Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 42: "Sifting the Sands" (42/47) - Part 1
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: 12,450 (for both parts combined)
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
The ocean was a powerful distraction. Every day, they spent at least a couple hours at a beach, although they didn't always go in the water. The sand got everywhere. The girls didn't seem to mind it much, but Joel found it irritating as hell. It made its way into all of their bags. It got in his hair, his clothes, and it clung to any part of his body that it could... he was eating it, shitting it, sleeping in it. But the beach makes Ellie happy, he would console himself. That's worth a hell of a lot more than some petty irritation.
Joel estimated they were losing anywhere from five to ten miles per day with the beaching indulgence, but wasn't that partly the point of the trip? For him and Ellie, at least, if not Sophie. They also sacrificed a little bit of mileage to daily hunting... which, hungry as they were for meat by this point, all of them deemed a worthy deviation from traveling. Joel deferred to Sophie on the beach thing, and it was probably fifty/fifty between Ellie and Sophie on who wanted to stop and play at this-or-that beach, with the other always seconding the motion. On one beach, they'd found a bodyboard, and after pumping Sophie and Joel for information on its use (Joel deferred to Sophie on that one, too), Ellie had insisted on taking it along -- even when Joel had pointed out that learning to ride it would mean falling off of it. A lot. In the water. She was 'cool with that.' It was only a couple extra pounds, she'd argued. And since the horse was already overloaded, she would 'totally carry it.'
But somehow, Joel had ended up carrying it, after tiring of watching her struggle with the most comfortable way to lug it -- including tying the thing underneath her backpack, against her back. That method hadn't lasted very long. Besides, she wasn't going to walk the rest of the way, and riding the horse meant the horse was bearing the burden. Truthfully, a couple pounds wouldn't make much difference to Poppy... but they had added a lot of it's-only-a-couple-of-pounds items to their bags already, counting on the fact that the food weight would be depleted daily -- and that they weren't traveling as many miles per day. Sophie and Ellie tended to take turns riding the horse now, rather than both of them riding at once, so at least Poppy did have one less human to accommodate (and Joel still refused to take a turn, thanks to his pride... sexism... whatever they wanted to call it -- he preferred to think of it as chivalry).
He wished he'd thought to find a wetsuit for Ellie somewhere on this journey, since Jackson had none. Surely he could have found something in Sacramento. If his brain had been functioning at all beyond the capacity of WHERE THE HELL IS ELLIE, he could have made note of what he'd seen where and gone back for it. They'd obtained plenty of new essentials... mostly ammo, canned food, and clothing -- including 'new' jeans for Ellie, since the huge gash in the left leg was... well, ridiculous. The hole exposed half her thigh. Unfortunately, they hadn't found any close enough to her size to be a good fit, but they'd used a safety pin from the first aid kit to cinch them at the waist, and rolled up the cuffs. These jeans were in better condition than Ellie's old pair, so swapping those for the bigger ones was better than patching them up. Sophie had offered to trade, but her jeans wouldn't have fit Ellie much better, so there was no point.
At any rate, he hadn't considered that Ellie would be getting sunburned to a crisp in the ocean. He managed to get her to wear that long-sleeved T-shirt she'd so gleefully abandoned for swimming just because she could, and occasionally she'd wear Sophie's cowboy hat, too (though not so much in the water). He and Sophie got a little toasted at times, but they clearly both tanned much easier than Ellie did. Joel never heard about people getting skin cancer anymore... or cancer of any kind, really... but he reckoned it still existed. And if you got it, you were fucked; there was no such thing as a cancer survivor these days. Mostly he just wished he could spare her the pain, minor though it was (she liked to say that it kept her warm).
When Sophie wore the hat, it was all well and good, but when Ellie wore it, he couldn't help thinking about the fact that it had once belonged to Max, and the fact niggled at him. Ellie managed to pick up on this, and it actually made her more prone to wear the damn thing when Sophie offered. Whatever works, Joel would grumble to himself.
Worse than that, Ellie credited Max with saving her life.
"You know if it wasn't for Max, I prob'ly would've died back there."
"What? How do you figure?"
"Well, you and Sophie did all the work. Not saying you didn't. But Max saved me AFTER that."
"Ellie, you ain't makin' any sense. He's in Jackson."
"Right! But where did he go... oh, say... the first week of July?"
"How the hell should I know?"
"Joel! THE FIRST WEEK OF JULY."
"What about it?"
"Like... the 6th, to be exact?"
"...I ain't followin' you here."
"Jesus, Joel... you don't even remember when our anniversary is!"
"That's... all right, yes, the 6th. Since we've been out here I really haven' been thinkin' about what day is what."
"Okay, but that doesn't explain how you can forget that date. I just told you when we hit four months last week and you forgot already!"
"Ellie, what's all this got to do with Max savin' your life?"
"Back to my first question -- you remember where he was? Or where he was going. Where WE were going."
"To that MEDICAL FACILITY in Idaho."
"All right, I see where you're goin' with this. That was a scoutin' mission. Nothin' else."
