Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 11,498 (both parts)
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
A/N: I didn't mean to split this chapter in two but when I went to add the "continue" link after posting C41, LJ told me the post was too big. Even after I deleted the ENTIRE FREAKING HEADER to create enough space for that! WTF.
Joel told himself this was a good thing. Her color had improved, which made him feel like she at least wasn't on the brink of death -- the way she'd seemed to be when he'd pulled her from the tunnel. The penicillin might be taking its sweet-ass time, but she definitely wasn't getting worse. Since sleep was a good healer, all he wanted was for her to sleep, and sleep, and then sleep some more, until she woke up and felt happy again, pain-free... until the light came back to her eyes. There was no way they could travel with Ellie in her current state, and though he would have liked to move her into the other building (where Sophie had been sleeping), she had to at least be strong enough to hold on to his back while he climbed up there, and he didn't trust that she was; she had yet to attempt to get up, or even sit up. They could get creative and devise some sort of lift if needed, but the place they were at wasn't so bad. It was semi-secluded, and all the hunters in the area were dead. If there was anyone else around, they were either steering clear or just not happening to come down their street.
Which was a good thing, because Joel knew he wasn't being as vigilant as he should be. Exhaustion had caught up to him, and worrying about Ellie seemed to cancel out some of the rest he did manage to get. It was nice to have Sophie around to take care of things so that he never had to leave Ellie's side. The woman had gone from not knowing how to do much to being capable of doing just about everything Ellie and Joel could... aside from the killing, anyway. Joel tried to do most of that himself (when it came to human killing, at least, not game hunting) but Ellie always wanted to help him, and he'd realized long ago how valuable a partner she could be in a fight -- he just wished he could spare her that. The more killing she did, the more desensitized she would become, the less innocent... until she wouldn't bat an eye at killing a man who hadn't done a thing to them -- in a church, of all places -- just because she felt frustrated and angry and scared.
"I'm not innocent anymore, Joel," she told him in his head. He knew she believed that, and that it was partially true... maybe I just like to pretend it ain't.
It was mid-morning now, and Joel was lazing around as if it were dawn... just watching Ellie sleep beside him. He had sent Sophie and Poppy to the river so Sophie could do some laundry. It made him a little nervous to send her off by herself. When he'd been searching for Ellie, he hadn't given it much thought, since Ellie had occupied every inch of brain space. Even now, it wasn't all that different; if his choice was to leave either Sophie or Ellie unprotected, that was a no-brainer, with Ellie in her current state.
And Ellie probably wouldn't like it, but Joel wasn't sure he would ever be able to let her out of his sight again.
I sure hope she wakes up soon and gets back to her normal, feisty self... He wanted her to scold him for being overprotective, and accuse him of not trusting her or having no faith in her. He wanted her to get pissed off at him when her irritated, frowning (too adorable) face only made him smile.
Anyway, Sophie had gone a bit stir-crazy. She wanted to be doing something, anything -- and Joel understood that restless feeling... in theory. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been quite this lazy himself. And he was still tired, his sleep interrupted by Ellie's delirious babbling, her tossing and turning... which, although not as reparative as deep sleep, Joel had chosen to take as a good sign -- a sign that her body was fighting to stay alive. He fretted more when she was still; more than once, he'd checked to make sure she was still breathing.
He'd gotten her to drink a little more, several times. Sophie had made another decent fire for them (the task was much easier once the winds went to sleep) that warmed them for hours before dying out in the middle of the night, leaving them in near darkness –- the 'near' thanks to the moonlight hitting the street some fifty feet or so away. The next time Ellie had woken, it had been difficult for Joel to calm her down... it felt like one of her panic attacks, only she was less coherent, and it wasn't quite that intense... maybe it was more like a prelude to a panic attack, and Joel was able to help her stave off the real thing -- either by switching on his flashlight or by repeatedly telling her she was safe now (he wasn't sure which had been more effective). He tried to hold her... she wasn't strong enough to push him away, but her squirming and turning away gave him the impression she didn't want to be held, so he let her be.
What was it like in there, baby girl? He wondered about that... but he wasn't sure he'd be able to stand hearing it. Especially knowing that he was the one who had brought on all her suffering. He wondered how much she would remember. If she'd be able to talk about it... maybe it was best if she didn't. It seemed like Ellie always wanted to talk, about anything and everything, but certain things did actually make her clam the hell up. He would follow her lead on this one.
At some point during the night, her fever seemed to have finally broken, and that had given him hope. She's coming back to me, little by little... and the last time she'd woken, she hadn't told him she was dying. That had to be a good sign. The perception she seemed to have of her pain had scared the hell out of him -- it was too much like what he had felt when he was dying from an infected wound himself, last winter. Thank God for penicillin. He'd given her another dose earlier, now more grateful than ever that he hadn't used it for her burn a few weeks ago. Her hand had healed up just fine... and the rest of her will, too, damnit.
Ellie stirred. "Joel..." She was on her back, and she turned her head toward him.
"Hey, kiddo... how you feelin'?" He leaned over to kiss her temple.
"Is this... real?"
"Not a dream?"
"Not a dream," he confirmed. He thought about gathering her in his arms... but settled for lightly stroking her arm. "You feel any better?"
"Is Sophie okay?"
It was the first time she'd asked about her, although she may have seen Sophie hovering near her at various times and assumed nothing was wrong with her. "She's fine." He almost asked her a third time how she was feeling, but it was a dumb enough question that she’d probably dismissed it as polite, routine, or even rhetorical.
She coughed a little, and this time she drank a few decent sips of water when he offered it to her. He held her head up so she could swallow. "Did we make it to the ocean?" she asked him.
That threw him a little. "Uh... not yet. We will." ...Does she really think we've been traveling this whole time?
"Okay. I... didn't die."
