Man of Constant Sorrow

Now Shall My Inward Joys Arise

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.

- From Amazing Grace, traditional American hymn

Ellie froze in her tracks as the shot echoed through the empty corridor. The flash from the gun had come from two doors down, Seth Jones’s old room, a mere fifteen feet away.

No. NO! This wasn’t happening. This was a nightmare, and she’d wake up any second. She smelled the gunpowder, acrid in the dusty hallway.

“Oh, god…” A sob rose in her throat and she clapped her hand over her mouth to hold it in. This was no dream. She was too late. She’d lost so many people, her parents, her two unborn children, all her friends, maybe Lucy, and now Joel, who she...she had strong feelings for, despite herself. Suddenly, her knees didn’t feel like they’d hold her up anymore. She slumped against the corridor wall and slid to the floor, letting the tears come. If only Olivia had read that damn file faster. If only she’d fucking run faster...

Something nudged her toe. Ellie raised her tear-streaked face to find Joel standing over her, frowning.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

She scrambled to her feet. “Joel! Oh, thank god…”

She went to throw her arms around him, but he pushed her back almost angrily. “Damn it, Ellie! Don’t make this harder on me.”

She was so shaken, she could barely form a coherent sentence. “I heard the shot, and I thought you…” She took a deep breath. “What happened?”

Joel grimaced. “A clicker. It was hiding in the bathroom. Woke up when I started coughing, I guess.” He looked her over. “Christ, Ellie! What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You ain’t even carryin' a weapon. We don’t know if there are more infected down here.” He smiled bitterly. “Besides the two of us, I mean.”

“No, that’s what I wanted…” She cut herself off and they both stiffened as the all-too-familiar sound of a clicker searching for prey echoed down the corridor.

“Damn it,” Joel muttered. “We better move.” He handed her his pistol. “Only three more rounds in there, so you best make ‘em count.”

“Follow me,” Ellie said. A combination of relief, happiness, fear, and something else, something that made her heart pound at the sight of him, was making her feel lightheaded. “And stay quiet.” She almost grinned.

Joel followed Ellie’s lead, but her admonishment to stay quiet was easier said than done. The clicker had their trail, and every time it seemed like they were going to lose it, the insistent ache in Joel’s chest would turn into a painful cough that he couldn’t suppress. And the clicker would start to zero in on them again.

The third time it happened, Ellie looked back at him in alarm. Tears were streaming down his face and his chest was hitching with the effort to hold the cough in. All he could do was shake his head at her.

He wanted to tell her, You might as well leave me. I can buy you the time you need to get out, but he couldn’t catch his breath to whisper. Instead, he pointed at himself, and then pointed back toward the clicker.

Ellie shook her head, her eyes urgent. “I need to talk to you,” she whispered.

The clicker was about twenty feet away, and heading right toward them. With a start, Joel realized that she’d navigated them all the way back to the cafeteria, and the door to the labs and the hospital wing where Olivia and Lucy waited was just on the other side of the room.

Ellie’s hand snaked past him to pick up an empty bottle. She threw it behind the clicker to distract it. When the bottle smashed against the wall, the clicker turned around and shrieked, then went to investigate the noise. “Come on!” She motioned Joel forward, and together they crossed the wide expanse of room in a fast crouch, moving as quietly as they could.

They were still ten feet from the door when another cough came ripping out of Joel’s throat.

“Goddamn it! Ellie, run!” The clicker zeroed in on them again and came at them at a lurching run, snapping its crooked teeth. Joel shoved Ellie through the doorway and then slammed the door shut behind her. He leaned his back against the door and yelled, “Block it! Block the fucking door, Ellie! I don’t want these things anywhere near you and Lucy!”

He could feel the vibrations as Ellie beat on the door with her fist. “No! Joel! JOEL! WE THINK YOU’RE IMMUNE!”

The clicker was fifteen feet away and closing fast. Joel pulled his shotgun out of its holster and waited until the monster was almost on top of him before he unloaded his last shell into the thing’s head.

A series of shrieks from the darkened corridors beyond the cafeteria told Joel that more infected were on the way. He pulled open the cafeteria door and slipped into the lit hallway, where Ellie helped him push a vending machine in front of the doors and jam the door handles shut with the legs of a chair for good measure.

Then, as calmly as possible, not sure he’d heard her correctly, Joel turned to Ellie and said, “I’m what, now?”

