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: 9583
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
The ocean! At last! So fucking beautiful. Magnificent. Awesome. And any other word like that in existence. Ellie had expected it to look kind of like that place in Pittsburgh, where she and Joel had washed up on the beach... which was beautiful, although they hadn't had time to enjoy it. Jackson had a lake, too, and the water was pretty. But this was like... multiply that by a hundred!
"Why does it smell so... I don't even know what it smells like..." The first thing Ellie had noticed was the scent in the air, quite a bit before they'd reached the beach.
"Uh... salt?" Joel ventured.
"Salt has a smell?"
"If it does, this is it."
She kept staring at the rippling blue-green water, capped with white. "That's just sunlight on there, isn't it? But it's so sparkly..."
"Yes it is. Like diamonds."
"Yeah... so fucking cool. The waves are so big! How do they get so big? Wow..." For some reason, Ellie felt like crying. Not because she was happy or sad, just... it was so gorgeous. The world was a nasty place: people turned into monsters (infected or otherwise), buildings collapsed and fires burned... everywhere, people were dying, suffering... suffering from the constant struggle to survive, enduring physical and emotional pain every day, scared of dying or more suffering or losing what little they had, only to go to sleep -- the land of nightmares -- and get up the next day and do it all over again in a pointless, never-ending cycle. And the ocean was just... there. Untouched by it. Like it didn't give a shit what the world did. Frankly, it didn't belong in this bleak world.
"You all right?"
She felt Joel come up beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. "Of course!" she forced herself to say, swallowing the lump in her throat. "Why wouldn't I be... I mean... wow."
"You jus' looked... sad for a moment there."
She didn't know how to explain, and didn't really want to try. Sophie and Poppy were like... five seconds' distance in front of her and Joel, and there was a whole bunch of sand in between them and the ocean. Ellie turned to look at Joel. "Can we go down there? Close to the water?"
Joel nodded. "I was thinkin' you might like to take a dip, yes."
"Oh, I don't know about that... but I wanna see it up close..."
Sophie gasped. "Ellie! You gotta go in. We're all going! Just gotta get our suits on!"
"I think I'll just watch. I could watch those waves forever." She half expected Joel to tease her and say that she'd barely laid eyes on them so how could she possibly know that? But he didn't. He doesn't tease me as much in general. I'm sorry, Joel... maybe I should just fake it more...
Sophie hopped to the ground. "Well, I'm going in. Haven't been to the ocean in years. Look, there's a restroom here to change in and everything, just like back in the day! 'Course my suit's way at the bottom of the bag..." She started rummaging through one of the saddlebags.
"Back in the day there prob'ly weren't corpses in the stalls, though," Ellie said mildly. "Or lying around on the beach..."
Joel chuckled. "None on this beach, far as I can tell. Maybe they're buried in the sand." He left Ellie to her ocean-staring as he did a quick check of both restrooms, then gave Sophie the 'all clear' and returned to Ellie's side. "So why don't you wanna go in, kiddo? You don' have to swim. Jus' wade in a little ways. At least get your feet wet."
Ellie frowned. "I dunno... it's not good for my leg?"
"Your leg's fine. Unless... it ain't hurtin' you now, is it?"
Ellie was tempted to say yes, but Joel would probably know she was lying. She hadn't really mastered the art of telling him believable white lies yet. And if he did believe her... fuck -- haven't I put him through enough worrying to last the rest of his life?! "No."
"No dead bodies in here!" Sophie called cheerfully from the restroom.
"So c'mon, jus' try it," Joel pressed on. "For me?"
"Ohhhhh no, don't try to guilt-- hey, how would it be for you? You can still go in if you want." Ellie thought she knew the answer already; she just wanted to hear him say--
"I wanna go in with you, though. I swear I won' make you go out any farther than you want."
She knew that much already, too. But she still just... didn't want to. "Isn't it going to be freezing?" she tried.
"I reckon it is, yeah... not technically freezin', but pretty damn cold. We won' do it for long. Whatta you say?"
"I say... we let Sophie go first. And Poppy, if she wants. Can we take all this stuff off her? Let her run around or whatever if she wants?" With the nod from Joel, Ellie started unfastening the bags. Poppy never strayed too far from them, even during the times they got a whiff of Infected and had to react. She's more loyal than-- no, don't go there, Ellie commanded herself. Besides, you don't even know what happened... just another one of life's mysteries. Ellie had thought mysteries were meant to be solved, but she knew better now; most were unsolvable, and the attempts to figure them out would only drive you mad.
Joel dropped some of his own load, and started undoing the bags on Poppy's other side. He kept looking around; Ellie knew he wasn't a fan of wide open spaces with no cover, but this was like... so open that it was obvious no one was there. They hadn't encountered a shitload of people lately (of any kind), but the possibility of people coming along while they were here still existed, of course. At least they wouldn't be visible from the street, and there was nowhere anyone could hide and ambush them from -- except maybe the restrooms, which he'd already checked, and that would just be... pretty fucking weird, for people to camp out in there when they could be on the beach. Looking at the ocean. I bet I could just sit there and stare at the water all day and nothing would bother me, NOTHING, I'd forget to feel pain -- physical or emotional -- and I wouldn't feel afraid... I wouldn't even have to work out all that inside-versus-outside mode stuff because I would just... BE... everything else would disappear... even Joel, but not in a bad way... it would be peaceful... carefree...
She got the feeling Joel had just called her name. Maybe more than once. "Huh?"
