Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 28: "Setting Forth" (28/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 28: "Setting Forth" (28/47)
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: 6445
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

Day 1

Tommy and Maria were the last to bid Joel and Ellie farewell, seeing them off at the gate. Maria got a little misty-eyed, but didn't get all mushy... and Tommy and Joel acted like they were just saying goodbye for the week or something. Well, except for the man hug. Ellie gave each of them a real hug -- and she didn't cry. She was too excited! California, here we come! And they couldn't have asked for a nicer day to set out on their journey. The sky was bright, adorned with friendly, fluffy white clouds, and the sun was warm on their backs.

When the three of them had gotten together to map their route, Ellie had wanted to ride through Infected Valley (er, Swan Valley -- she should give the town its proper name back, since Joel had disposed of the Infected there!) for old times' sake, but Joel had overruled her, saying that a couple months ago was hardly 'old times,' and there was no reason to add extra miles to their trip by going that way. "It's so long ago that I've lost track of how many weeks it's been!" she'd protested, earning her a Look from Joel -- but it wasn't like she'd used the words 'anniversary' or 'first kiss.' She didn't care if Sophie thought she was a weirdo for counting the weeks since that battle. And the woman could just wonder why Joel wouldn't even discuss the possibility of taking the route that went through Salt Lake City (well... actually, since the journey was over 100 miles longer that way, she probably wouldn't be wondering).

Sophie was the only one who'd been in this area before, but she'd had little input to offer, stating that the boys had made the decisions about where to go -- and without the benefit of maps. She hadn't been very interested in planning this route, either... content to let Joel and Ellie 'pick whatever.' Joel took that in stride; Ellie found that attitude irritating, for some reason. She shouldn't have, because Sophie wanting to be less involved with anything related to Joel was a good thing! It was pretty much up to Joel in the end anyway, but Ellie did want to help navigate. To be Joel's partner. An asset to him, not just some little girl following her daddy. Of course, Sophie didn't have anything to prove, the way Ellie did. Joel did insist on all of them carrying a copy of the so-called primary map with the intended route marked, just in case. The maps could get damaged, lost, stolen... or maybe one of them would get separated from the others... Sophie had looked a bit freaked out by that last one. Ellie couldn't blame her, given her uselessness. Not that Ellie liked to think about it herself, but 'shit happens' was a good motto to live by out there.

Between her and Sophie, Ellie was the more experienced rider -- and of course, the more experienced survivor in general -- so it probably would have made more sense for her and Sophie to share a horse. Ellie just plain didn't want to; she wanted to ride with Joel. When they were discussing details like this in the planning stages, she'd been sure to make Sophie a bit... wary of Spirit (okay, more like scared shitless?), claiming that he frequently tried to toss his riders. Which wasn't a total lie! He did try, sometimes... but not so much with Ellie, and not nearly as often as she made it seem. Joel and Sophie on the same horse wouldn't have made sense, weight-distribution-wise (though of course, the real reason to reject that configuration was oh HELL no). Then she tried to make it seem like Joel couldn't handle Spirit without her -- that if Ellie wasn't the one riding Spirit, all hell would break loose. Sophie may have believed her... Joel certainly didn't! However, he didn't call bullshit on it, so she got her way. He liked the idea of them riding together, too, and as far as Ellie was concerned, he owed her one for working it out that way. She really didn't need to be told "no groping." But apparently, Joel felt the need to say it.

As for weight distribution... it needn't have been a real factor in the decision, because they simply loaded the single-rider horse with more of their stuff to even things out. Sophie had taken an interest in that -- she'd wanted to bring waaaay too much stuff. Namely, clothes. It made sense, since her hope was to find her brother and live with him, but there was only so much they could reasonably haul.

