Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 7733
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
A/N: Chapter title is a (badass) line from the movie Road House.
Ellie wanted to stop and rest, but she had a feeling that if they actually did stop, she wouldn't be able to rest. She suspected Joel felt the same way, though maybe not quite for all the same reasons (at least, she assumed Joel wasn't trying to ignore any unabating pain). Maybe if they were looking for days, they'd have no choice but to stop, but it had only been a few hours. Sophie couldn't be that far away...
"Do you think she's sleeping?" Ellie wondered. "Maybe that's why she's not answering?"
She didn't really believe that, and from the tone of that 'maybe' (he had several varieties of maybes), she didn't think Joel did, either. Ellie hoped that Sophie was simply lost. That she'd caught up to Spirit, and then lost her way trying to get back to them. Maybe she was also a little bit deaf? They'd fired a sky shot to supplement their shouting some time ago, and she hadn't answered it with her own.
Maybe it hadn't been that long, and it just felt like hours?
When they came upon a chain link fence, they had to decide which way to turn; clearly, the horses wouldn't have been able to get through. Unless it was compromised somewhere... and really, they didn't even know if they were going the right way to begin with, since Spirit hadn't announced where the fuck he was headed. Joel thought they should try the direction along the fence that was more backwards than forwards. And after a time, like maybe half an hour, they were rewarded with the sound of a very distant gunshot.
"Finally, something," Ellie said, relieved.
Joel called Sophie's name... nothing. He fired another sky shot and glanced at Ellie. "Could be hunters, you know. Stay alert."
"Sure. Good idea."
Ellie pulled out the 9-millimeter with the hand that had been linked to Joel's off and on all night. Maybe he won't notice...
He didn't notice immediately, but... this was Joel, so of course he was going to notice. It didn't take long. "What, now that's your gun hand, too?"
"Well... it's the one on this side, so." Like I might need to pull out the other one at the same time. Yep. She continued before he could wonder what sort of crazy logic she was employing. "I use both hands when I fire, so what difference does it make?"
"What difference? Jus' the moment it takes to switch to your trigger hand. ...It's fine -- I've jus' never seen you carry it in your left like that, is all."
Ellie was a little surprised he'd skipped the "one second can be the difference between life and death, Ellie" lecture. If he thought she would take the hint and switch to her right, well... he was wrong. She would've done it if she could.
But he continued to say nothing, so maybe he figured it was no big deal, since she was with him. Or that the chances of that shot being fired by hunters were slim. It was the middle of the night, out in the middle of nowhere...
After they'd gone a little further and yelled again, Joel extended his arm in front of her to halt her in her tracks. "You hear that?"
Ellie still couldn't hear anything. "Uh..."
"Shit -- really?!"
They continued on, a little slower than before... and then Ellie heard the moaning, too. There were tall trees surrounding them now, not densely packed like a 'real' forest, but not exactly as open as where they'd come from. Their flashlights didn't pick up any sign of the beasts, though.
Joel gestured ahead to his left. "I think there's a little valley over there, where the noise is comin' from... don' hear any Clickers, at least..." They did come upon something that resembled a cliff, though it was nowhere near steep. "Watch your step... there's one, see?"
Joel's light was shining on one below, a Runner ambling along with the trademark jerky motions that belied their strength. Ellie scanned the area. "I see three."
He set Spirit's saddle on the ground. "Me too," he said quietly, near-whispering. "Let's arrow 'em, yeah?"
She knew he meant for them to make a contest of it and alternate, like they'd done at times in the past in low-key encounters like this. Why can't we just ignore them and go on our way? Ellie bit her lip. "Okay..." She lowered her voice to match Joel's. "Um, you do it. I'll just point the light... and keep a look out. In case there's more."
Joel swung the bow off his shoulder and pulled an arrow from the quiver. "Suit yourself. If you're afraid I'll beat you again..."
Ellie snorted. "Well, it's not fair if you go first and there's only three of them."
"Be my guest--"
"Oh, no." Ellie stepped away from him as he tried to hand over the bow. "Then when I beat you, you'll say it's only because I went first."
"I think you're afraid I'll win even if you do go first," Joel challenged.
Ellie did actually want to play this little game with him -- and he knew it. She longed to show him up and hold it over his head until the next time, gloating whenever the urge struck. If she lost, Joel wouldn't do the same to her; he was supposed to beat her, after all. Fuck! Why am I such an idiot? This will be lame, but... she forced herself to yawn. "No, you'd win cuz I'm exhausted."