"Yeah, but it was based on a tip that HE got, and then when he and Tommy went back there--"
"We were tradin' for medicine before that, you know."
"We were TRYING to, but it's not like the military was really putting out. Fucking prudes. That's why that hospital was so important!"
"Well, where do you think THEY get their shit from? It's gotta come from somewhere, and the government controls production of pretty much everything."
"I don't know -- who cares? Maybe they steal it. Whatever. But now we have a place to take people who are too sick for us to handle, who need a real doctor -- well, if they can make it that far... and we ARE getting extra drugs. So we had penicillin thanks to Max. Max saved my life. You better tell him thank you when we get home."
Even if that were true -- and Joel really didn't know -- he wasn't about to thank that motherfucker for jack shit. As far as he was concerned, he and Sophie -- and it was mostly Sophie -- had saved Ellie's life. And the reality was that Ellie just liked to give him shit, whenever she could.
He would gladly take her shit. If ever he got annoyed, all he had to do was think back to how he'd felt when he was wishing Ellie would show some spunk again. He was still concerned about all the times she got uncharacteristically quiet... the sadness he saw in her eyes... but he was relieved to find it happening less and less.
Ellie had picked up on something else that Joel hadn't given any thought to: why Sophie was willing to drag out this part of the trip. It seemed like she should be excited to finally end this thing, to reunite with her brother. And most of the time, she firmly believed -- or acted like she firmly believed -- they were going to find him. She did like the ocean... maybe she wanted to have some fun, Joel figured. It wasn't like they got to have much of that when they were traveling. That wasn't it, according to Ellie. Her theory was that Sophie was secretly afraid for the trip to end -- the uncertainty of it all. Would they find her brother? What if they found out he was dead? What if they never found him? What if they found where he'd been, but he'd left for parts unknown, so the whole trip had been for nothing? What if they found him and he turned her away, for whatever reason?
With the exception of that last question, they had all discussed it around the campfire one night, and Sophie had sheepishly validated the theory. Joel had mostly listened to the girls talk. And he felt proud of Ellie, for both her insight and her compassion (and later, he'd jokingly told Ellie she should consider a career in psychology; she'd liked that). Ellie had promised Sophie that they would stay with her as long as she needed them. Joel thought that was a bit of a lofty promise, but he couldn't bring himself to chide her for it. The Ellie he'd known a few months ago would have been counting the days until they could ditch her.
Was it Ellie maturing, or simply that she'd bonded with Sophie? No reason it couldn't be both. Since they'd told Sophie the truth about their relationship, Ellie didn't seem to feel as threatened by her, either. Not that she'd felt especially threatened before, but... there had been some jealousy there. Like Ellie had feared that Sophie might still try to seduce Joel or something, but now that Sophie knew, she wouldn't, because they were friends. Which was... wonderfully naïve, and Joel loved her for it. He didn't remind her what had happened within her circle of friends back in Jackson that should have dissuaded her from such a notion. The truth was, Ellie was right, in this case. It was a completely different situation: he and Sophie weren't impulsive teenagers, and Sophie truly cared about Ellie.
Another thing Joel was grateful for: the longer he and Ellie were together, the more secure she seemed to be in his love for her.
That probably also had to do with the fact that Joel wouldn't let her out of his sight now. He knew it was going overboard... that it was wrong... but he couldn't help it. He'd struggled with that when they'd arrived at Jackson in the spring, and after being with her 24/7 for two months straight now -- minus those two excruciatingly awful days -- it was only natural he'd regress. Ellie accepted it -- even welcomed it, it seemed. That was, perhaps, also wrong... but it certainly made things easier for him. Their ability to function independently of one another wouldn't truly be tested until they got to civilization. Which might be never, for all he knew. He wasn't sure how much he cared about right or wrong anymore, even where Ellie was concerned.
Finally, they'd made it to Monterey. They were tired, sore, and hungry, but otherwise in good shape, and fairly well-provisioned. Since they'd hit the coast, they'd only encountered one group of Infected, which he and Ellie had dispatched easily enough, and only slightly more humans, with whom they'd successfully avoided confrontation. It made sense to Joel that people might be drawn to the ocean. But it also seemed like it wouldn't be the easiest life... for a single survivor, or a small group. Joel was curious about this hippie commune, or whatever the hell it was that they were seeking. Sophie knew next to nothing about them, and she was annoyed with herself for not paying more attention to her brother when he'd talked about it, but how could she possibly have known she'd have use for this information more than a year later?
One of the small groups they'd avoided had had a horse. Joel had studied the people from afar for a few minutes, and determined they could get away with stealing it. If they waited until nightfall, no one would even get hurt. But Ellie hadn't wanted to do that: "That's what someone did to Spirit... what if this horse is someone's Spirit?" Joel figured they didn't need a second horse that bad, this far into the journey. He found it interesting that Ellie now operated under the assumption that Spirit had been stolen, whereas before, she'd blamed his disappearance on Sophie's negligence (Joel still believed the latter, but there was nothing to be gained by arguing about it).
