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Her vision focus on Dina's face, beautiful, always - and Ellie tries to say something, anything, but all that escapes her is a raspy cough, her throat raw with the familiar taste of copper. Her ears still ring from the gunshot and Ellie feels the blood, her blood, flowing out of her body and blending in with the mud in a lukewarm pool of liquid. Dina averts her eyes, which is weird because she's never squirmish about that stuff.

"We need to get her out of here." Ellie squeezes her eyes shut and grips the sleeves of Dina's padded jacket when Joel's hands press into the wound, the subtle trembling of his hands spreading just above her chest. He takes her in his arms after exchanging a number of anxious words and the pain that flares up lingers in her bones long after the initial shock.

Joel more orders than tells her to stay awake, with a tone she's only ever heard from the poor sods who beg for food from outside the compound. "I need you to stay awake, Ellie."

“Hurry,” she whispers in a voice so small it's barely there. "I don't think I-"

Joel cradles her even closer to his chest in response, aiming to shield her from the bitter wind of a nearing winter. Really, what’s with winter and everything going to shit?

Ellie stares idly at the tear in his grey shirt and leans her head on his warmth, the safety of him like an anchor. The wind bites her calves, plays with Dina's curls, with Joel's collar - there's too much going on and it seems the world is swimming in a pace she can't keep up with. She struggles to keep her eyes open, to stay awake like Joel said - begged - and it's only when her useless arms knock out a few bottles that she's conscious of something other than sleep tempting her.

Whatever adrenaline rush is long gone now and her girlfriend seems to sense her lack of response, brushes her hair out of her eyes, grips her hands steady and loving as she's lowered into the cold tiles of what used to be a convenience store. A piece of fabric presses against her mouth and she bites down, eyes switching back and forth between Dina and a ceiling fan that looks like it's about to fall.

"Not gonna sugarcoat it for you, kid," Joel warns. "S' gonna hurt." He's not a medic by any means, his movements failing to be precise. Ellie almost kicks Joel right in his abdomen but luckily Joel, expecting her outburst, uses his weight to hold her in place as he digs the bullet out of the open wound. Her face grows taut with the exertion of remaining quiet and even the simple act of breathing makes the pain burn hotter, makes it spread through her body with enough intensity to bring tears to her eyes.

You're a tough girl, she thinks. Just a little longer. 

A new wave of pain crashes over her. Three times, four times.

"I'm here," Dina murmurs over and over, "I'm here."

Ellie is cold, even colder than before. Her eyelids threaten to close and Dina says something that sounds vaguely like a warning but it's so damn hard to make out her words when her head is spinning like that. Something wet falls on her temple and Ellie struggles to reach for Dina, to show her she’s okay even though she doesn’t feel okay at all.

It's no use.

//

"Ellie? Ellie," Joel tries to shake her awake to no avail, leaving a bloodied mess when his fingers press against the pulse on her neck. He waits for an agonizing few seconds before declaring, more to himself than anyone else, "Thank God.”

Pessimistic as it is, Dina wonders how long she'll remain so. How long until she doesn't have enough blood, or can't breathe anymore, or - there are so many things that could go wrong that she decides it's best to not think of them at all. Not now, not when she can still help. It's a small blessing when the sound of a bullet hitting a bucket spreads over the small store they're confined into. With her help, the wound is properly cleaned and sewed closed efficiently. She catches Joel's gaze for a second and is scared by the sheer agony in them. She can’t help but wonder if she looks the same.

Ellie doesn't make a sound when Dina's changing her shirt or when a rag is used to clean her face free of dirt and blood. She expects something when Joel picks her up and covers her with a discolored blanket, maybe a groan, or delirious words, but there's nothing. Again. She's at the point where there's nothing she can do, and it fucking sucks.

Joel washes his bloodied hands with a canteen of water and lays back, looking like he's about to faint. Dina plops down in the ground beside Joel and lays a hand in his arm. He takes the comfort he's given in a rare demonstration of vulnerability. "She'll be fine," she says, sure she's not convincing anyone, not even herself.

"She has to be."

Dina's heard before, about Sarah. It's like her all over again. She leans on Joel's shoulder, holds his sturdy frame as he relives a pain she hopes never to experience. 