Joel was used to that by now; most of the time, they didn't even bother exchanging "What's wrong?"/"Nothing"s or "Are you okay?"/"Yes"s anymore. "I said how 'bout you ride her down into the surf, see how interested she is. I don' think she'll wanna drink it."
From afar, it looked cleaner than most of the water they'd encountered. "Really? Why not?"
"Way too salty. Our bodies can't handle it, either... it'll actually make you thirstier an' dehydrate you faster, 'cause of all the salt."
"Huh. What if she does drink it?"
"Animals are usually smart about shit like that... but unless she jus' sits there drinkin' it for a long time, I don' think a little bit will hurt her, if she does try it."
"Okay... you wanna ride with me?" Ellie pulled herself up on the horse.
"Sure." Joel mounted up behind her, and when Sophie came out of the restroom, they all set forth into the sand. Back in Jackson when she was helping Sophie pack, Ellie had been surprised that Sophie didn't have a bikini, and figured maybe those were in short supply. Her suit was cute... and low-cut... but it was a one-piece, with a little skirt thing around the waist -- not unlike Ellie's. Sophie's was turquoise and black, and Ellie's was navy blue, with a pattern of little white anchors. Ellie both did and did not want to notice how sexy Sophie looked in her suit...
Poppy balked a little at the feel of the sand. "It's okay, girl, just go on," Ellie urged her. "Follow Sophie!"
Sophie was trying to move quickly, but apparently, this sand was hard to walk on. Like her feet would sink into it with each step. Poppy did follow her, with a little urging. Ellie couldn't help but wonder what Spirit would've made of the beach. He would probably gallop through the sand into the water, going in maybe up to his knees before pausing to decide if he liked it or not... and ultimately decide on not, as he didn't seem to be a huge fan of water. Her heart suddenly lurched in her chest. Don't think about him now. He's gone. Focus on what you have.
It had been hard for her to do that, lately. She knew she was lucky to have Joel -- she never forgot that for one second -- but the thought didn't make her happy like it used to. She couldn't separate it from the morose ones: one day I'm going to lose him and what's the point of it all? and life is just pain followed by more pain -- because even the good things were painful.
Happiness isn't real. That's what it all added up to. It didn't stick. Ellie wondered if the illusion of it existed because there was only so much suffering and worrying and fearing a person could do before they'd go insane. I WILL go insane if I lose Joel. When is he going to get sick of me? No one's ever lasted this long. And he's being so fucking NICE. Would it kill me to try a little harder... to fake it a little more?
And then there were the odd this will still be here after I die thoughts -- those popped into her head when she saw new things. Or familiar things. Or just... anything. It was pretty random and stupid. Stupid because she should be able to toss a "yeah, so what?" back at it, but instead, she'd get... like, melancholy.
She truly had thought she was going to die for a while -- even when Joel thought she was better. He wanted so badly for her to feel better, and she hated disappointing him. So she'd tried to hide it from him... when it felt like her organs were trying to eat themselves... like she was dying from the inside out. It was the weirdest fucking thing, because the only notable injuries she'd suffered were to her leg and her head -- those were the places that should have been hurting her. Her head had indeed hurt; her brain was one of the organs eating itself, after all. But her leg was no worse than any other part of her body. It didn't make much sense to her...
Except she knew it had something to do with the leg getting infected (she hadn't even hurt it that badly -- it just looked bad). Like the infection had entered her bloodstream, and her heart was pumping the sickness through every part of her body. Even after her leg had started healing, she'd felt like utter crap, which made her wonder if she was just dying more slowly than expected. Joel and Sophie seemed to think she was All Cured in a couple of days, and she didn't have the heart to tell them otherwise. Which sort of made her feel guilty... not about Sophie, because she was the 'child' here -- the child that it's okay to lie to when there's no need to burden her with the truth. But Joel... she didn't try very hard to tell him how she really felt. Physically or emotionally. Ellie only had a fuzzy memory of this, but apparently, she'd told him repeatedly that she was dying. She'd had this raging fever at the time, and he'd blamed it on that. She knew it had hurt him to hear her say it, and she didn't want to hurt him, so...
...but he also wants truth. How many times has he told me to be honest with him? It was hard to do when the truth would make him feel bad. Ellie had taken a stab at it, here and there, but he seemed to take it as a plea for reassurance, because he would tell her she's going to be fine now, she had nothing to worry about... and she wondered if he was mostly just trying to reassure himself of that. If she had told him her stomach was eating itself, he probably would've told her it was hunger pains... if it was her bladder, then she just had to pee... (actually, that sensation had confused her at first, too). He probably would've told her she had a vivid imagination -- he liked to say that -- but she wasn't trying to be imaginative; she just didn't know how to describe it in medical terms.
So Ellie kept her mouth shut on the subject. She didn't even know how to answer when Joel had asked if she was having stabbing type pains or more like dull aches. Both... and neither? She had decided she needed to pretty much give him the child treatment as well. It felt like the kindest thing to do. With no outlet, the truth would have to just keep screaming at her, in her head. Sometimes loud enough to drown out everything else.
The penicillin had indeed done its job, eventually... just like it had with Joel, last winter -- only he'd recovered much faster (...or maybe he'd been giving her the child treatment?!). She still had random pains from to time -- they felt random to Ellie, but there must have been a reason for them? -- and she felt tired more often than not. Still, it was a big improvement from eating herself! She assumed this would be her new 'normal.' At least she didn't believe she was dying anymore... even if her brain did feel heavier. Before this, Ellie had stupidly assumed that being immune to Cordyceps infection meant she was immune to all types of infection. Nope, not THAT special!
