Lumy (luminations) wrote,
Lumy
luminations

"Uncertainty" Chapter 43: "New Rules" (43/47)

Title: "Uncertainty" Chapter 43: "New Rules" (43/47)
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Pairings: Joel/Ellie
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 9627
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

A/N: Chapter title from the song by Dua Lipa.


~

It was a little strange to be around so many people again, though after only a couple months away from civilization (as opposed to the ten or so on their last trip), Joel reckoned they'd get used to it again pretty quickly. And this place had only a tenth as many people as Jackson did. He had to admit... he was pretty damn relaxed at the moment, sitting before a campfire at sunset, his belly relatively full, Ellie leaning against him, some hippie dude whose name escaped him strumming a guitar (and oh, how Ellie's eyes lit up when she saw that guitar!).

Not so relaxed that he didn't still have a gun on his hip, though.

Joel had assumed that the first man they'd met, Ray, held some sort of position of authority in the community, but according to him, there actually wasn't any sort of leadership at all. Ellie's reaction of "So everyone just does whatever they want all the time?" was answered with a 'pretty much.' Joel didn't quite buy it, though. Maybe they didn't have all the protocols and schedules and shit that Jackson did, but people fell into certain roles, and things came to be expected of them. It was like that everywhere, and from what Joel had seen so far, this place was no exception. People policed themselves here as they did in Jackson, but there wasn't a Tommy or a Maria to complain to if that didn't work out. Almost all the residents had come to be here through knowing another resident, and while that didn't mean people would always get along, Joel hoped it meant they were all decent folks, at the very least. That is, if he and Ellie were invited to stay, and if they accepted the invitation. If they were leaving... well, he supposed he would still care, for Sophie's sake, but Alex would look out for her. It was going to be a little disconcerting to not know where Sophie was every minute; now that the job was over, he just had to break the habit. It wasn't the same worrisome feeling he would have about Ellie, who still hadn't really left his sight, aside from potty breaks (and only barely, then)... but that would have to change. Maybe... maybe not. One thing at a time.

Since they were at least spending the night, they had been escorted to an unoccupied room earlier. It was on the south side of the grounds; the bungalows down by the beach were nicer, but too populated for Joel's liking ('safety in numbers' be damned), and Ellie said she didn't care where they stayed, as long as they were together. The place had once been some fancy-shmancy resort, fancier than that first one where they'd found the Infected; all of the rooms were actually suites -- with a little kitchenette, a dining/living area, and a couple of bedrooms. Ellie got a kick out of their 'room' being larger than their house in Jackson. Joel didn't like the fact that the doors didn't lock. Since people couldn't exactly program card keys these days, someone had rigged them all to stay unlocked. They could be bolted from the inside, which was good... but he didn't like leaving his gear where anyone could get at it when he wasn't there. Ray told him everyone pretty much shared everything as it was -- even clothing, in some cases. They didn't have much by way of possessions... not unlike Jackson, except this place didn't have a library full of books and music and movies and games -- they didn't have electricity, so there wouldn't be movies anyhow (unless someone had a functioning battery-powered dvd player? The way Joel remembered it, those things hadn't even worked well back in the day), and Ellie would have a tough time finding any cassettes she could play in her Walkman. The community wasn't entirely without music, though: they had the guitar guy... and singing.

Ray told them that every night, people sat around the fire pit. Not necessarily every person, every night, but there was always something going on down there. Ellie had gotten excited about that, too. Joel had to admit that he liked the sound of that himself, and not just for Ellie's sake. He sure did miss live music, and if everyone truly shared everything here, he could play that guitar himself some time. Maybe continue giving Ellie guitar lessons. Entertainment options were limited at night, with no electricity and not a lot of lighting options, so Joel could understand why the campfire thing was popular.

Everyone had introduced themselves at dinner, and Joel wouldn't be surprised if Ellie had committed all their names to memory already. The meal had been served on the expansive patio, overlooking the beach, and that's where it was just about every night, weather permitting. It consisted of fish -- also as it did just about every night, bounty permitting. They had one guy who liked to go hunting with his son, but they didn't go out that often, and when they did, they didn't usually score enough for everyone. The gang relied more on the fishermen/-women for sustenance, and people they called gatherers, who mostly gathered fruit and nuts (and they did a good job, too, judging by the picked-clean look Joel had observed of the trees and bushes in the area before they arrived)... and there were some canned goods, though when Ellie asked where those came from, someone had uttered an ominous "you don't want to know" (which, naturally, only made Ellie more determined to find out). Anyway, the residents had found some good harbors for fishing on the Outside, and they even had a little boat they could row out into the ocean. Not exactly the sort of 'fishing boat' Joel had imagined when Sophie first told him about all this, but it was something.

Ray may not have named himself the leader, but it sure looked that way to Joel. He did admit to being 'kind of like head of security' -- although they had no guards. He was the only one who carried a gun inside the premises. Ray and his wife Janelle had founded the community with eight people, and now they had twenty-one (they'd also lost some along the way, for various reasons). Twenty-four if Joel, Ellie, and Sophie stayed. Joel remembered Sophie talking about possibly persuading her brother to go back to Jackson, with or without the girl, Nina (and from the looks of things, it would be with, or he probably wouldn't go), but they would most likely stay here over the winter as well, to avoid traveling through blizzards -- or having to deal with blizzards in Jackson.

