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the unreliable efficiency of evasive maneuvers

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Despite the fact that her kill count probably doubles more than half of Jackson’s patrol rotation combined, Ellie isn’t scheduled for patrol very often. Most of the time, Joel sends her out with the hunting party instead, because she’s the most proficient with a bow amongst the lot of them. Hunting or patrolling, she doesn’t really mind either way. She’ll jump on just about any opportunity to get her out of the city, away from prying eyes and the stifling sense of purposelessness that’s been chasing her since she was fourteen. Anything to be useful

Unsurprisingly, she’s scheduled to patrol with Dina even less often, unless it’s a group activity or one of Tommy and Joel’s survival training exercises. She can count the number of times they’ve been partnered together for perimeter patrol on one hand, because Joel’s usually convinced that she would be too distracted to stay on task. In fact, just this morning, when she’d been preparing to set off, he'd stopped her in the middle of packing her bag to grasp her shoulder and fix her with a stern gaze.

“Look. Patrol’s borin’, I know that, and I’m sure she’s gonna be the purdiest thing out there, but just keep your eyes open, will ya?” Clapping her on the back, he dropped his mask of fatherly concern to reveal the hint of a knowing grin. “You can look at her all you want when you get back.”

Grumbling that she always paid attention on patrol, no matter who she was with, she’d shrugged his hand away and told him to fuck off.

However, now that they’re out here, she can’t deny that he had a point. 

Fall is on Jackson’s doorstep. The leaves have just begun to turn, reddish and golden and honey brown. Yet, as beautiful as the miracle of nature can be, everything in the forest starts to blend together after a few minutes. Truth be told, Dina really is the prettiest thing to look at out here, but Joel’s words have been echoing in the back of her mind since they left town, taunting her, and they've done a pretty good job of motivating her to keep her eyes on their surroundings and not on the girl next to her.

Though she occasionally glances at Dina out of the corner of her eye as she sweeps the foliage for movement, she's managed to stay focused pretty consistently. They’re about halfway through the inner perimeter patrol already, only about a two hour trek by foot, which is a walk in the park compared to the outer perimeter – three times as large, and twice as long on horseback.

She's done so well this far, making it back the rest of the way without an incident should be a piece of cake.

The moment she thinks it, a sonorous rumble sounds overhead, its resonance seeming to shake the quivering treetops down to their very roots. 

The two of them lift their eyes simultaneously, both examining the nebulous blanket of clouds that has drawn over them. No sooner do they glance up than the floodgates open. All at once, the pleasant drizzle that’s been pattering against the fallen leaves underfoot for the last ten minutes condenses into something just shy of a downpour. 

Grimacing, Ellie blinks reflexively against the spray. This is some kind of karmic retribution for telling Joel to fuck off earlier. Has to be.

“So much for hoping it would blow over,” she sighs.

Dina reaches over to pluck her umbrella out of the strap she had tucked it into on Ellie’s bag before they'd departed. 

“Told you,” she teases, popping it open with a haughty flourish. “Should have brought an umbrella.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ellie mutters back. As the rain continues to escalate, she bows her head, as much to shield her eyes as to disguise the traitorous smile threatening to spill across her face. Regardless, her facade of annoyance does little to deter to the victorious smirk Dina sends her way.

Safely sheltered beneath her umbrella, Dina slings her hunting rifle over her shoulder, watching Ellie expectantly all the while. “Well?”

Ellie turns to mirror her gaze with a blank stare, though it’s temporarily interrupted when a stray droplet drips from her brow. “Well?” she echoes.

“Don’t give me that look,” Dina says, the bite of her snark paired with a roll of her eyes. “I’m not going to make you walk in the rain. Get over here.”

She lifts the umbrella slightly higher to accommodate Ellie’s height – a clear indication that she should join her beneath it. 

If she were truly concerned about sharing it, she could just as easily take the initiative to move closer herself, Ellie thinks, but that would just be too straightforward. She’s come to understand that Dina doesn’t offer that degree of leniency freely. Continually proving that she can make Ellie do just about anything, even something as simple as walking a few feet, is her favorite activity, despite the fact that it’s mostly a redundant exercise.

Although they both know it’s only a matter of time before she gives in, Ellie is nothing if not stubborn.

Eyeing the umbrella through a squint, she says flatly, “There’s no way we’re both going to fit underneath that thing.”

“Sure we will,” Dina insists. She reaches out to tug at the partially rolled sleeve of Ellie’s flannel, which is already fairly damp from the drizzle they’d been content to endure before. Her meddling loosens the folds in the fabric until it slinks down to cover Ellie’s wrist. “Come on. You’ll catch a cold.”

“It’s just rain,” Ellie counters. She fixes her sleeve with a pointed look, but can’t suppress the faint quirk of a grin that accompanies it. “I’ll be fine.”

Tossing her head back, Dina releases a guttural sound of exasperation. When her eyes meet Ellie’s again, there’s a familiar hint of fire in them. 

“Would it kill you to stop being so stubborn for two seconds?”

Ellie lifts one shoulder in a cavalier shrug. “Can’t say for sure.”

“Ellie, I’m serious,” Dina implores, reaching out once again to tug insistently at her sleeve. “Please?”