Joel stopped teasing her and got down to business. He didn't really need her light since his clip-on light was pointed straight ahead, so she kept watch like she'd said she would... and she also watched Joel at work. She'd learned soooo much from him. He liked to say he'd learned just as much from her, but when Ellie asked him what he'd learned, he would only give a glib answer, like... the names, ages, and relationships of everyone in Jackson. Or the true lyrics to George Michael songs.
He killed the three Runners with four arrows.
"Not bad," she said casually.
"You woulda done it in three, right?" Joel smirked. "C'mon, let's get down there."
Only one of the arrows had broken. Ellie had once asked Joel why they didn't try to repair the broken ones, just bind them up somehow, or maybe stick the head on a stick of similar length... something. It seemed like a waste to leave them. He'd said it had something to do with aerodynamics... that the arrow wouldn't fly right if it wasn't perfect.
They didn't find anything useful down there, but right after they started trekking again, they found something unusual: plums scattered on the ground. "Joel... these must be ours! There's no, like... grove of plum trees around here. Is there? How would they have..."
"I don' know, but clearly she got away, so try not to worry too much. I have room in my backpack. Here..."
Ellie sheathed her gun and started picking up the plums with one hand. Joel didn't bother to take off his backpack, since he'd have to unload some weapons and saddle bags to get to it and all; she was going to deposit the fruit in the main compartment, but had to unzip it first. Joel was helping her pick them up off the ground. "Stand still a second, would you?" she said as she positioned herself directly behind him. With the plums cradled inside her loose hoodie pockets, she tugged awkwardly at the zipper, then slipped them inside one at a time. Joel tried to hand her what he'd picked up, and instead of letting him dump them into her hands with her palms serving as a bucket -- or, better than that, into a sort of net made by tugging the bottom of her hoodie forward with one hand -- she plucked them from him one or two at a time, trying to stand as far behind him as she could.
They repeated that until all of the plums were collected. Joel seemed like he was going to say something a couple times, and then didn't. Ellie was tempted to fire back a defensive "What" anyway; it wasn't like she was doing anything wrong in taking forever to do a simple task. But she didn't want to answer the questions the remark might generate. Tomorrow, everything will be back to normal, and he'll never know.
The black of the sky had just started to melt into gray when their luck finally changed. They shouted for Sophie again, and this time Ellie heard a faint call echo back to them. "That was real, right?" she said excitedly. "That sounded like a... I dunno..." Maybe a "Here!" cry? It didn't sound like either of their names.
"It's gotta be her." Joel started walking so fast that Ellie had to trot a little to keep up with him.
As they kept closing in, the yelling became more distinct. Ellie definitely heard both of their names. And when they got really close, Joel yelled an order to Sophie to stay put. Ellie snickered to herself at the thought of Sophie moving in the wrong direction now.
Ellie thought she also heard a horse whinnying in the distance. "Sophieeeeeeeee, where are you!"
"Ellie! Over here!"
Ellie started running in that direction. She'd just had a horrible image pop into her head of Sophie running right into Joel's arms, maybe even jumping on him, the way Ellie liked to do. I'M the only one allowed to do that, damnit! She felt a little guilty, having a thought as petty as that when the poor woman must have spent the whole night scared out of her mind... afraid of who might be out there, and of the possibility of never finding Ellie and Joel again. The uncertainty must have been nerve-wracking. Surely Sophie would be relieved to feel Joel's strong, comforting arms around her... Ellie knew all too well how good that felt, how safe... and she shouldn't deny Sophie after whatever she'd been through.
Well, clearly I'm a horrible person, because I can't allow that. She'll have to be satisfied with me instead. Joel was trotting behind her, but not running full speed ahead like Ellie was.
"Ellie!" And there was Sophie, flailing her arms around to draw their attention -- as if her flashlight hadn't already done that.
Ellie was truly glad to see her, and see her in one piece, at that. She kept running, her fatigue magically gone now, and for a moment, she had a mad thought of flying at her the way she had with Joel, just to see what would happen, but logic prevailed, and she slowed to a near-stop before hurling herself into Sophie's arms, both of them squealing -- squealing like girls, as Joel would say.
"I'm sooooooooooo glad to see you guys!" exclaimed Sophie. "You have no idea!"
She was hugging Ellie so tight that Ellie's guilt at depriving her of comfort from Joel multiplied. God, I'm such a bitch! "Are you okay?" she asked -- before Joel could ask it. In keeping with the whole bitch thing.
"Yeah yeah yeah, I'm good -- you two are the ones that stayed and... dang, how many of those things did you have to kill?" Sophie let go of her and took a step back.
Ellie pretended to think about that. "Mmm, like... five hundred, maybe?"
Sophie's jaw dropped. "No shit? Five hundred?"
