Lumy (luminations) wrote,
Lumy
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"Uncertainty" Chapter 35: "Mistakes Can Kill You" (35/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 35: "Mistakes Can Kill You" (35/47)
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: 10,374
Rating (for fic as a whole): R


Day 12



"It doesn't look any better," Ellie muttered, frowning at her hand while Joel and Sophie washed it. "Maybe this is just how it's gonna be from now on?"

"That's good," Joel said to Sophie, and she lifted the watering can that she'd been tilting over Ellie's hand. He gently rubbed his soapy fingers over the burns. He'd stopped asking if that hurt, because Ellie always said no (even if she winced a little while saying it). "I don' like how the fibers are stickin' to it. Maybe we should try airin' it out instead."

"Sure, Joel. Sophie, how long this time before he wraps it up again?"

"Mmm... an hour at most."

"Well, we don' want it to get infected," Joel grumbled. He was afraid Ellie would be tempted to use the hand, and none of their shit was all that clean. "And it is gettin' better. The blisters all popped."

"And how sad is it that I'd rather see blisters there than... this?"

It was true; her hand was even uglier now than before, and that was really saying something. New skin was forming, which was good, of course, but her hand looked like it had spiderwebs laced through it -- and some of that may have been fibers from the bandages that kept getting stuck to them. Sometimes the wounds would bleed a little when he removed the cloth... he told Ellie that was a good thing, too, because if her hand was really bad off, there'd be no blood flowing to it. He was just talking out of his ass there, but it did sound good... plausible... and it seemed to reassure her. Joel wished there was a clinic or somewhere he could take her to, because he didn't really know what the hell he was doing. He just didn't want her to worry -- that much, he knew. "Jus' give it some time to heal up. It's only been a few days. Growin' new skin takes a while."

"It's been six days," Ellie clarified, "and that doesn't look anything like new skin to me."

"Rinse," Joel said to Sophie. They had this routine down pat. "Ellie, be patient. As long as we don' let it get infected, you're fine. An' you'll know if it's infected 'cause it'll smell like... somethin' godawful."

"Then we'd have to chop my hand off," Ellie said matter-of-factly. They'd discussed infection before, and she seemed to enjoy making Joel squirm at this lovely notion.

"You mean I'd have to," said Sophie, wrinkling her nose.

"Yep, sorry, Joel's too much of a wuss," Ellie teased. "But... in the sweetest possible way."

"Not wantin' to hack off your hand ain't exactly sweet," Joel protested. "I'd call it... 'normal.' Especially when all's we got for the job is a huntin' knife or a switchblade."

"I'd end up doing it myself, I know it," Ellie declared. "Thanks a lot, you guys."

"Hey, a guy really did that," Sophie said as she set down the empty watering can. "He was hiking by himself in the desert somewhere, and he got stuck -- for like, days -- in this cave or something, with this rock pinning his arm. He had to cut it off to get out of there."

"Really?! You're fucking with me, right?" Ellie looked to Joel for validation.

"I think I heard about that." He dried his own hands on the communal towel, but he never let Ellie do the same; maybe he was paranoid, but he didn't trust that the towel was clean enough. Same with the rags they'd brought on the trip... although they might need to use those soon, at the rate they were going through bandages. Maybe he should let it go a couple days before undressing and cleaning the wound, but he just had to look at it every day. He would imagine her hand turning black under there, the skin crumpled and cracked like old leather... followed by a look of horror on Ellie's face when she saw it that would break his heart... he just had to see for sure that it was still red and pink -- and now white as well. And once he'd unwrapped it, he couldn't wrap it with the same dirty bandage. Now he tried to remember the story Sophie was referring to. "They made a movie out of it, as I recall."

"Oh my God. I don't think I could do it." Ellie shuddered. "I wonder if we have that movie in Jackson. Weren't there a lot of people in the world back then? Couldn't he just yell for help and wait for someone to find him, or... wouldn't his family go looking for him?"

"Dunno," said Sophie. "He obviously thought he was going to die there if he didn't do it. No one passed by there in days, so..."

"That'd be funny if like, right after he did it and came out of the cave, a guy comes along like... 'dude, what happened to you?' " Ellie giggled. "Okay, so, not funny. But funny."

"You're terrible," said Joel, although he did enjoy the darker side of Ellie's sense of humor.

"I know," she said with a grin. "I'm also hungry. Can we eat now?"

"Me, too!" chirped Sophie. "I'll cook!"

Joel snorted. " 'Cause it's already cooked, you mean?"

"Heating up leftovers totally counts as cooking," she replied.

"Except we cooked 'em both before so we wouldn't have to bother with it now," Joel reminded her.

"Well, I'd rather eat it hot -- wouldn't you guys? You two go relax on the porch over there and I'll come serve you dinner."

"You gonna do the fire, too?" Joel couldn't help feeling a bit skeptical about that, since she'd never done it by herself.

"If you tell me where the matches are, yes."

"Fine, but let me pick out the spot."

Sophie held up her hand before he could go scout. "I got this!"

Joel started to protest, but Ellie grabbed his arm. "Let her do it, Joel. She's not gonna set all the grass on fire or anything." She looked at Sophie. "There should be matches in the smaller bag. The greenish one. Inside pocket."

"It's gray," Joel corrected her.

"Greenish," Ellie repeated. "Gray-green. Whatever. With all the dirt on it, it's more like gray-green-brown. C'mon, you can watch her from the porch and think about how much better you do everything from there."

"That ain't--"

"Come on! Thanks, Sophie!" And then Ellie was dragging him towards the porch steps. "Look at the sunset! Don't you wanna just sit and look at it? Isn't it... pretty?"

Romantic, Joel added for her in his thoughts. They were in Burley, Idaho, and their hotel for the evening was a big brick and clapboard house in what they'd dubbed the 'riverfront district,' as it was conveniently close to the Snake River. Joel had chosen this one for the brick wall surrounding the entire yard, which was expansive. Someone had barricaded the gate so well that they'd had to squeeze the horses through the front door of the house to get them back there. Also a plus: all the lower level windows were boarded up.

The rusty porch swing they were now sitting in faced the west, so the view was perfect. If they moved at all, though, the swing squeaked gratingly, which was decidedly unromantic. Joel had his arm around Ellie, but his attention was divided -- which was also quite unromantic -- because he had his doubts about Sophie's ability to get the fire going.