The residents' ages ranged from six to sixty-one. They didn’t announce their ages with their names… most appeared to be in their forties and fifties. All of them were present for dinner, and now for 'campfire time'... Joel took advantage of the opportunity to size up each of them, all at once. More men than women. Only three kids, and one of them was a teenager: a boy, so Joel was especially wary of him. The kid was happy to have another teenager around. Joel couldn't blame him for that, but he didn't want him getting any ideas about Ellie -- and he figured the boy would be less than thrilled to learn that this teenager came with a fifty-year-old man attached... a package deal. Nina was the youngest adult, at twenty-nine (a 'whopping' twelve-year age difference between her and Alex, they'd pointed out). Joel didn't get a bad vibe off anyone from the get-go; however, that didn't mean he could completely drop his guard.

And he also couldn't completely relax until he'd checked the perimeter of the place, anyhow. They said they'd had a few incidents with people ambushing them when the gates were open, but no one had ever infiltrated the place elsewhere. Joel could see why, with the natural borders of rock and ocean accounting for most of it. Someone could come in from the ocean... someone who had the means to sail in from a neighboring beach or harbor. It hadn't happened yet, according to the residents, but Joel wouldn't rule it out. The invaders would be sitting ducks if they came in during the daytime, but what would stop someone from trying it at night? As for the rocks... an enterprising person could find a way. What would someone hope to accomplish by rappelling their way in, though? One person couldn't do much alone, and even if they were armed, they'd have to be really bold or really stupid to attack the place single-handedly and expect to succeed. But a group of hunters... they could cause some trouble. Having a patrol similar to Jackson's would put Joel's mind a little more at ease, but unless someone asked for his input, it wasn't his place to try to change how things were run at Golden Sands. At least, not yet...

Ray had understood why Joel and Ellie each wanted to carry a gun, and since Alex had vouched for them, he said it shouldn't be a problem. And, just like Tommy had done last spring, Ray had assumed that in time, they would feel comfortable enough to give up the practice. Apparently, that's how it had gone down with other newcomers. Joel figured Ellie would get comfortable fairly quickly in a small group like this, which would only make him stay on his guard all the more. But it wouldn't be like Outside -- it would be like Jackson. Only without the rock-throwing and such... he could only hope.

He hadn't had a chance to talk to Ellie about Sophie's suggestion of just plain old not hiding anything before people could form other opinions of them... but when he'd kissed her in plain sight of Ray and Alex, she certainly hadn't seemed to mind. He still wasn't sure how to describe what they were. All they had confirmed was that they were not father and daughter, and they hadn't tempered that with 'but we may as well be,' or anything of the like. If that made people wonder, so be it. If the place was anything like Jackson, word would get around soon enough, assuming that Ray, Alex, or Sophie would be candid with any interested parties. Ellie was acting the way she did when they were in public in Jackson, and Joel wasn't of a mind to just kiss her in front of the whole gang to make a point. If anyone were to come right out and ask him about his relationship with Ellie, he would probably tell them it was none of their business -- which would most likely be construed as "yes, we're fucking."

The way they were sitting now... was not un-couple-like, but it wasn't like they were all over each other, either. Ellie was quieter than usual. She seemed a little overwhelmed. Overwhelmed, but not unhappy. She was just taking it all in, and Joel could tell she was listening attentively to the conversations around them as they all waited for the guitar guy to settle in and start playing. Sophie sat on the other side of Ellie, and she looked happy; undoubtedly, a huge weight had been lifted off her when she'd found her brother alive and well. Alex swore that he had no idea Sophie would've wanted to come with him; he thought since she was happy in Jackson, she would rather stay there, safe and comfortable, than go on some fool's quest with no guarantees. Sophie, of course, pointed out that he could've just asked her. Joel wondered if Alex had been afraid Sophie might talk him out of going; he could hear echoes of himself and Ellie in their exchanges... and he could see both sides. He had promised Ellie he would never leave her again, not even for short trips to the dam or the sister farm, but if she had died in Sacramento... wouldn't it have been better for me to break my promise and have her be pissed at me for a while, rather than dead?!

But then, she probably-- no, she definitely -- would have set out to find him. Probably on her own. Alex hadn't had to worry about that with Sophie because he knew she would be too scared -- especially since on that last trip they'd taken (to Jackson), her boyfriend had been killed. It was nice to see the siblings getting along, although they also hadn't yet had a chance to talk privately yet. And Ellie... she kept looking at them and smiling. She was just so happy for Sophie's happy ending.

A few people around the fire pit were smoking pot. Joel had been offered some, which he'd declined, and he had to resist the urge to decline on Ellie's behalf when the person... didn't exactly offer, but looked at her questioningly -- probably because she seemed so interested in it. He knew she was curious about it, but she followed Joel's lead and just shook her head. "Maybe another night," he'd murmured to her. She said she'd never tried it back in Jackson, where it was meant to be used medicinally, but some people did manage to get their hands on some for recreational use -- that would've been really easy for her, working on the farm... wrong farm, but still. They were all connected. And Ellie was friendly with everyone on all three farms.

She's pretty much friendly with everyone she meets, Joel mused. He was glad she had other people to talk to now, at least for a little while. Other people who would undoubtedly love her. He knew she was happy to spend a lot of time with him, but when he observed her with others, it reminded him that she needed that. He was selfish enough to not give two shits about depriving others of the joy of knowing her, but he didn't want to limit her. To keep her from experiencing new things, from being exposed to other points of view; he just had to be there as her safety net in the process, and hope that she would continue to share things -- and talk through things -- with him. He was well aware that she was not yet a fully-formed adult, that she would grow and change as she came into her own. And she was just... such a people person. She took a genuine interest in other people's lives, their histories... it made her pretty easy to like. Well, that, plus she's my sweet, adorable baby girl -- how could anyone NOT love her?

But he may have been just a smidge biased there.