Ellie had volunteered to be in charge of limiting Sophie's cargo. An unenviable task, but at least it kept Joel out of that bedroom... and Ellie had a second ulterior motive as well. She helped Sophie decide which articles of clothing to bring, which to leave, and which to donate back to the warehouse. There was no set rule about how long a person had to be gone before their stuff was officially deemed community property again, but Sophie didn't need everything she had in her closet (which was way more than what Ellie and Joel had, but then, neither of them had asked for much). On the other hand, no one in town was in dire straits for clothes, either. Ellie suspected that Sophie's house would get raided long before she returned... if she returned... and people would just take whatever they liked. Sophie had thought about bringing some of Alex's clothes along, but Ellie had nixed that idea -- at least for items she couldn't also wear herself along the way. Ellie did offer to stash some stuff at Tommy and Maria's, but Sophie wasn't overly attached to anything that she'd elected to leave behind.

Ellie had noticed a very familiar cowboy hat in the bedroom -- it belonged to Max. Sophie claimed that Max had given it to her, and she intended to wear it on their trip. Then she'd promptly changed the subject. Ellie had meant to ask Max about it later, but then she completely forgot about it when she saw him; he wasn't very forthcoming on the Sophie topic as it was, so he might not have had much to say about that, either. She just couldn't help wondering if Max had simply left it there after sleeping over, because it seemed an odd present to give a woman. It also seemed odd that Sophie wanted to bring it when, as far as Ellie knew, the two weren't even speaking to each other now; if she hated him, why put a constant reminder on her head? And shouldn’t she give it back to him? Ellie didn’t know what the rules were about that. Max had another hat, so it wasn’t like he needed it or anything…

Anyway, being Joel's clothing rules enforcer gave Ellie a good excuse to examine Sophie's wardrobe... and as she'd suspected, there were some sexy nightclothes in her underwear drawer. Most of the panties were in as sad of shape as Ellie's, she was pleased to note... though they were definitely sexier. A couple of pairs had practically no cloth on them whatsoever -- and they were designed that way! Completely impractical. She'd advised Sophie to ditch those, but Sophie figured they weighed nothing and took up no space, so why not bring them? Ellie didn't argue that.

It wasn't her panties that interested Ellie, anyway. She'd told Sophie to bring only one nightie (it wasn't like she'd even get to wear them on the journey!), and the woman agreed without an argument. She had four to choose from. Ellie knew which one she didn't want her to pick...

She'd lucked out there: Sophie had picked the red one. That left the coveted black one free for Ellie to swipe when Sophie wasn't looking.

Ellie had pretended to be folding them all nicely to put back in the drawer, but she'd rolled up the black one and stuffed it down her pants instead. It would probably be too big for Ellie, but she would make do; someday she wanted to surprise Joel by wearing it, and it nearly made her giggle to imagine the look that would be on his face... how he would wonder where she got it, and tell her she was a naughty girl... in more ways than one! And it was black -- the 'bad' color, the opposite of innocent little white... maybe it would push Joel juuuust a teensy bit more toward having sex with her. She'd just had to hope that Joel would have no desire to inventory her bag before they left... and she'd lucked out there, too! Which was awesome, because the lingerie wasn't the only thing in there she had to hide.

It had pained Ellie to leave the guitar behind, but there was just no way to justify lugging that along, and there was too great a risk of it getting damaged -- or ditched, if they ever had to make a quick getaway. They took all the gear they'd had when they arrived at Jackson, and plenty of fresh supplies and ammo. Also, Joel had acquired a belt holster for Ellie so she didn't have to tuck her gun into her jeans anymore, and it could carry a gun on each side. Sophie had a little Ruger pistol that was even smaller than Ellie's 9-millimeter, and Joel got her a single-gun belt holder. It was enough for her, since she might not even have to fire her gun; it was for 'emergencies only.' Which Ellie had heard before, of course -- but! This time it wasn't Joel trying to do everything on his own -- it was her and Joel. Together, they could handle anything. Still, Joel had felt it wise to give Sophie some pointers -- with Ellie present to prevent any possible seduction attempts on Sophie's part, of course.