Ellie kissed his cheek. "Happy birthday," she whispered.

Joel looked at her, surprised. He'd had no idea what day it was, but Ellie was keeping careful track in the notebook she'd brought.

She smiled. "Don't worry, I didn't tell Sophie."

He was annoyed. Maybe he shouldn't have been, but he was. "I told you--"

"Yeah yeah, I know -- you don't celebrate it. But you should. I mean, I get why you don't, but... it's a big deal, surviving another whole year. And to make it to fifty..." She paused while Joel groaned. "Is it so bad that I want to celebrate it? Not like I can really do much for you, out here..."

Now that he knew, he was surprised she'd waited all day to wish him a happy birthday; she always marked the days off in the morning, so even if she'd forgotten, looking at the date would've reminded her. "You don' need to do anythin'," he said irritably.

"But I want to. And... I can do something... if, um... maybe after dinner I'll tell Sophie I need to talk to you about something private. What I really wanted to do was... well, I can't, now, but..." She sighed. "I was going to write you a song. And play it for you. I could still sing it now, without the guitar, only I never... actually... wrote anything."

She looked sheepish... and adorable as hell. His irritation melted away. "That's all right. You thought you'd have time. Plus I told you I don' even want a fuss any--"

"I know, but I still thought... I mean, you've done so much for me--"

"Ssshhh -- Ellie, that has nothin' to do with my birthday. Even if it did, you've done just as much for me, if not more. Didn' we decide to call it even?" Because Joel had grown tired of the arguments. "I really don' care to remember what today is."

"So... it's selfish of me to want to celebrate. Is that it?"

Joel had to resist the urge to go tell Sophie she needed to gather a bit more kindling before trying to light the fire... no -- back to Ellie-- "Selfish?"

"Because you don't want to, and I do."

"Well... by that definition, yeah, I reckon it is." Joel watched Sophie for a few moments. All right, she got the fire going, barely... but it ain't gonna last long enough to do much...

"Great. I'm a fucking selfish bitch now because I wanna be nice?"

Joel turned back to Ellie and chuckled. "Now you're a bitch? All I said--"

"It's not funny!" She looked pissed.

"Calm down, kiddo," he said with a sigh. "Why are you actin' like--"

"You know what? I think I'll go be nice to Sophie -- at least she appreciates it." Ellie hopped up, but Joel grabbed her arm before she could leave.

"Hold on--"

Ellie wrenched free. "No! You'd rather be alone anyway. If you could do this trip totally by yourself, you would. ...just like Max."

"What?" Joel didn't see how she'd connected those dots. Especially the Max part -- although she could've just thrown that in to irritate him. "Ellie--"

"Just stay there. I'll bring you a plate, unless I'm not allowed to do even that much for you." And then she ran -- ran! -- toward Sophie, who was understandably alarmed at this unexpected sight... at least until she noticed Joel still sitting on the porch swing, calm as ever. No danger.

At least, not that kind.

Well, they were all bound to get on each other's nerves at one point or another. If he hadn't been distracted, he might have noticed that Ellie wasn't just joking around with the bitch comment; there were times she hated being laughed at. And she sure could be moody... though usually not this moody. He wondered if female troubles were to blame... or is it lazy of me to assume that?

Joel didn't get the feeling that this was one of those times she wanted him to chase after her, and he didn't feel up for it anyway. Let her go help Sophie if she wanted. The two could commiserate about what a dick Joel could be. Later, if Ellie was still pissy, Joel would apologize without knowing exactly what he was apologizing for, call himself an asshole or whatever to mollify her, and it might trigger an apology on her end. Joel didn't need one, but sometimes the act of giving it seemed to turn her back into her usual sweet self again.

Ellie was predictable in some ways, still a mystery in others. And he wasn't inclined to ask Sophie for any womanly input there. Even if he were, he had a feeling Ellie wouldn't like that. It was all well and good for her and Sophie to talk about him, or for Ellie and him to talk about Sophie, but that third combination was off limits. In general, Joel didn't dare so much as smile at Sophie if Ellie wasn't included. ...not that it was all that hard, since he wasn't much of a smiler -- basically, he just had to be careful that he didn't appear to be enjoying her company too much, because Ellie was really... sensitive. And with Sophie present, Ellie couldn't ask for the kind of reassurance she needed... or if she did do it, subtly, Joel couldn't respond the way he was accustomed to -- with affection. And by the time they were going to sleep, it was usually so long after the fact that it would be odd to bring it up... or I'm too damn tired to WANT to bring it up. Sometimes Ellie would become talkative then, if Sophie was far enough away that they could at least whisper, and Joel tried, but...

Okay, so I don't try all that hard most of the time, he had to admit. Even when he wasn't on the brink of sleep, he would pretend to be, sometimes. It did make him feel a little guilty. He could justify it to himself, thinking, What's so wrong with wanting nothing more after a long, exhausting day than to hold my baby girl and go to sleep? But the guilt nagged him anyway. So far, Ellie hadn't insisted on talking if he was 'too tired,' so he assumed it wasn't that important. Right now, he was more concerned with keeping her safe than making her happy. They hadn't done their 'nature breaks' quite as often, either, the past few days.

We really should've done that today, Joel mused. Because last time (two days ago), it hadn't gone very well. Ellie had been strangely aggressive, going so far as to shove her hand down his pants -- twice. Twice he'd removed it and told her no.

"It's okay, Joel -- it's actually safer than kissing cuz you can look around better!"

"Still too distracting."

"But if you're keeping an eye out..."

"My mind wouldn't be on keepin' watch."

"Okay, well, if I do it quick--"

"Ellie, you know I'm barely okay with you doin' it in the first place."

"Yeah, cuz I gross you out."

"No, because--"

"Whatever! Just pretend I'm Sophie then."

"...What?!"

"She's old enough, in your eyes. So pretend I'm her. But if you call out her name, I'm warning you right now--"

"Jesus, Ellie, stop it -- we've talked about that -- an' we shouldn't even be out here. Let's go back."

"Go back? But we didn't even... okay, I'm sorry -- I'm sorry! I'll be good, just kissing--"

"No, we're goin' back. Come on, get up."


