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the unreliable efficiency of evasive maneuvers

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Ellie has never doubted that Dina is the most beautiful girl she’s ever seen. She’s painfully gorgeous, but there’s something particularly breathtaking about her right now. Caught beneath the sunlight flooding through Ellie’s clouded, weather-beaten bedroom window, her naturally dark irises seem luminous, glowing like translucent amber, and the smile on her lips is achingly genuine, bright enough to make Ellie’s heart stutter in aching fits.

She gestures to the guitar balanced on Ellie’s thigh and shifts a bit closer in the chair she’s drawn up next to Ellie’s bed. “Play something for me?”

This isn’t the first time she’s been in Ellie’s bedroom, so it isn’t the first time she’s seen the guitar in question, but it’s the first time Ellie has stupidly, foolishly decided to pick it up in her presence, which she’d only done out of the desperate need to keep her fidgeting hands busy.

She fiddles with the strings. “I’m… not much of a singer,” she mumbles, uncomfortably aware of the heat rising in her cheeks. “That’s Joel’s thing.”

“Really?” Dina accepts that unexpected teaspoon of truth with the most adorable tilt of her head. “Joel sings?”

Ellie grimaces. Even after all this time in Jackson, Joel still plays things pretty close to the vest. He doesn’t really advertise his youthful aspirations to be a musician. She hadn’t meant to let that slip, but she has a habit of saying things she doesn’t mean to say around Dina. Or, more accurately, Dina simply manages to fluster her with such incredible skill and finesse that she has no choice but to deflect the intensity of her attentions with the first thing that comes to mind, which often means that she ends up getting herself into more trouble than she was originally in.

“Don’t bother asking him,” she says finally. “He’ll just deny it.”

“That’s fine with me, since he’s not the one I want to hear.” Dina holds her gaze, lowers her voice until it’s coy and lilting. “Please, Ellie?”

Ellie has no hope of denying her, not now. Something in the pit of her stomach, something thick and feverish, heavy with the weight of possibility, is knotting up at the tone of her voice, and she shakes her head, tries to cover the tremor in her own words with a sigh. “Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Only a little,” Dina teases, nudging Ellie’s foot with her own.

Ellie scoffs and rolls her eyes toward the window. “Awesome.”

Dina’s hand falls to settle on her knee. Her touch is gentle, but it’s a little too hot to be comfortable. Physical contact between them always is, as far as Ellie’s concerned. When that alone doesn’t have the desired effect, she tugs plaintively at it, jostling Ellie’s leg until she regains her attention.

“Ellie, come on, I’m kidding. Gosh, you’re so sensitive.” The softness of her eyes soothes the bite of her teasing as she squeezes Ellie’s knee. “I won’t laugh, I promise.” She smiles again, gently this time, almost hopefully. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be serenaded.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that Dina would probably be perfectly happy being serenaded by anyone else; Ellie’s heart hears, ‘By you.’

She heaves a wary sigh, wiping both of her sweaty palms on her jeans, careful not to dislodge Dina’s lingering hand.

“Okay, just…” She hesitates as she grasps the neck of the guitar to place her fingers, then exhales harshly. “Fuck it.”

If she’s going to do this, she might as well go all the way. To the edge of the universe and back, right?

“Oh, my love,” she begins slowly, “my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch a long, lonely time…”

She wavers on a few of the notes, which makes her wince. Dina just squeezes her knee, smiling so gently that her embarrassment all but dissipates.

“And time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much. Are you still mine?” Though she struggles on the emotional swell that accompanies that line, her sheepish grimace only serves to make Dina smile again. Ellie drops her eyes. “I need your love… I need your love. Godspeed your love to me.”

Miraculously, she makes it through the rest of the song without any further mistakes, growing more comfortable when she moves into the rhythmic chord progression of the second verse. She even makes it through the final chorus, which is higher than her usual register, without breaking pitch.

When the last echoes of the strings finally give way to silence, Dina’s still smiling, her eyes soft and bright. The touch of color in her cheeks could be nothing more than a reaction to the heat, because it’s the middle of summer and Ellie’s room doesn’t have much in the way of air conditioning, but she wants to believe more than anything that it’s something more, even if it was just the magic of the song, indiscriminate of who was singing it.

“I thought you said you don’t sing.”

Ellie’s face goes hot again. “I don’t.”

Dina doesn’t even bother to dignify that superbly lackluster refutation with its own response. “Why that song?” she asks with a smile, a secret little thing that Ellie can’t quite decipher now that she’s been put on the spot. “A favorite of yours?”

“I, uh – it –” Ellie falters, clears her throat self-consciously. “Joel made me learn how to play it.”

Though her smile persists, Dina regards Ellie with a fine arch in her brow and playfully narrowed eyes. “That doesn’t seem like Joel’s kind of music.”

“He said it was a classic,” Ellie counters, less awkwardly this time, forcing a shrug for good measure. “Which means it was everyone’s kind of music.”

While it’s true that Joel had told her ‘Unchained Melody’ was an extremely popular song at one point in time, that’s not why she chose to play it.

Dina sees right through her, as she always does, but she chooses to let it go. Whether it’s out of the goodness of her heart or simply to capitalize on the opportunity to tease her about it later, Ellie doesn’t know. Her only response is a soft hum of assent that gradually fades into silence. She traces her fingertips over the surface of Ellie’s knee in random shapes and swirling, dizzying patterns, then glances up at her from beneath her lashes.

“Too bad,” she murmurs. “I was kind of hoping you had chosen something romantic on purpose.”

There is some truth in that, but Ellie deflects on instinct before it can be exposed. “Like the fact that I was serenading you wasn’t romantic enough.”

Dina shrugs, finally withdrawing her too-hot, too-close, too-intimate hand. “All things considered,” she begins loftily, “I give you a seven out of ten.”

“What?” Ellie gapes at her, the incredulity plain on her face. “Only a seven, after all that? You’re fucking with me.”

Dina smirks, no doubt satisfied to have gotten a rise out of her so easily. “Nope. Sorry, it’s a hard seven from me.”

“Okay, well, any notes on how to improve from the Official Adjudicator of Romantic Serenades?” she bites back sarcastically.

Dina’s brow jumps in the most unfairly attractive way. “Adjudicator? That’s a mighty big word, Ellie, especially around here.”

Ellie flushes, because she actually looks kind of impressed. “I… I read a lot. Look, don’t change the subject. That’s a bullshit score and you know it.”

“You wanna know how you can improve?” Dina replies, her voice lowered with the weight of some sudden significance.

Ellie has half a second to panic before Dina leans closer, so close that she tests Ellie’s basest instinct to shy away, and lifts both of her hands to Ellie’s face, cradling her jaw between them like she’s something to be cherished, something precious. Ellie forces herself to be still, to endure the intimate touch without flinching or deflecting with some stupid, smartass comment, even though her blood is screaming for her to move. She’s learned over the past two years that she’s known Dina to expect some sort of joke, but she can’t find any signs of mischief in her still strangely luminous irises.

In fact, she seems excruciatingly sincere as she strokes the corner of Ellie’s jaw gently with her thumb. “Look me in the eyes when you sing to me.”

Ellie swallows, a thousand words she can’t bring herself to say piling up on her tongue, her cheeks growing hotter and hotter beneath Dina’s hands, until she’s lightheaded, until she’s sure Dina can feel her burning up – until Dina finally breaks into a grin and turns her face away with a gentle push.

“Now give me that,” she teases, plucking Ellie’s guitar right out of her listless hands.

Recovering proves to be a unique endeavor, since the homeostatic mechanisms Ellie usually counts on to sustain her body seem to have shut down. Her heart hammers against her ribs like a nervous first-time percussionist, and she has to teach herself how to breathe all over again just to ease its fitful kicking. All that hard-won oxygen is stolen from her lungs when she glimpses Dina out of the corner of her eye. She’s got the guitar in her own lap now, where she’s bowed over it with a little smile, taking a moment to feel the different textures of the strings beneath her fingertips.

It seems somehow cosmically hysterical to Ellie that there should be something exciting about watching Dina feel up her guitar, and yet…

Dina catches her looking, countering it with a grin. “Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give you another point if you teach me a thing or two.”

Ellie’s still absurdly out of breath, but she tries to cover it with an unspecified sound of annoyance. “Two points,” she insists, “or no deal.”

“Two?” Dina echoes. Her brow jumps in challenge as her voice drops an octave. “You’ll have to work a little harder if you want two.”

She doesn’t seem intent to elaborate on whatever that means, just plucks the strings beneath her fingers idly, getting a feel for the tension in them. Ellie thinks she probably learned how to play her the same way, with a delicate caution that gives way to confidence as she discovers just how easily such an instrument can be manipulated, memorizing the parameters of its resilience until she’s comfortable enough to strum a tuneless melody.

The whole time, Ellie burns with curiosity. She knows better than to ask, sure that it’s only going to get her in more trouble, but she has to know.

“Fine,” she huffs, which earns her the barest glance from carefully indifferent brown eyes. They still make her melt. “What do I have to do for two?”

Dina’s mask of disinterest dissolves. Her lips curve into a pleased grin, one so brilliant and suspiciously broad that Ellie immediately regrets asking.

