Lumy (luminations) wrote,
Lumy
luminations

"Uncertainty" Chapter 31: "Dead or Alive" (31/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 31: "Dead or Alive" (31/47)
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: 8229
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

~


The roar of the rain and wind had prevented them from hearing the man approach (and their conversation hadn't helped matters, either). Even Joel with his bat-like hearing hadn't heard him. Fuck! Why did I make him take off his guns? Ellie cursed herself. But his holster's on the ground right there by his feet... maybe I can just...

"Where you at, you goddamned shit stains?!" came the voice from the door. An angry-old-man type of voice.

Oh! He can't even see us yet! Ellie started to slide down to the ground, under the cover of the blanket. At first, Joel's fingers tightened their grip on her shoulder, but then they loosened; either he realized what she was trying to do, or he didn't mind her being hidden under the blanket.

"Freeze! Freeze or I'll start shootin'! Goddamned crooks... you got two horses already, I saw you bring 'em in here... I said freeze!" He was still kind of far away from them...

Joel nudged her with his leg. "Easy... we don' mean no harm, sir," she heard him say in that yes ma'am, placating tone he reserved for shmoozing. "Jus' tryin' to get outta the storm."

Ellie couldn't see under the blanket -- even when her eyes adjusted, she might not be able to see -- but she'd grabbed hold of one of the guns. She tried to cock it quietly, hoping the man's hearing wasn't good enough to--

"Who's under there?" the angry voice bellowed. "Show yourselves -- hands up! All of ya!"

Ellie was reluctant to let go of the gun. So, he can see there's a blanket... can he see us now? Maybe if I turn the light on and blind him... except Joel didn't drop it down here -- fuck! It's probably on that straw thing behind him.

Then she heard Sophie's trembling voice. "Please... you're scaring our little girl..."

OUR LITTLE GIRL?!?! Ellie felt like turning the gun on Sophie -- for one mad split-second. Except it was so obvious what the woman was trying to do, and maybe it would work...

"Move that blanket!" the guy barked at them.

She felt the blanket slowly falling away from her, by Joel's hand. Should I hide the gun... or just shoot him now?

"Ellie, don't," Joel said softly. Once more, it seemed like he'd just read her mind. He raised his voice. "He don' really want to hurt us... you live here, sir?"

"Not in this here barn, no. I live in the house. But this is my property, and you're trespassin'."

"My apologies." Joel could actually be quite charming when he wanted to be; Ellie just couldn't understand why he didn't want her to shoot the cocksucker while she had the chance. "We thought it was deserted. We'd been ridin' a long time in this rain..."

"Hands up, little girl! Off of that weapon!" The dude was pointing the gun at her now.

Ellie glanced up at Joel. "It's okay," he said to her. She laid the gun -- El Diablo, she could see now -- in her lap, and slowly lifted her hands.

And the man did lower his gun as soon as she did that... apparently he could see better now in the eerie, blueish natural light. He seemed to be distracted by the two horses, who weren't paying him much mind at all. "These are some fine horses. I had me a horse once, too. Before you stole it."

"We didn't steal it!" Ellie protested.

"Your kind," the guy amended. "Hobos. Bums."

"Survivors, you mean," Ellie muttered. "Fucking asshole."

She was sure he hadn't heard that -- not that she would've cared if he had -- as the door was still open and the rain was sort of loud over there... and he wasn't all that close to them.

The man was now inspecting their weapons. "What is... holy shit, is that a flamethrower? I haven't seen one o' them since-- keep your hands up!" The rifle was pointed in their direction again, and once more, Ellie set the gun down within easy reach before lifting her arms. She didn't see how Joel could know for sure that the old man wouldn't shoot them; to Ellie, a dude angrily pointing a gun in their faces meant there was a good possibility they'd get shot. And she was the only one of the three of them that had the means to do anything about it.

"Look," Joel said calmly, "We don' want any trouble. We're jus' tryin' to... I'm tryin' to get my family out west. Find my brother. That's all. I was lookin' for shelter, didn' realize this place was occupied... if it's all the same to you, we'll be outta your hair and on our way now."

And again the man lowered his gun. "That thing work?"

"Uh..."

"The flamethrower."

"Yep."

"You use it against Infected?"

"Sure do."

"Lights 'em up like vavoom!, does it?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

Jesus, Joel, why don't you just tell the guy to go ahead and try it out on us?! "You can't have it," Ellie interjected, too annoyed to hold her tongue. "It's ours."

The guy laughed, which did nothing to lessen her irritation. "How old are you, missy?"

"She's thirteen," Joel said before Ellie could reply.

"Thirteen," the guy said thoughtfully. "That's a helluva age."

"She's kind of a handful," Sophie put in... like she was agreeing with the guy, even though that wasn't exactly what he'd said. "You got any kids?"

"I did. I used to, yeah. Haven't seen 'em in twenty years. The wife, neither."

Maybe if you weren't such a DICK, Ellie thought sourly. She fingered the trigger of El Diablo, still in her lap...

"That's a rough deal," Joel was saying. "I'm sorry."