They had to look at humans in a different light now -- to be categorized as either possibly in the group they were looking for, or unlikely to be. All Sophie remembered was that these people were rumored to be at a resort or country club type of place, and she thought it had 'Sands' in the name. But this intel was old, from a dubious source, and dependent on the memory of a person (Sophie) who hadn't been paying much attention.
Ellie saw it first. "Guys! Check out this one! The sign says White Sands!" She was riding Poppy, and she urged the horse to trot. "Does that name sound right, Soph?"
"Hold up, Ellie!" Joel called after her. Not that she listened.
"This might be it!" Sophie said excitedly. "The end of the line!"
They trotted after Ellie and Poppy, through an overgrown entranceway into a parking lot full of dead cars. At least Ellie waited at the club entrance for them to catch up... but then Joel could see why: the place had the same air of abandonment about it as most of the ghost towns they'd passed through.
Undeterred by Ellie's obvious disappointment, Sophie charged through -- or rather, climbed over -- the bashed-in wrought-iron gate. "What's wrong? They could be in here. Alex!" she shouted.
"Keep your voice down," Joel chided her. "An' don't get too far ahead. Could be Infected in here for all we know."
"No... don't say that... they'll be here..." Sophie went bounding ahead of them.
Joel looked at Ellie, and he could tell she was thinking the same thing he was: just like looking for the Fireflies. He had to follow Sophie and make sure she didn't get into any trouble. He was getting a bad vibe off the place...
"How can I get through there with Poppy?" Ellie frowned at the gate. "I don't want her to twist an ankle or something. Think she can jump it? It's leaning practically into the ground..."
Joel looked the gate over; the horse could probably jump it on a run. He'd rather not risk injury if he was wrong, though. "Maybe. But first, let me see if I can... maybe if I push it up an' get the door open enough..." He didn't like how far ahead Sophie had gone, but at least she was being quiet now, and was still within eyeshot.
He had just climbed over the gate when he heard Sophie scream: "Infected!"
Shit! Sophie may have been quiet after going inside, but in her haste to look around, she obviously hadn't been stealthy enough to avoid being seen. She was running back towards him, two Runners in pursuit from the right. He pulled out the shotgun. "Ellie, stay put--"
"Fuck that! I'm--"
"Just until Sophie gets out." He moved a few steps to his left and got a clear head shot on the one closest to her. One down... "Sophie! Go to the horse, trade places with Ellie--"
"Six or seven," Sophie informed him breathlessly as she rushed to the gate and started to scramble over it; they'd been through this enough by now that Sophie had picked up on Joel and Ellie never having to ask "how many?" when the other spotted an enemy. "All Runners -- I think?"
Joel moved forward and shot the second one. He thought he heard a faint screech coming from his left, even though the Runners were to his right. Visibility in that direction was limited, thanks to a large building -- large enough that by the time he'd reach the corner to look around it, whatever had made that sound would probably be right in his face. He could send Ellie behind the building to check things out, but if she was spotted and couldn't get back in time, they'd be fighting in two places. He certainly wasn't going to run off in that direction to check it out himself and leave Ellie to fight alone.
All of that flashed through his mind in a second. Three more Runners charging at them now... "Ellie--" He turned and saw that she already had a lit Molotov in her hand. He waited for her to chuck it, his trigger finger ready for anyone who escaped its wrath.
Her aim was true. Joel thought the one farthest back might have had enough warning to avoid the flames, so he trained his gun on it, but then the stupid motherfucker still stumbled right into--
Clickers! They were coming around the corner of that building to his left -- and he could tell by the way Ellie yelled his name that she was warning him, not asking for his help. Joel swung the barrel to his left and shot one that was already practically on top of him. He heard another shot -- that would be from Ellie -- but still found himself face to ugly face with one grabbing him --
He dropped the gun and managed to drive a shiv into its neck before it could harm him. With no time to recover and ready another gun, he did the same to the one right behind that one. Ellie had fired a few more shots -- there were now four dead Clickers in front of him. But the Runners--
One was now grappling with Ellie, one more would be on top of him in a few moments, and that appeared to be it. Ellie had her knife in her hand... logic might dictate that he let her finish that one off while he took care of the last one, but... he couldn't. Not when he couldn't be certain that she'd succeed. Yes, she was immune, but he still didn't want her to suffer another bite. He also couldn't shoot it while it was tangled up with her, obviously, so he flew at the creature and broke its grip on her, then started punching it. He wouldn't have time to kill it with the other one advancing so quickly--
He grabbed the beaten Runner by the nape of its neck, then managed to get a hand on the last Runner as it lunged for him. Mustering up all the strength he could, he smashed their two heads together with a sickening crack and let go. The first Runner fell to the ground, lifeless.
Ellie had been about to leap onto the back of that last one -- in anticipation of it attacking Joel while he finished off the other one, he was sure -- and now it staggered backward, right into her. Joel was about to grab it again, but-- too late! Unlike the hapless Runner, she'd only been stunned momentarily; she took advantage of the creature's disorientation and started knifing the shit out of it. No need for him to interfere this time.