Although Ellie can’t be sure whether the petulant whine in Dina’s voice is indicative of her frustration at Ellie’s resistance or genuine concern for her wellbeing, it rings in her ears, almost musical. She turns to her with a blank, practiced gaze, seizing the opportunity to admire the pinch in her brow and the subtle flush of irritation that colors her cheeks autumn rose, before she can inevitably regain the upper hand and the moment is broken for good.

Faced with her continued indifference, Dina pushes on. “If I let you get sick, Joel will make sure we’re never scheduled to patrol together again.”

“Damn,” Ellie mumbles sarcastically, giving a solemn shake of her head. “If only I could be so lucky.”

Even as a joke, it’s so absurdly incongruous that Dina’s patience for her foolishness finally gives out.

“Don’t even,” she chides sharply. Still, she’s practically beaming, even as she grasps Ellie by the elbow and pulls her under the umbrella by force.

Truth be told, Ellie doesn’t put up much of a fight. She would easily win in a test of strength, and they both know that, but there doesn’t seem to be a point now. Tucked beneath the umbrella with Dina at her side, the smile she’s managed to hide so well all this time finally gets the best of her. 

Bumping Ellie’s shoulder with her own, Dina peers up at her with a triumphant, knowing grin. “Everybody knows I’m your favorite.”

Ellie’s neck burns hotly, embarrassment searing her skin, but she keeps her mouth shut, wary of starting an argument she already knows she’ll lose. Instead, she forgoes a response entirely, watching their feet to make sure neither of them end up twisting an ankle on the uneven path ahead.

Rather quickly, it becomes apparent that the umbrella they’re sharing is even smaller than it had looked. 

Dina had fit comfortably beneath it alone, petite enough that there had even been room to spare, but it clearly wasn’t built for two people. They’re forced by necessity to walk as close together as possible, both of them leaning inward at awkward angles to keep their heads covered, which leaves either side of them unprotected by the meager shelter, fully exposed to the downpour. Ellie’s left sleeve is soaked through, her forearm so slick that streaming rivulets trickle down to her wrist and drip freely from the fist curled around the handle of her bow. 

While it’s slightly irksome that she is both partially dry and persistently wet, it’s a manageable sort of annoyance. Ellie can deal with that. The worst part of the whole arrangement, surprisingly enough, isn’t the rain at all. The issue is that they keep stumbling clumsily into each other as they go.

Which actually isn’t all that terrible, because it makes Dina giggle girlishly, and it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except… 

The most sensible thing to do when sharing an undersized umbrella, or so it seems to Ellie, at least, would be to hold it with the hand that is closest to your partner. Theoretically, that would be Dina’s left, but she’s right-handed – nearly to a fault. She’s been rebuked for favoring it countless times during their mandatory survival training exercises with Tommy, much to her annoyance, and still, no amount of criticism has shaken her of the habit so far. Even if she were doing it on purpose, solely to torture Ellie with temptation, Ellie supposes that would be her excuse. Not that it matters.

Since Dina’s holding the umbrella with her right hand, turned just the slightest bit inward to position it evenly between them, her left arm is pinned against Ellie’s right, and every time their elbows bump together, so do their empty hands. It’s almost like playing rock-paper-scissors with a livewire.

Even though Ellie aches to reach out just a fraction of an inch more and take Dina’s hand, she forces that feeling down as deeply as she can. 

Instead, she focuses on patrol, scouring their surroundings for any movement that might indicate a threat, just as she had promised Joel she would. Or… tries to, at least. It’s almost impossible to concentrate when her stomach keeps tying itself in knots each time their knuckles brush together.

The next time they happen to touch, Dina catches her hand, and Ellie’s willpower plummets straight into the ground.

“If you wanted to hold my hand,” she teases under her breath, a shimmer of private satisfaction in her eyes, “you could have just said so.” 

Then, because she has no regard for Ellie’s fragile composure, she takes it even further, curling their index fingers together, slow and coy. 

The sensation is something akin to electrocution, mercilessly invigorating and yet definitively lethal all at once. Despite the unforgiving flare of heat that surges up to emblazon incandescent humiliation upon her face, the shame and indignity and contrition that follow seem to choke her veins with ice, because even something as simple as that feels so, so good, better than it ever should – and she’s absolutely sure Dina knows it. 

Desperate to put as much distance between them as she possibly can, Ellie scoffs and elbows Dina away from her. “Don’t make me kick your ass.”

Dina just giggles as she regains her balance. Seemingly unbothered, despite such rough treatment, she glues herself back to Ellie’s side. 

Briefly tucking her chin into the divot of Ellie’s shoulder, she lowers her voice to murmur, “What if I ask nicely?”

Ellie’s stomach promptly drops down into her knees. Fuck

Her willpower is already practically nonexistent. Now that?

Any more and she’s not sure whether she’ll end up pinning Dina to the first tree they come across or bolting all the way back to the dam.

“I’d rather deal with the rain,” she mutters, shaking her head, and ducks out from beneath the umbrella before she can truly make a fool of herself.