//

Dina brings Ellie’s barely conscious frame towards what used to be a bathroom by the looks of it, where she previously set down two buckets of water behind a flowery, nearly discolored curtain. Ellie shivers at the feeling of cold water touching the top of her head down to her arms and legs and the floor, even though heat seems to radiate off her body.

Ellie’s face suddenly contorts into a suppressed grimace after Dina scrubs a stubborn patch of dirt on her jaw, followed by a sob she struggles to choke. She curls a hand in front of her mouth, tears overflowing without a blink of her eye. Panic starts to rise in Dina’s chest and she brings Ellie’s face closer to her neck, rubbing her back in comforting circles. “Did I hurt you? Ellie?” The girl in her arms shakes her head, buries her forehead into her shoulder. “Ellie, what are you –”

“Don’t leave me,” she pleads, wrapping her arms around Dina’s humid sweater with what little strength she had. “I thought I lost you. Don’t leave me.”

“Hey,” Dina softly pushes her back enough to cup her face in her hands, planting one kiss on each cheek flushed with fever. “I’m still here. And I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

“Unless you get dragged away,” Ellie breathes almost deliriously, hot tears gathering on her chin.

“Unless I get dragged away,” Dina laughs without humor, kisses the lips that turned down. “The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can go to sleep. Let me do this, please?”

Ellie sniffs in a way that’s no different from a sad puppy to Dina. She nods, puts a hand on the wall for support when a bar of soap brushes against her temple and doesn’t say a word until later, when she wakes up with the sound of a storm roaring outside.

//

“Hey, remember when you broke your leg and Joel freaked out? He was so mad, wasn’t he?”

“His face looked like a, like a damn tomato — he was so angry,” Ellie mumbles, gaze set on the girl that gladly offered her lap as a makeshift pillow. Dina traces the freckles adorning her nose with a soft back and forth motion of her thumb, lulling her to sleep.

“And Tommy showed up with the most shameless look on his face,” Dina laughs, truly laughs, the memory evoking something inside of her that she hadn’t felt for a long time. “I thought you’d be grounded forever and I’d never see you again.”

“Came close to that,” Joel says with a short shake of his head, the wrinkles on his forehead deepening for a second. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about that stunt you pulled, kid.”

She lays a hand on Joel’s arm after a few seconds of absolute silence permeating in the cabin, mumbling incoherently under her breath, unphased by the soft calls of her name. Dina brushes the sweaty locks of hair stuck to her forehead, leans in to press a kiss there; she feels warmth, tastes salt.

//

"Girl definitely has a fever."

Joel rummages her backpack for a small bottle of pills Ellie brought along for emergencies and his face brightens, for once. He shakes Ellie’s shoulders until she stirs just slightly, responding him with soft mm’s and fluttering eyelids. Dina’s impressed at how well he coaxes his daughter back to the land of the living and even convinces her stubborn ass to take a pill and a cup of water before she falls asleep.

"This place is not safe, you know," she says, not for the first time. Dina can't shake out the anxiety that found a home in her brain, can't stop herself from checking the door more times than it's considered sane.

“Ain't like we can just go out there, kiddo,” Joel grunts in dissatisfaction. “’S not safe for Ellie.”

“Right,” Dina lets out a deep breath and sets an open can of peaches in the floor in front of her, wondering when they'll barge in, raining death, forcing her to spend all the accumulated energy of the last few days. “Sorry for bringing it up. I’m just scared, I guess.”

A long, awkward silence follows her statement. How nice it would be to scratch the discomfort like an itch.

“I'll keep watch," he finally says, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. She learned long ago there’s no fighting with Joel once he’s set on something, but it doesn't stop her from trying. Dina’s protesting because he’s old, no matter how many heads he has bashed in his life, surely he needs rest more than her – and even if she did need the rest, it's not like she can sleep, not when she's still in enemy territory. He moves to a sofa near the blocked door, shushing her all the while.

Dina doubts she'll get more than thirty minutes of sleep, but she fills the spot next to Ellie anyway. She leans her head on Ellie's good shoulder and interlaces their fingers together. Despite the cold that still lingers to the closed room, Ellie's warm to the touch. She traces the shape of her nose with her thumbs, presses a kiss to her scarred eyebrow - God, how she missed this. Missed her.