While she’s considering what new kind of torment she might’ve brought upon herself, Dina rises from her chair. She takes a single, smooth step and pivots to settle herself on Ellie’s lap, making room for herself there like it’s second nature. Something hot and persistent twists in Ellie’s gut as Dina’s warmth sinks into her, but she freezes beneath the slight weight of her body, her own body stiffening with the effort it takes to prevent herself from reacting. She keeps her face neutral despite the blood surging up to sear it hot and pink, and hardly dares to breathe, lest her shuddering gasps give away the extent of her suffering, both of her hands fisted in the thin sheet thrown over her bed to keep them from grasping Dina’s hips.

Dina glances back at her, bright eyes and the barest curl of her lips visible over her shoulder. “Still want those points?”

Ellie calls upon every ounce of strength and stubbornness she possesses to steel herself. She can do this.

More to the point, if she wants to survive this encounter with even a shred of dignity, she has to do this.

“Yeah, you’re gonna fuckin’ give me those points,” she grumbles, ignoring the suggestive undertones that only occur to her after she’s spoken.

She permits one last breath to steady herself and then leans further into the delicate arch of Dina’s back, close enough that her chin grazes over the slope of her shoulder, which is warm and perfumed with a lingering trace of rose oil and incense. Though she’s only a few inches taller on foot, Dina is petite, and Ellie’s lanky enough now at eighteen that she can circle her with her arms and reach her hands to place them correctly on the guitar.

She tries to focus on the details, the basic principles that Joel had taught her, like he’d promised, when they first got to Jackson.

All of her unspeakable truths, like how incredible it feels to have Dina in her arms, are pushed far, far into the back of her mind.

“Okay, so, this is the neck,” she mumbles, her voice low so close to Dina’s ear. “The spaces between these little gold bars are called frets. The sound each string makes gets higher in pitch the further down you go, see?” She demonstrates that principle by thumbing a few notes in succession as her index finger travels down the fretboard. When Dina hums in agreement, the vibration echoes back into Ellie’s chest, and it rattles her for a moment. “I, uh, I play with standard tuning, so the strings go like this.” She indicates each one of them individually, starting at the bottom. “E, B, G, D, A, E.”

Dina shifts to glance back at her. “Wait, there are two E’s?”

“Yeah.” She points both of them out again. “Low E, high E.”

Dina hums again, contemplating that, then asks very seriously, “Where’s the Ell-E?”

Ellie fails at fighting a smile, forced to roll her eyes out of propriety. “Ha ha. Clever.”

Dina giggles and rocks back into her, like this moment is real. “Keep going.”

“Okay, put your first finger here, and press down.” Ellie thumbs the string for her once. “That’s a G.”

“Two seconds ago, you said it was an E,” Dina sasses back, but plucks it obligingly without being asked.

Ellie can’t even bring herself to roll her eyes. “The string is an E, but now the pitch makes the note a G.”

“Right,” Dina drawls. “That totally makes sense to a person who has no idea what these letters mean.”

The audible impudence in her voice makes Ellie grin. “Just wait until I tell you about chords.”

Dina sinks back against her with a groan. “Do I even want to know?”

“You asked me to teach you,” Ellie counters. “It’s not as complicated as it seems. So, that single string is a note, right? When you play it open, it’s an E, which is why it’s called the E string. Each string is named after the note it produces when you’re not touching it. When your finger is there, on the third fret, the string is still an E, but the note you play becomes a G.” She waits until Dina nods to continue. “A chord is made up of multiple notes at once.” She eases Dina’s hand slightly lower so that her index finger hovers over the first fret of the G string. “So, you would put your first finger here and your third finger here, and your middle finger right above it, like that. If you play every string at once, that would be a chord. That one’s an E.”

Dina huffs, deflating in Ellie’s arms like she’s just told a particularly unfunny joke. “Seriously?”

“What?” Ellie laughs. Her voice is surprisingly steady, even though she’s gradually drowning in how good it feels each time Dina melts back into her.

“You’re telling me that the E chord doesn’t involve either of the two supposed E strings? That’s really what you’re telling me right now?” she asks, a dubious scowl building in the crease of her brow. Her righteous indignation makes Ellie laugh again, because it’s more adorable than it has any right to be, and her eyes narrow in suspicion moments before she’s shifting in Ellie’s lap to glare at her directly. “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

Ellie shakes her head, still smiling. “No. This is completely legit. Guitars are just weird.”

“Don’t worry, I see it now,” Dina shoots back, as though she’s already made up her mind about something Ellie hasn’t even considered. She shifts to face forward once more, just to speak flippantly over her shoulder. “You’re making all this stuff up, trying to confuse me so you can draw this out.”

“I’m… not,” Ellie protests rather lamely, her cheeks burning with the heat that rushes into them at the accusation, even as some low, unidentifiable thing in Dina’s voice makes her warm in other places. “The prehistoric idiots who discovered music picked a shitty way to describe it. Not my fault.”

“Sure, blame it on them,” Dina drawls back, clearly unconvinced, but Ellie can tell by the curve of her cheek that she’s smiling.

“You’re such a dick,” she mumbles, nudging her shoulder gently into Dina’s back, which earns her the most perfect little giggle in return. It’s enough to make her stomach twist at the realization that this moment isn’t going to last forever. She struggles to get things back on topic. “The terminology sucks, but it’s easy to remember once you get comfortable with it.” She nods back to the guitar in Dina’s lap. “Try playing that chord a few times.”

Though Dina complies without further resistance, the strings rattle and waver under her uncertain fingers.

“Well, that doesn’t sound right,” she chuckles.

Ellie helps her adjust her fingers. “Try it now.”

Again, there’s a strange twang, but Ellie’s limited field of view keeps her from being able to tell exactly why.

“It takes a lot of practice to play chords correctly,” she explains. “You have to learn how to distribute the pressure evenly between your fingers.”

“I have an alternative theory,” Dina counters, her voice high and lofty. She shrugs. “I simply wasn’t meant to be a musician. It’s not in my blood.”

Ellie rolls her eyes at that laughable excuse for logic, but her incivility only serves to provoke Dina’s lips into a smile, enigmatic and spellbinding. She reaches down to take both of Ellie’s hands in her own and gently urges them back to their rightful places on either side of her guitar.

“Which means,” she continues pointedly, “you’ll just have to keep playing for me.”

Ellie blinks. “What, now?” She pales when Dina hums her assent. “Like… this? I can hardly reach it. There’s not much I could play.”

“So pick one of the songs you can play,” Dina murmurs back, low but with just enough hint of attitude to make Ellie’s knees tremble.

She’s grateful that Dina has decided not to look back at her, certain that her face would give away her every last secret in an instant.

“This seems like a lot of work for a measly two points,” she mutters.

“Hey, you’re the one who wasn’t satisfied with your score,” Dina reminds her, and she doesn’t seem particularly compassionate about it. She’s quiet after that, allowing Ellie a moment to flounder in search of words and possible excuses alike until she breaks the silence with a gentle murmur. “You asked my opinion on how you could improve.” When she shrugs again, the movement is delicate, almost vulnerable. “This is my perfect ten.”

Ellie’s not exactly sure what to make of that at first. She can’t tell whether Dina’s confession is meant to encourage her, or if she’s just decided to be honest because the intimacy of the moment allows her to be. Whatever her intentions, her words have something of a miraculous effect. Suddenly, Ellie cares less about earning herself a better score and more about giving Dina her perfect ten – and doing that hardly requires any bravery at all.

“Okay, uh…” She takes a breath as she runs through the admittedly short list of simple, romantic songs she knows how to play, and then settles her fingers on the strings. The tips of them are damp with perspiration, which she chases away by scrubbing them on her jeans. “This one might work.”

Dina folds her hands together on top of the body of the guitar, where she won’t interfere with the song. The fact that she doesn’t have some smart,  teasing comment prepared for Ellie’s inevitable surrender only seems to make this moment between them feel all the more significant.

The rhythm starts out a little shaky, since Ellie can’t reach very well, but it picks up as she goes along.

“I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May. Well, I guess you’d say, what can make me feel this way? My girl. Talkin’ ‘bout my girl, my girl. I’ve got so much honey, the bees envy me. I’ve got a sweeter song than the birds from the trees…”

The weight of it all, the heart-heaviness which had been lingering in the back of Ellie’s mind, where it was vague and painless, seems to crush her all at once as she transitions into the second chorus. It hurts, how easy it all is. Easy to forget that this – the two of them pressed together, Dina’s body against her own, solid and real and smelling faintly of the fragrant olibanum incense her mother burns in their home – isn’t real. Easy to pretend that the words she’s singing are true; easy to convince herself that Dina really is hers. Easy, because, in this moment, when she’s relaxing into Ellie’s embrace and rocking gently with her to the rhythm of the song, it feels like she is, even though Ellie knows it’s nothing more than a waking dream.

“Ooh, my girl. Talkin’ ‘bout my girl…”

Dina is surprisingly quiet as the final chords fade out. Ellie’s waiting for everything to come crashing down, waiting for reality to march in and punch her in the throat while aggressively reminding her that Dina is very much not her girl, but there’s only silence, the kind that’s still and lingering.

As the moment stretches on, Ellie wonders if she’s made the kind of mistake that there’s no coming back from, if she has made Dina uncomfortable or crossed a line somewhere in this mystifying game they’re playing. She speaks quietly, hoping to conceal the panic in her voice. “How was that?”

“It was sweet,” Dina murmurs back, her voice unexpectedly gentle as she tilts her head to lay it against Ellie’s. “Another song Joel made you learn?”