“Project Blue. Blue Cordyceps. A genetically modified version of CBI, intended to vaccinate the non-immune. It also had the side benefit of being deadly to anyone already infected with CBI, basically a chemical weapon against the infected. George had a team of research scientists working on it all along, but it was top secret. Nobody knew what those guys were really doing.”

“It’s a vaccine?” Joel repeated.

“Yes.” Olivia said. “I mean, kind of. They never had a prototype that worked outside the lab, in human subjects. They tested it out in Alpine, with some kind of aerosolized delivery mechanism—that was the fastest way to immunize a large number of people, they figured—but you’ve seen how that turned out.”

“Yeah. A bunch of dead people.” Joel shook his head. “I don’t think I like Dr. Singleton very much.”

“He was pretty much an asshole, but he got hit with a fuckton of karma. It looks like he injected himself with Blue Cordyceps after he was bitten, but the CBI had already progressed too far.” Ellie said. “That’s how he ended up all smurfed.” She’d grabbed his hand as soon as they’d gotten back to Lucy’s room, and she still hadn’t let go of it. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation at all.

“So, if this vaccine never actually worked, then what makes you think I’m suddenly immune?” Joel’s chest still ached, and he was starting to shudder with chills from a fever. “I’m still gettin' sick. You shoulda let me finish the job.”

Ellie’s hand tightened around his.

Olivia was smiling. “Yes, but this isn’t the normal progression of symptoms for CBI. Even when it’s inhaled, the pathogen takes over the limbic system first, so you lose the ability to control your behavior, make decisions, and your memories. What you don’t get,” she said happily, “is a fever. A fever means your immune system is fighting off the infection. And this blood test confirms it.” She held up a slip of paper that one of the lab machines had spit out. “You have antibodies for CBI. And you could only have those from a previous infection, which we know is impossible, or from a successful vaccination. Which, apparently, you were exposed to in Alpine.”

“Blue Loco is a fucking vaccine?” Joel’s head was starting to ache. “One that works?”

Olivia’s grin faded. “Well, it’s working so far. CBI is a very aggressive pathogen, so you’re still getting sick. But the vaccine gives your body a fighting chance at fighting it off, just like if you had a natural immunity like Ellie. It’ll be a while before we know if it’s a hundred percent effective or not. You, ah, might get sicker before you get better.”

“You’re saying I still might turn,” he said.

Olivia nodded reluctantly. “You might. Or your body’s fight with the infection might kill you. Or you might fight it off. It’s not an exact science. We have some isolation rooms on this ward where we kept patients who’d been at risk of infection during our contagion study...all things considered, it might be best to keep you there, just for a week or so.”

Joel considered for a moment. “All right. Two conditions, though. You,” he pointed at Olivia, “don’t come in that room with me. Even if I pull through, we don’t know if or how I might be able to infect you.” He looked at Ellie, and raised her hand to his lips for a quick kiss. “That leaves you to do all the dirty work, darlin’, and for that I’m truly sorry. But you swear to me you never enter that room without a gun in your hand. And if I do turn, you shoot to kill.”

“I swear.” Her face was solemn, but her eyes burned with the same cautious excitement he was starting to feel in his chest. If he was immune, that meant he and Ellie Better not even think about that until they knew for sure. Don’t get anyone’s hopes up.

He looked over to where Lucy was still sleeping in her hospital bed, completely missing out on all the excitement. She had a little more color in her face. “I don’t make it through this, you give that girl a kiss for me.”

“You can kiss Lucy yourself when you come out,” she said fiercely. “Me, you can kiss now.” She fisted her hand in the collar of his shirt and pulled his head down to hers.

When her lips touched his, his breath caught in his throat, and when he felt the tip of her tongue licking his lower lip all the blood in Joel’s body rushed south. He tilted his head and slanted his mouth against hers hungrily, devouring her tongue with his. He couldn’t tell if he was shaking from the kiss or the fever. If this wasn’t something worth fighting for, he didn’t know what was.

“Jesus. Get a room, you two,” he heard Olivia mutter.

He started to pull back, but Ellie’s hand on the back of his head prevented it. She was exploring his mouth with long, slow movements of her tongue, and she didn’t stop until his breath was coming in short, painful gasps and his heart was pounding like a hammer in his chest.

When she finally drew back with a smile that could only be described as smug, Joel said, “Fuck.” It was the only semi-coherent thought in his head.

She shrugged modestly. “I’m a little out of practice.”

Joel’s head was splitting, and he was starting to shiver uncontrollably, but he laughed. It turned into another tearing cough that doubled him over. Goddamn it, his fucking ribs were starting to hurt. He flashed Ellie one last, weak smile, and then said, “All right doc. You better get me locked up, because I’m really startin’ to feel like shit.”