She'd apologized again that night, and he'd told her it was okay, he wasn't upset with her. And he truly wasn't. They were in a situation that was difficult even for him, and she was so much younger, with so much less life experience and coping abilities. He needed to remember that more often. When he'd asked her why she was so determined to jack him off, she'd mumbled something about missing him. He'd hugged her tighter and told her he loved her and they'd have plenty of time for all that stuff later, but she'd still seemed a little... unsettled.

The next day, they hadn't been alone at all, and he'd gotten the feeling Ellie was okay with that. Today... he just hadn't really thought to make the time. Ellie didn't drop any hints or try to initiate something herself, so he figured she wasn't bothered by it.

But now it was starting to bother him.

The odd thing was, Ellie didn't seem upset with him at all. She acted perfectly normal -- even more agreeable than usual, actually. She was getting along great with Sophie. And she wasn't asking him loaded questions anymore. Before, if Sophie were out of earshot, Ellie would ask him casually if he'd ever seen a tree like some... new-to-her tree before, and they would innocently chat about trees... then she'd bring up Sophie for no reason and awkwardly segue into something bizarre and random -- such as, did he ever wish that he and Sophie were a couple and Ellie was their kid. Following up his 'of course not' with a 'well, why not?' -- as if he'd answered incorrectly when he knew he hadn't. It was like a test consisting of nothing but trick questions. I definitely don't miss THAT. He was glad for these things, and if it was at all related to them not making out, then....

That's crazy... but what else could it be? Could she really just not be jealous of Sophie in the slightest anymore? So fast? It wasn't really something Joel could ask her about: "Ellie, why aren't you acting more jealous? What's up with that?" He knew it was a good thing. Maybe he could comment that it was nice to see her feeling more secure about Sophie... but if he brought her attention to it at all, would she wonder why he was 'thinking about' Sophie? That had happened, more than once.

He was probably overthinking this.

Maybe he should just keep things simple, and stick to the original 'no fooling around Outside' rule. But he didn't want to sentence them to no kissing for the remainder of the trip... or nearly no kissing -- there were times, like tonight, where they could get away with a little more, with Sophie in another room. Maybe they could close the door for a while. Sophie's door might be closed, but Joel never felt comfortable sleeping that way. Ellie thought he should feel safer with the door closed, but he was afraid he wouldn't be able to hear any goings-on downstairs well enough to wake up in time to deal with the threat.

Joel watched the two girls at the fire. Ellie had made it a little more robust, and they were taking turns poking at the meat on the little fold-out grill rack they'd brought. He heard one or both of them laugh from time to time.

His thoughts turned to his birthday... and, inevitably, Sarah. There was a time he might have wanted to grab a bottle of whiskey he'd stashed specifically for this anniversary and get as shit-faced as possible. He hadn't done that last year, because he'd been heading west with Ellie and hadn't even known it when the day had come and gone. And again this year, that wasn't an option. Even if he had that bottle... it might be a little tempting, fleetingly... hell, Sophie would probably drink it with him, without even knowing what day he was marking. But he could hear Ellie and her questions, see her not understanding it at all... feeling hurt that he'd rather do that than ~talk about his feelings~ with her... to drown his sorrows rather than deal with them.

Worse than that, though, was how irresponsible it would be. How could he protect those two when he was out of it -- not just for that night, but by being hungover the next day?

The thing was... Joel wasn't even sad enough to do that. The sorrows were still there; even though he'd drowned them with alcohol plenty of times in the past, the fuckers sure could swim... ha. Real poetic, Joel. If he poked at them enough, they still hurt. Hell -- sometimes he'd be doing no such thing and a crippling wave of grief would wash over him out of nowhere. Sometimes, it would be something that reminded him of Sarah... other times, he had no idea where it came from. But that happened so much less frequently now. Since Ellie. Not because she'd replaced Sarah -- she never could -- but because she was here now, and he loved her fiercely. She needed him in a way no one else on the planet did. And he wasn't sure how she'd done it, but somehow she'd made it possible for him to think about Sarah sometimes without feeling the pain.

Joel still wore the broken watch. He always would. But looking at it no longer enraged him or devastated him; sometimes, it even made him smile.

He was thinking about Sarah when Ellie brought the plate of food up to him. He managed a small smile, but Ellie probably noticed his eyes were moist; her voice was gentle when she asked if he was okay, and if he wanted her to sit with him. "Go eat with Sophie," he urged her. "Please."

"I could just sit here and not say a word?" she offered.

He knew she could; she'd done it before, when he was in a mood. "Thank you. But no... go on. I'll talk to you in a 'lil while, if that's all right."

"Of course it's all right. If you're sure." He felt her looking at him, but he wouldn't meet her gaze. She stroked his arm for a moment, then his cheek. "I'll be right down there."

"Wait, I should wrap your hand first--"

"I'm being careful."

"I'd feel better if--"

"Then I'll have Sophie do it. Just eat and don't worry about it. Love you," she added under her breath.

"Love you, too."

At least she seemed to have forgotten their last conversation already. Joel ate the leftover pheasant and the side of creamed corn (also warmed over the fire, even though they'd eaten it cold plenty of times before). He would have let Ellie sit with him if Sophie hadn't been there. Would've invited her even if she hadn't asked. But Sophie was there, and he would rather sit there by himself and watch Ellie from afar, now that they could temporarily ease up some on the vigilance and muteness. He couldn't catch most of what was said, but he could hear the inflections of her voice... the little laughs from time to time... he would rather observe that than to either 'force' her to sit with him in silence or to find the right words to say to her... to formulate the appropriate, expected responses. It was a peaceful feeling, watching her. Not unlike their last night in Jackson, at the party. She IS happy, overall. That's one thing I'm certain of.

She glanced over at him occasionally, smiling each time. And he smiled back, admiring the way the firelight caressed her beautiful face.

* * * * *

"Really? I can close it?" Ellie asked, whispering even though Sophie had already closed her door.

They were in the master bedroom -- one which even contained a bed. A large one. No sheets or blankets on it, but they had their own blankets. And Sophie was in the bedroom alllllll the way down the hall. He probably should've put her in the one closest to them, but she happened to like the farthest one best, and... he just wasn't that responsible, apparently. At least, not tonight. And Ellie really needs to close that door, if we do what I have in mind... "Jus' for now. Gotta leave the spiders a way out later, don' we?"

