Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Uncertainty" Chapter 39: "Where the Heart Is" (39/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 39: "Where the Heart Is" (39/47)
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: 8659
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

A/N: Chapter title from the 2000 movie (aka "the Walmart baby movie").

"Sophie! Hurry up!"

"I'm trying!" Sophie called back to the impatient man -- again. Not that she blamed him for the impatience. She'd seen someone die of sepsis; it happened quickly. If that was what Ellie's infection had become, they were most likely screwed anyway, with their pitifully-small supply of penicillin and nothing else to fight it with. And Ellie was so unresponsive to all the yelling... to getting tugged around like a sack of potatoes... Sophie was really scared for her.

And for Joel, because she honestly didn't think he could stand it if Ellie died. And he'd never forgive her for being the reason Ellie was out here in the first place. ...HE wouldn't forgive me? How could I forgive MYSELF?

But, as far as being trapped beneath a ginormous pile of rubble went, Ellie was pretty well off. It didn't appear that any part of her had been crushed. Which might seem like a miracle, but Sophie got the sense that most of the stuff was already there... and Ellie hadn't exactly burrowed her way into the center of it -- she'd crawled through a man-made tunnel. It was too perfect to be organic; someone had taken the time to lay beams and boards and chunks of wall and who-the-heck-knows-what-else to create this space. Kind of like kids making a fort... there was a toy truck in there, even... although the sound way in which the place was architected made her think it was adults who knew what they were doing, because it was sturdy enough not to collapse under all the shit on top of it (that she assumed came later? But hey, maybe they piled all that on, too). Joel would probably have a better idea... but she doubted he'd be in any sort of mood later to field such questions. Why would someone go to all this trouble?... it wasn't like there weren't enough buildings nearby to hide in, live in... whatever.

And why did Ellie come in here? With no flashlight, the place was darker than dark... seriously creepy. But, Ellie IS braver than me, that's for sure. There was a thermos in there that she knew wasn't Ellie's because they'd found hers in her backpack. And that was it -- all Ellie had was a thermos and a truck. How did she get trapped... did someone push that vending machine over to block the exit? If nothing fell on her, how did her leg get so jacked up? And her head... Ellie had enough blood caked into her hair on one side that Sophie knew she'd hit it hard.

Sophie followed Joel's instructions as best she could, and considering how nerve-wracking it was to be working against the clock as well as hearing Joel's frantic yelling every thirty seconds or so, she didn't think she'd done half bad. She was satisfied that Ellie's head would be cushioned enough by the shirt, that the blanket would soften the bumps in the road... and she tried not to imagine Ellie's neck breaking on the way out, with Joel pulling real hard and her head catching on the ground in some unnatural angle... is that even possible?! That's unforgivable, too... fuuuuckcicles... Despite the growing impatience of the man outside, she took an extra minute to double check her handiwork. It wasn't hard to move Ellie around when Sophie wasn't laying flat on the ground without even the luxury of 'elbow room' to work with. The blanket made a decent cocoon, and Joel's double-knotted harness thing felt sturdy. He hadn't told her to bind Ellie's feet at all, but she wondered if the blanket might start to unwrap itself and go askew... probably not so much that it would ride up all the way through the harness-y part, though... right? Maybe she'll wake up and be able to crawl out herself, if she's not tied up too much... although she was completely dead to the world now. No more mumbling, and she hadn't moved a muscle since Sophie had returned. She had to keep checking to make sure she was breathing.

"Sophie!" Joel called again.

"Just... about... done!" She finished positioning the Ellie cocoon in front of the hole, her legs wrapped in the blanket but not tied with the rope. "Okay! Go!"

"...I can pull now? You got her tied up real good?"

"Yes yes yes! Pull! I'll watch her -- I'm right behind her!" Or, she would be as soon as she gathered up the extra rope and did a once-over, like she was checking out of a hotel. She would leave the truck and thermos, but she thought she saw... yes, that's Ellie's knife! It was just lying there, the blade out, in a little pocket of space opposite of Ellie. Sophie wondered what she'd been trying to do with it.

"Is she all right?"

Sophie glanced at the opening of the tunnel; Joel had only pulled her maybe five feet. "Yes!"

"Her head's not gonna bang on anythin'?"

"No! Go ahead!" Sophie folded Ellie's knife and stuffed it in her own pocket, then reaffixed the flashlight to her shirt collar and started crawling behind the girl's feet.

"Is she still okay?" Joel called after another ten feet or so.

"Yes!" Sophie actually couldn't see anything but the soles of Ellie's sneakers, so if the blanket (or Joel's shirt) slipped anywhere, she wouldn't be able to do anything about it. If the rope slipped... now that would be seriously awful. If she couldn't somehow manage to drag Ellie back into the open area to fix it, they would both be stuck! She should have brought the penicillin back in with her. Joel would've had to talk her through how to administer it, and it would wrack the bejesus out of her nerves, no doubt. If she did it wrong, and the girl died... Maybe there was a reason Joel hadn't suggested it, either. Or maybe he just wasn't thinking clearly. He looked like absolute shit. She'd never seen anyone look so exhausted in her--

"Sophie? Everythin' good?"

"Yeeessss! Joel, just keep going!"

