Title: How To Transform Something
Fandom: The Last of Us
Summary: Bill writes a note. Frank was never supposed to see it.
Notes: An attempt to combine the TV show with a certain aspect of the game.
Read it on AO3, or click below:
Technically it started with an argument over a car battery. Bill had a collection of them down in the basement and somehow Frank had lost one between there and the garage. He didn’t know how he had done it and Bill had been sulking for days, which just really fucking sucked.
“It’s only a car battery,” he told Bill over breakfast two days after the fact. “We don’t even use the car much.”
“It’s not about that,” Bill grunted.
“Then what is it about?”
When Bill didn’t answer Frank said, trying to hide a little resentment, “You took away nearly all my damn pencils to make your batteries. You think I’d lose even one of them on purpose, seeing as how because of them I can’t draw anymore?”
“You can still draw.”
“Not with decent pencils I can’t.”
Bill took a bite of his toast and spoke while chewing it, a habit Frank had always hated. “We need a steady supply of batteries more than we need pencils. That’s just how it is.” After a moment he added, “That’s why you need to be more careful with them.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Frank, running his hands through his hair. “I said I was sorry.”
“And that’s good. Because sorry means you’ll be more alert and more ready next time you’re doing resource management. One battery or one gun or one bullet could be the difference between life and death.”
“There’s no but. That’s how it works.”
Frank had had enough. “I have to go to the art studio. I might be there all day.”
“Do you have to?”
This had been a point of contention for a long time. It wasn’t even a real art studio. It was a repurposed shed full of paint and paper. Bill had pointed out more than once that it could have been used for other things, and also, what was Frank going to do when the paint ran out?
“Yes, I have to,” Frank snapped back. “Believe it or not, there’s more to life than batteries.”
“But there isn’t more to life than life,” Bill said angrily.
“I’ll see you in the evening. Don’t wait up,” Frank said, and slammed the door as he left.
In the shed-turned-studio he painted various rages. He drew an infected person with one of his leftover stubs of pencil and splattered red all around it. One of the ten people he had left Baltimore with had gotten infected early on. Luckily she’d had a gun, so she’d shot herself in the head, a quick death if not a clean one. Some members of the group, including Frank, had suggested they stop and bury her. But then some of the others pointed out there was blood and bodily fluids all over the place, and that would probably infect anyone who touched it, so there was nothing they could do.
He was nearly out of red paint and there was virtually no way to get any more. He hadn’t ever asked Tess and Joel because where would they find any? There were schools in the quarantine zones but he didn’t think art classes were on the agenda somehow.
Or he could stop painting scenes of blood.
Eventually he put the image of the horrific creature aside and went outside to try and get his head straight. Some of the chickens pecked at his feet.
Bill had reminded him many a time not to get too attached to any of the chickens. They were resources, he said, not pets, and eventually they would end up on the dinner table. But what with them being the only other life around for miles and miles and miles… it was hard.
Frank petted one of the chickens, despite knowing he wasn’t supposed to, and decided to go back to the house. As he walked he listened to the empty air and dreaded the coming arguments that would fill it.
When he got back to the house Bill was making some food. Chicken, unsurprisingly.
He had his back turned to the door, so when Frank said, “Did you make any for me?” he jumped.
“Jesus! Don’t scare me like that! I could have shot you.” But his gun wasn’t on his waist, it was on a table. “Yes, I made you some.”
They sat down at the dinner table and ate without talking. It was awkward and horrible.
“You know what,” Frank finally said, “I’m gonna get a glass of water.”
Bill being Bill, he had different glasses for every beverage. Frank opened a cupboard to find the right ones and a glass fell out and smashed at his feet.
“Are you hurt?” said Bill anxiously, and that actually made Frank feel a bit better.
“No, no, I’m fine. Lemme just sweep this up.”
There was a dustpan and brush in the corner, used every day so as to keep the floor clean and discourage vermin. That was another annoying habit Bill had, sweeping the floor while Frank was eating snacks on the sofa like a normal person did.
Frank swept the glass into the dustpan and went to throw it in the trash. But then he stopped, because he noticed something unusual in there. Buried underneath a few cans and plastic scraps there was a crumpled piece of paper with Bill’s handwriting on it.
This was unusual, because Bill didn’t write much. Lists of important information and that was about it. Certainly no writing for pleasure. Frank picked it out and held it up.
“Put that back,” Bill said, and then he rose from his seat at the table. “Put that back. I’m serious.”
But Frank had already started reading it. It was short. It read,
Well, Bill, I doubt you’d ever find this note cause you were too scared to ever make it to this part of town. But if for some reason you did, I want you to know I hated your guts. I grew tired of this shitty town and your set-in-your-ways attitude. I wanted more from life than this and you could never get that. And that stupid battery you kept moaning about- I got it. But I guess you were right. Trying to leave this town will kill me. Still better than spending another day with you. Good Luck, Frank.
Bill snatched the paper from him, his face red and his eyes furious.
“I told you-“
“What the hell is this?” Frank asked, almost shouting over him as he tried to grab the note back. “You wrote this?”
“I told you not to read it!”
Frank had only one talent of the kind that helped a person survive an apocalypse: he was very good at conflict resolution. Of course, some of that had come from being a teacher in the before times. Teachers had to get good at that sort of thing pretty fast or they’d be (figuratively, since that needed to be clarified now) eaten alive. But also, after the horrible incident where the infected woman had shot herself, things had actually gotten pretty heated over the decision not to bury her, seeing as she was the mother or grandmother of no less than four people in the group. And finally before things got to blows Frank had said, okay maybe we can’t bury her, but we can stack these stones over there and make a memorial, you know? We can stack so many stones nothing will get near the body.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently.