"Bah. They were... -you know, you shouldn't let her play with guns. You're lucky she hasn't killed you. Girlie, you better hand that on up to your dad."

'Play with guns' -- like she was a fucking four-year-old or something. She thought with grim satisfaction that the guy was hardly safer with the gun in Joel's hands, and she had to bite back a smirk as she handed the gun up to Joel, who scooted forward a bit as he took it -- his legs were like walls now, on either side of her. Ellie suddenly grew hopeful that his whole shmoozing routine was just a means of buttering the guy up before blowing his brains out. I won't even be annoyed that he didn't trust me to do it! Or maybe... is he getting ready to spring over me? No way does he actually TRUST this dickhead...

She didn't see what Joel did with the gun, but the old man wasn't dead yet, so Joel must actually not want to kill him.

"I could use a horse more than a flamethrower," the guy mused.

"What?!" Ellie shrieked. "No way. You know, you're lucky that--"

"Shush -- it's all right," Joel talked over her. "Sir, I'd like to help you out, but we can't ride three on one, 'specially with all our gear. We'd best just be--"

"Oh, hell, I can't let you leave."

What the FUCK! "Dude, even if you shoot us--"

"I'm not gonna shoot ya. But it's pourin' out there, an' the three of you must be wet as drowned rats already." They were a bit wetter than Ellie would have expected, considering they had the help of the rain ponchos, but apparently those worked better in lighter rains with less wind -- and when not on horseback. Still, she and Joel had been far wetter than this in the past. The old man was nodding to himself as he spoke. "You can dry out in here and go when... actually, might be better if you spent the night. It's fixin' to get dark soon, and you won't find another house 'round here for miles."

Ellie craned her neck and looked up at Joel with a what-the-fuck-is-this-guy's-deal expression. She knew it wasn't close to sundown yet, either, even if the storm made it kind of hard to tell.

"I... think we'd best get goin'," Joel said.

"Stay! Stay and I'll make you some nice hot tea."

First he wants to shoot us, now he wants to serve us refreshments?! She'd had tea before, though, and it wasn't bad. Best of all, it was warm. But she wasn't sure she wanted to accept anything from this asshole.

"Joel, we could stay a little while, right?" asked Sophie. "Ellie? You wanna stay?"

Guess she's not scared anymore. "Well, Mom," Ellie said brattily, "which do you think is worse: dying from a gunshot, or from poisoned tea?"

"Ha! Ellie, is it?" The guy rested his rifle on the ground and leaned on it. "It's a shame you're so cynical at thirteen. But that's good... that's good. Thinkin' that way will keep you alive. You can't trust anyone in this world. No one but yourself."

"And us," Sophie added. The good little mother.

"Maybe," the old man said, "but that ain't always true neither. Not when... well, you just remember how lucky you are, missy, to have two parents."

I have NO parents! she felt like screaming. But all the same, she knew she was lucky to have Joel. She smiled at the man with fake sweetness. "I know. My dad would kill anyone who tried to hurt me," she said pointedly.

"Yep... lucky. You kids just wait here and I'll come bring you the tea."

Joel didn't shoot the guy when he turned away, either. This is so fucking ass-backwards! Ellie was supposed to be the one pleading some hapless person's case with a very mistrustful Joel. I'm going to have to lecture him about how trusting people can get you in trouble! "Did he just call you a kid?" Ellie was amused by that, at least. She clambered back up next to Joel.

"Dude's prob'ly at least seventy years old, maybe eighty," Joel guessed. "Everyone's a kid to him."

"Doesn't seem like he wants to kill us, at least," said Sophie.

"I guess a hot drink would be nice," Ellie admitted, then glared at Joel. "Why did you say I was thirteen?"

He smirked. "You can pass for thirteen. Easy."

She slugged his arm. "But why did you lie?"

"Ow." He rubbed his arm as if it had actually hurt; Ellie loved it when he did that, and he knew it. "I don' know... it jus' slipped out that way... guess I thought he might have more sympathy for us if you're younger. More innocent."

Ellie grinned. "So you admit that at the very old age of fifteen, I'm not innocent!"

"I will admit no such thing," he replied with a little chuckle.

"Either way, I'm old enough to be your mother," Sophie lamented. "That makes me feel old."

"You are old," Ellie agreed, just to be irksome. Because Sophie can totally be old even though Joel isn't. Sure! "You're... what, like... thirty?"

"I wish! Forty."

"What? No way."

"Way."

"Huh." Ellie didn't like that Sophie was even closer to Joel's age than she'd thought. Forty and forty-nine might as well be the same age, in her mind. It almost made her glad Joel would be fifty soon... almost. He said that old guy is like twenty or thirty years older than him, and he's still with it enough to yell and wave guns at people and threaten them, she comforted herself, just like she'd done with Peter and Lydia. "Do you think that guy's lonely? Living by himself... no one else around..."

"I bet he is," Joel agreed. He put his arm around her again. "Did you notice his hand was a little shaky? Even if he'd shot at us, I ain't sure he would've hit anyone."