But she was lucky. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have Joel...
Sophie yelped when the water lapped at her toes, and she froze in place. "It's ~freezing!~" she sing-songed back to them.
I'm lucky to have Sophie, too. Ellie groaned theatrically. "You just gotta plow right in! Don't be a pussy!"
"You're one to talk," Joel smirked. He might be teasing her less, but sometimes it seemed he just couldn't resist.
"Hey, it's not that I don't want to go in because I'm afraid. I just don't want to!" And I'm afraid. Except not in the way you think.
"Really!" Ellie insisted, annoyed that Joel didn't believe her lie. "Okay, Soph -- we're gonna ride Poppy down to those rocks over there and back, and your ass better be all the way in the water when we get back!" Before Sophie could reply, Ellie turned the horse away and urged her to canter down the shoreline, then to break into an exhilarating gallop. Ellie looked out at the water, taking in the magnificence as best she could. She'd never seen any water behave like that, not in lakes or rivers or even waterfalls. She knew that the tide came in, and that there were waves that people surfed on -- she'd seen it in movies, maybe read about it in books. But actually seeing it in person... it was real. Not just ~movie magic~ ...special effects from a computer, or her imagination, or whatever.
When Poppy slowed to a trot, Ellie glanced back at Joel. "It's so... are you even looking at it?"
"I'll look at it plenty when I go in."
He's still keeping an eye out, Ellie realized. She felt a little guilty that she'd completely forgotten to do that since coming down to the water; again, Joel never forgot. Unlike Ellie, he never got so lost in his own thoughts that he forgot to care about such things. She turned to speak to him again. "I'll keep watch when you go in!"
"Sophie can do that when we go in," he suggested, and Ellie just rolled her eyes.
It took probably another minute to reach the rocks that walled this beach off from the next. Joel told her there were some beaches that would seem to go on and on forever, no end in sight. Ellie liked the sound of that and hoped they would see some beaches like that soon. When they turned around, she slowed Poppy to a walk. The horse stayed in the dark part of the sand, though, where the water was coming in. "You think she likes it?"
"She seems okay with it. Guess we'll find out when we turn her loose."
By the time they got back, Sophie was fully in the water, so far out that they couldn't understand what she was trying to shout back to them. "Do you think she's okay?" Ellie walked the horse back up into the lighter sand and slid off, then turned and squinted out at the sunshiny water, using her hand as a visor.
Joel followed suit. "She's fine. She's a good swimmer. You'n'me won' go out that far."
"You mean you won't. I'm just going to watch from here."
Joel didn't comment on that. He patted the horse's neck. "Okay, Pops, do what you want... jus' don' leave the beach, okay?"
"I'll make sure she doesn't. See, another reason I can't go in!" The horse wasn't going anywhere, though, and Ellie did kind of want to go in now. ...Because isn't it dumb to be so afraid of ruining something wonderful -- or loving something so much it HURTS -- that you hold back and don't even experience it fully... or to be afraid to gain something due to the inevitability of losing it? ...What if I acted that way with Joel?
Joel crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Not a reason you can't go in. One reason for all three of us not goin' in at the same time, though, I'll grant you that."
Poppy started foraging... in the dark brown sand, where these weird plants were getting dumped by the ocean, only to be reclaimed when the next wave came in. She ate one of them, but Ellie didn't think she seemed that impressed with it.
Ellie stared at the glistening water again, thoughts churning. I HAVE kind of been like that with Joel. Lately, at least. Like I don't want to get any closer to him. I love him too much. So much that it fucking hurts. Which makes me want to stop, because pain fucking SUCKS, but I can't stop -- I need him too much. The more I love him, the more it hurts, and the worse it's going to be when I lose him. And I WILL lose him. I don't know how or when, but it will happen. How did I stand it before? How did I let this happen? How can I be HAPPY when I know--
"I'm gonna go put my suit on," Joel announced. "Though I could jus' go in my boxers--"
"No!" That sure jarred Ellie out of her thoughts -- she knew she didn't want Sophie seeing that. ...even if the suit did cover the same places. It was different, somehow, when it was underwear. "Put your suit on. That's what it's for."
"An' then will you at least kick off your shoes'n'socks an' get your feet wet?"
"Um... maybe. Okay, yeah, I can at least do that." Curiosity, and perhaps a strange desire to say "fuck you" to her brain (even though it was being smart in trying to protect her), made her want to go in for real now... she just needed Joel to talk her into it, for some reason. Like she couldn't just change her mind without his persuasion.
She didn't wait for Joel to return to check out the white kind (er, off-white, to be exact) of sand. It wasn't completely unlike the Pittsburgh sand... but they'd been on the move then, with no time to take their shoes off and feel it between their toes. Ellie plopped down and sifted it through her fingers. It wasn't powdery-soft like she'd expected. That's okay... not everything has to be like what I expect... who am I to dictate what things should and shouldn't be like...
"Well?" Joel came up behind her. "What's it feel like?"
"Imagine that." He offered her his hand and pulled her to her feet. "C'mon. Just to the edge."
When they got to the brown sand, Ellie stopped. "It's wet!"
Joel chuckled. "Well, yeah, the ocean sort of... wets things."
She had to scoff at herself. "Duh... I guess I just... wasn't thinking of it like that." Like how dirt got dark when it became mud. I'm not an idiot, Joel, really... but he wasn't even laughing at her.
"We'll make sandcastles out of it later. Or sand-... somethin's." He tugged on her hand. "Little farther..."
A wave tickled her toes and she gasped. "It is cold!"
