Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 30: "Half-Naked Cowboys" (30/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 30: "Half-Naked Cowboys" (30/47)
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: 7139
Rating (for fic as a whole): R


Within the hour, the six of them were sitting around a cozy little fire in the backyard, paired up two per bird. The red clapboard house was nestled on a little hill, a hidden treasure amongst the evergreens... maybe a mile off the highway, and Joel felt they were relatively safe there. He wasn't even too worried about the horses; the holes in the fence weren't significant, and he and Brian had barricaded the gate with some junky abandoned equipment for extra security (Joel reckoned he might even be able to sleep in a bedroom tonight). There wasn't an actual pasture as 'advertised,' but the backyard was fairly large, and all the animals were contentedly grazing it -- and enjoying the fresh well water. The humans were enjoying that, too. It tasted even better than Jackson's water.

Ellie was talkative... perhaps making up for lost time there, as she'd had to be silent for the majority of the day. The front door of the house was locked, and the odds of someone happening by and finding a way to climb into this remote yard in the middle of bumfucknowhere were comfortingly poor. Someone trying to reach them by busting through a window, or somehow plowing through that door, would generate enough noise that Joel would hear it even over the din of happy chatter -- and again, the odds of that happening were slim. Nevertheless, he kept the shotgun handy, as did Peter; everyone else had left their weapons inside. Presently, Ellie was asking Peter about his Old World job as a security alarm system technician. And, predictably, she turned to Joel and asked him if he'd ever had a house alarm, which he had not. Then, also predictably, she pondered possible applications of such technology in Jackson, generating a discussion on pros and cons.

As much as Ellie could surprise him at times, she did behave according to his expectations more often than not these days. Or maybe it was just that he was continuing to get to know her better and better.

Joel was mostly quiet, an observer of rather than a contributor to the social atmosphere. He noticed the way Sophie was acting with Brian as they ate their pheasant. Brushing her hand against his, nudging him with her shoulder, laughing at shit he said that wasn't all that funny. He noticed Ellie noticing this as well. He could see the judgment forming in her eyes. Forming? It was already there... -growing, more like. Brian seemed to be enjoying the extra attention. Joel thought he had a girlfriend in Jackson -- and Ellie's not-so-subtle derisive looks in their direction supported the notion -- but he didn't remember for sure. He certainly wasn't going to bring that up.

Ellie, however... "So how come Monica didn't come with you guys?" she asked Brian at the next break in conversation, sounding innocent as all hell to probably everyone but Joel. He kept his expression blank, but mentally, he had to smirk. It wasn't even a rude or inappropriate question that he could chide her for, either.

"She never comes on these trips," Brian replied, unfazed. "She hates being outdoors. Allergies. And... well, not just that... she doesn't like it in general. Bugs... weather... everything."

"How could anyone hate being outside?" Ellie mused. "Especially out in like... nature. Like this."

"She doesn't ride, either, does she, Bri?" asked Sophie.

Another internal smirk as Ellie quirked an eyebrow at the 'Bri.' Joel was too amused.

"Nope," Brian confirmed. "Gotta be outside to do that."

Sophie laughed, and Joel could see Ellie mentally rolling her eyes. ...At least she didn't ACTUALLY roll them?

"Well, she should've come anyway," said Ellie. "So you guys don't have to be apart so long."

Brian shrugged. "It's only a few days."

"Not long enough to forget her, then." Ellie said it lightly, jokingly... but Joel knew it was a jab at Sophie. Sophie knew it, too, and she tried to exchange some sort of knowing look with Joel, but Joel wasn't going to indulge any of this nonsense. Ellie noticed the look, and even though Joel had quickly trained his gaze on the bird carcass he was picking at, there was a chance she'd accuse him of taking Sophie's 'side' later anyway. And, even if he had the opportunity later, there was no guarantee he could vanquish her irritation simply by kissing her -- his usual method, and the most effective, because with Ellie, the physical reassurance always worked better than verbal. It wasn't that she didn't trust him, Joel thought... it was more like she didn't trust words. In general. ...Okay, and maybe a LITTLE bit that she doesn't completely trust me. Because I've lied to her face. But never about this. least not since we've been together, anyway.

"They like being apart sometimes," Lydia was saying. "Gives them more to talk about."

"And time to miss each other," Ellie added. Pointedly.