"So if you and him are BFFs now, why don't you wanna stay here for the night?" Ellie asked.

"He didn't say that," said Sophie.

"He pretty much did." Ellie resisted the urge to add "I just know him better than you." "He was barely okay with staying for tea. But it's not like we're gonna get far in this muck..."

"I don' know... the guy seems harmless enough... my gut tells me he ain't a bad person. But he could still be crazy for all I know. I don' think I'd get much sleep."

At least he doesn't trust his gut completely! "He is crazy. If he saw us come in here, he saw all our weapons, and he still came barging in, all..."

"When you're pissed off enough, you jus' don't care," Joel explained.

And I'm sure Joel knows allllll about that. "We could take turns keeping watch, if you want?" she suggested.

"Right. Like I'm gonna wake you up a few hours later so I can go to sleep."

"Well, yeah, that's kind of how it works. You could totally do that."

"I can keep watch, too," Sophie offered.

Ellie snorted. "Mom, haven't you figured out yet that Joel's a chauvinist? He can't let a couple of girls watch over his sleeping ass. It's against his weird code."

Joel chuckled. "Jus' lookin' out for the 'gentler sex,' as they say."

"Gentle?" Ellie scoffed. "I'll show you gentle!" She hit his arm again, a little harder, and fake-punched his chest a couple times... but then he grabbed her, and Ellie could tell he was about to tickle her senseless. "NO NO NO DON'T OKAY YOU WIN STOOOPPPPP!"

He loosened his grip and she rolled away from him back onto the ground, panting and laughing. Sophie was laughing, too... even Joel was laughing a little. "Shit -- I didn' even touch you!"

"I'm not in the mood to pee my pants!" she cried. "They're fucking wet enough already. They've been wet like practically this whole trip so far." She was lying flat on her back... having a little fantasy about what might happen now if she and Joel were alone...

But by the time the old man returned, she was huddled up with Joel and Sophie again, the blanket draped over all three of them. She noticed Joel had now tucked El Diablo into the back of his jeans. He could've completely geared up while the guy was gone, but he didn't even put on so much as a holster -- so as not to appear the least bit threatening, Ellie assumed. She was just glad he wasn't lowering his defenses completely. And she was a little annoyed with herself for not even thinking about retrieving her own holster in that window of time before the man returned.

The room had turned a golden yellow; the guy had brought this candle/lantern-type thing to hang from the wall. She got a good look at him for the first time: he was definitely much older than Joel, with completely white hair (and much less of it), lots more wrinkles, and some ugly brown blotches on his face, neck, and hands -- maybe on the rest of him too, but everything else was covered up. The skin of his neck was all saggy. His eyes looked sort of young, though. Bright and lively. Light in color, maybe blue. He had his rifle slung over his shoulder. Ellie figured he didn't 100% trust them just like Joel didn't trust him... but if Joel decided to shoot him, the old man didn't stand a chance of pulling that rifle up and aiming it in time.

"Didn't introduce myself proper before. I'm Ron." He approached them with a tray containing a thermos and a towel which covered... cups, presumably, to protect them from rainwater in transit. He hadn’t bothered to protect himself; his clothes looked more drenched than their own, and he didn’t even bother wiping away the rivulets running down his face.

Ron must have already brewed the tea, because he hadn't brought any of those little packet thingies that go in the cups. Sophie helped him set the tray down between her and Joel, then pulled the towel off to reveal four mismatched mugs, all turned upside down... which Ellie found rather sweet, for some reason. Ron reached for the thermos, but Sophie beat him to it. "Here, I can do that... I'm Sophie, this is Joel, and you got Ellie's name already."

Ron nodded at them, then looked at Ellie. "Miss Ellie, you'll notice we're all drinkin' outta the same whatzit, and if you let me go first, I'll prove to you I didn't put no poison in it."

She had to smile a little at that. "Dude, I believe you -- I'll even go first."

"I always go first," Joel reminded her.

She rolled her eyes. "Whatever, Dad." The Mom-and-Dad thing that had annoyed her at first actually amused her now. She could play her role in the Happy Little Family. As long as Sophie didn't try to kiss Joel or something...

"You like sugar?" Ron asked, prattling on before anyone could answer. "Got plenty of it. I don't hardly use it myself but I brought some out... I used to like lemon in mine, but no lemons... no honey... no milk... I had milk, back when I had cows, but they got stolen long before the horse did. The horse -- that was just, what... two, three weeks ago."

His accent sounded kind of like Joel's, but not really... more like Max's. Ellie thought he sounded nervous as well. Maybe he noticed the gun in Joel's pants. Ha! She leaned over Joel's lap and chose a mug that read "Keep Calm and Drink Coffee," which seemed an odd thing to put on a mug, but people in olden times were weird. She balanced herself with a hand on his leg, and had to bite back a giggle at how nervous Joel suddenly seemed now -- like she might decide to grope her dad to freak the guy out or something? Well, fuck, now that's exactly what I want to do! As if reading her mind again, Joel gently nudged her from her seat to make her stand in front of him while fixing her tea. She dumped enough sugar in it that he gave her a Look, which also made her want to giggle. "What? He said he had plenty."