"Eww! You had to say that. Are they still up there? Can you shine the light there? ...ewww! Why can't we just kill them?!"

"It's their house. We're jus' guests." Joel knew Ellie wasn't seriously afraid of spiders and other creepy-crawlies, but her extreme dislike of them amused him. It seemed to be limited to indoors, where she felt they had no right to be; outdoors, she didn't give a shit what they did. He switched the flashlight off and set it on the nightstand, next to El Diablo. "C'mere. I'll keep you safe."

She closed the door and hurried to the bed, giggling as she crawled toward Joel. He pulled her close, then rolled her over so that he was laying on top of her. "If we sleep like this, they'll get to me first," he murmured against her lips. She started to make some noise of assent but Joel didn't let her finish -- he had to kiss her. It had been far too long, and he hadn't even realized how much he'd missed it until that moment.

The kisses were slow and sweet, their tongues gently probing... it was a few minutes before either of them spoke again. "Thank you," Ellie breathed.

He chuckled. "My pleasure." He kissed her lips a couple more times before lifting his head a little... his hands framed her face, smoothing her hair back. The moon was nearly full tonight, and the half of her face nearest the window was decently illuminated. She's so pretty, he thought as he resumed kissing her. I don't tell her that enough...

"Joel..."

"Hmm?"

"Just so you know..."

He rolled off to her side, tugging her leg over his and running his hand up to her ass. They were ready for bed, but still fully clothed, so he was touching her jeans instead of her skin. "So I know what, baby girl?" He started kissing her neck before she answered.

She giggled softly. "Mmm... God... um..."

"We still have to be quiet," he whispered the reminder in her ear, sucking her earlobe into his mouth.

"Fuck... you're making that kinda hard, y'know..."

"You're the one makin' it hard," he smirked, smothering her laugh with his mouth.

They kissed another minute or so before she seemed to remember she'd been trying to say something. "Just so you knooooow," she repeated, pausing again, presumably for dramatic effect.

"I already know: you love me."

"No!"

"No?"

"Well, yeah, but... ohhh..."

"Am I distractin' you? Just a little?" he teased as his hand slithered up her shirt.

"A bit, yeah," she giggled.

He was surprised to find that he was cupping her bare breast in his palm. "What happened to your bra?" he asked, gently massaging her.

"It's... somewhere..."

He bunched her shirt up to her armpits and scooted down a little so he could nuzzle her. "Mmm. Did you turn it into a bed for the spiders?"

"What? No!" she laughed.

"Ssshh," he reminded her before his lips closed around her nipple.

"No... you don't think they would... God, that feels nice, Joel... love you..."

"You love my mouth," he clarified for her. His tongue danced around the pretty pink nipple, over it... under it... he was basically giving her breast a big ol' sloppy wet kiss.

"I love your mouth," she agreed breathily.

His lips made their way over to the other breast. "I know how I want to celebrate my birthday," he declared before kissing the other nipple.

"You do? Yay!" She was keeping her voice to a stage-whisper level, but her excitement came through loud and clear.

"If you're willin', that is..."

"I'm willing!"

"You don' even know what I want," he chided her, amused. He sucked her nipple for a couple moments before taking it gently between his teeth.. He didn't think she'd been all that crazy about the nibbling when he'd done it before, so he didn't apply any real pressure, just held it for a moment before switching back to the tongue bath.

"Oh that-- that's nice... Um, that's what I was gonna tell you before," she said. "I was gonna remind you... I'm ready to... I'm ready whenever you are..."

He aligned his face with hers again. "Naughty girl. That ain't what I had in mind." He kissed her lips before they could form that adorable little pout.

"Fuck! Well, I had to try," she giggled.

"I do wanna take your pants off, though..."

"That's what you want for your birthday?"

"For starters, yes." His fingers slowly worked her fly as he kissed her.

"Oooo... why do I get the feeling this is gonna be more of a present for me than for you?" she teased.

"Oh, it's definitely for me," he assured her. Not that YOU will think so, though...

She was quick to help him dispense with her jeans, which hit the floor with a soft whoosh. "The spiders aren't seriously going to go run around in my clothes, are they?"

"Uh... if they're male, maybe jus' your panties."

"Gross!"

He rested his hand on said panties, his thumb lightly rubbing her stomach. "You can keep 'em on if you want."

"Okayyyy... so... what is it that you want, exactly?"

He kissed her in lieu of answering. Still slowly, but a little deeper than before... he ghosted his fingers over her crotch a little before dragging a finger up the middle of it, pressing hard enough into the cloth to feel that she was already wet. His cock instantly stood at full attention.

She scrambled to get her underwear off, and he smiled. "What about the spiders?"

"They can have 'em," she declared. "These just get in the way!" Her panties were about to go the way of her jeans, but Joel grabbed her wrist.

"Jus' lay 'em on the blanket here. I don' trust this floor, an' you gotta put 'em right back on--"

"Okay, whatever, shut up," she said as she kissed him, eager for more.

Not that the blanket was all that clean, either, but at least it had been washed in the past two weeks. Joel rested his hand on her inner thigh, and after it sat there a moment, she scooted it over to where she wanted it, moaning into his mouth when she made his fingers touch her. "So impatient," he teased.

"It's been like two months," she complained.

"Hardly," he laughed. He rubbed her agonizingly slowly with one finger. "I think it's only been... hmm..."

"Whatever!" she said again. "I looooove... your fingers..."

"I thought you loved my mouth." He kissed her before she could reply. "I wanna make you love it even more," he breathed.

"Not possible..."

"I disagree." I just hope she doesn't freak out this time...

He'd lovingly kissed both breasts again and was kissing her navel when her brain finally registered his intentions. "Wait! Joel -- you can't."

"I can... I really, really want to, Ellie... please?"

She hadn't moved, at least. Just froze. He waited, moving his finger only the slightest bit... she remained frozen even when he did that. He dropped a kiss on her stomach. Kept waiting...

Finally she spoke. "Can I do it to you? After?"

He could have anticipated that request. "No."

