Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 8160
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
Ellie's hand felt better two days later... but didn't look much better, and didn't appear to be very functional -- not that Joel would even let her try to use it -- so she was grateful that the only Infected they'd come across in that time was a single dormant Clicker. Joel liked to say they were hibernating when they just stood there, heads bowed, not moving... not unlike a sleeping horse. Spirit didn't even go all crazy; in fact, he didn't even seem to know it was there. Ellie thought animals had really keen senses of smell, much better than humans, so surely he must have known it was there... Joel speculated that he didn't see it as a threat because it wasn't looking to attack. Ellie liked to think that Spirit simply trusted them to be able to handle such a dinky encounter.
Armed with a shiv (as he was overly fond of using the things), Joel had ordered a very scared Sophie to follow him as he crept up behind the Clicker. Ellie had wanted to go too, if only to not be left behind, but it was better that she stay with the horses, just in case. It was just one fucking Infected -- what could go wrong?
Nothing, as it turned out. He stabbed its throat while Sophie watched. After it crumpled to the ground, he even lifted it back up to try to repeat it in slow motion for her (which didn't work very well), showing her again where to stab. Ellie had tried not to be jealous, watching the lesson. She couldn't hear what Joel was saying from where she was, but she could see his movements... the animated gesturing while he talked... she could imagine his words. Always, the doubt was there, lurking beneath the surface... the 'what if's... maybe he'll get tired of me, and he'll realize he has more fun with her than with me, and that will be the beginning of the end... which was ridiculous, of course. Too ridiculous to annoy Joel with. I know I shouldn't be thinking such bullshit, so I just have to ignore it.
Sophie had come back to the horses shuddering, saying she didn't know if she could do it -- that Joel only made it look easy. But he'd given her a shiv anyhow. "Just in case." Ellie had assured her that she wouldn't have to use it. That she and Joel would take care of everything... that it was their job, after all. They were the bodyguards.
She'd said it as much for Joel's benefit as for Sophie's, hoping he'd hear the unspoken "killing Infected is a you'n'me thing, not you'n'her, and don't you forget it." Of course, Ellie was a little gimpy right now... when she asked Joel if that was why he'd given their client a lesson on killing them, he said that wasn't the reason -- that he felt like she ought to know for her own good, or JUST IN CASE -- but Ellie wasn't sure she believed him.
Ellie also didn't like how much water Joel was wasting on caring for her hand, mostly in washing his own hands every time he unwrapped it. She was willing to not touch it herself for the simple fact that then she'd have to let him wash her left hand and waste even more clean, drinkable water. He would insist it wasn't being wasted, and he promised that running out of water wouldn't be a problem because according to the map, they'd be coming to a dam soon, and according to recent scouting reports, this one still had water in it.
And he'd certainly kept that promise -- they were approaching the dam right now! American Falls Dam, Idaho. It was only late afternoon... too early to make camp for the night, but Joel said this was a good place to stop and they could just cut the day a little short.
It was officially abandoned, as they had expected it to be -- as in, no longer functioning as a dam, but there was a ton of water in the reservoir. The structure definitely looked more decrepit and sad than Jackson's. Joel insisted on checking the place thoroughly -- alone -- to make sure it was abandoned unofficially as well before they did anything there. Ellie was already tired of being a cripple. If her competence was the one thing she had over Sophie, and now she didn't even have that anymore...
It's not the only thing, she reminded her stupid brain. We also have history! Over a year's worth. She'd saved Joel's life last winter, and he loved her for it. Plus, Tommy said she was the one who had made Joel care about life again, after twenty fucking years of... well, not caring. That was longer than she'd even been alive! Whoever he cared about from here on out wouldn't have that. It was all hers.
Joel beckoned them over to a building he'd confirmed as safe. It reminded Ellie of a castle, only smaller... like a castle-cottage, overlooking the reservoir. They deposited most of their stuff in the area that served as a bedroom. It had bunk beds -- just like 'their' dam! -- lined up against three of the walls. Single bunks... maybe I should let Joel have his own bed, Ellie mused. There'd be barely any room to move with both of them squeezed into one of those. That doesn't sound so bad to me... ha. Maybe I should start out in the top bunk, though, so Sophie doesn't try to sleep above us? Once she's all settled in some other bunk she won't come over. Or I could wait until she falls asleep. She usually falls asleep before me, I think? ...when I've noticed, anyway... hmm, I guess I wouldn’t notice if I go first... but if I'm trying to sleep without Joel beside me, it's going to take longer to drift off, I'm sure of it. I'll just have to find a way to let Joel in on the--
"Earth to Ellie? Hellooooo?" Sophie waved a hand in front of Ellie's face.
"You were so zoned out, looking at the bed. It will be nice to sleep in a real bed again, huh. Been a few nights. So are you coming?"
"To take a bath in the lake! Reservoir. Whatchamacallit."
"Um... yeah, okay... where'd Joel go?"