“Kid?” Joel calls from the opposite side of the room. “You’re doing well,” he says, not waiting for a sign Dina's awake. “Don’t you think otherwise.”

She nuzzles closer to Ellie, ashamed of the way her breath catches in her throat.

//

A dream.

Just a dream.

She can hear Joel - breathe, breathe, he says - but some part of her mind doesn't listen. She knows it's him, but it doesn't do anything to stop the panic from bubbling in her chest, or her lungs from refusing to obey his commands. When he touches her shoulder she lets out a scream, her arms hitting his chest over and over again.

"Ellie. You're safe, baby girl. You're safe." Joel pulls her struggling body into an embrace, safety be damned, and puts one of her hands above his heart. Ellie looks at him instead of staring blindly at something that's never been there, that's just - just in her head. She doesn't know what to make out of it, so she follows the rhythm of his breathing like he’s telling her to, until her own gradually falls into a normal pattern.

It feels like ages until Ellie she convinces herself she's safe.

She groans in pain, leaning back in the bed with his help. There's a new scar under Joel's chin where someone almost slit his throat, Dina still wakes up at night not knowing where she is, thrashing the covers and staring at the rope scars around her wrists. They're monsters, those people. She would personally send them all to hell if she could.

"You're okay," he pushes back her sweat soaked hair and doesn't say anything about what just happened. If it's out of pity or respect, she has no idea. 

A cough escapes her throat when she tries to speak and he scrambles to get on his feet. He comes back with a canteen of water that for once doesn't taste of metal, and supports her back so she doesn't choke.

"Dina?"

"Lookin' for antibiotics," he answers, straight to the point. So Joel-like. He sets a basin of water by the makeshift bed and wrings out a piece of fabric. "Don't you ever do that to me again, you hear?"

She shivers when he places it at her forehead. "'M sorry."

"You better be," Joel scolds. "Scared the fuck out of me."

Joel presses the blanket closer to her body and squeezes her shoulder, rubbing his thumb in gentle circles. His hair is all over the place, styled in a way that can only come from sleep. She must have made some sort of sound when she woke up. It's hard to tell. Once he’s satisfied with Ellie’s wellbeing, Joel brings her some kind of roasted meat to alleviate a hunger she barely feels.

Dina comes in seconds after Ellie takes a hesitant bite, flashing a relieved smile. She almost runs her way to Ellie, not losing time in giving her a hug that’s firm and sweet at the same time. Joel coughs not too far from them and Dina lays back politely, her gaze still fixed on Ellie.

"Alright," she says, "I got the antibiotics."

Dina brags about what she found besides the much needed medicine – a hair comb, a towel, an old country CD Joel might appreciate – but all she can see are the dark circles under her eyes, how much thinner she is after all the shit that Ellie didn't save her from. Her hunger goes from little to not existent and she puts the plate aside.

Joel notices her strange behavior, as he always does. "Aren't you going to eat more?"

"No," Ellie sighs. "I just want to sleep." Ellie indeed starts to nod off once she takes medicine. Joel's taken more watches than she can count and relieved Ellie's awake, sleeps like a rock.

Sleep doesn't come easy to Dina, not in a while and certainly not today.

//

Joel leaves early in the morning, promising to bring real food. She, on the other hand, spends most of the morning reading the magazines she found on an abandoned boutique. Ellie makes some sort of distressed sound after endless hours of expensive clothes and pretty girls, and Dina eagerly puts down the pile of magazines laying on her lap.

"Hiya," she whispers, caressing her cheek. "You good?"

"Honestly?" Ellie starts, her voice weak even after days of rest. "I feel like shit."

Dina gives Ellie a fond grin, reaching for a bottle of whiskey she found in a hidden cache. Ellie leans forward in interest, her eyes lighting with a delight Dina hasn't seen in a while. Dina playfully moves it away from her reach, laughing when Ellie gives her shoulder a hard shove. A little crease forms between Ellie's eyebrows and Dina gives in just a little, pouring two fingers of whiskey on a plastic cup. She gulps it down way too quickly, falling into a string of coughs that makes her face contort in pain.

"Just me," she coughs again, recovers purely on stubbornness. "And you."

Ellie laughs because Dina laughs. It's something that doesn't quite fit right after all that happened, but it brings some semblance of joy and that's all she can ask for.

"Don't get any ideas, Ellie."