She couldn't even tell if Ellie was still breathing, from her position behind the girl. Not that I could do anything about it from back here if I COULD tell... Pleeeease be okay, Ellie-girl, please please please! Sophie prayed.

She knew they were almost out of there when she could see pricks of daylight above Ellie's cocoon. "We're really close now!" she called to Joel. And then suddenly, Ellie's feet were no longer in front of her -- all Sophie could see was the mouth of the tunnel. "You did it! Is she okay?" she called to Joel.

"Ellie! Ellie! C'mon, baby girl, open your eyes for me... please, Ellie! ...don' do this to me..."

When Sophie emerged from the hole, Ellie was cradled in Joel's arms. He was on his knees, rocking her a little, smoothing the hair off her ashen face... talking to her as if trying to rouse her from sleep... the desperation in his voice brought tears to Sophie's eyes again. She couldn't bring herself to tell him that if getting dragged through that tunnel wasn't enough to wake her up, then merely talking to her wasn't going to do the trick... somewhere in his head, Joel must have known that. And yet... Oh, fuck a duck, she's not... IS SHE?! Her face was splotched with dirt, and in the natural light, Sophie could see some cuts and bruises, but nothing as bad as her head or her leg. The unblemished patches of visible skin were pale... a sickly gray color. Sophie swallowed nervously. "Is she..." ...dead?

"Bring me the first aid kit -- an' the medicine!" Joel barked at her without lifting his gaze from Ellie's face. "It's over there -- somewhere -- in my backpack!"

I'll take that as a "no"! Ellie was still alive. Sophie was a little surprised Joel didn't have this stuff already laid out, waiting for them. Well, after over two days, what's another minute or two? She located his bag nearby and pulled out the first aid kit; she had to rummage a little to find the penicillin and syringes in a separate little container. Still, she couldn't have been gone more than thirty or forty seconds... when she returned, a chill raced through her: Joel was sobbing. Quietly, but audibly... unmistakably. He was clutching Ellie to his chest, his face buried in her shoulder, still rocking her gently back and forth. His shoulders quivered... his whole body looked pretty shaky, actually, but something about his upper body correlated with the sobs.

Tears spilled from her own eyes at the sight. Sophie felt like she was intruding on a very private moment. Seeing such a strong man completely lose it... Ellie CAN'T be dead, or he wouldn't have asked me to get this stuff! Unless it just now happened... or he was in la la land when he asked or something...

Not knowing what else to do, she placed the requested items on the ground beside him, snapping each container open for him, not quietly... then she gently laid a hand on his shoulder. He actually jumped a little, like he hadn't realized she was there. Joel didn't ever not realize when someone was like... a hundred feet away from him, let alone someone practically right on top of him making a little bit of noise. He lifted his teary face away from Ellie and fumbled for the things Sophie had just set down.

Ellie's not dead! Sophie could see sweat on her forehead... or maybe that was just Joel's tears?, it was sweat, and it hadn't been there a minute ago... and she was pretty sure she could see the rise and fall of Ellie's chest... she's BREATHING. Hallelujah! Maybe Joel's tears stemmed from... relief? From the emotional floodgates opening after being shut tight for two days? Or was he afraid, because she looked so... so pale, so lifeless... I think maybe it's just that he's absolutely heartbroken that this happened, and that she looks so... not good. And of course, the penicillin wasn't a guaranteed cure. It's probably all of the above... Sophie wiped the tears away. "What can I do? Do you want me to--"

"Refill that canteen, would you?" Though bleary-eyed and still sounding kind of choked up, Joel seemed to be done with the crying.

"You bet. I'll bring the jug and some soap, too." Sophie hesitated. She had no experience with this, but since Joel was looking a little... well, run-down and ragged, to say the least... "If you want me to... um... I mean, your hands are shaking..."

"I can do it. Go on."

She didn't argue; of course he could do it. Anything he needed to do to save Ellie's life, he could do. Sophie was sure he would've found a way to get inside that tunnel if he'd had to as well.

She ended up bringing a bunch of stuff down there. A whole duffel bagful, and then some. Because it wasn't like Ellie would be able to climb up to the first accessible floor, and Joel couldn't really carry her and climb at the same time. They could use the rope again, but she didn't think Joel would want to do that, at least not yet. She grabbed a blanket, the towel, cans of food, cooking things, clothes, toiletries... anything she could think of that might come in handy in the near future that she could quickly throw together. Joel hadn't moved so much as a muscle when she got back -- or so it appeared; the discarded syringe told her that he'd administered the penicillin. This time, she didn't startle him, but she still felt a bit like she was intruding. The way he looks at her, with such... love, of course, but that word doesn't even seem to do it justice... such total REVERENCE... utter devotion... There really wasn't a word that was good enough. Whatever it was called, it was quite moving to witness.

"You wanna lay her down over here?" Sophie asked him, nodding toward the blanket she'd just plopped on the ground.


"Might be easier to get her cleaned up..."

"No. She's fine where she's at."

He can't let her go... literally! Sophie swiped at her eyes. Again.