Joel cleared his throat. "Is there a kettle or somethin' we could use to heat up some water to wash with?" There was a chorus of yeses, and Lydia directed him to the laundry room/utility closet where some extra buckets were stored. "Ellie, why don' you come with me and grab a bucket?"

"Okay!" She hopped up immediately, and Joel hoped she realized he wasn't trying to get her alone for any kind of romance; he didn't intend to linger in the closet, and the well was in plain view. I probably shouldn't have started doing that in the first place. Too dangerous. All it takes is ONE TIME to get caught unawares. Guess love really does make you foolish... But now it would be difficult to stop. Damn near impossible to do it without either pissing her off or making her worry that there was some other reason behind it.

The laundry room was just off the kitchen, which had wall-to-wall (and nearly floor-to-ceiling) bay windows overlooking their campfire area. It was dark now, and they probably could've gotten away with a little affection, but he just... didn't feel it was the right time for that. Thankfully, she followed his lead and didn't try to get frisky in the house. He shone his flashlight around the small space and found a mop bucket, its unwanted wringer stashed in a corner.

"Oh, that one has wheels! Can I use that one?"

Joel couldn't imagine that going well. "No, the wheels ain't gonna work good over the ground an' you'd have to hunch over to pull it by the handle." Or she could attach the wringer and use a mop or broom or something to steer... still, the thing wasn't designed to traverse the backyard. He handed her the smaller plastic bucket and picked up the mop bucket himself. He wasn't sure the flimsy handle would support the weight of the water, but he could carry it by the base on the way back.

I should say something about before... But he waited until they'd passed their dinner companions, safely out of earshot. "Ellie..."

"What?" she said, defensive already. "I didn't do anything!"

"I know. It ain't that. But before, the way you started grillin' Brian... what was that all about?"

"Nothing! I wasn't rude or mean or... whatever. Did you see the way Sophie was looking at him? How much you wanna bet she tries to get him to fuck her tonight?"

Joel couldn't help being amused at her outrage. "So what if she does? How is it any of your business?"

"I'd feel bad for Monica."

"Didn' know Monica was a friend of yours."

"She's not. It's the... principle of the thing."

"Maybe Brian wouldn' sleep with Sophie anyhow. You ever consider that?"

"Oh, I bet he would. He's a guy. And she's--"

"Hey now," Joel mock protested. He didn't mind Ellie bashing his gender, as long as she acknowledged he was an exception -- in this instance, if nothing else. And, to be fair, he did make comments to her from time to time about the male proclivity for sexual thoughts.

"You don't count," she informed him in her "duh" tone.

"I am a man."

"I noticed," she snickered. "Okay, fine, so not all guys."

"All right then. That means you can't ever be jealous about Sophie actin' any particular way towards me."

"I'm not!"

"Good." He wasn't going to call her on the lie.

They approached the well. "Can I do it?" Ellie asked eagerly.

"Be my guest." Sometimes she reminded him of a young child, taking pleasure in even the most mundane chores... things that haven't yet lost their appeal and become tedious through massive repetition. Although Joel could probably count less than ten instances of ever drawing water from a well himself. He shone the light on it for her. "Jus' take the--"

"I know I know -- I watched Brian do it!"

He watched her work the pulley. "Right. So... Brian an' Sophie. You gotta let that go. You can't let other people's... behavior... bother you so much."

"What, be more like you? Don't care about anything?"

Pretty much. "When it's got nothin' to do with you? Yes. You don' like it when people stick their noses in our business, do ya?"

He couldn't really see her expression in the darkness, but he would've bet the farm she was giving him a withering look. "Joel, I was just making conversation. You know... that thing most humans do when they get together in a group?"

"Uh-huh. That's why you mentioned Monica when you did."

"Well, why shouldn't I? Fuck, you make it sound like I was getting all preachy or something. Did you see anyone getting upset? I didn't."

It had seemed so obvious to Joel that Ellie was indirectly voicing her disapproval, but... maybe it was only obvious to him. It was true that she hadn't actually said anything that had appeared to make anyone feel awkward. "As long as you ain't upset, then."

"Annoyed, maybe, not upset. You're more upset than I am. Or maybe you just wanted an excuse to lecture me."

Joel took the rope from her and pulled the well bucket over to empty it into his own. "That's it -- I'm honin' my dad skills," he said with a snort. "I'm rusty at this."

"Ha! Yeah right! You can't go one day without acting like a dad." She yanked the bucket back from him for another go. "Every time you tell me what to do. Which is at least once a day. Usually tons of times a day."