"He went down there already. We could wear our suits... but that's just one more thing to have to dry, right? If we're only gonna be in there a few minutes... although... hmm. Since we're gonna make camp here and it's still early, maybe we can wash our clothes while we're at it, huh? I don't think I've ever felt so stinky and gross in my life."
Ellie snorted. "Try crossing the country in summer some time... like, through places that actually get really hot, unlike here."
"Hey, Reno was pretty warm. But at least we could shower there."
"Didn't you get all gross on your trip to Jackson?" Ellie continued before she could answer. "Wait, you said Joel went down? Like... to take a bath too?"
"I wish," Sophie said with an impish giggle that made her seem younger than her forty years. "Sorry. He said we're going first and he'll stand watch. That that's how you guys always did it. Didn't you hear anything I said before?"
"I guess not." Ellie chuckled at herself. And she wondered why Sophie said 'sorry' like that... did I look annoyed? I'm not. She can wish all she wants, she'll never have Joel. He's MINE MINE MINE. Ellie was pretty good at talking back to that stupid doubting voice in her head... sometimes.
They each made sure to put a change of clothes in their back packs, Sophie helping Ellie with hers, and they found Joel waiting for them outside. He indicated that they should use a corner of the reservoir with gigantic concrete walls on two sides, and he would hang out around the corner, out of sight, near the picketed horses. He could keep an eye on almost the entire area from there, just not the far side of the water where the wall obstructed his view. If anyone happened to approach from that side, the girls could yell for him.
"Sophie, you go on ahead," he said. "I'm gonna take Ellie's bandage off." Joel waited for her to amble away before taking Ellie's hand. "If you'd rather go by yourself... 'cause of your bite..."
Ellie snickered. "Well, I'd rather go with you... that would solve the problem..."
"Not an option, kiddo." But he smiled a little.
"I'll just keep my shirt on. I wanna wash it anyways... I can work around it."
"I don' know about that... we can jus' say you're shy or somethin'..."
He was taking his sweet time unwrapping her hand, Ellie thought. "'We' nothing. You're not going around this corner now."
"No?" He was amused, she could tell. He wouldn't usually admit it, but he sure seemed to like it when Ellie got bossy.
"No way! She's prob'ly standing there naked, not even getting in the water, hoping you'll come around that corner and see her, and... I dunno... like, get so overcome with lust that you have to go fuck her right there?"
Joel laughed at that -- like, a legitimate, hearty laugh. "What?! Ellie, where do you get this shit from?"
She smiled, secretly glad he found the idea so ludicrous -- because she could totally picture it, and it was not a welcome image. "She's not exactly bashful, you know."
"No, she sure ain't," Joel agreed.
"I'm not, either," Ellie added.
He smirked a little. "You can be."
"Not anymore! A long time ago, maybe."
Joel gently massaged the skin around her blisters (the injury was a good excuse for them to 'hold hands'... sort of). "A week ago? That's a long time?"
"Yes! I'm more mature now." Ellie tried to remember what time he might be thinking of, if there was anything specific.
"Mm. That's too bad."
"What?! No it's not!" Ellie laughed. Although it was true that sometimes Joel didn't seem to want her to get older... which was so counterintuitive to the whole age difference problem in his mind that Ellie didn't get it.
"I like it when you're shy," Joel said quietly.
"Yeah, right... um, really? You do?"
"Why wouldn' I?"
"Because... it's sexier not to be?" Duh!
"Says you, maybe." Joel let go of her hand. "Go on. Tell her you'll take a turn later if you want."
That would only give Sophie more alone time with Joel. No need for that! "It'll be okay -- maybe I'll keep my shirt on... or, I'll just be in the water most of the time anyways... and it's not like she'll be looking at me much." Because I'm not a hot guy... I'm not YOU.
"All right, then... I'll see you in a bit. Take your time. Be careful with your hand."
Ellie gave him a quick kiss on the lips -- partly to see if he would protest, which he didn't -- and headed to the designated bathing area. To her surprise, Sophie was still mostly dressed; she'd only taken off her socks and shoes (she'd wisely left the cowboy hat up in the bedroom), and unbraided her hair. She was just sitting near the water. "You didn't have to wait for me," said Ellie as she dumped her bag on the ground.
Sophie gave a little shrug as she stood up. "I got time. Besides, if the plan changed, I didn't wanna be sitting here naked."
"Oh you didn't?" Ellie let her tone imply that she clearly didn't believe Sophie would mind that in the slightest. She plopped to the ground to take off her own socks and shoes.
Sophie either didn't pick up on the challenge in her voice or didn't care to address it. "How cold you think that water is?" she asked as she unbuttoned her jeans.
"Fucking cold," Ellie replied. "Like everything else in this part of the country."
"Do you need some help?"