Joel tipped a little sugar on the tray and tasted it with his finger, but then didn't put any in his own mug. It was so obviously just normal sugar that she wasn't sure what the point of that little exercise was, but again, she was glad he didn't completely trust this old man.

Ellie returned to her seat and sipped at the hot liquid (because fuck waiting for Joel to go first). "Oo! Too hot. Ron, what did your horse look like? If we see him out there, we'll totally bring him back to you."

Ron pulled a pallet of straw over like someone might pull up a chair to a dining table, taking a seat in front of Sophie. "Oh, she was a beautiful animal. Black as midnight, 'cept for the white stripe on her nose. 'Bout the size of your spotted one there. Name's Bella. She was out there grazin' when they came. Those bastards-- er... beg your pardon, I'm not used to... talkin' to young girls, or ladies, no more..."

He'd probably said 'ladies' to include Sophie, but he was looking at Ellie. She let the giggle out this time. "It's okay, I'll try not to like... get upset."

Joel elbowed her lightly, but he was smiling a little too. "Don' worry -- this one cusses like a sailor."

"Just like my dad," Ellie said cheekily. Truthfully, she was sure she cussed more than Joel and Sophie combined, and probably more than any sailor. She blew on her tea to cool it and tried another sip; the sweet, hot liquid warmed her belly pleasantly. "So you saw them with your horse?"

"Yep. I come runnin' out the door -- I can still run a little, you know, maybe not so fast as I used to... and I get my rifle. I fire it, real high, I don't wanna hit Bella... she rears up, and I see one of 'em fall off her back. The other one takes off with her. Leaves him there. The guy gets up and starts to run, so I guess that first shot didn't hit him at all, just spooked the horse... he runs, and I shoot him. I hit him a little lower than I meant to... in the leg. Back of his thigh. Up by his rear end. I know I ain't gonna catch up to his friend. So now I got this bum bleedin' in my yard." He paused to take a drink.

"What did you do?" Sophie asked with interest. "Let him go?"

"Thought about it. He was bleedin' pretty bad, and he couldn't walk. Maybe his friend woulda come back for him... I figured he wouldn't, on account of me havin' this rifle and him stealin' my horse. Guy I shot didn't have a gun... maybe neither of 'em did. Bleedin' out is a horrible way to go. So the kind thing would either be to fix him up and send him on his way, or just kill the son of a-- just kill him."

"You killed him," Joel surmised.

"Didn't much feel like fixin' him up, after what he done."

Ellie nodded. "Yeah, well, why should you dig your own fucking bullet out of the asshole who tried to steal your horse -- and then use your own shit to patch him up? Fuck that."

Ron chortled. "You do swear like a... yeah, I shot him again. Spent a bullet to give him a clean death. Even buried him. I sure did. Took me the whole next morning to dig him a grave."

Ellie wouldn't have bothered. She wondered if that made her a bad person. If she ever wondered about things like that out loud to Joel, he always told her it didn't. Sometimes he suggested that maybe she would behave differently than she thought she would if she were actually in the situation. Like if she were Ron, in his story... maybe Joel would say she might look at the guy's pathetic face, hear him beg for his life, and feel like she ought to at least bury him, if not try to patch him up. Because he wasn't a true enemy... he was just a guy trying to survive. Just like her and Joel. She understood that, but she kind of took it personally when someone tried to steal their shit, and she knew Joel did, too. Joel wouldn't just sit idly back and say, "Damn, that man's stealing our horse. Well, you win some, you lose some." No -- he'd whip out the shotgun. Killing thieves was easy to justify.

As was killing a person pointing a gun at them. That was why it surprised her so much when Joel didn't kill Ron. Chance after chance to do that, yet he didn't. She might be able to understand if Ron were younger. Way younger -- like, eighteen or something. Young enough that Joel would consider him a kid. But Ron was old. He'd lived his life. And Joel didn't need an excuse to kill someone who'd been pointing a gun at them, did he?

She wondered... if Joel had heard him coming, and thus, had the gun in his hand when Ron burst through that barn door, would Joel have killed him on sight? She thought he would have -- but then, she hadn't expected him to make nice with the guy once he did get the chance to kill him. If I ask Joel about that later, will he tell me the truth?

Ellie hadn't liked him at first, but the old guy was all right. He'd just been trying to defend his home. He'd loved that horse. It was kind of cute how he made an effort not to cuss. And he'd gone to the trouble of making them tea (making a fire to heat up the water, or... Ellie didn't even know how he'd managed that), and pulling out four mugs, and his little sugar bowl... and extra spoons, placing them upside down under a little towel -- and then trudging back out there in the rain with the tray. But they might have killed him before any of that. It gave her the chills.

Joel put his arm around her again. "You still cold?"

"You want some more, darlin'?" Ron offered. "There's a little bit left..."