She does like to exaggerate. "Yeah? So... whenever you tell me what to do, you're tryin' to be my mom?"

"Nooooo!" she giggled. "No, that's just... um... I'm bossy."

Joel was tempted to switch the light off and hug her... from behind, so even if anyone decided to shine a light their way, it might just look like he was helping her with the bucket... but it wouldn't really, so he didn't dare. He also wanted to play with the strands of hair that had fallen loose from the underside of her higher-than-usual ponytail, framing her neck invitingly. Nope, gotta behave. Don't want to burn bridges in Jackson... and our time will come soon enough. "You're adorable," he told her softly. "That's what you are."

"And bossy."

"If you say so."

Later that night, when it was time to go to sleep, everyone paired off in the bedrooms in the same formation as they had with the pheasants. Peter and Lydia took the master, Brian and Sophie the one next to theirs, and Joel and Ellie were down the hall, with the buffer of an empty bedroom in between them and the next 'couple.' Ellie had actually wanted to take the third floor, which was basically one large room enclosed by windows... at least she doesn't have a hang-up about windows?... but Joel didn't want to be that far away from everyone. It was unlikely anyone would bother to break in, but not impossible, and he couldn't in good conscience leave Sophie so much closer to the line of fire. Brian or no Brian.

In spite of the promise of comfortable mattresses, they had opted for the bedless bedroom, since the other room only had one bed. Ellie had quite loudly pretended that a spider had crawled over her arm the second she laid down on it... a spider which, of course, no one could find when they searched the room... but there were cobwebs in the corners to support her claim. Even though they didn't see any spiders, Ellie couldn't possibly get any sleep in there, with that on her mind. Joel was starting to think maybe they should've stayed in Jackson so that Ellie could perform in the play and knock everyone's socks off. The bedless room had cobwebs, too, all of which indicated to Ellie that their 'hosts' had lied about there not being any spiders here, but Joel reckoned there were as many or more abandoned cobwebs as there were abandoned houses.

"Why aren't they sleeping in separate rooms?!" Ellie hissed as she helped Joel spread their blanket on the floor. She could only help one-handed, because the other hand was occupied with holding up the sweatpants -- pants lacking a drawstring, no less -- that she'd borrowed from Joel.

"Maybe they would've if you hadn' scared everyone away from the spider room."

"That was after they started getting cozy in the other room!" she protested. Now she was trying to tuck a wad of the pants into her underwear to get them to stay up unassisted.

"Didn' we jus' talk about this? It's none of your business." And, thanks to Ellie's theatrics, Sophie had made Brian practically turn her bed inside out, checking for creepy-crawlies. When Sophie did it, she was "acting like a total girl," but when Ellie did it -- well, that didn't count, because it was "faked for a good reason." Each of them had their own drama queen qualities, the way Joel saw it. "Anyhow, she's in the bed, he's on the floor. An' their door is open, jus' like ours."

"So? Maybe they'll just wait until everyone goes to sleep. ...Maybe we should do that," she added in a giggly whisper.

"No," Joel said firmly.

"Man, you're no fun."

"That's right. You remember that." But he pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.

If they were going to get up to any hanky-panky, tonight would be an ideal night for it, since they were clean and safe -- two things that likely wouldn't happen simultaneously very often on this trip (Ellie had declared that she didn't care about his cleanliness, but when Joel said he wasn't going to 'play' with her with dirty fingers and risk her getting a nasty, painful infection, she'd blanched a little at the thought). They had brought soap, so he could use some of their drinking water to wash his hands at any time, but... there would be plenty of time for that stuff later -- his new mantra (or, not so new, from Ellie's perspective, as she had never seen any reason to postpone doing ~normal things~ that any other couple might do). They had the comfort of being close to each other in sharing their sleeping space, and that was enough.

"We could at least close our door," Ellie grumbled. She continued before Joel could respond. "I know, I know -- you can't hear as good then. Because someone could possibly break in here in the middle of the night." She lowered her voice. "And the real reason -- you don't want anyone to think that we closed the door to... be naughty."

That wasn't the so-called real reason, but was it a bonus? Sure. Peter had actually taken him aside earlier and started to tell him they didn't believe what people were saying. Joel had cut him off before it got too awkward, simply thanking him and stating that there was no need to discuss it. Joel could determine who believed it, who didn't, and who was on the fence, all without having that conversation.