The first song was Johnny Cash, one that Ellie didn't know. Some folks sang along, some just listened... Ellie learned it enough to sing the chorus, and she joined in quietly. She pleaded with Joel for him to sing, too. He humored her, although he really just wanted to sit there and enjoy the happiness lighting up her face. The dude jumped from Johnny Cash to Nirvana to Gordon Lightfoot to someone Joel didn’t even know, and after that, he took requests. Joel assumed that after so many nights of this, people knew the unwritten library of songs to choose from by heart, but they said he would play anything. Anything, as long as he'd heard the song before, as he could at least pluck at some chords and they could bumble through the verses.

Between songs, Joel nudged Ellie. "You should ask him if he'll do George Michael," he teased her softly.

It took her a moment to connect the dots to what had been dubbed 'the shower song.' "No way!" she replied with a gasp, trying to stifle a giggle. "Are you ever gonna let me forget that? Why don't you ask him."

"Ask him what?" Sophie piped up.

"Nothin'," Joel replied, but now Sophie had drawn the attention of others, and they all encouraged him to make a request. He knew Ellie didn't expect him to actually do it. Confident that the dude wouldn't pick that song –- even if the lyrics didn’t deter him, it just plain wasn't guitar-friendly -- Joel figured he could frighten her a bit. "You know any George Michael?"

Sure enough, her eyes widened and she scolded him with a "Joooeellllll!" through gritted teeth. Joel smirked, just a little.

"That I do!" The man strummed what was apparently meant to be the equivalent of a drum roll.

"Well I guess it would be nice!" someone called out, which Ellie seemed to find odd... and Joel did for a second until he realized it was the beginning of a George Michael song -- one much more suited for guitar than "I Want Your Sex."

"If I could touch your body!" someone else chimed in animatedly. Several more sang the next line together. Ellie still looked like she expected to be mortified, much to Joel's amusement; the first few lines of the song were a bit suspect...

Guitar Guy launched into 'Faith,' which many of the gang knew well enough to hum along, if not sing all the lyrics. Ellie finally relaxed, and said she thought she may have heard that one before.

They must have gone through at least fifteen songs before the dude declared they'd do one final song of the evening. "Joel, you're from Texas, you say?"

"That's right."

"I reckin y'all maht like this last 'un, then," Guitar Guy said in an exaggerated Texas accent, which made Ellie giggle.

Alex leaned forward to look around Sophie and catch Joel's eye. "See, his thing is, every night we have to end with a Garth Brooks song."

"Yeah, that songbook is how he learned how to play," someone else added.

"I know him!" Ellie exclaimed, then added in a whisper to Joel, "Is this a good sign or WHAT!"

Joel resisted the urge to kiss her right there, with the entire community watching. He nodded at the guy. "He was real popular when I was a kid. Saw him in concert a few times."

"Did you really? I'm jealous!" He smiled at Joel and Ellie in turn. "You got a favorite? Either of you? I know 'em all!"

Joel nudged Ellie. "Well, kiddo? You remember anythin' specific?"

"Um... um... not really? I'd prob'ly know them -- or at least one maybe? if I heard it!"

"All right," said Joel, "I know she knows this one -- 'Friends in Low Places.' " He'd had to explain the title to her, and as he recalled, she'd been amused by the story the lyrics told.

There was a murmur of approval rippling through the group. Joel heard someone say "We love singing that one!"... and it seemed fitting, given the amount of bad karaoke Joel had heard of the song, back in the day. He felt a pang of nostalgia for one particular memory, but -- as always -- looking at Ellie dispelled that feeling of yearning pretty quickly.

"~Blame it all on my roots... I showed up in boots... and ruined your black tie affair...~"

Ellie knew the chorus, but not so much the rest of it. Joel sang the entire thing, as did everyone else there, it looked like -- even the kids. People started clapping and swaying towards the end, too, just like they would have at a concert. Joel refrained, since he was leaning on his right hand with Ellie leaning against him, and he didn't want to dislodge her. Then Sophie swayed over far enough to give Ellie a little push, and Ellie started doing it a little. Awkwardly at first, but she quickly fell in sync with the others, and tugged on Joel's arm until he started rocking side to side along with them.

After a pause at the end, Guitar Guy looked at Joel knowingly. "Third verse?"

There was only one appropriate answer to that question, and Joel remembered it all these years later. "Hell yes!" he called back to him.

Ellie turned and raised her eyebrows at him. "There's another verse?"

"Yeah... concert version." It was the same as the second except for the last two lines. And at the very end, everyone shouted "Kiss! My! Ass!" in unison -- that gave Ellie a good laugh.

There was a hearty round of applause, then people began breaking off into smaller groups. Some kept hanging around the fire, some headed up to their rooms, others drifted off to... who knows where. The moon was only a sliver tonight, so it wasn't ideal for moonlit walks in the surf... firelight and starlight could only go so far. The sidewalks around the grounds were lined with solar lights, which fascinated Ellie. The beach wasn't lit at all, though. Everyone had a flashlight, but of course, that just wasn't the same. A nearby military base (not an actual Quarantine Zone) supplied them with batteries for the lights, though Joel had gotten the feeling that people tried to conserve batteries as much as possible, so he figured the rations were meager... and he also got the feeling he didn't know the whole story about the community's relationship with the base. And when he and Ellie had learned that the resort had running water (also thanks to that military base), but that no one had figured out how to fix the power lines and get the electricity going, Ellie had offered Joel's services to remedy that. What a joke! Not that he didn't appreciate Ellie's faith in him... but he had only a layman's knowledge of electricianing; she seemed to think his experience with electric fences made him an expert. He asked her why she wanted him to electrocute himself trying to do that, which horrified her into making him promise he would forget what she'd said about fixing it and never give it a try. She was just too adorable sometimes.

