It was Wednesday, the winter winds throwing a biting breeze down the streets of Jackson. It was after patrols, when all the gear had been put away and the horses stabled. It was dusk, the light of the setting sun casting an ombre glow across the sky that made it look like the entire world had gone up in flames. It was the time of a scheduled meeting, the pre-agreed upon date and time during which a guitar lesson was supposed to be taking place.
And Ellie was so fucking late.
It was Dina’s fault. They’d rode in from patrol, handing back guns and unsaddling horses. Shimmer had been brushed and led back into her stall, Japan had been given a blanket after Dina threatened a new recruit for stealing it. All had been well, until Ellie made the mistake of turning her back on the girl, wistfully anticipating the warmth of Joel’s house and the possibility of some hot chocolate. All of sudden a wet mound had thudded forcefully against her back, nearly knocking her onto her knees. A quick examination of the substance revealed it to be much too dark in color to be a simple snowball.
“That better have been mud,” Ellie had growled. Without turning around, she’d kneeled to the stable floor, wrapped her fist around some snow, and hurled it as hard as she could behind her. An indignant squeal had let her know her target had hit its mark. “Boom, baby!”
Ellie had twirled around, pumping both fists in the air as she’d wiggled her hips in an impromptu victory dance. A smug smile sat firm on her lips as she stuck her tongue out at Dina, who stood flicking snow off her chest.
“Is that really all you’ve got?” Dina had laughed as she’d watched the auburn-haired girl dance around the barn. “I’m pretty sure my Grandma has more spunk than you do right now.”
“Oh, it’s on!” Ellie had declared, and indeed it was. Snowballs flew all around, hay was scattered as the girls dived to avoid each other, and one of the horse’s bridles got knocked over into the mud after Ellie had misjudged the amount of ice on the floor and her run turned into a slide that had ended abruptly against the stall door. It was then, while Ellie lay momentarily sprawled on the stable floor, that Dina had made her move. At the last second, Ellie had whipped her head around to see Dina leap up from her crouched position in favor of sprinting at the fallen girl. Ellie was quick to snatch up some snow and bounce to her feet, but the ice had made her going a bit more treacherous. She had made it only a few hurried steps before Dina had tackled her back to the ground, pinning her against the dirty stable floor before she could even release the ball of snow still clenched in her fist.
“What are you going to do now?” Dina had challenged, batting her eyes at the girl below her.
“This,” Ellie had shrugged-- attempted to shrug, anyway, as best she could while being held on the floor. In one swift movement, she’d smashed her snowball against the side of Dina’s face and then reached her legs up, wrapping them around Dina so that with one powerful twist she had flipped their positions, throwing the smaller girl underneath her and straddling her so that she couldn’t escape.
Dina had let out a surprised gasp, a noise sounding dangerously close to a moan. The triumphant smirk had fallen flush from her face as she’d gazed into Ellie’s forest green eyes, the intensity with which Dina lay looking up at her having made her mouth go instantly dry. A blush had crept swiftly across her cheeks as she’d cleared her throat and stumbled back from the girl. Ellie had climbed clumsily to her feet before offering an arm up to Dina, which the smaller girl had accepted with a shy grin.
“I, uh, I should go,” Ellie had managed, her eyes darting around to look frantically at everything in the stables except Dina. She hadn’t dared meet the other girl’s eyes, for fear that Dina would somehow guess just by looking at her where exactly her mind had wandered when she’d had her pinned below her, the sort of erotic and sinful thoughts that had briefly encompassed her mind. Ellie had glanced out the door, noting the quickly darkening sky around them. “I was supposed to meet Joel when we first got back.”
“You’d better hurry then,” Dina had replied with a snort, oblivious to her friend’s internal panic. “He might already have half the town out looking for you.”
“Yeah,” Ellie had agreed, still desperately avoiding the other girl’s gaze.
Dina had reached out then, placing a gloved hand to Ellie’s cheek with a featherlight touch. Ellie had felt her breath catch in her throat as she finally, finally forced herself to look up and meet those warm, chocolate eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow, El.”
The butterflies in Ellie’s stomach had become a hurricane as she’d watched Dina stalk out of the stables, her hips swaying with a sexy swagger as she made her way home through the darkening streets of Jackson. A soft sigh had escaped her lips, and a sadness took over immediately after. No matter what Ellie felt, it didn’t matter. Dina wasn’t interested in girls, and certainly not Ellie. Besides, she was already in a relationship. With Jesse. With Ellie’s very good friend Jesse, a boy she cared for very much and definitely did not want to hurt by stealing away the girlfriend he loved with all his heart.