No one seemed to find it unusual that they were sharing a room... maybe because of the spider thing, or maybe they just wouldn't have thought that anyway. The rules of the Outside were different from the Inside. But not on EVERYTHING... He didn't announce that they were also sharing a 'bed;' if Sophie wanted to say as much to Brian, and Brian wanted to tell people back home, so be it. Sophie hadn't even seemed to have an opinion about it herself last night, which had surprised Joel a bit.

He settled into their makeshift bed and held his arms out for Ellie, who just stood there. The flashlight beside him wasn't shining on her face, so it was a bit difficult to see her expression, but he was pretty sure she was frowning. "C'mon, kiddo. What's wrong?"

"You shouldn't have to wear your jeans just cuz mine are still damp. It's not your fault that I--"

"I told you -- it's fine." They would both get used to sleeping in their jeans again before too long; Joel didn't anticipate finding very many places as sound as this one to pass the nights.

"No it's not. Here--" She let the pants drop to the floor.

"Your legs are gonna get cold." He lowered his arms. "Put 'em back on."

"You'll keep me warm," she cooed as she stepped out of the pants. She liked to say that, but Joel didn't do the job as well as clothing did.

"No, Ellie, these blankets are real flimsy."

"I said you'll keep me warm. Here!" She lifted the top blanket to lay down beside him, and handed him the pants.

They were relatively safe enough here that he could probably just wear his boxers (and unlike Ellie, he usually didn't get cold if they had a blanket), but he balked at the idea nonetheless. He kept his shirt on as well. Cozy or not, they were still Outside. And pragmatically sharing blankets with a teenage girl might not alarm anyone, but if he was nearly naked while doing so... Joel sat up and pulled the blanket off of both of them with a flourish. He started to put the pants on -- on her, not himself.

"Hey!" she protested with a giggle, kicking at him... making it as difficult as possible for him to dress her -- not unlike a baby resisting a diaper change. "This is backwards, you're supposed to be un--"

"Keep your voice down," he warned. Keep thinking of her as a baby... yes... It was a decent-sized house, and he could only hear a distant hum of voices down the hall, but he didn't know how much their voices might carry, especially Ellie's when she forgot to be quiet. He played with her a little, letting her squirm and kick a bit more before finally immobilizing her, dragging her butt down towards him so he could hold both legs together against his shoulder as his other hand worked the pants over her feet. He tried not to look at her groin area... tried not to notice the dark curls peeping through the small holes in her panties... why didn't I turn the flashlight off first? ...or shine it AWAY from the 'bed'... His will power alone wasn't enough; he supplemented it by imagining any one of their four traveling companions appearing in the doorway, wondering what in the everliving fuck he was doing to this little girl.

Without further resistance, she let him pull the pants up -- or down, from a directional standpoint -- letting one leg fall to each side of him, lifting her butt helpfully when he got that far. The way she was looking at him now, the playfulness gone... Shit... he eased down on top of her and her legs automatically curled around him, her arms around his neck... he kissed her softly. One little kiss. He was going to just roll off of her right away, but she pulled his mouth back to hers, parting her lips invitingly, and then somehow his tongue was in her mouth. He felt the familiar stirring down below as Ellie pressed her body against his, threatening to make him forget himself. Again. His hand slid inside her pants for just a second when he finally came to his senses. Damnit, Joel, ARE you an eighteen-year-old boy?

He rolled off of her with a soft groan. "Good night, baby girl," he said, rather loudly. He reached over and switched off the flashlight on the floor.

"Good night," she parroted, pulling the thin blanket over them and laying her head on his chest. She sighed contentedly. Like all she'd really wanted was to make him lose just a little bit of control. "I love you," she whispered.

"Love you, too. Even if you do drive me crazy." He began stroking her hair, completely un-ponytailed now, as he would continue to do until she fell asleep.

"Because I drive you crazy, you mean. Which is good cuz that's my favorite-- er, one of my favorite things to do, ever," she added with a quiet little giggle.

"Get some sleep now." He strained his ears to try to determine if anyone might have heard any of their... playing. But Peter and Lydia's door was closed, and Sophie's laughter might not have been all that loud, but it was louder than any little sounds he and Ellie may have made. Joel didn't give two shits what she and Brian did or didn't do over there. Maybe he should, on 'principle' like Ellie had said, but he didn't know the guy well, and he didn't know Monica at all, and he just plain didn't care. The main thing he hoped would come from the whole thing was for Ellie to realize that Sophie liked to flirt -- that it wasn't as if any flirtatious behavior on her part stemmed from genuine interest in Joel personally.