"You’re not that hot, trust me," she answers without an ounce of honesty to it, grabbing a magazine Dina was previously reading and gesturing at the content in an exaggerated manner. "You actually believe this shit?"

Dina straightens up defensively. Astrology isn’t that bad, but she doesn’t tell Ellie that because she doesn’t want to earn a new nickname, or to be teased to death. "Not really. When's your birthday?"

"No idea," Ellie sighs. "You?"

"I don't know either," she says, resting her chin on her palm. "You sound like an Aquarius to me."

"Aren't Aquarius, like, really bad at relationships?" Ellie vaguely remembers reading something like that with Riley, back in the military. "You tryin' to tell me something?"

"Me? No," she brushes Ellie's hair away from her eyes, and presses a lingering kiss to the corner of her mouth. “You're loyal. Honest too."

“You’re weird,” Ellie says and points to the shape of two twin faces. “This one sounds like me too.”

“To be honest, all of them could – apply,“ something hits the farthest window from them and fear takes hold of Dina, making her hands twist together in an attempt to focus on what she was going to say. "Apply to anyone.”

“Hey,” Ellie says, taking Dina's hands in hers. “There's no one here. I promise."

Pain festers in her chest and she does exactly what Joel advised her against, not without feeling terrible about it. What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over, or so the saying goes.

”Want some more whiskey?”

//

Changing Ellie's bandages comes with a lot of curses and I hate you's. Doing that kind of medical work is a specialty of Ellie, not her girl. It upsets her a lot more than it should. 

"You alright?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Worry about yourself, Joel."

She waits until Joel averts his attention to the canned goods ahead of him to punch Dina's shoulder. "You're the worst nurse in history."

"Oh, shut it."

The smile on Dina’s face makes her words softer than they are intended to be. There are several pieces of origami besides them, all inspired by a magazine that included around fifteen pages of sewing tutorials and how to make phone cases out of plastic.

//

“It's late. Go to sleep."

"Can't."

Dina frowns and leans her head on Ellie's shoulder, hugging her tight. Her body is tense under her hands and she runs her hands through her hair, still wet from a bath in a nearby river. "You don't need to be brave all the time, Ellie."

"It's okay," she adds when silence follows her statement.

"It's not." Ellie spits out, almost bitter. She rubs her thumb back and forth soothingly on Ellie's collarbone, knows it's nothing but the ache in her chest that makes her so angry. She thinks Ellie is going to turn away, avoid her for one week or so like she always does, but she doesn't. There are tears further wetting her auburn hair, part of it stuck to her mouth, and Dina almost gasps in surprise.

"I was," she starts, her voice quiet as she gathers courage. "I was so scared."

She tries to wipe the tears away roughly with the sleeves of a warm flannel Joel gave to her, but Dina's quick to hold her wrists in place. A hiccuping breath escapes Ellie at the small act of defiance and when her shoulders shake with the forces of her sobs, Dina lets her own tears fall.

//

"Let's just set out tomorrow. Go home."

"Home," Ellie echoes, rolling the words on her tongue carefully. "Yeah."

Chapter Text

She hears Joel’s heavy steps approaching – a pat to her shoulder, the soft material of a jacket covering her shivering body soon after – thank you, she mouths. Ellie stumbles over her own words like she always does when she’s nervous, checking her all over for injuries. Her touches, as endearing as they are, make her mind so alert she has to take a long intake of air so she doesn’t freak the fuck out.

“Watch my back,” Joel says, turning to Ellie after Dina weakly confirms she can walk. “And you better follow what I say this time.”

Ellie gives him a firm nod, raising a hand to her brow in a mock salute. Before they leave towards a lighthouse in the far distance, Ellie makes a point of stepping over the dead man’s cheekbones hard enough to make a disgusting cracking sound. “Sick fucker,” she spits, angry is a way Dina’s never seen over the many years they shared.

Dina breathes as deep as she can through the pain jumping from place to place along her limbs, flaring up across a specific spot on her ribs that never healed quite right –  she swears she can feel hands digging into her scalp, pushing her back by her shirt as she walks her guts constrict with nervousness as she thinks of the events that occurred earlier that day, and she barely notices the sight of the ground becoming too close to comfort until Ellie holds her by the arm before she gets a mouthful of dirt.