So far, Ellie had to admit, Sophie had behaved like a model client. No skankiness. Ellie rather liked the shirt she was wearing... it was a button-down plaid, but something about the shoulders and the collar made it look a little girlier than the ones she herself wore at times. The soft pink stripes, too. Her long, honey-blond hair was pulled into a braid that hung down her back... very much like Annie wore hers, Ellie noted. Their hair was similar in color, too. It was weird to think of Annie when she looked at Sophie.

And, of course, there was Max's cowboy hat. If Joel recognized it, he didn't say so. She hoped he did, for purely selfish reasons: if Joel thought of Max every time he looked at Sophie, Ellie had nothing to worry about there.

Never mind that she had nothing to worry about, period. Yes, she knew better... she knew Joel loved her... but she couldn't help thinking sometimes that just because he loved her today didn't mean he always would. There were no guarantees in this world. If she looked at things objectively, like an outsider would, it just made more sense for him to be with Sophie than with her. But, if she found herself thinking shit like that, she just needed to remind herself that she and Joel did make sense to each other, if no one else. And Joel didn't care that she was wearing a childish Jak and Daxter T-shirt rather than a more stylish, feminine top... something more like Sophie's.

The woman was quieter than Ellie had expected, making her wonder if Outside-quiet was one of the lessons Joel had given her this week. Talking wasn't expressly forbidden, and none of them were dead silent or anything, but Ellie knew Joel didn't like getting into lengthy conversations while they were riding. Or on breaks. Or... ever, really. -Okay, maybe he wasn't exactly like that anymore, but Ellie was still the more talkative of the two of them, and Sophie certainly had to be at least more of a talker than Joel. They rode nearly side by side for the most part, with Joel and Ellie slightly in front, riding Ellie's beloved palomino stallion, Spirit, and Sophie riding Poppy, a chestnut-and-white mare whom they believed was related to Callus (and who very well could get pregnant on this trip, but with an 11-month gestation period, it wasn't expected to be a problem).

They took a break after a bunch of hours, more to rest the horses than themselves, and Joel surprised her by announcing he was going to spend some quality time with nature -- their euphemism for taking a shit, which they'd just enlightened Sophie on. But he took care of that this morning at the house... ?

"Are you okay?" she asked, eying him suspiciously.

"Jus' fine," he replied. "Did you somehow forget that I... need to do that sometimes?"

"No, but--"

"I don' wanna gross out Sophie too bad, so I'm gonna go over there, behind those rocks. Ellie, you come with me an' stand guard like usual." He turned to Sophie. "You'll be fine here with the horses... they'll start makin' noise if anyone comes along, an' we'll hear it."

"You need Ellie to protect you for that?" said Sophie with amusement.

"Yep. That's a very... vulnerable position for a man to be in."

Sophie squinted at the rocks. "And you're going... all the way over there?"

"Trust me. It's best that way."

"...Okie dokie then, suit yourself."

Joel had never asked her to do that before, but by now of course Ellie had caught on to the little game he was playing. Honestly, it didn't really make much sense; to Ellie's knowledge, he'd never been tested, but she was confident Joel could shoot enemies and even reload while taking a dump. However, Sophie had no idea what was normal, or what their habits were... why not turn that to their advantage? "Yeah, he's right -- it's best this way. I don't know which is worse: the stench, or the sound effects! I'll do the same for you if you want," Ellie called cheerfully over her shoulder to Sophie as she hurried after Joel toward the big-ass boulders he'd gestured to.

Joel gave her a did-you-really-have-to-say-that look, and she giggled. "Sorry, I couldn't resist! That's what you were already hinting at yourself, anyway."

"You could've jus' let her wonder which it was that's so... offensive," Joel chuckled. "But I don' give a shit what she thinks about that."