Dina’s hand immediately darts out to catch her wrist. “No, come back,” she pleads, slipping into the same whine of desperation Ellie had recognized earlier. Unfortunately for her, it’s nearly twice as debilitating now and it makes it that much easier for Dina to win her over again, tugging insistently at her arm until she relents and reluctantly allows Dina to draw her back underneath the umbrella. Linking their arms together, Dina softens a little, her sable eyes glittering with warmth and affection as she leans into Ellie’s side. Her voice softens to a contrite murmur. “I’m just playing with you.”

Ellie gives a low, shallow sigh in return, but Dina doesn’t let go of her arm, and she doesn’t ask her to either. 

While she usually prides herself on her sense of self-preservation, she knows it’s a hollow celebration. When it comes to Dina, who has proven time and again that she is the most dangerous threat to Ellie’s wellbeing, all those skills mysteriously vanish, and she is left helpless but to surrender.

In fact, despite the grueling merry-go-round of emotional torment she’s been on, she’s almost smiling again.

Finally allowing herself to relax, Ellie shakes her head. “You know we’re not supposed to be playing out here.”

“Always gotta ruin my fun,” Dina pouts, her voice low enough to send a jolting thrill through Ellie’s stomach.

Ellie just lets it go. Giving their surroundings a cursory glance, she returns to the task at hand – patrol.

Out here, distractions are deadly. Joel has all but drilled that concept into her head. Although patrols have been slow lately, it’s still dangerous to let their guards down. Stragglers pass through every few weeks, and Seraphites are known to turn up in whole congregations. Truth be told, they could have been shot by any number of enemies a dozen times over in the midst of their little tussle. They need to be more cautious going forward. 

It’s technically also against Joel’s rules to wield an umbrella rather than a weapon, but Ellie lets that go too. She’s still got her bow ready, at least.

Still, it’s a little awkward trying to walk on loose, damp earth while they’re pressed so closely together. They can’t seem to get a rhythm going, even with Dina molded into Ellie’s side. She can feel her shoulder bumping Dina’s collarbone with every step, but Dina just giggles each time they collide.

“Alright, come on,” Ellie mumbles at last, after she’s braced them through Dina’s latest fumble. “Let me go before one of us trips.” She preemptively counters the frown and the objections she knows she’ll receive with a look of her own. “I’ll be fine, I promise. A little rain never killed anybody.”

In return, Dina shakes her head, sighing as she reluctantly complies. “Clearly, you’ve never heard the horror stories Maria tells about pneumonia.”

With a shrug, Ellie steps away, squinting as she ducks into the rain once again. “Well, who says I’m not immune to that too?” 

“Maybe you are,” Dina concedes, suddenly appearing much smaller beneath the umbrella all alone, “but I don’t really feel like testing that theory.”

“Huh, that’s weird,” Ellie mutters. “It almost sounds like you care about me or something.”

Dina reaches out to grasp the strap of her backpack, giving it a sharp tug that tightens it significantly. 

“I do care, asshole,” she snaps, her temper softened by the affection in her voice. “That’s the point.” 

Ellie tries to ignore the tiny jolt of excitement that slingshots through her stomach, but it condenses there and rises like a plume of hot air to fill her chest. It ricochets along her bones, down into her fingers and toes. Even though she knows Dina cares about her, to some extent, any confession on her part inevitably excavates all the schmaltzy, gooey feelings buried beneath Ellie’s carefully constructed mountain of denial.

Still, she plays it cool, rolls her eyes as she loosens the strap to its appropriate length. “We’re more than halfway back already. I think I’ll survive.”

“Wait, I have an idea,” Dina says abruptly, prompting a curious sideways glance in return. “Give me your backpack.”

Turning to face her more fully, Ellie squints at her through the tiny beads of water clinging to her eyelashes. “Why?”

“Just give it to me,” she insists with a playful roll of her eyes, holding out her hand. “Your bow, too.”

Ellie hesitates. No matter what Dina’s planning, that… doesn’t sound like the beginning of the very best idea. In fact, it sounds like a terrible idea. It sounds like the kind of idea that would make Joel drop dead from a heart attack and then rise from the grave just to give her a piece of his mind. 

But there is only ever one victor when Ellie’s meager will is pitted against Dina’s beguiling charm.

Reluctantly, Ellie shrugs off her backpack. It’s better just to give it up now, before things escalate again; the shimmer of exuberant radiance in Dina’s eyes promises trouble if she doesn’t cooperate. Even though she keeps a studious eye on their surroundings as she hands it over, she can’t help but imagine the sharp lines and shadow of Joel’s familiar frown, his disappointment haunted by concern. Giving up her bow makes her nervous, despite the fact that she’s seen Dina consistently put arrows through the head of every practice dummy in Jackson, but she eventually relinquishes that too.

Once she’s slipped on Ellie’s backpack and readjusted her rifle, Dina offers her the umbrella in exchange, and says, “Hold this.” 

Ellie takes it with a bemused tilt of her head, a little unsettled to see that her bow ends up slung over Dina’s shoulder as well.

“Now turn around,” she commands, pushing at Ellie’s shoulder. 

Ellie surrenders with little more than an indignant grunt of protest, and realizes what Dina’s instructions are leading up to just a moment too late. 