When Ellie asks her when she last had something to eat, Dina laughs out of nervousness than anything else. The fake bravado she wore as a badge of honor proved to be more inconvenient than effective while in captivity.

“…Think we can stop here?”

 “No,” she protests, forcing her body to stand tall despite the dizziness. “Please. I’m fine.”

“Dina –“

“I said I’m fine, Ellie.”

//

She dreams of that afternoon over and over again. She remembers the most trivial things, things such as the cheerful chirps of the birds that made a living in trees and an annoying ant crawling up her leg right at the moment she thought she was going to die.

‘You killed them, you killed my family – all of them –‘

Sometimes, no one comes for her.

//

 “Do I have something on my face or am I just that pretty?”

“The prettiest,” Ellie uses the ball of her feet to adjust herself against the wall when Dina leans her body back against her, a smile spreading on her face. Ellie reaches one hand to her messy, knotted hair and Dina is torn between complaining or falling in love with her all over again. “I think you need a haircut, though.”

Her breathing is comforting on the nape of her neck and her arms hang loosely on her waist, allowing Dina the leverage to leave if she wants to. After a few seconds of silence, Ellie leans in as if to tell her a secret. “Want me to cut your hair?”

 “I’d sooner let Joel cut my hair than you.”

Ellie frowns, staring at the still form of her father figure in the opposite side of the room, counting the supplies Dina found on her last run. “Please don’t. I had to hide for months in my bedroom after he….”

“I heard that,” Joel says, his eyes not leaving the pile of cans in front of him. “You’re one ungrateful kid, Ellie.”

“Stick to killing clickers, old man,” Ellie’s smile turns even wider when he looks up with a frown on his face. “That’s what you’re good at.”

//

When the lids of the box they found hidden under a pile of rotting newspapers are opened, the first thing Dina thinks is that its contents are not worth sticking her hand into a space filled with termites and bending three bobby pins.  

The second is that the pastel green bear plush on Ellie’s lap must’ve been special for someone to keep them there and that it’s fucking creepy when it starts singing and stomping its feet when Ellie presses a pink, large heart on its chest. She’s seen similar toys before and they’ve never stopped being pure nightmare fuel.

“Man… this is some weird shit,” Ellie says, her tone somewhere between excited and scared. “I’m taking this with me.”

Dina scrunches her nose, knew exactly what was going to happen when Ellie was interested in it for more than thirty seconds. “You know Joel gets mad when we pick up stuff we don’t need.”

“Does it look like I care? Because I don’t.”

 “I love it when you rebel against authority. It’s stupid and hot.”

“Mostly hot, I hope.”

“Mostly stupid.”

“Anyway,” Ellie clicks her tongue, removes the batteries stuck on a box-like container on its back so the toy doesn’t scream in the middle of a clicker infested place. She drops the batteries between her and Dina and looks from left to right before shoving the plush on her backpack. “Liv is going to love this.”

“Girls? Found anything useful?”

Ellie jumps, punches the bear’s ears inside her bag until it disappears and curses profusely when the zipper on her backpack gets stuck. “Shit – holy fucking – oh, fuck that shit, why is it always –”

Dina rolls her eyes, steps in front of Ellie to block his sight as he cranes his neck to inspect the living room they’re at. “Batteries, not much else.”

“Something wrong, Ellie?”

“She stubbed her toe on the table.”

“Hurts like a bitch,” Ellie whines, rubs her feet for added effect.

Joel shrugs points his chin at the stairs in front of him. “I’ll inspect the upper floor. Stay there.”

“We will,” Dina says a little louder as she hears his footsteps getting dimmer and dimmer, then clearly on the floor just above her head. “Ellie…”

“Oh, laugh all you want.”

Ellie punches her shoulder anyway when she does laugh and makes a point of frowning when Dina kisses her mouth softly. “Don’t be like that,” Dina rubs her cheek against Ellie’s, laughter still spilling from her lips. “There. Give me love, give me love.”

//

Jackson is still the same. Clothes are still being washed in the stream, the birds still chirp, the scent of morning still mixes with the scent of breakfast and spring. Ellie sneezes for some reason, her nose tingling as if teased by a feather.