Joel really wanted to be alone with her now, but various well-meaning people wanted to see if they needed anything, if they remembered how to get back to their room, what they should do in the morning, shit like that. Ellie chatted with Sophie for a minute and hugged her good night. Then Joel took Ellie by the hand and led her away from the fire, away from any other possible interactions with anyone else.

She was all bubbly and happy from the music as they walked through the sand -- back to mile-a-minute mode. "It's gonna be weird not having Sophie sleeping by us, huh! At least now she'll have a toilet handy for her whole... last-thing-before-bed thing. All the bathrooms have skylights or little windows or something, but when there's not much moonlight, I guess people have to use flashlights or just... feel their way around in the dark -- I guess you get to know where everything is before too long, huh? I didn't even see where her'n'Alex are -- where their room is -- that's prob'ly gonna be weird for him, cuz now if Nina comes over, Sophie's there, huh... and he can't exactly go to her room instead cuz she's there with her parents... I guess if they have two rooms in each place, it's okay, but... that's still awkward, right? They should just move into another suite together. Actually... maybe they don't sleep together. You think? He hasn't been here that long and maybe they didn't really get together right away... and you said people don't always hop right into bed together right away like they do in movies and stuff. Unless you were just bullshitting me -- I'm still not convinced you weren't. But there's soooo many rooms in this place. Didn't Ray say there was like two hundred? Some of them are fucked up or whatever, but still -- and they only take up twelve! All the people, I mean. Well, now it's thirteen, if you count us. Do you like Nina? She has a funny laugh. Not bad-funny, though. Like, cute-funny. Her hair's frizzier than Christine's, but it looks good like that. Not so... accidental-like. Maybe cuz it's curlier... hey, where are we going, anyway? Don't you wanna turn your flashlight on?"

Joel remembered Ellie speculating about Sophie possibly having sex in that house they'd stayed in the one night... and he'd found it a little odd at the time, but now he got the sense that her speculation had more to do with trying to figure out what 'normal' people did, sex-wise. Because she and Joel definitely weren't normal. It took him a moment for his brain to catch up to her and then realize that she had actually paused long enough for him to answer that last question. "Don' need it, 'til the fire goes out. This is prob'ly good, right here." Far enough away that they wouldn't be seen or bothered, and it was pretty damn dark... "Actually... how 'bout over here." Around the 'corner' of the small rock formation -- out of sight, should anyone shine a flashlight in their direction. He sat in the sand and leaned back against the rock, pulling Ellie down to sit in front of him, more between his legs than in his lap. He wrapped his arms snugly around her and kissed her neck, making her shiver.

"Mmm... hey, if you wanted to be alone with me in the dark, all we had to do was go back to our room, you know!" she pointed out, giggling a little.

"True... but there's no stars in the room."

"Awww, you're so romantic..."

"That wasn' romantic. Stars ain't romantic, they're jus'... great balls of gas up in the sky."

Ellie seemed to like that description. "Ha! Now I'm imagining all those stars up there farting... stinking up the sky with their gas!"

"Maybe that's exactly what they're doin'. So romantic." He nuzzled her neck.

"You are romantic. Even if you won't admit it. Otherwise you would've fucked me by now. And yes, I used that word on purpose -- the reason you don't like it is because you're romantic."

"I like the word jus' fine," Joel protested. "But no... not for my baby girl's first time."

"Hmm. So the second time would be okay?"

"Yep. Nothin' but fuckin' after that first time."

"Yeah right!" She giggled. "But hey, that doesn't sound so bad to me..."

He kissed the side of her head. "The reason I wanted to come over here ain't romantic... I jus' thought the stars might help you. With bein' in the dark."

"You help me with that," she reminded him. "Just like I help you."

"It ain't the dark, for me." It was guilt, he assumed, that made him dream about Ellie being constantly out of reach. And perhaps a genuine fear of losing her. But unlike Ellie, he didn't have actual panic attacks.

"You know, it might help if you talked about it..."

No thank you. "Nothin' to talk about. They're jus' dreams."

"I tell you about mine sometimes."

Sometimes. She'd had a bad one the other night -- one Joel hadn't 'caught' in time to prevent -- that she didn't want to talk about. "I'm glad you do. Glad it helps. I don' even remember mine most of the time. Or what I do remember... don' make sense." Or it's just nothing you need to know about.

"Well, if you ever do want to tell me, I want to hear it. I'd listen."

He wondered if she knew he was lying... and if she did, why she didn't call him on it. "I know, baby girl, thank you." He kissed her temple... turned her face toward him and kissed her lips.

"Oooo, kissing in public," she purred.

"This ain't exactly public... an' that wasn' exactly a kiss."

"Well, what the fuck would you call--" He silenced her by covering her open mouth with his, his tongue tasting hers in a slow, sensual kiss that lasted more than a minute. He had that... alive! feeling... he could feel it all over the place, like tendrils of pleasure threading their way through his whole body. There can only be one thing that feels even better than that...

"That there... that was a kiss," he said when they finally broke apart enough to speak, though he still hovered over her lips.

"That was... yeah. Whoa," she agreed, and he could feel her smiling. "Although to be fair, that was more than one."

"Says you." He kissed her again, and she shifted so she was facing him directly, straddling him and wrapping her arms around his neck. He took that as a "please keep kissing me" invitation, which he was happy to accept. He scooched down a little so her knees wouldn't hit rock.

"Joel!" she whispered excitedly. "I think you're liking this!"

"Of course I like it... why wouldn' I?" But he knew what she was referring to: his dick, which had been pretty dormant of late, was starting to show signs of life. He'd tried to tell her he could enjoy making out even when he didn't get hard, but she never seemed to believe him.

