Series: The Last of Us
Word Count: 8628
Characters/Pairings: Joel, Ellie
Summary: She doesn't look at him like he's a monster, and that alone speaks volumes.
Warnings: SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE GAME, language, angst, a little fluff.
Notes: Title from Tom Odell's 'Can't Pretend'. This idea would not leave me alone until I wrote it. I hope you guys enjoy! :) Comments are like my drug so if you read this and enjoy it, please do let me know! Thanks so much!
It would be life
And life is over there
Behind the shelf---- Emily Dickinson
Joel is more than a little reluctant to take on this new job—it's one thing to smuggle pills or weapons out of the city, and it's another thing entirely to try to get a whole other person out, unnoticed.
He doesn't want to do this. There's too much risk involved, too many 'what-ifs' running through his mind. Joel likes to try and analyze situations from every angle possible, likes to predict possible outcomes, and he can't see any good coming from this at all, no matter how hard he tries to see anything other than doom and gloom.
Marlene and Tess are recklessly optimistic, and Joel tries to talk some sense into them, he really does, but neither of the women seem to want to hear his very sensible counterargument. Tess points out that they are in dire need of weapons and tells him that it'll be fine, they'll make it and it's not like they have terribly far to travel. The Capitol building isn't close, but it isn't as far as he'd expected, either. It's the drop-off point, according to Marlene. They take the girl there, leave her in the hands of someone else, and that's it: they get their payment, and they don't have to worry about the kid anymore.
He still isn't happy about it, and the only one that seems to share his reluctance is his cargo.
“I'm not going with him--”
But her complaints and reservations fall on deaf ears, and Joel grudgingly agrees to let Tess go check out the weapons (which are their promised payment if they go through with this) with Marlene while he takes charge of the girl.
He takes her back to north tunnel and an area where they can get some rest, because if they're gonna do this, they are going to need a little downtime. To her credit, she keeps up with him, and she doesn't act like she cares when he makes it perfectly clear to her that he doesn't give a shit about her life or her reasons for being here.
As soon as they reach their current destination, Joel flops down onto a couch that isn't too ragged, and settles in for a little shut-eye, telling the girl that she'll figure out something to do when she asks what she's meant to do while he sleeps.
“Your watch is broken,” she offhandedly comments, and he scoffs in response.
My watch isn't the only thing I have that's broken, he thinks but doesn't say.
The entirety of him is broken—has been for years.
But it's not like he's going to wax philosophical with a kid who doesn't know the first thing about brokenness or loss.
Getting this kid to the Capitol building is more trouble than it's worth, in Joel's opinion. It takes several hours and they run into their fair share of close calls along the way as well. Not to mention the wonderful little revelation that this girl was bitten three weeks ago and she hasn't turned yet.
He's still on the fence about whether all that's a load of bullshit or not, but hey, he's done his job, right? No need to worry about it any longer.
Or so he thinks.
The Firefly that was meant to take the girl off their hands is dead, and it's not surprising considering how unpopular the Fireflies are with the militia. Hell, for all Joel knows, the soldiers could be tracking them too. Which is why it's probably a good idea to get the hell out of here right now.
He conveys this to Tess—tells her that they tried and failed, and that they need to go home. They'll give the girl back to Marlene and figure something else out about the weapons. It's disappointing to say the very least, but hey, it's life. They'll be fine because they are survivors.
But Tess? She's been bitten, and she doesn't want to turn, and Joel can't blame her.
He doesn't feel right leaving her to confront those soldiers on her own; he feels like the lowest of the low and he feels much more than he should, considering their current predicament. He can't allow such weakness—not now. Maybe later, when everything's slowed down enough to allow him to mourn the loss of her. And he is about to lose her. He's lost her already—lost her the moment that she was bitten.
It's unfair and he hates it, and he knows the kid thinks that he blames her for it, but in reality... he blames himself.
He's made up his mind to take the girl to Tommy's before they even manage to make it out of the building. It was Tess' dying wish, and he vows to fulfill it or die trying (because yes, he does owe her).
They make it out and away from the Capitol mostly due to Tess' distraction and sacrifice. Joel will try his hardest to make sure that it wasn't in vain.
And then there were two.
Bill tries to warn him, and Joel knows that the guy is just kind of looking out for him in his own roundabout, fucked-up way. And it isn't like Joel doesn't appreciate it, kind of.
He pretends like Bill's words don't bother him. He pretends like they roll off his back like they're nothing, but what they actually do is settle down between his scapulae, into his vertebrae, and ache. Because, yeah, he understands where Bill's coming from. Knows he's even right, to some extent.
He glances at Ellie and he knows, but it's not like it's going to change anything now, is it?
