It just seemed so casual... so heartless. Maybe he wouldn't always see it that way, after they'd been together a long time... but he tried not to get too far ahead of himself.

She wasn't teasing him now, though. "Isn't it weird that we're already in love, but can't make love?"

He didn't really know what to say to that. "Maybe."

"I mean... after we do it, are we going to love each other even more? I can't imagine that."
Joel resisted the urge to answer with another lame 'maybe.' "Well... I don' know. -No. Not really."


"The way I feel about you... it's..." Joel frowned. "It's there, regardless of whether or not we ever have sex. That's why it really ain't important to do that before we go."

"Right -- not important. So if it's ~not important~ that means we should--"

"Sssshhhhh -- you really wanna have this argument again?" he chided her, but with a little smile.

"If I get my way this time? Yes." She grinned at him.

He tweaked her nose. "Nope, not gettin' your way. We'd jus' go 'round in circles like we always do. It's important an' not important all at the same time an' that's just how it is."

She seemed to be biting back a giggle. "You're so cute. I love you."

"You're stealin' my lines again," he teased.

"We can share that one," she said sagely.

Joel wondered if he'd said enough to put her fears to rest or if she was just shoving them aside for comfort's sake. "Ellie... you know that... I ain't so good with words..."

She brought her hand up to his mouth, as if shushing him. Sometimes he couldn't tell if his awkwardness made her feel awkward, which in turn made her want to shut down the emotional exchange, or if she'd had her fill and simply didn't need to hear anymore. "I know you think that, but you do pretty good. It's okay."

He kissed her hand before sandwiching it between his again. "But I didn't say... I don' want you to feel like..."

"You said you loved me and only me and nothing's going to change that," she recited.

"It's the truth."

She nodded. "Okay."

"...You believe me?"

"I believe you," she affirmed.

"Good. Jus' keep lookin' forward to the day we... finally do... that. Because we will. Someday. I promise you."

Her smile was genuine this time. "I could look forward to the day a little easier if you'd tell me what day it's gonna be."

"It's gonna be... the perfect day."

She giggled softly. "There's no such date on the calendar."

Even though she was just teasing, he gave her an apologetic smile. "Well, sorry, but that's the best I can do right now."

* * * * * * *

The next few days passed by in a whirlwind as they prepared for the trip. What a luxury it was to be able to prepare for it, to have supplies and reference materials at their disposal... instead of finding themselves stranded with only what they had in their backpacks for resources and only a vague idea of where to go.

Joel was almost tempted to skip the ghost house time... except Ellie needed that time with him, to connect in a way they couldn't the rest of the time (save for traces of romance at bedtime). He needed it, too, but... Ellie really needed it. He was a little concerned about how she would handle the lack of it. That last day was excruciating in a way. Their kisses were tainted with a melancholy sort of desperation, and every touch, every caress -- it all felt magnified.

After they'd each had their Last Orgasm, they lay on the bedspread and cushions on the floor in the semi-dark room, limbs intertwined, their naked bodies pressed together for the last complete skin-to-skin contact they would have for who knew how long. After all they'd done together by this point, sometimes he thought that they might as well be having actual intercourse, too. But... that still felt like a line he shouldn't cross with her. Like he wasn't quite such a scumbag if she was still a virgin. She was just so young; if she were to change her mind about being with him, at least he wouldn't have taken that from her.

Joel petted Ellie's hair with long, soothing strokes. Neither of them said anything for a while. They just enjoyed the intimacy that would soon be denied them. What the hell am I doing? It ain't too late to back out. It'd be a dick move... Sophie would be pissed... but it ain't too late. We don't HAVE to give this up. He pressed a soft kiss to Ellie's forehead. "Baby girl... we can stay. We don' have to go."

She turned and kissed his jaw. "I know."

That was all she said. Joel squeezed her. "If you're havin' second thoughts..."

"Second?" Ellie scoffed. "Try third, fourth... ten thousandth..."

So it ain't just me! "I'll call it off," he said quickly. "I'll say it's my fault, that I thought--"

"No, Joel. It's okay." She looked him in the eye. He was surprised to find tears; she hadn't sounded at all like she was about to cry. "I know you love me. I'm gonna miss this... like, really bad... but we're not saying goodbye. To each other, anyway. We'll be together all the time, and yeah, it'll be a little rough out there, compared to what we're used to now... but we're gonna see new things, new places, together. Maybe we can't... be like this, but... it gives us something else to look forward to, right? And... we're doing a good thing. Sophie wants to be with her brother. Her only family she has left. She can't do that without us, so... I mean, I guess she could try, yeah, but Maria's right -- no one would be better than you. Better than us. I know what it feels like to be alone. To have no family... to worry about someone who's gone that you might never see again... it sucks. And with everything going on here lately... I mean, if that's not a sign from the universe or God or whatever, I don't know what is. We have to help her."