"I'm okay. But... sure. Yes, please," she added, just to prove she could be polite when she wanted to be. She was pleased to see that since Joel's other arm was occupied with his own mug, he wasn't touching Sophie at all now.

They sat like that for a while, talking. Ron asked them a little bit about their lives, their journey... she noticed that Joel answered with shades of truth, steering clear of any subjects that might potentially require bald-faced lies -- like his relationship with Sophie. Pretending to be her dad came easily enough to him. Ellie couldn't help but wonder, quite wickedly, what everyone present would do if she suddenly straddled Joel and started kissing him hard. Although, she didn't exactly resemble him or Sophie... Ron might've figured they weren't biologically related anyway. Still... what thirteen-year-old would do that to someone so much older than herself? He'd probably think Joel was ABUSING me, even though it would be ME practically assaulting HIM... just like all the fuckers in Jackson would think, according to Joel... even the ones that LIKE us. Even Tommy!

For the most part, Joel deflected the questions back to Ron, and the old guy actually seemed quite eager to speak of his own life... his past. He said he hadn't talked to anyone this much in years, and that struck Ellie as so incredibly sad. They'd only been there for like an hour! She felt sorry for him. Told him he should go to Jackson, where he could work on a real farm, with lots of animals, and none of them could get stolen inside those fortress-like walls... and real crops, not some dinky little garden... he did seem interested for a moment, but said he'd been here so long he was set in his ways, and he was meant to stay until the day he died.

When they'd long-since finished their tea and the conversation had petered out, Ron stood up slowly, as if it took some effort. "I would offer you folks some dinner, but... I only caught one little squirrel today, in the trap, and that won't be nearly enough. If I'd known, I could've tried to hunt somethin' big. I do have some vegetables from the garden, though... and cans of this-and-that... maybe I could rustle up--"

"It's fine," Joel cut him off. "Don' trouble yourself. Thank you for the tea. It hit the spot."

Sophie and Ellie echoed the sentiment, and Ron waved away their thanks. "I thank you all for the company. And I'm sorry... about that business with the gun. Nothing much in here to make off with even if you were of a mind to steal. I... shouldn't have assumed."

Ellie felt like he was apologizing to her more than anyone else, as he looked at her the longest. "It's okay. We're used to getting shot at and stuff."

"That's a shame." The generic sentiment didn't even sound empty, when he said it.

"I can't part with a horse," said Joel, "but... if you need some ammo... fruit... we're bound to find some more along the way anyhow."

Again, Ellie was surprised; Joel didn't usually offer anything in trade, especially unbidden. A fair trade for him typically would be letting the other person live.

"You don't need to do that." The old man waved his hand again.

"I insist." And then Joel was rooting around in their stuff, extracting the named items -- he threw in some beef jerky, too. Ellie marveled at how... well, friendly he was being, on top of the generosity. He probably felt sorry for the guy too, but still. Ron refused to take anything from him, but he couldn't stop Joel from just laying it all out on the straw and leaving it behind.

"Sounds like the rain's finally lettin' up," Ron observed. "You're free to stay the night, though. Doors don't lock from the inside but you can close 'em good with that there rope, if you want... you'd be safe."

"I appreciate that," said Joel. He glanced at Ellie and Sophie, confirming they were amenable to it, and then added, "We'll clear out first thing in the morning."

"Take your time. Anythin' in here you need for the horses... it's yours. I don't need it no more myself." Ron looked at them quietly for a moment, like he was thinking. "Maybe... if you wanted to stay... up there... in the house..."

"This is perfect right here," Joel assured him. "But thank you."

The old man nodded. "Right. Well. I'll leave the lamp here for ya, if you would just blow it out when you go to sleep. Miss Ellie, you might like sleepin' up in that there loft. You two... the straw makes a pretty nice bed, if you--"

"We'll figure it out," Joel said quickly, extending his hand for Ron to shake. "Pleasure meetin' you, sir."

Ron shook it firmly. "Joel, you got yourself a nice little family here. You take good care of 'em. Best of luck to ya." He turned to Sophie and shook her hand next. "And you take care of that man of yours, honey."

Ellie groaned inwardly at that, and again as Sophie told him that she would, all bubbly and sickeningly-happy-like. But it wasn't the old man's fault. And Ellie wasn't really the shaking-hands type. She hopped down and surprised him with a hug. "Thanks, Ron! No worries -- I'm actually the one who takes care of them," she said with a grin.

It took him a couple seconds to hug her back. "That so? I believe it." With a motion that struck Ellie as awkward, he mussed her hair as he stepped back. "You be a good girl -- and mind that tongue of yours. Leave the swearin' to the boys. You're too sweet to have a potty mouth."

Ellie snickered. Yeah, right! "Okay." Why do people think I'm sweet? Maybe I LOOK sweet, but once I start talking...

As soon as Ron gathered up the tray and left them for the evening, Joel regarded her with amusement. "...'Okay'? No more cussin'?"

"Oh, fuck that," Ellie giggled -- and her comment made Sophie giggle, too. She skipped over to the loft Ron had pointed out and climbed up the ladder to check it out. "Oh, it's kinda cool up here! Joel, can we sleep in this?"