By the time she puts together the words to argue, Dina’s already bracing both palms on her shoulders and using that extra leverage to hop onto her back. Ellie sways forward just a little, half bent, bearing her weight but otherwise motionless as Dina settles, her thighs pressed tightly to either side of Ellie’s waist. Securing herself in place with one arm around Ellie’s neck, she uses the other to pluck the umbrella back out of Ellie’s listless hand.

“There,” she murmurs, triumph evident in her tone. Her voice is so close to Ellie’s ear that it makes her shiver. “Problem solved.”

While this does mostly solve the problem of sharing such a limited amount of space, Ellie’s got a whole list of new problems that have arisen for her as a result. It’s not the weight that worries her; Dina’s exceedingly light for her size. The most pressing issue is that Dina’s breath on her neck evokes goosebumps, and she’s not completely sure she’s going to be able to listen to her talk into her ear the rest of the way home without collapsing.

Of the thousand and one concerns that spring to mind, there’s only one she’s brave enough to utter out loud. 

“Yeah,” she mutters back. “Except for the fact that if we actually do run into anyone, both of us are going to get shot before I can let you down.”

Dina groans deeply through a grand, overblown sigh, one that Ellie can only imagine must be accompanied by a skyward roll of her umber eyes.

“You worry too much, you know that?” 

Ellie scoffs. “Says the girl who was prematurely diagnosing me with pneumonia two minutes ago.”

“Excuse me for caring about your wellbeing,” Dina sasses. Pressing closer, she reaches across Ellie’s chest with her free hand to squeeze the slope of her shoulder, to pretend as though she’s massaging some imagined tension out of it. “Relax. There haven’t been any hunters in the area for weeks.”

When she feels Dina’s thighs starting to slip on either side of her waist, Ellie finally lifts her hands to secure them under Dina’s knees. They still have a job to do, after all. If they’re really going to finish ‘patrol’ like this, they need to get moving to make up for the time they’ve lost. She sets forward, easily hefting Dina’s slight frame a bit higher to prevent her from slipping off, and resolutely picks up where they’d lost track on the trail.

“Hunters or not,” she protests, through a grimace of discomfort, “Tommy would be pissed if he saw us messing around like this.”

“Yeah,” Dina laughs, like she’s recalling some elaborate inside joke that Ellie’s missed out on. “At me, maybe.”

Ellie kicks aside the remains of a rusty snare half-buried in the loose earth. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Come on, Ellie. You know what I mean.” 

“I really don’t,” Ellie grumbles, bewildered.

“No?” Dina chirps back. “Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re practically the patron saint of avoiding consequences around here.”

What?” Ellie scoffs. “Bullshit.” She turns to aim an incredulous glance over her shoulder, seeking out Dina’s eyes. “You’re fucking with me, right?” 

“Am I?” Dina counters haughtily. 

The challenging fire in her eyes burns in Ellie’s veins, and the patronizing wickedness of her smirk throbs in Ellie’s gut like the echo of a physical blow. Forced to avert her eyes by the accompanying swell of shame, Ellie turns away, shaking her head, but Dina chases after her with a hushed whisper.

“When was the last time you actually got in trouble for any of the things you swore I was going to get you in trouble for, hmm?”

A tremble searches the roadmap of Ellie’s bones and races down to land, still quivering, in her knees. It’s so devastating that she barely manages to stay on her feet. Her lungs starve for air, crushed beneath the weight of her sexually-stunted paralysis, the ache of that particular frustration welling in her gut. She longs for the day that a suggestive whisper or a playful innuendo doesn’t make her brain completely implode – for the day when she can take that feeling and use it. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Dina’s far too skilled at fucking unraveling her.

Try as she might to concentrate on Dina’s question instead of her traitorous body, Ellie truly can’t remember the last time she had gotten in trouble. Honestly, with Dina’s mouth pressed against her ear, she can hardly think of anything at all, other than how badly she wants to turn around and kiss that self-satisfaction right off her face. Since she absolutely can’t do that, she’s left to flounder helplessly in the sea of her own ineptitude.

Which means that her response is nothing more than a few unintelligible vowel sounds garbled together. “I – wh – uh, you –”

Although, by some miracle, Dina chooses not to comment on Ellie’s wordless fumbling, her satisfaction is palpable. “Exactly.” 

“Whatever,” Ellie mumbles when she finally finds her voice, which sounds just about as pathetic as all her underwhelming rebuttals usually do.

Dina lets it slide. “It’s true,” she says. “Whenever you break the rules, everyone looks the other way. They’re all too afraid of Joel to yell at you.”

Despite her prior embarrassment, a ghostly intimation of laughter rises in Ellie’s throat. “More like afraid that I’ll infect them,” she says darkly. 

She senses the resulting shift in Dina’s mood immediately. A shroud of silence falls over them, one that smothers even the rain to a dull hush.

Ellie just keeps moving, locks her eyes on the path ahead.

Her ‘condition’ isn’t a secret. Not anymore, at least. Joel had done his best to keep it quiet, at first, but someone had eventually caught a glimpse of the scar on Ellie’s forearm and word spread from there. None of them are brave enough to bring it up in front of her, of course. Still, Ellie knows the topic of her immunity, and the possibility that she might be contagious, must come up in hushed conversations locked behind closed doors. 