"Ohhhh you're so pun-ny!" Ellie said happily. It couldn't have taken more than half a minute to reach their destination, but somehow it took forever. Joel strode ahead for the last few seconds of it. When she caught up to him, he grabbed her and pushed her up against the back side of the huge rock (it was taller than Joel!), and started kissing her so hard she got that awesome dizzy feeling she loved so much. His hands roving her body only intensified it. By the time they came up for air, Ellie was quite breathless. "Omigod, Joel... my head... spinning..."

He smiled wickedly and started kissing her again, a little softer now so they could talk a little in between kisses. "This is really stupid... can't do it for long..."

"Mmm... yeah, I thought you said..."

"Changed my mind... last night..."

"I'm so glad!" She thought she was going to have to wait months for this, not mere hours!

"Kissin' only, though... no, uh... naughty stuff..." He started kissing her neck in that way that made her melt.

She giggled. "Well, she already thinks you've got your pants down, so..."

"No. Bad Ellie."

A little tingle ran through her when his tongue tickled her earlobe. More like 'bad Joel'... I like this bad Joel! "Mmmm... but what's she gonna think when you come back with a raging hard-on?"

Joel pulled back slightly to look at her. "Uh... you can walk directly in front of me."

"Yeah, like that would look normal."

"Then... I'll just adjust it a little... it'll go away. An' we can walk back real slow. We're on break, so."

Ellie snaked her hand down to his crotch, pleased that he was indeed sporting a bulge. "I can help you get rid of it," she purred in his ear.

He lifted her hand up and kissed it. "No. But I do thank you for the kind offer."

They made out for another few minutes before Joel decided it was time to head back... walking as slowly as possible. Ellie didn't know how he could just get rid of his erection without actually doing anything that provided release, but somehow he could. Just one of the mysteries of being male, she supposed. And it was harder to see after he ~adjusted~ it. "So, if I have to spend quality time with nature like twice a day, and you have to twice a day -- with some of those being legit, of course -- we can do that four times every day!"

Joel chuckled. "No, that's pushin' it, kiddo. Especially out here when we're not eatin' as regular. Once'll do. An' maybe not every day."

"Twice! Cuz now when you really have to go, it'll be weird if you don't take me with you. And she doesn't have to know how often is normal for you," Ellie pointed out sensibly.

"Actually... she didn' seem all that convinced as it is," Joel replied. "Did you see the look on her face when we left?"

"Okay, so... I'll make sure I walk around a little -- in her view -- with my gun out and stuff, sometimes. And even if she doesn't totally buy it, is it really that big a deal if--"

"Yes. No one can know, Ellie. What happens if we all go back to--"

"Then we tell her to keep her fucking mouth shut!"

Joel snorted. "That's how secrets get out. By everyone tellin' someone who swears they won' tell a soul, until someone does."

"Okay, whatever -- but we can do it twice. This girl I used to room with went twice a day, pretty much every day. Sometimes three times." Ellie was exaggerating a little there... but it's for such a good cause!

"That... ain't normal. But fine -- once or twice. She can think I have... good plumbing. And we still gotta be careful... quiet... can't get too carried away."

Ellie watched Sophie puttering around the horses, still out of earshot for maybe another thirty seconds. At least she didn't follow us. Joel would've heard her coming, if I didn't! She gasped as a thought struck her. "Oh man -- you know what she probably thinks? That you don't want to shit close to her cuz you like her. Cuz it's unromantic."

"Well, if she thinks that, that's her problem. You notice she hasn't been tryin' to flirt with me, don'tcha?"

Ellie rolled her eyes. "Duh, because she thinks she's doing me a favor. Out of pity. The whole town thinks poor pathetic little Ellie has a hopeless crush on a guy who's never going to love her back." ...And maybe because I might shoot her?

"If only they knew it was the other way around," Joel said with a sigh, feigning sorrow at the thought.

"Whatever!" Ellie knew she loved Joel more than he loved her; she knew that because there was simply no way anyone could love a person more than she loved Joel.