Upon entering Pittsburgh, they're ambushed by hunters, and when they've made it out of that nasty little surprise in one piece, she asks him how he knew about it—how he knew that that asshole wasn't actually in need of help.
He hesitates, and then answers her truthfully: “I've been on both sides.” They aren't exactly fond memories, and he doesn't care to elaborate.
But she persists: “So, ah, you kill a lot of innocent people?”
It's not a question that he wants to answer, so he offers her a noncommittal “hmm” in response.
He knows that she comes to her own conclusions about his past—and the fact of the matter is, the images that her vivid imagination conjure up probably aren't that far from the truth.
“I'll take that as a yes,” she says, and he doesn't respond, choosing instead to raid the area. It's easier to look for useful items than it is to face her right now.
The funny thing is, she carries on as if he's just made a comment about the weather or something, instead of admitting (in a roundabout way) that he's killed innocent individuals. He half-expected her to call him an awful person, to tell him that he's heartless and cruel and not at all the person that she's believed him to be.
He doesn't have to hear her shock and disappointment to know that he isn't a good person. He never needed to hear Tess say it, either. He tells himself (and others) that he's a survivor, that he always does what he has to do, but that's only partly true. He's no hero, no savior, no knight in shining armor.
She doesn't ask him anything else about killing people who probably didn't deserve it. He thinks maybe she's processing it, or even denying it. He sure as hell doesn't expect any sort of sympathy from her, no “well you did what you had to do.”
But when his gaze meets hers, there is some strange mix of understanding and acceptance in her green eyes, and it throws him for a loop because she cannot possibly begin to fathom all the shit he's done, can she? Not really.
She doesn't speak a word when she offers him a small half-smile and hands him a scrap of cloth that she found whilst rummaging through the lockers by the far wall.
She doesn't look at him like he's a monster, and that alone speaks volumes.
There's a moment in that flooded hotel in which he is certain that he's going to die; this asshole is going to drown him and that'll be the end of it. Honestly, he feels a lot more calm about it than he probably should—shouldn't adrenaline be filling his bloodstream by now and turning him into some he-man capable of beating the ever-loving shit out of this hunter that's definitely gotten the better of him? Shouldn't he be capable of more than vain struggling?
He can't reach the gun, no matter how much he tries. His fingers won't close around it; his arm's not long enough for it.
But someone's fingers find it and grab it, and it isn't those of the hunter who is obviously more concerned with filling Joel's lungs with water at the moment.
The bullet hits the hunter between the eyes, and Joel sits up, gasping for air. Ellie is standing there, shock and disbelief scrawled all over her face.
“Man... I shot the hell out of that guy, huh?” she asks, and she sounds both proud and horrified.
“Yeah, you sure did,” Joel replies, and as he gets to his feet, she sits down.
“I feel sick,” she declares, and frankly, so does Joel. He starts berating her, asking her why she didn't just do what he told her to do in the first place.
She is as stubborn as he is, and points out that if she had, he'd be dead. He can't really argue with her there, but he can refuse to cave in and give her the gratitude that he knows she's seeking. He tells her that they need to get moving, and all at once she becomes distant and cold, her voice rough with what Joel imagines to be anger and disappointment.
He knows that she thinks he's angry at her, and maybe it's better for her to think that than it is for her to know the truth, because the truth is, the only person he's angry at is himself, and he is utterly terrified to boot. This child, this innocent has taken a life because of him and while he logically knows that it really was either him or that bastard, it doesn't mean that he feels at peace with the entire thing. With Ellie killing.
For the majority of the rest of their day, she sulks and she scowls, acting every bit the teenage girl that she is, until Joel finally decides on a compromise.
She isn't half bad with a rifle, and she covers his ass pretty damn well when the shit hits the fan. However, he thinks a pistol is a little more appropriate for her size, and that is exactly what he gives her when she rejoins him, leaving her hiding spot only when he informs her that the coast is clear.
He firmly tells her that it's only for emergencies and she readily agrees before tucking it away, smiling like he's given her some secret little treasure.
And just like that, she is no longer pouting and is much more pleasant company than she was minutes before.
He still cannot bring himself to thank her, though—it doesn't feel right to thank a child for killing someone.
What he really wants to do is apologize (I'm sorry you had to make that choice because of me), but he doesn't do that, either.
Instead, he resumes walking, and admittedly feels some small sense of relief when Ellie follows closely behind.
Something occurs to him in the middle of taking a break from trying to get the hell out of Pittsburgh (Ellie's more exhausted than she lets on, and he suggests that they bed down for the night—they've cleared the area of hunters for the moment, anyway): This girl isn't just a job anymore.
Truthfully, it hasn't just occurred to him. He started to realize it back at Bill's, but he shoved it away so that it was lurking just near the periphery: there, but not truly acknowledged by Joel himself.