A couple tears spilled over, and Joel caught one with his thumb, gently caressing her cheek. "You... are amazin', baby girl." You're so selfless, you put me to shame. He'd had similar thoughts, about the universe and whatnot, but unlike Ellie, he'd only been thinking in terms of what things could be like for the two of them. He tucked her head against his chest so he could hold her entire body close to his, in what might have been their longest hug ever.

It was extremely difficult to let her go. So difficult that they were, in fact, late to their own goodbye party down at the farm.

It wasn't an official party, per se... more like a very large dinner. So large that it might as well have been billed as a party. Everyone who wanted to see them on their final night in town to say goodbye came down to Farm 3 that night (Esther's farm). Tommy and Maria, Yasmany and his wife with little Buffy, Craig and his wife, Clicker and his parents, Paige from the library, with her son... and others simply dropped by to wish them well. A lot of the families were people they frequently dined with at Tommy and Maria's, or the ones with little kids from crafts and storytime with Ellie at the library. Some of the militia. 'Skank number'... was it 1 or 2? He supposed the number could be dropped, now that Ellie had stopped referring to Sophie that way.

Sophie herself was spending the evening with friends; she moved in different circles, they'd spent a fair amount of time together during the week, and they were about to be stuck with each other for a very long time, so there was no need to see each other tonight (and despite all of Ellie's good will towards her with this decision, Joel had no doubt that tensions would arise soon enough). The other... laundry lady, Kathy, only stopped by briefly before heading to Sophie's. Kathy's son, Lucas, wanted to say goodbye to Joel... and, Joel was a little surprised to see, he also wanted to speak to Ellie alone for a minute. Joel would have to remember to ask her about that later. Some of the teenagers Ellie hung out with occasionally -- or used to hang out with -- showed up. Only a few.

Max was conspicuously absent... or, maybe not so conspicuously, given Joel's feelings towards the guy. Nothing of note had happened since their unspoken truce had come about... in 'Infected Valley,' as Ellie liked to call it... but Joel couldn't help it, he just didn't like the guy. Ellie did say that she'd invited him, but he'd told her he most likely wouldn't come. At least he'd been honest about that... he didn't tell her he would come only to disappoint her by not showing.

All in all, a hell of a lot more people came than Joel had expected. Maybe he and Ellie weren't quite so much the town pariahs anymore. Counting all those people just stopping by, he estimated it was somewhere between a quarter and a third of the town's population -- so, not a majority, but that was a lot of people... most of them for Ellie. Joel didn't generally enjoy being the center of attention -- and he made sure to deflect as much of the attention over to Ellie as he could, seeing as how she thrived on it -- but the evening was quite pleasant, if bittersweet.

Clicker wasn't quite his usual boisterous self... they had told him together, the day after the decision was made, and he'd just looked at Ellie quietly for a moment, then asked, "Are you gonna be back for my birthday?" Sadly, they definitely would not be back by November, Joel knew. He hoped in the next few months the boy would get over his little crush on Ellie. A few months was a long time at that age. Although... he'd thought that about Ellie, too, at first... and she certainly showed no signs of losing interest in him.

When Buffy had approached him to say goodbye, she parroted his "Be brave for me" from that one day -- and Joel found that incredibly sweet. Yasmany said she still talks about that day sometimes. Part of her healing process, they assumed. After the nasty rumor had reached him, Yasmany had greeted Joel on their next shift together, and before Joel could even tell him to save it, the other man had said it was the most ridiculous fucking thing he'd ever heard. That Joel was a hero in his eyes, and his little girl's, and there was no one in town he'd trust more with his daughter than Joel. Joel had half been expecting an angry 'how could you do that to a little girl' tirade, and instead, he nearly choked up on his emotions, knowing there was no greater honor, no greater trust... thinking about Sarah... and Ellie...

Perhaps Joel had underestimated more than a few of the people here. It only took one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch. Or maybe they'd just needed a little time to process the shit, and eventually discard it as ludicrous. He was sure there were Jacksonites who still had their doubts; those people would be the ones who said 'I told you so,' whenever it eventually became known that he and Ellie were together that way. Not for a long time, though, as they had to keep their secret for years, yet. If we come back to this town, anyway...

His heart ached a little -- hell, more than a little... looking around the room at all these people, thinking it will never be like this again... and that this might not be the best place for him and Ellie in the long-term after all. But watching Ellie interact with everyone... it was such a joy to Joel, to see her in her element, smiling and laughing... soaking up the affection and attention from all these people who couldn't help but love her. People who had Ellie-shaped footprints on their hearts now. ...If we DON'T come back, how can I take all of this away from her? It was a question that didn't need to be answered any time soon. One he reckoned he could think about in the middle of the nights to come when he couldn't sleep, listening to the breathing rhythms of the two sleeping girls.