"Nope. I told you I wouldn' let you do that. You feel any better?" Whoops, didn't stop myself that time... what do I expect her to say? "Yes, Joel, I feel great!"? The ocean comment was weird, but she sounded slightly better...
"Um... I guess..." She shifted a little and winced. "I think I have to pee."
"You do? That's good -- maybe you ain't as dehydrated as I thought."
She started to sit up and got about halfway before putting her hand on her head.
"Easy..." Joel sat up with her, putting his arm around her back to help pull her up.
"Ugh... I feel like... weak, or..."
"I'll help you."
"Help me pee? No way."
Joel chuckled. "Ellie, c'mon. After everythin' we've been through?"
"That doesn't mean that I want you to watch me pee."
She definitely sounds better... she's saying the right words, at least? Yesterday, he didn't think she would've cared enough to protest. "I'll turn my back then. Sit tight, I'll get your shoes... It'll be jus' like any other time we go close enough to each other to hear. Except I'll help you pull your pants down. Don' want you messin' up your bandage."
"On your leg. Do you remember any of that?"
"No... not really. I don't know what I was dreaming and... what was real." She was massaging her temples, like she had a headache.
He wished she wouldn't downplay her pain or discomfort, but that seemed to be her automatic response. He finished tying her shoes, grabbed the pistol that was lying next to them, and scooted up to kiss her on the forehead. "You must feel pretty shitty still. Can you stand up with me?"
Joel stood up with her slowly. "You okay?" She nodded, but she seemed a bit shaky. He kept his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him. "This is the most awake you've been, since... c'mon, over here..."
She grimaced before they even took a step.
"Maybe we should sit back down," Joel suggested.
"No, I have to pee," she said through gritted teeth.
"I could carry you, then..."
"No... I'm okay."
"All right, let's jus' get to the dirt over here..."
It was slow-going, even though they went no farther than right around the corner. At least she let him help her with her pants and panties before shooing him away. He stood guard while she did her business -- which there couldn't have been much of, since she'd consumed next to nothing in three days. He didn't hear anything. After what seemed like a reasonable amount of time, he called to her, but she didn't answer. He turned around and found her sitting in the dirt, her head in her hands.
"Ellie?" Is she crying? He rushed over and knelt in front of her. "What is it?"
She didn't answer right away. Her hands fell away and she lifted her head a little. "...what?"
"What's wrong?" She looked dazed, but it didn't seem like she'd been crying.
"You came over here to pee. Did you go?"
"Um... I guess..."
"C'mon, let's stand up." Is she sitting in it? He helped her stand, then looked at the spot where she'd been sitting. No wetness in the dirt… or on her legs. He swatted some dirt off her backside, since it didn't appear she was going to do it herself. All right, baby girl, time for you to make some kind of joke or suggestive remark or SOMETHING about me touching your ass...
She was staring at her feet, where her pants were pooled. "These aren't mine," she stated, apparently just now realizing she wasn't wearing her grimy jeans.
"Nope, they ain't yours. Well, the pants, at least. Underwear's yours. Your jeans are off gettin' washed."
"So that's where Sophie is?"
"Yep." She made no motion to pull her pants or panties up, so Joel did it for her, carefully guiding them over the bandage. The pants were too big, so they sagged at her waist, but since they were short pants, the length worked out okay -- she wouldn't be tripping over them.
Joel glanced at the 'backdrop' of rubble behind her. "This is where we found you, you know. You were practically right under my nose the whole time an' I didn' even know it."
Ellie turned and surveyed her former prison. She didn’t voice her thoughts.
"Do you remember goin' in there?" He put his arm around her, and she put hers around his waist.
"Um... I'm not sure..." She turned back and started to walk, her steps slow and deliberate... and she was clearly in some pain.
"You don' remember things from before you... got sick?"
"I... guess not?"
"What's the last thing you remember? From before you went through the tunnel?"
"I was... trying to help you... I did help you, at least a little... I think."
"With the hunters -- you did," he agreed. "I ran into some bodies that weren't my handiwork. Figured they were yours."
"Yeah. I was... um... there were two of them... er... three, at first... and I couldn't reload." She frowned in concentration, either from trying to remember or trying to walk. "Or... I shouldn't have. I should've just ran. ...I was kicking-- I kicked my backpack over, it was on the ground... I was trying to get... one of them hit me... the first-- er... second one... he... I remember someone grabbing me from behind... he was huge, that guy... I bit his arm real hard... kicked him in the balls..."
"I hope you kicked all the fuckers there." They were dead now, so it didn't make sense to want to go hurt them some more, but the thought of anyone laying hands on her always evoked the desire to make the bastards pay. It was hard to follow exactly what had happened... maybe because Ellie didn't seem to be recounting it in sequence. It wasn't important; he wanted to understand, but mainly he wanted to get a sense of how she felt: was she comfortable talking about it? Was it therapeutic, or would it upset her?
"Oh... I shot one, before that. But only in the leg. He was still able to fight. I remember... I thought about killing one with the knife... I can't do humans as fast as Clickers, though." She was speaking quite slowly -- slow on the Ellie meter, at least -- like she was trying to puzzle out what had happened herself. "And I heard more coming. The first two... three?... maybe three... I don't know what happened to my gun... I decided to run while those two by me were like... slower... from the leg and the balls... can only do one at a time... once... and there were more coming... I was scared. First, I... dropped down to the street? Oh -- there were some inside but... it was the outside ones that... um... I think I ran... like you said..."
"Like I said?" Joel repeated dumbly. When would I possibly have--
"You tell me that. Sometimes. Run away if the odds are against you."
"Ah. Right." Advice Joel didn't always take himself. "Good girl. That's good." Even if this time it fucked you over, thanks to me... Except she was alive. And maybe she wouldn't be, if she'd tried to knife them... if one had killed her while she was knifing another.
