Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, OC
Pairings: Joel/Ellie [past], Ellie/OC
Word Count: 2277
Summary: Several years after Joel’s death, Ellie still can’t let go, but that doesn’t stop a new guy from falling for her. Inspired by an old country song I recently re-discovered: “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Keith Whitley. [Note: I labeled this Joel/Ellie because Ellie’s in love with Joel, but Joel does not appear in the fic at all]
~crossposted to FFN and AO3~
I’ve been told I look like him.
By his brother, his brother’s wife, other members of the community… but not by Ellie. According to Ellie, I’m too tall, too thin, have the wrong eye color, a more pointed jaw, smaller nose -- she made it sound like I don’t resemble the man in the slightest. I wanted to believe her. And I did… until I finally saw a picture of him.
Ellie’s not wrong, exactly… it’s just that the differences in our features are not nearly as pronounced as she led me to believe. We could be father and son.
However, as folks are quick to point out, I don’t sound anything like him. Which is fine when Ellie and I are out and about, going hunting or eating dinner… things one might do with a friend (that’s how we started out, after all -- as friends). Yet when we’re snuggling through a movie… when I’m holding her, kissing her, making love to her… these are the times she seems happiest -- as long as I’m silent. Not that I can't love her exactly the same way he did, but my performance must be passable; admittedly, I’m pretty much clay in her hands, and she’s molded me into the best possible replica. My voice is the only thing that automatically jolts her right out of her fantasy, back into a painful reality she wants no part of.
It took me a little while to catch on to this. In the beginning, she would apologize and say she wasn’t ready, might never be ready… “You should run the other way. Seriously.” Too late for that! How could I run when I was already head over heels? I would tell her I understood. I’d been there myself; Ellie was the first woman I’d been serious about since my girlfriend had passed, more than three years ago now -- two years before I came to Jackson County. Oddly enough, Joel had died just over three years ago as well… under completely different circumstances. Hannah’s death was sudden, violent… Joel’s, dragged out for months by terminal illness.
Hannah and I never talked about what we would do, should the other one die, whereas Joel and Ellie had a long time to say goodbye to each other. They had many discussions about the future -- Ellie’s future. From what I’ve gathered, Joel had wanted what anyone who truly loves their partner should want: for her to go on and lead a full, happy life. To have a family of her own. And Ellie... was not receptive to the idea, to say the least.
I’ve heard none of this from her; she won’t ‘share’ him with me, which I don’t mind, of course. Why would I mind when it helps me delude myself into believing she actually wants me? She cares about me, sure. She cares about plenty of people in this town. Many of whom have seen fit to give me their opinion: “You’re wasting your time, sonny” “Joel was the love of her life, you know” “Some things are so broken they can never be fixed.” Or, from the other camp: “You are exactly what she needs right now” “Joel was so worried that she’d never dare to love again -- he would be happy to see this” “She might need a little time, but she’ll come around.”
Since Tommy and Maria are in the latter group, and they’re closer to Ellie than anyone else, I tend to use their encouraging words to delude myself as well. It’s really just wishful thinking, on their part as well as mine.
It may sound like I’m her ‘rebound’ guy, but she got that relationship out of the way already -- with a woman. It didn’t last very long... I suspect because she was too different from Joel. Some people might welcome the change… not Ellie. She wants whiskery kisses… a hard body, stronger and bigger than her own… things that remind her of him. She doesn’t want to forget. In fact, I would say she’s terrified of forgetting (and it might be the only thing in this world that truly scares her). I haven’t gone so far as to attempt the accent. I think it would piss her off. It’s too… blatant.
By now, I’m pretty well-versed in our little facade. I know that when I hear her crying quietly into her pillow at night, it’s best just to leave her be, because she’ll bolt out the door rather than accept comfort from me -- she feels guilty about what she’s allegedly ‘doing’ to me, and likes to pretend I’m oblivious to it. I know that when she feels the most content, the most peaceful -- when she’s practically purring in my arms -- it’s only because her eyes are closed, as I’m silently allowing her to indulge in her fantasy. I tested my theory enough to know it was true long before we got around to acknowledging it. And I’m okay with it.
Or, I’m constantly trying to be.
I know she’s been through hell. Tough childhood, very little love in her life until Joel came along… and she spent so many years with him that she was -- still is -- lost without him. She suffered a miscarriage. I don’t know all the details, but it seems that Joel didn’t want to have kids, and they weren’t really trying to get pregnant… Ellie just wanted it so badly, especially after Joel got sick, that he agreed not to take any preventive measures. Again, this is just speculation, since Ellie won’t talk to me about him directly, and I know better than to ask.
All I know for sure is what her family knows: that she was pregnant when he died… and then two weeks later, she wasn’t.
She’s only twenty-nine years old, six years younger than me. We’re at a good point in our lives to consider marriage and children… except Ellie is nowhere near ready for that. I want to put those things on the table, someday -- and I don’t need to be the love of her life to do it. Maybe a stronger man would walk away, discontent to settle for scraps from a haunted woman whose heart is six feet under. But then, I’d have to wonder if that man had ever heard the childlike delight in her laugh, when it busts through the grief… or glimpsed the depth of emotion in those gorgeous green eyes, when they’re not clouded by sorrow. Maybe he’d never seen her masterfully take charge of a dangerous situation and restore order out of chaos. I’ve never met anyone so brave, so capable, so smart… so strong yet vulnerable at the same time… so amazing, to put it more succinctly. I want to kiss away all her pain, hold her close and never let anything hurt her again.