It wasn't time to breathe easy yet, though. The hairs on the back of Joel's neck were still prickling, and he didn't think it was just from--
Nope! There's one more-- he barely pulled the Shorty out in time to fire at the Stalker that had just burst out from around the corner of that building to the left.
"Holy shit!" Ellie breathed beside him.
He laid a hand on her shoulder. "You all right, kiddo?"
"Uh-huh. You?" She turned to look at him. Each of them sized up the other, looking for injuries. The adrenaline was flowing, their hearts racing, but that fight had been a breeze compared to some of the others they'd been through.
"I'm good. Just wish we'd found who we're lookin' for instead of these bastards." He nudged one with his foot. Well, none of them really looked like Alex, at least... he'd have to take a closer look at some of them to be sure. Best do that before Sophie comes back...
"Are you guys okay?" Sophie shouted as if on cue. He hadn't given her the 'all clear,' but she'd come back inside anyhow; Joel and Ellie's calm demeanor was enough of a signal, he supposed.
"We're fine," Ellie answered. "Did you just jump that gate?"
"Yeppers! Well, Pops did. Heh. She was kind of revved up already. Sooooo... should we look around some more?" She definitely didn't sound as excited at the prospect now.
...Now that we'll be looking at corpses? "Sure." Starting with looting these bodies...
"I'll look over here," said Ellie, gesturing left.
"No! We stay together," said Joel. He didn't think anyone else was here -- or, rather, his gut didn't -- but he couldn't be sure without searching the grounds. "An' stay alert."
They searched the rooms, cabanas, common areas like restaurants and stores and swimming pools (which Ellie found redundant, with the ocean so close -- although the pools were dry now)... even some tennis courts. No more Infected; just bodies in various states of decay. None of them appeared to be freshly dead -- and none of them looked like Alex. Clickers had too much fungal growth on their faces to be recognizable, but Alex hadn't been gone long enough to reach that stage of infection anyhow.
By the time they finished searching the place from corner to corner, Sophie looked like she was fighting tears. "Maybe... they're just out hunting, or fishing, or foraging... something like that. They could be."
Joel and Ellie exchanged a Look; neither of them had been expecting to find live, uninfected humans by this point, but their companion was clearly deluding herself. Joel turned back to Sophie. "I hate to say it, but..."
"They're not here. Right now! They might come back," Sophie said desperately. "Maybe they saw the Infected coming -- so they had to leave!"
Right. And they were in such a hurry that they packed up all their shit first.
"Soph... you noticed the corpses everywhere, right?" Ellie asked gently.
"Those have been there for a long, long time -- you can tell!"
"Yeah -- I didn't mean... I just mean that if someone were living here... don't you think they would've gotten rid of those?"
"I don't know! Maybe... maybe they don't believe in disturbing the remains or something..."
Joel sighed. "That's a bit of a stretch, don't you think?"
Ellie walked over to Sophie. "I'm really sorry. We'll find them. Me and Joel have done this before. We--" She caught his cease-and-desist look and swallowed that thought. "Um... we'll find them. Maybe... if they were here at some point, they left something behind that'll tell us where they went. Like a little tape recorder or something."
Sophie snorted. "Why would they do that? Maybe they don't want to be found."
"Maybe you jus' remembered the name wrong," Joel suggested. "Or Alex heard it wrong in the first place."
"Maybe," Sophie said miserably.
Ellie gave her a hug. "We might totally have the wrong place... but maybe not. Maybe they were here before. Since we're here, we might as well look some more, right? Look for clues, I mean. To their whereabouts."
Joel thought that was probably overkill; they'd already picked up what useful shit they could find, and sifting through the rest of it again was unlikely to yield anything helpful. Then again, it wasn't like they didn't have the time. And if it gave Sophie the chance to accept reality...
Sophie nodded and stepped back, swiping at her eyes. "Sounds good. Sorry."
"It's okay," said Ellie.
"No, you guys... have been amazing. We're in Monterey... been here for over a day now... I'd say you guys did your part. I... release you from your vows." She tried to say it lightly... cheerfully.
"Oh, shut up," Ellie replied. "We're not going to just leave you here."
Sophie shook her head. "All I wanted was to get here. You got me here. That's it."
"No, you wanted to find these people. We haven't done that yet," Ellie insisted.
"But... what if we never... ?"
"It's a little early for that," Joel interjected. "We want to spend the winter here anyway. Neither of us is all that fond of snow."
"I fucking hate snow," Ellie agreed. "Besides, don't you remember I promised we'd stick around no matter what? That was only like... a week ago."
"We'll look as long as you want to look," Joel assured her. "Maybe they went to San Francisco. Ain't that where you said the girl lived before Reno?"
"We already went through there, though," said Ellie.
Joel chuckled. "We didn' search the entire city -- it's a lot bigger than this one. Could be people in another part of town. Who knows." He looked at Sophie. "If you eventually get tired of lookin' an' wanna go back to Jackson, we'll take you."