Although she’s not a total pariah, the majority of Jackson’s residents give her a wide berth. Children are often kept home on days she’s scheduled to help out in Maria’s little primary schoolhouse. They eye her tattoo, searching out the scar beneath. She’s sure the only reason they haven’t voted to kick her out of the community entirely is that she continually provides them with game and makes sure their bellies stay full through winter. 

Some give her the benefit of the doubt, some just turn a blind eye. Others think it’s only a matter of time before she goes crazy – or worse.  

She tries not to let it bother her, but she can’t blame them, honestly. Sometimes even she wonders if they might be right.

The fact that Dina, of all people, chooses to stick around, fully aware of her condition feels like something of a miracle.

Ellie has no right to ask any more of her than that.

“Besides,” she presses on, wary of the silence, “Tommy doesn’t give a fuck what Joel says, especially when it comes to me. He’d tell both of us to go to hell in the same breath.” She shakes her head. “You know, it’s been almost five fucking years, and he still gives me shit for stealing his horse.”

Finally, the tension disperses. Dina allows a faint chuckle, leaning away to appraise Ellie’s profile curiously. “Are you ever gonna tell me about that?”

Fuck. She didn’t think that one through.

Ellie gives a noncommittal shrug in return, and uses the same motion to hoist Dina higher on her back. Even though she was the one who brought it up, she doesn’t feel emotionally prepared to get into all of that right now. Or ever. That moment in her life is still something of a sore spot for her.

She and Joel have come a long way since then. She has no doubts that he cares for her, not anymore. He’s become the father she never thought she would have, the father she had honestly never expected him to be. She can’t imagine having made it this far without him, and everyone knows that he wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with his time if he weren’t constantly worrying over her. Still, it stings a little when she remembers that he’d only brought her to Jackson the first time around in an attempt to pawn her off on Tommy, just like everyone else in her life ever had.

First her mother. Then Marlene. Joel…  

She’s thinking way too much right now.

“Not much to tell,” she says finally. “It was the first time I’d ever been to Jackson. I was a kid. And I didn’t steal it, just… borrowed without asking.”

“Oh, I see,” Dina teases airily. “Thank you for sharing that incredibly crucial distinction.”

“He got it back,” Ellie retorts. She tucks her elbow to nudge it against Dina’s ribs. “Dick.”

Dina giggles, flinching away from the contact in a way that makes Ellie wonder if she’s ticklish there. “You know you love me.”

Even though she does, her chest aches at the truth buried in those words. “Yeah, yeah,” she mutters, and just keeps walking.

As they continue onward, following the path beaten by the treading feet of so many patrols before them, they pass through the murky remnants of a river that had dried up years ago. In memory of its former glory, it’s starting to run again with little rushing rivulets of rainwater, the loose dirt and debris that had collected within its exposed banks thickening into a muddy swamp that stretches between the flat planes of firmer land. 

When she attempts to climb out the opposite side, Ellie’s foot sinks several inches into the swampy dirt. She’d ignored Dina’s warning when it came to the umbrella, and their current physical predicament is the price she’s paying for it, but she’s glad that she decided to wear her boots after all.

“Take it easy,” Dina chides, once she regains her footing and clambers back onto solid earth. “It’s not exactly a smooth ride back here, you know.”

Ellie rolls her eyes, affecting a lofty voice. “I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience, Your Highness.”

“You should be,” Dina retorts smoothly. “I’m gonna have bruises on my thighs when we get back.”

Try as Ellie might not to picture said bruises – or Dina’s thighs, for that matter – she doesn’t entirely succeed.

“Give me a break,” she pleads, only half joking. “There’s nothing but mud out here. Besides, this was your idea, remember?”

Unchastened, Dina just giggles into her ear. “Didn’t think it would be a problem with all those muscles of yours,” she teases.

Ellie’s face colors as she remembers the look Dina had given her when she had pulled herself through the emergency hatch above Lover’s Lane. 

She hastens to shake the thought away just as quickly as it comes. She knows from experience that Dina is a skilled actress; she can dupe just about anyone, including Tommy and Maria. She even manages to get Joel going sometimes, and he’s basically a walking bullshit-detector. She can put on a show like no one else, so Ellie knows it can’t be more than wishful thinking to imagine that the darkness of her eyes and the rumble of appreciation in her voice that night was real, no matter how genuine it had seemed at the time. If anything, it was probably just admiration. Or… something. 

She’d only be kidding herself if she truly believed that Dina finds her physical strength attractive

“Yeah, well,” she scoffs, deliberately pushing that night – and that look – from her mind, “you weigh a ton.”

“Excuse me, just last week you called me puny, remember?” Dina sneers back at her. “So, which one is it?”

“Your body is puny,” Ellie amends. She feigns another stumble, staggering unsteadily as she grunts, “But your ego is just – so fucking – heavy –”

The laughter she receives in return is vivacious and uninhibited, and she treasures it, exaggerating her clumsy teetering even further in the hopes of eliciting more. To her satisfaction, Dina continues to giggle with abandon, kicking her feet in an attempt to balance out Ellie’s erratic movements. 

“Knock it off,” she manages between fitful, stolen breaths. “You’re gonna drop me.”

Inspired, Ellie grins. It’s not often that she has the advantage. 

Now that she does, she’s determined not to let it slip away.