"That's about as far as you can go, right there." He let go of her hand.
"This is... barely anything. Maybe just a little--"
Joel shook his head. "If you get those jeans wet, it's gonna take forever to dry 'em. Seein' as how you ain't comin' in... keep watch, will you?"
"What? That's it?" He was supposed to try a little harder than that to talk her into it -- didn't he know that all the times she'd already said no didn't count, because now she wanted to say yes? Ellie desperately wanted him to yank her out of her own head right now. Out of the melancholy, into something fun. Talking to him had a way of making her feel better (albeit temporarily), but fun was kind of a foreign concept now.
He kept backing farther away from her, into the water. "I'm gonna go swimmin'... out there where Sophie's at."
Ellie watched helplessly as he moved farther and farther away... closer and closer to Sophie. He'd be out there, having a good time with her, while Ellie was stuck here, wondering what it was like... the two of them would share something special that she and Joel didn't share... oh HELL no! "Wait! Joel, wait!" she yelled.
"What!" he yelled back, although she was pretty sure he'd heard her.
"Wait for me! I wanna go in!"
He started walking back toward her. Ellie thought he looked a little smug... yeah, he knew I wouldn't be able to stand it -- that he didn't have to keep trying to talk me into it. What a dick!
"What changed your mind?" he asked, innocently enough, but that look he was giving her... it was the I-already-know-the-answer-to-that look.
She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of hearing the real reason. "I'm... curious. Lemme go change real quick!"
"Take your time. I really don't want all three of us to go at the same time. We'll wait for Sophie to come in."
But Ellie hurried anyway, starting to yank her jeans off -- still her old torn-up ones, as they'd been unable to find anything that was a close enough fit yet to swap -- before she even got inside the bathroom. There really was no reason to go into the little building at all, with Sophie too far away to scrutinize her naked body -- and Sophie knowing the truth of their relationship meant Joel was 'allowed' to see her naked -- but she went anyway. The skylight gave the bathroom a sort of eerie, greenish glow. She changed into her suit... and, for the first time, she didn't need to cover it up with a long-sleeved T-shirt. Every time she'd worn it to the lake in Jackson, she'd had to do that. Not a big deal, really, but the realization made her smile.
Joel was standing at the water's edge when she came back, the 'community towel' slung around his shoulders. "We're gonna have to dry ourselves off with a wet towel, you know," he said. "Maybe we should pick up some extras somewhere if we're gonna make this a regular thing."
"Sophie can have the towel. I have you to warm me up."
"Uh... how am I gonna do that when I'm wet, too?"
"You'll still be warm enough." Joel always felt warm to her. She hugged him around the waist, her cheek pillowed in his chest hair. Yep, nice and warm!
He wrapped his arms around her. "I don' know about that... it's a bit chilly out here, with the wind blowin'. I'll warm you up now, though..." When she pulled back enough to look up at him, he kissed her -- right there in the open, with Sophie in eyeshot. Ellie still hadn't gotten used to being able to do that. Actually, not much had changed in that regard; Joel wasn't fond of what he called 'PDA's that involved kissing, and Ellie was kind of shy herself at the thought of someone watching them, even if it was just Sophie. Plus, Joel usually didn't want to be distracted for long. Just like now: the kiss was nice and sweet, an antidote for her depressing thoughts... and Ellie wanted it to continue, but she knew Joel wouldn't allow that. As if someone might come steal their stuff -- or worse -- because he was kissing her for ten whole seconds. Sure enough, he pulled back after a few moments and quickly surveyed the whole area behind them.
After Those Two Days, they hadn't kissed for like... two more days. Ellie really hadn't been thinking much about things like kissing when she was feeling so much discomfort, but then even when she did think about it... Joel had seemed distant, or reluctant. She'd finally flat out asked him if she could have a good night kiss, the night they shared their secret with Sophie -- because obviously, his strange and sudden change of heart on that subject meant he must still be interested in giving her more than pecks on the forehead. And then he'd seemed so relieved that Ellie felt guilty for somehow making him think she didn't want to kiss him -- possibly going back to before that ordeal, because things had felt a bit strained between them. They had stopped taking their little breaks together, and kept their focus on whatever needed to be done. Ellie remembered being annoyed because he'd stopped getting hard. Which seemed like a really stupid thing to be annoyed about, when she thought about it now.
Now, she felt better physically, but... Kissing him is painful in a different way! It was strange that she was haunted by the thought of losing him when she was the one who had almost died. Was it because she remembered how devastating it was in that tunnel when she'd believed something had happened to him? She'd almost lost him before, for real, and had eventually stopped thinking about the possibility of losing him, and what it would do to her if she lost him... but we weren't kissing back then. We weren't in love. Does that make it worse? If love is so great, why does it have to HURT? Maybe it's a good thing we don't have sex because I can only imagine how much worse that would make it... Joel must be so happy that I've stopped bugging him about it, at least! The only problem with that is... I WANT to have sex with him before it's too late. What if he's gone before I'm eighteen? ...but I need to NOT want it, because of the whole making-it-worse thing... except how much worse could it fucking GET, really?! I already know I'd DIE without him...
Fuck! Now she needed to just... stop thinking. Joel was looking at her with that concerned expression again... the one that made her feel guilty. "What is it?" he asked gently, his hands cupping her face.
"Nothing. Do you like my suit?" Ellie pulled away and did a little twirl in front of him.
"Yeah, sure... it's the same one you've always had, ain't it?"
"Yeah, but don’t you notice something different?"