He's accepted it now, in spite of how incredibly unwise it seems. Feeling anything for this girl is a definite liability, but what the hell can he do?
What changed? How did she get under his skin and change his way of thinking?
”She's just cargo, Joel.”
He doesn't know when he stopped thinking of her as his job and started really thinking of her as another human being, a child, an innocent in need of protection, a girl who'll watch his back, Ellie.
“You're spacing out,” Ellie tells him, and he starts, glancing up at her and chuckling.
“Happens a lot when you get old,” he tells her, and then clears his throat. “You should get some rest. We'll need to get a move on early in the morning. I'll be awake a while longer.”
He can tell that she wants to argue but she doesn't, and soon the only sounds within the immediate vicinity are her slow and steady breathing and his own nagging (but not entirely unwelcome) thoughts, which keep him awake far longer than he'd like to admit.
He'd like to think they're close to making a decent exit from the city when they find others; not hunters, but a man and a boy who are also searching for the Fireflies. Nevermind that Joel almost bashes one of their skulls in during their first meeting (talk about getting off on the wrong foot).
Teaming up with Henry and Sam is a mistake, and he realizes it far too late (he'd stupidly figured he'd give it a shot, and it had no doubt been a relief to Ellie to talk to someone closer to her own age); specifically speaking, he realizes it the exact moment that they bail on him, leaving him alone in the middle of nowhere with hunters right on his ass.
And then there's Ellie, who jumps right back into the middle of all this shit to stand beside him and say, “We stick together.”
He wants to grab her and shake her and ask her why she didn't leave with Henry and Sam, but he doesn't have time to ask and he thinks he already knows her answer anyway. It's not like he would have done anything any differently.
Moments later, their roles are reversed—it's either sink or swim, and even though Ellie can't swim, she leaps into the water without much of a hesitation.
It's a death sentence either way, has to be. But Joel leaps after her all the same, because “we stick together.”
Joel doesn't kill Henry for what feels like a betrayal when he wakes up, but he sure as hell seriously contemplates it for a good few minutes, until Ellie informs that Henry and Sam essentially saved both of them. Henry points out that he abandoned them because he had to look out for Sam. He insists that if Joel had been in the same situation, he would have done what was best for Ellie, and Joel can't really argue with that, no matter how badly he might want to.
So all four of them set off together once more, and their journey isn't a smooth ride by any means, but Joel has to admit (even if only to himself) that it's nice having extra sets of eyes and ears and hands (and guns) to help along the way.
Everything's just dandy(ish) until the morning Ellie is tackled by a turning Sam, who'd been bitten somewhere along the line, unbeknownst to the three of them. Joel feels panic rise up in his sternum, in his throat, choking him as he watches, as he hears Ellie scream for him. It's as if everything is happening in slow motion and entirely too quickly at the same time.
He draws his gun but so does Henry, and how can he rescue Ellie if he's dead?
Two shots ring out; there's nothing to be done about the first one, but Joel tries like hell to prevent a second one from happening, and he fails.
In the end, there's a bullet lodged in Sam's brain and a bullet lodged in Henry's and there's a lump in Joel's throat that he isn't sure will go away anytime within the near future.
He and Ellie are left to pick themselves up and move on, because what else can they do?
Endure and survive.
They're at Tommy's compound when he makes a pivotal decision: Ellie needs to stay with Tommy. Tommy needs to take her the rest of the way to the Fireflies. It's time for them to go their separate ways, because giving her up like this is better than watching her have any more close calls with the Grim Reaper. Tommy can keep her safer, and Tommy will know the best route to take.
It's a good plan, he thinks. A much better plan than sticking it out and maybe watching her die in front of him because he doesn't draw his gun fast enough to stop it. Sure, she's strong and she's fast, but she's still only a young girl and Joel doesn't want to watch her grow up this way, like this. She shouldn't have to.
It's a good plan, and it's for the best.
(This is what he tells himself even as part of him fights against the decision; even as he feels a lone tear roll down his cheek.)
He doesn't mean to upset Tommy's' wife—she seems like a good woman. Upsetting Ellie is inevitable, and she knows even before he properly tells her. She's gone on one of his brother's horses before he can even tell her what's going on—before he can tell her what's best for the both of them.
Joel and Tommy follow the horse's tracks, fighting off bandits along the way, and he prays to a god that he no longer believes in that she isn't somewhere in these woods, alone and hurt and terrified.
They find the horse tied to the rails of an abandoned house. The area seems clear, tranquil, silent. Ellie's upstairs, reading some young girl's diary, complaining about how there was so little to be concerned with back then.
They argue, loudly and vehemently, and when Ellie mentions Sarah, the entire world seems to come to a harsh and rapid standstill before caving in on him with all the force of the horrors that he's struggled to forget these past twenty years.