"I don't think I'm tired enough yet," Ellie sighed.

"Mm. Too bad, 'cause I sure am."

She ignored that. "Do you think Sophie's sleeping naked?"

"...No. I don't."

"Oh -- good -- um, yeah, don't think about that. Do you think Brian is?"


"What about half naked? Either of them."

"No, I'm sure they both have plenty of clothes on. What's it to you?"

"Nothing. So... if Sophie just decided that, whoops! she was gonna roll off the bed... And Brian's just like... right there..."

"Ellie, if you wanna fantasize about them havin' sex, would you jus'--"

"I don't!" she gasped indignantly.

"Well then why--"

"Never mind, I'll shut up now! Keep doing my hair. Please."

He obliged -- he hadn't even realized he'd stopped -- and she was quiet for maybe two minutes.

"Joel, I was thinking..."

Joel sighed. "Dare I ask?"

"Shut up. So... like... you know how I was worried about... you know."

"You worry about a lot of shit -- you gotta be more specific."

"Haha," she said sarcastically. "About us... when we... that maybe it wouldn't... go in."

Oh. THAT. "I remember. I don' think now is the right--"

"No but I had an awesome idea! I know how to fix that."

"You do, huh?" This oughta be good...

"Yeah! So, when we're going to do that..." She was already speaking very softly, but now she started to whisper. "You can put it in before."

"...before what?"

"Before... when it's still, like... floppy."

"When it's... what? Like halfway?" He was whispering now, too. It helped him hide his amusement.

"Before that, even. Then I'll kiss you and... push, like... so you can just get bigger when you're already in there. 'Cause I know that... you know. The hole is big enough, on the inside. It's just the getting-it-in part. The opening's too small. But not for fingers, so if you were just a little smaller... see? Isn't it brilliant?"

'Brilliant' was not the word that came to mind. Adorable as fuck, if he could condense that into one word, was more... well, fitting. He wouldn't share that pun with Ellie just now, though. She's serious, too! Don't laugh, Joel, DON'T FUCKING LAUGH... "Uh... how do you propose I get it in there if it ain't hard?"

"Duh, that's the whole point! Just put it in soft and... let it grow."

" didn' answer my question."

"Yes I did! What do you mean? You just... like you do with your fingers. But with your dick," she added with a little whisper-giggle. "You can use your hands to push it in if you have to."

"I see." Joel had to congratulate himself for not laughing. I ain't out of the woods yet, though... oh, hell, I can't resist-- "Hmm. One problem with that."

"What? No, it's perfect! What problem?"

It's a good thing she can't see my face... "What if... it jus' keeps growin' an' growin'... an' it gets sooo big it gets stuck up there so bad that I can't even move?" He tried to inject some genuine-sounding concern into his whispers, although he was sure she'd just laugh it off...

"What do you mean, gets stuck up there ? You said-- you said it would fit!"

She ain't laughing -- ha! "The normal way, sure. If it gets too big, it jus' won' go in -- like you said. Now, I don' see that happenin', but you seemed pretty convinced, an' you're the expert, so maybe I'm wrong. If it's already in there, an' gets too big..." He stopped himself from adding a little joke about possibly rupturing something... that would be going too far, given that she already had some real fears here. She must know I'm messing with her now... I called her an expert...

Ellie was undeterred. "Well, then... either you finish, or it goes away like magic, like it does after our nature breaks. And then it'll slide right back out. Right? Yeah. Yeah, see, not a problem."

He almost laughed that time, but disguised it as a deep breath that he was exhaling. "All right. So... one problem with that."

"Joel! Why can't you just admit this is genius?"

"Well, Miss Genius, did you forget that I can't actually finish on the inside?"

"Of course you-- ohhhhhhh! Oh, fuck, I forgot about that. So-- well, that prob'ly won't happen, right? You'll prob'ly be able to pull out still."

"Prob'ly? You wanna risk that?"

"I really don't think that would be a problem, so yeah."

"So, it don' have to be soft when I pull out. Goin' out don' worry you none."

"Nope! Cuz you're already-- that's fine. So what do you think? Am I a good problem-solver or what?"

And now Joel found he didn't want to burst her bubble. "I think... you're cute."

"Cute?! Noooooo... I'm smart!"