Joel was clueless. It was sort of adorable how he could pick up the smallest movement out of the corner of his eye, yet he couldn't notice something glaringly obvious right in front of him. Adorable... or infuriating?
He looked at her appraisingly. "Yeah -- you've lost weight. That ain't exactly a good thing, though."
Ellie groaned. "No! What else!"
"What's different... your hair's still in the braid, so it ain't that... that's a good style for this windy weather, even if it means I can't--"
"Joooeeellll! What else?"
"Well... I already looked at your leg this mornin'... your sunburn?"
"No and no!"
"Is this one o' them trick questions?" Joel asked with amusement. "I'm s'posed to tell you... you've gotten prettier, or some shit?"
Ellie whacked him on the arm. Hard.
"Ow! That hurt!" Joel rubbed his arm, laughing.
"Good! You deserved it. You just told me I'm not pretty!"
"No I didn', now, come on..."
"You did! The way you said it... I'm not any prettier, or... like it's all bullshit anyway if you compliment me on anything." Ellie wasn't actually upset. She knew he was joking around, and that he didn't mean it the way she was making it sound. But if she pretended to be mad for a minute, he would say something sappy to make it up to her. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.
"That 'shit' was meant in the general sense, an' had nothin' to do with bullshit," Joel clarified. "As for your... prettiness... you're already so pretty it's impossible for you to get any prettier."
"Whatever," she grumbled, secretly pleased with the remark, even if he'd said it in jest.
"It's true." He pulled her close and kissed her nose. "Prettiest girl in the world. So tell me. What's so different?"
"You give up? Fine -- I'm not wearing a cover-up shirt!"
"Oh, that? I didn' think you were talkin' about that. That ain't--"
"You didn't even notice all this extra bare skin," Ellie pouted.
"Oh, I noticed." He took another quick look around -- for the third time since the kiss -- and then leaned in to kiss her shoulder.
She had to smile. "Don't try to look down my suit, though. Not that there's all that much to see anyways." At least the thing that tied in front -- which was meant to be like a sailor's bow, in keeping with the nautical theme of her suit (not bow... Annie called it something else... I can't remember!) -- made it look like she had a little more going on in that area. And now the bow thing isn't just some weird little lump under my T-shirt!
Joel kissed his way down to her cleavage (or lack thereof). "Plenty to see, but please. Give me some credit. I got more class than that."
She used to love it when Joel's lips were anywhere on her body... I STILL love it! I just... wish he'd stop making me love him so much...
Sophie may have noticed them waiting at the water's edge, or maybe she'd just had enough, because they'd only been standing there a few minutes when she came plodding toward them, kicking up water as she marched. "It's hard to walk in this! So Ellie, you're gonna try it out, huh? Oh brrrrr it's cold out here..." Joel extended the towel to her and she snatched it from him.
"Out here? What about in there?" Ellie scoffed.
"It's actually not that bad once you're in. You get used to it fast. And there's no wind! Or you don't feel it."
Ellie hoped that was true because she had goosebumps (although those might have been courtesy of Joel's lips, actually). The sun was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, and even when it came out, it didn't seem to warm the breeze any. They started wading into the water. Joel turned around and called to Sophie. "Jus' holler if you see anythin'... or if Poppy does anythin' crazy... we won' go very far." And Ellie would bet that he kept looking back there himself anyway...
"Got it! Have fun -- maybe I'll go back in after you're done!"
"Wow, she really likes it," Ellie remarked. "I thought since it's cold she'd be kind of a wuss about it."
"She's a California girl... kind of. If you count those summers she spent here as a teenager. I'm sure she's missed the ocean. Okay, gimme your hand..."
Ellie moved closer to Joel and interlaced their fingers. Her stomach felt funny, but she attributed it to that random weirdness that happened now, not to fear. "You said we're not gonna go out far... how far will we go?"
"Oh... maybe far enough that it comes up to my chin."
"But that means I can't stand!" She stopped walking, yanking Joel back a step.
He laughed. "I'm jus' kiddin'. We'll go... no more than waist deep. Your waist."
That sounded a little too wussy. He's teasing me, though... that's good... and any depressing thoughts she may have had were shoved aside by Oh my God these cold-ass waves are going to eat us up! She started forward again. "We can maybe go a little farther than that..."
"We'll see how the waves are. You notice how they come up now almost to your knees... then all of a sudden it's jus' up to your ankles?"
"They come in different sizes. I'd rather not have a wave knock you off your feet. At least not for your first time in. Do you feel it tuggin' at your feet a little? Here... stop walkin' a sec. Dig your toes into the sand... wait for this next one... riiiight... --there, you feel it kinda suckin' the sand away from you?"
"Hey, yeah... that's weird! The water's rushing at us, but it's also rushing back at the same time..." Which, again, seemed obvious, now that she thought about it, because of course the waves didn't just keep going -- they'd flood the world! The water reached the shore and then changed direction, but there was always more water coming in. "How does it do both at the same time?"
"...Magic? I don' know, somethin' about the moon's gravity pullin' on the waves..."
"Hey, there's glitter in here!"
"Look! It's everywhere!"
Joel chuckled. "That's jus' the sand. It sparkles back up on the beach, too, if you look for it."
They were in it above her knees now, and when the next wave came, it brought the water up over her waist, and knocked her back a step. She gripped Joel's hand a little tighter. "Whoa! Um... maybe we should stop here... for now..."
Joel nodded. "This is good -- you can practice jumpin' the waves here."
"You won' really feel it so much here but if you do it out there a little bit more, the wave sort of lifts you up with it. I think you'll like that. Time it so you're jumpin' right before the wave gets to you. Like... okay, with this next one... ready? One... two... jump!"