"We could do it right here on the beach... the way I've been imagining it for a long time. Right now, we could do it..." She kissed him hungrily.

He enjoyed the kissing for a few moments before gently pushing her back a little. "I thought you wanted to know ahead of time," he teased.

"I do! I know right now and we haven't done it yet--"

"A whole day ahead of time," he reminded her.

"Fuck that -- I change my mind!"

He chuckled. "Well, I ain't changin' mine. Not tonight. Not right here with people close by--"

"They're way over there!"

"They're close enough that I wouldn' feel comfortable. If one o' them decided to wander over this way..."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever." More kisses, of a gentler variety. "What about tomorrow then?"

"Not tomorrow."

"What? You decided that real fast," she pouted.

"I need at least a day to... I don' know." He'd feel a little more sure of himself if he felt like he needed to masturbate. Or to let her help him with that. He knew she wanted to, but it still made him feel... dirty. How he could be okay with the idea of having sex now and not with that, he couldn't say, other than... sex didn't feel as selfish? But what if he let her get all excited about finally having sex tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever... and then he couldn't get it up? He couldn't do that to her. Signs of life wouldn't quite cut it. He didn't think it would take long for him to get out of survival mode and back into living mode, though. If they had a day without incident... "Let's jus' settle in a little first, yeah?"

"What if they don't let us stay here?"

That was a possibility, but Joel figured if he and Ellie showed a willingness to be assets to the community, to help out with whatever, they'd be invited to stay longer... if he made it clear that was what they wanted. Right now, people probably assumed they'd rest up a few days before heading back to Jackson. "Is that what you want? To stay here?"

"Yeah, I said that right away, remember? This place is awesome! Don't you want to stay here, too? For the winter?"

"Maybe. ...I think so. We ain't been here that long... see how tomorrow goes... but yes, I think so. It seems pretty safe." Certainly safer than the two of them would be Outside by themselves. He doubted they would ever find a non-military place as safe as Jackson was now.

"Yes! You can relax just like you do in Jackson! And then... then maybe we could... ?"

He kissed her sweetly. "Yes, baby girl, real soon. You've been waitin' a long time."

"I really have," she agreed with mock exasperation. "But you're worth it."

Joel chuckled. "You realize how backwards we are? I'm s'posed to be the one pushin' you to have sex. Sayin' stuff like that."

"That's so sexist," she teased. At least, he thought she was teasing. Sometimes she seemed truly annoyed by his alleged sexism. "I don't want to push you into it, though. Well, okay, I kinda do... but really I want you to be okay with it. No regrets."

He caressed her cheeks with his thumbs. "I won't regret it. I promise. I could say the same for you."

"What? I've been ready since day one, Joel. How could I regret anything?"

"You say you're ready--"

"I am ready!"

"You say you are," he repeated, "but sometimes things feel different when the time comes."

"Well... then how do you know you'll have no regrets?"

My only regret would be if YOU regret it... "I jus' know."

"Like I just know. Nothing's gonna be different."

Joel had only anecdotal evidence of girls regretting their first times, and the reasons he could recall did not apply to Ellie and him. Such as... the guy didn't love them, or the girl thought she was in love but was too young to know she really wasn't (okay, so that one could possibly apply to her, but he really didn't think so)... or on the physical side of things, there was the awful possibility of being forced -- except he didn't think that should count as a first time... coerced, maybe. She didn't really want to, or maybe just wasn't sure, but the guy pressured her until she caved. Pregnancy was another reason... Joel would make damn sure that one didn't apply.

One he hadn't heard of, but that had crossed his mind, was something along the lines of "I can't believe I let this disgusting old man do that to me." That struck him as the most likely regret for a girl in Ellie's situation, saddled with someone more than three times her age... except she'd never given him any reason to think that. Another backwards thing -- he'd given her reason to think that she disgusted him, and he hated that she'd ever felt that way. I'll make damn sure she never feels that way again.

He kissed her gently. "All I know is if the time comes, an' you jus' can't, for whatever reason, that's all right. I won' be mad, or hurt, or... whatever."

"Same here. For you, I mean. If you can't go through with it."

Joel laughed. "That's a lie. You'd be mad as hell if I changed my mind at the last minute."

"No I wouldn't!"

"Yes, you would."

"No... I'd still love you."

"Well, that's a relief," he said teasingly.

"I love you so so so sooooooo much," she said happily, peppering her words with little kisses.

"Love you too, baby girl." I'll love you 'til the day I die... even if you do end up outgrowing me someday. He would have to let her go, if that time came, but he wouldn't have to stop loving her. I reckon I'd have to learn to let her out of my sight... but I need to learn that anyhow. To re-learn it.

She stroked his beard on either side of his face. "Do you think people will be able to tell... after?"

"What, by lookin' at us?"

"Yeah. At me. I mean, you're not a virgin, so maybe you won't seem any different..."

"Mm. Good point. Everyone might look at you funny."

"You think?"

"Oh yeah. Definitely. You'll be givin' off different... what are those things... pher-mones... somethin' like that. I'm-no-longer-a-virgin vibes."

"Shut up! You're just fucking with me."

"...Am I?" He kept a straight face.

"Yes! ...aren't you?"

Then he laughed. "You're cute. Of course they won' be able to tell. You'll look exactly the same as before. And... about that whole... bein' able to tell, thing... what do you think about tellin' the truth? To a point. No gory details. Jus' that... you know. We ain't father an' daughter."

"We already said that much. And you kissed me in front of Ray. Alex might not've seen it really but I know Ray did."