He dribbled some water over Ellie's dry, cracked lips; she didn't appear to notice. Still hadn't responded to anything. Sophie washed her hands as best she could, and helped Joel wash his, then they set about cleaning the worst of her wounds, starting with that seriously disgusting one on her leg. Sophie wondered momentarily if they were supposed to, by old times' standards, amputate the leg, since it was clearly infected. An image of Joel swinging that ax like Paul Bunyan chopping wood came to mind. But maybe it was too late for that? Or I'm just thinking in extremes. Maybe it's not as bad as it looks... Joel seemed to know about all these sorts of things, so she didn't see the need to ask about it. He wasn't wigging out, so... yeah, he must think she's going to be just fine. That the penicillin is all she needs. If it comes down to amputating the leg or letting her die, he would grab that ax in a jiffy.

Joel decided they should give her a sponge bath; it was easier than transporting her all the way back to the river, and they had plenty of clean water and rags now. He gingerly slid the rope contraption off of her and laid the blanket aside. Ellie didn't have another pair of pants, and the ones she was wearing were unimaginably filthy -- there was no doubt they had to get her out of those. Her underwear, too. Sophie's capri pants would be a little big, but they figured that was a better option than using Joel's sweatpants. Ellie did have more than one pair of underwear, at least, and Sophie was privy to Ellie's system of dividing her clean and dirty clothes, so she had fetched her a clean pair. Though even her dirtiest pair would be an improvement!

It was easier for Sophie to be the one to undress her, since Joel was just... completely unwilling to lay her down. She knew this was a clinical setting (or the equivalent of, anyway), but it still felt a little... awkward, to be pulling Ellie's pants off -- her underwear, even -- in front of Joel. Not just in front of him -- on top of him. "I can do this," she offered. "You don't have to... you know..."

Joel didn't seem bothered in the slightest. "It's all right. Ain't like she's awake to get embarrassed."

Sophie had to chuckle at that. How nice it was to be able to laugh after the past two days' worth of... not, at all! And it was more important to bathe Ellie than to preserve her modesty -- heck, maybe these two had even had to help each other sans clothing in the past. "I guess she'd be embarrassed even if it was just me -- she still won't bathe naked when we go together."

"We jus' won't tell her about this, then," Joel suggested.

"Yeahhhhhhh... okay. Pixies swooped in and changed her clothes or something."

"Sounds good to me. She jus' moved a little... you see that?" Joel cupped Ellie's cheek in his hand. "Ellie... can you wake up now, kiddo? Can you drink some water for me?"

Sophie did see her stir a little bit, which was encouraging, but apparently, Ellie still wasn't actually regaining consciousness. "That's okay," Sophie said airily. "She should sleep through the indignity of all this anyway. She can wake up when we're done."

Joel smiled a little, and caught Sophie's eye. "Thank you."

"Of course!" She didn't know what exactly he was thanking her for, but she kind of took it as all-encompassing gratitude -- which she certainly didn't deserve, since none of this would have happened if it hadn't been for her. Whenever she expressed sentiments like that to them, though, Joel and Ellie would graciously decide it was Alex's fault instead. At least, they usually did; Sophie had learned to just shut the fuck up about all subjects when Ellie was in a bad mood. Sophie was good with laying the blame on Alex; she missed her brother like the dickens, but she could still be mad at the dickhead for leaving.

Joel let Sophie wash Ellie's lower half while he dressed the leg wound -- which he did fairly deftly, considering he had to do it with his arms full of Ellie. He also had to roll Ellie around a little to give Sophie better access to wash everywhere. They didn't find any other alarming injuries. She got the fresh underwear on her as quickly as she could, and draped the towel over her. For modesty's sake, but also, the girl had to be cold... Ellie got cold quicker than Sophie did, and it was pretty chilly to be outside in the shade without pants on, even in the afternoon. Her skin was cold and clammy, but also goosepimply; Sophie asked Joel if that last one was a good thing, as a healthy response to stimuli or whatever. He didn't know, but seemed to like that theory.

Joel was definitely more hesitant to address Ellie's upper half. He was willing to part with her hoodie, but not her T-shirt. Sophie couldn't understand it, considering he hadn't batted an eye at exposing her lady bits. He could at least take her shirt off, if not her bra? "Don't you want to see if she has some wounds that need cleaning? Just because we can't see them over her clothes doesn't mean she couldn't have hurt herself, right? And... I think that's vomit, on her... on the front, there..."

Joel nodded slowly. "Yes, I want to get her cleaned up... maybe you should go... go, and... uh..."

"Go? Now you want me to leave?" Sophie didn't bother to hide her bewilderment.

"Yes... go an' bring me a..." Joel sighed. "You know what? After all this... I think you can handle the truth. Ellie... see, she has this little secret."

"A secret?" Sophie couldn't imagine what that might be. "So... that's why she's... shy, at bath time? Is there something wrong with her?" she asked gently.

"No... not wrong. Different."

"Like... a deformity?"

Joel chuckled. "No, nothin' like that. Ain't got nothin' to do with... well, I'll jus' show you. Don' freak out, all right?" He lifted Ellie's shirt and started working it up over her head and arms, and as soon as her right arm fell back in place, Sophie's gaze was drawn to it.

"Holy guacamole, she's got a bad wound on her... hey, is that a burn? I thought it was just her hand... and that... that healed already..."