“That’s a good idea,” she says. 

Dina gasps. “Don’t you dare!”

“Enjoy the mud.”

“Ellie –”

Smirking to herself, Ellie purposefully tugs Dina’s knees high enough to throw her off balance.

“Ellie!” she squeals, the sweetness of her voice laced with something sharp and desperate, a raw sort of urgency that reverberates in Ellie’s bones. 

She has to cling to Ellie’s neck to avoid slipping off entirely. The collar of Ellie’s flannel is clutched in her fist, like she’s determined to drag them both down, if nothing else, and her thighs tighten around Ellie’s waist to an almost painful degree, until they feel more like a vise – or maybe a bear trap.

Ellie thinks for a moment that she might be the one who ends up with bruises before they make it back.

Still, as hilarious as it would be to see Dina land on her ass in the mud, and as tempting it is to chase after the unfamiliar satisfaction of winning one of their little games, Ellie can’t actually bring herself to drop her. Mercifully, she leans forward, bearing Dina’s weight to help her regain her balance.

A moment later, she grunts as Dina’s flailing hand collides with her temple, her cheekbone receiving a similar blow from the handle of the umbrella.

“No, no,” she mutters, squinting. “Don’t apologize. It’s fine. Not like I need that eye or anything.”

“You deserved it,” Dina sasses back. She continues readjusting herself, rather inelegantly, until she’s settled properly on Ellie’s back again.

Ellie shakes her head, setting off once more. “Last time I checked, you were perfectly capable of walking on your own.” 

“Shhhh,” Dina mutters back. 

Just when Ellie’s about to ridicule her uncharacteristically poor rebuke, Dina’s free hand abandons her collar to pat blindly at her face.

She grimaces, turning away to avoid a finger in the eye. “What?” she mutters, barely evading Dina’s hand. “What – are you – doing?”

“Shhhh!” Dina insists again, finally finding and clasping her hand over Ellie’s mouth.

At once, Ellie remembers just where they are and what they’re supposed to be doing, and the gravity of that realization seems to crush her. She got distracted. She had let her guard down, completely lost track of their objective, and fuck, that’s not a mistake they can afford to make out here. 

Stilling in place, she takes a moment to ground herself, focusing as Joel had once taught her to, and sweeps the landscape for any sign of trouble.

“Over there,” Dina whispers. Finally removing her hand, she points to the east. “Look. A deer.”

Immediately, the tension drains out of her body, and Ellie breathes a sigh of relief. Just a deer.

She catches sight of said deer just as it bends to drink from a small pond. It’s only about a hundred yards away, slightly out of range. An easy kill. For a moment, she considers letting Dina down and drawing her bow, because venison is a precious commodity, but the thought turns her stomach.

Although killing seems to come naturally to her, and many people depend on her morbid talents, she sometimes wishes she wasn’t so good at it.

There’s so much blood on her hands already, and surely more to come…  

Not this one, she decides. No one’s going to starve without one more deer.

“Wow,” she mutters, not bothering to lower her voice. She hoists Dina higher on her back as she sets off again, watches out of the corner of her eye as the deer visibly startles, then swiftly lopes away in the opposite direction. “Did you figure that out all by yourself or was it just a lucky guess?”

Dina nudges Ellie’s knee with the toe of her shoe. “Jerk,” she says, her voice distant. “I know what a deer looks like.”

As Ellie continues onward, Dina twists around to look off after the deer. For whatever reason, she finds it unsettling.

“You sure about that? If you’re trying to commit it to memory, I can find you a picture book when we get back.”

“Shut up,” Dina mutters, facing forward once again. “I’m just surprised. I figured you’d want to catch it. You are our champion hunter, after all.”

At a loss, Ellie drowns in the following silence. She doesn’t particularly want to explain how the ease of killing sometimes makes her nauseous.

Lofting her shoulders in a shrug that is equal parts deflection and discomfort, she tries to conjure a valid excuse from the vacant interstices of space between the sea of skyward-reaching pines ahead. Unfortunately for her, they don’t offer much inspiration. The justification she ends up settling on in the end is true, even though it doesn’t fully encapsulate the depth of her disquiet.

“We’re ahead on rations,” she says finally. “For the next few months, at least.”

Dina contemplates her words. “Still,” she says, “bringing home something that size probably would have gotten Tommy off your back for a while.”

She has a point, of course. Tommy’s predictable like that, far less prone to lecture her if she returns to town hauling her own body weight in game.

Ellie just shakes her head. Still not worth it. “I can handle Tommy,” she insists.

Dina hums to herself, barely loud enough to be heard. Her fingertips dance along the collar of Ellie’s flannel absentmindedly. 

Ellie feels the heat of embarrassment building beneath her skin, but can’t figure out why. “It was almost mature, anyway. Could breed a whole herd by next spring since we let it live.” She drops her eyes, kicking plaintively at a rock half-buried in the path. “Just… didn’t seem necessary, that’s all.”

Again, Dina hums, but doesn’t say anything. Instead, she shifts closer, leaning into her a bit more sweetly, until she rests her chin on Ellie’s shoulder.

The silken whisps of Dina’s hair tickle Ellie’s cheek, drawing up a helpless flush beneath her skin. “What?” she prompts.