"I lost my... everything -- so I ran... over here, I guess? I don't remember that part. Why can't I remember?"
He eased her back down onto the blanket, into a sitting position. "I don' know. Maybe it'll come back to you." It still didn't make a ton of sense to Joel, but at least she didn't seem overly upset -- just frustrated that she couldn't remember. He hoped that meant that none of them had done anything to her that was... extremely traumatizing. If all of it had happened from around the time he'd heard that first gun shot and the time he'd thrown the bomb, they wouldn't have had a lot of time... would they have had enough time, though, to... She's fine. She most likely has a concussion, which can cause memory loss. And what she went through in that hole was awful enough on its own for her to block it out of her memory. If the hunters had been after her, it was probably best that she hadn't run straight down the street -- out in the open -- either giving them a straight shot at her or leading them back to Sophie and the horse. Maybe the tunnel had seemed like a good place to hide... and maybe she didn't want to stray too far away from me?
"So... you must've freaked out when you went back and I wasn't there, huh," Ellie said dully.
"Me? Nah, I was cool as a cucumber," he teased. She didn't smile. He was sitting beside her now, and she leaned against him. "At first I thought I'd find you in that building somewhere. Found your backpack... your gun... one of the assholes had it... I was so sure you were in there. Before that, I saw one of the guys run out, yellin' about a little girl..."
Joel couldn't bring himself to confess that he'd thrown the bomb down there. That it was his fault her exit had been blocked. She don't need to hear that... at least not yet... It wasn't that he thought she wouldn't forgive him for it. More like... she would. And he hadn't beat himself up enough yet to withstand the exonerating "but you didn't know I was there" and "you didn't mean to" crap she would spew at him.
She sat there quietly. Very still. He tucked her hair behind her ears and continued. "After I killed the rest of 'em, an' you were nowhere around, I thought you must've gone back to Sophie. That you were waitin' for me."
"I was waiting for you. Just not there. I do remember... being in-- I was scared for you. I thought maybe those guys... maybe one of them killed you. Or hurt you."
"Now why would I let them do that?" he said lightly.
She wasn't responding to any attempts on his part to add a little levity to their conversation. "When you didn't come get me, I thought..."
"You should've realized I wasn't dead when you saw me, then. You kept askin' me if I was." He almost asked her about her mother, but decided that was best left up to her to bring up; he didn't want to add to her sorrows, if she'd forgotten.
"Did I? Yeah... I kept seeing you in there. In my head... you and all these other people... but you never let me get near you. You said weird things. It was... really fucked up. The whole thing was like... a dream. What I remember of it." She wriggled a little, like she was trying to get more comfortable.
He shifted his leg and pulled her in front of him, nestling her between his legs so she could lay back against his chest and he could wrap his arms around her snugly, leaning back against the vending machine. He couldn't see out from this angle, but they were very well-hidden. "That better?"
"Mmhmm." Her voice was still... flat. Lifeless.
He started stroking her hair... her filthy, tangled mass of hair that they'd need to go wash properly as soon as she was up for it. He and Sophie had sort of... patted it cautiously yesterday, trying to get some of the blood off, but Joel was afraid of agitating an unseen, healing wound if they started tugging on her hair too much. Whatever had happened to her head, it hadn't gotten infected. "I'm sorry it took me so long to find you." Joel gave her a light squeeze; she was limp as a rag doll.
"It was so... quiet," she said softly. "I thought... you'd be calling my name, or..."
"I did call for you." The first day and night, at least. He'd yelled himself hoarse. He couldn't remember for sure if he'd called for her anywhere near this spot. He thought he had, but he may not have thought to do so until he'd climbed up to the second floor, because it seemed obvious she wasn't there on the ground. Still, it seemed like she would've been close enough to hear him, and for him to hear her, with their voices at shouting volume, so that didn't make sense. "I looked all over... thought maybe you'd decided to run out on me, but then I remembered that conversation we had where you said you'd never do that."
She didn't laugh. "Of course I wouldn't. Never."
"I know, baby girl, I know." What do I have to do to make you smile?
"I was mean to you... wasn't I? That whole day, right before... this?"
"You were fine." Maybe she'd been a little cross with him. It certainly didn't matter now.
"Ellie, it's okay. Really. I don' even remember what you're thinkin' of."
"I'm sorry," she repeated. "You must've been so... upset, when you couldn't find me. How long was I in there? Like... a week?"
"No! Two or three days, I think."
"I guess... maybe it felt like a week. I think I started dying in there. I still--" She scooched up a little and nuzzled his neck... and swallowed the rest of that thought. "I remember... I wished you were in there with me. So I wouldn't be alone... at the end. Pretty selfish, huh?"
He caressed the side of her face, tracing a small bruise with his fingertips. "Pretty human, more like." He certainly couldn't handle Ellie dying in his arms. Feeling the life seep out of her body. He knew what that felt like... and he couldn't ever feel it again -- not with the person he loved more than anyone in the world. But if he couldn't save her, how could he not hold her and comfort her when she died? Talk about selfish.
Ellie slid back down a little. "How did you get me out?"
"You have no idea? You don' remember? ...I guess you wouldn't... you were passed out. If you'd been awake, it would've been a hell of a lot easier. I'll tell you about it when Sophie gets back. Couldn't've done it without her."
"Oh. So you guys..." Her voice trailed off.
"Nothing. Can I have some more water?"
Joel nudged the canteen with his foot until he could pick it up with minimal Ellie-squishing. "Here you go, kiddo. Drink up."
She sat more upright while she drank, and Joel rubbed her shoulders. "You hungry?"
"Not really... can you scratch my head? It's really itchy."
" 'Course it's itchy... it's filthy as hell." Joel started massaging her scalp as if he was shampooing her hair -- which he wished he was. Maybe he could get Sophie to go make some more clean water so he could use up their supply and wash Ellie's hair for real. "I don' remember ever seein' your hair so dirty. You oughta wash it once in a while," he teased.