“No,” Ellie whispers. She can’t see Dina’s face, but she sounds almost disappointed by that prospect. “I taught myself how to play that one.”

Dina turns her head a little further until their eyes meet. She’s so close that there’s hardly an inch left between them, miniscule and stifling with the damp heat of their shared breath. They’re practically there already, kissing without kissing. Ellie feels it like a steel blade in her belly. She wishes she were as brave as the heroes in those comic books Joel used to collect for her, that she could lean in just that last little bit, but she’s frozen with fear.

Fear and something deeper, something darker, some cold insidious thing telling her she doesn’t deserve this, or Dina… after everything she’s done.

Dina’s eyes dip away from her own, down, towards her lips, but she must be imagining it, because –

There’s a knock on the door.

“Mind if I come in, kiddo?”

Ellie winces, and she has to fight against every bodily instinct demanding her to squirm out from under Dina before Joel can see them together. Not that it would help much, because he pokes his head around the partially open door without waiting for her permission, and catching them trying to scramble apart mid-motion would just make things even more awkward. Dina, on the other hand, seems completely unbothered by his company.

“Sure, yeah,” Ellie mumbles, then clears her throat to rid her voice of the involuntary softness it so often takes on in Dina’s presence. “What’s up?”

A hint of a smile plays around Joel’s mouth as he takes in their situation, though the silvering tufts of his beard do a decent job to keep it concealed. “Was wonderin’ if Dina was still around,” he says in his ambling southern drawl. “Heard you singin’, figured she might’a left, but lo and behold.”

Dina just smiles at him, remaining firmly planted in Ellie’s lap. “I roped her into showing me how this impossible thing works.”

He nods, less careful to hide his mirth as he gestures to their predicament. “That’s the best place to see how it’s really done.”

Ellie flushes pink when he meets her eyes with a smirk that isn’t ambiguous in the slightest. “Why did you want to know if she was still here?”

“Hm? Oh.” His eyes shift to Dina again. “Ran into your mother near the refinery. She wanted me to ask you, politely, if you wouldn’t mind comin’ on back home to help with, uh… some sort’a food thing? Can’t recall exactly what she said, but I figured you’d know what she was talkin’ ‘bout.”

Dina nods, shifting further upright like she’s finally preparing to stand, and Ellie hastily sets the guitar aside.

“I better get going then,” Dina says once she’s back on her feet. “All those rumors about her throwing knives when she’s stressed? Not rumors.” She brushes her hands off on the seat of her jeans, then turns back to Ellie with a wink. “Thanks for the lesson.”

Ellie’s stomach knots up like a pretzel at the look that follows. Dina’s umber irises have regained their natural depth and richness now that she’s not in direct sunlight, familiar and immediate in their teasing. Ellie knows that some part of her will miss the fleeting luminance that had shone in them while they were so close together, but they’re no less effective now than they always have been, deep and opaque and absolutely enthralling.

She’s still aware of Joel’s eyes on her, careful to keep her face neutral under his scrutiny. She feels like she needs to make it clear that this wasn’t her idea or she’ll never hear the end of it. “So, what’s the verdict?” she asks, without any particular concern. “Did I earn those extra points or not?”

Dina smiles as she backs away. It’s a real one this time, not teasing or playful, but genuine. “Yeah, you did,” she says gently. “Perfect ten.” When she pauses near the door, some of that mischief from earlier returns. “But I hope you know this only means my standards will be higher in the future.”

Although Ellie has no idea what that’s supposed to mean, she can’t afford the luxury of decoding the message hidden within Dina’s words. She’s too busy trying not to melt under the heat of her gaze as she happily chirps farewell at Joel without sparing him a glance, her eyes locked on Ellie’s until she’s vanished around the corner. Ellie’s not entirely sure she’s managed it, since most of her feels warm and liquid even in Dina’s absence.

“Bye, Dina,” Joel calls back, his thick accent carrying after her down the hall.

The aging walls give a faint quiver as the front door swings shut, which signals Dina’s departure. Joel smirks in that distinctly Joel way of his, crosses his arms over his chest and leans against the doorjamb, undoubtedly delighted to have caught her in the midst of something so intimate with Dina.

Ellie wills herself not to react to his complacence, but the heat continues to rise beneath her skin. “What, Joel?”

“Nothin’,” he mutters, shrugging. His eyes are locked on the boots Ellie had traded fifteen rabbits and a deer to get for him last Christmas. “Just…”

The excruciatingly long pause he takes is just for dramatic effect, she’s sure, which only riles her up. “Just what?”

He chuckles. “Just funny to me how you actually think you got any shot at handlin’ a girl like Dina.”

Then he’s gone, pushing away from the door and wandering down the hall before Ellie has a chance to defend herself.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she yells after him, long after the fact. “And – and I can totally handle her!”

Even though things are relatively peaceful in Jackson, Joel doesn’t laugh very often. She thinks there’s still too much of a lifetime of darkness in him. All the time in the world couldn’t heal that much pain, and yet her pitiful attempt at exonerating herself earns a long, solid guffaw that echoes back to her all the way from the living room. If it weren’t aimed directly at her, she would treasure that sound, rare as it is.

“Kiddo, you handle her ‘bout as well as you tune that guitar by ear,” he calls back. “Those strings were flatter’n a pancake in a hydraulic press.”

The fact that the extent of such a hyperbole hardly makes sense doesn’t seem to matter. Still, Ellie flounders, struggling to think of a comeback, any kind of excuse. After several seconds, she eventually just flops onto her back with a groan, throwing both arms up to cover her face, trapping all the heat of her embarrassment in her skin where it burns and burns. At least there’s no one around to see her go up in flames.

He’s right, of course. Dina’s out of her league, has been from the first moment they met. As much as she likes to try to tell herself that she’s building up some sort of resistance to those gorgeous brown eyes and the sweet, breathtaking smiles and all of her endless teasing, Dina always thinks of an untested alternative, something new to up the ante even further – something like the mess Joel had found them in earlier. It has been proven, time and time again, that Ellie just can’t keep up with her, and she still walks into the same trap every time, a rabbit loping willingly into a visible snare.

Worst of all, now Ellie knows exactly what it’s like to have Dina in her arms, to breathe in the spices trapped in her clothes, to bask in the warmth of her skin, to feel the weight of her breath on her lips, and she knows that it will continue to torment her every day until it eventually drives her mad.

If she’d only kept her stupid mouth shut, she could’ve avoided this whole thing. It all could have ended after one slightly embarrassing song, but no.

“Should’ve taken the seven,” she mumbles. She thumps her fist against her forehead and then lets both arms fall back to the bed with a heavy sigh, her gut tightening as Dina’s words catch up with her. “And now her ‘standards’ are going to be higher in the future? What does that even mean?”

The ceiling stares down upon her, blank and impassive, indifferent to her suffering and providing no answers, so she assumes that it means the only thing it can mean: that she’s just gotten herself into more trouble, as usual.

Chapter Text

Ellie gives the battered metal door one last shove with her shoulder. Flecks of paint and rust rain down on the sleeve of her flannel as it creaks open another inch, then comes to a resolute halt against something that feels much larger than she’s equipped to handle. That’s as far as it’s going to go.

She ducks down to peer through the gap she’s made, into the nearly impenetrable darkness beyond it. Should be safe enough to squeeze through.

“Okay,” she breathes as she brushes the dust off of her shirt, palms the rest off on her jeans. “Think you can fit through that?”

Dina appraises the narrow opening dubiously, her arms crossed over her chest. “I think you underestimate how big my ass is.”

A familiar warmth pricks at Ellie’s cheeks, crawling upward to singe the tips of her ears hot and pink, as it always does when Dina draws attention to her body. Luckily, it’s too dark for her to see the evidence of Ellie’s distress, despite the fact that she’s only inches away. Ellie honors that blessing by keeping her stupid mouth shut for once. She has a better recollection of Dina’s curves than she’d like to admit, but there’s no way she’s going to risk revealing how often she’s accidentally found herself admiring them, and then pitilessly beating herself up about it, just to argue the point.

Dina doesn’t seem particularly troubled by her silence. She’s moving before Ellie really recovers, lifting her foot onto the warped drawer protruding from the desk that’s been rammed against the door. She tosses Ellie a knowing grin and begins to ease her upper body through the slim aperture.

Ellie’s starting to wonder if maybe keeping her mouth shut is just as dangerous as opening it.

“For the record,” Dina grunts, her words muffled by the surrounding debris, “if I get stuck in here, it’s your fault.”

Ellie rolls her eyes as the heat beneath her skin diffuses, shifts her backpack higher on her shoulder. “You’re not going to get stuck.”

Out of habit, she gives their surroundings a quick sweep. So far, the coast is still clear, but there’s no telling how long it’ll last. They need to move.

Unfortunately, Dina’s progress is halted, as she’d predicted, by the resistance she meets at her waist. She glances back to huff smartly, “Told you.”

The playful glare that follows has little effect, so deeply entrenched in darkness that Ellie can hardly make it out. Since the only part of Dina that she can see is the very last thing she wants to be caught staring at, she meticulously avoids looking in her direction altogether, and scans the area again.

“Do you want me to push you the rest of the way through or what?” she whispers. “If you don’t hurry, we’re gonna get caught.”

“Relax, Ellie,” Dina drawls back. She lowers her voice to affect a playful lilt, one that’s all too familiar. “I’ll handle this. You just enjoy the show.”