Cold. So cold. His teeth were chattering, and the sheets were wet. Why were the sheets wet? He was so fucking cold.

The hand on his brow seared his skin, and he cried out.

A familiar voice. “Shh. It’s okay.”

“S-s-s-sarah? Baby g-g-girl?” That wasn’t right. He should be taking care of her, not the other way around. He tried to sit up, but he couldn’t seem to get his arm underneath himself to push himself up.

“No, don’t. You’ll hurt yourself,” she said.

“I’m cold.” Chills wracked his body. “Baby, I’m s-s-s-sorry. Not takin’ care of you.”

“It’s okay. I’m here.” He felt the weight of another blanket being added.

“I shoulda…” He felt warmer, and as the chills subsided, he drifted back into sleep.

He woke himself with coughing. Every muscle, every joint in his body ached, and each cough felt like his lungs were being stabbed with a rusty knife. He moaned as another chill shook him.

A cool hand on the back of his neck raised his head from the pillow. “Here, drink this.”

“I’m tired.” He was seven, and he had pneumonia. That’s why his chest hurt so much. He was staying with Granny Miller so Tommy didn’t get sick too.

“Stay with me, now. Sing me a song.”

Joel tried to sing one of the Sacred Harp hymns she’d taught him, but he could only remember fragments. He realized that it hurt less if he didn’t breathe.

And then Granny Miller’s hand was thumping the rhythm on his chest, but she was pounding hard, and she didn’t stop until he breathed in again. “It hurts,” he muttered. Tears leaked from under his eyelids and he tried to stop them, didn’t want his father to see.

“I know. Stay with me, though. Drink this.”

He swallowed from the cup she held to his lips, the thick liquid soothing and warm. When he was done, her hands rubbed menthol on his chest, which made it hurt a little less to breathe.

He fell back into the darkness of his fevered sleep.

A woman was humming “Amazing Grace,” low and under her breath. It was accompanied by a faint clicking noise. Not like a clicker, nothing like that; it was a faint, homey sound that he thought he should recognize but couldn’t quite place. With a tremendous effort, Joel cracked open his eyes and turned his head toward the sound.

Olivia was sitting in the padded chair next to his bed, humming softly to herself and knitting. The metal needles flashed through the brightly colored yarn, clicking against each other in a soothing rhythm.

“Liv.” His voice came out as a croak.

The needles stopped. “Joel! Welcome back.” Her smile warmed her brown eyes as she stabbed the needles down into the ball of yarn and put the knitting down on the bed.

He tried to say, You’re not supposed to be in here with me. You don’t want to get infected. Where’s Ellie? But all that came out was, “...‘s Ellie?” He tried to raise his hand, but there was something holding it down. When he opened his mouth to ask why, Olivia popped a thermometer under his tongue.

He was in one of those adjustable beds, he saw, and it was raised up so he was in a mostly sitting position. Looking down, he saw that his wrists were strapped down to the sides of the bed with padded leather restraints.

“Ellie’s sleeping. Between you and Lucy, she’s barely slept in a week, and she needed some rest. Doctor’s orders.” She bent over him and started to unbuckle the restraints. “Sorry about the wrist cuffs. We had to put you on IV fluids, and you kept trying to pull the tubing out.”

“Week?” He said around the thermometer in his mouth.

Olivia frowned at him. “Don’t talk while I’m trying to take your temperature. Yes, it was touch-and-go for a while there, but it looks like you’re going to pull through.”

Joel’s brows knit. “Lucy?” he whispered around the thermometer.

“She’s going to be all right. It’s a good thing you’re both so stubborn.” She pulled the thermometer out of his mouth and read it with a satisfied smile. “Back to normal. Are you hungry?”

At the question, Joel’s stomach cramped painfully. He wasn’t just hungry, he was ravenous. “Yeah.”

“I had Ellie start you on a sugar solution when we realized you weren’t going to be able to keep anything down. Let me go get something you’ll be able to stomach.” She left, and Joel closed his eyes again. The effort of keeping them open was making him too tired.

He couldn’t tell how long it had been when he heard the door open again. Ten minutes? An hour? He laboriously cracked his eyelids open. This time, it was Ellie, not Olivia, settling into the chair next to his bed.

Her hair was lank and unwashed, and there were dark hollows under her eyes. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a year. He’d never seen a more welcome sight in his entire life.