"No. It's way too narrow. I can tell from here."

"No it's not, we can totally fit!"

"I ain't sleepin' in that thing. You're free to do what you want."

Ellie backed down the ladder, pouting. "Whatever."

Sophie scurried over and climbed up the ladder to take a look. "Oh, this is cozy! I'll sleep up here if you don't want to, Ellie."

"It's all yours."

"Cool beans."

Yeah, you just stay up there with your beans. Ellie was glad that Sophie wasn't entertaining ideas of trying to sleep with the two of them; just because Ellie had invited her to snuggle with them earlier didn't mean she'd let her sleep with Joel. Thankfully, Sophie seemed to be mindful of the fact that Joel was not actually her man to take care of. He's MINE! Even if I can't make him happy in certain ways, out here... she could still take care of him as far as making sure he was okay and stuff.

First, she had horses to take care of.

The three of them unloaded and undressed the horses, and then Sophie announced she had to pee.

"Let's all go together," Joel suggested.

"I don't have to go that bad," Ellie sulked.

Joel sighed. "It's been... all day, Ellie. Surely you can go."

Sophie laughed. "Now you really sound like parent and child."

Joel gave her a knowing look. "Uh-huh. Soon as the kid gets in the car..."

"Right? As soon as the car leaves the house, anyway..."

"Then suddenly... 'I gotta go!' "

"Haha -- and 'why didn't you go at the house?' "

" 'I didn't have to go then!' "

Ellie glared at each of them in turn, annoyed at not sharing the joke. "Is that from a movie or something?"

"Prob'ly," said Joel, "But it's classic kid behavior. 'Course, some of the time, it ain't really the kid's fault. They got smaller bladders."

Ellie had had enough of being a kid for the day. "My bladder is just as good as yours -- prob'ly better -- and if you want to have a little peepee party so bad, I'll go with you, okay? No need to... get all weird about it."

Sophie did step out first, though, and Joel grabbed Ellie's arm. "Hey," he said softly, "we'll do quality time tomorrow. All right?"

"That's not... never mind. Come on, let's go empty our bladders." She stepped outside and called to Sophie -- she could go somewhere in her vicinity while Joel went around the opposite side of the barn. Of course, Joel could just turn his back to them, but Ellie didn't mind it when he put a little more distance between them; the less chance of Joel and Sophie catching a glimpse of each other's nether regions, the better. At least the rain had lightened to a drizzle.

They ate a cold supper. Talked about the day... Ron... what to expect tomorrow. Groomed the horses. Changed out of their wet clothes. This time, Joel wore his own sweatpants, but only because he got Ellie to wear the lone sweatshirt he'd brought -- as pants, not a shirt. It was big even on Joel, and she had no problem slipping her legs through the arms. Actually, she only used one of the arms, and used the body for the other leg. She thought she would have been fine just cuddling with Joel all night for warmth... but it did feel nice having her legs covered.

Joel had already started 'locking' the door with Ron's rope when Sophie declared she had to go pee again, even though they'd gone like an hour before -- mostly because she had this thing where it had to be the last thing she did before going to bed. Sophie had nearly forgotten it, though, as she'd already settled in to her 'bunk' with her book when she mentioned it (somehow, she could read for half an hour or whatever and not just HAVE to go again). "I'm sorry," Sophie said sheepishly as she climbed down the ladder. "I could go in here somewhere I guess 'cause we're not exactly indoors, but that seems rude, and if I don't go, I won't be able to fall asleep, thinking--"

"Jus' go already," Joel told her. Then he muttered something about a 'kid in the car' (and Ellie was glad to finally not be the kid of the trio, even if just for the moment). "I'll see if I can hang that light somewhere up there for you to read by."

"Awww, you'd do that? Thanks!" Sophie slipped into her wet sneakers without bothering to tie them.

"It ain't for you -- I don' wanna have to get up to go blow it out when you're done."

Ellie snickered and looked at Sophie. "You may have noticed -- he doesn't like to be called out on doing nice things for people."

"Hey, that was the real reason," Joel protested. "Who do you think would be the one--"

"Yeah yeah yeah whatever," Ellie teased him. Joel undid the door for Sophie, and as soon as she stepped out, Ellie scampered over to the ladder and climbed up into her loft-bed. She wanted to get a better look at the book Sophie was reading. Ellie had seen romance novels at the library... had even sneaked a peek at some of the pages... but she would be way too embarrassed to take one home, or for anyone to catch her reading them. Sophie didn't seem to feel ashamed or embarrassed at all.

"What're you doin'?" Joel asked as he fiddled with the lantern.

"I'm just curious." Because being curious about Sophie's book wasn't the same thing as taking one home from the library! She flopped onto her stomach and picked up the book.

He glanced up at her. "About the half-naked cowboy?"

"You remember that little detail, huh?" Ellie giggled. Mostly I want to make sure he doesn't look anything like YOU, since this is her 'type'... "It is kinda hard to see up here. Bring that light over!"