"Sophie prob'ly explained to Alex. An' havin' her in our corner will really help, I think." Endorsement from an outsider was huge -- an outsider who wasn't a creepy old man, at that. "We don' know Ray, of course, but he don' strike me as the type to gossip. Maybe we should take a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach..."

"Huh?"

That wasn't right either. They couldn't stop people from asking. He figured most people would rather ignore the subject altogether than risk an unpleasant confrontation, but he didn't know if there were any Tommys in the group... people with Morals who couldn't just sit by and do nothing if they suspected. Hippie vibe or not, no one here was old enough to have experienced all that free love hippie shit from the 60s and 70s. And I don't think that included pedophilia anyhow... "Say we don' go around announcin' it, but don' hide it, either. If anyone asks, we tell the truth. Or at least we don' lie, an' they can figure out the rest."

"So like... if I wanted to kiss you and there were other people around who might see, I could just do it anyway?"

"Yes." And if they were around people, that would mean he'd have his gun handy if any of them got... perturbed. Well, I reckon the locals might not appreciate me shooting one of their own... maybe just a punch or two would get the point across. "Yes, just... nothin' too..."

"Could I grab your ass?"

"No."

"Just kissing... got it. With tongue?"

Joel chuckled. "You ain't shy anymore, hmm?"

"Wellllll... maybe I would be. But I'm just wondering. If I'm not, and I wanted to..."

"Not... well, maybe for jus' a second. Keep it classy."

Ellie thought about that. "Classy... like a black tie affair?"

Joel smiled at her use of the line from the song. "Yes, exactly like that. 'Cause we're black tie folks."

"Maybe we could be, if that still existed."

"Not me. Never. But yeah, I don' wanna... smack people in the face with it or nothin'. It's goin' to make some people uncomfortable. You can be certain of that. Hell, it even made Sophie uncomfortable at first--"

"Only for like two seconds! Then she was cool with it!"

"Because she's spent so much time with us." He thought her reaction had more to do with feeling like an idiot than anything else; she had been so sure Joel wouldn't 'take advantage.' Just like Ellie... she thinks I'm a better person than I actually am. "These people know nothin' about us," he pointed out. "Which... in a way... I think might make it easier for them to swallow." Before they start caring too much about Ellie and her well-being... but she's so damn lovable, some of them probably already DO... "If not, then... we can leave."

"What if they try to hurt us-- hurt you, I guess?-- before we leave?"

Joel snorted. "I won' let that happen."

"Well, you couldn't stop the rock through the window."

Don't remind me. He felt guilty about that, too, although he knew the feeling was illogical. "This place is a hell of a lot smaller. Easier to manage shit like that... to find out who might have a problem with it... An' leavin' would be real easy. But that's jus' me -- what do you think?"

"I think it's your call."

"I don' want it to be my call. I want us both to decide."

"You do??"

He felt a little bad that she was so shocked by that. Granted, she was only fifteen... but she deserved to be treated like an adult. If I'm going to tell myself she's grown-up enough to have sex... "Yes. You respected my wishes in Jackson... which I very much appreciate... but I didn' even ask you for your opinion on things."

"Yes you did. You asked if I was okay with it."

And that hadn't even been asking... it had been him laying down the law and telling her if she couldn't live with it, then they couldn't be together. Which had felt right at the time, due to Ellie's inexperience... her naïveté about all the repercussions. But she'd seen some of those now... "You said you were okay with it, but you didn' like it."

"I understood it, though. I do get it, Joel. And they can think what they want of me, but I can't stand the thought of people thinking you're a pedophile."

"Some people might think that. I don' know how they decide who stays an' who goes... if they do a vote, or what... they said no one's in charge, so who knows." Part of him wanted to lie until that was decided, because there was a chance that once that decision was made, no one would care enough to try to un-make it, whereas if it hadn't been made yet and they knew the truth, people might be forced to look at their relationship... discuss it, pick it apart. Another part of him wanted to just let the chips fall where they may... but is that a luxury I can really afford? He wasn't too proud or too stubborn to sacrifice some things -- fatherhood had seen to that. Marriage, too, but mostly fatherhood. He and his friends had worked some crappy jobs back in the day, and every so often, one of them would feel the need to tell their boss exactly where they could shove it. Young people could usually get away with that shit and land on their feet, unscathed. Not Joel: it had taken exactly one time for him to learn that lesson the hard way, and that was one time too many of his daughter... not exactly going without, but going with 'less than,' just because he'd let his temper get the better of him. After that, he'd learned to play the game.

Joel wanted to live somewhere safe... where he and Ellie wouldn't have to be on high alert all the time... where Ellie could be happy (which in turn would make him happy). Still, they had no attachments to the place -- aside from Sophie. And he knew that Ellie had really liked being around all those friendly people tonight... she lit up as bright as the fire... but they hadn't burned any bridges in Jackson, and he had family there. They were definitely going back there someday. He just didn't know when.

"So you don't think that kiss before... it's not too late to like... erase that?" Ellie wondered.

"Well... not really. We could say we're... more like what Sophie thought. Kind of like father and daughter, but... ones that hug a lot. A little more to it, but nothin' sexual."

"And ones that kiss on the lips."

"Maybe... at emotional moments. Shit like that." Joel was sure he could sell it that way... except that once again, he might have to admit that yes, Ellie had a crush on him... and maybe even that I have one on her... no, no one would believe we ain't fuckin', if that were the case.

Ellie sighed. "Man, I don't knoooow... deciding stuff is hard!"

Joel chuckled. Kissed her nose. "There's a plus side to lettin' me decide things, hmm?"

"Some things... but I like that you want to figure it out with me, so let's... figure it out. Good stuff versus bad stuff."