"Wow, um... Thank you. Both of you. I really appreciate it." She smiled a little, although she still looked like she was trying not to cry. "Okay... I'm not going to feel discouraged. We've really only barely begun to look, right? Yesterday was kind of like the beginning..."
"Yeah, no reason to give up hope after one day!" Ellie said brightly.
"How about an ocean break, while we're here?" Sophie suggested. "This seems like a nice, safe place."
"Now that we've dis-Infected it, you mean?" Ellie quipped.
"Yeah... I just wanna sit there at the edge for a while... feel the water on my toes..."
"All right," said Joel. "Maybe while you're doin' that, I'll take a closer look around this area." Someone would have to pass right by him to get to the beach, if they came in the same way... he hadn't thoroughly checked the state of the perimeter, though...
"I'll come join you in a little bit, 'kay?" Ellie said to Sophie. "Unless you'd rather Joel it. Up to you."
That strange comment elicited a genuine smile. "That'd be great. Thanks, Ellie."
" 'Joel it?' " Joel echoed as Sophie headed down to the beach. "My name is a verb now?"
"Meaning if she'd rather be alone... to brood or whatever," Ellie explained.
He chuckled. "I haven't even been alone since..." He didn't have to say it. And that certainly wasn't by choice. "What's so hard about askin' her the normal way?"
"It's not hard, it's just not as cool," Ellie said in her 'duh' voice. "I made her smile! And you use my name like that all the time."
"When do I do that?"
"When you 'Ellie' me."
Joel chuckled again. "I'm jus' sayin' your name. You're the one... makin' it into somethin' like that."
"Well, close enough. Should we hitch Pops to something around here, you think?"
Joel surveyed the courtyard. "There's plenty of grass an' shit in this area... let's picket her. A little closer to the beach, though..."
After they'd picketed the horse, Joel walked up behind Ellie and slipped his arms around her, nuzzling her neck. "I'm proud of you, kiddo."
"Mmm... what did I do?"
"You're bein' you."
She giggled. "Oh -- well, fuck, I deserve a shitload of praise for that!"
So nice to hear that giggle again! "I mean you're good with Sophie."
Ellie squiggled around to face him. "I feel bad for her. She's not as lucky as me. I can kiss you in here, can't I? Confined space and all?"
Joel answered her with a lingering kiss. Pretty much every time she asked, he just had to kiss her, even when the answer should've been no. But this place was about as safe as they come, so he didn't feel that indulging in a kiss or two would do any harm. Now that Sophie knew about them, they had so many more opportunities; not that they kissed in front of her very often, but now they didn't have to worry about her 'walking in' on them.
Ellie smiled at him sweetly. "If we go in one of these little rooms, they have beds in there..."
"Ha! Someone has a dirty mind. I just meant we could rest for a little while."
Suuuure you did. "You jus' wanted me to say your name so you could accuse me of 'Ellie'in' you," Joel challenged.
"Did not! Anyways... just a few minutes? I don't want Sophie to think we're messing around so I don't want to take too long."
Joel found it amusing that Ellie was constantly worried about Sophie's potential third-wheel feelings in regards to what she and Joel might be doing. They hadn't even done anything sexual since... he couldn't even remember when. ...All the way back to my birthday? "Well, I can't say no to layin' on a bed with you."
"Yay! Okay... this one over here..." Ellie yanked him by the arm toward a room close to the beach. "You should be able to see Sophie out the window, I think."
"Very considerate of you." The door was open. Joel pulled Ellie back before she could step inside. "Me first."
"We've already established that there's no one here!" Ellie protested, but she was laughing.
"Not to my satisfaction, we haven't." Joel did an overly thorough walk-through just to amuse her further. Then he stripped off his gear with exaggeratedly slow movements.
"Come here already!" Ellie called from the bed.
"Jus' makin' myself a 'lil more comfortable -- hold your horses." Joel made it look like he was going to sit on the bed, but instead, he got down on the floor to peer underneath it.
"Omigooooodddddd! Joel!" Ellie groaned, tugging at his shirt.
"So impatient," he teased, finally crawling on to the bed -- and immediately toppling her on her back so he could climb on top of her and kiss her. Only for a few moments, though; he didn't want to get carried away. He rolled to her side and gathered her in the crook of his arm. "I better stop..."
Ellie snorted. "Why? Not like I make you hard anymore anyway."
He didn't like the way she said it -- like it was her fault. "I'm sorry about that. It ain't you. I'm jus' worn out."
"I know," she said, and he could hear the cringe in her voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it... I don't know why I even said that."
He petted her hair. " 'Cause you're frustrated with the old man."
"No! I'm really not, I swear! And you're not old!"
Joel felt old. Like the years Ellie had taken off of him had crept back on. If he could just get some decent sleep... "I'm fifty now," he reminded her.
"Not old!" she repeated.
He knew that to someone Ellie's age, twenty seemed old. Even if she wouldn't admit it now. "Old enough to... not have the same energy level that you do."