"But it's your birthday."

"Don' matter. I ain't ready for that... not yet." Or ever, maybe...

She started to squirm away, but he shifted up a little so he could hold her still. I COULD just go for it... I know she'd like it, and once I started, she wouldn't stop me... But he couldn't. Maybe if they were just playing around... but she'd gotten truly upset last time. And if he expected her to respect his 'no's, he had to respect hers. "Ellie... if I let you do it with your hands -- your hand -- would that be all right?" God knows I'll need to do it myself anyway, after this...

"Um..." She laughed nervously. "That still feels like cheating."

"No! I wanna do this with you doin' nothin' at all, so..."

"Okay -- but you have to swear you'll let me."

"I swear."

"...Okay."

He expected her to relax then, but he could feel how tense she was. "Okay? You sure?"
"Yes -- but if you don't let me do it, I'm never talking to you again. I mean it. For the rest of my life."

Joel chuckled. "Duly noted." Somehow he thought she would forgive him before too long -- the next day, even -- but he intended to honor the promise. He kissed his way back down her belly, hitching her legs up over his shoulders. "Oh -- an' remember you can't be loud."

"If Sophie hears anything... I could tell her I was masturbating?" she suggested, giggling softly.

"With me in here?"

"Sure... maybe you fell asleep already..."

He could've laughed loudly at that himself; the thought of him sleeping through Ellie doing that right next to him was ludicrous. "Maybe I could find your bra an' use it as a gag."

She giggled. "How 'bout I'll just be nice and quiet instead."

He kissed her groin lightly, making her quiver. "Feel free to borrow my hand for a gag if you need it." He laid a hand on her breast to provide easier access for her.

"Mmm, maybe I like it where it's at... Oh! Wait!"

He lifted his head. "What?"

"I... um... well..."

"Hmm? Don' be embarrassed."

"It's just... I haven't, like... shaved. Down there. As I guess you've noticed."

Ha! What the fuck? "I know. I don' care about that."

"Well, I figured that... maybe... since you didn't say anything before, and your finger was... but... well. Yeah."

"You're good." He was a little surprised she'd even given any thought to grooming that area. Had even known to give any thought to it. He wondered what sorts of things she and Sophie talked about when he wasn't around. But he put that thought out of his mind as he got down to business.

She whimpered as soon as he got to her clit. He kissed her lightly, dusting his lips over her sex, 'testing the waters,' so to speak... she still seemed a little tense.

"Joel -- that's..."

"What?"

"Maybe this isn't a good idea."

"Why not?"

"It feels too good."

"Psshh!" He was about to get back to it when she squealed a little.

"No, like... I don't think I'll be able to..."

"To what?"

"Like... control myself?"

"You don' have to... it's jus' like when I touch you."

"Um, except it's your face down there and not your hand!"

Joel chuckled. "An' you don' gotta do anythin' different."

"Joel! I'm not going to... push myself at your... that's gross."

"No -- it's hot as hell. Hotter than hell, actually. Believe me. Jus' relax an' do whatever feels good." He kissed the sweet wetness, dipping his tongue into her folds, and her protests melted into a soft groan.

"Quiet," he reminded her, and she yanked his proffered hand up to her mouth. It was a little strange to be muzzling her like that, but it was certainly better than Sophie hearing, and it allowed Ellie to be a little more uninhibited. He knew he should feel at least as dirty now as when he touched her in her private areas, but... he didn't feel all that dirty when he did that, either. At least not anymore. Not when she enjoyed it so damn much. His brain knew it was still wrong... he just didn't give a shit.

He couldn't do anything with the muzzle-hand, but with the other, he stroked the soft curls next to his face, using his thumb to supplement his tongue's caresses. Holy SHIT is she wet...

She pulsed into his face -- rather gently, but he figured that would be remedied soon -- and her 'good' hand was pushing his muzzle-hand against her mouth so hard that he had to wonder if it hurt her.

Joel lapped up her musky sweetness; he'd already known what she tasted like, from licking his fingers, but this was better somehow. It wasn't exactly the sweetness of, say, licking an ice cream cone... but it's a hell of a lot more erotic. And there was no way that gagging her with his dick and shooting his load down her throat was comparable, no matter what she said.

He teased her entrance with his fingers a little, and that made her buck a little more, but he didn't slide them inside her. Instead, he slid them upward and sort of scissored them to part her lips, tickling her there with his tongue, and she started to buck at his face harder and faster. He wasn't sure how long she could last without coming, and it seemed like she was awfully close, even though he'd only been at it for a few minutes at most. She was 'mmmmmm'ing fairly continuously into his hand -- with her mouth open, because he could feel the wetness there too, and her tongue on his hand... it only aroused him even more -- which he hadn't thought possible, because he was so goddamn aroused right now he wasn't sure he'd be physically able to keep his promise.

He slowly pressed the two fingers against her entrance, and he almost didn't need to slide them any further, because she did the rest of it herself, lifting her ass more and pushing herself forward. He sloppily kissed her swollen clit as she bucked onto his fingers and into his face. The muffled noise she was making almost sounded like... crying. He pleasured her that way for maybe another minute, which was rather incredible to him since she'd seemed to be on the brink, a couple times... okay, now she is for SURE... she moaned, then whimpered, then went oddly quiet as the speed increased to orgasm-pace... and with one long, final "MMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmm" into his hand, she flopped back on the bed, chest heaving, legs quivering.

Joel planted little kisses up her belly -- and not to be sweet. It was a rudimentary means of drying his beard off a little, although he still didn't expect she'd want to kiss him now. He could live with that. He just hoped Sophie didn't need anything tonight, because he sure couldn't come up with any other explanation for the lovely scent on his face. He lingered over Ellie's chest, admiring the way the moonlight played across her smooth young body... yes, I'm a pervert. We've established that.

"Holy fucking shit, Joel," she breathed. She started to tug her shirt back down, but Joel halted that with the strategic placement of his hand. He nuzzled her neck, waiting for the inevitable 'ewwww.' A playful shove, maybe.

But she rolled onto her side and hugged him, and even started kissing his face -- his forehead, anyway... eyebrows... nose... and, to his surprise, even his lips. "You're amaaaaazing," she told him. "And now it's your turn, even though I won't be anywhere near amazing."