For a moment, he cannot breathe. And when he finally manages to drag air into his lungs, the inhale is sharp and painful and shuddering and it feels as though there may as well be twenty knives in his chest.
(There's no blood but the wound is there all the same, deep and very real and as fresh as the day it was made.)
She tries to make him see her version of reason—tries to tell him that she can take care of herself and she won't wind up like his daughter (but the mere threat of her death is like rewinding an old VHS and putting history on repeat again and again; he doesn't have to see Ellie die to see her die), but he doesn't listen to her, not really.
His response is cruel, acrid, caustic: “You're right. You're not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain't your dad, and we are going our separate ways.”
His words strike deep and they hurt—he can tell, because there are tears in her eyes and she shrinks away from him like he's physically burned her.
He hates himself a little for upsetting her like that. The look in her eyes is almost enough to make him say something to her—maybe not an apology but something, but there's no time. Tommy bursts in the door to warn them that they aren't alone.
They rid the area of the presence of hunters and then head back to the compound in silence, and the fact that Ellie isn't acting like herself right now because of him weighs heavily on his heart (heavier than it should, heavier than it has any right to, but there you have it) and makes him feel almost... guilty.
He thinks... maybe it's all right if he changes his mind about this.
She seems so utterly surprised when he tells her to give Tommy's horse back, and there's even a slight smile curling at one edge of Tommy's lips.
“You good?” he asks her as she settles behind him on the horse that his brother has allowed him to borrow.
“I'm good,” she replies, and the smile on her lips – in her voice – reaches her eyes.
Joel still feels conflicted over this decision—still believes it would have been better for the both of them if he'd left her with his brother, but maybe then the both of them would have been a little more broken in a different sort of manner, and he's got enough cracks and crevices in his heart to last a lifetime.
“I know you didn't mean what you said back there,” she quietly confides as Joel guides the horse to a steady trot; they're heading south, for Colorado.
Joel neither confirms nor denies it, nor does he reply to her soft, “Thank you.”
He does, however, allow himself a smile when her arms tighten slightly around him.
And he admits – only to himself – that while leaving her with Tommy might have been the better decision, allowing her to stay with him was the right decision.
It's nearing winter when they make it to the university, and Joel is relieved that they are nearing the end of this journey.
(He's also a little disappointed, but he doesn't share this with Ellie or with Callus—and ugh, what a ridiculous name for a horse.)
They haven't talked about what might happen after; they haven't had a single conversation that's revolved around the question of “what happens afterward?”. Joel hasn't paused to consider whether Ellie will go back with him after the Fireflies are done with whatever they need to do, or if she'll choose to stay with them. Truth be told, he doesn't really want to think about it, because he knows that there is a chance that he'll leave her here and never see her again.
The thought of that makes him ache in ways that he thought he couldn't anymore.
The area is full of infected and monkeys, but not much else. No-one else. They do find a dead body in the lab, though, and a reporting supposedly left behind by him which tells them where they need to go next: St. Mary's Hospital in Salt Lake City.
It's not exactly close, and will take some time on horseback. He can tell Ellie's not exactly happy about it and to be honest, he isn't totally elated either, but well... you do what you gotta do, and it's not like they can just give up now. Besides, this way... he gets to spend a little more time with this girl that has come to mean way more to him than she ever should have.
(He wonders if, when this is all over, his life after the outbreak will be broken down into two categories: Before Ellie and After Ellie, and he doesn't want to think about either one.)
He has no fucking clue where their 'guests' have come from when he notices the beam of a flashlight aimed in their direction. He has just enough time to tell Ellie to duck before a bullet zooms over their heads.
They handle their unexpected company and they're doing fine until suddenly they aren't, and Joel winds up with a metal beam straight through his middle. Ellie helps him to his feet, though he's pretty damn sure he won't make it very far, not with an injury like that, not with blood flowing out if it like that.
He wants to tell her to leave him, but he knows that she won't, so he stumbles along behind her while she takes care of the rest of the bastards that try to finish them off. She gets him to the horse and he stubbornly mounts Callus all own his own, instantly regretting it when the pain and blood loss cause his vision to momentarily darken.
He fights to stay conscious, but they aren't terribly far into their escape when he gives up on staying awake and slips into the blackness, his body craving a release from the pain in his abdomen.
The last thing he hears is her voice, worried and panicked. Again, he wants to try to tell her to leave him, but he's already too far gone.
She's a smart girl. She'll figure it out.
He wakes up eventually, disoriented and confused and burning up but freezing at the same time. He doesn't know where he is, or how long he's been out of it, but he knows it's fucking cold, and Ellie....
She's right there beside him, and he has to wonder if she's been with him this whole time.