"Yep, me and Joel make a good team, though. We just kept at it until there weren't any left." Joel had just barely reached them; Ellie wondered if he'd even heard her ask Sophie if she was okay. She quickly bounced over to him and put her arm around his waist. "Isn't that right, Joel?" Before he could answer or say anything to Sophie, Ellie turned back to Sophie. "So where are the horses? I heard them... or, one of them...?"
"They're back there." Sophie waved a hand vaguely behind her. "Both of them. Secured, and they're not hurt or anything. But holy guacamole that horse of yours is fast, Ellie. I lost sight of him -- a couple times, actually -- but I think the darkness kinda salted his game."
"Did he run all the way back here?" Ellie asked, incredulous even though she knew he was fast as the wind. Satisfied that the time had passed for Sophie and Joel to have any kind of embrace now, Ellie stepped away from Joel. She could have gladly stayed there glued to his side forever, but Sophie -- and even Joel -- might find it odd.
"Well, about that..." Sophie looked a little sheepish.
"You started going the wrong way, didn't you." A statement, not a question. But Ellie said it with a grin.
"I guess so, because you guys were coming from behind me just now. I thought... well, it seemed like I remembered the moon being on that side of us..."
"It does move across the sky at night, you know," Joel said with amusement.
"Yeah, um, I guess I forgot that," Sophie said, wincing. "God, I'm the world's biggest idiot. I probably would have gone all the way back to Jackson before realizing it was the wrong way."
"It's not your fault," Ellie said kindly, the guilt making her somewhat generous (at least in a non-sharing-of-Joel way?). "It's not like Spirit runs in a perfectly straight line or anything. I'm sure he got you all turned around. Oh! And we found some plums on the ground -- by some more Infected -- did they attack you?"
"Oh! -- yeah, that was freaky! They came out of nowhere, we didn't even see them until they were right on top of us... like they heard us just walking, I guess? So Spirit took off again, yanking the reins right out of my hands -- and one of them started to grab at me!"
Joel started looking at her more closely then. "...at you? Where? They didn't..."
Oh God -- what do we do if she's INFECT--
"No, not like -- it wasn't me he grabbed -- I was riding Poppy, and tried to sort of kick him away, but that didn't really work -- it was just Poppy running away that broke him -- broke his hold on that one bag. He didn't rip it, though -- some of them spilled out but we've still got a bunch."
"We're prob'ly so far back now we could go through that orchard again an' pick some fresh ones anyhow," Joel joked... at least, Ellie assumed it was a joke, because how could they have gone that far in one night?!
"Really? You think so?" Sophie was aghast.
"He's kidding. ...right, Joel?"
Joel chuckled. "We've been walkin' a long time... but not that long, no. I'll look at the map tomorrow an' see if I can figure out if it makes more sense to change course a little now... go north around that mountain instead of south."
Ellie didn't see how the map could help with anything not related to roads and towns, but Joel was a bit more map-savvy than her. And she hadn't even noticed a mountain on their horizon in any direction, so they couldn't be that close to it. Or maybe it was just too fucking dark to tell mountains apart from sky? Or maybe I'm just too fucking tired! She didn't bother to stifle a big yawn...
...which triggered Sophie's. "I'm with ya, kid. No way was I going to sleep out here by myself. I did stop moving, though... when I wasn't running into you two, I started thinking maybe it's not a good idea, that maybe you'd never find me if both of us were moving... like we might just miss each other..."
"Good thing, or we might never've caught up to you," said Joel, not unkindly.
"Did you guys kill the plum-grabbing Infected too? I think there were like... four or five of them?"
"Oh yeah, we killed them -- and it was more like fifty," Ellie boasted. "At least by the time we got there. I don't know where all these fucking things are coming from!"
Sophie's awe made Ellie want to crack up, but she managed to keep a straight face. Sophie shook her head. "Jeez Louise! How did you... you didn't run out of bullets? Do you really have that many in your bags? And how can you... my God. Two of you versus five hundred and fifty Infected. I sure picked the right escorts for this!"
Of course, Joel had to spoil the fun. "Well, maybe you did, but it wasn' nearly as difficult as Ellie's makin' it out to be."
"Five hundred fifty," Sophie repeated. "How is that easy?"
"Because it was more like... ten or twelve."
"Or more. Plus the three with the plums!" Ellie added. "So maybe it was like... twenty, twenty-five."
"Math ain't your strong suit?" Joel teased as he mussed her hair -- which she never had bothered to fix after the fight (it was a little hard to do it one-handed anyhow), so it was a complete mess now. "Smartass."
Sophie looked surprised for a moment, then she shoved Ellie playfully. "You little shit! I believed you!"