She lifted her head a little and looked at him earnestly. "No -- Joel, no, that's not it. I'm tired, too! I seriously would rather just lay here than have sex. Er... than do stuff. Whatever. Sex stuff."
Joel smiled. "Thank you, baby girl, but you don' gotta lie to me."
"I'm not! I fucking swear I'm not lying!"
Maybe she wasn't; her interest did seem to have waned. She had been really sick only a couple weeks ago. She still hadn't completely recovered from that -- she did tire more easily than she used to. Joel tried not to worry about that too much. They'd slowed their pace considerably once they reached the coast anyhow. "All right, I believe you. But... about that..."
Now was as good a time as any to tell her. "The... sex thing. I think... I think maybe it's time."
"What do you mean 'it's time'?"
"...I think we've waited long enough."
Ellie's eyes were practically bulging out of her head as his meaning dawned on her. She propped herself up on one arm to look him in the eye. "What? You wanna have sex???"
"I've always wanted to."
"You know what I mean! Holy shit... you're not messing with me, are you? Cuz if you are, that's such a dick move that--"
"I ain't messin' with you," he laughed.
"But... we were just talking about how you can't get it up."
He laughed again at that -- at her bluntness as well as the confused look on her face. He kissed her cute little freckly nose. "I don' mean right this second."
"Oh. I can help you with that, you know..." Her hand started crab-walking down his stomach.
He grabbed it and brought it up to his lips. "I don' mean right now... at all. You really think I want our first time to be when we're both tired an' achy an' whatnot, an' Sophie's down there waitin' for you?"
"Guess not." Ellie giggled softly. Every little giggle was like music to Joel's ears now. He wished he could bottle this current mood of hers so she could drink it whenever the sadness returned.
"Damn straight I don't. I don' know when, exactly... you have some say in that, too, you know. I don' expect you to... just..."
"...spread 'em when you say 'go'?" Ellie quipped with a grin.
"Uh... right. You're cute."
"I like being cute." She kissed his jaw. "You know what else I am? Happy! Happy that you're finally ready to take the huuuuuuge step!"
It was so backwards... the innocent young virgin being the one raring to go, and the dirty old man needing time to be 'ready.' That ain't the only thing that's backwards... he was pretty sure Ellie wanted to do it for the experience. To satisfy her curiosity as well as her hormones. Sure, she loved him, but... well, maybe I ought to give her more credit. We've messed around some... enough for her to get that there's an emotional aspect to it... and that was what Joel was craving -- the intimacy. The reassurance that she still... wanted him, that way. He knew she loved him, needed him... it was the wanting he hadn't been so sure of lately. Ellie had been afraid of the trip reverting them back to father-daughter status... true, she'd been worried about his feelings changing, not her own, but... still. He'd half expected her to have a lukewarm reaction to the idea of finally having sex: "It's okay, Joel, really. We totally don't have to. Let's just keep waiting." Hell, she had just told him right then that she'd rather just lay there than have sex...
"Hey." Ellie interrupted his thoughts with a little kiss. "You got quiet. What are you thinking?"
He pulled her snugly against him again. "Nothin'. I, uh... think it'll be nice to have somethin' to look forward to."
"I already do look forward to it. -Wait... does that mean... nothing's really changed?" She looked at him with fresh concern.
"What do you mean?"
"You've said all along we'd have sex someday. That's still what this is... right? It's for a ~someday~ ...that we don't know yet."
"No, I mean... soon."
"But 'soon' in Joel time is forever in Ellie time--"
"Real soon. Ellie-time soon."
"Really? Cuz I thought you didn't want to do it like... right now."
Joel snickered. "Smartass. Somewhere between Joel time an' Ellie time, then."
"But... more towards Ellie time on the spectrum?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes." He gave her a squeeze. "I do want to help Sophie out, an' I know you do, too. But we're here now. I think we've earned a little down time. Some night when we find a relatively safe place to stay -- maybe somewhere like this -- we can call it a night a little early..."
"Some night when Sophie's not... oh, we can just tell her now!" Ellie cleared her throat and lowered her voice an octave to impersonate Joel. "'Sophie, leave us alone now... me'n'Ellie are gonna f-- no, I don' use that word. We're gonna MAKE LOVE. You go keep watch, all right?' "
"Good idea. I'll tell her exactly like that." She was just too cute sometimes. Joel kissed her nose -- again. "But, yeah... a day when we're well-rested... after a decent meal..."
"Like when we've shot a couple rabbits or something."
"And we'll eat strawberries!"
They'd hit pay dirt with the strawberries recently. "Strawberries. Sure."
"Definitely. If we find any." Which they surely wouldn't, but it was a sweet fantasy.
She started kissing him all over his face, and he laughed, enjoying her enthusiasm. "Can you tell me?" she asked. "Like... the morning of. Can you tell me 'today's the day'... so I'll know?"
"I jus' told you, the circumstances have to be right. I won' know right away. You can think of it as... a possibility, I s'pose..."
"Like, starting tomorrow? Every night could be the night?"