A group of residents gather around them shortly after they step inside the compound, with claps to their backs and phrases that sound like a thousand exclamation points are being shouted at once. Joel softly removes a hand that falls way too close to the healing wound beneath her shirt, offers an explanation to the woman before Ellie can even voice her discomfort. Dina smiles, just smiles at everyone she sees – then, not unsurprisingly, explodes like a dam at the sight of her brother.

Maria’s wearing a jumpsuit that’s stained with at least three different colors of wall paint. She brings Ellie close by her elbow and kisses her forehead, something that always makes her feel younger than she really is. “We’re glad to have you back. You’re a good one, Ellie.”

She sees Joel exchange a brief greeting with his brother, who holds him at arm’s length, his voice high as he jokes about how old he’s gotten in such a short period of time.  

“I blame that kid,” Joel shakes his head, his smile subtle and endearing as he looks at Ellie. “Be around her for enough time an’ that’s what you get. A lot of stress.”

She glares at him, which is nowhere as effective when she’s got the biggest smile to match his. A hand sneaks around her waist and she turns to see Dina, eyes glistening and nose the color of a recently-picked cherry. “I’ll see you tonight,” she says, looks back to her brother for a second. “Mom’s sick. I think she’ll be happy to – you know. See that I’m not dead.”

“Want me to go with you?”

She shakes her head, presses a kiss on Ellie’s palm. “Let me do this.”

Ellie doesn’t admit that she isn’t exactly thrilled to leave her side for a second, of being alone or being anywhere that Dina’s not. She bites her cheek, tucks her worry on the back of her head where it’s supposed to be and nods slowly. She gives Dina what she hopes is a reassuring smile, feels the warmth leaving her hands as she slips away, walking towards her home.

“This calls for a celebration,” Tommy exclaims, one hand on her shoulder and another on Joel’s, making for a funny height difference between his two arms. His declaration incites another round of agitated chatter among the small crowd, just when they were starting to quiet down. “We found a stack of booze not too long ago, you lucky bastards.”

“How lucky,” Ellie mutters, rubs her nose with her free hand when it starts to tingle again.

//

The folded door opens with a ridiculously grating sound. She takes a glance at the door and sees Dina in front of the sink, shuffling the contents of the cabinet just over it – she’s wearing a white button-down shirt Ellie’s almost one hundred percent sure belongs to her wardrobe and her hair is more humid and curly than usual.

“You look good,” Ellie says, somehow gets a mouthful of foam on her mouth when she rinses her hair.

“You too.”

Her tone is teasing – when is it not? – and Ellie gives her a disapproving noise as she keeps her mouth open under the falling water to chase away the taste of soap. Dina probably finds whatever she’s looking for, and keeps the door half-open because the door is stuck, once again. Ellie finishes off showering in a few minutes and she winces when her hands hit an empty towel hook.

She shivers at the feeling of the cold tiles against her feet as she searches for a towel on the bathroom’s cabinet. Empty. She cranes her neck out of the door, looking for Dina and finding her sitting on her bed, finishing off a braid. “Can you get me a towel? Pretty please?”

“Only because you said please. I love it when you’re polite.”

“That totally makes me want to tell you to fuck yourself.”

“Too much trouble,” Dina laughs, slips a towel through the crack on the door. “Care to volunteer?”

“You,” Ellie doesn’t finish her sentence – she picks up the towel without looking at her, shaking her head all the while.

//

Dina is spread all over her body and an old, dingy couch on the back of the room. She eyes Dina’s mom from the corner of her eye, sharing a weird brown liquid with Joel and some new guys she can’t name. The strands of hair that freely roam away from her face tickle Ellie’s forearm as she rubs circles on her back.

“Wanna dance?” She wrings her hands together, feels them turning even sweatier when Dina throws a disbelieving glance at her. “I’m serious.”

“You asking me to dance,” Dina pauses, lets out a breathy laugh. “That’s character development, El.”

“Will you just shut up,” Ellie thinks, rethinks, decides on leading her to the center of the room and putting a hand around her waist, a slight blush coloring her cheeks and nose as she takes note of her sudden boldness.

Her pulse quickens when Dina brings both hands to her cheeks, lips moving sweetly against hers until she responds in kind, exhaling silently when Dina brushes her fingernails against her neck. She slips one hand around Ellie’s wrist, around the bracelet she’s given her shortly before things went so, so wrong – Ellie takes it as a cue that she wants it back, but Dina stops her by intertwining their hands together.