Ellie grinned. "I didn't think you would, actually!"
"Trust me," Joel remarked to Sophie, "if we run into a group of five hundred Infected, we're fucked. But I've never seen a horde that big, an' we ain't likely to out here."
They reunited with the horses... talked a little more, trading 'war stories,' as Joel would call them later... decided they were at a good enough a spot as any to camp for -- well, not the night, because dawn was already upon them. Joel said they could take it easy and get their full amount of sleep if they could. Ellie didn't think Joel would be able to sleep when it was light out, though. He did at home, but not Outside. And he was a little concerned that Spirit would test the breakaway feature of his lead rope whenever he wanted, now that he knew he could free himself from it. Ellie said Spirit wouldn't do that, that he loved them and wanted to stay with them, and only ran away because he was freaked out; Joel said that was naïve and anthropomorphic. It didn't really matter, because there was nothing they could do about it, unless they wanted to sleep in shifts. Ellie and Sophie were open to that idea, Joel was just too stubborn or sexist or whatever. If he wouldn't drop dead from exhaustion, Ellie suspected he might just forgo sleep altogether to protect them.
But Spirit seemed to be siding with Ellie -- he was perfectly calm now. With the horses grazing nearby and Sophie settled in her tent, Joel and Ellie snuggled into their blankets, using the charred one to sleep on and the intact one as a cover. Ellie was pretty fucking tired, and with Joel curled around her, she was cozy and warm. It should have been easy to fall asleep, once she wound down a little. But it felt like her hand was throbbing even more than before. Maybe it was just more noticeable to her when she wasn't preoccupied with other things -- like walking, and looking for Sophie, and staying alive. I was right: you're not going to let me rest, are you -- stupid hand! You better be okay or Joel's gonna be pissed that I didn't tell him!
Joel fell asleep before she did. She listened to the peaceful rhythm of his breathing for who-knows-how long before finally drifting off herself, her fucking hand waking her every so often... she would guess it was any time she changed position. But eventually, she must have fallen into a deeper sleep, because when she next woke up, the sun was out full blast, and Joel was gone. Ellie could hear him and Sophie talking nearby, but they were too far away for her to make out what they were saying... so as not to wake her, presumably. I'd better not hear that fucking giggle of hers, Ellie thought sourly. She pulled the blanket completely up over her head and, now that she could do so without Joel noticing, took her first good look at her bothersome hand.
"Oh, fuck!" she actually said out loud -- not like either of them were close enough to hear her. She thought her palm might be a little bit red or something... it certainly was that, but it was also sprouting some big, ugly blisters. Now it's as ugly as my bite! Same arm, too... which might work in her favor... somehow... but how am I going to hide this from Joel? I can't tell him now after all these hours or he'll wonder why I kept it a secret... She didn't even know why herself, exactly. Except I thought it would just go away!
Ellie decided she'd better just wrap the fucking thing up. Joel's backpack was right there beside her... maybe she could even do it under the cover of the blanket, and when Joel asked her what happened, she could casually say it was just a little cut and oh gee didn't he notice last night when she bandaged it up? He must've been tired!
She managed to furtively slide a health kit from Joel's bag to beneath the blanket, but she heard footsteps -- Joel steps -- coming her way before she could bind up the hand. Quickly, she rolled onto her back and stuffed the bandage roll and the kit itself beneath her, shoving her gimpy hand in the pocket of her hoodie.
"Ellie? Whatcha doin'?"
"Nothing... I just woke up... what time is it?" She just liked to ask that, even though none of them had any clue what time it was, and they all had the same view of the sky to judge it by.
He pulled the blanket off her face. "Good mornin', beautiful -- beautiful sleepyhead, that is. It's time to... uh... tell me what you were actually doin'," he decided. "What did you need out of my bag?"
Can't I do ANYthing without the man noticing? Ellie grumbled to herself. "Oh... I was just wishing you'd come back to bed cuz it's cold out here." It totally didn't answer the backpack question, but...
"I knew it. You only love me for my body heat."
Ellie grinned. "Yep! You know how in Dawn of the Wolf the girl's like trying to decide between the vampire and the werewolf? If she picks the vampire in the end, she's an idiot. She'll never be warm again! I'm glad you're a werewolf."
That amused him. "I s'pose I'm hairy enough. So that's the deciding factor, huh? I better watch it if someone warmer than me comes along?" To Ellie's delight, he actually climbed on top of her. He wasn't in complete play mode; she caught him sneaking glances around, and not just in one direction, like he would if he was just keeping watch for Sophie to return. But if he could multi-task...