No snappy comeback, no giggling... nothing.
Well, she's just been through hell, Joel reminded himself. But... so had he. It's different. Just be glad she's not delirious for the first time since you found her, asshole.
After she'd apparently had enough head-scratching, she leaned back against him, and he wrapped his arms around her again. "Listen... there's somethin' I wanted to tell you before Sophie gets back. In case she mentions it. I hope you don' get mad at me for it."
"I told her somethin'... I told her the truth, about--"
"About us? Really?" She craned her neck to look at him.
"No. About you. Your bite."
"Oh." She laid her head back again, clearly disappointed in the choice of secret he had told.
Joel realized he was glad she was disappointed... glad that she still wanted Sophie to know. ...As if that might've changed? "We were cleanin' you up, an' I knew she was gonna see it, so... I told her. Not about all the Firefly shit... she don' need to know all that. She was great about it. No freakin' out. Promised not to tell a soul." After I threatened the recipients of this information, anyway... "She understands why it has to be a secret. I would've consulted with you first, but you were a bit... incapacitated."
"It's okay. So we can tell people now."
"No, we can't. The less people who know, the better. If you wanna tell someone, you still ask me first, an' you better have a good reason." He realized he had no right to dictate who she could and couldn't share her own secret with... but he felt so strongly about this one that he really wanted her to believe his rule was law in this case.
"Well, you told one person without asking me, so I should get to do the same. It's only fair."
He had to smile at the familiar Ellie logic. "Fair ain't got nothin' to do with it. I know you wanna tell Annie--"
"She is my best friend."
"--but Annie might tell her mom, or her brother, an' one of them might decide to tell just one person, an' before you know it, everyone knows."
"Well, Sophie might tell her brother, when we find him," she countered. "You're cool with that?"
"She ain't gonna tell anyone."
"Neither would Annie," she insisted.
"I wouldn't've even told Tommy -- I had no choice. Or... thought I had no choice." Back when he'd tried to foist Ellie off on his brother to complete her journey to the Fireflies. "I'm sorry... I prob'ly should've come up with some reason to tell Sophie to take a hike, instead of tellin' her. I wasn't really thinkin'... real clear. But we can trust her. She loves you."
"So does Annie. But... whatever, Joel. Really. I don't care. I'm glad she knows. It'll make bathtime easier."
"All right then. So we're good?"
"We're good. Can I take a nap now?"
"You're tired already? ...right... of course you are. You ain't feelin' good, an' the sleep you've been gettin' has been shitty. A good sleep is prob'ly the best thing for you right now." No need to worry, he tried to reassure himself. "Here, why don't you lay down all the way..."
"No... like this... if that's okay... at least until I fall asleep?"
So she DOES want me! Joel was more thrilled than he probably should've been that the need to be close was finally reciprocated, and not just Ellie allowing him to pose her however it suited him. ...Or maybe I'm just more comfortable for her than the ground is? That ain't saying much. "Of course it's okay. Good night, baby girl," he said as he tugged the two blankets up over her.
"It's not nighttime," she mumbled.
"Good mornin', then... beautiful."
"Sing it to me? Please?"
Another good sign! "~Good mornin,' beautiful, how was your night~" he crooned to her. "~Mine was wonderful with you by my side~"
She was asleep before he finished the last verse.
"Well? What do you think?"
"Still nasty... but in a good way," Joel replied as he cleansed Ellie's leg wound.
Ellie frowned. "What does that even mean?"
"Like all the pus an' gunk means it's healin'." They only had one dose of penicillin left, and Joel hoped like hell that it was enough. "Still feels hot, though... an' it still hurts you."
"Not that bad."
It was a lie, but not one he would call her on. He patted it dry with a fresh rag and applied a new bandage.
Ellie glanced over his shoulder... at Sophie, he would guess. She was bathing (or maybe just swimming) in the river, buck naked. Joel wasn't allowed to look in that direction, just in case -- Ellie's decree, not Sophie's, naturally. "Do you think Sophie wonders why you didn't get her to do my leg?" she asked him. "Or let me do it myself, even? Not like I can't reach it or something."
"No. She knows I'd rather do it myself. Where did your pants go..."
"I'll get them! Don't look!" She slid off the rock she'd been sitting on to retrieve them -- from a rock in the 'forbidden' direction.
"Ellie, if she's completely in the water--"
"Still!" He could hear her pulling on her jeans -- her own, now that they were clean (and finally dry). Joel wanted to find her another pair since these were ripped so bad, but for now, at least there wouldn't be fabric rubbing on her wound when he felt they could quit the bandages... or they could try patching them instead if it was the better option, given whatever they had to work with. Presently, Ellie felt the need to tell him yet again, "You can't look over there. Something might... pop up, or whatever..."
"Pop up?" Joel chuckled a little. He was tempted to glance back there anyway, just to irritate Ellie -- and also because he felt a little uneasy not being able to keep a watchful eye on that area. But he didn't; Ellie claimed she would keep watch in that direction, and Joel suspected those hunters had done a pretty good job of protecting their turf from foreigners. Someone could always come passing through, of course, but he wasn't overly concerned. He just didn't like being blind in one direction -- even with Ellie watching; she was still showing effects from the head injury. She still couldn't remember everything, and had listened wide-eyed when he and Sophie explained how they'd rescued her; she couldn't believe she'd stayed unconscious through all of that (Joel skipped over the part where he cried, and Sophie graciously didn't go there).
"What if she thinks you're a perv for touching my leg way up high like that?" asked Ellie. "Your hand was practically in my crotch."
"No it wasn't," Joel protested, laughing. Again, by words alone, she sounded like herself... it's her tone... she's still too serious -- I don't get it. "An' that's ridiculous -- she knows how I feel about you."