"I got it." But you go first... Ellie was actually a bit shy about getting semi-naked with Sophie, she realized. They'd gone pee together and all, but not right next to each other, and usually they could each pick a shrub or rock or something to hide behind. She decided she would dawdle until Sophie got in the water... maybe even ask her to turn her back when Ellie got in... or would that be more embarrassing, drawing attention to her embarrassment?
Ellie tried to focus only on removing her own clothing, but she found herself strangely tempted to look at Sophie. Like... to watch her. What kind of fucking pervert wants to do that?
Sophie started taking inventory (and Ellie wondered why she hadn't done that before getting naked... if she was indeed naked by now? don't look don't look). "Okay, we've got shampoo... soap... razor... towel... toothbrush... toothpaste..."
Ellie decided it was okay to look at the woman while she was speaking. Yes, she was naked, her back towards Ellie -- giving Ellie a good view of her ass. It was a decent ass, Ellie had to admit. She'd noticed that before. It looked firm, and... like it was better-shaped than Ellie's. Rounder. Pleased though Ellie was that her own ass wasn't as flat as it used to be -- she'd gained a little weight in Jackson, and that had helped her out in the boobs and ass department -- Sophie's still looked... better. More womanly.
"Are you sure you don't need help?" Sophie asked again, twisting around to look at her.
That gave Ellie a profile view of one of Sophie's breasts. She quickly looked away. She could feel herself blushing. Because of COURSE. Stupid fucking red face! "I'm slow, but I can do it. Um, thanks anyway."
"I haven't shaved since the day we left... my legs are like a forest," Sophie said with a chuckle, running a hand up one leg. "A prickly forest."
Ellie couldn't see the hair from where she was sitting, so it couldn't be that bad. She stood up and started to un-do her pants. "Why bother shaving when you're gonna be wearing pants all the time?" asked Ellie, glancing at her again now that Sophie was examining her hairy legs (and thus, wouldn't notice her looking... what a fucking perv!). "The beach is still like, what... a month away?"
"Because I can't stand it, that's why. I still have to see them when I pee."
"So?" IT'S NOT LIKE JOEL'S GOING TO BE TOUCHING THEM, Ellie screamed in her head. And why else would Sophie care, really?
Sophie stood upright, and Ellie averted her gaze again. "So... it's just a thing. I dunno. If I don't shave, the hair's gonna get so long it won't even be prickly, and then... you're right, it doesn't really matter -- I guess I'm just vain or something. You probably don't even have to shave yours yet, huh."
Ellie could feel Sophie's gaze on her now as she stepped out of her jeans. "Of course I do! I'm not a little kid." Although Joel had commented that her leg hair was soft, not prickly... he didn't seem to mind it, so she didn't shave all that often. She sort of forgot about it most of the time. And on this trip, she always had pants on, even in bed.
"Did you bring a razor?" asked Sophie.
"No... Joel did, so I figured..."
"I mean down here, to the water. You can use mine if you want."
"Okay." Fuck! Ellie had gotten a good view of Sophie's front, and it was... a beautiful view, to her dismay. Her boobs weren't really that big -- but just like everyone else's on the planet, they were bigger than Ellie's. She had these perfect-looking little pink nipples... darker pink than mine... are hers a more normal color? If there IS such a thing? Ellie pulled her long-sleeved tee up over her head, lingering over her flaming face to buy herself another few seconds to calm the fuck down and why do I need to calm the fuck down anyway... and why did I decide to take my shirt off at all... she tried not to wonder what one of those rosy nipples would feel like. -in comparison to my own -- that's the only reason. Yeah.
"I won't bother with... this." Sophie snickered.
Mindful of the angle of her scarred arm, Ellie dropped the shirt on the ground. It really wasn't that hard to hide her arm from one person at a time. She just couldn't go swimming in groups of people where she had more than one angle to consider -- and she had to constantly remember to do it. "Bother with what?"
Sophie gestured at her crotch. "Don't worry, I won't touch it with this razor that I'm sharing with you. It doesn't bother me like my legs do."
Ellie couldn't help but look at what the woman was drawing her eye to... right? That's not perverted... The triangular thatch of dark hair was denser than Ellie's. She didn't realize you were supposed to shave off your pubic hair. But now that Sophie mentioned it... maybe she had seen some articles referring to it in some of those confusing magazines. Fuck! Why didn't Joel say anything? That's like... walking around with a booger on your face or something. Riley hadn't told her about that, either. Maybe she hadn't known. Maybe Joel didn't know... but how could he not?! He used to be married, for fuck's sake.
Come to think of it... I HAVE caught him kind of staring before... was he laughing inside, or trying to think of how he should tell me?! She was annoyed with him for not mentioning it to her. Maybe it was awkward, but how many other fucking awkward things had they talked about?! Joel had pubic hair... but men had hair all over the place and it was totally acceptable. If Ellie never shaved her legs ever, they still wouldn't be half as hairy as Joel's. There were different rules for women. Like, she shaved her armpit hair, but Joel didn't shave his.