* * * * *

So far, they were following the highways. Soon there would be a stretch where they would venture through the roadless countryside (deemed by scouts to be navigable), relying on Joel's compass and his innately superior sense of direction. Ellie's direction sense wasn't bad... Sophie professed that hers was terrible and she should probably never even be allowed to pee on her own because she might get lost coming back. Ellie couldn't decide whether she was joking, scared to be out there by herself, or attempting to get Joel to accompany her for some nefarious reason -- and that last one would be dumb, because Ellie was her logical 'pee pee partner.'

The place they decided to stop for the night was a farmhouse set back off the highway... actually, not even visible from the highway. They had to follow a dirt road off of some street off the highway to get to it, and when Ellie caught a glimpse of it, she squealed. "That one! Look! It's perfect!" She was viewing it through the binoculars (because being their eyes was her assigned specialty), trying to determine the condition of the fence. "Yes! Perfect -- as long as the fence isn't broken somewhere..."

"Even if it ain't, I think we oughta put Spirit on a--"

"Nooooooo -- he'll be a good boy! Won't you, Spirit -- no jumping fences." The horse knew they were talking about him; he started galloping towards the house. "Haha, he's excited to see it!"

Joel reined up in front of the house's porch and turned to glance at Ellie. "You didn' notice I told him to do that? I jus' wanted to see if he'd actually run after goin' all day long."

"Of course he did! He loves going fast." Ellie slid off the horse and moved forward to rub his nose. They probably would need to secure the horses to some extent, just to be on the safe side. They'd debated the benefits of letting them graze overnight versus holing them up in houses or stables... and pretty much decided to play it by ear each night. They wouldn't always have the luxury of options. "Thank you for getting us this far, boy!"

Joel dismounted and touched her shoulder... for one crazy second, she thought he was going to take her in his arms, but of course he didn't -- Sophie was pulling up to the house now, after all. "Stay here, kiddo, I'll go check out the pasture back there."

"I'll go with you!"

"No, wait here with Sophie an' the horses. I'll be back real quick." His tone was no-nonsense.

Ellie thought he was passing up the perfect opportunity to sneak a few more kisses by taking her with him, but she told herself not to be greedy. If she got to kiss him just once a day, that was more than she'd originally hoped for. Once, but like, fifty times during that once!

Sophie dismounted and started undoing her bags. "I'll start taking these--"

"No, he said wait here," Ellie told her. "In case there's people in there. Which there's prob'ly not -- you can just never assume. But... actually, I can check that out myself... yeah. Just remember not to stand behind the horses."

"I know -- between the two of you telling me multiple times each, I know," Sophie groaned... but it was a good-natured groan.

Ellie was surprised to find that Sophie's presence wasn't as annoying as she'd expected -- other than the fact that it hindered her play time with Joel, but that was hardly her fault.
Must be because I'm so HAPPY! Ellie decided as she headed up the porch steps. They were Outside and thus, in greater danger, yet it was a relief to be free of people who wanted to hurt them in some way. So fucking ass-backwards! Actually, it was pretty much the same situation on either side of Jackson's walls now; everyone they encountered could possibly be an enemy. ...and that's only a SLIGHT exaggeration, really...

Ellie tugged on the front door of the house, and found it unlocked -- which was usually the case with the random houses they checked (any doors that were locked had a higher likelihood of having humans behind them... or they could just be busted and stuck). She proceeded with caution, just like Joel would have. The sun was setting, so although there was plenty of light outside, the house was dark enough inside that she opted to turn on her flashlight, which was clipped to her backpack strap. She pulled out the 9-millimeter and kept it ready as she crept through the rooms. She found a light switch and flicked it. Nothing happened, of course. Damn. Well, I had to try. The house had a rickety feel to it... but she could let Joel decide if it was going to cave in on them, as that was his area of expertise. It was just dark and creepy and kind of musty... but most importantly, it was unoccupied. The staircase creaked in a few places, even though she was treading softly. That was good -- they'd have warning if someone were to come up the stairs, then. Joel would like that. Ellie would swear that the man could hear even a little squeak like that in his sleep.