Joel was watching Sophie closely, as if to gauge her reaction -- and she wasn't sure what the right one would be. Not-repulsed, maybe? "It ain't a burn," said Joel. "An' she's had it for over a year now. Since right before I met her. What else does it look like it could be?"

"What else? Ummm..." It looked like a bite from an infected person, but if she'd had it for over a year, that was impossible. "I have no idea. I give up." Joel continued looking at her, and Sophie wondered what he was expecting. So Ellie had hurt herself somehow -- why all the secrecy?

"Ellie got bit by a Runner, last summer -- two summers ago, now. She never turned. She's immune to the virus."

Sophie certainly hadn't been expecting that explanation! "You're kidding. Right? ... lack of sleep has addled your brain so much that you actually think that's funny?"

"Nope. Dead serious. That's why she never wears short sleeves. Ain't sure why she keeps her underthings on when you two bathe together -- shyness, I reckon -- but that's one reason she don' want you lookin' at her. She's good at hidin' it, too, for short periods of time. She can cross her arms over her chest, or jus' turn it the other way..."

Joel sure did seem serious. And the closer Sophie examined the scarring, the more obvious it seemed that it was exactly what he said... that it couldn't be anything else. "Who else knows?" she asked.

"No one. Tommy an' Maria. That's it. They had to know, 'cause... well, that's a whole 'nother story. For another time. I'm only tellin' you now because... you've been helpin' her so much, an' I do wanna make sure she's okay... and -- I know we can trust you. Sophie, look at me -- you cannot tell anyone about this. You understand? Not another living soul."

Sophie frowned. "But why do you want to keep it a secret? It's a good thing! If she's really immune, that's really... special..."

"Exactly. That's exactly why it has to be a secret. There are people in this world who would... try to do somethin' about it... this immunity she has. An' there's other people who'd freak out... if they think eventually she's gonna turn or somethin', they might try to kill her. Ellie jus' wants to be a normal kid -- or... young lady..."

Sophie nodded. "Gotcha. That makes sense. If the government knew... they'd probably turn her into a lab rat, huh."

"They'd try." Joel snorted. "If anyone ever asks you questions about her... you don' say a word. I know you care about Ellie, an' you wouldn' do nothin' to hurt her. But that's my call to make, not yours. It should be Ellie's, but... Anyhow, what I'm tryin' to say is you can't tell anyone, even if you think you can trust them. 'Cause even if you trust that they wouldn' want to hurt Ellie, an' even if you swear 'em to secrecy, they still might tell someone else an' make 'em swear the same, an' so on an' so forth 'til the wrong person knows -- someone untrustworthy. And I'll tell you this right now: if I think anyone might do somethin' that could hurt her... if I even find out that they know about this... let's just say Ellie comes first with me. Everyone else can go to hell. So it's in your best interest not to tell anyone you care about."

Joel looked as intense as she'd ever seen him. It was a thinly-veiled threat, and she knew he meant what he said. "I get it. I promise I won't tell aaaaanyone. And... thanks. For trusting me." She knew he wouldn't have told her if the circumstances had been different, but... still. It made her feel kind of special anyway. Like she'd just joined a very elite club.

"Don' make me regret it," he grumbled. "Where'd you put the soap?"

While they finished cleaning her up, Ellie stirred a couple more times, and made the softest of moaning sounds... she still wouldn't wake enough to take a drink or open her eyes. After they dressed her in Sophie's pastel pink 'beach bunny' sweatshirt (complete with a cartoon bikini-clad bunny in shades on a lounge chair, sipping an umbrella'd drink), Joel looked the girl over and shook his head. "She's gonna hate this shirt... hey, Ellie! Wake up, kiddo -- you wanna see what Sophie dressed you in?"

Sophie was very glad to see Joel in good spirits again. He seemed to have nothing but optimism about Ellie's prognosis now, even though she was still unconscious. "Actually, she saw me pick it up and she thought it was cute," she told him. "Unless that was just bull."

"She don' usually bullshit like that," Joel replied. "It looks a little girly for her... but she does have pink bunny slippers, so who knows. She didn't bring 'em."

"Aww. Bet she looks adorable in those." Sophie couldn't really picture it, though; Ellie didn't strike her as the bunny slipper sort of girl. But, people were complex, many-layered creatures... a girl could cuss like a sailor, play in the dirt, hunt and skin animals -- and kill people -- all day long, and still yearn to slip into fuzzy bunny slippers at night, couldn't she?

Joel, though... there was nothing complex about him the past couple of days. Every desire he may have had was shelved except for FIND ELLIE. With dark circles beneath his bloodshot eyes, and his whole body sort of... drooping... he looked years older than he'd been a week ago. "Hey, why don't you get some sleep now?" Sophie suggested. "Here, I'll make you up a little bed..." She began to unfold the blanket.

"It ain't nowhere near bedtime."

"Of course it's not, but it is when you haven't slept in two days! Criminy. I've slept twice since you last slept. So just bring Ellie over here and you can lie down next to her like always."

Joel watched her spread the blanket on the ground. "That's an awfully temptin' offer. But layin' here... in broad daylight?"