That seemed to take Bill by surprise. He relaxed his grip on the piece of paper and then put it down on the table, moving in exactly the same way he did whenever he put down a gun.
“Knew I should’ve burnt it,” he said bitterly. “Stupid.”
“Bill, why did you write these words? And why did you put them in my mouth?”
Bill said nothing. Frank picked up the note again.
“Is this what you think of yourself? And me?”
“No,” Bill said, not looking at him. “S’just… It’s just more art. Bad art. Like you painting pictures of infected people. You know.”
Frank did know. He read the imaginary note from his imaginary self again and decided only his memories could help him in that moment.
“When I was teaching, I always made it very clear to my students, there’s no wrong way to do art. Especially if you don’t plan for anyone to see it.”
“Well, I didn’t,” Bill said flatly, sinking down into a chair.
Frank sat down next to him.
“You know,” he said conversationally, “When I did my evening art classes there was a group of teenage girls who used to come along, all writers. They all had bad things going on in their lives, mostly shitty parents, and so they used art and writing to try and make sense of the world. They used to write about, you know, making out with Justin Timberlake at the prom, or being a magical elf princess in The Lord of the Rings, stuff like that.”
“I am not a magical elf princess,” Bill said stoically.
“No, but the principle is the same, right? You wrote this to try and make sense of something. Us.”
Bill didn’t answer, so Frank reached out and squeezed his hand. That got him at least to say,
“You do want more from life than this. I know you do.
“Oh come on. If the apocalypse hadn’t happened and you weren’t trapped here by circumstance, you’d be off somewhere living the life you deserve. Art galleries, fancy parties, fucking… opera or whatever.”
“You have some wildly inaccurate ideas about the salary of an art teacher.”
“I can’t offer you any of that. And I can tell you’re getting sick of it. Which means, eventually you’ll grow to resent me and then hate me, and you’ll leave.” After a moment he went on, “And then you’ll die.”
Frank had no idea what part of that to tackle first. Eventually he started with, “We’ve been together for three and a half years now. If I ever thought for one moment about leaving you, don’t you think I would have done it already?”
“Irrelevant to the matter at hand, because you physically can’t leave.”
“We both know that’s not true. We have friends now. I’m pretty sure Tess and Joel would happily smuggle me into a quarantine zone if I asked. But I’m never going to ask.”
Bill just let out a grunt that sounded uncannily close to a sob, although he wasn’t actually crying.
“Fuck, I wish you hadn’t found that note,” he said. He got up and paced around the room, eventually coming to a stop at the piano.
Some lyrics from Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time”drifted through Frank’s head. Different ones to the ones he’d fallen in love to. The bit where the narrator was singing about the person who’d left her. Wait for the day you’ll go away / Knowing that you warned me / of the price I’d have to pay.
Frank picked up the note and looked at it again. It didn’t make him angry, he realized, just very sad.
And life’s full of flaws / Who knows the cause? / Living in the memory of a love that never was.
He wondered what would have happened if Bill had sung that verse at the piano instead of the one about time washing clean love’s wounds unseen. But he was singing it now apparently, or writing it down, he’d just mixed it all up and added things. Transformed something beautiful into a cry of pain.
“I want you to know I love you,” Frank told Bill, “and I would never leave you. Definitely not in a way anything like what you’ve written here.”
Bill nodded. Now he was crying.
“I feel like we should also talk about your incredible lack of self-esteem,” Frank added. He was slipping into his teacher voice a bit. “The fact that you can imagine me saying these things to you…”
“That’s a normal thing. And anyway, I was a shitty person before you got here.”
“No it’s not. And no you weren’t.” Frank said. Bill was so loving most of the time that it was easy to forget he’d never really known love before. Going back to Linda Ronstadt, someone had told him it but he didn’t know what it meant. Or at least not for a while.
Bill said, “I was an asshole. It was you who changed me. But people don’t stay changed for long in my experience, so…” He turned his face away.
“Yes they do,” said Frank. “You think you didn’t change me for the better as well? Hell, most people would say that’s what love is.”
“Well… alright. I’ll accept that one as true,” Bill said. He swiped at his tears with some force. “But you already know I’m all about the what-ifs, every day, all the time. And now all my what-ifs are about you. What if you leave. What if you die alone somewhere, hating my guts.”
Frank went over to him and held him tightly.
“’Won’t’ is a hard word these days, what with the end of the world actually happening and all.”
Frank responded by holding him even tighter.
“God, I wish I could get you to a therapist,” he said.
“There are no therapists anymore. All the therapists got eaten,” Bill said morosely.
He was deflecting. “Yes, I suppose so,” Frank said in response. “But look, I want you to promise you’ll try not to let things get this bad in your brain again. And I’ll try just as much. I know how hard it is.”
Bill nodded. It was a sincere and loving nod though. Frank had learned to recognize those over the years.
“Keep making your bad art if you feel like you need to,” he said. “Just… show it to me, next time.”
Bill clung onto him and Frank felt him nod again. Yes, it wasn’t therapy, but it was certainly a good start. He kissed the top of his head.
After a few more moments of togetherness Bill picked up the note and gave it to Frank.
“This is yours to do whatever you want with. You can burn it or rip it up.”
But none of those things happened in the end. Instead Frank used it as a tiny canvas, painted a beautiful landscape on it and then painted himself and Bill into that landscape. He hung it on the wall of their bedroom and it stayed there for a long, long time.