"And smart. Yes. We'll try it your way if that'll make you feel better, baby girl." If it makes you stop worrying about this, you can just go right on believing it 'til it's time. He gave her a big squeeze and kissed her forehead. "Let's go to sleep now, all right?" He didn't hear any sounds from down the hall anymore, and he wanted to take advantage of the chance to get some quality shut-eye tonight. He was still in the process of adjusting his body and mind to the sleep-deprivation of being on the road.

"Okay okay. Good night again!"

"G'night, baby girl."

"I love you. A lot."

"Love you, too."

"And you're my favorite person ever."


"Yeah okay I'm done. 'Night!"

Not that he didn't love it when Ellie was sweet... but all he wanted to do was drift off, snuggled up tight with his baby girl.

Day 3

Joel, Ellie, and Sophie were the first to set out the next day, after the six of them shared a pleasant, albeit a bit subdued, oatmeal breakfast. Ellie remarked to Joel that Brian and Sophie seemed to be conspiring about something, as she noticed them 'having secret conversations' on two occasions, and once, Brian handed her something that she hurriedly put in her backpack. Unfortunately, Ellie couldn't make out what it was. Joel accused her of either being paranoid or having an overactive imagination. At least Ellie didn't confront Sophie about it. Joel hoped that was because she'd decided to heed his continued plea for 'no drama,' but she may have simply just not felt like it.

They found out what the mystery was about soon enough -- when they broke for lunch. Or what passed for lunch. At least they could supplement the rations with fresh fruit now. He and Ellie sat on the nice flat rock Ellie had picked out and started dividing up the food while Sophie dawdled, rooting through her pack for something. "Sophie! Come on!" he called to her.

She had an impish smile on her face as she approached them with both hands behind her back. "Um... should we be scared?" Ellie joked.

"I have a surprise for you guys!" she declared, pulling one hand out from behind her back. "Ta-da!"

She was holding a plastic jar of something. Joel squinted at it. "P... B?" he tried to make out the faded label.

"PB2!" she said cheerfully. "Brian gave it to me. He said Monica can get him another one when he gets home and he figured we could use it more than him. It's only about half full, but it should last us a while!"

Joel could tell that Ellie had no idea what it was either. "What do we do with it?" he asked.

"Mix it with water, of course." Sophie gave him an incredulous look. "Have you never had it before? Either of you?!"

"I've never even heard of it," said Ellie. "What the fuck is it?"

"Oh! You guys are gonna love it!" She sat on the rock beside Ellie (it didn't escape Joel's notice that whenever Ellie chose their picnic spot, she made it virtually impossible for Sophie and Joel to sit next to each other) with the little canister, a plastic bowl-like container, her thermos, and her spoon. "Watch this. See, you take some of the powder... put just a little bit of water... the thing says how much but I just kinda guesstimate -- this label's all warped anyways -- and you mix it up... eep, too much water, I'm gonna add a little more powder... see how it makes this nice paste? Gotta make enough for all three of us..."

Ellie watched her with undisguised skepticism. "Maybe you should see if we like it first. It looks like diarrhea or something."

"That's a wonderful observation to make when we're about to eat," Joel teased her. He looked at Sophie. "It's all right, she'll eat it. She eats everythin'."

"That doesn't mean I like everything," Ellie said, pouting a little.

Joel wished he could kiss her, the way he usually did when she pouted like that. "That's right. She jus' believes in not wastin' food."

"I'm not sure that shit qualifies as food, though." Ellie scrunched up her face dubiously.

"Gimme your bread," Sophie ordered before snatching it from Ellie herself. She started smearing the paste on the slice of bread as best she could with the back of the spoon. "Trust me. I'm going to be your BFF after this. You're going to love it, Ellie, seriously. If you don't, I'll trade my boring old plain slice for yours, 'kay?"

When she handed it to Ellie and did the 'gimme' fingers for Joel's, he handed over his slice without protest. Ellie examined hers warily, looking to Joel for... something. She looked so cute that now he wanted to lean over and kiss her nose. Instead, he smiled encouragingly. "Go on, try it. I think I know what it is now, actually."

She took a nibble, chewed it thoughtfully, and quickly took a larger bite. Joel could tell she liked it before she even uttered, "Mmmm!"

Joel leaned over and stole a bite of her bread. It was indeed what he'd suspected. "It's fake peanut butter, yeah?"

"Fake?" Sophie answered. "Powdered. I guess fake, yeah, if you're thinking about what we ate as kids. I swear this tastes the same!"