As hard as it was for Joel and Ellie to drag themselves there in the first place, it sure was hard to leave at the end, when it was down to just Annie and Esther. They were torn between having a little more time for Ellie to spend with Annie, and getting to bed as soon as possible for what could be their last good sleep of the next couple months. If they could even sleep well this last night, anyhow. Esther claimed she was pissed at Joel for leaving because now she'd surely be stuck with some 'Chatty Cathy' type (he'd had to laugh when Ellie thought she was referring to Skank-Kathy) on guard duty or patrol, and she'd miss the silence they shared. Then she'd teased Ellie about some embarrassing farm shit... like ripping her pants on the fence, falling in the mud with the pigs... that was about as sentimental as Esther would get. She'd finished with one of those stupid jokes Ellie liked so much: "What kind of shoes do frogs wear?" / "Open-toad." Ellie had hugged her for that -- which was nice to see, because although Ellie wouldn't admit there was anything wrong between her and Esther, Joel had noticed some hostility on Ellie's part. Probably just unfounded jealousy.

It was well past midnight when Ellie finally gave Annie one last hug, both of them with tears streaming down their faces. Ellie extracted all kinds of promises from her regarding the animals -- be sure to give this one extra belly scratches, be sure to let that one 'help' you water the horses... Joel didn't catch all of it, but he was sure Annie knew the animals just as well or better than Ellie did -- he figured it was Ellie's way of saying goodbye to them. She hadn't had time to tell them all in person, and although they were heading back down there in the morning to pick up the horses, Joel didn't want her lingering there, trying to chase down all the animals to give them hugs and kisses, getting herself all worked up again. Things would be hectic enough, gathering all their shit and making sure they didn't forget anything. This was goodbye, tonight... and he would just have to remind Ellie that it wasn't forever.

That night, Joel had refused to lay on the bed with Ellie, as usual... but he'd invited her to lay with him on the floor. If Tommy or Maria happened to find them snuggled up together in the morning, they could pretend Ellie had crawled down there in the middle of the night with 'last night nerves' or some shit. Again, it wasn't considered creepy if Ellie was the one who initiated it -- and what kind of dick would he have to be to refuse to comfort her on their last night there? He felt he could probably drift off to sleep easily enough with Ellie back in his arms, but it took Ellie a little while to wind down from the evening. She told Joel what so-and-so had said and the thing what's-her-name had done, and so forth... some of it Joel had already observed, unbeknownst to her, but he listened contentedly to her happy chatter.

Then she became a little sadder, thinking about possibly not ever seeing some of them again. There was no way to keep in touch with people. Every time someone left, there was no guarantee they'd ever return. That was true in the old world too, of course, but the likelihood of something bad happening outside these walls was much higher -- and in the old world, you were much more likely to be able to find out where people had ended up, thanks to Google and Facebook and the like. Now... you kind of just had to accept that goodbye for now could very well mean goodbye forever. It wasn't something that people acknowledged openly tonight during their goodbyes... everyone had appeared to take their promises to return ~someday~ at face value... but it was understood. Joel would be shocked if they returned in the spring and found everything the same... that no one had died or gone missing. And new families would arrive; perhaps others would choose to leave. It would never be the same as it was now.

Joel hadn't really gotten sentimental about shit like that in recent years -- hell, decades. It was the old world memories that tugged at his heartstrings... especially after Ellie had started tugging some strings of her own. I'm actually going to miss this place, he realized. And not just the safety and luxuries, the comfort of routine. He had a lot of good memories here. Mostly with Ellie, though, and she'll be with me. She's the one leaving footprints behind... and carrying some with her as well. But me? Nope. Mine will just be tracks on the ground leading me out of here... or, rather, leading him to the horse that would lead him out of there. Still, all of it would be washed away by the next rain.

He ignored his under-Tommy's-roof guilt and kissed Ellie good night for a good long while. Tender kisses, sweet and slow, conveying love more than passion. It had been hard to end that, too... but he wanted to ensure both of them got at least some sleep that night -- what could be salvaged of it, anyway. And he was quite tired... content, in spite of a certain amount of anxiety over the changes about to come... at peace, holding Ellie close... he was pretty sure he would drift off to sleep before she did.

He was also pretty sure he wasn't going to be able to go any decent length of time without kissing her that way. He wasn't as strong as Ellie; she needed the intimacy too, yes, but after what she’d shown him earlier… he was confident she could do anything that needed to be done as far as going without. I ain't so sure that I can, though. I’m just not the same guy I was when I left Boston. We'll have to come up with something.

~Continue to Chapter 28~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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