He chuckled. "My job's easier than yours."

"You think so?" She started fumbling with his fly. "Um... I guess you might be right, cuz I get, like... excited, and stuff... right away... I need to be on your other side cuz of my stupid gimp hand..."

"Your body's nice an' soft... beautiful," he commented as she rearranged herself on his left side. "Mine, not so much."

She smirked. "You're beautiful too, Joel! In a manly sort of way."

"Don' lie. An' here, let me... don' use your bad hand..."

"You can undo my pants with one hand," she pouted. "I can't even do it with one and a half?"

He chuckled. "My hands are a 'lil bigger than yours, kiddo."

"That shouldn't matter. I think I just need more practice... and omigod, I forgot how huge you are. No wonder you don't wanna have sex -- you don't think it'll fit either!"

Ha! He wasn't that big, but Ellie had no basis for comparison -- she'd clearly forgotten about Bill's magazine, or she would presumably find him lacking in size. Joel didn't bother taking his pants off, and he just poked through his boxers rather than tugging those down. He shifted completely onto his back to make it a little easier for her. "It'll fit jus' fine, an' it ain't that I don't want sex. As you know."

"Yeah, yeah. Hey, remember how you said... you'd make it up to me?"

Huh? "...no?"

"Well, I think you should let me return the favor for--"

"No."

"But--"

"I said no."

She sighed. "Okay, so... I'll just... like... God, after what you just did, this is so lame."

"No it ain't." She seemed nervous for some reason. And oddly reluctant to touch him, even though she'd done it several times before. "Why are you so..."

"So what?"

"Don' worry so much. It's jus' me."

"Just you." Ellie snorted. "Only the most important person in the world."

"Only the person who loves you more than anyone else," he reminded her.

"That doesn't mean you won't laugh at me if I do something weird."

"You know I don' mean to make you feel--"

"Right -- you don't laugh at me, you enjoy me. Pfffff."

"I do."

"Okay, whatever." She seemed to find whatever courage she needed, because she finally took firm hold of his dick. "Is that good?"

"Mmhmm. There's already some..." He guided her hand to the head, which was slick with pre-come.

"I could swipe some off myself first," she said with a grin. "I've got enough slime for both of us. Thanks to you."

"Could come in handy some time, sure." He usually put his hand over hers to start her off, but he found that she didn't need it this time; she fell into a nice steady rhythm. Ahhhhh... that's it, baby girl... "That's good... yeah, jus' like that..."

"I could just rub it directly on there..." She started to lift her leg like she was going to straddle him.

"No, Ellie," he growled. "Shit, we shoulda put your pants back on first. At least your underwear."

"What are you afraid of, huh?" she teased -- and he knew that she knew perfectly well what he was afraid of. But she did lower her leg. "Afraid you might accidentally have sex with me?"

And of course, now that very image was in his head. He closed his eyes and saw Ellie rubbing her sex against him... all warm and soft and wet... so fucking wet... then, oops! in it goes, making Ellie's head fall back... slack-jawed with pleasure... moaning as she rode him...

"Does that feel good?"

"Very..." He hugged her close and kissed her forehead. He wanted to kiss her on the mouth, but even though she'd given him a chaste kiss on the lips earlier, he didn't think she'd appreciate a sensual kiss right now, especially since she'd already had her turn. In his little fantasy, though, she wasn't sated yet... the Ellie in his fantasies was nearly insatiable. I shouldn't be fantasizing about her now, though -- she's right fucking HERE... He shouldn't let Ellie inadvertently plant distracting fantasies like that in his head. He kept his lips pressed to her forehead. "S'nice... little faster now, if you can... yeahhh..."

"Can I kiss it?"

"What? No -- hand only." Not that your sweet little mouth on my dick wouldn't be fucking amazing... damn, girl, you really do drive me crazy...

"Not like a real... just a little tiny kiss. On the top. Please?"

In spite of what he'd just tried to tell himself about not fantasizing, now he was imagining her doing that... hovering over him, delivering the little kiss as intended, but instead of backing off afterward, she wants to keep kissing it... she presses her lips there a moment, then opens her mouth to cover the head... her tongue starts darting around...

"Pleeeease?"

I'm a sick fuck: "All right," he heard himself say.

"Really?"

She's surprised -- I should take it back. But since he was indeed a sick fuck, he didn't. "Jus' a real quick one. If you want."

She kept up with the hand strokes, to her credit, and positioned her face close to his dick. Joel was so weak-willed right now that if she actually started sucking it in earnest, he probably wouldn't have stopped her. But of course, she didn't. She did what she'd asked to do -- just pressed her lips to it for a second, then returned to the crook of his arm. "Did that feel good?" she asked him.

It did, actually, brief though it was -- a wave of pleasure overtook the little ripples her hand was producing... her hand, in conjunction with his imagination. "Ellie..."

"Joel," she whispered, as if answering a question.

He pulled her face to his and kissed her hungrily... big, sloppy, open-mouthed kisses. It took her a moment longer than usual, but she did kiss him back. He engulfed her hand with his again and increased the stroking speed. "I'm close," he warned her.

"Let me do it!" she protested, so he dropped his hand.

Her hand wasn't quite as fast as his, and it slipped a couple times... on the whole, though, she was doing a good job. Then she kissed him, dividing her concentration, but she was starting to get a little better at multi-tasking, too... she brought him right to the edge. He grabbed her hand again. "Jus' hold your hand right there... like... there, don' move it..." He started thrusting into her hand. It was easier that way. He grunted a little as he came, making a mess on both their hands, then fell back against the mattress, completely slack, panting. "Whewwww."

"You didn't moan," Ellie complained good-naturedly.

"I don't moan," he reminded her.

She laid her head on his chest. Wiped her hand on his stomach. "It was weird, like... tasting myself when I kissed you."

He chuckled. "Sorry. I didn' know if you'd be okay with that or not..."

"Me neither," she admitted. "But after the first couple seconds, I didn't really notice anymore. And like... seriously, Joel, if you taste like that, it's because... um... I mean, you deserve to be kissed after that."