The resulting flush in Ellie’s cheeks is practically incandescent, as if the blood searing her skin is actually blazing like a visible beacon of shame.

Dina returns to the task at hand, blind to Ellie’s mortification while she wrestles for a few more inches. Ellie’s not sure whether her haste is an act of mercy or an indication that, despite her seemingly unwavering nonchalance, she has her own concerns about being caught. With a bit of effort, she finally manages to shimmy the rest of the way through the gap and vanishes entirely. Her movements within are signified only by the various rattles and creaks of the assorted bits of junk blockading the door as she navigates her way safely back to the ground.

Ellie waits, alone beneath the pale light of the moon. Though she’s still uncomfortably warm from Dina’s teasing, she shrugs off her embarrassment to monitor her surroundings more closely, wary of the echo of a voice or the errant beam of a flashlight severing the shroud of darkness.

“There,” Dina pants through the gap. “No big deal!” Even out of breath, her excitement is audible. “Hang on, I’ll get the window for you.”

Ellie dips her head in a silent nod, sure that Dina will be able to see it even though she herself isn’t visible. She eases the door shut, listening for the sound of the latch clicking into place, then shuffles over to the window. Dina’s already managed to pry out the steel bar that had been used to keep it shut from the inside. She brandishes it victoriously behind the dirtied glass with a self-satisfied smile, one that makes Ellie grin in spite of herself.

“Come on, open up,” she mumbles. She raps her knuckles against the bottommost pane, anxious to keep moving before their luck runs out.

Inside, Dina’s voice is muffled into relative silence, but Ellie doesn’t need to hear her to be able to read the demand on her lips: ‘Say please.’

Ellie scoffs at her childish display of defiance, even though something in her quivers at the taunt burning in her gaze. “Please,” she mutters.

The smirk that follows her inevitable compliance is somehow just as devastating, like a tiny, merciless blade that aches in the softness of Ellie’s gut.

Dina finally relents, but the window’s lower sash puts up a bit of a fight as she attempts to raise it, likely fixed into place by the accumulation of rust that’s built up along the steel frame. Ellie doesn’t bother trying to turn her teasing back around on her, too convinced that they’ll be discovered any moment to risk it. She just presses both of her palms against the glass to help her lift from the outside and signals for her to try again with a nod.

The window resists for a moment longer, hardly budging, until it yields rather abruptly to the pressure of their combined efforts. Its sudden ascent is accompanied by a piercing shriek of metal on metal that echoes into the vacant stillness of the night around them and makes them both wince.

Dina drops into a defensive crouch, muffling a curse as she peers sheepishly over the sill, invisible but for her dusty fingertips and wide brown eyes.

As incredibly fucking adorable as it is, Ellie doesn’t allow herself to linger to appreciate it. She motions for Dina to step back as she hastily shrugs off her backpack, then shoves it over the ledge between them. It lands somewhere below with an indistinct thump. She tosses one last glance over her shoulder to ensure that they haven’t been spotted before she vaults the sill herself, dropping silently to both feet on the other side. She pivots back around just as quickly, aided by the many shifting layers of dust and dirt beneath her shoes, to ease the window shut again as quietly as possible.

“Wow,” Dina murmurs behind her, all traces of her momentary apprehension gone. “Nice moves, Crouching Tiger.”

Ellie has no idea what that means, beyond the fact that it must be some kind of reference to one of those ancient movies they play in the rec center each weekend. The rumble of appreciation in Dina’s voice seems too genuine to be a joke, but she shakes the thought away before it can rattle her.

“Shhh,” she insists quietly. She peers through the clouded glass, searching the darkness for any signs of movement.

While Dina initially complies, hardly a moment passes before her willingness to indulge Ellie’s paranoia is ultimately snuffed out by her impatience.

“Ellie, come on.” She tugs on the tail of Ellie’s flannel in an attempt to coax her away from the window, which is more effective than Ellie would ever admit, though she remains stubbornly fixed in place. “Curfew was hours ago. No one’s around. There’s no reason to go all apex predator on me.”

“I’m just making sure,” Ellie protests. “If Maria finds out we’ve been in here, we’ll be on custodial duty for a month.”

“What a nightmare,” Dina drawls back sassily. Her voice echoes faintly within the confines of the room, like she’s already wandered off without her.

Finally satisfied that no one’s seen or followed them, Ellie abandons her post, collecting her backpack off the floor and hoisting it onto her shoulder.

Halfway across the room, Dina releases a tiny gasp. “It’s still here!”

Ellie turns to squint after her, attempting to follow her line of sight.

Although it’s not quite as dark as it had appeared outside, it’s a struggle for her to see more than a few feet. The entirety of the building’s interior is illuminated by nothing more than a few wayward shafts of moonlight filtering through the tattered canvas curtains pinned up over the vast array of windows on the northernmost wall. This place was some kind of filing facility for a legislative office once, according to Tommy, but they’d stripped it out and retrofitted it into a locker for all the potentially salvageable items that were too large to fit in Kadek and Isra’s workshop, along with various stockpiles of other large resources, which means that it’s essentially just a graveyard of splintered furniture and defective appliances now.

Until a few months ago, it was also a popular spot amongst the handful of teenagers in their community. Far removed from the residential blocks, it affords its occupants a modicum of privacy that’s hard to come by elsewhere in town, one that naturally seemed to lend itself to the budding carnal desires of rebellious adolescents desperate for some sort of physical connection in the remains of a shattered world. It was something like Jackson’s very own Lovers’ Lane, complete with a sleek leather bench seat someone had ripped out of the back of an old Chevy, all of it crimson and cream.

Maria eventually got tired of kicking all of them out with their pants around their ankles, so she blockaded all of the secondary exits and bolted two steel latches across the double doors of the main entrance, both of which can only be unlocked by keys that she keeps on her person at all times.

Unfortunately for her, Ellie and Dina are good at getting into places they shouldn’t. Fortunately for her, that’s not why they snuck in.

Ellie trails after Dina’s silhouette. Though she’s never allowed herself to imagine the two of them together in such circumstances, a single glimpse of that leather seat, glossy beneath the moonlight, still draped with countless gossamer sheets and laden with pillows, makes her flinch with all the aching discomfort of walking barefoot on glass. She shakes it out of her mind as she passes, and vows resolutely never to think about it again.

As she gradually closes the gap between them, she recognizes the somewhat familiar shape of the object in the distance. “Is that a… piano?”

“Yeah,” Dina replies, equal parts hushed and elated. There’s a beam of moonlight pouring through a gap in the weatherbeaten curtains, and it spills over her figure eagerly as she passes through it, as though it’s searching for the tide in the waves of her sable hair. “Have you ever played before?”

Caught up in the spell woven by Dina’s unassuming loveliness, Ellie almost misses the question over the fitful pounding of her heartbeat in her ears.

“No,” she mumbles finally, helpless to disguise the way her voice quivers on that single syllable alone. She stills to observe Dina from a safe distance until the unforgiving lump that’s risen in her throat dissipates. “I didn’t know we had one that was still intact, besides that old organ in the church.”

Dina exhales an indignant scoff, like daring to compare the two is somehow blasphemous. “Trust me, this sounds so much better than that tin can.”

She lifts the cover with careful, reverent hands and gently touches her fingertips to the keys. After a moment, she begins an unfamiliar melody, one that’s slow and unexpectedly sweet, deceptively simple in its elegance, and it bends to the delicate grace of her touch almost like she’s making it up as she goes. Ellie watches her in silence, completely dumbfounded, because there’s an artistry in it that’s much more than just tuneless fumbling.

When Dina turns back to meet her eyes, the moonlight glides free of her hair and catches in her breathless smile. “See?”

Ellie knows that she’s referring to the piano, but the only thing she really sees is Dina, beaming at her with all the wide-eyed innocence of a child. In the otherwise darkened room, she’s radiant, and not just because she happens to be standing near a window. It’s almost as though her happiness is luminous enough to set her aglow, as foolish and fanciful as that may seem, like the fallen star in that book Ellie keeps tucked beneath her mattress.

“You play,” she says when she finally finds her voice. “Like, actually play.”

The accusation earns her a grin and a coy shrug in return, though Dina doesn’t respond verbally. Ellie ignores the longing tug in her belly and shakes her head, scoffing to herself as she recalls the fuss Dina had made about the difficulty of the notes and chords she’d tried to teach her on her guitar.

“I thought you said you weren’t meant to be a musician,” she mutters, but the note of irritation she was hoping to convey ultimately falls flat.

“Guess it must’ve slipped my mind,” Dina replies airily, not particularly apologetic as she turns away, finally sinking into a seat on the piano bench.

She continues to play, easing her way into a cadence that’s something like a lullaby, both soft and lilting, while Ellie watches on from a distance. She doesn’t attempt to move any closer, wary of the quiver that lingers in the back of her throat and the way her hand trembles around the strap of her backpack. All the things she had so carefully packed within it seem insignificant now, empty weight on her shoulders. Half of her agonizes over the dread that someone will overhear the music and come to investigate, which would invariably result in their discovery, while the other half of her wouldn’t dare to interrupt something so beautiful. After witnessing the unbridled joy shining in Dina’s eyes, a month of custodial duty would be worth it.

Dina plays for a moment longer before she abandons the melody and turns rather pointedly to fix her dark, expectant eyes on Ellie.

Ellie returns her gaze silently, unmoving, certain that her emotions are painted like neon confessions across her face and still helpless to hide them.