If I could bring Joel back for her, I swear I’d do it.
I said as much to her once… and nearly lost her.
“What the fuck are you talking about? You can’t--”
“I said if I COULD.”
“Why would you say that now? After we just…”
“Because… I know you were thinking about him. It’s okay! It’s okay. I know you loved him--”
“I don’t want to talk about him. Not now, not ever.”
“I know, babe… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Damn right you shouldn’t have. What, you think that… that I’m only with you because I can’t be with him?”
“Well… yes? It’s true.”
“So you think I’m just using you or something?”
“Yes, you do. What kind of person do you think I am?”
“I think… you’re a person who carries a lot of pain around with you, and sometimes--”
“I’m not using you, okay?! God, that’s…”
“Okay -- Okay, I’m sorry. Come back here… please? … … … … Ellie? Ell, come on… what is it?”
“...Fuck! I hate it, but you’re right. I AM using you.”
“I never said--”
“I want to get over him. It’s not like I don’t. I WANT to feel happy, like I used to. But… I CAN’T. You’ve been so good to me… so patient… you put up with all my shit, and I just… keep shitting on you.”
“Shut up -- you deserve to be with someone happy. Someone--”
“I don’t WANT anyone else. I love you, Ellie.”
“...and you deserve someone who can say that back to you.”
“You don’t have to say it back. It’s okay that you’re not over him.”
“No it’s not! Everyone tells me it just takes time… how much fucking time?! It’s been two years, eleven months, and twenty-eight days. And it feels like it just happened yesterday.”
“Two years and… oh shit. So that’s why you don’t want to go to that movie thing Saturday. Why you want to be alone. It’ll be three years then. That’s why you’ve been so--”
“I haven’t been so ANYTHING -- I’ve always been like this. No, don’t -- don’t touch me.”
“I just want to--”
“DON’T. I can’t do this. I can’t do this to you... it’s not fair.”
“Don’t worry about me. I know what I signed up for.”
“...do you? I don’t think you do. If you did, you’d know that… I’m never going to…”
“...to… what, love me? I know it’s possible that you won’t. I’ll take the risk.”
“Uuuugghhh! Stop being so-- fuck. You know, you feel that way NOW. It hasn’t been very long. What are you gonna think a year from now? Two years? I already know: ‘well, shit, I know I told Ellie I was cool with this, but I figured it wouldn’t take THIS long for the bitch to get over it…’ “
“No way -- I promise I’ll--”
“Don’t make fucking promises you can’t keep. You’re going to resent me. For stealing YEARS of your life. Years you can never get back… and life is so fucking SHORT...”
“What do you want me to say… no I won’t? No I’ll leave before I get to that point? Is that… are you saying you want me to leave now? You don’t want to be with me. Is that what you’re trying to tell me here?”
“I… … … …”
“If you don’t want this, just say so. I’m a big boy, I can take it.”
“It’s not… look, it’s hard to explain…”
“You don’t have to explain, baby… if you want me to go, I’ll go. If you feel like you’re living a lie, or just… I don’t know. But if you want me to stay…”
“...do you really WANT to stay?”
“Yes! Yes I do.”
“But… … … WHY? And don’t say because you love me. Why is it okay that… I can’t say it back? Even if I said it… I wouldn’t mean it. I know I could never be with someone who… wants someone else...”
“Well… I do love you, and that DOES count as a valid reason, but okay -- you wanna know why? Because… even though things aren’t exactly... ideal... they’re better than they were before. For each of us. Because if there’s any way that I can make you happy, no matter how you get there… whether it’s me, or… if I can give you back just a teensy tiny little piece of what you lost, even for just a little while, that makes ME happy.”
“... for real? Even… even knowing that…”
“Yes. Even so.”
“That’s… wow. Okay, um… what happens if you get tired of that? If it doesn’t make you happy anymore?”
“Well… I don’t think that will happen, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess?”
“So, you might leave.”
“You might. I get it. Look, with… him… it took me a really long time to believe he wasn’t going to leave me someday. On purpose, I mean. So… don’t expect me to just… trust you so fast. Or… ever, maybe.”
“Got it. That’s fine.”
“And I’ll never… love you. Like that. I wouldn’t be living a lie… because you KNOW. You would have to be okay with it. With me… USING you.”
“And… shit, will you stop being so fucking NICE to me all the time?!”
I don’t look at it as being nice. I love her -- I’ll do anything for her. As long as she wants me around. As long as she’d rather be with me than not, I’ll happily be her piss-poor excuse of a Joel substitute.
I can pretend, too, after all. I like to pretend that one day, she’ll open her heart… and open her eyes to see that I can give her just as much love as he did, that she can be truly happy with me. That one day, she will feel whole again, and she’ll love me... even half as much as she loved him. My fantasies are tentatively laced with hope -- because this could happen. It’s at least not outside the realm of possibility. Whereas poor Ellie… all she has is her fantasy. She can’t let it go. So she uses every ounce of emotional energy she has to hold it in her keep... and I help her nurture it.
She says she wants to get over him... but she doesn’t. Not really.
Yes, I can pretend... I pretend that her recently-increased interest in sex -- sex during which she’s clenching and clinging, begging me to stay inside her -- means that she’s starting to love me, just a little.