Giggling a little, Ellie craned her neck to try to see where Sophie was. "Yeah... good thing you're the hottest guy around!"
Joel chuckled. "If you say so. Sophie's... visitin' nature. Jus' peein', I think. We can't really do nothin'... when she comes back, I'll pretend we're play-fightin' or somethin'." He leaned in and started nuzzling her neck. "I think you might prefer a vampire... the way you love havin' your neck kissed..."
She giggled again, then gasped in surprise when she felt him nibbling. "Hey! If you leave a mark--"
"Mosquito bites," Joel suggested. But the nibbles turned into kisses that sent delicious little tinglies shoot all the way from her neck down to her toes, and then he sat up. "I don' think I did it hard enough anyway."
"Aww, come back down here..." She reached for him with her left hand, leaving the other one tucked safely under cover.
He grabbed her wrist. "Good, at least now it looks a little more like we're playin'. I'll jus' have to... tickle you, maybe..."
"Nooooooo!" Ellie kind of hated being tickled. Joel was too good at it. And if he made her pee her pants out here, who could say how long it would be before she could wash them decently? He hadn't ever made her do that yet, but she feared the possibility anyway -- and she tried to make Joel fear it, too, hoping it would make him merciful. "Joel, don't be mean. Pretend to tickle me if you have to but don't actually do it!"
"All right... you can tickle me instead," he conceded.
"Very funny. Like you're even ticklish."
"I'm tellin' you... you jus' have to find the right spot..."
Ellie snickered. "That's so naughty. What would Sophie think if she saw me groping you?"
"Ha! You're the one with the dirty mind. I was only thinkin' about... my stomach."
"Yeah, right!" Although, to be fair, Ellie had never heard of anyone being ticklish in the dick. Maybe guys just don't advertise it if they are?!
"You got the advantage -- you got the blanket on you. Go on an' try."
"I can't unless you let go!" Obviously he thought she would try with her free hand, but she tried to wriggle her left hand out of his grasp anyway.
"All right, well, if you can't manage to do it one-handed, I'm afraid you're at risk of attack..."
"I need the other hand for defense," Ellie declared. "As soon as it comes off my side you'll grab it, and then you'll put both wrists together with one hand so you can tickle me with the other and all I can do is like jerk around in agony... and pee myself!"
"Hmm, that's a good idea... but I don' gotta wait for you to move that other hand..." He started peeling the blanket back.
"No! That's cheating! You have to leave the blanket!"
"I ain't got a blanket on me for protection, so it's only fair that--"
"Noooooo!" she shrieked. "Joel -- I'm serious -- don't--"
"You can't be serious -- you're laughin'..."
That was the most frustrating thing -- tickling looked like fun because it made you laugh! She twisted around on her other side so he couldn't grab her arm, but that left him free to tickle her left side. He was such a tease about it, too, slowly nudging up the layers of clothing while she squirmed and giggled, and when he finally delivered the actual tickling touch, she curled in on herself and her right hand instinctively unearthed itself to try to push him away and cover the vulnerable skin. He immediately stopped, and let go of her other hand.
Guess it was inevitable... "Well, at least I found a way to make you stop!" she joked as she caught her breath.
"Ellie, what's wrong with your hand? Let me--"
"It's fine!" He'd only seen the bandage... the as-yet-unsecured bandage that was threatening to unwrap itself. She couldn't even curl her fingers around it to hold it because the motion was too fucking painful. She crossed her arms so she could hide it in a natural-seeming way. "It's just a little cut, no big deal."
"No big deal? If you had to wrap it up, it must be bad enough to... you didn' even do it right, let me help you--"
"No! See, I knew you'd criticize me, and overreact... that's why I didn't want you to see it. I can take care of it."
Joel frowned. "I wasn' criticizin'. You're right-handed. It's harder to--"
"I can do it, all right? God! Just leave me alone!" He looked taken aback at that, and Ellie was a little surprised at herself, too... she wasn't angry with him. Why do I yell at him when I don't mean it?
"Jus' let me look at it, all right? Can you tell me what happened?"
Ellie looked away from him. Stared at some tree in the distance. "It was during the fight. It's NO.BIG.DEAL."
"Mm. So that's why you didn't wanna hold my hand." She didn't say anything, and he sighed. "I don' understand why you don' want me to see it."
"I just don't. What's the big deal?"
"...is it a scratch or a bite? From one of the Runners? Does it--"
"No, it's not! It's just-- it's--" Ellie groaned. "It's just embarrassing, okay?"
"It just is!" Anyone else would've just dropped it by now. Why is he so fucking stubborn?!