Dina wasn’t hers. She was Jesse’s. She wasn’t interested in Ellie. She was Jesse’s. She was not, nor ever would be, Ellie’s girlfriend. She was Jesse’s. She was Jesse’s. She was Jesse’s.
The door creaked very loudly. So much for Ellie sneaking in. Although, in her defense, one look around the room proved just how impossible that would have been, squeaky doors be damned. Joel stood in the middle of the room, eyes locked on the door where Ellie had just entered in. His arms were crossed firmly over his chest and a deep scowl was etched on his face. The guitar that Ellie was supposed to be playing sat long forgotten in the corner of the room beside her empty chair.
“Hi honey, I’m home,” Ellie quipped, tossing her bag on the floor.
“Ellie, where were you?” Joel demanded. “You were supposed to get here right after your patrol.”
“I was hanging out with Dina,” Ellie answered truthfully. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you cared so much about today’s lesson. I mean, aren’t you the one who’s always saying I shouldn’t be spending so much time alone with that thing? ‘You’re awful lonesome, Ellie.’ ‘Why don’t you go see those friends of yours, Ellie?’ ‘Put down that guitar and go get some fresh air, kiddo.’ Any of this ringing a bell, old man?”
Joel let out a sigh. “The guitar’s not what I care about,” he responded gruffly. “If you’d rather spend time with people your own age, that’s fine by me. In fact, I’d encourage that. It’s just I was worried about you. Patrols aren’t always the safest jobs in town, and when you didn’t show I was scared it was because something’d happened to you.”
“Pfft, nothing’s going to happen to me,” Ellie joked. “I’m fucking invincible!”
“Hmm,” Joel grunted, struggling to keep a sad smile off his face.
“I really am sorry,” Ellie conceded, and she took a seat on the chair beside the guitar. “Which song are you teaching me today?”
“Good Lord, give me patience,” Joel muttered to himself. But he did take a seat beside Ellie, and he handed her the guitar. “It’s a favorite of mine. Came out around the time of that other one you love so much.”
“‘Take On Me?’” Ellie asked.
“That’s the one,” Joel nodded. “Though this one goes a little different. Still about longing, just in a different setting. So to start, you’re gonna want to go with a D chord. Yeah, you got it. Okay, now switch to an A. Good. Now B minor. No, that’s G minor, that chord comes later. There you go, that’s a B. Now a regular G. Mm-hmm.”
Ellie held the guitar, listening closely to Joel’s instructions, strumming the chords at his commands until it started to sound like the underlying music to a song. She smiled, picking it up quite quickly. She didn’t yet know the lyrics, but she liked the way it felt to play this song on guitar. Something about it felt so familiar, though she couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps she’d heard Joel play it before. Hadn’t he said it was one of his favorites?
“Okay, start at the beginning,” Joel instructed.
Ellie was quick to follow suit, plucking out a D chord to start the procession. This was one of her favorite parts of music lessons with Joel. She loved to play the guitar, but there was something about the moment when he started to sing, to reveal to her the lyrics meant to accompany the melody of the song, that was just so special to her. It always felt like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.
“ Jessie is a friend ,” Joel sang, and Ellie grinned, thinking of her own friend Jesse. “ Yeah, I know, he’s been a good friend of mine .”
Also true. Ellie couldn’t count the number of times he’d saved her out on patrol. He always had her back, and likewise she’d always have his. He was brave, and funny, and smart. Such a good friend. Probably her closest friend, too. Aside from Dina, that is.
“ But lately something’s changed that ain’t hard to define/Jessie’s got himself a girl and I want to make her mine .”
Ellie slipped, accidentally throwing her weight forward in shock at the sound of the song leaving Joel’s mouth. The guitar clattered across the floor as Ellie slammed her hands down in front of her in a desperate attempt to break her fall.
“Christ!” Joel cursed, kneeling down beside her. “You alright, Ellie?”
“I’m fucking fine, Joel, I just slipped,” Ellie lied. Her heart was pounding as she accepted an arm up from Joel. Did he know? Is that why he’d gotten so worked up about her being late? Did he want her to admit to him that she had feelings for Dina?