If Dina notices, she opts to show mercy. She just rolls her eyes at Ellie’s predictable stubbornness and pats the empty spot on the bench next to her.

Ellie averts her eyes with a grimace, shuffling uncomfortably. Although she’d like to think that she’s not so lovesick that she can be summoned like a dog, she gives in all the same. That’s how this game of theirs operates. Dina says, ‘Say please,’ and Ellie does. Dina says, ‘Come here,’ and Ellie does.

Shrugging off her backpack for the second time, Ellie drops onto the bench next to her, careful to maintain at least a little distance between them.

Dina completely disregards her efforts, leaning close to murmur somewhere near Ellie’s shoulder, low and satisfied, “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Ellie struggles to suppress a shiver, leaves it to ache in her bones as she pushes past it with a halfhearted roll of her eyes. “It was, actually.”

Dina sits upright with a chuckle. For a moment, she’s quiet, tracing the piano’s wooden frame with her fingertips. “About what you said…”

The following silence pricks at Ellie’s ears. Even though she is reluctant to look at Dina directly, afraid of the idiotic things she might do while they’re so close, Dina’s uncertainty commands her attention. She glances at her sideways, surprised to see that she seems a bit withdrawn, even nervous.

“I was never taught how to play,” Dina says at last. Her voice is light, but it’s quiet, and there is something melancholy in it, something vulnerable. “I can’t read music. I don’t know which letter matches each note, or how to play scales, or what any of those pedals down at the bottom actually do.”

Confused, Ellie tilts her head, inviting her to explain. Dina’s only immediate answer is a wry smile.

She looks away, dips her head briefly, like she’s embarrassed to admit the truth out loud. Her wandering fingers return to the keys to pick out a slow progression of complementary notes as she gathers her thoughts. Despite her uncharacteristic lack of confidence, she’s still every bit as beautiful as the music she makes. Crowned with an ivory halo of moonlight, she’s like a dream, some sort of celestial goddess entirely too lovely to exist in a world as dark and harrowing as their own, and yet she’s completely oblivious to her own allure, fretting over the keys in an effort to fill the silence.

Ellie wouldn’t dare to rush her, because she’s absolutely certain that whatever comes next, whatever Dina has to say, will be worth it. She just keeps her eyes trained on the the careful, delicate movements of Dina’s hands and wills herself to stay patient.

In reality, she doesn’t have to wait much longer. Dina seems to make up her mind all at once.

“When I was younger, one of the first places my mom and I took refuge was this old theater,” she says. “Back in Nevada. It was pretty beat-up, but it was safe. Big, too. Enough room inside for at least a few dozen families. Maybe even more than that, if we’d been able to stock up on more resources.”

Ellie listens intently. Dina rarely talks about her life before Jackson, and the fact that she’s sharing it with her now feels almost monumental. There’s something unexpectedly intimate about her willingness to be vulnerable like this – even more intimate than asking Ellie to serenade her or sitting on her lap while their fingers fumbled together over the frets of a guitar – and Ellie struggles to catch her breath as the weight of it settles in her chest.

“There was an older woman there,” Dina continues. “She had to have been, I don’t know, sixty-five? Almost seventy? Either way, she was the oldest person I’d ever met.” She smiles at that, kind of bittersweetly, because most people don’t live to see that age, even the ones lucky enough to stay in active quarantine zones without the fear of infection looming over them. “Her daughters were on guard rotation, and her son-in-law had some kind of medical training, so they were always busy trying to keep the place going.” She pauses just for a moment, continues to play as a hush softens her voice. “She spent most of her time alone. We both did, actually. Not necessarily by choice. It’s just that we were both kind of… useless, I guess.”

Ellie’s heart gives a sudden, violent kick beneath her ribcage. A thousand different objections fight for access to her tongue at once. All of them end up lodged in her throat instead, choking her with her own reckless determination. As she always does, Dina seems to sense her protests, along with her paralyzing inability to voice them, and she just shakes her head softly, lifts a single shoulder to shrug them off with warm eyes and a wan smile.

“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s true. At the time, I was too young, and she was too old. So we spent most of our time holed up together, just trying to stay out of everyone else’s way.” She glances up to search Ellie’s eyes with her own. “But even then, even together, we were both alone, you know?”

Ellie nods, still choking on those same words, because she does know. Whatever it is that Dina’s looking for, Ellie desperately hopes that she sees it.

Dina bites her lip and gives a little shrug. “Or maybe it just felt that way because we couldn’t talk,” she says. “Her family was Armenian, I think. They had the most beautiful accents, but she was embarrassed by her English, so she never spoke.” Rather suddenly, her eyes brighten, and some of that irrepressible joy Ellie had seen before returns to her smile. “She played the piano, though. There was one just like this in the very back corner of the main stage. Even though it was basically just a medbay at that point, they never got rid of the piano, because people liked to listen to her play while they were recovering.” Her fingers chase after a new melody, slow and gentle. “It kept them calm, helped them sleep when they were restless.”

For some reason, it makes Ellie think of the Boston QZ. She recalls the countless batteries she’d drained in her Walkman, trying in vain to drown out the thoughts that kept her awake, drenched in a cold sweat. She wonders if things might have been different if someone had been playing for her.

“I’d never heard something so beautiful,” Dina admits softly. “Every day, she’d play, and I’d just sit there and watch her for hours.” She seems almost breathless as she thinks back to describe it, and the endless ballad she’s been playing shifts to accompany it. “I followed the way her fingers moved, listened until I’d memorized the sound of every single key. Now that I think about it, I think she played slowly on purpose, even though she couldn’t teach me, just because she knew I was watching.” She smiles faintly and shakes her head. “I watched her for months. Sometimes I’d even sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to practice, trying to figure out how it all came together, like nobody could hear me out there making a racket.”

She dissolves into a faint spell of giggles, one that seems genuine, aside from the fact that she’s obviously laughing at her own expense.

Ellie can’t help but smile. Despite her curiosity, she doesn’t ask why Dina and her mother left Nevada or what happened to the old woman who had inadvertently taught her how to play, because it doesn’t seem like that’s something Dina really wants to get into just now. She tries to envision Dina as a little girl, with soft cherub cheeks and big, pleading brown eyes, her tiny fingers prodding curiously at the foreign keys, until she had learned all of them as intuitively as she’d felt out the resilience of the strings on Ellie’s guitar. Part of her wishes she could have been there to see her like that.

Finally, Dina’s hands still, the echoes of her final notes fading into silence. When her eyes meet Ellie’s, they’re surprisingly penitent.

“I wasn’t lying to you when I said I wasn’t a musician,” she murmurs softly. “I don’t know anything about music. I know the sound each one of these keys makes, and what order they sometimes go in, but it’s not the same thing. It’s like… memorizing a word without ever learning the definition.”

Although she says it like it’s something shameful, like it’s some sort of personal failure, Ellie’s so completely in awe of her that she can’t speak.

Dina’s ability to play without being taught is the closest thing to a miracle that Ellie has ever seen, and she’s never been more breathtaking than she is right now, so achingly sincere even while all of her insecurities are voluntarily exposed. Ellie can’t believe that Dina trusts her enough to allow her to witness it firsthand. In a way, it’s almost terrifying, because the air between them is so heavy with the weight of significance that she thinks it’ll crush her.

Dina’s nerve wanes as the silence draws on. She drops her eyes, bashful in a way that she usually isn’t, and takes a slow, deep breath that is exhaled with a huff of plaintive laughter. “Sorry. That took longer than I thought it would. Long story short, I’m a total fraud. Do you want to head up now?”

She makes a vague gesture toward the roof hatch above them in a fairly transparent attempt to redirect Ellie’s attention to something less delicate.

Ellie finally tears her eyes away and glances up, just barely able to make out its shape through the darkness. That’s what they’re here for, after all.

There’s supposed to be a meteor shower tonight. At least, according to the seemingly ancient almanac of astronomical events that she had stumbled across during her last supply raid with Joel, there is. It’s dusty as hell and a little charred on one side, and it’s more than likely that all of the dates in it are completely irrelevant after so many years, but she decided to give it a shot anyway, since this particular event is supposedly an annual thing.

She had intended to keep the venture to herself, just in case it was a bust. That turned out to be something of a joke, because Dina eventually got it out of her anyway, and Ellie nearly had a heart attack when she’d immediately suggested that they come here, of all places, to watch it. When she’d finally started breathing again, she realized that it made a certain sort of sense. Despite the fact that it’s technically off limits, coincidentally known for being the place that kids their age go to make out, it’s the farthest building from the floodlights near the dam and the smaller streetlamps in the main residential blocks. Short of crossing the wall outside, it’s the darkest place in town, which makes it the most appropriate place they could go to see a meteor shower.

Until a few minutes ago, Ellie had been desperate to catch even a glimpse of it, still as obsessed with space as she was when she was fourteen. Now, she doesn’t think she could care less. This moment with Dina is too important, and the stars will still be there when she’s tired of playing.

Ellie shakes her head. “We have time,” she says, without sparing a glance at her watch, and she knows that she’s made the right choice when Dina’s eyes soften once more. She smiles a little to herself as she echoes the words that Dina had said to her only days ago. “Play something for me.”

Despite the visible thrum of excitement that passes through her, Dina hesitates, holding her eyes for just a moment longer. “You’re not mad?”