"It ain't the same," said Joel, "but after so many years, I reckon it might seem that way."

"I had this when I was a kid!" Ellie exclaimed. "I just had no idea it was a powder... thing. And kind of forgot all about it."

"Good stuff, huh?" Sophie handed Joel's slice back to him and started fixing her own. "The difference is mostly the texture. It's not as thick. Or creamy. But it also doesn't stick to the roof of your mouth as bad."

It wasn't as sweet, either, and Joel thought it had an odd, chemical-like taste. He couldn't help wondering how safe it was for consumption, even though Brian and company had been eating it. Small doses probably wouldn't hurt. "Is this twenty years old, or what?"

"No, Jackson was getting it new. Or like... not brand new, but maybe only four or five years old?"

It was better than eating plain bread, he supposed, but only just. Joel had taken maybe three bites when he noticed that Ellie had made quick work of her slice and was now staring down his bread with the pitifully sad eyes of a dog begging for scraps. "Joel, you do owe me a bite, you know..."

"You ate that too fast," he chided her, chewing with exaggeratedly slow movements now.

"I'll trade you my jerky?" she pleaded.

Joel handed her the coveted slice of bread. "You can have it for free. But eat slower. The horses are restin'... we ain't in a huge rush."

"You want another piece?" Sophie offered.

"No," Joel answered, even though it was Ellie she was asking. "Let's ration that with everythin' else, all right? And... thank you. She obviously likes it."

"Thnk yy!" Ellie echoed with her mouth full.

* * * * * * *

Dinnertime wasn't going to be nearly as fun. They'd been riding for hours (save the couple minutes they'd stopped to don their rain ponchos, because Joel hadn't liked the look of the sky), and the rain had been coming down relentlessly for at least the past hour or two. Not always pouring, but it was steady, never slowing even to a drizzle. He kept thinking, it HAS to let up soon... and then it would keep on not letting up. They had to go even slower than usual due to the mud; they'd be pretty much screwed if one of the horses hurt themselves. Thankfully, the rain was not accompanied by thunder and lightning, which would undoubtedly spook them.

Joel felt cold -- and if he felt cold, Ellie must be freezing. As a general rule, he didn't like to stop to wait out a little rain storm, but this was ridiculous enough that now he told the girls to keep an eye out for shelter. Any sort of building. It was another twenty or thirty minutes of plodding before they came across anything.

"That looks -- like a b-barn -- over there!" Ellie exclaimed loud enough for both him and Sophie to hear over the rain, her teeth chattering.

There was a farmhouse as well, but the barn was closer and would be nicer for the horses. "Looks like! Let's go!" Joel yelled back.

The horses picked up the pace unprompted as they headed towards the structure. Joel swung off of Spirit and wrenched the doors open -- he'd wanted to take the first look inside, but the horses were already headed in. It was rather dark in there, as all of the windows were boarded up save for the large transom window -- and the natural light filtering through that was gray and dreary. He switched on his flashlight and quickly confirmed they were alone.

Alone with some ramshackle equipment, crates and sacks of God-knows-what, and bales of hay -- or was it straw? -- which the horses quickly set to work on. Joel closed the doors snugly and the three of them stripped off their ponchos and gear. The barn seemed... well, clean. It didn't have a strong farm-y smell to it, but it didn't reek of abandonment, either. Joel felt uneasy... but it was probably as decent a place as any to wait out the storm. The girls probably won't want to leave, as we're getting into late afternoon/early evening now... tough shit. We ain't spending the night here. "How 'bout we jus' sit over there an' warm up for a while," Joel suggested, pointing to some bales of straw in one corner, opposite the row of stalls, a healthy distance back from the door. He kept a holster on, just in case.

Ellie untied the pouch with the thickest of the blankets in it and hurried over to join him. She snuggled up to Joel's side and draped the blanket over them both.

Sophie took off her hat, wrung out her hair (she hadn't bothered braiding it today), then followed Ellie tentatively. "I'll just, um..."

"You too," Ellie beckoned her over, which surprised Joel a little... but then, she did have a big heart. And he reckoned the PB2 had scored Sophie a few points with her.

Sophie gratefully joined them -- and she sat next to Ellie, when she could just as easily have sat next to Joel this time. Ellie's got her trained real good already, Joel thought with amusement.

"S-squeeze in closer," Ellie told her as she tried to get the blanket across all three of them. As soon as Sophie's hand touched her, Ellie squealed, "Omigod you're f-freezing!"