“Nothing,” Dina murmurs back, just above a hush.

“What?” Ellie repeats, more insistently this time.

Dina shrugs as well as she can with both arms around Ellie’s shoulders, the motion as gentle as her voice. “I like how soft you can be sometimes.”

Ellie frowns, falters half a step, then continues resolutely. “I’m not… soft.”

“It’s not a bad thing, Ellie,” Dina counters, with a familiar mixture of fondness and exasperation. Without lifting her head, she shakes it, likely due to the sheer predictability of Ellie’s response, but her voice drops back into a placid hush. “Actually, it’s one of the things I like most about you.” 

Ellie’s stomach flips, once, twice, and then it just doesn’t doesn’t stop, because she can’t decide whether she should be infuriated or thrilled.

Grimacing, she combats the roiling wave of discomfort in her belly the only way she knows how, with a sarcastic echo of disgust. “Soft. Sure.”

“Yeah,” Dina says, her belief unwavering, and goes on to reaffirm it just as tenderly as before. “Soft.”

“It was just a deer,” Ellie protests, though she sounds more like a petulant child than a girl on the threshold of adulthood, even to her own ears.

“Don’t bother trying to argue,” Dina replies, clearly unfazed by her resistance. “Or do, your choice. But you’re never going to change my mind.”

At this point, Ellie can do little more than roll her eyes. “Right. Because you’ve got me all figured out, don’t you?”

“I do, actually,” Dina retorts. She abandons her perch on Ellie’s shoulder to lean away for a better look, fixing an unwavering, imperturbable gaze on Ellie’s face. Under such intense scrutiny, Ellie struggles to keep her expression as neutral as possible, though she can’t be entirely sure she succeeds. “I know you like letting people have certain ideas about who you are, but you don’t fool me, Ellie.” Her voice is exceedingly soft now. “You sabotage yourself, you know. The things you do say more about you than the words and opinions of people who don’t even know you ever could.”

Out of propriety, and simply because she has no idea how to argue with that just yet, Ellie gives a weary sigh as she plods onward through the mud.

“Like, playing those songs for me on your guitar,” Dina offers pointedly. “That was soft.” 

Ellie winces at the reminder of her foolishness, but she suffers, truly suffers, at the ghostly memory of Dina’s weight in her lap in the cloying heat of her bedroom. Although it’s likely that she’ll never experience it again, her body remembers that moment with torturous clarity.

But Dina’s not nearly finished. “Letting me use your backpack as a pillow when we were up on the roof?” she continues. “Soft.” 

Ellie grits her teeth to refrain from cursing out loud. She remembers her own stupidity well enough without Dina reminding her.

Still, Dina persists. She leans in, the swell of her cheek pressed against the corner of Ellie’s jaw, so close that she can feel the flutter of her eyelashes against her skin, and Ellie releases a shaky exhale. She hopes the heaviness of her breath can be mistaken for fatigue from carrying her for so long. 

“Giving me your shirt when I got cold?” she murmurs finally. “Soft.”

Ellie swallows whatever nameless emotion is welling up in her throat, nearly chokes on it, because she is more sure than ever now that Dina knows . She has to know. How could she internally document every single pitiful, pathetic, nauseatingly lovesick thing Ellie does for her, and not know? 

It’s glaringly obvious, she has practically just stated as much, how fucking weak Ellie is for her, so she must know.

Even worse, if she does know, and she hasn’t acknowledged it, even after all this time… then she must not want to.

If Ellie’s heart weren’t already a patchwork of broken pieces, her current epiphany surely would have shattered it.

“What about carrying you on patrol?” she mumbles flippantly, keeping her eyes trained on the foliage ahead of them. “Is that ‘soft’ too?”

“No,” Dina murmurs back eventually. “That’s strong.” While she doesn’t offer any insight into her personal reasoning behind the distinction, they’re still pressed so closely together that Ellie can feel the curve of her smile as it forms. “That’s another thing I like about you. I like that you’re both.”

Ellie breathes a dubious laugh. “That’s kind of antithetical, don’t you think?” she mutters, deflecting the praise out of habit, as she so often does.

“We need to find you something new to read,” Dina teases. “Clearly, you spend too much time with your nose in a dictionary.”

Ellie’s consequential impudence doesn’t pack its usual punch, as she’s only able to manage a halfheartedly uttered, “Shut up.”

Dina laughs, amused by the feeble dispute. “You’re wrong, by the way,” she says, her nonchalance like a pick plucking the strings of Ellie’s patience.

Willing herself not to let Dina get a rise out of her, as she always does, Ellie trudges on. Just a few more minutes, and they’ll be home. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yep,” Dina says, emphasizing the final consonant with a distinctly matter-of-fact pop

She doesn’t offer to elaborate upon her certainty – and she won’t. Not until Ellie asks. 

She’s practically buzzing with silent triumph, a satisfaction borne of the absolute certainty that Ellie won’t be able to resist. 

And she’s right, as usual.

“Fine,” Ellie snaps, but even the roll of her eyes doesn’t save her the indignity of having lost. Again. “Enlighten me, o wise one.”

Her insolence earns her a faceful of tousled hair, as Dina purposefully musses it free of the confines of her ponytail. “Smartass.”