Again, Ellie shakes her head, though she struggles to put together a string of words that somehow manages to convey the depths of her admiration without sounding nauseatingly lovesick. “The fact that you can play without being taught how is… pretty fucking awesome,” she manages at last.

Dina smiles, ducking her head almost shyly. Ellie thinks she sees the faintest hint of pink in her cheeks as she lifts her hands back to the keyboard.

“This is Beethoven, apparently,” she says as she begins to play. “One of the sonatas, I think? Sometimes, if anyone recognized what she was playing, they’d tell me what it was called, because they knew I was obsessed. But this one…” Without pause, she smoothly navigates into something new, a slight pinch in her brow like she’s trying to recall exactly how it goes. “I must’ve heard her play it a hundred times, and I still have no idea what it is.”

Though nameless, it’s beautiful, soothing in a way that makes it easy to imagine how it might help the sick and wounded find enough peace to sleep.

“Most of the time, I just make things up,” Dina admits, pushing on with a shrug.

The melody that follows her indifferent confession is vibrant and surprisingly lighthearted, verging on playful. Innocent and uplifting and hopeful all at once, it seems to revel in its own positivity, almost in spite of the bleak world in which it was produced. It reminds Ellie, not for the first time, just how different the two of them really are. Despite the harsh reality she was born into, Dina’s capacity for kindness and optimism remains unfailing.

Ellie finally manages to find her voice. Admittedly, it’s still fairly unsteady when she whispers, “You wrote that?”

“I guess that depends on how you define ‘write,’ doesn’t it?” Dina replies flippantly, lofting a single brow at her.

Since she’s pretty sure Dina’s being facetious to hide the fact that she’s still a little nervous, Ellie lets it go. “You know what I mean.”

Dina feigns nonchalance as she lifts her shoulder in another shrug. “Before Maria locked it up, I used to sneak in here to play. Usually after my shifts in the gardens, because it was so close. Or sometimes when I just wanted to be alone. There wasn’t anyone around for me to copy anymore, so…”

Although her voice trails off, her fingers speak for her, chasing away the momentary silence as she idly picks up another melody.

Ellie shakes her head, unable to believe that she seems so nonchalant about something so remarkable. “Dina. That’s incredible.”

Dina’s gentle smile betrays just a flicker of bashful pride. It’s gone just as quickly, overtaken by playfulness. “I am pretty brilliant, aren’t I?”

“Yeah,” Ellie mutters back, smiling despite herself. There’s the predictably imperturbable Dina she’s come to know so well. “Modest, too.”

Grinning, Dina nudges Ellie’s shoulder with her own. She lingers there for a moment, leaning into her so deeply that her temple grazes the corner of Ellie’s jaw before she finally withdraws. “Want to hear my favorite one?” she asks, like all of her previous insecurities have completely melted away.

Ellie tries to swallow down the sudden tightness in her throat, but she doesn’t really manage it, choking on the words. “Yeah, definitely.”

“I wrote this one a long time ago,” Dina confesses. She takes just a moment to ready herself, then begins to play.

The introductory notes are so delicate, a progression so patient and gradual, that the melody is almost indiscernible at first. When it finally falls into place, the raw beauty of it steals the breath from Ellie’s lungs. She’s surprised to realize that it nearly brings tears to her eyes, even though she can’t begin to explain why. Baffled by the trembling of her hands and the desperate hammering of her heart, she just forces herself to keep breathing. As long as she keeps breathing, she’ll be fine, or so she tells herself. The melody slows, gradually becoming more plaintive, almost woeful, and Ellie has to fist her hands in her lap to still their helpless shaking, holding tight until Dina’s final notes, steady and enduring, fade into a low, sonorous echo.

It feels like eternity comes and goes before Ellie can bring herself to speak, terrified of what might come out of her mouth when she finally opens it.

“It’s beautiful,” she manages at last. Her voice cracks audibly, even over two inconsequential words that in no way do Dina the justice she deserves.

Dina smiles down at the motionless keys, gleaming brightly in the moonlight despite their wear and age, and closes her eyes briefly. “Thanks.”

Though she doesn’t prompt Ellie for anything other than that, Ellie can’t let this moment go on without giving her more than some paltry platitude. She’d said it was her favorite, and she had shared it, just because she wanted to. She deserves so much better than Ellie’s fumbling incompetence.

“What were you thinking of when you wrote it?” Ellie asks in a rush, under the foolish assumption that such a question is somehow safe.

She’s proven wrong when Dina turns to meet her eyes and murmurs, without hesitation, “You.”

Ellie stops breathing. Her lungs burn as all the unreleased carbon dioxide begins to build up in her blood.

“I started putting it together around the time we first met,” Dina goes on lightly, oblivious to the fact that Ellie’s on the verge of fainting from lack of oxygen. “I’ve made a few changes since then, but it’s still mostly the same.” Her fingers idly repeat the tender refrain that had nearly stopped Ellie’s heart, and she smiles to herself. “This part’s never changed.” Again, her dark eyes find Ellie’s. “I hear it in my head every time I think of you.”

Helpless to do anything else, Ellie just stares. Words elude her. She doesn’t think she’d have the strength to voice them anyway. Part of her wonders what all of this means, desperately aches to understand why Dina does the things she does and says the things she says – but an even larger part of her doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t want to know how she could have inspired Dina to create something so beautiful. She doesn’t want to know if she’s the only person Dina’s written a song about, or if she’s written one for everyone she knows, or why that one happens to be her ‘favorite.’

She doesn’t think she could handle the truth, no matter what it happens to be. Not tonight, not now.

Finally, at a loss, she chokes, “Teach me something.”

Dina raises an eyebrow at the unexpected outburst.

Ellie steels herself, wills her voice to bear the weight of certainty. “I taught you,” she insists. “After all the trouble you gave me, I think you owe me.”

“Alright,” Dina concedes with a faint, knowing grin, as though she’s all too aware that Ellie’s deflecting again. She doesn’t seem content to let her off the hook just yet either. “You want to sit on my lap this time?” She pats her thigh lightly, her grin stretching into a mischievous smirk. “It’s only fair.”

Forcing a laugh that feels more like gravel in her throat, Ellie rolls her eyes. “I’m good,” she mutters. “Wouldn’t want to crush your puny body.”

“Puny?” Dina echoes, her eyes glittering as she laughs at the grade school insult. When Ellie doesn’t retract her words, she nods. “Wow, okay.”

Without warning, she shifts over to throw the entire weight of her body against Ellie’s, nearly knocking her clear off the bench in the process.

Ellie accidentally punches a discordant clatter of baritone keys as she grasps at the corner of the piano to steady herself, and still just barely catches her balance before she ends up on her ass in the dirt. Despite her near miss with the ground and the fact that she’s essentially suspended in midair, she has to laugh as she painstakingly regains her footing to right herself on the bench, because Dina’s delighted giggling is infectious.

“Dick,” she mumbles through her laughter. She retaliates with her own nudge against Dina’s elbow, one that’s decidedly more gentle.

Dina endures the brief motion with a roll of her eyes, like it’s completely unwarranted. “Stop fooling around! Do you want me to teach you or not?”

“You’re the one who keeps stalling,” Ellie counters. She waves a hand toward the piano, inviting Dina to continue. “Come on, maestro. Educate me.”

“That’s maestra to you,” Dina teases, her voice dropping to a register that’s unfairly low. “Now pay attention.”

While Dina redirects her focus toward the keys, smirking to herself as she does, Ellie struggles to ignore the knot in her gut. She’d meant maestro as the general term people use for a talented musician, but she knows from the bits of language she’d been forced to learn at the military school she’d attended back in Boston that it’s also used to refer to a teacher – and, as the feminine counterpart of ‘master,’ it also sometimes means ‘mistress.’

She’s so determined not to think about that, or any of the unspoken things that Dina could teach her, that she can’t even find it in herself to muster a snarky comment in return. Her silence must look an awful lot like obedience, she thinks, practically a confirmation of her unconditional surrender.

By some small mercy, Dina doesn’t take the joke any further. Her motionless hands are poised above the keyboard, which she regards with a frown.

“Wow,” she laughs under her breath, her posture wilting unexpectedly. “It’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually know how to do this.” The steel hamsa on her bracelet reflects a glimmer of moonlight as she tucks an errant wisp of hair behind her ear, almost nervously. “Teach you, I mean.”

Ellie’s sure she isn’t imagining the color in her cheeks this time. As hard as it is to believe this is the same girl from moments ago, Dina’s shyness is a phenomenon that’s far too rare and precious for her to treat with anything other than tenderness, no matter how stupid it might make her sound.

“That’s alright,” Ellie whispers. Funnily enough, it doesn’t take that much effort to speak when the goal is to encourage her. “Just tell me what you know.”

Dina smiles, small and sweet. “Um, okay,” she mumbles. She takes a breath, visibly trying to gather herself again. “So, it seems like there are certain sections that repeat. I usually keep track of them by counting the little black keys at the top. See how there are groups of two and groups of three?” When she points out the recurring pattern, Ellie nods. “Okay, well, one whole ‘set,’ I guess, is all of these keys.” With her index fingers, she indicates two seemingly indistinct white keys on either end of the black ones, only to permit another giggle as the bashfulness from earlier returns. “I think.”

As cool and confident as Dina always is, this is by far the most uncertain Ellie’s ever seen her, and it’s way more adorable than it has any right to be. If Ellie weren’t already crazy for her, she’s absolutely certain that this moment alone would seal the deal.