No, that couldn’t be it. Joel had no idea about her. Even with Cat, Ellie had never told him a single thing, and he’d never suspected. Shit, wasn’t it just the other day Joel was hinting to her that he thought she had feelings for Jesse? The very thought almost made her laugh out loud, except that the only thing she could feel right now was absolute panic.
It wasn’t that she thought Joel wouldn’t approve. In fact, she was positive she’d receive nothing but support from the old man. It was just… It was hard. Things had felt really off-kilter lately. Actually, things had been off between her and Joel for awhile, it was more that she’d only just recently been willing to admit it to herself. He was keeping something from her. Something big. She didn’t know why, and she wasn’t even sure what it was, but there was definitely something. Maybe in some strange way it felt good to have a secret of her own from him.
At any rate, she was beginning to think her secret was in trouble of being exposed as Joel gently tugged her to her feet, his kind eyes reflecting his worry as he looked her over for any physical injuries. “You’re sure you’re alright, kiddo?”
“Yes,” Ellie assured him. “You don’t get broken bones by falling out of a chair.”
Joel scrunched up his nose. “Actually, some people do.”
“Well I don’t,” Ellie said firmly, avoiding his gaze in favor of looking out the window at the snow that had started to fall over the town. “I’m stronger than that.”
Joel followed her gaze, and he instantly softened. “I’m sorry, Ellie. I think sometimes I almost forget what a difficult time this can be for you.”
Ellie gave him a confused look, wondering what in the world he was babbling on about. She was just about to make a remark about it being time to put him in a home when she suddenly realized: falling snow, horrible injuries, having to be strong. In her mind’s eye, she saw a blizzard and heard gunshots. She was transported back to a horrible winter from years ago, and she knew exactly what Joel was going on about.
“It’s not that,” Ellie assured him, her voice soft. She knew it had been just as terrible a time for Joel as well, given that he’d almost died.
“Then what?” Joel asked, concern shining through in his deep hazel eyes. “What’s going on with you?”
She knew she should probably tell him something close to what was really bugging her, otherwise he might not believe her, but she just couldn’t bring herself to a confession. Not about Dina. Not yet. Which left her with only one other card to play.
She took a deep breath and said, “I don’t have feelings for Jesse.”
Joel looked surprised at the remark. “You know, it’d be fine by me if you do. He’s a good kid--”
“I don’t,” Ellie replied. “I can’t, actually, because he’s… He’s not, uh, well he’s not a girl.”
“A girl,” Joel repeated, his face betraying not a single hint of emotion.
“Yeah,” Ellie confirmed. “I like girls, Joel. Not guys. So, you know, not Jesse, either.”
“Hmm,” Joel grunted. “I was way off.”
“That’s it?” Ellie asked when he didn’t say anything more. “That’s all you’ve got for me?”
“I didn’t know you wanted me to say more,” Joel responded truthfully. “Fact is, it don’t matter to me if you like girls. You date whoever you like so long as you’re happy and she treats you right.”
“Oh,” Ellie said, feeling a surprising amount of relief flooding her body. “Okay.”
“But she better treat you right,” Joel emphasized. “I won’t have it any other way. You bring home a girl who thinks you’re anything less than a goldmine, and I’ll show her the door before you can count two shakes of a dog’s tail. Deal?”
“Joel, your expressions are so fucking weird,” Ellie laughed, and she threw in an eye roll for good measure. “And yeah, I guess you’ve got a deal.”
“Good,” Joel snorted, wrapping his arms around Ellie and pulling her in for a hug. “I only want the best for my baby girl.”
“How sweet,” Ellie replied, and despite her sarcastic tone she secretly actually did find it very sweet of him.
“Though, I’ll admit,” Joel added, “I think I’m a bit more worried for your future girlfriends.”
“Oh, very funny, old man,” Ellie scoffed.
“I’m serious,” Joel insisted. “You can be really oblivious sometimes. Y’know, I always thought that girl Cat had an eye for you.”
Ellie struggled not to smile.
“You don’t say?”
“What?” Joel asked, giving her a quizzical look. “Is there something I don’t know about?”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about,” Ellie admitted, snuggling into his chest. “But I love you for it.”
“Hmm,” Joel grunted, and he leaned his chin against the top of her head. “I love you too, kiddo.”