"I'll keep watch, if that's what you're worried about. I'll wake you up the second I see anyone, I swear to God." She'd committed the egregious error of not alerting him once, when she'd been on a brief watch... things had turned out okay, obviously, but she wouldn't make that mistake again. Wouldn't assume that he didn't want to be bothered in situations that may or may not become problematic... wouldn't try to make the call herself after fretting oh maybe I should wait until: they get closer/I can see weapons/the Infected wander our way instead of the other way-- no. Joel always wanted to know everything. Even Ellie, in spite of her struggle to assert her independence or competence or whatever it was that made her defy Joel sometimes, never made that mistake.

"It's still too open here," said Joel. "Can you put the blanket over there... behind the vendin' machine?"

"Oh, yeah... yeah, that's good. Almost like a little room that way." Sophie snatched up the blanket and moved it to the preferred location.

"You don' have to stay real close... keep an eye on the horse. Someone tries to steal her, it at least buys us a little time."

Time for what? If someone tried to steal Poppy, Joel would just shoot them. Game over. "I'll stay close. In case Ellie wakes up. Here, let me help you..."

"I got her." Joel looked like he was about to drop dead from exhaustion (probably emotional as much as physical), yet he still managed to stand up and keep hold of Ellie -- and really, he could have just dragged her over there. He only had to take like five steps. "If she wakes up, so will I. Don' matter how tired I am."

"Light sleeper. Right." And something more than that... something that was specific to Ellie. Sophie couldn't think of the right word to describe it. It was love, obviously, but... again, the word 'love' almost sounded too generic.

Joel got Ellie settled on her right side, as it was her left leg that had the nasty wound, and then lay down behind her in a spooning position, his arm draped over her protectively. "Don' be afraid to wake me up, now," he murmured, half-asleep already. "Better to be awake an' alive than dead... than sleepin' an' dead..."

"Sweet dreams." Sophie laid the cocoon blanket over them, and she couldn't help smiling at the sweet sight of the two of them sleeping, all cuddled up. Sure, she was a little envious. Aside from Ellie being sick, of course, who wouldn't be? But she'd long since given up any hope of Joel looking at her the way he looked at Ellie. Since before the trip, even. She may have entertained a fantasy or two about things changing, out here... but never any real hope. Joel had made it extremely clear that he wasn't interested, and Sophie didn't make a habit of throwing herself at men who didn't want her. Not in recent years, at least.

When Joel had begun to stop by -- both at her house and the laundromat -- without Ellie, just to 'see how things were going'... she had wondered. It sure seemed like he was trying to think up excuses to see her, but then, when she tried to flirt with him, he never reciprocated -- or even seemed to notice, some of the time. Other times, she got the feeling she was making him uncomfortable. He's just really shy, she would tell herself. Because the man kept coming by! Maybe not every week, but at least every other week. She would get the feeling that he wasn't interested, and then he'd show up again. She just didn't know what to think. And while Joel didn't exactly strike her as the shy type, he wasn't the life-of-the-party type, either... more the 'strong and silent' type. Maybe he was just a bit socially awkward, especially with women. Which was kind of endearing, really... the thought of this self-assured tough guy not really knowing how to go about making a move...

Hahaha -- yeah, no. Not after the little fiasco in her bedroom. Which was still a bit... perplexing. She'd even used the world's most obvious come hither tactic: the hey-I-want-to-show-you-something-in-my-bedroom maneuver. And he'd gone in there! He had to know... but he just proceeded to tell her she'd read the situation all wrong. There was no shyness... it wasn't that he was just uncertain how to proceed. He simply wasn't into her. She hadn't wanted to believe it, and had even deluded herself into believing he was just trying to set a good example for Ellie. But when she thought about it over the next couple of days, she'd concluded that either he never had any feelings of that nature towards her whatsoever, or maybe he did, but couldn't pull the trigger on them, because of Ellie or maybe his own issues... maybe he thought about it, but changed his mind... whatever the reason, it was the same result: nothing was going to happen.

When they'd been looking for Ellie, Sophie couldn't help thinking that maybe the girl's disappearance was her fault -- because she had wondered, from time to time, how things might be different if Ellie weren't around. It was ludicrous, of course, to think that any idle thoughts she had could directly affect Ellie like that. But the cosmos had answered her question anyway: things would be different, alright -- they would be fucking miserable. Suffering without end.

Sometimes she got the impression that Ellie was a little jealous of her, for whatever jacked-up reason Sophie couldn't fathom. When Ellie got better, Sophie would have to tell her what Joel had been like for the past two days. If only she could've seen that... how could she be jealous of anyone ever again? It was obvious where his heart was. That girl... she IS his heart!

Sophie found a place to hitch up Poppy that allowed the horse to forage in the grass and weeds poking up around the building, if she wished to -- and judging by the longing looks Poppy was shooting at the park (yes, horses could look longingly, she'd discovered!), she would much rather be back over there, but that was a little too far away. To do it The Joel Way, frequently described by Ellie as the only right way (heavy on the sarcasm), the ideal spot for Poppy to rest was close enough that they could stop someone from stealing her, but far enough away that a greedy survivor could spot her without also spotting the three of them, if they were able to hide at all... like now. It was almost like using her as bait to kill thieves. It was true, though -- a hunter wasn't going to shoot a horse, but he might very well shoot humans. A starving hunter might perhaps see Poppy as food, but Joel said that in his experience, people tended not to look at horses that way -- not if there was enough game to hunt in the area.