They jumped together, although not in perfect sync, and it felt kind of silly because the wave was smaller than the last one. "Okay, let's do that with a real wave..." She took a few steps forward.
"You sure? We can go slow..."
She snickered. "That's more your thing than mine."
That made him smile. "Well, sometimes that's a good thing."
She took a few more steps, taking Joel with her since she was holding his hand. A larger wave began to form, a few seconds ahead of them... "Okay," Joel said, "so remember--"
But Ellie was scrambling to move them backward, suddenly frightened of the size of this angry-looking water beast rushing at them. Joel tried to get in line with her but the wave was already upon them. "Jump!" he yelled, lifting up her hand.
Ellie jumped -- and nothing happened. Nothing bad, anyway: That was kind of... fun! She turned and watched the wave go on behind them, and noticed that the white foamy part was gone. "Wow, it's like it just... went right through us..."
Joel chuckled. "That's the idea. That one wasn' even big. You see how it looked real big, but by the time it got to us, it wasn' so bad?"
"Yeah! Wow, that's fun -- so we can go out deeper!"
"They won' all be like that. One could start up right in front of you an' smack you in the face... or you might get two comin' at right about the same time... are you cold?"
Ellie realized she wasn't that cold at all. At least, her legs weren't. The part of her in the water felt better than the part of her in the air! "No... weird! I know the water's cold, but... it doesn't even feel as cold as the lake gets sometimes."
"It'd be a little warmer if it was summer... or if we were more south of here, I think. Now, crouch down a little... you feel the pull even more, with more of you in the water, right?"
A few gentle waves went 'through' her while she squatted there. Even though they were gentle, she still felt the current, and it was more intense than when it was just the sand fleeing from her toes. "Yeah... that's cool."
He pulled her back up. "I don' wanna scare you, but that's why swimmin' in the ocean can be dangerous. The farther you go, the stronger it gets, an' if you go out too far, it can carry you way the hell out there to where you can't swim back, beyond all the waves an' everythin', or it can pull you under..."
"You're shitting me, right?" He didn't look like he was bullshitting, but she knew he liked to exaggerate sometimes if he felt she wasn't taking him seriously. Meanwhile, another angry wave was coming at them...
"I jus' want you to be careful. Jump!"
It felt like the wave was lifting her up with that jump, and it gave her a little thrill. "Ooo that was a good one! That was the wave doing that, right? Not you?"
"Right." Joel wasn't done with the dad lecture thing yet. "We're gonna see plenty more beaches... I know you can be fearless sometimes, so jus'... don' go in by yourself, all right? Actually, don' even go in if I ain't around."
Does he expect me to sneak in when he's asleep or something? "It's okay, Joel -- I don't even want to go under water, so I'm not gonna go out that far. Are you holding my hand tighter on purpose when the waves come? Even those little ones?"
"Yes. Can't tell for sure how big or little they are. You know you can dive under the waves, too. Here, I'll show you with this next one--"
"No, don't!" They jumped the wave together. "I don't wanna go under, like, at all. I'm not going to here in this spot, am I?"
"And if we go in up to my waist?"
"You might get drenched by a big one, but I don' think you'll go under, no."
"You don't think? So you don't actually know."
"You might lose your footin' or somethin'... but don' worry, kiddo, I got you."
She smiled. Whenever he said that, it reminded her of their trip from Boston, when she had to get on those fucking pallets because she couldn't swim. Sometimes he'd have to swim somewhere she couldn't get to. One time very early in the trip, she'd asked Joel if he was going to leave her there, only half joking, hoping he'd reassure her... he hadn't bothered to answer her, but at least he hadn't left her. And he never made her get in the water; he always found a way around that. "So you're not gonna like... dunk me on purpose, or whatever, to be funny... right?"
He pulled her closer to him and kissed her forehead. "I'd never do that to you. Jump!"
Just a baby one that time. "Okay. Would you do it to Sophie? If you guys were like... playing?"
Joel thought about it a moment. "Maybe. She swims like a fish, so yeah, maybe."
Whereas Ellie was still kind of afraid of the water. Even though it was just fucking water. Joel had taught her how to swim underwater, but she didn't like it at all. Didn't like the feeling of being submerged, of water filling her ears and threatening to fill her lungs. Almost drowning a couple times could make a person wary, she supposed... but I've been through worse! "Maybe someday you can play with me like that, too. When I get better at swimming." Although she couldn't imagine actually enjoying being underwater... and actually going under on purpose.
Joel pulled her even closer, right up against his side. "It's all right, Ellie. You don' have to become some... amazin' swimmer or anythin'. I wanted you to learn how for your own safety. Playin' with you like this is jus' fine with me -- an' I'd much rather be with you than her."
She was about to say that it wasn't that... but then realized maybe it was that... ? "Okay. You like holding my hand," she affirmed.
And... he liked being her hero (which was a little more embarrassing to say out loud). It pleased him to soothe her fears, give her comfort... like with the nightmares. She wouldn't go so far as to say he liked it when she got upset or felt afraid, but he certainly seemed to like being the cure for it. Which Ellie didn't fully understand, because how could that not be annoying as fuck to have to deal with all the time? Especially when she wasn't even fun to be around the rest of the time, either...
"Here. Climb up on my back," Joel urged her.
"Not my shoulders, jus' my back. We'll go in a little deeper, an' you'll be as tall as me."
She did as he said. "A little taller than you, actually!" She hugged his neck. "Mm, I like this..."