"If you're really ready, 'cause I ain't so sure that--"
"Oh my God, Joel, I've been ready for like... years!"
"Years?" Joel snorted. "Since you were... twelve or thirteen, then? Uh-huh."
"If I knew I was gonna meet you? Fuck yeah!"
She was just so... thrilled, at the prospect of having sex with him soon. And so adorable! He felt a little silly now for thinking anything had changed. He kissed her softly. "I don' want you to... explode from the excitement, or nothin'..."
"You're gettin' all worked up..."
"I'm not! I can handle it! What if, like... we find out Alex went to somewhere far away. Like Boston or something."
"Oh hell, don' even say that. Ugh." And I think I'm tired NOW?... just the thought of a trip that long wore him out.
"Could we have sex before we go?"
"If we go. I ain't committin' us to that." Joel snorted. "But... yes, even if her brother went to... the moon. Wherever. Yes."
"The moon? Hey, that'd be pretty cool. People used to go up there in your time! Maybe we could find a way!"
Joel had to laugh at that. Ellie had grilled him about space travel one day after seeing some books on planets and shit in the library -- and he'd laughed then, too, when she had come home and asked him, not even jokingly, if he'd ever visited another planet. She'd learned about space in school back in Boston as well, but hadn't really believed all that she read. Many things pre-Cordyceps sounded like bullshit to her, but she'd deduced that there were too many official-looking books on this subject for all of it to be merely science fiction. "Hardly anyone did that, Ellie. I mean... a handful of people. All specially-trained. It wasn' like catchin' a bus. We've got trains now... an' cars -- military vehicles, anyway -- I think we'd work our way back up to regular ol' airplanes before gettin' around to flyin' spaceships to the moon."
"Well, you're the one who said he could be on the moon," she said defensively. "I know you weren't being serious, but still... you put it out there."
"We'll stick to your example, then. Boston. That's about as far away as you can comprehend, ain't it?"
"You already said yes so it doesn't matter," she declared. "It's not just like a one-time thing, though, right? We'd get to keep doing it as much as we want?"
Joel sighed in mock exasperation. "You really want to wear out the old man, don't you."
"You're not old!"
"I ain't young."
"You're in between. Whatever -- so it's going to happen... really soon. You're not gonna change your mind about this, are you?"
"Nope. I promise."
She squealed and hugged him exuberantly. "Wow, Joel... thank you! You have no idea how happy you've made me."
He chuckled. "That's the other thing... don' expect too much. I'll do what I can, but... it'll prob'ly hurt... you might not even like it."
"It won't hurt if we do it like I said. And of course I'll like it! With you... how could I not? I love you."
Aww. "Sweet girl. I love you, too." He'd actually forgotten about her 'brilliant' put-it-in-soft scheme.
"Can I ask... why now? I seriously thought you might try to make me wait until I'm eighteen or something."
"I might... try to make you wait?"
"Well... yeah. I would try to... make you not wait that long. But I wasn't even trying and you said yes anyway. I haven't even been thinking that we would do it any time soon... fuck, we haven't even done anything in like... months. Many a moon, as Sophie would say."
"Weeks, maybe. Not months."
She was quiet for a moment. "Joel... you're not just doing this because... you're trying to make me happy... are you? I mean... like with telling Sophie. I wanted to tell her, you said no, then all of a sudden you're like 'let's tell her.' Same thing with sex. Are you just... trying to... I dunno..."
"What -- give you everythin' you want to make you feel better? Even if it ain't what I really want?"
He could see the wheels spinning in her brain. Nothing gets by her! She knows something's up... It just wasn't quite what she thought it was (and he didn't see the point in laying his bizarre insecurities on her). She could've kept that suspicion to herself and been content in getting her way, but instead, she had thought about how it might affect him. He squeezed her again. "I can see why you might think that. An' I love you for bein' concerned about it. But no. It ain't that."
He felt her relax a little... presumably in relief. "Okay. So... why now?"
"Good question. I don' know if I can put my finger on it." ...whoops, not the best choice of words...
"Really? Can you try? Please? I wanna know."
No naughty joke. This time, though, he didn't attribute it to her troubling moodiness; they were having a serious conversation, and she was mature enough to let that slide to keep it serious. In case teasing him might derail them or something. Hell, maybe she didn't even notice -- so I AM the one with the dirty mind! "All right. I'll try." Joel settled her against him again and began tracing circles on her arm. "When I thought I might lose you..."
"Are you gonna make me cry?"
"No. Maybe. I don' know."
"Sorry -- go on. I don't care if I cry."
Joel gave her a squeeze. "So... there's somethin' about goin' through shit that makes a person... or makes me..." He cleared his throat. "Let me start over. Remember when I thought you were missin', but it was that Eli kid, not you..."
"Yeah. Major fuck-up by that guard."
"An' when I found you... it was like I couldn' keep my hands off you. I wanted to just..."
"... just what?"
"You get the picture."
"Not really... draw me the picture?"
He kissed the top of her head. "I guess I really wanted to... express my love, corny as that sounds."