She tried not to stare at Sophie... too much... I should say something in response to that little announcement about not shaving down there... or did I wait too long and now it's awkward? No, I should still say something... she tried to make her voice sound normal. "Um... yeah, who cares? No one'll see it, right?" And no way am I taking off my underwear now! Nope, no, uh-uh. If Sophie grew that much hair back in... like, less than two weeks? -how lame is it that I've NEVER shaved mine and there's still less of it? …not that Sophie KNOWS I don’t know about shaving it… she could just think that I—
No. I’m still not taking them off. Just cuz.
Sophie dipped her pretty little foot in the water and immediately withdrew it. "Holyyyyy mother it's cold... eeeeiiish!"
"Don't yell too loud or Joel will come over here," Ellie scolded her. She grabbed her own hygiene products and joined Sophie at the edge. She would go in wearing her bra and panties, and hope that Sophie didn't ask her why.
Sophie giggled. "And that would be bad because... ? Hahaha -- no worries, I wouldn't do that to you."
" 'Cause you're shy."
Why does SHE think I'm shy? Have she and Joel discussed this or something?! "I'm not! God. It's just... I mean, that would be... like... awkward as fuck."
"Yeah, I know. I certainly wouldn't've wanted my dad to see me naked. I knooooow -- don't say it, he's not your dad. Whatever. Not that you're even naked." Sophie stuck her foot back in the water and kept it there. She gasped at the coldness, but withheld a shriek, at least.
Ellie swallowed the urge to boast to Sophie that she and Joel had seen each other naked plenty of times. "I'm naked enough." I need to wash my bra and panties anyway, right? Yes. Although she had brought several pairs of panties with her on this trip -- a luxury Joel had tried to overrule her on until she'd started talking about 'feminine troubles' (that really was such a great excuse to use for a variety of things, because how could Joel argue with her when he didn't know shit about that?).
"I can help you take your bra off," Sophie offered. "Can't do that kind very well one-handed."
Nooo! "No, I'm going to wash it anyways... like, while it's on me..." Hopefully it wouldn't take forever to dry out. It was her sports bra, because that one had no hooks and was comfortable enough to sleep in. Maybe Joel would help her take it off if it was still wet when they went to bed... after Sophie fell asleep... sounds like a plan to me!
There was a concrete ramp-like thing surrounding and leading into the water where they could sit to brush their teeth and shave their legs and pits, but the ramp ended a little past the water's edge -- then it was a straight shot down, right into deep water. Ellie laid out her stuff near Sophie's at the edge, stealing a glance or two at Sophie as the woman eased herself into the water... like a girl, she thought (she could borrow Joel's sexism when it suited her). "Dude, you just have to go for it. All the way in. It sucks for a minute but then it's over. Didn't you take any lake baths on your way to Jackson?"
"I had Nick to keep me warm. But yeah, I was a big baby about it then, too. It's just... So. Cold!" She shivered, and Ellie was close enough to her now to see the goosepimples uglifying her pretty flesh.
Quit thinking about how pretty she is, Ellie commanded herself. She had no reason to feel jealous. She had Joel, and Sophie didn't. That was that. But... she didn't feel jealous, exactly... well, what else would it be? Has to be jealousy. Duh. So just... stop it.
...and definitely do NOT look at her nipples right now -- JESUS, ELLIE!
Ellie trotted right past Sophie into the water, quite forgetting about the sudden drop they'd already observed. She plunged right in, and the cold assaulted her entire body -- luckily she managed to hold her breath before inhaling the icy water as she sank. ...okay, not exactly icy, but it might as well have been! She kicked for the surface and gasped for air.
"Girrrrrrllll... you're crazy!" Sophie was sitting near the edge of the 'cliff' with her butt in the water, knees pulled up to her chest, shivering.
"That's -- how it's -- done!" Ellie choked out between gasps. Yep, tooootally meant to do that.
"I guess this is nothing compared to that bridge you jumped off of in Boston, huh?"
"Pittsburgh," Ellie corrected. That really had been a little bit crazy. "How do you -- know about that?" Although there was only one way she could know...
"Joel," Sophie stated the obvious. "He said you're the bravest person he knows. And back then, you couldn't even swim! Jeez Louise."
Ellie wondered when they'd been discussing that, but didn't care enough to ask. "Well... we were gonna die and all, I sort of had no choice... hey, since you're sitting there, can you toss me that shampoo?"
The toss fell pitifully short, so Ellie paddled in closer. "The water's not that bad. I'm already used to it. Come in already!" She still felt cold, but not paralyzingly so. This would be so much easier if she could stand, but even Joel wouldn't be able to stand in this. At least she could use her gimpy hand to help keep herself afloat while her other hand did all the work of washing her hair.
Sophie scooted a fraction closer. "I'm getting used to it my way. Slow-like."
Ellie bit back a snarky remark at that. "~Whatever~" she sing-songed, then in a stage-whisper, she added, "Wuss."