“Joel,” she says, voice strained and full of emotion that he doesn't deserve from her, “I was so goddamn worried about you. I kinda... stitched you up and that didn't even faze you so I didn't know if you would wake up. But... you did, and Callus and I got you here and it's not the warmest but at least it'll keep you out of the snow. I gave you the best mattress I could find and I was so terrified that you wouldn't wake up. I know I should have gone hunting; I didn't know if you would be hungry when you woke up but I didn't want to leave you and I'll do that now.” Her words are running together and she sounds damn near hysterical and like she's choking back tears. “There's water though.”
She reaches out, gently lifting his head and he takes a few sips of the water that she provides, but he chokes on it, and the coughing hurts like hell, makes him gasp and cringe and pray for unconsciousness again.
“You've got a terrible fever,” Ellie murmurs, and he doesn't really know if she's talking to him or to herself.
“You need to leave me,” he tells her. “You need to leave me... and get out of here. Infection is setting in and... you and I both know that I won't--”
“Don't you fucking talk like that,” she interjects, and her anger is surprising. “You are not going to die, Joel. I'm not going to let you, and I'm not going to go anywhere without you, except to get food for us, which is what I'm going to do now.”
He closes his eyes and listens to the sound of her retreating footsteps. He'd like to roll over but he doesn't feel brave enough to move that much yet; hell, he's pretty convinced he won't make it off of this damn mattress that she's managed to get him on. He supposes there are a lot less comfortable places to die.
Joel wants to be frustrated with her, but he doesn't really have the energy for it, so he settles for being touched over the fact that, even now, she's willing to stick around.
He doesn't know how many hours or days pass; his fever breaks only to return with a vengeance. He can barely keep water down and Ellie tries to give him the larger share of the food that she manages to hunt down and cook (mostly rabbits, some birds, smaller game) even though he can't manage more than a few bites of it.
He wants to try to tell her again that she should get out of here and leave him behind but he knows she won't hear any of it. She's stubborn and she's worried, and he doesn't have the energy to argue with her so he tries to eat and he tries to drink for her when she prompts him to. And even though he's in pain when he's awake he is glad for these moments because they ground him in reality; when he's sleeping, he succumbs to delirious dreams brought on by the fevers (and the infection is going to kill him, he just knows it).
She is his anchor when his eyes are open.
She brings him medicine one day (and he can at least tell that it is daylight)--or at least he thinks she does. Perhaps he's just having another one of those crazy illusions. But then he feels the needle going through skin and fat and muscle and he knows it's real. He wants to ask her where she got it from, wants to ask her why she's been gone so long and if she's all right because something (aside from his current state of being) seems to be bothering her.
He's asleep again before he can manage to ask, but he knows that she's right there with him, her hand on his chest.
When Joel wakes up next, he is alone, and surprised to note that he is feeling a little better. His abdomen and back still hurt like a bitch, but he's alive, and his fever has broken, and he can stand without it being much trouble.
He wonders where Ellie is, thinks she may be hunting, but then he remembers--
“I'm gonna draw them away from here. I'll come back for you.”
He'd thought it had just been another one of those 'fever-dreams', but now... he's actually legitimately worried, so he does what comes naturally to him: He grabs his bag and he goes looking for her.
Outside, it's ridiculously cold, and there are men who mean him harm and clearly have no desire in letting him know where Ellie is, so he makes a couple of them talk. It's tiring too, wearing them down, and it makes his stomach hurt more, but finding Ellie is much more important right now. She's in trouble, and he knows it.
After one of the men tells him where Ellie is currently located, he backs away for half a second, thoughtful. He could let at least one of them live, he knows.
But he doesn't.
He finds the place she's supposed to be, but he doesn't find her. He finds her bag and some dead men, and his blood runs cold. He's not certain what these assholes have been doing but he can guess, and he has to get to her before she suffers a similar fate. He won't let that happen; he won't.
He exits the building he's currently in and finds another building close by on fire, and he runs to it as quickly as his old legs will carry him.
She is there, thankfully, but she isn't alone, and the scene before him makes him wonder why he was ever afraid to let her use a gun. There is blood everywhere and the man that she is straddling is dead, but she keeps on slashing and stabbing him with the machete, and it is a horrific sight to see. This kill is very personal, and she is obviously spurred on by terror and and an absolute need to know that the man is dead and will not be coming back. She shouldn't have to be doing this. Joel sees it as a failure on his part, because if he'd just gotten there sooner....
“Ellie, stop!” he urges and he grabs her, pulling her away from the man that she's just slaughtered.
She struggles against him, fighting him, trying to get away. Her efforts do his wound no favors—the pain is sharp and immediate, but it's nothing in comparison to the pain he feels for her.
“Don't fucking touch me!” she screams, and when he turns her to face him so that she can see his eyes, his heart breaks.
“He tried to--” she begins, but cuts herself off with a soft sob, and all he can do is pull her close.