It was a good thing she hadn't brought her book down here, because she would have been tempted to read it, and that wouldn't be very 'watchful' of her. Joel was trusting her -- again. Not that he had much choice... he was more exhausted than she'd ever seen him. He appeared to be sleeping pretty deeply now... probably an illusion. But maybe not. He was only human, after all. Sophie decided to make a little barricade-type thing out of their bags, on top of the vending machine; if she lay on her stomach with her chin resting on her arms crossed over the duffel bag, she could see pretty well. No one could come sneak up on them from behind, and to her right, where Joel and Ellie were sleeping, they'd have to crawl through that teeny foxhole tunnel, so that side was safe. She would be able to spot someone walking down the street before they would notice her, motionless amongst all the stuff, and she could just slither down on the Joel'n'Ellie side.

She didn't think Joel expected her to patrol the area or anything like that. Just... stay awake, and pay attention. The only thing she could really do while on watch was toy absently with her dirty hair... and think.

If only people in Jackson could see them now... maybe not a snapshot of this very moment, because some dickcicle could still twist it into something perverted -- but everything that led up to it. Not just the nightmare of Sacramento... more like, the way these two looked out for each other in general. The way they always seemed to know exactly where the other one was, even in the midst of a melee. Like, they could somehow concentrate on killing the person in front of them and still be aware if the other needed help. Whereas the only thing Sophie could concentrate on from the sidelines was not pissing herself.

Then there was Ellie burning her hand because she'd given no thought to her own safety while helping Joel. And of course, Joel, these past two days... God. I don't know how he kept going... he was like that bunny from the old days... the Energizer bunny! Relentless and single-minded in his search for Ellie. Sophie wondered how much longer he could have gone on without sleeping.

She stole glances at them from time to time. Every time Ellie so much as twitched, Joel did too, although it didn't appear to Sophie that he actually woke up in those moments. She felt like she was doing something important now... that if she weren't there, Joel couldn't have allowed himself to get this much-needed rest. What a great feeling!

Early on, Sophie had entertained the thought of there being some truth to the rumors -- not the nasty parts, but the idea of Joel and Ellie possibly being more than... whatever they were (not quite father and daughter, but that was the relationship that came the closest). She'd wondered that very first day, when they'd gone off behind those rocks for a 'nature break'... without bringing the toilet paper with them. She would've thought that they'd at least have mentioned later that they'd forgotten it, or Joel would've sent Ellie running back to fetch it or something. But then she immediately dismissed the thought -- whatever they were doing over there, they weren't having a quickie. She knew Ellie had a crush on Joel, but she also knew Joel would never take advantage of it -- and he wouldn't be sexually attracted to a child. Ellie wasn't a child-child, but still -- she was someone he pretty much regarded as a daughter. Who might as well be his daughter. Maybe they just needed that time alone to talk, or be more affectionate or something... whatever the case may be, it certainly wasn't sexual.

She also wondered from time to time if Joel was gay. He didn't seem like it, but maybe her gay-dar was off? The whole time he'd been in Jackson, he hadn't been interested in anyone, to her knowledge. She knew of two gay men in Jackson, but they were a couple... if there were any more, they were in the closet; Joel's dating pool would've been severely limited. And he was just so... SO all about Ellie, all the time. Clearly, whatever needs she fulfilled for him more than compensated for the lack of sex. She also thought it was possible that he was asexual. Or, maybe he was heterosexual and simply didn't want that kind of relationship. Not everyone needed or desired a sexual relationship with another person. Lord knows I sometimes wonder why I'm still looking myself! But... Joel and Ellie practically were in a romantic relationship. They had everything but the sex component. And they loved each other more than any couple she could think of, even the married (or married-equivalent?) ones... maybe especially the married ones. She knew plenty of unhappy couples in Jackson. Some of them had truly only gotten together because they were running out of time and wanted children (more than one man had told her this, although she couldn't be sure at least one of them wasn't just trying to sweet-talk his way into her bed -- namely, the one who said he felt like his wife had tricked him just to have a child).

Whatever his deal was, Joel would have to put some distance between him and Ellie if he did decide he wanted to pursue a relationship. Sophie didn't see that happening any time soon.

She hated that people could be so narrow-minded that they couldn't comprehend any relationship that fell outside the norm: "they must be either this or that/black or white/ romantic or platonic"... no hybrids allowed. Nothing was normal now, when compared to the old days. When she was maybe eleven or twelve, she'd heard about a celebrity on trial for molesting little boys. It hadn't made sense to her. She was fuzzy on the details after all these years, but apparently, the evidence had suggested that he just really enjoyed spending time with and playing with kids -- innocent playing. As she got older, of course, she'd picked up on the pedophilia aspect of certain behaviors... but she still thought he was innocent, just different. Joel wasn't anything like that guy, but most people would clutch their pearls upon learning that he and Ellie had shared a bed every night out here (she suspected the two had been doing it at home as well) -- and those people would immediately assume it meant something sexual was going on. Looking at them now... there was nothing sexual about it, and not just because both of them looked like death warmed over -- it was about them loving each other. Needing each other.