“You look like hell.” His voice grated in his throat, but he managed a faint smile

She gave a little laugh as she set the tray she’d been carrying down on the bedside table. It was music to his ears. “Me? You look…” Her smile faded, and she took one of his hands in hers. “You look worse than that day you almost died in my stream.” She let out a shuddering breath. “I thought I’d lost you.”

“Not this time.” He laughed, but it turned into a weak cough. His muscles screamed at him.

“Maybe you shouldn’t talk yet,” she said. “Here, I brought you some chicken broth.” She held up a pink plastic cup with a straw in front of his face.

Joel leaned forward and grasped the straw with his lips. Even with his stomach growling insistently at him, he could only manage one small sip at a time. He let his head fall back onto his pillow before he was even halfway through, too tired to drink any more.

“Enough for now?” she asked.

He nodded, closing his eyes again. Fuck, he was tired.”You should get some rest.”

She took his hand in her again, and the last thing he heard her say before he slipped into a deep sleep was, “I’m not going anywhere.”

It made him smile.

He was alone in the room the next time he woke up, and his bladder felt like it was about to burst. He could see a bathroom on the other side of the room, so he dragged his legs to the side of the bed with the IV stand, and then stood up, using the metal stand for balance.

Christ, I’m wobbly as a newborn calf, he thought. But he was up. He pointed himself toward the bathroom and took a few exploratory steps. Wobbly or no, his legs were holding him up. He was out of breath and sweating by the time he was halfway across the room, but the pressure in his bladder drove him forward. He was not going to piss himself here in the middle of the room.

By a herculean effort, he made his tottering way into the bathroom, where he leaned his forehead against the wall over the toilet, utterly winded. He was glad the toilet seat was already up, because he didn’t think he had the energy to bend over and lift it.

He was wearing a hospital gown, one that tied in front like a robe. He plucked at the closure with increasing frustration. Actually standing over the toilet was just making his urge to go even stronger, and if he didn’t get this fucking robe open soon he was gonna...ah, there it was. The robe fell open. He took hold of himself with one hand and aimed.

“Ahhhh…” Joel sighed in relief as the stream of liquid hissed into the toilet bowl. He felt like he hadn’t peed in a fucking decade.

He was still relieving himself when the outer door opened and Ellie walked into the room.

“Hey!” he said weakly. “Peeing here.”

“Joel, what the fuck are you doing out of bed?” She sounded mad.

“What the fuck does it look like I’m doing?” he muttered. He finished and straightened up, holding on to the IV stand for balance. He didn’t think he could close the robe back up again. “Uh, I’m a little naked, here.”

She smirked. “Yeah, I know. How do you think you got that way?”

Joel’s cheeks flushed, and she laughed. “Did I just make you blush?”

He shook his head. “Must be the fever comin’ back.”

“Don’t even joke about that.” She took in his trembling legs. “You need some help getting back to bed?”

Joel turned toward her, nakedness be damned, and gritted his teeth. “No.” He took three shaking steps before he stumbled and caught himself on the wall. He barely kept his fingers hooked around the IV stand.

“God, you’re a stubborn fuck.” She went to him, and said, “Put your arm around me, you idiot, before you end up on the floor.”

He leaned on her more than he wanted to, but together they got him back to the bed. He sighed gratefully when he finally sat down. Ellie reached down and retied the flimsy cotton gown around his waist, but at the touch of her hand on his bare chest, certain parts of his anatomy over which he had no control decided to sit up and pay attention. Maybe she wouldn’t notice…

“Well, hello to you, too,” she said, a sly grin on her face.

Joel wished the floor would open up and swallow him. His face felt like it was on fire. “Uh…”

Her laugh lit up her face. And then she leaned down and kissed him, and Joel forgot to be embarrassed. Her lips were soft and wet against his cracked, dry mouth, and kissing her felt better than that first drink of water did when he was dying of dehydration.

He felt her mouth open against his, and the tip of her tongue drew a slick trail across his upper lip. He touched his tongue to hers, and then she slid into his mouth, her tongue stroking his with languid movements until they were both breathing heavily through their noses.

He broke the kiss to come up for breath and said, with an air of wonder, “Goddamn, woman. Where the hell did you learn to kiss like that?”

“Charlotte Prince.” The smile she gave him made his head spin. It was archly suggestive, but delivered through demurely lowered lashes in a way that made him want to growl.

He was so turned on by her heated glance that he didn’t process what she’d said for a moment. “Wait, what? Charlotte?”

Her smile widened. “My first girlfriend,” she said. “We spent the basically the entire summer we turned sixteen making out. Naked.”