"I'm--" Sophie started to protest, but then relented. "...a total wuss. If I give you my hand, can you just pull me in?"
Ellie rolled her eyes. "That doesn't make you not-a-wuss, you know. That just makes me the bad guy." She squirted shampoo on her head, then dropped the bottle in the water and nudged it to float in Sophie's direction.
"That's okay! C'mon, Ellie... help me grow some balls!"
Ellie giggled. "That would be an awesome power to have!" Pretty sure Joel doesn't like balls -- I'd have NOTHING to worry about then. "Just... fucking come in, it's not that hard!"
"It iiiiis, though," Sophie whined, extending her hand to Ellie with a pleading expression on her face that almost made Ellie give in.
Instead, Ellie stopped lathering her hair and dropped her arm back into the water. She pulled her elbow back beneath the surface, as if she were drawing her bow, then launched an 'arrow' of water at Sophie -- the biggest splash she could manage.
Sophie actually screamed -- like a girl -- and still didn't get in the fucking water!
"Sophie!" she chided her. "You're only supposed to scream if--" Horrified at a sudden thought, Ellie lunged forward and grabbed the closest part of Sophie she could reach -- her leg, since her hand was no longer extended. She didn't even think she'd have time to finish that sentence before Joel would be coming around the corner with his gun drawn. She yanked Sophie quite un-gently into the water... which produced another (quieter) scream, but at least now all of Sophie's womanly bits were covered.
"What happened?" she heard Joel's voice asking.
Yep! So predictable. She just hoped he hadn't seen anything; the last thing she needed was him comparing her childish body to Sophie's sexy one. She turned and saw him surveying their surroundings, gun in hand. "Joel! Get outta here! I've got it covered!" ...literally!
"What the hell were you--"
"Ellie was -- helping me grow -- some balls!" Sophie offered by way of explanation. She was treading water beside Ellie. She'd managed not to go under when Ellie tugged her in, but that well-aimed splash had done the job of drenching her head.
"Or I was trying to," Ellie said, now slightly amused by the annoyed look on Joel's face.
Sophie put her hand on Ellie's shoulder, for some reason Ellie couldn't fathom. "You could've -- just yelled, you know!" Sophie called to Joel. "Fuck-it's-coooold," she muttered to Ellie, then shouted back at Joel, "From over there! It's close enough!"
Joel started to answer that, but Ellie shouted to drown out his voice before he really got started. "No no no, wait, I got this one! I'll spare you the lecture, Joel! Let's see, um..." She lowered the pitch of her voice in an attempt to sound more Joel-like. " 'If you two were really in trouble, it ain't goin' to do you no good-- I mean -- if I'm jus' over there askin' if you're all right, you might be dead before you can answer me. A few seconds can mean the difference between life an' death. My name is Joel an' I know eeeeeeeeverything--' " Sophie burst out laughing, and Ellie had to giggle, too.
"I don' sound like that," Joel protested... stony-faced, no hint of a smile or anything.
Ellie actually couldn't tell if he was pretending to be irritated, or if it was the real deal. Fuck, am I losing my Joel-speak powers? How can that be? I'm with him 24/7 now! "Yeah you do! Okay, maybe not the last sentence."
Joel holstered his gun. "I meant the accent was terrible."
"Oh! I'll give you that one," Ellie said with a grin.
"I didn't think it was half bad," Sophie defended her.
"Thanks!" Ellie was very aware of Sophie's nakedness, and her close proximity... she was sure she was blushing again, and she should have welcomed the heat, but... fuck! She took a deep breath and ducked underneath the surface, although she could've just shrugged her hand away or even just swam a little to the side or something. Ellie wasn't very skilled at swimming underwater -- the whole point of learning how to swim was to help her stay on top of it, after all -- but she did manage to put a little distance between them when she surfaced a couple seconds later.
She acted like she'd done it to rinse her hair. Which was partly true. And Sophie was starting on her own hair now. Joel seemed reluctant to leave. The only reason Ellie wanted him to go was because she didn't trust Sophie not to pull some stunt to get him to admire her glorious nude body. "We're good -- you can go!" Ellie told him. "Sophie will behave now, right, Soph?"
"Yeah -- sorry about that!"
Joel gave them a frown before walking away. Ellie giggled. "I don't know why it's so fun to piss him off."
"That... was kind of fun," Sophie agreed. "I guess it's okay when it's stupid stuff. But now, say someone really does come..."
"Like a hunter?" It would have to be, to be a threat. Infected wouldn't swim over from the other side, but hunters might have rifles. They'd have to be total dicks to shoot a couple of unarmed naked (or nearly naked) girls in the water. And while Ellie certainly knew there were some total dicks in this world, it didn't seem very likely to her that that would happen here -- and they would be so far away that they'd have to be pretty good shots, too. It must not have seemed likely to Joel, either, or he'd never have agreed to this. "Then... we scream," she answered.