He laughed. "You're cute." And I'm a dirty old man, fantasizing your innocence away... no real harm in fantasizing, he reckoned, since he only did it when aroused -- and only some of the time. He didn't really want Ellie to be like the fantasy version; he wanted to preserve the innocence he was stealing. Fucked up as that was.

She planted a little kiss on his chest before tilting her head to look at him. "What do we do about the..."

The mess. There wasn't much they could do. They couldn't wash up decently without taking a hike down to the river (or, at the very least, the makeshift horse trough -- but how rude would that be to the poor horses), and it wasn't like they had tissues. They could dilute it with drinking water, he supposed (even though that was better spent on quenching their thirst or caring for Ellie's burn), but then... the towel was shared with Sophie, so that was out. Joel bunched up the blanket and pulled it over his abdomen. "Jus' use this. We'll wash it... eventually."

Ellie giggled and kissed his cheek. "Well, I hope this birthday was happier than any of your others. You got to come, so..."

Like that was the thing that made this birthday special. He smiled. "First one I've spent with you, so yes, happy. Well, second, technically, but this is the first one I was aware of, so that other one don' count. Do me one last favor?"

"Sure!"

"Go open the door a little. I'm gonna fall asleep real soon, I think." I should take a piss, too, but I sure as hell don't feel like going outside... maybe I can just shoot it out the window...

She left the door ajar as requested, and got dressed before climbing back into bed, leaving her fly undone, just to be a tad more comfy. Sophie did occasionally come check to see if they were awake in the mornings if she woke first -- at least, she had at times when Joel was already awake but allowing Ellie to sleep a little longer. She'd found him curled around her more than once. If she found that creepy, she hid it very well, because usually she'd catch his eye and smile... one of those "awww so cute" smiles that girls had.

"Thank you, Joel," Ellie said as she snuggled up to him.

He folded her into his arms and held her tight. "You're welcome, though I'm sure you don' need to be thankin' me for whatever it is."

"Yeah I do! God. That was... beyond amazing. You're... totally my hero. Like, even more than before."

Joel had to grin. "Damn, that's all it takes to be your hero?"

"That's all?! That was fucking-- I mean, holy fuck, Joel... any time you feel like doing that, you... just go ahead and do it. I don't care where we are, or if Sophie's around, or... anything."

As if he could make a habit of that out here. But her enthusiasm was adorable. "You're welcome," he repeated.

"But even more than... that, um... I have to thank you for..." She wriggled up to whisper in his ear. "You let me kiss your dick."

Joel chuckled. "Don' remind me. That was bad."

"No, it was awesome. Next time--"

"No."

She giggled softly into his shoulder. "You didn't even hear what I was gonna say!"

"It was a one-time deal."

"Aww, no fair."

"Life ain't fair."

She was quiet a moment. "No, it's not. It's been so... like... unbelievably unfair to me -- way too good, though, not bad. Most people say that like it's bad but I think it could really go either way, don't you? 'Unfair' means 'not fair,' which just means... some people are luckier than others."

Joel wasn't sure how many people would agree with her that life was 'too good,' given her rough life so far. Even their relationship now was... good, yes, but fraught with issues that other couples didn't have. She's just too sweet. "Love you, baby girl."

"Love y-- oh my God. Joel! I totally forgot! I have a real present for you!"

He chuckled. "You already gave--"

"A real present! It's wrapped and everything! I can't believe I forgot. I was going to surprise you with it as soon as we got in here. Turn the light back on! And sit up!" She was scrambling toward where they'd deposited their back packs before he could even find the flashlight. But he obligingly sat up and shone the light over there while she rooted around in her bag until she found it. "Ta-da!" she said gaily as she handed him the gift and snuggled up next to him again. She plucked the flashlight from his hand and turned it toward the little gift-wrapped rectangular thing. "Open it!"

He wasn't actively trying not to think about Sarah. That last night had haunted him for years... maybe it still did. The if onlys that hounded him relentlessly at first had gradually abated into a reluctant sort of acceptance of the unchangeable facts -- the series of missteps -- leading up to the outcome: I didn't put enough stock in the warning signs to get the hell outta Dodge beforehand. I was grumpy and cross with Sarah on her last night on Earth. I didn't tell her I loved her, one last time. I let Tommy drive. I trusted that the soldier wouldn't open fire on a little girl.

And, the hardest pill to swallow: I didn't take the bullet for my daughter.

He'd never told Ellie the details. As eager as she'd been to hear his account of the apocalypse, she was sensitive enough not to poke at old wounds, once she identified them as such. Even if he'd tried to forget Sarah in this moment, it would've been impossible. But it actually didn't make him sad. There Ellie was, smiling and hopeful, perhaps a smidge anxious at what his reaction would be. "You didn't have to get me anythin'," he grumbled; one might think he'd be dousing her with gratitude, given his regrets, but he didn't. "I told you--"

"I know what you told me. But you know how you said that... um... what you did before was for you? Not me? Even though it was totally for me? That's what this is like!" She sounded adorably proud of the connection she'd drawn there. "I wanted to pick something out, and wrap it myself -- I was going to use the kids' construction paper, but I knew we had actual paper that you're supposed to put on gifts, so I wanted to use that kind, and make it more... you know... legit -- so I went to Sue and she let me pick what kind of that, too -- notice how it's, like... not girly? I know you're not into fishing poles and stuff but it's more... outdoorsy, at least, or... more guy-like than kittens and flowers and shit. And I thought you'd like dark green better than pink or purple. So she asked me how much I needed, and I overestimated it on purpose in case I fucked up the first time. Which is a good thing cuz I under-overestimated it and used almost the whole thing -- and I did fuck up the first time, so it's... sort of wrinkled, more than it should be... especially right there... she offered to help me wrap it but I said no way -- besides, I didn't want her to see what I got you, in case she... well, never mind. I just wanted to do it myself. Even though I don't know how. So it prob'ly looks worse than any other gift you've ever gotten in your life -- but I know I got the top of it right -- see how the whole thing is one... piece, like? One side? No ends of the paper on top. I was supposed to put a bow on it too, I know, but I figured you wouldn't mind if I skipped that part. Bows are... you know. Not manly. And it would've got squished in my bag anyway. I thought about ribbon cuz I could've taken that from the kids' stuff too -- or yarn. That would've worked good. But I liked it okay this way and figured you... prob'ly don't care about that, like... decorative stuff? Right? ... ... ...Joel, this whole time I've been talking you haven't even interrupted me once."