“Urgh.” It was the most intelligent sound Joel could make. His face was flaming again, and the tent between his legs was standing to full and painful attention. He hadn’t been raised in a particularly liberal household, and this was totally outside the realm of his experience. He tried again. “You’re…”

Ellie straightened up and cocked her head to one side. “You’re only the second man I’ve kissed.”

Joel felt like the top of his head had opened up and his brains were leaking out. “Who was the first?”

She made a face and shuddered. “Eddie Falcone. Tongue like an ice cube. Very handsy. He never got past second base.” She leaned back down to kiss him again, saying, “You’re doing a hell of a lot better than Eddie.”

Joel’s heart hammered in his ears as her tongue swirled around his, and when she nibbled on his lower lip he couldn’t suppress a moan in the back of his throat. Holy fuck, the things she was doing with her tongue, it was making him seriously question whether he’d ever really been kissed before. Something she’d said nagged at the back of his mind, though, and he tried very hard to put together a coherent sentence.

“Ellie, what about…what about Lucy?”

She straightened up again, her face flushed and her eyes hazy with desire, a confused look on her face. “What about her?”

“If I’m only the second man you’ve kissed, and Eddie Falcone never made it past second base, how does know, exist?”

Ellie laughed. “Well, Joel, when a daddy sperm loves a mommy egg very, very much, sometimes they get combined in a laboratory and make a zygote. And then that zygote gets implanted in the mommy’s uterus…”

He flushed. “Okay, okay, I get it. I don’t need illustrations.”

She grinned. “I never had you figured for such a prude, Joel.”

“I ain’t a prude,” he bristled. “This is just...wait a minute. Does that mean you’re a virgin?”

Ellie rolled her eyes. “For a very, very narrow definition of virgin, yes, I guess I am. But I have also had a lot of creative sex with a fair number of gorgeous ladies, in addition to pushing an eight-pound baby out through my vagina, so I’m gonna have to come down on the ‘no’ side of that question.”

Wait. This was sounding like...had he just been acting like a total idiot this whole time? But then, why was she kissing him? “So you don’’re not attracted to men.” God, he felt stupid.

She gave an exasperated sigh and plopped down on the bed next to him. “No. Not as a rule.” She took his hand. “But I am attracted to you.”

He smiled faintly and shook his head. “Ellie, I’m really confused right now.”

She was silent for a moment. “When I left here, I knew my freedom would come at a price. But a life of celibacy was something I was willing to accept, if it meant I could go on living and protect Lucy at the same time. So I just...turned that part of my brain off. And most of the time it worked, and I didn’t spend every second of every day thinking about all the sex that I couldn’t have.”

It was all clear now. Now that he couldn’t be infected, he was safe for her. “So I’m your only other option,” he said. He felt sick to his stomach.

“No! You...damn it, Joel, just listen, okay?” She looked at him, her green eyes snapping with anger. “When you first came to me, I didn’t feel that way about you. But you said it yourself, we were good together. It was so easy to be with you, and the longer you stayed, the more I started noticing...things.”

“What things?”

She shrugged violently. “Things! Like, the way your arms looked when you built stuff. Or…” Her cheeks flushed, and she looked down. “the way you...your ass looked in your jeans. That anniversary celebration...when you took my hands and started saying all those nice things, all I could look at was that notch at the base of your throat, and all I could think was how much I wanted to kiss it.” She drew in a deep breath. “And that’s when I knew I had to send you away, because I realized I wanted you, and I could never have you. And that hurt too much,” she finished, candidly.

Joel looked up slowly. “So…so, you are attracted to me.” The icy knot in Joel’s stomach melted as warmth spread through his body.

“Didn’t I say that, like, twenty minutes ago?” She leaned over and gave him a short, passionate kiss with lots of tongue. “We need to work on your listening skills.”

“I’m sorry I’m such a prude,” he muttered, his voice thick with renewed desire.

She smiled against his lips. “We can work on that, too. It’ll be fun.” Her hands slipped inside his robe, seeking bare skin, and then dipped lower...

Just when things were starting to get interesting, they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Ellie snatched her hands back guiltily and straightened up. “Shit. I totally forgot. I came in here to ask if you were feeling up to seeing visitors.”

He grimaced as he looked down at the flimsy material above his crotch, still tented from beneath. “Give me a minute.”

Her wicked giggle as she let herself out of the room didn’t help matters much, but by the time he’d dragged himself back into bed and arranged his blankets, things were pretty much back to normal. Which was a good thing, because as soon as the door opened again, Lucy ran toward him at breakneck speed and clambered right onto his lap.