After another few moments of silence, Joel looked past Ellie and made a motion like he was waving someone over -- Sophie, obviously. "Will you let Sophie tend to it then? If you don' want me to see it?"
"No... ... ...maybe." Maybe I SHOULD do that... because the more suggestions she resisted, the bigger a deal it became. Like it was some Huge Secret. And she would rather have Sophie see it than Joel...
"Jus' mind your sleeve, then. C'mon... sit up." Joel backed off of her, and Ellie obligingly pulled herself up. Sophie's footsteps grew louder as she approached them. "Sophie," Joel appealed to her, "maybe this is some... weird girl thing that I'm too dumb to understand, but Ellie won' let me look at this cut she got. Can you help her dress it, please?"
"Of course!" Sophie knelt next to them.
"I can do it myself," Ellie insisted. "Joel just wouldn't let me finish."
"Okay, whatever, we can do it together. Joel... shoo!" She made exaggerated shooing motions, and Ellie smiled. At Sophie, but then at Joel, too... hoping he would pick up on the see?-I'm-totally-okay! vibe she was trying to project.
"All right, I'll jus' be... over here..."
Ellie watched him walk away, waiting until he was far enough away for her liking to unwrap the bandage. "It's really no big deal. Joel's such a drama whore sometimes." Because there's no way it's ME who's the drama whore! Nope!
Sophie giggled softly. "I don't think I'd describe him quite that way... but, you do know him better than I do. You got some clips or something for this... ?"
"Yeah, I got some out of the kit... right there..." Ellie started re-wrapping her hand while Sophie found them.
"Wait, let me see it," said Sophie, taking Ellie's hand in hers. "Did you wash it first? I mean, at least splash some water on it?"
"No -- I mean, not right now, but last night, yeah," she lied. When would I have had time to do that without Joel noticing? But she didn't protest as Sophie undid the wrapping Ellie had just started to re-do... she glanced at Joel, who was still semi-far away, sort of...
Sophie pulled the bandage completely off and turned her palm over. "Ohhh!" she gasped, stumbling a little as she quickly tried to scoot backwards -- which was awkward from a kneeling position. She looked absolutely horrified. "Ellie -- is this -- are you --"
Shit! "No, it's not a bite! I swear! Look, there's no bite marks, see?"
"But it looks... Christ on a cracker, Ellie..."
And now -- of course -- Joel was rushing back over to them. "What is it?" he asked before Ellie could think of a good reply to that bizarre cracker remark.
Sophie scrambled to her feet. "Joel, you have to look, I think she's..."
Ellie gingerly tucked her hand into her armpit -- although she had to lift her other arm a little so the hand didn't actually touch anything, and that position wasn't sustainable. "I'm not infected, okay? It's just a burn!" Joel looked confused, and she wondered if he was thinking that Sophie saw her arm. She could have, if she'd pushed her sleeve up... fuck, I'd better just show him before he assumes the wrong thing and blabs. Ellie held her palm up as if she were going to wave to him. "See?"
"Holy shit..." He knelt down and took her hand in his, inspecting her palm carefully.
"I got it when... it was stupid. I thought it would just be red for a while and sting a little or whatever. It didn't have blisters on it last night!" At least not right away. "I thought it was nothing. Really. I mean, it is nothing. It'll heal real fast and it'll be fine."
Joel didn't seem to believe her. He examined it with concern that she hoped was just his overprotectiveness kicking in. "How did you get it?"
"I told you, it was stupid." Can't we just leave it at that?!
"That's... not an explanation." He looked her in the eye. "Tell me, please."
Ellie sighed and looked away. "I saw your leg was on fire and I just wanted to... put it out. The only thing around was the blanket, which was also on fire... the one end of it was... so I was trying to hold that end away from you while I used the good end... I guess I should've just used my clothes but I was kind of panicked, it would've taken too long to -- I thought it was going to burn you real bad and that you were prob'ly in pain but as usual you were only thinking of me so you didn't even bother to try to put it out yourself -- you just grabbed that Runner, and... I'm just dumb, all right?"
"Wow," Sophie breathed. "Seriously? You burned yourself to save him... that's like something out of one of my books! It's not stupid at all... it's brave."
"It was an accident! And it was stupid, because he didn't even feel it, and I guess fire doesn't burn through denim all that fast and maybe I didn't even have to do anything and he would've been okay." Joel was being so quiet that Ellie still couldn't look at him, for fear of what she might see in his face. She could feel her own face catching fire now, and the blush was hotter than the actual burn.
"You didn't know that, though," Sophie continued. "All you knew was he was in danger and you had to help him. And you didn't care if you got hurt yourself."