"Does she? I don't think so." Ellie started to return to her seat on the big rock, and Joel hoisted her up before she could even attempt to hop up there backwards -- barely off the ground, but still. "Unless you don't love me anymore."
"I mean love me like... you know. She doesn't know that. Can you do my feet?" That bending motion apparently still bothered her enough to let Joel help with her socks and shoes.
What a difference a day makes, Joel thought. Ellie was still lethargic, still in pain, still more humorless than was typical, still not totally out of the woods yet... but her verve did seem to be coming back. He kissed her big toe before sliding a sock over it. "I was thinkin' about that, actually," he said, glancing up at her.
"Thinking... what, exactly? Cuz you just told me you loved me this morning, you know."
...huh? "What are you talkin' about?" He worked a sock onto her other foot.
"It can't change that fast. You don't love someone in the morning and then not love them by evening."
"But... nothin's changed, so...?" He picked up one of her shoes off the ground.
"Okay, good. I think... the way it prob'ly happens is you don't say it for a while... you stop feeling it, maybe, or if you do say it, you don't really mean it, you're just like... used to saying it. Not you-you -- like, people in general. Then the person shouldn't be surprised to find out the other person doesn't love them anymore, cuz it was sort of a gradual thing... except sometimes they still are... surprised, I mean... maybe they're stupid. Or they just don't wanna believe it. Whatever. Anyways... the I-love-you stuff is fine, but we haven't, um... it's been a while since we..."
Joel stood up and pulled her close; he didn't mean to pull her off the rock, but it was either that or lean over her. "Where's this comin' from? Some movie? That's all fictional." But... are you trying to tell me something about YOUR feelings changing, baby girl? She did that, sometimes... she would say things and expect him to read between the lines. He kissed the top of her head -- and her hair was nice and clean now, so he didn't even get a mouthful of dirt.
"Okay, so what are you talking about?" She put her arms around him and buried her face in his shirt.
He could ponder those words between the lines later. "I was thinkin'... maybe we should tell her."
She looked up at him, surprised. "Tell her... about us?"
"Yeah. She can be our guinea pig."
And now she looked confused. "You... want to make her our pet or something?"
Joel chuckled. "It's just an expression. Like a... a test subject. We can see how she reacts, an' use it to gauge other people's reactions, maybe."
"We already know other people's reactions," Ellie grumbled. "They say nasty things and throw rocks through our window."
She doesn't seem very excited... "No, see... they didn' know the truth. They thought you were my little sex slave or somethin'. This--"
"I would be, if you'd let me," Ellie cut in.
...Is that a grin I see? "Not funny." He hoisted her back onto the rock. There wasn't enough room on it for both of them, even if Joel had been allowed to turn in that direction, so he remained in front of her. "But it is good to see you smile again." And to hear you make smartass Ellie-like remarks.
"It's a little funny. Would it be funnier if you were my sex slave?"
"Yes. Closer to the truth, too." It was awkward standing in front of her without being able to lean in close, so he shifted over to the one side he was 'allowed' on -- where his back would be to Sophie. He leaned over and kissed her neck. Even if Sophie were to glance their way, it wouldn't look like... well, okay, it MIGHT look like I'm kissing her neck... but soon that won't matter. He settled himself against the rock, leaning over slightly as he rested one hand behind Ellie. "She knows how... important you are, to me. She might already suspect somethin's up. Or she might think it's just a father-daughter thing. I don' know."
"A father-daughter thing where we sleep in the same bed. Totally normal. Yep."
Joel chuckled. "It sort of is a father thing, though. I don' do it for... perverse reasons. It's for peace of mind. First yours... now mine." Although the idea of him sleeping in Ellie's bed 'for her' in the beginning was a crock; it had always been just as much for him.
"So... you wanna tell her when she comes back here?"
"...You do want to tell her, then." He'd figured she'd be okay with the idea... but joking about it -- or saying she wanted to do it when she knew he'd shoot down the idea -- was different from actually doing it.
"Hell yeah I want to tell her. Should we just start making out until she figures it out?"
Joel snorted. "No. I want us to tell her."
"That would tell her, no doubt."
"I mean with words. Respectfully."
"Respectfully," she repeated thoughtfully. "So I can't just say something like... we wanna fuck each other's brains out?"
He tried not to smirk when he gave her a Look. "That ain't even true."
"It is for me!" she cried, wounded.
"But... never mind, we've been over all that." He felt absurdly relieved to hear her bring it up again, though! Maybe she wasn't trying to tell him something before that he didn't want to hear. Or maybe it's just habit... pretty sure she ain't feeling well enough right now to ~fuck my brains out~... He hadn't even given her so much as a peck on the lips since she'd returned to the land of the lucid. He wasn't sure why, but it just felt like... that might not be welcome. And she hadn't kissed him at all, anywhere. Might just be from feeling shitty. It ain't important right now. "We'll jus'... tell her plain. If she don' like it... might make things awkward, but I don' think she'll kick us to the curb."
"What curb? We're in the country now. I won't let her think you're a perv, don't worry. Like, I won't shut up about all the ways you're not, if that's what she thinks. Oh! She's drying off now!" Ellie leaned forward a little to look past Joel. Because it was okay for her to see Sophie naked. "So what do we say? Should we rehearse real quick?" she asked, biting her lip.
She seems a little anxious... "Nah. I'll jus' say what comes natural. I'll tell her."
"Cuz of the comment about fucking? I won't say it like that, I swear. I'm better at talking than you are, so I should be the one to tell her."
He chuckled. "Jus' 'cause you do a lot more of it than me don' make you better at it." Joel just felt like it should come from him, as the adult.
"You've told me I'm better at it! But, whatever... okay. You can tell her. Are you nervous?"
"Not especially." He kissed her temple. "You seem to be, though. Why? Cold feet?"