She'd only just started exploring the bedrooms when she heard it creaking again. Shit! -Oh, wait, DUH... "Joel?"

No answer. She hid behind the open bedroom door, gun still drawn. She heard the footsteps approaching... yes, it had to be him. "Joel?" she tried again, more tentatively.

A sigh. "Ellie, what did I tell you?" he said quietly from the hall. His flashlight beam danced around the room.

She popped her head out from behind the door, conjuring up her most disarming smile when the light found her. "To stay outside. But, see--"

"You check this whole floor? Or the attic?"


"Go back down there. Sophie started unloadin' so you can take the horses out back, walk 'em around a bit, calm 'em down." He was walking around now, checking the other rooms, and Ellie could tell by his demeanor that he'd already determined there was no one here. That he was only checking now because it would bother him if he didn't. Like he might actually ever be wrong, when he never was. Ellie scurried over to him and tried to give him a hug from behind.

"Jus' go. Please."

Ellie stared at him. "You're mad because I was being helpful?"

"Not mad. Go on."

But she could tell he was annoyed. She sighed and stomped off towards the stairs. Kept stomping all the way down, too, doubling the volume of the creaking. Wordlessly, she started helping Sophie with the gear. She could feel the woman watching her.

"Did he yell at you or something?" She sounded sympathetic.

Ellie snorted. "Not really. But I've already managed to piss him off. Couldn't even make it a whole day. Guess some things never change."

"Betcha he won't stay mad for long. Not at you. All you have to do is smile at him and he'll forget he's pissed."

"Ha. Already tried that. Well, if you wait here a sec, he'll come down and carry most of this shit inside. I'll find somewhere back there to stick the tack. Or... maybe I'll bring that in, too. I dunno." She just wanted to leave before Joel could come down and lecture her like a little kid in front of Sophie.

She started to lead the horses around back, and hadn't quite made it all the way around the house when she heard Sophie's silvery little laugh... she hadn't heard that all day long. Fuck! She stopped abruptly and strained her ears a little... and heard Sophie's voice: "This one's REALLY heavy... not for you, of course..."

No one was around to see it save for the horses, but Ellie had to roll her eyes. Even though she probably said shit like that to him herself... she just wasn't in the mood to be fair. He always seemed to like it... like when she made him squeeze her as hard as he could. I don't sound THAT lame, though... do I?! But, if he LIKES that shit... maybe I don't sound lame ENOUGH!

She resumed her trek out back, taking longer strides now. Probably still stomping a little. Fucking bitch! She must think she's won this round. Ellie stopped the horses by the back porch steps. She saw what looked like a stable not too far away, but she was pretty sure Joel would rather keep everything inside the house, where it was more easily guarded. "Fuck Joel," she muttered to Spirit as she started undoing his bridle. "I'll bring it in the house cuz it's what I think we should do. That stupid skank... pretending to be my friend but just sitting there waiting to get her claws into Joel." She tossed the bridle and halter up on the porch... or tried to; they landed on one of the steps. She started on the saddle. "Joel can come take all this inside too. I should throw it around all over the place and he can go around and pick it up. Except you know what? He'd tell me to do it. Like he can just fucking order me around. Like I'm his little slave." Or his DAUGHTER... it would be easier to just let him do his dad thing out here. No -- SOPHIE is the kid here. I'm his PARTNER. Ellie patted Spirit's neck. "Sorry, boy, I'm just being a bitch now. Come here, girl..."

She turned her attention to freeing Poppy from her tack. I shouldn't leave Sophie alone with him. Even if he yells at me and she thinks it's funny or whatever... then at least they wouldn't be alone. Fuckity fuck FUCK oh hey wait a minute, I need to leave the halters on to get them to the paddock... there I go, fucking things up again. She sighed and re-strapped Poppy's halter on. The saddle could go, though. Spirit was already noshing away and had no interest in lifting his head for her. "What, you hate me now too? Come on, Spirit... okay fine, whatever, stay there and just don't fucking run off. Poppy will come check out the fence with me, won't you, girl..."