Sophie thinks stupidity is amazing?! Ellie snorted. "Well, I could've done it without accidentally sticking my fucking hand on the burning part. What kind of dumbass does that?"
"It was brave," she insisted. "And selfless. And incredible. Joel's lucky to have you looking out for him."
Ellie felt the praise was unwarranted, but she couldn't help feeling somewhat pleased, even while completely red-facedly embarrassed. She still didn't dare sneak a glance at Joel to try to guess what he was thinking, though. She pulled her hand away from his. "Whatever. Um, I have to pee, so if you guys will excuse me..."
Joel put his hand on her shoulder to prevent her from getting up. "Sophie... give us a minute?"
Sophie mussed Ellie's hair on her way off to... wherever. Ellie wondered why people liked to do that. She herself did it to Clicker sometimes, too, without really knowing why. You had to be taller than the person or it was sort of ridiculous. She couldn't really do it to Joel, unless he was sitting when she walked by him or something. Ellie would have kept pondering stupid shit like this for a while, but she couldn't keep ignoring Joel when he was saying her name, trying to get her to look at him. She steeled herself and finally looked in his direction, if not directly at him. "I know it was stupid, okay? If you didn't just hear me say that a hundred times."
"You think I'm gonna lecture you?" He didn't appear to be in lecture mode, although with Joel, sometimes it was hard to tell. Obviously, since he'd framed the question that way, he wasn't.
"Aren't you?" she said anyway.
"No. Why couldn' you jus' tell me?" he asked gently.
"Because." She looked away again. "Um... I don't know! I just didn't feel like it."
"You're actin' like... it's somethin' to be ashamed of, or... did you think I'd be mad?"
She shrugged. "Disappointed, maybe?" It came out in a whisper, and the pang in her heart suggested that it was close to the truth.
"I could never be disappointed in you, baby girl. An' this... Sophie's right. It was really brave. You're pretty amazin', you know that?"
"Shut up, I am not," Ellie muttered, bowing her head as far down as it could go because she was sure her face must be so red now that it was... like, purple or something.
"Let me see your hand again." She didn't offer it to him, but didn't resist when he took it in his. "Does it hurt real bad?"
"Not real bad, no." It hurt maybe a smidge less than it did last night.
"But it does hurt, yeah?"
"I guess." Is he TRYING to make me sound like a baby and whine about how much it hurts?
"That's good. Stay put. I'm gonna clean it for you. Hang on..." The kit was right there, but he wanted to fetch something from a different bag.
Okay, stupid red face, go back to your normal color now, please... and did he just say it's GOOD that it hurts? Ellie looked at her palm. There were three fairly big blisters, a couple of baby ones... the biggest one extended up just past the base of her index finger. It really did look like the hand of an infected person. The skin around the blisters was red and crimpled-like. On her first two fingers a little, too. Is it more serious than I wanted to believe? What if I can never use this hand again? I can learn to shoot better with my left, I guess... but there's so many things that are way easier with two hands. I'll be like... CRIPPLED. Cripples don't survive very long. Unless they're in Jackson... we even have a wheelchair guy in there... but that's different. And we're not in Jackson anymore. I'm with Joel, so... he'll keep me safe... but who will keep HIM safe? And what if we get split up? Is the fucking thing going to shrivel up and like... fall off?! What if--
"Okay, kiddo, give me your hand. I'm gonna clean it up as best I can. You let me know if it hurts too bad, all right? I'll try to be gentle."
Ellie saw that he'd brought over one of their oatmeal bowls, and the thing that purified their water. It was transparent, so she could see they'd used up about half of the water they'd last picked up. He'd brought over a bar of soap, too. She watched him wash his hands, rinsing them with some of the precious water. "You gotta keep this hand real clean," he told her. "If those blisters break, it can get infected real easy. You weren't usin' this hand at all after this happened, right? That's why... with the plums... that's good. Wish you'd've let me know last night, though, so we could've cleaned it then. I think the bandages we got are... well, not the best kind for burns, but they're all we got. We ain't at home, where it'd be easier to keep clean, so I think we should still bandage it. That okay with you?"
It took her a couple seconds to register that he was asking for her input. "Um... yeah, whatever you say. I'm no expert."
"I ain't, either. Pretty sure that's a second-degree burn, though."
"Second, out of how many?" She kept staring at her hand, rather than look at him.
"So... third is like, the charbroiled Infected last night."
"Yes, like that. Skin completely gone. Nerve damage... but since this hurts, your nerves ain't shot."
It seemed like second-degree would be pretty bad if it was just a step down from that. "Maybe it's only first?"
"First is like a sunburn. This looks a little worse than a sunburn, don'tcha think?"
She nodded. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice.