In her opinion, there was really only one problem with their closeness: if Joel didn't want a romantic relationship with another person, that was one thing, but Ellie was so young -- too young to make that choice. Maybe her love for Joel could co-exist with love for (or at least interest in?) a boy... Sophie just didn't see how, when Ellie already had those feelings for Joel. But what can Joel do about it? They CAN'T be apart. And why should they be? There's not enough love in the world to go around anyway... you gotta hang on to it if you're lucky enough to find it. If Joel loved ME like that... I think I could do without sex, too. Besides, there's always self-love! Honestly, that was sometimes better than sex.

After maybe an hour or two, Ellie started whimpering, and Joel did wake up fully then. She started to cough, and quick as a wink, he pulled her up to a sitting position. She didn't seem to want to sit up on her own, so he kept a supportive arm around her. He offered her his canteen. "Ellie... you gotta drink this, it'll make you feel better..."

And she drank it! Finally! Sophie slid off the vending machine and hovered nearby, in case Joel needed something. Ellie didn't look any better, really... her eyes were glassy and listless... her skin was perhaps a smidge less gray than before? Joel helped her drink, but she didn't swallow very much water before turning away from it and coughing a little more. Sophie had to strain to hear her when she spoke.

"Where did... ... Joel?" she croaked out.

"I'm right here, baby girl."

"My... did you see her?"

"See who?"

"My mom... she was..." She turned her head a little, her eyes darting around like she was looking for someone. She tried to raise her voice. "Mom!"

Joel glanced at Sophie. "No, kiddo, you must be thinkin' of Sophie. She was helpin' you out, earlier." He tried to keep Ellie's face turned toward him.

She still kept looking around, not focusing on Joel at all. "But... my mom is dead."

Yeah... and? Talk about an illogical argument...

"...That's right... an' Sophie's alive, see." Joel was smoothing her hair, caressing her face. It was sweet, but... there was something antsy about the gestures.

Sophie scooted a little closer. "Yeppers. And you haven't called me Mom in over a month," she quipped.

Ellie's gaze rested on Sophie for a moment, but she didn't seem to recognize her... or maybe even see her... and she didn't seem to have heard her, either -- or maybe she could only concentrate on what she wanted to say. "Joel... I'm sorry..."

Joel chuckled. "For what? You're okay now... everythin's fine... I'm the one who's sorry."

"No," she all but whispered. "No... but... I'm glad you're with me."

"Where else would I be, hmm? Can you drink a little more for me?"

"No... Joel, I'm..." She paused to swallow, and then didn't finish the sentence.

"You're what?" Joel had to prompt her.

"I'm... dying."

"...What?" Joel had to be absolutely stricken, hearing that, but he kept his cool... kept speaking to her gently. "No. You ain't dyin'. I gave you some antibiotics. They jus' gotta kick in."

"I feel it... I feel it, so... I'm not dead... right? Not yet... still dying... die, die, die m'darlin'... are you dead?"

The 'die die die' part had varied slightly from the monotone... what another weird thing to say! Sophie marveled at how calm Joel was, especially considering what Ellie had just asked him.

He tilted Ellie's chin up, trying to get her to look at him. "Ellie, listen to me: you're not dyin'. I won't let you do that. You're a little sick, is all. You need to rest. An' drink just a little more for me... please?"

Ellie drank a tiny bit more, but it seemed like even that much effort was too much for her. Sophie picked up the rag they'd been using and tried to find a clean corner of it to mop up the glistening beads of sweat on Ellie's forehead. "Maybe it's the fever talking..." ...or maybe it's the sepsis... The person she'd known who had it also said he felt like he was going to die... and he was dead within a day. Not Ellie, though, PLEASE not Ellie... the wound couldn't have been infected that long -- they could turn this around before she actually went septic... right? "Yeah, must be the fever," she decided, as if repeating it would make it so.

"Maybe." Joel took the rag from her and patted Ellie's forehead with it.

"Are you dead?" Ellie asked him again. "Just... tell me... need to know..."

Why the fuck is she asking him that? It unnerved Sophie, and it had to be ten times worse for Joel. Ellie wasn't even looking at him. She just stared into the distance... with dead eyes. It's that same unseeing look dead people have until you close their eyes.

"Do I look dead to you?" Joel tried to reason with the girl in his arms. Ellie did shift her gaze slightly to look at him then, but it still seemed like she wasn't seeing him.

Sophie forced a chuckle. "You... do kind of look like shit on a stick, Joel. I can see why she might think you're dead."

Joel's chuckle sounded more legit than hers had been (although she attributed that to a superior ability to fake it, rather than actual mirth). He smiled at Ellie. "Is that it? You're teasin' me for lookin' like crap? That ain't very nice."

Ellie didn't laugh, didn't smile... if anything, she seemed a bit confused. Or... is that a grimace? Like she's in pain?

"Why can't you... just tell me?" Ellie asked, still uncharacteristically stoic. "~Please please tell me now~"

Again, her pitch changed slightly, and Sophie realized she was trying to sing... like a lyric would run through her mind and she would sing it rather than speak it.

"Tell you what?" asked Joel.

"Tell me... are you waiting... did you die?"

"I ain't dead," he replied patiently. "All right? Neither are you. You're gonna be fine."

"Okay." She quietly absorbed this information for a moment, fixing her unseeing gaze on Joel. "Can you..."

"Whatever you want, baby girl."