“Oh, baby girl,” he says, his voice rough with emotion, “it's okay. It's okay. It's okay now.”
It's a lie, he knows. It's not okay, but right now, both of them need to hear that it is.
She's not quite herself for some time, even when they manage to make it to Salt Lake City. She's distant and she's quiet these days. The light in her eyes has dimmed, and Joel can't quite seem to get it brighter, no matter how hard he tries.
That bastard that hurt her... he's irrevocably wounded her and this sort of injury is indelible—it may heal a little, but it won't ever, ever go away. If Joel could, he'd bring that piece of shit back to life and kill him all over again for what he did to Ellie, but he can't and so he won't. If he could wipe her memory clean of the entire incident and bring that light back in her eyes, he'd do that in a heartbeat too, because seeing her like this... it's painful.
They find giraffes there – actual, real, living giraffes – and he helps her pet one of them, and for just a moment, she is the girl that he met way back in Boston: bright and innocent and full of wonder. He wishes that he could suspend this moment, let it drag on into the rest of their lives.
“We don't have to do this,” he begins. “You know that, right?”
She is doubtful. “What's the other option?”
“Go back to Tommy's,” he suggests. “Be done with this whole damn thing.” Yes... they can go back to Tommy's and they can live out their lives there, and he can protect her properly there. He'll teach her to swim and to play guitar and he'll tell her more about what it was like back before all of this.
She shakes her head. “After all that we've been through. Everything that I've done.” She takes a breath and glances away from him but Joel can still see the hurt in her eyes, can see the ghosts in them too. “It can't be for nothing.”
She presses forward, and he reluctantly follows, but she grants him some reassurance by telling him that when they're done here, they can go wherever he wants.
He tells her, “Well I ain't leavin' without ya,” and he's never meant anything more in his whole life.
“Hey Joel, I got something for you.”
It's the picture. The one of him and Sarah; the one Tommy tried to give him and he refused. This time, he takes it and he thanks her.
He can't escape the past, and god knows he's tried. It's time to stop trying to forget; it's time to accept it and forgive himself and move on. They say the past doesn't belong in the present, but he's finally realized that it does.
Past, present, and future: perhaps they can all mix and meld and, together, become one perfectly imperfect harmony.
The moment he sees her floating in the water he feels his heart sink and he prays that it's just another close call. He can't lose her—he refuses to lose her.
He gets her to dry land and she isn't breathing. If there's water in her lungs, he's going to need to get it out, and all he's thinking when he begins chest compressions is, please don't leave me, Ellie..
Two men approach him, men with guns, and they demand for him to raise his hands, but he won't. Between compressions, he mutters, “She ain't breathin,” and for his refusal to comply, he gets knocked out cold.
Things seem to happen in slow motion after he wakes up. He realizes they've succeeded in finding the Fireflies when Marlene is the first person he sees, and he breathes a sigh of relief when she tells him that Ellie is alive. He wants to see her—he has to see her, because it's like she's still not breathing until he personally sees otherwise. He worries, and he explains this to Marlene, but she won't let him see Ellie; she tells him, “She's being prepped for surgery.”
Marlene goes on to explain that once they remove the cordyceps from Ellie's brain, they'll be able to reverse-engineer a vaccine, but Joel knows that it grows all over the brain and that there's no way in hell they can remove it without killing Ellie. Marlene knows this too, tells him as much, sounding equal parts hopeful, defeated, and determined.
She tries to tell him that it's not about any of them. It's about a cure, and she orders for him to be escorted out, never to see Ellie again. If they think he's just going to go peacefully, then they have another thing coming. No way in hell is he going to let Ellie become a martyr.
He has no problem killing the man that's trying to march him out of the hospital (he is certain to give him a killing shot after he is told where Ellie is); he also has no problem killing the scores of others who try to stop him from getting to her. He kills the doctor and the nurses that are about to operate on Ellie without a second thought, and he snatches all the wires off Ellie prior to gathering her in his arms and running.
He hesitates only when he reaches Marlene, and only because he can kind of sympathize with her, in a sense. She pleads with him—tries to tell him that Ellie will die painlessly this way, whereas out there, she'll only either be raped and killed or torn apart by Clickers. She tries to tell him that Ellie would want to be sacrificed for the 'greater good'.
And that is the fundamental difference between them (and what causes Joel to pull the trigger a second time because he cannot have her coming after Ellie): Marlene is willing to give Ellie up in order to supposedly save countless others. Joel is not.
He'll let this whole damned world continue its downward spiral to hell in a handbasket before he'll let Ellie go.
She wakes up a few hours into the drive to Tommy's and of course she wants to know what happened, and so he lies to her. He lies his ass off because he doesn't think he has any other choice. He lies to protect her, and all those idiots who wrote those 'good parenting' books are more than likely rolling in their graves right now over what he's just done.