Dina keys out gentle examples of each note in the set she’s described, then starts over with the next set, indicating how it seems to follow the same pattern, even though it’s a higher pitch. Ellie nods as she begins to put together an idea of how it works, because the layout of all the keys seems to follow the same general progression as the notes on the fretboard of a guitar. Briefly, she wonders if she might have been able to teach Dina how to play after all, if she had only approached things from a different perspective, if she hadn’t been so focused on all the meaningless technicalities…

As Ellie mimics Dina’s motions on the keys near her end, which are lower in pitch, deep and sustaining, she gradually tests their resistance. They are pleasantly responsive, bending to the pressure of her touch with little objection. Once she’s run through each of the keys in the set a few times, she singles out a note that sounds somewhat familiar, even to her lesser trained ear, and hums along under her breath as she tries to match the tone.

When Dina tilts her head curiously, Ellie drops her hand to her lap with a shrug.

“No, tell me,” Dina insists, though it’s far too gentle to be considered a demand.

“This one,” Ellie mumbles reluctantly, lifting her hand to play the note once again. “I think it’s… a C, maybe? It sounds like the notes are sequential, too, just like they are on a guitar.” She begins to play them all once again, from left to right, slowly. “So, if that’s C, then this would be D, then E, F, G, then A and B.” She shifts over to the first key of the next ‘set,’ which she’s pretty sure now is an octave. “And then it would start over again at C.”  

“Damn,” Dina murmurs lowly, a visible sort of appreciation in her eyes as they wander Ellie’s face. “You already know more about this than I do.”

A blistering wave of heat crawls up Ellie’s neck under Dina’s gaze. “I… don’t,” she mutters. “That’s just – you know, theoretically.”

“Ellie, you’re talking to a musical neanderthal, remember?” Dina counters. “Me play piano. Push white stick, make pretty sound.”

Despite the trepidation quivering in Ellie’s lungs, that actually makes her laugh. “You’re so full of shit.”

“Hush,” Dina giggles, leaning into Ellie’s shoulder until she manages to compose herself. “Just watch, okay? I’ll teach you something simple.”

Ellie doesn’t bother to put up a fight about it. She keeps her eyes on Dina’s fingers as she begins to play the opening notes to a song that Ellie’s sure she’s heard before, though neither of them remember the name of it. As Ellie follows along key by key, a few octaves lower, she realizes that it’s not much different than playing a guitar either, aside from the fact that her hand is facing away from her, and she’s able to pick it up pretty quickly.

She has the progression of notes memorized by the third time they run through it, able to repeat it on her own and at various speeds.

“Now you’re just showing off,” Dina teases, displacing Ellie’s hand with a playful nudge to her forearm.

While it doesn’t particularly feel like she’s going anything special, Ellie blushes at the praise all the same. She shrugs as she drops her hand.

“You know, I figured you’d be good at this,” Dina admits. She leans forward to brace her elbow against the retracted key cover, propping her head in her palm to observe Ellie more directly. Facing away from the window, her face is shrouded by indigo shadows, but her eyes glitter as they catch the diffused moonlight refracted by the faint gloss of the ivory keys. “Maybe if I knew all those fancy letters, I could actually teach you how to play.”

Though Ellie feigns nonchalance with another shrug, she can’t quite meet Dina’s gaze when she mumbles, “Maybe I’d rather learn the way you did.”

A quick, nervous glance at Dina’s face reveals that she’s smiling, her lower lip caught in the delicate clutch of her teeth. Her eyes are gentle, like that simple sentiment actually means something to her, and it floods Ellie’s veins with the most uniquely excruciating mixture of panic and exhilaration.

Thankfully, she’s saved from the potential awkwardness of fumbling through an explanation by the piercing chirp of her watch. She glances down at it, lifts her wrist and squints against the slight glare obscuring the glass until she can make out the time, surprised to find that it’s already 2:00 AM.

They don’t have much time left. According to Ellie’s almanac, the meteor shower is supposed to reach its peak sometime in the next hour.

Dina’s still admiring her when she looks back up, and she clears her throat compulsively, chasing away the dampness of her palms on her jeans.

“Might take us a while to make the climb,” she mumbles at last, which is true even if it’s primarily a diversion. “Think we should head up now?”

Dina dips her head, stifling another smile, as she makes a grand, sweeping gesture toward the roof hatch. “Lead the way.”

Ellie doesn’t hesitate to take the mercy that’s been offered to her, reaching out to collect her backpack off the floor and then rising to her feet.

Although Dina stands as well, she lingers at the piano for a second longer. She takes a moment to seal the keys away beneath their protective cover, as carefully and delicately as one might handle their most prized possession, something unspeakably precious. While she’s occupied, the moonlight pours down to trace the fine edges of her silhouette, a stunning silvery white corona that glows not unlike a star’s. She looks like she belongs in one of those ancient Renaissance paintings, so soft and otherworldly that she deserves nothing less than to be immortalized on canvas, just like this.

Ellie shakes the thought away, irritated with herself. She desperately wants to thank Dina for sharing something so personal with her, but the words are like glass in her throat. If she opens her mouth now, she thinks the truth will just keep pouring out of her, until she’s bled out all of her secrets.

The opportunity seems to slip from her grasp entirely the moment Dina joins her on the other side of the bench.

“Alright, hotshot,” she says, leaning into her briefly. “You’re the professional. How are we going to get up there?”

Torn, Ellie ultimately just lets it go. She’ll find a way to tell Dina how much this meant to her someday. She just needs a little more time.

At Dina’s behest, she examines the assorted mass of junk piled up throughout the room. Conveniently enough, there are a few bookshelves already bulked up together, a dark spire of them that stretches up almost directly under the roof hatch. That must have been how the others had gotten up to the roof before Maria finally locked this place down. She probably hadn’t thought it was necessary to move them, if no one could get in anyway.

Ellie tries to visualize a way to get on top of them. The surrounding heap of debris is so thick that it would take forever to remove it, and they would never be able to do it quietly. It wouldn’t even be worth the effort, since most of the remaining shelves are already broken. Even if they could reach them, they couldn’t climb them directly. After a moment, Ellie spots a desk near the far wall. Despite the damage, it’s still got all four of its legs, and it looks stable enough. If they climb from the desk to the filing cabinets propped up next to it, and then over to the refrigerator, they should be able vault over to the shortest wooden bookshelf, which would get them high enough to climb directly onto the industrial shelving unit in the middle.

“Over here,” Ellie says, motioning for Dina to follow as she starts on the path she’s charted out.

Despite the somewhat precarious circumstances they soon find themselves in, Dina is incredibly light on her feet, and she has no trouble keeping up. She hardly flinches as they huddle together on the row of perilously teetering filing cabinets, just clings to Ellie’s arm to steady herself with a giggle, like they’re children playing on the world’s most hazardous playground. Every step of the way, Dina’s only seconds behind her. Soon enough, they’re standing together on the tallest shelf, which is thankfully so entrenched in the surrounding furniture that it hardly wobbles under their weight.

Brushing the dust from her hands, Ellie peers up at the hatch above them. She stretches onto her toes to reach for the handle, but her fingertips just barely graze it. While she has no doubt that she would be able to grab it if she jumped, the only way to disengage the lock is to turn the handle.

There’s only one way they’ll be able to get it open from this height.

“What are you looking at me for?” Dina laughs, when Ellie’s eyes inevitably find her own. “You’re taller than I am.”

Ellie shakes her head, wills herself not to overthink things as she gestures for Dina to come closer. She can do this.

“Come here,” she says as she centers herself below the hatch. “I can get you up there.”

For the first time since they began their ascent, Dina casts a dubious glance at the ground several feet below them. Although it’s not likely that such a short fall would kill them, it definitely wouldn’t make for a very pleasant landing, and any injuries they sustained would be pretty hard to explain.

“Just trust me,” Ellie insists gently, drawing Dina’s attention back to her once more. “I won’t drop you, I promise.”

Dina offers a sardonic grin in return. “I’ll remember that when we’re both in the infirmary with broken necks.”

Even in the wake of her protests, she ultimately complies, and the moment she steps into Ellie’s personal space, Ellie’s certainty that this won’t be a big deal goes out the proverbial window. As Dina settles both hands on her shoulders, Ellie busies herself by making a cradle of her palms for Dina’s foot. She focuses all of her remaining willpower on being still and steady, keeping her center of gravity low to maintain her balance, which proves to be a bit more difficult than she had expected. It’s not that Dina’s heavy, because she isn’t. It’s that her weight is becoming so achingly familiar.

Carefully, Dina reaches for the handle. Without the leverage of her hands on Ellie’s shoulders, she has to lean further into Ellie’s embrace to support herself as she begins to twist it. Though Ellie senses the shift in her weight, she’s slow to react. She has just enough time to turn her head, and then Dina’s abdomen is pressed against her face. Her belly is taut and inexplicably soft, and warm, burning against the skin of Ellie’s ear and cheek where her shirt has ridden up. Ellie can smell the perfume and incense trapped in the fibers there, and the scent of smooth, clean skin just beneath it.

Closing her eyes, she forces several shallow breaths out through her mouth. Fuck, maybe she can’t do this after all…  

“Almost…” Dina mutters. Only a second later, the locking mechanism releases with a sharp, metallic whine. “Got it!”

“Nice,” Ellie breathes in a rush, anxious to put some distance between them again. “Hold on – I’ll give you a boost.”