He stayed on the ladder rather than climb in next to her, but he held the light up while he surveyed the area. "That might work right there... no, this is too heavy for it..."

The book title was Corralled, written by Lorelei James, and the cowboy on the cover reminded her more of Max than of Joel. He wasn't exactly half naked, either; he just had his shirt unbuttoned -- all the way -- for no reason. At least, none that Ellie could see. Okay, so obviously the reason is to make the cover sexy... there's even a little quote on here about how sexy the author's cowboys are. Hmmm... Ellie flipped to the first page of the book and read the opening line, snickered, then read it out loud to Joel. " 'Screwing two guys doesn't make you a slut.' That's how it starts! One girl's saying that to another. ...and then they're talking about a waitress that has 'watermelon-sized tits' -- ha!"

Joel found a place to hang the lantern that satisfied him, and he gave her leg a little tug before backing down the ladder. "C'mon, kiddo, you don' need to be readin' that shit."

She was a little disappointed that he didn't seem all awkward and uncomfortable, like she'd expected. "How do you know it's shit if you haven't read it?"

"Well, I seem to recall you callin' it shit more than once. Sayin' that only skanks read trash like that."

"Did I?" But Ellie knew he was right. "Sometimes I judge too fast." She flipped to the page Sophie's bookmark was on. "Hey, this bookmark is better than mine... it has horses on it." Whereas Ellie's had flowers and some Bible verse. She wondered if Sophie would trade... then decided she probably wouldn't want to, and would only do it to kiss up to Ellie, which wouldn't necessarily make Ellie not ask her, but... it wasn't that big a deal. "She hasn't gotten very far. Let's see..."

"She'll be back any second now, you know," Joel warned.

"I know. I don't care if she knows I'm curious."

When Sophie came back in, she was surprised to see Ellie in her bed with her book, and Ellie was sure that for a moment, Sophie thought Ellie had changed her mind about sleeping up there, leaving Joel up for grabs on the ground. Before the woman could get any ideas about that, Ellie announced that she was just checking out the novel.

Sophie seemed delighted at the intrusion. She flung off her shoes and climbed back up there, squeezing in next to Ellie on her stomach. It was too narrow, even for the two girls, and Ellie found herself all squished against the wall. "You like it so far?" Sophie asked her. "Wanna read it when I'm done?"

"No," Joel answered for her while he re-secured the door.

"Hey, maybe we could read it together," Ellie suggested brightly. "Like take turns reading it out loud to each other! Wouldn't that be fun? It would drive Joel--"

"Crazy -- yes it would," Joel grumbled. "Ellie, come on down here now. Please."

"Maybe he's jealous," Sophie said with a grin, stealing Ellie's Joel-teasing bit from the day before. "Joel, you can have a turn, too! The three of us could read--"

"No!" Joel groaned. "For chrissakes, would you jus' come down here already, Ellie?"

"Oookay." Ellie pretended to be reluctant, but she wasn't really; fun as 'girl time' might be, she wanted to feel Joel's arms around her. He did seem truly irritated at the moment, but she knew it wouldn't last.

He was frowning when she slipped under the blanket and into the crook of his arm. She kissed his cheek. "You're cute when you're mad," she informed him. He was usually the one saying that to her. And just like it didn't amuse her when he said it, it didn't seem to do much to make him less annoyed, either. But he did begin stroking her hair, at least. "I'm sorry," she tried instead, trying to sound more serious.

"No you ain't."

"I am! I don't want you to be mad at me."

"I ain't mad."

"Okay, good." Back to normal already!

"Your hair's not so soft anymore," he remarked.

"It's not? Bummer. Maybe you should've let me bring Annie's beer rinse." It actually consisted of beer, aloe vera, and honey, but they had taken to referring to it by only the most bizarre of the ingredients.

"Mm. There are more important things."

"As long as you still pet it for me, I'm good." Ellie wasn't sure how well Sophie could hear them, or how much attention she was paying to them; the horses were somewhat nearby, making horsey noises from time to time, but their timing was too unpredictable to rely on as a voice-cloaking device. She assumed Joel would freak out if she kissed him now, or said anything even remotely romantic. The placating kiss on the cheek had been innocent enough...

"G'night, baby girl."

" 'Night." But she wasn't anywhere close to falling asleep. She lay there silently for a little while, various thoughts tumbling around in her head.

She could tell Joel wasn't asleep yet either when Sophie blew out the lantern, though he wasn't stroking her hair anymore. Ellie started tracing circles on his upper arm. Then she drew her hand over his chest... up to his jaw, where she just let her thumb move back and forth -- something she couldn't have done with the lamplight tattling on her. He made a soft little noise of contentment and gave her a squeeze. "Not sleepy?" he whispered.

She didn't answer. Wasn't sure if he wanted her to. When she danced her hand over to his chin, and then up to his lips, he made a kissing motion, but didn't actually kiss her fingers. Ellie understood; Sophie couldn't have fallen asleep yet. She kept her voice to a whisper, too. "Joel..."

"Hmm?"