"For... all this. For getting hurt."
"Ellie, don' be silly. Shit happens. There... does that hurt?"
She winced a little when he touched the puffy skin, though a groan or even just a gasp would've been more honest. "Not really." He kept asking her if it hurt when he did this-or-that, and she kept answering as casually as she could. She didn't need to hide the pain now, and yet... she did. Not just because she was trying to downplay the severity of it out of embarrassment at her own stupidity, or to make Joel think she was tough... not even just so that Joel wouldn't worry. She just got the feeling sometimes that her pain hurt him more than it hurt her -- a noble reason to hide it, except that it still came down to not wanting to feel worse herself. If my pain hurts him, and his hurts me, then him feeling my pain only comes back to bite me, so I'm hurt all the worse in the end... how's that for selfish! Ellie had always felt like physical pain was easier to deal with than emotional, so she told herself to suck it up. When Joel applied some antiseptic from the first aid kit, it hurt like a bitch -- as he'd warned her it would -- but she gritted her teeth and did her best to ignore the white-hot sensation of -- it doesn't hurt it doesn't hurt it doesn't fucking HURT--
"Sorry, kiddo, I know that hurts... you all right?"
No! ...yes, of course I am... making Joel feel bad wouldn't help matters. "It's fine. Really, Joel, it's not that bad." But I'm glad the worst is over!
When her hand was completely wrapped, he thought he might have made it too tight, and he re-did it. Then he thought it might be too loose. He went back to the tighter wrapping. "We'll just air it out some on breaks... an' maybe when it heals up a little more, move the skin around the blisters a little. Keep the scar tissue from hardenin' up too much. All I know for sure is you do not wanna pop those blisters. They're there for a reason. All right? ...Ellie?"
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Don't pop the blisters," she recited dully. And pray it doesn't get infected because if it does, I'm fucked? After a moment, she felt his hand caress her cheek.
"You're gonna be all right."
Is he reading my mind? She bit her lip. "How do you know?"
" 'Cause I know."
Although she didn't want to burden Joel with anything she didn't have to, she figured she could be a little less... brave, or whatever the fuck it was that she was trying to be. She met his gaze warily for a moment before looking away again. "What if I can't ever use this hand again?"
"It's gonna heal up jus' fine. Good as new. Don' worry."
"But you don't know for sure. You're not a doctor."
"We'll take care of it, an' it'll be fine."
"How long will it take?"
"That, I don' know. As long as it takes."
She smiled a little at that familiar Joel-ism. "Thanks for... everything."
"Thank you, baby girl. Shit... do you know how bad I wanna kiss you right now?" he said in a near-whisper.
Her smile widened. "How bad?"
"...Bad," was all he said.
"How bad?" She looked at him. That little smile on his face right now... Ellie wanted to kiss him pretty bad herself!
"Really damn bad."
She giggled. "Good."
"I know you like torturin' me."
And then, without warning, he sobered. "What you did... for me..."
"Joel, shut up, okay?" She felt like he'd tricked her into looking at him -- but now that she was, she didn't look away. "If our roles were reversed, you would've been smart about it... you would've put both fires out, and not gotten burned yourself -- and killed that Runner, all at the same time. Without thinking twice."
Joel shook his head. "That's the thing... it didn' happen because you were stupid. It happened 'cause all you were thinkin' about was me. Helpin' me."
"Well... duh. I love you," she said lightly.
"You sure do." He leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead, for much longer than the usual forehead peck. His hand tangled itself up in her hair. "I love you, too. I wish you wouldn' put yourself in danger on my behalf, but I don' have the heart to lecture you 'bout that. I expect it wouldn' do much good anyhow."
She leaned into him and closed her eyes. "Nope, it wouldn't. Any more than if I lectured you on the same thing."
"I'm sorry you got hurt on account of my dumb ass, fallin' through the fire."
He moved to pull away from her, but she kissed his cheek and wrapped her arms around his neck first. He's so fucking CUTE! "Uh, you were fighting -- the guy pushed you and stuff... it's a little different!"
He held her there, gently rocking her a little. "Well, I'm sorry anyhow."
"Mmm... I'll let you make it up to me." She wanted to climb fully into his lap, rather than just leaning over, but she didn't dare do that now.
"Good. Whatever you want," he murmured.
"Whatever I want? Like, anything?"
"You promise?" That's dangerous, Joel!
"I promise. You can spend the rest of the trip thinkin' up ways for me to make it up to you."
"Oooo, I like the sound of that!" Ellie could so abuse him with such a promise. She probably wouldn't, in the end... but it sure is fun to think about...
~Continue to Chapter 34~