Ellie led the cooperative horse out to the nearest paddock, then led her around the perimeter on the inside, surveying the fence. There was a trough in there that had some water... hopefully from a recent rain, not too stagnant. It seemed okay to Ellie. Did he want me to just let her wander around in here if the fence is good, or picket anyway? I don't think he said. Whichever one I do, he'll probably be mad because he didn't say and I should've just fucking KNOWN or something. He just told me to walk them around. Like I should walk them around in circles all night until he deems it an appropriate fucking time to come and tell me what to do next.

Then she started torturing herself with thoughts of what Joel and Sophie might be doing inside. Oh, she knew that Joel wouldn't do anything... but she didn't know what Sophie might try. And maybe the trying would be harmful to their relationship. Maybe she'll kiss him, and he won't stop her because he'll be frozen in shock -- cuz of course he's BLIND about her and won't realize what she's doing until it's too late -- and then he'll realize he LIKES kissing her, cuz maybe she's a better kisser than me...

That was a terrifying thought. Yet still she couldn't make herself go in there.

She decided to leave Poppy naked in the paddock. As she walked back toward Spirit, she noticed Joel coming out the back door of the house. Be cool and calm, Ellie...

He waited on the porch until she got closer before he spoke. He gestured at the horse. "How are you gonna get him to--"

"I don't know!" she snapped. She rubbed Spirit's neck a little. He still needed to walk; his golden coat was kind of sweaty. She retrieved the halter and rope, thankful that she hadn't tossed them in the direction of the porch steps before leading Poppy away. Joel couldn't even see her from where he was, with Spirit between them. "C'mon, boy," she cooed to the horse, "there's a lot better stuff to eat over there... prob'ly... and you're walking first so don't get too excited... just... please, Spirit?" The horse finally lifted his head and snorted at her. "Thank you," she said as she quickly slipped the halter back on, grateful for at least one small victory.


"I gotta go walk him still," she said coldly, hoping he noticed the abrupt change in her tone. He was lucky she didn't add a so fuck off to that. She could feel his eyes on her... not in any sort of fun, lustful way, though.

"Well... when you're done, I'm gonna make us a little fire over here an' cook up the frozen -- well, thawed, now--"

"Whatever!" she called back to him. She noticed he'd started to follow her.


"What? I'll come over in a bit."

He stopped following and just stood there. She walked all the way to the paddock and did a whole lap in there, and he was still standing there. Is he waiting for me, or what? She ignored him and started another lap. Now he'll come in here and follow me... catch up to me and try to talk...

But when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that he'd turned around. He was going up the steps. Suddenly, the panic beckoned, and it was stronger than her anger. "Joel! Wait!" Don't leave.

He turned back toward her, and she gave Spirit another pat. "Good boy. I'll come back and get this off you later, okay?" Joel was waiting in front of the steps. She trotted over there and stood in front of him. It was getting too dark now to make out his expression very well, especially since the differences were so subtle sometimes. "Are you mad?"

"Why are you so mad?" he asked... in that gentle way he spoke to her sometimes. A tone she liked to think was reserved for only her.

"I'm not." It wasn't even a lie, she realized. "I'm just being stupid."

"Okay then, why do you think you're bein' stupid?"

She shrugged. She really didn't want to discuss anything Sophie-related at the moment. Not even to slyly coax him into reassuring her. "I'm sorry. I should listen to you. I was just trying to help."

"I'm sorry too, kiddo." He spread his arms and she lunged forward to hug him in the 'safe' public method -- around the waist, not the neck. He held her tightly. "Sorry I was... cross. But... you know I like to check things out before I let you--"

"Before you let me. Right. But if we're partners now... we are, aren't we?"

"Whatever you wanna call it."

"No, I mean like... well, that too, but I mean... last time, you were the bodyguard. Now, both of us are."