“Keep it,” she says, eyes never leaving her parted lips, and commands, “Kiss me again.”

She obeys in a heartbeat.

//

Dina sits on a dining chair on her kitchen, from where she has an amazing view of a blank wall. The bear plushie Ellie had brought with her is steadily turning from creepy-cute to annoying after the many times Olivia made it sing.  

“You could have put the chair somewhere else,” she breathes a loud, whiny sigh. “This wall doesn’t even have any pictures on it. I’m bored out of my mind here.”

“Boo-hoo, we’re all deeply sorry, Miss Dina,” Ellie intrudes, “We’ll buy the highest-end artifacts for your viewing next time.”

“That’d be ideal, thank you very much.”

Maria tilts Dina’s chin higher with a hand free of scissors or any dangerous object. “If you move your head one inch, I swear you’re gonna be bald. Stay put. And Ellie, don’t let her put that on her mouth.”

“She used to eat dirt. This is evolution, right here,” Ellie replies and makes some sort of strangled sound after. “God, I love you, but you’re the worst kid I’ve ever seen. Maria, are you sure your kid is not a goblin?”

“She’s spending too much time with you,” Maria sighs exasperatedly through her nose as brushes a recently cut strand of hair away from Dina’s flannel before it falls to the ground and consequently, to Olivia’s mouth.

//

Ellie strings the guitar softly, back and forth, like she’s relearning it all over again. She watches Dina lifting a cup of tea to her mouth and licking her lips when the hot beverage proves to be too hot to not burn. The bruises around her neck have all but faded away like they never existed, but she knows there are things they don’t speak of – even if they talk for hours before they sleep, even if they kiss and hold hands and make love, there’s a barrier between them that she doesn’t know how to bring down.

Ellie sets the guitar carefully on the rail of the stairs leading to the fence; she curls a hand on Dina’s temple, leans in to kiss her even as when a cold raindrop falls on her neck and makes her shiver. She responds slowly, tasting of honey and chamomile – one hand rests on Ellie’s thigh, circles the torn patch of jeans that are big enough to not be considered fashionable anymore. Her teeth scrape along Ellie’s bottom lip and Ellie’s hands come up to cup Dina’s face as a way to bring her closer, closer, closer.

A dog who was given several names by the townsfolk runs up to the steps, shakes off the water of the rain next to them before jumping on the bench next to the front door of Ellie’s home. “Now that’s just rude,” Dina glares at the dog for one second before Ellie holds her chin again, presses a soft kiss everywhere she can reach. “I just took a shower.”

“We’ve smelled way worse before.”

“Sewage?”

“I was thinking of the time I had a guy’s guts all over me, but okay.”

“Eesh. That was gross, thanks for reminding me.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

Dina disentangles herself from Ellie’s hold and picks up the forgotten cup of tea, feels it lukewarm, nearly cold around her fingers. She brings her arm closer to the dog, puts the cup up to his snout. “You want it? No? Okay. Me neither.”

//

Dina jumps awake that same night, sweating profusely and breathing so silent and quick it’s almost not here. She stands up shakily, aiming for the gun on the bedside table next to Ellie’s sleeping form -- makes it to the other side of the bed before she sinks down to the floor, legs failing to keep her upright. She covers her mouth with her hands, eyes brimming over with tears as she struggles to not make any sound.

An arm taps her shoulder and she looks up to see Ellie kneeling in front of her, wide-eyed. “Hey, hey – look at me, look at me.”

“El,” she whimpers, shaking.

“Me and you, we’re safe. We’re home.”

She thinks of when Ellie told her multiple times they were safe, everyone was dead, only for her be shot just a day after. Dina reaches out to grip her shirt, throws herself at the nape of her neck and stays there for a while, feeling the warmth of Ellie’s arms around her shoulders and soaking in it. She has a weeks-old bee sting from when she helped pick flowers for her mother’s birthday. Half of a blanket is tangled around her feet and it smells of the flowery soap her neighbor makes. There’s no reason to be scared. So why is she?

“You know I love you,” Ellie says, pressing a small, soft kiss to her forehead. “Don’t you?”

Ellie guides her to the bed and for a second she feels safe as they lay down facing each other; the next second, she feels a storm coming.