At first, she looks confused, and then utterly crestfallen, and Joel almost feels like a complete asshole for lying to her. Almost.
He doesn't say much else to her until the car breaks down and they're forced to travel the rest of the way on foot—which is fine, because at least they don't have far to go.
To fill the silence, he tells her about Sarah as he leads her through the woods, heading down a now-somewhat-familiar path. She doesn't comment much on his stories, but she asks him to stop when the compound is within their sight.
She tells him about the day she was bitten, and about the person that she lost on that day, and the people that she's continued to lose since—the people that they've lost since then.
He reassures her, telling her that none of that was because of her. He touches the broken watch and says, “No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” He doesn't say that she's now his reason for fighting, but he hopes like hell that she understands, all the same.
“Swear to me,” she demands. “Swear to me that everything that you said about the Fireflies is true.”
He takes a breath, tells himself that he could come clean, but then he exhales and he continues lying to her: “I swear.”
There are tears in her eyes and he knows that she has to know—she has to realize that he is not telling her the truth.
She doesn't call him out on it, though; she doesn't yell at him, she doesn't tell him that she doesn't want to be anywhere near him. She simply says, “Okay,” and they keep walking.
Joel swallows hard, his pulse racing. He knows it's only a matter of time before she brings the subject up again, before she no doubt screams at him and tells him that she hates him for lying to her.
But that day is obviously not today, and all he can really do at this point is wait.
A whole month full of tension and uncertainty passes before the confrontation happens; he's been waiting for it and he'd known that it would happen eventually. He hasn't gambled in a very long time (since Sarah turned six), and he knows his poker face isn't the best and probably wasn't anywhere near up to par when he'd lied to Ellie about the Fireflies.
He's skinning a rabbit when she says the words that make his heart drop and make his stomach lurch: “You're a shit liar, Joel.”
He's never heard that sort of anger from her before, not directed at him. His hand trembles as he lowers the knife and he turns to face her. There are tears streaming down her cheeks, and that is only further proof of her already-obvious outrage.
His first impulse is to tell her that he's sorry—sorry for lying to her, sorry for not coming clean for so long, sorry for not being the hero that she'd needed him to be, sorry for killing the woman that had been the only mother-figure she'd had.
The phrase too little, too late comes to mind, and his shoulders sag. “Was I supposed to just stand by and let you die?” he quietly asks, voice rough with emotion and words left unsaid. “Would that have been better?”
“You weren't supposed to fucking lie to me,” she yells, all venom and bitterness and fury. “You weren't supposed to make that choice for me! It was mine to make! You had no right!”
She cuts him off, her voice breaking: “No! I don't want to hear it, Joel! No excuses, and no more lies. I won't give you the chance. I'm getting the hell away from here.”
He can't help but wonder if this is a rash decision or if it's one that she's wrestled with ever since they got here, but he doesn't really want to know the answer if the end result is still the same. “Ellie, now don't--”
She interrupts again, her voice quieter this time. “No. You don't get to tell me what to do, Joel. Not this time.” She sounds lost and defeated and utterly empty. “What was it that you said to me the last time we were in this area? 'You're not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain't your dad'? Well... you were right. I'm not, and you're not, and that's it. The girl that was your daughter died a long time ago, and I'm not her fucking reincarnation. I'm nothing to you, which you've made perfectly fucking obvious.”
The words cut through him and wound him more effectively than any bullet or blade ever could. He wants to touch his chest, because he's pretty sure there's a hole there, jagged and gaping and raw and pouring blood.
He doesn't know what to say, though he's not sure it would matter if he could conjure the perfect words up, given the fact that she's already turned around and is walking away from him.
So he says nothing and he lets her go, because he's finally learned that, when you love someone, letting go (even if only for a little while) is all you can do.
He hasn't seen her for a week when he's convinced himself that the beginning stages of insanity have set in. He doesn't tell Tommy the whole story, but he does let his brother know that he has lied to her and hurt her, and Tommy rolls his eyes like he hasn't come to expect any different from Joel (and maybe that says a lot right there).
“Wherever she is, Joel, you gotta give her time and space,” Tommy insists. “She's young, but she can handle herself, right? She'll be okay.”
Joel nods and pretends to go along with it when in reality he's trying to think of where she could have possibly gotten off to. To hell with 'time' and 'space'; yes Ellie can fend for herself, but Joel doesn't like to think of her attempting to make do out there, wherever she is, alone. And even though Joel is relatively safe inside Tommy's compound and is greeted by welcoming, smiling faces on a daily basis, there's still an empty spot in the bunk that Ellie used to occupy and there is something more missing... he just doesn't want to dig deeper to figure it out (it isn't like he doesn't already know anyway).