"Weighin' the pros an' cons."

"Exactly. So, good stuff! -Not having to lie."

"Bein' able to kiss you whenever I feel like it."

"Me too! Yeah, good one. And... like, the whole principle of it. We shouldn't have to feel ashamed of something as good and decent and... fucking awesome as loving each other."

Joel wanted to argue that he'd never felt ashamed -- not of her, at least. But he couldn't deny there was a stigma attached, and that he'd been ashamed of himself. Ellie knew it, too. "No, we shouldn't. How 'bout... that boy can quit thinkin' of tryin' anything with you."

"What? He so wasn't thinking anything." She sounded amused.

"How do you know what he was thinkin'?"

"How do you?"

"He's a teenage boy. With boy parts, presumably. I know."

She giggled. "You're jealous!"

"Nothin' to be jealous of. I jus' don' want him near you."

"Really, Joel? I thought he seemed nice. And he's the only other teenager here!"

"That's exactly my point. Everyone's prob'ly already paired him up with you in their minds."

"So what? I love you. I wouldn't... think of him like that. But is it so wrong to have a friend my age?"

"No. 'Course not. If you make it clear to him that you ain't interested. An' don' spend time with him alone."

"I wouldn't anyway -- that's one of our rules. I like that rule, cuz you have to follow it, too. Even though you broke it about two hundred times with Sophie--"

"Hey, you were with me nearly every--"

"--I mean before we left town. You could've told me that Alex asked you to babysit her."

"Ha. It wasn't babysittin'," he replied. The four of them had talked before dinner, and both girls had been... flabbergasted, pretty much -- with the promise itself, some, but mostly the fact that he hadn't seen fit to say a word about it the whole time. He hadn't discussed it with Ellie since then. "What's the big deal?"

"What's the big deal? I thought you were like... making excuses to go see her and fix stuff cuz you liked her or something. And it turns out I didn't even know about most of the times you did that?"

"Ellie, come on. You think I'm that big of a jerk? I'd never do that to you. We talked about that. I thought you believed me."

She sighed. "I did... I do... but what about Sophie? You didn't even tell her about it, so what do you think she thought when you were checking up on her all the time? No wonder she practically raped you that day."

Joel laughed. "She did not--"

"I said 'practically.' "

"Practically or otherwise. I never gave her any reason to think--"

"Yes you did! By going over there all the time you did!"

"You make it sound like I went by there every day or somethin'. It was only a couple of times. An' she put in a work order for--"

"Oh, bullshit -- she pulled that out of her ass just to get you over there. I'm going to ask her about that, actually. Think she'd tell me the truth?"

Probably. Sophie had been pretty candid about everything, as far as Joel could tell. "Jus' leave it alone, would you?"

"Do you seriously not see how maybe she might kind of get the wrong fucking idea, though?"

"But I didn't... act like I wanted..."

"Doesn't matter! Just... what you did was enough to-- you made her think she was special when she wasn't. I should've been pissed at you, not her."

"How do you know what I made her think?" Maybe I don't want to know what all they talk about...

"Because I-- because it's-- you know. Obvious. When you give someone extra attention."

She seemed a bit flustered... like she was hiding something. He didn't think she'd had much experience with dating, so--

"I learn stuff from movies and books," she added, as if sensing he needed further explanation.

I'll let it go for now. "Which ain't always like real life, remember. Anyhow, you were pissed at me, as I recall."

"I was? I don't even remember. You always make me not-mad at you pretty fast... cuz you cheat by just kissing me all sweet, like."

He chuckled, and kissed her like that now, for the hell of it. "Mmm. I can't help it if I like kissin' you. You're too damn kissable."

She giggled a little. "So are you. Which is why I can't blame Sophie-- no, I can't blame her cuz that whole thing was your fault, I realize now. God, Joel!" She wasn't angry, he could tell. It was more like... outrage at his alleged stupidity.

"I'm irresistible. Not my fault. Jus' forget it, all right? Back to... still doin' pros."

"Whose turn is it?"

"We don' have to take turns--"

"Oh! It's mine! Cuz you said that stuff about Parker-- so, that goes both ways. There's only one teenage boy here, but there's tons of single women."

"There ain't tons of anythin' in this place." Except sand, maybe? Ugh. "Not many people, at least. More men than women, an' some are partnered up."

"I still have way more to worry about than you do. Some of those women are really pretty... all of them, really..."

Christ, does she WANT to be jealous? "So?"

"...So? So you think they're pretty, too!" she said accusingly.

She can read so much into one little word! "I didn' say that. I meant... who cares if they are or if they ain't?"

"But you do think they're-- I mean, at least some, are pretty. Any... certain one in particular?" She was fishing, and not even subtly.

He wondered who she was most worried about. It was tempting to tease her a little, be a bit of a dick... but he knew Ellie was genuinely insecure about being 'too young' for him in that way. As if he might prefer someone closer to his own age. He felt like they'd come a long way in the trust department... that he'd earned most (if not all) of it back, and now her issues with trusting him most likely stemmed from her own shit. He didn't want to undermine it just for a couple laughs. "Ellie, you are the most beautiful g-- young woman, in the whole place. None of 'em can hold a candle to you."

"Really?" she asked, and he thought she sounded a little shy.

"Really."

"Why would they be holding candles for me?"

He chuckled. "To you. For you would be... somethin' different. Just another old-timer expression... meanin' they don' compare to you."

"Okay, good. So, um... you said I'm the most beautiful young woman. What about the older ones?"

"You're way too literal sometimes," he said with amusement. "I called you a young woman, yes, but I meant compared to all of them. Anyone female. On the entire planet."

"Aww! I love you." She flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.