"Don' get any ideas."
"Who, me?" She kissed his earlobe.
"An' try not to choke me."
And now when they jumped the waves, it was Joel doing the jumping, but Ellie still felt the lift of the water. She wasn't scared at all like this, clinging to Joel while he held her legs. "The water makes us weightless, right? So you could ride on my back!"
Joel snorted. "Maybe if we're in up to your neck or somethin', but that's just... weird."
"The waves look like a stampede of horses coming at us, don't they! The white part!"
"Huh... Never saw it like that, but now that you mention it... yeah, maybe..."
"Or -- when the white stuff goes sideways-like... and runs into the next one... it's like flames!"
"You've got a good imagination, kiddo."
She liked watching the waves meet in the middle. Or when one started going diagonal and it met up with one coming straight... like the ones coming at us RIGHT NOW... "Joel! Those two are gonna come together like RIGHT ON TOP OF US!" He jumped it, but the water still smacked their faces, and Ellie squealed.
Joel turned his head as best he could and smiled at her. "You all right?"
She spit out the little bit of nasty water that got in her mouth. "That one was the best! Go a little deeper!"
He took a couple more steps. "I ain't that good a judge of these waves... an' I'm rusty at this. This is as far as I'm willin' to go." The water was only like halfway up his chest.
"Cuz of me?" She thought he was judging the waves pretty well, actually...
"Yes. If you have a bad experience, you might never wanna go in again."
"So you think one of these waves might pull you down?"
He jumped two smaller waves in quick succession. "Out a little farther, yeah, maybe. Right here, even if they knock me around a little, I'm sure I can keep us up. Since you don' mind gettin' soaked, you jus' don' wanna go under? This here's a good spot."
"You're stronger than the ocean. I bet it wouldn't pull you under."
Joel laughed. "No man is stronger than the ocean."
Ellie thought he was stronger than anything or anyone ever. He's just being modest! But she had to admit, the ocean was... formidable. She hugged him tighter, pressing her cheek against his. She watched how the whiteness of the wave fizzled away after the next jump. "So cool how all the little bubbles just sort of... melt away real quick... look, on my arm they do it, too!" He turned to smile at her and give her a little kiss... and her heart swelled with love. "Thank you for making me come out here, Joel."
"I didn' make you."
"Whatever. I love you!" she said happily.
"Love you, too. Glad you're enjoyin' it so much."
After another few minutes of that, Ellie announced, "I want to jump them myself! Just back up a little bit and put me down?"
Joel deposited her a few steps back, then took her hand and backed them up even more. "Only to your waist."
"Even if I fall or something I won't think it's a bad experience, I swear," she protested as she jumped a small one.
"And you don't have to hold my hand."
Joel looked at her a moment. "Humor me?"
"What, you feel better holding my hand?" Although she knew he was concerned for her, not himself, the thought of him being afraid of the water and needing to hold her hand was still funny.
"I do, yes. Are you too cold?"
"No! Not cold at all!"
"Your teeth are chattering."
Ellie hadn't even noticed. "Huh... weird. I don't feel cold! Really!" She sort of did, but not in an uncomfortable way. The water kept her very much... there, outside of her head yet very much in her body -- and her stomach didn't hurt anymore. Nothing hurt. She didn't know how to describe it to Joel, and she didn't want him to decide they should get out on account of her being cold.
They played a short while longer, Joel turning back to look at Sophie and Poppy every so often. He'd turned around a couple times while Ellie was on his back, too. He just couldn't seem to completely relax Outside, even with someone else keeping watch (or maybe especially with someone else keeping watch?!); Ellie knew better than to tell him to try. Her favorite waves were the scary ones that slapped her around a little, or made her lose her footing. It was a fun-scary feeling, like how she felt when watching a horror movie -- a good movie, not a zombie one -- when she knew she wasn't in any real danger. She tried not jumping, to see what happened, but that was actually hard; the urge to jump, to exert some form of control, was strong. Any time she didn't jump, she got pushed back... at least as far as holding on to Joel would allow.
"Turn around an' look where we are," Joel told her.
Ellie twisted around and quickly scanned the beach. "Hey, did Sophie move our stuff? Why is it way over there?"
Joel chuckled. "We're the ones who moved. You jus' don' notice it out here. C'mon, let's head back in. Get dried off."
Ellie was a little sad to leave, but she didn't protest. They walked slowly back toward the shore... and she could see why Sophie had been 'marching' when she came out -- it was hard to walk through that water that was rushing back out to sea!
Like Joel had done earlier, Sophie was waiting for them with the towel. "It's still kinda wet, sorry... so? What did you think? You must've liked it, you guys were out there a while..."
"It was awesome! I definitely want to do that again." She let Joel wrap the towel around her shoulders.
"So do I. Like... right now, if you're cool with it?" Sophie appealed to Joel.
"Oh! I'll go with you!" Ellie declared. "Pleeeease, Joel?"
Joel frowned. "No, I don' want you goin' out that far."
"Then I'll stick to where you guys were," said Sophie. "I don't need to swim. And I'll hold her hand if you want. Please?"
"Pleeeease?" Ellie chorused. When he took the towel from her and started drying himself with it instead of her, she knew the answer was yes. "Yay! Okay, so I really don't need any hand holding--"
"It'd make me feel better," Joel reminded her.
"What do you think's gonna happen? Like I'm just gonna ~drift away~ to sea?"
"Do you wanna go, or not? That's my condition."
"I'm not a baby," she protested. "Maybe I was a little scared at first but that's like... part of the fun of it now."