"...tell my mom?"

"Tell her what? That neither one of us is dead? That you're gonna be fine?"

"Yeah... I dunno where... she left?"

"I'll tell her." He laid the rag over her forehead and cupped her cheek again, stroking it with his thumb. "Maybe you jus' need to sleep a little longer."

"...No... if I sleep now... it's forever. Done." She was speaking dully, without emotion; she'd shown pretty much no emotion since waking, unless the semi-singing counted. "I won't wake up. Or down."

Unperturbed, Joel shook his head. "No, Ellie... your body needs to fight off this... thing. Sleep will help."

"It's white. Makes more sense. I can feel it, feel it..."

She wasn't making much sense to Sophie. And she just didn't sound like the Ellie she knew. I've never seen her so... her fever must be crazy-high...

Joel must've been just as bewildered, but he still didn't show it. "You feel... pain? What hurts? Your leg? Your head?"

"No, it's... more... everything," she mumbled, definitely wincing this time as she squirmed a little. " blood... bones... all dying... dying cold... dying in the sun~..." ...although they were in the shade.

Joel looked quite pained himself, studying Ellie's wan face. Sophie knew that whatever Ellie was experiencing, he would have taken it all upon himself if he could. In a heartbeat. "Sophie, can you bring me another blanket? From... anywhere... the beds up there..."

"You betcha." The idea of physically doing something to help was appealing.

"An' one o' them cans of soup."

" 'kay."

"An' the pot -- the cooking stuff... bowls..."

"I got it, don't worry. Be right back."

She had brought most of that down already... she just needed more blankets. By the time she got back, though, Ellie was asleep again. Sophie wondered what Joel had said to her when they were alone, and if it had helped convince her she could sleep without dying. She almost asked, but then decided it was somehow too intrusive a question. Maybe he hadn't said anything at all, and the sickness hadn't given her the choice to remain awake or not. Joel had actually laid her down fully on the blanket; he wasn't holding her, or touching her at all. The other blanket was pulled up to her chin. Sophie handed over a thick blanket and a pillow, and Joel tucked them around Ellie, who mumbled and shifted a little.

"Here's two cans of soup," Sophie told him. "How about I make one now -- for you? You have to eat, too, you know."

Joel was kneeling beside Ellie now. He stared at the sleeping girl a few moments before answering. "All right. I'll split it with you, an' we can all split the second one when Ellie's up for it."

"Cool beans." Sophie was absolutely tickled that he'd finally agreed to eat something. "Maybe by tonight she'll... be more awake. More herself."

Joel kept frowning at Ellie. "She seemed..."

"Tired?" Sophie supplied, though she figured Joel was thinking more along the lines of out of it, or despondent. She didn't want to be a Pollyanna or anything, but she did feel strongly inclined to buoy Joel's spirits where she could. "Is it too soon to give her another dose?"

"Yeah. I hope she ain't allergic. I think... I think we'd know by now, if she was. Wish I could give her somethin' for... at least to help her sleep better, not so fitful-like... so she can kick that fever..."

"There's pills up--"

"No. There's no way of knowin' what they are. Can't risk it."

"Right. Of course. I'm sure she'll come around." Uh... trite, much? Jeez. But Joel seemed to want to hear it. He needed to believe it.

He nodded. "It's prob'ly jus' the fever... the trauma... bein' in pain... it's all makin' her confused."
"Right, yeah, all that." Oh, Joel... after what you just put yourself through to find her and save her, God would have to be one sick puppy to let her die now, Sophie couldn't help thinking. "I'm going to... find a spot to heat this up."

He finally lifted his gaze from Ellie. "I can do it."

"No, let me! Stay with Ellie," she said before he could even start to get up. Sophie wasn't a pro at making fires, but she'd managed to do it decently enough before. "I'll find somewhere, don't worry, just stay with her."

She half expected him to protest... but he didn't. He still looked drop-dead exhausted himself. It must be so frustrating for him, not being able to help her now... having to just sit around, waiting and hoping.

Sophie was glad she had something else to do that made her feel useful. They could eat the soup cold (they'd done it before), but it was so much nicer warmed up. Ellie needed comfort food, and cold soup wouldn't cut it. Sophie gathered some kindling -- mostly in the form of broken office furniture, which she would need to chop up into friendlier pieces -- and brought an armful back down to Joel and Ellie, thinking maybe it would be nice to get a campfire going close enough to keep them warm. She was going to ask Joel, because sometimes he preferred not to keep a fire burning that might draw unwanted attention to them... but he'd fallen back asleep, too! On top of the blankets, on his side, with his hand resting on Ellie's stomach. Not quite as close to her as he was before... maybe on account of her twitching and shifting so much.

Sophie figured he was touching her so he could sleep. Like his brain wouldn't be able to shut off if there wasn't some part of him in contact with some part of her. But maybe on some level, Ellie did know he was there, and derived some comfort from the knowledge. Spiritual or emotional more than physical, it seemed, because she did not appear to be resting very comfortably. Sophie imagined Joel's hand full of healing energy, draining his own body of every ounce of strength he had and pouring it into Ellie. was a nice romantic fantasy, anyway.

This is going to be a long night... and the sun had only just begun to set.

~Continue to Chapter 40~

Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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