"My feet aren't-- oh, wait, I know that one. Another dumb expression. Um... a little. I don't want her to hate you." She snorted. "Which is funny cuz a couple months ago I would've loved it if she hated you. When it seemed like she wanted to steal you from me."
"Funny how things work out, ain't it? I don' think she'll hate me... she could be creeped out, maybe..."
"Which would be stupid because she knows how awesome you are." Ellie looked past Joel again. "Sophie! Hurry up and get your ass over here already!"
Sophie came trotting over, now fully clothed. "What? What is it? Something wrong?"
"Nope! Nothing wrong at all," Ellie assured her. "We just have something to tell you. You might wanna sit down. At least, I've heard that's what you should do when... at times like this. Like you might faint or something, I guess?"
"Sounds serious." Sophie looked questioningly from Ellie to Joel.
"It's not!" said Ellie. "I mean, it is..."
"Maybe we should all sit down," said Joel, motioning for Sophie to sit by the rock before helping Ellie slide off of it.
"You guys wanna go home," Sophie guessed. She didn't sit down.
"No! Hell no," said Ellie as she sat and leaned back against the rock.
"You want to stay here, then. You like Sacramento."
"No, that ain't it either, believe me," Joel answered that one. He wanted nothing more than to get out of this hellish city, actually, but Ellie needed at least another few days to heal. Moving their camp backwards to the river had been as much about getting away from the bad memories as it had been about the convenience. And the convenience had been the proximity to water; they didn't have a building to sleep in or hide out in down here. There was a lone house on the other side, but crossing the rickety, partially-collapsed bridge just once had been one time too many for Joel. "Will you sit down already?" Joel said to Sophie as he sat down beside Ellie.
"The suspense is killing me! What is it?!" Sophie finally plopped down on Ellie's other side.
Ellie glanced at Joel, and Joel cleared his throat. Tried to meet the gaze of a very expectant Sophie. "Well. Uh... I wanted to-- we, wanted to... tell you that... there's somethin' you don' know, about, uh..."
"Jesus, Joel -- you suck at this," Ellie sighed in mock (or maybe not so mock) exasperation. "Allow me. Sophie--"
"No! No, I can say it." He cleared his throat again. "Remember how, back in Jackson, there were rumors about--"
"You're gonna lead with that?" Ellie interrupted him. "Way to creep her out."
"I was jus' gonna say that... they weren't true."
"I know that," said Sophie, slowly. She was looking alternately at each of them, watching their expressions.
"Right. What you don't know, is..." ...I really AM a child toucher. I HAVE done sexual things with Ellie. Although I won't let her blow me, and technically-speaking, she's still a virgin.
"Yeeessssss?" Sophie prodded.
Ellie held her tongue this time, but she was looking at him impatiently. "Well," he continued, "you know that... Ellie'n'me... we have a... unique, uh... relationship."
"I do know that." Sophie nodded. "You guys have an amazing relationship."
"I think so, too," Ellie chimed in.
Joel wondered what had possessed him to confess this without first practicing the confession, as Ellie had suggested. So much for 'natural.' "It's jus' that... the rumors? They ain't exactly--"
"No!" cried Ellie. "You can't explain it like that. The rumors are fucking bullshit and I still want to kick the lying ass of the fuckwit who started them. Joel is the kindest... gentlest... sweetest--"
"That's enough of that, now," Joel cut her off. At least Sophie looked somewhat amused. "Forget the rumors. The thing is... see, Ellie'n'me..."
"I think I can fill in the blanks here," Sophie said dryly. "There's... something going on between you guys."
"Yes!" Ellie exclaimed. "Thank you for putting him out of his misery. I was trying to, but he wanted--"
Joel shushed her. "Ellie, stop. That still... uh... it don' really cover it." He couldn't get a good read on Sophie's expression, except to note that it wasn't utter disgust. Somehow she seemed surprised and not-surprised at the same time. "It ain't a... a sexual thing."
Ellie jumped in again. "Well, it is..."
"No." Joel felt compelled to make that clear. Except... how can I make something so blurry become clear? After all the fooling around they'd done, he was no saint for not yet having intercourse with a young girl... no need to paint himself as one. But sex wasn't the driving force behind his decision to become romantic with Ellie. "I mean... not in the sense that... We haven't..."
"But we're-- " Ellie started to add. "Um, yeah, we haven't exactly... yet."
Sophie held her hand up in the 'stop' gesture. "Okay, look. Whatever you guys do or don't do, it's none of my business. That's between you two. You don't have to tell me anything else. I get it. I'm just going to, um... check on Poppy. Yeah..." She scrambled to her feet.
"Sophie, wait!" cried Ellie. "We have to explain!"
"You really don't," she replied tersely, already heading toward the place they'd picketed the horse.
Ellie looked bewildered. Joel stood up. "Stay here. I'll talk to her."
"Because you did such a good job of it just now?" Ellie sneered, and she started to stand up.
"Please, Ellie, don' get up." He put his hand on her shoulder to keep her on the ground. "I'll bring her back over here to talk to you some more, all right? Sit tight."
"You're still-- jus' relax. Think of what you wanna say to her when we come back, yeah? Jus' gimme a minute." He waited another moment to be sure she wouldn't follow him. Sorry, baby girl, but this will be easier alone...
Sophie hadn't picked up the stake, at least; the horse was neighing happily as she patted her nose. Sophie watched Joel approach. "It's okay, Joel. Your business, not mine," she said coolly.
Joel still didn't know quite what to say to her. "You didn' seem real shocked to hear it..."
"Um... I am, but I'm not. You know? I'm an idiot for--"
"No you ain't. We were hidin' it."
"Well, I feel dumb anyway. Obviously you guys... your relationship is unique, like you said. Hard not to notice how affectionate you are with each other. I just didn't think you would..."