“Joel!” She threw her brown arms around his neck and squeezed. “You were really sick, just like me! Did you barf?”

Olivia, following behind at a more sedate pace, said, “Oh yes, he did.”

“Gross! I hate barfing.”

Joel, who didn’t remember any barfing, said, “Yeah, me too. I’m glad you’re feelin’ better, junebug.” He mussed her curls.

“Wanna see my scar?” she asked.

“You know I do.”

Proudly, she pulled her shirt up to show him the mostly-scabbed-over bite wound on her stomach, the bruises around it yellowed and faded.

“Wow. That is one impressive scar. I ain’t got any scars anywhere near as impressive as that. You and your ma--, I mean, your Auntie Ellie are very special.”

Lucy laughed at him. “Did you know that Mama Ellie is really my mama? I have two moms!” Her expression sobered. “But I can’t hug Mama Livvy now, ‘cause I’m ‘fected. ‘Cause of my bite. But you’re okay…” She trailed off, and looked to Ellie for confirmation, “Right?”

Ellie smiled. “That’s right, Lucy Lu. Joel’s been vaccinated. That means he can’t get infected. Come on, now.” She picked up her daughter from Joel’s lap and balanced her on one of her hips. “I think Joel’s a little tired, so we should let him rest. And I think it’s time for your nap.”

Lucy scowled. “I’m not even tired.” She yawned as they went out the door.

Olivia was looking after them with a sad smile on her face.

“She’ll always be yours, too,” Joel said. “You heard her. Two moms.”

Olivia turned back to him, her eyes bright. “I know. It’s just...all these years. Now I know just how Ellie felt.”

Joel nodded, then said, “So, what happens next? They can’t go back to the Chisos.”

“No. Ellie’s going to have to keep Lucy away from people until she really understands what can happen if she’s not careful. They’ll go back up to the cave together. As for me, I need to go back and tell Esteban what we learned about Project Blue. If that residue in Alpine can be turned into a reliable, viable vaccine…”

“Life gets a whole lot easier,” Joel finished.

“Yes. But we still don’t know why it worked in that form and not its aerosolized form. Or whether it’s an effective vaccine for everyone who’s exposed to it. I’ll have to run a lot of tests, and I hope Esteban will lend me the personnel to come back here and ransack the hell out of the lab. If we can make more vaccine, we may still be able to turn this whole thing around, Joel.”

Given how far everything was already gone, Joel had serious doubts about that, but he kept his opinion to himself. Who knows, maybe Olivia was right.

“What about me?”

Olivia’s smile turned mysterious. It was that knowing kind of smile women got, when they knew something you didn’t. “You should talk to Ellie.”

“Talk to me about what?” Ellie said, as she came back into the room.

“That was fast,” Joel said.

She laughed. “I don’t think it took more than a minute for her to fall asleep, once her head hit that pillow. Talk to me about what?”

Olivia smiled. “I’ll go sit with Lucy. I’ve got knitting to work on.” She slipped out the door.

“I was talkin’ to Liv about what happens next,” Joel said slowly, “She said you and Lucy were goin’ back up to the mountains, and she was goin’ back to the camp. When I asked her what I should do, she said I should talk to you.”

“Oh.” Ellie looked down, almost shyly. “She was just...I mentioned to her that I…” she bit her lip.

Joel looked at her steadily, not giving her any help.

“Agh. Okay. Do you remember when you said I didn’t need to be alone up there? And you asked if you could come back? I guess...I was wondering…I was hoping...” she was looking studiously at her toes. “ you still...want to?”

“Are you askin’ me to move in with you? Because I think that’s maybe movin’ a little fast. I'm kind of a prude, you know. We should spend a couple months courtin’ first, and then maybe we can talk about movin’ in together.” He couldn’t control the grin that was spreading across his face.

Ellie let out her breath with a smile and moved over to the bed to sit beside him. “You…” She leaned over and kissed him heatedly. “Are such a jerk.”

He laughed against her lips and kissed her back. “But you love me.”

She froze for a second, then relaxed against him, her hip resting next to his and her chest pressed up against him. “Yeah, I love you,” she murmured.

Joel wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. He whispered against her ear, too quietly for anyone but her to hear, “I love you, Ellie.” He kissed the edge of her ear, and then said in a low voice, "I ain't too tired. Why don't you tell me more about Charlotte Prince?"

"Oh, Joel," said Ellie with a smile. "There's so much to tell."

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