"But now it's like crying wolf."
"What? Scream like a human, don't cry like a wolf. -Shit, we should've had Joel toss that soap over here..." Ellie paddled towards the ramp to retrieve it. She had this odd warmth in her stomach now, which was unsettling. She'd thought the cold water would make that go away... she vowed not to look at Sophie until she had some clothes on, because she had a disturbing feeling that the weird sensation and Sophie's nudity were connected. "Do wolves even cry?"
Sophie chuckled. "It's an expression. From a story... a fable. Basically, since we already screamed--"
"You screamed," Ellie pointed out.
"--yeah, well, now if there really is someone, and I scream again, Joel won't come, because he'll think it's not an actual threat. That's what happened to the boy in the story. He was watching sheep and he cried out that there was a wolf, so people rushed to help him and he just laughed, like he'd played this funny joke on them. He did that over and over, and they kept coming. Until finally there was a real wolf, and then no one came 'cause they didn't believe him! That's where the expression 'crying wolf' comes from."
Ellie soaped herself up on the ramp while Sophie told the story -- and already forgot that she'd intended not to look at the woman (even if all she could see was her head). "No! Joel's not like that. You could scream ten times, and even on the tenth time, he'd come running. Believe me. He would always assume the worst."
"Better to be safe than sorry?"
"Yeah. Like, to extremes. Outside, at least." Ellie smirked to herself, imagining how furious Joel would be by that tenth time. Maybe he would stop coming, after a certain number of times. She'd never actually tested him that way. But she would guess that the closest he would come to not responding to the potential threat would be to hesitate for a second, then realize how horrible it would be if it was really true this time and they died or something while he was picking his ass around the corner... he'd still have to come. He couldn't not. And how devastating would it be if that infinitesimally small hesitation did actually make the difference? Joel would never forgive himself. Even though it would have totally been their fault, for being dumb. Sophie's fucking fault, anyway. She was the one crying wolf.
"Is it really evil that I want to scream again just to see if you're right?" Sophie asked mischievously.
"Yes!" Ellie assured her. "Sophie, don't. Really. Don't push him."
"Okie dokie." She leaned her head back, letting her hair swirl around... and now she was floating on her back. Ellie watched the water lapping at her...
What the fucking FUCK is wrong with me?! Maybe I should be the one carrying that PERV rock around.
Yep, she'd found it in Joel's back pack. Confronted him about it. He'd said something about it being 'evidence'... but Ellie didn't understand why he needed to keep it. More than once, she'd thought about sneaking it out of there and chucking it randomly into the woods, never to be seen again. But somehow, she never quite dared. Joel had gotten this weird look on his face when she was talking to him. She got the feeling he'd be really... hurt, or something, if she took it from him -- fucked up as that sounded. So she'd left it alone. Eventually, she'd find the right time to talk to him about it and remind him for the millionth time that he wasn't a pervert.
She and Sophie continued their baths mostly in silence, with Sophie taking much longer to do everything, even though she had two hands. The water was pretty cold, but it did feel nice to get clean after a couple of relatively warm, dry days. Ellie decided she would come back later to brush her teeth, and that she really didn't need to shave anything with Sophie's razor. She also didn't need to wash her jeans; she could let the rain wash them again some time, and it would be good enough. Having clean shirts would be nice, though. She dried off with the towel (which they all had to share), stepped back into her dirty jeans, and pulled on the sweatshirt she'd brought down. She borrowed Sophie's brush because she actually couldn't remember where she'd put her own.
When Sophie was done with the soap, Ellie began to wash all the clothes she wasn't wearing. It was a bit of a challenge, one-handed, but she could manage if she used her knee to hold the thing in place while her good hand worked the soap. She could ask Sophie to wring them out when she was done rinsing. "I should let you do this," she joked, staring intently at the shirt she was scrubbing and not at Sophie dragging the razor up her leg, with the other leg folded up...
"Let me do what?"
"The laundry? Cuz it's like your job?"
"Ohhhh gotcha. You know what I really wanted to be, back in the day? -A hair stylist."
"Really?" That was such a departure from Laundry Lady that Ellie was curious. "So why weren't you doing that in Jackson?"
"Eh, they already had someone who does that. And I never learned how to do it professionally or anything."
Professional hair styling... that sounded so glamorous and indulgent. People had some weird jobs back in the old days that were completely unimportant now. "So... if you know hair stuff... can you put my hair in a French braid?" Ellie asked, almost shyly. She'd kind of fallen in love with that style when she and Annie were trying to pick one out for her Big Date.
"You bet! You want me to? Just let me--"
"Not right this second, you can finish your... legs, and whatever." She felt a little guilty, like she was betraying Annie by letting Sophie do something to her hair that Annie couldn't. Not because Annie wasn't there, but because she didn't know how to do it. You're still my BFF, Annie, Ellie told her in her head. Sophie's just my BFFN.