He kissed the top of her head and released her. "Equal partnership? Is that what you're thinkin'?"


"No can do. I'm still your bodyguard too, you know."

"And I'm yours, so we're even!"

He laughed. "Ahhhhh... no."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm older. Bigger. Stronger."

"A chauvinist," she teased.

"According to you, yes. I prefer to think of it as being... a gentleman."

"A gentleman? ...okay soooo doesn't that mean ladies first?"

Joel smirked. "Not in this case. I know you can handle yourself... but if we're gonna get ambushed, I'd rather have 'em hit me than you."

"Pffft. Like that's gonna happen. And what if I'd rather have them hit me? Rather than you?"

"Tough shit. Older an' stronger."

"Whatever." She really didn't mind that Joel felt protective of her. Overprotective. She wasn't even sure why she got mad about it sometimes, because wasn't he just proving that he loved her when he acted like that? "Okay, so is our first fight of the trip out of the way then?"

"Uh... if that was a fight, then... yeah. Yeah, I s'pose it counts." He mussed her hair. "Come on. You know Sophie can't get a fire goin' by herself, an' I'm pretty damn hungry."

Ellie snickered. "Okay... oh wait, I have to get Spirit's..." She took Joel's hand and dragged him back to the paddock with her.

"I'm thinkin' we let 'em graze here tonight," he said while she tended to Spirit, "and... you'n'me, we sleep downstairs. There's a broken window in the back, so I'll hear the horses if they get agitated. Let Sophie sleep in one of the bedrooms. With the door shut."

It took her a moment to register that he was looking at her expectantly. Is he saying... She gasped. "You mean--"

"No, don' get all happy... we'll jus' be sleepin' together. Not... sleepin' together," he added with a chuckle.

"Like... together-together, though? That's awesome! That's amazing! Do you want me to start going to sleep in one of the bedrooms and then have a nightmare and get all hysterical so she thinks--"

"No! No, kiddo, you don' need to do that. But thank you." He took the harness from her, took hold of her hand on the other side of him, and started walking back toward the house. "I'm gonna tell her I'm the one who can't sleep without you nearby."

"So you're the needy one for a change?" Ellie asked delightedly.


"Yay! Nearby, as in... sharing a blanket?"

"Yep. Chalk it up to bein' paranoid about my baby girl's safety. If she don' like it, well... nothin' she can do about it now."

Ellie grinned. "I love you! Like, a lot!"

"Love you, too. But ssshhh, we're almost..." Sophie had just come out of the house, onto the back porch.

Ellie swung their hands happily. Take THAT, skank! she thought meanly. Then she felt a tiny nip of guilt, because poor Sophie didn't have what Ellie had... and she would never have it, no matter how cute her laugh was. Not with Joel, not with anyone else. Because NO ONE can have what I have! She just had to remind herself of her good fortune sometimes.

Knowing she was going to be sleeping next to Joel all night had solidified her good mood, and she could afford to be charitable. Before Sophie went upstairs to pick out a bedroom, maybe Ellie would even be kind enough to warn her about the skeletal corpse she'd found in that first room she'd checked. ...Nahhhh, that's no fun!


A/N: Note the first: chapter title is from the Eddie Vedder song (from "Into the Wild").

Note the second: Trying to come up with an accurate route for this trip that involves detours off the highways, and figuring out how such detours alter the time & distance along the way, plus respecting the geography of the area... it was all starting to hurt my brain. So! Don't-try-this-at-home Disclaimer: should any of you decide you want to travel between Jackson WY and Monterey CA via horseback, do not rely on this depiction as an accurate source of information, as many liberties will be taken ;)

Note the third: An awesome reader has created the very first fanart I've ever received! And she's graciously allowed me to show it off! It's for C4: "Taming the Green-Eyed Monster" so I've linked it in the notes section at the end of that chapter if you'd like to check it out.

~Continue to Chapter 29~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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