"Love you, too."

"Squeeze me as hard as you can!"

She hadn't asked him to do that in a while. "All right..." He only did it a tiny bit harder than a normal hug.

"You can do it harder than that. I know you can!"

"Nope. Gettin' old, I guess."

"Or you think I'm all delicate now... I'm not!"

"You almost died," he reminded her.

"We've both almost died like, hundreds of times, if you think about it!"

"But you were real weak for--"

"Not anymore, I'm not! Come on, Joel, pleeease?"

He did it a little harder. "Why do you like that so much?"

"I just do. Harder! As hard as you can!"

Hard as he dared, more like. He squeezed her not quite to the point of making her gasp for air, and she seemed satisfied with that.

"I think you can do it harder, but... you're tired, so okay. And... hee! You have to save your strength cuz... pretty soon when I ask you to do it harder, it'll be for..."

Ha! "You've got a filthy mind, little girl."

"Yep! And I want a filthy body to match."

"Mm. You sayin' we shouldn' shower first?" he teased.

"Ha! No, silly -- I mean I want to... do stuff with my body... dirty stuff... and not just be thinking about it in my dirty mind."

Actually, skipping a shower might not be such a bad idea, seeing as how they had no hot water, and cold showers were counterproductive. "You will. Soon."

"Just not tomorrow."

"Not tomorrow," he affirmed. "So. How 'bout the cons?"

"Cons." She scooted down a little to lay her head on his shoulder and stretch out on top of him. "People throwing rocks."

Or setting fire to our room. "People... maybe thinkin' they have to rescue you from me."

"That one's really stupid," Ellie grumbled. "Well, at least there's no stupid girls to tease me about--" She stopped herself abruptly, and then didn't finish the thought.

"...about?" Joel prodded.

"Nothing."

It most certainly wasn't nothing. "Were kids givin' you a hard time about me? Before the rumors, I mean. About you hangin' out with an old man?"

"You're not old."

"Ancient, in their eyes. They gave you shit, didn' they?" She never did tell me why she broke that one girl's nose...

"...No."

She still ain't good at lyin' to me. Hope it stays that way. Joel was curious, but he wouldn't push her. He could imagine what they might say. Kids could be mean. "I'm sorry you had to put up with that on my account."

"I just told you I didn't! They didn't give me shit! You don't believe me?" She lifted her head to look at him, even though it was too dark to see anything.

He kissed her face, wherever his lips landed -- the bridge of her nose. "No. I don't. I think you don' want to tell me for some reason. Maybe... you think my feelin's would be hurt, or--"

"No, Joel, just-- never mind, okay? It doesn't matter now. That's not going to happen here. No one here-- oh hey, you know what we should do? We could tell everyone I'm eighteen! That would help, wouldn't it? That's your magic number -- people from your time."

Ellie could perhaps be a very young eighteen... she certainly didn't look it, though. "No. That means we're still lyin'. Sophie an' Alex know how old you are so it wouldn' even hold up for long... they might've already told people. You are who you are an' I am who I am. If we're tellin' the truth, then we tell the whole truth."

Ellie absorbed that for a moment. "The whole truth. So... if someone asks me what we do in bed, I should tell-- Aaaiiiiieeee!" She shrieked when Joel cut her off with a tickle maneuver, then slid off of him to protect one of her sides and grabbed his arm to fend off an attack of the other.

It probably hadn't been all that long since they'd played like this, but it sure felt like it. He made a big show of pushing her arm back, like he was going to breach her defenses, and reveled in the sound of her giggly protests. Then he kissed her, and she relaxed slightly, but still wouldn't let go of his arm. He nudged her onto her back, pulling her down a little so her head wouldn't hit rock. "I ain't gonna tickle you. Relax."

"Yeah right!" she sputtered.

"I was jus' tryin' to slide my hand up under there."

"Yeah right!"

"My hand is cold."

She laughed at the obvious lie. "Bullshit! Your hands are never cold... see? Warmer than mine!" She had slid her hand down his arm to rest on top of his, and she let him rest his hand on her hip, but only with her hand applying enough force to prevent tickling, should it inch upward.

He played with the edge of her... hoodie, had to be. "I swear I won't tickle you. How many layers you got on, anyway?"

"Only two! Okay okay... here... let me help you out. I don't trust you to do it on your own. Ha! Reminds me of--"

She guided his arm beneath her hoodie and sweatshirt, smoothly past the ticklish places, and he rested his hand on her breast -- or, rather, her bra. He was amused that even then, she didn't let go; she smoothed her clothing back in place and sort of... hugged his arm against her, from the outside. ...and she didn't finish her sentence. "You did it again. What were you gonna say?"

"Nothing!"

"Uh-huh."

"How is your hand never cold anyway?"

"Don' change the subject."

"Um, we don't have to tell each other stuff if it's too embarrassing. That's still a rule," she said defensively.

That made him curious as hell... but she was right. Maybe one day I'll learn all your secrets... he had no intention of sharing all of his own. "All right. Speakin' of rules. Are we decided, then? More pros than cons, you think?"

"Yeah... or, maybe we could say an equal amount of each one, but the pros are like... better? They're more..."

"They're heavier. So they 'outweigh the cons' ?"

"Yeah!"

"So we tell the truth, consequences be damned?" He gave her breast a little squeeze... and gave her a little kiss to go with it.

"Yeah! Damn everything! We're in love and there's nothing wrong with it. Nothing wrong and everything right. Yeah... everyone should wish they had what we have. Poor unfortunate fuckers!"

Joel chuckled. You are adorable as hell and I love you so goddamn much. "Couldn't have said it better myself."


Tags: fic, tlou, uncertainty
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