Of course he hadn't. Her whole spiel was cute as hell. And the thought of her going to so much trouble... "I don' see how any of that makes it for you, an' not for me."

"Duh -- because all of that was fun! Because how often do I ever get to do anything for you? Now I--"

"Every day," he interrupted this time. "You do things for me every day, even if you don' realize it. Remember we talked about that?"

"Yeah -- stuff that doesn't count. I mean actually, physically doing something for you. To make you happy. Or... is supposed to make you happy. People are usually happy when they get gifts."

"Even though I told you I don' celebrate my birthday."

"Well... it's no big deal. Just something little. And I didn't tell Sophie!"

She liked to point that out. Joel would concede that that much was just as much for her sake as for his. If she had told Sophie ahead of time, would Sophie have given him a gift, too? And if she told Sophie today, would Sophie try to make some kind of fuss over him? Give him a hug or something, at least? Maybe. And he was pretty sure that Ellie wanted his birthday to be a private thing that only the two of them shared. Which suited Joel just fine.

He sensed that she was struggling not to get upset with him... probably because he was acting so ungrateful. He squished her against his side and kissed her forehead. "You shouldn't've gone to so much trouble. But... it does sound like you enjoyed it--"

"I did!"

"--and it was real nice of you to... be so thoughtful. Thank you."

"You haven't even opened it yet!"

He kissed her brow, her cheek, her nose, and finally, her lips. "Whatever it is, I love it."

She giggled. "Liar. You can't say that when you don't even know what it is."

"I already know what it is. It's somethin' you picked out for me, an' went to all this trouble of--"

"It wasn't any trouble!" Ellie insisted, even though a minute earlier she'd been all too eager to share every detail of exactly how much trouble it was. "Just fucking open it already!"

He had one arm around Ellie, so he flipped it over with one hand and started undoing the crumply mass of... untraditionally-arranged giftwrap underneath. "You got tape, too."

"Yeah, from the kids -- Sue offered me some, but it was easier to just steal it from their bin and return it the next afternoon."

Joel was completely prepared to put on a little show of fake enthusiasm for whatever she'd selected for him, but found that he didn't have to. "What... how did you..."

"I stole it," she admitted -- and not sheepishly, either. In fact, she sounded rather gleeful. "I could've checked it out for reals -- under your name though cuz I already had a book out -- but that would mean you have to give it back eventually, and I wanted you to keep it. Like a real gift."

What he'd really been asking was how did she know to choose this particular author. Joel didn't read enough -- or at all, really -- to have a favorite, and he'd actually never even read any of this one's work, either, but if he were to have the desire to read a novel, he reckoned this guy wouldn't be half bad.

"Do you like it?" Ellie asked after he'd been quiet a moment. "I picked it cuz... I remembered at dinner Tommy said you never returned his copy of something by this dude, years ago... I don't think he said the name of the book, but the author's name stuck with me cuz I liked it... Louis L'Amour. Isn't that a cool name? And you said you never even read it, that it was just sitting in your house. You never got around to it. And Tommy was always more of a reader than you were."

"Did you steal this from Tommy?" he teased.

"Nooooo! The library!" she scoffed.

"Ellie, this is... I'm impressed. That conversation... that was right after we got to Jackson, wasn' it?" Had to be late April... early May at the latest.

"Yep! My memory's better than yours, remember?"

"I'll say it is. Thank you, baby girl." He gave her another squeeze. "I love you."

"But do you love it?" she prodded.

"Yes. Though I can't say I know when I'm gonna get around to it, still."

"Some time when we're on a break -- maybe one of those all-day breaks we talked about -- I'm going to stand watch whether you like it or not and you're going to read it."

"The whole thing?"

"Maybe not the whole thing at once," she allowed, "but this one has different stories so you can break it down and like-- oh! I also liked this particular one because the title is so you, isn't it?"

Mistakes Can Kill You. Joel snorted. "It sure is."

"Anyway, you can just start it... do a few pages at a time... but maybe you'll see why me and Sophie like reading so much and you'll want to keep going."

Joel understood the concept of losing yourself in a book. In his old life, he simply hadn't had time. He'd read to Sarah when she was little, but that hardly counted. In Jackson, he had other leisure activities he'd rather be doing. On this trip, he couldn't imagine letting his guard down enough for something so... well, indulgent. Unnecessary. Possibly not even enjoyable. But Ellie had it all planned out, and he would give it a shot if it made her happy. "I'm sure I'll like it better than your wolf book, or Sophie's... girl book."

She giggled a little at that. "There's sex in that one. That's not girly. It's... girl-boy-ly."

"You been readin' her book?" How did I miss that?

"No, but she told me. When we were peeing, one time."

Given that it was a romance novel, Ellie probably could have worked out the content on her own... but still. "Maybe I oughta have a little talk with Sophie about what's an appropriate conversation topic an' what ain't."

"Ugh, Joeeellllll," she sort of... drawl-whined. "You're not my dad. Remember?!"

"That don' mean that--"

"Yes it does mean that! You and me are the adults on this trip and Sophie's the kid. Remember?!"

"I remember." Maybe it wasn't necessary to lay down the law in that regard, but Joel still didn't want Sophie filling Ellie's head with garbage. It wouldn't hurt to have a word with her about it. An awkward-as-hell word... that he might not ever find the opportunity to have, even if he could force himself to broach the topic. Ellie usually tried to work things so that he and Sophie were never alone (she never said so, but he'd deduced as much). Even if it meant that she took Sophie along for potty breaks and horse chores. She wasn't acting jealous so much these days, and yet... that behavior continued.

Baby girl, one of these days you're going to know exactly how much I love you, all the time -- whether we're together or apart -- and you'll stop doubting it, or expecting it to go away at any moment.

That was Joel's birthday wish -- and since it was one he had some control over, he had every hope that it would come true someday.

~

A/N: *sheepish* That collection of stories that Ellie chose actually wasn't released until 2014, and I try to be mindful of such things, but I just HAD to use it. Maybe in Wyoming, things were still getting published and people were still buying them at the time? Yeahhh


~Continue to Chapter 36~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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