"But for your first time in... you don' know--"
"Second! It's my second time!"
Sophie laughed. "She's right. But it's okay, we can hold hands, it'll be fun. Just for like ten, fifteen minutes."
Joel wasn't quite frowning, but he didn't look happy. "Don' go out as far as I did. An' don' let her go under."
Sophie grabbed Ellie's hand and looked at Joel. "I'll take care of her, Joel, don't worry."
Ellie was about to complain again that she didn't need to be taken care of, but something about the way Sophie said it... and even the way Joel looked at Sophie after she said it... it was like she had something to prove. That she's not completely useless, maybe? No... that doesn't make sense, because she already proved that... Ellie had stopped thinking of her as dead weight, somewhere along the way (probably because it had stopped being true -- even before she'd helped Joel rescue her). And somewhere along the way, Sophie really had become a friend. Ellie wondered how that had happened without her really noticing. Maybe Sophie wasn't as good at the survival stuff as she and Joel were -- definitely not the killing, and it was their job to keep her from having to do that -- but she did okay with most things. And even if that wasn't the case, it wouldn't have made her unworthy as a person.
She'd even done something that Joel couldn't -- she told her how many X's to mark off on her calendar when Ellie had finally remembered to care about that. Ellie had been touched that Sophie had thought to keep track of it for her. She had missed four days of calendar-marking!
And if it hadn't been for her, Ellie might have died, alone in the dark. She'd tried to thank her for that, but Sophie had waved that off, saying she never would have been in there in the first place if it hadn't been for her, so it didn't really count. Ellie couldn't exactly disagree with that, but it didn't make her any less grateful. Joel gave Sophie all the credit. Which was fine... but Ellie thought he would have found a way to move enough of that shit off of her to pull her out. He'd been afraid of causing an avalanche and crushing her, and that fear had crippled him; if she was going to die anyway, surely he would've gotten a little more desperate... he'd have had to take more risks.
Joel had been overprotective of her for a long time. Since they'd arrived in Jackson... probably before that. He'd made some progress in letting go -- too much progress, actually, because as it turned out, Ellie had become the one who couldn't stand being apart from him -- but after Sacramento, they were back at square one (Ellie wasn't sure what squares had to do with anything, but she knew square one was the beginning). Maybe even worse than square one... square zero? Like another whole level of desperation... laced with guilt (Sophie called it 'Catholic guilt,' even though Joel wasn't Catholic). Like it was his fucking fault that he couldn't find her for so long, when Ellie knew he'd searched his ass off and had probably suffered even more than she had, because at least she'd been out of it most of the time. She must have been, because she barely remembered it... only in nightmares and panic attacks, where it was vague -- and usually mixed up with other bad shit that had happened to her.
At first, Joel had thought she was fibbing about not remembering because she didn't want to talk about it. She was pretty sure he didn't want to hear about it even if she did remember... but sometimes she got the sense that he did, if only to use it to feed his misplaced guilt. Next, he'd ventured that maybe she was having these fuzzy, unsettling nightmares because her brain was trying to make her remember, which made no fucking sense -- why should she remember if it was so awful that she'd blacked most of it out? Why would her brain make her forget it, only to try to make her remember it? Joel had no answer for that. He would say he wasn't a psychiatrist -- a fact of which she was already keenly aware.
Anyway, they were at square zero: he never let her out of his sight now.
I should have teased him about letting me go into that bathroom by myself! "Come on, let's go!" Ellie exclaimed as she started running, tugging on Sophie's hand. Sophie started to run with her, and they splashed into the water, laughing. Ellie yelped. "Hey, it got cold again! I was barely out of it a minute!"
She looked back at Joel as they waded in deeper, and he gave her a little wave. She imagined it would be hard for him to take his eyes off her, but he would, because he also had to keep watch. Sophie grinned at her. "We can stay longer than ten minutes if you want. I figure, in girl time, that's prob'ly half an hour."
"Not like any of us can tell time anyway. Did you try jumping them backwards? It's hard, unless you cheat and look back right up 'til the end..." Sophie swung herself around to Ellie's other side, so they were facing the shore.
Ellie felt... happy. She wanted to stay out there forever, with the quiet roar (yes, there was such a thing -- and this was it!) of the sea in her ears, and sand squished in between her toes, being pushed and pulled by the magnificent force of the water... where nothing else was real. And it was like, the most directly opposite of a closed-in space that you could find. She was barely moving, really, yet she felt wild and free... exuberant and thrilled. The ocean will always be here. No matter what else happens in this world. The thought didn't carry the morbid undertone with it that her similar thoughts of late had seemed to. It was... somehow comforting. I will always have this... as long as I want. No one can take it from me.
And when she did finally leave the water in a little while, Joel would be there... waiting for her with open arms. For today, at least, he's here with me. The thought wasn't quite as comforting as the ocean one, because someone -- or something, like death -- could take him from her. She wanted so badly to feel the confident, carefree way she used to feel... her old self would be more like nothing and no one can take Joel from me, either -- not even fucking DEATH.
Yeah... her old self was full of shit.
She knew that if she wanted to feel truly happy again, she had to live in the moment more... get out of her head and enjoy whatever time she had left with Joel... but I can't escape the truth. And I can't forget it. All I can do is try to distract myself from the pain of--
"Omigod – Ellie! --"
Both of them squealed as a ginormous wave assaulted them, knocking them over but not under. Ellie whooped and laughed, and pretty much every thought in her head floated away with the wave, dissipating into tiny little insignificant bubbles.
~Continue to Chapter 42~