They decided they'd kept Joel waiting for his turn long enough, and they could do her hair while he was bathing. He'd made some remark about females taking forever to do things, though Ellie could tell he wasn't annoyed with them anymore. Sophie hadn't even washed her clothes yet, but that could wait a little while, too.
Now Ellie was sitting on the ground, Sophie behind her, tugging on lock after lock of her hair. "So is Joel going to scream now, to get even?" Sophie wondered.
"He'd better not," Ellie grumbled. "That would be so uncool, especially since it was your fault, you wolf crier, not mine -- but I'd be the one who has to run over there."
"It was too your fault! Who splashed me in the first place?"
"To get your ass in the water! It was for your own good!"
"You didn't have to scream, though." Ellie snorted. "Joel will prob'ly be done before you're even done with this braid. In and out. And he won't go far from his gun."
"But he trusts you to look out for him, right?"
"Yeah. But still. It's just how he is." Ellie was indeed alert, in spite of the indulgence of letting Sophie fix her hair. Having her hair pulled (albeit gently) kind of helped her not fall into some kind of apathetic trance, too. "And I'd bet you anything he doesn't let the horses graze overnight here. He's gonna want them inside the fortress with us. It's too far away from the grass."
"I'm not betting against you on anything related to Joel."
Ellie smiled, inordinately pleased at that comment. "I do know him pretty well by now, I think."
"I know a lot more about him -- about both of you -- than I did two weeks ago, so I can imagine how much you learned after a whole year. Holy guacamole."
"On the trip? It was less than a year." And the first half almost didn't count, because Joel was so... unreceptive, to say the least, to the idea of getting to know each other better. She didn't know how much of that Joel had shared with Sophie, though. "But yeah. He's... something."
"It's obvious how much he loves you."
It is? Shit! "Oh, um... he doesn't really, like... well, it's..." How do I explain? I have to tell her she's wrong...
"Yeppers," Sophie said. "I think... even if it's not like... the romantic kind? It sort of is, because... I mean, it takes the place of that. Erm -- I don't know how to say it. I'm not saying it right."
Ellie's heart stopped trying to leap out of her body. Whew! "Well... not exactly like taking its place... I mean, people can love their kids and still love their... lovers." She didn't like pretending that Joel's love was limited to the fatherly kind, but she understood that that was the game they had to play, and she could've kicked herself for assuming Sophie had been thinking it was ‘obvious’ that Joel wanted to fuck her. No, not fuck – MAKE LOVE, she corrected for Joel’s sake, as if he could hear her thoughts. Ha!
"Yeah, but... it's different. I mean, he has zero interest in... ha, now it sounds like I'm making excuses for... yeah. But it's true -- he doesn't really... he's not looking for a girlfriend, right? Like, that's not even on his radar. At all."
"Right." Ellie was slow to answer. "But I don't know if that's cuz of me. He feels like he's too old for all that shit." A lie that wasn't a total lie! Ellie mentally patted herself on the back.
"He's not too old for anything! Sheesh, people can still... well, I used to know people decades older than him, who were in love. He's middle-aged, not dead."
"I don't think he's too old, either," Ellie said happily. She did, and she didn't. If she thought about his actual age, in numbers, he seemed ancient. If she thought about him as a person, he didn't seem so old. And if thoughts of him being OLD started to upset her, she talked herself out of them by thinking that he wouldn't be old until she was fifty herself. Forty-nine, she amended on Joel's behalf -- mentally, but she had to snicker out loud. "It's almost his birthday, you know."
"Oh yeah? When's that?"
"...In a few days." Now Ellie wished she'd kept her stupid mouth shut. She didn't want Sophie celebrating Joel's birthday. That's supposed to be a me'n'Joel thing! And not only that, but because Joel was adamant that he never celebrated it. Maybe that would save her here... "Don't tell him I told you -- actually, forget I said anything. He's really... touchy about it. It's the same day as..." Ellie couldn't casually tell Sophie about Sarah. That was how she herself had learned about her, from Maria, who had of course learned it from Tommy, but Maria obviously hadn't known how private Joel was about his past; she'd only just met him. And Ellie hadn't learned about the whole birthday thing until much later. "...it was the day the world went to hell, in his town. So that sort of ruined his birthday forever after."
"Oh, wow, that sucks. I won't say a word. Okay, gimme your hair thing now... aaaaaannndddddd... done!" she declared. "I wish you could see it. It's super cute!"
Ellie ran her hand over the lumps of hair going down the middle of her head and grimaced. "It feels weird..."
"Trust me. I would say ask Joel, but guys don't really know jackshit about hair."
"Ha -- yeah, maybe he won't even notice! I so hope he doesn't, then I can give him crap when he eventually does." She didn't think Joel's keen observation skills applied to hair, either, although... he did notice her ponytail was higher that one day, and that was a minor difference compared to this. Sophie moved in front of her and held out her hand to help Ellie stand up.