With both hands secured under Dina’s knees, Ellie has no hope of fixing it. She gives her head a vigorous shake, blowing the errant wisps away.

“There’s nothing inherently antithetical about strength and tenderness,” Dina informs her coolly.

Ellie huffs once again to clear the hair out of her face. “That’s news to me.”

“It’s a fallacy,” Dina counters. She tilts her head, bearing a playful grin. “Maybe you should look that up in your dictionary, nerd.”

Bristling, Ellie comes to a dead stop and turns to glare at her. “I will throw your fucking ass in the mud.”

“Do it,” Dina dares her, a blaze of impudence setting her umber eyes alight. “Go ahead, do it. Drop me.”

Her brow jumps in challenge as they maintain eye contact, and Ellie’s blood runs hot. It rushes in her ears, drowning out all sense and reason. While it’s always somewhat exasperating how attractive Dina is, it is absolutely fucking infuriating how attractive she is when she’s being a dick, and Ellie’s patience is no more than a thread that has long since frayed. Dina’s smirk, on the other hand, is a drizzle of kerosene. Her eyes are a lit match. 

Every instinct wrestling for control in Ellie’s gut rages against her prolonged inaction. Whether to flee or to take direct action, she’s not sure. They’re close enough that the slightest huff of Dina’s breath bathes her face in warmth, chases away the chill of the autumn shower pouring down on them until it no longer pricks at the tip of her nose. For just a moment, her imagination gets the better of her. Dina’s lips would be sweet, she thinks, with a hint of spice to them, like cinnamon – and all the reasons that she shouldn’t kiss her start to seem like nothing more than distant memories.

Yet, as desperate as she is to find out if Dina tastes the way she imagines, she can’t bring herself to do it. 

Her ribcage is a vise around her heart that squeezes to the point of bursting. It forbids her to take action, and prohibits her from letting it go. To look away now would be to admit defeat, and although she’s no stranger to the acidic shame of surrender, this is different. For once, she has the perfect excuse. She’s in the perfect position to resist temptation while still emerging from their little game as the victor. All she has to do is drop her. 

Instead of betraying the fathomless depths of her cowardice, she could dump her on her ass and be done with it. Dina literally dared her to.

But she doesn’t, of course, because her stupid, useless fucking brain won’t let her. 

She just turns away, as she always does, shakes her head, and continues walking.

Mercifully, Dina gives her a moment to cling to her last remaining shreds of pride before they’re crushed into the mud under the heels of her boots. She almost seems to melt into her then, her chin once again nestled against Ellie’s shoulder. Still, she can’t resist teasing. “That’s what I thought.” 

Ellie doesn’t say a word, too afraid she’ll accidentally end up verbalizing all the inventive new curses she’s carving into the soft tissue of her brain.

Dina’s fingertips dance along the collar of Ellie’s t-shirt, though she’s too heated to appreciate it. “You know why?”

“Because I’m soft?” Ellie grits out sarcastically, her voice gruff enough to ache in her throat.

But that’s not the word she would use. Stupid is more like it. Stupid, so stupid. And useless. 

She should’ve just fucking dropped her.

Dina, on the other hand, has her heart set on soft. “Yeah,” she replies gently, “you are.” 

Just as suddenly as it came, Ellie’s ire fades. All traces of Dina’s teasing are gone, and when she presses close once again, she settles there. 

Ellie rounds the final bend of the path, and when the tightly cropped trees open up again, she can just make out the top of the dam in the distance. Their destination is in sight now, and yet she feels almost… lost. Her anger vanished so suddenly that she feels weightless without it, like she’s been cast adrift, and even the weight of Dina’s body in her arms can’t keep her grounded. She only gets her bearings when Dina continues speaking.

“Being soft doesn’t mean you’re weak, Ellie,” she says, and though her voice is just a whisper, Ellie hangs on every word. “In the world we live in, it’s easy to be cruel and selfish and hard, but it takes a special kind of strength to be soft.” Her momentary silence provides a much needed opportunity for Ellie to remind herself to keep breathing. Dina presses into her more firmly. “Even after everything you’ve been through, you still think with your heart first, not your head. And maybe it seems silly, but… to me, there’s nothing in this world more courageous than that.”

Ellie swallows tightly, her heart pounding like some desperate, relentless thing in her chest. 

Despite the vehemence of all her earlier protests, she can’t bring herself to argue, not now.

“Don’t ever be ashamed to be soft,” Dina sighs. “You’re the strongest person I know.”

It’s at this point, as Ellie wars with the strangely buoyant sensation bubbling in her chest, that she notices it’s no longer raining, and the dam is now only a few hundred feet away, but when Dina nestles into the hollow just beneath the curve of her jaw, she doesn’t have it in her to say anything.

Maybe, she thinks, being soft isn’t the worst thing after all. Maybe it’s a sign that there’s still some good left in her, even after… well, everything.

The dam looms higher over the treetops ahead. When Tommy asks for their report later, she’ll have nothing of interest to say. It will be obvious that neither of them were focused on patrol, and he’ll lecture them about how foolish they’d been until he has no voice left to lecture with.

But fuck it. She’d carry Dina through the gates and right past Tommy’s front door if it would make this moment last.