I was affectionate with Sarah, too, he wanted to say, hating how defensive he felt. But he certainly didn't want to bring up Sarah right now -- he hadn't told Sophie about her, and to do so now would either creep her out more or come across like a sympathy ploy. And, to be fair, he was actually more affectionate with Ellie than he'd been with Sarah.
He shifted a few steps so he could watch Ellie out of the corner of his eye. "I didn't... want to have these feelings for Ellie. I fought 'em, for a long time. Actually, not all that long," he amended. "It ain't like... I ain't attracted to teenage girls, as a whole, if that's what you're thinkin'."
Sophie stopped petting the horse and turned her full attention to Joel. "I wasn't thinking that. I don't know what I'm thinking yet, really, but... not that. I've seen the way you are with Ellie. How you were when she was missing... and when you thought she was going to die. I know you love her. A lot."
He was grateful he didn't have to convince her of that much, at least. "I would never do anythin' to hurt her," Joel added to that.
"Of course not! Jeez, Joel, you... I've never seen anyone love another person like that. Of course you wouldn't."
Yeah, I'm a real stand-up guy, all right. "What I mean to say is... I never meant to take advantage of her. Of..." It wasn't fair to reduce her feelings to a mere crush. "...the way she feels about me. It ain't jus' some silly crush. I would never..." ...except you already HAVE, part of his brain whispered to him.
And Sophie realized it, too. "Joel, really. You don't have to explain yourself."
"I do, though," he insisted. Kind of funny how he felt that way, after constantly telling Ellie they didn't have to explain themselves to anyone. "If you think it's fucked up... all right, well, I reckon you ain't wrong. I justify it to myself... in all sorts of ways. But it's still... it is what it is. A dirty old man and a fifteen-year-old girl."
"You're not dirty or old," Sophie said kindly. "And... I can see that it... bothers you."
"If Ellie wants to be with someone her own age, I won't stand in her way." Those words rolled off his tongue real easy when he didn't believe for one second that Ellie would want any such thing. Truth be told, he would have a hard time letting another guy near Ellie, and it wasn't a jealousy thing. At least, not just a jealousy thing...
"I don't think she'll want that."
"No?" So Sophie wasn't going to try to give him some lecture about the fleeting crushes of fickle teenage girls or some shit. That was something.
"She loves you. That's obvious. I might've thought it was just a crush, back home..." She smirked a little as something dawned on her. "No wonder she was acting that way, that day in my house... hiding under my bed like a stalker? She was acting like a jealous girlfriend because that's exactly what she was. I thought she was more like... a kid who didn't wanna see her dad start dating a woman and then ignore her or something."
"Yeah, we were... together, then." Joel looked in Ellie's direction; she was watching them intently, but also respecting Joel's wish for her to stay put. "I let the whole town think she had some stupid crush on me. But she understood. She knew that... that it couldn' be the other way around."
"That it's fine for her to have a crush, but... not you. Yeah, I get that, too. So... why are you telling me this now?"
"Not sure. Jus' felt like the right thing to do." And I'm tired of having to hide it all day every day? Because I'm a selfish prick? And there was something more to it... something to do with the troubling thoughts he'd been having recently about his relationship with Ellie. The new doubts. Like telling someone outside of themselves somehow made it more... real.
"Is it because you told me about her... infection thing? You wanted to come clean about everything after that? No more secrets?"
"No... I don' know. Look, no one else knows about this one. I wasn' sure how I should handle tellin' people... it was easier to keep it quiet. My brother had his suspicions... I've had to talk him down a few times. Lie to him. He would flip his shit if he knew. Of that, I'm certain."
"I'm not so sure about that. He's a nice guy. He'd understand--"
"He's also got a lot more morals than I do," Joel pointed out. There was something else he needed to make clear... and it was easier if Ellie wasn't around. He kept looking at Ellie while he spoke. "As far as morals go... I know it's wrong. Not jus' 'cause it's the law... or, was... I understand the reasons behind the law. The differences in maturity, in life experience. The whole... corruption of innocence thing... how it's exploitation even if it's consensual. I get all that. An' there are times when... when that shit bothers me. But other times... most of the time... it don' matter at all. Because I know that I only want what's best for her. If this was happenin'... in 2010 or somethin'... I'd think no way in hell can this work. No way would I even try to make it work. An' Ellie... if she did have a crush on me... she'd get over it. Go to college, meet all kinds of new people, find someone else she connects with. A younger person who can give her... young person things, like..." Joel wasn't even sure what he meant by that, but he didn't care to expand on it. "Anyway, it ain't 2010. It's 2034, an' there ain't a whole bunch of us left to pick an' choose from. It would be pretty goddamn stupid to throw somethin' away that's... It's a rare thing, what we have. I could go an' break Ellie's heart... I did, at first... an' what good would it do her if she jus' went on alone?" Not that Joel fully believed that would happen; he could imagine Ellie -- an older Ellie -- attracting plenty of interest from men, most (if not all) of whom wouldn't deserve her. She was too damn lovable. She wouldn't have to be alone, if she didn't want to be. But goddamnit, she wouldn't love anyone the way she loves me. That was just the Ellie in his head talking, but his ego really wanted to believe it. "She never had much love in her life... maybe that's why she got so attached to me. I don' know. All I know is... I can give her that." On that much, at least, Joel could speak more confidently. "I can give her that, an' I know I would never purposely do anythin' to hurt her... an' that no one else could possibly... care, as much."
Sophie just quietly absorbed all that -- more words than he'd probably spoken to her in the entirety of the trip, aside from giving orders -- and it occurred to him that maybe he should get some input from her before continuing. She stayed quiet, though. He finally looked at her. "Say somethin'," he prodded.
She hesitated to answer. "I... don't know what to say. Truly. I feel... honored, that you wanted to share this with me."