Ellie took it and got to her feet. "Thanks. For doing that."
"Any time! Really, it's a great style for this trip. It'll keep a while. I kinda suck at doing it to myself or I would."
"Maybe you could teach me? When the burn goes away, I mean."
"I could try... it'd be hard to do without showing you, though... maybe we could get Joel to grow his hair out and then we could practice on him. Think he'd like that?"
Ellie snickered. "Even when his hair gets long, it's not that long. It'll take ages."
"Oh well. If we don't forget all about it later, maybe I could show you on Nina. She has great hair for it. Assuming we find her and Alex... God, I hope so -- I have a good feeling about it. I really do. You guys are awesome."
Ellie didn't see what their awesomeness had to do with anything -- there was a certain amount of luck involved, and if these people were already dead, they couldn't do anything about that -- but she grinned. "Yeah, we are, aren't we!"
Sophie started fussing with her own hair. Ellie wondered if Joel would like her new hair style. He wouldn't be able to run his hands through it. Well, I could ask Sophie to re-do it in the morning, maybe...
She didn't only feel guilty about Sophie for Annie's sake now -- she felt a little like she'd just betrayed Joel too, somehow. Because if she was gut-wrenchingly, disturbingly honest with herself, she had to admit that she had enjoyed looking at Sophie's body. And if Joel had enjoyed that, she'd be furious with him. Am I a fucking hypocrite or what?! Do I have to tell him? she wondered. They were supposed to be honest with each other about 'everything,' but even so, there were still some things that were... well, private.
It wasn't like she was in love with Sophie or anything. She didn't know what was wrong with her. Obviously, she used to like girls that way, because duh, Riley... but she had Joel now. And she had so much more with Joel than she'd ever had with Riley -- or even had a chance to have with Riley, to be fair, but... Ellie was convinced there was absolutely no other love in the world that could match what she felt for Joel. Ever.
Would she want him to tell her, if their roles were reversed here? HELL no, she decided. She couldn't even stomach the thought of Joel feeling... any of that weird shit... God, I'm a horrible person! But I can't tell him. It wasn't like she was going to start sneaking around, trying to make out with Sophie, or anything like that. And not because she was controlling her ~lust~ or whatever -- no, it's not even that! Fuck! -- she truly didn't want to. Joel was the only one she wanted. She closed her eyes and thought about him now, really thought about him, about kissing him, touching him, being in his arms... seeing that special smile on his face that only she got to see... and her stomach did a little flip-flop. See?! No need to hurt Joel by telling him stupid shit that doesn't mean anything. But... since this happened to me, couldn't it already have happened to him? Maybe he lied when he said he didn't want to fuck Sophie in her bedroom that day...
And then she remembered again that they were Outside, and she was the only one on guard. No more daydreaming or closing her eyes. She surveyed the land in all directions, and tried to shove her troubling thoughts to some place where they wouldn't bother her. Things had been simpler on their first trip, that was for sure. Especially in the beginning, when Joel hadn't wanted to talk to her at all. I need to be more like that! At least with Sophie.
But... she kind of liked Sophie. A little. She didn't hate her, anyway. And looking at her now, fully-clothed... Ellie was happy to note that she had no feelings of attraction whatsoever. With Joel, she wasn't, like... insanely attracted to him every time she looked at him, but she'd had those feelings long before she ever saw him naked -- and the physical part was all mixed up with her love for him, anyway. What was it he'd said... "nothing pretty about the male body"...
Joel was far from ugly. But he wasn't pretty. Yeah, so, girls are prettier than guys. Sophie's pretty, Joel's handsome. And... that matters cuz... why?
She remembered, shortly after that magical first kiss with Joel, how they'd talked about not spending time alone with members of the opposite sex. At first, she'd thought that was his way of keeping her away from Max -- whom she didn't even hang out with ANYWAYS! -- but it wasn't just that. Ellie had happily agreed because it went both ways, and she didn't like the idea of Joel spending time with other women. He'd said something about how the practice was like... inviting opportunities to fuck things up... something like that, that hadn't really registered with her because it didn't make sense -- not if you were truly in love, like she and Joel were. ...is that all this is? Some ~opportunity~ that I'm not taking... because I love him?
No, not really... Sophie wasn't tempting her, for fuck's sake. And Joel didn't even know that Ellie used to be a lesbian. No -- I'm BISEXUAL, which was okay in his world, according to those magazines, so... still, she didn't really want to disclose this to him, because he might think she'd rather be with a girl or some stupid shit like that. If she couldn't tell him that, it stood to reason that she couldn't tell him about this; he would need the context for it to make sense.
She was tired of thinking about this confusing shit. Nothing happened here, and it meant nothing, so there's nothing to tell, she decided once and for all. She would just kiss the fuck out of Joel the next time she got the chance... to prove it to that part of herself that wanted to doubt everything.
~Continue to Chapter 35~