It’s obvious that Dina doesn’t need any extra help, able to pop open the hatch at that height without any trouble at all. She accepts it anyway, using the additional momentum Ellie offers to pull herself up and over the ledge. Below, Ellie heaves a sigh of relief, her heart hammering in her throat.

Once Dina’s back on her feet again, she leans over to peer through the hatch with a grin. “Are you coming or what?”

Ellie doesn’t bother to respond, just shakes her head in her very best attempt to appear annoyed, then jumps to grasp the ledge herself. It’s not too difficult to hoist herself up, since she’s done a fairly good job keeping herself strong, ready for anything – even in a place as uneventful and stagnant as Jackson. As soon as she gets her weight properly distributed, she’s able to ease herself through the hatch and get to her feet pretty smoothly.

Appraising Ellie’s figure with keen, attentive eyes, Dina smirks. “Can you do that again,” she asks, her voice low and coy, “but slower this time?”

Ellie scoffs, sure that her face is glowing a vibrant pink under the direct light of the moon. “Shut up,” she mumbles.

She carefully averts her eyes as she brushes past Dina to approach the center of the roof. It’s flat and vacant, which makes it the perfect place to lay back and watch the sky. While Dina lingers behind, presumably to revel in her victory, Ellie slips off her backpack and kneels to rummage through it. Tossing aside the tattered almanac and the flashlight she’d brought, just in case, she tugs out the huge, knitted blanket she had carefully folded and tucked away for them, because there’s no telling what sort of stuff they could be sitting on, even all the way up here. It’s Lovers’ Lane, after all.

Dina joins her just as she manages to get it laid out flat. She drops down onto it without preamble or hesitation, immediately moving to lay back.

“Wait,” Ellie mumbles. Before she can really consider what she’s doing and whether she should do it, she takes her now empty backpack and rolls it up until only the soft underside is exposed, effectively transforming it into a pillow, and positions it on the blanket just beneath Dina’s head. “Here.”

Dina squints up at her against the moonlight, permitting a small smile before she lays her head down. “How chivalrous of you.”

As her own recklessness catches up to her, Ellie grimaces. “Do you want me to take it back?” she grumbles. “I can take it back.”

“Oh, my God,” Dina groans with a roll of her eyes. “You’re impossible.” She grasps the sleeve of Ellie’s flannel and tugs. “Just lay with me already.”

Ellie resists just for a moment, in an effort to preserve what little pride she has left, but Dina’s not having it. Her grasp is uncompromising. While it’s not rough by any means, it’s adamant in its persistence and devastatingly persuasive, and she’s practically managed to wrestle Ellie flat on her back by the time Ellie finally admits defeat. Surrendering the last few inches, Ellie collapses on the blanket beside her with a muted grunt and a frown.

Oddly enough, Dina doesn’t stifle a giggle at her at her inevitable conquest, or turn her head to murmur a sly, self-satisfied comment into Ellie’s ear. She doesn’t say anything at all, just laces her fingers together over her stomach and makes herself comfortable, her eyes turned up toward the sky.

Ellie follows her gaze. Above them, millions of stars shimmer in a sea of inky black, motes of light puncturing the veil of darkness like tiny pin-pricks, as unfathomable and infinitesimal as grains of sand. Although some of them wink and glitter, seeming so lively in the otherwise stationary heavens, Ellie knows that what she’s seeing now is nothing more than a fleeting snapshot of dwarfs and giants and supernovas that have long since died out. That thought had fascinated her when she was younger, and still captivates her now, because there’s something breathtakingly profound in the idea that, every time they look up at the sky, they’re seeing into the past, bearing witness to a whole galaxy of light and life that may not exist anymore.

Still, as beautiful as it is, there’s no evidence of the meteor shower predicted by Ellie’s almanac. Perfect.

Ellie sighs, lifting her arm to tuck it beneath her head. She can hear Dina breathing at her side, slow and deep, which only serves to remind her that they’re alone, and here of all places. Though she wills herself not to fidget, she soon finds herself drumming her fingers against her ribcage anyway.

“I’m going to feel really stupid if we came all the way up here for nothing,” she mumbles finally, desperate to break the cloying silence.

Their shoulders brush together as Dina lifts hers in a small, placid shrug. “Suit yourself,” she murmurs. “I’m having a pretty good time.”

Ellie doesn’t respond, yet again torn between the desire to understand what Dina means and the fear of actually knowing the answer. Although she can feel Dina’s eyes on her, she keeps her own fixed resolutely on the luminous ghosts above them. She’s absolutely certain that if she looked at her now, there’s no way she would be able to look away, even if the moon went dark and every star fell from the sky.

Despite her stubborn refusal to return her gaze, Ellie doesn’t miss the shudder that passes through Dina’s body hardly a moment later.

Fall’s coming, Ellie realizes kind of abruptly. Over the past few nights, the thick summer humidity has been declining, and the temperature has been following a similar trend, dropping lower than they typically expect it to in the middle of August. She can’t believe she didn’t put it together sooner. When she had snuck out to meet Dina a few hours ago, it was still moderately warm, a regular balmy night. Now that it’s nearing 3:00 AM, the air is a few degrees cooler, and the vacant rooftop doesn’t offer much in the way of shelter to protect them from the strength of the breeze.

“You’re cold,” Ellie observes, a bit dumbly. She hadn’t really felt the difference through her flannel, but Dina’s only wearing a T-shirt.

Dina laughs, attempting to warm herself by rubbing her palms along her upper arms. “You know how Tommy and Jonathan are always talking about  all those fancy programs that could predict the weather?” she asks through another full-body shiver. “That’d be so fucking great, wouldn’t it?”

Without another word, Ellie sits up and tugs off her flannel. She didn’t think to bring another blanket, and she can’t just let her freeze.

She keeps her eyes trained on her hands as she drapes her shirt over Dina’s arms. As long as doesn’t look into Dina’s eyes, it’ll all be –

“Okay, now you’re overdoing it,” Dina says gently. The tease in her voice is softened by something else, something sweet and delicate.

Against her better judgment, Ellie risks a glance at her face. The smile she finds there is so soft, so full of something more, that it makes her ache.

“Overdoing what?” she mumbles, determined to convince them both that it’s no big deal, despite the heated flush racing up her neck.

Though Dina doesn’t reply, her smile persists. Her eyes glitter in the moonlight like they contain an infinite galaxy of their own.

“What?” Ellie prompts again. When that earns her nothing more than a coy shrug, she grimaces. “Look, I was just trying to be nice, but if you’re –”

“Ellie, shut up,” Dina sighs, clearly exasperated by her habitual deflections. She doesn’t give Ellie time to protest before she reaches out to grasp her by the collar of her oversized men’s T-shirt and then physically wrenches her down onto her back once again. She’s definitely not gentle about it this time, which has the additional benefit of winding Ellie just long enough to silence her perfunctory string of empty protests.

Almost immediately, Dina begins to shuffle closer, and cold panic floods Ellie’s veins. It takes every ounce of her willpower not to shy away. Not that she would be particularly successful, even if she tried, since Dina keeps her pinned in place with one hand while she readjusts her backpack-pillow.

“Here,” she says, once she’s settled down again. She lifts Ellie’s flannel to spread it out over both of them. “We can share.”

Ellie closes her eyes, silently cursing her own luck. She’d had no idea that offering Dina her shirt would somehow lead to them cuddling.

“I’m fine,” she mumbles back, out of propriety if nothing else, because she wouldn’t know what to do with herself if she just tried to enjoy it for once.

“Rub it in,” Dina retorts sarcastically. “I know you’re freakishly hot, like, all the time, but you don’t have to brag about it.” She huffs and sidles closer, fighting another shiver. “If you must know, it’ll be warmer for me if we’re both covered, genius. Don’t you know anything about thermodynamics?”

Despite Ellie’s physical discomfort, she surrenders the faintest smile. Dina’s excessive teasing is a calculated move. Ever since they met, it’s been her go-to means of diffusing the inexplicably tense situations they always seem to find themselves in before Ellie has an opportunity to panic, overthink things, or bolt. Dina’s not shy about seeking out physical contact in the slightest, so Ellie can only assume the playful banter is for her benefit, which she appreciates, even if she can’t bring herself to say so. It puts her at ease, soothing the fitful kicking of her heart and the heat roiling in her blood.

Silence descends upon them again, kinder than before. They’re both quiet as they gaze at the sky, marveling at all of its dispassionate beauty.

Even as the muffled chirp of Ellie’s watch signals the arrival of 3:00 AM, several minutes later, the heavens above them remain placid and still.

“No meteors tonight, huh?” Dina murmurs gently.

“Nope,” Ellie sighs. “I guess the book was wrong.”

Dina hums to herself, pressing her chin into Ellie’s shoulder. “You disappointed?”

Ellie considers the question for a moment, because it’s not as simple as that. Although the excitement and the childish sort of wonderment she had felt at the prospect of witnessing something so rare and beautiful has faded, leaving her hollow and feeling a bit foolish, she’s not disappointed that they came. If they hadn’t had a reason to break into Lovers’ Lane, she never would have discovered Dina’s passion for the piano – and, beyond that, Dina may never have gotten the chance to play again. That alone, that single moment between them, is worth more than any astronomical event.

Besides, there are worse things than lying on a rooftop beneath the stars with the girl of her dreams curled up against her side.

“No,” she whispers finally. “I’m having a pretty good time.”

Chapter Text

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.