Sophie chuckled. "Kinda, yeah. Sorry?"

"Joel's like a furnace," Ellie told her. "You should go sit on his other side. Seriously -- I'm warmer already and it's only been ten seconds."

Joel's jaw nearly dropped at that one. Exactly how much DOES she like that pretend peanut butter, anyway?

"What?" Ellie said innocently when she saw his expression. "And if I stick my legs up here on yours... and we put the blanket like this... wait, Joel, take this off, it's not very comfortable!"

Joel obligingly deposited the rest of his gear at his feet and pulled Ellie snug to his side. He gingerly put his arm around Sophie, who did seem cold to him, although not as cold as Ellie. He let Sophie lean into him, keeping his arm loosely draped and not doing anything that could be misconstrued as... well, snuggling. Just because it was Ellie's idea didn't mean she wouldn't find some way to give him shit for something nitpicky later. The blanket was big enough for all three of them, with Ellie nearly in his lap. He rested his head on top of hers.

With the flashlight off, their eyes had to adjust to the dark hues of their surroundings. Everyone was quiet for a few moments.

"Should we take a nap?" Sophie whispered.

"Can I just ask you something?" Ellie answered.

Here we go... but maybe it would be something innocuous...

"Me? Sure!" Sophie chirped.

"Um, so like... with Brian..."

"Ellie," Joel interrupted, "I really don' think--"

"No, let her ask," said Sophie. "It's okay. What're you thinking, sweetie?"

"Welllllll... I thought him and Monica were... you know. A thing?"

"They are. Nothing happened last night. ...Has that been bothering you this whole time?"

"No," Ellie answered quickly (although Joel had to wonder if she'd been stewing about it all day, too).

"They've been together a while," Sophie continued. "And I think Brian might be... like... a little bored with her? But I wasn't trying to... I'm not as... bad... as you think. Anyway, he was on the floor and I was on the bed so it was... just... so nothing. Like you and Joel sleeping together. Except not even, 'cause we weren't anywhere near each other. It was fun in like a... slumber party sort of way?"

"Ellie's never had a slumber party," said Joel. "It's when a bunch of girls--"

"I know what they are," Ellie said exasperatedly.

"From where?" he wondered aloud.

"I dunno... around? Movies? Books? And I could've had one, for all you know."

"You said you didn' really have parties, period. An' not a lot of friends," Joel pointed out, not unkindly.

"Aww -- but she's got tons now," Sophie put in. "You'n'me are BFFs now, right, Ellie?"

Suuuuuure you are...

"...for now, fine. For the trip. But not for reals. You can be my... BFFN. Yeah! Yeah, that's perfect. Best Friend For Now," she spelled out for them. "Annie's still my BFF."

"And Joel, of course," Sophie added.

"Joel? Ha!" Ellie snickered. "No, Joel is my... he's my Joel. Which, I have to say, is a step up from BFF, cuz no one else can be it. But whatever, don't change the subject! So, nothing happened... he didn't try to do anything?"

"Oh God no. He's a good boy."

"...meaning... if he had, you would have...?"

Joel sighed. "Ellie, that's really none--"

But Sophie laughed. "It's okay! Um... I'd like to say that no, I wouldn't have? But he's kind of hot, I guess, and... I don't know."

"Yeah, you would have."

"Ellie!" Joel chided her again, even though Sophie didn't seem to be taking any offense.

"She's probably right, though," said Sophie, unabashed. "I'm kind of a sucker for... I mean, he's not even my type, but..."

"What's your type?" Ellie asked.

Of course she did.

"Wellllllll..." Sophie didn't seem to have a stock answer ready for that.

Please don't say anything that sounds like ME, Joel pleaded with her silently. She certainly seemed to want to stay on Ellie's good side, so maybe she was weighing her words to that end.

"You saw the cover of the book I packed, right? That's my type," she finally answered. Joel hadn't seen it, so he wasn't sure if the answer was good or bad on the Ellie scale.

Ellie snorted. "Half-naked cowboys? So that explains--"

"Ladies, can you discuss this shit some other time?" Joel interjected again. "I'd rather not--"

Just then, the barn doors burst open. Joel's immediate assumption was that he hadn't closed them securely enough and the storm had flung them back, but that notion died a second later.

Silhouetted in the doorway was the figure of a man... a man who very much appeared to be aiming a rifle in their direction.

~Continue to Chapter 31~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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