"You know how like... Ron doesn't know what happened to his wife and kids?" They'd discussed this a little at dinner, speculating that the old man liked to tell himself that his wife took off with their two teenagers, because it was better than thinking they were dead. They had kept the conversation focused on Ron (and people in general), but naturally, Ellie couldn't help thinking of it in terms of her and Joel. She wasn't sure how she would feel about that if it happened to her, but if she had to guess, she thought she'd rather believe Joel was dead. At least then he wouldn't have left her on purpose. Still... that would mean he was... well, dead... "He assumes... from that one day, that argument, but... he doesn't know?" she continued.

"Yeah?"

"He said he looked for them... do you think he looked for them real hard? What if he gave up too soon?"

"I don' know... he said he looked for 'em. He prob'ly looked a good long while. After a while... I s'pose you reach a point..."

"...a point what? Where you give up?"

"Yeah. Maybe it takes years, but yeah. Eventually. Maybe that's why he don' wanna leave here, though. Some part of him is hopin' one of 'em might come back someday."

Ellie swallowed an unexpected lump in her throat. "If I was gone... like, vanished..."

"Of course I'd look for you."

He had answered the unspoken question she wasn't even going to bother asking, because she knew that answer already. "I know, but... if you couldn't find me. Would you tell yourself I left because I wanted to? Like Ron did?"

"Ellie, why are you askin' me this? That's not goin' to--"

"But if it did!" she insisted, trying not to raise her voice beyond whisper-level. "Say it did. And you looked. You looked and looked and looked, and just... nothing. How long would you keep doing that?"

He was quiet a moment before answering. "I wouldn' be able to stop. I couldn' live with the not knowin'."

"Your life would be ruined, then. You could spend the rest of it looking for something you'll never find." Ellie didn't like the idea of him not looking for her, but the thought of him looking and looking and looking, all in vain, made her heart hurt, too. I couldn’t stand him thinking I didn’t love him anymore… but wouldn’t that be better? He could just… hate me… and then forget me… ugh, no, I couldn’t stand that, either…

He gave her another squeeze and held it for a few extra seconds before relaxing. "Why're you gettin' all morbid on me, baby girl? That ain't gonna happen."

"You don't know that." She kept ignoring his attempts to end the conversation -- because sometimes she just got this bug up her ass where she had to talk about unpleasant things. "Say you're never gonna see me again. Which would be better... if I'm dead or if I'm alive?"

"Alive," he answered without hesitation.

Either a reflex answer, or he's thought about this before! "But you're never gonna see me again," she repeated. "No matter what you do. And if I'm alive, it's because I left you. Like I didn't want to be with you anymore."

"Even so. Alive. That's easy."

"Really? But if I'm dead, you'd know that I never stopped... you know. Wanting to be with you." She didn't think Sophie could hear their whispers, and maybe she'd nodded off by now, but Ellie was careful in her choice of words nonetheless. "Isn't that better than... me ditching you?"

"Nope. Not to me, it ain't."

"But..." That just struck Ellie as so... sad. Almost like he expected her to leave or something. "I just want you to know... I wouldn't be gone because I want to be. Even if you think I'm mad at you or something... I'll never leave like that. If you can't find me, I'm prob'ly dead, so after a while you can just give up and go on with your life, knowing--"

"Ellie, ssshhhhhh. Don' talk like-- Where is all this comin' from?"

"Well... cuz I've sort of... run off before, and stuff... I don't want even some teensy tiny little part of you to wonder for even half a second... I want to be sure you know I'd never do that to you."

"I do know that." He kissed the top of her head, apparently not so concerned with that sound... maybe her hair muffled it enough? "Don' mean I'd stop lookin'. What if you were hurt, or lost... needin' my help..."

"But after years? I must be dead."

"Not necessarily. It's a big world out there. Maybe you'd be in some kind of trouble that I could help get you out of. That's what I'd be thinkin'."

"And not on purpose. I didn't leave on purpose. Something happened," she reiterated. ...is that selfish of me? He'd never get over that. Is it BETTER if he thinks like Ron--

"Same with me," Joel interrupted her thoughts. "It wouldn' be my choice. But I don' know that I'd want you wastin' your whole life lookin' for me, either."

"How could I not?" Ellie couldn't even imagine a life without Joel now.

"You tell yourself I'm dead, an' that we've always known I'd be the first to go, so--"

"I don't wanna talk about this anymore," Ellie cut him off. Talking about her going missing was one thing, but if it was Joel... I would die. "I won't leave you and you won't leave me and if we stick together, then... we'll always be together. Problem solved."

"Exactly. Can you try to get some sleep now? We're together, an' we're safe in here."

"Right. Yeah. Okay. Good night again." She hoped he couldn't feel the tears that had sneaked out of her eyes and into his shirt.

But maybe he did feel that, because he gave her a huge squeeze. "I love you, baby girl."

He doesn't care if Sophie hears THAT? She probably couldn't hear it... but still. Ellie smiled in the darkness. "I love you, too.”


~Continue to Chapter 32~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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