He is in the process of throwing some necessities into a backpack (he's had enough of leaving her alone) when she quietly enters their shared makeshift bedroom. There's dirt on her face and under her nails but he sees no visible bruises or cuts or burns. He resists the urge to close the distance between them and look under her sleeves to make sure there aren't any marks there that she's hiding, but he remains where he is, watching and waiting.
She inhales, holds it for a moment, and then exhales. “Whatever it is you're wanting to say, Joel, you should say it. You should know, though, that it won't change anything.”
He sits down on his bunk (the bottom one—she'd wanted the top) and the springs squeak in protest. “I just need you to know something, even though it doesn't justify or erase what I did. You'll probably call it an excuse, but you should know that they weren't going to give you a choice, either. After you fell into the water and I found you and got you to a dry area, you weren't breathing. I tried to revive you but a member of the Fireflies knocked me out, and when I woke up, Marlene told me that they had saved your life and were prepping you for surgery. The cordyceps that's growing all through your brain... they wanted to remove it in order to make a vaccine, and in to do that, you would have had to die.”
She won't quite meet his eyes as he continues: “They didn't ask you if you were willing to die for that vaccine, Ellie. I may not have asked you if you wanted to be saved, but they sure as hell didn't ask you if you wanted to be sacrificed, either. You can hate me all you want for taking that choice away from you, but you ought to know that they took it away from you, too.”
Horror chases confusion and mingles with disbelief, and Joel watches each emotion as they flit across her features. Truth can be a very hard pill to swallow, and he knows that Ellie is not having a fun time right now. Things are sinking in, slowly, gradually, and then comes the indignation and the disappointment, and he knows that he is once again inadvertently the source of her pain. Or at least his words are. He's sorry for that, too.
She doesn't breathe a word, but she doesn't try to leave again either, and right now, Joel figures that's all he can ask for.
“So it was all for nothing?”
This is what she asks him when she finally does speak to him again, yet another week later (in the middle of the night, no less). “All the shit that we went through—all the people we killed, all the people I killed, and that whole fucking journey. It was all for nothing, huh?” That last sentence is almost a sob, and it feels like Joel's heart is in a vice grip, to hear her talk like that.
“It wasn't for nothing,” Joel replies calmly, quietly, sitting up and reaching out to touch her shoulder. She doesn't shy away from him, and he takes that as a good sign. “We tried, Ellie. We tried like hell, and that counts for something. We did what we had to do.”
The moonlight plays across her face, and he sees that her lips are curved downward in a frown. “You didn't have to 'rescue' me.”
Joel swallows hard and gently shakes her shoulder. “You're wrong. You are so fucking wrong, Ellie. If I had the choice to make all over again, I'd do the same damn thing. When it comes down to choosing between you and the rest of this godforsaken planet... I'll choose you every single time because all of this? It's nothing if you aren't here.”
She's biting her lip and her eyes are shining with unshed tears. “You won't lie to me again.” Even though her voice wavers, it is an obvious command—one which Joel doesn't intend to disobey.
He nods. “That's fine, Ellie. And it's fine if you remain highly and rightfully pissed off at me for the rest of my life for lying to you about the Fireflies and it's fine if some part of you doesn't trust me now or if you hate me. You're here and you're breathing and you're living and that is what matters. You can call me selfish if you want, but I told you before the Fireflies found us that I wasn't leaving without you and I meant it. I would've made a liar out of myself if I'd let them keep you, right?”
“You are such a fucking idiot,” she exclaims, and the words aren't nearly as scathing as Joel figures they should be. Somewhere between one eyeblink and the next, her arms are around his neck and her tears are wetting the front of his t-shirt.
And Joel? He can't believe it.
“I'm still really angry at you, Joel,” she tells him and he nods, gently running his fingers through her hair (which isn't up in a ponytail for a change). “And don't think that I'm going to just forget that you lied to me about something really important.”
“I know,” he replies soothingly. “I know. And I'll live with that.”
They sit there like that in each others' arms for immeasurable moments, simply existing. Joel isn't sure if this is forgiveness but whatever it is, he is and will be eternally grateful for it.
Eventually, Ellie's tears stop, and she says, “You know what else I think you're lying about?”
Joel tenses, having no clue what she could possibly mean. “What?”
“You told me you'd teach me to swim and you'd teach me the guitar. You haven't done either of them since we got here. Maybe you were just bullshitting me.”
Joel immediately relaxes and allows himself a chuckle that somehow almost turns into a choked-off sob of relief. “How about we start tomorrow?”
Ellie is more relaxed now, too, whereas she had been so rigid in his arms moments ago. “Okay.”
He draws back enough to look into her eyes and she offers him a small, soft smile.
And for the first time in a long time, Joel is home.