"Honored?" That was a word he hadn't expected to hear about all this.
"Yeah. And... I did kind of already know... just a feeling I got sometimes, looking at you guys. The way you'd look at each other, or something one of you would say..."
"Ellie's not as good at lyin' as me," Joel acknowledged.
"Well, from you, too." She chuckled. "I chalked it up to a fatherly sort of love, except with... I dunno. An undercurrent of... obsession?"
"That's fair, I s'pose." Tommy alternated between teasing him and being concerned about his Ellie obsession. If Sophie wanted to call it that, too... "I can go to extremes sometimes, with her. I'm... a bit fucked up, you might say."
"Oh honey -- who isn't fucked up?" Sophie scoffed.
"You, for one."
"Sure. What's wrong with you?"
"I'm, um... neurotic... impulsive... a chickensh--"
"Oh no you ain't. If you were, you wouldn't've gone into that hole so quick."
"That was different. Isolated incidents aside, I'm a coward... um... I get a little too into my romance novels and try to make real life live up to them -- and I always go for the wrong guy..."
"Or... they get killed," Joel ventured. That was enough to fuck a person up, right there.
"Yeah... we weren't like you and Ellie, though. Nick maybe wasn't the greatest for me, either... things weren't... bah -- I'm being disrespectful. He's dead. Really, though... being apart from my brother is worse. It's been the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with. We've always been close. Our whole lives. Well, okay, losing our parents... first Mom, then finding out about Daddy... that was rough, too. Maybe that was the hardest thing. But that time was so... the whole world was falling apart... Alex was always my rock, you know?"
Joel nodded. "An' then he left. I'm sorry."
"Thanks. Sorry... not trying to make this about me. You just... asked. Heh."
"I did, yes." Joel noticed that her body language said she wasn't repulsed by him; apparently she wasn't suddenly thinking oh my God get away from me you filthy pedophile! "You know, Ellie wanted to talk to you about this, too. Can you come back an' sit with her? Would you mind?"
Ellie seemed relieved when they came back, although she wore an irritated what the fuck took you so long?! expression. He dropped a kiss on top of her head before planting himself next to her, and Sophie returned to Ellie's other side. "Sophie's okay with... things. If you wanna talk to her alone, you can. It's only fair." And on this subject, he was perfectly willing to be fair.
"It's okay. You can stay." Ellie turned to Sophie. "And I don't wanna, like... throw this in your face or anything."
"What, you and Joel? Like I was telling Joel... I kind of already knew. I just didn't know what it was, exactly, that I knew."
"But, didn't you... I mean... you sort of had a... thing for Joel, right?"
"Ellie--" Joel said warningly.
"No worries," Sophie laughed. "She can say it."
"Well, you can be glad now," said Ellie, "cuz now you know it's not you. I mean, that it's not your fault that Joel didn't like you back."
Joel chuckled. "She knows that." At least, he thought she did. Sometimes the chemistry just wasn't there; it didn't have to be anyone's fault. Although, that could've just been his male brain's logic... females did tend to get wacky ideas about perfectly simple things, sometimes...
"Yeah, well, thanks for that, Ellie. I, um... was interested, before, sure. As you know. I thought maybe... But it's obvious where his heart is. It's been obvious for many a moon. I remember thinking... no woman is gonna wanna put up with that. To play second fiddle. Like, how could anyone compete with... that?"
"Aww! You really thought that?" Ellie was pleased as punch. Joel had had similar thoughts himself, back when he was trying to dissuade Tommy from setting him up with Esther -- he thought that he'd be a lousy mate when all he wanted was... well, at the time, to be Ellie's dad. Before the romance aspect applied. It was interesting -- and validating -- to have his suspicions about his inadequacy as a partner due to his devotion to Ellie confirmed from a female perspective.
"Yeah, I did," said Sophie. "But... I was wrong, about something."
"Huh? What were you wrong about?" Ellie asked.
"Well... I thought, okay -- I need to get from Point A to Point B, and not only that, I have to actually find Alex. I can't do it by myself. Who's the best person to do that? Joel... which means Ellie... 'cause Joel and Ellie go together. You know, your names even go together. Ever notice that? Joel... Ellie... Jo-ellie..."
"Hey, yeah... Joellie! Our names even fit together, Joel. It's total fate."
Joel snorted. That was such... high school girl shit, like doodling hearts and names in spiral-bound notebooks... well, no harm in it, and she IS a teenage girl. For all the guilt he felt over Ellie's age, he never truly wished her older -- odd as that was. He squeezed her hand.
"Anyway," Sophie continued, "I thought it might be... awkward, sometimes... but hey, so what, I'm just like... hiring someone for a job. Except you don't get paid... we've already talked about that -- anyway -- so, I figured... yeah. Dude's all wrapped up in this girl... girl hates me..."
"I never hated you!" Ellie protested. Joel was slightly tempted to call her out on the lie, but he reckoned it was better for everyone if he didn't.
Sophie didn't look like she fully believed it, either. "Okay... hate's a strong word. Just... not a Sophie fan, then. I never expected... you guys have been, just... awesome. I mean it. And... okay, I'm the outsider -- obviously. Knew that from the get-go. But you didn't make me feel like... like you wished I wasn't around, or... honestly, you've just been amazing. I think of you both as good friends of mine."
"BFFNs?" Ellie added.
Sophie smiled. "Without the N."
"Aww. Thanks, Soph!" Ellie leaned over, which must have hurt some, and put her arms around Sophie's neck.
"You bet, girl." Sophie hugged her back, smiling at Joel over Ellie's shoulder.
Joel just looked at them both with satisfaction. We did it. We told someone, and she took it well, and now... Joel felt like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. A weight that he'd been bearing so long that he'd stopped noticing it, until it was gone. We're FREE!
~Continue to PART TWO~