"Aww. Not corny."
Except it was corny. "Anyway... it wasn' even like that, this time. I guess 'cause you were sick. But... the intensity of those feelin's... this was so much worse, because I knew you were in trouble this time, an' I... couldn' help you..."
"I'm sorry. I hate that I put you through all that."
"Not your fault, baby girl." He still hadn't told her that it was his fault. Maybe he never would; telling her would ease some of the guilt, because she would be too understanding, too forgiving... and he didn't deserve that. He hadn't told her about the poor guy he'd killed in the church, either. That was more for her sake than his -- she might feel like she was the cause of an innocent person's death. "The sex part... I s'pose the idea started rollin' around in my head more when you started gettin' better. I had the very same thought I had that first time: what the hell are we waitin' for?"
Ellie smiled. "You thought that? Way back then... and we still didn't do it."
"I talked myself out of it. Thought I was thinkin' with... the wrong head, as they say. Thinkin' with my dick instead of my brain."
"...What? How could you think..."
"You know I ain't supposed to... want that... want you... that way. My head knows that. My body don' seem to, much of the time. But I'm done tryin' to reconcile the two, because..." Because WHY? I get a little paranoid and suddenly none of the wrongness matters? She ain't even acting that weird anymore -- I can't really use that as an excuse... piss-poor excuse though it is...
She reached over and pulled on his arm, trying to get him to roll onto his side... like she wanted to be face to face without having to look up at him. He obliged, tangling his legs with hers. She caressed his cheek. "Joel... I could've told you all along it's never been your dick that you're thinking with. It's not your brain, either. It's your heart."
That... was brilliant, actually. It was so simple, and made too much damn sense. "Well, you've always been smarter than me about all this."
"I know you love me. Lots. More than anyone ever has. There's no way it could be... about anything else."
That was easy for her to say; she wasn't the one with the dick, which definitely did trump his head -- if not his heart -- at times. "See, you believe that because you're young an' sweet an' innocent."
"Are we seriously going to have this argument again?" But she said it gently, with laughter in her voice.
"No. But... you happen to be right. An' it jus' seems like... we've come this far, right or wrong--"
"It's not wrong."
"Right or wrong," he repeated, "we've... already gone down that rabbit hole, to an extent."
"It seems to me that... we're in love, and... it's real. An' havin' sex... if it's makin' love... that's as close as two people can be. Why wouldn't I want to share that with you? An' the age thing... I don' know. I don' know why I'm okay with that now when I wasn' before. I think... the main thing is, I don' think you'll be worse off, after. I know you don' understand why I would ever think that you might be. Or why it's selfish of me, to want to, uh... well, be with you, that way. Maybe jus' bein' out of Jackson cleared my head some. Sophie bein' good with it, too. I don' feel so much like a dirty old man takin' advantage of an innocent girl. I'm just... a guy, who loves a girl, an' wants to be with her. Am I makin' any sense?"
She didn't cry, but her eyes were a little wet. She nodded. "Yeah. Perfect sense. I love you soooo much." She scooted in and kissed him. "Thank you, Joel. You're awesome."
"Not really." He chuckled. "If somethin' bad has to happen to you to make me feel like it's right for us to be together... that's pretty goddamn stupid. I couldn' stand it if somethin' else happened, so... I reckon I better remedy the situation, quick."
She giggled. "You're cute."
"No, you're the cute one. I think maybe you better go check on your friend down there. She's prob'ly missin' you."
"Okay. You can get some rest... you can see us from the window, remember, see? There she is..." Ellie had to sit up to see out the window, though.
Until she'd rolled him over, Joel had been glancing out the window regularly. He couldn't see much, though. That was the problem with windows -- they just framed a tiny portion of the world, from one angle. His body might be able to snatch a little bit of rest here, but since he couldn't shut his brain off, the quality wouldn't be great. "Right. Go on. I'll come down in a bit. Put your gun back on."
She lingered another few moments to kiss him goodbye, he reminded her again about the gun -- she just grabbed it from the holster and tucked it into the waist of her jeans -- then she was gone.
Joel did lay there... for about thirty seconds. That's about how long it took the panic to start taking hold. He sat up and looked out the window... watched as Ellie walked up next to Sophie and sat down... took off her socks and shoes... she's fine. She's right there.
His head knew that, but his heart didn't (and his dick had no interest in the matter). His head added to his heart's case, though, by telling him he couldn't keep watch very well from this little room. He stood up, strapped his gear back on, and headed outside to take a good, appraising look around the place. He could do a little pointless clue-hunting from the pavilion and keep an eye out -- and an eye on Ellie -- at the same time. He figured he wouldn't bother her... she wouldn't even notice him, in the background as he was... but she turned and waved at him. That's my girl... still alert, he thought proudly.
And that smile she flashed him was her I'm on to you smile -- actually, that look was more like I'm on to you but I get it and it's okay. He was lucky Ellie didn't feel smothered by him; if anything, she seemed to love him all the more for his paranoia.
~Continue to PART 2~